A Proper Approach #4

When I was growing up I was privileged to see many of the modern day conveniences come about and become normal. Home computers, laptops, cell phones, wireless internet, flat screen televisions, cruise control, smart phones, and on and on the list could go. Living in a small town made some of this time warp seem off because our town was about 10-15 years behind the curve (I didn’t get high speed internet where we live until about 3 years ago). With this in mind, I remember going to a fast food restaurant when I was about 7 years old and being amazed with how fast the food came and how I could order it to be the way I wanted it to be made.

This was such a mind blowing idea because usually I got what was cooked by my mother and that was pretty much the end of the story (which is a great parenting strategy if I might add). The idea of having what I wanted prepared how I wanted it was a big concept. In this day and age the idea of ‘having it your way’ (as popularized by the famous fast food chain) is commonplace and even expected. When Americans order food at a restaurant if they cannot have the food prepared how they want it then they will choose to eat elsewhere. We have developed a very consumerist culture where all of the focus is placed on the individual.

Sadly, this ‘me’ mentality has overflowed into most areas of our daily lives. We want not just our food tailored to our own desires but also our clothing, cars, phones, computers, education, television shows, and friends to all be oriented our personal wants and desires. We simply cannot fathom not being able to have it the way we want it to be. The American society is so individualistic that we have a hard time looking outside of ourselves for meaning and purpose. With around 3% serving in the military, a shocking decline in service oriented jobs, and a severe drought in charitable giving (most people and foundations give simply to get a tax break) our culture is so far away from doing what is best for others rather than ourselves that it is depressing.

As a theologian, I see the result of this every day when I examine American spirituality and especially the state of the Christian church in America. Our focus has shifted away from what is best for the Church as a whole and are focused on our own desires. We want the music style we like, the environment we like, the preaching style we like, the decor to match our tastes, the time schedule to work around our own, and even the topic to be on what area of our lives we are growing in. If this doesn’t match up we complain at best and go somewhere that meets our own desires at worst (or not go at all). We have come to desire our preference over God’s presence.

This individual preference mentality has also resulted in what has been called the ‘Reader Response’ method of studying the Bible. Reader Response Theory & Criticism is not limited to the Bible but its affects have been impacting how Christians read the Bible for decades. While the theory is much older than the 1960’s, this is when the style of studying the Bible impacting the Christian church in America.

While there are a variety of styles of Reader Response the one that is mostly observed in American Christianity is the ‘Subjective Reader Response Theory’ whereby the reader puts most, if not all, of the material in the perspective of the reader and how it impacts their own lives (for more information I recommend Tyson, Lois (2006). Critical theory today: a user-friendly guide, 2nd edn. Routledge, New York and London. & Tompkins, Jane P. (ed.) (1980). Reader-response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-structuralism. Johns Hopkins University Press.)

Aside from the reflection I did on the recent American presidential election we have been focusing on how to take a proper approach to reading the Bible. This is one of the tail-end posts I’m going to do on this series and perhaps it is the most important one yet. The reason for this is that it keeps us from taking the Bible out of its context and making us think that everything that was written in our pages is about us. This brings us to this entry’s Big Truth: the Bible may be written FOR US but it was not written TO US. Let me take a little to expound on this.

The Bible, at its core, is God’s Word that displays the hand of God working in the history of mankind to accomplish His purposes. However, God chose to give his word to humanity through people who spoke and eventually wrote down the message God gave to them. The Bible is not one single book but rather is a compendium of many books written in many languages by many authors over the course of thousands of years. The final book was written in approximately 60-70 AD (my reasoning for this date, along with the reasoning of many other well-respected theologians, is that none of the books of the New Testament record the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD) which was, of course, over 1,940 years ago!

With this in mind, it is astounding that we would take this old of a text and think that it was written to us as individuals. No one I have ever met would pick up Homer’s Iliad or Plato’s Republic or Plutarch’s Life of Alexander the Great and say, “Wow! I can’t believe they wrote this just for me!” Yet, many Christians read the Bible and think that the words on the pages were written expressly for them in the life situation they are currently in. While I am not denying that God will use the Bible to teach us wisdom, morality, and how God expects us to live our lives reaching the world with the message of the Gospel, it is pure naiveté to read the Bible thinking that it was written to James Johnson in Madison, FL in the year 2016.

Consider this silly scenario I heard a pastor describe one time: A woman was torn with what to do in her marriage relationship. Her husband had become distant and she had met another man at work who paid her tons of attention, compliments, and encouraged her to leave her husband and begin a relationship with him. She was devoted Christian, however, and simply could not condone the idea of divorce. With this in mind, she prayed and asked God to give her an answer to her dilemma.

She then opened her Bible and randomly opened to a passage. She found herself in the book of Ephesians in the 4th chapter and her finger landed on verse 22 which read “Put off the old man…” as well as verse 24 which read “and put on the new man…” She then praised God for his answer to her problem and promptly let her husband (the ‘old man’) know she was leaving him and let her workplace romance (the ‘new man’) know she wanted to be with him.

This made-up story is silly but reflects the attitude that many Christians take when reading the Bible. They believe that every word on the pages of the Bible was written expressly for their own personal lives. This is not only naïve but it is also a dangerous path that will eventually lead the reader to a misunderstanding of the Bible. Looking back at the other errors we have examined in this series (Jeremiah 29:11, the story of David and Goliath, and the problem with 2 Chronicles 7:14) we can see how this Reader Response theory can create false teaching and eventually false doctrine. It will lead to disappointment and the misrepresentation of what the Bible was never meant to say.

