Use of the Old Testament in the New (part 4)

Listen as D. A. Carson speaks on the topic of Biblical interpretation in this address from The Gospel Coalition sermon library.

In Jeremiah, chapter 20, verses 14 and following, Jeremiah is very discouraged. He says:

“Cursed be the day I was born! May the day my mother bore me not be blessed! Cursed be the man who brought my father the news, who made him very glad, saying, ‘A child is born to you—a son!’ May that man be like the towns the Lord overthrew without pity. May he hear wailing in the morning, a battle cry at noon. For he did not kill me in the womb, with my mother as my grave, her womb enlarged forever.”

Yes, a literalist is going to have a lot of fun with that passage. First, “The poor chap who happens to have brought my father the news is under the wrath of God. Let him be cursed.” And second, “Because he is under the wrath of God, may he be utterly and totally overthrown like the towns the Lord overthrew without pity. May my mother remain eternally pregnant, her womb my grave.”

Is that really what he is saying? On a certain literalistic level, that is correct, but this is a painful lament. That is not how you read literature, is it? It’s not how you read. Jeremiah isn’t seriously wishing an eternal damnation on the poor chap who just happened to bring his father the news, nor is he seriously wishing eternal pregnancy on his poor mum.

What he is saying is, “I hurt so much I wish I had never been born.” Isn’t that what he is saying? I think that the ordinary reader can pick that up. I mean, it takes a really picky theologian to miss it. Indeed, most literary genres I think we do pick up, almost by osmosis, and we do understand a great deal of them. Clearly, though, the genre does have some bearing on meaning and can’t be ignored.

Let me say one more thing about the importance of recognizing different genres. I think that it is important to say that some forms are more congenial to some cultures than are others, and one of the reasons why the Bible has come down to us in such a diversity of forms is because God in his graciousness wants to communicate to a diversity of cultures.

How many of you are preachers here? All right. Now then, I want an honest estimate. This is not embarrassing. I just want an honest estimate. What percentage of the time do you preach on discourse-type material as opposed to narrative-type material? There are lots of other kinds as well, but we’ll break it up for convenience into discourse versus narrative.

How much of the time do you preach from texts that are non-narrative material versus narrative material? Hold up your hands. At least 50 percent of the time on non-narrative material? 60 percent? 70 percent? 80 percent? I’d be very interested for you to go back and check your estimate. Go back to your home base and check your records for the last 3 years, and I bet a dollar to a donut that you estimated a little low.

For the fact of the matter is that most in the West love discourse-type passages. We don’t know quite what to do with narrative. The great Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, from whom I have learned a great deal and whom I hold in the greatest regard … How many volumes of sermons on narrative have been published? Can you think of one?

Evangelistic service has some sermons in them. That is right. They’re from early Wales days. That is correct. And there is one coming down the pike now that I know about, but apart from that, I mean, of sixty or sixty-five volumes out, I think that is about it. Says something, doesn’t it? I’m not knocking him. That is the way this culture works.

On the other hand, if you go to sub-Saharan black Africa, I can only think myself of a couple of sub-Saharan black African preachers that can handle Romans. I mean, really handle it decently, but they are great on narrative texts. You get a sub-Saharan black African, a staunch evangelical preaching Elijah, and boy will that sing. Give him Romans 8, and he’s right up the spout.

Now I’m not saying that he shouldn’t improve, nor am I saying that over on this side we shouldn’t improve. At the end of the day, the sheer diversity of the Bible is a wonderful thing. Ideally, we should learn how to handle different kinds of texts, but it does remind us that in point of fact, different cultures will respond to different genres more positively or negatively.

In cultures that have more of an oral tradition or proceed often by telling you things rather obliquely by way of stories rather than by way of direct confrontation … It’s a different sort of style. When I go to a part of the world to preach that is not something that I’m familiar with, I try to read myself into some of the literature and history of the place and reshape sermons accordingly. It’s very important to try to do that.

1. Much of the ability to understand what forms convey is picked up in a particular culture in the process of growing up.

For example, if you pick up a document and you see two words on it, “Dear Josephine,” what genre is it? It’s a letter. Well, an epistle if you like. You know why they started with their own names in those days, don’t you?

