If we’re honest, the Bible can be difficult to read. It’s full of strange names, places, and rules. And, parts of it just seem strange. Why did Ruth lay at Boaz’s feet? Why did Jacob not recognize Leah during their wedding? What do we do with all of the polygamy and holy war? How do we interpret the miracles that happened when we rarely, if ever, see those miracles in our everyday lives?
This means that in the modern world, the Bible can be more of an obstacle to faith than an aid to faith. We sometimes find ourselves in a posture that places us as the judge and puts the Bible on trial. We often read it analytically, trying to interpret it, make it fit into our worldview. We treat the Scriptures as a buffet, piling our plates high with what we like and leaving the rest.
Perhaps you have noticed how the Scriptures have been used for ideological purposes recently. When those in power make decisions with which we agree, we point to Romans 13- honor those in authority because God placed them there! When those in power make decisions with which we disagree, we go to the book of Acts where the apostles proclaim that it’s better to obey God than man.
All of this represents us being in control. We decide how we want to interpret Scripture based on our own preconceived notions and worldview. The text is used to serve us and our desires. We want to master the Bible instead of letting the Bible master us. However, a disciple of Jesus must learn to approach the text from a different perspective. We don’t allow our race, our experiences, our biases, or our cultural settings control our understanding of the Bible; instead, we allow our understanding of the Bible explain our experiences and our culture. In other words, don’t interpret the Bible through the lens of your culture; interpret your culture through the lens of the Bible.
Much of the conversation about discipleship and the Bible focuses on methods, techniques, and apologetic proofs of the Scripture’s reliability. At DLI however, we teach that the Christian’s relationship with the Bible far surpasses analytical tools. All of those things have their place, but the Bible was given by God to transform rather than inform. When we look at Jesus, we see that He had a vibrant relationship with the Scriptures. He did not view it as a repository of information that needed to be decoded and analyzed. He viewed it as a source of life.
Jesus was a rabbi, a teacher. He interpreted the Bible, taught the Bible, and argued passionately against others’ interpretations of the Bible. Jesus teaches us about the priority of Scripture and how He teaches it in Matthew 5:17-20.
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
The Law and the Prophets represent the entirety of the Hebrew Bible, also known as the Old Testament. The word “abolish” has the idea of “deconstruct” or to “tear down.” Jesus’ radical message and claim to be the Messiah opened Him up to the criticism that He was abolishing what had been taught by the Old Testament. Today, many people wish to “deconstruct” Scripture, by removing the offensive parts, keeping the parts they like, and editing some others in order to rebuild a Bible to their liking. However, a god who never says no to you is no god at all.
Jesus did not endorse the current trend of deconstruction. Instead, He supported a “re-construction,” by building upon the foundation which already existed. He did not simply come to “obey” or “uphold’’ what had been written about Him. Rather, He saw Himself as the fulfillment. All of the Old Testament was leading up to Him. The Gospels tell the story of His life, death, and resurrection. The rest of the New Testament tells about the Church that He left behind and for which He is returning. Jesus is the interpretative key to all of Scripture.
In this text, there are a couple of noteworthy wordplays. The word translated “relaxes” is from the same root as “abolish.” Jesus did not come to abolish the Scriptures, so the one who attempts to deconstruct the Scriptures for his or her own agenda will be considered least in the Kingdom of Heaven. If Jesus didn’t feel free to deconstruct the Bible, who are we to try? Those who deconstruct the “least” of the commandments will be considered “least” in the kingdom of Heaven.
Jesus’ dialogue throughout the rest of the Sermon on the Mount will indicate that the end goal is not just right interpretation but right practice. He says that righteousness must EXCEED the righteousness of Pharisees. He shows this thought in the rest of the sermon. He goes through the Old Testament text and models how to correctly interpret and practice the Scriptures. He looks at murder, adultery, divorce, taking oaths, and the like, and interprets them in a fairly stringent manner. His big idea is that the Scriptures are designed to deconstruct us, our anger, our lust, and our lack of truth-telling and commitment-keeping. In other words, don’t abolish the Scriptures; abolish your sin.
This approach to the Scriptures challenges our modern worldview and perspectives. We live in a culture divided into left and right. This not only involves politics, but also theology. Jesus challenges the assumptions of both conservatives and progressives. This is not a new problem. There was a parallel in Jesus’ days. The Sadducees were “liberal.” They only accepted the Torah, but reinterpreted the challenging parts. They did not believe in the supernatural, angels, demons, or the resurrection of the dead. They often argued that the Torah was philosophically aligned with Greco-Roman worldview and compatible with Greco-Roman version of the “good life.”
On the other hand, we have the Pharisees who were “conservative.” They believed in all of God’s revelation but often went beyond what was clearly taught and added their own rules. They used the Scriptures as a weapon to best their opponents and to prop up their power. Throughout the course of Jesus’ ministry, He has ample opportunity to address the dangers of both sides.
Jesus addresses the “liberal” Sadducees in Mark 12:18-24.
18 Then the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question. 19 “Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. 20 Now there were seven brothers. The first one married and died without leaving any children. 21 The second one married the widow, but he also died, leaving no child. It was the same with the third. 22 In fact, none of the seven left any children. Last of all, the woman died too. 23 At the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?” 24 Jesus replied, “Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God?”
You can hear their mocking tone. You don’t really believe this nonsense, do you Jesus? They found the “gotcha” passage. They thought that they had Him. They found one place in Scripture that surely no reasonable person could defend. But, Jesus changed the game. He did not address their concerns, but raised one of His own. He reminded them that the “error” was not in the Scripture but in their interpretation of the Scripture. The problem wasn’t in the Bible; the problem was in them. Whenever I see something that I don’t like in Scripture, I must constantly remind myself that the problem lies in me, not in the Bible.
Jesus also had a message for the religious conservatives of His day. In John 8, He addresses the Pharisees.
John 8:39-42- 39 You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me to have life. 41 “I do not accept glory from human beings, 42 but I know you. I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts.
The Pharisees had elevated literal interpretation of Scriptures above Jesus and the love of God. Jesus reminded them that it’s possible to get so passionate about being right that you miss the entire point of what the Bible is all about- Jesus.
So if the “left” way is wrong and the “right” way is wrong, what is the right way to read it? Paul points us in the proper direction in his letter to Timothy:
2 Timothy 3:14-17- 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
We are to read the Scriptures in a way that they teach us, rebuke us, correct us, and train us. The proper approach is to allow the Scripture to control us, and not us control the Scripture. Paul reminds us that the Scriptures “train” us in righteousness. This word “train” involves both education and correction. A schoolmaster charged with training his pupils in the first century was expected to provide both content and discipline in the formation of a student.
Since we live in the information age, it is easy to forget that the Bible is not just another piece of content. We may plow through books, websites, and podcasts, thus curating a broad range of knowledge on any given number of topics. But, the Scriptures defy such a process. The Bible isn’t to be mastered; it’s to master us. So, we must learn to read slowly, to sit in the text, to let it change us and challenge us, to move at its pace. Reading the Bible requires more than finding the right technique. It demands the right posture.
*this article was originally published in Destiny Magazine 2021 Summer Edition