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Interpreting Scripture: Knowing What God Says

July 16, 2023 Preacher: Jeff Griffis Series: Acts of the Holy Spirit Through the Apostles

Scripture: Acts 13:32–41

Interpreting Scripture: Knowing What God Says – Acts 13:32-41

PRAY

INTRO: Imagine you are preparing a research paper. I know, I know, most of us don’t want to imagine that. But just hang with me here. In preparing and presenting a research paper, most of us are super familiar with what is the primary “no-no” to be avoided: don’t take somebody else’s words and ideas as if they are your own without giving them credit. We call doing so plagiarism. But the opposite of that would be equally true. Don’t put words and ideas in somebody else’s mouth that they didn’t actually say or intend to say. - I absolutely loathe this trend in modern mass media and social media, but that lack of intellectual integrity and honesty in such instances isn’t the point I’m making here.

What I’m arguing here is that if even the world can recognize how seriously wrong it is to blame somebody else for our own bad ideas or twist their words out of context to claim they are saying something they are not, or even to misunderstand and misrepresent them, how much more serious to blame God’s word for our own sinful inclinations and bad ideas, to twist his words to say what they do not, and even to misunderstand and misrepresent them? (or for our own ends and personal gain… greed, telling people what they want to hear to gain a following) I would think that God will not take that lightly.

What does that have to do with Paul’s evangelistic sermon in Pisidian Antioch in Acts 13? Well, a lot, actually. Do the Apostles, and should we, make sure that we are saying only what God intends to say from his word? Absolutely. Using Paul’s example here in an evangelistic sermon, we can outline some simple basics for Biblical interpretation, rightly handling the word of truth.

Let’s read it together again and I’ll explain where our emphasis will be today.

Acts 13:32–41 ESV

32 And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, 33 this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the second Psalm, “ ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you.’ 34 And as for the fact that he raised him from the dead, no more to return to corruption, he has spoken in this way, “ ‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David.’ 35 Therefore he says also in another psalm, “ ‘You will not let your Holy One see corruption.’ 36 For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption, 37 but he whom God raised up did not see corruption. 38 Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, 39 and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses. 40 Beware, therefore, lest what is said in the Prophets should come about: 41“ ‘Look, you scoffers, be astounded and perish; for I am doing a work in your days, a work that you will not believe, even if one tells it to you.’ ”

Last week we covered these same verses (plus back to the beginning of his sermon) to show that the pattern Paul uses in evangelism is a good pattern for us to follow ourselves in gospel proclamation.

I painted myself in a corner by telling you last week that I’d unfold the scriptural quotes more fully, but having already covered what I find to be the most helpful application for us of Luke showing the pattern of Paul’s evangelistic preaching. = We should consider following this pattern in our own gospel proclamation.

So now I’m left with the challenge of taking something that is highly intellectual and complex and nuanced, and trying to bring that back to us to say, “Here’s something from the pattern we can follow.”

I landed on three foundational lenses for interpreting Scripture: What we say God means has roots in the original context, hangs together with all of Scripture, and must account for the Christocentric message of God’s word.

First I want you to see that the meaning Paul intends has roots in the original context.

What we say God means must have roots in the original context.

It would be difficult to imagine that Paul does not understand well the context of the passages he quotes. But in fairness, the Apostles and other NT authors do not always make obvious what the contextual connection is in their use of the OT. However, we are not the Apostles, nor the NT authors, who had the unique role of the Spirit’s inspiration to be writing Scripture.

So I submit to you that…  Our interpretation of a text (what it means and how to apply it) should be contextually grounded.

Again, as a rabbi well-trained in the Jewish Scriptures, I would expect Paul to be quite comfortable understanding the original context of a passage he alludes to, quotes, or interprets.

Paul quotes first from “the second Psalm.” (This is, by the way, is uniquely specific in all of the NT quotations of the OT Scriptures—to state such a specific location.) The context of the Psalm is a celebration of the supremacy of the Lord’s Anointed and a confident declaration that God will vindicate this Son, this King who is his representative on earth.

Psalm 2:1–12 ESV

1 Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? 2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying, 3 “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.” 4 He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. 5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, 6 “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.” 7 I will tell of the decree: The Lord said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. 8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. 9 You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” 10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. 11 Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling. 12 Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

Let me repeat: the Psalm is a celebration of the supremacy of the Lord’s Anointed and a confident declaration that God will vindicate this Son in the world, this King, this Anointed One, who is his representative on earth. Therefore, people ought to take heed and respond rightly.

