how do you read the Bible?

How do you read the Bible?

bible genesis
Open Bibles are generally easier to read than closed ones.

That question has a range of answers from the simple: “You open the book and read the words on the pages” to the complex: “You need to understand the culture surrounding the events and you need to understand the form of literature that you are reading.”

Actually both are accurate and fair answers to that question. But I want to frame it slightly differently: do you read the Bible searching for answers to life’s problems and complexities or do you read it looking for wisdom to help you work out how to approach life’s problems and complexities? It may seem like an esoteric exercise in semantics (and tricky words) to pose the question that way but I think the answer is important because it affects how we approach life.

I have a book on my bookshelf that I have had since I was a teenager. No, it wasn’t written on a scroll, but it was published in 1978. It’s called The Answer’s In The Bible. And I think for a lot of my life that’s how I have approached the Bible – looking for answers. I have looked to find out what the Bible says about issues that I face. Sometimes, I admit, I have even naively used it to justify my own actions by taking some verses out of context as an answer (you could use Matthew 25:27 as an argument to save money in a bank and not give it away, but that’s not what the parable is about). But the Bible doesn’t have direct answers for a lot of the questions we might ask today because those things could not have been anticipated in the days in which it was written. It does not have anything to say directly about the internet, computers, cars, aeroplanes, television, space exploration and so much more that we take for granted in our 21st Century cultures and lifestyles. And the Bible’s silence on some issues causes us problems if we are just looking for answers on what to do when…

Okay Christians, put the stones down gently and step away. Or at least don’t lob them at me just yet, please – read on…

You see I do believe that the Bible gives us access to God’s wisdom which enables us to work out what to do and how to approach life’s problems and complexities. The wisdom of God is contained throughout the pages of the Bible*. But there are two overarching themes through the Bible – God’s LOVE and JUSTICE – and they are at the heart of his wisdom.

They trump anything else. And if Love and Justice seem to be in conflict then Love wins every time in the form of grace and mercy. If you want the ultimate example of it you find it in what the Bible has to say about Jesus’ death and resurrection: God’s love and justice are both involved, but love wins even as he dies. (The resurrection proves it!)

So if you decide to look for Biblical wisdom rather than answers what does the Bible say about the internet and computers, for example? Nothing directly, as I have said. But it talks (from a starting point of being loving and just) about being honest, not gossiping, not lusting, not expressing hatred for others, good administration, and a lot more. That wisdom can shape good use.

And the great thing about seeking Godly wisdom from the Bible rather than just answers is that the wisdom crosses boundaries of time, culture, geography, ethnicity and any of the other things that can make it difficult for us to apply those words to our lives today. The Bible is not a rule-book to be followed or an instruction manual to help us maintain our lives. It is God’s wisdom expressed as love and justice seen through his interaction with humanity (especially seen in Jesus where the two are combined wonderfully).

So how do you read the Bible? Searching for answers or looking for wisdom?

Be blessed, be a blessing

*Even the apparently esoteric rules and regulations of Leviticus contain wisdom: not wearing clothes woven of two different kinds of thread (Leviticus 19:19) is about ensuring that clothes will last and provide value for money because when washed different threads are liable to shrinkage and may either weaken or even tear the garment, which could also lead to public embarrassment.

mortal

death valleyEven though it is the holiday season at present, death has not taken a vacation. Over the past few days there have been many reminders of this as well known people have died, and there have also been some tragic accidents that have resulted in death. We must never forget that behind the headlines are people in pain, walking through the valley of the shadow of death. For the friends and relatives of those who have died this is personal pain and benumbing bereavement.

Somewhat dissonantly Jesus said that those who are grieving and mourning are blessed because they will be comforted. He was not being insensitive, even though at face value what he said doesn’t seem to make sense in the face of bereavement and death. But the blessing comes not because of the grieving but because of the comfort. God is always present and he is especially present to those who are bereft when we allow his Spirit to prompt us to be his hands, his voice, his presence, his comfort. It is an amazing privilege to do that. People of faith (and others) will (rightly) surround those who are experiencing the devastation and desolation with prayer, love and support.

