“Where’s this headed?” The importance of trajectory

I was on a morning walk recently with some friends in the mountains, and met someone on the walk who was visiting one of our neighbors.  We had a delightful conversation about the different things we’d done with our lives.  I told him that prior to living in Seattle I ran an outdoor program that was a blend of “Outward Bound” and “Bible Teaching”.  (For those interested in such a program today, the best one I know of is in Austria, and you can learn of it here).  Then, right there, with the sun beating down on the two of us he said, “which God did you teach them about, the Old Testament one, or the New Testament one?”  He went on to say he had little interest in the Old Testament God, “all angry, and jealous, all genocidal, and imposing those bizarre rules on people”.  He seemed to view the New Testament God more favorably, indicating in essence that Jesus was someone with whom he’d like to have a beer.  These two gods, in his mind, couldn’t possibly be the same being.

This isn’t a question I hear often at church, but it’s a question lots of people (Christians and not) covertly think about.  We don’t like to ask it in church because we already know the right answer, which is that there’s only one God and that God never changes.  We know this because the Bible tells us this.  We want to believe it, because we want to believe the Bible.  Sure, there are nagging tensions inherent in this glib declaration.  We wonder, if God never changes, if he still wants kids to be killed by stoning them to death if they rebel against their parents.  We wonder if it’s still true that if a man’s wife sees her husband getting beat up and tries to help by grabbing his adversary’s, I’ll call them ‘stones’, she should get her hand cut off as a reward.  We wonder if a woman, during her time of ‘discharge’ is still unclean, and to be shunned.  We wonder if God would still advocate walking into someone’s land and taking it by force, killing every man, woman, and child in the process.  We wonder if we can eat bacon.

This is why I always get a little annoyed when people say to me, “I’m just tellin’ ya what the Bible says” as if it’s the same thing as a rule book for a baseball umpire.  That kind of approach to the Bible is not only damaging to people, it’s both spiritually and intellectually immature and dishonest.  The Bible says don’t eat unclean meat, until here, where the Bible explicitly tells Peter to eat the same animals that were previously unclean because now they’re clean.  Then, when Gentiles wanted to become Christ followers, the religious leaders said they could, as long as they refused to eat any meat that had been sacrificed to idols.  Later, Paul will say, that there’s nothing inherently wrong with eating meat sacrificed to idols.

What’s going on here?

The answer is, first of all, that the Bible is a true story, but it’s a story – of humanity’s problem, and God’s solution to that problem.  It’s revealed to us through all manner of literature:  historical narrative, poetry, parable, ‘sayings’, prophecies, well reasoned letters, prophecies, dreams, and visions.  It’s written over the span of thousands of years by numerous authors, in various cultural settings and languages.  Because of this, there’s a giant negative, and a giant positive that will help us understand it better:

Don’t cherry pick Bible verses to make your point. – People have used the Bible to justify and prohibit all manner of things.  It’s not hard, if all I need is a verse, to build a case for having more than one wife, or for genocide and land theft, or for killing disobedient children, or for justifying divorce or outlawing divorce, justifying violence or becoming a pacifist, owning slaves or freeing them.  This is because God is revealing Himself through various cultural settings, and in each setting God ‘moves the ball down the field’ towards God’s full and final revelation.  But the whole revelation doesn’t come until late in the book.  So, for example, when God called Abraham, God called him out from a culture in which there was both child sacrifice and temple prostitutes as part of worship.   God has no temple, and no temple prostitutes, but the request to sacrifice Isaac wasn’t as far fetched then as now, even though it was never God’s intent to kill him.  Context and trajectory are huge determinants of a texts meaning, both the original hearers, and to us today.

Do look for trajectories and timeless principles.  The biggest key here is found in Hebrews 1, which says that God has been speaking to humanity for a long time, but the fullest and most accurate representation of God’s heart is found in Christ.  He is the final act, the full ethical display of God’s heart.  As a result, yes, turning the other cheek is better than ‘an eye for eye’, crossing social divides and serving is better than genocide.  Jesus’ mission statement of serving the poor, bringing release to captives, and setting free those who are oppressed trumps all other endeavors, including those that cherry pick old testament laws which were given to a theocracry and impose them on a nation, or even a church.  Jesus is the end of the game, the trump card, the finale of ethical display.

