Better Bible Study Tip#8: Study to Understand the Meaning of the Text, Not to Defend Your Views

There are two kinds of Bible students, sectarians and truth seekers. We all run in different groups. A sectarian is one who firmly aligns himself with his group, and always seek to defend the views of his group. A sectarian takes it for granted that the views of his group are the right ones, and anyone who opposes the views of his group should be opposed. Some sectarians are liberal. Some are conservative. Some are traditionalist. Some are critics. Sectarians can be found in all kinds of different groups, but all sectarians align their own beliefs with the beliefs of their particular group.

Truth seekers are always willing to look into the views of others, and will examine those beliefs to see if there is any truth in those views. He won’t simply accept the views of others without close examination. But if a different understanding can withstand close examination, the truth seeker is always willing to admit that he was wrong and is ready to change his mind. The truth seeker is willing to adopt truth, even if it means opposing his own group from time to time. The truth seeker is always willing to examine truth, even if it means admitting that an opposing group is right on a particular point. Some truth seekers can be found in conservative groups. Some truth seekers can be found in liberal groups. Truth seekers can be found in all kinds of groups, but they are willing to separate themselves from their group whenever truth demands it.

If Jesus is Lord, then He deserves our allegiance. If our allegiance to our group is stronger than our allegiance to Jesus, we may end up becoming skilled at arguing for what our group says a passage means rather than becoming skilled in actually studying the text for ourselves. The goal of Bible study shouldn’t be about finding ammunition to make someone guilty, or to shame someone on the other side of an argument into submission. If our allegiance is to God, our Bible study should be aimed at righty understanding Scripture, regardless of who is right.

Better Bible Study Tip #7: Getting an Emotional Buzz is Not the Goal of Bible Study

God created humans to be emotional beings. We can’t have deep, meaningful relationships with God or with other people without emotions. If we truly love God, we should be emotionally moved from time to time when we spend time in Scripture.

But the goal of Bible study is not to achieve some sort of emotional buzz. Good Bible study seeks to understand the intent of the author, regardless of how the text makes us feel.

Have you ever sat in a Bible class and heard someone say “Well, I don’t thing God would ever _____” Or “I could never serve a God who _____”? These are common phrases that come from an emotional approach to Bible study. This is a dangerous way to study the Bible. What if the Bible is actually supposed to challenge our emotions from time to time? If we go to the Bible and ask “Okay, what can I pull from this verse that feels good to me?” we will end up skipping over all kinds of texts in the Bible just because they don’t incite the kind of emotional buzz we are looking for. Or worse, we may disregard the author’s intent entirely if it doesn’t match up with our more emotionally appealing reading of the verse.

For example, look at Romans 8:31 without considering what happens before it:

“What shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?”

At first glance, it sounds so empowering! “No one can stand in the way of my dreams!” But this over simplified, and misleading understanding of the verse fades away entirely when we study the verse in context. If we ask harder questions, such as “What did Paul mean when he said this?”, and “How would the original audience have understood Paul here?”, we will easily notice that Paul is actually encouraging Christians to embrace a life of Christ-like suffering! If we understand a verse differently than how the original audience would have understood the verse, we’re the ones who have it wrong.

Sometimes people will speak of “letting the Spirit lead them” in order to justify this kind of emotional-response method of reading. But the Bible actually teaches nearly the opposite. “For God has given us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Tim. 1:7). A spirit that has self-control over emotions is actually a gift from God.

Nowhere do we read that the early Christians “Searched the scriptures daily” to feel a certain way. Bible study is not about you. We study to gain a better understanding of God, a better understanding of His plan, and a better understanding of what He wants from us. God created us as emotional beings. We can’t have a true understanding of God – and the emotional impact that brings – without disciplined, self-controlled study of God’s word.

Better Bible Study Tip #6: Insist on Following the Text Wherever It Leads, No Matter What

The Bible is the word of God. Treat it as such.

We all have our opinions. We all have our ways of viewing the world. We all have a certain way of thinking about Christianity. We all hold certain doctrinal positions on different topics, and in most cases, we view those doctrinal positions as deeply important. We all have various beliefs that are deeply engrained into how we think. That’s not always a bad thing. Sometimes it can be a good thing. It’s just the truth about how people think.

None of us approach the Bible from a purely objective position. We all have biases. It’s almost always easier to pick up on information that confirms our previously held beliefs than it is to find information that challenges our beliefs.

