If the Bible isn’t a flat text, where every verse has the same weight and authority, then how do we know which verses to give priority to? If the best way (maybe the only way) to read the Bible is to read it selectively, then what determines how we select? Are we only left with a pot-luck of personally driven subjective preferences?
No. Not at all. Jesus is our model and our teacher when it comes to how we see Scripture.
This message is a part of my series, “How to Read the Bible When you’ve got Really Good Reasons Not To.” This specific message is part 1 of 2 offering a framework to help us navigate scripture in a way that is honest, faithful, and in line with Jesus’ example.
If you’d prefer to read this presentation, you may below the fold.
In the last message in this series, I made a surprising suggestion. I told you that the best way to read the Bible is to read it selectively. Actually, what I said was—The ONLY way we read the Bible is to read it selectively.
Everyone who reads the Bible—no matter how strict, how literalist, how conservative—reads it selectively. What I mean is that everyone reads the Bible with a lens, a certain hierarchy of authority that allows them to make sense and prioritize different passages.
If that’s new to you, and maybe you’re thinking I’m falling off the deep end, then please, please watch the last installment of this series on our website or Youtube channel. It’s the August 8th message called, “How to read the Bible when it seems like ANYONE can make it say ANYTHING they want.”
That message ended with this challenge. You’re are going to read the Bible selectively. You can’t escape that. So, when you read the Bible, select for Jesus. Let Jesus be the lens through which you read and understand all of it. Now, I also told you that I’d come back to the topic and give you some practical tools you can use to make sense of this in your own life. How exactly can you do this?
So, today and in part 2, I’m going to teach you a way to read scripture that, I think, lines up with how Jesus saw scripture, and is governed by Jesus own teaching.
I’ll admit right up front that this is an interpretive framework that we bring to the text. But you already know I think everyone who reads the Bible brings an interpretive framework with them—it’s just that most of the time we aren’t honest about it.
I’ll also admit that there’s no single passage in the Bible that says to do what I’m going to teach you. So, I won’t argue with you and say this is the only way to read scripture. I don’t think you have to do this to love God, or to have a relationship with God or to end up in heaven.
I’ll also admit that what I’m sharing with you isn’t original to me. The heart of this model was something taught to me by a professor of mine, Alden Thompson. In the denomination I was a part of at that time, he was often accused of being wildly liberal, even heretical. And yet, having studied under him for three years, I saw him to be profoundly devout, theologically conservative, and pious in the way the old preachers meant—thoughtful, humble, gentle, prayerful, and entirely devoted to God in his studies and daily life.
So, you have the right to take or leave what I share with you today and next week. This doesn’t come as a “thus saith the Lord.”
But I will tell you that this view of scripture saved my spiritual life, it helped me step away from legalism and gave me a practical way to apply grace in my life and the lives of others. In twenty years of pastoral ministry, I have shared this repeatedly and seen it be transformative for people who were on the edge of abandoning the Bible as a credible and helpful source of guidance. So, that’s why I’m sharing it with you.
So, are you ready to learn a bit this morning?
Eternal Life is Knowing God.
Jesus defined eternal life in a succinct and intriguing way. In John 17:3, in the upper room while praying for his disciples, Jesus said:
“This is eternal life: that they may know You, the only true God, and the One You have sent—Jesus Christ.” . – John 17:3
According to Jesus, Eternal life is knowing God.
Well, how do we know God? Our Christian heritage would say the best way to know God is to know the Bible, God’s Word. But the Bible is not a description of God alone. There are amazing things that portray the character of God in stunning and beautiful ways. The 23rd Psalm. Jesus’ self-sacrificing love for people. Paul’s promise in 1st Timothy 2 that it is God’s heart and desire that all would be saved.
But there are also things in the Bible that—if they are about God’s character, they are pretty horrifying. Children being killed for disobeying their parents. Women required to marry their rapists. Whole groups of people—women and children included—being killed supposedly in God’s name.
These things are why I can’t read the Bible as a flat text. A “flat text” is where every verse has the same weight and authority. I just don’t believe true about the Bible, but because I follow Jesus, and because I believe that God gave us the Bible, I’m not free to just pick and choose what I’m comfortable with. I need a lens that comes from the Bible itself. But we’re not left empty-handed.
Hebrews 1:1 says:
Long ago God spoke to our fathers by the prophets at different times and in different ways. In these last days, He has spoken to us by His Son. – Hebrews 1:1
When Philip, the disciple, begged Jesus to show him the Father, Jesus answered.
