Sean Hilton

Importance of context in understanding the Bible

Sean HiltonThere are certain Bible passages — Mark 7; Acts 10; Romans 14; Colossians 2 — that without a grasp of the history, language and culture are easy to misinterpret.

Walk this way, talk that way

Rabbinical law has added a large body of rulings that are claimed to be just as binding as the divine mitzvot. Such rabbinical halakhah (from halakh, “to walk”) refers to the various rules and regulations that are said to mark the Jew’s “walk” through life. Halakhot include three related groups: gezerah, takkanah, and min-khag:

Gezerah — “fence”

Gezerah is a rule instituted by the rabbis to prevent inadvertent violation of a mitzvah (commandment). For instance, it is a mitvah to refrain from work on the Sabbath, but it’s a gezerah to avoid even the handling of any work instruments on the Sabbath. So if a hammer was on your dinning table, you leave it. Another is “plucking of the grain” (Matt. 12:1-2).

A gazerah is a “fence,” a protective idea so that you won’t be tempted to brake the Torah. If you picked up the hammer, you might be tempted to use it. If you start plucking grain, you might be tempted to start harvesting, or pick extra for later. If you did so, then you would be in violation of the Torah.

Takkanah — “case-law ordinance”

Takkanah is a law instituted by rabbis that does not directly derive from the Torah but is inferred from interpretation. An example is the lighting of candles on Erev Shabbat (evening that starts the Sabbath, i.e., Friday night). There are no specifics on when to light your candles on Erev Shabbat in the written Torah.

Takkanot (plural) are authoritative on when to do or not to do so. Theycan vary by region, based on the prevailing rabbinical authority. For example, Ashkenazic Jews (from Eastern Europe) accept takkanot that Sephardic Jews (mainly from Spain) might not recognize as binding.

Min-khag — “custom”

Min-khag (plural min-khagim) is a rabbinically approved convention for a Jewish community. An example of a min-khag would be eating apples with honey on Yom Teruah (Festival of Trumpets; called Rosh Hashanah by takkanah). Like takkanot, min-khagim can vary by region.

History, language, context

Now lets look at six different books in the Apostolic Writings (New Testament) that some have thought the ruling has changed so that we can now eat anything. Keep in mind we well be looking at the importance of history, language and context on Bible interpretation.

“Declared clean all meats”?: Mark 7:1-23

First, let’s note that in Mark 7:2-5 regarding “unwashed hands” that this is a “tradition of the elders” (Mark 7:3). This is a min-khag. There is nothing in the Torah that you must wash your hands before eating.

Now, there is nothing wrong with washing your hands before you eat; it’s a good tradition. But the Pharisees and scribes turned their min-khagim, takkanot and gezerot into “binding authority,” or as the Christian world calls it, “legalism.”

Deut. 4:2; 12:32; Rev. 22:18-19 warns us not to add or take away from God’s Word, especially to make halakhot equal to or above the written Torah.

To continue on we must look at the context, with this in mind to understand what’s going on in Mark 7. We see Yeshua corrected the Pharisees and some of the scribes. They were adding “tradition of the elders” to the Torah. In Mark 7:8, 13, Yeshua said they had laid aside the commandments of God so they could hold onto the traditions of men.

Now Mark 7:17 tells us Yeshua had told a parable, and His students wanted to know its interpretation. These Jews knew that Yeshua would not say that “unclean” foods were OK to eat now. Why? Because of what He told them in Matt. 5:17-20; Luke 16:16-17. Yeshua would not say Leviticus 11 had been tossed out the window.

Also know that if Yeshua were saying at that moment He was “declaring all foods clean,” as certain translations render Mark 7:19, the Pharisees would stoned Him right there. Deut. 13:1-5; 18:18-22 would give them the right to do so. Remember Matt. 26:59-60: the leadership had to falsely accuse Yeshua of teaching against the Temple and God’s Word, so they could put Him to death.

The literal translation of Mark 7:19 is, “Because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats [καθαρίζω πᾶς βρῶμα katharizō pas brōma].” The translation “and He declared all foods clean” is a theological interpretation, not the literal word.

