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Imagine attending a church where a preacher asks you to turn to one of the blank pages in the back of your Bible. He then begins to preach a message that sounds biblically accurate. He tells you not to give up in the face of trials, because Jesus will save you in the end. The next service, he has the same “text,” once again the blank page in the back of your Bible. This time he preaches on how Christians should be different from the world. The next service he does the same thing, with a different message. Do you trust this preacher? No. Regardless of whether you agree with what he says, he didn’t use any Scripture to back up his claims. Would you believe that I heard hundreds of such sermons? Except, instead of preaching from the blank page in the back of my Bible, they preached from a narrative section of Scripture, often in the Old Testament, and they completely ignored the plain meaning of the story in order to manufacture an analogy, not intended in the original story, and then preach about the analogy. The problem with preaching in such a way is that anyone can turn a story into an analogy about anything. It is just as easy to plant a false teaching in an analogy as a true one. The teaching is driven by the teacher, not the text. When you teach that way, it opens the doors for immature Christians and false teachers to extract false meanings from a text with an analogy.
Interpreting by Allegory
Allow me to give some examples, which I very quickly found on Holiness-Preaching.org. I won’t cite the preacher’s names, because I don’t mean to attack the preachers personally. They are just preaching as they have been taught, but I think I can show you that the style is deficient.
The first text is from 2 Samuel 2:23. In this text, Asahel chases Saul’s general, Abner, after a battle. Abner tries to get Asahel to stop chasing him, but he won’t, so Abner kills him. The preacher went on to create an analogy about this text. He said Asahel is like a Christian who attempts to hold on to a sin that he thinks he can handle. Abner is like the sin. You think you can handle the sin, but you can’t, and it will kill you. The basic point the preacher is making is not necessarily wrong, but is it justified from the passage?
The preacher assumed that Asahel was in the wrong, in order to make his point. But a cursory reading of the passage shows that Asahel was fighting on behalf of David, God’s anointed, and Abner was resisting him. So, it seems that Asahel was in the right and therefore the story actually demonstrates that even when you bravely follow God, sometimes things don’t work out for you. But the preacher didn’t want to preach on that, so he redefined the parameters of the story so it would fit his message and then analogized Abner into sin. If we tolerate a preacher doing that, what’s to prevent another preacher from changing the metaphor to say this. “Abner is like a Christian who is running away from sin, represented by Asahel. When Abner is tempted, does he cry out for help? No! He faces his sin on his own and smites it! When you’re tempted, do not tell anyone else, fight alone!” We know that this “takeaway” would violate other biblical teaching of confessing our sins to one another and bearing each other’s burdens. But the same logic that allows the preacher to make the first true claim, allows another preacher to make the subsequent false claims
Allow another example. A second preacher preached from a passage Exodus 25:8, “Let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them.” In this passage, the Lord is talking about the tabernacle. The preacher chose to make an analogy to the modern church building and say that this passage meant we had to come to church three times a week, so that God could dwell among us. The problem is that this original text doesn’t refer to the modern church building, it referred to a place where God’s presence was visibly manifest. In the modern era, God inhabits no building that way. Rather, he inhabits believers. This text has nothing to do with going to church. Going to church can be justified from other passages of scripture, but not from this one. I could just as easily say that this text teaches that we must build a personal shrine to God in our garages so that he can dwell with us. Or I could use the verses about bringing gold to the tabernacle to say that we should plate our pulpits in gold. The passage isn’t talking about going to church; it’s talking about building a tabernacle. We can’t just make it mean what we want, no matter how good our intentions are.
In the last example, a preacher took a text from 1 Kings 18:30, in which Elijah rebuilt an altar for the Lord. The preacher preached about how we don’t pray enough in our modern churches and we need to “rebuild our altars.” The problem is that a modern prayer altar is not the same as a biblical altar of sacrifice. The prayer altar is actually just a tradition not even found in the Bible. Prayer is important, but this passage in Kings is simply not about prayer. It’s about worship and obedience to God, but it’s not about prayer. We can’t just read in any meaning we want to a text.
