Five Simple Hacks to Revolutionize Your Bible Reading

You don’t have to be a Bible scholar to get more out of your Bible reading. Ideally, sure, we’d all be reading the Bible in ancient Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek with a full understanding of the relevant ancient cultures—but we all know that’s not going to happen. So, here are a few tricks of the trade—a few “Bible reading hacks”—to help you maximize your English Bible reading. Beware, though, you might find this actually revolutionizes your Bible reading—and radicalizes your faith in Jesus and his way of love.

Read “Jesus” as “Jesus of Nazareth.”

We as Christians tend to think about Jesus in generic sorts of ways, or we domesticate Jesus so he fits better with who we already are. Reading “Jesus” in the New Testament as “Jesus of Nazareth” reminds us that it’s not just some generic Jesus whom we trust and obey, but a very specific Jesus: a first-century Jew from rural Galilee who lived in certain ways and taught certain things and, as a result, was rejected by many of his religious leaders as a blasphemer and executed by the Roman Empire as an enemy of the state. See here for some direct biblical reminders of Jesus as a man from Nazareth.

Read “Christ” as “Messiah.”

Most Christians probably know that “Christ” is not Jesus’ second name, but a title: it is the equivalent of “Messiah.” There were a few different messianic expectations among Jews in the first century, but the most common—and the one behind the New Testament word “Christ”—was the expectation of a king in the family line of ancient Israel’s King David, who would arise and bring about God’s reign of justice and peace on earth. See here for a few of these kingdom expectations. Confessing Jesus as “Christ” means claiming these expectations are being fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth.

Read “kingdom of God” as “God’s reign of justice and peace and life”—and read “salvation” the same way.

We might tend to think of the “kingdom of God” as equivalent to “heaven,” by which we mean “an eternal, spiritual future of perfection and bliss.” This can be especially so when we read Matthew’s preferred phrase, “kingdom of heaven.” However, this is not what language of “God as king” or “God’s kingdom” meant for Jews in Jesus’ day.

The “kingdom of God” is about God’s reign as rightful ruler over all creation, bringing justice and peace for all people and flourishing life for all things. It is closely tied to biblical language of “salvation”: God’s reign brings deliverance from evil powers that oppress us (economic, political, spiritual, and more), and a restoration to freedom and full, flourishing life. “Eternal life”? That’s “the life of the coming age”: life under God’s reign, experiencing God’s “salvation” even now, in this age. Notice the way this language is all connected in this passage, for example.

God’s kingdom is “of heaven”—originating in God’s holy presence and reflecting God’s righteous character—and so it is “not of this world”—the very opposite of the power-hungry, violent empires we have known in human history. But in Messiah Jesus of Nazareth this reign of God “has come near,” and one day it will fully come about “on earth as it is in heaven.” This is the fullness of “salvation” for which we all yearn, deep in our bones.

Read “faith” as “devotion” or even “allegiance.”

The biblical language of “faith” is much more than just “believing the right things about the right things.” In fact, James describes that kind of “faith” on its own as “dead,” “barren,” “unable to save.” Yet this is often what Christians mean by “faith.”

In the Bible the language of “faith” and “believing” is much more personal than propositional. It’s primarily about trusting in God through all things, being devoted to God in all ways. It is really about allegiance: “faith” is a commitment to God and God’s ways as revealed in Jesus. Reading “faith” language as “devotion” or even “allegiance” reminds us of the radical nature of Christian faith.

Read “love” as “Jesus’ way of love.”

“Love” is another of those words that can mean a lot of different things for us. But in the New Testament the “love” we are to aspire to has a very specific association with Jesus. It is “love in the way of Jesus,” which includes things like breaking bread with “sinners” and other outcasts, welcoming “strangers,” blessing “enemies,” forgiving those who sin against us, caring for “the least” in society, bringing good news to the poor, freely healing the sick, warning powerful oppressors, and liberating people from evil forces that coerce and constrain them. In other words, “love” is how we live into God’s reign of justice and peace and life.

Next time you’re reading the New Testament, give these “Bible reading hacks” a try. Just remember my warning: if you take this Bible reading seriously, you might find yourself on the same path as Jesus, loving outcasts and walking with the oppressed and being crucified by the powers-that-be. The good news? There’s a resurrection on the other side. This is the narrow path leads to true life, for you and for all.

Adult Bible Study Online Supplements

I’ve not been blogging much here lately, but I have been writing short weekly pieces for MennoMedia’s online supplements to their adult Bible study curriculum. That began the first week of December and will go through February 2018.

UPDATE: These are now posted on my website. Links are updated to reflect this.