But this doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to be a good student of the Bible. It just means that we need to be careful to remain humble. Humility is the best friend to objectiveness.

When studying the Bible, the text is all that matters. Previously help positions don’t matter. Our current way of viewing the world doesn’t matter. The views that are popularly held in our churches don’t matter. The views that are most acceptable in our society don’t matter. The inspired text is what matters. That’s why we must be willing to follow the text wherever it leads us, no matter what.

Yes, we all have deeply held beliefs, but we must have well informed exegetical arguments for the positions we hold. This can only be achieved if we are humble and honest with the text. If we have a hard time explaining from Scripture why we hold a particular view, we must be open to the possibility that maybe we don’t have a good scriptural reason for holding that view. To hide those possibilities or to manipulate the text to support our conclusions is dishonest, and it doesn’t demonstrate a very high view of scripture.

The Bible is what is inspired, and nothing else. Loyalty to God means loyalty to His inspired scriptures. Loyalty to His inspired scriptures means following scripture wherever it leads, no matter what. By definition, a belief is not biblical if it does not derive from the text of the Bible.

Following the text can be hard. Sometimes it means saying “I’m not sure if I’m right on this point.” Sometimes it means saying “There’s a chance I might be wrong on this point.” Sometimes it means changing your mind. Sometimes it means holding stubbornly to a position, even when everyone derides you for being far too conservative. At other times it means holding stubbornly to a position, even when it means that others begin to suspect that you might be a liberal. Sometimes it means holding a position that is completely out of step with the values of our society. So be it.

Neither your opinions, nor the opinions of any other person are inspired. The text is what is inspired. Insist on following the text wherever it leads, no matter what.

The Most Embarrassing Family Story

If you’re looking for a strong internal proof that the book of Genesis is historically reliable, read Genesis 30:1-24. This passage records for us the origin of the twelve tribes of Israel (except for Benjamin, although his future birth is alluded to in 30:24). It would be difficult to imagine a more embarrassing family story. You would never make up a story like this to describe the origins of your great nation.

If you wanted to craft an impressive origin story for your nation, you would come up with something along the lines of Romulus and Remus, or some other exalted tale. But you would never write a story about how your nation was formed by two sisters who became so envious of one another that they got into baby wars with their concubines while the founding father of your nation was helplessly passed back and forth between these feuding women.

But the story is written in a way that, while surely causing shame and embarrassment for the tribes of Israel, ultimately gives glory to God, who’s greatness is highlighted with every birth.

Jacob’s Helplessness

The background of the story can be found in Genesis 29, where Jacob falls in love with Rachel. He works seven years to marry Rachel, but when the time comes, Laban tricks Jacob into marrying Rachell’s less attractive sister, Leah. Jacob then works another seven years for Rachel.

Chapter 29 ends by focusing on Jacob’s unloved wife, Leah. “When the LORD saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb” (29:31). God blessed Leah with four sons:

  • Ruben (meaning “See, a son”, because the God saw Leah’s affliction)
  • Simeon (meaning “heard” because God heard she was hated)
  • Levi (meaning “attached”, because she hoped that Jacob would now become attached to her)
  • Judah (meaning “praise”, because she praised the LORD for her sons).

But, as the text notes, “Rachel was barren” (29:31). Chapter 30 begins with Rachel confronting Jacob about her childlessness. “Give me children, or I shall die!” (v. 1). In response, Jacob is forced to admit something that he has never admitted to himself before, “Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” (v. 2).

This is the same Jacob who manipulated Esau out of his birthright and who schemed Isaac into giving him Esau’s blessing. Now, for the first time in his life, Jacob is powerless to change his circumstances. He was having sons left and right, but he couldn’t change the fact that Rachel was barren. He loved Rachel. He would have loved for her to have children, but Jacob was not God. With language echoing the Garden of Eden, Jacob recognized that God had “withheld… the fruit”.

Rachel’s Schemes

But forbidden fruit didn’t stop Rachel from thinking herself to be wise. Like Eve giving Adam the forbidden fruit, Rachel “gave him” her servant Bilhah to bear fruit in her place. Rachel’s servant then bore Jacob two sons:

  • Dan (meaning “vindicated”, because Rachel felt that God had finally vindicated her)
  • Naphtaili (meaning “God-wrestles”, because Rachel was “wrestling” against her sister, and God allowed her to prevail)

But Rachel’s plan was stalemated when Leah countered by giving Jacob her servant girl, Zilpah, by which Jacob had two more sons.

