Chapter 7 - Misunderstood Texts of the Bible by Sir Robert Anderson

MISUNDERSTOOD TEXTS OF THE BIBLE
Chapter Seven

Sir Robert Anderson 

"If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead" (Philippians iii. iii).
If the commonly received exegesis of this passage be correct, we are faced by the astounding fact that the author of the Epistle to the Romans and of the fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians - the Apostle who was in a peculiar sense entrusted with the supreme revelation of grace - announced when nearing the close of his ministry that the resurrection was not, as he had been used to teach, a blessing which Divine grace assured to all believers in Christ, but a prize to be won by the sustained efforts of a life of wholly exceptional saintship.

Nor is this all. In the same Epistle he has already said, "To me to live is Christ, and to have died is gain," whereas, ex hypothesi, it now appears that his chief aim was to earn a right to the resurrection, and that death, instead of bringing gain, would have cut him off before he had reached the standard of saintship needed to secure that prize! For his words are explicit, "Not as though I had already attained."

Here was one who was not a whit behind the chiefest Apostles ; who excelled them all in labours and sufferings for his Lord, and in the visions and revelations accorded to him; whose prolonged ministry, moreover, was accredited by mighty signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God. Amid yet, being now " such an one as Paul the aged," he was in doubt whether he should have part in that resurrection which he had taught all his Corinthian converts to hope for and expect.

Such is the exposition of the Apostle's teaching in many a standard commentary. Yet the passage which is so perverted reaches its climax in the words, "Our citizenship is in heaven, from whence we are looking for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall fashion anew the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of His glory.

"Our citizenship is in heaven." Here is the clew to the teaching of the whole passage. The truth to which his words refer is more clearly stated in Ephesians ii. 6, "God has quickened us together with Christ, and raised us up with Him, and made us sit with Him in the heavenly places in Christ." More clearly still is it given in Colossians iii. 1 - 3, "If then ye were raised together with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated on the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things that are above, not on the things on the earth. For ye died, and your life is hid with Christ in God."

Ephesians and Colossians, be it remembered, were written at the same period of his ministry as Philippians ; and in the light of these Scriptures we can read this chapter aright. To win Christ (v. 8), or to apprehend, or lay hold of, that for which he had been laid hold of, or apprehended (v. 12) - or in other words, to realise practically in his life on earth what was true of him doctrinally as to his standing before God in heaven - this is what he was reaching toward, and what he says he had not already attained.

The high calling of verse 14 is interpreted by some to mean Christ's calling up His own to meet Him in the air (a blessing assured to all "who are alive and remain unto the Coming of the Lord"), but this is not in keeping with the plain words: God's high calling in Christ Jesus, ie. what God has called us (made us) to be in Christ. If the passage refers to the literal resurrection, then the words, "not as though I had already attained,'' must mean that, while here on earth and before the Lord's Coming, the Apostle hoped either to undergo the change of verse 21, or else to win some sort of saintship diploma, or certificate, to ensure his being raised at the Coming. These alternatives are inexorable and they only need to be stated to ensure their rejection.

One word more. If the Apostle Paul, after such a life of saintship and service, was in doubt as to his part in the resurrection, no one of us, unless indeed he be the proudest of Pharisees or the blindest of fools, will dream of attaining it.

"Them which sleep in Jesus will God bring with Him" (Thessalonians iv. 14)
The passage from which these words are quoted is a "misunderstood text", partly on account of inaccurate translation, and partly because it is read on the text-card system. "Sleeping in Jesus" a phrase which, though enshrined in religious thought, is not warranted by Scripture. The primary meaning of the verb koimaô is not to sleep. but to cause to sleep "or to put to sleep" (Grimm's Lexicon). And that this is its meaning here is indicated by the fact that it is followed by dia. For no one with an elementary knowledge of Greek will need the RV. marginal note to tell him that dia means "through" or "by." There is no ambiguity in the Apostle's words. And when read in the light of the Epistle as a whole, and of the narrative of the Book of Acts, their significance is clear. The "dead in Christ" of verse 16 is a general term which includes all departed saints. But; verse 14 refer's to "the sleeping ones" of verse 13 - for such is the literal rendering of ton koimômenôn - certain definitely known individuals whose death the Thessalonian saints were mourning. The duration of the Apostle's visit to Thessalonica is not recorded. His Synagogue nuinistry lasted only three weeks (Acts xvii. 2) but his stay must have been much more prolonged. For such "a great multitude" of Greeks believed (v. 4) that the Church was essentially Gentile (1 Thessalonians I. 9). Moreover, their faith and their testimony were already spoken of far and wide (v. 8). lt. was evidently the success of the Apostle's mission after he had turned his back on the Synagogue. which excited the jealousy of the Jews, and led to the riot which compelled him to find safety in flight. After a very brief ministry in Berea, he passed on to Athens. While there, such grave tidings reached him from Thessalonica that he sent Timothy back, and it was the report which Timothy brought, when he rejoined the Apostle at Corinth, that supplied the groundwork of I Thessalonians.