The Bible is clear: God endorses slavery.

There are at least seven passages in the Bible where God is depicted as directly permitting or endorsing slavery. Two of these are in the Law of Moses: God permitted the Israelites to take slaves from conquered peoples permanently, and the Israelites could sell themselves into slavery temporarily to pay off debts (Exod 21:2-11; Lev 25:44-46). The other five passages are in the New Testament, where slavery as a social institution is endorsed and slaves are called to obey their masters “in everything” (Eph 6:5-9; Col 3:22-4:1; 1 Tim 6:1-2; Tit 2:9-10; 1 Pet 2:18-20).

But slavery is viewed positively in Scripture well beyond these commands. Owning slaves was seen as a sign of God’s blessing (Gen 12:16; 24:35; Isa 14:1-2), and there are literally dozens of passages in the Bible that speak of slavery in passing, without comment. Slavery was simply part of life, and most people saw it as just the way things always were, even the divinely ordained order of things.

slaveAnd yes, in case there is any doubt, this was real slavery: “the slave is the owner’s property” (Exod 21:21). Both Old and New Testaments called for better treatment of slaves than many of the peoples around them, and the Law of Moses in particular called for better treatment of fellow Israelites as slaves. But slaves could be beaten (Exod 21:20-21; 1 Pet 2:18-20), and slaves could be taken as concubines (Gen 16:3-4; Exod 21:8-11) or even raped without serious consequence (Lev 19:20-22).

These passages are all pretty straightforward. One could even say that the Bible is clear on this: the institution of slavery is permitted by God, endorsed by God, and owning slaves can even be a sign of God’s blessing. This has in fact been the Christian view through history: it’s only in the last 150-200 years that the tide of Christian opinion has shifted on slavery.

So why do Christians today believe slavery is wrong? Why don’t we believe “slavery is permitted by God, endorsed by God, and owning slaves can even be a sign of God’s blessing,” even though the Bible is pretty clear on this?

Well, there are two main reasons, it seems to me.

The first reason is simply that our society has shifted on this. The reasons for this are complex, but in basic terms this shift has happened because 1) a vocal minority first called for the abolition of slavery, which 2) eventually prompted governments to enact legislation abolishing slavery, and 3) the simple passage of time has normalized this disapproval of slavery among us as a western society.*

It is instructive to read arguments back and forth between Christians on African slavery during the 19th century. Christians in support of slavery—mostly powerful white landowners—pointed to all the biblical texts I’ve outlined above, along with things they saw in the Bible that supported the inferiority of Africans in particular.

But a segment of Christians—former slaves and white activists—joined others in opposing slavery. These Christians emphasized biblical teachings like “love of neighbour” and the Golden Rule and all people created in God’s image and “there is no longer slave or free in Christ.” It took decades of arguing their case, often being shamed and vilified by opposing Christians—the dispute even touched off a bloody civil war—but eventually their view won out.

The passage of laws legalized their view, and the passage of time has normalized their view. We no longer worry about the social instability that abolishing slavery might cause, nor are we concerned that somehow we’re being unfaithful to God by not following the biblical teachings on slavery.

This points to the second main reason Christians today believe slavery is wrong in spite of the clear biblical passages that permit or endorse slavery: we have developed a different hermeneutic, a different way of reading the biblical texts on slavery.

The early Christian abolitionists paved the way. Rather than emphasizing the specific Bible passages that directly approve of slavery, they looked at other biblical texts and themes that they saw as more big-picture, more transcultural and timeless: the creation of humanity in the “image of God,” the “liberation” and “redemption” themes of the Exodus, the love teachings of Jesus, and the salvation vision of Paul. That is, they set the stage for a way of reading the Bible that was not grounded in specific texts of Scripture, but in a trajectory of “Exodus to New Exodus centred on Christ,” or “Creation to New Creation centred on Christ”—a larger biblical narrative with Jesus at its heart.

And so when Christians today read the slavery passages in the Bible, this is what we do. “Sure,” we’ll say, “the Bible says this here—but we know from Genesis 1 that all people are created in God’s image, and we know from Galatians 3 that there is no longer slave or free in Christ, and don’t forget about God redeeming Israel from slavery and Jesus’ teaching to love our neighbour as ourselves.”

In other words, we no longer take the slavery-approval passages as direct and straightforward teaching for all times and places. Rather we take these as instances of the way things were done in the past but not the way God really wants things to be. They are descriptive of what once was; they are not prescriptive of what is to be.

