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Feb 15 / Chuck Smith, Jr.

February 14, 2021

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So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” Acts 8:30

Intro: Before jumping into my talk, I’ll give you the backstory to this verse

Jesus’ apostles were putting down roots in Jerusalem
– this made sense, because Jerusalem was the hub of Israel’s faith for centuries
• but settling there was not what Jesus told them they would be doing
◦ they would be going into all the world with gospel (Acts 1:8)
• so the challenge was how to get them out of Jerusalem and into their mission?
And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. (Acts 8:1)
– Philip, the main character in episode, fled to Samaria
• he began sharing his faith with the Samaritans and soon crowds were coming to hear him
◦ that brought the apostles Peter and John out of Jerusalem to Samaria
• that’s when God abruptly sent Philip after this one person

Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert place. And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians . . . seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot” (Acts 8:26-29). As Philip approached the Ethiopian official, he heard him reading aloud, and so asked whether he understood what he was reading. The official answered, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this:
“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter
and like a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he opens not his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”

And the Eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus (Acts 8:31-35

Isn’t that a great opening line?
Do you understand what you are reading?

The Ethiopian official knew that without a guide, he was lost
– Philip had the knowledge of both Isaiah’s prophecy and Jesus,
• to unlock the passage for him
• that is what everyone who reads the Scriptures need;
◦ guidance and tools for making sense of what we read
– since the beginning of the year, we’ve been meditating on,
• how we are supposed to read the sacred writings
• in today’s talk we’ll learn that
we allow the sacred writings to tell us how to read them

It may seem too obvious to mention, but “writings” is plural

The Bible is not one book, but a collection of sixty-six books
– when I was a kid, “mobile libraries” used to come through our neighborhood
• the Bible is sort of a bookmobile with a variety of reading material
◦ we cannot ignore the fact, because how the sacred writings speak to us
◦ depends on which book of the Bible we are reading
– what I am talking about is genre – pronounced zhŏn-raw
• genre is “a category of artistic composition”
◦ in any bookstore or library, books are arranged by their genre
◦ there are sections for self-help, psychology, health, religion, novel, sci-fi
• we do not read a book on physics the same way we read poetry
◦ how do we read the sacred writings?
Fr. Romuald, “How do you understand a text? Well, how do you read a love letter? How do you read the newspaper? How do you read a novel? If you’re not respecting literary genres, then you’re obviously being disrespectful to the text.”

God delivers his word to us in a variety of wrappings
– it is for us to recognize how a book is wrapped, and read it accordingly
• the New Testament sometimes sums up the Old Testament in two divisions: Moses and Prophets (or the Law and the Prophets)
◦ Jesus summed up the Old Testament in three divisions
◦ and I think it’s important for us to hear those in context:
“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Lk. 24:44-49)
– we could add to these three:
• “books of history” and “wisdom literature”
• the genres of New Testament include: narrative, letters, and “apocalyptic”

I’m going to give you a tiny bit of information regarding two subjects

Literary theory
A 15th century scholar, Lorenzo Valla, called into question medieval dogma and tradition. In one project, he closely scrutinized a document that was understood to have been written by Constantine. Using critical methods of his own invention, Valla proved the document was not genuine–Constantine could not have written it. Two Reformers, Calvin and Erasmus, read Valla’s critique and realized they could use his same literary tools to interpret scripture. This blew the field of biblical hermeneutics wide open.
In the 19th century, literary scholars began looking over the shoulders of biblical interpreters, asking them, “What are you doing?” Then they began to apply the new “science of interpretation” to other types of literature. Soon philosophers and philologists were involved, and eventually a profusion of literary methods of interpretation were devised. We could not exaggerate the impact this made on western society–including its enormous influence on biblical studies.
– one very big idea to come out of all of this is:
Different genres required different methods of interpretation
• the practical value this has for us, is that we must learn to
◦ read the different sacred writings as they were intended to be read
• as I wrote in Epiphany: Discover the Delight of God’s Word, “. . . genre is a starting point for both author and reader, more or less laying out the rules of the game.”

For instance, we recognize that the Psalms are song lyrics and poems
– that fact was not made obvious in the King James Version
• what do we know about poetry?
◦ it has a different structure than normal prose writing
(e.g., usually a meter, cadence, or rhythm)
◦ it uses lots of metaphors and creates word pictures
◦ if we understand the poem, it makes us feel something
(poetry is not a language of the head, but of the heart)
• the Psalms have a lot to tell us about ourselves
◦ about the human struggle to know and understand God
◦ what it feels like when he seems to hide from us
◦ and what it feels like when he comes through for us
– we read the books of the Law or books of history differently
• one thing we need to learn about biblical historical writings,
◦ they aren’t really history – not as we think of it
(for instance, a strong emphasis on details relating to government, economics, culture, significant dates, and so on)
◦ in reality, the Old Testament does not contain history, but Israel’s memory
◦ stories about God and individuals, families, and communities
◦ it is this memory that enabled God’s people Israel to retain their identity through exile, disaspora, and diabolical attempts to annihilate them
• history is like looking through a camera lens:
◦ it focuses on one thing at a time and misses everything else
◦ 1 & 2 Kings and 1 & 2 Chronicles cover the same period of Israel’s history
◦ but with a different focus
◦ the books of Chronicles are only marginally interested in northern Israel
◦ and they have a far more positive spiritual outlook on Judah’s kings
(for instance, both Solomon and Manasseh repent of their unfaithfulness to God in the Chronicles, but the books of the Kings have no record of their repentance)
• the sacred writings do not takes us back in history and leave us there
◦ but through what happened then, they speak to us now
◦ the same is true of biblical prophecy: message always for us today

