God understands culture. The Bible speaks the language of culture. Contrary to popular opinion, however, culture does not alter the truth of God’s word.
Biblical writers often used colloquialisms their readers and hearers would easily relate to and understand, some of which leave us modern Westerners scratching our heads. Allow me to illustrate from a passage in Romans 12.
Paul is describing to the Romans how they should overcome evil with good and leave vengeance to the Lord. Then he throws in a head scratcher.
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” (Romans 12:20 NIV)
Sounds to me if you want revenge on your enemy, be nice to him and you will set his hair on fire. But that can’t be what it means. Doesn’t sound much like God, does it?
Jesus hung on the cross and asked His father to forgive them that put Him there because they didn’t know what they were doing. Is there a contradiction here, or is there something Paul’s listeners understood that we don’t?
Here is what noted biblical language scholar Kenneth Wuest says:
“In Bible times an Oriental needed to keep his hearth fire going all the time in order to ensure fire for cooking and warmth. If it went out, he was at the mercy of his neighbors for some live coals of fire. These he would carry on his head in a container, Oriental fashion, back to his home. The person who would give him some live coals would be meeting his desperate need and showing him an outstanding kindness. If he would heap the container with coals, the man would be sure of getting some home still burning. The one injured would be returning kindness for injury. By so doing, God might have been able to soften the heart of the offender and lead him to repentance.”
Do you remember how the Bishop in “Les Miserables” heaped coals of fire on Jean Valjean’s head? Valjean had stolen the Bishop’s silver from his home and cold-cocked the Bishop only hours after he had taken him in and fed him when nobody else would give him the time of day. When the police brought Valjean back to the Bishop’s home along with the silver, he vouched for Valjean and even gave him the silver he had left behind.
I will never forget the look of bewilderment on Valjean’s face when the police left, and he stood there alone with the Bishop. The Bishop looked deeply into his eyes and said:
“Don’t forget, don’t ever forget. You have promised to become a new man.”
“I promise. Why are you doing this?” queried Valjean.
“Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil. With this silver, I have bought your soul. I have ransomed you from fear and hatred. And now I give you back to God.”
I know what you’re thinking. You are thinking that you could never be that good, that kind, that forgiving. And you would be right. You never could be. But remember this: When you trusted Jesus as your Lord and as your Savior, you ceased to live.
“I am crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20)
Jesus now lives in you. He is your Life. Could Jesus be that good, that kind, that forgiving? You betcha! The reason you cannot be like that is because you won’t give up control of your life and get out of His way. And the reason you won’t is because you just don’t believe how much He really loves you. If you knew, nothing else would matter, and the world would be overcome by His goodness shining out of you.
“Therefore, let your light so shine before the world that they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in Heaven.”
Keep those coals glowing!
P.S. Here is the YouTube video of that clip from “Les Miserables” if you would like to watch it, youtube.com/watch?v=wF3FX43F-7Y. I have watched it numerous times, and I tear up every time. That is what the love of Jesus does. It transforms people.
Kenny Ashley is pastor of The Journey in Lake Wylie.