Are all the moral commands of the Bible meant to be obeyed exactly for all time, or are there some that need to be adapted for our modern world?
Scripture contains lots of guidance on ethical issues, including statements about polygamy, slavery, divorce, sex, and other things that sound strange to our modern ears. Even Christians, who believe the Bible is God’s word, disagree on whether women should wear head coverings, whether Christians can ever lie, whether women should preach, and whether Christians should drink alcohol. How can we resolve these issues and figure out how to apply the Bible to our lives?
David Instone-Brewer helps answer this question by showing how the Bible’s moral commands were understood in their ancient cultural context. The more we understand what God and the biblical authors intended to communicate to the original audience, the better we will be able to make sense of how to apply those commands today.
In brief chapters that address a wide variety of moral issues, Instone-Brewer equips Bible readers with a paradigm they can use to discern matters for themselves: Is a biblical command timeless or time-bound? If the command itself is time-bound, what is the timeless purpose behind it? And how do we remain faithful to the Bible’s commands today even when handling subjects the Bible does not address?
Does the Bible condone slavery? The subjugation of women? The execution of homosexuals? Readers approaching the Bible with twenty-first-century eyes are often puzzled, confused, and even appalled at what they read. Can this really be God’s unchanging word? As a leading authority on the Jewish and Greco-Roman background of the Bible, David Instone-Brewer is an ideal guide for addressing moral and ethical questions related to the application of Scripture. By examining these texts within their unique cultural contexts, Instone-Brewer shows not only that the biblical commands represent a major ethical advance on the cultures of their day, but also that they reflect the encultured revelation of a just and loving God.
–Mark L. Strauss, University Professor of New Testament, Bethel Seminary
“I don’t think God changes his mind. His purposes are constant and unchanging, but in order to achieve them, he has to impose different rules, provide different incentives, and encourage different behaviors whenever different circumstances occur. If we want to find ethical guidance in the Bible, we can’t fixate on the rules of one time or another. We need to discover the eternal purposes of God and consider how to achieve them.” (Page 4)
“The unchangeable nature of God’s law lies in the underlying principles and purposes: the most valuable things on earth are people, not commodities. This is the unchanging ethical principle of the Bible. God supremely loves and values people, and his law teaches every generation to do the same.” (Page 10)
“Context is the key to understanding the Bible. Without it, we are reading the equivalent of ancient replies to lost letters, so we don’t know what news or views they are responding to. We don’t know whether the law of Moses is unusually strict or unexpectedly merciful if we don’t know what was normal in the surrounding nations. We don’t know whether Paul is telling people to fit in with Roman sensitivities or to take a stand against Roman vices if we don’t know how Romans actually lived.” (Page xiv)
“Nevertheless, putting aside these differences in detail, we will find that if a command in the Bible agrees with that found in all societies, including our own, it is timeless. We should regard it as part of God’s natural revelation to the whole of humanity, which we should always obey.” (Page 20)
The Scripture in Context series is driven by the conviction that there is nothing as exciting, direct, provocative, and spiritually enlightening as the Bible when we read it as it was meant to be read. Each book in the series dives into the ancient cultural context behind Bible passages, examining the effect this context had on what the Bible writers were saying and how we should understand their words today. When we read the Bible in light of its context, it is anything but boring. Instead, God’s word can speak to us as powerfully as it did to those who first read it.
The Rev. Dr. David Instone-Brewer is a research fellow at Tyndale House, a research library in biblical studies located in Cambridge, England. He previously served as a Baptist minister. His books include Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church, and Traditions of the Rabbis from the Era of the New Testament.