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Occasional Letters - The Rule for Right Reading

D Newell, Glasgow

Although I am something of a technophobe, I have to admit that one benefit of living in the 21st century is the ease with which one can trace an out-of-print book. Internet shopping allows booksellers to advertise their wares to a global market. As a result, men approaching retirement find to their delight that childhood joys can be recaptured. Back in 1961 I heard over the radio my first Gilbert and Sullivan opera. The copyright had just expired, allowing professional companies other than the D’Oyly Carte to stage productions, and Sadlers Wells (as it was then called) broadcast a performance of Iolanthe. I was utterly enthralled by the music, the witty dialogue, and the sheer comic zest of the production. Accordingly I began to read all I could about the Savoy Operas and the D’Oyly Carte. In our town library reference section I discovered a wonderful volume called The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company in Gilbert and Sullivan Operas, packed with performance details and photographs. It so engrossed me that I used to slip in regularly after school to devour it. Of course, it is long out of print. And then, in 2010, I managed to secure my own copy from the Amazon marketplace.

Good books from the past that valuably open up God’s Word are equally available to those willing to search, and one can find some real treasures. John Wilkinson’s Israel my Glory, first published in 1889, is a case in point. I picked it up a few weeks back. The writer was founder of the Mildmay Mission to the Jews, an evangelistic work based in London and designed to bring the gospel to the Hebrew population of the metropolis. His cogent defence of a straightforward, face-value reading of God’s promises to Israel is a treat for every lover of God’s Word. And his method is delightfully simple. Instead of embarking upon the intricacies of theological argument, he lets Scripture speak for itself, filling his volume with passages from the law and the prophets, passages which speak insistently of God’s irrevocable programme for His ancient people. It is hard to gainsay the cumulative weight of such evidence. And he concludes with one of the most incisive accounts of Romans 11 that I have read. Of course, that great chapter is the New Testament key to Israel’s future; indeed, it explains God’s current dealings with Gentiles as well as intimating His future intervention on behalf of Israel, when at last that nation will become what He chose them to be – a source of universal blessing. Wilkinson rightly points out that v.29 sums up Paul’s argument: "For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance". The "gifts" about which God does not change His mind must certainly include, among other things, the unconditional grant to Abraham and his descendants of the land of Canaan as part of His everlasting covenant. Listen to the precision language of Genesis 17.7-8: "I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee. And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God". "Everlasting possession" sounds pretty conclusive, doesn’t it? And the "calling" must look back to God’s sovereign summons to Abraham in Genesis 12, a truth confirmed to the nation as a whole even in days of spiritual departure and disobedience. How thankful we should be that human failure cannot cancel God’s promises: "But thou, Israel, art my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham my friend. Thou whom I have taken from the ends of the earth, and called thee from the chief men thereof, and said unto thee, Thou art my servant; I have chosen thee, and not cast thee away" (Is 41.8-9). No, God will never cast away His ancient people whom He foreknew, any more than He will abandon those today who belong to Christ.

Now, this is no irrelevant Bible backwater, for God’s trustworthy pledges to the Jews contain immensely practical lessons. Not only do they encourage confidence in His prophetic programme as a whole, they strengthen our assurance that He will be faithful to us. And everything rests upon a simple, face-value interpretation of Scripture. Those who rejoice in God’s guarantees to His ancient people are sometimes accused of ‘"absurd literalism", because they believe (of all things!) that when God says Israel He means Israel. But this is in fact the only way to make sense of any document. A face-value or, if you prefer it, normal reading of the Bible will of course be sensitive to the distinctives of different literary genres, and equally alert to figures of speech. But we are all constantly decoding such things in the language of daily life without undue stress. Why then should we impose a different and completely unjustified reading methodology upon God’s Word? It is particularly sad when saved Gentiles seem to delight in denying future blessing for the Jew, when they, of all people, should gratefully recognise their indebtedness to Israel. But Wilkinson has a lovely response which I cannot resist quoting in full:

"Satan succeeded in persuading the Christian Church, in early times, that she was a spiritual Israel, to whom all blessing promised to the national Israel exclusively belonged; and that to the literal and national Israel belonged only the curses, literally understood…Within the last half-century, however, another principle has been largely adopted in the reading and exposition of truth about the Jews, viz., that of allowing the blessings and the curses to bear a literal meaning to the literal Israel. An intelligent and devout body of Christians, called ‘Brethren’, as well as many in the Episcopal Church distinguished for piety and learning, have taught the Church of Christ a lesson she is slow to learn: First, That the book we call the Bible most certainly means something; and second, It probably means what it says. In other words, instead of making the Scriptures, by far-fetched and fanciful interpretations, mean anything but what they say, they substitute the sound but simple principle applicable to all literature-sacred and secular – If the plain and obvious sense makes good sense, seek no other sense."

That’s the only safe principle for Bible reading. Scripture may distinguish between the nation of Israel as a whole and the spiritually saved remnant within the nation (as, for example, in Romans 2.28-29 and Galatians 6.16), but I have yet to find any passage where Israel means anything other than Israel. The rule cannot be stated too firmly: God’s Word says what it means, and means what it says. If it doesn’t, we are adrift in a choppy sea of indeterminacy and obscurity.

Immediate circumstances and current obsessions must not be allowed to distort the plain meaning of the Word, for those who force their own agenda onto Scripture will stray from its truth. Remember the great seafaring episode at the close of the Acts? In the midst of a raging storm, Paul was told, "Fear not, Paul; thou must be brought before Caesar: and, lo, God hath given thee all them that sail with thee" (Acts 27.24). Yet that same storm continued unabated with no apparent hope of rescue. Paul might have argued that, since external conditions made a literal understanding of God’s promise unlikely, it must therefore be transformed into an allegory of eternal salvation. "Caesar" could then stand for God (Paul would go to heaven), while the blessing predicted for his fellow-travellers could be their conversion. But no, Paul did not twist the terms of the divine message any more than we should seek to escape the surface meaning of Scripture when it speaks, say, of the Lord’s imminent return for His church, the severity of coming global tribulation, the national and spiritual restoration of Israel, the glory of the millennial Temple, or the future reign of Christ upon this earth. These things are not yet, nor have they ever been, but they will come to pass. It matters not in the slightest that we cannot envisage how they will be accomplished; that is God’s responsibility, not ours. Our duty is to believe. As the apostle puts it, encouraging his shipmates, "be of good cheer: for I believe God, that it shall be even as it was told me" (Acts 27.25). And that’s a classic definition of faith – "it shall be even as it was told me". Faith always takes God at His bare word. This holds good not only for prophecy but for the rest of Scripture. If God has spoken about the past, it is sin to doubt what He says. Those who accept Revelation should have no trouble with Genesis, even if it flies in the face of the current scientific consensus. And the God who miraculously unveils both past and future also directs His people’s behaviour in the present. Paul’s instructions to New Testament assemblies in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy are largely disregarded today, not because they are unclear but because they are unfashionable. Yet they remain what they always were - authoritative, infallible, inspired Scripture, to be read and obeyed. Take God’s word at its face value and you’ll not go wrong.

To be continued.


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