The question of biblical study is one of perspective. As I have noted in my previous entry the inscripturated Word of God is clear. Murkiness does not define it. The question is not its perspicuity (clarity), but our attitude and baggage of bias that we tend to bring along with us when we attempt to decipher its meaning.
When last we met…
My reference point in my last post was Matthew 16. There we have two instances where the clarity of what is revealed of God through Jesus Christ, the incarnated Word, is muddied by the waters of the human mind. The Pharisees and Sadducees represent unbelieving thought. They understood what Jesus was saying. They’d heard Him teach. They’d been witness to His activities. They’d listened to eyewitness testimony verifying from others the signs of God in their midst. But they rejected the notion that the conclusion had to be—the Messiah, the Son of God, their long-awaited king was before them (Matt 16.1-4).
Similarly, the disciples of Christ witnessed Jesus personally; day-to-day. They were privy to the way Jesus thought and were eyewitnesses to His activities. However, there were times when they failed to decipher the intended message of Christ. This is recorded for us twice in Matthew 16. First, it was with the meaning of Jesus statement:
“Watch out and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matt 16.6; NASB).1
Then, a little later, it was Jesus testimony of what must soon take place in His ministry:
“From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day” (Matt 16.21).
Despite the fact that Peter (one of the twelve) rightly deduced Jesus’ true identity:
“You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matt 16.16).
He struggled with the Lord’s teaching of what that truth ultimately meant. That God’s Messiah must die. That He must be handed over and killed by Jews and Gentiles alike. That He must be raised up on the third day.
Why? Why the struggle? Why the inability to see the truth of God as it was given? Because, it did not fit the presuppositions of the audience. The truth penetrated on some level. The clarity of Christ’s message was undeniable. But it was offhandedly rejected.
Types of bias…
Being biased is unavoidable when it comes to reading, hearing and listening to God’s Word. Absolutely, without exception, having a bias in relation to biblical truth is unavoidable.
As I enjoyed a morning run this week I mulled over the subject of neutrality. When we interact with God’s Word, we need to be aware of what our attitude is beforehand. Having a bias is not wrong, but having a wrong bias is. Neutrality is not optional (not even possible), but submission (humility) is.
“An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign; and a sign will not be given to it, except the sign of Jonah” (Matt 16.4).
This rebuke from Jesus to the self-appointed religious leaders of Israel was in light of their refusal to admit the truth before them. They’d been given signs. Signs were given to verify the validity of Jesus’ claims. They wanted more. Meaning they were biased against what they’d been given, and such a stance would not be entertained by the Lord.
The sign of Jonah…
What was the sign of Jonah? Why did the Lord make reference to it? Often times it is said that this is in reference to Jesus’ death and subsequent resurrection three days later. This is derived from the fact that Jonah, the Lord’s prophet, spent three days in the belly of a fish (large enough to swallow a man whole) before being vomited up on the land; returned, as it were, to the land of the living.
I do not deny that this is one aspect of the “sign of Jonah.” And yet, I am of the mind that there is something more, something deeper, that is being pinpointed by Jesus here.
Jonah was sent to Nineveh to proclaim God’s wrath (i.e., righteous judgment) against that city. Jonah refused to heed God’s call (command). He fled to Tarshish, a location in the opposite direction of Nineveh, in order to avoid what he knew. It is at the end of his story that he confesses the reason for his fleeing:
“Please Lord, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore in order to forestall this [--the redemption of the Ninevites--] I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity” (Jonah 4.2).2
Without delving too deeply, I will quickly get to my point.
Bias on display…
The call of Jonah came through loud and clear. God’s Word of command to go to this foreign people was not murky. In fact, it was the clarity of the Lord’s message that drove Jonah to flee to Tarshish. He knew that God intended to save Nineveh. He knew that God was sending him to deliver a message that warned them to flee from the coming wrath (comp. Matt 3.7). And so, in stubbornness of heart he rebelled. This led to God’s judgment on Jonah. When God sent the fish to swallow His prophet, Jonah was as good as dead and he knew it. Thus, we find he confessed his sin to the Lord, and in so doing, submitted to God’s Word (see Jonah 2.7-9).
In the book of Jonah, we see the bias of the Lord’s prophet on full display. First, he was biased against what the Lord had spoken. Second, he was biased in favor of what the Lord had commanded of him. Finally, we see that once again he struggled with personal bias against the sign of Nineveh’s repentance.
It is impossible to come to the Word of God in a position of neutrality. I repeat, impossible. It is often said that we need to be aware of our biases before we come to Scripture. There is a sense where such advice is warranted. However, it is foolhardy to attempt to come to biblical teaching as if we are a blank slate. Rather we should approach God’s Word in abject humility. Confessing our biases at the forefront, and being ready at a moment’s notice to discard them (to sacrifice them) on the cross of Christ.
All Scripture (Genesis through Revelation) is God-breathed. Therefore, it is good for rebuke, correction and teaching, so that we are properly trained in the righteousness of God (cf. 2Tim 3.16-17):
“The fear of the Lord…” (ff. Prov 1.7; 9.10).
That is the required bias of any who bear the Name of Christ. Our biases need to be changed from sinful stubbornness, to righteous willingness.
One of the things that Greg L. Bahnsen has taught me in his writings (and it has been continually confirmed both inside and outside the Church) is that men love their own opinions. They love to appear wise and knowledgeable. Yet, much of what they believe is grounded in the relative thinking of man’s mind, not the unchanging Word of Christ.
If we are to win wars, then we must be willing to lost the first and most important battle before us; by swearing our fealty to king Jesus (cf. 2Cor 10.4-5). Do this and the clarity of Christ’s Word shall shine through; making muddy waters clear. Fail to do this, and you will receive the rebuke of Peter:
“Get behind Me, Satan! …You are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s” (Matt 16.23).
1 All Scripture unless otherwise noted shall be of the New American Standard Bible, 95’ update (NASB).
2 The bracket section is added for the reader’s clarity. This is for those who have not read through this little prophetic book. For the one who has taken the time to study this historic piece in context, the conclusion here given is unavoidable.