Monday, June 4, 2018

And Also Much Cattle

Although the book of Jonah is known primarily for its fantastic tale of a rebellious prophet who is swallowed by a fish, it has another distinction that it shares with only two other books of the Bible.  This distinction is that the book ends with a question.  Only the books of Nahum and Jeremiah also end with open-ended questions.

Not only that, the specific question that concludes the book of Jonah is kind of a strange one.  God asks Jonah, "And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?"  The confusing part of the question is the last four words: "and also much cattle."  It makes sense that God would certainly care about and pity the great city of Nineveh and the 120,000 inhabitants that he had made in his own image.  But why is God so concerned about the cattle?  Does God want to save the cattle? Certainly cattle can't repent of their sin, nor do they have immortal souls to save.  This is one of the few places in scripture where God is concerned with not just the human beings in the picture, but also animals.

This question - and particularly God's regard for cattle - has puzzled Bible scholars for some time.  But I don't think this verse is too tricky to understand when we consider the scope of the plan of redemption that God has in mind for the world - including cattle.  God's rescue plan includes not just people, but also the world which he has made, including everything in it and on it.  God is in the process of redeeming the world, including cattle!

A year or two after my wife and I were married we adopted a stray kitten that a neighbor friend had found.  It was just a tiny little thing that was discovered sleeping on the engine block of a car, huddled up for warmth during the winter.  We took this kitten in and named her Martha.  We still have her, but she has gotten old, and you can start to tell her age.  She's moving slowly, she has a bit of a limp, and she's becoming thin.  It's becoming more and more apparent that she probably doesn't have a lot of time left.

Does God care about my cat's life?  Much to the chagrin of dog lovers, the answer is, "Yes!"  Cats - and all animals, all living things - die because we live in a fallen world were sin affects every living thing.  God did not create cats to get old and thin, and to limp and die.  God created all things good and perfect, and he is int he process of redeeming the world to recreate it the way that it was.

So does God care about the cattle in Nineveh?  You better believe he does.  Not because he's a member of PETA or because he's a vegetarian, but because God created cattle to be good - not to die under his judgment.  And God is redeeming the world because he cares about all of his creation.

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.  For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory fo the children of God.  For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together int he pains of childbirth until now.  And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

God is in the process of redeeming the world and everything in it: cats, dogs, cattle, the ground, human beings, etc.  The heart of God is to redeem the world, including cattle - and cats!  As his people, we long fo the day when we will experience the redemption of our bodies and of this world, and we will live forever with our cats.

And all of God's cat-lovers said, "Amen!"

Monday, May 28, 2018

Remembering

Today is Memorial Day.  Memorial Day was originally intended to honor soldiers of the Civil War who died in combat, and was first observed on May 30th, 1868.  Observance of Memorial Day gradually caught on throughout the country and every state was celebrating it by the end of World War I, in honor of all soldiers who had given their lives in war.  We celebrate Memorial Day to honor the dead, those who sacrificed their lives in war to ensure our freedom and liberty.  Memorial Day is a day of remembe
ring.

But we are not to remember for remembering's sake.  There is to be a purpose in our remembering.  Remembering the sacrifice of those who have died for our freedom would be worthless if it did not change our thinking and living in the present.  As we remember those who died, we remember them in gratefulness for their sacrifice, and so that we might be changed by our remembering.

Memorials point us to God.  Throughout scripture, certain monuments, historical events, songs, or histories served to remind the people of the greatness of God.  God commanded his people to remember not specific people, places, or events primarily, but that they should instead remember the God who orchestrated the events, used the people, and created the spaces.  The Bible teaches us that memorials exist to remind us of the God who is working in the world.  Even days like our American celebration of Memorial Day serve to point us to the God who uses people for his purposes in the world.  God has used people in our nation's history to accomplish his purposes.  And as we remember them we must remember him.  "Remember the Lord your God."  This was the command to God's people throughout scripture, and it is the command to us this day.

The Bible is replete with memorials that are designed to cause God's people to remember (Exodus 12.11-14, Leviticus 2.16, Acts 10.4, Joshua 4.1-7, Luke 22.14-21, 1 Corinthians 11.23-26).  But why are they to remember?  God does not tell his people to remember for the sake of remembering, or for the sake of living in the past, or even for the sake of honoring a memory.  Nor does he tell his people to remember as a sentimental or nostalgic notion.  Rather, God tells his people to remember the past in order to affect the present.  Remembering the past is worthless if it does nothing to affect the present.

