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.

“The Bible is Clear”: No, It’s Not—But That’s Okay

“The Bible clearly says…”

I’ve heard this many, many times over the years, always spoken with great fervour. I’ve even been known to say something like this myself a time or two.

So I get it, I really do.

You read a passage in the Bible, and it just makes sense. It fits with what you already know to be true. It might add to your knowledge, it might explain or expand your knowledge, but still it fits well with what you already know. It’s what anyone with an ounce of common sense would understand the passage to mean. It’s plain. It’s clear.

But there are at least two problems with this. And they’re rather large problems.

First, you’re likely reading the Bible in English. Or maybe German, or Korean, or some other reading language that’s comfortable for you. But the Bible wasn’t originally written in English or any other modern language. The Bible is a collection of ancient writings, first written in ancient languages: the Old Testament in Hebrew and smatterings of Aramaic, and the New Testament in Greek. These writings—or “books” of the Bible, as they are conventionally called—were written over many centuries and from within several ancient cultures. And they were each written—and then often edited, sometimes repeatedly—within very specific historical communities, for very specific historical purposes.

In other words, unless you’re reading Paul’s letter to the Romans, say, in Koine Greek, and you’re fluent in the language, and you’re familiar with the particular circumstances surrounding the letter, and you’ve got a good grasp of Paul’s and the Roman Christians’ specific cultural settings, you can’t really claim that anything in the book of Romans is “clear” to you. You’re reading someone else’s translation of an ancient text, with all of that depth of nuance flattened into a modern English version that makes some superficial “sense” to you in your setting today.

That’s one problem with claiming that “the Bible is clear” in this or that passage. Here’s another: someone else can read that very same passage with the same depth of devotion and the same careful, prayerful attention—the same ounce of common sense, even—and come to a very different reading of the passage that is just as obvious to them, just as plain, just as clear.

Exhibit A: the many churches and denominations that have been created out of divisions because what was so very clear to one group about this biblical passage or that biblical idea was not at all clear to another group (*cough* Mennonite history *cough*).

Exhibit B: the many times the vast majority of Christians have been convinced this or that was the clear teaching of the Bible, only to conveniently forget within a few generations that Christians had actually believed such foolishness (Gentile conversion to Judaism, a geocentric universe, the Crusades, the Inquisition, White superiority, Indigenous genocide, African slavery, women’s subordination…).

There have been, and still are, many competing claims of what “the Bible clearly says.” This is what Christian Smith calls “pervasive interpretive pluralism,” and it is the death knell of any claim to possess “the clear teaching of the Bible.”

No, the Bible is not “clear.” And if you’re one of those people who needs to have a prooftext, here’s a clip from 2 Peter 3:15-16:

…ὁ ἀγαπητὸς ἡμῶν ἀδελφὸς Παῦλος κατὰ τὴν δοθεῖσαν αὐτῷ σοφίαν ἔγραψεν ὑμῖν, ὡς καὶ ἐν πάσαις ταῖς ἐπιστολαῖς λαλῶν ἐν αὐταῖς περὶ τούτων, ἐν αἷς ἐστιν δυσνόητά τινα…

So, what do we do?

Well, I suppose you could close your browser, turn off your computer, pretend you never read this post, and go back to your comfortable Christian life. Or, you could go all in and start splitting churches and burning heretics until you’re the only one left who believes The Truth about The Things. Or, you could chuck out your entire faith because it’s built on a “Bible” that doesn’t exist.

Needless to say (which means “I feel I must say”), these are not my recommended options. Here are a few things I would recommend.

First, read the Bible with humility. Recognize that you are reading the Bible without a full grasp of the linguistic nuances and historical details and cultural subtleties. Acknowledge that other people might be just as sincere as you in their desire to hear and obey God’s voice. Admit that you might even be wrong about this or that biblical passage.

Second, read the Bible in multiple translations. I’m assuming (perhaps naively) that most people are not going to become experts in ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Find a good modern translation that you feel comfortable reading and use that for your regular Bible reading. God can use that reading to shape you in the way of Jesus.

But if you’re going to go beyond devotional reading into teaching or preaching, helping a community of faith to discern God’s will together, then at least read from multiple versions. This will give you some sense of the nuances (and difficulties in translation) of the ancient texts. If you really want to get serious, then do some work also in trying to understand the cultural setting and historical circumstances of the specific biblical writing you are reading. Good commentaries and Bible reference works are the tools you need here.

Third, read the Bible in community. This is really, really important. It exposes our own blind spots in reading the Bible. It opens up ways of reading the Bible that we would never have discovered on our own. It helps keep us humble. It helps us better discern truth.

This reading the Bible in community can—and probably should—be done in a few different ways. The most important is reading the Bible within a real, flesh-and-blood community of people. Read the Bible together, think about it together, talk about it together, wrestle with it together. But there are other ways of reading the Bible in community, other kinds of “community” that are important: authors who write on the Bible, speakers who speak on the Bible, from a variety of faith (or non-faith) traditions, from a diversity of social backgrounds, from around the globe and throughout history.

Finally, read the Bible charitably. I mean this in at least two ways. We should read the Bible with charity toward the biblical authors. They were writing for a different time, in a different world. Yet we hold much in common with them, not least the desire to know and be known by our common Creator. Be charitable toward the biblical authors, then, working hard to understand the spirit/Spirit that has motivated and animated their writing.

Even more importantly, though, we should read the Bible with charity toward others. The Bible has been used in a lot of harmful ways throughout Christian history. Splitting hairs over Bible verses has led to splitting churches. Self-righteously claiming The Truth about The Things in the Bible—and combining this with brute power—has led to burning heretics. Christians have a long history of excluding whole classes of people, enslaving whole groups of people, justifying the destruction of whole societies of people, based on the “clear teaching” of the Bible.

