The Bible on the Bible

“Hey, you’re dressed queer.”

I look over. The speaker is an elderly man, mid-70s I’d guess. He is tall and thin and is wearing of those caps that cabbies wore in movies from the Forties.
“You’re dressed queer,” he snarls. “Why you dressed so queer.” I have on my usual fringes, and, for good measure, have worn some sandals and am carrying a knotty maple walking stick I’d bought on the Internet for $25.
“I’m trying to live by the rules of the Bible. The 10 commandments, stoning adulterers…”
“You’re stoning adulterers?”
“Yeah, I’m stoning adulterers.”
“I’m an adulterer.”
“You’re currently an adulterer?”
“Yeah. Tonight, tomorrow, yesterday, two weeks from now. You gonna stone me?”
“If I could, yes, that’d be great.”
“I’ll punch you in the face. I’ll send you to the cemetery.”
He is serious. This isn’t a cutesy grumpy old man. This is an angry old man. This is a man with seven decades of hostility behind him.
I fish out my pebbles from my back pocket.
“I wouldn’t stone you with big stones,” I say. “Just these little guys.”
I open my palm to show him the pebbles. He lunges at me, grabbing one out of my hand, then chucking it at my face. It whizzes by my cheek.
I am stunned for a second. I hadn’t expected this elderly man to make the first move. But now there is nothing stopping me from retaliating. An eye for an eye.
I take one of the remaining pebbles and whip it at his chest. It bounces off.
“I’ll punch you right in the kisser,” he say.
“Well, you really shouldn’t commit adultery,” I say.
We stare at each other. My heart is racing.
Yes, he is a septuagenarian. Yes, he had just threatened me using corny Honeymooners dialogue. But you could tell: This man has a strong dark side.
Our glaring contest lasts ten seconds, then he walks away, brushing by me as he leaves.

This little vignette from A.J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically, hilariously highlights the impracticality of attempting to obey the Bible in our contemporary world.

As my own, less funny, experience with shutting down a church and trying to stay within the confines of the speed limit attest, following the letter of the New Testament isn’t any more tenable.

Following all the Bible’s instructions isn’t possible, but that’s okay because the Bible doesn’t expect us to.

While it contains rules, they weren’t written specifically to us. Yet, for some reason we’ve come to believe they were.

Our generalization of commands written to other people can be subjective and arbitrary too.

As a for instance, would you include, eating only meat that had first been drained of blood on a list of rules Christians should observe?

No?

What about Acts 15:29 which says, “You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things”?

In context, these instructions are very clearly from a letter written as a specific response to a specific situation affecting a specific group of Christians living in a specific region of the world. Having the benefit of the backstory with the letter situated in a larger narrative, we instinctively know that those instructions weren’t given to us.

And yet, when we look at the greeting just a few verses earlier, it reads a whole lot like the other epistles to which we feel beholden, “The apostles and elders, your brothers, To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia: Greetings.”

If it’s an authoritative epistle written by a council of the Lord’s apostles, why don’t we afford it the same treatment as the other epistles? The only difference seems to be situational. Should this letter have survived outside the book of Acts and been collected with the others, I have no doubt that it would have been dubbed, “The Epistle to the Syrians,” or just “Syrians.” I also have no doubt that Christians would have been arguing throughout the past sixteen centuries as to just how much blood might be acceptable in a piece of meat.¹

While the epistles contain a trove of wonderful wisdom and commentary on the gospel, we must keep in mind that they are other people’s mail.

The authors of those letters indicate no inkling that they thought they were writing volume two of God’s book. Paul seems least of all aware that anyone would later compile his letters to include them in a canon of holy writ. Near the end of his life, he put his hope in the transferability of his simple message and manner of life rather than in the codification of his writings. In 2 Timothy 2:2 he wrote to his beloved protégé, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.” Not coincidentally, this also seems to have been Jesus’ method for perpetuating truth.²

To be fair, Peter does call the writings of Paul Scripture in 2 Peter 3:16. But what does that mean?

