01 May 2012

Aesop as Context for Matthew 7:15-23

My favorite class in graduate school was hermeneutics, which concerns itself with the proper interpretation of Scripture. One of the foundational principles for hermeneutics is that a passage must be interpreted in light of its context. First, the passage as a whole must be explored. The passage is its own context, in many ways. We start with wholes, not with parts. It is so important to get the flow of the passage in its entirety, and understand the relation of each part to the whole. Next, consider its direct context {what comes immediately before and after}, and then the context of the whole book of the Bible in which it appears, and finally the context of all of Scripture.

We used to laughingly say that a text without a context is merely a pretext.

Historical or cultural contexts {among other contexts} may also be enlisted, but they are not the primary means of interpreting Scripture, though in some circumstances {I think specifically here of some nebulous passages in Revelation}, a knowledge of geography and history and culture is almost the only way to make sense of what is said.

These were the rules back when I was in school. I hear things are a little different now, and I highly doubt that is a good thing.

But I digress.

Isolating Verses from the Passage

Matthew 7:21-23 is one of those passages often preached out of context:
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS.’
There is a larger context than these three verses. In fact, I wouldn't call it context because these three verses are not the entire passage.

There is some debate concerning of what the entire passage does consist. Some believe it begins at verse 13, where Jesus is discussing the narrow and wide gates. Others believe that it begins at verse 15, where Jesus is warning against false prophets. Most of the Bibles I own break each passage into its own section, and there seems to be a consensus among them that verse 15 is the beginning {and 23 the end, by the way}. so that is how I'll treat it today.

The reason it is dangerous to isolate verses 21-23 is that this usually causes Christians to doubt their salvation, and with it the efficacy of Christ's work upon the Cross. Now, granted, I do agree that if one does not wish to follow Christ, he does not follow Christ. We all know the lukewarm are spit out of the mouth. So, there is a place to look inward a bit and judge our own fruit.

But that is not the lesson of this passage, and if we interpret the passage that way, we miss the lesson.

If we want to navel-gaze, we need to go elsewhere.

What Does the Entire Passage Tell Us?

The passage begins with "beware of false prophets." We must consider the entire passage in light of this introductory phrase. We are given a metaphor, in order to better understand false prophet: they are wolves which get in amongst the sheep by dressing up in sheep skin. {This is a direct reference to Aesop's The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing, but we will come back to that.}

Obviously, if the wolf looks identical to the sheep, we need some guidance on how to discern what is wolf and what is sheep. We are given another metaphor for this purpose: examine the fruit. Bad fruit comes from bad trees, and good fruit comes from good trees. We will know them {not ourselves, but the false prophets} by their fruit.

Please note that I'm not saying you can't know yourself by your own fruit. That is one possible application of the principles found in the passage. But there is a difference between an application and an interpretation. We must interpret first, and apply second. The interpretation is that we can beware of false prophets by looking at their fruit, we can protect ourselves {or the flock} by being wary of self-proclaimed prophets who bear bad fruit.

The next section, then, is the famous passage from above, the "Lord, Lord," verses. This is where the false prophets receive the just compensation for their actions. They say, "Didn't we prophesy in Your name? Didn't we perform miracles in your name? Doesn't this mean we belong to your kingdom?" And the Lord answers in the negative.

Not all prophets are true prophets. False prophets do not belong to the kingdom, regardless of whose name they claim to come in.

So suddenly, the usual application is turned upon its head. Instead of being written to shake up the herd and cause them doubt over whether they are a sheep or not, or whether they will get into the kingdom, they are assured of final justice. These false prophets who, like wolves, have stolen and destroyed sheep and disrupted the flock? God will take care of them in the end. They will reap what they have sown.


Parallels with Aesop

Wolf in Sheep's Clothing
by Milo Winter
What makes me so sure that this is an entire passage is its perfect parallelism with Aesop. It is said that Aesop lived around 500 years before Christ. His fables were so powerful, they were the first principle of the progymnasmata writing and rhetoric curriculum, which we know was formalized as early as 100 BC. Because Aesop was utilized not only to instruct in wisdom, but to teach writing and storytelling, and because almost every student would have had to retell Aesop's fables, we can safely assume that this idea of a wolf in sheep's clothing had slipped into the culture and provided a frame for discourse for at least 150 years, if not half a millenia, before Christ said these words.

Please realize that He was taking a universally known cultural story, and applying it those who would hurt His sheep.

Aesop's tale of The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing has two parts. In the first part, the wolf has trouble getting any sheep to eat because the shepherds are so good at protecting them. The wolf's problems are solved when he discovers a discarded sheepskin and puts it on. Almost immediately, he manages to snag a sheep for lunch. This is the fist half.

