The sites, sounds, and ideas that I gathered during the days spent in Israel are still sorting themselves out in my mind. The place of the Bible in shaping my life, understanding what God says through His word, became even more important to me. Our visit to the Israeli Museum (photo from the Shrine of the Book) where a replica of the scroll of Isaiah that was found among the Dead Scrolls is displayed underlined the primacy of Scripture for both Jews and Christians. That discovery, made accidentally by some Bedouin shepherd boys, brought us manuscripts dating to the time of Jesus!
But, understanding the Bible is not always an easy task, is it? I am reading through the Bible this year once again and currently my reading is in Leviticus. If you know anything about the Bible, you know that is a book that gives detailed instructions about the practices of worship among the children of Israel. Much of the text leaves me saying, “Huh?” At the core of the words, however, I hear God saying “I am Holy, to be revered, desiring a holy people who love Me beyond sentiment and emotions.”
From the early days of my life, the phrases and thoughts of the Bible shaped my mind – causing me to understand the world in which I live as His creation, my life as belonging to Him, and my highest purpose in serving Him. Paul’s words to Timothy seem that they were written to me. “You have been taught the holy Scriptures from childhood, and they have given you the wisdom to receive the salvation that comes by trusting in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:15-17, NLT) The holy Word commands me, rules me, challenges me, and comforts me. And, as I said a moment ago, sometimes I am confounded by what I read, too!
There is a movement, largely reactionary and based in a kind of fear, that has retreated to a kind of Biblical literalism that requires the ‘true believer’ to abandon his mind to the ‘truth’ of the Word. Every word is to be understood as literal; well, until it isn’t! Even fundamentalists acknowledge that passages like this one – “You will live in joy and peace. The mountains and hills will burst into song, and the trees of the field will clap their hands!” (Isaiah 55:12, NLT) – are metaphorical. I am not aware of any Christians who are prepared to invoke Leviticus when their son is rebellious and hand him over to the elders to be stoned to death. “If anyone curses his father or mother, he must be put to death. He has cursed his father or his mother, and his blood will be on his own head.” (Leviticus 20:9, NIV) Just because we do not practice those texts (and others) with rigid literalism, does not mean we take them less seriously nor I am not making light of the Scripture. I am trying to make the point that using simple proof texts or reading words without context, study, and the help of the Spirit can lead to some strange conclusions.
So how do we read the Bible for all it’s worth?
First, we need a deep reverence. God gave us the Scripture and we receive it as His work.
Second, we need real humility. I don’t stand in judgment of the Bible, it judges me. To say, “I don’t agree with that passage” and to discard it as irrelevant to life or as untrue, is the height of arrogance. A Christian does not stand in judgment of the Bible. The Bible judges him! To say, “I am trying to find the meaning and application of this passage,” is completely different from saying, “I don’t accept it.”
Third, we need to be careful students. “Keep reminding them of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:14-15, NIV) Our study is not about learning how to debate the arcane points of theology, to split hairs over word meanings. It is about discovery of the mind of Christ, about learning the Word so that the Spirit makes the revelation our guide in life.
Fourth, we must be aware of how we are dragging our cultural ideals to the text. We need to be reminded again and again that God created us in His image, not that we created Him in ours! An hour from our trip last week stands out to me when we walked with a teacher through a recreated ‘village’ of Jesus’ time at Nazareth. Pointing to the things that were ordinary in that era, he explained Jesus’ parables in that context. The over-worked word “amazing” comes to mind. There is so much more to be understood when our understanding includes the context of the words beyond our own grasp of the world around us.
Fifth, we approach the text with faith and prayerfully. To read the Bible only as literature is an “adventure in missing the point.” The holy text comes from the mind of God and we need the Holy Spirit to open our hearts and minds to receive the Word in its fullness. Jesus challenged the Pharisees and scribes about their study. I pray His words do not describe us. “You search the Scriptures because you believe they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! Yet you refuse to come to me so that I can give you this eternal life.” (John 5:39-40, NLT) A right relationship with God is not found in knowing all the right facts; it is found in knowing the Person to Whom those words point us.
Biblical Christians will live counter-culturally. When God, through His word invites us to serve Him, to dethrone Self, to adopt hope for eternity and not for the present, to love and forgive even our enemies we will find our minds conflicted. His wisdom is not natural, it is revealed! Sometimes what we learn from the Bible will create convictions that will shape our lives in ways that bring hatred our way. Let’s respond as Christ would – quietly accepting the rejection for His glory. And let’s not become noisy, confrontational, fundamentalists who largely miss the point of the beauty of the Word.
The word from the Word is worthy of memorization. May the Lord bless the truth.
“How can a young man cleanse his way?
By taking heed according to Your word.
With my whole heart I have sought You;
Oh, let me not wander from Your commandments!
Your word I have hidden in my heart,
That I might not sin against You.
Blessed are You, O Lord!
Teach me Your statutes.
With my lips I have declared All the judgments of Your mouth.
I have rejoiced in the way of Your testimonies,
As much as in all riches.
I will meditate on Your precepts,
And contemplate Your ways.
I will delight myself in Your statutes;
I will not forget Your word.” (Psalm 119:9-16, NKJV)
(Video of this blog at this link)
How firm a foundation ye saints of the Lord
Is laid for your faith in His excellent word
What more can He say than to you He hath said
To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled
Fear not I am with thee O be not dismayed
For I am thy God I will still give thee aid
I’ll strengthen thee help thee
And cause thee to stand
Upheld by My righteous omnipotent hand
When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie
My grace all-sufficient shall be thy supply
The flames shall not hurt thee I only design
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine
The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose
I will not I will not desert to its foes
That soul though all hell should endeavor to shake
I’ll never no never no never forsake
© Words: Public Domain
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