  • Gad (meaning “good fortune”)
  • Asher (meaning “happy”)

This leads to Rachel’s second plot. Rachel approached Leah, and decided to purchase some of her mandrakes (a fruit believed to increase fertility) in exchange for giving Leah a night with Jacob. But the plan backfires. The mandrakes don’t help Rachel, but the night with Jacob does help Leah. Leah has two more sons:

  • Issachar (meaning “wages”, because God had given Leah her “wages”)
  • Zebulun (meaning “honor”, because Rachel now believed that Jacob would finally honor her)

God’s Gift

These embarrassing baby wars set the stage for verses 22-24:

Then God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her and opened her womb. She conceived and bore a son and said, “God has taken away my reproach.” And she called his name Joseph (meaning “may he add”), saying “May the LORD add to me another son!

Genesis 30:22-24

Rachel was finally given a son, Joseph. Considering the larger context of Genesis, we know why this birth was so significant. This is Joseph, the brother who would save his family from starvation during the famine.

After the powerlessness of Jacob, and after all the failed schemes of Rachel, the LORD finally makes His move. The LORD simply opened Rachel’s womb, and she conceived. That simple. Suddenly, for the first time in the story, Rachel utters the words “The LORD.” Despite all the scheming, and all the embarrassment, ultimately it is God who gives what is needed.

The Gospel According to Genesis

What are we to make of this strange and embarrassing origin story? Why is it important to realize that the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel came about through such a pitifully dysfunctional family?

On one hand, it would be easy to draw a few moralistic lessons from such a story. Polygamy is bad. Don’t be jealous of someone else who has more kids than you. Don’t blame your spouse for something that is outside of their control. These are all good lessons that could obviously be drawn from the text. But the significance of this story is not just to offer good advice on how to avoid getting into a messy situation, but to remind us that even in the worst situations, God never stops working to fulfill his purposes.

God always keeps his promises. It is incredibly important that we remember this. It’s easy to see how messed up the world is these days. And unfortunately, in many cases, the church it seems like the church is just as messed up. Yes, it’s easy to grow discouraged, but the danger of forgetting God’s faithfulness is far greater than simple discouragement.

When the thought of God’s faithfulness fades into the background, and we grow frustrated like Rachel, we may find ourselves, like Rachel, looking to our own schemes to fix our situation, rather than simply being faithful to God. If we’re not careful, frustration can cause us to lose focus on the big picture.

What Genesis 30 shows us about God’s character is seen even more fully in the cross of Jesus. Israel’s embarrassing origin story has nothing on the embarrassment of the Christian origin story. There has never been a more poignant example of human failure than what is seen in the false accusation, corrupt judgment, and gruesome murder of the innocent Jesus. The cross shows us that no matter how wicked or dark things may get, God can bring about his good intentions. If God can bring about the world’s greatest good out of the murder of his innocent Son, he can bring about good from pandemics, social panics, apathetic churches, and corrupt political schemes (cf. Rom. 8:28).

Think about the significance of the names of Jacob’s sons. When we find ourselves lonely or rejected like Leah, we need to remember that we serve a God who “sees”, a God who “hears”, a God who provides “attachment”, a God who deserves our “praise”. When we feel powerless to fix a bad situation like Jacob, we need to remember that we serve a God who “vindicates”, who “wrestles” on our behalf. When we are tempted to come up with our own schemes like Rachel, we need to remember that “good fortune”, “happiness”, “wages”, and “honor” come from God. In the end, God remember Rachel’s sorrow, and he “added” to her a son, a savior.

The gospel is the most embarrassing family origin story of all time, and yet it is the greatest reversal of evil this world has ever seen. God will remember his people and his purposes.

Better Bible Study Tip #5: Daily Bible Reading is NOT the Key

I’m a big fan of daily Bible reading routines. Like most people, it usually helps me to have a set time of day, with some sort of Bible reading goal to work towards. If having a daily Bible reading routine helps you, you should do it. But better Bible study is not necessarily tethered to having a daily bible reading routine. If we’re not careful, daily Bible reading routines can become, well, routine. It can sometimes become just one of those things on our spiritual checklist. Again, that doesn’t make daily Bible reading routines bad. Boring “checklist” Bible reading is still better than going weeks and months on end without reading our Bibles. But having a daily Bible reading routine doesn’t guarantee that we’re having better Bible study.

