Michael Spencer messed with my mind in many ways, but the most lasting was how he taught me to view Scripture. This essay is one of several he wrote that made me look at the Bible in an entirely different way. I hope you find it challenging and provoking as well. JD
A Pentecostal evangelist visited our chapel this week, and as I listened to his uh….sermon, I reviewed in my mind some of the things that I have come to believe about the Bible and how those things now influence my faith. So I don’t know if this will impress you, but I am going to start with a critique of how we read the Bible, then I am going to compare that to my own approach to the Gospel of Mark, and then I will draw some conclusions about how the Bible presents its message to us. It sounds confusing, but I think it will be helpful.
What will I have when this essay is all done? Hopefully, a way for you to see how the Bible and the Christian life flow together, and what exactly we take away from the Bible for our lives now. Listening to the way the Bible is used to present the truth about God, you will discover a lot about the presuppositions of anyone who calls himself a Christian. So let’s go exploring, and I hope you are open to thinking and reconsidering how you read, teach, preach and use the Bible.
Increasingly, my great passion is for the Bible to have its way in the Christian church. As I grow older, I have less confidence in Christians, but I have an increasing confidence in the Bible as an inspired text, and as a genuine message from the Creator to His creatures. While I do not subscribe to the language of inerrancy, I believe the Bible is true in the greatest sense of truth: that its various ways of speaking, through different authors and various genres, all amount to the presentation of a true Word in an increasingly relativizing world.
My passion is especially piqued when I hear the Bible used by contemporary preachers. In their confidence that the Bible is God’s inspired Word, many have yielded to ways of using the Bible that are deficient, even destructive of the Bible’s true message, power and glory. I want to suggest how we might approach the Bible in a sensible and rational manner that allows the book to speak its truth most clearly and deeply into our lives.
I want to begin with a question: “What is the best way to encounter the message God has for us in the Bible?”
My answer will be “In understanding the overall message of the books that mostly clearly describe the person and significance of Jesus Christ.”
That’s not the normal answer, but it is an important answer. The normal answer is something like this: “The best way to encounter the truth about God in the Bible is through experiencing and believing the content of individual verses.” Now why do I say this is the “normal” answer? Because the vast majority of Bible based Christianity recommends approaching the Bible as an inspired book, but they also teach that our personal encounter with God happens in discovering verses that “speak” to us personally. These may be promises or invitations or statements about truth. Of course, these verses occur in passages, chapters and books, but it is the verses that have the preeminence among evangelical Christians.
(I realize that some of the following critique applies to the misuse of passages and not just verses, particularly miracle stories and narratives, but most of the mischief will eventually prove to be taking a verse and abusing it. I’ll trust my readers to get the point, and apply it where needed.)
My spiritual mentor, John Piper, preaches verse by verse, often dwelling on the phraseology and grammar of a particular verse. He recommends diagramming verses. In his devotional work, he frequently talks about starting the day reading the Bible until you find a verse that speaks to you for that day. He stresses scripture memory, and uses the “Fighter Verse” program to teach scripture memory to his congregation.
I do not have any quarrel with the value of this approach, but I disagree with anyone who would say it is the best, most profitable and most basic way to encounter the message God has for us in the Bible. In fact, I fear that many who approach the Bible as a collection of verses miss, completely or substantially, the primary message of the Bible, and frequently abuse the “verse” approach to the detriment of the total Christian message.
To get to this issue, let me walk back through some of my favorite illustrations about how Christians view and use the Bible.
I believe most Christians use the word “inspiration” to mean “the Bible is a magic book, where God speaks to us in unusual ways.” By this they mean that the contents of the Bible–the verses–have unusual power when read or applied. So if we were to transfer this idea to another book, and treat it as we treat the Bible, it might be like this: If we considered “Walden” to be inspired in the typical evangelical way, we would not be looking for the big ideas or the main point in Thoreau’s book, but we would be examining particular sentences to see if they “spoke to us.” The actual text of “Walden” would be secondary to our use of verses.