We have, “Dear Sam … Love, Charlie” at the end or whatever. You know why they started with their own names? Because so many of the longer letters in those days, of course, were on scrolls. So you start off at this end, “Dear Bob …” I don’t recognize that handwriting … [unroll scroll to end] “Love, Hannah” [reroll scroll to beginning]. It made far more sense to say, “From Hannah, To Bob.” It’s not particularly profound.

Supposing you start a document, you pick up a sheet of paper, and it says, “Once upon a time …” What do you have? You’ve got a fairy tale, don’t you? Now that’s the abomination in the New English Bible. When it starts Genesis, chapter 11, the Tower of Babel, the Hebrew was vayehi, which means, it came to pass, or something similar.

They’ve rendered it now, “Once upon a time.” Oh, what does our culture pick up? The Tower of Babel is a fairy story. That is an abominable translation. That is not what vayehi means in Hebrew anyway. But we pick up these things, don’t we, as we move along in any particular culture.

2. It does not mean, though, that we pick up everything about every literary form.

The more you know, the more you can discern in a form, so that the better reader you are and the more you know about a particular form, then the more you can see. For example, turn to Matthew 1.

Now if I were writing a popular biography today, I would not start with this list of begats. On the other hand, it doesn’t take any great imagination to see what you’ve got in the opening 16 or 17 verses is the form of a genealogy. There are whole books written on what genealogies do. Well, everybody knows what they do at one level, of course. But they do different things. They function in societies in different ways. They provide different kinds of information.

There are all kinds of books that study genealogies in different kinds of cultures. All of us can see without having any advanced literary training at all that this is a genealogy. One can see right away that it ties Jesus back through David to Abraham. One can see that in this connection the claim is being made that Jesus is the promised Messiah. That is all valuable stuff. That is all worthwhile. On the other hand, if you work away at genealogies and the way they work and the internal connections here, then you might start seeing some other things.

You’re drawn to the fact that the text itself points you to the breakdown of 14–14–14. Verse 17: “Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, fourteen from the exile to the Christ.” Then you check it all out in the Old Testament, and you discover that you got three kings dropped out in one section of it. You do, and you are one name short in the last section. You do. Does this mean that Matthew couldn’t count? No, of course not.

Partly this father-son language can leave names out in Hebrew. You can leave names out, and if it’s still in the same line, you can say father-son even though it may grandson or great-grandson, which means, therefore, that that the leaving of the names out in order to get the 14–14–14 structure is not accidental; it’s important.

Almost certainly what is going on in the 14–14–14, bar the one that is a little short for reasons I shan’t go into right at the moment, is another form of symbolism that was common enough in Jewish thought. It wasn’t done much. It was done more in apocalyptic and other genre, but it was done sometimes in genealogies.

In the ancient world they didn’t have just numbers and letters. In the Greek alphabet, the alphabet runs alpha, beta, gamma, delta, and so forth, and the numbers were on a base-10 system, and there were two older letters that were thrown in. Since it was a base-10 system, by the time you got to 10 then you go up by 10s. So … 10 … 20 … 30 … 40.

By the time you get to 100, you go up that way, and when you come to the end of the alphabet, you repeat the alphabet and put the little tag down in the bottom left hand corner. Now because it was a base-10 system, in theory you could manipulate numbers the way you do today in a base-10 system.

If you’ve never had any mathematics and don’t know what base-10 is, don’t worry about it, but because the numbers were all different, you couldn’t simply move decimal points across because the figures were all different. In other words, they didn’t have separate digits for numbers and for letters.

The advantage of this, however, is that every single name has a numerical value, so that if your name is such-and-such, spelled a certain way, then you take the value of each of the letters, add it all up, and that’s your number. So you find graffiti in the ancient world on old inscriptions, “I love her whose number is 545.”

Now that is what is going on with the 666, too. In the book of Revelation, the trouble is you can manipulate things by using just the initials or just the last name or switch to Syriac or bring it into Hebrew or transliterate into something. It’s been shown conclusively that Henry Kissinger is 666; he is the Antichrist. I bet if you give me 20 minutes I could probably prove that Hilary Clinton is 666, too. There is some ambiguity in the system, you understand.

In this framework, David, in the spelling that you find at Qumran, is 14. Ah … 14. And the genealogy moves from Abraham to David, David to the end of the exile, the end of the Davidic line actually reigning, and from the end of the Davidic line to Jesus, who was the son of David, great David’s greater son. This is a book full of symbolism about how Jesus is the promised David.

