Monday, 25 January 2016

Seeing the Bible with new eyes

The Bible is an important book for us Christians. Apart from a very small minority on the extreme left, almost all believers appreciate the value of spending time studying the pages of Scripture, learning its history, heeding its warnings and following its instructions. I am among the majority here myself. Yet since I came out of fundamentalism the Bible has being transformed into something different and new for me. I do not think that the problems that we, the keepers and proclaimers of sound doctrine had were unique to our little congregation though. I think that our problem probably infected most denominations. But before I get to ahead of myself let me state the actual intent of this article with a series of questions.

Q1 - Has denominationalism sabotaged our reading of the Bible?
Q2 - What is the true purpose of the Bible?
Q3 - And with what lenses should we be reading the Bible?

What the Bible is not

Before I can get around to exploring answers to those questions, it will be helpful for me to go back to what I said about the churches general misuse of and its tendency to forget the actual purpose of Scripture. This will be easiest to demonstrate through another series of questions. The Bible is oftentimes given as the answer to each and every one of these statements below. Yet Scripture itself denies all of them and actually points us elsewhere when touching on these topics. so here are the questions as well as some Bible answers to each of them.

Is the Bible daily bread for the believer?
Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again. Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. - John 6:35

Is the Bible the foundation on which we stand?
For no one can lay any foundation other than the one we already have—Jesus Christ. - 1 Corinthians 3:11

Is the Bible our final authority on all matters of faith?
Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth." - Matthew 28:18

Is the Bible the Word of God?
He wore a robe dipped in blood, and his title was the Word of God. - Revelation 19:13

Does the Bible keep us from sin?
We know that our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ so that sin might lose its power in our lives. We are no longer slaves to sin. For when we died with Christ we were set free from the power of sin. - Romans 6:6-7

Is the Bible the truth?
Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me. - John 14:6

Is the Bible alive, a two edged sword that cuts between soul and spirit, joints and marrow?
For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God. Everything is naked and exposed before his eyes, and he is the one to whom we are accountable. – Hebrew 4:12-13

Some may argue that I am splitting hairs by pointing out that we have taken everything that the Bible says about Jesus and attributed it to Scripture. If Jesus is the author of Scripture then does it really matter? I would say that yes it does. Firstly because we are Christians and not Biblians, we do not worship the book and as highly as we esteem it we certainly should never deify it. Secondly, it is important to make a distinction between the between the Lords book and the Lord Himself. Because over time our understanding of what is ‘sound doctrine’ changes, sometimes the boat gets rocked a little but our God is our ever constant. In what is our faith ultimately placed? Consider the following two questions as I try to bring my point across:-

Q1 - How old was Jehoiachin when he became king of Judah?
Hint – If you get the answer from 2 Kings 24:8 you will answer that he was eighteen years old but if you get your answer from 2 Chronicles 36:9 your answer will be that he was eight years old.

Q2 – King David once took a census in Israel which displeased God and ultimately resulted in the death of 70 000 people. Who put it into David’s heart to take the census and incited him in the first place?
Hint – If you get the answer out of 2 Samuel 24:1 your answer will be that God Himself did it but if you turned to 1 Chronicles 21:1 you would have read that Satan did it. Yip, go read it, check the context and then go and check out the Hebrew as well.

Now perhaps you may have answers to these contradictions that satisfy you, which is great but maybe you don’t. The thing is that I don’t have neat little answers for them yet but it does not cause me the least bit of doubt in my mind about Christ because my faith is in the Person whom I know. Were my faith built on the foundation of the Bible (or at least in my understanding of it) and dependent on my ability to harmonize every little discrepancy one may encounter, whether it’s due to my limited understanding or an actual error is irrelevant; my faith would be rocked by such a discovery. Many have indeed given up on Christianity for this very reason. They could not reconcile the differing images of God that they saw or they never recovered from the discrepancies that they picked up in the texts. But by actually knowing and focusing on Christ we can find contentment and assurance in Him. I can discover discrepancies in the Bible and wonder about them but it does not cause me to doubt my faith anymore than a spelling error in an SMS from my wife would cause me to doubt her existence.  

The Bible, therefore should never serve as a replacement for that to which it points, it cannot be a substitute for genuine intimacy or dialogue with God. We would do well to learn from Israel’s mistakes when God at Mount Sinai invited the whole nation to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 16:6) (in the same way that Peter speaks of the church later on). The story continues with Israel declining God’s offer out of fear and instead opting for a set of written rules on some stone tablets that they would agree to follow. It’s not that the rules were not good or reflective of Gods will but that they appealed more to the outer than the inner man. Scripture tells us of two people who were brilliant law keepers (Philippians 3:6 & Luke 18:21), the problem is that neither of them actually knew Christ and it profited them not a thing.

