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Is the Bible Clay in Our Hands?: The Importance of Authorial Intent

Two Sundays ago, I began preaching through the book of Philippians.  What an awesome word from God to us!  For my first sermon, I focused in on v1:6, For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.  That verse is one of the most encouraging verses in all of Scripture!

As I was preparing, I wanted to illustrate how God molds us and makes us into a work of beauty in the image of Jesus Christ.  So, my mind immediately went to the potter with clay illustration that we often hear about.  I searched YouTube for a video of a potter working with clay and came up with this clip:

I was immediately struck by the video!  I loved the imagery, especially that the imagery was employed in the book of Jeremiah.  I loved the message of redemption and hope, that God could take our mess and make something perfect out of us.  My heart said YES when the woman said, “‘If you just turn yourself over to Me, I’ll remake you again like this potter’… All God wants us to do is turn the mess over to Him.  Just turn it over to Him so that He can put things back together because see, He is the potter.  He’s really good at that.”  That passage in Jeremiah, which I’ve ready a few times in the past but was a bit fuzzy to me, must be an awesome passage of blessing and is perfect for my sermon, I thought. I hit the download button right away on my RealPlayer, ready to show the clip on Sunday morning to illustrate my message and to use that passage to show that God is forming us into something awesome.

Potter and Clay

Then I actually turned to the passage in Jeremiah and was immediately disappointed—not by the Word of God, but by the message of the video, which spoke from that passage.  The video captured the imagery of Jeremiah but not the message.  Check it out, and see if you agree:

Jeremiah 18:1-11,  1 The word which came to Jeremiah from the LORD saying, 2 “Arise and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will announce My words to you.” 3 Then I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was, making something on the wheel. 4 But the vessel that he was making of clay was spoiled in the hand of the potter; so he remade it into another vessel, as it pleased the potter to make.

5 Then the word of the LORD came to me saying, 6 “Can I not, O house of Israel, deal with you as this potter does?” declares the LORD. “Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel. 7 “At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it; 8 if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it. 9 “Or at another moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to build up or to plant it; 10 if it does evil in My sight by not obeying My voice, then I will think better of the good with which I had promised to bless it. 11 “So now then, speak to the men of Judah and against the inhabitants of Jerusalem saying, ‘Thus says the LORD, “Behold, I am fashioning calamity against you and devising a plan against you. Oh turn back, each of you from his evil way, and reform your ways and your deeds.”‘


A passage of blessing?  Hardly.  The feeling of the passage is one of woe and cursing instead of blessing.  The point was, “You think you are sovereign, Israel.  I’ll show you who’s sovereign.  I’ll mess you up like that clay vessel and remake you into whatever pleases Me.”

Now to be fair, what the woman said in the video is true.  God does want to remake us.  God does want us to give Him our messes so that He can put it back together.  However, we can’t get that from Jeremiah 18.

Needless to say, I didn’t use that video or passage to illustrate the point I was making  from Philippians 1:6, but it was a good reminder for me that I want to pass on to you.  I’m not just picking on the woman in the video.  Her example points to a larger temptation for we who teach the Word are often faced with.  If we are not careful, we’ll take the text and make it to mean whatever we want it to mean.  Preachers and teachers must always remember that the meaning of the text is tied to authorial intent.  We are not free to pour our own meaning and conclusions into the text.  We must pull them out of it.

Let me put it this way:  the Bible is not clay in our hands to shape  it to say whatever we want it to say.  It’s already been formed by God and kiln-dried to finish so that it no longer conforms to our hands.  Our hands must conform to it.

So, the next time you approach any text,  the first question we must ask ourselves is:  what did the author intend by this?  Then and only then can we begin to rightly teach a text of the Bible.

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