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The Historical Narrative

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
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September 8, 2023 12:01 am

The Historical Narrative

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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September 8, 2023 12:01 am

We have much to learn from the stories in Scripture, but we must be careful that we're learning only what they intend to teach. Today, R.C. Sproul voices the benefits and the challenges of studying the Bible's historical narratives.

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Renewing Your Mind
R.C. Sproul

The point of the narrative is to reveal to us the nature of real, trusting faith in a sovereign God, to tell us of the test of Abraham, not of the test of God. And so we have to be careful that we don't draw conclusions from narratives that would set us in opposition to the rest of the Bible. It can be easy to misunderstand the Bible, especially if we interpret single verses or historical accounts in isolation from the rest of Scripture, but there are simple principles that can help us from falling into error.

Hi, I'm Nathan W. Bingham, and you're listening to the Friday edition of Renewing Your Mind. Our theme this week has been the Bible. Can we trust it? How should we interpret it? This week we've also made Stephen Nichols' series, Why We Trust the Bible, an R.C. Sproul series, Knowing Scripture, available for a donation of any amount.

And today's the final day, so be sure to request your copies at So how should we interpret the Bible correctly? It can be easy to read too much into a passage that really was just an account of an event. Today, R.C. Sproul shares several examples of getting this wrong and some reminders to help us get it right.

Here's Dr. Sproul. In this session in our series on knowing Scripture, principles of understanding and interpreting the Bible, we're going to continue our examination of basic principles that we need to know to be responsible interpreters of the Bible. The handling of historical narratives is a very, very tricky business indeed. And so the rule that we set forth for today is this, that the historical narrative must be interpreted by the didactic.

Let me say it again. The historical narrative must be interpreted by the didactic. Well, we've already spent time defining how we recognize historical narrative literature, and if you recall back when we talked about the cardinal rule of biblical interpretation, the analogy of faith that holy Scripture is its own interpreter and that we are never arbitrarily to set one portion of Scripture against another. It's particularly true when we deal with narratives because the temptation when we read narratives is to draw theological and doctrinal material from those narratives that we ought not to draw.

In fact, sometimes we do it in such a way that we bring the narrative into conflict with the didactic portions of Scripture. Now some of you I'm sure are sitting there saying, what is didactic literature? Didactic literature comes from the Greek verb didoskene or didoskalos, which means teacher, or to teach. So didactic literature is that genre of literature whose primary intent is to teach. Now, when we look at the New Testament, we see that we can divide somewhat loosely here the New Testament between the gospels and the epistles, and the gospels are primarily narratives, and the epistles are primarily didactic.

They're designed to teach and to instruct. Now we have to be very careful here because obviously there is a great deal of teaching content in the gospels, and certainly there is some narrative material to be found in the epistles. So it's not an absolute distinction between gospel and epistle, but in terms of emphasis, in terms of accent, in general terms, in simple terms, the purpose of the gospel is to tell us what happened. It's to tell us the story, and the purpose of the epistle is to explain to us the meaning of the story. So another way that we could delineate the difference between gospel and epistle is this, that the gospel records the event.

The epistle interprets the meaning of the event. Let's take an example, perhaps the most important example in biblical history, the cross of Jesus Christ. The cross of Jesus Christ involves a historical event where a man was convicted of a crime against the Roman government, and he was sentenced to death by crucifixion. And the story tells us and describes the environment, the location, the characters that were involved, the method of death that was employed, and even the words of Jesus that He spoke from the cross.

And not only do we get the information and the details that describe the event as it took place, but we even get in the gospel record some people's interpretation of the meaning of the event. For example, Caiaphas said it is expedient for the nation that this man be put to death. And so from his perspective, we learn that the execution of Jesus was done out of political expediency to get the heat of the Romans off the Jewish Sanhedrin. And let's quiet down the people who will sacrifice this itinerant preacher. We see Pilate's statement where he cleanses his hands and he says, I find no fault in this man.

And he has an interpretation of his own political expediency. Or we hear the testimony of the centurion at the foot of the cross who said, surely this man was the Son of God. Now what was going on here? Was it simply an event of a poor, misguided, Jewish rabble-rouser who was put to death through some political chicanery that took place in Palestine two thousand years ago?

Was this one a deluded charlatan, guilty of treason against both the synagogue and the state? Or was this God incarnate going to the cross to die a cosmic death of atonement that would have radical consequences for the eternal destinies of thousands and millions of people, indeed for the whole world? What is the meaning of the cross? In the very first lecture of this, I told the danger of the modern version of painting where the artist says, I'll paint the picture, you interpret it, and so that any kind of interpretation goes.

