Chapter 4 - Misunderstood Texts of the Bible by Sir Robert Anderson

Chapter Four

Sir Robert Anderson 

"Every branch in Me that beareth not fruit He (the Father) taketh away" (John xv. 2).

This passage is often perverted to undermine the great basal truth that we are saved by grace, and that our salvation is eternal. And the sixth verse is used to enforce this false reading. But the question here is not salvation, but fruit-bearing. The Lord’s purpose in using this parable of the vine is not to cancel all His previous teaching about the eternal safety of the sinner who comes to Him, but to unfold truth of the highest practical importance for all who have been thus blessed. The language of the sixth verse, if carefully studied, will prevent our mistaking His meaning. "If any one does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch, and is withered." To bear fruit apart from Him is quite as impossible as to be saved apart from Him. The severed branch of another sort of tree might be used in some way. But as every Palestinian peasant knew, vine branches were useless ; men gather them and cast them into the fire and they are burned. Indeed, these words of Christ about vine branches are, no doubt, a reference to Ezekiel xv. 8, 4, "Shall wood be taken thereof to do any work? Behold, it is cast into the fire for fuel." They are not a doctrinal statement relating to the future destiny of men, but a parable to illustrate truth relating to the conduct and life of His people here and now.

"Those that Thou gavest Me I have kept, and none of them is lost, but the son of perdition" (John xvii. rz).

This clearly implies that one of Christ’s God-given ones may be finally lost. But the words the Lord actually used admit of a wholly different meaning. According to Bloomfield - and upon a question of Greek there is no higher authority - "ei me is for alla when a negative sentence has preceded." And when words admit of different meanings, one of which is in accordance with, and the other in opposition to, other Scriptures, we must always accept the former. We cannot doubt, therefore, that in this passage the Lord used ei me in the same sense as in Luke iv. 25 - 27.

In the famine of Elijah’s day there were many widows in Israel, but to none of them was the prophet sent ; but (ci me) he was sent to a woman of’ Sidon. There were many lepers in Israel in Elisha’s day, but no one of them was cured ; but (ci me) Naaman the Syrian was cured. In these passages the ei me does not introduce an exceptional case within the specified category, but a case belonging to a wholly different category. As Dean Plumptre puts it tersely, it is not an exception but a contrast (Ellicott’s N.T. Commentary). To quote yet another instance, we read in Revelation xxi. 27, that there shall in no wise enter into the holy Jerusalem anything unclean. or he that maketh an abomination or a lie. But (ei me - in marked contrast) they who are written in the Lamb’s book of life shall enter there.

Now, let us read our present verse in this way, ignoring a punctuation which is arbitrary "Those that Thou gavest me I have kept, and none of them is lost ; but (ei me) the son of perdition is lost, that the Scripture might be fulfilled." And when thus read, the Lord’s words, instead of casting a doubt upon the truth that all His God-given ones are safe, becomes a signal confirmation of that truth.

To deal here with the awful mystery of Judas’ ministry and fall would be quite beyond the scope of these notes. But the Lord’s mention of him indicates what, indeed, a careful study of the chapter would suggest, that in this portion of His prayer. down to the twenty-second verse, it is of His Apostles the Lord is speaking. And if we overlook this, we lose a most precious insight into His mind and ways. These men have been His constant companions and fellow-workers during the ministry of His humiliation. But now He is leaving them in the world. And though the path on which He is entering leads to Gethsemane and Calvary, His thoughts and petitions are not about Himself, but altogether about them. Here is something, surely, to bring Him very near to us when, in any sphere of service, we are lonely or in peril.

"The times of restitution of all things" (Acts iii. 21).

The Apostle Peter’s second "Pentecostal sermon" has been dealt with on a preceding page. No trained lawyer could frame words to teach more plainly that the "restitution of all things" will be the realisation on earth, and in time, of Messianic Hebrew prophecy from Moses to Malachi. It might seem, therefore, that further notice of this verse would he unnecessary. But eight-and-thirty years ago, an epoch-making book was written by an English clergyman to prove that the Apostle’s words point, not to earth and time, but to eternity and heaven. According to this writer, the teaching of this passage is that, at some unspecified era in the ages of ages, sinners who have gone to hell through rejecting the Atonement of Christ will pass to heaven as the result of working out atonement on their own account, by suffering punishment for their sins in hell. And this is now an article in the creed of multitudes of people.

