The Word is Near
2 Timothy 3:14-17
2 Peter 1:20-21
The new pastor dropped in on the first grade Sunday School Class. He said, "Tell me who was responsible for the walls of Jericho falling?" After a minute of silence one boy said "I don't know, but it wasn't my fault!" The pastor turned to the teacher who explained with a puzzled look on her face, "I know Johnny and his parents, and if he said he didn't have anything to do with it, he didn't!" The thoroughly frustrated pastor brought the matter up at his first board meeting. There was an uneasy silence and finally the treasurer said, "Look Pastor, the boy and his parents are all good people. Let's just pay for the wall and charge it off to miscellaneous expense."
This is how our biblical interpretations sometimes get off track too. Furthermore, the following story illustrates how we sometimes arrive at totally different interpretations based on the same text of Scripture.
In an ancient story called "The Holy Man," a group of pilgrims are travelling across a vast desert to visit the holy shrines and temples of antiquity. After several days' journey into the desert, they see a great rolling cloud of dust in the distance moving toward them. The pilgrims' leader cries out, "I fear it is a band of murderous thieves! Quickly, let us take shelter behind that sand dune!" The pilgrims huddle together as the cloud of dust comes closer and closer until it stops on the other side of the sand dune. The leader of the pilgrims climbs to the top of the sand dune. There he sees a man with a long white beard who has climbed to the top on the other side. It quickly becomes apparent that they can’t speak the other man's tongue, so they resort to sign language. After communicating for a while in this manner, the white-bearded man moves quickly down his side of the sand dune and the pilgrim leader goes back down to his flock. There is a look of beatific rapture on his face. "What happened?" the pilgrims ask. He replies, "My children, I have just met the holiest of the holy. This is what happened: When we met face to face we could not speak each other's language, so I decided to use sign language. With my finger I drew a circle in the sand, to indicate that we are all one in this world. He looked at the circle and then he drew a line through it. He meant, of course, that there are two worlds: the earthly and the heavenly. To show him I understood, I pointed upward with my finger to indicate that we are all one under God. Then he reached into his tunic and took out an onion, which he then gave to me. Of course I understood that it indicated the multiple layers of understanding available to everyone. And to show him I understood his meaning, I ate the onion. Then I reached into my tunic and offered him an egg. But he was too humble to accept my gift. He just turned and walked away. Truly, I have seen the holiest of holy men!"
Meanwhile, on the other side of the sand dune, the bandits have drawn their swords and are ready to attack the pilgrims. But their white-bearded leader says to them, "We are in grave danger. Never have I met a more blood-thirsty man in my life. Here is what happened: "When we came face to face, we immediately knew we could not speak the same tongue. That man then drew a circle in the sand. Of course I understood it to say that we are surrounded. I took my finger and I drew a line through his circle, to indicate that we would cut them in half. Then he raised his finger to the sky as if to say that he could take us on all by himself. Then I gave him an onion to suggest that he would soon taste the bitter tears of death. But he proceeded to eat the onion, in defiance. Then he handed me an egg, to show me how fragile our position is. Let's get out of here!"
The pilgrims then went on to the holy places without further incident. And when they returned home they liked to talk about the beautiful temple and the shrines they had visited. But most of all they liked to talk about the day their leader met that white-bearded "holiest of the holy" on top of the sand dune.
They both had the same message, but they came up with radically different interpretations. Each man had his bias, his dreams, hopes and fears, his preconceived ideas. And each of them found in their encounter that which they hoped for or feared the most. One met the holiest of holy men. The other stared into the face of death.
Now, this is a silly example, but our debates about who has the right interpretation of scripture are often just as amusing.
My message today is about the interpretation of scripture. What we read and how we arrive at a given interpretation of the Word of God. You see, a big part of our Christian lives revolves around listening to the Word of God for our situations in life. We read the Bible and try to determine what it says to us. But, where do we turn to find out how to study the Word of God.
Paul, the Apostle, gives us a model for interpreting Scripture. Having been trained in the school of the Pharisees, he was very well versed in the written Word of God. His zeal in the persecution of Christians before the Damascus Road experience gives us some clues to that. He took the Scriptures very seriously as any devout Jew would. His zeal was not that of a raging cold-blooded murderer, but of someone who saw it as his religious obligation to punish those who defied the Law of Moses – that is, the Written Word of God.
The Damascus Road experience enlightened Paul’s previous understanding. Toward the end of his life he writes in 2 Timothy 3:16 that, “all Scripture is inspired by God (lit. God-breathed”) and is useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness.” Keep in mind that the only scripture that Paul knew was the authoritative writings of the Old Testament.
Looking at the life, and especially the writings, of Paul we discover some helpful clues for scripture interpretation. It is widely known and accepted today that Paul’s writings were the earliest Christian scriptures. In our Bible the Books have been ordered so that the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) come first, followed by Acts (also written by Luke), and only then we have Paul’s letters, and the other writings. Chronologically, however, Paul’s writings are the earliest of the Christian writings.
Therefore, we can say that Paul is THE founder of the Christian Religion and Theology. He devoted his entire life to flesh out a theology based on the life and work of Jesus the Christ. In the crucible of forming new congregations and working through issues of morality, sin, and life in Christian community, Paul wrote letters to the churches that were splattered with the theology of the Old Testament, and which spoke of fulfillment of the promises of old.
In addition to the Hebrew Bible (OT), Paul also made use of materials used in worship by the followers of the post-resurrection Jesus movement, and he turned it into a well thought out Christian Theology. Take for instance the words of institution at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:23ff): “For I received from the Lord, what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread…” Look at the formula: “I received from the Lord… I handed on to you …” Think about this, when did Jesus tell him this? Good question, since Paul never met Jesus in Person until the Damascus Road experience.
