The Interpreting Issue of Allegory

One phrase I find myself repeating to believers is, “Interpreting the Bible has rules.” It seems that whenever I enter a conversation with a Christian about reading their Bible, many of them are struggling to figure out what God is saying. Part of the problem is that they have never been taught to interpret what they read correctly. The other part of the problem is that so many people do it so poorly and yet are vocal about their findings.

Case in point, over the past couple of weeks, I have read articles shared on social media that were the use of allegory in interpretation. While this type of thing has existed in Church communities since the beginning of the New Testament, it is always dismissed as poor Bible teaching at best and heresy at worst. Since it seems to be on the rise again, I felt it necessary to explain what I am seeing.

Allegory, when it is used in interpretation, is the quest for some deeper hidden meaning or application. One I have heard regularly is about the catching of the 153 fish after Jesus’ resurrection in John 21:11. Allegory teaches that those fish actually represent all of the nations on earth, and the disciples are to try and catch (as fishers of men) all of the world. Instead of these being fishermen who like to obsess over how many literal fish they catch (trust me I know), there is this hidden meaning of nations and the figurative fish of evangelism.

There are hundreds of examples. The star at Christmas is actually the life of Christians shining to lead others to Jesus. Peter catching a coin in the mouth of a fish to pay taxes is actually Churches reaching new believers to fund their budget. Eutychus in Acts 20 represents new believers dying because of a boring Church. And on and on it goes. The idea is that if you look closely and use some “creative license,” you can learn some hidden truth.

The interpretation of scripture as allegory is widespread and sometimes fascinating, but it betrays what the author originally meant, and therefore it leaves us on the quicksand of creative application. It makes the Biblical writers say things they never meant to say and lead us toward false conclusions, attitudes, and actions.

When reading the Bible, always ask yourself, “What is the plain meaning of this passage?” as the first step toward a proper understanding. If it takes some creative thinking to get a meaning few have seen before, then you are probably on your way to allegory rather than appropriate interpretation.

The Tale of the Big Wooden Table

My wife and I had spent the first year of our marriage in Missouri, and then we moved to Indiana to start a new ministry. Like most young couples, our only furniture was a collection of hand me down junk from our parents. That first year ended with us buying a sofa, love seat, and chair. After the move, we accepted an old table to use in our dining room, but eagerly awaited replacing it.

When we finally had enough money, the two of us went to a local store known for selling high-quality furniture. It was there that we talked to the salesman about our exact needs. At the time we spoke with him, we had limited funds and no children. I was leading a small Church with little signs of growth in the future. My wife and I confidently told the salesman we needed a huge table. We wanted one that was small but could hold no less than ten people if expanded. He looked at us curiously as I explained that we dreamed of a large family. I also told him we also hoped to one day have people into our home for meals, and we wanted a table big enough to hold everyone comfortably. Thrilled by the possibility of a bigger sale, he did not question our judgment but showed us the large dining rooms sets. The purchase was made, and we had a cozy little oak table for ten.

Since that day, we have loaded that table up and moved it into six homes. Two big bolts hold the pedestal to the top, and I can take it apart in less than fifteen minutes, and it is ready to move. It has gained scratches from the years of use and travel, but it remains in decent shape after twenty-five years. I have been blessed to watch my four boys sit around it with my wife and me as they grew up. We have hosted family and friends through the years and shared many good times around that old oak table.

The other night my wife and I hosted a meeting of Church people we call “Dinner Circles.” It was four other families and us. Sitting there at the head of the table, I saw a dream from twenty-five years ago come true. We were blessed to have a table full of ten adults sharing a meal in our dining room, and all of us had plenty of space to eat and enjoy each other’s company.

For me, this table is a tale in making plans and God fulfilling them in your life. My wife and I have never longed for possessions or fame. We wanted God to give us a family and friends with whom we could share our lives in the name of Jesus. He has blessed us enormously with both of our dreams. We hope this is one of many times that our home, life, and table will be full of people for the glory of God.