Instead, Jesus models for us a hermeneutic of love: reading the Scriptures to bring liberation, reconciliation, justice, and human flourishing. In our Bible reading we need to heed Jesus’ call to “go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’” and this sometimes means saying, “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you.”

Then, if nothing else, we can at least become clear about this: that the entire message of the Bible is summed up in one word, “love.”

The Bible and Same-Sex Relationships

This was the subtitle of a study conference our denomination had 3.5 years ago, hosted at our church: “The Bible and Same-Sex Relationships.” I was one of the plenary speakers at the conference. Although I would word a few things differently now—I’ve learned much since then, and my own perspective has settled—I feel two of my presentations have some enduring value and so I thought I’d share the videos here.

The first is about how we approach the Bible generally: how we read it as Christians, as Anabaptist Christians in particular, and especially when talking about complicated and controversial topics. While there’s much more that could be said about biblical interpretation than I say here, it’s still a good summary of my thinking on this.

The second is a set of concluding reflections on points of agreement between what we called the “traditional” and the “affirming” views. If there is a practically workable “middle way” or even “third way” for churches on this—even simply a basis for fellowship among individuals or churches who disagree—it will be built around the kinds of things I highlight here. (Note: I’m well aware of the delicious irony of me speaking about Jesus being “clear” on the call to love, in light of my reflections on “the Bible is clear on X” in the previous video!)

On Being—and Doing—Church

There are many good New Testament passages one can explore to envision what the church should be and do: Romans 12-15, 1 Corinthians 12-14, and Ephesians 4-5 are all good options, among others. Still, when I think about the church there’s one specific verse that always seems to come to mind first:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:42)

To me this description of the first Jesus followers on the day of Pentecost nicely sums up what it means for us as Christians to “be the church,” to “do church” together.

As the church we are “devoted” to certain things. These are the things that we commit ourselves to, that we are centred on as a church—which is a way of saying that there are lots of other things, maybe even some good things, that aren’t so central, that we’re not as devoted to. There are lots of things we can be and do as a church, but these things are at the heart of them all.

First and foremost, we are devoted to learning and living the way of Jesus as taught by his Apostles: “the apostles’ teaching.” This means we commit ourselves to studying the Christian Scriptures, and in particular the New Testament where we find “the apostles’ teaching,” in order to learn about Jesus and his way of love. As we faithfully follow Jesus in his way of love, God’s justice and peace and flourishing life (“God’s kingdom,” or “salvation”) is manifest in and among and through us.

We are also devoted to the community of fellow Jesus followers, the common life we share together: “the fellowship.” This means we commit ourselves to one another within the church, to each other’s wellbeing, to caring for one another and helping to meet one another’s needs. At bottom this is because, in the midst of our diversity, we hold the absolute essentials in common: everything we are and do centres around Jesus and his way of love.

We are devoted to gathering together in worship and hospitality: “the breaking of bread.” This means we commit ourselves to “breaking bread” together around the Lord’s Table, along with other acts of worship (symbols, stories, songs) that likewise orient us around the central story of Jesus. This also means we commit ourselves to “breaking bread” together in our homes, following Jesus’ example of radical hospitality for all—not only friends and family, but also sinners and strangers, outcasts and enemies.

And we are devoted to regular times of prayer together: “the prayers.” This means we not only pray as individuals as an act of private devotion, but we also gather together regularly to pray: to meditate on who God is and what God has done for us, to praise and thank God for these good gifts, to confess our sins to God and accept God’s forgiveness, and to entreat God to move among us and through us in the world.

Jan Richardson, The Best Supper

For many Christians, this is not the church they envision. Or, perhaps more accurately, they might nod in agreement with this vision of church in theory, but in practice they are either not fully devoted to these things, or they are devoted to other things above these things.

Many Christians envision a church that has lots of programs—especially programs aimed at their particular demographic. These programs are not bad in themselves, of course, and they can in fact be wonderful ways of expressing and nurturing the devotion Acts 2:42 describes.

The problem comes when people want programs that have little if anything to do with that fourfold devotion—they really want a social club with a religious veneer, which they can participate in at their convenience and for their pleasure. Fine, but that’s not a church.

Many Christians envision a church filled with people, often recalling a bygone era of buzzing foyers and bursting sanctuaries. There’s nothing wrong this either—Acts 2 itself describes large numbers of people joining the Jesus movement and participating in new Jesus communities. However, a preoccupation with numbers can be problematic for at least a couple of reasons.

First, many Christians want the large numbers without having to devote themselves to studying the Scriptures and learning the way of Jesus, gathering together regularly for Jesus-centred worship and prayer, and showing radical hospitality in the way of Jesus. It’s ironic—though not terribly surprising—that the Christians who are most critical of “the way things are being done” at church are often the ones who don’t attend Bible studies and prayer meetings and only show up for Sunday worship once or twice a month.

Second, many Christians have bought into a “free market” notion of church. We are competing with other churches for “market share.” We need to produce a good church “product” in order to attract Christians, our “buyers.” If people don’t like our product they’ll go find another “seller,” another church with a better product: high quality music in a style they enjoy, interesting preaching that increases their happiness through moderate self-improvement, vibrant programs catering to their particular demographic, et cetera. So, if we want to increase our market share (i.e. “grow our church”) we need to produce a better product.

Not only is this view of the church thoroughly unbiblical, it’s also unethical—it’s church growth through sheep-stealing, not sheep-finding.