Let’s look at the designation in context to get an idea:

And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. (2 Peter 3:15–16)

There it is. I agree that the writings we find in Matthew through Revelation are inspired, so I have no problem agreeing with Peter that the letters of Paul are Scripture. Under grace, “Scripture,” comes to fulfill a purpose different from the one it served under law. Whether we find it in the New Testament or the Old, Scripture provides wisdom. Paul proclaimed that regenerated people were under no obligation to follow the letter of the Torah, while also encouraging them to find Jesus in it. In the same way, we needn’t follow the letter of the New Testament, but must seek Jesus there.³

By including Paul’s writings along with “the other Scriptures,” Peter classifies them along with the books of the Old Testament like Deuteronomy. I’ve never been inclined to cook a young goat in its mother’s milk, but should the need arise, I am free to do so without pang of conscience. I can also pray with a hat on.

Under grace, we must treat all Scripture as wisdom literature.

Why? Because everything is lawful, but not everything is beneficial. Isn’t that what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 6:12 and 10:23?

Consider what Paul wrote about the value of the Hebrew Scriptures:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:14–17 emphasis mine NAW)

Just because the Torah no longer bound believers with the condemning power of a legal code didn’t mean it no longer had value. By the way, Paul didn’t pen these words in reference to any portion of the twenty-seven books we call the New Testament. In encouraging him to attend to the Scriptures he’d been raised on, Paul didn’t mean for Timothy’s conscience to be bound to its procedural dictates.

When we, as Peter did, acknowledge Paul’s writings as Scripture, we must treat them like Paul treated the Scripture he had in hand. To do anything else would be to violate Paul’s own intent since he himself said:

For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.(Galatians 2:18–21 ESV)

Had Paul meant for his writings to enslave those set free by the gospel, he would have been a transgressor according to his own words.

I don’t know what kind of awareness might be granted to those who’ve passed on, but if Paul knows that his words have been turned into a new law, he must be fuming. What’s more, those who handle Matthew through Revelation that way come under Peter’s indictment as those who’ve twisted the Scriptures.

Treating the Scriptures as a trove of divine wisdom actually will make us value them more. If we see the New Testament as a book of laws, all it can do is condemn us and divide us. From my previous experience, I know that people don’t go looking for more rules than the ones they’re already keeping. If we see it as a book of wisdom, we’ll pore over it time and again mining all of its beneficial insights.

On the other side of the coin, if we read something in the New Testament that our gospel-renewed minds know would not benefit our spiritual family or the cause of Christ in our day, then we’re beholden by the gospel to violate that instruction. While laws can be arbitrary, wisdom must stand the test of experience. Let that sink in a minute.

The church I serve with comes from a tradition which held very closely to the prohibitions against women speaking in the assembly of believers. Pauline passages such as 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 and 1 Timothy 2:11–15 seem to prohibit female participation in the public gathering of the church. While those passages might be interpreted otherwise, it takes a bit of work. Certainly, there might have been extenuating circumstances to which we’re not privy. That’s most likely the case, but even if Paul meant for all churches to silence their women until Christ returns, should we observe that restriction?

I don’t think so.

The intent of this sort of instruction seems to have been to provide procedural order in the churches to maximize mutual encouragement and to expedite the spread of the gospel. If we really are under a covenant of spirit and not the letter, then faithful treatment of these texts would require us to violate their particulars when they become discouraging and counterproductive.

We’re free to make that call because Matthew through Revelation isn’t our covenant. God wants us to obey the gospel. That’s why Jesus could hold up a cup at his last Passover and say, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” A bunch of letters collected and bound together over three hundred years later mustn’t be allowed to supersede the mandates implicit in the redemptive death and resurrection of Christ. We’re beholden to the gospel and the consequences for disobedience are dire.

You might be wondering how we can obey the story of Christ’s death, resurrection, and future return. I urge you to reread Paul’s epistles with a view toward taking note of places where he bases his instructions on the implications of the gospel. The gospel reveals the nature of things. It then becomes incumbent upon us to live accordingly.

Since we’ve been talking about it, let’s take a minute to apply gospel wisdom to gender roles in the church:

Proposition 1: Christ died for men and women alike.
Proposition 2: Women receive the same Holy Spirit as men.
Propositions 3: Our bodies are vessels for the one treasure inside everyone.
Proposition 4: Believers in Christ gather to encourage one another as the various gifts given through the Holy Spirit operate to distribute grace to every member.
Conclusion: Women and men alike should exercise their gifts for the building up of the church.