So on, let’s say, the matter of changing jobs, we might find a sentence that says, “Most men live lives of quiet desperation,” and we would conclude that this verse is God telling us to change jobs. Or another sentence might say, “I left my job and moved to the woods.” This, we would say, is God speaking to us. Now we might be able to read the entire book and sustain that conclusion, or we might find–if we studied better–that the book didn’t sustain that particular use of an individual sentence. It wouldn’t really matter, however, to most of us, because God used the verse to speak to us, and that is the way we read the Bible.
Or, for further example, say someone is facing a troubled marriage. He reads and discovers a sentence in “Walden” that says, “I did not speak to another person for over a month.” From this, he concludes that God is telling him to not argue with his spouse. The fact that this is a universe away from what Thoreau meant with that sentence would be irrelevant. This is how we would be using “Walden” as a “magic book.” Recognize the method? I think we all do.
If we were committed to the “magic book” approach and someone were to teach “Walden” as a whole, telling us the main ideas and message in the book, we might not consider that particularly impressive. It is nice to know what the book says, we would say, but the use of the book as a “magic text” doesn’t depend at all on understanding the meaning of the overall book, or the message Thoreau was conveying. Introductions and analysis of the book as a whole would almost be a secondary, and mostly useless, exercise in comparison to the more exciting and personal “magic book” use of “Walden.” We might be confident, in fact, that the ordinary reader can handle the “inspired Walden” with far more relevance for his life than the educated scholar handles the same book, because the scholar doesn’t believe that the sentences contain the power. So ignorance is no barrier in the magic book approach. Recognize that, too? Uh-huh.
I hope you can see the parallels here with our use of the Bible, and the many “magic book” methods that are commonly used to present the Christian life as growing out of the Bible. Take a recent Joel Osteen sermon I liveblogged at the BHT. In the message, Osteen used part of the story of Elijah. God told Elijah that ravens would bring him food at a certain brook. From this, Osteen preached that God will provide us what we need to be blessed if we show up at the right place in life and look for God’s blessing. This dubious use of the Bible is applauded within evangelicalism as completely appropriate because it is “magic bookism,” and it speaks to us about our lives and concerns, which are always tantamount in our minds. Yet it is hardly a leap to say that this grabbing of a few verses and using them as the basis for a mystical principle for being blessed is a very strange way to approach the Bible’s message to us. But it honors the Bible as a “magic book”, and far more people are listening to Joel Osteen, a man who arguably couldn’t present an introduction/exposition of any Biblical book if asked to do so, than are listening to preachers and teachers who understand what the Bible is and is saying.
Another way of approaching the Bible is by collecting verses. The “grocery store” analogy is particularly helpful in describing how mainstream evangelicals approach scripture. The appearance of concordances and computer searching has allowed the emphasis on verses and lists of verses to develop to a high level. One need only find the proper book or software, and a search can be conducted to retrieve a list of verses relating to any subject, word or term. I compare this to going into a grocery store with a shopping list. I many need verses on marriage, parenting and forgiveness. I take my list, run up and down the aisles, and find the verses I need. (Or to be more true to today’s technology, I present my list to the man at the front, and he sends a runner to pick up my verses for me, while I simply meet him at the checkout.)
The idea that the Bible is a library of verses has been propagated through Bible study tools, but also through methods of preaching. Many popular preachers today NEVER engage a text unless it is a story with a lesson that speaks to a “felt need.” They engage a topic that has been focus-grouped to gain the interest of the audience. (See Ed Young, Jr. for a good example.) Then verses are marshalled to present an outline of principles. The Bible is the source of the verses, so it is routinely asked, “What does the Bible say about assessing potential spouses?” Since the collection of verses comes from the Bible, the conclusion seems sound. The “Bible” in this case is a humanly arranged collection of verses, out of context, with a variable degree of likelihood in relating to the truth.
