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Context! Context! Context!

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While driving to an appointment, my wife and I were listening to a radio quiz show. One of the questions had to do with sport’s teams that had swastikas on their shirts. When I later had access to the Internet, I did some searching and found the photographs. Sure enough, the swastikas were big, black, and bold. I showed them to a group of young people at a worldview conference where I was speaking. Their first reaction was to identify them as Nazi sports teams. Because the swastika is so identified with the Nazis, it’s not surprising that they would make the association, as most people would do.

A study of the photographs and the era in which they were worn will show that they have nothing to do with Nazism. The swastika symbol has a long history going back to Mesopotamia, ancient India, and classical antiquity. The symbol is also found among Native Americans. This brings us to the photographs of the swastika sports emblems. Some of the teams were Native American. The swastika was chosen well before the rise of the Nazis because it meant “good luck” or “well-being,” After learning of the Nazi association, the Navajo stopped using the symbol.

A left-turn swastika is also found on the inside of the nose cone of the Spirit of St. Louis, the plane that Charles Lindberg flew solo from New York to Paris in 1927. In fact, it’s amazing how often the swastika has been used in advertising over the years, everything from crackers to Coca Cola! The Swastika Drug Company, of Swastika, Ontario, had the following printed on their boxes: “Hitler Be Damned. This is Our Sign since 1922.”

Someone not familiar with the history of the Swastika would make a huge mistake identifying any of these companies with Nazism. Knowing the historical context throws interpretive light on the matter. Without an historical context, all prior meaning of the despised symbol is lost. It would be wrong to interpret the meaning of the pre-Nazi Swastika by today’s aversion to the symbol because of how its original sense has been perverted.

Nose Cone of the Spirit of St. Louis

It’s been said that a text without a context is usually a pretext . . . for error. Taking the meaning of texts out of context is a favorite pastime of prophecy aficionados. For example, when the prophet Zephaniah writes, “‘I will completely remove all things from the face of the earth,’ declares the LORD” (1:2), I suspect most of them claim that the text is referring to events surrounding the inauguration of the “new heavens and the new earth” (2 Peter 3:13). The context of Zephaniah 1:2 shows that the seemingly apocalyptic language is about a local judgment on the land (Heb.: eretz = “earth” or “land”) of Judah and her capital Jerusalem (1:4). The language is reminiscent of the Genesis flood, and yet, it’s not about the end of our world:

“‘I will remove man and beast;

I will remove the birds of the sky

And the fish of the sea,

And the ruins along with the wicked;

And I will cut off man from the face of the earth,’ declares the Lord.”

The order of the creatures destroyed is a reversal of their creation order (Gen. 1:20–27). Like Noah’s flood, a remnant survives God’s judgment (Zeph. 3:12), even though God tells them that He is going to “remove all things from the face of the earth,” including “all men.”

The New Testament follows a similar pattern of using apocalyptic and universal language to describe a local and covenantal judgment. Peter writes: “The end of all things has come near” (1 Pet. 4:7). Peter was describing events leading up to the end of the old covenant. “All things” must also be contextualized to give the phrase its proper meaning. The same is true of 2 Peter 3:3–14. (See article here.) N.T. Wright's comments are helpful:

“If someone had offered a first-century Palestinian Jew the consolation of pie in the sky, it would have been refused, no matter how kosher the pie. One of the great myths of twentieth-century scholarship is that most first-century Jews expected the space-time universe to end immediately. They did not: they expected their God to act dramatically within history, with effects that they could only describe with metaphorical end-of-the-world language. We might well describe the fall of the Berlin Wall as an ‘earth-shattering event’; 2,000 years hence, no doubt, some pedantic literalist will argue, in the Martian Journal of Early European Studies, that the wall fell because of a large earthquake, and we will all turn in our graves at the misreading of our everyday metaphors.” [1]

Here’s another example. Thomas Ice spends nearly three pages in End Times Controversy trying to show how Matthew 10:21-23 and 16:27-28 do not mean what they seem to mean. “I believe,” Ice writes, “because of the nature of the vocabulary, Matthew 10:21-23 refers to events that will take place during the Tribulation and climax in the glorious second coming of Christ” (84), a series of events that he believes are still future. Here’s the problem: Ice never deals with the vocabulary or the context of the passages. He quotes a bunch of commentators who know what the passages say but are unwilling to come to grips with unpleasant implications for their prophetic system.

