Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
In a few places in the Bible, God tells various people not to return on the same path by which they arrived at their destination. For example, when God sent a prophet to warn Jeroboam about the idols he was making the people worship, the Lord told that prophet not to take the same path home. After being warned, the king asked the prophet to stay and eat, but the prophet could not. We read,
But the man of God answered the king, “Even if you were to give me half your possessions, I would not go with you, nor would I eat bread or drink water here. For I was commanded by the word of the Lord: ‘You must not eat bread or drink water or return by the way you came.’” So he took another road and did not return by the way he had come to Bethel (1 Kings 13:8-10).
I had been chewing on this for months, literally months, considering what God was trying to say. I even tried applying this principle to my own life. Let me tell you, taking a circular path everywhere is extremely inconvenient. Why would God tell this prophet to take another road home?
As I was walking to get pizza one day, the Holy Spirit finally opened up the passage through another instance: the birth of Christ. Scripture records,
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him” (Matthew 2:1-2).
We all know the story (and the song “We Three Kings”), but keep in mind that the wise men weren’t Christians (heck, Christianity didn’t even exist yet). They also weren’t Jews, but for some reason they were drawn to our Lord and Savior’s birth. As they neared the baby Jesus we read,
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed (Matthew 2:9-10)
Even though they had no idea what they were approaching, the Magi were delighted just feeling the light of Christ radiating from the star. Finally, they reached the Lord in chibi form. Again, these men were not believers in the God of Abraham; there’s no evidence to suggest that they were and considering they came from the east they were more than likely followers of Zoroastrianism (or maybe Buddhism if they were from the Far East). Yet, upon reaching the Christ-child they gave him gifts and worshiped. We can find this in Matthew 2:11,
On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.
Now after this momentous (and prophetic) moment with the young Jesus we find an odd passage, “And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route” (Matthew 2:12). What’s this all about? Why can’t these guys go back the way they came either?
Now there is a practical message we need to take from these passages. When we meet Jesus, our lives completely change. Consider the Magi, they were pagan sorcerers and while they had to return to their old cities, they would be doing so forever changed by this event. This is proved in how they responded to meeting Jesus: they worshipped. Thus they gave up their old ways in order to follow the one true God and his son (even if they didn’t completely understand it). The Lord explains to us in Ezekiel that when we come to him our lives are changed forever. God tells us,
For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into you own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws (Ezekiel 36:24-27).
I mean, consider this, after declaring Jesus as a king and their Lord, would they really be able to go back to their old ways of living? The same is true for us, when we’re saved by Jesus’ atoning death on a cross we can’t go back to our old ways. Well, that’s not entirely true, we can, but the Holy Spirit that is given to all believers will certainly start speaking up if we try. This means that in our new lives with Christ we should strive not to sin anymore. James 2:26 tells believers, “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” If a person claims to be with Christ, they sort of need to back it up as proof of their salvation. I’m not saying that faith is brought about through righteous acts, but I am saying that faith (and the Holy Spirit) should spur us on to live rightly. From the moment you become a follower of Christ, the Holy Spirit repeats over and over,
Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says (James 1:21-22).
And then as you read through the Bible the first time you hit James and say, “Holy crap, I’ve been hearing this in my head for months now and it’s been in here all along!” Both the Spirit and the Word are in agreement, when you come to Christ and accept his saving blood sacrifice, you should not double back into your old life. Actually, there’s a really cool piece of symbolism in the Old Testament that helps to illustrate this. In Ezekiel’s prophecy of the new Temple, he outlines some rules that go along with it and among them is this,
When the people of the land come before the Lord at the appointed feasts, whoever enters by the north gate to worship is to go out the south gate; and whoever enters by the south gate is to go out the north gate. No one is to return through the gate by which he entered, but each is to go out the opposite gate (Ezekiel 46:9).
So when we come before Jesus, we’re to go forward onto our new path, instead of backtracking the way we came.
Alright, now onto the other part of this command to not go back the way we came (which is what I had been trying to understand for months). Not only had the Magi’s hearts been changed by their interaction with Jesus, but so had their status with Herod. Before Christ, the wise men were friendly with Herod. Remember, before seeing Jesus they met with Herod to talk about the strange event happening in Judea. Not only that, but while they were in Jerusalem we read,
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him” (Matthew 2:7-8).
