“You diligently study the scriptures. You should be diligently studying me.” – Jesus Christ (my interpretation of John 5:39-40)
I’m back to a subject that is important if Christianity is to survive as a power within the human race.
It is the subject of how to read the Bible.
Is there a Bad Way to Read the Bible?
Sure there is. Different approaches result in different conclusions. Many of which the Bible wasn’t written to provide.
For example, if you approach the Bible with the question, “How do you build a boat?” you might stumble upon God’s directions to Noah in Genesis 6 on how he was to build the Ark. You then might conclude that this is the “Biblical” way to build a boat, and to do so in any other way is not “Biblical,” and therefore should be avoided (at least), and made into a condition of salvation (at worst). Silly, I know, but stick with me here…
Imagine a good hearted Christian woman, quite disturbed, telling her preacher that “we just don’t ever hear sermons about how to build boats.” When asked why she desires to hear that preached, she responds with “because the Bible tells us how to build a boat. We need to follow the Bible.”
The question here is not “Does the Bible have anything to say about how to build a boat?” It does. Genesis 6. The question here is “Was the Bible written to teach us how to build boats?” It wasn’t. The lesson? Don’t approach the Bible in a way the Bible hasn’t told you to. You’ll end up following ideas that are “in the Bible” (ie: Biblical) that have nothing to do with Jesus Christ (who saves you).
This understanding would save many, many debates and avoid many, many divisions between Christians over so many “Biblical” issues.
Here’s a more realistic, less silly example: If you approach the Bible with the question “How do you sing songs in a public worship service?” you might stumble upon King David’s appointment of people to use different sorts of instruments to accompany the “sacred song” (1 Chronicles 15-16:42). A few pages over, you might take note that these are called “the Lord’s instruments,” used specifically for “praising the Lord” (2 Chronicles 7:6). You then might run into all the Psalms that specifically instruct the use of those instruments alongside them (Psalm 4, 6, 54, 55, 61, 67, 76), and feel like you are starting to get a pretty good “Biblical” picture of how you should sing songs in public worship. You might then read the words of Paul to the Colossians (3:16), telling them to continue singing those psalms of David, assuming that he’s instructing them to do so in the way David wrote and intended them. Seal it up with the teaching that this kind of instrumental accompaniment will continue in Heaven (Rev 15:2-4), and you might feel confident concluding that the “Biblical” way to sing songs in a public worship service is with “the Lord’s” musical instruments to accompany the “sacred song”.
So imagine a good hearted Christian man in his minister’s office, telling him that “we just don’t ever hear about how we should worship with musical instruments.” When asked why he desires that to be preached, he responds with “because the Bible tells us to worship with instruments. We need to follow the Bible.”
The question here is not “Does the Bible have anything to say about how songs are sung in public worship services?” The question here is “Was the Bible written to prescribe how we should sing songs in public worship services?”
A very current example, and perhaps even less silly than either of my first ones, is the cyber-debate going on between Rob Bell fans and John Piper fans (I happen to be both) concerning their alleged convictions about whether a few, most, or any people will go to Hell or not. Plenty of folks have written about this, so I won’t here, but generally I like these thoughts about the whole thing…if you were wondering.
As important and interesting (and potentially useful) a conversation as it is, the Bible wasn’t written for us to judge and decide who is or who isn’t going to Hell. Approaching it in that way, looking for the answer to that question, leaves us confused at best, or holding our conclusions over others as a test of salvation (or worthiness of fellowship) at worst.
“Farewell, Rob Bell” is what John Piper was compelled to tweet when Rob concluded differently than he.
“Farewell, Lutherans” is what the Catholic church “tweeted” when Luther posted his differences.
“Farewell, Independent Christian Church” is what Church of Christer’s “tweeted” when they saw nothing wrong with accompanying sacred song with musical instruments.
“May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me,” is what Jesus prayed about us.
We are going to have doctrinal differences. Must they destroy our unity in Christ alone?
“Farewell, Christlikeness” is what we all “tweet” when we think getting all (or some particular) Bible doctrine right matters in terms of our salvation.
