Chapter 6 - Misunderstood Texts of the Bible by Sir Robert Anderson

Chapter Six

Sir Robert Anderson 

"The letter killeth" (2 Corinthians iii, 6).
This text is freely used to discredit Scripture. Here is the verse in extenso: "Who (God) also hath made us able ministers of the New Testament ; not of the letter, but of the spirit; for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life." And the commonly received exegesis of this is that the Apostle was made a minister, not of the letter (ie. the words), but of the spirit, of the gospel: for the letter of the gospel kills. Many a page might he filled with extracts fioni the Apostle's own writings to prove the utter falseness of this. But the following utterance from the lips of our Lord himself may suffice: "The words that I speak unto you are spirit and are life" (John vi. 63).

Verse 7 clearly indicates that the contrast intended by the Apostle’s words is not at all between the letter and the spirit of the gospel, but between the ministration of death in the law -"in letters engraven on stones" (RV. margin), and the ministration of life- or as verse 8 expresses it. "the ministration of the spirit!" in the gospel. And he emphasises the fact that God had called him to the higher ministry of the life-giving gospel. and not of the death-dealing law. And by the figure of metonymy so familiar to every bible student he seizes on the keywords "letter" and "spirit" to represent law and gospel respectively.

"We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ" (1 Cor. v. 10).
To understand these words aright, we must study the context. And the chapter should be read in the RV, for owing probably to the far-reaching influences of Chrisostom's brilliant homily on it, our AV is marred by mistranslation in some important respects.

The symbolism of the preceding verses is graphic and yet simple. Our "natural body" is likened to the tabernacle, the "spiritual body" to a building - not, like the temple, built on earth by human hands, but a buiilding of God. eternal and in the heavens. Then the symbolism changes. Death is likened to our being unclothed, "found naked" and our receiving our heavenly body without passing through death is symholised by our being "clothed upon"- the change which the Coming of the Lord will bring to those "who are alive and remain" when mortality shall he swallowed up of life. And our longing is for this (v. 2). Not that death has terrors; for being always of good courage, we are "willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be at home with the Lord."

Then come the words (perverted in our AV) "Wherefore also we make it our aim (literally, we are ambitious), whether at home or absent, to be well-pleasing unto Him. For we must all be made manifest before the judgment seat of Christ; that each one may receive the things done in tile body, according to what he hath done, whether it be good or bad." And here the Revisers scarcely do justice to their own text, in which kakon gives place to phoulon, a word the primary meaning of which, according to Grimm. is "mean, worthless, of no account." As Archbishop Trench tells us in his Synonyms. the notion of worthlessness is the central notion of phaulos.

When thus read aright, the passage refutes two rival errors which are sadly prevalent. The one, a legacy from certain of the Latin Fathers, challenges the truth of the Lord’s words that the believer "cometh not into judgment." For the bema of Christ is not the great white throne of the Apocacalyptic Vision .And in the judgment of the redeemed the issue is not life or death, pardon or doom, but it relates to conduct and testimony while here below. And the rival error is that, in passing to heaven His people will receive a lethal draught which will destroy all memories of earth. This deplorable delusion robs the Christian life, not only of its solemnity, but of its significance, and it degrades heaven to the level of a fool’s paradise. Moreover, as Bengel so well says: "The everlasting remembrance of a great debt which has been forgiven will be the fuel of the strongest love." In these days of excessive nerve strain, people fall into the hands of the police at times, not because of any wrong committed, but because they have been "found wandering." Who they are, they cannot tell, or where they come from. Their very name they have forgotten, and all their past is an utter blank. In a condition of this kind it is that Christians, not a few, expect to enter heaven!

Personality depends on memory; and if this vagary of religious thought were a Divine truth, death would mean annihilation for the Christian. My name may be in the book of life; but if death destroys all memories of earth, my identity with the ego who will bear that name in heaven is a mere theory, or, as the lawyers would say, "a legal fiction." And it has, for me, no interest, save as a subtle problem in metaphysics. It is not merely that my earthly friends will fail to recognise me; I shall not recognise myself ! I shall be like one of the " found wandering" cases above referred to.