But it will be asked, How is such an exegesis possible ? The author’s answer is, in effect Because Scripture never really means what it seems to mean. Here are his words "The letter of Scripture is a veil quite as much as a revelation, hiding while it reveals, and yet revealing what it hides, presenting to the eye something very different from that which is within." In other words, we may read into Holy Scripture any meaning which our fancy makes us wish to find there.

But even assuming the truth of this writer’s doctrine, can any person of ordinary intelligence suppose that the Apostle would make it the gist and climax of his solemn appeal to the Christ-rejecting Jew’s ? His aim is to bring them to repentance and, he does this by assuring theni that it is the teaching of "all the prophets. from Samuel and those that follow after, as many as have spoken," that even if they continue impenitent, the will reach heaven at last, though by a longer and harder road!

But, as every Bible student knows, whether this doctrine be true or false, it is entirely outside the scope of Hebrew prophecy. What concerns us here, however, is not its truth or falseness, but the meaning of Acts iii. 21. And the question arises, whether the suggested exegesis of that verse does not justify the cynic’s taunt, that in the sphere of religion there is nothing too wild to be believed.

"And (Stephen said) Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God" (Acts vii, 6).

These words are of exceptional interest and importance. " The Son of Man " is a Messianic title which is never used in Scripture save in relation to the Messianic Kingdom. And this is the only recorded instance in which the Lord was thus named by human lips. But that is not all. Mark the Lord’s attitude, as seen by His martyred servant.

In Hebrews x. 11 - 13, the fact of His being seated is emphasised as of the highest doctrinal importance but here He is seen standing. May we not read this in the light of the great Pentecostal proclamation of Acts iii. 19, 20? The Lord is here seen in an attitude of expectancy. But the murder of Stephen was the crisis of the nation’s destiny. The Lord’s prayer upon the Cross had secured forgiveness for His own murderers. But the death of Stephen was, in effect, a repetition of that greatest of all human sins; and his murder was more definitely the act of the Jewish nation than even the crucifixion itself. Their Roman Governors had no share in it. It was the result of a judicial decision on the part of the great council of the nation. The proto-martyr was thus the messenger sent after the King to say, "We will not have this man to reign over us." And the Divine answer was to call out and commission the Apostle of the Gentiles. And the Lord Jesus, till then "standing on the right hand of God," waiting to fulfil the Pentecostal promise, now "sat down on the right hand of God; from henceforth expecting till His enemies be made His footstool " (Hebrews x. 12, 18).

"We (the Ephesian disciples) have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost" (Acts xix. 2).

The translators of our English version showed extraordinary carelessness here. As Bengel writes, "These disciples could not be followers of Moses or of John the Baptist without hearing of the Holy Ghost." The misunderstanding and error to which the passage has given rise are sufficiently met by the Revisers’ translation of it " Did ye receive the Holy Ghost when ye believed ? And they said unto him Nay, we did not so much as hear whether the Holy Ghost was given." To be strictly accurate, for "the Holy Spirit," we ought to read "Holy Spirit." The Holy Spirit was given to the Church at Pentecost, but as and when we believe we receive Holy Spirit.

"When the disciples came together to break bread" (Acts xx. 7).

The record of the Apostle Paul’s visit to Troas is authoritatively interpreted as saying that, when he met with the disciples on the Sunday evening, he did not join them in eating the Lord’s Supper; but when His address to them was interrupted by the Eutychus accident at midnight, he had "a private celebration of the Eucharist"! This strange vagary of exegesis ignores the fact that "breaking bread" was a colloquial phrase in common use to mean "eating a meal." And while its few occurrences in Scripture will not warrant our either asserting or denying that the Lord’s Supper was ever designated thus, there can be no reasonable doubt that when, as here, the words "had broken bread" are followed by "and had eaten," their meaning is that the Apostle ate a meal. The gloss that the presence of the Greek article before bread is conclusive either way, is refuted by a reference to Luke xxiv. 35.

