Category Archives: Bible Bites [Exegesis]

This category includes all posts that are primarily about exegesis (biblical interpretation), except for posts already included in the Church Chat category.

God’s Word and the Pastor’s Authority (Hebrews 1:1-4)

Pastor, why should anyone listen to your words? What is the basis of your authority? The answer is both simple and demanding: people should listen to your words to the extent that your words express the word of God.

I have been too busy to blog for a month now, which doesn’t sit well with me at all! But (a) this too shall pass, God willing, after we are settled properly into our Atlanta house, and (b) I can’t help sharing a little nugget this morning.

First, a happy random note: I’m sitting here in our new kitchen as I blog. In the past five minutes, right here in our own backyard, I have seen both a great blue heron and a hawk! Much nicer than the baby snake (harmless variety) I found in our basement yesterday morning. The wrens nesting in our basement will need to be removed after this season, too, despite the cheer they bring. Truly we are moving to an urban jungle!

Back to God’s word and ours. I have just begun reading Gareth Lee Cockerill’s recent Hebrews commentary as part of my morning Bible time. I’m really liking his insights and assessments so far.


Here is the passage from his commentary introduction that provoked this little post today. Enjoy!

The pastor’s authority rests on the gospel message (2:1-4) that he holds in common with his hearers and on the persuasive quality of his exegesis.

I’ll interrupt briefly to say “Read that again!” When Cockerill says “pastor,” he is describing the author of Hebrews. But his words are equally valid for pastors today! Back to the quote:

Heb 1:1-4 enunciates the fundamental principles that underlie his interpretation of the OT. First, the God who “spoke” through the OT has now “spoken” in one who is Son. The inclusion of the OT under the rubric of “the prophets” (1:1) indicates that it anticipated God’s ultimate self-revelation. Thus this final word in the Son is both continuous with, and the fulfillment of, all that God said before the Son assumed humanity. Second, to the continuity of the divine Speaker one must add the continuity of the human recipients. Those to whom God spoke through the prophets were the “fathers” of those he addresses in his Son (1:1-2). God’s people have always consisted of those who hear, embrace, and persevere in the word of God. Both those who live before and after Christ have received the same call, the same promise, the same “gospel,” and are on pilgrimage to the same heavenly “city,” which all the faithful will obtain through Christ. There is one God and one people of God.

This firm confidence in the continuity of the divine speaker and of the human addressees underlies the pastor’s sense of the immediacy of God’s word. Thus it is no surprise that he prefers OT passages that are in the form of direct address and that he introduces them with verbs denoting speech rather than with “it is written.” What God has said in the past is of more than antiquarian interest. God “speaks” to his people in the present both by the words that he spoke to his people of old (Heb 3:7–4:11; 10:36-39) and by his conversations with his Son concerning the Son’s incarnation and exaltation (1:1-14; 2:11-13; 7:1-28); 10:5-10). God’s final revelation embraces more than what the Son has said. God’s final revelation is found in the fully adequate Savior he has become through his incarnation, obedience, self-offering, and session. The work of the Son enables God’s people to grasp his previous revelation more clearly and obey it more diligently. (Pp. 43-45)

Nearly every sentence there deserves meditation, helping us think more clearly about topics as varied as preaching, biblical interpretation, monotheism, and the identity of the people of God. God bless you as you listen to, obey, and proclaim the word of God today!

Share your insights in the comments below. Thanks!

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Did Satan Give Super Tuesday to Trump and Clinton? (Luke 4:6)

As I write this post, Trump and Clinton are racking up victories in the race to the White House. As you read this post, you may be celebrating or bemoaning the results of last night. You may also be wondering who is to blame for the results. Apart from human voters and strategists, who gets the credit? Satan? Or God?

If you like what happened, you might be tempted to give God credit. And if you don’t like the results, we all know whom to blame, right?

Actually, it’s not that simple. The Bible presents a complex picture of how heavenly beings affect the affairs of earthly kingdoms.

Satan, on the other hand, paints a simple picture. At least that is the picture he painted as he tempted Jesus. Listen to Satan’s claim:

And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” (Luke 4:5-7)

What should we make of Satan’s claim? What did Jesus make of it?

