Throughout the Bible, there are statements that seem difficult or confusing when first read, but become clear when the culture is taken into account. Sometimes the statements are not only confusing to our modern perspective, but actually seem to be incorrect. It can be challenging to understand why God would have used such statements. Various explanations have been proposed, such as the idea that God accommodated His message to the listener’s perspective, meeting them where they were. I’d like to explore yet another perspective, drawn from Scripture itself. By thinking of these things as elements of language, we can see more clearly the difference between the message and its container. A good place to start is by looking at Pentecost.
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. … “—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”
Acts 2:4, 11b
Look how the Holy Spirit used them to communicate by speaking in the listeners’ languages. The miracle enabled believers to speak of God in the languages the crowd needed to hear.
I think this can be taken as a general principle — the Holy Spirit enables believers to speak in the languages that the world needs, in order to proclaim Jesus. The miraculous version of this in Acts 2 is a sign that points to the Spirit’s work in other believers’ lives. This may not always be miraculous, and may not necessarily even involve other spoken languages. The Spirit may simply guide the speaker to choose terms and illustrations that best convey truth to the listener. In fact, such leading may well be behind Paul’s statement that he became all things to all men, that by all means he might save some (1 Corinthians 9:20-22).
In addition, consider the following examples.
When Paul addressed Jews in the synagogues, he argued from Scripture. But when he talked to intellectuals on Mars Hill, he spoke with Greek poetry.
When Jesus preached to crowds in rural Palestine, He used simple examples from their daily lives. When He talked with the Samaritan woman, He spoke of her life, her beliefs, and from the world at hand.
When Peter preached to the devout Jews at Pentecost, he spoke from Scripture about Christ. But when he spoke to Cornelius, he spoke of the events about which they both knew.
These may be taken as examples of contextualizing one’s message, but perhaps more than good natural techniques were involved. I think the Spirit was the guiding force in these cases, providing not just the wisdom to recognize that contextualizing was needed, but the supernatural insight to know exactly what needed to be said.
Now, if we understand that the Spirit was at work in these examples, how might He have been at work in other ways, such as the formation of Scripture? After all, as people lived and wrote, we believe that He superintended the process to produce exactly what He wanted. So, for example, when Abram had the vision of a lamp floating between halves of an animal, both his experience and the record of it were guided to produce the account in Genesis 15. In that account, God renewed His covenant with Abraham, had him prepare some animal halves, then gave him a vision of items passing between them. To us, this seems a little odd, but to someone who knew the customs of the times, this was a covenant making ceremony. God confirmed the covenant He was making by using an illustration that Abraham would understand — He spoke to Abraham in his language, and the record we have retains the language the God used with Abraham.
When people speak, we generally don’t place much significance on the words themselves. The things that make up the words — spelling, number of syllables, and so on, are generally incidental to the meaning being conveyed. Similarly, many details in Scripture are used to convey ideas, but do not themselves matter. They may tell us what people thought at the time, but that’s incidental to the meaning being conveyed.
One of the clearest examples is Jesus’ reference to the mustard seed as the smallest seed. The people around Him may have thought that mustard seeds were the smallest, but that’s not correct. The fact that Jesus used that belief, incorrect though it was, did not validate the belief. He was simply speaking in a language they understood.
For another example, suppose someone were to illustrate a point using typical alien abduction stories. It might be a good illustration, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the person believes in them. And if they were speaking to a group of people, it’s quite possible that some listeners believe they are real, and some do not. Their actual beliefs are secondary to the information begin conveyed by the illustration. Similarly, people may or may not have believed the mustard seed was the smallest of seeds, but that belief was incidental to the truth that Jesus was teaching, and because of that, He didn’t need to be technically correct.
Both the mustard seed size and the abduction story are like the spelling of words — simply elements of the language being spoken. This analogy may help us understand when the details in an account are part of the message, or are incidental.
Regarding the creation narrative, there are many elements that reflect a primitive understanding of the universe. Things like the firmament being a hard dome were commonly accepted ideas. Consider that God spoke a number of truths to the people, but spoke in the language they understood. Not just the ancient Hebrew, but language in the sense that we have been considering. Thus, many of those elements in the creation narrative were the words of ancient language that God used to communicate. They were not themselves important, only the messages they conveyed were. He spoke in their language, just as He did throughout Scripture and illustrated at Pentecost.
In fact, this can even include the six-day narrative of Genesis 1. Such narratives were known as literary devices to introduce a deity in pagan cultures of the time. Perhaps God spoke to the Israelites in the language they needed to hear to understand His uniqueness as the one true God. We mustn’t confuse the language being used with the message being conveyed.
I’m not sure if this is enough different to be helpful, but it has helped me understand why some things seem so clearly stated in natural terms, but are really only literal in the spiritual truths they convey. It often seems difficult to recognize that God would work this way, but considering passages such as 1 Corinthians 2:14-16 and recognizing Jesus’ perspective on figurative language make it clear that communication of spiritual truths may take different forms than natural truths. And it may take spiritual discernment just to recognize that.
This bears more pondering, but it’s a starting point.