Programs and numbers, then, while being potentially good things, are not central to being and doing church. What is central is this: devotion to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Lest anyone think I’m being too idealistic, raising a bar too high for the church in the real world, let me add this: Jesus welcomes all to his table, whatever the level of their devotion. Jesus in his way of love stands at the centre of the church like a bonfire on a cold night, drawing people in by its warmth and light. Some gather close around the fire, freely sharing their songs and stories, bread and wine. Others stay back in the shadows, content to listen and observe. Some drift in and out.

However, while the level of devotion varies among Christians and even changes throughout our lives, the things we are devoted to remain the same: not programs and numbers, not pleasurable music or comfortable teaching or enjoyable socializing, not even correct doctrine or proper behaviour or rituals done right, but learning and living the way of Jesus together, gathering in worship and prayer, in radical hospitality and mutual care, all of this in love.

Anything less—and anything else—is simply not church.

But a church that looks like this? It’s what the world—and we ourselves—desperately need: a living embodiment of God’s kingdom vision of justice, peace, and flourishing life for all.

Not the Gospel

Last week our kids took the dogs for a walk (bless them). Along the way they encountered a couple of friendly folks handing out free fire insurance and a ticket to heaven, otherwise known as a “gospel tract.”

Not the gospel.

You know what I mean. Maybe you’ve had someone stop by your house with a “gospel tract,” or you’ve seen one left on a restaurant table or in a public bathroom (yes, people do that). Maybe you’ve even handed them out yourself at some point (full disclosure: I have).

A “gospel tract” is a small pamphlet that tells people how to get to heaven. There are many different versions, but that’s the gist of it. They offer, as I said above, a kind of “fire insurance and a ticket to heaven”—salvation from eternal torture in hell, to eternal bliss with God beyond this earthly life.

The tract my kids brought home is entitled, “Heaven: How Do I Get There?” It assures its reader that they can “KNOW how to get to Heaven” based on “the very Word of God,” by which is meant the Bible. Quoting Bible verses, then, the tract proceeds to outline the gospel in four points: i) “We are all sinners.” ii) “There is a penalty for our sin,” described as “death in Hell.” iii) “Jesus Christ paid that penalty for us.” And, iv) “Trust and take Jesus as your personal Saviour.” The tract then gives a prayer the reader can pray, affirming these four things, and it declares that if you have prayed this prayer “You will go to Heaven, not by what man teaches, but by God’s Word.”

It’s a nice tract: attractive, simple, clear, and confident. There’s only one problem with it: it doesn’t actually present the gospel. This “gospel tract” my kids brought home is, in fact, not the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Now, this is a bit of a touchy topic. Most Christians likely believe some form of the message found in this “gospel tract”: we all sin, and so we all deserve God’s penalty for our sin; but Jesus has died to pay the penalty for our sin and so, if we believe this, we will go to heaven when we die. Even more, most Christians likely believe this “gospel” is clearly taught in the Bible, and that it is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. So, when someone questions this, accusations of “rejecting the Bible” and “denying the gospel” and “not believing in heaven” and “not believing in Jesus” and “not being a true Christian” fly fast and furious.

That is ironic, and terribly tragic, given that it is actually the “gospel” of these “gospel tracts” that is not the biblical gospel.

I’d encourage anyone who doubts this to do some simple Bible study. Go to all the places in the New Testament where “gospel” or “good news” is mentioned, and read around those verses to see how this “gospel” is described. Then read through the evangelistic speeches in the book of Acts, all those places where the Apostles preach a message of salvation to people. Take some notes on what the gospel is, what the message of salvation is, what is included—and not included—in the true “gospel of Jesus Christ.”

If you do that, here are just two of the surprising things you’ll discover.

First, the gospel is not about us leaving earth and escaping hell and going to heaven. It’s about God’s kingdom coming near, God’s reign of justice and peace and life being established on earth. None of the New Testament descriptions of the gospel even mentions “hell,” and any time “heaven” is mentioned it’s talking about blessings coming from heaven to earth.

Mark’s Gospel says this quite directly: “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the gospel.’” In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus states what this “come near” means: it means God’s kingdom coming “on earth.” This was the Jewish expectation of God’s kingdom: however the reign of God would come about, it would come about on earth, bringing true justice and lasting peace and flourishing life. This was in fact the “gospel” promised by the Prophet Isaiah: that God would come and establish God’s reign on earth, a reign of liberation for the captives and justice for the oppressed.

Also not the gospel.

In various ways the rest of the New Testament affirms this. Every time Jesus is called “Christ” or “Messiah,” for example, it is like a mini-statement of faith: Jesus is the promised king bringing in God’s kingdom on earth. To say that the gospel is a story about “Jesus Christ” means that God’s kingdom is brought about on earth through Jesus’ whole life and ministry. To say that “Christ died for our sins,” or to “preach Christ crucified,” means that God’s kingdom is brought about on earth through Jesus’ death. To say that “Christ was raised on the third day,” that by resurrecting him from the dead “God has made this Jesus both Lord and Messiah,” means that God’s kingdom is brought about on earth through Jesus’ resurrection.

This leads right into the second thing: the gospel doesn’t just focus on Jesus’ death, but as much or more on Jesus’ resurrection. In fact, the gospel encompasses Jesus’ whole life and ministry. There are only a couple of places in the New Testament where Jesus’ death is the sole focus of the gospel being described. Most often there are other things about Jesus also mentioned, and sometimes Jesus’ death isn’t even in the picture.

Jesus’ lineage, being in the family line of David, is gospel—because it gives credence to the claim that he is indeed the promised Messiah come to establish God’s kingdom on earth. Jesus’ teaching is gospel—because it teaches how we can participate in bringing about justice and peace on earth. Jesus’ miracles are gospel—because they are signs that God’s kingdom has come near, bringing flourishing life where there was none before.

Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion are gospel—because by bearing the sins of others and resisting evil powers nonviolently, even out of love, even unto death, Jesus has overcome those powers and delivered us from sin. Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation are gospel—because they are God’s declaration that Jesus is indeed the Messiah bringing about God’s kingdom through self-giving love, that he is even the true Lord over all, including any and all powers of this world.

So, when we make the gospel about leaving earth and escaping hell and going to heaven, we are proclaiming a false gospel. When we focus our attention solely on Jesus’ death in a way that doesn’t mesh with Jesus’ life, teachings, and especially his resurrection, we are proclaiming a false gospel. Sounds harsh, I know, but these popular understandings of the gospel are simply not biblical. They are not the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Yes, the Bible emphasizes that sin is a reality—all those ways we cause harm through our attitudes, words, and actions. And yes, the Bible underscores that when we sin there are consequences—we experience “death,” all that is not-life, including guilt and shame and hostility and pain and even physical death. And so, yes, the Bible points us to the need to be “saved” from our sins, delivered from our harmful ways. But the gospel is not merely a private transaction between me and God, the problem solved by praying a prayer.

And yes, the Bible teaches that Jesus’ death on a cross was “for us,” “for our sins.” But Jesus’ death is not the whole of the gospel, and when that is divorced from the larger story of Jesus the Messiah bringing in God’s kingdom on earth, we can even end up with a distortion of the gospel.

And yes, the Bible assures believers that we will be “with the Lord” after death. But that is not the gospel. In fact, it’s not even the end of the story: the New Testament affirms that at the end of all things we will be resurrected to a transformed bodily existence on a renewed earth. In the end, heaven, in all its fullness, will come to earth.

All this has made me wonder: what might a true “gospel tract” look like, one that is based on the gospel as proclaimed by Jesus and his Apostles in the Bible?

[Update: Here’s a follow-up post on creating a gospel tract, and here’s the tract I’ve created!]

The Bible as Witness to Jesus (2)

The New Testament claims that the Author of it all, the God who has shaped humans out of the stuff of earth and breathed life into them, the God who has taken up the writings of Scripture and “breathed” life-giving power into them—this God has entered the human story in Jesus.

Take a look at the opening words of Hebrews, for example: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.” Jesus is this “Son” who is the very voice of God in “these last days,” this time in which God is bringing to completion God’s purposes for human history. The passage goes on to say this about God’s Son, Jesus: “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Heb 1:1-3).

Rouault Christ DisciplesIt’s quite the statement. Jesus has come, and everything has changed. God still speaks to us in many different ways—through creation, through each other, through many surprising ways, and yes, through Scripture, written by many different prophets and apostles in the past. But Scripture is no longer the best voice of God we have. We now have a better Voice of God, an exact imprint of God: Jesus.

This idea is expressed in a variety of ways throughout the New Testament. Colossians describes Jesus as “the image of the invisible God,” the one in whom “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,” and thus the one “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 1:15-18; 2:3, 9). Matthew’s Gospel ends with Jesus saying this: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me”—in other words, the authority of God (Matt 28:18-20). Revelation describes Jesus as “the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end”—that is, the one who brings together the whole of human history (Rev 22:13).

But there’s one passage that highlights this truth in an especially profound way: the opening to John’s Gospel. Take a fresh look at some of those most familiar statements.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Jesus is the eternal, divine “Word”; Jesus is God’s eternal message, the message God has been speaking from eternity past.

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth… From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:14-17). The eternal, divine “Word,” God’s eternal message, the message God has been speaking from eternity past, has become human and lived among us in Jesus of Nazareth. This Living Word, this living message of God, is connected to the messages God has given before, like the Law of Moses, but it’s also different: it is the embodied message of God’s grace and truth, the enfleshed glory of God.

“No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1:18). Jesus of Nazareth, God’s unique Son, the eternal, living message of God, has made the invisible God visible to us.

Again, it’s quite the statement. Jesus has come, and everything has changed. God still speaks to us in many different ways, including Scriptures like the Law of Moses. But these other “words” of God, including Scripture, are at best echoes of the eternal “Word” of God. We now have a better Voice of God, the eternal message of God come in the flesh, showing the world the fully embodied grace and truth of God: Jesus.

Jesus is the Voice of God we have been searching for. Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God, not Scripture, whether Old Testament or New. Jesus is the fullest and clearest picture of God we have.

So if we want to hear God’s Voice most clearly, most fully, we need to look through Scripture to Jesus—through the Bible’s many voices, through the Bible’s mixed messages, through the Bible’s diverse genres in different eras, to the Jesus who lived and taught and healed and died and rose again, who lives among us still by his Spirit.

If we want to know who God is, we need to look through Scripture to Jesus—and we find an eternal Creator who comes near to us, who becomes one of us, who lives among us, who loves us deeply and wants us to experience full and flourishing life.

If we want to know the way God works in the world, we need to look through Scripture to Jesus—and we find God doing surprising things, working through the humble and lowly, through suffering and weakness, always to bring about good for humanity and all creation.

If we want to know what God values, the things God thinks are important, we need to look through Scripture to Jesus—and we see that God values people, and the earth, and self-giving love and loyal faith, and repentant sinners and joyful parties and little children and telling stories.

If we want to know what God requires of us and desires for creation, we need to look through Scripture to Jesus—and we find that God wants us to love, to care for each other even when it hurts, to show compassion even to an enemy, to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with our God.

If we want to know God and do God’s will, we need to look through Scripture to Jesus. In other words, we need to read the Bible to follow Jesus.

