In January of this year, I headed toward the light. The source of the brightness was a church across the river—Kingdom Evangelical Methodist Church. There I attended a weekend Bible conference but really, it could have been a seminary semester.
Back at home Friday night, I texted a number of friends: “I don’t know what you’re up to this weekend, but if you’re available, you have to see this guy. Best Bible teacher ever.
For thirty plus years, Ray Vander Laan, “RVL” to family and friends, has endeavored to study the Bible through the lens of the culture in which it was written. How did, do, the Jewish people respond to the word of God? RVL showed us how they would of course, view it through the filter of The Torah, the first five books of the Bible. And, they would want to know the places where events happened, the names of the people involved and meanings of the names (ie. Samson means “sunlight;” Delilah means “darkness.”), and why God included certain specific details—a precise measurement, for example.
Paging through my notes from that weekend, I see that RVL shown light on about 23 stories. First he’d project a section of the New Testament up on the screen. Next he highlighted a certain phrase within the text. Then he posed the question he recommended we ask each time we study the Bible:
Why do I need to know this?
Because I’m so in love with his Bible study technique and all the “nuggets” he finds along the way, I am going to share one example.
The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about three seahs of flour until it worked all through the dough. ~ Matthew 13:33
RVL said, immediately a Jewish listener would have recognized that specific measurement from Genesis 18:1-7.
The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.
He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.”
“Very well,” they answered, “do as you say.”
So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. “Quick,” he said, “get three seahs of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.”
Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it.
In the interest of time, let me bullet-point the key facts I learned from RVL about this teaching.
- The use of “hurried,” “hurried,” and “ran” illustrates how passionate Abraham was about hospitality to strangers. This fact is highlighted when you know that in Abraham’s culture, patriarchs did NOT run. It was inappropriate, embarrassing, offensive even. However, for Abraham, compassion for someone in need (ie. weary travelers) trumped cultural mores.
- In the beginning of the text, we learn that Abraham was sitting at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. Do you know why? Because he’d recently been circumcised. So when he hurried, and when he ran, he was no doubt in pain. And he did it anyway.
- Toward the end of the text, Abraham ran to the herd and selected a calf to be prepared for a meal. According to RVL, meat was only eaten in that culture about twice a year, so him offering the meat of a choice calf to the three visitors was very generous.
- Abraham hurried into the tent and asked Sarah to make “the finest flour” into bread. Barley was the everyday flour of choice in Bible times. But Abraham specified wheat. This is yet another example of his generous nature.
- And what of that specific measure of flour: three seahs? Exactly how much is that? 60-75 pounds!! Have you ever made bread? In my experience, it only takes a pound or two of flour. And Sarah used 60-75? For me, baking bread usually takes 4-6 hours. How long did it take Sarah to bake bread using 60-75 pounds of flour! Again we see that Abraham (and Sarah) goes above and beyond ordinary hospitality. His generosity is lavish!
And so when Jesus taught the Matthew 13:33 parable, the Jewish listeners would have said, “Oh, the Kingdom of heaven is like Abraham in Genesis 18—lavishly generous and hospitable.”
I love teachings like this which illuminate the Word of God brilliantly! It made me think of the lighthouses that are often used as a Christian symbol. To me, Ray Vander Laan is like a lighthouse keeper—shining a very bright light over the mysterious and fascinating eddies of the Word of God.
Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path. ~ Psalm 119: 105