Culture, Context, and Kings

A couple weeks ago, I was asked why 1 Kings 10:22 highlights Solomon’s traders brought apes and peacocks to Jerusalem. I love questions like this. It shows that people are reading their Bibles, which is vital to spiritual growth. But more than that, it means they are paying attention to and thinking about what they read.

1 Kings 21 describes Solomon’s great wealth. It tells the story of his trading ships which went all over the Mediterranean trading goods. Once every three years they returned to Jerusalem with various kinds of wealth, including apes and peacocks. These were exotic animals not native to Israel. They were novelties that only the wealthy could afford to enjoy. It is like a wealthy person owning a tiger or some other exotic pet today. It is a sign of wealth and privilege. The many zoos across America filled with animals from other continents point to a similar wealth among us.

This question reminds us how important it is to learn the times and cultures of the Bible. The most recent parts of the Bible were written almost 2000 years ago. The events in 1 Kings 10 took place nearly 3000 years ago. They lived in a very different time and place. Many things they thought, did, and prioritized seem strange to us. If we are to properly understand the Bible, we must become familiar with their culture and times.

One of the principles of sound bible interpretation is asking what did this mean to the original audience? To answer this question, we must know their times, setting, and culture. Only after we understand what the text meant to the original audience can we ask how does this apply to our times, setting, and culture?

This is why the ongoing study of the Bible is important. It takes time to build a catalogue of knowledge about Bible times and cultures. Through intentional study, we gain a working knowledge of these things that greatly aid our understanding of the text. Questions like the one above are healthy because they recognize that something is happening here that I do not understand, but I want to know why! 

Where do we learn about the various times and cultures of the Bible. Things like commentaries, Bible dictionaries, and Bible atlases are helpful tools. There are two resources that I have found particularly helpful.
The first is called Bible Manners & Customs by Howard Vox. I have never read it from cover to cover, but I pull it off the shelf regularly to look up information. It is full of pictures and succinct descriptions of the times, places, and manners of life found in the Bible. It has a great index in the back that helps you find the information you need quickly.
The second is a two-volume work called An Introduction to the Old Testament and An Introduction to the New Testament. These books contain chapters on every book of the Bible, giving important historical and cultural information for each of them. I always read this book before starting a new study on any book of the Bible. The church owns these books, which you are welcome to access. 

Context is king in Bible interpretation. Understanding the culture is vital to understanding the context. The Bible begins to yield its greatest treasures to us when we read it carefully, ask good questions of the text, and then find answers to those questions. 

Pilgrim’s Progress

September’s book of the month is John Bunyan’s classic Pilgrim’s Progress. I have heard (although never verified) that the Bible is the only book in history to be translated into more languages or sold more copies than Pilgrim’s Progress. English pastor John Newton, of Amazing Grace fame, read it so often that he memorized it. He spent over 2 years lecturing through it on Tuesday nights. The book as had a lasting impact on generations of Christians.

John Bunyan (1628-1688) was a tinkerer, meaning he fixed pots and pans and other household items made of metal for a living. He was also a flagrant sinner. Yet God had set him aside for an important work that continues to bear fruit today. Bunyan’s conversion was gradual, and the early days of his pilgrimage were marked by doubt. Yet God’s irresistible grace proved greater than these challenges. Eventually, Bunyan would become a famous Baptist preacher, author, and sufferer for Christ.

Bunyan lived during a time when English law required everyone to attend services in the Church of England at least once a month. Failure to do so could lead to arrest or even exile. It was also illegal to preach without a government license. Dissenting congregations, like the Baptists, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians were illegal. Bunyan would spend 9 years in prison for preaching without a license. Yet God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purposes (Ro. 8:28). Just like Joseph in the OT, God had a plan for Bunyan’s imprisonment, for it was here that he wrote his famous allegory.

Pilgrim’s Progress narrates Christian’s journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. It is an allegory of the Christian life, in which Bunyan demonstrates two great qualities. First, he demonstrated piercing insight into human nature. Characters like Pliable, Talkative, Faithful, Hopeful, Evangelist, Doubtful, and many more capture human qualities and weaknesses in a way that helps us understand ourselves and others.

Second, Bunyan had a masterful understanding of how hard faithfulness to Christ can be. Slough of Despond (despair), Vanity Fair, Doubters Castle, and Bypath Meadow all represent dangers we face as Christians. Through Christian’s victories and failures, we learn what it means to live as aliens and sojourners in the world.

Although I am not an enthusiast at the level as John Newton, I do think every Christian would benefit from reading Bunyan’s classic. I find myself returning to it every five years or so. Each time I read it, my appreciation for its insights grows. I also find myself referencing it more frequently in sermons than I used to. 