And that’s the final surprise in all this: Jesus invites us to continue the story. Jesus calls us to take his yoke upon us and learn from him. Jesus calls us to take up our own cross and follow him. Jesus calls us to come out of our tombs, and live. Jesus calls us to continue the story, our story set within his story, his story set within the story of Israel, the universal human story, the story of God.

This doesn’t mean we learn the words of the story and repeat them by rote. It doesn’t mean we learn the precise movements of its characters and act them out over and over. In other words, it doesn’t mean we treat the Bible—Old Testament or New—like an owner’s manual or a rule book, prescribing once and for all our every move for every time and place.

It means entering Jesus’ story ourselves, soaking Jesus’ story into ourselves, his teachings and actions, his attitudes and values, his character and virtues—living in the Spirit of Jesus. And then it means stepping out in faith and hope and love, improvising our parts together within the drama of life as we respond to the always-fresh, always-surprising movement of the Spirit of Jesus among us.

Kierkegaard Scripture Christ

This is an excerpt from a past post: “What is the Bible, and How Should We Read It?” This excerpt was originally published in 2014.

The Bible as Witness to Jesus (1)

Imagine that you’re reading a really good story. It’s the kind of story you hate to put down and you can’t wait to get back to. It’s got an interesting premise, a believable world, compelling characters, and a riveting plot. It’s enlightening and challenging and entertaining and disturbing and refreshing.

Now imagine that you’re reading along in this story, you finish a chapter, you turn the page—and it’s blank. The story just ends, abruptly. “Wait a minute,” you think, “that can’t be it. There must be more!”

So you talk with others who have read the same book, and you find they feel the same way. There are too many expectations unfulfilled, too many questions unanswered, too many tensions left unresolved, too many characters undeveloped, too many loose ends. The story is terrific—it’s just incomplete. It needs a sequel.

van Gogh - BibleAs you talk with other fans of the story, though, you realize everyone has different views on how the story should end. You argue back and forth, and different camps emerge: some say the story would best be completed in one way, others say, “No, it has to finish this way!” and still others think they alone have the best ending to the story.

This was the way it was for the people of Israel after the time of the Old Testament, after the ancient kingdoms had fallen, after the exiles to Assyria and Babylon and beyond, after some had returned to Jerusalem to rebuild a city, a temple, and a way of life. In those centuries, the Jewish people read their Bible just like this story: it’s compelling, it’s enlightening, it’s challenging—but it’s incomplete. There was something more to come. There just had to be.

The Jewish Scriptures presented a story in search of an ending. But Jews of that day disagreed about how the biblical story should end, and different views emerged.

Some expected God to come in a mighty supernatural act to overthrow God’s enemies and establish God’s kingdom on earth. Others longed for that same result, but thought God would only act if everyone followed the Law of Moses the way they were supposed to. Still others thought God would not act supernaturally, but God would only act through God’s people, so the Jews needed to be prepared to fight God’s enemies when God came. Some thought they needed to begin the fight right now. And still others thought all this was nonsense: God comes among us now when we worship in the Temple, they said, or when we study the Law of Moses.

Today we know of these different groups as the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, the Zealots—and there were others, and factions within them. Each of these groups saw Scripture as a story in search of an ending, and they each offered a different ending to the story.

For the first followers of Jesus, the earliest Christians, nearly all of them Jews, Jesus was the proper end to the biblical story. To use the Apostle Paul’s words, Jesus is the “end” of the Law of Moses—he is its telos, its “completion,” its purpose and goal, its fitting conclusion (Rom 10:4). To use language especially loved by Matthew, Jesus “fulfills” the Scriptures (e.g. Matt 5:17-18). All those biblical expectations of God coming to God’s people, of God acting on behalf of God’s people, of God bringing in God’s kingdom on earth—Jesus fulfills these expectations. All throughout the New Testament, this same idea comes through in different ways (e.g. Luke 24:13-27; 1 Cor 15:3-4; 2 Tim 3:15-171 Pet 1:10-11).

The Jewish Scriptures—the Christian Old Testament—present a story in search of an ending. And, for Christians, Jesus is the fitting ending to the Old Testament story.

To say that is an act of faith, of course. Not everyone in Jesus’ day agreed with this, and not everyone agrees with it today. But one of the earliest and most basic confessions of Christian faith is “Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah,” and to confess that is to say exactly this: we believe Jesus is the promised king in the line of David, the one who will bring in God’s kingdom on earth and fulfill God’s purposes for Israel and all humanity. In other words, Jesus is the fitting ending to the Old Testament story.

We also, of course, need to be careful how we say this. We must not devalue the Old Testament in its own right. These are the sacred Scriptures of Judaism, the Tanakh, and they are challenging and entertaining and disturbing and refreshing and enlightening—through the many voices of these Scriptures one can still hear the voice of God. But even Jews today acknowledge in some sense the “incompleteness” of these Scriptures, and so they look to a long line of interpretive traditions, most significantly the Talmud, to complete them through explanation or expansion. Many Jews await a completion still to come.

So the Old Testament is a story in search of an ending. And by faith we as Christians say that Jesus is the fitting ending to the Old Testament story. But what difference does this make for how we should read the Old Testament? Let’s go back to that picture we started with: reading the story that ends abruptly.

Let’s say that in talking with others about this unfinished story, someone shares an ending to the story that is so compelling you can’t help but wonder if they are reading the author’s mind. All those unfinished plot threads are woven together. Characters are developed in believable ways. The questions are answered, the problems are resolved, the expectations are fulfilled. It’s a fitting ending to the story.