Bible study takes more time, effort, and concentration than reading. Good Bible study can be tiring. I don’t know about you, but there’s a lot of days when I just don’t have the time or energy to do deep Bible study. But that shouldn’t discourage us. Some of the most knowledgeable Bible students I know don’t do deep Bible study every single day.

The point isn’t that daily Bible reading isn’t good. It is. The point is, we need to be intentional about taking the time to actually think about what we’re reading and to develop clarity about our questions. Ultimately the goal of Bible study is to comprehend and remember Scripture better, not just to have a daily routine for the sake of a routine.

One easy step to improve our Bible study would be to take time throughout the day to think about what we read. Maybe do this while driving down the road, or while mowing grass, or while putting away the dishes. Retrieve some thought from you Bible reading, and meditate on it. Summarize the text to yourself. Think about why it is important. Look for weaknesses your own understanding of the text. Think about questions that you feel like you need to study in more depth. You may be surprised to find just how much it will help you to process text in more meaningful ways.

Better Bible Study Tip #4: Don’t Just Read – Study

Yes, Christians should read their Bibles regularly. But regular Bible reading isn’t where good Bible study ends. It’s where good Bible study begins. In order to move from Bible reading to better Bible study, we first need to realize that there is a difference between reading and studying.

Reading is easy. It’s surface level. It’s often enjoyable (although let’s be honest, sometimes reading can be boring too, depending on what we’re reading). It doesn’t require much effort. By reading we are able to cover large amounts of text in a fairly short amount of time.

Bible study is different. It takes concentration. It takes effort. When we study the Bible, we’re asking questions, we’re considering different possible answers to those questions, we’re searching for information, we’re considering the strengths and weaknesses of various positions, we’re forming judgments, we’re drawing conclusions, and we’re seeking to apply those conclusions.

Imagine if you and a friend were aliens from a different planet, and Michael Jordan and the Tune Squad were to challenge you to a game of basketball. Since you are from a different planet, you don’t know anything about basketball. You decide to prepare for the game by looking up the word “Basketball” in a dictionary. “Basketball: A game played between two teams of five players in which goals are scored by throwing a ball through a netted hoop fixed above each end of the court.”

But your friend decides to take his research a step further. How is the game actually played? What are the rules? Are there different kinds of strategies? What kinds of skills are needed for the game of basketball? How can my team of monstars acquire those skills? How can we practice for the big game?

Whoa. That’s way over the top. But we know why. Our friend is interested in more than simply reading about basketball. Our friend has a purpose in mind. He wants to actually prepare to master the game. His aim is studying, not just reading.

There’s a big difference. Bible reading is good, but it’s not the same as Bible study. Both are needed if we’re going to be better Bible students.

Better Bible Study Tip #3: Don’t Just Read – Think

It should go without saying that regular Bible reading is a great practice for any Christian. But at the same time, Bible reading is not the same thing as Bible comprehension. In order to comprehend what we are reading, we have to think about it.

Most of us have looked over our tax returns before. But to really understand how a tax return works, you have to think about it. You have to read slowly, and think “What does this number mean?” “Where did we pull this number from?” “What numbers are being added up here?” etc.

It would be easy for us to open up our church bulletin and read the sentence “Please pray for those who are sick of this congregation.” But to really comprehend the sentence, and it’s humor, you have to reread it slowly and think about it.

It would be one thing to read through Acts 2. But it would be another thing to really think about Peter’s sermon. What was it about Peter’s sermon that causes people to be cut to the heart? Where did each of his scripture references come from? Why did he quote from those particular scriptures? What was the point he was making from those scriptures? What does the word “repent” mean? What does the word “baptize” mean? How is repentance and baptism connected to forgiveness of sins? What is the gift of the Holy Spirit? Why is this important? etc.

Don’t just read your Bible. Think about it.

I will meditate on your precepts,
And fix my eyes on your ways.

Psalm 119:15

Better Bible Study Tip #2: Don’t Just Read – Memorize

I know a lot of people cringe at the thought of memorizing scripture. “It’s hard.” “It’s boring”. “I have access to my Bible on my phone 24/7, so what’s the point?” But hear me out.

Yes, Bible memory takes work. You have to put in the time to repeat verses to yourself over, and over, and over, and over. But the beauty of Bible memorization is found in that continual repetition.

