First of all, we all realize that God speaks to us through the Bible. After that, we grow up in a culture. What is culture? It is a set of rules that a group of people who live in the same place seem to come up with. It is the religion of the people, their beliefs on how things should be done. Culture can mean what we think about how we eat, how we sleep, how we find someone to marry, death rituals, our definition of marriage or even of death, it can also mean which religion we take part in, how we interpret hand signals and body language, how we dress, our language, our concepts of what is funny, etc. Culture can encompass so many things. How does God relate to that culture?
God is above culture. We made our cultures. God tells us the way we should live, and if our cultures go against what God says, we need to rethink what we are doing. For example, there was a time in India when they burned a man’s widow and buried her with him when he died. Another example is in Nigeria, at one time, they were afraid of twins, so when twins were born, they took them into the bush and left them there to die. Those things have been corrected with the help of God. Christian people from England went in and helped the people understand that those things just are not right. They no longer burn widows in India, and they no longer leave twins to die in the bush in Nigeria.
What a lot of people don’t realize is that even the men who were inspired by God to write the Bible had their own cultures, the Jewish culture, and at times, you can see it in their writing. The Jewish culture grew out of the middle east. God didn’t mean for us all to become Jews or Arabs, but Christians. When missionaries go out to teach people about God, they need to remember that God is above culture, and they don’t need to be teaching their own culture as well as not teach the Jewish culture. Missionaries, Bible teachers, and preachers must interpret the basic principles in the Bible to impart them to the people they are teaching.
Even Bible translators now a days are realizing that they are not wanting to carry culture along with the teachings of God to their readers. There was a time that if you took a Bible into the eastern cultures, the references to bread didn’t translate into their cultures because they didn’t have bread. In the Middle East,in Europe, and in America bread is a staple of life. Everyone has always known that they needed bread to live, but bread is a modern thing in the far East. When the Bible translators began translating the Bible into Korean, they knew when they wrote “bread” in particular places, it would mean nothing to the Koreans. The Bible translators came up with an interesting substitution for “bread.” If you look at both Luke 3 & 4 as well as Matthew 3 & 4, it is talking about when Jesus was in the desert being tempted by Satan. The devil tells Jesus to turn the rock into bread, and Jesus responds that man doesn’t live only by bread, but by every word that comes out of the mouth of God. The word that you read “bread” there in English becomes 떡 (ddeok) in Korean the Korean Bible. 떡 is a rice cake, not bread, but rice is a staple in the East like bread is a staple in most of the rest of the world. The Bible translators learned to relate what they were translating into the culture of the people so they could understand it.
When we are reading our Bibles, we need to be sure that we are not reading our cultures into the Bible. What would happen if they put “rice cake” into the places in our Bibles where “bread” is written. It wouldn’t mean anything to us, but it means something to the Koreans. The concept of bread is not the same to the people in the East, and they just wouldn’t get the point had the translators used “bread” there. Any time we read the Bible, we need to be sure we aren’t reading Jewish culture and enforcing Jewish culture on ourselves or those around us.
We need to be sure that we don’t pick and choose verses taking them out of context to be sure that we teach what we think our culture says is right. Often, you can take one verse away from the others and without the others, make it mean something completely different. We need to check with other places in the Bible to see if they agree with what we are trying to teach. If you read Matthew 3:11, it says, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” If we take that out of context and don’t relate it to other verses in the Bible, we can become completely confused. We may be asking, “How will he baptize me with the Holy Spirit?” or “How will I be baptized by fire?” You have to remember that the early Bible translators who translated the Bible into English in 1611 were under threat of death from King James if they made a mistake. They made up that word “baptize” from a Greek word to save their own lives. They did a thing called “transliterate.” You see, sprinkling was already popular by 1611, and they thought it was the way people should be baptized. The problem was the word that was there in Greek was actually “immerse,” not baptize. Those early Bible translators saved their own skins by transliterating the Greek word and coming up with a new word “baptize,” and then King James couldn’t be upset by them putting “immerse” when everyone was being sprinkled. They had changed to sprinkling or pouring because of the lack of water in certain places. The translators saved their own necks and confused us by changing everywhere in the Bible that said “immersed” to “baptism.” If we understand that “baptism” there means “immersion,” and there is more that helps us make sense of those verses too.
First, you find the basics of the Holy Spirit talked about in Galatians 5:22-25. If you have the Holy Spirit, you can see these things: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control,” and you have gotten rid of the passions that cause you to sin. In Acts 2:38, it says that if you change or repent and are baptized (and they were immersed in water, not fire) then you can get the gift of the Holy Spirit, that list in Galatians 5. As far as being baptized by fire, or immersed in fire, it is what you might guess. It is Hell. Jude 1:7 refers to Hell as a place of fire. Revelations 20:14 talks about the “lake of fire” being “the second death.” That is talking about being immersed in fire, Hell. If you read the verses following Matthew 3:11, it says “He has his winnowing fork in his hand, and he will clear the threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” If you have never worked as a farmer, this may be hard to understand, but there were many farmers in the times that the Bible was written, many people who worked on that threshing floor. John the Baptist was comparing us to the wheat that was harvested. Some of the wheat is good, and is gathered into the barn, but the part that was bad was burned. That means, at that time, Jesus was on the way, and Jesus was going to gather the people who did the right thing and put them into his barn, Heaven, and the ones who didn’t do the right thing would be sent into a fire, to Hell. This is sorting through the symbolism that the Jewish people would have understood, but we have trouble with.
This is just an example of keeping things in context. Let’s not read our culture into the Bible, but look for God’s principles. Let’s not pick and choose verses without keeping them in context and without relating them to other parts of the Bible to make sure that what we think it says is actually what it says. It is hard to get rid of preconceived notions. The easiest way for me to read the Bible has been to sit down and read a book from beginning to end, and as I go, I draw pictures of what I read. I drew the pictures to teach, but I learned a lot from having to draw those pictures and trying to get them right. God’s message is there, and we can find it. I drew so many pictures that a friend of mine who came to lots of my classes before I left Korea asked me to give her all those pictures so she could put them where others could learn from them, so I gave her my pictures. The New Testament was written while the Romans were in charge, and the Romans basically borrowed the Greek culture, and those of you who have been to school in the west can find a thesis sentence and the topic sentences. You can understand if you are reading a principle or an example. Don’t just take what your church has said forever because they may be teaching culture or they may not. You won’t know if you don’t actually study it out for yourself. God is over culture. You must learn, also to figure out how God’s principles fit into your cultural context. Learn basic truths from God when you read the Bible, not Jewish culture, and don’t read your culture into it. God is over culture.