But let’s say this ending is surprising. We’ve all read books or watched movies that have a surprise ending. It’s still a fitting ending to the story, it makes sense of the story and brings everything to a satisfactory conclusion, but it’s different than anyone could have guessed.

What do you do with that book or movie? Well, the next time you read that book or watch that movie you’ll read or watch it differently, won’t you? The story is the same as it has always been, and much of it won’t seem any different. But you’ll see hints of that surprise ending that you never noticed before. Some of those things that seemed odd now make sense. Whole sections of the story take on new significance. You might even reconsider what the story’s really all about, now that you know how it ends.

That’s what it’s like for us reading the Old Testament, confessing that Jesus is its fitting ending. Because Jesus certainly is, in many ways, a surprise ending to the story.

Most Jews in Jesus’ day expected a Messiah, but no one expected a Messiah like Jesus: a Messiah who fed the poor and healed the sick and touched the lepers and ate with outcasts and forgave sinners.

Most Jews in Jesus’ day expected God to bring in God’s kingdom on earth, a kingdom of peace and justice, but no one expected the kingdom to come about like Jesus did it: not with an army but with a dozen straggling followers, not with swords but with words of truth and deeds of love, not with power and might but in weakness and self-sacrifice.

Most Jews in Jesus’ day expected God to act on behalf of Israel, but no one expected God to act like Jesus did: born into poverty, living in utter humility, utter humanity, suffering and dying in shame and disgrace.

Jesus is a fitting ending to the biblical story, but he is also a surprise ending to the story.

So what do we do with that surprise ending? We re-read the story in light of it.

Rembrandt EmmausThis is just what the Apostles and the earliest Christians did, and we follow in their footsteps left for us in our New Testament. They proclaimed Jesus, they explained Jesus, and they did this in large part by re-reading their Scriptures in light of Jesus, the completion to the story.

This doesn’t mean we try to find Jesus explicitly on every page of the Old Testament. No, the plural “Let us make” in Genesis 1 is not a reference to the Trinity. No, the “angel of God” that appears to Abraham is not a pre-incarnate Jesus. No, there is no secret Bible code in the patterns of Hebrew words that spells out “Jesus” (not even ישוע). We still need to read the Old Testament in light of its genres, its different kinds of writing. We still need to hear the different voices of the various Old Testament writings.

Rather, it’s more that Jesus answers questions that are raised in the Old Testament. Jesus solves problems that are posed in the Old Testament. Jesus resolves tensions that are presented in the Old Testament. Jesus fulfills expectations that are prompted in the Old Testament. Jesus lives out values and virtues that are affirmed in the Old Testament. Jesus brings together important ideas that are highlighted in the Old Testament.

So, for example, we see in Jesus an emphasis on love, that God loves us deeply, that the most important thing we can do is love God and love other people—and so we read the Old Testament as Jesus did and find running through it streams of hesed and tsadiq, loyal love and covenant faithfulness.

We see in Jesus a rejection of physical violence, a refusal to repeat the cycle of violence, a willingness to absorb violence himself in order to spare others that fate—and so we see in the violence of the Old Testament something less than God’s ideal, and we highlight the Old Testament calls for forgiveness and mercy and enemy love.

We see in Jesus God bringing about healing for broken people, even a broken creation—and so we find in the Old Testament a recurring pattern of God creating something good, then humans distorting that good thing through sin, and God never giving up, always responding with forgiveness and restoration.

So as Christians we read the Old Testament as if Jesus is the fitting ending, yet the surprise ending, to the Old Testament story. We read the Old Testament in light of Jesus, and we see in the Old Testament all those threads that are woven together in Jesus—threads of peace and justice, repentance and forgiveness, liberation and healing, suffering and joy, love and life, death and resurrection in the kingdom of God.

Kierkegaard Scripture Christ

This is an excerpt from a past post: “What is the Bible, and How Should We Read It?” This excerpt was originally published as two separate posts in 2014.

The Bible as Diverse Anthology

A key idea I’ve emphasized here and here is that whatever we mean by Scripture’s divine inspiration, it cannot mean that the biblical writings are somehow not genuinely human writings. As I said earlier:

Written in ordinary human languages and idioms, making use of conventional genres, employing scribes, relying on prior sources, edited by individuals and communities, collected by different peoples over many centuries—the fact is, these realities are the norm for the writings we have in the anthology of ancient literature we call the Bible.

This really shouldn’t bother us. If anything, we who believe that God has been revealed most clearly and fully in a human being, the man Jesus, should expect that God’s voice in Scripture is to be heard only through the utterly human voices of the biblical authors.

And it truly is a diversity of voices in Scripture. The Bible is not really a single “book.” It is, as I’ve just described it, an “anthology”—a collection of different writings by different human authors.

Consider some examples:

We have two different creation stories side by side in Genesis. The first (Gen 1:1-2:3) describes God as Elohim, the Mightiest One, who stands beyond the earth and speaks creation into existence, crafting a well-ordered and richly filled palace-temple for himself, with humans as his priest-kings and priestess-queens. The second (Gen 2:4-25) describes God as Yahweh Elohim, God in covenant with Israel, who comes to earth and gets their hands dirty in shaping the Human to care for their flourishing garden.

We have two different histories of Israel in the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Old Testament. The first (Samuel-Kings) tells the story through the lens of Deuteronomy: good kings uphold the covenant of Moses, bad kings do not, and in the end it all goes bad because the people of Israel and Judah abandon Moses’ Law. The second (Chronicles) tells the story through the lens of David: the worship established by David in the Temple built by David’s past son must continue, and the kingdom promised to David will be restored to David’s future son.