“If you’ve seen Me, you’ve seen the Father.” – John 14:9
If eternal life is knowing God, the best way to know God is to look at Jesus.
This gives us the high point in scripture. Jesus is God’s final word. What Jesus does is God’s best example for us. What Jesus says is God’s highest teaching on the subject. What Jesus calls us to is God’s invitation for us. When we focus on Jesus, we focus on God.
Jesus is the lens to understand scripture. We look through Jesus to see how the scripture that came before him led up to him. We look through Jesus to see what was fulfilled and completed and what remains binding. We look through Jesus to help us see around the many layers of interpretation and history the Bible has accumulated in millennia of use.
Jesus is also the mirror that we hold up to scripture. We don’t measure Jesus by scripture. We measure scripture and our interpretation and application of it by Jesus. If our reading and application of Scripture doesn’t comport with the person, teaching and character of Jesus, then we must start again.
If you accept that this is true, it means that Jesus has to be your guide on how to read, interpret and apply scripture.
So how to do this?
So, how do we do this? Well, the long and most accurate answer is this. We need to study Jesus, to learn His words, to meditate on them, so that we can build a familiarity with Jesus’ heart, and while we do that, we build a relationship by speaking to Jesus and listening for Jesus — that’s what Christian prayer is. And over time, as we remain committed to this, we come to know Jesus and love Jesus and reflect Jesus in our words and actions.
But that answer is the answer of a long life lived in the same direction. It’s also an answer that sounds nice but can be a bear to apply in the heat of the moment when you’re trying to make sense of the situation you find yourself in.
So, today and in part 2, I’m going give you a shorter answer, a framework you can think through, a way for you to check your decision at the moment, a way for you to resolve conflicts that you experience in scripture, and apply those words to you life
This is not a substitute for the long journey of coming to know Jesus. This is a tool to help you along the way.
Love is the Peak
Jesus himself is the manifestation, the incarnation of God’s love. God’s love is why Jesus came. That’s what we learn from John 3:16-17.
Jesus himself gave us one command as his followers. John 13:34:
“I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you must also love one another. By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” – John 13:34
John, the disciple, spent three years following Jesus around, watching him work, listening to him teach. Then he spent decades reflecting on what he saw, and near the end of his life, we wrote the essence of what he learned from Jesus:
“Dear friends, let us love one another, because love is from God, and everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” – I John 4:7-8
So, the character of God is love. The motivation of God is love. The way we will reflect God’s heart is by loving others. Love is the apex.
The first question when we come to a choice is always this: What is the loving path? When we read scripture and find something confusing, the way through the confusion is to ask, What is the loving application?
But “Love” is not enough. The Beatles said the same thing right? “All you need is love, love. Love is all you need.” And it’s perfect. Until you start trying to apply it.
The word love is a squishy one. It’s used too frequently in so many ways that it can be hard to nail down exactly what it means. When we are wondering how to apply scripture to our lives, simply saying, “Do the loving thing,” is often not clear enough, sometimes even confusing.
So, how can we get more clear? Well, Jesus himself did that. He took this one ultimate guiding principle and applied it in two unique contexts. Matthew 22:35-40:
And one of them, an expert in the law, asked a question to test Him: “Teacher, which command in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.” – Matthew 22:35-40
“The law and the Prophets,” as I’ve shared with you, is a technical term, a Jewish phrase that referred to the whole of Old Testament-inspired scripture. So, Jesus picked up the whole Jewish Bible, covering thousands of years, describing countless circumstances, containing 613 commands for righteous living, and said that the whole thing could be contained within two simple commands. Love God with everything you are and have. Love your neighbor as yourself.
In saying this, Jesus took the highest ethic, love, and applied it to two contexts.
First, Jesus said that we are to live out love in our relationship with God. Who did God make us to be? How are we to live in relationship with God? What attitude, belief, or actions will express love to God? All of it is summed up here. Love God with all you are and have. But that is just part of life.
Second, Jesus said that we are to live out love in our relationships with the people around us. How are we to live toward friends and family? How are we to live towards enemies? How are we to navigate the complex ethical dilemmas of life? We live out love.
So the highest ethic that governs our lives is God’s character: love. But to be clearer, Jesus tells us that this love is expressed in two contexts — love for God, and love for people.
Applications: Practicing within context and circumstances.
So love is God’s eternal nature. Loving others is Jesus new commandment. Loving God with all you are and have and loving your neighbor as yourself are the explanation of how to live this out. That’s enough. That’s everything. And yet—it’s not enough. Our lives are lived in the nuances of a million practical details. How are we to apply this?
