Reading the Bible: 3 of 3

Last week we saw that everyone reads the Bible with certain presuppositions, and the impact of our own presuppositions can be minimized if we remember that the best interpreter of Scripture is scripture itself. I shared with you three of my own presuppositions, which I have gleaned from scripture over the past 40 years:

First, I believe the Bible is the divinely inspired record of God’s revelation of God’s Self on the plane of human history. 2nd Pet. 1:21 we read: “…no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” In Scripture, the revelation takes four different forms, all complimentary.

  1. There is a revelation in nature. As the Psalmists says, “The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims His handiwork.”
  2. There is a revelation in history, for God revealed himself in a series of Mighty Acts which God performed on behalf of his people. This revelation includes events like the creation, the call of Abraham, and the Giving of the Law at Sinai. It reaches its hight point in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
  3. There is a revelation directly in the heart of the writer. In the Bible the heart is the center of the mind, emotions and will. In Psalm 139, the Psalmist was responding to the revelation of God’s faithfulness and care when he wrote, “If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost part of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.”
  4. There is a revelation in the heart of the reader. John Calvin said the Bible is never truly inspired until the same spirit that inspired the writers, inspires the reader. When this revelation does not come; it may be our own fault. John Baillie, author of “A Diary of Prayer,” says that it does not come because we have failed to act on that revelation which we have already received.

Second, I believe the Bible teaches that the Revelation of God is progressive, or at least progressively understood. This is true in nature. When David said, “the heavens are telling the Glory of God,” he was speaking of that portion of the heavens he could see with his naked eye; he never did get a peak through the Hubble, nor did he see pictures from the Cassini mission to Saturn. That’s okay, we don’t have to be a physicists to believe in God, though we could be a physicists. The Special Revelation is also progressive. In Deuteronomy 21, Moses pronounced a curse on the man who was hanged on a tree; but Moses could not have foreseen that, in the person of his Son, God would one day take that curse upon himself to save us from our sins. Thus, in John 1:17-18 we read that:

“the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known. ”

Do you want to know about God? Look to Jesus, he is God’s ultimate revelation of himself.

Third, I believe the Bible we have is the Bible God intends us to have, in other words, I trust the text and follow it where it leads. Last week we saw that, in the case of the New Testament alone, we posses more than 1,000 manuscripts and partial manuscripts of the New Testament books. We saw that there are more variations in the manuscripts than there are words in the text of the entire New Testament. Most importantly, we saw that most scholars agree that not one of these variations effects a major doctrine of the Christian faith. Those variations remind us that, though the words are important, the ideas behind the words are even more important. The Great Old Testament theologian, Walter Bruggemann says not it is not the word but the sentence that conveys theological meaning and communicates ideas. Never underestimate the power of an idea. We are vain enough to think that we use ideas; the truth is that ideas use us, for they precede us and (in this world at least) they outlive us.

This morning I want to add a fourth and fifth presupposition which I freely admit colors my reading of scripture.

Fourth, I believe the Bible we have is the Bible God wants us to have in a second way: In other words, I believe in the Canon. The Protestant Canon consist of 39 books in the Old Testament, and 27 books in the New Testament. Protestants reject the 14 intertestamental books of the Apocrypha from inclusion in the canon for the same reason we reject the spurious gospels and epistles; they do not seem to be in harmony with the canonical books. Catholics recognize the 14 books of the Apocrypha as authoritative, and read them for edification and for doctrine. Anglicans read the books of the Apocrypha for edification but not for doctrine. Personally, though I do not read the books of the Apocrypha for edification or for doctrine, like most 21st century students of the Bible, I do read them as a window into 2nd Temple Judaism, for that is the Judaism into which Jesus was born, and as I learn more of it, I learn more of him. (2nd Temple Judaism last from from 516 B.C. and the construction of the 2nd Temple by the Jews following the Babylonian Exile to 70 A.D. and the destruction of the 2nd Temple by the Romans.)

It is my personal belief that the vast majority of the books in our New Testament were certainly written before the end of the first Christian century. Though it is still debated by some, the New Testament canon was first “closed” or “declared complete” by the Synod of Hippo in 393 A.D. The 300 year gap between the writing of the New Testament books, and the closure of the canon reminds us that, just as the Old Testament did not create Israel, but Israel, inspired by God, created the Old Testament; so the New Testament did not create the church, but the church, inspired by God, created the New Testament.

This leads to an important affirmation: By faith, we believe that God not only inspired the writers of the various epistles and gospels, but God also guided the process by which certain books were included and certain books excluded from our canon.

The church laid claim to the authority to do this as early as Matthew 16. Therein, just after Peter confessed him as “the Christ, the son of the Living God,” Jesus said:

17 “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Whatever else we say about reading the Bible, we must say that we read it in the context of the church. “The Ground of the Unity,” also known as “The GOTU,” is the only official doctrinal statement of the Moravian Church. “The GOTU” declares that when we Moravians read and interpret Scripture, we look not just to the wisdom of our Moravian forbearers, but to two thousand years of ecumenical Christian witness. We look all the way back to Matthew, and to Peter, and beyond Peter to Jesus, and we believe that it was the Jesus we worship who gave us the power to bind and loose.

5. I believe that the Bible is the Word of God, written, with this proviso, it must be interpreted in the light of Jesus Christ.

This is what Bishop Sam Gray taught in 2015 when he spoke to us during the Lenten Season about how Moravians read scripture. Surprisingly, this is exactly what the Southern Baptist Convention once taught . I think the Convention made a mistake in 973 when dropped the idea that, for the Bible to be fully the Word of God, it has to be read in light of Jesus Christ.

