We begin this month with a simple statement of thanksgiving. Thank God for the written word. That collection of books we call the Bible is a gift, and one that I find utterly fascinating. It’s been translated, and copied, and no doubt it has had additions and subtractions. It isn’t something we worship. It isn’t all that God is saying to us now. God’s final word seems to be Jesus, and who he is, and what he did and what he will do. Christ is the word made flesh, and the word made flesh is far superior to the word written down. But with that said, the Bible remains a masterpiece of human thought, spiritual wrestling, prophetic insight, historical significance, and a roadmap of sorts, maybe not one to heaven as much as one straight into the heart of God, that shows us his relational love and moves us toward knowing more about him.
I hold the Bible dear to my heart, but I don’t read it like I used to. I mean that both literally and figuratively. Literally, I don’t read the Bible as much as I used to. For a long time, Bible reading was like endurance training to me; you do it, no matter how much you don’t want to, so that you can do more of it for the big payoff. In other words, I read the Bible out of a sense of obligation. Now, believe or not, I don’t even read it every day. Not every single day. Some days I devour it, as I feel pulled in by a subject or a passage, while other days it is just a few verses. I used to read it cover to cover, as fast as I could, with the goal to see how many times I could finish in a year. The positive by product was that I retained a lot of Bible. The negative, was that I lost my infatuation with it, almost entirely.
Figuratively, I don’t read it like I used to, and that seems to be a good thing. I no longer read for speed, or to finish a book, or to track how often I get through it. I don’t read to memorize, or to argue, or for apologetics. I don’t read it as if the split in thought is the blank page between the Old Testament and the New, but rather I read it with the intent of finding the right dividing point at Calvary, where the death and resurrection of Christ was a true game changer. Now, I read to see things through that lens; to focus on Jesus and what he did, or how he would react, even to the verse I’m reading. In some ways it’s even harder work to read this way. This is reading with engagement, rather than reading with a stopwatch. Yet, ironically, reading no longer feels like work. It is an effortless joy that can result in hours of reading, or just a few minutes.
Now, at this point in life and ministry, it has soaked deep into my consciousness. It never really goes away. Many of you will know what I mean. You have a conversation, you think of a passage. You see a movie, you think of a Bible story. You confront a challenge; you take solace in the Word. You don’t have to reach over and grab your Bible, because somewhere along the way, Jesus has grabbed you. It helps that I’m actively involved in various studies and walk-throughs. My personal reading list always includes at least one book on theology, so I’m working through another man’s thoughts on Scripture. The podcast comes at me daily, with its verse-by-verse walkthrough, and our weekly meeting in Georgia has us walking through another book of the Bible. Add weekend travel to this and the need to focus intently on three different passages at a time would seem overwhelming. I think it would have been under the old paradigm. But released into the liberty of sonship, the joy of discovery seems new every day. That’s why I say, “I love the Bible.”
I used to say, “The Bible says what it says. How you read it is of no importance. It says what it says, no matter how you read it.” I remember saying that in rebuttal to the question people ask at the end of bible study, or devotional. The question, “How do you read that text?” which of course means, what do you think that means. I thought my rebuttal was pretty smart. I figured the Scripture stands alone, and how you see it is only of importance, if you see it right. What was the right way to see it? Well, my way of course.
The “How do you see it?” method has led us to 43,000 denominations in the Protestant world, a host of non-denominational churches and assemblies and a global Catholic church. The foundation of at least 95% of it is built on a divine Christ that died and resurrected, so maybe we shouldn’t worry too much about the slight differences. But the slight differences are we settle ourselves into camps, which makes me wonder if we should take the “How do you see it?” method a little more seriously.
“How do you see it?” spawned the movement toward grace that has swept the church in the past decade. We simply do not see things the way we used to. The absolutism to which we cling to how we see it can be mistaken for conversion. I attended a Sunday morning service recently that featured a baptism at the end. I was so excited to witness a man and his two teenage children step into the baptistery, because it typically means they have recently stepped into the faith. The microphone was handed to the man so he could testify, and then I learned that this was no conversion to the faith at all. He had already been baptized, but now, and these are his words, “The Bible clearly states that baptism is by emersion, so I want to do it again.” He changed how he saw it, and then he changed churches. Or maybe it was the other way around.
I think you can see why I thought how you saw the Word should take a backseat to what the Word was saying. But then I reexamined a story I thought I knew everything about. I took a closer look at the Good Samaritan.
Luke 10:30 is the beginning of that famous story of a man who was beaten, robbed, and left for dead on the road to Jericho. Three men pass by, one a Levite, one a priest, and one a Samaritan. The Samaritan pours oil into the victim’s wounds, gives him wine to drink and escorts him to the nearest inn. He leaves the man to heal, and instructs the innkeeper to take care of him with the assurance that he will return to pay the bill. Jesus ends the story with a question, and a command. “Which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among thieves?” Followed by, “Go and do likewise.” Simple enough. It always seemed to me the story was telling you to be good to people, and help them when they need it. That’s how I saw it.
