First Mennonite Church
April 24, 2014
The Bible and Faith: Jesus Shows a Better Way to Read the Bible
Text: John 5:36-40
36 “I have testimony weightier than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to finish—the very works that I am doing—testify that the Father has sent me. 37 And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, 38 nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. 39 You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me to have life.
The Place of the Bible in the Church
The church is not what it is if not for its book—the Bible. Since the inception of the church two thousand years ago, the Christian church has claimed the Bible as its guide and source of inspiration. Above all, the church has searched in the pages of the Bible to hear the voice of God.
The church also forms its character on how it views and handles the Bible. In one of my earlier sermons on this topic (faith), I said that every belief becomes a rule of action; every belief makes us develop a certain habit. That is exactly what I mean when I say the church forms its character based on the way it handles the Bible. The way we view and interpret scripture shapes our beliefs in God. They also shape the way we worship God and do ministry. The way we interpret the Bible, consequently, shapes our character as people of God. Our faith is shaped by the way we understand the Bible and our faith is reflected in the way we conduct ourselves as Christians. Our beliefs are what shape our character as Christians.
If we are to look at the Christian church of today, it is clear that there is a crisis in its spiritual and moral character. More and more the church struggles to display the character of Christ because the role the Bible should have in shaping the church’s character is weak and often misguided. In other words, the church is not actively nor intentionally consulting its book to find guidance on how to live a life that responds to today’s changing world. Most often Christians respond to social, political, and religious issues on long-held assumptions they have about the Bible. Most often Christians do not turn to the Bible to see afresh what the Bible has to say about the issues the church is facing today. And often when Christians go to the Bible they consult it like an encyclopedia of propositional truths and not in open dialogue with the new realities they are facing. Many Christians see the Bible as lawyers see the US Code of Laws. The US Code of Laws has 54 Titles. Each title is broken into: subtitles, chapters, subchapters, parts, subparts, sections, subsections, paragraphs, subparagraphs, clauses, sub-clauses, items, and sub-items. Each of its parts, from the largest to shortest sub-item, carries equal legal weight. As we will see, Christians often times approach the Bible in the same way lawyers approach the Code of Laws. In this respect, there might be some truth when non-Christians accuse Christians as being “very judgmental and legalistic.” Therefore, let us not brush away that allegation so fast and without paying close attention to what truth there might be in it. I will come back to this point later.
Today, let us take a fresh look at how we see the Bible and how our view of the Bible shapes the way we see God and our relationship with him. The passage we have for today can help us illustrate both of these goals. John chapter 5 begins with the story of Jesus healing a man who had been sick for thirty-eight years. When the “Jews” saw the man walking around carrying his mat in the temple, they rebuked him because it was illegal to carry any load on the Sabbath. The man said he was carrying his mat because the one who healed him said to do so. After the healed man found it was Jesus who had healed him, he told the Scribes who had healed him. The scribes then challenged Jesus because he healed the man on the Sabbath. They became more determined to kill Jesus when Jesus said that his Father keeps working every day and therefore he does exactly the same.
The Scribes were well versed in the Bible. They knew how many words, letters and lines are in each book of the Bible. They were the experts on the Bible. This is what Jesus told them, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life.” Yes, the scribes were not only dedicated students of scriptures but they also believed that scriptures would lead them to God. The scribes dedicated their entire lives to zealously memorize, analyze, and preserving the integrity of scripture. They considered themselves the guardians of the sacred writings. So when they saw the man, who despite having been immobile for 38 years, but who was now carrying his mat on his shoulder, they did not hesitate to show him his error. The scribes knew right away which law was being transgressed and how many times this law is contained in the scripture. And when they found it was Jesus who had commanded the healed man to carry his mat, they were infuriated because both his act and his instruction violated the Sabbath law.