In addition to pragmatic concerns, the gospel mandates that we make no distinction between people. Paul himself expounded this truth in Galatians 3:28. The gospel ethic teaches equal treatment and opportunity for everyone, doesn’t it?

In a time when women serve as CEO’s and senators, following the letter of Paul’s letters has relegated the church to the cultural sidelines in a zone not unlike the one inhabited by the Amish. The living gospel must push through calcified notions even if they’re found in our own traditions because it’s alive.

Our human nature wants God to write an infallible book which will perfectly reveal his will to humanity.

Like Adam and Eve, we want to ingest something that will provide us the knowledge of good and evil. We’ve appointed the Bible to fill that role, but the Bible doesn’t exactly play along. The Bible speaks equivocally in both human and divine voice.

I believe the Qur’an was written to fill this human longing which the Bible left unmet.

Compare Surah 2:2–5 from the Qur’an…

This is the Book; in it is guidance sure, without doubt, to those who fear Allah. Who believe in the Unseen, are steadfast in prayer, and spend out of what We have provided for them; And who believe in the Revelation sent to thee, and sent before thy time, and (in their hearts) have the assurance of the Hereafter. They are on (true) guidance, from their Lord, and it is these who will prosper.

…with Luke 1:1–4:

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

I know that the Bible contains sections which claim inspiration directly from God such as in the Old Testament prophets and the Revelation, but none of them endorse all sixty-six books. They don’t even seem to be aware of all of the other books in our canon.

Nothing within the biblical canon endorses or even acknowledges the canon. On the other hand, the Qur’an commends itself in its entirety as the revelation of God from the very beginning. The Bible might make similar claims of inspiration over various books or sections, but never will you find the equivalent of Surah 2:2–5 in the Bible. Nor will you find anything like Luke 1:1–4 in the Qur’an for that matter.

The Bible resists our expectations not because it cannot conform to them but because it means to change them.

The gospel that Paul preached from the Scriptures immediately liberated people from the code of law found in those same Scriptures. This just didn’t compute for many of his Jewish contemporaries and they tried to shut him up.

Some came into one of the first churches Paul had founded to teach that anyone who claims to be in covenant with the Jewish God must keep the law of Moses. They had, it seemed, the endorsement of Scripture on their side. That is, until Paul went further back to the very basis of God’s covenant with Israel, the call of Abraham:

So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. (Galatians 3:6–9)

The Bible tells of a person who had a relationship with God but didn’t have a Bible. What’s more, that person is held up as the archetype for those who will come to God when the promised blessings come to pass. Paul wanted the Galatian believers to know that the time of prescriptive rules written in a text and predicated on punishment had been provisional.

We often see Abraham’s relationship with God as basic, with later revelation adding on that base. That’s not how Paul saw it, though. For him, that relationship was exemplary with later revelation being provisional until more people could experience an Abrahamic relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

God had called Paul to bring in the Gentiles through faith in Christ. For that to happen, they would need a relationship with God as simple and profound as Abraham’s was. The early church had no access to a copy of the Scriptures. They certainly couldn’t take one home to labor over using the inductive study method. What they knew of God, they learned not primarily from the Scriptures, but from what the writers of the New Testament called, “the word of God.”

Time and again throughout the book of Acts, Luke tells of how the word of God spread among a wide variety of people throughout the Roman Empire.⁴ But what was the word of God? Luke couldn’t have meant the contents of the Old Testament because that had already spread through the known world in the Jewish synagogues. It couldn’t have been the contents of the book we call the New Testament because that book resulted from the activity recorded in Acts. The “word of God” that spread over the known world over the span of about a generation was the proclamation about Jesus the Messiah.

That proclamation is the power of God to salvation⁵ which we experience by faith.


Notes:

  1. The New Testament was canonized in the middle fourth century.
  2. Acts 1:8
  3. Romans 3:31; 15:4; 2 Corinthians 3:12–18; 2 Timothy 3:14–17
  4. Acts 4:4, 29–31; 6:2–7; 8:14–25; 10:36–44; 11:1, 19; 12:24; 13:5–7, 44–49; 14:25; 15:7, 35–36; 16:32; 17:11–13; 18:5, 11; 19:10, 20
  5. Romans 1:16

Crossing Over

This post isn’t for everyone.

It’s for the people who sense that something is wrong with this world.

It’s for those who grieve over the hurt they see around them and regret their part in it.