So the next time we hear someone talk about the “clear teaching of Scripture” on women’s roles, or saying that “the Bible is clear” on homosexuality, or whatever the topic might be, think about this: the Bible is at least as clear on slavery, yet thank God we no longer believe that slavery is God’s will. We’ve read the Bible, and we’re following Jesus.

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* I’m well aware that slavery still exists in the world, but I don’t know of any Christians who approve of it. Maybe that’s just because I don’t hang out with those Christians. I’m also well aware that the abolition of slavery has not brought about full freedom and equality and justice for people of African descent in the western world. My focus here is on the institution of slavery itself, but that’s just one side of the coin: racism, both personal and institutional, is the other, and is still ongoing. See also my comments below, in particular on whether recent western slavery was radically different in kind than ancient Greco-Roman slavery.

Can We Read the Bible Devotionally? Should We Even Try?

I received an email from a church member last night. In it he asks a question that I’ve received in different forms many times in my career as a professor and pastor, so I thought it would be worth posting his question and my response here.

van Gogh - BibleHis question was prompted by comments I had made that every single statement in the Bible is “culture-bound,” that even the most seemingly straightforward assertions or commands in Scripture are part of a complex weave of ancient cultural and literary realities. This means, then, that if we really want to understand what these biblical statements are all about we need to read them, as best as we can, in light of their ancient setting.

Here’s his question:

If absolutely none of the Bible’s commands can be taken at face value, but must be interpreted after major study, the same must apply to promises in the Bible. How can one then read the Bible “devotionally,” claiming and being encouraged by promises, without a major study to make sure of the promises’ meanings, since it is unlikely they mean what they appear on the surface to mean – just like the commands we read in the Bible?

And here’s how I responded, edited slightly for the blog (the smiley-face is original):

Let me try to give an analogy here. The earth spins on its axis and revolves around the sun. Those are basic scientific facts. However, they’re easy to ignore or deny: from our personal perspective it sure doesn’t feel like we’re spinning or moving, and it sure looks like the sun turns around the earth. And in our everyday lives the true facts seem to make very little difference: we go through the seasons, we watch the sun rise, enjoy the sun during the day (or hope it comes out!), and watch the sun set. We even speak in our everyday language about “sunrise” and “sunset,” as if the sun actually goes around the earth.

However, there are moments in our everyday lives, and more significant moments in our collective life as human societies, where we need to make sure we pay attention to those facts. When we want to know the weather forecast, we sure hope the meteorologist has worked with accurate models that include those basic facts of earth’s rotation and revolution. When we want to know what’s going on with climate change, we sure hope the climatologists have considered the implications of the basic realities of the earth’s rotation on its axis and revolution around the sun. And these basic facts have many other implications, from launching the satellites that we now all rely on for our GPS and cell phones, to charting the flight paths of the airplanes we fly on, and more.

Appreciating the basic fact of the antiquity of Scripture is kind of like that. It is a basic fact, there’s no way of getting around it. When we pick up our English Bible and read it and it seems to make sense, it can be easy to ignore or deny the fact of Scripture’s “ancientness.” But that’s ironic: we only have the luxury of sitting down with our English Bibles because a team of scholars has spent years to produce that translation from an ancient text in ancient languages, with that text being reconstructed by other teams of scholars who have spent years comparing ancient manuscripts to come up with the most likely original reading of the text. It’s a fact: the biblical writings are ancient human writings. And that must be taken into account in how we read them.

I have no problem with devotional readings of Scripture, however – I encourage it, in fact. That’s much like everyday people enjoying the sunshine, speaking of “sunrise” and “sunset” without giving much thought to whether their words are really accurate. God can speak through our own private – even inaccurate! – readings of Scripture. Hey, if God can speak through Balaam and his donkey, God can speak through anything – even if that’s not God’s ideal way to speak. So I’m all for people reading their Bibles, hearing God encouraging them or challenging them to greater faith and hope and love, even if they are badly misreading that promise that was actually a covenant promise for ancient Israel in exile (e.g. Jer 29:11), or whatever.

However, there are times when it is very important that we make sure we take into account the basic fact of Scripture’s “ancientness,” because we want to be as sure as possible that we are getting the right interpretation of a particular passage. It’s one thing for someone to be personally challenged to faith, hope, or love by their private reading of their English translation of the Bible. It’s quite another thing for them to take that private reading and impose it on others, or to make it the basis for the faith and practice of their congregation or conference, especially if that reading of Scripture is going to in some way constrain the faith and practice of others. At that point, we need to say, “Hold on – this is important. Let’s go back to the text together and read it in context.”

At least, that’s how I see it. 🙂

For more on these ideas, check out my post on “What is the Bible, and How Should We Read It?” Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.