Interestingly, Jesus didn’t dispute Satan’s claim. Ignoring Satan’s claim of authority, Jesus’ response zeroed in on the actual moral crux of Satan’s temptation:

“It is written,

“‘You shall worship the Lord your God,
    and him only shall you serve.’” (Luke 4:8)

Jesus didn’t dispute Satan’s claim of authority. Does this mean that Jesus agreed with Satan? Did Jesus believe that all the authority and glory of all the kingdoms of the world belonged to Satan, and that he could give it to whomever he wished? Is this true of Satan today?

Some readers think Satan was speaking the truth. The kingdoms of this world are clearly full of evil, and the Bible clearly states that Satan wields great power over unbelievers. Consider these texts:

“Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out.” (John 12:31; cf. John 14:30; 16:11)

The god of this world [or age] has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ… (2 Cor. 4:4)

…You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience (Eph. 2:1-2)

Consider Paul’s words about how all creation was “subjected to futility” and is in “bondage to corruption” (Rom. 8:19-22). Worse, John the Revelator saw a time when a terrible beast “was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months”; indeed, “authority was given it over every tribe and people and language and nation” (Rev. 13:5-8). Some interpreters think this depicts future events, but others argue convincingly that what John saw is real already today.

And perhaps most clearly of all, who can dispute this confident assertion of John?

We know that… the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. (1 John 5:19)

If we stop here, considering only this evidence, two conclusions seem undisputable to me:

  1. Satan’s claim to Jesus was true: he does indeed possess the authority and glory of all earthly kingdoms and gives them to whoever he wishes.
  2. Satan is the one who gave the Super Tuesday victories to Trump and Clinton.

But I think this analysis is too simple. Good theology deals with all the evidence, not just the evidence in favor of Satan.

For example, what about Paul’s words to the Romans?

…There is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed… (Rom. 13:1-2)

With the vast majority of interpreters, I understand Paul is referring to civil government leaders. Paul says these leaders have been “instituted” and “appointed” by God.

How can we reconcile this statement with Satan’s claim to Jesus? Or with John’s assertion that “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one”?

One solution is the idea of secondary causation. What do I mean? First, an imprecise informal example. Let’s say I leave a sharp knife on the table and my three-year-old picks it up and cuts herself. Who caused the cut? Ultimately, I am the primary cause of the cut. But my daughter is also a secondary cause. Thus, we both can rightly be said to have caused the cut.

More precisely, here is the Wikipedia definition of secondary causation:

The philosophical proposition that all material and corporeal objects, having been created by God with their own intrinsic potentialities, are subsequently empowered to evolve independently in accordance with natural law.

This is the idea that God sets up the universe to run in certain ways, then steps back and (at least normally) lets the universe run without direct intervention.

Similarly, we can observe that Satan, as a being created by God, has been permitted a sphere of authority, particularly after successfully tempting Adam and Eve. Thus Satan operates as a “secondary cause” in the affairs of earth. Meanwhile God, who first permitted Satan to gain authority, remains sovereign over all, as the ultimate “First Cause.” (As a personal being he is also much more than that!)

Thus both God and Satan can be said to be, in different senses, the C/cause of the same events, the A/authority over the same sphere of influence.

A strict application of the philosophical idea of secondary causation would mean that God no longer directly interferes in the affairs of earthly kingdoms, having given that authority over to Satan.

So, back to Satan’s claim to Jesus. Has God has sovereignly delegated all authority over earthly kingdoms to Satan, so that Satan is now free to do whatever he wishes with these kingdoms? Is secondary causation the secret for reconciling Romans 13 (God the distant, primary cause) and Luke 4 (Satan the immediate, secondary cause)?

No, I don’t think so. At least not fully. Again, I think this is too simple to explain all the biblical evidence.

Consider the two biblical accounts of David’s sin of calling for a census of Israel. In Samuel we read that “the LORD… incited David” to number Israel and Judah (2 Sam. 24:1). In Chronicles we read that “Satan stood up against Israel and incited David” (1 Chron. 21:1).

One solution for this apparent contradiction may be to see God as the ultimate cause, but Satan as the secondary cause. I do think this distinction is helpful. But I don’t think it’s enough.

It seems that God was more directly involved than that. It hardly seems that God simply allowed Satan to tempt David. The verb “incited” in Samuel suggests that God was an active agent.

Perhaps we could say that God incited David by nudging Satan to tempt him, or by permitting Satan to carry out his evil intent against David. This solution would mirror what happened with Job, where God intentionally brings Job to Satan’s attention, knowing that doing so would trigger Satan’s intent to test Job.