In Psalm 78 we read about the Ephraimites who, on the day of battle, turned back in fear and timidity.  The author of Psalm 78 directly connects their retreat to having forgotten the works of God (Psalm 78.9-16).  God had proven himself to the Ephraimites throughout history, and he commanded them to remember his works.  But they forgot his works and they wonders he had shown them.  And so, on the day of battle, they turned back, running away and forgetting that God is a God who works in the world.  The purpose of remember the past is to affect the present.  If we will not remember, we will not trust in God or in his power.

In Psalm 77, a man named Asaph sits alone in the middle of the night, feeling as though his life were pressing in on him.  His depression was deep; his suffering was profound; nothing in his life was going right, and it felt as though God had left him.  So he said to himself, "Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable?  Has his steadfast love forever ceased?  Are his promises at an end for all time?  Has God forgotten to be gracious?  Has he in anger shut up his compassion?" (Psalm 77.7-9)  To Asaph, it seemed as though the good ness of God was gone.  What could he do to convince himself that God truly cared?  What could he do to assure himself that God was present with him in his suffering?  What would lift his spirits?  Remembering.  Considering the memorials of the Lord.

"Then Asaph said, 'I will appeal to this to the years of the right hand of the Most High.  I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your wonders of old.  I will ponder all your work and meditate on your mighty deeds.  Your way, O God, is holy.  What god is great like our God?  You are the God who works wonders; you have made known your might among the peoples.'"

The remedy for Asaph's depression and suffering was remembering.  Its was in remembering the works of the Lord that Asaph knew that the goodness of God had not ceased.  It was in remembering the works of the Lord that Asaph knew that God had not left him.  It was in remembering the works of the Lord that Asaph knew that God would act again on his behalf.  It was in remembering the God who works wonders and who has made known his might among the peoples that this God would work wonders yet again, and make his might known among the peoples once more.  It is through remembering the past that God's people draw strength for the present.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul declares that the cross of Christ is the ultimate memorial that should speak to us of what God will do in the future.  He says, "He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also along with him graciously give us all things?" (Romans 8.32)  The cross of Christ is a memorial.  It speaks of the greatness of a God who created the world and its inhabitants, and who loved them and desired to show his glory among them.  But they rebelled against him.  They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator (Romans 1).  This rebellion separated them from God and made them worthy of the just and holy judgment of God.  But in his mercy, God desired to save his creation for his own glory.  So he sent his Son.  "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5.21).

And now, Paul says, "Look at that cross!  Look at the Son of God who died there and remember the love of God for you.  God did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all.  That cross is a memorial of his great love and mercy.  And since he has given us the gift of greatest price - that of his only Son - know this: he will graciously give us all things!  IN all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  As you look to the future, look back to that memorial cross and know that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present northings to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from then love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."

The cross is the ultimate memorial that points to God's continued faithfulness.

As you celebrate Memorial day, remember the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country.  And remember the God who works in the world, who has shown his power through his mighty works, and who has made the ultimate sacrifice for the freedom of all those who will trust in him.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Come Sunday

Last night I logged onto Netflix and immediately saw a new release to the streaming service - a movie called "Come Sunday."  I watched the trailer for the movie and was intrigued.  It's a true story about a Pentecostal minister named Carlton Pearson who eventually adopted a universalistic theological stance and was subsequently excommunicated from his church and denomination.  I clicked "Play" and found the movie engaging and intriguing.  Although Pearson eventually comes to adopt what I would consider to be an unorthodox and heretical theology, I thought it was a good movie and one that is worthy of being watched.  In fact, I would recommend that parents of high school-aged children watch the movie and work together to think biblically about how Pearson comes to his conclusions outside of the guidance of the Bible and against the counsel of close and trusted godly friends.  If anything, the movie is a fantastic example of how man's wisdom fails and the wisdom of God as found in his word holds true.  (Note: the movie contains a couple of "mild" swear words and some discussion of homosexuality).