This is what the rest of scripture is about. We have all these stories about people making choices. All these sermons about God’s desire for humanity. All these songs and prayers that express the struggle and tension of being human, and the power and vitality of holiness, righteousness and living out of love. Over and over we get applications of these eternal principles.
Here’s the difference between eternal principles and applications.
- Eternal principles apply to everyone everywhere all the time. That’s what makes them eternal.
- Applications are—by definition—constrained by context and circumstances. An application always happens in a time, in a place, to someone. And the moment you start talking about applications, you have to take this context into account. Why? Because when you change the context, you may need to change the application.
An Example: The Ten Commandments
That is what I see happening in scripture over and over. God was applying these eternal principles in specific contexts with specific people. The Jewish people of Jesus’ day had identified 613 different specific applications (they called them laws) that everyone was obligated to follow. 613. That’s a lot.
But before those 613 there were just 10. You know what I’m talking about. The Ten Commandments. Now, I was raised with the idea that the ten commandments were also eternal principles. But I’m not so sure of that anymore.
Now hold on. I don’t mean that I think the Ten Commandments are irrelevant or no longer binding. I just mean that I’ve come to see that the Ten Commandments are a specific application of God’s eternal principles in a specific time and place. Here’s why I think that:
One of the prophets, Jeremiah, wrote something that’s surprising. In Jeremiah 31:31-34 he talks about the New Covenant. That’s right. The New Testament. What God was going to do in Jesus. He wrote:
“Look, the days are coming”—this is the Lord’s declaration—“when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. This one will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt…” – Jeremiah 31:32-32
That’s talking about the covenant established with Israel at Mount Sinai. The Ten Commandments specifically and all the other laws in Deuteronomy. Through Jeremiah, God says, “I’m going to make a new covenant with my people, and it won’t be like the one I made with them when I brought them out of Egypt. Continuing with verse 33:
“Instead, this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days”—the Lord’s declaration. “I will put My teaching within them and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be My people. No longer will one teach his neighbor or his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least to the greatest of them”—this is the Lord’s declaration.” – Jeremiah 31:33-34
So, God’s intention is not that we would be governed by laws written on stone tablets—the ten commandments, or laws written on paper—scripture. God’s intention is that we would be governed by laws written on our hearts. On top of that, the fruit of this law written on our hearts is that we would know God.
So, if that’s where God is headed—that the goal is not that we would follow external commands, but that we would live out internalized principles based on knowing God, then the Ten Commandments were just an intermediate step!
The Ten Commandments were an application of God’s eternal principles. They were intended for people who were not able to live out these eternal principles from their heart. And when we look at the context of scripture, that’s exactly what we see.
God gave the Ten Commandments to who? A community of former slaves, people who had for generations lived at the end of whips and spears, people who had learned that the strong can take what they want from the weak and that the only way for the weak to survive as through collaboration with the oppressors or deceit.
God brought the slaves physically out of bondage, but their hearts were immersed in generations of slavery mindset. The only way for them to follow God’s eternal principles was for them to have specific, clear applications. So, in fire and smoke at Mount Sinai, God gave them ten simple boundaries that would create the space they needed to learn how to be a community of love.
The Ten Commandments do not define love. They are the lowest common denominator for relationships in which love can exist. But they are also, each one of them, an application of God’s character of love, and Jesus’ two-way ethic of love.
Here’s what I mean. The first four commands address a loving relationship with God. If you are to maintain a relationship with God that has the possibility of love, then you must do these four simple things:
- Worship no one except God. You can’t love God and have other gods on the side.
- Make no image of God. Why? Because the statue, painting, or idealized concept that you create will trick you into thinking that God is manageable, containable, wholly understood by you. The image or idol you create will displace the reality of God, and if you’re worshipping a construct, you cannot love God.
- Don’t take God’s name in vain. This commandment is not about swear words. It never was. This commandment is about using God’s power, authority and reputation for your own benefit. In ancient cultures, the name of a ruler or a deity was a source of authority. Governers ruled in the name of the king. Priests wielded authority in the name of their God. But it’s pretty easy when you’re used to doing whatever is necessary to get what you need, to use any ounce of delegated authority to benefit your self at others expense. That’s what slaves knew. The slaves who rose in prominence, who gained some level of delegated authority from their master, often time used that authority “in vain,” they used it to benefit themselves. But you can’t love God if you are using God.