Then when you look more closely, the genealogies normally went through the male line so that when you suddenly see some women in there, you have to ask, “What on earth are they doing there?” The interesting thing is you don’t find Sarah, you don’t find Rachel, you don’t find the great matriarchs of the faith.

Who have you got? Tamar, Canaanite slut. Then you have Rahab, Canaanite harlot who was brought into the race. Then you’ve got Ruth, a noble, godly, honorable woman but a Moabitess who wasn’t supposed to be joined with the line anywhere, and her children down to the tenth generation.

Then you have “Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife …” She’s not even named. Bathsheba. She who had been Uriah’s wife. She was a Jewess. She was an adulteress, but she had been married to Uriah the Hittite, which meant that she would have been largely viewed as on that side of things as well.

What’s the point of including this particular series of women? It’s not that they’re all bad. It’s not that they’re all Canaanites. What it does show, however, is that even in the heritage of Jesus the Messiah, Canaanites are brought in, public sinners are brought in, Moabitesses who shouldn’t be in the line are brought in.

All along, God is preserving us toward the time when the gospel will be announced not to Jews only but around the world. How does the gospel end? How does Matthew end? What are the last three verses? The Great Commission. “To all nations.” You’ve got a literary inclusio.

In other words, these kinds of things, you see, are built into the text, and it’s not that you might see them right away, but as you read more about the nature of genealogies, then you read more about these kinds of things and they begin to emerge from the text, which is simply another way of saying that although most decent readers can spot at a pretty responsible level what is going on in most literary genres, that doesn’t mean that there is not a place for more close study to find out a little more closely what is going on in a lot more literary genres.

It has to be said, too, in passing, that occasionally you can get somebody who so fastens on the literary genre it sort of becomes the life work. When you find that kind of scholar, usually the focus is so narrow that what happens is they find it everywhere, and you start suffering from what the Jewish scholar Samuel Sandmel used to complain about as parallelomania.

There is a very, very important commentary in some ways by Hans Dieter Betz on Galatians, and the problem with it is it’s far less interested in listening to Paul than it is in trying to find Greco-Roman parallels to all of these passages on formal grounds. The vast majority of it, it seems to me, is virtually useless in terms of aiding us to understand Paul.

So one can become so fascinated by form that one forgets that there is content there as well and the content can break the form and that forms are fluid and forms change, but having put in all the footnotes, it is still important to say that forms do have something to say. They do bear meaning.

I want to say a bit more about a couple of forms. I started with begats. Let me turn to parables. Now there are parables, and there are parables. Let me say something about narrative parables, the parables that you get very often in the Synoptic Gospels. What do you do with these parables? How do you interpret them? Are there principles that are involved?

Well, at various times in the history of the church, there have been some very, very dogmatic principles that have been laid out. At some periods in the Christian church, they have been explained extremely allegorically; that is to say, every single little element in the narrative is taken out to have profound theological significance, and if you buy into the system, you buy into it. If you don’t, you don’t, but from a Western point of view today, it often seems extremely arbitrary.

In fact, the reformers by and large rebelled against this sort of system, Calvin in the most articulate way possible, almost by way of reaction. In the last century, there was a scholar by the name of Adolf J¸licher who argued that narrative parables have only one point. Just one. Once you’ve found that one point, all the rest of it is just filler, part of a story, but you’re not allowed to make any sort of special theological capital out of it.

But then you come to a parable like the parable of the sower, and that gets a bit difficult. Jesus gives us an interpretation. Mark 4 and Matthew 13. He tells the parable, and then he says, “The seed is the Word of God. The ground where the seed fell on hard ground and the birds of the air came and pulled it away is like people who hear the Word but before it settles in them at all, the distractions of the age, the Devil himself, comes and takes it away. It never settles into their minds, never germinates, never produces fruit.

The seed that goes on stony ground is like people who hear the Word and immediately receive it with joy. Then the seed that is sown among thorns, that is like people where they hear the Word and it grows up a little bit, but then the pressures of this world and wealth and other things sort of chokes the life out of it.

In other words, Jesus has made all sorts of connections. That causes some modern critics to say, “Well, that proves that they’re secondary because after all, parables only have one point. So if there is more than one point, that proves Jesus didn’t do it. Somebody was allegorizing. Naughty!” It’s terribly arbitrary.