The parable in this chapter is all about the “heart.” That of the Pharisees and some of the scribes had become hardened (Mark 7:21-23)  There was definitely wickedness, deceit, pride and foolishness within the leadership’s hearts. The punchline of the parable and context of this chapter is all about the heart, not that all food is clean.

Peter’s vision: Acts 10:1-36; 11:18

Consider: Why was Peter saying he had never eaten any unclean food (Acts 10:14) 10 years after Yeshua had “declared all foods clean”?

In Acts 10, we see a “certain man,” a centurion of the Italian Regiment. This was a “gentile” (one of the nations, i.e., not of Israel descent) who is a God-fearer and getting ready to convert to Judaism. Cornelius was given a clear vision at the ninth hour — the time of the afternoon sacrifice in the Temple — to send men to Joppa and send for Peter. The very next day at the sixth hour — noon also was a prayer time — Peter is given a vision three times, in which he is shown unclean foods and hears a voice from Heaven to “kill and eat.”

History lesson: The Mishnah was an authoritative collection of early exegesis (Bible interpretation), embodying the oral tradition of Jewish law and forming the first part of the Talmud. It was the first to codify takkanot. In the Mishnah, gentiles are considered “unclean people”:

“And a gentile — they may not invite others to say the blessing after the meal on their account: That is self-evident. With what category do we deal [in the specification of M. 7:1C about a gentile]? It concerns a gentile convert who had already been circumcised but not yet immersed [so completing his entry into the status of sanctification]. For R. Zira said R. Yohanan said, “Under no circumstances does a man become a full proselyte until he both is circumcised and also immersed in a ritual pool. ‘And so long as he has not immersed, he remains a gentile.'” (b.Berakhot 47:2; cp. Acts 15:1)

“ʻLike you’ [Num. 15:13-15] means, ‘like your ancestors.’ Just as your forefathers entered the covenant only with circumcision and immersion and sprinkling of blood through the sacrifices, so they [proselytes] will enter the covenant only through circumcision, immersion, and sprinkling of blood on the altar.” (b.Keritot 9a:G)

We see this understanding from Peter in Acts 10:28: “You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation.”

Peter was given this vision three times. Why? Because he doesn’t “get it.” We see that in Acts 10:17, 19. Peter knew what the “Oral Law” said.

Now, look at the very same time that Peter was trying to figure out the vision, look who showed up: three gentiles. After the three visions. Then in Acts 10:24, Cornelius called more gentiles — his relatives and close friends.

Lets pay close attention to Acts 10:28. Peter first said what the Mishna and Talmud record as halakhot about salvation of gentiles. Then he revealed the “punchline” for the vision: “But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean.”

Peters eyes were opened to the understanding of the vision:

“In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him.” (Acts 10:34-35)

Acts 11:18 verifies this understanding of Acts 10:28, 34-35. To hold to the “traditions of the elders/Talmud” goes against the two-sticks prophecy in Ezek. 34:11-16; 37:16-28 and what Yeshua said in Matt. 10:6; 15:24.

Lev. 19:34 tells us to love even the “stranger” as yourself. There is to be one law for all (Num. 15:15-16). Yeshua came to die for the world (John 3:16), to make all “one new man” in Yeshua (Eph. 2:14–16).

One strong in faith “eats all things”: Rom. 14:1-23; 1Cor. 8:4-13; 10:19-20, 25-31

What does it mean to be “weak in the faith” (Rom. 14:1)? Is it a physical weakness or a spiritual weakness?

To get a better understanding of what Paul is talking about, we need to consider 1Cor. 8:4-13. The context is things offered to idols. Paul emphasized that there is only one God, so it made no difference if something were offered to an idol. But some new believers were still unlearning pagan ways. Some were struggling to eat meat or not that came from the meat market.

In 1Cor. 8:7-10, Paul advised that not everyone understands the ramifications of the existence of only one God. Their conscience was weak on eating any meat that might have been offered to any deity other than YHVH.

Paul’s instruction in 1Cor. 8:1-4 took a quick detour in 1Cor. 8:5-9 on eating or not eating on a particular day, whether one “observes the day” or doesn’t. What do we call it when we abstain from eating? Fasting.

There are two issues that Paul is dealing with in this chapter in trying to get everyone to get along.