Sometimes you need to buy the bigger table. Not because it is more expensive and a symbol of your status, but rather because you want to leave enough space in your life for God to work. It gives you the ability to connect with other people in his name when the time comes. It doesn’t usually happen immediately, but one day your table will be full.

You Don’t Need to Take a Leap of Faith

While no one knows the exact origin of the phrase “leap of faith,” it was popularized by 19th-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. It means that there is a point where we no longer have the evidence on which to step, so we jump out into the unknown. The phrase has become a popular part of modern thinking, especially of those who follow Jesus.

The problem with this concept is that there is no Biblical foundation on which to establish it. None of the people found on the pages of scripture are described as “leaping” in their faith. Instead, the life of a believer is characterized by the metaphor of walking. We walk with God, in the light, in the way of love and by the Spirit. There is no instruction for us to get a running start before we leap out in the darkness, hoping to find God. The way of a Christian is to keep taking steps forward with God day by day.

This means that some days we will need to pause and rest as we prepare for the next step of the journey. Other days we will take many steps as God moves us at a brisk pace. There will be seasons of slow progress as we take deliberate steps. There will be others where we stretch our legs over significant strides in the right direction. We truly never know what each day, week, or season might hold as we walk with God.

I am convinced that this week God is not going to ask you to leap into the unknown for him. Rather you are going to feel his nudge to take a step forward as you trust his guidance. He will lead you one step at a time as you trust him. Each one will require you to rely on him, but he is there holding your hand through the process, not watching you perform blindly for his amusement. The question is not, “Are you ready to take a leap of faith?” but “Are you taking the step God wants you to take today?”

How to Last in Church for a Lifetime

The reasons that people leave the community of believers are numerous. It is easy to come up with a list of the problems with the Church. Today I want to flip that over and write about how you stay in the Church rather than leave.

I believe there are five things every Christian needs to last a lifetime in a local Church.

  1. Cling to Christ Alone – If your connection to the Church is only through the preacher, you will eventually be let down. He will move, retire, make a mistake in your eyes, or possibly even sin. One way or another, he is going to let you down.
  2. Receive Grace – When you mess up, the temptation is to run. You will want to go to another group of believers who do not know your flaws. The challenge is to work through your failures and not avoid them.
  3. Offer Forgiveness – When other people make mistakes, you will need to forgive them the way you would like to be forgiven. Other people will fail us (see #1); this will be your chance to extend grace to them. The other option is to become judgmental and throw stones at the Church. To stay in a community, you will have to learn to both receive and give grace.
  4. Faithful Stewardship – If you invest your time, talent, and treasure into a community of people, it makes it very difficult to walk away. Where you invest your life is where you will feel connected.
  5. Real Relationships – You need to have strong relationships with 5-10 people. You do not have to know everyone in the Church; rather, you need a strong network of people who are living out #1-4. Almost without exception, the people who leave the community of faith have no deep connections with other believers. You need a few people to stand in front of you, beside you and behind you through the journey of life as a Christian.

These are the most significant aids to spending a lifetime with a group of believers in a Church community. They are not a guarantee that your life in the Church will be perfect; instead they are the ingredients that make this group more like family. Give up one of them and everything changes. Live them all, and life in Church will be a more pleasing experience to you and everyone else.

Reading the Bible is Difficult

Everyone who attempts to read the Bible will say that it is a tough project. Everyone!

It requires proper reading, interpretation, and application. It takes work, study, and knowledge to make the pieces come together. Through the years, I have noticed there are two distinct groups of people who are a part of the Church and try to read the Bible.

  1. Those who say it is tough and dabble at reading.
    These people will tell you about how difficult the Bible is to understand and can give you a list of issues. The problem is that they never sit down and read the whole thing. Their intake of Bible consists of a verse or two here and there. They listen to an occasional sermon and hear some of the verses. They depend on books, often controversial writers, because they demonstrate the difficulties of particular topics or passages. The final place they are exposed to the Bible is the internet.
  2. Those who say it is tough and keep reading.
    These people will agree that there are issues in understanding the Bible. Then they read it. Often, they have a plan to read it from cover to cover every year. They study and work through complex issues. There are things they don’t understand, but they keep working, and it a little bit every day.