The Apostle’s words, in 1 Corinthians xi., indicate clearly that, among the abuses due to the practice of associating the Supper with the ordinary evening meal, was that some of the company shamed their poorer brethren by eating their own supper, and then leaving for home (uv. 21 and 33). It is certain, therefore, that the Eucharist must have been the initial rite when they came together. And this being so, can there be any doubt respecting what took place at Troas? The Apostle partook of the bread and wine with the assembled disciples; but afterwards, while the disciples were eating their evening meal, he continued discoursing with them till midnight; and not till then was he able to have a repast. If the forty-second verse of Acts ii. stood alone, it would certainly favour the view that "the breaking of bread" there meant the Lord’s Supper. But we must take account of the fact that the phrase recurs in verse 46, where the added words "did take their food with gladness" give proof that it had no sacred meaning. And surely it is improbable in the extreme that a colloquial phrase in common, vulgar use in everybody’s mouth every day of the year would be chosen to designate such a solemn and holy rite.

And in the East the phrase is still in daily use. For "bread" is a generic term for food. "When the dinner is ordered, it is still, as of old, by the modest words, "Set on bread," no matter how elaborate the feast ; and some Oriental dinners consist of more than twenty courses. Thus it was that Joseph ordered the banquet to be served for his brothers (Genesis xliii. 31). "And in the East, bread is never cut, for it is thought absolutely wicked to put a knife in it."

"They that are in the flesh cannot please God" (Romans viii. 8).

This verse is used to support the dogma that, because of the Fall, man’s nature is so utterly depraved that he is incapable of leading a moral and upright life. As the Westminster Divines express it, "We are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good."

This theology obviously impugns the righteousness of God in punishing men for their sins. In fact, it represents Him as a tyrant who punishes the lame for limping and the blind for losing their way. No less obviously does it clash with plain and patent facts. For the outward life of Saul the Pharisee was as pure and upright as that of Paul the Apostle. And in our own day we ourselves have known many unbelievers whose conduct and character would bear comparison with those of many a Christian.

It is not in the moral sphere of his being, but in the spiritual, that man is hopelessly depraved and lost. Therefore was it that the "zeal of God " of the Jewish leaders led them to crucify the Christ of God, and that Gamaliel’s great disciple, though a pattern moralist, became a persecutor and blasphemer. And the seventh verse must not be read to mean that men were not subject to the letter of the law of Sinai. In calling that code "the moral law," theology means that it is the law of our being. And thus regarded, the Pharisees were scrupulous in their obedience to it. But "the carnal mind" is absolutely incapable of appreciating its spiritual significance. Tue difference between the blind and those who have their sight is not that they see less clearly, but that they do not see at all. And quite as absolute is the antithesis between the carnal and the spiritual. But just as a blind man may have full use of his other physical faculties, so the carnal man may he a thorough moralist. It is no answer to say that this is true only of some; for the fact that it is true of any is proof that God is righteous in judging all.

And let no one dismiss all this as though it were of merely academic interest. There are few errors more harmful in the present day. For such a false reading of Scripture disparages it in the judgment of thoughtful men, and fosters the new enlightenment which has so degraded Germany, and which is rapidly leavening the British churches of the Reformation. And no less evil is its influence upon spiritual Christians. For in spite of the solemn, Divine warning that Satan fashions himself as an angel of light, and his ministers as ministers of righteousness, Christians are thus betrayed into recognising as ministers of Christ any man who commends himself as a minister of righteousness. And the result is that "truth is fallen in the street," and certain of our Divinity schools and theological colleges are supplying our pulpits with agnostics and rationahists.

"Whom He did foreknow, He also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of His Son" (Romans V111. 29).

The word proorizo, on which theology has reared such an imposing edifice, occurs only in the four following passages Acts iv. 28 ; Romans viii. 29, 30; 1 Corinthians xi. 7; and Ephesians 1: 5, 11. In two only of these, moreover, is it used with reference to the destiny of men; and never in relation to life, but only to special positions of blessing to which the redeemed are predestinated. In our present verse it is "to be conformed to the image of His Son." And in keeping with this, in Ephesians i. 5 we are said to be predestinated "unto adoption as sons," and in verse 11 it is " to be His heritage" (R.V.). The word in the fifth verse is not "children," but sons ; and in Scripture "son" is not a mere synonym for offspring, but betokens special dignity and privilege. Whether these statements are true of all the saved we may not dogmatise, but here they refer to the redeemed of this Christian dispensation.