While I am not saying that abuse of this method is universal, it is common. I could easily accumulate grocery lists of texts on polygamy, slavery, stoning rebellious children, demonic exorcism to solve physical problems, the need to exterminate unbelievers, and so on. All my lists would answer a “What does the Bible say?” question. And all could, potentially, seriously misrepresent the overall message that God has sent us in scripture, because the meaning of larger texts, especially books, has been ignored. I could even use the Bible itself to teach the very opposite of what the Bible teaches. In seminary, I was taught that the Bible was pro-abortion by a selective accumulation of texts. And no one laughed or cried, Orwellian as it was.
The use of the grocery store method is entirely dependent on how the accumulator understands the way verses relate to one another in larger contexts. For instance, the basic idea of old and new covenants would seriously affect how someone selected verses on worship and presented them as, “The Bible says we should worship by….” Some verse accumulation preachers are excellent. It is a method that can bear much fruit and be helpful, IF done in a context of actually understanding the larger framework of scripture. (Much like I could find lists of sentences in Walden on self-sufficiency that might misrepresent or well-represent Thoreau’s intentions in the book.)
If I reject a “magic book” and a “grocery list” approach to the Bible, what is the correct way to approach the Bible as God’s Word?
I would begin by asking us to look at what the Bible is and is not. It is not a collection of verses. The verse numbers, chapter divisions and other ways of carving up the text are not inspired. They are later additions, made for convenience. Read that twice and don’t lose it. It is fundamental.
The Bible is a collection of books. This is the basic thing we can say about the Bible. Sixty-six books. The assumption of the church in canonizing them is that, like parts of a recipe, each of these books, together, speak a Word that none of them speak individually. This is why we have the Bible and not just the Gospel of John. John is scripture, but not all of scripture, and not alone as scripture. There is much truth in this part of the recipe, but alone, it does not bake the cake, so to speak. All of scripture, all 66 books, contribute.
Obviously, these books are different, and it is entirely reasonable to say that some books are essential to the message and some are less essential. This is the difference between eggs and flour, and sesame seeds or food coloring. The Bible would survive without Obadiah. It could not survive without the Gospels. Any part of the whole can be seen as presenting some aspect of the final message, but like a play with two acts and 66 scenes, the Bible is meant to be seen in all its scenes. Editing or omitting may or may not damage the play’s ability to say its message (like Mel Gibson’s edited Hamlet might be critiqued as different from Branaugh’s complete “Hamlet.”) But what we have is the whole, and the whole is understood primarily by understanding books and the larger narrative of those books.
Now here is the crucial thing I have to say in this essay: In understanding the Bible, it is far more important that we understand, as best we can, the message and meaning of entire books, and the story told by those books, rather than just having a personal experience with individual verses. The study of Biblical books and the assessment of their story and message is the basic kind of Bible study that is needed in the church, and in preaching/teaching. This entails the study of smaller units of text, but the larger picture/story is the most valuable picture/narrative for the Christian life. I hope and pray nothing more than that my brothers in the ministry could make this connection: Understanding the Bible is understanding the books of the Bible, and how they relate together into one message.
Let’s talk about my favorite Gospel, Mark, as an example of this. When I teach Mark, I begin with an overview of the entire book and I show how the entire book revolves around chapter 8 as a turning point, because in chapter 8 the cross comes fully into view. The book is about understanding Jesus by understanding the cross. In fact, Robert Gundry suggests the book may have been an apologia for a crucified God, and I think that is very much on target. Jesus was executed as a criminal. How can you worship that? Why would you want to pray to someone who was the ultimate failure? Mark casts the cross in a different light, the larger light of the entire Biblical story of Creation, Fall, Israel and captivity. He shows Jesus coming into the world with two gathering storms of spiritual and religious conflict taking aim at him early in the book. Yet, just as early, Jesus is saying that the Bridegroom is going to be taken away, and it is clear that this is not a surprise. It is the intentional, purposeful death of Jesus.
