Jesus and The Bible
Jesus comes closest to agreeing with the Pharisees when it comes to His view of Holy Writ. To Jesus the Scriptures were absolutely sacred, lasting and eternal, and of paramount authority. Jesus was no textual critic taking a bit from here as merely human and a bit from there as authentically divine. There was no question for Him that the Bible was true from start to finish along with all its evident supernaturalism.
And this was not just Jesus being "a man of his time" with outmoded views imposed upon Him by his culture. For a start Jesus did not let the culture of the day impose their views on him in any other matter, let alone one as important as this; secondly the range of views on Scripture then was as broad then as it is today. The viewpoints abroad in Jesus day included everything that is common today. There was extreme mysticism and allegorism, skepticism about miracles and the supernatural, strict literalism, superstitious veneration of prophets tombs, codified morality, people seeking signs and wonders, others retreating to the deserts to save their souls.
Numerical systems abounded, Messianic triumphalism was common, Platonic idealism occupied the minds of those favorable to Greece and Rome. Philosophies and interpretative schemata from political to allegorical found adherents in first-century Palestine. Jesus could have chosen to champion one or all of them . He certainly refuted many of them. The Sadduccean view that there were no angels, demons, or after-life was characterized by Jesus as "sadly mistaken". Messianic triumphalism was refuted by His poverty, His suffering and His death on the cross. Mystical and fanciful interpretations were scuttled by Jesus' straightforward approach. Jesus took Scripture seriously and fairly literally - every word therein was Truth.
Yet Jesus transcended the literalism of the Pharisees by putting the interpretation of Scripture on the basis of spiritual and moral insight not on the scholastic ability to add, subtract and compare texts. Scholarly study has its place but, as is commonly experienced, it can be dry and very unsatisfying spiritually if it is not enlivened by appropriate spiritual insight.
My original theological
training was in fundamentalism and there the Bible is held in high esteem
and texts are treated with respect - but largely without spiritual or
humanitarian insight. No fundamentalist could have come up with the insight
that the Sabbath was made for man - not man for the Sabbath. Fundamentalism
sees man as being made for the Scriptures and what they command. Fundamentalism
often lacks the mercy of Jesus and a true love of people. It lacks the
basic spiritual insight that could bring it to life - yet I am very glad
of the knowledge of Scripture it has given me and which has enabled me
to write this book.
Liberalism on the other hand is even more of a catastrophe. It denies the basic building blocks of Christian faith - even the hope of the resurrection. In its effort to communicate with unbelievers it has lost its faith. I believe if Jesus was to "have His say" He would call us back to the simple, experimental faith of St. Francis of Assissi where the call is to live out the gospels as if they were true - and of course they are.
Here we come to two essential statements about Jesus and the Bible. First - Jesus believed every word of the Bible was true. Secondly - Jesus put the Bible into practice assuming that it was true. I have signed many statements saying that I believe in the Bible - in fact I signed one last week. But I must honestly ask - do I really and truly believe it? Will I take the risks that come from putting the scary dangerous bits into practice? How many times have I sold a possession to give to the poor? How much do I really believe in God healing people? Can I really be meek and humble when people in bureaucracies treat me like dirt? Can I leave my rights behind some days? To be gladly obedient to God when there is very little earthly advantage in doing so is my challenge. Yet Jesus took hold of the Bible and said "This is worth obeying - right down to the last jot and tittle" and He obeyed it - right down to the last jot and tittle.
But what was the
nature of that obedience? It was the obedience of someone who was fully
human but not corrupt. He did not cheat. He did not use more of the indwelling
power of God than any human being is fairly entitled to. As I explained
earlier we were all meant to be God-indwelt images of God. He was human
but He was in no way corrupt. He did not bend commandments to get around
them or create excuses for sin. He lived in the bare light of God's love
and holiness. It was a full obedience - obedience in spirit and truth
as well as outwardly in form. It was a natural obedience not a bug-eyed
striving of a tormented soul, it was a natural outflow of an obedient
inner being not a terrible attempt to conform to expectations. It was
a wise obedience that knew obeying the law in one situation may not be
the same as obeying it in another. It was an obedience governed by a spectacular
level of spiritual insight.
The law for Jesus and the Bible for Jesus were absolute governing determinates of His life. He saw Himself in them - and indeed He is there. When we come to living by the Sermon on the Mount our guiding principle should be - how did Jesus live by the light he had and how then should we live in the light of this sermon?
