Category Archives: Hermeneutics

Reading The Bible as Followers of Jesus

What does it mean to be a Christian? I suppose if you stood on a street corner and asked ten random people that question, you would come away with eleven different responses. That’s probably true if you asked ten random people who profess the Christian faith as their religion. Just plug that question into your Google search engine and you’ll see how the answers to that question vary. In fact, the way Christians answer that question will reveal much about their own theological formation.

handwriting-headline

Anyhow, most people with even a vague familiarity of Christianity understand that being Christian has something to do with following Jesus. That’s correct too. According to all four of the canonical Gospels in the Bible, Jesus begins his public ministry in the Galilean region. In The Gospel According to Mark, Jesus begins his ministry with a summons. “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news” (1:15). Then he spots two men, Simon and Andrew, fishing and says “Come, follow me… and I’ll show you how to fish for people” (1:17).

This summons is our calling too. We’re called to repent and believe the good news of God’s coming kingdom and follow Jesus in living out this kingdom life. That’s what participation in the mission of God is and I can’t think of any Christian off hand that would disagree with me at this point. If you do, then you’re wrong but I digress. What I’m getting at is that instinctively I think we all understand that being Christians and being a local church is about Jesus and the kingdom of God. We may not understand everything that implies but we know this life we are called to live is about following Jesus in living the kingdom life.

Because we believe that living as a Christian is about following Jesus, it seems that this fundamental conviction should shape the way we read the Bible too. That is, if we’re called to follow Jesus then we ought to be reading the Bible in order to live as followers of Jesus. However, that’s not always been the case.

Growing up in the Churches of Christ, the Bible was read as an instruction manual for restoring the ecclesiological pattern of the first-century church in the New Testament. This hermeneutic resulted in a de facto creed producing sectarianism, legalism, and division by marking of a boundary of who was a true Christian based on this ecclesiological pattern. Such Christianity was about boundaries, who’s in and who’s not. If you kept this creed, you were considered a Christian and still live a life that reflected very little, if any, of the life that Jesus. Just uphold the right doctrines regarding baptism, the Lord’s supper, singing in worship, women in the church, church leadership, non-denominationalism, and the list goes on and on. But becoming more merciful like Jesus, living a self-sacrificial life like Jesus, and all the other characteristics of Jesus’ life was never a part of this system.

I could share stories upon stories to illustrate this point but I think most readers familiar with this tribe understand what I’m talking about. Also, this is not to say that there were not any Christians among the “CofC” tribe who were not striving to become more like Jesus. I could also share stories upon stories of such Christians striving to live like Jesus. My point is that discipleship was more about staying within the boundary than will following Jesus in such a manner that our life reflected more and more of the Jesus we read about in scripture. And that’s because we weren’t reading the Bible to follow Jesus, we were reading it to follow an assumed ecclesiological pattern.

The fact that Jesus summons to follow him after proclaiming the good news of God’s kingdom is significant. Without getting too technical at this point, it tells us that our eyes and ears are to be focused on Jesus as we learn how to embody the kingdom that Jesus is ushering in. So as for reading the Bible, we are given a new hermeneutical lens that is Christ-Centered and Kingdom-Oriented. We are now reading scripture to understand how it reveals the mission of God to us that is fulfilled by Jesus. Our eyes and ears are tuned to the way of Christ (Christ-Centered) so that our life together as a church is joined with God’s goal or aim in Christ or restoring his kingdom (Kingdom-Oriented) upon earth as it is in heaven.

This is how we participate in the mission of God who is bringing about redemption, reconciliation, and restoration to his creation, making all things new—new creation in Christ. We do this as people who are filled with the Holy Spirit not always trying to repeat what other Christians have done, either in the first-century, the sixteenth century, or even other “successful” churches today. Instead we do this by gathering as local churches who are engaged in worship and fellowship with each other as we are engaged in prayer and absorbed in the biblical narrative told throughout the Old and New Testament scriptures. At the same time, we must be engaged in our local community as listeners who observe and partner with the people of the community. Then we are poised to discern together how God is calling us to partner with him in his mission, which is what reading the Bible from a Christ-Centered and Kingdom-Oriented lens is all about.

Misreading Scripture

Christians believe the Bible is about the creative and redemptive work God is fulfilling in Jesus Christ. With all of the different stories and teaching told through different genres written in specific historical contexts, the Bible, stated in the most simplest of ways, is about Jesus. In fact, this is so fundamental that I can’t imagine any Christian who would disagree. Yet it’s still possible to read the Bible and miss Jesus, or at least miss what it really means to believe in and follow Jesus.