Another error a preacher can make is taking a valid Biblical analogy or parable and expanding its meaning too much. For example, we are the bride of Christ, and a bride spends a lot of money and time on her appearance, so we need to spend a lot of money and time on our appearance. This would, of course, be a false teaching. The reason the Bible uses so many metaphors is that each one expresses only one or at best a few key ideas. Jesus is called our brother, our mediator, our friend, our master, and our husband. These metaphors each show us something about our relationship to him, but we must take the key ideas that the Bible intended us to learn from each metaphor, and not overburden them with meaning not intended. This is also why Jesus often told several parables about the same topic. Jesus knew that parables are an effective way to make a message stick, but a single parable tempts people to read meanings in not intended. So, Jesus told about the lost sheep, lost coin, and prodigal son back-to-back. He wanted us to see all three stories and extract the common thread, rather than reading them in isolation and imagining that each element of the story represents something it didn’t.
Learning Without “Analogizing”
Am I saying that we can never apply an Old Testament story to our lives? No. I’m just saying that you can’t “learn” a different lesson than was taught in the original story. If the story of Abraham and Isaac teaches you that, like Abraham, we must have faith when God tells us to do hard things, then you understand the story. You are applying the story correctly. If you say that Isaac represents us and Abraham represents temptation, and that you shouldn’t resist temptation because God will save you in the end, then you are reading meanings in that were never in the original story, and you may walk away with literally any false doctrine imaginable.
The New Testament gives plenty of examples of how to learn from the Old Testament well. Usually, the New Testament’s usage follows the standard rules that I have laid out – it only extract morals from a passage that are already contained in it. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 9:9 and 1 Timothy 5:18, Paul instructs us not to muzzle the ox that treads out the grain. The point of this law is that you should be grateful to your ox for its labor and not prevent it from partaking from the fruits of its labor (by eating some of the grain it treads). Paul uses this to say that preachers should be taken care of financially by their flock, because they too are laborers creating value and they should reap some of it. Paul is not taking a meaning out of the passage that was never there. Rather, he is isolating a principle contained in the text and then applying that principle in a new context. “Laborers should be rewarded for their work.” This applies to oxen and this applies to preachers.
On one occasion, Paul does seem to “preach by analogy,” when he allegorizes the story of Hagar and Sarah in Galatians Chapter 4. However, when he does so, he is not pretending to find his meaning from the Old Testament text. He is transferring divine revelation to us as inspired by the Spirit, and using a story from the Old Testament as a parable to illustrate the new truth and make it more clear. We expect our preachers to preach from God’s word. Paul was literally writing God’s word, so he had some liberties to unveil new doctrines that our preachers do not.
The habits we see modeled in the pulpit are easy to adopt into our personal study. We are tempted to skip understanding the text and jump straight to application. However, we must remember that while the Bible was written for us, it was not first written to us. There was an original audience, who understood the message in a particular way. The Old Testament was written to the Jews, the New Testament to various churches in the first century.
In order to arrive at the proper application, we should ask the following questions:
1) What words does the passage use?
What words and phrases are emphasized, how is it structured? Is it a poem, an argument, a story? (Taking a look at the original language is helpful here)
2) Who was this passage written to/ or spoken to?
If this is a message to a first century church, what do we know about them from other parts of the Bible or history?
3) What did it mean to them?
How would an original reader have understood this? How would it have made them feel? Were they being encouraged? berated? advised?
4) What timeless truths does this passage teach?
The same lessons that were true in first century Philippi are true today, so extract those messages. Be careful in the Old Testament not to apply something that the New Testament declares fulfilled (Read more on how to do that objectively)
5) How do I apply those truths to my situation?
What does this teach me? How does it inform my decisions? How does it change my relationships? Most important – what is my plan to implement the truth I have learned?
Notice that we start with understanding and end with application. Often in our rush to apply God’s Word, we don’t take time to figure out what it means.
The worst thing is that listeners often praise teachers and preachers for the unbiblical practice of reading new meanings into a text via a clever analogy. People say “Wow! I had never seen that in that verse before. What a great message!” The reason they never saw the meaning before, is that it was never in the text in the first place. Of course they didn’t see it on their own – it wasn’t there to see.
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