Our obedience must then be an obedience without evasion. We must try to actually live out the calling to blessedness set before us. Every jot and tittle of the Sermon on the Mount is important and authoritative to you and I. Underlying our obedience must be mercy, discretion, love of others and a growing spiritual insight. I have said a fair bit about this earlier and so I will leave it here - but it is a lesson worth repeating that the sermon needs a certain cohesive underlying spiritual insight before it can be properly and graciously applied and lived today.
When Jesus approached Scripture there was no question in His mind that it was true. The question seemed to be how it was to be lived and understood and what everlasting principles were revealed. He distinguished between weightier matters - such as justice, and lesser matters such as tithing. But even the lesser matters were not to be neglected. His only agenda seemed to be joyous obedience to God. What do I mean by this? In the encounters Jesus had with other people they all seemed to have a private agenda which distorted the way they viewed Scripture.
The Pharisees seemed to ask "How can I justify myself before God?" then there were others who had nationalistic political agendas and asked about the Messiah "When will he restore the kingdom to Israel?" and those such as the lawyers and Saduccees who had self-centered social ambitions and could not tolerate Jesus' answer to the question "Who is my neighbor?". Then as now people wanted Him to interpret Scripture in a way that would validate their lifestyle of choice. On the other hand when Jesus came to the Scriptures He seems only to have asked "How can I glorify my Father who is in Heaven?". He saw God in Scripture, in nature and in the events of the world around Him. He reveled in what was revealed and Scripture glowed for Him as he sought God's glory in obeying it, living it, being it, and of course imparting it. Joyous obedience to God out of simple-hearted love of the glorious Father drove Jesus into the Scriptures and opened the book to Him.
Interpretation involves renunciation. Jesus renounced reputation, possessions, political power and even life itself in order to live out Scripture in a hostile world. To see Scripture clearly means letting go of those things that blind us. I remember when I was a new Christian I tried to go out with a girl who was not a Christian. There were certain sections of Scripture I crept around and just plain refused to read. I would not read them because I knew they would tell me I was wrong and I wanted the girl more than I wanted to obey God in that area. I had to sort that out before I could get back on track spiritually.
There are many things we may have to simplify or even renounce totally if we are to see Scripture as Jesus saw it. I doubt we can be materialistic and read the gospels with much comfort. I doubt we can hold grudges and join church factions and then survive the epistles. Or we may have to renounce some of our far too busy schedules and make time to fast and pray. While the concepts of Scripture can be of vast delight the real joy comes from radical obedience and realizing that God is there and with you and loving you as you attempt to put it all together and into practice. That radical obedience costs but it makes things clear. That is what I mean by interpretation involves renunciation - you cannot have armchair Christianity and truly know God. You must get out there and do it.
Here is a simple suggestion for putting into practice the Jesus view of Scripture - start with one commandment that really scares you. For you it may being merciful - go and be merciful to someone you hate, who annoys you, who you would like to judge all the way to Hades and back again. Or it may be God calling you to come out of your cultural boundaries and love people from other nations and backgrounds - even other denominations! You may be called to help the poor. Take something - just one thing, that scares you witless and do it for Jesus just because you love Him and want to obey Him. Then do it again and again. Joy will fill your soul and God's word will come clearer and you will see God's love for those people all through Scripture. Christianity will become an adventure not an obligation - and so it should be.
Jesus never taught His followers how to interpret Scripture - only how to live it out. Jesus did not produce scribes, He produced disciples. I am not suggesting that we abolish all the courses on hermeneutics (the art and science of interpreting Scripture) taught in Bible colleges and Universities rather I am suggesting that we average Christians need to get our focus fixed on living right lives rather than arriving at correct conclusions. Correct conclusions are well and good and incorrect conclusions can be damnably dangerous however we quickly reach a point when we are doing little more than engaging in warfare over how many angels can fit on the head of a pin and disobeying the Pauline injunction not to engage in disputes over words. In the contest for our interpretation we divide the body of Christ, cause factions and set up disputes all "in the name of Christ". When we indulge in that we fail to live out the gospel. We live like scribes not like disciples.
What I am suggesting
is not new, there have always been proponents of a practical obedience.
What I am asking of you, especially if you are a pastor, is that you stop
nit-picking and start living. Take up the challenge of actually doing
what the gospels say. Be a disciple and in doing so you will not only
save yourself but will inspire others to seek salvation as well. The to's
and fro's of this and that interpretation were the stuff of the scribes
and Pharisees and consumed their energies and defined their social relationships.