  1. To eat or not to eat meat that might have been offered to an idol.
  2. When to fast.

Yet there is a common factor for both issues. Don’t judge your bother believer on these two issues. There was an oral law — takkanah — on fasting twice a week (Luke 18:12).

It is very important to look at Paul’s letter in context, not just a verse here and there. In fact, as we learned here in Romans 14 we need to look to his other letters to understand the whole context.

The picture gets even clearer in 1Cor. 10:14-32. Again Paul told the “beloved” (new converts) to “flee from idolatry.” In 1Cor. 10:19 he addressed “what is offered to idols.” Then in 1Cor. 10:25 Paul addressed eating whatever is sold in the “meat market.”

There were pagan sun worship practices that involved meats scarified to idols. In 1Cor. 10:28, Paul told new converts that if someone told them the food was offered to idols not to eat it, for the sake of the one who told said that and “for conscience sake.”

Now, we can see the context of Romans 14 when we look to 1Corinthians 8 and 10. We also can better understand Peter when he said that Paul writes things hard to understand (1Pet. 3:15-17). Notice that nowhere in Romans 14 is the Sabbath mentioned, or that all foods are now “clean” to eat.

1Tim. 4:1-5; 2Tim. 4:3-4; Psa. 119:142

We see the opening of 1Timothy 4 that the Spirit revealed that in latter times some would depart from the faith, adhering to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons (cp. 2Tim. 4:3-4). Keep in mind that Paul wrote in 2Tim. 3:16-17 that “all scripture is profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction and instruction in righteousness.” The only “doctrine” and “scripture” they had were the Torah, Writings and Prophets (TaNaKh, or the Old Testament). Are the instructions in Leviticus 11 on clean and unclean foods “doctrine of demons”? Didn’t Paul write in Rom. 7:12 that “the Law is holy, the commandments holy and just and good”?

In 1Tim. 4:2-4, we see people speaking “lies in hypocrisy.” They are “convinced in their own mind” and their “consciences are seared with a hot iron.” These people are teaching doctrines of Talmud, not Torah.

Like forbidding to marry, a command to “abstain from foods” should sound familiar. We just discussed this in Romans 14 and 1Corinthians 8 and 10. To those who believe and know that truth that there is only one God, now give thanks knowing God receives it. In 1Tim. 4:3 Paul addressed those who “know the truth” of Yeshua and would have been referring to Psa. 119:142, “Thy righteousness is an everlasting righteousness, and thy law is truth” (also Psa. 119:160; Psalm 89; Isa. 40:8; 1Pet. 1:25).

Pay close attention to 1Tim. 4:5: “…sanctified by the word of God and prayer.” Sanctified is translated from hagiazo (Strong’s lexicon No. G37), meaning to make holy, purify or consecrate, hallow, be holy; sanctify. Once again, the only “word” that was “sanctified” was the TaNaKh. Moreover, Psa. 119:160 tells that the entirety of His Word is truth. 1Tim. 4:6 tells us to be good ministers of Yeshua, nourished in the word of faith/trust and of “good doctrine.” Paul would of been referring to Prov. 4:2, “For I give you good doctrine, forsake you not my law.”

Paul also warned us to reject profane and old “fables”:

“…preach the word; be urgent in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure the sound doctrine; but, having itching ears, will heap to themselves teachers after their own lusts; 4 and will turn away their ears from the truth, and turn aside unto fables.” (2Tim. 4:2-4)

“…not giving heed to Jewish fables, and commandments of men, that turn from the truth” (Titus 1:14; cp. Psa 119:142).

Paul is very consistent in all his letters. “Fables” are opposed to God’s Torah and are about “commandments of men.” Leaving the truth of the Word of God and giving into there own lusts, “Doctrines of demons.”  Just like with Mark 7, Acts 10 and Romans 14, we are dealing with the leadership pushing “oral law” Talmudic rules that are outside of the Torah.  We will see the same thing being addressed in Colossians 2 and Titus 1:15.

Col. 2:4, 16-23

Consider that being in the “shadow” of Yeshua is being close to Him? The word shadow there in Greek is skia (G4639), an outline, or a Adumbration, a report or represent in outline. It does not render something past or in the past. Notice that it also says “of things to come.” It does not say the “things that came.” Yeshua had already come and gone when Paul wrote that. The prophetic shadow pictures of the Messiah had not been completed, and today He has not yet returned! The shadow remains our hope.

