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Bible Understanding

How is your bible understanding? I don't mean just knowing facts about the Bible or memorizing verses or trivia. Do you understand the big principles, the overall picture and the important themes? Many people focus on Biblical contradictions and when they do this they are not trying to understand the Bible. Usually, they are approaching it from the other direction and attempting to disprove or discredit scripture. For correct Bible understanding, we need to approach it with the right attitude and to allow the Bible to interpret itself rather than imposing our own understanding. The Bible does often define its own terms either through usage or by directly saying, basically, "this is that." Properly resolving what seem to be contradictions will help greatly in understanding the Bible and giving confidence in its messages. This chapter will help you do that.
This is chapter 4 of the book Light on the Dark Side of God. If you have not read chapter 3, you might want to do that first to see what the Bible says about Jesus in the Grave"

Chapter 4

How the Bible Explains Itself

"For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little" (Isaiah 28:10)

Imagine, if you will, that you live in a land where the word "tooth" means "tree stump." If you journey to my world and attempt to get your tree stump uprooted, you might get some interesting looks when you ask, "May I use your tractor to uproot my tooth?" How much progress would you make with this project until you learn how to speak in the local tongue? Likewise, our difficulty in seeing the Bible picture of God is a language problem - a problem easily cleared up when some careful comparisons are made within Scripture.

In order to lay a foundation for discussing specific incidents of God's vengeance we must first look at some idiosyncrasies of Scripture which reveal how God expresses Himself. In so doing we shall delve into some related themes. These are not digressions. All the issues of redemption intersect in the character of God; therefore, touching on these related themes, besides showing some peculiarities of Scripture, will also help unravel the mystery of God's role in the destructive acts described in Scripture.

Paradoxical Principles
First, it is often necessary to think in opposites to understand many truths of the kingdom of God. No one will ever know God, as He desires to be known, until we begin to think and live by God's paradoxical principles. Of the numerous examples in Scripture, we shall examine only a few.

  1. He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life" (John 12:25).
  2. "To everyone who has will be given, and from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him (Luke 19:26).
  3. God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are (1 Corinthians 1:27, 28).
  4. Through death He . . . destroy[ed] . . . the devil (Hebrews 2:14).

The abundance of these apparent paradoxes in Scripture says something about God's mind vital to the present topic. "My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways, says the Lord" (Isaiah 55:8,9). Public opinion rarely reflects the mind of God. Therefore, we should not be surprised to discover we have misunderstood in the arena of God's "vengeance" as in so many others.

Be careful here; this perspective could be carried to excess. Accept only what the Bible clearly supports. The point is we should not be shocked to find heavenly truth in reverse of popular ideas.

In view of "divine retribution" as Christ's life expressed it, we might well ask whether there is more to understand on this point as well. Does truth on this topic lie somewhere opposite the place we always thought?

Perhaps. Other Biblical idiosyncrasies bear upon this topic and demand notice.

Biblical Contradictions
A fact upon which skeptics lean heavily and which Christians cannot deny is that the Bible often seems like an encyclopedia of contradictions. Failure to harmonize these problems has fragmented Christendom, in itself testifying against us to the secular mind. At its worst these apparent contradictions have led to actual persecution through economic sanctions and even death laws, as one side gains political clout and uses it to promote religious ideology. In laying a foundation for discussing specific incidents of God's vengeance, we must deal with these apparent Biblical contradictions, since they address the primary issue.

Let us take as our first example a prominent argument in Christendom, the issue of how law (works/obedience) and grace (faith) apply to our salvation. Some groups say we are saved by grace through faith, basing their belief on such texts as:

  1. By grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast (Ephesians 2:8,9)
  2. A man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified (Galatians 2:16).

Although Scripturally there can be no doubt God grants salvation as a free gift not contingent upon good deeds, the incomplete understanding of this truth has produced problems. It has fostered antinomianism, the idea that salvation hinges only upon accepting and professing Christ, and lifestyle (works) don't matter. Despite its apparently Scriptural basis, it doesn't take much imagination to see some problems with this view from a practical standpoint. Principally, it opens the door to spiritual anarchy and blurs the distinction between right and wrong, making them dependent upon individual interpretation.

On the other side of the picture we have this:

  1. And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and the books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books. The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works (Revelation 20:12, 13).
  2. Faith without works is dead. . . . A man is justified by works, and not by faith only (James 2:20, 24).