Consider what is written in Psalm 1:

Blessed is the man,
Who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.

Psalm 1:1-3

Rather than filling his mind with the unwholesome thoughts of ungodly people, the blessed man meditates God’s law “day and night.”

When you repeat scripture to yourself, there’s a good chance that you will notice something during the 20th repetition that you missed during the 3rd or 4th repetitions.

When you repeat scripture to yourself, it literally fills your mind with those scriptures, which in turn can to transform your mind (Rom. 12:2).

When you repeat scripture to yourself, it makes it easier to recall those scriptures during times when they are helpful, such as times of temptation (Mt. 4:1-11), times of teaching (Mt. 12:3-7), and times of prayer (Mt. 27:46).

Don’t settle for just memorizing a verse here or there. My three year old can do that. Easy Bible memory is boring Bible memory. Do something more challenging. Memorize a whole paragraph. Memorize a whole chapter. Memorized a whole section. Memorize a whole book. The bigger the section is, the longer it will take you to memorize it, and the more you will have to repeat it to yourself. Plus, you will end up grasping the context better, which will make the process far more interesting and beneficial.

Still cringe at the idea of Bible memory? Do you think “I’m just not good at memorization”? Here’s an alternative suggestion that can yield many of the same results. Pick a book of the Bible and read it cover to cover thirty times in a row. Yes, thirty times. Chances are, by the time you finish, you will feel like you are pretty close to having it memorized. You will still get the benefits of meditation, repetition, and you will become far more familiar with the book.

Yes, it will take some time, but all good Bible study takes effort. Having a Bible app conveniently on your phone is helpful, but having scripture engrained into your mind is even better.

Better Bible Study Tip #1: Ask The Hard Questions

The Bible is not just a normal book. It is the collection of God’s inspired writings. It is the authoritative source for the truths we hold and shows us which errors we should deny.

And yet the world is filled with people who oppose the Bible, criticize the Bible, and try to undermine it’s reliability. These Bible critics often raise hard questions. “Why does God command genocide of the Canaanites? How can we say that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible, when the book of Genesis tells of things that happened long before his birth, and the book of Deuteronomy tells of things that happened after his death? Did the author of Genesis actually intend to write historical facts, or did he intend it to be understood as allegory? Did Isaiah really write the whole book of Isaiah? Did Daniel really write Daniel? Did Paul really write the letters we traditionally ascribe to him? Why do the four gospels seem to contradict themselves at several points? Didn’t the Biblical authors simply reflect the values of their cultures? Why should we view their writings as authoritative? How did we end up with these specific 66 books? How do we know these books are inspired, and others aren’t? How do we know the Bible hasn’t been corrupted over time? Why do different manuscripts read differently from each other?”

The questions go on and on. Of course some questions are easier to respond to than others. But sometimes, we come across some really good questions. Sometimes WE might even be the ones who think of the hard questions.

In a world filled with Bible deniers and Bible critics, sometimes hard questions can make us flinch. Is it okay to question the Bible? What if I find a hard question, and I can’t find a satisfactory answer? What if my question causes me to stumble in my faith?

When we start to question the process of asking questions, we need to remember something very important: questioning the Bible is not wrong. If there is a problem with questioning the Bible, the problem lies not in the questioning, but in the attitude of the questioner.

God welcomes sincere questions. Gideon asked an angel, “If the LORD is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our fathers recounted to us?” (Judg. 6:13). Mary, the mother of Jesus, asked how it would be possible for her to give birth to a child since she was a virgin (Lk. 1.34). Good questions deserve to be asked.

When Paul entered the Jewish synagogues, he “reasoned” with the people from the scriptures (Acts 17:2). Reasoning includes honest dialogue with people who ask hard questions. The Christians in Berea were praised because they were eagerly “examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). That means they were going to the scriptures with questions.

The Bible has been fulfilling its role as God’s inspired word for thousands of years. The Bible has faced numerous critics who have asked the most difficult questions man can think of. And yet the Bible is still here. It hasn’t gone away. Truth is not going away. Truth is truth. Truth isn’t afraid of questions. Those who love truth should embrace the process of asking questions.

Of course it can be possible to question the Bible in an unhealthy way. Sometimes questions are asked, not because the questioners are honestly seeking to learn truth, but rather because they have the goal of undermining God’s authority. This is what Satan did with his question when he asked Eve “Did God really say that?” (Gen. 3:1). Sometimes questions are asked simply because people love stirring up controversy. That’s also an unhealthy approach to questions (1 Tim. 6:3-4). But the problem in unhealthy questions is not in the questions themselves, but rather in the attitude of the questioner.