In summary, while I do think the philosophical concept of secondary causation has some validity, I don’t think it recognizes God’s direct agency sufficiently. Yes, there is a sense in which God has turned this fallen earth over to Satan so that “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). But I think God still directly and regularly intervenes, controlling events not only through his sovereign “set-up” of how the universe runs, but also through directly permitting and limiting and even overriding Satan’s authority.

Consider some more biblical evidence. In the following accounts, God is pictured as shaping the course of earthly kingdoms. While some of these situations may possibly permit Satan’s involvement as a secondary cause, others seem indisputably to be direct interventions by God. All of these, it seems to me, challenge Satan’s claim that he freely gives the authority and glory of earthly kingdoms to whoever he wishes:

  • At the tower of Babel God frustrated the language and purposes of earthly leaders. “Come, let us go down and there confuse their language,” he said. Then “the Lord dispersed them” (Gen. 11:7-8).
  • In the Exodus God directly sent plagues on Egypt, countering Pharaoh’s aims and ultimately drowning him in the Red Sea. “For this purpose I have raised you up,” the Lord told Pharaoh, “to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth” (Ex. 9:16).
  • In the conquest of Canaan God waged holy war against idolatrous nations, giving the land over to his people in fulfillment of his ancient promises. Similarly, many accounts describe God actively defeating enemy nations and removing kings during the time of Israel’s monarchy.
  • In Daniel God is repeatedly described as sovereign over earthly kingdoms. In particular, consider how God, in fulfillment of his own prophetic word, took the Babylonian kingdom away from proud Nebuchadnezzar. Then—in an act that leaves even less room for Satan’s authority and agency—God restored Nebuchadezzar’s reason and kingdom, bringing him to humble repentance (Dan. 4:28-37). Why did God do this? So that “the living may know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of men” (Dan. 4:17).
  • God chose Cyrus before he was born to be the one who would oversee the return of exiled Israel and the rebuilding of the temple. Listen to God’s words of direct agency: He “anointed” Cyrus; he “grasped” Cyrus’s right hand to make him a military victor; he said “I will go before you… I call you by your name.” Why did God do all this? “That people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other… I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things” (Is. 45:1-7).
  • When Herod allowed the people to praise him as a god, “immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down” (Acts 12:23).

As I consider accounts such as these, I have to call Satan’s bluff. Yes, there is a sense in which the kingdoms of the world have been “delivered” to him. But he does not “give [them] to whom [he] will.” Only God can rightly make that claim.

Satan is a liar. And his temptations usually include lies. Often he takes the truth, then subtly twists it, or tells only half of it. This is what he did when he tempted Jesus.

Darrell Bock, in his commentary on Luke, comes to the same conclusion:

It is probably best to say that the devil’s offer is a mixture of truth and error. He is pictured as wielding great authority on the earth, so much so that some interpreters regard the offer as totally genuine… He certainly claims such authority in saying he can give these things to whomever he wishes. It is possible that Satan believes the claim, so that the offer should be seen as involving diabolical self-delusion.

But there is evidence in the Gospel that suggests the offer is exaggerated. Jesus’ expulsion of demons is against such a view of Satan’s absolute authority. Later in Luke, Jesus’ authority triumphs over the demons, and the demons respond to his rebuke… Their fear shows that the demons are aware of a limitation on their power. That Satan can be dismissed, as he is in Matt. 4:10, may also suggest this limitation. From the text’s perspective, Satan’s offer is at best characterized as an oversell (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11), and at worst it is a lie (John 8:44).1 (bold added)

So, back to our opening question: Did Satan give Trump and Clinton their Super Tuesday victories? My short answer is “I don’t know.” I suspect both God and Satan were actively involved, though with God firmly overseeing Satan’s activity–prodding it and limiting it for his purposes.

I think that in most situations like this we are much like Job. He had no idea why he was experiencing what he experienced. He didn’t know Satan was behind the raiding bands, the whirlwind, and the boils. Neither did he know that God had “set him up,” intentionally inviting Satan’s attention.

We know more about heavenly involvement in the affairs of man than Job did—thanks in part to reading Job’s story. But we, like him, still don’t usually know in the moment the ways of God with Satan and man.

So, do we credit Satan or God for the results last night? I can’t give a full answer. But this much I do know: “The Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will.”

