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Hermeneutical Principles: The Error of Illegitimate Totality Transfer

August 18, 2011 7 comments

Through regular Bible study and sermon listening, come several hermeneutical principles for handling scripture.  These principles can be applied not only in our own study but also in discussions with others.  A few basic principles I’ve learned are called the “checking principle” and the analogy of faith.  The checking principle comes up in cases where one person has a unique interpretation, one that no one else upholds: in humility that person must consider carefully the reasons for his different conclusion.  The “analogy of faith” is more common, and comes from one’s understanding of all scripture:  scripture does not contradict itself.  If one passage has a meaning, that meaning must not disagree with other scriptural teaching.

I learned a third principle recently, the error of “illegitimate totality transfer,” a case of taking the meaning — the sense or concept — from one part of scripture and lifting that idea and wrongly applying it to another scripture that may have some of the same words but totally different usage.  In a recent online discussion, for example, someone brought up the parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25.  Because all ten virgins had oil, and because oil elsewhere represents the Holy Spirit, this person concluded that all ten virgins had the Holy Spirit and were saved.

In this case, the person certainly had a unique interpretation (the “checking principle”), and also that idea contradicts other doctrinal teaching  (“analogy of faith”):  the perseverance and preservation of the saints.  People don’t lose their salvation.  Since the five virgins are later turned away, when Christ says He never knew them, they represent unbelievers, those who never had saving faith to begin with.

But going beyond these problems, comes the “illegitimate totality transfer” with that person’s improper concept of “oil,” which in some parts of scripture is symbolic of the Holy Spirit, but does not fit the case of this parable in Matthew 25.  Mike Riccardi well spoke to this particular Bible discussion with some great observations:

Jesus is employing an illustration, and in this case the oil just means oil. The point is right there in the text: be ready for Christ’s coming; don’t be spiritually lazy, because He’s coming any minute.

Not to mention, pressing the details in parables is (1) insensitive to the genre, and treating it more like allegory, and (2) often ridiculous, like here. What would we conclude? That some of us can store up “more” of the Holy Spirit, so that when Christ comes, we don’t have to go get more of the Holy Spirit from somewhere, and, as a result, miss His coming?

Better to let a parable be a parable, oil be oil, and the point of the passage be stated by the passage itself (Mt 25:13).

Was Jesus Mistaken? Did He Really Say That He Would Return In the First Century?

June 27, 2011 Comments off

Amongst Christian circles, liberals like to point to Bible texts that talk of Jesus returning soon (for instance, in Revelation 1 and 22, and Matthew 24 (“this generation”), and say that Jesus must have been mistaken, since 2000+ years have now elapsed.  “Where is the sign of His coming?” they challenge, just as surely as the apostle Peter prophesied they would.

Then Preterists, including partial preterists, came along with the desire to “rescue” Jesus from liberal criticism, by coming up with a scheme to support the idea that Jesus was not mistaken and that He really did return (in secret, or in judgment) in 70 A.D.  R.C. Sproul, influenced by the theological liberalism of his education, is one such proponent, and has admitted that he had this starting point.

But in my study through the gospel accounts, and especially the parables, comes another teaching.  As S. Lewis Johnson points out in his Matthew series  — and is also evident in many other parables, such as in Luke’s gospel — Jesus repeatedly emphasized the fact that a long time period would elapse between Christ’s First and Second Coming.

In Matthew’s “Parables of Rejection,” Jesus first hints at this long period of time.  The master of the house (Matthew 21:33-41) set up a vineyard, leased it to tenants, and then went away into another country.  The parable of the Wedding Feast (Matthew 22:1-10) sets forth a future time when the actual wedding feast will take place — and in Jewish custom several years elapsed between the initial engagement (by the parents) and the actual time of the wedding — again to indicate an unknown time gap; the invited guests meanwhile had gone off to do other “more important” things.  By themselves these parables are certainly not conclusive, but neither do they contradict a long period of time.

The Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24) tells much more information, including the fact that enough time will elapse for nations and kingdoms to rise up against each other, and for wars and rumors of war to continue.  Later in Matthew 24, Jesus indicates the importance of being prepared, again hinting that such a long time will elapse (Matthew 24:48-50) that the servants will not be expecting Him, and that wicked servants will notice that “my master is delayed.” The two parables that follow, of the ten virgins and the talents (Matthew 25:1-30), also show a lengthy delay: all of the virgins fall asleep; the master giving the talents goes away on a long journey, and in verse 19 returns “after a long time.”

Luke’s gospel has similar parables and words from Jesus, indicating a lengthy time before His return.  Consider Luke 12:35-40 and the admonition to keep your lamps burning, to be ready whether He comes in the second, third or even the fourth watch of the night.  Then, the parable of the persistent widow (which in context has eschatological reference), which concludes with Jesus’ words: “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8) Just as all the virgins fell asleep, here the question arises again:  after such a long time (the continued persistent prayers of the faithful), will believers still be found, ready and anticipating His return.  In Luke 19, He tells the parable of the Ten Minas because the people believed that the Kingdom of God was to appear immediately (v. 11). The following parable is similar to the talents one in Matthew 25, again with the point that the nobleman went into a far country before returning.

Luke 21, another account of the Olivet Discourse, includes additional information regarding the time gap:  verses 20-24 speak of the destruction of Jerusalem, the people being led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem being trampled underfoot by the Gentiles “until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.”  (See my previous blog concerning this text:  Luke’s Gospel and Eschatology.) Then verse 25 resumes the narrative related to future events as paralleled by Matthew and Mark.

The gospels contain so many of Jesus’ teaching, and make the point clear.  Jesus clearly set forth the idea of a long wait, that He did not think He was going to return soon in terms of elapsed time.  Rather, He continually pointed out the ideas of perseverance, waiting and preparedness, along with parables regarding his absence for a long period of time.  Certainly no one could have realized that this delay is now 2000+ years, but the biblical record is clear enough that liberals deserve a better response than that of Preterists, those who too readily agree with the liberals’ premise and then try to force other scripture into a mold it was never intended to fit into.

The Parables of Rejection: Matthew’s Gospel

June 9, 2011 1 comment

As many know, the gospel of Matthew is arranged topically, with all related material together in one section of the gospel, followed by another section for a few chapters, and so forth — in contrast to Luke’s gospel which follows a more chronological pattern.  In my study through the gospel of Matthew with S. Lewis Johnson, I now come to the section dealing with events of the last week before the Crucifixion, and particularly to chapters 21 and 22 — which introduce a series of three parables containing the theme of the rejection of Christ by His people Israel.

The first parable (Matthew 21:28-32) tells of two sons asked to go work in the vineyard. One said he would not go, but afterward repented and went.  The other said he would go, but did not go.  By direct application this parable contrasts the rulers of the people (the second son) with the common people (the tax collectors and harlots), and by extension applies to the overall nation of Israel as compared to the Gentiles.

The second parable (Matthew 21:33-45) tells of a householder, a very wealthy man who planted a vineyard and prepared it for fruit and then went off to a far country, expecting his fruit to be given in its season.  This parable has much in common with Isaiah 5:1-7, and therefore familiar terminology to the Jews; but here Jesus adds the element of the man sending his servants (the prophets), and finally his son, to the tenants to collect his fruit.

The third parable (Matthew 22:1-14) is that of a Marriage Feast. Those who had been invited are now called to come, but they refused — and so the king extended the invitation to many others out on the main road, to fill the house with guests.

These parables have different emphases, but all teach the same main points:
1.  The empty profession leads to judgment:  the man who says, I will go and work — but does not go, can expect only judgment.  The judgment theme is further developed in the second parable:  the man who does not respond to the owner of the household, to give Him his fruit, is likewise exposted to judgment.  The third parable shows a man at the wedding feast, but without the wedding garment:  an empty profession is not enough.