The second half takes an interesting turn. In this half, one of the shepherds decides that he's in the mood for mutton broth for dinner, and heads out to the flock. He grabs the first sheep he finds...which just happens to be the wolf. The wolf becomes soup, not unlike the fool of Proverbs, who falls into his own pit.

Depending on your version of Aesop, you will have different morals attached {the morals were added much later}. One is: Appearances are deceptive. The other is: The evildoer often comes to harm through his own deceit. {There may be others, of which I am unaware.}


Jesus recasts the wolves as false prophets, and instructs His followers in how to pull the sheepskin off {look at the fruit}.

In the first half, Jesus covers deceptive appearances, and in the second half he covers the harm that comes to the evildoer in the end, as a result of his own choices and actions.

Just like Aesop.

Remember, this was a popular and known story, and Jesus was making clever use of it.

In Light of the Direct Context

I have neither the time nor the desire to think about this passage in light of the greater contexts of the whole book and the whole Bible {at least not today}. But I do find the direct context interesting.

Before this passage, Jesus explains the concepts of the narrow and wide gates. Only few find the narrow gate, and it opens into the way of life. The broad gate and the broad road lead to destruction. It is right after this that He launches into the "beware of false prophets" monologue, which begs the question {in my mind, at least} or whether or not false prophets are those who are trying to lead the sheep out of the narrow way and onto the broad path.

We see this sort of thing all along Christian's journey in The Pilgrim's Progress. Flatterer specifically comes to mind, for he appears in a deceptive form and actually manages to lead Christian and Hopeful out of the Way for a time.

After this passage, Jesus discusses where to build a house--on sand or rock. The rock is the firm foundation, while the sand shifts in the slightest storm. Hearing and doing Christ's words is akin to building one's house upon the rock. Hearing His words and not doing them is akin to building upon the sand.

Previously, I took this in a general sense {i.e., hearing and doing all of Christ's words}. But, given the context of the warning against false prophets, I do wonder if it isn't more that one who judges rightly between true and false prophets is the one who builds upon the rock, while the one who listens to falsehood is the one who builds upon the sand.

Reading in context is always more interesting than reading in isolation, that is for sure!

My point, though, is that in instances like this, responsible hermeneutics are imperative. We miss the entire lesson about false prophets when we isolate a few verses from the whole, and unnecessarily cast doubt among God's people as a result. The point is not that one should look within and hope and pray that on that Final Day when we cry, "Lord! Lord" we will hear the great "well done" rather than "depart from Me." The point is, rather, that we must be careful who we listen to, that we must not only test their words with the Scriptures as the faithful Bereans did, but that we must also look at the fruit of their lives.

Beware the wolves, my friends. That is the focus of the passage.

_________________________
Interested in Basic Hermeneutics?
-my hermeneutics professor published a basic book called Playing with Fire
-another option is How to Read the Bible for All It's Worth
{my children will have to read both of these before I grant them a diploma}

7 comments:

  1. My first response is, "way cool!" Thanks for the history and analysis.

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  2. Really helpful - this particular passage has been sitting in a post in my devotional blog draft file for a while because I had sensed I was missing something in it and hadn't "felt" (Thank you God!) that I should push the publish button. Glad I didn't.

    Re: your recommended books - what age level?

    Really enjoy your blog posts.

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    1. At the *earliest*, I would use these books in high school. I used one as an undergraduate student, and one as a graduate student, but I didn't find them difficult, which is why I think an engaged high school student would do fine with them. They are great for Mom and Dad, too, for it is they who guide the family conversations. My oldest {almost 10} knows a few of these things because he's picked them up through conversation with us. He could never sit down and read and comprehend these books, but he's picking it up organically from us, and through friends with similar training. That is probably an ideal way to learn it {immersion}.

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  3. In humility...my two cents:

    "The reason it is dangerous to isolate verses 21-23 is that this usually causes Christians to doubt their salvation, and with it the efficacy of Christ's work upon the Cross."

    I'm not sure how it's dangerous to doubt our salvation. Many times throughout the Word we are cautioned to be very careful how we walk. Work out your salvation with fear and trembling. Consider both the goodness and severity of God who cut off those natural branches of Judah who thought they were above reproach. They thought they were in the will of God but it was just a show. Watch and pray, repeated often. Do we need to constantly doubt our salvation? Not at all. The blood of the covenant has keeping power. If we sin we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. But we do need to continually compare our lives with the Word. "Those who love Me will keep My commandments." We are to walk very circumspectly lest we be found trampling the Son of God underfoot and counting the blood of the covenant, by which we were sanctified, a common thing. When we walk carelessly we count the blood as a common thing. When we only consider his grace, by which we are saved through faith, we are counting that blood as common. Let us thank God for his grace and worship him with obedience. Obedience is better than sacrifice.