Because the book is past copywrite laws, there are many versions available. Not all of them are quality versions, so buying the cheapest version on Amazon may prove to be a disappointment. So read the reviews before you buy a copy. There are wonderful adaptations available for children. I have used Tyler Van Halteren’s Little Pilgrim’s Big Journey more than once for family devotions. There are also quality abridgements available that modernize the English. If you have never read a book from the 1600s before, I would recommend one of these, as 400-year-old English can be hard to follow. If you read it, you will join countless Christians helped along their own pilgrimage through Bunyan’s insightful allegory of the Christian life.

More than Sorry

Mark 1:15 summarizes the content of Jesus’ first sermons in this way: the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel. By starting his public ministry with these words, Jesus was aligning with another preacher his listeners were familiar with. Matthew 3:2 summarizes John the Baptist’s preaching with these words: repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Jesus’ call to repentance indicates that He was continuing the work started by John. It should be no surprise then, when Peter’s first sermon ended by telling people to repent. He was simply preaching the same message as John and Jesus. 

Repentance is an important but often neglected part of our response to the gospel. Since the Bible commands everyone to repent, we would be wise to understand what it means to do so.

Repentance is more than feeling sorry for what you have done. It includes that, but repentance is more than remorse. Repentance means you stop going in your current direction in order to go in an entirely different direction. A great illustration of this principle is found in Exodus 32. Israel had sinned by making the golden calf. God, who was rightly angry with them for it, told Moses that He was going to wipe them out and start over with him. Moses interceded for the people. In response to his prayer, we are told in Exodus 32:14, so the Lord relented from the harm which He said He would do to His people (NKJV). The KJV gives a more literal translation when it says that the Lord repented of the evil He intended against His people. God intended to do one thing but responded to Moses’ intercession by doing the opposite.

Now obviously, God is neither tempted by or capable of sin, so the ‘repentance’ He expressed is different than a sinner’s repentance. But His relenting of harm in order to do good to His people helps us understand repentance. Before salvation, we are slaves of sin, captured by Satan, bound to do his will, and willfully rebelling against God. When we repent, we relent of our rebellion, turn from sin, and follow Christ in loving submission. Repentance is the letting go of our former way of life to live by faith in the Son of God. If salvation were a coin, faith would be the face and repentance the tail. Both are our response to God’s gift of salvation, which is why Jesus said to repent and believe the gospel (Mk. 1:15).

The Bible draws our attention to three important aspects of repentance. First, repentance recognizes how sin is ultimately the violation God’s character. Psalm 51 records David’s repentance of his sinful actions in the matter with Bathsheba. In vs. 4 we read against You, You only, I have sinned, and done what is evil in Your sight, so that You are justified when You speak and blameless when You judge. What does he mean he sinned against God only? What about Bathsheba? Scholars debate if she was a willing participant or unfortunate victim in the affair. Regardless, David had led her to violate her marriage covenant. What about Uriah? He was the victim of David’s adulterous actions and then of his murderous plan. What about the nation? As king, David was the shepherd of Israel. Had his sin not violated the nation’s trust? The answer is yes each of these; yet David says that, despite each of these offenses, the real problem was that he had violated God’s character. Until we realize the spiritual treason sin is against the eternal goodness of God, true repentance will not happen.

Second, repentance is preceded by godly sorrow. In 2 Corinthians 7:8-10, we learn that Paul sent the church at Corinth a letter that had upset them. Some accused him of being too harsh in his correction. Yet Paul responded by saying for though I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it; through I did regret it—for I see that that letter caused you sorrow, though only for a while—I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to the point of repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to the will of God, so that you might not suffer loss in anything through us. For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death.

There are two kinds of sorrow. Worldly sorrow that leads to death and godly sorrow that produces repentance. It is not uncommon as a pastor for people to seek my help dealing with a sinful habit. Oftentimes, these conversations are preceded by the individual ‘getting caught’ by someone. Some of these individuals are truly broken over their sin and want victory. They have a godly sorrow. Others come to see me because a parent or spouse told them they had to. They regret how their actions have created discomfort and are doing what they must to make it all go away. This is worldly sorrow. Unsurprisingly, those who experience godly sorrow often go on to have victory over their sin because they experience true repentance, while those who try to make the situation go away rarely experience lasting change because their hearts have not changed. Their sorrow is over how sin affects them personally, not for how it offends God. Repentance starts with a change of heart that leads to changed behavior. 

Finally, repentance is a gift of God. In 2 Timothy 2:25-26 Paul tells Timothy to gently correct those who are in error so that perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.  According to this verse, repentance is something God gives. That means it is a part of His gracious working within us.

Now, in saying that repentance is a gift we receive from God does not mean we are to be passive about it. The opposite is true. We are to seek it from the Lord who wants to be gracious towards us. Isaiah 55:6-7 tells us to seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake His way and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return to the Lord, and He will have compassion on him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.