- Remember the Sabbath. This command was an injunction against work on the holy day. Why? Because our tendency as humans is to believe that our position, our security, our value comes from what we make. Our effort, our accomplishment, our earnings, our trophies — we can use these things as a source of value and security. See who we are? The Sabbath command interrupted our tendency to establish our security through our effort. The Sabbath forces you to stop accomplishing. It reminds you that everything that matters was given to us and that the universe will keep on working even if we don’t. See, You cannot love God if you are full of your self, convinced that you can accomplish yourself to security and salvation through your own effort.
The remaining six commands address a loving relationship with the people around us. If there is going to be any possibility of love in our community, then we must do six simple things:
- Honor your parents. The family is the essential unit of order in society; it’s the place where we first learn who we are and who God is. We learn how to love from our parents— for good and for bad. When we honor our parents, we learn respect when we’re young and compassion when they’re old.
- Don’t murder. I can’t love you if I kill you.
- Don’t commit adultery. I can’t love you if I’m constantly afraid that you’re not going to honor and value my relational commitments.
- Don’t steal, and don’t covet your neighbors stuff. It’s hard to love someone who feels like they can just take your stuff because they’re stronger, or smarter, or just happen to be in the right place at the right time. Not stealing is the entry level for respecting the dignity of others.
- Do not give false testimony. I can’t love you if I don’t trust you. We can’t be in community together if we don’t believe that we are committed to keeping our agreements.
This is a specific application of God’s eternal principles, the Kindergarten Version. These are God’s eternal principles carefully drawn out for people who had no healthy concept of personal respect, boundaries, or morality that wasn’t based on fear of punishment.
Now, Jeremiah’s prophecy tells us that God’s intention is to take us to a place where we the Ten Commandments are no longer relevant. Not because they don’t apply, but because we’ve so internalized God’s eternal principles of love, that we have no need for detailed instructions like “Do not murder.”
We won’t need to be told not to murder because we already love our neighbor as ourselves, and, of course, that means we don’t want to murder them. Our first thought isn’t how they are in our way, or what we can get from them; our first thought is how to love them.
In Heaven, the Ten Commandments won’t be posted on the wall. Why? Because there will be no need.
You don’t find the Multiplication Table posted on the wall of a college calculus classroom. Why? Because the students there have long ago internalized the multiplication table. It’s second nature them. It’s not that the multiplication table is no longer binding on them. It’s that the multiplication table is an integral part of their thinking as mathematicians. That’s God’s intention for us.
So, this leaves us with a 4-part model for understanding scripture and applying to our lives. Picture a Pyramid.
At the peak is the Character of God. Love. This is the one ultimate eternal principle.
And Jesus reiterated it with his new command. Love one another. Jesus’ one command. If you get it, it’s truly all you need. But we’re human, we’re selfish, we don’t get it. So Jesus expanded it for us.
Below that One Principle we have two applications. Love God with all you are and all you have. Second, Love your neighbor as yourself. If you get it, that’s all you need.
But we’re human, we live in complex sinful circumstances, and we don’t get it, so scripture expands it for us.
Below that we get ten applications, ten boundaries that create the space where we can have loving relationships.
Below that we have 613 old Testament laws, a whole bunch of New Testament commands and applications — each one applying some aspect of the 1, the 2 and the 10 to a specific context and circumstance of life.
So, that’s the set-up. In part 2, we’re going to look at that pyramid, the 1, the 2 and the 10. I’m going show you how this can help you see all of scripture in the way I think Jesus did, and give you clarity about exactly what part of the Bible apply to you today.
The Bible is Not a Flat Text.
One of the ideas I introduced in this series is this: The Bible isn’t a flat text. A flat text is one where every part of it has the same weight and authority.
I believe the Bible is the inspired word of God, but I don’t believe that every single verse is authoritative in exactly the same way, or even binding on God’s people today.I believe that not because I’m a liberal Bible scholar who doesn’t think miracles happened and wants to choose my own morality. I believe that because that’s what I see Jesus teach.
Again—if that idea is new for you, or hard for you, please listen to the last message, because I go deeply into scripture and talk about exactly that.
Jesus taught—both with his words and actions—that certain scriptures has more authority than others. There were Biblical commands that he violated, that he told other people to violate. He reinterpreted old Biblical standards. He did this, not just because he was God and could treat scripture willy nilly. He did this, I believe because he had a principled hierarchy with which he came to scripture, a lens through which he saw it.
Since we are followers of Jesus, the very best way for us to read Scripture is to read it—as best we can—in the same way that he did. More on this in part 2.