You’re right, there is something wrong and you’re a part of the problem.

You also need to know that it doesn’t have to be that way.

The Bible tells the story of what’s wrong with our society and it tells us how to cross over into a new society governed by trust and love.

First, here’s what went wrong:

Our original ancestors were given the opportunity to live in paradise. In paradise, they enjoyed perfect harmony with their environment and each other in God’s presence. At some point they chose selfish ambition over peace and intimacy.

They would now suffer an existence characterized by alienation from God and from each other.

As these early ancestors reproduced, their brokenness multiplied along with their progeny. In time, hate-filled and violent people would populate the earth.

Noah and His Family Crossed Over

Rather than allow continued degradation, God declared that he would destroy the evil society by means of a massive flood:

So the Lord said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.”  But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord. (Genesis 6:7-8)

We’re not told why, but God selected Noah for special treatment while everyone else faced impending doom.

You’re probably familiar with the rest of the story. God instructed Noah to build a massive, water-tight wooden box which would hold male and female representatives of humankind and animals. Then a flood destroyed all life outside of the great wooden box. After the waters receded, all the inhabitants came out and repopulated the earth.

In the ark, Noah crossed over the waters into a new society.

Sadly, selfish ambition came off of the ark in the hearts of Noah and his family.

Abraham Crossed Over

As Noah’s family reproduced, his descendants formed a new evil society which the book of Genesis describes like this:

At one time all the people of the world spoke the same language and used the same words. As the people migrated to the east, they found a plain in the land of Babylonia and settled there.
They began saying to each other, “Let’s make bricks and harden them with fire.” (In this region bricks were used instead of stone, and tar was used for mortar.) Then they said, “Come, let’s build a great city for ourselves with a tower that reaches into the sky. This will make us famous and keep us from being scattered all over the world.” (Genesis 11:1-4 NLT)

These people made selfish ambition a corporate enterprise. They came to realize that they were stronger together and came up with ways to cement their corporate identity. To establish permanence beyond their individual lifespans, they would build a great city. They also planned to memorialize themselves through an impressive achievement, the tower. These monuments to their corporate strength would also maintain it by keeping everyone together.

God disciplined these people for pulling together around selfish ambition. He confused their languages and scattering them to the four corners of the earth.

In the next chapter of Genesis, God calls a man to become the antithesis of Babylon’s arrogance:

The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you.  I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:1-3 NLT)

Abram was from a city called Ur which was located in the region of Babylonia. God called him to leave the corrupt society of his nativity to wander in an unknown land. To reach Canaan from Ur, Abraham had to cross over the Euphrates River. From then on, he and his descendants would be know as “Hebrews” which means, “the crossed over.”

Because he trusted God enough to cross over from dependency on humankind, God would give Abraham everything the people of Babylon had attempted to seize for themselves. In addition to that, God would use Abraham as a vehicle to bless everyone on earth.

Moses Crossed Over

After four hundred years, God’s promise to make Abraham’s descendants into a nation came true. The Hebrews, whom God had taken to develop in Egypt, multiplied into the hundreds of thousands. They were now a nation that would be known as Israel.

Fearing a revolt, the Egyptian king put the Hebrews under forced labor. In time, they called out to God who sent Moses to rescue them from slavery.

Through Moses, God inflicted a series of ten plagues on Egypt until the king let Israel leave his country. After they left Egypt, they wandered in the wilderness for a couple of weeks finally making camp next to the Red Sea.

Then the king, regretting the loss of his large slave labor force, marshalled his army and pursued them into the wilderness. When he caught up to them, the Israelites were terrified. God told Moses to lift his staff over the Red Sea and it parted. Israel walked through the sea on dry ground, but the Egyptians were all drown as God released the sea upon them in the midst of their pursuit.

From then on, Israel’s old masters had no control over them. They were free to serve the one true God and to depend on him for everything they needed. Moses and Israel crossed over the Red Sea from an evil society to a life of God’s guidance and provision in the wilderness.

Like with Noah’s family, selfish ambition came through the water with Israel. In time, they started to think just like the people of Babylon. They demanded that God give them a human king so they wouldn’t have to trust God to deliver them from their enemies. Throughout their history, they continued to reject God until he finally sent them back to Babylon as prisoners of war.

John the Baptist Crossed Over

Because of his promises to Abraham, God returned Israel to their own land after seventy years in Babylon.