It may be said, perhaps, that it is only the evil of our present life that will be forgotten ; the good will be remembered and rewarded. Is it possible that any Christian could cherish a thought so unworthy and so mean? It will be the remembrance of our Sins - sins long forgotten, it may be - that will enable us to realise, as we never realised before, the wonders of Divine love and grace, and the preciousness o the blood of our redemption. But further discussion is idle ; for the teaching of our present verse is in the warp and woof of Bible doctrine on this subject.

"Now a Mediator is not of one but God is one" (Galatians iii. 20).
In the Speaker’s Commentary, Dean Howson remarks that "the interpretation of this verse is one of the curiosities of Biblical criticism. The explanations of it are reckoned by hundreds" (Jowett mentions 430!). The following note, therefore, is offered merely by way of suggestions toward a correct interpretation of it. The usual gloss, adopted by eminent Commentators, depends on construing the final word of the verse to mean "immutable." But though this occurs nearly 250 times in time New Testament, it bears no such meaning anywhere else. And the suggestion that, in a brief and simple sentence like this, any writer would use one of the commonest of words in two wholly different senses, is so entirely without precedent or parallel that, if there be no other explanation open to us, we may well leave the passage unexplained. Moreover, this is not the only Epistle in which the Apostle emphasises the truth that God is one. In 1 Corinthians viii. 6, he writes, "To this there is but one God" ; and in 1 Timothy ii. 5, For there is one God, and one mediator between God and man." Why then should we suppose that in Galatians the word is employed in a strange and mystical sense?

I venture to think the main difficulty in expounding the passage is due, not at all to the language of the twentieth verse, but to our putting on the words "covenant" and " mediator" a fixed meaning which they do not bear in the New Testament, or among Orientals generally. For it is assumed that a covenant is necessarily a compact between different parties, and that a mediator implies a covenant in that sense. But in his "Light from the Ancient East", Professor Deissmann avers that diathêkê did not carry that meaning among Greek-speaking peoples in the first century.

And surely a study of this passage as a whole, and of verses 16 to 19 in particular, will make it clear that the Apostle uses "covenant" and "promise" as convertible terms. It is noteworthy, moreover, that, in Grimm’s Lexicon, the primary meaning of diathêkê is "a dispensation or arrangement of any sort, which one wishes to be valid." And it is as a secondary meaning that he gives "compact" and "covenant." Indeed, the question claims consideration whether, in the legal sense of the word, God ever made a covenant with men.

But, it will be asked, what of the Mosaic covenant? Here a suggestion of Bengel’s is both interesting and important. It is that the Sinai covenant was not between God and the people ; for "God delegated the law to angels as His representatives." And in another passage he seems to say that the parties to that covenant were, on one side the law personified, and on the other the people, Moses being the mediator. The word mesitês (mediator) occurs only once in the Septuagint (Job xxxi. 31), and very seldom in pagan Greek writings. And in the New Testament, besides Galatians iii. and 1 Timothy ii. 5, already noticed, it is used only in Hebrews viii. 6, ix. 15, and xii. 24. Its use in Hebrews Vlll. in connection with covenant will throw light upon our present verse. What is the nature of the "better covenant" of which Christ is the mediator ? The words are, "I will accomplish a new covenant upon the house of Israel " (v. 8)" And again, " This is the covenant that I will covenant to the house of Israel " (v. 10; repeated in ch. x. 16). In these Hebrews passages, the Apostle emphasises the contrast between the Sinai compact and " the covenants of the promise - to use his phrase in Ephesians ii. 12 (R.V.). And is not this his purpose here also ? The law covenant, as contrasted with the promise covenant, involved two parties, and the mediator of such a covenant represented both. But God is one, and there is no room in His promise covenant for a Mediator in that sense. For, as the Lexicon will tell us, the word has another meaning, namely, "a medium of communication." We all understand this in human affairs. The King’s Private Secretary, or his Secretary of State, is the mesites through whom he deals with his subjects.