Pearson starts out as an orthodox Pentecostal minister who consistently and persuasively preaches the biblical gospel to his church and to all those who will hear.  As time goes on, however, he becomes increasingly disturbed by the plight of Africans - particularly Rwandans - who are dying as a result of war and atrocity.  He cannot bring himself to understand how God - a loving God - would condemn to hell those who have not heard the gospel due to no fault of their own, and who are condemned to perish forever in hell simply because they were unfortunate enough to be born in a country where Christianity is not prevalent, and ruthless violence is a regular part of life and death.  Pearson is torn by what the Bible teaches about the punishment of hell for unbelievers, and the plight of his unevangelized fellow human beings.

Later, Pearson tells his church that he has had a direct revelation from God - hearing a voice "as clear as my own" -  that those who die without ever hearing the gospel are already saved and in heaven.  In short, Pearson adopts a universalistic soteriology, meaning that he believes that all people will be saved, regardless of their knowledge or belief.  When members of his church - including trusted friends - push back against his newfound universalism, Pearson clings to the personal revelation he received as his reason for not being willing to recant.  After all, why would God have told him that all people would be saved if it weren't true?  Even when encouraged to consider the possibility that the devil told him this, and not God, Pearson balks, and holds that his personal revelation is from God and is true.

The rest of the film deals with the consequences of Pearson's new beliefs (such as losing his church, his excommunication, strained family relationships, etc.).  The movie is superbly acted, especially by its star (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who was heretofore unknown to me, and is entertaining and engaging to the end.  I especially appreciated how the movie was fair and balanced to the different stripes of Christian belief that were present.  In other words, none of the characters were made to seem as Bible-thumping crazy religious people, even though they held very different views.  Additionally, the movie's treatment of homosexuality was good and balanced.  It's refreshing to watch a movie with religious themes that doesn't make you feel like your beliefs are getting picked on.

Although the movie is indeed entertaining and engaging, it is worth noting that the primary issue that it raises (Pearson's struggle over how God can allow people to go to hell who have never heard the name of Jesus, and his eventual embrace of universalism) is not new, nor is he the first to succumb to its draw.  This is a question that honest believers have wrestled with - and provided solid, biblical answers to - for centuries.  In fact, one of the characters in the movie (Pearson's closest friend and advisor, Henry) gives Pearson a solid biblical answer to his questions.  He says that everyone has exposure to God, regardless of their geographical location or cultural eccentricities (Romans 1.19-20) according to what has been made (creation), and are therefore responsible to seek him.  Indeed, even God's invisible attributes are made known to all people.  Those who seek God according to his natural revelation will find him, as Henry says, "...through a missionary, or through a dream or a vision."  This answer, however - both generated from scripture and from the mouth of a wise and godly friend - is not enough to persuade Pearson.

Perhaps the biggest warning given by the movie to Bible-believing Christians is the danger of so-called personal revelation.  After all, Pearson's persuasion to universalism is primarily and almost completely founded on "hearing God's voice."  The foundation for Pearson's move to universalism is that he allegedly heard God speak to him and tell him that all people are saved.  To be fair, Pearson does use 1 John 2.1-2 as a proof text for his newfound beliefs, but his argument from scripture for universalism takes a far back seat to the personal revelation he received from God (not to mention that 1 John 2.1-2 is not even close to teaching universal salvation, nor does the film portray Pearson dealing with the immensity of scripture that teaches individual salvation).

This is the danger of "hearing" from God outside of his word.  We have no objective way of knowing that the voices, impulses, or feelings that come and go in our hearts and minds are from God, or are from the undigested bit of pepperoni pizza I ate last night.  If we regard personal "revelation" and feelings from God to be authoritative in our lives, a large number of people would venture out on all sorts of crazy crusades.  Indeed, a brief observation of history yields a myriad of examples of people who have done just that!

Instead, we must trust that God has spoken to us through his word, and that his communication to his people in these last days is limited only to his word.  We know that God has spoken to us through the Bible; we are very much less certain about feelings and hearing voices in our heads.

Moreover, to suggest that in order to answer life's difficult questions we need personal revelation from God, the implication is that the Bible is not enough to answer those very same questions.  Pearson had a very legitimate and honest question: "What happens to people who die who have never heard the name of Jesus?  Will they go to hell?"  To find answers to that question, he relied on a "voice from God."  What Pearson apparently didn't know was that God has already answered this question with the voice of his word (see Romans 1.19-20).  If Pearson believed that he needed a personal revelation from God to answer his question, then he (either knowingly or unknowingly) implied that the Bible was not sufficient to answer his question.

