Sunday, July 2, 2023

Just Ancient History? (Matthew 24:29-44)

“Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away” (Matt. 24:35).

One of the biggest obstacles in biblical interpretation is cultural conditioning. How do we account for cultural influences? We must let the Bible speak to us rather than our cultural influences. You accomplish this by implementing rules of interpretation.

First, you need to distinguish between principle and custom. For example, if you considered all of Scripture principally, without cultural significance, Jesus’ mandate to “carry no purse, no bag, no shoes” (Luke 10:4) would leave our minister's barefoot. But not all issues are this easy. Is foot washing a custom or a principle? How about head coverings? 1 Corinthians 11 says a woman should have a sign of authority upon her head. Some say the principle of submission applies but not the outward sign. Others say the sign is still binding but the type of covering changes with the culture.

As you study difficult passages such as this, look for apparent points of custom. Which ones can change with culture? For example, principles of modesty prevail, but local styles of dress may change. But be careful as you study local customs—do not force cultural norms on Christian teaching. Local customs did not always dictate Christian activities. For example, some people think Paul’s exhortation to wear head coverings was a reaction against the temple prostitutes who shaved their heads. But Paul himself does not give this as the reason for his admonition. He appeals to creation, not to the custom of Corinthian harlots, as the basis of his instruction.

Creation ordinances are indicators of transcultural principles. If the passage appeals to creation (or nature) as the basis of its rationale, it transcends culture. Creation mandates, such as marriage, were given to all people. Jesus preached against divorce, not because marriage was a Hebrew custom, but because it was instituted at creation.

Finally, when you are unsure whether a passage is a principle or a custom, it is better to be overly scrupulous and treat it as a principle rather than disregard a principle on the assumption that it is a custom. But use this principle with humility as a last resort—only after much study and prayer. Do not short-circuit such labor with blanket scrupulosity. This would obscure real distinctions between custom and principle and could lead to legalism.

Read Genesis 2:15–25. Why does this marital mandate apply to all people? How would you use this passage to respond to a polygamous culture? Read Matthew 19:3–6. How does Jesus appeal to a creation ordinance to condemn divorce? If marriage applies to all people, does Jesus’ teaching against divorce also apply to all cultures?