2.  God’s Program for the Nation Israel and the Gentiles shall undergo a dramatic change–by virtue of the fact that the Nation Israel, to whom the promises had been given, has now evidently refused the Son at His coming.

The first parable teaches that the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you — and likewise, the Gentiles shall precede this generation into the kingdom of God.  Note that even here God is still very gracious and leaves the door open:  they shall enter “before you.”  The door has not been permanently shut, and there still is opportunity for you.  Thus has been the case down through history:  the church has been composed of a majority of Gentiles, but still some Jews.  Even in the book of Acts we learn that some of the Pharisees, and some of the priests, did indeed come to faith in Christ — one of the evidences we see for answer to Christ’s prayer from the cross, “forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

The second parable is even more clear:  the kingdom of God shall be taken from you (those who did not bring forth fruit to their master) and given to the Gentiles.  Then in the third parable, the chosen people do not even want to come, and so the servants of the king go out to the highways and gather as many as they can find.

Those that have been invited to the feast, the Nation Israel, because of their rejection of the Son did not come, and so he goes out into the highways and selects all, as many as they find, both bad and good, and they come to the feast.  That’s His way of telling in a simple illustrative story that there is a tremendous transformation taking place in the program of God at the first coming of the Lord Jesus.

The parables also have different emphases:  work for God in the first parable, stewardship and the particular relationship of trustee in the second parable, and the joy of a marriage feast in the third parable.  Yet each of these parables convey great truths, in the illustrative way that only our Lord Jesus Christ can relate these things to us, for our greater understanding.

The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard: Salvation at Different Ages of Life

May 23, 2011 2 comments

How nice it would be, we often think, if everyone who was saved came to salvation at a young age, with a full life of service and opportunities for service.  It is easy enough to regret the lost years, no matter at what age God brings us to saving faith, and plenty has been said concerning the virtue of salvation among youth — even to statistics showing that the vast majority of believers are saved at a younger age, especially by college age, some before age 30, but then in ever decreasing numbers after that age.

The parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16), a great parable about God’s Sovereignty in Rewards, has application in this very issue: believers saved when they are young (hired the first hour), versus those saved at later hours in the day: the third hour, the sixth hour, the ninth hour, and even the 11th hour.  In this teaching — directly following Peter’s attitude of “we have left everything to follow you? What are we going to get out of this?” (Matt. 19:27) — our Lord makes clear that is the quality and not the quantity of our service that matters.  Also, that “many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

S. Lewis Johnson pointed out these issues, from the parable and its context.  He was saved as a businessman in his mid-twenties — and though he had already completed an undergraduate degree and embarked on a career in the insurance business, still God had other plans for the rest of his long life ahead.  Certainly God has mightily used some men who were saved as youths:  John MacArthur, for instance, and especially Charles Spurgeon.  Yet others were saved at even later ages and used mightily by God.  As SLJ pointed out, Scofield was saved at a relatively late age (36), a lawyer and alcoholic, and yet his Scofield Bible, for all its shortcomings, “was used of God in the lives of many, even in my life.”  Johnson also mentioned a man who had heard the preaching of John Flavel years before at age 17, yet was not brought to the Lord until 86 years later at the age of 103.  For three years he lived as a Christian; you can find his tombstone today.  It reads something like this:  “Here lies a babe three years old by grace, who died at age one hundred six by nature.”

From my own experience over the last few years, I consider several cases of salvation coming to older people: a man at church here, saved and baptized only a few years ago at about age 70; my late great-uncle’s second wife — who had remained single all her life, fully consumed in a feminist, career life until she married my great-uncle late in life — and also came to salvation then, past the age of 80.  Then an online friend saved in her early 50s, and her mom saved at age 87.

