Do you enjoy the TV quiz program “Jeopardy”?
If so, you have lots of company. My young friend Josh Woo was a contestant on that program when he was maybe 12. Anyway…
What makes the program unique is its format. They give you the answer and you provide the question. For example, if they said “1492,” you would say, “When did Columbus discover America?” If they said, “George Washington,” you would say, “Who was the first president of the U.S.?”
Well. Did you know that much of the New Testament was written in the Jeopardy format?
The epistles, for instance, are letters answering various needs in the early churches. The problem is we are not given the questions they address. So we have to work our way back. We have the answer; what is the question?
Questions the epistles address
First Corinthians provides a perfect example. Early in the opening chapter, Paul says, “Now, I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree, that there be no divisions among you, but you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1:10). Why would he say such a thing? He tells us why in the next sentence: “For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you.”
The congregation has encountered some contentious issues and Chloe’s group turned them into questions for Paul. This epistle is his answer.
It’s not unkind to say we’re glad the early church had problems. If they hadn’t, we might not have the epistles with all their rich teachings which provide so much of the instruction for believers today.
Paul spends the 16 chapters of First Corinthians addressing the various issues that have been reported to him. They include the splintering of the fellowship as people pulled into little groups of fans of various preachers, the egotism of some claiming to be wiser than others, lawsuits among some believers, immorality within the congregation–even to the extent of bragging about the newfound freedom in Christ allowing such!–and elevating one gift, the gift of tongues, to a superior position.
One thing led to another in Paul’s writings, for, like good preachers everywhere, the occasion for the letter provided an opportunity to address the larger issue. So, when he gets into the matter of tongues-speaking and which gift is superior to the others, he inserts the unforgettable treasure we call the love chapter, I Corinthians 13, and then goes right back to his previous discussion.
The last two chapters continue to follow this pattern. Chapter 15, the resurrection chapter, contains this ominous note: “Now if Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection from the dead?” (15:12). Later, he adds: “But someone will say, ‘How are the dead raised?'” (15:35). In answering these questions, Paul gives us treasures of insights into our heavenly future. And–to state the obvious–the Holy Spirit was giving these through Paul.
Chapter 16 seems not to address questions so much as to pull together some final thoughts and reminders for the congregation. They should bring their offerings each week (16:1-2), Paul will choose responsible people to transport those love-gifts to the needy brethren in Jerusalem (16:3-4), and he may or may not be there for the full winter. The congregation is to appreciate faithful workers and encourage certain ones like Timothy (16:10ff).
Second Corinthians is a follow-up to the first epistle. And there seems to have been one in between these two, which we do not have (see chapter 2). And like the great teacher that he is, Paul gives us delightful insights and treasures in this epistle which we would be without had the occasion not arisen for him to write it.
Romans was written to establish in no uncertain terms the content of the gospel. Galatians is a pocket-sized version of the same theme. In that short epistle, we have a clearer photo of the problem which made these writings necessary. Paul says, “I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel” (1:6). He says, “If any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed” (1:9). So, these 6 chapters are to restate the content of the gospel.
That’s how it works with the epistles.
Questions the parables address
The same holds true for the parables of Jesus. They are usually given to answer a question, but we have to work our way back to find the question.
Clearest of all is the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. Actually, there are three parables there, brief stories of a lost sheep, a lost coin, and then the lost boy. But what question were they addressing? Answer: The charge that He was spending too much time with sinners. “This man receives sinners and eats with them” (15:2). In His answer, Jesus says, “These people are valuable, they are lost and they need me. Heaven rejoices when they are found. That’s why I am associating with them.”
Matthew 13 is the chapter of parables, containing seven of these wonderful little packages of truth. Here’s how they fall out, in my opinion….
–the first parable, “of the soils,” answers several questions such as: Why do some people respond to the gospel and some do not? Why do some seem to respond quickly but then fall away? (It covers 13:3-9 and the explanation 13:18-23.)
–the parable of the tares answers the question of what to do about hypocrites within the body of believers. “Leave them alone lest you root up the wheat with them” (13:29).
–the parable of the mustard seed (13:31-32) assures us that when God begins to do something great, He loves to start small in undramatic, unimpressive ways. The question may have been: “Why doesn’t God go for flash and drama and thunder and lightning?”
–the parable of the leaven (13:33) tells us that whatever God is doing will eventually become evident. Can we be a secret disciple? Not for long.
–the parable of the hidden treasure (13:44) and the parable of the pearl of great price (13:45-46) seem to answer the same question: How valuable is the kingdom? That is to say, how much value should one place on his eternal salvation? Answer: Do whatever you must to get into the kingdom!
–the seventh and last is the parable of the dragnet (13:47-50). God will sort out everything at judgement, Jesus says, and therefore “you don’t have to.” This is also a warning to all of the coming judgement.
The Lord intends for us to study the Word and to live in it
Jesus said, “If you abide in me and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish and it shall be done for you” John 15:7).
At the end of the chapter of parables, Matthew 13, comes a delightful little nugget from our Lord: Therefore, every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a head of a household who brings forth out of his treasure things new and old.
A scribe knew the Old Testament and loved its treasures. Then, someone led him to Christ and his world changed. Now, every time he went back into the Scriptures–the Old Testament was all he had, of course–he found all the old treasures he had loved dearly, but he keeps finding new insights, new nuggets, new treasures.
Imagine someone going into his attic and opening the ancient trunk where he has secreted his treasures–the deed to his property, some certificates of deposit, an envelope containing thousands of dollars, some jewels passed down from generations–but every time he goes there, he makes new discoveries. Here is a hundred dollar bill that wasn’t there the last time. Over here is a string of pearls he’s seeing for the first time.
That, says our Lord, is what happens when someone who knows the Word but not the Lord, is born into the family of God through faith in Jesus. All those old treasures are still there, but now there is a wealth of new insights and blessings.
It’s all awaiting the child of God who will open the Word and begin to listen.
All of this is to encourage us to study God’s Word with understanding, with appreciation, and with a heart hungry to learn and grow.