What is the Bible?
A collection of stories? A guidebook for life? A book of great quotes to help you achieve your best?
Let me ask the question another way: If someone considered the way you treat the Bible, what would they say the Bible is?
In truth, the Bible is a story. It is the story of Jesus.
Regretfully, I observe few people using the Bible primarily this way.
For many of us personally, and sadly from many of our pulpits, the Bible is not treated as a cohesive story but as a grab bag for inspiration. The grand, sweeping story of a cosmic love spurned, a King revealed, and a relationship restored in unfathomable detail has been reduced to a condiment.
I recently heard a pastor speak to his congregation about how they should persevere in pursuing their goals. He said they have to keep their eyes on the goal (said goal was never defined and is assumed to be relative) – believing they can achieve it.
To give weight to his words, the pastor stamped them with bible ink. “After all,” he said, “As Paul says in Colossians, ‘Let us run with endurance the race set before us.’”
Heads nodded. Point made.
So what’s wrong with that?
First of all, the quote is not from Colossians, it’s from Hebrews (and Paul’s authorship is debatable). Second, this betrays a view of Scripture that has permeated Christian culture to the degree that it largely goes unquestioned.
This view of Scripture sees the Bible not as a whole unit, but as a long list of proverbs. In essence, a proverb is a short saying that carries some degree of wisdom or a principle that speaks into life.
In this view, the New Testament gives us Jesus-proverbs where He, or some random disciple, gives us a word of encouragement for living. We abide by these statements or idioms as a means to follow Jesus into the life He has planned for us (or that we have planned for us).
The Old Testament is harder as a lot of its sentences are weird and about killing bulls. It is easier, we find, just to pull a quote from the Psalms, Proverbs (that’s a lay-up) or a quick saying we like from God.
Once we have tacked one of these proverbs or idioms on to our personal thought or strategy, we have stamped it with the God-stamp. God said it. It must be true.
The problem with treating the Scriptures as a treasure trove of removable quotes is that we have completely divorced these words from their meaning. Words divorced from meaning can be lethal.
Now you may be asking:
Does it really matter who said what to whom, why, or which book it’s in?
You’re just being legalistic and bookish.
It’s all the Bible, right?
Yes and no.
Question: what if I took a quote from Hitler’s Mein Kampf and used it in a love letter to my wife? Something like, “With you, my love, I have seen that ‘heaven itself can be presented to the people.’”
It seems lofty. It sounds good.
In reality, it’s a quote about using mind-washing propaganda to justify murdering Jews. That matters.
I am certainly not saying that quoting Scripture out of context is the same as committing genocide, but it should at least give us cause to consider the way we use words – particularly words of Scripture.
In applying Scripture and hearing it applied, do we understand the meaning beyond the words? Do we know the context enough to know not just the words, but why they are important – why they speak not specifically to our situation, but to the greater Gospel narrative as a whole?
In truth, each sentence of the Bible is part of a greater thought that may be telling a historical account or introducing the Law to new Gentile converts. The difference matters.
The danger with treating the Bible like a grab bag of proverbs is that God did not give us the Bible as a grab bag of proverbs. He gave it to us as letters, histories, poems and warnings because the message of God in the Gospel is greater than personal encouragement. The Gospel is greater than really trying to lose weight or manage a busy calendar. If that weren’t the case, then a bunch of quips about how “You can do it!” would suffice.
But “You can do it!” is not the Gospel.
Whether we take the Bible one verse at a time or one book at a time, we must know why the words we are reading matter. They matter because they point to the big story of God – the Gospel. They point to Jesus. If we use them to point to any other thing, we have made that thing an idol.
Using the words of the Bible to point to ourselves, our personal pursuits or even three happy hops to a better marriage or financial portfolio may seem harmless, but to do so ultimately strips the Bible’s words of their power and assigns them a much weaker purpose. It bends the words of God to serve the message of man.
The next time you read or hear a portion of Scripture, instead of asking what it means to you and your front-burner checklist, consider what it means in light of the Gospel.
Seek out the context of the verse and why it is important in the letter, or writing, it comes from. Seek the story the words are telling.
It will lead you to a much greater story. It will connect you to a much greater power.
It will lead you to THE story, THE way, THE truth, and THE life.
It will lead you to behold the Gospel and the surpassing beauty of Jesus Christ.
It will lead you to God through His word. Words can serve no higher purpose.