Upon closer examination, I notice that the story doesn’t really begin in verse 30 at all. It begins in verse 25, when a lawyer asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. Rather than answering him, Jesus said something fascinating. “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” (Luke 10:26, ESV)
Did you catch the questions? What does the Scripture say? What do you think it means? It seems to me that how you read it is relevant, and it’s a pretty big deal.
The lawyer quotes Deuteronomy 6, and adds Leviticus 19. Love God, and love your neighbor. Jesus applauds the answer and tells him to precisely that. The man isn’t satisfied, and asks, “Who is my neighbor?” Then Jesus begins the story of the Good Samaritan, which is an attempt to answer the man’s question. It isn’t a story about doing the right thing after all; it’s an attempt to identify our neighbor, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. We will come back to this in a moment.
This essay was sparked in me partly by my wrestling with that encounter in Luke 10, and partly by a series of events that all happened within one week. Two of these moments came while listening to sermons, and the other came in a chance encounter with an old book in a used bookstore in the mountains of Tennessee. I don’t know the names of the preachers, nor their background, and to be fair, I couldn’t sit through enough to grab the context, so I’m not throwing stones. I retell them because they are extreme examples of what can come out of “How you see it.” And I tell them because they came at me so quickly, in one calendar week, like I should pay attention.
- John the Baptist was the only preacher Jesus ever went to hear, therefore, we should use his sermons and style as our pattern for how to preach.
- A woman’s glory is her hair, her covering, which naturally flows downward on her body, so her clothes should flow downward as well. Thus, she has no business wearing pants because they “cut upward” toward the crotch, rather than flow downward to the floor.
- Sunday night church is not an invention of man, and therefore shouldn’t be abandoned by the church. God walked with Adam in the cool of the day. It’s cool in the morning and the evening, thus two meetings with God on the day of rest.
Wow. Take a deep breath. I’m not going to pick them apart. I don’t need to. Each one has its basis, its foundation, built upon a Scripture and an argument from silence. One text, out of context, added to the fact that there isn’t another text that directly opposes the hypothesis, and bam, you’ve got a ready-made sermon. It’s how you see it.
How you see it could be worst possible way to see it. But it’s still how you see it, and using the Luke 10 story as our guide, how you see it is important, because how you see it exposes your heart.
If your heart wants hard, law-based preaching, that exposes adultery, then you see Jesus attending a meeting by John the Baptist as evidence that he prefers that kind of preaching. Therefore, preachers that don’t remind you of John the Baptist should be called out.
If your heart is struggling with what women wear, maybe because you can’t stop looking, you may see the Scripture as a code for what is acceptable for women to wear. Therefore, clothesline preaching becomes a necessity to bring about holiness, and to help with your issues.
If you feel the lack of services in the local church is an indication that people are slackers and lazy, you might think a restoration of attendance would indicate revival. Therefore, you look for proof that God prefers two services, and those who aren’t having that many, aren’t in the will of God.
These are extreme examples, right? Of course they are. Extreme examples help make a point, which may be why we miss the point of the Good Samaritan. It isn’t an extreme example. It’s a typical one. Who was the neighbor to the victim? The Samaritan, but that isn’t what the man asked for. He wanted to know who was HIS neighbor. Jesus answered it, but it wasn’t the way the man wanted him to, because it wasn’t the way the man saw it, and that’s the point. How you see it says more about you than it does about the Scripture. The neighbor is always the last person you want it to be, therefore the neighbor is the most difficult person for you to love. Loving your neighbor as yourself is fine as long as your neighbor returns your tools and mows his yard. It’s a different animal when your neighbor is the personification of everything you’ve been taught was wrong with the world. How you see it is important, but it’s more an insight into you.
It’s easy to write off the opinions of others as heresy. Heresy gives us heretics. That title makes them easier to ignore. But we can’t just ignore them. We agree with them on a lot of things, some of which are foundational. The word “heresy” comes from the Greek word “hairesis,” which is a Greek word for “choice.” I’m not entirely sure what to make of that other than maybe in our development we decided that choices other than our own should be avoided. It seems to me that many of them should, but that just how I see it.
So now, more than ever, I love the Bible. It shows me Jesus, and it shows me Paul White. How I see it has changed, and will change again, because I am changing. I’m learning that how I see it is a reflection of where I am in the moment. How do I get around this? I’m not sure we are supposed to get around it. I think we are supposed to wrestle with it, constantly. I think we are supposed to read the text and realize we haven’t grasped it yet. It might make us more patient, more humble, and more kind. It might force us to see it through someone else’s eyes. Are you prepared for what you might find when you are asked, “How do you see it?” Answer carefully.
Grace to you.