And we warned against the danger of subjectivism in that. Well, there have been many attempts to look at the cross and reinterpret the cross according to 20th century categories. But what we have in the New Testament is not merely the record of the event of the cross, but also we have the record of the interpretation of the event in the New Testament.

That's the primary function of the epistles. But what I want to remind you of this, if you were a newspaper reporter standing at the foot of the cross on Golgotha, and you watched the drama of the crucifixion of this Jew unfolding before your eyes, I don't think that it would be immediately apparent to your naked eye that the death of this man was the most important death in world history of any man that this man at that moment was carrying by imputation the sins of the world. If you looked at Jesus on the cross, you saw a man in a Lloyd cloth sweating and bleeding and dying, and you would see skin and flesh and bones and hair and toenails, but you wouldn't see this package of human sin wrapped up and placed upon his body.

It was invisible. So how would you know that the death was an atoning death were it not for divine revelation? And so some say this, well, I believe in Jesus, but it's Paul that gives me trouble. I'll listen to the gospels, but not those narrow-minded epistles. But there is an interconnection between gospel and epistle in the New Testament.

You don't know anything about Jesus except what you learn from the gospel writers, and when you set Jesus against Paul, what you do is to simply set one apostle against another apostle. But their task was to tell us what happened and what it means. And so we must be careful lest we draw inferences from those narratives that are on a collision course with what is taught by inspired interpretation of the events elsewhere. Give an example of how we can draw conclusions from the narratives that are very, very tempting to draw but yet are dangerous. I think, for example, again of the story of Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac, which I mentioned in our last lecture, when Kierkegaard was wrestling with the drama of why Abraham got up early in the morning. Well, we know that Abraham did get up early in the morning, and he made the three-day journey to Mount Moriah, and he did everything that God had instructed him to do, and he took his son and he wrapped them in ropes and he put them there on the altar, and Abraham took out of his knife and he raised it above his son's chest, and just as he's ready to plunge that dagger into the heart of his own son, suddenly an angel's voice called out, saying, Abraham, Abraham, lay not thy hand upon thy son, for now I know that you love me, that you obey me. Now the very tempting conclusion that we may want to draw from that passage is what?

That God was up in heaven, pacing up and down the floors, walking back and forth before the throne of the heaven, calling for bulletins from the archangels every five minutes. What's the progress of Abraham? Is he still moving towards Mount Moriah? And the angel would come in and say, yes, he's now 17 miles from Mount Moriah and closing rapidly, and another bulletin would come five minutes later, and God would say, is he staggering?

Does he seem to be losing his confidence? And you can see God there wringing his hands and wiping his brow, wondering whether or not Abraham is going to be faithful. You know better than that. Everything that the Scriptures tells us in the didactic portions of Scripture is that God knows the end from the beginning, that God is omniscient. He knew very well what Abraham was going to do before Abraham did it.

And yet when the angel comes and speaks in behalf of God, he says, Abraham, Abraham, don't touch your son because now I know as if he didn't know beforehand. Then we have to say, what is the point of the story? Is the point of that historical narrative, is the point of that drama there to teach us about the character of God's omniscience?

Hardly. The point of the narrative is to reveal to us the nature of real, trusting faith in a sovereign God, to tell us of the test of Abraham, not of the test of God. God didn't have to pass a test on whether or not God had faith in Abraham. The question was whether or not Abraham had faith in God. And so we have to be careful that we don't draw conclusions from narratives that would set us in opposition to the rest of the Bible.

The Mormon church is built on the premise that God has a physical body because the Bible says in the narrative of creation that God created man and woman in His own image, and the gratuitous leap that comes there is that, oh, they're created in their own image, then God must have a body because Adam and Eve have a body, disregarding everything else that Scripture says about the spirit nature of God. And we've touched on that lately when we dealt with the problem of anthropomorphic language, that God reveals Himself in human terms. He's described to look like a man, to behave like a man, and so we must be careful that we don't take those human characteristics and set them in concrete as if they exhaustively describe the character of God because elsewhere Scripture, even though it uses human characteristics, says God is not a man.

He's like a man, but He is not a man. Well, again, we have to be careful with how we interpret biblical history. Now, we come to the New Testament and we see other problems linked to the historical narratives. The New Testament, for example, gives us a record not only of what Jesus said, but of what Jesus did, how Jesus behaved. We get a portrait of Jesus painted before us.

Do you remember Sheldon's classic devotional book, In His Steps? And we've been taught again and again as a guiding principle for Christian conduct, for Christian ethics, that when we are confronted with a situation and we're not quite sure what the right thing to do is, we should ask ourselves this question, what would Jesus do in this situation? Then we go back to the New Testament and we find and see if there are any parallel situations and see exactly what Jesus did. Now, there is value in a question like what would Jesus do in this situation because we know that Jesus' behavior was impeccable, that Jesus' behavior was sinless. We couldn't ask for a better guide or a better norm for Christian behavior than the life of Jesus Himself, except that even that creates its own breed of special problems.