One God?  Absolutely.  But one God who “spoke to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways” (Hebrews 1:1).  We need to learn from every single word because there are principles, starting in Genesis 1:1 that have timeless value.  But principles are not precepts, and knowing which are which, and when to apply them is vital.

David Kinnaman’s book “UnChristian” addresses polling evidence regarding why the church is losing emerging generations.  Though he doesn’t address the cherry picking of Bible texts directly, he does say that Christians are viewed as shallow, sheltered, and out of touch with reality.  Where the faith is real though, and intellectually honest, nothing could be a further from the truth.  In fact, the ethic of Jesus has been shown, time and again, to be the answer to culture’s most pressing problems, from racism, to war, from money to marriage.  But Jesus’ answers aren’t derived from cherry picking.  They’re derived from prayerful, thoughtful engagement with the whole of the Bible, looking for the trajectory of God’s plan and ethic, both of which will be seen most fully in Jesus!

About Richard Dahlstrom

As Pastor of Bethany Community Church in Seattle, Richard teaches with vision of "making the invisible God visible" by calling people to acts of service and blessing. It's working, as a wilderness ministry, homeless shelter, and community meals that serve those living on the margins are all pieces of Bethany's life. "We're being the presence of Christ" he says, "and inviting everyone to join the adventure." Many have, making Bethany one of the fastest growing churches in America in 2009 according to Outreach Magazine.

  • Dan

    Richard,

    Like your “principles/precepts” example, I’ve heard it said, and love the idea/truth of it–it makes the Bible more believable for me–that all the stories, although sometimes seem contradictory, are actually a tapestry telling the WHOLE story via prescriptive and descriptive methods. God prescribes things to be a certain way, but His Bible describes things as they are, and as us fallen people actually do things. God didn’t prescribe or make David do what he did with Bathsheba, but He did allow it, and it is described in His book. He can call David “a man after His own heart” because David repented and was terribly saddened by his sin, and made things right. God didn’t prescribe David’s sin, but He did describe it, showing us the true humanness of David, and true repentance. Repentance is what makes us people after God’s own heart. The descriptive “inconsistencies” in the Bible shows me that God isn’t afraid of what we think, or what His detractors think. It shows me that the truth of the whole text, read as a narrative with a beginning, middle and end, is confirmed in the things God was willing to allow or put in His text. If He wanted everything to be buttoned up tight so no one could critique it or question it, He wouldn’t have chosen the 12 He chose–whom I imagine, before being changed by Jesus, to be as rough and hard as the Deadliest Catch crews; He wouldn’t have appeared after His resurrection first to women–culturally, at the time, people who weren’t allowed to be witnesses in courts, let alone vote or have any status in society. He wouldn’t have come from Nazareth (“nothing good comes from Nazereth”!), etc., etc.

    The warts of the Bible and the bravery to tell it all is what makes it more, not less true to me, and cherry picking verses or concepts is simply ridiculous. It’s like reading Les Miserables and concluding that Jean Valjean is a reprobate thief and criminal with no hope, so we ought to just stop reading. The whole story results in repentance, transformation and ultimately salvation…just like the Bible.

    • Lamont

      Dan.

      “God didn’t prescribe David’s sin…”

      In the book of Ephesians it tells us that God:

      “…works all things according to the counsel of his will…” 1:11b

      If what “you” say is true, (i.e. “God didn’t prescribe David’s sin”) then God worked after the council of David’s (mans) will. Which means that there is something “outside of God,” that determines His will? Isn’t that blaspheme? I read in scripture where God says:

      “…declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose…” Isa 46:10

      The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD;
      he turns it wherever he will. Pro 21:1

      The plans of the heart belong to man,
      but the answer of the tongue is from the LORD. Pro 16:1

      The LORD has made everything for its purpose,
      even the wicked for the day of trouble. Vs 4

      The heart of man plans his way,
      but the LORD establishes his steps. Vs 16
      The lot is cast into the lap,
      but its every decision is from the LORD. Vs 33
      “Does disaster come to a city,
      unless the LORD has done it?” Amos 3:6b
      David’s sin for numbering Israel for example, in 2 Sam 24:1ff it says: “Again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he (God) incited David against them…”

      God punished David for doing it. But, when you go to 1 Chronicles 21:1ff scripture say’s that “Satan” incited David to number Israel. God uses “means” to carry out his plan and purposes. There is nothing that God hasn’t “foreordained” to take place in His creation.
      Even the crucifixion of Christ…