The Epistle discloses the cause of the trouble. Certain of their leaders had been martyred (ch. ii. 14 -16). " Leaders," I say, because in every persecution the leaders are the first to fall. But had they not been taught that he under whose banner they enlisted was the Lord of Glory, who had all power in heaven and on earth? Were they to conclude then that this teaching was untrue ? Or was it that their martyrs had been cut off because of Divine displeasure, thus causing them to mourn their death "even as others who have no hope"?

We fail to appreciate the fears and difficulties of the Gentile converts of early days. The faith of the spiritual Christian who has the Bible in his hands, and to whom the story of the Church's sufferings is an open page, may pierce the darkest clouds; but these Thessalonians had no such glorious records of a faith-tried past; and it is doubtful to what extent they had access even to the Hebrew Scriptures. And in this connection the fact is noteworthy that it is not to the Scriptures the Apostle appeals, but to public facts respecting Jewish hate and resulting martyrdoms (ch. ii. 14 - 16).

But the Epistle was more than a word of exhortation and comfort from their spiritual father ; it conveyed a special message from the Lord Himself. For such is the force of the words, "This we are saying unto you in the word of the Lord" (ch. iv. 15). "I tell you this as a message straight from the Lord" is the gloss given in Bishop Ellicott's N.T. Commentary.

And this explains the mode in which Christ is named in the fourteenth verse. For had the Apostle been speaking as from himself he would, according to his invariable practice, have called Him the Lord, as he does five times in this very passage. The trouble in the Thessalonian Church was that their loved ones had been put to death on account of their testimony for Christ. Was He not then responsible for their death? The Lord, as it were, accepts the charge. He it was who had put them to sleep; and in exquisite grace He tells them so in the name of His humiliation - the name in which He Himself had been put to death. And as surely as He died and rose again, so surely would they whom they were mourning rise again. And they would be at no disadvantage. The living would have no precedence; for the mourners and the mourned would be caught up together in the clouds to meet the Lord. This was the first message the Lord vouchsafed to saints on earth after His ascension. Revelation xxii. 16 records the latest. And in both He speaks in the name of His humiliation.

These notes are exegetical ; but on this subject there are certain considerations that cannot be denied expression. First, the correctness and simplicity of the language of Holy Scripture about death. The Christian dies in the Lord (Revelation xiv. 13); or, by an exquisite euphemism, he falls asleep in Christ (1 Corinthians xv. 18). Why then should we resort to the non-Scriptural phrases now so popular with Christians ? Secondly, the misreading of the Lord's words in our present verse has robbed us of the truth that if Christians lose their lives for His sake, He claims that it is He Himself who "puts them to sleep." And thirdly, the definiteness with which the early saints were taught to regard His Coming as a present hope. Surely, therefore, the question whether His Coming is to be "premillennial " should be placed in the same category as whether He was born of a virgin, and whether His death was "for our sins, according to the Scriptures."

"We beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and our gathering together unto Him, that ye be not soon shaken in mind, . . . as that the day of Christ is at hand " (2 Thessalonians ii. I, 2).
The error which this Epistle was written to refute is embodied in the beliefs of Christendom. It is the error of supposing that the Lord Jesus will never again come from heaven until after "the great tribulation" of Messianic prophecy. It is a view held very firmly even by many spiritual Christians, and held with all the bitterness of controversy by not a few. The question arises, how such an error could have taken hold of the Thessalonians, seeing that they had the Apostle's First Epistle in their hands. The answer is that it was not in their hands. Some trusted individuals doubtless had it in safe keeping. But their prominent leaders had been martyred in the persecution then raging, and the mass of the converts must have been dependent on what they remembered of it from hearing it read " in church." It is highly doubtful, moreover, whether in a time of such fierce persecution they could assemble on the Lord's Day. The probability is that at such a time they could only meet furtively, and in small and scattered groups (see note on 1 Thessalonians iv. 14).

Moreover, if the generally-accepted explanation of 2 Thessalonians ii. 2 and iii. 17 be correct, they had received a forged letter, purporting to come from the Apostle, which seemed to modify or cance his previous teaching. Nowadays the error is defended by a misreading of Matthew xxiv; but it is improbable that the Thessalonians had any written records of the Lord's personal teaching. That teaching, however, referred definitely to Hebrew prophecy about " the great tribulation"; and the Hebrew converts among them would have had knowledge of such Scriptures as Malachi iv. 5, Isaiah xiii., and Joel ii. ; for the reading of a lesson from the Prophets was a part of the Sabbath service of the Synagogue. We can understand then how easily they could have glided into the error of supposing that the persecution then raging was the "tribulation" of prophecy. And this would lead to the further error about 'the day of the Lord' - for this, and not the "day of Christ" is the approved reading of the text.

