On Having the Right Conclusions But the Wrong Support
A few days ago I received an e-mail from a dear friend who was encouraged by a message from John 11. Her pastor took verse 44b, where Jesus said, “Unbind him, and let him go” (NASB), as a call for Christians to unbind each other from the material and psychological strongholds of this world that keep our attention away from Christ.
Immediately I asked the question “Is that what John meant?” Is this an instance of the right biblical idea but the wrong biblical support? My response went something like the following:
That’s funny…I’ve heard that same application from this passage from other preachers. [Thinking here that many preachers, sadly, are “borrowing” their material rather than coming up with creative ways of applying the text.]
Although I’ve not heard the sermon, I’m unconvinced that John had in mind some kind of metaphor for our sanctification when he documented the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Clearly it is a biblical notion not to become worldly and to stay focused on Christ, but there are plenty of other passages that speak directly to this (Heb. 12:1-3; 1 John 2:14-15 come to mind). Instead, John’s goal in chapter 11 seems to highlight Jesus’ power over death, pointing his readers to Christ’s divine ability to do the humanly impossible, viz., raise someone from the dead. In the larger pericope (chapters 2-11), John annotates a number of Jesus’ miracles that culminate in a detailed account of his death and resurrection (chapters 12 and following). The raising of Lazarus from the dead in chapter 11 is the grand finale of miracles and foreshadows the glory of Christ’s resurrection (see 11:25, “I am the resurrection and the life”). Ironically, the application of your pastor seemingly takes the focus off of Christ and makes us the focus!
If you would indulge me a bit further, there’s actually much more at stake here. So often preachers have the right biblical idea, but the wrong biblical passage to support it. As a result, they inadvertently teach others how to misinterpret the Bible by looking for hidden meanings or “deep insights” where few may actually be found. There are a wealth of profound ideas in the text; there is no need to go beyond it. This is actually a grave error for the Church. Lord knows we have enough confusion over the meaning of Scripture, given our postmodern culture that prefers to think with their hearts and feel with their heads. If, however, the Church is to be the “pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15), then every pastor must be one who “correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15), so that every member is trained to use effectively the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph. 6:17) when engaged in warfare or making application to their personal lives. Sadly, churches today are filled with so many who have so little knowledge of so great a treasure as God’s Word to us. This makes it paramount that pastors and teachers seek the truth from Scripture, rather than weave it into Scripture.
Of course, no preacher who is faithful to God’s Word intends to lead others astray. Yet many pastors are so bent on the “practical” side that they often lose the author’s original idea in the process. I’ve always maintained that God does not need any help with inspiration; there’s plenty of it in the text, and so going beyond the text is essentially pretext. In fact, I would go so far as to say that where we misunderstand or mistakenly apply a passage, then that application has no divine authority over us or spiritual power in us. While the wrong application of a passage may have huge emotional appeal, in the end it yields no lasting fruit, no matter how creative and cute, memorable or personal that application may sound. The bottom line is that Scripture can never mean what it never meant. Those charged with proclaiming the mind of God in the power of the Spirit must prayerfully labor over the text before making application. Understanding the author’s original intent while respecting the literary, social, political, economic, linguistic, and philosophical contexts at every turn is not optional simply because time lines are short and sermons must get prepared. The correct order is meaning first, then significance. Put differently, knowing comes before doing. After all, we cannot apply what we do not know or understand. Therefore, the pathway to the heart is through the mind and we simply must not bypass the head in an effort to reach the heart, no matter how biblically faithful our conclusions may be.
If we’re going to avoid the pitfalls of pretext and the “thin” Christian living that is so prevalent in churches today, we cannot afford to promote significance at the expense of meaning. After all, no one likes to be misunderstood and I suspect this holds true for God as well. Rightly understanding God’s heart through God’s Word encourages God’s people for God’s glory. This is the proper order of things. When we follow this order, then genuine and lasting spiritual change will naturally, or rather supernaturally, occur.