Bible-believing Christians reject this notion.  In his word, God has given us everything we need for life and godliness.  If we were in need of additional revelation from God to be able to think, live, and answer difficult questions in life, then by necessity the Bible is insufficient.  And, as Pearson's story so vividly and painfully illustrates, when we elevate personal revelation above the revelation of God in his word, we are very easily drawn away from the true and saving message of the gospel.

The Bible is enough.  Know it.  Love it.  Live it.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Not the Kind of King We Want

This Sunday marks Palm Sunday, the day when the church remembers Jesus' triumphal entry into the city of Jerusalem.  At Riverview, we mark this Sunday by singing triumphant hymns, and watching as cute preschoolers march down the center aisle, waiving palm branches and shouting "Hosanna!"  Additionally, Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week - the final week of Jesus' life - when we remember his crucifixion, death, and subsequent resurrection.

But the celebration of Palm Sunday has often confused me, and still does.  Aside from the fact that Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem fulfilled scripture (Zechariah 9.9, Psalm 118.25-26), and the fact that Israel's rightful king was entering into her capital city, I don't see much to celebrate.  If anything, the "celebration" that took place on the original Palm Sunday only served to show that Jesus is the kind of king the people don't really want.

There has been some scholarly debate recently over whether or not the crowd who cried "Hosanna!" on the day of Jesus' entry was the same crowd that cried "Crucify him!" just a week later.  John Ensor says that the two crowds were distinct, and that those who welcomed Jesus on Palm Sunday were not the same as those who called for his execution later in the week, whereas Dave Miller thinks the two groups were one in the same.

My opinion?  It doesn't really matter.  Regardless of which crowd you find yourself in - either the "Hosanna!" crowd, or the "Crucify!" crowd - when it all boils down, Jesus isn't the kind of king you want.

Obviously those in the "Crucify!" crowd didn't want Jesus to be their king.  If they did, they certainly wouldn't be calling for his execution.  But I would also argue that those who declared "Blessed is he who comes in name of the Lord!" also didn't really want Jesus to be their king.  The reason for this is that Jesus wasn't the kind of king they wanted.

The people wanted a national king - a king who would re-establish Israel as a world-power; a king who would release them from he tyrannical grip of Rome; a king who would bring them peace and prosperity; a king who would assert their dominance as an international force to be reckoned with, like in the days of king David; a king that would rule over the nations, with Israel as its head.  Israel wanted a king that would align himself with a predetermined political agenda.  That is who they thought he was, and that is what they thought he would do, and that is why they shouted, "Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!"

Even Jesus' closest friends and followers - his disciples - were very confused on this issue.  They thought that Jesus' kingdom would be an earthly one - one over which they would help him rule.  This is why they asked to sit at his right and left hand when he came into his kingdom (Mark 10.37).  Presumably, when Jesus entered Jerusalem, his disciples probably thought that all they had imagined about his (supposedly earthly) kingdom was about to come true.  And even when Jesus was about to ascend into heaven after his resurrection, his disciples thought that he was still going to establish an earthly kingdom (Acts 1.6).  Put simply, the crowds who shouted "Hosanna!" - and even the disciples - didn't know what kind of king Jesus was.

But they would learn, and quickly.  Right after Jesus went into Jerusalem, he "cleansed" the temple by driving out all of the merchants and their wares, essentially condemning the corruption that had become a regular part of Jewish religious life.  To drive the point home, he declared Jerusalem spiritually bankrupt and publicly condemned its religious leaders and teachers.

"Wait a minute," the people say, "maybe this guy isn't who we thought he was..."

Jesus didn't enter Jerusalem to establish a new or continuing earthly kingdom in Israel.  He didn't come to defeat their enemies and set Israel up as a leader on the world stage.  He wasn't the kind of king they wanted.

We want a king who will do what we tell him to do, not the other way around.  Or, as my mentor Dave Wick used to say, "Most people want to serve God in an advisory capacity."  That is, we're happy to shout "Hosanna!" as long as the king does what we want him to do.  What we want is a king who thinks and does exactly like we do.  We want to be our own king.  I am the kind of king I want.

