An Open Table where Love knows no borders

To Understand the Scriptures

A sermon on Luke 24:36b-48 by Nathan Nettleton

The Christian Church is frequently divided by arguments over how to read and interpret the Bible. Many of our hot-potato ethical arguments — whether it be the ethics of war, or the ethics of sexuality, or the ethics of social policy — come back sooner or later to an argument about the authority of the Bible and the right and wrong ways to interpret the Bible. Usually all sides appeal to the Bible, and criticise each other for misusing the Bible and failing to interpret it in a properly Christian way. For example, I recently received an email that said:

“I don’t think you should label yourself as an ‘Evangelical Pastor’. Evangelicals are basically the only remaining group who come totally and utterly under the authority of the bible. Every year more and more churches and pastors slip further and further away from the bible and slowly add and change more and more of it to suit their desires and needs. … (Supporting) gay marriage automatically removes you from being evangelical. Why? Because you are upholding a view that is against the bible. Simple really.”

Simple indeed. But is it true? The charge that I twist scripture to suit myself, or that I am selective in my use of it is one I have faced frequently. I’m certainly not alone. Those who make the charge frequently claim to take every line of the Bible with equal seriousness, and to form their views and agendas solely on the basis of an unbiased reading of the Bible. And yet, it never takes more than one or two questions to find some issue that is outlawed somewhere in the bible, but which these accusers either disregard in their own lives, or don’t see any need to make a fuss about. The fact is that everyone is selective. The question is, on what basis are we being selective? Are we all, whatever side we are on, just selecting the bits we like, or is there a solid God-given basis on which to make our selections?

Surely if we are to read the Bible as followers of Jesus, then we need to begin by asking how Jesus read the Bible. In tonight’s gospel reading we heard:

Jesus said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you–that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”

He opened their minds to understand the scriptures. That tells us a lot in itself. It is only through Jesus that we can understand the scriptures as Jesus understands them. It doesn’t say that the Bible opened their minds to understand Jesus. It is the other way around. We do not begin with the Bible in order to understand Jesus; we begin with Jesus in order to understand the Bible. That doesn’t mean the Bible has no authority. It means that its authority comes from Jesus and through Jesus, and that to give it an authority that is not Jesus-centred is to read it some way other than the way that Jesus himself reads it. Note too that Jesus doesn’t say “everything written in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” He says, “everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” That, whether anyone likes it or not, is a selective reading of the Bible.

At another time, Jesus was asked his opinion about what was the most important commandment in the Bible. The question was possibly a trick one, because some of those listening would have argued that the only correct answer was that they were all equally important since they were all in the Bible and it is not for us to pick and choose our favourites. But even in the face of the possible set-up, Jesus had no hesitation in selecting a top two. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and you shall love your neighbour as yourself.” And to further reinforce the point, he says that all the rest of the law and the prophets are dependent on these two, which is to say that they are to be interpreted through these two.

That is far from the only example of Jesus being deliberately selective in his reading of the Bible. Right at the start of his public ministry, in his first recorded sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth, the thing that gets him in trouble is his selective editing of a well known passage of scripture. He reads from the prophet Isaiah about the Spirit of the Lord being upon him to preach good news and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and he deliberately edits out the line about the day of vengeance. When the people begin muttering, he leaves no room for doubt about what he was doing, because he quotes other passages to support the view that God’s favour extends to exactly those who the locals were wanting to see swallowed up on the day of vengeance. Jesus is deliberately selecting those parts of scripture which portray a God of all-inclusive love over those passages that portray a vengeful God who is just waiting for the day when he can destroy those who have failed to measure up. Both exist, but Jesus is deliberately selective. Controversy over such selective reading is nothing new! It nearly gets Jesus killed on day one of his public ministry, but he keeps preaching it that way, and it keeps getting him in trouble and eventually it does get him killed. But here he is again, three days later, with the fatal wounds still raw, continuing to read the Bible in the same selective way and opening the minds of his followers to do likewise.