Death is something of a taboo subject. That’s why we have so many synonyms and euphemisms for it. We don’t like to think about it or talk about it until we are forced to confront our mortality by what has happened to others. Death is something that our medical profession is constantly fighting: we heard of new developments in vaccination against Ebola last week and I think one of the reasons why it was celebrated was that it looks like it’s humans 1 death 0. But every day in hospitals, doctor’s surgeries, hospices and homes those in the caring professions (and I use the phrase deliberately) do battle with death. And while they may score some victories they are the victories of people fighting a valiant, noble, under-appreciated rearguard action against an invincible enemy.

In the end death wins. In the end we end.

If you read John’s gospel narrative of Jesus’ life you see Jesus’ compassion when he encounters bereavement. The shortest verse in the Bible is an understatement of biblical proportions when Jesus was confronted with the death of a friend and his friend’s grieving family: “Jesus wept.” (John 11:35).

Two verses earlier we read, “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” This is rather a sanitised translation. You could equally translate the last section as “he was inwardly angry and became enraged.” It’s a natural reaction: sometimes we respond to death’s intrusion into our lives with anger (especially if it is unexpected or ‘too soon’).

But it seems that Jesus’ anger was not just at the fact that his friend, Lazarus, had died. It was also that death itself had encroached onto the scene. Perhaps for him it was a reminder that he was to do battle with death himself in the not-to-distant future. He himself wept and sweated blood as he wrestled with his impending execution. And when he was crucified and died, it seemed that death had kept its morbid 100% record.

It was a Friday.

But Sunday was coming.

The reason that the cross (a hideous symbol of cruelty, bullying, humiliation, torture and death) is the emblem for Christians is that we know that it represents the moment when everything changed. The Good News of Jesus is that he really did defeat death. He smashed the Ultimate Statistic (1 out of 1 people die). His resurrection is a beacon of hope in the dark shadow of death. It is a defiant shout that this need not be the end.

This ‘song’ was sung in early churches:

 ‘Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?’

And Paul, quoting it when he wrote to his first letter to the church in Corinth (Chapter 15) expands on that theme:

56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Death still hurts. Bereavement is still painful. We should still fight the rearguard action with all that is in us. But death is defeated. Because Jesus is alive there is hope. Many times when I visited believers who knew they were in their last days on earth they spoke (with shining eyes) of their faith that although death was to be feared it was not the end. They looked forward to what lay beyond – an eternity in God’s presence. Many said to me, “I’m ready.”

Be blessed, be a blessing.

at one ment

About ten years ago some Christians got rather hot under the collar about a book written by Steve Chalke: The Lost Message of Jesus. They particularly got very upset about one small phrase in the book relating to one of the metaphors the Bible has to try to illustrate and explain what Jesus’ death on the cross means for us. I am not going to revisit that controversy save to say that I was disappointed that the focus was on that one issue rather than the significant and that people seemed to have missed the important purpose of the book, which was to expand our understanding of who Jesus is and what following him is like and expand our understanding of what his death on the cross means.

For a long time I was taught that what happened when Jesus died on the cross was like a courtroom, and that is the only story I was told…

Imagine for a moment that you have committed a heinous crime: treason! You have been (rightly) found guilty. And the problem is that the only possible sentence for this crime is death. The judge (God) sternly looks you in the eye and passes sentence. And then he says that instead of you being executed he is going to execute his son in your place. You can go free because the death sentence has been carried out. All you have to do is accept it.

GavelThis forensic metaphor carries with it the seriousness of our rebellion against God / failure to live up to his standards / sin (whichever phrase / word you want to use). It contains the astonishing truth that in Jesus the penalty of that rebellion / failure / sin has been paid. But it is rather a brutal metaphor isn’t it? If it is the only story we have about what happened when Jesus died on the cross then God only looks like a stern judge and carrying out justice is his primary purpose. It’s not the only story to be told.

Don’t get me wrong. It is an amazing story and a profound truth: God’s justice is tempered with astonishing mercy. It is astounding that Jesus would be willing to die in my place. It is absolutely wonderful that I am set free (if I choose to be).

But if that’s our only metaphor / image of what happened on the cross we have a grossly distorted view of what happened (which is what Steve Chalke was trying to say in the phrase that caused all the hot-under-the-collarness). It’s not only distorted it’s unbiblical – the Bible has a lot more to say about it than that. So, for the next few bloggages I am going to tell you some stories that hopefully might illustrate some other images and metaphors about the cross of Christ which, when taken together, give us a much richer understanding of what it means.

Today we learnt about ‘substitutionary atonement’ to give it its correct title. Next time, debt-cancelling.

Be blessed, be a blessing