This Second Epistle then was written to correct these errors, and to calm the fears to which they gave rise, And the Apostles appeal is based on the great truth which his First Epistle had impressed upon them, namely. "the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, and our gathering together unto Him.'' The day of the Lord was neither present (RV.) nor at hand (A.V). For, as He had told them while yet with them, that day would not come till after the apostasy. and the revelation of the Man of Sin.

The Apostle's words. "I beseech you on behalf of the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ" (R.V. margin), show clearly that the error against which he was warning them was destructive of the truth he had taught them. They could not live looking for that blessed hope (Titus ii. 13) if they were living in expectations of the awful times of the tribulation and "the day of the Lord," For these lines of truth are wholly separate. The one is the line of Messianic prophecy, leading up to the coming of Christ as Son of Man in a future age, for the deliverance of His earthly people and the establishment of His earthly kingdom. The other is not within the range of Messianic prophecy at all, but points to the fulfillment of the heavenly hope of His heavenly people of this Christian dispensation. It is not strange,moreover, that in those early days when the Christians had no Testaments or Bibles in their homes to refer to, the very peculiar circumstances of the Thessalonian converts should have led them to fall into error on the subject. But strange it is, surely, and as sad as it is strange, that, in the full light of the Christian revelation, an error should prevail, which ignores or denies such an important and distinctive truth of that revelation. But, alas "the churches have forgotten the hope of the Church."

"Let these also first be proved ; then let them serve as deacons, if they be blameless" (1 Timothy iii, 10, R.V.)
In his commentary on 1 Timothy iii., Dean Alford says tersely that "the episkopoi of the New Testament have officially nothing in common with our bishops." And he might have said also that, when the New Testament was written, the Greek language had no special word to correspond with our "deacon." For diakonos is a generic word for servant. It was used both of household servants and of ministers of the gospel; and the Apostle Paul applied it to himself, and even to Christ.

Our text, therefore, is misunderstood only because it is mistranslated. The noun is diakonos and the verb is diakoneô. In another connection, therefore, it would be rendered, "Let the servants be proved and if found blameless let them serve" here, of course, it should read, " Let the ministers be proved. and if found blameless let them minister.'' Some men were apostolically appointed to "the office of a bishop"; but ministers were, like the Apostles themselves, the gift of Christ, and they are included in that category in Ephesians iv. 7 - 11. It is noteworthy that in that passage, seeing that it deals with the vital unity of the Body of Christ, no mention is made of "governments" for rule has to do with the visible Church on earth, to which 1 Corinthians xii. 28 refers. No less noteworthy is it that, though Teacher's are specified for both, for their ministry obviously has reference to both, Evangelists have no place in 1 Corinthians xii.. for the sphere of their ministry is not the Church, but the world.

Philippians I. 1, which is the only other passage where the word "deacon" occurs in our English versions, ought of course to read "bishops and ministers." Although etymologically and in their origin "minister'' and "deacon" are synonymous, the word "deacon" has acquired such a definitely distinctive meaning that its retention by the Revisers is a flagrant violation of their avowed principles, due, no doubt, to their reluctance to discredit the figment that the diakonos was a subordinate office-bearer in the Church. Such an error is sufficiently refuted by the fact, already noticed, that the Apostle Paul uses the word of himself seven times; and in Romans xv, 5 he applies it to the Lord Jesus Christ.

It is noteworthy that in Scripture the word is not used of Stephen and his fellows, whose appointment "to serve tables" is recorded in Acts vi. It is also noteworthy that, as Dr. Hatch has indicated in his great work, The Organisation of the Early Christian Churches, the duties thus assigned to them devolved upon the bishops when the Church was fully organised.

"Who gave Himself for us, that He might ... purify unto Himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works" (Titus 2:14)
"A peculiar people." The popular reading of this phrase not only misses important truth, but. it has a sinister influence upon many a Christian life. The word periousios occurs nowhere else in the New Testament ; but it is taken from the Greek version of Exodus xix. 5 "All the earth is Mine, but ye shall be to Me a peculiar people above all nations." And our English word admirably expresses the sense of the original. For, as the Dictionary tells us, "peculiar is from the Roman peculium, which was a thing emphatically and distinctively one's own, and hence was dear."

