Friday, September 26, 2014

Matthew 17 - An Example of Bad Allegorization

How one reads and interpret scripture is a vitally important part of the Christian life. Just as we would want to understand the point behind every secular work created by fallible man, so should we strive to understand and comprehend what God's word is attempting to say. One of the greatest dangers in misunderstanding a passage of scripture is turning a descriptive passage of scripture into an allegory, and by extension turning it into a prescriptive passage.

Recently I saw a link on Twitter for the International House of Prayer's Marketplace Conference. In the video on the page, there was a use of Matthew 17:1 that I thought was worth using as an example to examine and discuss a more proper view of scripture, and an improper use of allegory.

Near the beginning of the video, Linda Fields and Daniel Lim (CEO of IHOP-KC) have this conversation:
Linda Fields: "Our theme is 'come up higher' from Matthew 17, and as you know we were talking about that a moment ago - I loved what you had to say about what Jesus was actually inviting Peter, James and John to. What was that?"

Daniel Lim: "Well Matthew 17, all of us quite familiar with that verse because it's a verse where Jesus in a very rare occasion revealed his glory to his disciples in a way that would shock them. We call that the Mountain of Transfiguration. But the context of Matthew 17 is actually a context where Jesus invited Peter, James and John to a prayer meeting. They were on their way to a prayer meeting, to a high mountain to pray. So I believe that this is a very beautiful word picture about us engaging in discipling different spheres of society, but from a prayer-based culture. Jesus always invited us to go higher; going higher actually means get nearer; getting nearer to him is a sign of going higher." [Transcribed from the audio]
The passage is further interpreted later on, after some of the speakers are mentioned.
Linda Fields: "I just love the idea of a whole family coming around the table, Daniel, all spheres of society coming together saying we want to impact the world for Jesus Christ. And we are coming here together to come up higher with the Lord and receive revelation, refreshing, there'll be teaching..." [Transcribed]
From these teachings, we get a few things from Daniel Lim and Linda Fields regarding what Matthew 17 has to teach for us:
  1. Christ revealed himself to the disciples "in a way that would shock them."
  2. Peter, James, and John were invited by Christ to a "prayer meeting."
  3. This story is a "word picture" about "discipling different spheres of society" from the context of a "prayer-based culture."
  4. In the passage, Jesus is inviting us "go higher," and hence "get nearer" to God, in order to "receive revelation" and "refreshing."
When we encounter a teaching by someone from the word of God, the first thing we need to do is examine what they are teaching, and hold it to the light of scripture. If what they are teaching is plain in scripture, then they are speaking in accordance with what scripture has written; if what they are teaching is not plain in scripture, then they are inserting doctrines and beliefs into the passage. We will examine these four statements one at a time, and see how they line up with what is written.

1) Christ revealed himself to the disciples "in a way that would shock them."

Some might be wondering why I highlighted this phrase, since, at first glance, it doesn't seem like too big of a statement. The truth is, such language is common in Hyper-Charismatic camps to attempt to make their unorthodox and often shocking interpretations of what is and isn't the Holy Spirit seem much more biblical. This is where you get phrases like "God will mess up your theology," or "God will appear in ways you never expected." While I do not deny God can give His providence and grace through ways not explicitly mentioned in the Bible (for example, finding good health insurance for your family), there are many things which are quite clearly not the Holy Spirit. For example, what is called "holy vomiting," as well as uncontrollable shaking like someone with Parkinson's Disease, are not outlined in scripture as traits the Holy Spirit instills in a fact, they are usually associated with demonic influence. While I am not advocating judging the fruits of the Spirit by subjectivity, if someone that people are attempting to pass off as "the Holy Spirit" appears shocking to us, then that should be a red flag that we should be extra discerning.

2) Peter, James, and John were invited by Christ to a "prayer meeting."

No such invitation is directly given by Christ in the passage, let alone in any of the other versions found in the Synoptic Gospels. The accounts by Matthew and Mark do not make mention of the purpose for which they went up the mountain, aside from the purpose we outlined earlier. Luke's account states that Christ "took along Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray" (Luke 9:28). The verb "went up" is in the third person singular, referring to Christ alone, and is continued into the verb "to pray." This suggests that Christ had gone up to pray, and had merely brought the disciples along. We see this especially in verse 29: there, we find that Christ is praying alone, while the disciples are said later to have fallen asleep (v. 32). If this was a prayer meeting, it was perhaps the worst prayer meeting in history, since only one person was praying while the others were sleeping through it.