Thus leads me to suggest that the old-fashioned doctrine of "a redemption covenant between the persons of the Trinity" tended only to obscure and limit the great truth that, at no time, and in no circumstances, does God ever deal with men save in and through Christ. This truth led the old Divines to make Christ a party to the Sinai of covenant - a view which, as above indicated, Scripture does not warrant. But whether it be a question of Israel’s national blessings, or of the election and glory of the Church the Body of Christ - whether it be a question of pardon and life for a repentant sinner, or of grace and guidance for a believer in his daily walk - all is in and through Christ. The ordinary meaning of mesites is "a go-between: and though we may not apply such a colloquial term to the Lord of Glory, the thought which it expresses is a right one. In His name it is that we pray for mercy and grace to help in time of need; and in and through Him it is that the mercy and the grace are given.

If then my view of the passage be right, the clew to a correct interpretation of it depends upon studying it in relation to the purpose with which it was written, namely, to refute the teaching of the Judaisers. They regarded the Abrahamic covenant as a covenant with "Abraham and his seed according to the flesh," and the Mosaic covenant as confirming and enlarging the peculiar privileges of Israel. And the reason why the ministry of Paul was specially obnoxious to them was because he was the Apostle to and through whom was revealed the distinctive truth of grace, which ignored and swept away all special privileges of the kind. That truth he called " my gospel," for he regarded it as a special trust committed to him.

So his answer here was that the Abrahamic covenant was to the Patriarch and his "seed" and that it was not a compact or bargain, but a promise in grace, absolutely without condition; and that "the seed" of that covenant was not Israel, but Christ ; and that the law, so far from confirming or extending this, " was added because of transgressions until the seed should come." It was on an altogether lower level - a compact arranged (diatassô) through angels by the hand of a mediator." But a mediator (in that sense) is not of one, i.e. does not represent only one party ; and therefore he could have no place in the promise covenant, in which God stood alone, for God is ONE.

"By grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God " (Ephesians ii. 8).
The "gift of God" here intended is salvation by grace through faith. It is not the faith itself. "This is precluded," as Alford remarks, "by the manifestly parallel clauses ‘not of yourselves' and 'not of works,' the latter of which would be irrelevant as asserted of faith."

It is still more definitely precluded by the character of the passage. It is given to us to believe on Christ, just in the same sense in which it is given to some "also to suffer for His sake" (Phihppians i. 29). But the statement of our present verse is doctrinal and in that sense the assertion that faith is a gift, or indeed that it is a distinct entity at all, is a sheer error. This matter is sometimes represented as though God first gives faith to the sinner, and then, on the sinner’s bringing Him the faith, goes on to give him salvation! Just as though a baker, refusing to supply empty-handed applicants, should first dispense to each the price of a loaf, and then in return for the money out of his own till, serve out the bread ! To answer fully such a vagary as that would need a treatise. Suffice it, therefore, to point out that to read the text as tlmomugh faith were the gift, is to destroy not only the meaning of verse 9, but the force of the whole passage.

"The truth as it is in Jesus" (Ephesians 4:21)
The popularity of the cant phrase, "the truth as it is in Jesus "- a perversion of this text - to express Evangelical truh,or " the truth of Christ," is a signal proof that with Christians in general the Lord is named just as caprice or ignorance may suggest. In the narrative of the Gospels, those Divine records of His earthly sojourn, the Lord is habitually called "Jesus." But the name of His humiliation is never used in this way in the Epistles. As Bishop Barry notices in commenting upon this very verse, " wherever it occurs in the Epistles it will be found to be distinctive and emphatic." This is strikingly exemplified in the two passages - and there are only two- in which He is thus named in the six later Epistles of the Apostle Paul.