The best work in this area in recent years is probably done in a book by Hans Weder in Germany. What he argues is the difference between allegorizing that’s arbitrary, where the control for what anything is pointing to comes from outside the text, and the kind of thing that Jesus is doing, is this: where you get these sorts of connections between points in the parable and the outside world, these referential points, in every case those points are tied together to the central point of the parable.

The story itself invites you to make those sorts of referential connections. It turns on it. It’s not allegorizing in some sort of arbitrary sense where you need some key from outside the text. The text itself invites you to interpret it that way. I think that’s a far more sensitive reading, don’t you? So again, you see, one can make sense of the parables without having any specialist knowledge, but then again, it helps to know a little bit more.

The Bible is clear on its main points in most of its literary genre to the average good reader, but that doesn’t mean that there is not more to learn if you probe a little more systematically. That’s the simple point I’m trying to make at this juncture. Let us take another example of a parable: Matthew, chapter 25.

Matthew 25 is part of the two-chapter Olivet Discourse, as it is sometimes called, or eschatological discourse, where Jesus begins by talking about coming at the end. Then you get a whole string of parables, all designed to show in one way or the other what it means to wait for his return in the appropriate way, until you finally come to the last one, chapter 25, verses 31–46, the parable of the sheep and the goats.

Now this one is often understood to mean today if you are gentle and forgiving and forbearing and kind to poor people, to those who are in prison and so forth, then you’re really serving Jesus, and on the last day, all kinds of people who have acted like that will … surprise, surprise … be found out to be sheep.

And those who, no matter how orthodox, no matter how right in doctrinal standards, have not acted in this way … “You haven’t done it to Jesus, and therefore you’re going to be among the goats.” Thus, it becomes a parable that serves a sort of left-wingish social agenda. Isn’t that correct? The parable is used like that all the time.

In this case, interpretation first depends a wee bit on how the parable fits in the sequence of parables and, secondly, how some of its expressions are used in Matthew, because there is a danger when something fits so conveniently into the modern grid … as if Jesus is sort of a first-century social Democrat or something … you have warning bells go off right away. It’s just too convenient by half. It’s not that the Bible doesn’t say all kinds of important things about handling the poor. Read Amos. But I am persuaded this fundamentally misunderstands this text.

Look in the first place at the flow. After you’ve got the announcement of Jesus coming and tribulation and whatever it means for the Son of Man to come, then, chapter 24, verse 32, the beginning of a whole series of parables, “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things …” Then certain things will happen. So certain things will be warnings that the end comes.

Verse 36 and following: “No one knows about that day …” Not even the Son of man. “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage … That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left.”

What’s the burden of all of that? The burden of that whole paragraph is when it happens, it’s unexpected and it’s sudden. Unexpected. Sudden. Decisive. Isn’t that the burden of all of those illustrations? Two are at the mill; it’s a hand mill, probably a mother and daughter. Stone on the bottom, stone on the top. Stick sticking out one end. The one on this side reaches it, pulls it around 180 degrees; the one on the other side grabs it, pulls it around 180 degrees. The one on the other side grabs it, pulls it around 180 degrees. One is taken in judgment and the other is not.

Or the days of Noah. The point is not that they were particularly sinful in the days of Noah, though doubtless they were, but that is not what the text says. It doesn’t say, “They were terribly naughty in those days, and we’re going to be equally sinful in these days.” What is says is, “They were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage.” They were doing normal things. And then the flood came. In other words, it’s unexpected, and it’s decisive.

Then, verses 42 and following. There you have the thief in the night sort of parable: you must be ready. The whole point there is it’s going to be an unexpected event, so you must be ready all the time. In verses 45 and following there is another parable. Part of your readiness is to treat the others of God’s servants appropriately. Don’t take long delay to be an excuse for brutality, for fleecing the sheep.

Then that one is further expanded upon in chapter 25 by the parable of the 10 virgins. Now this particular parable has another interpretative question. How do marriages work in the first century? I don’t think it’s very easy to understand the parable of the 10 virgins unless you know something about the social circumstance of marriages in the first century, because the whole account turns on how they work.

