Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Study Skill 03: Context & Plain Meaning

A short series of posts about how we read the Bible

“... it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God....” Luke 18v24.

Its a well known saying. Part of our language. And yet time and again people seem to fall over themselves trying to interpret it. What is going on? What is Jesus talking about? Context, as always, provides the solution to finding the plain meaning of the text.

The context is a conversation between Jesus and a ruler.

The Context – v18-27.
V18 And a ruler asked him “Good teacher what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
v19 And Jesus said to him “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.
V20 You know the commandments, do not commite adultery, do not muder, do not steal, do not bear false witness, honour your father and mother.
V21 And he said “all these i have kept from my youth”
v22 When Jesus heard this he said to him “one thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me”
v23 But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich.
V24 Jesus, looking at him with sadness, said, “how difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”
v26 those who heard it said “then who can be saved?”
v27 But he said “What is impossible with men is possible with God”

1.v24 is part of a response by Jesus to someone asking how to get eternal life. So, it is concerned with how to get treasure in heaven – a synonym for eternal life.

2.The question is asked by a ruler.... who we find in v23 is very rich.

3.Before answering the question Jesus responds to being addressed as good – saying only God is good. God whose kingdom is on offer – v24... and who can do the impossible v27.

4.The Old Testament law is laid out in v20... and v21 the man says he has kept that....

5.Then comes v22. And the man finds it too much to bear... Jesus responds with sadness... it is difficult! In fact it is easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle. Many have speculated that this refers to an alleged “Needle Gate” which required camels to bend low and unload before passing through.
This is erroneous for two reasons.
a) That requires knowledge that is not given here – it forces us beyond the plain simple meaning of the text. Of course I'm trying to prove that you can't do this so that's not an argument. (Its similar to people saying that something in Revelation refers to the European Union – an interpretation only a European, and a eurosceptic at that, could ever etertain. A Christian in the south pacific isn't going to see that...)
b) That actually teaches the opposite of this saying. Why? Because, the people present say – its impossible... and then Jesus says, yes it is impossible with man, but God can do it. If unloading was actually required – as possibly implied in v22 then it would not be impossible, only difficult.

6.So, what is going on? Jesus is showing the man that he is not righteous. He thinks he keeps all the law... but Jesus finds something he can't do. He makes it
impossible for the man to save himself. The man is pushed to have to do something that is beyond him – selling all he has. In fact the man must ask God to help him – for God can save him according to v27. And where might he find God? The “good” teacher....

7.The context helps us to see the plain meaning of the text. The Bible is a book that can be plainly understood. Its meaning is not mystical. The only mystery in the Bible is the gospel – which was hidden until Jesus, and then made known. In context Jesus is plainly saying that the only way to eternal life is to ask him for it – not to imagine that if you unload yourself enough you'll be able to get there yourself.