No one can say that the Bible does not stress works. The voice of God cries out in the Old Testament and New, admonishing His people to good works. And the works enjoined in Scripture require more than just being nice. They demand living against human nature, higher and better than humanly possible, as high in fact as the kingdom of God is higher than the kingdoms of this world. They demand a change of mind, a change of values, priorities, interests, a very dying to this world. In short, the works enjoined in Scripture cannot be done by humans. And there's the rub.

So here we have a classic Scriptural contradiction. And how do Christians deal with it and with other similar cases? Do they study through in the spirit of sincere inquiry and harmonize these issues? Usually, no. Rather, these apparent problems become the basis for argument, alienation and division within Christendom.

None of this need happen, if Christians determined to harmonize these apparent contradictions through earnest Bible study, allowing Scripture to be its own interpreter, until a clear picture emerges of the truth of the matter. What a blessed day it would be in Christendom, if we could meet together as brothers and sisters in the Lord and tackle these difficult topics in just that way!

Juxtaposing ideas sometimes helps to clarify; therefore, at this point we shall introduce a format that will become familiar as we move along.

How does God save humans?
One Perspective
Another Perspective
By grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast (Eph. 2:8, 9). Faith without works is dead. . . . A man is justified by works and not by faith alone (James 2:20, 24).

Each reference represents an abundant body of Scripture saying the same thing. In this case we are fortunate in having a third set of references that harmonize this apparent contradiction:

How does God save humans?
One Perspective
Another Perspective
By grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast (Eph. 2:8, 9). Faith without works is dead. . . . A man is justified by works and not by faith alone (James 2:20, 24).
For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision [works] availeth anything, nor uncircumcision [faith]; but faith which worketh by love (Galatians 5:6, KJV).  

Galatians 5:6 defines saving faith as a faith which "works" through a special kind of other-centered love called agape. Therefore, the works which humans cannot generate, in and of themselves, flow out of the life powered by genuine faith. When heaven looks at a life and sees the "beauty of holiness" expressed in reverence for God, sensitivity to others' needs and feelings, and the ability to rise above the harmful instincts of our human nature, they know Someone else lives there besides the human and His are the works they see. Paul in Galatians 2:16, KJV, calls this "the faith of Jesus Christ," or we might say, Jesus living out His life in the believer. This faith works, and the faith that works is the faith that saves.

The writings of Paul the apostle are sometimes heard to understand principally because we have not understood this dynamic, which forms the very core of his message.

How does God save? He saves humans in faith oneness with Himself; the works merely show that the union exists. When God sees more evidence of His Spirit than of us, walking in our shoes, He credits us with the history of our Companion, as He laid our history upon Him on Calvary so long ago. More than that, He changes our mind about everything the world and our own sinful nature have taught us and enables us to live the heavenly way, thus fitting us for eternal life in His kingdom.

The Atonement
This model is God's ideal for us; He calls it the Atonement, or At-one-ment, the bringing of humans back into oneness with Himself. Toward this end He constantly draws us and seeks to educate our minds. Although He has experienced mixed success through the centuries, He has never been without those who lived in Him, and prophecy is clear that before His return He will have a people who understand and live in this, His ideal will.

The Role of Law
But how do we know if we are living in Him or in a fantasy world? That's where God's law comes in. Scripture makes clear that works, obedience, law-keeping play a role in the gospel (See, for example, Revelation 14, especially verses 6 and 12, which places the law and the gospel together in an end-time setting.)

A kingdom, by definition, requires a foundational body of law to provide security to its citizens and to facilitate their interactions. God's kingdom is no exception. Whereas the Bible came principally from the hand of prophets, the simple and concise law governing His kingdom was too important to give to the world through human hands. With His own finger God carved its principles upon tables of stone, signifying their eternal permanence. It is true, God's presence in the human brings righteousness, but it is also true that while living in Him and still possessing free will, humans need a sin detector or standard of behavior to govern their decision making and to gauge whether they are living His way; that is, whether they are true fruit bearing branches of the living vine (John 15:1-8) or mere pretenders. And God graciously gave the world that standard in the ten commandments.