Also, 1 Cor. 15:3-5 points to the existence of a well established oral tradition (not written down to that point – but in active use by the church): “I handed on to you as of first importance what I had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was burried and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures. These Christological formulas were in active use among the followers of the Jesus movement by the time of Paul.
In his writings Paul relied heavily on the Holy Scriptures - as he knew them; the Law, Wisdom Literature, the Prophets, and the Historical writings of the Old Testament. But more than anything, Paul relied on the direct word from Christ – the revelation of God to him in specific situations. He internalized Moses’ word from Deut. 30:14: “The Word is near you, it is in your heart and in your mouth.” The living Word of God is ever present to you in your heart and in your mouth. In his own writings Paul relies heavily on the following books of the Old Testament:
Isaiah = 28 times - “ingathering of the Nations”
Psalms = 20 times - support for inclusion of Gentiles
Deut. = 15 times - “Righteousness through Faith”
Genesis = 15 times - Circumcision is only an external sign of the Covenant
Any Others = no more than 5 times each
These scriptures form the foundation for his Christian Theology and are the most quoted by Paul.
In the letters of Paul we notice something really interesting about his interpretation of scriptures. The way that some of the letters are written suggests that someone, perhaps a leader in the emerging congregation, may have written to him, or perhaps he has heard a report about something disturbing in the congregation, and he writes to the church to give them some guidance. Take for example 1 Cor. 1:11 “For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you…” Paul usually responds with very strong words to verbal reports that he hears about situations in his churches.
Another important understanding is that Paul distinguishes the small issues from the big ones. Not every issue is of equal importance. There are some issues in the churches that threaten the very life of the community, as in 1 Cor. 5 – the man who lives with his mother-in-law. He gives the Corinthians strong words that they would hand this man over to Satan so that the Spirit of Christ may be preserved in the community.
Also, in 1 Cor. 7 he responds to issues raised in a letter addressed to him. “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote.” And, again Paul goes on to give instructions to the church. 1 Cor. 7:6 “This I say by way of concession, not of command…” (and he goes on to explain).
Verse 10: To the married I give this command – not I but the Lord (goes on to give instructions). Verse 12: To the rest I say – I and not the Lord. In verse 17 he speaks about his rule in all the churches – “lead the life that the Lord has assigned – to which God called you.” Verse 25: Now concerning virgins, I have no command of the Lord, but I give you my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy.
1 Corinthians 7 gives us an illuminating picture of how God’s revelation to Paul was woven into the authoritative Word of God for the early church. Here you see the best of Practical Theology at work: The church had a need and asked for guidance. When there was a “Word from the Lord” Paul answered accordingly. When there was no conclusive Word from the Lord Paul improvised! He spoke his own mind. He gave his trustworthy opinion. He conceded, commanded, and reasoned.
The Word of God in Paul’s theology is always near the community of faith that becomes the “hermeneutical”, that is the interpretive, community – the community that discerns together. God’s Word must speak to the situation - in the present context, to the current needs. God’s Word is always alive and can never be reduced to the dead pages of a book. What was true for Paul is also true for us.
We have to admit that we like to have things settled - we don’t like the tension of having unanswered questions about our faith. Yet, seeing how Paul brought the Scriptures to life in the New Testament churches, encourages us to be an interpretative community that responds to present day issues and challenges looking at the scriptures through the lense of the man of Galilee.
Some theological questions cannot be fully and decisively answered once and for all times. And yet, this is where most congregations harvest the greatest amount of conflict. People come out on opposite ends of the interpretive spectrum, even though they read the same scriptures. We have a strong vested interest in the outcome of the interpretation. It is as if the whole weight of our entire belief system, indeed our eternal destiny, depended on a single correct interpretation of scripture.
Today we have some of the best tools ever to search the scriptures and discern its meaning. And yet, in the final analysis we may stand accused by Jesus just the same as the scribes: “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life. Yet, you refuse to come to me…” (John 5:39-40).
All scripture must be read through the eyes of the Triune God who reveals Himself to us as Father, Son & Holy Spirit. Eternal Life comes through Christ. The Scriptures testify (points to) Christ. We must come to Christ to have life.
Our Anabaptist forebears were strongly rooted in communal discernment of the Scriptures. We as a congregation seek to follow in that tradition and heritage.
We need to continue to dig deep into the Word of God and discern how the Written Word relates to the Spirit of Christ in congregational and social issues.
As a community of Faith we stand under the Word of God as Moses and the Israelites did, and as Paul and the emerging Christian congregations did. As a faithful community we must search God’s Word - with all the tools and insights available to us - and let them instruct us to greater faithfulness.
God’s Word is not static - it is dynamic, and like Paul, who interpreted and applied it in the pressure cooker of the birthplace of Christian Theology, so we must let all Scripture speak and enlighten our situations as we rely on the living Spirit of Christ to give us life.
So, what are we to do when we face a particularly difficult question in our personal or congregational life? For one thing, we must not give in to the temptation of reading into the Word of God what we want it to say – as my earlier story illustrated. We must know the Scriptures - that implies intense study. It is also helpful to compare translations and search the original languages - newer translations are generally more accurate. Another determinig factor is that we look at the Word of God through the Spirit of God that is present and active in the Life, Death and Resurrection of Jesus - God incarnate. And then we need to compare notes with other Christians.
As we search the Scriptures for meaning and direction in our lives we will grow in spiritual stature and understanding. The Word is near you, says Moses to his people. It is in your heart and in your mouth. Let us be a community of faith to whom God can say “My Word is in you.. it is in your heart and in your mouth…”