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Rightly Understanding God’s Word: Learning Context, Part 1, by Craig S. Keener

Paragraph Context: Checking yourself

1. The Thief in John 10:10

Many people assume that the thief in John 10:10 is the devil, but they assume this because they have heard this view many times, not because they examined the text carefully in context. In John chapter 9, Jesus heals a blind man and the religious officials kick the blind man out of the religious community for following Jesus. Jesus stands up for the formerly blind man and calls the religious leaders spiritually blind (9:35-41). Because there were no chapter breaks in the original Bible, Jesus’ words that continue into chapter 10 are still addressed to the religious leaders. He declares that He was the true Shepherd and the true sheep followed His voice, not the voice of strangers (10:1-5). Those who came before Him were thieves and robbers, but Jesus was the sheep’s true salvation (10:8-9). The thief comes only to destroy, but Jesus came to give life (10:10).

Psalm 50:10 does not address the issue of God supplying our needs; rather, it declares that God does not need our sacrifices.

In other words, the thief represents the false religious leaders, like the Pharisees who kicked the healed man out of their synagogue. The devil certainly works behind such false teachers, but modern readers usually think immediately of the devil rather than of false religious leaders because they have not considered the text in its context. The background of the text clarifies this point further. In Jeremiah 23 and Ezekiel 34, God was the shepherd of His scattered people, His sheep; these Old Testament passages also speak of false religious leaders who abused their authority over the sheep like many of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day and not a few religious leaders in our own day.


2. Jesus’ Crucifixion in John 12:32

I often sang, “Lift Jesus higher…He said, ‘If I be lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men unto Me,’” based on John 12:32. Then I realized that if the song meant by lifting Him up what the biblical verse meant, I would be yelling, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” Of course God knows our hearts, but it is unfortunate that neither the song writer nor many of us who sing such songs have taken the time to look up the verse on which it is based. John three times refers to Jesus being “lifted up”: in one case, he compares this event to the serpent being lifted up in the wilderness (Jn 3:14), to make eternal life available to everyone (3:15); in another, Jesus declares that His adversaries will lift Him up (8:28); and in the final passage, where He says that He will draw all people to Himself, John explicitly tells us what the lifting up means: “He was declaring the kind of death He was going to die” (12:33). In other words, John means by “lifting up” what Isaiah meant by it: Jesus would be crucified (Isa. 52:13 with Isa. 52:14-53:12). John includes plays on words in his gospel, and may also indicate that we “exalt” Jesus by preaching the Cross; but leaves no doubt as to the primary sense of the term in this context: crucifixion. To read it any other way is to ignore his explicit, inspired explanation of the “lifting up.”


3. The Day of Christ’s Exaltation in Psalm 118:24

Many of us often sing, “This is the day that the Lord has made.” When we sing this, most of us mean that God has made every day and what comes with it, and that we should therefore rejoice in what happens on that day. That is a true principle, but we would do better to quote a different text to prove it (maybe Eph. 5:20). In context, Psalm 118:24 refers not to every day, but to a particular day: the day when the Lord made the rejected stone the cornerstone (118:22-23), probably of the Temple (118:19-20, 27). It speaks of a special day of triumph, applicable in principle to many of God’s great triumphs but often applied in the New Testament in a special way. If Psalm 118:22-23 was fulfilled in Jesus’ ministry as He claimed (Mark 12:10-11), so also was Psalm 118:24: the great and momentous day the Lord had made, the day the Psalmist calls his hearers to celebrate, is the prophetic day when God exalted Jesus, rejected by the chief priests, as the cornerstone of His new temple (cf. Eph. 2:20). The verse points to a truth far more significant than merely the common biblical truth that God is with us daily; it points to the greatest act of God on our behalf, when Jesus our Lord died and rose again for us.


4. Cattle in Psalm 50:10

Some people insist that God can supply all our needs because, after all, He “owns the cattle on a thousand hills” (Ps. 50:10); some go beyond God supplying all our needs to suggest that He will supply anything we want. Again, it is true that God can supply all our needs, but there are many more appropriate texts to demonstrate that point. Psalm 50:10 does not address the issue of God supplying our needs (and certainly not all our wants); rather, it declares that God does not need our sacrifices.

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Category: Biblical Studies, Summer 2003

About the Author: Craig S. Keener, Ph.D. (Duke University), is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is author of many books, including Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011), the bestselling IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Gift and Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today, and commentaries on Acts, Matthew, John, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, and Revelation. In addition to having written more than seventy academic articles, several booklets and more than 150 popular-level articles, Craig is is the New Testament editor (and author of most New Testament notes) for the The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. He is married to Dr. Médine Moussounga Keener, who is from the Republic of Congo, and together they have worked for ethnic reconciliation in North America and Africa. Craig and Médine wrote Impossible Love: The True Story of an African Civil War, Miracles and Hope against All Odds (Chosen, 2016) to share their story.

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