How to Read the Scriptures

In the movie Schindler’s List, Oskar Schindler, a German businessman saved the lives of more than a thousand mostly Polish-Jewish refugees from the Holocaust by employing them in his factories during World War II. He could not save all the Jews but only those who he managed to get to work in his factory which made supplies for the Nazi war effort. Some people might be appalled that he made anything for the Nazi war effort and might be doubly offended that he asked Jews to do this work.

But most of us recognise that Oskar Schindler did not have the power to change the whole corrupt system. We commend him on the courage it took to do what was in his small power to save lives. We understand that sometimes our best human attempts to do the right thing are mixed up with sin such as profiting from cheap Jewish labour and providing products for the Nazi army.

But when we understand the real life context then we most of us can see his story is one of courage and not cowardice.

When you understand the context of the Bible stories/letters/ teachings/songs you begin to understand that God does not want us to recreate the flawed societies of two thousand years ago but does want us to imitate the scripture writers’ attempt to apply the Gospel to their day.

For instance, our Bible reading from 1 Peter 3 addresses a society of male domination where husbands were perfectly in their rights to beat their wives into submission; a situation made easier by the fact that women were physically the weaker sex when it came to violence. A society where husbands and wives were not expected to be best friends or even friends at all! Where power was the male role and beauty was the female role. Into this context and culture the tiny church could not hope to change the whole of society, no more than Oskar Schindler could change Nazi Germany. But what they could do is try and figure out how to apply Jesus’ teaching to their culture and their time. And this is what they came up with:

1Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behaviour of their wives, 2 when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. 3 Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewellery or fine clothes. 4 Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. 5 For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their own husbands, 6 like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear.
7 Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers. 1 Peter 3 (NIV)

Is this meant to be a blueprint for how husbands and wives ought to live in every place and culture? That was never the intention in their context. Our culture values love and friendship in marriage and you will notice that this is never mentioned here because that was not their culture. Instead they undermined the culture of their day by applying Jesus’ teachings to a difficult context. They used Jesus’ focus on the heart of the person and not the outward appearance. (see the Sermon on the Mount) They also tried to apply Jesus’ practice of honouring all those who were at the bottom of the social order. But it never occurred to them to toss out the whole of their culture and start again. After all, the church was so tiny in those days.

To demand that the early church should have had 21st century views is the same as demanding that Schindler should have taken on the Nazi army single handed and should never have worked within his context.

But the real lesson for you and I is not to argue about whether the early church of Peter’s day could have done a better job. Their story is over but yours is not …

Your task, whether you like it or not is to “go and do likewise”. To take a look at your context and culture and say, “how can I apply Jesus’ teachings to my marriage, to 21st Century Australian culture?”

The Bible does not command us to recreate some golden era of the past that never existed. Passages like this are meant to encourage us to think about how to apply Jesus’ teachings in our very different time and context. What does it mean for Jesus to be Lord of your Australian context?

This may sound difficult but often it is as simple as loving the neighbour in front of you, or loving the enemy standing behind you, or welcoming the stranger from overseas. Yet sometimes, it is hard to try and resist all the pressure at the shops and in the media to be sexualised, and ‘get on board the property bonanza’ etc, etc. Nevertheless.

May you do half as well at following Jesus as our brothers and sisters in the early church and may future generations be kind when they look at our church and ask ‘why did they do that’?


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