Or consider the case of the dying thief:

Now it’s not a very good place from which to carry out your Christian service hanging on a cross, but nevertheless, he did, and he did precisely that, because if you’ll remember, he gave testimony to the Lord Jesus Christ … and vindicated him by saying, “This man had done nothing amiss.”  He worshipped the Lord calling him Lord, and then gave us a magnificent prayer, “Remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom,” which has caused numerous interpreters to believe that at the moment of his death he probably understood more about theology than any man living at the time, including the apostles, because he saw the nature of the Messianic kingdom.  He saw that our Lord was the Messianic kingdom.  He knew that when he passed from this life, he would have life beyond the grave.  He knew that the greatest thing in life was not the stay here, but to go there.  He didn’t say, “Let me come down from the cross,” but he said, “remember me when you come in your kingdom.”  Now what a magnificent Christian service this man rendered at the last few moments of his life, and what tremendous quantity it had, because down through the years, men such as I have been proclaiming the gospel contained in the words of this magnificent servant of Jesus Christ, called at the eleventh hour to the service of the Lord.

Now, some closing thoughts from J.C. Ryle (from Holiness, chapter 17) about how we all do some good to other souls while here:

I believe that just as ‘no man lives unto himself’ (Rom. 14:7), so also no man is converted only for himself and that the conversion of one man or woman always leads on, in God’s wonderful providence, to the conversion of others. I do not say for a moment that all believers know it. I think it far more likely that many live and die in the faith, who are not aware that they have done good to any soul. But I believe the resurrection morning and the judgment day, when the secret history of all Christians is revealed, will prove that the full meaning of the promise before us has never failed. I doubt if there will be a believer who will not have been to someone or other a ‘river of living water,’ a channel through whom the Spirit has conveyed saving grace. Even the penitent thief, short as his time was after he repented, has been a source of blessing to thousands of souls!

J.C. Ryle: Our Talent On Loan From God

May 21, 2011 Comments off

From “Expository Thoughts on the Gospel of Matthew.” Text:  Matthew 25:14-30

Anything whereby we may glorify God is a talent. Our gifts, our influence, our money, our knowledge, our health, our strength, our time, our senses, our reason, our intellect, our memory, our affections, our privileges as members of Christ’s Church, our advantages as possessors of the Bible–all, all are talents. Whence came these things? What hand bestowed them? Why are we what we are? Why are we not the worms that crawl on the earth? There is only one answer to these questions. All that we have is a loan from God. We are God’s stewards. We are God’s debtors. Let this thought sink deeply into our hearts.

Teachings in the Parables

April 7, 2011 Comments off

I recently listened to sermons going through Matthew 13 (S. Lewis Johnson series), the parables section of Matthew.

Since parables are not as clear in their meaning, and often lend themselves to numerous interpretations, again I consider the importance of hermeneutics, including the caution against developing doctrines based solely on parables.  Here also I rejoice in this truth expressed by Spurgeon:

IT is remarkable that when we find an exhortation given to God’s people in one part of Holy Scripture, we almost invariably find the very thing which they are exhorted to do guaranteed to them and provided for them in some other part of the same blessed volume!

Previously I blogged on the many different views concerning the parable of the leaven in the dough (Matthew 13:33).  Though each of the different views may or may not be found in this parable, certainly their truths are confirmed elsewhere.

Another text I think of (though not a parable) is Luke 21:1-4, one that John MacArthur in particular takes a very unique view of.  While most commentators see the principle of giving expressed here, and that the poor widow is doing a very great thing by giving all she has, MacArthur takes this text as a sad commentary on the prosperity gospel and the exploitation of the poor by false religion.  Since I cannot find any other Bible teachers holding to such an interpretation, I tend to disregard it — but again, we can find other scriptural exhortations concerning false teachers and false worship.  I think of passages in Hosea that speak of the Baal-worship prosperity, or when Jesus cleared the temple and denounced those who had turned His Father’s house into a marketplace, as well as warnings against false teachers in Jude and in John’s epistles.