Now lets look at the context of Colossians 2, keeping in mind the history and language of the time. In Col. 2:1-4, Paul was writing to those in Colosse and in Laodicea to let them know that there will be some that will deceive them with persuasive words. He went on in Col. 2:8 to warn of “philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men.” Similarly, Yeshua railed against the takkanot of the leadership (Mark 7:6-13), the “Oral Law” added to the Torah. Deut. 4:2; 12:32; Rev. 22:18-19 warn against adding to or taking away from God’s words.

In Co. 2:9-15 Paul notes that gentile believers are grafted in to Israel with the b’rit mila (covenant of circumcision) of Yeshua through faith — trust — in the Messiah as The Atonement for our sins against God. There is no atonement purely in physical b’rit mila — workings of mankind. Because of the works of Messiah Yeshua on the cross, the “Law of sin and death” (Rom 8:1-2; 6:23) has been nailed to that cross, along with the heavy yoke of the traditions and doctrines of men (Co. 2:14).

We really see more of the traditions and doctrines of men being brought into focus again in Col. 2:18-23. If you know anything about first-century Judaism, there were up to 26 sects of Judaism, Christianity being one of them.

There were two groups that Paul addressed in this chapter: the way of “the circumcision” and of the “Gnostics.” In Col. 2:8-13, Paul touched on the sect of “the way of the circumcision.” Paul also called them “the party of the circumcision” (Gal. 2:12), and he really deals with them in Galatians.

In Col. 2:18-23, Paul discussed the “Gnostics.” The name stems from the Greek word gnosis, which means knowledge. They believed that every part of the flesh was bad. Beside extreme fasting, they would actually cut themselves, believing that was one way to die to self so that they could be more holy then others. They would worship angels, being very prideful, arrogant and puffed up because they felt that they knew everything about the Word.

Because the truth, Yeshua, has come, we are now free in him without judgement, traditions and doctrines of men, such as needing to be circumcised first or following the ways of the “Gnostics.” The leadership had a problem with the “Way” the new converts were keeping the Torah. They wanted to win them over to their way of doing things. Paul instructed believers not to let them be judged for the way you are keeping the Shabbat, appointed times (Unleavened Bread, Firstfruits, Pentecost, Trumpets, Atonement, Tabernacles, the Eighth Day) and New Moon (Col. 2:16). 

We can follow the true prophetic shadow pictures of the Shabbat, Feasts, and New Moon celebrations which is the substance of Yeshua!

Titus 1:9-15; 2:1

Some drop into Titus 1:15 and think Paul instructed that “to the pure, all things are pure,” so the pure can eat pork, etc.  But by now, I hope that we once again see the need to look at history, language and context to get the real understanding of Paul’s letters.

Paul, once again, was addressing new converts, instructing them to hold fast to “sound doctrine” of Christ and not to the traditions and doctrines of men. Once again, “those of the circumcision” were being addressed (Titus 1:10; cp. Gal 2:4, 12; Rom. 10:3; 1Tim. 6:5).

In Titus 1:14, Paul, again, is dealing with “commandments of men.” Paul was speaking of those who were defiled with their doctrine, unbelieving of the truth of Yeshua, idle talkers. They were deceivers out for dishonest gain. Titus 1:15 is all about true pure doctrine, and not what one thinks is “pure” according to tradition and commandments of men.

Remember that God is faithful, never-changing (Matt. 24:25; Heb. 13:8; 1Pet. 1:25; Mal. 3:6; Isa. 40:8; Psa. 119:89, 142, 160). He created some animals for us to eat and others for us not to eat because they are toxic. The Messiah did not come and magically make all toxic animals clean: Unclean one day and clean the next day. Scientifically, we know more than ever that’s a fact. 

Eating Biblically kosher is not a Jewish thing; it’s a Biblical God thing. We are commanded to “be Holy as [He] is Holy” (Lev. 11:44-45; 1Pet. 1:15).

Speaker: Sean Hilton. Readers: Kari Joly, Joe Gossett, Pierann Walsh and Madelyn Hilton.

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