Interpretation has gone through several phases in the history of the church. The early church’s focus upon the allegorical meaning of the text reigned supreme until the Enlightenment ushered in the era of historical criticism. Postmodernism has questioned the empiricist, objective basic of this approach, and instead proposed a subjective methodology built around the act of reading. Reader-response critics emphasize the contemporary significance of the biblical text, forming their applications in terms of the context at hand.
Many Kenyan popular interpreters have tended to plant their flag in the camp of this last group. The reasons for this may vary, but a general principle seems to be that this partnership exists more for the sake of expediency than philosophical unity. Many Kenyan pastors do not have the training, resources, or perhaps even interest in the exercise of historical and literary study. Driven by the pressing demands of the moment, the Bible serves as more of a starting point for the message addressing the current situation than a rigid arbiter of applicative meaning.
As a newcomer to Kenya, my desire was to experience a more authentically “Kenyan” church—instead of a more “Western” experience as many of the larger churches around Nairobi have struck me. Thus when the opportunity to attend a small Pentecostal church within walking distance of the NEGST campus arose, I seized upon this chance. My initial contact was the lady we hired as our house-help, who was gracious enough to take me to her church, the Redeemed Gospel Church. It meets in a small, tin shack, yet they have an electronic keyboard and sound system, which, as I was forced to sit at the front given my unique status as both a visitor and a muzungu, almost deafened me. There were around 20 attendees, mostly children. My sermon notes and reflections on the sermon form the basis of this paper.
I believe that divorced from the original context, biblical verses lose much of their meaning and power, and at worst are completely misunderstood. When formulating a coherent sermon, verses cannot be plucked out of their setting and adopted into a preformed message that relies loosely upon any biblical support. The foundation for what was preached at Redeemed Gospel Church the day I attended, as in many African Pentecostal churches, is the ideology of wealth and prosperity. This ideology, while considerably more complex than can be adequately treated here, is undermined by a selective use of biblical teachings on prosperity which ignores the element of suffering in the Christian life.
The verse on which the sermon was based was Hebrews 10:36, which reads in the ESV: “For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what is promised.” This was the only verse that was read out of that section, and there was no mention whatsoever of the context of Hebrews. The following is taken from my sermon notes: “Today is a good day. Perseverance is about waiting. You send in your job application and you wait to receive the job.” Certainly this is a good way to contextualize this verse to a daily situation faced by those in the congregation. Perseverance is about waiting, yet the meaning of perseverance within the setting of Hebrews takes on a much different nuance.
The pastor went on say: “After we wait the test of time, God will give prosperity. If we persevere, God will bless our lives and our businesses. All glory to Jesus.” These promises are most definitely not found in this chapter of Hebrews, or indeed in any chapter of Hebrews. Some biblical passages do promise future blessing, but whether this implies inevitable material success is debatable, even if they are Christians and do have faith and even attendRedeemedGospelChurch.
The theme of Hebrews is the relationship of the ministry and sacrifice of Jesus to the legal and sacrificial system in place under the old covenant. Chapter 10 begins with affirming that “the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities” (v. 1), and argues that Jesus through his sacrifice “has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (14). This act has inaugurated the new covenant in which God will forgive the sins of his people and write his law within their hearts (16-17), and is the basis for our “confidence to enter the holy place” (19).
Within this new system, our obligation is no longer to abide by the rules of the law, yet there remain some imperatives for action on our part. In verse 23 we are told to “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering” and verses 32-33 bring up the sufferings and afflictions which have already been endured. “The coming one” will arrive soon (37), and with the finish line so close it would be foolish to give up at this point. This is the context of the need for endurance expressed in verse 36, which is followed by the promise that “when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised.”
What has been promised? Unlimited wealth, power, and ever increasing profits margins for your small business? Verse 39 offers a clue in saying that we are “of those who have faith and preserve their souls.” The focus of chapter 10 is the “single sacrifice” of Christ (12), and the promise being claimed in verse 36 are the benefits accruing from our participation in this sacrifice, namely eternal salvation. Not the dividend accruing from a profitable stock purchase miraculously granted us.
The original readers or hearers of Hebrews had suffered intense persecution for their faith. Being a Christian had profound consequences for daily life, and knowing how the observation of the law related to their newfound trust in Jesus for salvation was a conundrum with immensely practical implications. This is the question addressed by much of the New Testament. Monetary prosperity and the success of their small business enterprises were somewhat less of a priority. This is not to imply that the Bible does not discuss financial issues; on the contrary, it has much to say on this subject, and not all of it promises future wealth or material prosperity.
Here is another excerpt from the sermon: “I was told in the crusade that God would give me everything. God has told you that he will give you the nations.” The second claim is likely drawn from Psalm 2:8: “Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.” This would certain seem to indicate material blessing! Often used in support of missionary endeavors, this is a particularly egregious example of abusing the context. Examine the two verses surrounding it: Ps 2:7 “I will tell of the decree: The Lord said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. … 9 You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” A messianic prophecy with the connotation of warfare and destruction—not the usual mantra for mission agencies or promises made during the emotional high of an evangelistic crusade.
This was towards the end of the sermon: “God will cover you with peace, with prosperity. Some people are rich and they are so humble before God. The scriptures are speaking to your life, that you are a prospered man. You are somebody.” These claims are not completely false, and some biblical passages do promise peace and blessing. For example, see Deut. 28:11, 30:15, Job 22:21, Numb. 6:23, Ps. 106:5, Prov. 13:21. Interestingly, when doing a search for the use of the word prosperity in the NIV, every single occurrence of the word occurred in the OT. It is possible, although difficult and not generally recommended, to be both rich and humble. God does desire peace and blessing for us, but this does not always take a material form.
There is another side to the biblical story about riches. Jesus was almost completely negative in his teachings on wealth: see Matt. 13:22 – the deceitfulness of wealth choke the seed; Matt. 19:22 – the rich young ruler; Luke 19:2-10 – story of Zacchaeus. He warned against storing up treasure on earth, and did not ever promise material benefits for following him (Matt. 6:19). Instead he promised persecution and a “yoke,” generally not a professional step forward in most fields (Matt. 10:17-22, 11:30). Paul advocated contentment, and told Timothy to “[c]ommand those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (Phil. 4:11-13, 1 Tim. 6:17, NIV).
If the Bible does speak to our lives today, then how exactly does it apply? Reader-response theorists are correct when they postulate that a text only becomes meaningful through the act of reading; in the words of McKnight: “[we are] situating the text in such a fashion that it is able to speak to the reader in his or contemporary idiom” [Edgar McKnight, Postmodern Use of the Bible: The Emergence of Reader-Oriented Criticism (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1988), 174]. Our context does affect how we read and interpret the Bible.
However, a contextually driven approach that ignores the historical realities of the text inevitable loses some of the power contained in biblical narratives. As seen above, the command to endure and claim the promises of God as found in Hebrews ends up taking a completely different connation when directed towards commercial success. This application stands contrary to authorial intention, historical setting, and literary context.
Reading the Bible and applying it to our lives today is a much more profitable exercise when it is supported by an understanding of the full context and at least a basic acknowledgment of the original setting and intended meaning. Many of the situations addressed in the Bible correspond very well to our lives today, and those that do not often contain principles which can be adapted to fit different contemporary circumstances. God’s promise of salvation and eternal glory applies to all those who follow Him, who in obedience endure the challenges and suffering our life in this world entails.
[I wrote this in 2008, during my first term at NEGST]