Who is Jesus addressing in Matthew 10:23? The immediate context tells us: “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; therefore be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16). Throughout His discourse, Jesus has His present audience in mind. Like in Matthew 24, Jesus uses the second person plural (“you”) throughout the passage to make this point more than clear. There is nothing in these chapters that gives any indication that Jesus has any other audience in view other than His immediate audience. Ice never addresses the audience vocabulary. There is no discussion of how Jesus is using the second person plural and why it does not refer to those in His presence. How does “you” somehow come to have the generic meaning of “you of the Jewish nation” sometime in the distant future? Jesus could have avoided any confusion by using “them” and changing the verb tense from a simple present to a future tense. Avoiding these issues, Ice instead jumps to a distant future “Great Tribulation” scenario that would require a discussion of a different audience that is nowhere found in the context of the passage.

How do we know that Jesus is not using “you” generically, for the “Jewish nation” of some future time? Notice how the discourse begins: “And having summoned His twelve disciples” (Matt. 10:1). Jesus is not describing a future tribulation scenario with a post-rapture, newly regathered Israel. He is characterizing the conditions that existed in Israel in His own day: “These twelve Jesus sent out after instructing them, saying, ‘Do not go in the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter any city of the Samaritans; but rather go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’” (10:1, 5–6). The “twelve” are the “you” of the rest of the passage. They are the ones Jesus sent out. “Israel” is the Israel of Jesus’ day. Notice the context: “go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (10:6) and “you shall not finish going through the cities of Israel, until the Son of Man comes” (10:23). Nothing is said about a future tribulation period. Once again, Ice muddies what is very clear in the passage.

Here’s the next passage where context is everything: “For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels; and will then recompense every man according to his deeds. Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who shall not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom” (Matt. 16:27–28). Ice spends four pages trying to make this passage fit his system. There is no need for me to rehearse his arguments here since they are common attempts to get around the obvious. But Ice brings up one argument that I had never encountered:

A further problem with the preterist view is that our Lord said “some of those standing here. . . .” It is clear that the term “some” would have to include at least two or more individuals, since “some” is plural and coupled with a plural verb, “to be.” The word “some” nicely fits the three disciples -- Peter, James, and John (Matthew 17:1) -- who were participants at our Lord’s transfiguration. On the other hand, Peter notes that “John only survived” among the 12 disciples till the destruction of Jerusalem (88).

Ice is arguing that since only John lived after the destruction of Jerusalem, “some” does not fit the time period. If Jesus had said, following Ice’s argument, “one of you will not taste death,” then preterists [2] would have a point, but the passage says “some,” more than one. The only immediate event that fits, according to Ice, is the transfiguration. Once again, Ice fails to consider the context and audience. Matthew 16:24 reads: “Then Jesus said to His disciples. . . .” The audience of 16:27–28 is made up of the “disciples” who, as I will show, include Peter, James, John, and others. Simply put, when Jesus described the time of His “coming” in Matthew 16:28, Peter, James, and John weren’t the only disciples present. The other nine apostles were there and maybe other disciples as well. While the apostles are often described as “disciples” (Matt. 11:1), the word “disciples” can and often does mean more than the twelve (Matt. 5:1; 8:21; Luke 10:1).

It’s a week later when Peter, James, and John go up the mount with Jesus. After the experience of the transfiguration, we read in Mark’s account of the event: “And when they [Jesus, Peter, James, and John] came back to the disciples, they saw a large crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them” (Mark 9:14). Earlier we read, “But turning around and seeing His disciples, He rebuked Peter, and said, ‘Get behind Me, Satan; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.’ And He summoned the multitude with His disciples, and said to them. . . .” (Mark 8: 33–34).

It’s obvious that the disciples of Matthew 15–17 are a larger group than the three disciples Jesus chose to take with Him up on the mount where He was transfigured. This means that the plural “some” fits the context very well. “There are some of those who are standing here [Peter, James, John, and other unnamed disciples] who shall not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom” (Matt. 16:28). D. A. Carson’s exposition on this passage in his commentary on Matthew in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary dismisses the interpretation advocated by Ice:

The problem [with this view] is twofold. First, “some who are standing here will not taste death before they see” is an extraordinary way to refer to Peter, James, and John, who witness the Transfiguration a mere six days later (17:1). Second, as magnificent as the Transfiguration was, it is not entirely clear how the Son of Man comes in his kingdom (Matt) or the kingdom comes in power (Mark) through this event (380).

Once again, Ice presents his arguments in terms that his dispensational readers will accept without debate not by sticking with the time texts, audience context, and letter Scripture interpret Scripture. By never raising the issue of how the second person plural (“you”) is used throughout Matthew 10, he is counting on his loyal readers not to notice. And who would think to go to Mark’s account of the Transfiguration to see that the “disciples” is a larger group than Peter, James, and John? Understanding that context is nearly everything when interpreting the Bible demands it.

 

  1. N.T. Wright, “The New Testament and the ‘State,’” Themelios 16.1 (1990), 11–17.[]
  2. Those who believe a prophecy has been fulfilled: preterist = past[]

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