The words, "whom He did foreknow" must not be ignored. But it would be foreign to the purpose of these notes to enter here upon the controversy with which they are associated. The practice of throwing positive statements of Scripture into an alternative negative form, and then basing doctrines upon inferences deduced from them as thus presented, is a fruitful cause of grievous error. By this treatment, for instance, the words of our present verse, which are given to promote the comfort and confidence of the Christian, are so perverted as to become a limitation upon the gospel of the grace of God.

"I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh" (Romans ix. 3).

The "difficulty" of this verse would not seem so perplexing if it were translated more correctly. Dean Alford’s note is, "I was wishing - this imperfect tense . . . implies, as very often, a half expression of a desire." Or, as Bishop Ellicott’s New Testament Commentary puts it, "I could have wished. The wish, of course, relates to what was really impossible." And this is the view of numerous authorities who take the word anathema to mean "cut off from Christ for ever in eternal perdition." But as Greek scholars allow a wide range of meaning to the word, the question is legitimate whether it be in harmony with the tone and tenor of Scripture to suppose that the Holy Spirit would inspire any one to frame and utter such a statement. Or, entirely eliminating the element of inspiration, whether such an ebullition of unrestrained feeling be consistent with the known character of the Apostle Paul. Is not such a reading of the passage calculated to lower our estimate of him as a man? Let us inquire then in what sense he elsewhere used the word anathema.

Now we know that the gospel of grace was his special "trust." And so strong was his feeling on this subject that in warning the Galatian Church against any one, whether man or angel, who preached any gospel other than he himself had preached, that twice he used the words, "Let him be anathema" (ch. i. 8, 9). Having regard then to his treatment of this subject in Philippians i. 15 - 18, is it credible that he meant, " Let him be damned for eternity " ? If I do not appeal also to his use of the word in 1 Corinthians xvi. 23, it is because the Galatian reference seems conclusive. In 1 Corinthians xii. 2, the only other occurrence of the word in his Epistles, it is evidently used as the technical term for excommunication among the Jews.

It is very noteworthy that our verse is usually considered without reference to the teaching of the Epistle in which it occurs, or even to the immediate context. But, as Bloomfield remarks, between the eighth chapter and the ninth "there is a closer connection than commentators have been aware." And he might have added that, betweerl chapter ix. and the two following chapters, this connection is closer still. The inquiry this suggests is as interesting as it is important. The received exegesis is a legacy from days when the prophecies and promises relating to Israel’s future were "spiritualised" to make them refer to "the Christian Church" ; and it was tacitly assumed that nothing remained for Israel but judgment and wrath. And this seemed to account for such a strange outburst of passionate feeling on the part of the Apostle. But these chapters show us that, even as he penned these words, he had prominently in view, first that Israel’s rejection was but temporary, and secondly that during this age of grace ‘there is no difference between the Jew and the Gentile,' and therefore the individual Israelite is in no respect at a disadvantage; for salvation is equally free to all (ch. x. 12, 13).

Moreover, at the time when he was writing, the Jewish converts everywhere, and notably in Rome, far outnumbered the Gentiles. Are we to conclude then that the burden of his impassioned longing was that a still larger proportion of Jews might be brought in? A most legitimate longing surely, but to express it in such terms would be unworthy, I will not say of an inspired Apostle, but of any sensible man with a well-balanced mind. And this very chapter vetoes the suggestion that what he had in view was the salvation of every Israelite - "all the seed of Abraham according to the flesh." What, then, can have been his meaning? As it was neither that some Israelites might be saved, nor that more Israelites might be saved, nor yet that all Israelites might he saved, there is only one conclusion open to us, namely, that the burden upon his heart was the condition of Israel nationally, and that he longed intensely for their restoration to the position they had lost. For the privileges and blessings specified in the fourth and fifth verses of this chapter did not pertain to the individual Hebrew, but to the nation. And his argument, broken, more so, by many a parenthesis, reaches a climax with the words, "And so all Israel shall be saved " (xi. 26) - that is. Israel as a nation. And the longing of his heart was to witness that consummation.

But, it will be asked, would the Apostle Paul have bartered his eternal destiny for the realisation of such a hope as that? I would answer (contra mundum, if needs be) that no possible consideration would have betrayed him into uttering, or even harbouring, such a wish. And this emboldens me to suggest a new reading of the passage.