    "Now, granted, I do agree that if one does not wish to follow Christ, he does not follow Christ. We all know the lukewarm are spit out of the mouth."

    The lukewarm ARE following Christ, but not wholeheartedly. Narrow is the way that leads to life.

    "So, there is a place to look inward a bit and judge our own fruit."

    Not just 'a bit' but as a lifestyle. Let us be found walking in the Spirit and doing those things God says in his Word that he cares about.

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    1. I guess some of this was born out of the responses of my children when they heard the passage preached this way. A couple of them wondered how they could ever know they were saved for sure. How could they know? When they came before the Judgment Seat, were they going to be cast aside? They heard the words with fear, and I agree that some fear is healthy, but again we are told over and over to fear not, but walk in faith.

      So I reminded them that they have been bought and paid for, and that Scripture says that nothing can *ever* separate them from the love of God which is in Christ.

      I think that you and I see "walking in the Spirit" in different ways. I do not think that this is a call to a lifestyle of self-reflection because I think the focus is God. That doesn't mean that sin is not revealed to us and confronted in us. And, yes, Paul himself advises us to test ourselves and see if we are in the faith. I guess I have just seen this taken to an extreme, where this sort of self-reflection becomes idolatry and a replacement for truly living for Christ.

      I agree with what you are saying, and I always struggle with these kinds of conversations because I try to be so careful to avoid the idea that we earn our salvation, or repay God for the salvation which He purchased with His Son, which I think are two common ways to fall off the horse. I *do* like what John Piper said in regard to King Solomon's judgement between the two harlots who both claimed a baby as their child. When he created a situation where one mother acted motherly toward the child {wanting to protect him}, her actions didn't *make* her the child's mother. Rather, her actions *revealed* that she was the child's mother. They were evidence.

      So I think of fruit as evidences of faith, of course!

      To come full circle, my concerns here are twofold. {1} If we isolate the verses we miss the point of the passage, which is to be careful who we listen to. If we want to talk about self-examination, let's refer to Paul, or some other place where this exact thing was addressed. Jesus was not trying to scare the sheep into thinking they were wolves; He was *warning* them about wolves and how to deal with them. {2} I think that improperly preaching this specific passage is more likely to cause a Christian to doubt the efficacy of the Cross, rather than to engage in a healthy self-examination. It creates the sort of fear that perfect love casts out.

      At least, that is my opinion. :)

      I am still learning and growing, of course, so there is always the chance I will disagree with myself in a couple years. That has happened before. ;)

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  4. I think we can both agree that as teachers (via blogs) we have to be very, very! careful what we teach. We never want to be found causing someone to miss out on that narrow door which leads to life. Is our teaching balanced not just within the chapter but according to the whole Word of God?

    Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. (Rom. 8:38-39) But if we go back to the first verse we see there's no condemnation to those "who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit." Being 'in Christ' is associated here with our walk. My prayer is that every believer would always be evaluating their walk as they labor in his Word, whether it's according to the flesh or the Spirit. While nothing can separate us from his love, the question is 'have we separated ourselves from him' by walking carelessly? Have we insulted the Spirit of grace by counting the blood as so common that our walk need not be effected? (Heb 10:29) Have we used our liberty in Christ as a cloak for vice? (1 Pet 2:16) Are we in Christ or are we walking according the flesh? Are we lukewarm? As we examine our walk according to the Word of God our focus is on God "more" not less.

    Hbr 10:31 It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

    Our eternal soul, and those we teach, literally hang in the balance...a very serious thing! But, we can have "full assurance of faith" and "hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering" (Heb. 10:22-23) as we abide in Him and He in us. As we abide in him and his Word and he in us we can walk confidently in the Spirit. We are being changed into his likeness as we walk with him. If we sin we have an Advocate with the Father. We do not draw back into a walk of the flesh but we continue to grow up in him as his Word renews our mind and changes our hearts. We bear fruit according to the spirit as we walk with him. We do not doubt the power of the cross and the blood of the covenant. But we walk very carefully so as to not take it for granted. We ponder the path of our feet (Prov. 4:26) and walk carefully before our holy God all the days of our lives knowing he is returning to give every man according to what his deeds deserve. (Rom. 2:6)

    1Jo 2:28 And now, little children, abide in Him, that when He appears, we may have confidence and not be ashamed before Him at His coming.

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I absolutely adore hearing your thoughts, but...*please* remember to play nicely!