So, how do we combat the Reader Response problem?  The answer is as simple as it sounds; remember that the Bible was written ‘for’ us but not ‘to’ us. This can be hard because it is counter to what many of us have grown up being taught. We have heard things like ‘The Bible is God’s love letter to us’ or that ‘Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so’ and ‘Read the Bible every day so that you know what God wants you to do’ and on and on. Each of these phrases I have heard (or similar statements) has the struggle of taking a little truth and stretching it into a lie. Let me show you what I mean…

Let’s say that we tell someone that the Bible is God’s love letter to them. Then, that person starts reading their Bible and comes across this passage from Mark 16 verses 17 & 18: “These miraculous signs will accompany those who believe: They will cast out demons in my name, and they will speak in new languages. They will be able to handle snakes with safety, and if they drink anything poisonous, it won’t hurt them. They will be able to place their hands on the sick, and they will be healed.” Then, because the Bible is God’s love letter to them, they then say that since they are a believer that they should be able to drink poison and it won’t hurt them. What logical thing do we expect to happen? They die of course.

You are probably thinking that is a silly thing to think about. However, these two verses are taken from what is called ‘The Great Commission’ where Jesus send out his disciples to spread the Gospel throughout the world. I have been taught my entire life that since the Bible was written to me (not for me) that the Great Commission applies to all believers and that it is my commandment from God to spread the Gospel. If that is the case, then shouldn’t the signs that apply to ‘those who believe’ apply to me? Not when we actually read the passage in context.

When read in context, we see that Jesus told a specific group of people something specific he wanted them to do and that they would experience supernatural protection during that time period. This was not a promise to all believers throughout all of time or else no earnest Christians would have died from poisoning ever. Yet we see this as a normal occurrence throughout the history of the Church. Why does this seem to be confusing? Was Jesus a liar? By no means. What has happened is we have taken the words of Jesus giving directions to a specific group of people in a specific place in history for a specific purpose and thought it applied to us 2,000 years later.

Don’t hear what I’m not saying; we should definitely spread the Gospel. Why? Because it was the heartbeat of Jesus. His mission was to seek and save that which was lost (cf. Luke 19:10). If we want to follow Jesus our heartbeat should be the same as his. However, if we were to take the Great Commission as our great commission then we must follow it by going to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the entire world spreading the Gospel. This means I need to quit my job (which provides for my family and our future) and become a worldwide missionary starting in Jerusalem then going into Judea, then Samaria, then the entire world. Oh, and by the way, so should every other Christian in the world.

You see how a little bit of truth can get stretched out into a lie? Jesus never commanded every single Christian to become an impoverished beggar who travels the planet spreading the Gospel. Instead, we copy the heartbeat of Jesus and follow the leading of the Scriptures (in context) and the Holy Spirit. Some are called to be missionaries while others are called to be businessmen/women. Some are called to be stay at home parents and others are called to be evangelists. Yet, the heartbeat of Jesus is to seek and save the lost. This should be ours as well but we are not called to go to Jerusalem or handle snakes or drink poison. We are called to seek and save the lost.

Where does this leave us? Without belaboring the point I’ll leave you with this simple idea: remember what the Bible is and don’t expect it to be something it isn’t. It was a letter written by men to specific readers in a specific point in history. We must read it as such. Yes, God used people to deliver his message to his people. 2 Timothy 3:16 tells us that all Scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching what is true. It is not, however a biology textbook, an American History Textbook, or health & fitness guide. It is the description of the hand of God working through people throughout history to accomplish His purposes. When we keep this in context and in balance we can learn how to live and love as God wishes for us to.

I’ll give you one last example and wrap up this entry. The Book of Revelation is a confusion and often overlooked book at the end of the New Testament. Yet, it has inspired many people (and a best-selling book series) that the end of the American nation is mentioned in the Bible. Here is the rub; America had yet to be founded for almost two millennia when the Book of Revelation was written. How do we tackle this book? We use our skills we have learned throughout this series and read the text in its proper context.

The Book of Revelation was written (as supported by the early Church Fathers and many modern theologians) by the Apostle John. It was written while he was exiled on the island of Patmos for being a Christian during the reign Nero around approximately 60-70 AD. According to Church tradition, they tried to martyr John by boiling him in oil but he would not burn which led to him be exiled on the prison island of Patmos. During this time he received a vision from God about the upcoming wrath the Roman Empire would release on the Church and the judgement God would eventually place against the Roman Empire.

John wrote to specific church groups with specific directions for how they should adjust how they are working. He then goes on to write a description of what God shows him concerning the upcoming future of Jerusalem and the Roman Empire. We know this by his continual usage of the word ‘soon’ throughout the text. The style of writing he writes in is that of an Apocalypse (this is the Greek word where we get the word Revelation from) and we have to understand the apocalyptic genre to understand how to read the book. While this blog entry is too short to cover that I encourage you to do your homework because it will help you understand the books of Zechariah, Isaiah, Hezekiah and Daniel as well.

What does this mean to us? That we cannot read the book of Revelation looking for what God’s plan for the United States of America is. We can read it and know that one day God will come to judge the Earth for how people have acted towards his commands and how the Church has followed his heartbeat to love others and spread the Gospel. If, however, we look to it to try and find out what the future of America is then we will at best be confused and at worst be led to very improper conclusions. We must remember our Big Truth for this entry: the Bible was written ‘for’ us but not ‘to’ us.

I hope this helps you as you continue to study and apply God’s word!

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