Biblical Interpretation
More than once, Jesus told the Pharisees their interpretation was off
– in fact, it contradicted or undermined the truth of scripture (cf. Mk. 10:1-9)
Chuck Kraft, “The Scriptures are inspired; our interpretations are not.”
• God’s word is eternal–but our world is constantly changing
◦ the truth does not change,
◦ but our interpretations of how it speaks to us today does change
• not all of the Bible is to be taken literally
I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures of speech but will tell you plainly about the Father (Jn. 16:25)
◦ John’s gospel is full of figurative language,
◦ and people were often confused, because took him literally

I am a critic of verse-by-verse Bible studies; first, because it is artificial
– except for the Proverbs and some of Ecclesiastes,
• the writers of scripture did not write in numbered verses
• the Bible’s chapter and verse divisions did not exist until the 1300’s
Joel Green explains how we can identify “units of thought” in scripture, rather than chapters and verses. Study within the text “identifies markers in the text denoting transitions, topic-shifts, or developments in the structure of an argument that set the boundaries of the text to be examined.”
– in the Senate hearings of this past week
• arguments were raised about the “selective editing of video and tweets”
◦ lawyers who raised the issue, argued that the prosecution tried to mislead the jurors by not giving a full account of the former president’s speeches and posts
• this is another reason why I am skeptical of verse-by-verse Bible teaching
◦ examining one verse at a time, as if it has its own discrete message can be misleading
◦ too many times I have heard preachers make errors, because they lost the context of a passage, and in going verse-by-verse, they actually contradicted the central message of a sentence or paragraph that went for several verses, and entire chapter, or chapters that came before or after the one verse on which they were concentrating

One other thought I want to cover
(You have no idea how much I have cut out of this week’s talk simply because there is not enough time to cover everything)

When reading the sacred writings,
– we must keep our minds and hearts open to mystery
• there is no escaping faith!
• God is not concerned that we understand everything
◦ he is more concerned that we trust in him with all our hearts
◦ that we do not lean on our own understanding
◦ and that in all our ways we acknowledge him
– there are truths, that even when we know of them,
• they are still shrouded in mystery
◦ that is because they transcend our four-dimensional universe
• but one of the beautiful things about being confronted with mystery
◦ is that it leads us to discovery — even if our discovery is still partial
◦ and what we discover for ourselves, we own!

Conclusion: Think about this . . .

God wants to sit down with us and tell us stories
Recite poems to us,
give us proverbs that teach us practical wisdom
God wants to touch our hearts through his sacred writings,
and open them to his infinite love

What follows is a brief overview of the various types of biblical literature
The Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament)
The Law: Genesis through Deuteronomy
– the first five books of the Bible
– also referred to as the Pentateuch or Torah
– reveals God’s covenant with Israel and commandments for living in it
– contains narrative sections from creation to Israel’s formation as a nation
History: Joshua through Esther
– Israel’s experiences from the time they entered the land of promise to when they were exiled from it, and then their return to the land
– told as a collection of stories, arranged and told for a specific purpose
Wisdom Literature
Job: explores problem of pain and whether religious explanations work
The Psalms: human compositions
– poetry, songs, and on occasion prophetic speech
– prayers of individuals and prayers of the community
– subjects include petitions, complaints, confession of sins, and praise
Proverbs and Ecclesiastes: common sense sayings and reflections
– practical advice regarding right and wrong, success and failure
The Song of Songs: an epic poem that celebrates romantic love
The Prophets: Isaiah through Malachi
– God’s word, “spoken forth” through chosen representatives
– through them, God addressed immediate concerns
– some prophecies include:
• predictions of Israel’s future (short-term and long range)
• apocalyptic sections – fantastical visions of world governments and God’s actions (found especially in Daniel and Ezekiel)
The New Testament
The Gospels and Acts: the story of Jesus, told from four different views
– the witness of the disciples after Jesus, the birth of the church
Paul’s Letters: a working out of Christian theology and practical faith issues
– some were written to churches
– others were to individuals
Hebrews: a letter, sermon, or a unique type of biblical literature
– presents Jesus in the light of the Hebrew Scriptures and Christian theology
James: written to Jewish Christians who were still faithful to Judaism
1 & 2 Peter: similar to Paul’s letters, but take a different approach
1, 2 & 3 John: revisit and expands on the same themes as the Gospel of John
Jude: a telegram-type letter with an urgent warning
The Revelation: A prophetic vision
– the literary genre of this book is “apocalyptic”

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