But this is not the kind of king Jesus is.  Jesus will not be forced into a political agenda; Jesus will not be subservient to your desire to obtain a prosperous life.  Instead, Jesus is the kind of king who is "the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.  For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities - all things were created through him and for him.  And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church.  He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.  For in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross" (Colossians 1. 15-20).

Is that the kind of king you want?  Because that's the kind of king Jesus is, and that is what he came to do.

If we will know Jesus for who he truly is, then we will not set him up on some man-made pedestal that he was never meant to be on (as many of even his own followers did in the first century), and then become angry when he doesn't live up to our selfish expectations of him.  Jesus came to fulfill his purposes, not mine.

Palm Sunday is a time for us to know who Jesus is, in truth.  It is a time for us to submit ourselves to Jesus' kingship, rule, and reign.  It is a time to remember the kind of King he is, and to worship him in spirit and in truth.  It is a time to remember that my own rulership of the world only leads to sin and sadness, and that his way leads to life.  It is a time to submit my own will and desires to his sovereign rule.  It is a time to repent of trying to force the will of God into my own agenda.  It is a time to trust and rejoice in our good King.

Monday, March 12, 2018

What Does it Mean to Take the Bible Literally?

Living Biblically? 
Last night I watched the first two episodes of a new sitcom on CBS called "Living Biblically."  The show tells the story of a man who recently lost a best friend to death, and who also recently received news that he and his wife were expecting their first child.  As a result of these two significant life-changing experiences, he decides to make a change in his life, and that change is to take the Bible "literally," word for word, for at least the next nine months until his child is born.  As you can probably guess, his commitment to the "literal" interpretation and application of the Bible leads to (supposedly) hilarious outcomes (although I watched the first two episodes and only snickered once).

But this isn't the first iteration of the culture's attempt to take the Bible literally.  10 years ago, author A.J. Jacobs wrote the book The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible to rave reviews among secularists and Christians alike.  In the book, Jacobs describes what his life is like when he follows every command of the Bible to the letter.  And just a few years ago, Rachel Held-Evans wrote A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband 'Master', in which Held-Evans recounts her attempts to "literally" obey every biblical command directed toward women for the period of one year.  As you might expect, both Jacobs and Held-Evans have plenty of interesting and strange stories about what it's like to follow Old Testament laws and commands in a 21st century world.

If nothing else, these cultural excursions into the realm of biblical Christianity have served to show that people are generally very confused about what it means to take the Bible "literally."  The culture believes that taking the Bible literally means following each Old Testament command to the letter, and obeying every obscure Jewish ritual and tradition.  For instance, one of the first changes the character Chip makes in his life in the show "Living Biblically" is to make sure that he only wears clothes that are made of a single type of fabric.  After all, Leviticus 19.19 says "Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material" (NIV).  So if we take the Bible literally, we shouldn't mix fabrics, right?

Similarly, Christians are often maligned in the culture when they insist upon the Bible as an absolute source of moral authority.  Christians are charged with inconsistency at best, and hypocrisy at worst because, after all, there are plenty of laws in the Bible about not eating shell fish, and we don't follow those.  The accusation leveled against Christians is that we pick and choose which parts of the Bible we want to take "literally."

So what does it mean to take the Bible "literally?"  According to the culture (and even to some within Christendom), it means to follow every jot and tittle of every command in the Bible, irrespective of when the command was given, why it was given, and to whom it was given.  If the Bible says it, it must be obeyed, no matter what - shell fish, fabrics, and everything else.  And that's what it means to take the Bible "literally."

Except, no.  That's not it.  Not even close.  As with almost every attempt the culture makes to determine just what it is Christians believe about a particular doctrine, this one is a resounding swing and a miss.  To take the Bible literally does not mean to follow it word for word, or to obey commandments that were given to a nomadic people group three thousand years ago as they wandered around in the wilderness.

Well then, what does it mean to take the Bible literally?