We have 150 Psalms giving a dozen different portraits of worship. The rugged individualist hanging out with God in nature? The Temple liturgist composing for antiphonal choir amidst all the smells and bells? The bibliophile scribe caught up in the wonders of the Torah? The exiled poet leading others by a foreign river, pining for a temple, doing the best they can with what they’ve got? Glorious tapestries of song, rich in theological expression? The “God, give me what I want and I’ll praise you” kind of worship? It’s all there.

We have four different biographies of Jesus in the New Testament. There’s Mark’s sparse, orally crafted story exploring what it means to claim that this crucified Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of God.” There’s Matthew’s didactic adaptation of Mark, highlighting the Moses-like teachings of Jesus for a Jewish Christian audience. There’s Luke’s well-crafted, liturgically rich alternative to Matthew’s story, presenting Jesus to a wider audience: not just Jews but Gentiles, not just men but women, not just rich but poor. And then there’s John’s alternative to all the rest, giving the “beloved disciple’s” expanded re-presentations of Jesus’ life and teachings as the Word made flesh, come to bring life to the world.

This diversity can be problematic for Christians. For some, it’s terribly uncomfortable. We want God to speak clearly and consistently, a single voice on every issue. Some even go to great lengths to harmonize all these differences, to reassure ourselves and our communities that there is one clear biblical teaching on x and y and z. So when we begin to recognize the Bible’s diversity, especially on some central matters of Christian belief and practice, we get antsy.

This diversity can be problematic beyond just the discomfort we feel about it. For the history of biblical interpretation makes one thing abundantly clear: we can justify almost anything by appeal to the Bible, even things that are contradictory.

War, even genocide? Yes. Pacifism? Yes.

Slavery? Check. Abolition of slavery? Check.

Patriarchy? Yep. Full equality of women? Yep.

Death penalty? You bet. No death penalty? You bet.

All of these things are “biblical.” All of these things are “clear from Scripture.”

The problem, again, is one of wrong expectations based on false assumptions. We assume the Bible’s divine inspiration ensures a uniformity of teaching on all things, but the biblical writings never actually claim such a thing. There are plenty of claims in Scripture about Scripture—claims of biblical writings being God’s “word” or “message,” of God “revealing” God’s self or God’s will in or through them, of Scripture being “useful for teaching” for faith and life, or of Scripture reliably “testifying” to Jesus, of Scripture being “true.” But it’s only our assumptions that make us think these claims must mean Scripture presents a clear, uniform perspective on any particular question or issue we might face.

But there is something that unites these diverse writings. An “anthology” is not just a random collection of writings, and the Bible is no exception. There is something that unites this anthology, that makes it make sense as a collection. And, I would suggest, we are indeed right to see in that “something” the Voice of God that we are searching for.

So how do we get there? How do we find that “something” that unites this inspired Scripture, this diverse anthology of ancient literature? To answer that question, let me start with a few general observations.

The unity of Scripture is not uniformity, but unity in diversity. It’s not a monochrome picture, but a whole spectrum of colours. It’s not univocal, a single voice, but polyvocal, many voices. It’s not a monotone, but a whole array of tones: sometimes discordant, sometimes harmonious, often haunting, profound, encouraging, challenging.

The unity of Scripture is not static, but dynamic. There is change in thought from earlier to later biblical books, sometimes even intentional, direct change. This change is good, we say by faith: it’s a progression, not a moving backward, or sideways. This change is even sometimes that of a trajectory that aims beyond Scripture, giving an unfinished arc that invites us to step in and complete it.

And the unity of Scripture has a significance greater than the sum of its parts. The “something” that unites Scripture is in fact a Someone. The many voices of Scripture are like echoes of their Voice in a dark tunnel, which we hear, dimly. Or they’re like the many voices of a choir that together make a single choral Voice—which is the whole point of these many voices, their very raison d’être.

In other words, the progressive unity in diversity of Scripture, the Voice through the Bible’s many voices, is rather like this:

This is an excerpt from a past post: “What is the Bible, and How Should We Read It?” This excerpt was originally published as a separate post in 2014.

The Bible as Ancient Literature

We often think of the Bible as a single book, but it’s really more like a library of books from the ancient world. Or, perhaps a better way to put it, the Bible is an anthology of ancient literature.

Norton AnthologyI don’t know what comes to mind for you when you think of “literature.” Merriam-Webster defines it as “writings in prose or verse; especially writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest.” That’s not a bad definition, both the generic side of it (“writings in prose or verse”) and the more specific (“writings…expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest”).

To say that the Bible is a collection of “literature” means, then, that what we have in the Bible is “writings in prose or verse.” More specifically, we have different kinds of writing in prose or verse, different literary genres—and these different genres are not unique to the Bible.

A few examples:

The opening chapters of Genesis are ancient origins stories, akin to origins stories from Egypt and Mesopotamia and elsewhere. The move from original chaos to order and abundance? Humans made from mixing dirt and divine essence? Sounds like Genesis, and it is, but these and other features are also found in other—and even earlier—ancient origins stories. Yes, the Genesis stories are distinctive—giving a strong monotheistic, “one true and living God” outlook, for instance—but as literature they’re in the same ballpark as these other stories.

The collections of laws of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy are in the same vein as other ancient legal codes. Hammurabi’s law code from ancient Babylonia covers religious matters, slavery, military service, social conduct, and more—just like the Law of Moses. “Eye for an eye”? It’s in there, a few hundred years before Moses. The biblical laws flow in this stream of ancient legal codes, even as they present some distinctive perspectives on God and religion and society.

