“I know what the Bible says about that, but it’s just cultural.”
“But how can we really know that’s what the Bible means? I just don’t think we can really know much for certain.”
“Jesus never explicitly taught about that, so we can’t really know what He thinks.”
There are some who would advocate that on issues such as gender roles, sin, sexuality, marriage, and God’s wrath, the Bible doesn’t really apply anymore.
It’s outdated. We don’t have to pay attention. It’s just cultural.
And we’re much more advanced and civilized than those who wrote the Bible.
I wonder, though, if this argument exists—“it’s cultural” or Scripture is hard to understand—not because it is, but as a mask for ignorance or unbelief.
Virtually all Christians would agree that an understanding of the cultural context in which the Scriptures were written helps us to better understand them.
Much of the Bible was written within an agrarian society—so it has lots of farming imagery. Sowing seeds, harvesting crops, shepherding sheep, pressing wine… For those of us living in very non-agrarian societies, it’s helpful for us to understand this so we get the big idea behind what’s being said.
What we have to remember is that while every word of Scripture is rooted in a cultural context, Scripture’s meaning is not limited to its cultural context.
It transcends it.
If meaning were limited to cultural context, we would have no use for the Bible, especially the Old Testament. But because meaning—the underlying principle existing within the text—always transcends culture, Christians today can look to a book like Leviticus and gain a greater understanding of Christ’s atonement, the offensiveness of sin and the seriousness of God commanding us to “be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:45).
Jesus and the writers of Scripture understood this. One quick example:
Jesus’ Atoning Death & Resurrection. The entire Old Testament—even the books we don’t like to read like Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy—is about Jesus. In John 5:39, Jesus declares this outright to the Pharisees, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.”
Before He ascended to the throne, Jesus led two Bible studies with His disciples showing them how everything worked together to foreshadow His coming.
In Luke 24:27, we’re told that Jesus while travelling with two disciples on the road to Emmaus, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” He did so again with the disciples in the upper room in Luke 24:44-46.
That includes the food laws, ceremonial washings, the sacrificial system—things intended to create an earthly culture for the people of God which ultimately foreshadowed the Messiah’s ministry.
In Christ’s death and resurrection, our sin is washed away and we are made clean. In His death, Jesus acts as the perfect sacrifice—“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” cried John the Baptist (John 1:29)—and completes the sacrificial system altogether.
The entire book of Hebrews speaks to this in great detail, notably:
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. (Hebrews 9:11-14)
When we try to pigeonhole Scripture’s meaning only to its original cultural context, saying that it was only for a certain time and place, we inevitably fall into the trap of what C.S. Lewis referred to as “chronological snobbery.”
It’s easy for twenty-first century Westerners to see ourselves as having reached the highest heights of wisdom and knowledge.
The problem with that? We’re not actually any more intelligent, more capable or more enlightened than we were 2000 years ago—we just have more technology. (After all, you probably didn’t build your car—but you do know how to drive it.)
This is a Hard Teaching
Is all of Scripture easy to understand? Most definitely not. The Twelve were frequently noted as not understanding what Jesus was teaching them (usually in relation to Himself as they had no category for a suffering Messiah). And Peter himself admits that Paul is confusing, writing:
And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. (2 Pet 3:15-16)
So if you’ve ever been confused by Paul’s epistles, you’re in good company. Peter—who was taught by Jesus Himself—was left scratching his head sometimes.
But what was his response? Did he chuck what Paul was saying? No, he encourages us to seek to understand those things that confuse us most in humility. “[T]he ignorant and unstable twist [the hard to understand words of Scripture] to their own destruction,” he warns us. So we must study the Scriptures.
All of them.
A trend that exists within some circles suggests that the words that are printed in red in our Bibles are more authoritative than the ones printed in black. After all, Jesus’ words obviously have more authority than those of Paul, Luke, James or John, right? And if that’s the case, then we can argue for cultural bias or error in the epistles when we come across something that we disagree with.
The problem here is that this comes into conflict with the Bible. Paul writing to Timothy says,
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. (2 Tim 3:14-16)
“All Scripture is breathed out by God,” writes Paul.
What he means when he says “all” is… all.
The issue with trying to ascribe more authority to the recorded words of Jesus in the Gospels is that it ignores the reality that those words were written down by other people—with unique personalities, writing styles and vocabularies—under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
The truth is if we follow the logic, every word of the Bible should be printed in red. There is not a single word of Scripture that isn’t useful for “making us wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” Every word is profitable.
Renew Your Mind
Paul admonished the Roman church, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2-4).
Our minds are renewed by the power of the Holy Spirit through the study of Scripture as we submit ourselves to God’s Word in humility. When we argue against the Scriptures, we reveal one of two things:
Either we do not understand what the Bible says or we do not care what the Bible says.
One is ignorance. The other is unbelief.
When I first became a Christian, I didn’t understand the Bible and there was a great deal of it that I really struggled with. I was ignorant. And in my ignorance, I recoiled against some of what Scripture taught.
But as I continued to read and study, the Holy Spirit opened my understanding of the words He inspired. He began to transform me by renewing my mind.
I still don’t understand the entire Bible. I don’t know that I ever will fully understand it this side of eternity. But what I do understand, I am confident in. What can be clearly understood—which is a great deal—I want to understand.
The same can be true for all of us.
The question remains, are we willing to be humbled by God or will we persist in ignorance or unbelief?