Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
As you walk with the Lord you may notice two things: 1) There’s a lot of scummy people and surprisingly scummy Christians out there and 2) You’re not a very good Christian either. You know the feeling you get when you see non-believers sinning. You know the anger and hurt you feel when you see a fellow follower of Jesus behaving badly. And you know the pure frustration of never living up to your Bible’s (or even your pastor’s) standards. As I’ve been wrestling with issues of my own, the Holy Spirit showed me a passage to give me (and you) hope.
Paul and Barnabas had been successfully preaching God all around. As a little background, Barnabas and Paul were close friends; which had started after Barnabas defended the newly-converted Paul. Acts 9:26-28 records the event,
When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was really a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus. So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord.
Back when he was still Saul, Paul couldn’t get anywhere in the church because of his reputation, but Barnabas covered for him and helped Paul to become accepted by the rest of the followers of Christ. This created a very strong bond between the two. Later though, they fell into disagreement:
Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the brothers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord (Acts 15:36-40).
Paul and Barnabas couldn’t agree about what to do about Mark. Barnabas wanted to forgive him and move on but Paul didn’t. This is amusing because Paul wrote, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). Even how though, he felt justified in not wanting to include Mark, as there was a possibility that Mark would leave them again. But let’s not forget what Jesus taught; as recorded in Matthew 18:21-22,
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
And in some translations, Jesus says, “seventy times seven;” no matter how you slice it, by Jesus’ standards Paul was in the wrong in the Mark conflict. Not only that but Mark was probably Mark, as in The Gospel of Mark. Without Barnabas’ mercy, we might be missing a book of the Bible.
But the Lord blessed Paul’s ministry anyway with the coming of Timothy. History records their meeting,
He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
He came to Derbe and then to Lystra, where a disciple named Timothy lived, whose mother was a Jewess and a believer, but whose father was a Greek. The brothers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him (Acts 15:41-16:2).
Timothy ended up being a great church leader and close friend of Paul’s. There are even two books of the Bible written originally as letters to Timothy. But then Paul did something odd:
Paul wanted to take him along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. As they traveled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey (Acts 16:3-4).
Why is that passage odd? Well, it’s because of what the message and decisions that Paul and Timothy were delivering were. Check this out:
It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.
Farewell (Acts 15:28-29).
That is a passage from a letter to Gentile believers (to whom Paul was preaching) from the church; the letter came as a response to a debate about circumcision:
Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question (Acts 15:1-2).
The circumcision issue was something that Paul felt very strongly about, and even continued to write about it later in his career, he even wrote in Galatians 5:11-12,
Brothers, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!
So wait; Paul, who argued strongly that gentiles didn’t need to be circumcised- even going so far as to say that it hindered the work of the cross- and who argued against circumcision and was appointed to tell gentiles they didn’t need to be circumcised…immediately circumcised Timothy when he joined the party? Hypocrite much, Paul?
But the Lord blessed Paul’s ministry despite his shortcomings: “So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers” (Acts 16:5). Why? Well, that’s how awesome Jesus is. He understands all the issues we face and how hard it is to always do the right thing. The Bible reminds us,
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin (Hebrews 4:14-15).
And even though we are hopelessly entrenched in sin and temptation; Christ forgives us. Scripture records, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). He forgives us and he blesses us anyway. Jesus taught in Matthew 7:11, “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” Now think about that for a second, Christ straight-up calls us evil; and yet talks about the Lord supplying us. Even though we are evil, God still gives us good gifts- how amazing is that?
Paul wasn’t perfect; Abraham wasn’t perfect either; no human (aside from Jesus) has ever been perfect while in this life. Evil is ingrained in us from the fall, deeper than our DNA. Even Paul admitted that sometimes the evil within had control over his actions. He wrote,
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is the sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it (Romans 7:15-20).
But, like Paul, we should never give up. He also wrote on sin, “No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize” (1 Corinthians 9:27). And to Timothy he wrote,
Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come (1 Timothy 4:7-8).
That’s why the Bible looks at conquering sin from so many angles; because we need to keep fighting and to retain hope as we do so. Paul cheered on, “Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses” (1 Timothy 6:12). And remember, Christian, you’re not in the fight alone:
For I am the Lord, your God,
Who takes hold of your right hand
And says to you, Do not fear;
I will help you (Isaiah 41:13).