Hang Up; I’m Leaving You a Voicemail

Nobody obeys the Bible because nobody possesses a 100% accurate understanding of its requirements. The Bible, like every other written text in the world, requires human interpretation. Anything that requires human interpretation will eventually come under human control. Christians, Muslims, Jews all follow religious systems manufactured by human leaders from sacred texts.

When adherents give themselves without question to their religious systems, they come under the control, not of God, but of other people who will never be worthy of such allegiance. Dogmas require complete loyalty, but they can never be trusted.

The Apostle Paul held up his experience as case in point:

For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. (Galatians 1:13-14)

As Saul of Tarsus, Paul had participated in the imprisonment and death of many innocent people under the auspices of performing God’s will. Looking remorsefully back, he named the context of his actions, “Judaism.” He used the term not to describe faithful adherence to the Torah, but rather to “the traditions of my fathers.”

Once dogma has become equated with the will of God revealed in Scripture, it’s almost impossible to escape. It becomes the lens through which we interpret all new information. Paul describes this type of blindness as a veil over the heart in 2 Corinthians 3:15, “Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their (unbelieving Jews’) hearts.”

Refusal to relinquish their assumptions about the written code veiled the understanding of the Jews:

We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. (2 Cor. 3:13-14)

Israel didn’t want to believe that their way of life and history as a nation had been provisional. They were “Bible based believers” who couldn’t accept that their Bible pointed away from itself to an unwritten covenant with God open to all people.

Paul knew the mind of the unbelieving Jew because he had been one until on that fateful day on the road to Damascus Christ’s pragma ran over Paul’s dogma.

I can’t help but to hear autobiographical overtones in 2 Corinthians 3 especially at the end of the chapter:

But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:16-18)

Through the mystery of inspiration, God encoded images of Christ beneath the script. A superficial focus on meeting the requirements obscured the face of Christ from the Jews of Paul’s day. Once a person accepted Christ as Lord, those external requirements would be swept away to reveal the picture which had been hidden behind them all along. Far from obsolescence, the Scriptures take on a new relevance as they reveal the glory of the Lord.

Back when humans used cell phones to make and receive calls, I would occasionally play a little game with folks while leaving them a voicemail. I’d get a notification that they, having seen my missed call on their caller ID, were trying to call me back. I’d answer and say, “Hey, I’m leaving you a voicemail. Could you please hang up, so I can finish?” Sometimes they’d pause and then laugh. Other times they’d groan. One time, a lady said, “Oh, okay,” and she hung up!

Holy writ, like voicemail, was a device to aid communication between two disconnected parties. Once personal contact had been made, it would have been silly to resume the old communication method. The former aid to communication would become a hindrance to it.

Silly as that analogy may sound, it’s almost an exact description of what the Jews of Jesus’ day did when he entered their community.

Christ had superintended Israel throughout their history as the mysterious figure often referred to in the Hebrew Scriptures as “The Angel of the Lord.”¹ Jews in the first century would have been very familiar with the stories of this being who appeared as a human to wrestle with Jacob, to give marching orders to Joshua, or to talk up Gideon.

How grievous that Israel failed to recognize their divine guardian when he finally came as one of them! Listen to his lament/rebuke from John 5:39-40:

You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

Scripture fulfills its ultimate purpose when we use it as an instrument to point to Christ. When we treat the text like a legal code, it will always obstruct our view of the One who is The Truth.

This applies to the edition that we call “The New Testament” as much as it does to the Hebrew Scriptures. Christ died to remove the previous media, not to replace it with an upgraded one, but so that our connection with God could be immediate (i.e. without media). According to Paul, everyone who puts their faith in the death of Christ dies to obligation to the law, so they can then go on to live for God. In Romans 7:1-6, he likens this transition to the severing of a marriage covenant by death thereby freeing one to marry another. The identity of that second spouse seems to have been lost on many who would treat the New Testament like a rule book. Notice in vs. 4-6 of Romans 7, that we didn’t die to the law to be married to the New Testament or to the teachings of the apostles. We died with Christ so that we can be married to him:

So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God. For when we were in the realm of the flesh, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in us, so that we bore fruit for death. But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code. (emphasis mine NAW)

Christ died to liberate his people from obligation to the Mosaic Law not because it was Mosaic but because it was law. This passage contrasts obligation to the law against union with Christ and “the old way of the written code” with “the new way of the Spirit.”

We call the Hebrew Scriptures “The Old Testament” because those thirty-nine books have become “old” when considered next to the later written revelation contained in twenty-seven books which we call “The New Testament.”

