Reading the Bible Badly

20131028-223900.jpg

Reading – Matthew 4:5-6 Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”

It concerns me how easily the devil manipulates scripture to serve his own agenda, and I worry how often we choose to read scripture in a similar way. I have and still do often pluck verses from their context and apply it to my own or another’s life, often without really realising what I’ve done. It’s so easy!

The most striking example of this I have found is perhaps the oft quoted Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Often this is used as a verse that excuses passivity, and assumes a pre-won victory in whatever endeavour we happen to be undertaking at the time. Rarely is this beautiful portion of scripture ever quoted with the two verses immediately prior to it. The “all things” Paul is referring to is actually the ability to live in any situation, either with little or with much. Essentially, he is stating that he knows the secret to living in poverty or wealth. It’s truly a remarkable claim and ought to be studied and treasured, but it is not suggesting what it is popularly assumed to be suggesting.

It’s interesting though, given how easily scripture can be dissected and distorted, how Jesus responds to the devil’s temptation. He doesn’t appeal to another authority, instead he fights the devils misuse of scripture with more scripture. Jesus was saturated with the word of God and knew how to utilise it. It was not only for theological speculation (like I’m doing now) but for a real-life situation with very real consequences. The lesson is that in order to avoid being misled, or misleading others with dodgy interpretations of the Bible,we must not avoid studying scripture but instead study it more deeply. Jesus studied the scriptures avidly, but unfortunately avid biblical study (as opposed to cherry picking the occasional verse that we like) is often considered too difficult, or dangerous (some people believe we should just passively absorb scripture) and both are upsetting misunderstandings. Biblical study is practical, it’s faith enriching, and it doesn’t have to be complicated.

A simple, and free, resource to use would be http://www.biblehub.com. It gives detailed notes on specific verses and words which is important. There are also plenty of things to help place these words and verses into the broader context of the passages. If you want to go a bit deeper into the original languages it has an incredible amount of detail and information on the Greek and Hebrew. Healthy Christianity is certainly more than good biblical literacy, but shouldn’t be less. Whether we like it or not we read scripture through a filter, and it’s our responsibility to try to make sure that filter is helping, not hindering our knowledge of Christ.

A common objection to the idea that all must study scripture is that part of the Holy Spirit’s role is to interpret scripture for us. (I’m not entirely sure the Bible clearly states this, and I think it assumes the Bible is primarily there to extract truths from) but I’m happy to accept that the Holy Spirit is an important companion when reading scripture. We can be moved and nudged to certain stories, and we can often find that a passage is shouting about our present situation… But this in no way relegates personal and responsible study of the scriptures to a optional hobby. It isn’t simply a quirky pastime of those who seem to be good at it. Each of us are called to meditate and examine Gods scripture, to live with it close to us.

We can all commit to a deeper involvement with the word of God. Perhaps a good place to start, if you haven’t already, would be your favourite verse or passage. Read the whole book that it’s contained within. Often bibles will tell you what the purpose of a book or letter was and this is tremendously useful. As you work through the book try identifying recurring themes or words, they tell you what the author is trying to emphasise. Are there any verses that you don’t understand? Make a note and return to it later with a commentary or bible dictionary. Are there any verses that seem to have a difficult message? It’s easy to ignore it but spend some time wrestling with it. It’s also helpful to draw on the various practises and traditions of those around us to better understand our bible. Recently I’ve been trying to meditate on passages using the “Lectio Divina” model. (You can google “Lectio divina” to find out more).

Fully engaging with scripture is like fully engaging with an environment. It’s akin to the difference between simply seeing a photo of a Forest, and experiencing the forests sounds, smells and textures. We know the forest better, more intimately by studying both the bigger, beautiful picture and also its small, intricate details. Let’s not limit our Christian growth by refusing the explore the world of scripture in the same way!

One final thought occurs to me from this passage about Jesus’ testing. It is a clear demonstration that scripture can be quite easily, by ignorance or malice, broken up and distorted into a false word. It becomes shaky and unreliable. Mere words on a page can be so horribly twisted that they lose their status as the sanctified word of God.

But wonderfully, Jesus cannot. He allowed himself to be mistreated and broken. In the midst of it his character was not once distorted in any way. He was not made false or unreliable. The unjust crucifixion demanded bitterness and rage, but he remained loving and merciful, (“Father forgive them”). When cut, scripture burst forth in his cries in which he quotes Psalm 22. He cannot but be the the truth. He is and always will be the Word.

So, let’s not assume we spend some time with the Bible, and other times with Jesus. Their connection is mysterious, but profound. Let’s draw near him, and stay near him and ask him to read the scriptures with us.

Advertisements

Spring of Living Water

JEREMIAH 2:13

“My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.

Occasionally we come across a portion of scripture that really captivates us. The last few years I have been trying to redress the imbalance between my Old and New Testament literacy, and whilst doing so some of the imagery I have come across in the poetic and prophetic books of the O.T. completely astound me. This is one such example.

This passage in Jeremiah involves water, and in the ancient middle-east water is an immensely evocative symbol. Water meant opportunity, growth, fruitfulness and above all life itself. It was and is in any parched land a precious commodity. There is no obvious parallel symbol for the western world because for them water represented so much good. Having a reliable constant source of water is so fundamental that life can barely get going without one.