More importantly, in the New Testament, Jesus himself claimed the right to interpret of scripture. In Matthew 5, Jesus makes a fantastic claim for the Jewish Scripture. He says: “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them.” Jesus then proceeds to raise the bar for for his disciples. Five times he says, “You have heard that it was said, but I say to you…” and in every instance, Jesus makes demands upon those who hear him that go way beyond the Law of Moses.

In his teaching, Jesus himself claimed the right to interpret scripture. So, too, his person and work made an impact on the interpretation of scripture, too. Let me give you two examples of this.

First, in 2nd Corinthians 3, St. Paul says that before an Israelite comes to Christ, when he reads the Law of Moses, a veil lies over his or her mind. He says that, only when an Israelite comes to Christ, is the veil taken away. What does that mean for us? At the very least, it means that when we read the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament we read it differently from the way that the Jews read it, for we read it in light of Jesus Christ. Let me say it loud and proud: We Christians still read and revere the Old Testament, but we read it in light of Jesus Christ.

Second, the law of commandments and ordinances. We know from the books associated with Moses that God used not just “the Ten Commandments,” and the “Moral Law,” but also “the law of commandments in ordinances” to separate Israel from the nations and make her a peculiar people. When Israel refused to eat pork and shrimp, or to wear mixed fabrics, or to perform any work on the Sabbath, she was bearing witness to the nations of the God she knew to be “Immortal, Invisible, God only Wise and Powerful.” The people of the nations could not see God, but the people could see how Israel believed in God. Eventually, this resulted in what some regarded as too much separation. After the Babylonian captivity, the Jews built a second temple in Jerusalem to replace the temple of Solomon that was destroyed before the Exile to Babylon. And in the temple, they built a wall to separate the gentile court from the inner courts of the Jews. And on the wall they placed a sign, “Any Gentile who passes beyond this point is responsible for his own death.” In Ephesians 2:13-16 the apostle writes about that wall, that once separated Gentiles from Jews, and he writes about the Law of Commandments and ordinances that once separated Jews from Gentiles. He said:

13 In Christ Jesus you (Gentiles) who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end.

Did you get that: Jesus tore down the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances. Now God invites Jews and gentiles alike to come together in Jesus Christ. God’s people, the church, no longer needs a special diet or a special look to separate us from the nations. Our worship of the God of the Cross is enough to do this, provided of course, that we are willing to take up a cross of our own to follow him.

I used to laugh at my friends who used the Schofield Reference Bible, but Schofield got at least this much right: Scofield saw that some portions of scripture applied to the Jews, but not to Christians.

And my Jewish friends may say, “Well, Worth, you have handled our scripture handily, but what about your own? Are you willing to put your New Testament to the same test?”

Yes I am for I think we must. There are some texts in our New Testament, that must be read in light of Jesus, too. Take the commandment from Ephesians, “Slaves be obedient to your masters.” It does not unnecessarily disturb most of us; but to some it was heard like the sound of a whip hitting human flesh. Let me illustrate.

In his book, “Jesus and the Disinherited,” Howard Thurman tells about reading the Bible to his grandmother, who had lived in Florida, in the days of slavery. She would always ask him to read from the Psalms, or Isaiah, or the gospels, or, from time to time from 1st Corinthians 13, the Love Chapter; but most of the time she would not allow him to read to her from St. Paul. Finally he asked her why she would not? She said something like this:

In the days of slavery, she said, the master would not permit the slaves a preacher of our own, but from time to time, he would send a white preacher down to preach to the slaves, and that preacher would most often select texts like, “Slaves be obedient to your masters.” I vowed, if ever I attained my freedom, I would listen to Paul no more.

Ouch! Is it possible to free Paul from this taint? I believe that it is. There are many reasons we could advance, but let’s leap to the first, and read this text in the light of Jesus. We know from 1st Thessalonians 4:15 that Paul thought Jesus was coming back in his own lifetime. Thus Paul thought that the time was short, and the form of this world was passing away, so he concerned himself not primarily with freeing slaves from their temporal fate, but with freeing as many as he could from the slavery of sin and death. He made slavery and everything else second to preaching Christ. I would mention just one other. bit of evidence in Paul’s behalf. I would mention Paul’s best thought about slaves and masters, which I believe to be God’s thought, too. It is the last word on the subject period. It cannot be improved upon. In Galatians 3:28 the apostle wrote that there is no Jew, no Greek, no slave, no free, no male and female, but all are one in Christ!

Of course, it is easy for us to look back and see this. It was harder for our ancestors who lived in the American South prior to the Civil War. Many of the preachers of that Era used the New Testament to demonstrate that slavery was good for masters and slaves alike, and their parishioners believed them.

A friend of mine once remarked that Martin Luther King, Jr. was not much of a gospel preacher. He said that King was more like an Old Testament prophet. I said, “Yes, and what choice did he have? Like abolitionist of the Civil War Period, to find a theme for the Civil Rights movement, Dr. King was forced to go to the story of creation, wherein all men (we will leave that alone for now) are created in the image of God, and to the story of the Exodus, wherein God sides with the Hebrew slaves against their Egyptian Masters.

I have told you before, how, just hours before his death, Dr. King said:“I seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I have climbed the mountain, and I have seen the Promised Land, and you will get there.”

I will say it again, I believe the Bible is the Word of God, but with this proviso, it must be read in light of Jesus Christ. If that disturbs you, then that is o.k., the Bible is doing its work, and I am doing mine. As Reinhold Niebuhr or53n said, “We come to church to be disturbed by the Word of God.” I f the Word of God does not disturb us, it may be that we are taking it for granted.

Finis

Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.

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