For Jesus this was not so.
I am sure that He cared that Scripture was interpreted rightly - He takes great pains to disembowel the wrong interpretations of His day in the Sermon on the Mount, but for all this it was not His preoccupation. Jesus did not define His piety in terms of "for" and "against" this or that interpretation. For Jesus piety was not arrived at through discussion but through action. Jesus and His disciples lived - they were not a committee or a forum, they were not an itinerant band of speculative Jewish philosophers, they were a group of people committed to living for the Creator and to serving the Most High God. So must we be.
Jesus appears to have done us all a great disservice in leaving behind no writings and no teachings that give us a neat and tidy infallible system of biblical interpretation. If correct biblical interpretation is necessary for holiness and if faith cannot proceed except on the basis of right exegesis then He should have told us how to do the job with less confusion than we currently have. These assumptions assume Christianity is an exercise of the intellect first of all, then the will and last of all the emotions. The spirit is relegated to being a source of data for the intellect which is placed in supreme position of guidance for the Christian. Such a position is sadly mistaken.
If we take that position then we go ever backwards trying to find absolutely reliable data - back to original languages, textual and form criticism, redaction criticism and parallels from ancient languages and we end up ultimately asking "How do I know what I know - in fact do I know anything at all? Can I prove that the Bible is true and if I cannot prove it how can I know God exists and if I can't then......" We get lost in a quagmire of doubt and some even lose their faith in the process. It just doesn't work that way. Faith does not depend on confirmation by ancient manuscripts.
Faith lives off life and the confirming witness of the Holy Spirit. When i was converted I came to believe the Bible was true, my spirit found nourishment in its words and my initial doubts were eventually swept aside. Years later new aspersions were cast against Scripture and I began to ask questions again but the "proofs of Scripture" I discovered were appreciated by me because I already deep down believed in the truth of Scripture because of the testimony of the Holy Spirit. First came the Spirit, second came the "proofs". This is how it is with most people. We believe the Bible not because it is demonstrated to be true by some historian but because of its impact on our lives and the testimony of the Holy Spirit convincing us inwardly that it is true. The historical proofs come later. The intellect comes last, the spirit comes first.
Jesus did not teach us how to interpret Scripture because he was to send the Holy Spirit into our hearts to write His laws there and to create a prophetic community which glorified God together. The Holy Spirit imparts to us the few dozen truths we need to know to be fully Christian, in fact He imparts all truth (1 John 2:20,27). We do not need to make Christianity more complicated than the Holy Spirit makes it. You do not need to know Greek in order to be godly. If we simply paid disciplined attention, disciple-like attention, to the basic doctrines of the faith and to loving the Lord our God with all our heart and mind and strength and our neighbor as ourselves then we would be quickly on the path to saintliness.
This path to saintliness seems to be the center of Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. Of all the Old Testament He could have chosen from in this call to blessedness He selects those things that lead to saintliness most quickly. He does not present a systematic theology of God's dealings with Israel or a lecture on the proper interpretation of prophecy - as important as these things may be. He gets to the common core - about what it really means to be God's person and to live in joyful and holy obedience. Jesus seems to see the Bible as a guide to saintliness , as the light-filled book of the Kingdom. To Him the Bible is not burdensome and not to be so interpreted as to become a burden.
It is the opposite, it is the razor that cuts us free from the entanglements of life and into the glorious freedom of the humble and the poor in spirit. It cuts away pretention and the crushing burden of having to maintain a facade of righteousness. It demolishes the thousands of regulations imposed by men in order to prop up their own respectability. The Bible of the saint is a book that is loved not feared, it is a book that frees not burdens, it is a book that strengthens the heart in the love of God and promises joy at the end of the pathway of suffering. The Bible for Jesus floated on the Spirit - its author and interpreter.
There is a view abroad today that Scripture is there as a set of proof texts to increase our faith, that "the promises of God" are what we are to hold to and that the proper result of Bible study is a miracle-working faith. This is not Jesus' view of Scripture at all. Jesus aims at producing responsible, godly and love-filled disciples. Miracles are secondary. Love, not faith, is the goal of the teaching of Jesus.
Faith is good and miracles are marvelous but there is a greater good that Jesus calls us to and that is the good of a noble, faithful and loving character. It is who we are in our inner being that is His preoccupation, not the results of our prayers. Paul, echoing these sentiments says that even if we have faith to move mountains but do not have love - then we are nothing. While the call to blessedness may include a call to work miracles or to great faith that is not the end or goal of the matter. True Truth leads us to Christ and to Christ-likeness as the goal of our Christianity.