In Philippians ii. 9, 10, we read that "God hath given Him the name that is above every name, that in the name of Jesus every knee should bow." This can only mean that in the full realisation that He is Jesus - the despised and rejected Galilean, He is to be acclaimed as Jehovah -"the name that is above every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come" (Ephesians i. 21). And in our present text (as appears so plainly from the verses which precede and follow it), it is not doctrine the Apostle has in view, but practical Christian living. Referring to the base immoralities of the Gentiles, he writes, " But not so did ye learn Christ ; if indeed it was He that ye heard, and in Him that ye were taught, according as is truth in Jesus" (Alford)- in other words, the truth as exemplified in His life on earth in the time of His humiliation.

"Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord" (Ephesians v. 22 if.).
In this section of Ephesians the marriage relationship is readjusted by a heavenly standard, the ordinance of Genesis ii. 24 being re-enacted on a spiritual basis and with a new sanction. The Church is the body of Christ, and "because we are members of His Body" (v. 30, R.V.) the Christian is "to love his wife even as himself." For while the bridal relationship which pertains to the heavenly election out of Israel implies the closest unity, the body relationship between Christ and the Churcil connotes absolute oneness. And this is the "great mystery" of verse 32; not the marriage bond - for such a use of the word "mystery" is foreign to Scripture - but the truth of the one body, which is specially revealed in this Epistle. And so the Apostle adds, "I am speaking concerning Christ and the Church. Nevertheless (plen, i.e. though it is not true in fact of man and wife, yet because it is true of Christ and the Church) let every one of you so love his wife even as himself."

Now is it conceivable that, if the Church-bride doctrine were a Divine truth, the Apostle would not have made it the basis of this exhortation? But that doctrine is discredited by the absence of all mention of it in this the very Scripture which is supposed to teach it. It may be said, perhaps, that verse 27 implies it. But the body figure expresses a corporate unity, and until it is complete it cannot be presented. It is now only in building (ch. iv. 12, 13) In Revelation xix. 7 we have a kindred thought in the bride becoming ready. The Church-bride doctrine is really a by-product of that deplorable error of Patristic theology, that God has "cast away His people whom He foreknew " ; and therefore their promised blessings mire now appropriated by the Church!

The question whether A. B. is C. D’s wife may receive a negative answer, either by pointing to another woman as his wife, or by indicating a relationship between them which is incompatible with marriage. And in both ways Scripture vetoes the Church-bride theory. For Abraham’s city, the heavenly Jerusalem, is the bride, and that city is "our mother"! (Galatians iv. 26, R.V.). It may be added that the typology of Scripture refutes it. For Isaac was admittedly a type of Christ, and it was the Divine purpose that his bride should be of his own kindred.

But it may be asked, As these body and bride phrases are figurative, may they not be interchangeable ? We must imere distinguish between a figure which expresses a truth, as when the Lord called Himself "the Shepherd of the sheep," and a figure which is merely illustrative, as when He said He was the door of the sheep. And the figures of the body and the bride are in the fornmer category, and express real relationships.

We may learn much by marking the order in which these truths appear in the New Testament. The bride is prominently mentioned in the kingdom ministry (John iii. 29) ; but during all the interval between the close of that ministry and the Patmos visions, Israel is set aside and the bride disappears from Scripture. Is it conceivable that if the Church were really the Bride we should seek in vain for a single mention of it, or even of the word numphê throughout that entire section of Scripture in which the truth of the Church is specially revealed?

The use made of 2 Corinthians xi. 2 in this connection is a strange vagary of exegesis. In his Jewish Social Life Dr. Edersheim cites the passage to illustrate the functions of "the friend of the bridegroom." But to construe such an illustrative reference as being a Divine revelation of a truth of such vital importance betrays want of respect both for Holy Scripture and for the intelligence of men. Moreover, if the Christians of Corinth were the Bride of Christ, the same must have been true of every other local church; and if thus construed, the verse would suggest a harem rather than a wife! And by a single step further in error the Church of Rome applies it to the individual, and thus claims a Scriptural sanction for the evil system of convents and nuns.