The Bible is God’s word. There is no reason for us to embrace irrational beliefs. Rational faith necessitates honest questions and rational answers. Approaching Scripture without asking the hard questions does not lead to a rational understanding of scripture. Intellectual laziness is not a virtue. So go ahead. Ask hard questions. The Bible can take it.

Every word of God proves true;
He is a shield to those who take refuge in him.

Proverbs 30:5

The Bible and the Ethics of Taxation

Nothing in the Bible indicates that taxation is anything other than legalized theft. Meriam-Webster defines the word “theft” as “(a) the act of stealing; the felonious taking and removing of personal property with the intent to deprive the rightful owner of it,” and “(b) an unlawful taking (as by embezzlement or burglary) of property.” Simply put, theft is taking someone else’s money or property by coercion.

Practically every Christian knows that scripture teaches that theft is wrong. Theft is a direct violation of one of the ten commandments (Ex. 20:15; Deut. 5:19; Lev. 19:11). To steal is to profane the name of God (Prov. 30:9), and is listed as one of the injustices that led to the destruction of the temple (Jer. 7:9). Stealing isn’t something that can be justified, even when it is done to satisfy basic needs such as poverty or hunger; nor does it become justified when the people excuse the thief (Prov. 6:30-31).

The same moral condemnation of theft appears in the New Testament. Theft is listed as a sin that can exclude people from the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:10). It is something for which a Christian should never be guilty (1 Pet. 4:15). It is an action that grieves the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:28-30).

Yet it is generally accepted that governments have the right to levy taxes on their citizens. After all, when Jesus was asked, “Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” he responded, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Lk. 20:22-25). And when Paul addressed the Christian’s relationship to government in Romans 13, he wrote:

You also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

Romans 13:6-7

Why is this? If it is wrong to take another person’s property by force, why doesn’t scripture simply say “taxation is theft” and clearly condemn it as wrong? Why are Christians commanded to pay their taxes? And if there is a difference between taxation and theft, what is it?

Meriam-Webster defines the word “tax” as “A charge of money imposed by authority on persons or property for public purposes.” Yes, taxation and theft both describe the taking and removing of personal property by force. But there is one key difference in the way we use the two words. Taxation refers to the legal confiscation of property which is imposed by an authority, while theft refers to the unlawful confiscation of property.

If there is a difference between taxation and theft, this is it. It’s not simply that taxes become right because they are used to satisfy particular needs, for the Bible is clear that theft is wrong regardless of the needs the stolen goods are used to satisfy (Prov. 6:30-31; 30:9). It’s not simply that taxes cease to be theft because of the democratic approval of the people excuse them (Prov. 6:30-31). If there is a distinction between taxation and theft, the distinction is that of authority.

Therefore, if taxation is justifiable in a way that theft is not, we must be able to answer the following question in the affirmative: Does the Bible describe governments as having a special place of authority that gives them a claim over the property of their citizens?0

Taxation in the Old Testament

In 1 Samuel 8, Israel demanded a king, Samuel warned them that a king would:

Take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.

1 Samuel 8:14-17

Observe that even though the king held legal authority, his confiscation of the goods of his citizens is still described with the word “take.” He was “taking” something that didn’t belong to him. If the king has a special place of authority that allows him a legal claim over the goods of his citizens, why would Saul describe this as “taking?”

When Solomon collected taxes from his citizens, this was described as a “heavy yoke” (1 Kings 12:4), a yoke which was increased by his son Rehaboam (1 Kings 12:14). This isn’t exactly a glowing review of the idea of taxation is it?

The story of King Ahab and Naaboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21) only makes sense if we recognize that King Ahab did not have a rightful claim to Naaboth’s vineyard simply on the basis of his legal authority as a king. The only way Ahab was able to take possession of Naaboth’s vineyard was to kill Naaboth and to take it for himself (21:13-16). As a consequence of taking possession of something that was not his, the LORD condemned him to die (21:17-19).

