II 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.
Some years ago a friend of mine handed me a King James copy of the Bible and asked me to read Luke 2:7. I read it and shrugged. I have read that verse countless times and didn’t know what he wanted me to notice. I handed it back to him and he asked me to read it again. I read it again and handed it back to him. He handed it back to me and asked me to read it again. I knew he wanted me to notice something but I didn’t know what it was and he told me I wasn’t reading it closely enough. Finally, he pointed out to me what it was that he wanted me to notice. I don’t have his Bible or a copy of that particular page, but I have reproduced it on the screen. Take a close look and see if you can find what I missed on the first few readings.
Did you find it? There’s a typo.
It says manager instead of manger. It’s the only time I have ever seen a typo in a Bible. I mentioned that typo in a meeting once, saying it was odd to find one in the Bible. Someone else said they didn’t believe there was a typo. No matter what I said, I couldn’t convince the person that verse had a typo in it.
That encounter helped me to understand that some people are threatened by some conversations, interpretations, or realities of the Bible. They are threatened because they have constructed a view of the Bible that is like a house of cards – take away one small element of their view and everything collapses. I think the way that some people teach children about the Bible contributes to this misfortune. When I was young, some people told me there was a very strict way to interpret the Bible, beginning with the early chapters of the book of Genesis and on through to other passages. Change just one small element of that interpretation and everything falls apart and you do away with the truth of all of it. In that view of the Bible, everything is so intricately connected that one small change in a person’s interpretation means their entire view of the Bible collapses. That’s what I was told by some people when I was younger. The people who taught me this were very well meaning, but they were wrong.
I think this is what causes some young people to lose their faith. They’ve been instructed in that view of the Bible and they go off to school and they hear something that conflicts with the interpretation they’ve been taught, so they do exactly what they were told – if just one small part of that interpretation doesn’t hold up, none of it does. So they set aside their belief in the Bible and then soon after they let go of their faith.
I was told all manner of things about the Bible, some correct and helpful, and some erroneous and unhelpful. Years ago I was told the Bible condemned my long hair and musical tastes. My hair is much shorter now but I still listen to a lot of the same music. Today, I’m told it condemns some of my spiritual and political views. Sometimes I receive criticism for what I write in my column in the Sentinel-News, and that criticism comes with Scripture references telling me why I am wrong. Despite some people telling me I’m wrong and that some of my views could be damaging to faith, my faith not only survived, but it has thrived over the years.
I love the Bible. I love reading it and I love studying it. I have spent most of my life reading it and studying it and trying to live its message. I find it to be extremely relevant to my life and to today’s world.
There’s a lot at stake in how we read the Bible and how we interpret it.
In response to the questions you asked about how we read and interpret the Bible, this morning we are talking about Reading, Understanding, and Appreciating the Bible.
The questions we ask about the Bible have to do with how we interpret passages such as the command of God to put to death innocent men, women, children, and even animals. How do we make sense of the different portraits of God found in the Old Testament and New Testament?
What parts of the Bible are to be taken literally and what parts are to be taken as symbolic? What commands were for a specific time period only and what parts are applicable for all time?
Lurking behind many of our questions about the Bible are other questions – what do we make of the charges of today’s skeptics, who claim the Bible to be full of contradictions, fables, and lacking in any element of the divine? There is a good deal of skepticism directed at the Bible in our day and age.
This morning, I would like to speak to a few of those questions.
1. Do we recognize that there are different types of language used in the Bible?
Language is difficult. I imagine that when the Founders of our nation realized they needed to clarify our Constitution with a few amendments they worked out the language and believed it to be obvious what they meant. Here’s the First Amendment; this ought to clear things up. Here’s the Second Amendment; this ought to clear things up. And miraculously, it did, didn’t it? (There’s an example of the problem of language. Someone reading this may not catch the sarcasm in that sentence).
Skeptics, it seems to me, approach the Bible in a very erroneous manner. While many of them claim not to believe the Bible, they are very literalistic in the manner in which they approach the Bible. They are so literalistic they have little or no appreciation for the various types of language employed by the Bible, which leads them to make many unfortunate conclusions. A skeptic once challenged me about the words of Jesus in Matthew 15:21-28, where Jesus says to a Canaanite woman it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs. Thinking that Jesus was being incredibly rude, the person asked me how I could justify such an attitude. My response was that their interpretation was incredibly mistaken, as Jesus could be using sarcasm or one of several other ways of speaking that is difficult to ascertain from the printed page.
It is on this point that I would offer my first suggestion as to how to approach the Bible – do not read it as a “flat” document. It can be difficult to ascertain the difference in language when we are reading the printed page. We can recognize it very easily when it is the spoken word. Tanya, for instance, often calls me a genius, but I can assure you she doesn’t use that word according to the usual definition of genius. It’s usually used in connection with something dumb that I’ve done, a roll of the eyes, and the comment you are a genius. I get the point, believe me. But if it were written down that Tanya called me a genius, someone might read that at some point and so I like to think that one day our grandchildren and great-grandchildren would read such a statement and think wow, granddad was a genius, because it says said so right here!