Recently some in the Congress of the United States endorsed their importance by trying to have the ten commandments hung in school rooms across the country. A controversial endeavor, yes, and particularly puzzling when so many professed Christians insist that the ten commandments were somehow cancelled, nailed to the cross, along with the ceremonial law of symbols and sacrifices. How are we to understand this theological schizophrenia?

Indeed, some Christians take the position that, because righteous works have no saving merit (which they do not), they have no use at all, and that the more contempt they place upon the law of God, the more commendable they are in His sight. It's hard to take that position seriously. In our world awash in sin and depravity can we afford to jettison God's law as a standard of responsible behavior?

These very Christians are often the first to appeal to the law-enforcement arm of civil governments to shore up the damage done by clergy, gravely derelict in their duty, who search Scripture with a microscope, as many have done, for missiles to hurl against the ten commandments, instead of thundering their eternal permanence from every pulpit in the land. What a confusing state of things! If a possibility existed that God's law could be set aside, would heaven not have seized upon it the moment sin entered, rather than surrendering its mighty Commander to die to atone for its transgression?

The ten commandments are actually a description of God's character (Compare Jeremiah 23:6 and 33:16 with Psalm 119:172 and Isaiah 51:7), and their purpose is to show us our need for Christ (Galatians 3:24), who shares with us His own righteousness. God is the origin and source of those ten principles. Thus, the ten commandments inform us, but the living Lord Our Righteousness enables us. He is the living law. If we would walk with Him, we must agree to let Him change us into His own likeness of character, in order to blend our characters into His own. When we walk in fellowship with Him, His ways, as set out in that holy law, seem beautiful and desirable. It takes converted eyes to see this; therefore, our attitude toward His ten commandments reveals whether or not we have been "born again" (John 3:3). It can be seen, then, that obedience to those ten principles is, ultimately, about protecting our relationship with God, not so much about being saved. As day by day we abide in Him, "being saved" takes care of itself.

Sabbath observance, at the very heart of God's law, symbolizes the reality of this experience in our lives (Exodus 31:12, 13; Ezekiel 20:12, 20). It means "rest" from leaning on our own works of righteousness. It is the ultimate symbol of re-creation, rest in the Lord and living by faith.

Biblical Contradictions
Some may wonder what all this has to do with how God punishes the wicked, so slowly do we comprehend the interrelationship of truth. A little reflection will show that if God saves humans through reunion with Himself, authenticated by obedience to His commandments, then punishment or eternal loss is the consequence of failure to enter into reunion. To avoid the punishment, we need to understand and experience the alternative.

Further, we have seen what to do with Biblical contradictions. If we stack all the texts supporting Proposition A over here, and all the texts supporting Proposition B over there, the idea is not to take our pick and ignore the rest, as we are wont to do. Rather, knowing God does not contradict Himself, we continue studying until we resolve the issue into a unity of truth, until we see the full picture all the texts convey. In seeking to know the mind of God, until we have logically and Scripturally resolved evidence in contrast with our personal view, we cannot be sure we have arrived at truth, on which the weight of public opinion has no bearing whatsoever. What must God think of our failure to follow this simple plan?

Following are just a few of the perplexing apparent contradictions, which have puzzled students of Scripture for years. Studying them provides insight into the way God sometimes expresses Himself and reveals a principle we may use in understanding God's alleged dark side.

Who sends a lying spirit?
One Perspective
Another Perspective
The Lord said, "Who will persuade Ahab to go up that he may fall at Ramoth Gilead?" . . .A spirit came forward and stood before the Lord and said . . . "I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all the prophets" (1 Kings 22:20, 22). It is impossible for God to lie . . . God . . . cannot lie (Hebrews 6:18; Titus 1:2).

We have no Scriptural clarification on this point. Next question:

Who led David to number Israel?
One Perspective
Another Perspective
The anger of the Lord was aroused against Israel and He moved David . . . to . . . number Israel and Judah (2 Sam. 24:2). Now Satan stood up against Israel and moved David to number Israel (1 Chron. 21:1)

Again, we have no clarifying comment. We only know from Scripture that God punished David for this action (1 Chronicles 21:14), strongly suggesting that, as humans would express it, He had nothing to do with David's decision to initiate a census in Israel. But if God did not move David to "number Israel," why does He say He did?