      “…for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, 28 to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” Acts 4:27-28.
      Nebuchadnezzar had first hand experience w/the sovereignty of God… (I love that chapter!)
      “…all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,
      and he does according to his will among the host of heaven
      and among the inhabitants of the earth;
      and none can stay his hand
      or say to him, “What have you done?”
      The “heart” in scripture has to do with mans mind, will, and emotions. God is in sovereign control of us. Though (as scripture teaches) He is w/o sin, and He does not tempt us.
      He is not only in total control of the thoughts, words, deeds of men, where we live, our boundaries, the hairs on our heads, He controls the outcome of the dice Prov 16:33, wild beasts and sparrow, the wind, waves, planets, diseases, adinfinitum.

      “David’s repentance made things right.”

      Actually, Christ made David’s sin right, and, even repentance is under the sovereign control (it is a gift) God, whether he grant’s repentance to someone or not is His prerogative!

      “When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.” Acts 11:18 (emp in original)

      “Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth…” 2 Tim 2:25.

      For more on this…. http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/gracelist.html

      Also, this is “very” helpful as well…

      http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/articles/are-there-two-wills-in-god

      Regards.

  • http://middletree.blogspot.com James Williams

    Richard, I love ya, but this paragraph is full of inaccuracies:

    “The Bible says don’t eat unclean meat, until here, where the Bible explicitly tells Peter to eat the same animals that were previously unclean because now they’re clean. Then, when Gentiles wanted to become Christ followers, the religious leaders said they could, as long as they refused to eat any meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Later, Paul will say, that there’s nothing inherently wrong with eating meat sacrificed to idols.”

    The truth is that the Law of Moses, which was given to a specific group of people at a specific period in history, said not to eat certain meats. Then, when Peter was not ready to accept non-Jews into the Christian faith, God told him that they were never under the Mosaic Law.

    As for the Acts 14/15 reference to idol meat, God did not say that those new believers are to not eat such meat. Some Christians said that to other (new) Christians. It was clearly an attempt to placate those Christians who came from a Jewish background. A way of finding common ground between a group who had had it ingrained in them that eating such meats is blasphemous, because their belief was getting in the way of them welcoming in new believers, at a critical time in Christian history when the Church needed to grow. So just because something was done in the name of peace between two groups doesn’t mean it’s a command from God.

    What does all this mean in light of your post’s actual intent? Well, it’s nice to think that New Testament God doesn’t care about our behavior, but whether you call it legalism or not, we see too much about holiness in the NT to ignore it.

    Further, many Christians who say they don’t think God cares so much about our rule-following have no problem saying that He cares very much about, say, feeding the poor, ridding ourselves of racism, etc. Those who claim He has no hard and fast rules have no problem declaring, for example, apartheid to be wrong, or generosity to be a command from God.

    It makes more sense to me to say that, yes, He does have expectations for our behavior. Not the same as those 613 rules He gave to the Israelites through Moses, but He does still call us to holiness. That’s sort of an inconvenient truth, but there it is.

  • http://middletree.blogspot.com James Williams

    To clarify: Not that I don’t think Christians do a lot of cherry-picking. But the oft-cited examples taken from the Mosiac Law are taken way out of context, and that’s what I am objecting to.

    • Richard Dahlstrom

      I think that you’re making my point James. Of course these things are taken, as you say, “way out of context”, as are other Levitical laws regarding more relevant issues for here and now. If everyone would take the time to distinguish between law given to a Theocratic nation and timeless truths for all peoples, we’d not be having this conversation. My point is that people DON’T make such distinctions.
      What bothers me though, is your rush to judgement, when you declare that I’m saying God doesn’t care about behavior. Indeed He does… sexuality and social justice. It’s just that we can’t pull verses out of context, like rabbits out of hat, and expect them to magically transform people’s convictions…or lives.

  • http://middletree.blogspot.com James Williams

    Richard, if I read you wrong, my apologies. they way I read it, you don’t think anything is black and white for the New Testament Christian. By anything, I mean the sins that get the most discussion these days.

    • http://middletree.blogspot.com James Williams

      Typos galore!
      Anyway, I agree if you are talking about people quoting the Law of Moses to justify their statements about certain sins. that drives me nuts.