You see, this is fundamental to what Jesus was on about. He did not come to reinforce the standard party line that you just have to live in rigorous adherence to every line of the Bible, and all will be well. Much of his message was that we have misunderstood God, and no matter how “biblical” our understandings of God might be, many of them are wrong. Not every word of the Bible is equally useful in building up an accurate picture of God. Much of what is in the Bible is a long drawn out argument over who God is and what God expects, and so it should be no surprise that it contains opposing views, many of which can’t be right. Sometimes this is completely obvious. For example the book of Job is actually written as an argument between those who think that all suffering is inflicted by God as a punishment for sin, and those who think that often the innocent suffer. Both sides are expressed, and it is only towards the end that we hear God say that those who said all suffering is evidence of God’s punishment were wrong. But most of the time in the rest of the Bible, there is no simple summary at the end of each section to tell us which sides of the arguments were right or wrong. But there is a big all-encompassing answer given: Jesus. You want the answers to all those questions about which view of God is right and how God regards and relates to various people, here’s the answer: Jesus. The risen Christ opens our minds to understand the scriptures and to grasp what they say about him.

And the fact that it is the risen crucified Christ who does this is very illuminating. Far too much of the time, well-meaning people who are trying to defend God and the Bible end up treating the Bible as though it was the last will and testament of our dearly departed God. It is only if someone is dead that the only access we have to what they have to say and what they ask of us is through a written record. When we end up just arguing over whether something is or isn’t what the Bible teaches, we look like we are contesting the details of a will. “This is what he wanted.” “No this is what he wanted.” Do we believe in the resurrection or don’t we? Is Jesus our living Lord, or just a dead hero we commemorate and maintain the legacy of?

This is important, not only because Jesus is alive, but because his radical aliveness is one of the keys to how he would have us read the Bible. In his risen presence, we see that God is a God of life who has rendered death impotent. God has nothing to do with death or with the powers of death. God is always and only about life, life, and more life. Even as the crucified one, Jesus is so totally on about life that he can show off the wounds of death like a trophy, like something that no longer contains any fear or horror. They are now nothing more than reference points that show how totally he has triumphed over death. Even though he is dead, yet he is more alive than ever. Even though he is the slaughtered lamb, yet he lives and reigns forever, not threatened by death, not threatening death, not inflicting death, not requiring death, not endorsing death. Suffering death, yes, still and forever. Jesus suffers in every death, and yet it has no power to stop him living and loving and forgiving. “The Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead, and repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all.”

And so he opens our minds, and so we read the Bible with him. And so we are able boldly to choose between those passages that portray a death dealing God, and those that portray a God who is all about life. When biblical texts portray God as a god of vengeance, as a god who demands payment in blood, as a god who would willingly consign anyone to eternal death, then we can be as selective as Jesus was. Whenever the Bible portrays a god who does not look and act and live and love like Jesus, we can safely conclude that it is telling us some true things about our false perceptions of God, but it is not telling us the truth about the God who is made known to us in Jesus. It is true what they say, that you can justify anything from the Bible, but it is not true that you can justify anything from the example of the risen Christ who speaks always and only words of love and grace and forgiveness. This is why we give extra symbolic prominence to the readings we hear from the gospels over the readings we hear from the other parts of the Bible. It is not that the gospel writers were perfect either, but it is that in the gospels we have the primary witness to Jesus, and so we come closest to the primary revelation of God, which is Jesus himself, crucified, risen and alive and speaking forever to all who will follow him.

Year by year, I become more and more a lover of the Bible as I explore it and allow God to speak to me though it in life-changing ways. I hope and pray that that is increasingly true for each of you too. But, to use the words of my recent email correspondent, I do not intend to become someone who is totally and utterly under the authority of the bible. I aspire to live totally and utterly under the authority of the risen crucified Christ who will use the Bible as one of his ways of speaking to me and who will open my mind to understand the scriptures, and most importantly to discern and understand those parts which are about him, about life, about love, about mercy, about the one who is not a dead hero we commemorate but the living Lord we worship.


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