The purpose of the disciples being brought up the mountains, as interpreted by commentators and theologians throughout history, is directly related to the appearance of Moses and Elijah alongside Christ, as well as the voice from God the Father. Moses and Elijah each represented an aspect of the Jewish holy text: Moses represented the Law; Elijah represented the prophets. The words of God the Father regarding Christ were a reference to Deuteronomy 18:15, in which the Lord says, "The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your countrymen, you shall listen to him." The apostles themselves later confirmed that this statement was a Messianic prophecy regarding Christ (Acts 3:22; 7:37). With the three disciples themselves witnessing this, they in essence fulfilled the command by the Law regarding the number of witnesses, and hence could confirm the event took place (Deu 17:6; 2 Cor 13:1).

From all this, we can gather that the point of the disciples being brought up the mountain was to witness a visual confirmation of Christ's words regarding his being the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets (Mt 11:13), and a confirmation of Christ's Messianic status. The point is, Christ did not invite the disciples up to have a "prayer meeting"; Daniel Lim is completely reading that into the passage to attempt to give Mike Bickle's "prayer culture" theology biblical credit, when there really is none.

3) This story is a "word picture" about "discipling different spheres of society" from the context of a "prayer-based culture."

We must be very careful whenever he hear someone call something a "word picture," or an "image" of something; this is basically admitting that they are creating an allegory, or spiritualizing a passage. There are many allegories in the Bible. There are generally accepted shadows of Christ (cf. Gen 3:15), and there are times where Biblical authors themselves will make reference to certain actions or personalities being shadows (cf., 1 Cor 10:1-4). The danger, however, is looking for "word pictures" and "images" where there a none.

There are two easy ways to tell if someone is overstepping their bounds when it comes to allegories:

a) Is the passage confirmed elsewhere in scripture as an allegory or shadow? For example, the previously cited passage in 1 Corinthians confirms that the Old Testament account of the rock and the water was a foreshadow of Christ.

b) Is the passage being spoken of as an allegory of Christ and salvation, or us?

This last part is especially important, as many times people will transform Biblical passages into commands for us to do something, or turn it into something about us. Even if the intent is to glorify God, it is still a very man-centered view of scripture, because it is transforming the focus onto something about us and what we have to do.

In this particular example we are examining, do we see the focus of the supposed allegory being one centered around Christ and our salvation? On the contrary, it is about us and what we have to do - in this case, "discipling different spheres of society" through a "prayer-based culture" (ie., the 24-7 prayer and intercession modeled at IHOP-KC). There is, however, not a single sign that such a command is present in this passage; again, that has been completely read into it by Daniel Lim and Linda Fields. As we saw before, the passage is about Christ and the messianic status which Christ confirmed before his top three disciples - it has nothing to do about us, even in the context of worship.

Certainly no one throughout all of church history has interpreted this passage to mean that we are to "disciple different spheres of society" within the context of a "prayer-based culture." No one had any such notion until IHOP-KC and the personal revelations supposedly given to Mike Bickle and his peers by God. What Daniel Lim and Linda Fields are bringing forward is, historically speaking, coming out of a exegetical vacuum. Even the apostle Peter, when writing on the incident that he himself witnessed (2 Pet 1:16-21), makes absolutely no mention of the moment being about discipling different spheres of society through prayer-based cultures. Again, the leadership of IHOP-KC is alone in their interpretation of this passage, both from history and biblical authorship.

4) In the passage, Jesus is inviting us "go higher," and hence "get nearer" to God, in order to "receive revelation" and "refreshing."

Let us ask this very important question, related to our previous point: is there anything in this account in which we are told to do something? As we said before, the answer is no. Not a single part of this passage is about us, or something we must do in our spiritual state. This episode was a specific moment in Christ's earthly ministry, and was meant to point towards his divinity and glory, and his status as Messiah. Peter, James, and John were there as witnesses, not as allegories for what we are supposed to do today within the prayer/prophetic movement.

We must be very careful when someone takes a passage of scripture that is descriptive in nature, and then turns it into a prescriptive passage. Just because something is done in scripture does not necessarily mean it must be done by us. Furthermore, when a teacher or leader begins to call things "word images" for us to follow, and interprets it as something we have to do, we must recognize that they are warping the text to fit it into some doctrine or prescription which they themselves are desiring the people of God to do. The unfortunate thing is that this is what is being done at fact, this is a common thing at IHOP-KC. The scriptural text is being warped to suit the needs of the IHOP-KC teachers, and to try to tell their followers that what they are doing has biblical significance, when really it has absolutely no biblical precedent whatsoever.

From this example, we unfortunately see yet another moment where passages of scripture are warped and misconstrued by IHOP-KC leadership to confirm their doctrines. They believe that they are glorifying God, but in actuality they are, through their mishandling of God's word, placing burdens upon the shoulders of their followers. Those at IHOP-KC truly need our prayers to see through the eisegesis brought about by Daniel Lim, Linda Fields, and others, and to come to a true knowledge of who Christ is, and what God's word says. They do not need a greater revelation to understand the Bible - God has placed it all right there.