How is it that we understand the principle of multiple layers of biblical meaning? Today I listened to three messages and each of them offered a different approach as to how this could be done, and it is well worth comparing these three approaches together to better understand how it is that we can deal with the question of how to deal with the ways to apply the Bible to different levels of meaning of different contexts. To be sure, I have my own personal opinions about how this can be done the best, but it is worthwhile all the same to recognize that there are many ways to recognizes the dual and sometimes even more layers of meaning that one can have.
The first of the messages I heard today was a sermonette by a co-father-in-law of some close friends of mine, which was a message that took the story of Josiah, the last righteous king of Judah, and drew from that familiar but still worthwhile story some lessons for the listener. This particular message featured a lot of summarization of scripture and only a couple of scriptural citations, but given the limitations of the form of the sermonette and the scope of the material one can cover, it did a good job of fulfilling its task of drawing worthwhile lessons from biblical history. This approach to the question of dual meaning is pretty straightforward–take the source material seriously and draw upon it as a source of continuing insight in the present-day. This is a pretty familiar approach to the multi-layered nature of scripture as well as history and it is one that most readers ought to be somewhat familiar with in the “lessons learned” school of historical study.
The sermon this morning, from which the title of this entry comes, took a different tack. The speaker wanted to make an interesting and worthwhile point, which was that the glory of the latter temple has not fully been fulfilled yet, because it points to the peace and glory that will result from the giving of the Holy Spirit to a far wider amount of humanity than has been the case since Acts 2 and to the return of Jesus Christ as a glorified being to rule the earth and not merely his earthly life. I thought it was not necessary to denigrate what was fulfilled in Jesus’ first coming and in the healing and giving of the Holy Spirit in order to point to the greater fulfillment that was yet to come. In particular, I thought that pointing to the gradual nature of the increased glory of the second temple both physically (in light of the Herodian beautification of the building and its surroundings) as well as spiritually (in light of the presence of Jesus Christ and the early Church of God) was a fitting metaphor for the gradual process by which we are ourselves glorified by the indwelling presence of God’s Spirit in our lives. Here there seemed to be a pitting against of multiple layers of meaning and application against each other and this made me feel deeply uneasy.
The Bible Study, in stark contrast, also was drawing parallels between multiple layers of applicability of wilderness and did so in a very intriguing fashion. First, there was a comparison being made between the wilderness as we understand it and the wilderness as it is described in the Bible. For the most part, this took an approach that was historical and geographical in nature, with a lot of maps and photographs showing the wilderness areas, along with explanation that showed some nuance concerning different aspects of the wilderness that could range from benign to threatening (such as forests as nourishing and remote hiding places in En Gedi but also as the home for dangerous animals like bears). Then, after doing this for most of the message, the speaker at the end decided to add a layer of applicability by talking about the spiritual wilderness of the contemporary age in a way that demonstrated a high degree of relevance for our own time and society the commentary about the wilderness of ungodliness described by Jeremiah in his own time. This was a well-executed discussion that turned a Bible study that had been safely historical in nature to something that was far more immediately and pointedly relevant, while also providing much food for future thought and study.