Why? Well, I think the answer is obvious because no matter what else I am, I may be a Christian, but I am not Jesus. And there were certain things that Jesus did because He had a mission to perform that is not my mission, that had Jesus not done those things that He was called to do, He would have been disobedient to God. But if I imitated Jesus, I would be disobedient to God. Well, how could that be?

Well, let's take this example. I look at the church and sometimes I'm annoyed and upset by the church because I don't see that the church is being as pure and as proper as it ought to be. Do I have any right as an individual Christian to pick up a whip and walk into the church and drive the money changers out in a fit of anger and righteous indignation?

No. Jesus did it. But see, Jesus is the Lord of the church. I'm not the Lord of the church, and so I cannot practice everything that Jesus did. Well, we look in the New Testament, we read that Jesus was circumcised for religious reasons. Does that mean that I should become circumcised for religious reasons?

Not only should I not become circumcised for religious reasons, but Paul warns us in Galatians that we better not be circumcised for religious reasons because if we get circumcised not for medical reasons but for religious reasons, what are we doing? We're binding ourselves once again under the law of the old covenant from which we've been redeemed. And we may forget that when Jesus lived His life of perfect obedience, He was living it under the demands and conditions of the Mosaic covenant of the Old Testament, and that the new covenant didn't start until Jesus inaugurates it in the upper room the night before He dies. And so if we imitate and copy Jesus in everything that we do, we could end up in a kind of legalism that would in fact deny the whole purpose of His ministry.

Well, that never happens. You say, yes it does, I say. And I see an abuse of application of Jesus' behavior frequently. Here's one that's more subtle, one that may be more difficult to grab a hold of, but I think it's important. We have great discussion, indeed controversy among Christians today on how we ought to observe the Sabbath day.

And that's a tough question. It's a very difficult question because, you know, you can't read the Bible without seeing that Sabbath observation is very, very important to both the Jew in the Old Testament and the Christian in the New Testament in a certain sense. And so some have said, well let's see, what did Jesus do on the Sabbath day? And we see that Jesus performed works of mercy, works of healing, works of visitation on the Sabbath day. And then we set down a law for the church that it is the duty for the Christian to do works of mercy and visitation on the Sabbath day.

Now I ask you, now think carefully here, is that a legitimate inference to establish a law for Christians? You see, what happened in the first century in Jesus' own time, the rabbis prohibited works of mercy on the Sabbath day as a violation of the prohibitions against labor that were part of the Old Covenant. And Jesus went about doing good on the Sabbath day, healing on the Sabbath day.

And the rabbis got all exercise at the bottom and they said, what's He doing? He's having that man carry his bed on the Sabbath day. And then He asked, Jesus asked the question, is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath day? And Jesus confounds His critics by doing good on the Sabbath day.

Now the inference that we draw from that properly is this, that it is certainly allowable. It's certainly a virtuous thing to do works of mercy and visitation on the Sabbath day because if it were not allowable, if it were sinful to do works of mercy on the Sabbath day, then Jesus would indeed have been sinning by doing them on the Sabbath day. But the fact that He did them reveals to us that it is not sinful at all to do that particular form of activity on the Sabbath day.

But do you see the little line between may and must? It's one thing to say that you are allowed to do works of mercy on the Sabbath day. It's another thing to say you are commanded to do works of mercy on the Sabbath day.

It's a critical difference. Jesus nowhere in the Scriptures commands His people to do works of mercy on the Sabbath day. He certainly shows that it's a good thing to do by His example, but He doesn't command it. And His very example of doing something shows that it's permissible but doesn't necessarily show that it's obligatory.

It's a fine line, and we have to be careful. Now what about the imitation not only of Jesus but of other saints in the Bible? There is where we have to be very, very careful because though we know Jesus never sinned, we can't make the same statement about David or about Abraham. And you say, wait a minute, Abraham had a wife and a concubine. David had, you know, hundreds of wives and concubines. You know, Solomon had a thousand, and these people were held up as saints.

Yes, and David committed adultery. We are not to imitate that. The Bible paints for us the portraits of the saints, courts and all. Yes, we should imitate their heroic and virtuous actions, but we are not to imitate their sinful actions. And just because David did something or even just because Paul did something does not in itself make it necessarily commendable, although, and here's where it gets tricky, it might. When we see that these men did something that was praiseworthy by God, then of course their example is a model for us.