Paul never spoke of the law and the prophets as “The Old Testament.” He simply referred to the Hebrew Scriptures as “the law” or “the Scriptures,” because he had no concept of a second authoritative book. For Paul and his contemporaries, the new covenant consisted of something alive within the heart of each believer which outmoded the whole concept of religion based on an inspired text as well as everything that goes with it.

How ironic that even today, we’re so enamored with Paul’s own writings as a normative standard for faith and life that they have become the veil on our hearts keeping us from a living relationship with Christ. Paul didn’t replace the law of Moses with his own words; his words announced that it had already been replaced with grace through faith.² We struggle to understand how such ethereal things could constitute the new covenant, so we canonize Paul’s words into a new law.

By grace through faith, we’ve been brought into direct connection with God in Jesus Christ. In order to maintain that connection, we must give up our dependence on the previous media. No matter what anyone says, we mustn’t hang up to check voicemail.


Footnotes:

  1. I first encountered this idea in David Murray’s book,  Jesus on Every Page. Thomas Nelson Publishers. P. 77-82
  2. Romans 6:14, Galatians 3:21-24

Hard to Get

At a hearing which could also be described as a near death experience, Martin Luther stood before representatives of God and of men to give an account. Before him were piled copies of his writings made abundant by Gutenberg’s good work. Within those documents smoldered the embers of revolution threatening to ignite a continent drained dry by papal greed. To suppress the coming conflagration, the church offered Luther a choice, face a literal flame or utter a simple word— “revoco,” in English, “I recant.”

Surely quivering, Luther’s voice rang out,

I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason — I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other — my conscience is captive to the Word of God, I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.

Those words marked a watershed in Western history. Though many factors had led up to their utterance, they stand (at least for Protestants) as a clear transfer of ultimate authority from church hierarchy to the Bible.

Also, since that time we have fractured into thousands of denominations sects, cults, and subgroups. I think five hundred years is a long enough time to conclude that people will never understand the Bible alike. Actually, it’s more like two thousand.

Christians lament the existence of religions like Islam and Mormonism, but those religions emerged to address rampant division between people who claimed to obey the Bible.

Between the fifth and seventh centuries, the Roman church hadn’t yet seized the absolute power she enjoyed during Luther’s day. In the early seventh century, the religious landscape on the Arabian peninsula was littered with pluralism and syncretism. Into that confusing religious circus, the Qur’an spoke:

From those, too, who call themselves Christians, We did take a covenant, but they forgot a good part of the message that was sent them: so we estranged them, with enmity and hatred between the one and the other, to the day of judgment. And soon will Allah show them what it is they have done. O people of the Book! There hath come to you our Messenger, revealing to you much that ye used to hide in the Book, and passing over much (that is now unnecessary). There hath come to you from Allah a (new) light and a perspicuous Book,(Surah 5:14–15, Al-Qur’an [English Edition] Complete and Unabridged. Islamic Studies Press. Kindle Edition.)

Twelve hundred years later, a man born of a new world would claim an eerily similar status as divinely ordained arbiter. In reflecting back on his call from God, Joseph Smith wrote:

My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join. No sooner, therefore, did I get possession of myself, so as to be able to speak, than I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right (for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong) and which I should join.
 I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: “they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of Godliness, but they deny the power thereof.” (Pearl of Great Price, History of Joseph Smith verses 18,19)

Muslims and Mormons both hold that God revealed his will through their inspired text given through his ultimate prophet to clarify revelation, given in the Bible, but subsequently mishandled by those to whom it was given. It’s not hard to trace their line of thought from a belief that God gave the twenty-seven books which we call “The New Testament” to serve as Torah 2.0. If we needed a 2.0, then why not a 3.0 or 4.0?

Of course, no text no matter how precise or correct can possibly produce anything but division. Islam split in two at Muhammad’s death. Since then, multiple schools of Islam have proliferated over disparate interpretations of the Qur’an and Hadiths. The framers of Mormonism took leveraged their latter day status by correcting previous errors. They accomplished unity (for the most part) by reversing the Reformation and returning ultimate authority to the church.

Those of us who’ve not been called by a supernatural being to birth a new religion soldier on through glaring inconsistencies hoping somehow to credibly witness to Christ. He prayed that we’d be one so that the world would know God sent him. From the looks of things, that prayer still awaits an answer, and the world is still unsure about Christ. I don’t think it’s because God has failed. I think it’s partially because we’ve been divided for so long that we think it’s normal.