Even though they had been through so much, Israel continued to chase selfish ambition. By the first century C.E., the priests in Jerusalem had become puppet rulers for the Roman Empire. They talked about following the will of God, but they didn’t do it themselves. When push came to shove, those Israelite (now also known as Jewish) leaders would do anything to protect their grip on power.

At that time, God sent a man named John into the wilderness to speak a message of correction to Israel. He told them that they needed to change their ways because God was getting ready to come to them. The people who listened to John’s message were baptized by him in the Jordan River. This baptism was a crossing over from the compromised and corrupt religion of Jerusalem into a pure devotion to God.

Jesus Crossed Over

Though he was born to a virgin as the Son of God, Jesus lived an ordinary human life until he was around thirty years old. Then he went out to the Jordan to be baptized by John.

At first, John didn’t want to baptize Jesus because he knew that he didn’t have any sin to turn away from. Jesus urged John to comply, because it was God’s will for him to be baptized.

When Jesus came up from the water, the Holy Spirit descended on him in the form of a dove and a voice from heaven called out, “This is my beloved Son. I’m pleased with him.” At his baptism, Jesus crossed over from carpenter (the trade he learned from his earthly father) to Christ (the calling given to him by his heavenly Father, God).

Jesus Christ went around teaching everyone and performing miracles. He called out the hypocrisy among influential religious people of his day. The respectable people hated him, but the outcasts loved him and followed him everywhere.

When Jesus came to Jerusalem, the religious leaders felt threatened by him. They schemed to have him executed by the Romans on a cross.

Jesus had told his disciples that this would happen. When Peter, one of Jesus’ closest followers, heard this prediction, he called Jesus aside and said, “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!”

Jesus responded harshly to his concerned friend, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” (Matthew 16:22-23)

At his death, Jesus crossed over in a way that nobody else had until that time. By submitting to a wrongful death, Jesus let go of all selfish ambition and trusted his life fully into God’s hands. He didn’t just cross over through water. He crossed through death.

Because of his obedient trust, his Father resurrected Jesus never to die again.

Jesus’ Followers Crossed Over

Fifty days after Jesus rose again, the Holy Spirit came from heaven with a loud rushing wind onto 120 of his followers who were praying in Jerusalem. The Holy Spirit gave them the ability to speak in languages which they hadn’t studied. People from all over the city gathered to hear them. Since it was a special holiday in Jerusalem, Jews were present from all over the Roman Empire. Everyone heard these followers telling about God’s wonderful deeds in their own native tongues and they were amazed.

Then, Peter stood up and told everyone how God had sent Jesus to be their perfect king, but they and their leaders had rejected him and had him crucified. Peter also told them that God had given proof that Jesus was the Son of God by raising him from death and by pouring out the Holy Spirit.

The people in the audience were crushed by this news and asked what they should do. Peter responded,

“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” (Acts 2:38-40 NIV)

Peter called them to cross over, through baptism, from participation in their corrupt society to life led and empowered by God through the Holy Spirit.

Creation will cross over at the end of this age.

Peter appealed for his audience to save themselves from the degrading influence of their corrupt generation, but he also knew of a greater peril they faced.

When Christ returns, we’re told that fire from his presence will cleanse every vestige of human sinfulness from the earth. Then he will renew creation to God’s original intention. In this way, all of creation will cross over from corruption to flourishing.

Those who’ve crossed over now – who’ve chosen the world to come – will belong in that renewed earth. Those who’ve chosen the illusory rewards of this present age will be incinerated with it at the return of Christ.

God doesn’t want to condemn anyone, but in the course of renewing creation, everything from the old, corrupt system, including its inhabitants, must be removed forever.

This same invitation is open to you today.

Just like Noah and his family or Moses and the Israelites, God wants you to leave behind your way of life and cross through water to a life led and empowered by his Holy Spirit.

Unlike Noah’s family or the Israelites, you must leave your selfish ambition behind, because baptism in Jesus’ name requires that we trust God like Jesus did. His cross becomes our crossing. Because he died for us, we must for his sake “die” to our desires, our dreams, our egos, to ourselves. Then, we become spiritual Hebrews who’ve severed our unhealthy dependencies to wander as strangers in this world, listening only to our God and accepting the blessings he has promised.