And this should bar our dismissing this subject with a cui bono? All Scripture is profitable if read aright. But perverted Scripture has been the bane of Christianity. For by a misuse of Scripture the historic church has found a warrant for every atrocity and crime that has befouled its history. And if every true Christian ought to stand clear of its guilt, this responsibility rests specially upon any one who brings the gospel to Jews; and if he ignores or shirks it he is false to his message and his Lord. It behoves him to declare, in the spirit of Dean Alford’s words quoted on p. 85, ante, that "the Christian Church . . . the outward frame of Christendom" is an apostasy, and to remind his hearers that the Christian victims of its fiendish persecutions have outnumbered the Jewish a hundredfold.

More than that, it behoves him to repudiate that "orthodox" system of exegesis which, by spiritualising the prophetic Scriptures, robs the covenant people of their heritage - an evil system which, as Adolf Saphir wrote, "has paved the way for Rationalism and Neology." And he might begin with the twenty­first chapter of Revelation. Can we not realise the wondering delight of a company of Jews on hearing for the first time the glowing words of the Patmos vision of the heavenly Jerusalem, and being told by a Christian preacher that it is all for Israel, and will be realised for Israel in the coming age, when at last they accept their long-rejected Messiah

"Work out your own salvation" (Phiippians ii. 12).
This phrase has passed into common use. And, strange to say, on the secular page it seems always to represent a true thought, whereas in " Christian" use it often implies a denial of "salvation by grace - that great basal truth of Christianity.

Many an error is due to the habit of putting a theological label upon New Testament words, and then reading that meaning into every passage where they occur. The word sotêria means "safety" or "deliverance," and the context must always guide us as to the nature of the peril referred to. In Acts vii. 25, for example, the word has reference to Israel’s bondage in Egypt; in Hebrews xi. 7 to the judgment of the Flood; and in Acts xxvii. 34 to the foundering of the ship in which Paul was being conveyed to Rome. To the ordinary reader of our A.V. the Apostle’s words, "This is for your health," must appear grotesquely incongruous; for when men are face to face with death it is not their health they think about, but their safety; and sôtêria is the word here used.

It is noteworthy, moreover, that although the Apostle had an explicit Divine promise that there would be no loss of life (v. 24), he impressed on the men the need of taking food to fit them for the struggle for life which awaited them. This is of great practical importance in these days when, in sickness, for instance, "the use of means" is condemned by some as though it implied want of faith in God. Isaiah was Divinely commissioned to bring King Hezekiah the definite promise that he would recover from his malignant disease; and yet he ordered the use of the best remedy known in those days (2 Kings xx.) And it is in its ordinary sense that the Apostle uses the word sotêria in Philippians. Chapter i. 19 does not mean that his hope of eternal salvation was enhanced by the fact that evil men were preaching Christ, "supposing to add affliction to his bonds"; but he hailed it as likely to increase his prospect of an acquittal at his impending trial. In our ignorance of all the circumstances we are unable to appreciate this, but the issue proved that he was right.

And so in chapter ii. 12 he was thinking of the spiritual perils by which his beloved Philippians were beset; and he appealed to them by their loyalty to himself, and by the fact of his enforced absence, to work out their own deliverance. The gloss which refers this to their salvation in the theological sense rings the changes upon "working out" and "working in." But this is a play upon the wording of our English translation. The contrast implied in the phrase "work out your own deliverance" is an absolute bar to any such exegesis. For, if thus read, the Apostle’s words must mean, either that they were to work out their own, instead of other people’s, salvation ; or else to secure their own salvation, instead of trusting him to do it for them. And as regards eternal salvation, both these alternatives are obviously false. His words to the Ephesians were no less true to the Philippians : "By grace are ye saved through faith; and that (salvation) not of yourselves: it is the gift of God" (Ephesians ii. 8; see p. 107, ante). And the struggle to which he called them was akin to that in view of which he enjoined upon the Ephesians to put on the whole armour of God - a struggle to be maintained "in fear and trembling" to the end.