The stories of Jesus we know as the Gospels are ancient biographies, similar to those of Plutarch, Lucian, and the like. A focus on a particular individual, skimming their adolescence and jumping into their public life, presenting some of their important sayings and key life events, highlighting their death, all to commend them as worthy of admiration or imitation—these elements of other ancient biographies are evident in the Gospels. The claim that the subject of your biography is the promised king in David’s line bringing about Yahweh’s reign on earth, or that he rose from the dead? Not so much—but then that’s what Christians claim makes them “gospel,” or “good news.”

The book of Revelation is an example of ancient apocalyptic literature, one of a dozen or so such Jewish or Christian apocalypses from that era. Things like angelic guides and multi-headed beasts and repeated numbers might seem weird to us, but they’re the basic grammar of ancient apocalypses. They’re subversive literature, the literature of a minority feeling under siege, re-imagining their world in light of God’s coming kingdom—and John’s Revelation is no exception.

Gutenberg BibleLike all the scribes and sources and editing and collecting behind the Bible’s production (see my previous post), these kinds of historical and literary features are commonplace for biblical scholars. They are part of the scholar’s everyday work of understanding the biblical writings in their historical and cultural settings.

But these sorts of things can be scary for many Christians. And, as I suggested earlier, much of the reason for this fear is all those questionable assumptions we bring to what inspiration must involve. We have a view of inspiration—even just a view of the way God works in the world in general—that assumes that if God does something it must be clearly, discernibly divine, nothing human about it.

That’s strange, really, when you think about it. After all, one of the most fundamental convictions of Christianity is the claim that God has become human in Jesus—both fully divine and fully human, the eternal God revealed in the man Jesus.

If that’s true, why do we then insist inspired Scripture be somehow less than human?

This is an excerpt from a past post: “What is the Bible, and How Should We Read It?” This excerpt was originally published as a separate post in 2013.

The Bible as Inspired Scripture

“All Scripture is inspired by God…”

It may well be that no words in the Bible have had more read into them than these words.

These well-known words are from 2 Timothy 3:16.  For the moment let’s leave aside whether this is the best way to translate the Greek text. And let’s bracket off the question of whether this description of the Jewish Scriptures (our Old Testament) should also be applied to the New Testament. Those are valid questions. But even if we move past those hurdles, there’s at least one significant thing 2 Timothy 3:16 doesn’t say: it doesn’t say how Scripture is “inspired” or “God-breathed.”

Rather, we have to import our own ideas about the how of inspiration into our reading of 2 Timothy 3:16. And very often our ideas of exactly how Scripture is inspired come from some very questionable assumptions.

We imagine, maybe, that the human authors of the Bible—Moses, David, Isaiah, Luke, John, Paul, to name a few—sat down at their writing desks, quill in hand, parchment laid out before them. Perhaps they reflected prayerfully on what God wanted to say through them, and then, as the Spirit moved in them, they began to write. Steadily, thoughtfully, carefully, always attuned to the Spirit’s inner promptings. When they finished, there before them was an inspired, inerrant manuscript—God’s very words in still-drying ink.

But wait a moment. Is that really how it worked? Consider this:

Paul used a scribe (Rom 16:22). Likely, even for a literate person such as himself, this was his normal practice. Perhaps, if the scribe was well-trusted, Paul might even have just dictated notes to the scribe, who would then flesh out those notes into a letter, getting Paul’s authorization—and maybe a brief handwritten note (Gal 6:11)—for the final product.

Luke used sources (Luke 1:1-4). He read previous writings about Jesus, he talked with people who knew Jesus, and then he carefully planned out his two-volume story of Jesus and the early church. In other words, he did the work of an ancient—not modern, mind you, but ancient—historian.

John’s Gospel was edited by others (John 21:24). There’s a “beloved disciple”—possibly John, the son of Zebedee, but who knows for sure?—who “testified to” and “wrote down” certain things about Jesus. But then there’s a “we” who comes after, who collectively added their own testimony to this earlier disciple’s testimony.

The Psalms were collected over centuries (Pss 23:1; 90:1; 137:1). Even if we take the Psalms’ opening ascriptions at face value—another difficult question—we have to face the fact that we have a psalm that claims to go back to Moses, right alongside several that state they are David’s, mixed in with some that clearly come from Israel’s exile in Babylon.

Use of scribes, use of prior sources, later editing by an individual or even a community, collection by different peoples over many centuries—the fact is, these realities are the norm for the writings we have in the anthology of ancient literature we call the Bible.

These realities are also the bread and butter of biblical scholars. They are the basics of the business: comparing ancient manuscripts, discerning prior sources, tracing out later editing, sketching out how these writings have been received and read over the centuries.

But these realities are not easily accepted by many Christians—and much of the reason for this is all those questionable assumptions we import into 2 Timothy 3:16, bringing in some (quite frankly) untenable ideas about what “inspiration” must involve. For it turns out that our imagined biblical author—the individual person before God, perfectly in tune with God’s Spirit, producing inerrant truths in written propositions—is a projection of our own modern sensibilities. This image has nothing to do with the way the biblical writings actually came to be.

Are the biblical writings actually inspired by God? I believe so. As a church we confess this to be so. “All Scripture is inspired by God through the Holy Spirit for instruction in salvation and training in righteousness,” our church denomination’s Confession of Faith says. But we stop short of insisting on a particular view of how God inspired these ancient human writings. Instead, we are wise simply to say, as our Confession of Faith goes on to say, that “God was at work through the centuries in the process by which the books of the Old and New Testaments were inspired and written.”

To say, then, that the Bible is inspired by God, is to say that God was at work in this complex and very human process, through authors and scribes and editors and compilers and communities—and that God can speak to us through this ancient, diverse collection of human writings.

This is an excerpt from a past post: “What is the Bible, and How Should We Read It?” This excerpt was originally published as a separate post in 2013.