The Gospel of Mark contains a first half full of miracles, exorcisms, and mighty deeds. These are favorite stories, but they are also frequently misunderstood. They are not there for entertainment or biography’s sake. They exist to tell us who Jesus is; to identify him in many different ways as God on earth, the long expected Messiah. They exist to announce and demonstrate the arrival of the Kingdom of God in Jesus, and to show that disease, demons, nature and even death all obey Jesus. These are triumphant chapters, and the crowds respond. But they are not the point of the book. They are a setup. A partial understanding of Jesus that, if left alone, would be a misunderstanding of Jesus. He is not here to be a miracle worker, or an exorcist or a king. Here is here to die. It is that simple.
Chapter 8 is the turning point also because it makes clear something that is a great mystery to many readers of Mark: Jesus keeps telling people he has helped and healed to keep their mouths shut. He does all the Messianic miracles and draws huge crowds, but he keeps saying, “Don’t tell anyone about this.” It’s weird. No one really pays any attention, and Jesus actually spends a remarkable amount of time in Mark on personal retreat, trying to get a break from the mobs. Then in chapter 8, Jesus asks the disciples if they have figured out what is going on, and Peter says you are the Messiah. Miracles. Feeding five thousand. Exorcisms. You are the Messiah Jews have been waiting for. So, they’ve got the right answer. Or do they?
Mark 8:30 – 9:1 30 And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him. 31 And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” 34 And he called to him the crowd with his disciples and said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? 37 For what can a man give in return for his life? 38 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” 9:1 And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.”
Off they go to Jerusalem, and the cross. You have more predictions, but it becomes clear to the reader very quickly that Jesus is headed to the cross, as he said in chapter 10, with the purpose of ransoming/rescuing sinners.
If you preach a miracle-working, here-to-bless-you version of Jesus, you misunderstand Jesus, the Gospel of Mark, the Bible and the Christian life. Read all the verses you like. The point of this book is to say God is here, God is going to the cross and beyond, and you’d better pay attention to what it means.
Chapter 12 is another important chapter, because in the first eleven verses, Jesus puts the whole story into the story of the Hebrew Bible and the nation of Israel. Israel is the vineyard that is going to kill the Son of God, but God is going to do a whole new thing through this tragedy. This story fits in the rest of the Bible. In fact, it is the climax of the story of Israel.
So when you come to the end of Mark, you can look at chapter 8 and Jesus’ invitation to come follow him to the cross and beyond in order to find your life, and it should all make sense. The Gospel of Mark shows you a dozen different ways that Jesus is God among us, bringing his Kingdom in a way we never expected, and the whole turning point of human history happens with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Believe, follow, embrace Jesus–even with all that persecution and rejection–and the Kingdom is yours, now and in the future. You’ll be forgiven and right with God, because Jesus makes it possible by what he does for you.
How Does It All Work?
Now…..Mark is a way cool book, and if you invite me to your church, I will make it interesting. I promise. Mark also has a lot of excellent stories and verses. Those stories and verses make the book what it is: a book about Jesus, who he is, what he did, what it means, and the invitation to you to join those believers in the cross as the meaning of everything that matters.
One of those stories is about Jesus calming the storm. The point of that story is the question at the end: Who is this man, that even the wind and the waves obey him? Is the point that Jesus will calm the storms in your life right now?
Another story is about Jesus cursing a fig tree. It means that Israel was about to reject Jesus and experience judgment. Does it mean you should feel free to place curses on people who irritate you?
You have some exorcisms in Mark. They are pretty spectacular, and it’s clear that no one has seen anything like this before. Should we be doing exorcisms? Well, that’s an interesting question, to which I say “no,” but the point is that demons knew who Jesus was and obeyed him. “You are the Holy One of God, and we can’t resist you. You win.” That’s the point.
There is a naked guy in chapter 14. Never mind. You get the point. Don’t miss why Jesus said don’t tell anyone who I am or what has happened until AFTER the cross, the resurrection and Pentecost. Then go tell the whole world.
So why do we have four Gospels? To get the story right, and to get all the various sub-themes and sub-points into the recipe. Luke has more to say about Jesus’ compassion and inclusion of women than the other Gospels. It’s the same story as Mark, but you see it differently and you overhear more things that help you understand Jesus. John has a lot more of Jesus’ self-understanding and the depth of his identity in relation to the Father. He makes it much clearer than the other Gospels that faith is what takes hold of Jesus and receives all that he gives us.