I won’t go into that right now, but the point is that in this parable, the chief thrust of the argument is the whole plot line depends on the bridegroom is delayed, and because the bridegroom is delayed, the five foolish virgins, who had not laid up enough oil to account for a delay, are left out. That is the whole plot line. Implication? Prepare for the long haul. The bridegroom may be delayed. We don’t know when he is coming, but we don’t know when he is not. So you have to prepare for the long haul.

The next one is the parable of the talents, verses 14–30. There the whole point is you are not just waiting. You’re supposed to be investing what God gives you during that time because you are his, and all you’ve got is his. So you’re not just waiting. The appropriate way to wait is to wait by investing for the Savior’s sake so that when he comes back you’ve got something to show for your wait. You haven’t just sort of sat around and waited.

Then you have the parable of the sheep and the goats. In other words, everything has been dependent upon how you wait. Do you see that? All the parables so far, different elements of waiting. So when you come to the parable of the sheep and the goats, and you’re told that the proper interpretation is simply you’re supposed to be somewhat leftish in your view of economics, well, maybe, but you’re going to have to convince me. It is out of line with the flow of the argument. Do you see?

And then you look more closely at the storyline, and you see some very interesting things. One of the interesting things you see is that both the sheep and the goats are thoroughly surprised on the last day. Have you noticed that? Verse 34: “The king says, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and …’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you …’ ” They’re surprised! They’re surprised at this outcome. “The king says, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ ”

And the same thing, then, with the goats. They will answer, verse 44, “Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty and so on …?” They are surprised. Why should they be surprised? If this is simply promising rewards to do a lot of good things, then when you get there, shouldn’t you actually say, “I expect my reward. I did a lot of good things.” Misses the point.

Look, too, very closely, at who these people are. Verse 40: “One of the least of these brothers of mine.” Verse 45: “One of the least of these.” Who are they in Matthew’s gospel? In Matthew’s gospel, that kind of expression is never used with respect to the poor generally. “One of the least of these brothers of mine” always refers to Christ’s disciples. That is what it’s referring to.

What it’s saying, in other words, is that after Matthew 10 and Matthew 24–25, which expects persecution and opposition on the church. People will be imprisoned. Some Christians will go very destitute. Read Matthew 10. Read Matthew 24–25. Who is going to look after them? Who is going to respond to the plight of Christians? Who will take the risk of confronting the authorities? Who?

Well, it’s going to be other Christians. And they’re doing it just because they’re Christians, not because they can get—they’re doing it because they’re Christians. They’re believers. They follow Jesus. On the last day, Jesus says to them, “It’s wonderful how you wiped my wounds and fed me and you visited me in prison.” “Oh, Lord, we didn’t do that. When did we ever see you there?” “And as much as you did it for one of the least of these my brothers, you did it.” That makes sense and, correspondingly, with respect to the goats.

The argument is, then, in the true church of Jesus Christ how people handle one another, help one another, touch one another, serve one another, minister to one another, especially in context of opposition, of poverty, opprobrium, imprisonment, and illness … All of these kinds of things will mark out who is a Christian and who is not. When we do it for others, we’re doing it for Christ.

Doesn’t Christ identify himself regularly with the church in this way? In other words, this is not just a Matthean theme; it becomes a biblical theology theme. When Paul is persecuting the church and he confronts the risen, glorified Christ on the Damascus road, what does Jesus say to him? “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting my church?”

No. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” “And as much as you’ve done it to the least of these my brethren, you’ve done it unto me.” That’s a biblical theology theme. Again, do not misunderstand me. There are lots of calls in Scripture about helping the poor, remembering the poor, giving to the poor, and any society that becomes cruel to the poor is under the judgment of God, but this isn’t a passage like it.

Now in this case, you see, you’re interpreting a parable partly by understanding how a parable works, but partly by putting the parable in the context of the discourse, partly by checking out how the language works in Matthew’s gospel, and partly by remembering that there are certain biblical theological themes to which this sort of things must be connected. Do you see?

So one does not interpret a genre as if it were disconnected from all other literary considerations. There is an expression in linguistics that they use in French. They say tout se tient, “everything holds together.” It’s all a package. So one does not interpret just the literary genre and then the grammar and then the words and then the context, as if they all have independent value; rather, in language, tout se tient.