God calls himself a spring of living water, and in fact, he unapologetically tells Israel that he is the only spring of living water. A spring for the people that is fresh, available and unending. The implications are massive. He is saying that all good endeavours, growth, opportunity and even life itself rely on him in the same way a community relies on a water spring. He himself stands at the centre of the world sustaining life. He’s responsible for the food, plants, gardens, fruit, grass, animals. Without him everything becomes parched and quickly dies. You can take the image a step further and suggest that the farther away from the spring of water something lives the less healthy it is. We should all live our lives as close to the water source as possible (Psalm 1).

The terrible thing is that despite Gods’s centrality to all of life itself humanity chooses not to rely on God but instead on other things. These other things are often good things that were given to us by him and more often than not it was something he made for our pleasure. But instead of loving him, we have what Tim Keller calls an “over-love” for the things he gives. He says that these idols are at the very epicentre of our desire.

The prophet Hosea also spoke of this tragedy, having experienced it first hand when Gomer left him: “She shall pursue her lovers, but not overtake them, and she shall seek them but shall not find them. Then she shall say, ‘I will go and return to my first husband, for it was better for me then than now.’ And she did not know that it was I who gave her the grain, the wine, and the oil, and who lavished on her silver and gold, which they used for Baal.” (Hosea 2:7-8)

20130609-002456.jpg

This brings us to the next image represented. The image of the broken cistern. Cisterns were dug into the ground to store water. The image above is a surviving cistern in the Middle East. A broken cistern is one that obviously leaks, and cannot hold water, and this evocative image of a leaking well of water speaks volumes about the outcome of choosing anything else over God. Every other well runs dry, the water disappears. It isn’t even used up fruitfully. It disappears into the ground. It’s wasted, and must be replaced by more and more water. The well can never be filled, though we will constantly attempt to fill it, even pouring our very selves into it if necessary.

Doesn’t that proclaim a stark truth that we often miss? Isn’t it the perfect diagnosis of addiction? The drug user must fill his body with more and increasingly heavy drugs to keep a sense of being filled. The more a person craves and accumulates money, the less one is satisfied with each coin. The alcoholic’s thirst can only be quenched by more and more booze. The lonely people who crave nothing more than attention and human interaction, tragically, become pushier and pushier until they push potential friends away. The casual use of pornography becomes an addiction that requires increasingly hardcore material.

An over-love for anything but God, is idolatry, and idolatry always looks like addiction. Like every addiction idolatry grows and grows until it destroys us. Each step in the process requires a little more sacrifice than before. Eventually, what we treasure will require us to die for it. We’ll have nothing but ourselves to throw into the well. When everything about a persons life becomes fixated on the attainment of a single thing, the process is complete and very difficult to redress. They have ceased to fully live, and are simply existing. In a non-literal, but very real sense, they are dying.

Jesus Christ is the only God who says instead “I died for you”. He threw himself into the well, so we don’t have to. He poured himself out, figuratively and literally in greater and greater ways until the cost demanded was his very life. And as we saw earlier, he doesn’t just save us from bondage to idols, he promises us himself, the spring of living water. I’m reminded on the story in the Narnia tale “The Silver Chair”. Jill, a nervous young girl meets Aslan for the first time by a stream, and is terrified of being eaten by the lion. Desperate for a drink, but too scared to approach the lion’s stream she says “Oh dear, I shall have to find another stream”.

“There is no other stream” The lion says.

Let us not try to fill up our cisterns any more. Let’s trust in God for the water that brings life. Let us drink from Gods spring, after all, it’s the only one.

All Things Are Possible For Who?

Image

Mark 9:22-23 – “… “But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him “‘If you can’! All Things are possible for one who believes.””

Check this verse out. Is Jesus essentially saying that everything is possible for a person who believes?

I like to read it as though Jesus is experiencing a little bit of indignation at the man’s suggestion that Jesus may be able to help. Would it be too extra biblical to paraphrase Jesus’ response: “‘If I can!’ Pah! All things are possible for the one who believes”. Read this way we see something quite remarkable. Jesus might have been talking simply about himself. He is the one who believes and for whom everything is possible. Not us, necessarily.

This is quite different from the way this verse has typically been read. I find it particularly helpful to read it this way, because it places the entire burden of supernatural acts on Jesus, and not on me. This makes sense right? We know that Jesus is capable of all things, and if he chooses to do something great, and if he doesn’t well that’s okay too.

So what part do we have to play? I think the man’s humble response tells us very much. The man’s humble response is “I believe; help my unbelief”. What a strange request! He has a little faith, but he’s still struggling with doubt. Does Jesus rebuke him, or scold him for his doubt? No. Does he ask him to come back when his faith is better? No.

Jesus heals the boy.

What we don’t see is the faith of the father healing the boy. Isn’t that the way we’ve typically understood this passage. “If the father had had more faith, then he could have healed his own son.” Possibly?

What we see instead is actually far more beautiful. We see Jesus’ faith healing the child, despite the Father’s doubt. Isn’t that comforting? We don’t have to be the finished article for Jesus to do beautiful things. If our faith is shaken we can be reassured that Jesus’ is very much intact. If you allow me to just be a little more extra-biblical, I imagine Jesus with a little indignation and much passion saying: “You don’t understand, it’s me! I believe, I’m the one with enough faith and I can do all things, just watch me”.

Perhaps if we wish to see more of the supernatural, we should place confidence in Jesus and his faith, rather than our own. Doesn’t that sound sensible?

My faith isn’t much to speak of, but thankfully, Jesus has great faith.  I trust Him and not myself, or at least I try to. He is the only one able to move the those mountains I never stood a chance at. What need have I for power? I have very little of it, but my friend, my closest companion has great power. I’m content with that.