When we think about it in these terms, it isn’t hard to see how this royal psalm applies, through David and his posterity, to the One who would be fulfillment of messianic promises. (In case you don’t already know this, the word Messiah comes from transliterating the Hebrew word for “Anointed,” and the word Christ comes from translating “Anointed” into Greek.)

I can tell you with certainty that for me, the context richly develops and deepens my understanding and appreciation for the meaning, even as it points to Christ. We must be contextual in our interpretation of a text.

That’s what we do as we are trying to follow Paul’s argument here, we are figuring out the context in which he is speaking to understand how he is using the scriptural quotes and tying them together. - Isaiah 55:3 linked to Psalm 16:10 wouldn’t be immediately obvious without the promise-fulfillment motif that Paul has been driving at with this audience.

In vv. 34-35 Paul connects the promise of a Messiah to Davidic blessing promised to Israel (reinforced during their time of exile, quoted from Isaiah 55:3) and to another messianic psalm (Ps 16:10) that he says foretold of the Holy One’s resurrection.

As Isaiah, from his vantage-point, is prophesying a yet future judgment for Judah (in what would be the Babylonian captivity), this part communicates to them that there is yet hope and comfort for Israel, even though they will be severely disciplined. Paul is using it to show that God’s promise to David was reinforced at this juncture to Israel, and that said promise has found its fulfillment in the coming of Jesus Christ, but not only in his coming, especially in his resurrection.

So Paul draws a connection to Ps 16:10. The two texts are not only linked by the word “holy” (employing an accepted rabbinical method in which Paul was trained), but are also tied together conceptually in the “promise-fulfillment” paradigm that is the main theme of Paul’s message.

What’s more, Paul isn’t pulling the Psalm out of context, he’s saying that the Psalm is messianic. It’s a better fit for the Messiah than for David.

Paul is saying that Jesus is the Christ, the fulfillment of God’s promise to and through David’s line, and that this truth is most clearly vindicated by his resurrection from the dead (the context in this Acts 13 sermon). What was promised to David and to the people of Israel is fulfilled in Jesus, where these texts apply more fully to the true Anointed, the true King, the true Son.

One more example: Paul’s last quotation. Can a prophecy from Habakkuk that was intended to warn Israel of impending judgment under the Chaldeans be repurposed by Paul? Yes, in fact the principle is applied to new heights. If they would be judged for not listening to God then, and only a righteous remnant would endure by faith (Hab 2:4), how much more would they be judged for ignoring the mighty work of God through his Son, Jesus Christ.

Again, the richness of meaning in quoting other Scripture actually comes from the context in which it is found.

So we aim to be contextual in our interpretation. But that alone isn’t enough. We aren’t stopping only there. If we don’t also consider the Scriptures canonically, as a whole, that might lead to erroneous conclusions. We must allow Scripture to interpret Scripture.

What we say God means must hang together with other Scripture.

(must complement, not contradict)

As I said, for us this is critical for Paul quoting a verse like Psalm 2:7. We immediately get hung up on how the unique Son of God can be begotten. If we try to take it in terms of the Son being created, then he isn’t God. Or is this begotten-ness primarily about his incarnation, or inauguration of his public ministry, or even his resurrection and exaltation? I don’t think so. And the reason I don’t think so is because of another passage in the Bible that quotes the same text with further explanation. Heb 1:1-5

Even when we account for the fact that the context is different (the conversation has its own environment and purpose), Scripture making statements on a subject protects us from thinking Paul might be saying something that he cannot be saying. 

The author to the Hebrews begins with the supremacy of the Son, and will carry this same theme throughout.

Hebrews 1:1–5 ESV

1 Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. 3 He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4 having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. 5 For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”? Or again, “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son”?

The author doesn’t stop there, but continues to quote other passages that reinforce the Son’s supremacy.

Again, the context is superiority to even the angels, and by implication obviously all men. But what is clear is that the Son already was the firstborn, the heir, the radiance of God’s glory and the imprint of his nature. His coming (incarnation), and his perfect obedience, and his sacrificial death, and especially his resurrection & exaltation vindicated that all this was true of him and that he is the fulfillment of God’s promise and that he is therefore the only sufficient Savior.

So these other events in his life announce and vindicate his identity, but they do not bring it about. In fact, this is the reason that Christian orthodoxy sought to protect against the teaching of Arius, which would have diminished the deity of Christ.

God the Son was not begotten at the incarnation, nor at the outset of his public ministry, nor even at the resurrection. What these things do is make evident (reveal) that he is the unique Son.

The Son is eternally begotten of the Father. This is a doctrine of Scripture called eternal generation. It is a helpful description of the Son’s distinctiveness and unity within the Godhead, in order to avoid the heresy of diminishing his deity.