But when we see that something they did is condemned by God, then their example cannot be a positive model for us. Now looking at narratives of what the first century church did or what early Christians did can be very helpful but also dangerous. I want to know how the very first group of Christians behaved before the corruption of civilization and society came in and disturbed and blemished the pristine purity of the early church. But on the one hand, even though there was a degree of purity present in the early church that is not present in our day and age that there was a degree of zeal evident in the church in its earliest stage, there was also a sense in which the church was very immature. Read Paul's letters to the Corinthians.

Paul is writing to an immature congregation to whom he must plead and exhort the necessity of growing up in the maturity. Now we read the book of Acts and we read this history and we read, for example, in the very early chapters of Acts that the New Testament community at a particular point in time held all things in common. And that statement is just mentioned and then virtually nothing more is said about it. And we read throughout the rest of the Scriptures, if you can read between the lines of the rest of the Scriptures, you're going to see that it's obvious that the holding of possessions communally was not an established perpetual order for the Christian community. But for a particular moment in time it was said that the early church did it, and some have taken from that a mandate for communism.

They've drawn more from the narrative than the narrative requires. Take the whole controversial matter of the role and the functions and the significance of tongues and the speaking of tongues in the Christian life. Read the narratives of the book of Acts and you will read that not only does Pentecost happen in Jerusalem, but there's a sense in which a few more Pentecost happens. The Spirit falls again on the Samaritans and the Spirit falls at Cornelius' household on the God-fearers and the Spirit falls among the Gentiles. And we look at that and we say, oh, that must mean that the baptism of the Holy Spirit must come after conversion to Christ because it certainly did in the book of Acts. Or the significance of that is that some believers, as in the case of the Samaritans, have faith, but they don't have the baptism of the Spirit. And it certainly was true there that there was a disjunction between regeneration and faith and the baptism of the Holy Spirit. And then you go over to the didactic portions of the Scripture and we read that the same Spirit has baptized all members of the body of Christ. How is it that we have a doctrine floating around that some Christians are baptized in the Spirit and some are not, when the didactic portions of the New Testament seem to indicate that there is a universality of participation in the baptism of the Holy Spirit in those who are truly Christian? All Christians are gifted by the Spirit is the teaching of the didactic portions of Scripture.

So how do we square that with the narratives? Well, if we look at those narratives, we ask ourselves, what did the disciples themselves see as the significance of the falling of the Spirit at Cornelius' household or among the Samaritan Christians or among the Gentile Christians in Ephesus? Their interpretation of the significance, I might say, and lay down the gauntlet, I'll put the challenge out, it's the exact opposite interpretation given to it by a neo-Pentecostal thinker. We look at the day of Pentecost, every believer who was there received the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Every believer at Cornelius' household received the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Every believer among the disciples of John believed and received the Holy Spirit. Every one of those people who were believers present received it. It wasn't that some believers got it and some didn't.

In fact, if you look at it, you see the whole book of Acts follows the Great Commission. The opening chapters take place in Jerusalem and then in Judea and then in Samaria and then to the other most parts of the earth. And the biggest question the early church had to face was how do these people who are non-Jewish fit into the body of Christ? Where does the Samaritan fit?

Where does the God-fearer fit? Where does the Gentile fit? In the day of Pentecost, only Jews were baptized. And then God pours His Spirit out on the Samaritans and on the Ephesian Christians and on the God-fearers at Cornelius' household. Every group that was suspect and where they were to fit into New Testament Community Church were given their Pentecost and Peter and John goes down to see what's going on there, and they come back and they said, this is that which happened to us.

How can we refuse them full access into our community when God has put the imprimatur of His Spirit upon them? In other words, the significance the apostles derived from the narrative events was that all of these people are to be included as full members in the body of Christ, the very opposite conclusion which is drawn from 20th century neo-Pentecostal theologians who have built their doctrine on inferences drawn from narratives without that careful, careful guarding, tempering influence of interpreting the narratives in accordance with the way they are interpreted by the didactic literature of the New Testament. And so we must be careful to read the Bible holistically. We ought not to draw interpretations from the text that are against interpretations that the Bible elsewhere draws itself. The Bible interprets the Bible. The Holy Spirit is His own interpreter. That's an important reminder. The Bible interprets the Bible.

That was R.C. Sproul and one of twelve messages in his Knowing Scripture series. Dr. Sproul goes into further detail in this series helping us understand the various forms of literature in the Bible and other principles of interpretation. So I encourage you to request the entire series for your donation of any amount. Today's the final day that you can at and when you give your gift in addition to digital access to Knowing Scripture and the study guide, we'll also give you digital access to Stephen Nichols' series, Why We Trust the Bible. This offer ends at midnight so visit or call us at 800 435 4343. Continuing our Bible theme, next week we'll be jumping into a few Old Testament books to help us better understand the Word of God and the God of the Word. So join us Monday here on Renewing Your Mind.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-09-08 03:58:31 / 2023-09-08 04:08:44 / 10

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