Handle with Care
As evangelicals, we believe that the Bible is the ‘Word of God’. We believe that the truth about God and his creation is revealed through the pages of Scripture.
That’s a very big belief—and it’s good to think about what we mean by it … and I’m sure that we each have our opinions.
However, it’s quite easy to confuse the whole counsel of God with my current understanding of the truth. Or with what Pastor So-and-so used to teach, back in the day.
It’s likely that we have a base-line understanding of ‘truth’ or ‘God-knowledge’ that was established some time ago, a sense of ‘orthodoxy’ or ‘sound teaching’, and that everything we hear now has to be compared with it to see if it measures up to that standard.
But that isn’t really reliable.
It’s much safer to assume that our grasp of the truth is only small, and that God is very, very big. We should approach his Scriptures with humility.
So, here is the challenge: how can we understand what the Bible, or its authors—or its Author—is saying to us, and not import our own pre-existing ideas?
There is always the danger, when we read the Scriptures, that we simply reinforce our opinions. We must try to avoid this.
Thomas Long writes:
“Fundamentalists, charismatics, social activists, feminists, evangelicals, traditionalists, liberationists—all of us, in fact—go to the texts of the Bible and return with trophies that are replicas of our own theological image. It is no easy task genuinely to listen to the voice of Scripture rather than merely to hear the sound of our own echoes.”
- How can we understand what the Bible is saying to us?
When we read the Bible, it ought to challenge us deeply. It should be an uncomfortable thing. It is declaring God’s holiness, and we have a way to go yet.
Most of the people who reject Christ reject the image of him that we present and not the real Christ that the scriptures reveal. So, we must teach ourselves a habit of open-heartedness toward what the Spirit of God might be saying to us, as we read.
Reading the LettersAs I said, we believe that the Bible is the ‘Word’ of God—that it is ‘God-breathed’ (2 Timothy 3: 16)—in much the same way that God’s breath (or ‘Spirit’) was present in the creation (Genesis 1: 2) and put into Adam (Genesis 2: 7) to make him alive.
So, as we read the scriptures, we expect God to ‘breathe’ into us and give us life too.
Nevertheless, we have a tendency to impose our own views, our own interpretations, and our own culture onto the Bible. This is especially true of the NT letters, where the writers address their audiences very directly. It’s easy for us to assume that ‘you’ means ‘us’.
It kind of does. But we are (literally) reading the mail of people who lived 1900 years ago. The world we live in is very different from the world Paul inhabited.
The apostles’ letters were written to interpret the teaching of Jesus to certain local churches in the Greek-speaking Roman empire. We stand in the same place in the biblical story as these people, but we live in a very different cultural setting.
It’s a bit uncomfortable to say that in an Evangelical church, but it must necessarily be so. As we read a text like Ephesians, we have to translate Paul’s teaching into our own context.
I think there are three basic steps we should take in any Bible study.
we should think about the book’s original audience:
- What language was the Letter to the Ephesians written in?
- When was it written? …and how was the world different then? Are there ways in which it hasn’t changed?
- What kind of writing is this?
- Who wrote it?
- To whom was it written?
- What was its original purpose?
- How would its original audience have understood it? What lessons would they have taken from it? That’s a really big question—but a very important one.
What lessons does it hold for us now?
There will be some timeless Spiritual truths, but other things might need to be interpreted differently in our context. An example of this might be ‘slaves’ in Chapter 5.
- Last, but definitely not least:
What is the Holy Spirit saying to me today?
How is God breathing into me as I read this?
The Epistle of Paul to the Ephesians
OverviewEphesus was a big city on the Aegean Coast of what is now Turkey, a bit south of modern Izmir and roughly opposite where Samos is. It had roughly 100,000 people, and something like half of them would have been slaves. It was a port, and a political and cultural centre, it was also home to the library of Kelsus and a famous temple to the goddess Artemis.
Now, its ruins are dominated by its 25,000-seat theatre, its paved streets, and its large civic buildings.
ContentIn this letter, Paul summarises the gospel, particularly as it relates to the formation of the church (i.e the community of Jesus-followers) and explains how it should impact every aspect of our lives.
One of the big themes in the letter is the way God uses the church to challenge and frustrate the dark spiritual powers that rule the present world.
Chapters 1-3 recap the Gospel story:
- God raised Jesus from the dead and exalted him to his Right Hand; he has done the same for his church.
- In Christ, God has united the Jews and the Gentiles into one family.
Chapters 4-6 give the practical application of this:
- Therefore, be united in Christ and live appropriately.
- Put away the ‘old’ and put on the ‘new’.
- Worship God with singing.
- He gives instructions for Christian households, and finally,
- He gives instructions for resisting evil spiritual forces.
Ephesians 1: 1
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus:
Paul introduces himself as an apostle of Christ Jesus.
- What is an apostle?
(Mark 3: 14; Acts 26: 16-18; Acts 13: 1-3)
The recipients of this letter are ‘the saints’ ‘in Ephesus’ and ‘faithful in Christ Jesus’.
- What’s a ‘saint’?
They are called ‘saints’ (hagioi) because they have been made holy by the Holy Spirit within them (1 Cor 3: 17; 6: 19).
Only God is holy. If we are going to be holy, it is only through his intervention by Christ’s cross. He makes us holy; in fact, he has made us a temple for the Holy Spirit (compare: Ephesians 2: 19-22).
In some manuscripts, the name ‘Ephesus’ is left blank, so that this could be used as a circular letter.
- What other circular letter in the NT was sent to Ephesus?