In an updated version of the Nicene Creed (A.D. 325) that was adapted at the Council of Constantinople (A.D. 381), a statement of the doctrine reads like this:

We believe in one God,
      the Father almighty,
      maker of heaven and earth,
      of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
      the only Son of God,
      begotten from the Father before all ages,
           God from God,
           Light from Light,
           true God from true God,
      begotten, not made;
      of the same essence as the Father.
      Through him all things were made.
      For us and for our salvation
           he came down from heaven;
           he became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary,
           and was made human.
           He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate;
           he suffered and was buried.
           The third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures.
           He ascended to heaven
           and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
           He will come again with glory
           to judge the living and the dead.
           His kingdom will never end.

And we believe in the Holy Spirit,
      the Lord, the giver of life.
      He proceeds from the Father and the Son,
      and with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified.
      He spoke through the prophets.
      We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.
      We affirm one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
      We look forward to the resurrection of the dead,
      and to life in the world to come. Amen.

“In this doctrine, the church confesses not simply that the second person of the Trinity is the one true and living God but how he is the one true and living God: as the Son eternally begotten by the Father who thereby shares the Father’s self-same being, attributes, works, and worship.” - Scott Swain (https://www.scottrswain.com/2022/02/26/the-greatest-prooftext-for-the-doctrine-of-eternal-generation)

A doctrine, a summarizing statement of what the Bible teaches on a particular matter, does not trump the Scripture itself. Rather, it is an effort to clarify what it is that Scripture actually teaches, especially by allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture. (Doctrinal statements arise from the need to distinguish truth from falsehood concerning what the Scripture actually teaches.) … What we are really saying in doctrinal or confessional statements is that this is a helpful summary of “What Scripture Says About Scripture,” “What Scripture Says About God the Son,” and so on.

What have we seen so far?

Our interpretation cannot be ripped from its context, which is the intent behind it at the time. But then we also have to take into account other Scripture, not just to protect us from wrong conclusions, but also to draw connections. That’s what we showed Paul doing with ‘promise to David’ + ‘reinforced promise to Israel of that blessing still to come’ + ‘the Messiah has come and done more than anticipated’ = ‘you must respond to this Jesus.’

In our interpretation of Scripture, along with context and cannon, we must account for the center of Scripture being Christ.

What we say God means must account for the Christocentric message of God’s word.

This last one is the easiest for us to spot in the text because it’s an evangelistic message and is in the New Testament. It’s pretty plain to see in this text we’re studying that Christ is obviously the fulfillment of promises and that faith in Christ is the goal Paul has for his audience.

Not every text is strictly evangelistic in this way, as you well know from reading the Bible. So this does not mean that we slavishly try to somehow make every tiny detail of text be about Jesus. What it does mean is that we are mindful of where everything is heading — through the cross and resurrection to a future culmination with Christ as King.

Not every Psalm is messianic, but every Psalm has new depth or different dimension because of Christ. From where we sit in history, the Son has come and died and rose again and ascended to the right hand of majesty. He gives the Holy Spirit to those whom he makes his own through faith, and he is keeping us and changing us and using us until his return. I can’t possibly read the Psalms like Simeon was as he waited for the consolation of Israel. Now Simeon say the infant Messiah, but we read like someone who knows the Christ has come, who has faith in the Christ, and who knows he is coming again.

Another example is that not every instruction to Israel has an immediately apparent correlation to Christ, but we clearly cannot read them or understand them or decide to apply them or not apply them without deliberate consideration of the purpose and command of Christ.

***

Conclusion: Are you striving to listen to what God says?

We should interpret the Scriptures contextually, canonically, and christologically.

Understand the context because that context has bearing on a right interpretation.

Understand that the Scriptures are unified and that has bearing on a right interpretation.

Understand that the Lord Jesus Christ is the central theme of the Scriptures; therefore, Christology has bearing in some way on the meaning.

I’m not trying to argue that this is like a simple formula that will make all interpretation easy. But I think I am arguing, even from Paul’s example here, that wrestling with these three factors in our interpretation will go a long way to keeping us on the right track.

We wrestle with God’s word because we know it is God’s revelation and we must submit to his authority. Therefore, with great effort we strive to understand God’s meaning in order that we submit to his intention.

Paul treats the Scriptures like they are the inerrant word of God, true and authoritative, and therefore necessary for us, clear enough to comprehend, and sufficient to communicate what we need to know of God’s salvation and of how we can live in submission to him.

It is only right that we should do the same.

 

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