My fellow members at the Church of Christ used to say that if two people disagree on the interpretation of scripture one of them can be right and the other wrong or they could both be wrong, but they can’t both be right. Translation: “We’re the only ones who are right.” While I no longer sing that disharmonious tune, the logic still holds water. Out of hundreds of Christian denominations, either just one of them is right or none of them are. Most people would agree that none of them are, but everyone still claims to obey the Bible.

Let’s face it, the Bible is a big, complicated book written thousands of years ago over hundreds of years by people with their own ideas, problems, and interests. It is composed of multiple genres and written in archaic languages. None of the words were written to anyone living in the 21st century in the New World. To suggest that an average, uninformed American could start reading at Genesis 1:1 and gain any sort of cohesive insight into the will of God borders on delusion. That may be a difficult pill to swallow, but the existence of Bible colleges, seminaries, Sunday schools, or even Sunday sermons for that matter, testify to the truth of what I’m saying. Even the Gideons hand out primarily New Testaments rather than the whole enchilada.

Because the Bible is so vast and diverse, it’s message easily falls prey to the whim of those who would use it to legitimize their own wants or their claim to power. For instance, most pastors would readily explain that under Christ we no longer follow the law of Moses, but most churches have retained the practice of tithing. The New Testament does not enjoin tithing on believers in Christ not even once. It does speak of the early disciples collecting money, but those were special circumstances and almost always for the sake of alleviating poverty among their members or supporting fulltime ministers of the gospel. How could people who are trained and commissioned to expound the meaning of the Bible perpetuate such a glaring misinterpretation of it?

I have a hypothesis as to why. Institutions need predictable income to operate. When the church becomes an institution, it gladly trades grace-based generosity for an obligatory ten percent. Now, we just need some Bible verses to get everyone on board. Oh look, it’s Malachi 3:8–12. How convenient!

And then, we have the audacity to call the prosperity gospel a heresy! (Go read the passage in Malachi to see what I mean.)

Church leaders aren’t the only ones to blame; individual Christians have their own agenda as well. We might acknowledge that the New Testament doesn’t command tithing, but then go on to ignore passages which speak of divesting ourselves of material wealth and giving sacrificially to help our spiritual brothers and sisters in times of distress. I wonder whether many Christians haven’t been complicit in the tithing deception just because 10% is cheaper than generosity inspired by the love of Christ.

Tragically, our self-deception doesn’t fool those looking at us from outside of our fishbowl. When we consistently, persistently, and insistently mishandle the very book which we hold up as our standard, we deceive only ourselves and repel our sincere critics. No wonder unbelievers see Christianity as just a way for people to make themselves feel better.

We will discover and demonstrate that it is far more when we stop claiming to obey the Bible.

Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not discounting the Bible. I believe it to be inspired. In John 6, Jesus said that his words are spirit and they are life. The writer of Hebrews famously declared, “For the word of God is alive and active.” These words electrify me, but none of them indicate that we’re supposed to rifle through the Bible for rules on how to live. For all the wonderful things that the Bible says about itself, it tends to take itself far less seriously than we want it to.

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Double Jeopardy

We’re often told that Christians shouldn’t beat themselves up for their sins and yet so many do it. Maybe that’s because the advice has been understated. Maybe we should go one step further to say that Christians mustn’t beat themselves up for their sins.

I’m reading Watchman Nee’s The Normal Christian Life for the umpteenth time. This quote reminded me today why this book is a classic:

What then of our attitude to Satan? This is important, for he accuses us not only before God but in our own conscience also. “You have sinned, and you keep on sinning. You are weak, and God can have nothing more to do with you.” This is his argument. And our temptation is to look within and in self-defense to try to find in ourselves, in our feelings or our behavior, some ground for believing that Satan is wrong. Alternatively we are tempted to admit our helplessness and, going to the other extreme, to yield to depression and despair. Thus, accusation becomes one of the greatest and most effective of Satan’s weapons. He points to our sins and seeks to charge us with them before God; and if we accept his accusations, we go down immediately.

Now the reason why we so readily accept his accusations is that we are still hoping to have some righteousness of our own. The ground of our expectation is wrong. Satan has succeeded in making us look in the wrong direction.

Our salvation lies in looking away to the Lord Jesus and in seeing that the blood of the Lamb has met the whole situation created by our sins and has answered it. That is the sure foundation on which we stand. Never should we try to answer Satan with our good conduct but always with the blood.