While it is often recognized that the prophets warned against oppression and robbery, it should be noted that their warnings were often addressed directly to the rulers. For example, Isaiah pronounced a woe to rulers who “rob” (Is. 10:1-2). Jeremiah rebuked the king of Judah for “dishonest gain”, “oppression”, and “violence” (Jer. 22:11, 17). Amos rebuked Israel’s leaders specifically for exacting grain taxes, through which they “trampled the poor” (Amos 5:11). Evidently, the prophets didn’t view legal authority as a status which excused rulers from the sins of robbery and oppression.

Some may point to the tithes commanded in the Law of Moses as an example of a tax which was approved by God (Lev. 27:30-33). While the collection of tithes does give us an example of a collective pooling of resources, it should be noted that tithes were not to be collected by force, but rather they were to be voluntarily given as an act of obedience and devotion to the law (cf. 1 Chron. 31:4). Rather than establishing a system of taxation, the law of Moses limited the king from maintaining a powerful police force or acquiring much silver and gold for himself (Deut. 17:14-20).

Despite the Old Testament’s clarity that theft is wrong, and despite the fact that the Old Testament never suggest that governing authorities were excused from the law’s demands or permitted to take possessions belonging to their citizens, many Christians continue to defend taxation as an ethical practice by pointing to their New Testaments.

Taxation in the New Testament

Many Christians will defend practice of taxation by pointing to Jesus’s quote in Matthew 22 and Luke 20:

Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.

Luke 20:25

A simplistic reading of this text would seem to suggest that Jesus recognized, and even approved of Caesar’s claim of ownership over the money he was collecting as taxes. This reading fails to consider the historical or textual context, which I have written about more extensively here and here. If Jesus’s answer simply meant “Yes, Caesar has a right to collect taxes”, nobody would have “marveled” at Jesus’s answer (cf. Lk 20:16). Instead they would have rejoiced, because the trap set by the question of the scribes and chief priests would have worked! But no Jew would have taken Jesus’s statement as an endorsement of taxation.

If one’s faith is in God, then God is owed everything (cf. Ps. 24:1; 50:10; Hag. 2:8), and Caesar’s claims are illegitimate. If one’s faith is in Caesar, then God’s claims are illegitimate, and Caesar is owed, at the very least, the coin which bears his image. Jesus’s teaching should be understood as a challenge to the Jews to reconsider their allegiance.

If Jesus gave a hearty endorsement of taxation, as if often assumed, we are left to wonder why anybody would ever accuse Jesus as forbidding people from paying taxes to Caesar (Mt. 23:2). Such an accusation would have been laughed out of court, for it would have been quickly refuted by those who heard Jesus’ teaching. But if Jesus’s statement is understood as a challenge to serve God alone, then this accusation makes perfect sense.

Some will also point to the words of Paul in Romans 13, where Paul commanded Christians to pay taxes as an extension of their submission to government (Rom 13:6-7). It should be noted, that similar to Jesus, Paul offered no commentary on the ethics of taxation itself. He simply tells Christians to pay taxes should the government require it. To use these verses to justify taxation would be the same as turning to Matthew 5’s command to turn the other cheek as justification for the one who slaps you. Or praying for persecutors as a justification for persecution. Or pointing to Paul’s commands to slaves to submit to their masters as a justification for slavery.

Why did Jesus and Paul feel the need to command Christians to pay their taxes in the first place? This teaching only makes since if it was understood that something about Jesus’s mission actually challenged the very concept of taxation. If Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not. If all the silver and gold belong to God, it does not belong to Caesar.

The only sense in which we can understand governing authorities as having the authority to take the possessions of others is the sense in which Jesus said that Pilate had the authority to crucify him.

You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.

John 19:36

So yes, there is a sense in which Pilate had been given the rightful authority to crucify an innocent man. In this same sense, we can accept that government has been given the authority to collect taxes. But just because Pilate “had the right” to crucify Jesus, that does not imply that Pilate was free from guilt when he did so. In the same way, just because there is a sense in which governments “have the right” to collect taxes, this does not imply that they are free from guilt when they do so.

The Bible is, of course, extremely supportive of free will generosity (Prov. 22:9; Mt. 5:42; Lk 3:10-11; Acts 2:46; Heb. 13:16). The Bible regularly condemns theft, even among governing authorities, even when theft receives approval from others, and even when theft us used to meet other necessities. There is nothing in the Bible that would suggest that taxes are approved by God. But as Christians, our response is not to rebel against paying taxes. Rather we should be like the Hebrew Christians who “joyfully accepted the plundering of their property, since they knew that they had a better possession and an abiding one.” (Heb. 10:34).