Monday, August 29, 2016

When Christians Read the Bible

In my day job, I edit Bible study materials for adults. I recruit writers and shape their efforts into a form that’s suitable for publication. Hundreds of churches and thousands of people depend on our company to provide dependable materials to assist them in studying the Bible and following Jesus. I reckon it’s work worth doing.

Every great once in a while, a writer fails to come through and I have to write the lessons myself. In fact, I just finished writing five lessons on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which is found in Matthew 5­­-7.

As I worked on those lessons, I was reminded again of how Christians are supposed to read the Bible.

I need to make a few preliminary comments before I get into that subject further.

First, Christians should actually read the Bible. We shouldn’t just accept somebody else’s words—not even those of an erudite columnist—about what it says. We should read it for ourselves.

Second, if we’re Christians, then we should read the Bible as Christians. We aren’t Biblians; that is, we’re not saved by a personal relationship with a book. As the old hymn “Break Thou the Bread of Life” puts it, “Beyond the sacred page, I seek thee, Lord.” We’re saved by a personal relationship with the crucified and resurrected Lord Jesus Christ.  So we do everything, including reading the Bible, in light of our relationship with Jesus.

Third, there’s more than one way to read the Bible. What I’m talking about is how the Bible itself directs those who follow Jesus to read it.

Christians should read the Bible in light of the fact that Jesus is our ultimate authority. How do I know? The Bible tells me that Jesus tells me so.

Early in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Mt 5:17-18). Christians believe that Jesus is God’s Messiah. That means, among many, many other things, that the law and the prophets point to and are fulfilled in Jesus. 

Jesus fulfills Scripture.

That’s why Jesus can say, as he says six times in the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard that it was said,” then quote something from the Old Testament law, and then say, “But I say unto you …” As he earlier said, he doesn’t abolish the law; he fulfills it. He completes it. He gives it its fullest meaning. And, since he is our Lord and Savior who has ultimate authority in all things, we listen to him. 

The Bible is important, but Jesus is more important. The Bible is authoritative, but Jesus is more authoritative.

Jesus is Christians’ ultimate, absolute authority.

Christians, therefore, read the Bible through the lens of Jesus. Our reading and interpretation take the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus into account. 

A person can read the Bible in other ways and still be a Christian. But a person can’t read the Bible any other way and call it a Christian reading.

Reading the Bible as a Christian is challenging. That’s because Jesus didn’t offer his own interpretation of everything in the Old Testament. That’s a good thing, because if he had, the Sermon on the Mount would be 3000 chapters long instead of just three, and few enough people read it as it is. But he gave us enough examples to guide us in reading the Bible through his lens.

Let’s look at just one example.  

In Matthew 5:38-42, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”

The law stated the principle “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” three times: in Exodus 21:23-24, Leviticus 24:19-20, and Deuteronomy 19:21. It’s right there in the Bible, so, as Christians, we’re obligated to live by it, right?


As a matter of fact, Christians are obligated not to live by that principle that is stated three times in the Bible. We are obligated not to because Jesus points us to another, greater, more demanding way to live. We are not to seek “an eye for an eye”; we are rather to turn the other cheek. We are not to refuse to give up what someone wants to take from us; we are rather to share graciously, to the point of ridiculously.

Jesus has the authority to say, “You have heard it said … but I say to you” because he is the Son of God, the Savior, the living Word, and the Messiah. As followers of Jesus, we’re not bound by “you have heard it said”—even if we heard it said in the Bible. Because we are Christians, we’re bound by “but I say unto you.” Jesus is our ultimate authority, and Jesus tells us how to read the Bible. Since Jesus fulfills Scripture and thus is our ultimate authority in all things, the only way to take the authority of the Bible seriously is to read it in light of Jesus.

How does reading the Bible through the lens of Jesus change our understanding of it? Well, that’s the hard part. We have to find our way, bathing our reading in prayer, submitting to the guidance of the Spirit, and checking every possible interpretation and application against Jesus’ teachings and example.

But based on this one example in the Sermon on the Mount (and I encourage you to read Jesus’ other “You have heard it said … but I say to you” sayings in Matthew 5), it’s pretty clear that our motives and attitudes, especially the ways that we think and feel about other people, even (and maybe especially) those that we regard (or that regard us) as enemies, matter a whole lot.

I have a sneaking suspicion that Jesus really expects us to take all that love and grace stuff as seriously as he did …

Friday, August 19, 2016

Remember the Library

When I was a third grader at Gordon Grammar School in Barnesville, Georgia, I became interested in the Battle of the Alamo. I don’t remember why, but I did.

I thought about Googling it, but then I remembered that the Internet hadn’t been invented yet. So I asked my mother to take me to the Carnegie Library to get a book about it.