  • Kyle

    Thank you Richard! I am constantly blessed by your blog posts. You boldly speak to the questions/doubts/struggles I have in faith in a way that draws me closer to the Church and to God! These blogs posts, along with your sermons, make church a comfortable place for me to be uncertain about the answers to some pretty big questions without complacently stagnating in uncertainty. The way you lead makes it okay for me to be “in-process” in my faith, and that is such a beautiful, normalizing thing! Thank you Richard!

  • sp

    Thanks Richard – I’m glad you’re addressing this, and hope you continue to put some flesh on the bones of this discussion going forward here.

    The seeming disparity between the OT God and the NT Jesus appear huge….and trips me up at times. I can see why your friend asked the question that he did. I sometimes wonder if the Bible is as much a story about God and His own “reformation”, as it is about humanity. After all, we’re made in His image…right?

    Was Jesus God’s own story of YHWH finding His own grace for Himself? (and, once He did, became an olive branch for reconciling us to Him, as well?)

    Perhaps Jesus was as desperately needed for YHWH, as Jesus was for us as well?

    Keep on the story…this is of great importance. :-)

  • http://www.HypFoods.com CatB

    I only skimmed Richard’s post and I am only putting up a quick response to the “YHWH finding His own grace for Himself” query above. Everyone has a unique POV and by bringing them together, we might really be able to get somewhere truly liberating! I can’t remember who it was in my experience who used to talk about putting all the grapes into a bag, then mashing them together to get the wine…

    Anyway, I struggled with this disparity between OT & NT pictures of God for a very long time. Alternately grieved and sought truth and pleaded with God for clarity in His Word or hung it up because I couldn’t find the image in the puzzle pieces.

    I finally found peace when I realized, I believe through the ministry of God’s Spirit through the Word, that all of those stories in the OT are providing lenses through which to view HUMANS, more so than G-d. In all of the ugliness of the OT genocides, etc, there is not ONE SINGLE EXAMPLE of a human who stood in the gap between the target population and the “people of God”, not one who STOOD UP for the “Way of Peace”, as it is called in Scripture. “I am for peace, but when I speak, every one of you is for war.” (my paraphrase)

    The closest we have to a Christlike example is when God, on more than one occasion, was pushed to the limit with the behavior of the tribes and exclaimed to Moses that He would wipe them all out and start a new nation based on Moses’ own seed (also descended from Jacob/Israel). In each case, Moses fell on his face as it were before God and pleaded with s/Him, “Please don’t destroy the people who bear The Name in this world. It will make You the object of ridicule.” etc. But to stand up for those who didn’t know or believe in G-d, I haven’t found ONE SINGLE EXAMPLE UNTIL JESUS CAME. He did what none had done before Him and He did it with grace and humility and complete trust in the faithfulness of His Father to do all that had been promised.

    So, once again, past is prelude. Gotta run, but really wanted to get this out there because this is such an important question and one that is very difficult to bridge. Thanks for offering the thinking caps again, Pastor!

    • http://www.HypFoods.com CatB

      Tiny little line in JARS OF CLAY song, “Oh My God” = ‘we ALL have a CHANCE to murder’

      Sums it up.

  • Ryan Hofer

    “This is because God is revealing Himself through various cultural settings, and in each setting God ‘moves the ball down the field’ towards God’s full and final revelation. But the whole revelation doesn’t come until late in the book.”

    I think the elephant in the room is that Christians claim a closed canon, fully realized in the Bible, and to varying degrees, their interpretation of it. Weren’t the authors of the NT responding to the Hebrew Scriptures, making sense of them based on their current culture and experience? Yet today, Christians aren’t really able to do that because the revelatory experience is now closed, a priori. I think that’s where you’re losing people; there’s too much newness flowing into the world, too much plurality to be contained within a closed canon. Why isn’t our cultural/spiritual context just as valid as the cultural context under which the Bible was penned? And at the same time the Bible doesn’t have any problem citing miraculous criteria upon which spiritual authority rests. Yet….well, I’ve never seen anything like it, nor have my parents, nor my grandparents…as far as I know. In the end, I have to ask, what justifies your privilege of knowing God’s mind, Richard? What does it mean to claim the special revelation of closed canon, and what criteria could possibly disprove this?

    And all the while, here we are, together in this world.

  • Ryan Hofer

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