Throughout this section, SLJ’s teaching sessions include mention of several different interpretations, and the reasons why certain views don’t exactly match — the parable concerning the leaven in the dough is one, and of course other expositors give just as clear reasons for why their view is to be preferred.  Another parable, verse 44 (the parable of hidden treasure in a field), is held by some to mean that the treasure is the Church, or the treasure is Israel, or even that the man seeking the treasure is Christ.  But the most common and preferred view is that the man is a believer coming to faith in Christ and seeing the great treasure of the kingdom of God.

The Leaven in the Three Measures of Flour: Matthew 13:33

December 30, 2010 4 comments

A recent devotional reading from John MacArthur (Life of Christ volume 1), looked at Matthew 13:33 and expanded on the verse as a positive reference to the great work of Christianity.  Since in recent years I have heard the opposite view concerning this parable (the leaven is symbolic of evil, and this refers to the growth of apostasy in the church), this prompted me to look at the passage and what has been said about it by others.  On the Grace to You site I found MacArthur’s full sermon on the verse, which expands on his positive view along with his reasons for rejecting the negative-leaven interpretation.  I checked a few other online references and found that Alexander MacLaren gave a similar interpretation.  Both men emphasize the spread of Christianity from its small beginnings (120 in Acts 1), through the centuries.  MacLaren also linked this parable to the idea of Christians being salt and light in the world, preserving and penetrating the darkness, even calling for Christians to be involved in public life.

S. Lewis Johnson held to the Scofield view, that leaven only represents evil and so this parable is in reference to the growing apostasy within the church as it approaches the last days.  Certainly this point is clear from other texts including the first parable in this section of Matthew 13, about the wheat and the tares growing alongside each other until the end.  Yet as I read Scofield’s notes for Matthew 13:33, it seemed that he was primarily rejecting a post-millennial interpretation that would have the whole world gradually conformed to Christianity and thus bringing in the golden age (the kingdom) before Christ comes.

That may have been one big error of Scofield’s day, but it seems that MacLaren and MacArthur, at least, were not arguing for such — but rather, seeing the increase and spread of Christianity throughout history, always being there as salt and light — the great spread of the gospel as described in Acts, and afterwards.  Yet, both being premillennial, they would never try to make the claims that Scofield was disputing.

I found yet a third view of this parable, from J.C. Ryle’s “Expository Thoughts on the Gospels” series.  In the treatment of Matthew 13 he omitted discussion of the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven, but took these up in the parallel passage in Luke 13.  J.C. Ryle took the view that:

The parable of the mustard seed is intended to show the progress of the Gospel in the WORLD.   The parable of the leaven is intended to show the progress of the Gospel in the heart of a BELIEVER.

Ryle’s approach mirrors similar comments in his other books, Practical Religion and Holiness, emphasizing sanctification, the progress in a believer’s life as he avails himself of the means of grace and grows in grace throughout his lifetime.  John Gill also points this out in his commentary of Matt. 13:33:  so the Gospel reaches the conscience, pierces the heart, enlightens the understanding, informs the judgment, raises and sets the affections on right objects, subdues the will, and brings down all towering thoughts, to the obedience of Christ, in particular persons.

From all of this discussion of one parable — with at least three different interpretations — I remember well the admonition of good hermeneutics:  never draw theological conclusions that are based solely upon parables.  (See, for instance, Dr. Reluctant’s “Parameters of Meaning, Rule 7”.)  The doctrines themselves may be found in the parables and types, but must also be supported by other, stronger, biblical texts.  In the case of Matthew 13:33, all the views mentioned here (except the postmillennial view disputed by Scofield) have biblical support elsewhere.  The “negative” view of the decline of the church throughout this age is found in the parable of the wheat and tares (one that Jesus did give the interpretation of); as well as in New Testament texts such as in Acts 20:29-30, 1 and 2 Timothy and Jude — warnings regarding false teachers who will come into the church, of people with itching ears gathering teachers to suit themselves.  The “positive” view of believers as salt and light has its support also in the Sermon on the Mount.  J.C. Ryle’s view has its support in the many exhortations in the NT epistles concerning practical Christian living, plus texts such as Philippians 1:6.