Hear me: It is not the reading of the Bible that is problematic among Christians. It is what Christians read the Bible in order to get that has caused all the trouble.
My sweet daughter is 9. I’m already having to talk to her about boys (!) who are approaching her. The older she gets, the more I’m going to have to deal with it. You may not believe me, but I don’t have a problem with boys approaching my daughter. What I will be watching out for, and potentially having HUGE problems with, is what those boys are approaching my daughter in order to get from her.
In the same way, God has not problem with us approaching the Bible. But what we go to Bible in order to get from it…well, I think He has serious concerns.
Why? Because approaching the Bible in different ways extracts different sets of rules, different primary doctrines, and different guidelines, beliefs, and convictions…all from the very same Bible! This has resulted in embarrassing divisions among and between well intentioned Christians (throughout history, and most recently, between Bell and Piper), all of whom are equally armed with the authority of “being Biblical” in their position.
And worse than the separation it causes among Christians is the separation it causes between Christians and the world.
Many of the categories produced by well meaning, but uncalled-for, approaches to scripture are irrelevant to the actual well-being of the human heart, the healing of the human spirit, the guiding of the human life, the creating of loving relationships among humankind, or “rightness” between them and God.
These flawed conclusions too often make Christianity look like a foolish set of stubborn beliefs, or adherence to some superficial religious sacraments or practices, or merely an intolerant and demanding conformity to a certain moral code. Trust me, the world is quick to notice that not only can Christians not agree on them (or even discuss them with grace in the context of safe and secure brotherhood in Christ), but they are irrelevant at best, useless & not worth their time at worst.
So How Should We Approach the Bible?
So here I set forth, as clearly as I can, a way of reading the Bible that, at this point in my life, seems to be the only way to read it that brings the power of God that it claims to contain for real live human beings. It is the only way of reading the Bible that I see Jesus promoting and condoning himself (John 5:39-40). It is the only way of reading the Bible that actually makes it useful for the life of righteousness that Paul claimed in was useful for (1 Timothy 3:16)
Approach the Bible to find Jesus Christ.
Look for him. Fix your eyes on him. Fix your mind on him. Look for his attitude. Look for his heart. Look for his mission. Look for his priorities. Read for his way. Read for his truth. Read for his life. Follow him. Be clothed with him. Be buried with him. Be resurrected with him. Depend on him. Live in him. Be lived in by him. Imitate him. Become like him. Follow his example. Walk as he did. Be transformed into his image.
Approach the Bible to find him.
If you ever get done with all of that, which the Bible clearly calls all men to do unto life, then maybe you’ll have some time to figure out the sure fire answers to all of those lesser doctrines. Maybe then you’ll have time to get in a wad about whether or not your preacher preaches about them enough, or whether your brother is really your brother based on them, or whether knowing the absolute irrefutable truth about them would save and change the world any better than just a simple and faithful pursuit of and faith in the Person of Jesus Christ.
A relationship with Jesus, according to Jesus, is the very definition of eternal life anyway (John 17:3). So why go to the Bible for anything but to grow in this “eternal life”? In other words, why go to the Bible for anything but to grow in your relationship with Jesus?
The Bible (and it’s doctrine) is not the point. The Bible (and it’s doctrine) is the pointer. And it points to Jesus Christ. According to the Bible, it is Christ and Christ alone that saves. According to the Bible, how you publicly worship, and what you believe about Heaven and Hell, and who might be “in” or “out” has about as much bearing on whether or not you are saved as how you build a boat.
What I love about both Bell and Piper (and most Christians, for that matter) is that they DO approach the Bible. And every single subject that can be explored and addressed by doing so, I downright enjoy it. But only insomuch as it helps me get to know Christ.
But when those subjects, and getting them right, become the end unto itself – and especially when some Christians starts acting like it matters in terms of my relationship (hear: “salvational”) status with God – I feel like Jesus Christ is, in light of the sacrifice he offered with blood, offended.
God help us. God be with us.