Herod spoke privately with the Magi, and he spoke as though he was their friend and on the same side as them. However, after Jesus there is no way that the wise men could have been friendly with Herod because they understood that Jesus had been crowned by God as the King of the Jews- thus in their hearts Herod had been dethroned. Think about this logically, the Magi had been basking in the light of the Lord, had worshipped and given gifts to the young Christ. Likely they were gushing about the incident the whole way back. The Holy Spirit warned them not to go back the way they came because if they had Herod would likely have killed them. King Herod was already sensitive about the situation, and if the Magi weren’t careful in how they talked about their visit with Jesus he probably would have had them quickly executed. I mean, consider how he responded when he found out they took a new road home,
When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi (Matthew 2:16).
Herod was insane. If he, in his rage and jealousy, could kill all the baby boys in a town, how much less would he have cared about killing some foreigners that switched to his infant rival’s side? This is true in our lives too; when Christ comes into our hearts our status with the devil changes. Paul reminds us in Ephesians 2:1-5,
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions- it is by grace you have been saved.
Before we were exposed to the Lord’s grace and mercy we were on Satan’s side. We liked sin and we didn’t really care about who this Jesus guy was. But now as Christians, everything has gotten flipped around. For the Word of God says, “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God” (James 4:4). Now as restored People of God, we have become enemies of the devil, much as how through their experience with baby Christ the Magi became the enemies of Herod.
Actually, while writing up the notes for this, the Holy Spirit opened up a passage in Revelation that I’d been chewing on for years as well. You see, Satan was actually behind Herod the whole time in Matthew 2 (so not only does he represent the devil, he actually was an agent thereof). John tells us,
Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads. His tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born (Revelation 12:3-4).
If you’ve ever read Revelation 12, it’s pretty wild. Anyway, aside from the symbolism I may never understand we find this dragon waiting for a woman to give birth to a child. Herod had heard the prophecies and was waiting for Jesus to be born; and as we found out from Matthew 2, his goal of this was to kill the prophesized “King of Israel” before the infant had the chance to dethrone him. Who is this dragon that is acting exactly like Herod? None other than the devil himself; we read a few verses later, “The great dragon was hurled down- that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth and his angels with him” (Revelation 12:9). So through this we can learn that the actions of Herod were not just those some crazy old king, but in fact was the devil directly trying to interfere with his coming loss of power. Revelation 12 has more though. Because we can also see in this passage how Satan feels about those who have crossed over to salvation through Jesus Christ. We read, “Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to make war against the rest of her offspring- those who obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus” (Revelation 12:17). So, just like we already discussed, when you allow Christ into your heart, you’re automatically registered as an enemy in Satan’s database.
If the Magi had went back the way they came, Herod would have been waiting for them. So too if we go back to our old ways, we’ll find that the devil is waiting to drag us down and ruin our lives (and trick us into losing some of our heavenly rewards). Therefore, radical change is needed. Granted, you might have to stay in the same city or the same job after coming to Christ (the Magi didn’t stay in Bethlehem but went back home after meeting Jesus). However, your life needs to change. Taking a new path is inconvenient and uncomfortable (as I found out from walking); but when you avoid evil, God will protect you. John explains,
When the dragon saw that he had been hurled to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. The woman was given the two wings of a great eagle, so that she might fly to the place prepared for her in the desert, where she would be taken care of for a time, times and half a time, out of the serpent’s reach. Then from his mouth the serpent spewed water like a river, to overtake the woman and sweep her away with the torrent. But the earth helped the woman by opening its mouth and swallowing the river that the dragon had spewed out of his mouth (Revelation 12:13-16).
Again, looking past the insane amount of symbolism, take note that Satan tries to hunt down the woman, but through God she was protected with awesome miracles (wings and the ground opening up). This is the same for believers today, the devil will come with his tricks, but if we trust in our Lord Jesus, he’ll deliver us from the serpent’s fangs. James explains it like this,
Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up (James 4:7-10).
Now to clarify, James isn’t saying that as a follower of the Risen Lord that you’re supposed to be sad all the time. No, what he is saying is that the things that used to bring you joy (i.e. sin) should be considered seen as something to be ashamed of in your new life; and through obedience you are guarding yourself against the devil. This is why Peter tells us to avoid Satan in our new lives in Christ. He writes,
Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings (1 Peter 5:8-9).
The devil will come with his temptations and his tribulations, but we’re called to not look back on our old lives, for the Lord has prepared something new for us as we take the new path. The Word of God says,
Forget the former things;
Do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the desert
And streams in the wasteland (Isaiah 43:18-19).
Are you ready for your new adventure in Christ? Then don’t return on your old path!
Rock on God!