To be "a peculiar people," then, is not to be a people with uncouth or eccentric manners and ways. It is to be emphatically and distinctively God's own people in a wholly special sense, and therefore to be very specially dear to Him.

"According to His mercy He saved us, by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost" (Titus 3 5).
The usual exposition of this verse exemplifies the practice of putting theological labels upon New Testament words, and then reading the passage as thus perverted. Each of the prominent words here used occurs but once ago in in the New Testament renewing," in Romans xii. 2 ; " regeneration," in Matthew xix. 28 ; and " washing," in Ephesians v. 26.

The word rendered " washing " is loutron, not a verb, but a noun. It is, strictly speaking, not the washing, but the vessel which contains the water. Certain expositions, of course, wish to read it " font or " layer " ; but this is a false exegesis. The New Testament is written in the language of the Greek Version of the Old and we turn to that authority to settle for us the meaning of any doubtful term. And for this purpose the Apocryphal books are sometimes as useful as the sacred Scriptures. Now, loutron us not the rendering for "laver" in the Greek Version, The LXX use it twice; namely, in Canticles iv. 2 (where it is the washing-place for sheep) ; and in Ecciesiasticus xxxiv. 25, where the Son of Sirach writes, " He that washes himself after the touching of a dead body, if he touch it again, what avails his loutron" ?

This last passage is of the very highest importance here, for it gives us the clew we are in search of. The reference is to one of the principal ordinances of the Mosaic ritual - a type, moreover, which fills a large place in New Testament doctrine, and very specially in Hebrews; namely, the great sin-offering as connected with the water of purifications (Numbers xix.).

The absence of both preposition and article before "renewing " requires that the words should be construed together - " the loutron of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit." The reference here is not to a mystical doctrine adopted in after-times by the Church in its decadence, but to one of the greatest of the types of the Divinely ordered Hebrew religion. The great sin-offering of Numbers xix. was burned outside the camp, and water which had flowed over the ashes had cleansing efficacy.
But does Scripture connect that type with the Spirit's work ? First, let us note that in Matthew xix. 28 - the only other passage where the word "regeneration" is used - it refers to the fulfilment of the kingdom blessings to Israel, the epoch described in Acts iii. 21 as "the times of the restoration of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets." With this clew to guide us, we turn to one of the most definite of these prophecies, Ezekiel xxxvi. and xxxvii. We there read, "I will take you from among the heathen, and gather you out of all countries, and will bring you into your own land . Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you. . . . A new heart also will I give you. And I will put My Spirit within you." Then follows the vision of the valley full of dry bones. The prophet is commanded to say, "Thus saith the Lord God, "Come from the four winds. 0 Breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live." And once again the words are repeated, " I will put My Spirit in you, and ye shall live."

Here, then, is the most characteristic of all the prophecies of that great revival which the Lord described as "the regeneration" - a prophecy to which the Jew clung with special earnestness. And it was the great truth of this prophecy - salvation through the sin-offering in the power of the Divine Spirit - that the Lord enforced in His words to Nicodemus.

"For every high priest taken from among men is ordained or men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins " (Hebrews v. 2).
A sufficient reason for including this verse in a list of "misunderstood texts" is supplied by the fact that the Revisers' " correction" of our A.V. attributes to the Apostle two statements which are directly opposed to the teaching of the Epistle. Here is their reading of it "For every high priest, being taken from among men, is appointed for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins." But chapter iv. 14 states emphatically that our " great High Priest is not " taken from among men," but that He is the Son of God. And in the sequel we are told no less emphatically that it was not until after His ascension that He was "called of God a High Priest." The word here rendered "called" occurs nowhere else in Scripture. It signifies that God then "proclaimed and constituted" Him High Priest (Bloomfield).

But our present verse declares that, in contrast with the priesthood of Christ, "every high priest taken from among men is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins." " An antithesis to Christ, for the Apostle is here speaking of the Levitical priesthood" (Bengel). "The high priest is here described as selected from among men, involving a tacit comparison with the Divine High Priest" (Bloomfield). And the Lord is a priest after the order of Melchisedec, a priesthood that has nothing to do with offering gifts and sacrifices for sins. The English phrase, indeed, would seem to permit of a distinction between His offering gifts and His offering sacrifices for sins. But the Greek will not permit of this (Alford). The fact that our High Priest is the Son of God might seem to separate Him from frail and erring mortals such as we are. But mark the words of the passage. In the Epistles of the New Testament the Holy Spirit never speaks of the Lord Jesus Christ by His human name - the name of His humiliation - save with some special significance. And so here it is "Jesus, the Son of God." It is because He is the Son of God that His priesthood avails us, but it is our joy to remember that He is the "Jesus" of the humiliation, who can be "touched with the feeling of our infirmities, for He was in all points tried as we are."