Some of the Gospels have more about discipleship than others. When you understand who Jesus is, there is a life to be lived, but keep it straight. The Gospel is about Jesus and what he’s done, not really about you and what you’ve done. All the Gospels show the disciples as pretty disappointing, so the bar is set about right for me and for most of you.
So this book actually goes to an immense amount of trouble to tell us the important things. If you go off and treat it as an aisle in the grocery store to shop for “verses that speak to me,” that’s your perfect right, but you are missing the point. And if you miss the point of the important books in the Bible, you miss the whole message. Screw around with the recipe….No cake. A lot of people in a lot of churches haven’t had any cake in a long time. They are getting a lot of something, but all together it doesn’t amount to Jesus Christ, crucified God, meaning of life. Believe and be saved.
One of the nice things about the New Testament is how so many of the books tell us what they are all about on a first reading. In fact, we can actually have no clue about some of the individual verses and passages and still get the meaning of the book. For example, I really have no clue what some parts of the book of Revelation are all about, but I think I get the meaning of the book pretty well: Jesus is the key to history. He wins. He makes a new world and we get to enjoy it. Before that happens, things will get pretty awful for many Christians, and you have to decide if you are going to be loyal to Jesus. So even if I don’t understand all the magic verses, I understand how the book of Revelation fits into the Bible, and I see that its larger message is more important than any individual passage.
My favorite example is Hebrews. Here is a book that explains the entire Bible to you in a Christ-centered way. Now some of Hebrews is difficult, and some may never be clear to some of us, but what is the book about? I’d say, “Hebrews tells us that everything in the Old Testament was leading us to Jesus. Jesus completes and fulfills everything in Judaism, and in fact, he speaks the final Word from God to all of us about everything in relation to God.” The OT is shadow, Jesus is reality. It’s a great book.
Paul’s letters are more eclectic. Romans and Ephesians are highly thematic, while I Corinthians and the Thessalonians are more diverse in topics. Still, in every book there are larger passages whose themes point us in the important directions. We can get diverted into head coverings or double predestination or the nature of wifely submission, but these matters can be interpreted various ways without damaging the inspired function of these books in relation to Jesus Christ.
The New Testament books, rightly interpreted, lead us to Jesus the great mediator, and his great Gospel. They lead us to faith in Jesus and discipleship. They lead us away from superstition, legalism and mysticism to life and resurrection, hope and a new world arriving in Jesus. They lead us to a Kingdom where love and washing feet are the rules, and power is God’s to give, not ours to play with. The New Testament isn’t a collection of verses on how to be a success in business or how to cast demons out of unruly teens. It tells us how to think and live in a world of mammon, and what is the truth that sets teenagers and their parents free to live with failure, disappointment and death. It tells us of the cross and the empty tomb, of Jesus’ compassion and his victory. This isn’t a book of plans, principles and magic bullets for life’s problems. It is the New Testament of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
I realize that sometimes a verse is the absolute best way to express what the entire Bible says on a subject. I use Piper’s “Fighter Verses,” and I believe they do a tremendous job in summarizing the great truths of the Bible. I am not the enemy of verse-by-verse exposition, but I would wave a large red flag at all who do it, and ask if you are telling your people the message of the Bible, because the message of the Bible is Jesus, and it is possible–POSSIBLE–to be so microscopic that you do miss the most obvious point of all.
Christians aren’t engineers, learning every mechanical aspect of the engine we call Christianity. We are those invited to glorify God by embracing and enjoying all that He is for us in Jesus. The message of the New Testament should inspire us to the poetry, song, celebration and sacrifice of that fact. We are not examining the engine manual of a BMW to see what’s wrong with us. We are looking at a newspaper with a banner headline: Jesus Christ is Lord!!
I hope all who read this will commit themselves to understand all of scripture, the story of scripture, and the books that make up scripture, so that all the verses of scripture will serve the purpose of revealing the King of Glory, Jesus Christ.