May we trust and honor him, no matter where he bestows his gifts.

What do you make of Satan’s claim? Do you agree with the understanding I’ve presented here? How do you trace the hand of God in the affairs of earthly kingdoms? I’m not interested in hosting a political debate, but I do welcome your reflections in the comments below. Thank you!

  1. Darrell L. Bock, Luke 1:1-9:50, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994), 376.

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What Jesus Wished He Could Say before He Died (John 16:12)

If you died today, what might you regret you’d left unsaid? Such death-bed regrets are common. Many dying people regret that they didn’t say “I love you” more often. Others conclude they should have spoken their mind more, expressing their feelings courageously instead of holding back and resenting things. (For some common death-bed regrets, see here and here.)

Though Jesus had no such regrets at his death, he did have things that he wanted to say, but couldn’t, before he died. Rightly understood, we could even say that Jesus didn’t say everything he wanted to say before he died.

In Sunday school right now we are studying John 14-16, which record Jesus’ final teachings to his disciples before he died. Jesus shared profound things in these final hours. We are deeply grateful for these last words. They are a deep reservoir of truth and hope.

But Jesus had still deeper things in his heart, things he simply could not share prior to his death:

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” (John 16:12)

This cryptic statement invites questions:

  • What was it that Jesus left unsaid?
  • What did he mean that the hearers would need to “bear” them?
  • Why were the disciples unable to bear them at that moment?
  • What did they need first, in order to be able to bear them?

To begin answering these questions, I direct you to Jesus’ next words:

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:13-14)

Whatever else Jesus means by these words, this much is clear: The red letters of Scripture are not enough. Our Sunday school quarterlies1 state this well:

The teachings Jesus left for us include more than just His words in the four Gospels. This refutes those who say that they go by only what Jesus taught but not what Paul or the other New Testament writers taught. The Holy Spirit guides us into all truth. He does it through the New Testament especially, but also through the Old Testament…

The disciples could not understand or bear all that Jesus would teach, and so He would teach more through the inspired writings of the New Testament.

Notice, that sentence at the end of the first paragraph does not say “though the red letters especially,” but “through the New Testament especially.” That is correct. If the Holy Spirit indeed took what was Jesus’ and declared it to the apostles (John 16:14), then the apostolic writings—the black letters of the NT—are Jesus’ words, too.

I wrote about this in my essay “Red Letter Reductionism.” Here is part of what I wrote:

The “raw data” of Jesus’ perfect revelation of the Father is most clearly and fully understood when we interpret it through the lens of the Old Testament passages that he most often cited and through the writings of the apostles he commissioned. Many of the Bible’s most prominent landmark mountains are found outside the red letters…

Apart from the events of Passion Week through Pentecost and on to the final return of Christ, the teachings and example of Jesus’ earthly ministry are an insufficient gospel and cannot save.

Please don’t preach a red letter reductionism, and please don’t be a prepentacostal disciple… There are “many things” from Jesus that you will miss if you value only what is found in red letters. How do we know? Jesus himself told us—in red letters, no less.

If you want to wrestle with this topic more deeply, I invite you to read my whole essay. [Edit 8/20/2017: Here is an updated version of the same essay.] It’s not perfect, but it’s better than when I first wrote it, thanks to feedback.

Here are other things I discuss in the essay:

  • What is red letter Christianity?
  • Is red letter Christianity harmless?
  • Did Jesus say John 3:16, and does it matter?
  • Are the words of the apostles authoritative?
  • Did Jesus and Paul preach the same gospel?
  • Is the Sermon on the Mount the gospel?
  • Are Anabaptists truly excited about the gospel?

We should also recognize that Jesus still speaks by his Spirit today. This is a contended topic, but consider this commentary by Gary Burge2:

[In John 14:26] Jesus describes a different function of the Paraclete, namely, recalling and preserving the historic words of Jesus. Here in 16:12–13 Jesus speaks of a future time when new things will be disclosed. Both of these passages work together. The historical Jesus and his ministry stand alongside the ongoing living Jesus-in-Spirit, who is continuously experienced in the church…

“What is yet to come” in 16:13b… likely refers to a genuine prophetic gift that will disclose the future—a gift like that exercised in the book of Revelation and described in 1 Corinthians 12:29–30. The Spirit’s “making known” is not of Jesus’ previous historic teachings nor is it confined to the eyewitnesses of the apostolic era, whose prophetic work will close with the canon. (pp. 406-407, bold added).

