Most Christians have an emotional attachment to the Bible that goes beyond our understanding of the Bible. When I was in seminary, my professor, the late Dr. Robert Lyon, told how he was asked to speak in a United Church of Canada. When he flew up, he forgot his English New Testament, but he had his Greek New Testament with him. Therefore, when he stood to preach, he made an on the spot translation of the Greek into the English. As he was still reading, an elder of the church stood up, and noisily stormed out of the sanctuary, allowing the door to slam shut behind him. After the service, another elder of the church told Bob that the man had stormed out because he would only accept the Bible being read in the King James Version.
Bob told our class that story more than forty years ago; but people like his protagonists are still around. Not long ago I saw a bumper sticker which read:“The Bible is the Word of God, and there is only one Bible, the King James.”
If this is true then God had nothing to say to us for almost 1600 years. Ha! We may chuckle at this, but the truth is that everyone reads the Bible with certain presuppositions. The impact of our own presuppositions can be minimized if we glean our presuppositions from the Scripture itself, for the best interpreter of Scripture is Scripture. For the next several weeks, I want to tell you what I have learned from the Bible itself about how to read and interpret Bible. This morning I would offer three key points:
1. I believe that the Bible is the Divinely inspired record of God’s revelation of God’s self on the plane of human history. In 2nd Timothy 3:16-17 the apostle writes:
16 All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. 2nd Timothy 3:16-17
Please note that this revelation of the Bible is not a scientific revelation, but a moral revelation. God gave us the Bible that we might know what God requires of us. The text says that the Bible is “…profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”
In the Bible, God’s revelation of himself takes four forms.
First, the Bible says there is a general revelation in nature. Psalm 19 declares:
The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their line goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.
God speaks in nature, whether in the stars which declare his order, or in human beings which were intended to show his glory. Thus, in Romans 1, St. Paul bases his theology of sex upon the visible make-up of the human body, male and female. And in Romans 7, St. Paul explains the power of sin, by calling attention to the Law that he sees at work in his own members, a law that is contrary to the Law of God which he affirms with his mind. He says, “The good that I would I do not; and that which I would not, is the very thing I do.” Ouch!
From all this we deduce that the truly Spirit directed man or woman sees God’s handiwork everywhere, and learns from his or her environment, whether from the world of nature, or the world of human beings. Thus Jesus told his disciples to consider the flowers of the field and the birds of the air. And John said of Jesus that, “No man had to tell him what was in man, for he knew what was in man.” Jesus knew what was in man, for he was one of us, and lived among us.
Second, the Bible says that God revealed himself in several in a series of mighty acts that begin with the Creation, and continue through the call of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and far beyond.You can’t get at this revelation through a telescope or a microscope. You can find it only in the scripture. The Ten plagues that God visited upon Egypt is a part of the Special Revelation, and so is the miracle that God worked at the Red Sea whereby God caused the a strong east wind to blow all night, so that the waters of the sea stood in a heap, and the Hebrew children passed over the sea as on the dry ground, and then, when the Egyptians tried to follow, the waters rushed back in, destroying their Army. The Special Revelation reached a high-point (Pun intended!) when God gave the Law through his servant Moses at Mt. Sinai. The Special Revelation reached its absolutely apex in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Thus, in Galatians 3:24 St. Paul says that the Law was “…a schoolmaster to lead us to Christ.” And in Romans 10:24 he says that “Christ is the ‘telos,’ (meaning the ‘end,’ or the ‘goal’) of the Law, so that everyone who has faith in him may be justified.” Remember, when I am justified, despite all the evidence against me, it is “just-as-if-I’ed never sinned!” When you are justified, despite all the evidence against you, you are pronounced not guilty!
Third, the Bible teaches that the Revelation of God often takes place in the human heart, which is the center of the mind, emotions, and will. The Psalmist we know as King David was inspired by the Holy Spirit at work in his heart and life when he wrote, “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.” And the prophet Malachi was inspired by the Holy Spirit at work in his heart and life when he told Israel to quit robbing God, saying:
Bring the full tithes into the storehouse…and…thereby put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing. (Malachi 3:7-9)
A lot of people tell me that they take the Bible literally. I always counter, “Yes, but do you take it seriously. If so, you must be tithing.”
Fourth, the Bible teaches that God continues to reveal himself in the human heart. The great reformer John Calvin said, the Bible is truly inspired when “…the same Spirit that inspired the writer, inspires the reader.” If I might borrow a phrase from Winston Churchill, apart from this personal revelation of the Spirit in our hearts, the Bible remains “…a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
2. I believe that God’s revelation, whether in nature or in scripture, is progressive, or, at least progressively understood.
This certainly true of the revelation in nature. One night King David looked up and saw thousands of stars filling the night sky, and wrote: “3 When I look at the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have established; what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? ” David felt how small he was, and he contrasted his smallness with God’s magnificence. Now, imagine what King David would have felt had he looked at the heavens through the Hubble telescope! When looking with his naked eye, he would have seen thousands of stars. Looking through the Hubble, he could have seen millions and billions of stars. Remember, too, that David thought that the stars were just points of light. He did not know that each of the stars were like our sun, though some are larger, some smaller. And remember that David thought that the sun was smaller than the earth. He could never have imagined that it would take 1.3 million earths to fill our sun, or that each of the stars that sprinkled the night sky had a solar system of its own. Had David known all this, he could not have borne the weight of God’s glory.