The bible presents two parallel, non-contradicting truths. First, repentance is a part of God’s gracious working in salvation. He must grant it to us. Second, we are to seek God and call upon His name, trusting Him to do the work He has promised to do. As we do, God will work His grace in us, including giving us the gift of repentance. God never denies the experience of His grace to anyone who truly seeks Him.

John Calvin once observed that all the Christian life is repentance. By that he meant that after salvation, Christians are engaged in the lifelong process of turning away from their former life of sin to follow Jesus. May we be the kinds of Christians who seek the Lord with a whole heart while fleeing sin.  

9 Marks of a Healthy Church

If you found yourself having to look for a new church to attend, what things would you for? Would you look for a certain style of service or music? Perhaps you would look for a church with people your age who share similar interests, making it easy to connect. Or maybe you would look for good children’s programs and a vibrant youth group because of your kids. There are many aspects to consider when looking for a church to be a part of.
These are all important considerations, but more needs to be considered than our preferences when assessing a church. What we should really look for is a church that reflects the New Testament’s teaching on church life.
God’s design and purposes for the church is an important but often unconsidered aspect of our Christian life. That is why I am recommending Nine Marks of a Healthy Church for August’s book of the month. I do not know of a church organization that thinks more clearly about the New Testament’s design for church life than 9marks ministries. Although Nine Marks of a Healthy Church is not my favorite book author Mark Dever has written, it is probably the best book to start with in thinking through how to order church life around the New Testament’s teaching.

What are the Nine Marks?

Mark Dever identifies 9 that cultivate spiritual health in a church. The first mark is expository preaching. Expository preaching begins with the conviction that God’s word is sufficient to build the church. Therefore, the preacher seeks to draw the meaning out of the text and show people how it applies to their lives.

The second mark is biblical theology. It is great to understand individual passages and to plumb the depths of a Bible book. But a healthy church also seeks to understand the broader narrative of God’s word so they can develop a balanced theology of God, man, sin, salvation, and the Christian life.

Third is a proper understanding of the gospel. If we do not properly understand the gospel, we will short-circuit our Christian walk, create confusion in our evangelistic efforts, and run the risk of creating false converts.

This leads right into the fourth mark discussed: a Biblical understanding of conversion. The New Testament is clear that there are those who undergo a false conversion, wherein they have an initial response to Christ that over time is revealed to be a false conversion. Jesus ministered to some people just like this. Understanding what it means to be born again is essential to building a healthy body of believers.

Fifth is a biblical understanding of evangelism, which combines the previous two points. Knowing the message and what it looks like for someone to be converted will set the course for how we bear witness to Christ.

The sixth mark is a biblical understanding of church membership. Mark Dever is a Baptist pastor. His clear and biblical teaching in this area helped me move from ‘membership is something Baptists do’ to ‘membership is the intentional practice of clear biblical principles.’

The seventh mark is the practice of biblical church discipline. Thinking through how the church is supposed to respond to sin in its midst is very important. If we ignore sin, we rob the church of its power and witness. Yet if we are harsh or self-righteous in dealing with people who struggle, we become legalistic pharisees. It is important we learn the Bible’s approach to this matter, so we can avoid both errors.

The eighth mark is a concern for discipleship and growth. Part of the Great Commission is teaching them to observe all that I have commanded. Once people are saved, they need taught what the Christian life looks like. That is what discipleship is all about, moving people from spiritual infancy to being spiritual providers. Healthy churches are committed to this process.

Finally, healthy churches seek to establish biblical church leadership. If the leadership is not spiritually qualified, in submission to God’s work, or lack a clear understanding of God’s vision for His people, the church will struggle to become the kind of church described in the New Testament.

Are these the only marks of a healthy church?

This book was written in 2000 and addressed some of the sweeping challenges facing the church at the time. 9marks ministries, which was born out of the response to its publication, openly recognizes that there are other important Biblical markers of health not addressed in the book. IN recent years, they have given important emphasis to prayer and missions. So, this book is not the end-all-be-all. But it is very helpful.

Can I disagree with something in the book?

The challenge of recommending books is that people may think I blindly adhere to every aspect of it. But there is only one book, the Bible, that holds true with. This book is no different. The Biblical church leadership model 9marks promotes is a form of elder-led congregationalism. They basically argue that if a church does not follow this model, they are not functioning biblically. Although I have learned a lot from this book and the broader ministry of 9marks, I do not fully agree with them in this area of teaching.

Further reading

If an area of the book piques your interest that you would like to explore further, 9marks has put out companion books on each subject. For a full list of books and articles, as well as podcasts and other resources, you can check out They have several helpful resources.

What if I do not have time to read a 250 page book?

If you want to explore the points of this book but do not have time for a longer read, I highly recommend Mark Dever’s book What is a Healthy Church? It is a condensed and simplified version of the longer book.

God cares about the structure and function of the church. That is why He taught about it in the Bible. This book is a helpful resource in understanding some important aspects of our corporate life together as His followers. I highly recommend it. Happy reading!