Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
The early church in Rome was small, weak, and largely hidden. Followers of Christ practiced their faith in the shadows and built churches in catacombs. And yet, somehow, Christianity became the dominant religion in Europe and pantheism became largely extinct. What happened? How did the Christians come into the power? How did they capture a whole continent? While I was listening to the Bible on my way to work the Holy Spirit reminded me just how the Christians became great and powerful: they died.
That’s it. They died. They didn’t fight and they didn’t rebel (well, some probably did). Rather, the heart of the Christ movement of long ago was death- martyrdom to be specific. Even today, in some of the darkest places on earth Christians are dying for Christ- many endure torture as well. Jesus’ answer to all of this is, “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24). It is a little difficult to think about, how does ending a life spread more eternal life than if that same person just spread the gospel? But that’s the sort of backwards logic that Christianity has been growing through since the beginning. Even the ruling classes of Christ’s day were shocked to see that not only did Jesus’ death not slow down Christendom, but seemingly built it up. Acts 5:33-39 records an argument on this very topic after some Pharisees wanted to kill Peter and the apostles:
When they heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death. But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while. Then he addressed them: “Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to this men. Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”
It defies logic, the more Christ and his followers died, the stronger the movement became. Honestly, we in the western world can’t even wrap our heads around how hard life was for Christians back then. The Bible describes life in the old church like this,
Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions (Hebrews 10:32-34).
The early church stood on the faith that this world doesn’t last, and to that end they allowed themselves to endure terrible times in life; be it persecution, imprisonment, having their stuff taken away, or even being killed. And they took these things smiling and praising God. Any other person would consider that some form of mass-insanity- and yet the church continued to grow and flourish.
And that’s kind of how Christianity works. It defies logic to no end. The Bible makes many unreasonable commands, and yet when people follow them the results are just as logic-defying as the commands were. For example, God tells us to give a tenth of all we make (the tithe); and the result? Well, according to Scripture, you profit. We read,
“Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it. I will prevent pest from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not cast their fruit,” says the Lord Almighty. “Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,” says the Lord Almighty (Malachi 3:10-12).
So, by giving to God, you’ll gain. Another command that we have is that the Lord tells us to forgive and to bless those who we’d normally consider as our enemies: “But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28). This is pretty standard Christian fare, but check out what the results are according to God:
If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat;
If he is thirsty, give him water to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head,
And the Lord will reward you (Proverbs 25:21-22).
What? I would assume that by being kind to those who are mean to me, I’d only be encouraging them to continue being mean. But such is the counter-culture that is found in the Word of God. We fight not with words and fists but with love and fellowship. It’s unnatural and weird and it probably still confuses the heck out of the devil when a Christian does it.
Now, let’s be honest, chances are that you’ll probably never be martyred (and certainly I’m not encouraging that you seek out such an end to your life- that is God’s decision alone), but that doesn’t mean that you can’t carry with you the spirit of the early church; because you can! One of Jesus’ most counter-culture commands was how we are to respond when someone attacks us (verbally or physically). The command? Take it. Just take it. Don’t fight back. If someone curses you out, accept it. Jesus explains it to us this way, “If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic” (Luke 6:29). God watches his children and acts on their behalf when they’re attacked. David actually put this concept into practice when confronted with opposition to his life. History records in 2 Samuel 16:5-7,
As King David approached Bahurim, a man from the same clan as Saul’s family came out from there. His name was Shimei son of Gera, and he cursed as he came out. He pelted David and all the king’s officials with stones, though all the troops and the special guard were on David’s right and left. As he cursed, Shimei said, “Get out, get out, you man of blood, you scoundrel!”
Indeed, David had much blood on his hands, as God had called him to be a warrior. But would he add more blood on this day? Let’s find out,
Then Abishai son of Zeruiah said to the king, “Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king? Let me go over and cut off his head.”
But the king said, “What do you and I have in common, you sons of Zeruiah? If he is cursing because the Lord said to him, ‘Curse David,’ who can ask, ‘Why do you do this?’”
David then said to Abishai and all his officials, “My son, who is of my own flesh, is trying to take my life. How much more, then, this Benjamite! Leave him alone; let him curse, for the Lord has told him to. It may be that the Lord will see my distress and repay me with good for the cursing I am receiving today” (2 Samuel 16:9-12).
David knew that by enduring hardships in the present may bring him good things in the future from the Lord. Lamentations goes even further and says that going through difficulties as a believer is actually a good thing. We read,
It is good for a man to bear the yoke
While he is young.
Let him sit alone in silence,
For the Lord has laid it on him.
Let him bury his face in the dust-
There may yet be hope.
Let him offer his cheek to one who would strike him,
And let him be filled with disgrace.
For men are not cast off
By the Lord forever.
Though he brings grief, he will show compassion,
So great is his unfailing love.
For he does not willingly bring affliction
Or grief to the children of men (Lamentations 3:27-33).
Now, I’d like to restate that in no way should you go out looking for trouble or hardship- that’s masochism, not serving the Lord. However, when troubles come to you from those who don’t understand your ways or even those who do (and just don’t care) take heed and know that God is watching. He never forgets about you, and he’ll take care of you; even if it really sucks right now.
Paul used this spirit in his life. Even though he preached boldly, when attacked he took it and moved on. This can be best seen in Acts 14:19-20 when Paul gets stoned- with rocks:
Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowd over. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead. But after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city. The next day he and Barnabas left for Derbe.
Paul didn’t run away, he didn’t fight back, he just got hit by rocks, dragged out of the city, and left for dead; and then he got up and went back to work. Now, to be fair, Paul wasn’t perfect at letting this sort of stuff slide; but that’s ok, God doesn’t expect you to be. After all, such actions are against human nature. But do your best. It seems weak, but from what history tells us, the “turn the other cheek” mentality is not just a game-changer, it’s a world-changer.