You’ve got to do your analysis to find out what literary genres look like, but at the end of the day, when they come together into a passage, everything holds together. Proper interpretation will consider as many of these things as you can possibly manage as you go along. For most of us, it’s done intuitively.

For most of us who were brought up reading, reading texts, you can pick up and read a few pages and you know whether you’ve got a novel or not or a phonebook or a scientific report or a love letter or whatever. Don’t you? Although there are some remarkable exceptions that come down the wire. People mix their genres.

A friend of mine and I wrote a book called, Letters Along the Way. C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters are letters from a senior devil to a junior devil. This is more pious. This is letters from a senior saint to a junior saint. It purports to be the conversion of a young man at Princeton in his senior year in 1978. He is written to by a Christian professor of theology who was friends with his father.

His father was never a Christian, and the father has just died. Now the young man has just become a Christian. A correspondence sets up, and it is followed over 15 years. The chap goes off to Europe to study for a while and does various things. He eventually goes back to New York and into business and has trouble of various kinds and various kinds of growth.

Various books come out, and he comments upon those and things that are going on and the changing face of the church. Then he goes off to Trinity for a year, call to the ministry. (I wonder why he went to Trinity?) Then he went to Yale for a year. Then he went back to Trinity. Then he goes off to a ministry in Florida, and all this time you see their friendship is building up, relations.

The book is Letters Along the Way. The professor’s name in this is Woodson. Well, Woodbridge and Carson. It could have been Carbridge, but it was Woodson, Paul Woodson, and the young man’s name was Timothy. Paul and Timothy, you know? His last name was Journeyman. Timothy Journeyman. Letters Along the Way. The Christian way? It was loaded for bear with this kind of stuff. It’s supposed to help Christians, a sort of primer in Christian discipleship while still talking about the changing face of evangelicalism, how to make sense of culture, and so on.

I’ve had people come up to me and say, “Is Timothy Journeyman still ministering in Florida?” On the front cover in small print it says, “A Novel of the Christian Life.” I shouldn’t tell you this, but at the end, we bump Woodson off. We’ve had people write and cry and say, “I so much wanted to contact Professor Woodson, but I guess it’s too late.”

I write back and say you can write to one-half of him. The other one lives at another address. Well, genres can be deceiving. I acknowledge that. It is a specialty of the modern period that we like to mix our genres, but most mixed genres are picked up pretty quickly, I think, by most people.

3. Some forms in the Bible are obsolete.

By obsolete I don’t mean they’re useless or valueless. I mean they are not forms that we write anymore and, therefore, they are harder for us to interpret. A friend of a friend of mine was passing out English language New Testaments in modern version on a British University a few years ago, and he gave a copy to someone on the condition that he agreed to read the whole thing. A few weeks later he bumped into him and said, “Did you read that book I gave you?”

“Yeah, yeah, I did.” He had never had a Bible before.

“What did you make of it?”

“Oh, it was all right. A bit repetitious at the front end, you know. They sort of tell the same story several times, but I sure liked that science fiction at the end.”

Now what are they doing with that? They’re trying to find the literary genre to make sense of apocalyptic. Now the fact of the matter is that apocalyptic was written in both Jewish circles and Christian circles from about two centuries BC to about two centuries AD. If I were teaching an ideal course here on the book of Revelation, I would start people off by reading 500 pages of intertestamental apocalyptic, and then Revelation does not seem so strange. Either that or it all does.

The point is that there is certain standard symbolism, certain standard ways of doing things. Ideally, a book like the Apocalypse has to be read against the background of that kind of literary genre. Not only so, but John, for Christian reasons, is not so locked into the genre. He breaks the genre in some ways.

He gives it some Christian spins in a variety of ways, which I think that any first-century reader would have spotted right away. It’s a little harder for us to spot when we don’t write apocalyptic. In various periods in the history of the church, they did tutor apocalyptic. It’s really quite remarkable, but it’s not usually reprinted today because it’s such rubbish, but the fact is that they produced a lot of it at the time.

Yet the book of Revelation once it’s understood in that genre, I would want to argue is marvelously rich, chapter after chapter after chapter that extols Jesus, sorts out the doctrine of the cross, and establishes the nature of the Enemy and the opposition, looks at things from eternity’s perspective. Maybe Spring Harvest will chose the Apocalypse one year to teach. I’ll come back for that one.