What then is the purpose of the bible?

 “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! Yet you refuse to come to me to receive this life. – John 5:39 - 40

Although I am asking the question here we have already given the answer several times over. The Bible is like a sign post meant to direct us to Christ. It is a means to an end but not the end in itself. That is not to say that when you have found Christ that we no longer need Scripture and that we can just follow Him. No, continue reading it, learn more and share its message with others. If your spouse leaves you a note on your pillow, you are not going to toss it in the dustbin because you have the ‘real deal’ nearby. No, the note contains something you want to know, it could be a piece of information or a reminder about something you need to do that day, it could just be a simple “I love you" note. Whatever it is, it’s important to you because you know who it’s from! You are going to read it precisely because it comes from him or her.

The Bible is not Jesus but it is still the truth about the Truth as it is the word about the Word. As Paul says, Scripture is useful in teaching what is true and God uses it to equip His people for good works (2 Timothy 3:16). It is not only a sign post that points us toward Jesus but it also reveals to us the symptoms and warns of the consequences of lives lived outside of Him.

Wearing the right lenses

So while we can all agree that it is important to spend time in the Bible. One needs to come to it wearing the right lenses. I wish I could say that it is possible to come to it with an open mind and no bias at all but even those who have never heard of Jesus would bring some amount of preconceived ideas about God and morality of their own that they would be susceptible at reading into the texts. For most of us it is our religious upbringing or denominational indoctrinations that get read into the texts (whether they are right or wrong). The mere fact that we have different denominations all claiming to hold the correct interpretation of the Bible while all simultaneously claiming to stand on Scripture alone (at least the Protestants would say so) is testimony as to why the Bible cannot be ones foundation. Let me repeat 1 Corinthians 3:11 here again, “No one can lay any foundation other than the one we already have – Jesus Christ”. A church built on doctrine divides over doctrines but a Church built on Christ is of one mind.

So I propose here that if we are going to come to Scripture wearing a lens and having a bias. Let it be the one that the Bible itself points to, Jesus Christ. John 1:18 says that no one has ever seeing God but Jesus, who Himself is God and near to the Fathers heart, He is the one that reveals God to us. If you simply want to follow a list of do’s and don’ts then any pair of religious lenses will suffice. But if you want to know Fathers heart and character then you need to read it, all of it, in light of what Jesus shows us. Jesus tells us that John the Baptist was greater than any man before him (Matthew 11:11), pick any author from the Old Testament and John stands above them all. Yet Jesus then declares in John 6:36 that His own testimony is weightier than Johns!

To practically demonstrate what this ‘Jesus lens’ looks like when reading the Bible. Consider Scriptures treatment of the Moabites. Moses said that no Moabite may be admitted into the Assembly of God, for up to ten generations. And as long as you live you should never promote the welfare or prosperity of the Moabites (Deuteronomy 23:3-6). Nehemiah 13 picks up on this and all Moabites and other foreigners were immediately exiled when this had been read. Then compare these stories with that of Ruth and Boaz, where Boaz is first charitable to Ruth (a Moabite) by leaving food for her to gather. Eventually the story ends up with him marrying and redeeming her. One of these passages reflects Jesus’ commands about enemy love, forgiveness and Scriptures overall theme of caring for widows and foreigners. Before I am misunderstood a word of caution here though would be wise and I am going to quote Scot McKnight;

“Pitting black letters against red letters is an unhelpful way to frame things, but pointing out that the “red letters” clarify the deepest intention of the “black letters” (often in unexpected ways) is a good way of looking at it.” 

In my own words, it is not that what Moses and Nehemiah said have no place in Scripture, they are there for good reason and they are just as inspired as Boaz’ response is. But to read the Bible flatly I could come up with any response that is suited to my own desires. We should be careful when we say, “It is written”, because what follows could have being people specific, it could have being time specific, it could be someone’s opinion (1 Corinthians 7:25), it could also be the Devils words recorded in Scripture or it could be Gods words but taken out of context. What we need to ask ourselves is “does this verse reflect Jesus heart?”

PS - I hope that this post is taken as it was intended; I do not mean to give anyone a lower view of Scripture unless perhaps you have made an idol of it. In that case it is good that you change the way you think about the Bible. My intention here though was not to devalue it in any way but to raise Christ up high above everything and everyone else to where He belongs.