Learning the Bible is like learning a foreign language. When I was in high school, I took German for a year, and all I know right now is a smattering of words. Other students threw themselves into the class and were almost fluent by the end of our time together. Then they signed up for German 2 where they took a summer trip to Germany when they finished. We both had the same resources available, but how we each handled them was vastly different.

What kind of Bible reader are you? It will not be easy to do, how you approach the difficulties says more about you than the scriptures.

When Following Jesus Feels Unnatural

Everyone who knows me understands that I am an introvert by nature. Given a chance, I will withdrawal from everyone and hide in the recesses of my mind. With that said, over the past year, God has been laying a growing conviction on my heart. I need to become a better people person. The result was that one of my New Year’s resolutions was to invite more people into my life.

For the first eight weeks of this year, I have committed myself to be more loving and hospitable toward people. This has meant several things to me. My wife and I have sat with different people at basketball games. We have invited people into our home. I go out of my way to talk to people before and after worship on Sunday morning. Basically, if there is an opportunity to connect with people, I am taking advantage of it.

Here are some of the things I have discovered on this journey so far.

  1. It takes effort every time. I know Jesus teaches us to love one another. I know Paul instructs believers to encourage, help, and serve one another under as we follow Jesus. Yet, every time I see an opportunity to do what the Lord desires, I hesitate and have to talk myself into it. It is still unnatural to me.
  2. I still find it exhausting. People drain me. They wear me down, and God did not magically change that when I decided to follow his will.
  3. I need to build in times to recharge. This year, after seven straight days of spending time with people, I had to take a four-day break. I am learning that to follow God unnaturally, means rearranging my life so that I have downtimes to recharge my emotional battery.
  4. It has been a blessing. Most people I have visited with over the past weeks have been so happy to spend time with me. They share the stories of their life and ask about me. I am developing new relationships and making solid friendships. I have experienced kindness and love from everyone in ways I have never known before this year.

To follow Jesus means that we do things his way, even when it does not come naturally. For me, and possibly some of you, this means getting out of my comfort zone and into the lives of other people. Two people have told me that I have become more friendly than they have ever known me. God has been good to me through this, and I am finding a joy I never experienced in following him. Sometimes in unnaturally doing the Lord’s will, we discover the key to what has been missing in our lives.

Seeing God in the Circumstances

There is the belief held among Christians that God is working in the everyday circumstances of life. Passages like Romans 8:28 fuel this concept, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (NIV 2011) We know that God works in all things. That is a bold statement by the Apostle Paul because it is a challenging idea to understand in present situations.

One of my favorite preachers, Fred Craddock, used to say that seeing the hand of God was like looking through stained glass. You must squint and strain to see it moving. There will always be those who say it is not God, but rather, luck, fate, destiny, or karma. As a believer, it is hard to convince people that it is God who has been at work in your life and nothing less.

Lately, I have become convinced that the only way to understand the working of God is by looking in reverse. We must stop what we are doing and look back across our lives to see his hand at work. The Old Testament story of Esther is one in which the name of God doesn’t appear, but his fingerprints are all over the story. There is just the right person in just the right place at just the right time. It sure appears to be far more than coincidence. The people of Israel understood this when the story was complete. Only in looking back could they see the work of the Almighty in the presence of his people.

I think the same thing is true for us. We can only see the plan and work of God when we step back and look at the big picture leading up to today.

If this concept is only evident when we look back, then we need to develop two regular practices to help us see his work better. My first bit of advice would be to set aside regular times for reflection. Instead of reading or praying, take some time to think about how God has been working. This would be an excellent annual practice for those who walk in faith as an attempt to piece together the work of God in our circumstances.

The other idea would be to start a journal. My initial suggestion would be to start a prayer journal. Write down all the things you are praying about currently. Then at the end of the year, look back over those prayers and notice how God has worked. After that, take out those from five or ten years ago. Make a careful observation of how God has answered your prayers in ways you didn’t even see as it was happening.

I am sure God is working in your life and mine. It is not always easy to see, but if we look back intently over the journey of our life up to now, I am convinced we will see God working in our circumstances.