Likewise, the Special Revelation is progressive. Moses knew more about the Law than we will ever know; but, in the days of his flesh, Moses did not know that the story of Jesus and his love would become the fulfillment of the Law. In Deuteronomy 21 Moses pronounced a curse upon him to hangs upon a tree, but Moses could not have foreseen that God, in the person of his son, would one day bear the curse to save us from our sins. Likewise, according to 1st Peter chapter 1, when predicting the sufferings of Christ and his subsequent glory, it was revealed to the prophets that they were serving not themselves, but the generation of those who would be privileged to believe the Good News about the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thank-God, we belong to the generation that has heard the gospel, for, according to 1st Peter, we know things about what God has done in Jesus, into which angels once longed to look.
Revelation, both natural and special, is progressive, or, at least, progressively understood. This means that a text from Moses often means more to the Christian than it did to the Jew. That is why we ask two questions of every text: 1) What did the original writer intend to say to the original reader? And 2) What does God now say to me? We may seek the answer to the 2nd question, and be richer for answering it; but we will not attain to the full inheritance that Scripture has for us, until we have learned to answer that first question, too. Just as importantly, it may even change how we answer the 2nd question.
3. I believe the Bible we have is the Bible God wants us to have: In other words, I trust the text and follow it where it leads.
I say this knowing, that, in the case of the New Testament alone we possess more than a thousand manuscripts of various books and parts of books, and that there are more variations in these manuscripts than there are words in the entire text of the New Testament. That is okay. We have seen in a previous sermon in this series that the leading New Testament textual authority of the last 100 years, my teacher Bruce Metzger, said that not one of these thousands of textual variations effects even one important doctrine of the Christian faith. This whole scenario tells us something. It tells us that, though the words are important, the ideas behind the words are even more important. If the words were more important than the ideas, we would still read the Old Testament in Hebrew, and the New Testament in Greek, for we would be fearful of making a translation. As it is we have translated the Bible into hundreds of languages, and we have made dozens of translations into the English language alone.
Now it goes with out saying that some individual words are “key-words,” for they are tremendously important beyond the average word. These words often evoke pictures that portray stories. Consider the word “justified,” which we have already used. For those who know it, it evokes an image of a defendant standing before a judge in a court of law, with the prosecutor on one side of him, and the defense attorney on the other. The defendant is smiling, for he has just heard the judge pronounce his sentence: “Not guilty!” “Justified.” Or consider the word “redeemed.” It evokes an image of a slave, who still bears the scars of his servitude, standing on the auction block. This slave is smiling, too, because he has just been purchased by a benevolent new master who has promised to set him free.
Almost any word can be filled with meaning, but only as a part of a sentence. Consider the preposition “for.” I could stand up here all day long and say, “For, for, for, for, for, for,” and your life would be no richer for it. Yet, when I place the preposition “for” in a sentence, and say, as Paul did say, that “Jesus died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,” that little preposition becomes pregnant with meaning. We see in it an echo of the entire Old Testament sacrificial system. Just as a long dead Israelite priest once offered up a lamb without spot or wrinkle or blemish to atone for the sins of a long dead Israelite sinner, so Jesus died for our sins, once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to make atonement, or “at-one-ment” between us and God. No wonder St. John could say that Jesus is “the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” And no wonder the Old Testament theologian Walter Bruggemann says that, in the Scripture, it is the sentence, and not the individual words, that serves as the primary vehicle of meaning. I will say it again: I believe that the Bible we have is the Bible God wishes us to have. I trust the text and follow it where it leads.
Some years ago I had a friend come to me with an unusual request. His wife was dying of a terrible cancer, and he was concerned for her future. He asked me if I really believed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and if I believe his resurrection was a sign that we too would survive death and live in his eternal kingdom. I told him that I did, and I shared with him several relevant scripture. I shared with him 1st Corinthians 15, the resurrection chapter. And I shared with him from 2nd Corinthians 4 and 5 wherein St. Paul says that if this earthly tent we dwell in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands eternal in the heavens.
Then I said, “I know that you grew up in the Moravian Church, then you left us for a pentecostal church, so why didn’t you put these questions to your pastor?”
He said, “Oh, I could have done that, but I know what he would have said, for he has to answer in a certain way; but you are a Moravian, and I knew I could trust you to tell me what you really think.”
Now I do not think there is that big a contrast between me and the average pentecostal pastor. I have nothing but the highest respect for them, and I think he was paying me, at best, a back-handed compliment; but I know what he was getting at. He knows that we Moravians do not build a fence around scripture to protect it from the hard questions of life. We trust it, and follow it where it leads in the sure confidence that it will always lead us to Jesus Christ.
Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.