You see, the scribes found meaning for their lives in their strict and inflexible approach to the Bible. Their pride was based on their knowledge of the law. Their purpose was to tell people where their faults were. But they were failing to see the hand of God in the works of Jesus. In their zeal to protect the law from being violated they failed to recognize the one who is the main character in the Bible. They failed to believe Jesus as God’s anointed one for them. The scribes’ legalistic approach to the law prevented them from seeing the grace of God in the healing of a man. The scribes lived for the sake of the Bible but they had no life that came from God. That showed not only their hypocrisy but most importantly their greatest mistake in how they handled the law.
Let me read to you another such incident. This is from Luke 13, verses 10-17
10 On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, 11 and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” 13 Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.
14 Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.”
15 The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? 16 Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”
17 When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing.
The Scribes treated their animals better than they did people. Yet, they prided in being experts on their Bible!
With all of this wrongful use of the Bible, I do not mean to say we should not study the Bible. On the contrary, I want us to know our Bible. But we must be careful not do to it like the scribes did. Let me give to you some examples of how so often the Bible is used legalistically in the literal sense. I said earlier that many Christians use the Bible as if were the US Code of Laws. That means, we look at each book, each chapter, verse and clause of a verse as if it had equal authority. Every so often when Christians are in conflict or disagreement on an issue, each of the conflicting groups has a list of verses to prove they are in the right with their case. This attitude is visible in most cases.
If someone calls for helping the needy and the poor based on the words of Jesus, those who oppose it call on Jesus’ own words that “you will have the poor with you always” or they will quote Paul’s words that “he who does not work should neither eat.” If one side would claim that Jesus allowed women to participate in his ministry and that in fact women were the first to be commissioned by Jesus to announce his resurrection, the other side will quote Paul where he says, “I do not allow women to teach.” If one side calls Christians to love their enemies and to non-violence because Jesus says “if someone hits you on the right cheek, give the other side too,” the other side would show that Jesus was inconsistent with this. They’d say that when Jesus was hit on the face during his trial, he did not offer his other cheek. (Yet, they would fail to recognize that Jesus was ready to give more than the other cheek; he was about to give his very life.) I am not exaggerating. This is a common way Christians use the Bible. They give each clause, each word in the Bible equal weight of authority. It is not uncommon that people give Paul’s words more authority than those of Jesus.
Jesus Shows Us A Better Way to Use the Bible
The gospel according to John says, “In the beginning was the Word and . . . the Word was God (1:1). But then verse 14 says, “The Word became flesh . . . .” Jesus is the Word of God. The Word of God is not a book. The Word of God is Jesus. As we saw last Sunday, Jesus is the center of our faith. Jesus gives purpose and new meaning to the written word of God. Therefore, we need to hear what Jesus has to say about the correct way we should use and interpret the Bible. Here is what Jesus says in Matthew 23, verses 23 and 24.
23 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
Jesus rebuked the scribes and the Pharisees for the way they interpreted the scripture. Jesus made it clear that not every clause is equally as important as every other clause and not every verse is as important as every other verse. Interpreters run the danger of neglecting the more important matters of the Bible, which are justice, mercy and faithfulness. These three words describe the character of Jesus and his ministry. He spoke and did justice. And he said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6). Jesus showed mercy and compassion, even when the law called for the stoning of the woman caught in adultery. He also said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7). Jesus showed faithfulness even if it led to his death. This reemphasizes why our faith should be centered in Jesus. Every interpretation of the Bible that fails to see Jesus as the center will lead to a legalistic view of God. It will also lead to idolatry of the Bible instead of its being molded into the character of Jesus. But if Jesus becomes the lens through which we see the written word of God, we will surely find the life that the Word of God came to deliver. John says, “In him, (the Word) was life and the life was the light of all people” (1:4). When we, the church, center our focus on Jesus when we read and study the Bible, then we will be able to display the life of Jesus Christ.
Let us continue reading, studying, and memorizing our Bible. But let us read and study the Bible through the lens of Jesus. Let us be mindful that the Bible has but one goal: that we see Jesus. The scripture gives witness to him. And Jesus reminds us of the more important matters, which are justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Amen!