Notice that Burge is pushing beyond the interpretation I emphasized above. He is saying that John 16:12-14 foretells not only the inspiration of the New Testament writings (as I stated), but also the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in the church yet today. I think he is right. But not everyone agrees:

Evangelicals have traditionally preferred to see this work of the Spirit [described in John 16:12-13] as closely tied to the development of Scripture and its use. This is in part an exegetical decision that believes that the promises of this section belong not to the church universal but to the apostles only. “I have much more to say to you” (16:12, italics added) points to Jesus’ immediate audience. Hendriksen’s well-known commentary on John thus sees this ongoing revelation in 16:12 as fulfilled in the writing of the book of Acts and Paul’s letters.

But if the Spirit’s work goes beyond the production of the Scriptures—that is, if we have here a genuine prophetic gift that provides ongoing revelation—we then have to discern the guidelines and limitations for such revelation. Is this promise (like so many biblical promises) extended to every Christian? I would argue that it is…

Interpreters who refuse to apply this promise of the Spirit to the postapostolic church must then justify how they can apply other spiritual promises to the church. Who owns the promise, “I will come again and take you to myself” (14:3) when it was addressed to the Twelve? These promises, just like the command to “love one another,” belong both to the circle of apostles and to the later church. (pp. 413 and 423, bold added)

Later Burge suggests some biblical guidelines for identifying this ongoing work of the Spirit:

Jesus says that the Spirit will unveil things they have not heard. Such an understanding, of course, has led to countless abuses over the centuries as self-appointed teachers and new-age prophets have laid claim to the Spirit’s authority as they unveiled new, unbiblical teachings. These abuses have made modern exegetes understandably cautious about such ongoing revelation…

The best evidence for the view that John’s followers understood the Spirit to have ongoing revelatory power can be seen in the abuses John had to combat in his first letter. Since many false prophets have gone out into the world, John’s followers need to start testing the spirits to see if they belong to God (1 John 4:1). John does not disqualify the spiritual endowment in his argument with these teachers; he calls for the testing of the gift… Here John gives strict guidelines: “This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God” (1 John 4:2–3). This is the same test Jesus outlines in John 16:14–15. The Spirit will glorify Jesus and not depart from what he has revealed already. To refuse to glorify Jesus is to invalidate one’s prophetic voice.

Therefore, as we look at the work of the Spirit today, we see that not only does the Spirit recall, authenticate, and enliven the teaching of Jesus for each generation, but also the Spirit works creatively in the church, bringing a new prophetic word. This word never contradicts the historic word of Jesus and never deflects glory away from Jesus, but it may faithfully bring the church to see its message and mission in a new way…

To restrict the Spirit’s voice to the work of historic recitation, that is, to the application of the biblical text, is to restrict the Spirit’s effort to speak to contemporary issues. It is interesting that in Paul’s writing, he lists prophets and teachers in the second and third places of authority after apostles (1 Cor. 13:28) [sic: 1 Cor. 12:28]. In Acts 13:1 prophets and teachers led the church at Antioch where there were no apostles. The Spirit both equips those who guide the church into the deeper meaning of Scripture (teachers) and those who have a contemporary word, a dynamic word for the church in its world today (prophets).  (pp. 418-419, bold added)

Again, this second way of interpreting John 16:12-14—as foretelling not only the inspiration of the NT but also the ongoing work of the Spirit in the church today—is debated among Christians. This is a debate that goes beyond the “red letter reductionism” debate above, although it is related. In both cases, it is a question of how Jesus continued or continues to speak after his own death.

I think Burge is right. I think I need to listen to his explanation in the same way that I think “red letter Christians” need to listen to the sort of explanation that I make in my essay.

Whatever you make of these matters, may we each purpose to honor Christ by listening to the words given through his Spirit.

If you have feedback on this post or on my essay, send me an email or leave a comment below. Thank you, and God bless your church gatherings this week as you discuss his word—both the red and the black letters!

  1. Roger L. Berry and Shawn Schmidt, The Word Dwelt Among Us, Christian Light Publications adult Sunday school pupil book, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Dec. 2015, Jan./Feb. 2016), 53-54.
  2. Gary M. Burge, John, NIV Application Commentary, Kindle edition, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009).

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