Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Bible & Students of Jesus

Once there was a man who was very good at his chosen profession. Although he was young everyone recognized that he was a rising star within his organization. One day he took a business trip. Before he arrived at his destination he unexpectedly encountered his arch-enemy along the road, and that enemy left him on the roadside defeated and--somehow--totally blind.

This man was led by the hand toward his destination, a strange town where he knew practically no one, and was left alone in a room for three days. During those three days, in the darkness of his new-found condition, he had time to reconsider everything he had learned about his profession. He was a man of great learning, especially with respect to the “Bible” of his business. And oddly enough the “Bible” of his business was in fact, the Bible--at least the Old Testament.

The man’s name was Saul, and you can read this story in the Book of Acts, chapter 9. Saul had a passion for the Old Testament. He was almost certainly a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council in Judaism. He had studied under one of the greatest rabbis of his day, Rabbi Gamaliel. And some Pauline scholars speculate that Saul had likely committed the entire Pentateuch to memory. Imagine that: Saul had memorized every word of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

Despite such a passion for the Bible, when the author Himself came to earth Saul and many others like him could not recognize that the One who inspired the Scripture was standing in front of them. How could people who had studied the Old Testament scriptures all their lives miss the Subject of those scriptures?

I would like to suggest this answer: it is easier to relate to a book than a living person. Books are manageable. Books can be memorized and mastered, books can be analyzed and interpreted, and books can be used to support conclusions we have have already decided upon.

In our pursuit of Jesus, we need to think seriously about the role of the Bible. If our aim is to take his yoke of discipleship and to learn from him, what role does the Bible play in becoming a follower of Jesus?

It’s too easy to criticize Pharisees like Saul. “How could they have failed to recognize Jesus?” we might ask. “Surely we would not have missed God’s anointed when he came.” Yet we should be careful, because these Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, and lawyers possessed a commitment and dedication to the scripture that was likely far greater anything we practice in our day.

Among the closing words of the Old Testament are these:
"See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come," says the LORD Almighty. (Malachi 3: 1)
God Himself came to earth in the person of Jesus. He came to the center of religious devotion and announced that the Kingdom revealed in the Old Testament scriptures was breaking in unexpectedly. The very guardians of religious orthodoxy could not recognize him. How could this be?

Perhaps the religious people of Jesus’ day were engaged in a kind of idolatry. Not in pagan practices or rituals but in a kind of idolatry which elevated the inspired word of God over God himself. The Bible is a precious gift from God. He breathed it into the minds and hearts of the men who wrote it. I believe that God Himself watched over process of collecting and canonizing these documents. I believe that God has protected the Bible through many dark ages so that every generation would be able to benefit from his gift. I love the book he has given us, but I do not confuse the book with the Author.

Sadly, in many Evangelical circles the Holy Trinity has morphed from “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” to “Father, Son and Holy Bible.”

Our Bible is inspired, literally God-breathed, and “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” Our Bible is the “more sure word of prophecy,” capable of correcting us when subjectivism and emotionalism threaten to lead us into error. Yet our misuse of the Bible can cause us to “get the lyrics right but get the music all wrong,” in the helpful phrase of Leonard Sweet.

Todd Hunter, a leader in the Vineyard Movement says plainly that “the Bible is the menu, not the meal.” I believe he means that the Bible should help bring us to the Bread of Life, Jesus, and encourage us in a living relationship with a Lord who is still alive, still speaking, and still doing.

The same Holy Spirit who inspired the scriptures in the first century is still moving and working all over the world. Jesus pointed his followers to the ministry of the Holy Spirit when he said, “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” (John 14: 26) For each follower of Jesus there is a tension between learning
about Jesus and having a relationship with him through the Holy Spirit.

So how should we come to the Bible? I'd like to suggest three "nevers:"

  • First, never come to the Bible alone. Always invite the same Spirit who inspired the Book to inspire your encounter. The Holy Spirit is the one who "will teach all things," and He will use the Bible as part of His tutorial.  
  • Second, never settle for head-knowledge apart from personal experience. True, our first ideas about following Jesus may come from reading the Bible, but I believe we should ask the Holy Spirit to move us from the book to real-life experience. What starts as head-knowledge must find its way into our experience. 
  • Finally, never come to the Bible without a commitment to obey his voice. James, the brother of Jesus, tells us that if we build a lifestyle of merely hearing God's word without doing it, we will become deceived. God doesn't speak "FYI," he speaks "FYO," For Your Obedience.

The Bible is a gift--a gift we should treasure and respect. Let's use that gift to grow closer to the Giver.

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