So there are some forms of literature, then, that are obsolete, and they take a little more work. It has to be admitted because in that particular case, you’re dealing again with which I’ve mentioned the last two or three days: the scandal of historic particularity. God came then, not now.

If he came now, if he’d come in the person of Jesus Christ now, there would have been more blank verse in there; he’d come in English, maybe the odd limerick thrown in. Who knows? But he came then, so he came in the literary forms that were used then, and the language that was used then. That’s the entailment of a God who gracious comes in space-time history. Do you see? So it becomes part of our obligation to understand that kind of literary form.

4. Different literary forms have different ways of making their appeals and establishing their rhetorical effects.

Now again, I think we pick up on most of these by osmosis, even if we don’t analyze them exactly. We read them intuitively because we read enough literature, but you can read into them and find some particularly wonderful things.

You start discovering the structures of the Psalms, how the movement flows from structure to structure. Or in narrative, you discover that the description of something in a one-liner at the end of a paragraph or a movement of thought is tilting the interpretation a certain way. Thus for example, Jesus dismisses Judas Iscariot in John, chapter 13.

“ ‘What you are about to do, do quickly’ … and he went out. And it was night.” That’s powerful. Is that just a chronological marker? “Oh yes, it was after 6:00 p.m.” Of course not. Especially when you start to reflect that in John’s gospel, there is all of this light/darkness symbolism. Jesus comes as the light. When does Nicodemus come to Jesus? At night.

At the end of that section, chapter 3, verses 19–21, it’s picked up for you so that you understand it. Jesus says that he comes into the world, but men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. Do you see? The symbolism is right through the book so the little narrative marker, “And it was night,” becomes symbol-laden. He goes into the night, all right, and there are more kinds of night than one.

Or again in Proverbs or in certain kinds of Hebrew poetry where you’ve got crisp parallelism. You can have parallelism of different sorts. Antithetic parallelism where you have one line and then the opposite here. Or synthetic parallelism where the lines build and build and build to make a case. Sometimes just strict synthetic parallelism or the simplest form of parallelism where you make a statement and then show its spiritual significance in the next line.

For example, the NIV has “Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman who shows no discretion.” The Hebrew is even more blunt. It just says (there is no so as, also, or anything like that), “As a jewel of gold in a swine’s snout, so is a fair woman which is without discretion.” Isn’t that wonderful? The imagery is so powerful.

Now I want to argue that when you’re teaching the Word of God not only is it important to understand these things, but so much as is in you to pick up some of the emotional freight, some of the symbolism, some of the power of the particular genre of the text that you’re working on into your sermon. If can you get the flavor and the weight and the feel of that kind of text into your sermon it will enhance the impact of the text of the Word of God, whereas if you break every text into mere prose your sermons will be much drier than the text of the Bible itself, which is scarcely the idea.

So then, God in his great mercy has given us many, many, many different forms in the Bible. Most of them we pick up very quickly by osmosis. There is always more to learn. Some of the oddest ones are bound up with the fact that it’s locked into space-time history, but we can find out these things easily enough if we’re prepared to do a little work.

At the end of the day, the more we find out, the more I think we admire and adore the mind of God using human literary forms, sentences, grammar, genres, idioms, to convey eternal truth to human beings locked in space-time history and apart from this truth, sunk in sin’s dark night. Let us pray.

We confess, Lord God, that none of us knows what we ought to know. We confess, too, that by your Spirit we have a hunger to know more. We thank you for the availability of your Word in a day when millions of Christians in many parts of the world can’t read and millions more who can can’t get Bibles. We thank you for this wonderful heritage. Help us to use it wisely and well, to learn to read your Word, to read it with others, to teach others to read it that we may learn not to sin against you. In Jesus’ name, amen.



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Get a FREE eBook to strengthen your family discipleship!

The back-to-school season is stressful for moms and dads. New rhythms of school, sports, and other extracurricular activities can quickly fill up a family’s already busy calendar. Where do busy parents look for resources on discipling their family well? Aside from prioritizing church, what else can Christian parents do to instill healthy spiritual habits in their household?

Matt Chandler and Adam Griffin cover these questions and more in Family Discipleship: Leading Your Home through Time, Moments, and Milestones. And we’re excited to offer this book to you for FREE as an eBook today.

Click on the link below to get instant access to your FREE Family Discipleship eBook now!

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