Who killed Saul?
One Perspective
Another Perspective
So Saul died for his unfaithfulness which he had committed against the Lord, because he did not keep the word of the Lord, and also because he consulted a medium for guidance, but he did not inquire of the Lord; therefore, He [God] killed him, and turned the kingdom over to David, the son of Jesse (1 Chron. 10:13, 14). Saul said to his armorbearer, "Draw your sword, and thrust me through with it" . . . But his armorbearer would not. . . . Therefore, Saul took a sword and fell on it. . . . So Saul . . . died (1 Chron. 10:4, 6).
Who hardened Pharoah's heart?
One Perspective
Another Perspective
And the Lord said to Moses, "When you go back to Egypt, see that you do all those wonders before Pharoah which I have put in your hand. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go" (Exodus 4:21). But when Pharoah saw that there was relief, he hardened his heart and did not heed them, as the Lord had said . . . But Pharoah hardened his heart at this time also; neither would he let the people go (Exodus 8:14, 32).
Is God furious?
One Perspective
Another Perspective
I am full of the fury of the Lord (Jeremiah 6:11). Fury is not in Me [says the Lord] (Isaiah 27:4).

Here God seems to take responsibility for things he did not actually do. Why? We have no clarifying Biblical comment.

No specific "counterpoint" statements exist for these nonetheless puzzling declarations:

  1. But the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord troubled him (1 Samuel 16:14, KJV; emphasis supplied).
  2. God will send them [the wicked] strong delusion (2 Thessalonians 2:11).
  3. I the Lord have [margin: 'misled'] that prophet (Ezekiel 14:9).
  4. I [God] create calamity (Isaiah 45:7).

While most of these statements express the problem, a few hint of a solution:

Who killed the firstborn of Egypt?
One Perspective
Another Perspective
God speaking: "For I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night and will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the Lord" (Exodus 12:12). For the Lord will pass through to strike the Egyptians: and when He sees the blood on the doorposts, the Lord will pass over the door and not allow the destroyer to come into your houses to strike you (Exodus 12:23; emphasis supplied).
What was the Father's role in the death of Jesus?
One Perspective
Another Perspective
I [God] will strike the Shepherd. . . . We esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God (Mark 114:27; Isaiah 53:4). My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me? (Mark 15:34).

We have already noted that God did not execute Christ, but we still have that perplexing language stating He did. What can it mean? We shall now put these last two pairs on "hold" until the next chapter, since we must cover more background in order to better assess their bearing on the issue. However, let me at this point suggest a simple governing principle by which we may understand such statements. As we proceed, we shall test its validity:

Principle: God sees and describes Himself as doing what He does not prevent.

Since God could have prevented these incidents but chose not to do so, He depicts Himself as the actual instrument or performing agent. Note how often He describes them as His own doing in vivid, convincing terms. Yet we are justified, if they do not make sense in terms of the total picture or in terms of God's character as Christ expressed it, to wonder if He simply could have but didn't prevent it.

Why would God choose to so express Himself? His reason is not unknown in the human realm.

The Blame-taker vs. the Accuser
Some time back I worked in an office for a usually very fair-minded man. But one day he got the idea I had not forwarded an important report on its due date. I had no recollection of anyone telling me to send that report out; however, I quickly prepared it for forwarding and wrote a cover memorandum taking full responsibility for its tardiness. When I showed it to the boss for his approval, he trashed it. "In this office we don't get into blame placing," he said. "As director and manager of this office, I am responsible for all the work that's done here." And he quickly re-wrote the memo.

The story has a happy ending. In a matter of minutes he realized he had looked at the wrong report, which was not supposed to go anywhere, and he graciously apologized to me.

But even as it happened I saw something of God's mind when the boss took the blame. Maturity understands the importance of assuming responsibility, while immaturity blames everything and everyone in sight. Thus our supremely mature God makes Himself ultimately responsible for the results of granting His intelligent creatures free will, even to the extent of assuming blame for the numerous episodes of destruction attributed to Him in Scripture.

Our heavenly Father assures us He is in charge of His universe. As Creator of heavens and earth and Sustainer of life in the universe, He will never give Satan equal billing with Himself-will never point a finger and say, "He did it!" Since God could have prevented an incident but, out of respect for His creatures' free will, chose not to do so, He sees and describes Himself as doing it.

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The Greek has multiple words for forgiveness? God forgives (charizomai) whether we ask or not. Receiving forgiveness (apheimi) is by our choice.
God always forgives!


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