Friday, August 6, 2010

Are You Stealing God's Promises to Other People?

I am currently doing research for my next series of articles on the historicity and reliability of the New Testament in relation to Jesus' life, death and resurrection. During that time I have come up with some filler ideas for the time between posts. One topic I have been wanting to talk about was what I call "promise rustling" and "promise tagging". As I was gathering my thoughts on these topics, Stand to Reason (a national apologetic ministry) sent out their latest newsletter entitled, "Have You Been Stealing Promises?" So rather than write my thoughts, I thought I would share this particular newsletter article with you.

When I was a new believer in the 70s, part of the standard “gear” for Jesus Movement Christians was a dog-eared paperback copy of The Jesus Person Pocket Promise Book
It seemed like a sensational idea at the time, collect God’s promises, and then cash them in as needed.   Now, nearly 40 years later—though the promises of God are no less “precious and magnificent” (2 Peter 1:4)—I think twice when people claim them. 
Promises are frequently abused, in many cases by people who should know better. A promise not carefully tethered to the details of the text becomes an empty exercise of relativistic wishful thinking.
Knowledge—“an accurately informed mind”—is the first characteristic of a good ambassador.  Ambassadors need to get the content of the message right before they can accurately pass it on to others.  Since everything we offer on God’s behalf consists of promises of some sort, mistakes here really matter.
A biblical promise is a binding pledge from God to do—or not do—something specific.  If the promise is made to you, you have a right to expect God to keep His word.  If you are not the rightful owner, though, you may not lay claim to it.  It is pointless to expropriate promises made to another, and can lead to disappointment and discouragement.
But how do you know if you are the fortunate beneficiary?  You find out by looking closely at the details of the promise itself and applying two simple principles.
The correct meaning of any biblical passage is the meaning the author had in mind when he wrote it.  A promise is only a promise when it is used as its maker intended.  We discover that intention by paying attention to the specifics—the words, the conditions, the recipient, the timing, the historical setting—the details that make up the context of the promise.
The process can be organized into steps by asking (and answering) four questions: Who?, What?, Why?, and When?*
Who?  Identify the particular person or people the promise is made to.  The promise may be for a specific individual, for a group, or for anyone.  Ask, Am I that person?  If the promise is to a group (e.g. Jews, Christians) ask, Am I part of the group?
What?—Zero in on the particulars of the promise.  Specify what the promise actually commits to.  Ask, What will happen (or not happen) when the promise is fulfilled?
Why?—Why will the promise be fulfilled, that is, what must happen first?  Note the conditions or requirements the promise hinges on, often signaled by an if/then clause.  Ask, Do I meet the requirements?
When?—This is the promise time.  The promise may be for a particular time (“…at this time next year …“) or for an unspecified time. Ask the question, What is the time of the promise, if any?
We can only legitimately claim a biblical promise if it is rightfully ours.  If the promise is for us, and we have satisfied the conditions, and the promise is for our time, then we can count on God to keep His word. 
If not, then we must leave the promise to its rightful owner and profit from the text by learning what we can from God’s faithful dealings with them.
One specific promise that I hear Christians use all the time, especially Pentecostal/Word Faith Christians, is Jeremiah 29:11:
For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
The problem with Christians using this promise as a "life verse" is that this verse, in fact the entire chapter is not for Christians. Verses one through three gives us, by name, who the recipients of this promise were:
This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. (This was after King Jehoiachin and the queen mother, the court officials and the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the craftsmen and the artisans had gone into exile from Jerusalem.) He entrusted the letter to Elasah son of Shaphan and to Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon.
If context means anything, then it is clear that this verse is a promise to those Jews who were in captivity in Babylon at the time Jeremiah wrote this letter. This is why reading the context of a specific verse is so important to proper interpretation and application of Scripture to our lives. I also believe that there is another reason why Christians in general, and the Pentecostal and Word-Faith movements use this Scripture so much is that this verse God promises prosperity to the recipients of this promise. The people in these movements are so addicted to this world and the the things in this world that they desperately search the Scriptures for any verse that will scratch their itching ears (2 Timothy 4:3).

OK, so we have identified the problem, namely the theft of promises. The problem with using promises from the Old Testament is that the Old Testament deals with an entirely different covenant from God, and as such there are different promises that God gave to them as opposed to the promises He has given to Christians under the New Covenant. God's covenant with Israel was to prosper them again. After all, they had continually disobeyed God's commands, and they had continually ignored God's prophet's (even murdering them). So God took them "out behind the woodshed" to teach them a lesson. However, God did not want to think that He had abandoned His chosen people. So He gave the promise in Jeremiah 29:11. If we as Christians take this promise and make it ours, then we are stealing promises that do not belong to us. We are trading the far better promises of the New Covenant for the shadows of the Old Covenant.

What are the New Covenant promises that Jesus has given those that follow him? Here is a list. It is not intended to be an exhaustive list, but they tell us what Jesus has promised each and everyone of us as followers of Him.

Mathew 5:11: Blessings when we are persecuted.
Matthew 6:30, 33; Luke 11:9-13; 12:31: The necessities of life.
Matthew 28:20: Jesus will be with us always.
Romans 8:18: Future glory that is incomparable to present earthly suffering.
Romans 8:34: Jesus is continually interceding for us.
2 Corinthians 4:17: The incomparable exchange of "momentary, light affliction" for "an eternal weight of glory."
Hebrews 4:14-16: A high priest that personally knows what sinful humans undergo.
James 1:17: That God is consistent.

These are just a few. There are many, many more. However, they all have the same general theme. That is to get the Christian's mind off the world and back on mission. To get believers off the mundane, and focused on mission. To get them to "let goods and kindred go; this mortal also..." (A Mighty Fortress Is Our God). The purpose of the Christian life here and now, is to face adversity. It is also to know that this adversity is not permanent, but temporary. That it is not heavy but light. That "living our best life now" is the fastest way to a Christ-less eternity.

Then there is what I call "promise tagging" I am using "tagging" in the terms of gang culture. When I street gang wants to "claim" a rival's territory they will find walls in which the rival was spray painted their gang's identifying "tag". They will cross out the rival's "tag" and put up their own. In this way, those that can comprehend the graffiti know that a new gang has moved in to the neighborhood and is claiming this area as their own. Christians do this by taking Scriptures that they believe they have been promised and "tag" them with their name. One example I can think of is of a young lady who, though raised in a Christian home, did not display much fruit of a Christian life. This young lady went to her church movement's "boot camp" for young people. She came back on fire for God, and with a peculiar promise Scripture. As she spoke about this to the church, she recited the Scripture,
For this purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.
Being a good Calvinist, my ears tuned in immediately to what she was reciting. I was shocked! How could anyone claim this portion of Scripture as their own, and make it their life's verse? You see this Scripture is found in Romans 9:17. Here Paul is telling his readers that God is telling Pharaoh the reason why those ten plagues were sent upon him and his people. This is a Scripture not promising good things, but promising bad things. Basically, this young woman who was and is on fire for God, took a promise to an enemy of God, and made it her's. In the same way our gang claims the area of a rival.

So I ask you, the reader, are you stealing other people's promises? Are you tagging promises made to the enemy as your own? I hope that in the future, before you make a promise yours you will heed Stand To Reason's great advice, and "never read a Bible verse." Instead, read the immediate context f the verse. Ask the questions in the above quoted article. Most importantly, make sure that the promise you are about to claim is not a promise made by God to His enemies.

I pray that this post will help you in the future to better interpret and apply the Scriptures in and to your lives. 

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