First, it means to believe that God wrote the Bible.
Taking the Bible literally means believing that it is actually inspired by God, and that the Bible contains God's message to human beings.  The Bible is a revelation of God's character and nature (who he is and what he is like), and a message to human beings as to how we are to respond God's revelation of himself.  What does he want from us?  How are we to act towards him?  Can we live in relationship with him?  And if so, how?  God himself tells us these things in the Bible.  Did you catch that?  God himself tells us these things in the Bible.  The Bible was written by God - the Creator of the universe.  If we are believing that the Creator of the universe communicated with us personally, we will be far less likely to treat the Bible flippantly or in some silly manner.  The first step to taking the Bible literally is to believe the Creator of the universe wants to communicate with you, and he has done so through his word contained within the Bible.

Second, it means to receive what God has said in context.
The Bible wasn't written to you and I - it was written for you and I.  Over 70% of the Bible (the Old Testament) was written to the ancient Israelites who lived 3000 years ago in and around the nation of Israel as shepherds and farmers.  Thus, the commands were given to them in their specific time, geographic location, cultural context, etc.  It would be (and is) ridiculous to try to "literally" apply commands given to nomadic shepherds 3000 years ago to our modern day lives.

Put simply, there are a myriad of differences between us and the people to whom the Bible was written (time, culture, language, political, geographical, covenantal, etc.).  It would be ludicrous to not recognize these differences as we seek to understand and apply the Bible in our lives today.  However, this is exactly what A.J. Jacobs, Rachel Held-Evans, and the producers of "Living Biblically" are doing when they universally apply commands given to a specific people, in a specific geographic location, in a specific culture, etc. to our present circumstances.  It's no wonder that several Old Testament laws seem foreign to me: I'm not a wilderness-wandering shepherd living in 3000 B.C.

In order to take the Bible literally, we must understand it in its historical and grammatical context.  This means that in order to understand what God told his people, we first have to understand them: their history, their culture, their language, their socio-political circumstances, etc.  God's commands to them will only make sense to us if we know who they were, how they thought, how they lived, etc.

This does not mean, however that because I am not a wilderness-wandering ancient Israelite that the Old Testament is obsolete or irrelevant to me as a 21st century American.  Far from it!  Remember, the whole Bible shows us God's character and nature.  So although I don't apply the Old Testament purity and cleanliness laws (such as the laws regarding fabrics, shellfish, etc.), those laws tell me about a holy and righteous God who desires to live in relationship with his people.  I don't apply the laws literally, but I apply the principles communicated by the laws when understood in context, literally.

Also, we need to realize that the Bible contains different genres of literature.  This means that different parts of the Bible function differently from others.  For example, history books tell an historical story.  Poetry books contain poetry.  You wouldn't read a poetry book to learn history, nor a history book to learn poetry.  So then, we have to take the Bible "literally" according to the rules of interpreting literature.

Case Study: Exodus 21.28-29
Let's use an example to see how we can apply Old Testament commands literally.  Exodus 21.28-29 says, "When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner of the ox shall not be liable.  But if the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has been warned but has not kept it in, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death."

This law was given to a vagabond nation of wanderers about 3500 years ago.  These people kept livestock as a regular part of everyday life, so God gave them rules and laws that would bring order to their society and help them to live in relationship with him.  Then how can I - a 21st century urban American who does not own livestock - apply this command "literally?"  By knowing the history of the people to whom the law was given, and the genre and grammar of the literature in which it was communicated.

According to our culture, in order to apply this command literally, I'd have to go out and buy some oxen and then make sure to keep them penned up securely.  But to do so would be just as ridiculous as wearing clothes of the same material or swearing off shellfish.  Instead, I can literally apply the principles of this command by interpreting what it is saying.  For instance, from this command we learn at least three things about God: 1) Human life is valuable to God.  God does not desire that men and women be killed by animals.  2) Personal responsibility is important to God.  God expects people to act responsibly so as to minimize any potential threat to others or to the community.  3) Justice is important to God.  In each scenario, punishment is meted out to fit the crime.

When we take this command literally, we don't go out and buy oxen and make sure to put up a sturdy fence around them, because this command was not given to us.  Instead, we interpret the command, and apply the principles the command teaches to our lives literally.  This means that we literally love and value life because God does; it means that we literally take responsibility for our actions for the betterment of ourselves and our communities; it means that we literally work and advocate for justice in our society.  If we do these things, we will have obeyed the command to keep our rambunctious ox penned up, literally.

*Note: for a great guide to how to read and apply the Bible literally in the ways briefly mentioned here, check out the book Grasping God's Word by Duvall and Hays.