Reading the Bible is a good thing. But how we read the Bible may or may not be such a good thing! As I’ve said before and as I’m sure many others have said too, how we read the Bible matters just as much as whether or not we read the Bible.
Consider Jesus and the Pharisees in a story from Mark 3:1-6. There they all stand among a synagogue on the Sabbath Day. According to Exodus 31:15, doing work on the Sabbath day was a violation of the Law and anyone committing such a violation was subject to capital punishment. So as a man with a withered hand approaches Jesus, the Pharisees are looking at Jesus to see if he is going to keep the Sabbath regulation or if he is going to violate it, which in their eyes he has already done enough of (read Mark 2). That’s when Jesus asks the Pharisee a very interesting question in v. 4:
“Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath, or evil, to save a life or destroy it?”
That’s one question but in reality it reveals two very different questions being asked, one by Jesus and the other by the Pharisees.
In one sense, Jesus and the Pharisees have a lot in common. They both love God, seek righteousness, and are committed to faithfully doing the will of God . . . kind of like us. Yet in another sense, Jesus and the Pharisees are very different. Their understanding of God’s will is different and it all stems from their understanding of the kingdom. The Pharisees believe the kingdom will only come by a strict adherence to the Law of Moses, which includes the traditions associated with Torah. But Jesus the kingdom of God is already at hand (and has already declared this good news – cf. Mk 1:14-15) and therefore believes that he and his disciples simply should live out the kingdom life.
And that is why when the man with the withered hand approaches, the Pharisees are asking a legalistic question “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” while Jesus is asking a kingdom question of “How do I do good in this place, bearing witness to the presence of God’s kingdom (reign)?”
Two very different questions!
I once knew of a thriving church of roughly 150 believers. They gathered for worship in a fairly new building on a side of town that was experiencing a lot of new residential growth. Some of the young parents began asking a kingdom question “How might we minister (do good) in this neighborhood?” After praying about this for a few months, they received a vision for how they might minister to other young families with children in that neighborhood. And with the blessing of their elders and minister supporting them, they began an exciting Sunday-School ministry, assisted by the purchase of a Joy Bus. God blessed this ministry and the church with lots of new growth and all seemed well.
And all was well until a few modern-day Pharisees came along asking a legalistic question “Where is their authorization in the New Testament for having a Sunday School?” By asking such a question while proof-texting the Bible, particularly the New Testament, in ad hoc fashion and resorting to their syllogistic reasoning, they divided the church. The Joy Bus was parked for good and this promising children’s ministry died!
Again, Two very different questions!
But what questions are we asking. When we pick up the Bible and read it, do we read it as a story where we ask how we might participate in the kingdom life as followers of Jesus in a consistent yet improvisational way? (See N.T. Wright, “How Can The Bible Be Authoritative?,” and pay attention to the section The Authority of a Story to understand what it means to live in a consistent yet improvisational way.) Or when we pick up the Bible and read, are we asking questions like “Does scripture authorize us to do…?” or “Is there a direct command, apostolic example, or necessary inference for doing…?”
By recognizing that the kingdom of God is already at hand, we are free to read the Bible as a story which we participate in rather than a law which we must some how try to meticulously keep. This is not to ignore that there are commands in scripture which as followers of Jesus, we must obey. What this does is open for us new possibilities as people who are learning how to improvise the story we are participants of in a consistent way among our own contexts. It doesn’t matter whether or not we have an example in scripture for . . . because it’s the wrong question and asking the wrong question usually results in getting the wrong answer.
And if your still not convinced that the difference between the two different types of questions matter that much, Jesus looked at the Pharisees with “anger” as he was “grieved by the hardness of their hearts.”
Questions For Reflection:
- How does this change our understanding of what it means to be the church? Participants in the mission of God?
- What do need to do in order to be a tangible expression of the kingdom of God in our neighborhoods?
- What changes might we have to make in the way we go about doing church?