Because the Bible uses many different types of language we must be diligent to try and understand what type of language is used in a particular passage. How do we, for instance, interpret what Jesus says in Matthew 5:29 – 30: If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. I don’t know anyone who has followed that verse literally. Did Jesus mean that we should? I don’t think so. I believe Jesus is using hyperbole in order to get our attention about the serious nature of temptation and the havoc and heartbreak it can bring to our lives.
Don’t read the Bible as being “flat,” that is, as using only one type of language that must be taken always in a literal sense.
2. How do we know the difference between a command for a particular place and time and a command that is applicable to all places and all times?
Beyond the question of language, there are other important matters to consider as well, one of which is the very difficult question of what Scriptural commands are meant for a particular time and place and which ones applicable to all time times and places? Leviticus, for example, is often quoted in reference to some of today’s debates over sexuality but there are other commands in Leviticus that are never considered. In Leviticus 19:19 we find the command that we are not to plant your field with two kinds of seed. Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material. Or how about 19:28, a verse that seems rather timely to me – do not…put tattoo marks on your selves. Does any one here have a tattoo? There seems to be quite a few people violating that command these days. How about this one – do not cut the hair at the edges of your head or clip off the edges of your beard (Leviticus 19:27). Most of us would probably say that because those are Old Testament commands they don’t apply. But here’s one from the New Testament – every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head…if a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off (I Corinthians 11:4-6).
Some people read those verses and claim that is why the Bible is out of date but they don’t understand there were very good reasons at the time for the commands that seem very strange to us. We would agree that those verses were for a particular time and place, but what about this one – You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:43-44). I don’t know about you, but I find the commands about not having a tattoo or covering my head to be a lot more appealing than the one to love my enemy. I think we would all agree that one applies to all time. And I Corinthians 13; has there ever been a more powerful statement about love?
There is a difference between time-bound commands and commands for all time, and we must be very careful to distinguish between the two.
3. Is the Bible still relevant in the modern world?
One of the charges of skeptics against the Bible is that it is out of date and irrelevant to today’s world. The mistake they make is they equate old with irrelevant, and those two things are not one and the same. Sam Harris, in his book The End of Faith, says that to the ancients, a wheelbarrow would be a breathtaking piece of technology. That’s is an incredibly ignorant statement. The ancient Greeks were incredibly advanced in math and were ever performing some forms of surgery. The ancient Egyptians accomplished amazing feats of engineering when it came not only to the pyramids but also to other of their building projects. For millennia, astronomers have possessed the ability to predict eclipses with incredible accuracy. Think of the great philosophical achievements of Aristotle and Plato, who possessed intellects beyond most modern minds. Think of the immortal writing of William Shakespeare. Old does not equal irrelevant.
The Bible continues to be relevant for many reasons, and is because it is like a mirror that allows us to see all the truth about humanity, from the tragedy to the beauty. It shows us not only what we are, but what we can be, and were created to be.
I will close with a story that I believe I shared early in my ministry, so some of you have heard it but many of you have not. When I was attending seminary, I had a theology class that was very difficult. It was difficult not only because of the material, but also because the professor could be quite provocative in some of his statements. Some of his statements regularly upset members of the class, and one day he said something especially provocative, causing one of the students to jump up from his seat and exclaim Dr. Tupper, why are you trying to destroy my faith! It was a large class, probably about 100 – 125 students. I was sitting in the back row, where I had a good view of this very emotional moment. The lecture hall became very quiet, punctuated only by the breathing and sobs of the student, who was so emotional that tears were running down his face. We were all very curious about how Dr. Tupper would handle such a situation. Remembering it as though it happened yesterday, I can still see Dr. Tupper walking to the student, whose desk was at the end of the front row, and putting his hand on the student’s shoulder and having him sit back down in his desk. Dr. Tupper then sat on the edge of the desk, and with his hand still on the shoulder of the student said, son, I’m not trying to destroy your faith; I’m trying to make sure it can survive outside of this classroom. If it can’t survive this classroom, it will never survive outside of this room. What a powerful moment, and powerful lesson, that was.
Dr. Tupper was correct. If a student’s faith could not survive that classroom, it would not survive outside of the classroom. I struggled a great deal in that class as Dr. Tupper challenged us, challenged our faith, and made us think. I lost some sleep because of that class, as I sometimes would think in the middle of the night about some of the things Dr. Tupper said to us. But my faith was strengthened, and my understanding of the Bible was certainly strengthened as well.
The Scriptures are a gift to us, a gift that is designed to strengthen our faith. You have probably noticed that I haven’t answered your specific questions this morning. That is intentional. I want you to think and struggle – and certainly turn to the Bible and study and read – about those questions. The Bible is not always an easy book. It is not always easy to understand, and when it is understandable it is very difficult to put into practice in our lives. But the process of reading, studying, and struggling is all part of what plants the Bible firmly into our hearts and minds.