After checking to see if they had any new Hardy Boys mysteries, which they didn’t (they always had the same two that I’d already read and, no matter how much I begged, they never got any others), I looked around and found a book about the Alamo that looked interesting. It was a pretty hefty volume, but I managed to tote it to the desk and set it before the lady working there. I don’t know if she was a librarian, a volunteer, or Andrew Carnegie’s great-great-niece, but I remember what she said.

“You can’t read that. It’s too advanced for you.”

Then she walked off. A minute later, she returned with another book and handed it to me. “That’s more on your level,” she said. It wasn’t a pop-up book, but it might as well have been. Anybody who’d spent a year at Miss Sylvia’s Kindergarten (shout-out to my fellow alumni!) could have read that thing in twenty minutes while watching the Officer Don Show and playing “Operation” (although I admit to always having trouble removing the funny bone, even when giving it my full concentration).

I’d never been so insulted in all my eight years.

Amazingly, given that I was a remarkably meek and mild kid, I stood up for myself. “I don’t want that one. I want the other one,” I said. When the nice lady protested again, my mother said, “Let him get the one he wants.” They probably rolled their eyes at each other.

Sighing, the library lady picked the book up and stamped the due date in it so hard that I thought she might have left a dent in the desk. “It’s due in two weeks,” she announced, which translated meant, “I’ll see you when you come crawling back asking for the kiddie book I said you should get.”

I brought it back a week later. I’d finished it. I’d even understood it. I could have written an insightful book report on it.

As I remember it, I marched up to the desk, slammed the book down, and said to that library lady, “Boom!”

Actually, I probably just deposited it in the after-hours book return slot.

There are four morals to this story.

First, never tell a kid what she or he can’t do. You don’t know. Neither do they, until they try.

Second, let ‘em read. Books are a window to a wonderful world.

Third, support your local library. It’s an incredibly valuable resource.

Fourth, remember the Alamo! Otherwise, you might be doomed to repeat it ...

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

When I Don’t Feel Your Pain

Have you taken acetaminophen lately? It’s not surprising if you have, since 23% of Americans do so regularly. You may take it without realizing it, since it’s an ingredient in over 600 medicines.

I ask because I’m concerned about the seeming lack of empathy I perceive in many of us. Empathy is the ability to understand and share in someone else’s pain because you can imagine what their experience is like.

Evidently, acetaminophen may be partly to blame for our failure to empathize.

The results of a recent study conducted at Ohio State University seem to indicate that acetaminophen may reduce our ability to feel empathy. Basically, the study seems to show that people who take the drug have a reduced capacity to relate to someone else’s pain. Previous studies have shown that our experience of our own pain and of someone else’s pain affects the same part of the brain. So, if acetaminophen reduces our brain’s perception of our own pain, it stands to reason that it would also reduce our perception of someone else’s pain.

Acetaminophen isn’t the only culprit, though. Other factors can reduce our capacity for empathy. I’d like to mention only one possibility from a very long list: our unwillingness even to acknowledge, much less imagine, someone else’s experience.

There are about 7.3 billion people in the world, a number that’s expected to hit nine billion by 2050. There are 162 nations on the planet. While no one can say for sure how many ethnic groups there are, a good estimate is fifteen to twenty thousand. There are around seven thousand languages spoken around the world. There are just too many people, too many cultures, too many religions, too many histories, and too many experiences for us to know about, much less comprehend, them all.

On top of that, we all have the same handicap: we can have only our experience, and so we tend to see things only from our perspective. That’s just the way it is. Problems develop, though, when we let ourselves think, talk, and act as if our experience is normative—that all other experiences can and should be judged by it.

Take me, for example. I’m male, white, heterosexual, married, middle class, American, Southern, Christian, and educated. Everybody, thank God, isn’t the same as me. I mean, every other person who shares all of those characteristics with me has different life experiences than I do. There are different kinds of Christians and different kinds of education, for example.

So it’s not particularly surprising that I can neither relate to nor understand the experiences of someone who is black or Asian or Latino or female or single or homosexual or transgender or Iranian or single or poor or rich or Northern or Muslim or uneducated. We’re just different. That’s just the way it is.

Again, the problem comes when we judge all other experiences by ours. The problem becomes serious when we refuse even to acknowledge the validity of someone else’s experience. How can we move toward empathizing with their pain if we can’t even let ourselves admit that their experiences are just as real and legitimate—that they are just as human—as ours are?

We could use a little more empathy in this old world.

I’m not saying that we should stop taking acetaminophen.

And I’m not saying that we should stop being who we are—as if that’s even possible.

What I am saying is that we can better empathize with each other when we’re willing to see the validity of each other’s experience.

You’re not me and I’m not you.

But we are us …