If the goal of Bible study is saintliness then what is the Bible and how does it change us? Jesus answers that the Bible is the Word of God and that we are changed to the extent that we prepare ourselves for and train ourselves in godliness. In His parable of the sower He explains that the seed of saintliness is the Word of God - both spoken and written it seems. He then goes on to describe the outcomes of this same seed falling on hearts with differing degrees of softening and differing degrees of attention to the things of God. The Word of God is not magical. It cannot convert the totally hard-hearted. It does bear great fruit though in those who are "good soil" - who are receptive to the Word and who deal with the distractions of this life, in them it has a power of its own to bear fruit , thirty, sixty even a hundred-fold over.
The Bible for Jesus had life and had the power to be life-giving to those who would receive it with a good and faithful heart. In all His kingdom parables the Kingdom is portrayed as having a particularly vigorous energy about it. It is the quickly growing mustard seed, the leaven in the loaf, the salt of the earth, it is light, it overcomes the world. The kingdom of God is full of vitality. It is exploding with life and part of this life is the Word of God which is portrayed as "living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword..". The Bible is not a dead book but a living force-to-be-reckoned-with ! For Jesus the Scriptures were not something you studied, dissected and killed but something that lived in you and animated your whole being. Yet he did study Scripture, let me not discourage you from that! Study it as much as you can, but do not kill and dissect it - let it live within you with power and surrender to all the changes it brings.
I see in many a gradual loss of enthusiasm for the Scriptures. At first there is a tremendous zeal and much learning. Then in the midst of all the learning the Holy Spirit prompts them to some difficult personal change and they push it away with a gentle "Not now...". Gradually the years slip by, too many "Not nows" accumulate and the Spirit's voice seems dull and Scripture rather boring. The zest has gone and they do not quite know why. Perhaps you are in this category. I know about it because I have been there too. There is a way back to refreshing times and that is simply to say "Yes, Lord". Vow to yourself that you will simply do all that God tells you to. Do it to the best of your ability and if you fail, try again. Turn "Not now" into "Yes Sir". Take the time to bother with obedience. I know that sounds harsh to you. When I say that you must bother with obedience it is because I know that many days it will be an effort and that on many days it will seem an effort that is not worth the making. But you do love Jesus and you will try won't you?
This clear path to saintliness through the enlivening power of specific Scriptures applied and obeyed in the heart of a receptive and diligent believer is what the Scriptures were meant for. The Scriptures were never meant to be the happy hunting ground for historians, linguists or even theologians. The Scriptures are meant for the saints. I hope you understand that ordinary people like you and I can be saints too, that you don't have to dead and buried to radiate the love of God in your corner of the world. Anyway Jesus got it right (are you surprised) and He used the Scriptures the way they were meant to be used. Not as weapons to divide people in ecclesiastical bunfights but as pointers to the Truth and to the saintly life. Not as proof texts for some marvelous system of thought. Not as flag-waving rhetoric to rally people (as one US politician tried to do recently - and failed). Not as a way of feeling better than others. But as the lights that lit the path to Heaven, as the life-giving power behind true godliness, as the razor of truth that sets people free from the greed and materialism and foolish vanity that ensnares them for so long and in such great fear.
This chapter is only an introduction to the ways Jesus used the Scriptures in love. But I think it has begun painting a picture for you that you can think about and take away with you. Remember the Scriptures are for the saints. Remember how Jesus used them to free people. How He used them in all purity of heart and motive. How He obeyed them and rejoiced in them. Remember their living power to change us. Remember how seriously He took them. With them He rebuked the strong who were using their strength unjustly and encouraged the weak who felt crushed by even the most basic duties of life. With them He changed the world and produced disciples - not scribes. I want you to use the Scriptures well. I want you to continue to look at how Jesus used the Scriptures and to follow His very wise and spiritual example. The Scriptures are not cannon fodder for your personal war or ammunition for rebuking your enemy. They are not cudgels for defending the faith. They are there to grow saints for God and to proclaim His truth in your life. You will most help the Scriptures by a life of joyous obedience. No-one wants an argumentative person, but everyone loves a saint.
This article may be freely reproduced for non-profit ministry purposes but may not be sold in any way. For permission to use articles in your ministry, e-mail the editor, John Edmiston at firstname.lastname@example.org.