The Bible - Living As Participants in the Mission of God

In the message I preached to the Newark Church of Christ this past Sunday, I mentioned three lenses that Christians sometimes read the Bible through. Each lens appears legit because there is enough scripture and Jesus in the lens that the problems are easily overlooked by the indiscriminate reader. The three lenses I have in mind are:

  1. The Prosperity Lens. This lens, sometimes called The Health and Wealth Gospel, is based on the belief that God promises material wealth and physical well-being to those who seek him. Receiving this promise is a matter of faith. One major objection is that such a notion fails to account for how many faithful seekers of God, including Jesus and his apostles, all suffered on account of their faith. Right now, there are many Christians in countries like Iran and China who are suffering persecution for following Jesus. The fact is, that following Jesus just might result in suffering physically in some manner as well as enduring material poverty.
  2. The Soterian Lens. This lens is what Scot McKnight refers to as the soterian gospel in which the gospel is equated with salvation (The King Jesus Gospel, p. 29). The gospel is reduced to a concern of just getting people saved and thus about sharing the Four Spiritual Laws. The problem with this lens is that it relegates discipleship as secondary, creating a false-dichotomy between believing in Jesus and following Jesus. Thus, a person can come to faith in Christ and thus “get saved” but not necessarily become a disciple. 
  3. The Blueprint Lens. This lens, which is particular to my own history within the Churches of Christ and the larger Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, reads the Bible, and particularly the New Testament, as a blueprint or constitution for the church. The problem is that the New Testament, a collection of twenty-seven different occasional writings, becomes a new law focused on restoring an assumed ecclesiological pattern. Faithfulness to Jesus is about keeping this pattern rather than following Jesus and embodying the gospel he proclaimed as the real pattern for how his followers should live. (As a side for those among the Churches of Christ, to learn more about this hermeneutic and a better theological hermeneutic as an alternative, I highly recommend the new book by John Mark Hicks, Searching For The Pattern, 2019.)

As I said earlier, we can proof-text enough scripture and sprinkle in enough Jesus to justify each lens. One problem with each lens is that they shift the aim or the end (telos) of scripture away from the gospel that Jesus and his apostles actually proclaimed. Though the shift often seems subtle, the significance is important because it may (and has) hinder our participation in the mission of God.

In a conversation Jesus was having with the Jewish leaders, who wanted to kill him, he observed how they read the scriptures but missed Jesus. John 5:39 says “Examine the scriptures, since you think that in them you have eternal life. They also testify about me.”  Yes, that was possible then and is still possible now. Christians may not wish to kill Jesus but they certainly have killed in the name of Jesus because their view of Jesus looks more like a John Rambo than the King who became a slaughtered lamb on a Roman cross. Missing Jesus is how some Christians of the past justified segregated churches while saying that Civil Rights was not the business of Christians. It’s how some Christians today downplay the continued problems of racism or pretend that racism is a “political issue” that has nothing to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In some upcoming posts I will explain why the Bible is centered in Jesus Christ and oriented toward the kingdom of God. In more theological terms, the Old Testament and New Testament present a narrative that is Christiologically centered and eschatologically oriented. This narrative, read through the lens of Christology and Eschatology, provides the script for and hence opens space for discerning how our local churches might contextually embody the gospel on mission with God. But first, there may be some lenses that simply need to be discarded if we’re going to read the Bible in order to live as participants in the mission of God.

Eyes Wide Open: Overcoming the Blindness of a Christless Christianity

Most Christians, and ever Christian I know, including myself, say they believe the Bible is the word of God, inspired of God and authoritative on all matters of faith. Very good! But as a pastor there are many times when what Christians say they believe and what they actually believe are different to some degree.

house-blindness

Earlier this year Mayor Theresa Kenerly of Hoschton, Georgia, was heavily criticized for racial discrimination after pulling the resume of a black man because of his blackness. According to the Atlantic Journal Constitution, the Mayor did not believe that her nearly all-white small town was ready to have a black man as a city administrator. But a few people defended the Mayor’s racism, including City Councilman Jim Cleveland who insisted that he understood the Mayor’s decision because Hoschton is not Atlanta. Mr. Cleveland insisted that he is not a racist but according to the report in the Raw Story, he had an interesting remark. Councilman Jim Cleveland said, “I’m a Christian and my Christian beliefs are you don’t do interracial marriage. That’s the way I was brought up and that’s the way I believe.”

Besides the obvious racism, what I find interesting is that Mr. Cleveland says he is a Christian but then defends his racism by saying that is the way he was raised and therefore the way he believes. In other words, even though he is a Christian, neither the gospel nor the Bible is his moral authority. Mr. Cleveland’s authority is the way he was raised. It’s also not a stretch to assume that Mr. Cleveland is part of a Christian culture, a church culture, that has failed to truly embody the Good News of Jesus Christ—despite the authority of the Bible. That shows also how easily Christians can read the Bible and still fail to see what Jesus and his kingdom really entails, just as the Pharisees and Jesus’ own disciples still failed to see.

In the eighth chapter of Mark’s Gospel is a story about a blind man that is brought to Jesus for healing. So Jesus spits in the man’s eyes and touches them so that the man could once again see and he was able to see then, only his vision wasn’t clear. When asked if he could see, the blind man replied, “I see people. They look like trees, only they are walking around” (v. 24). As Mark is telling the story, the remark of this blind man is really a commentary on the Pharisees and Jesus’ own disciples. Both have seen Jesus do plenty of miracles and heard him teach with authority but the Pharisees are still challenging Jesus’ authority, while the disciples are questioning him as they continue doubting. It’s not just the blind man who needs his sight restored, it’s the Pharisees and disciples who need to see clearly.

Let me push the matter just a little farther. From my understanding, both the Pharisees and disciples were familiar with the story of Israel and her scriptures. In his conversations, Jesus frequently references the story of Israel along with the Hebrew Bible as he engages both the Pharisees and disciples. Yet they still failed to see clearly. The same is true of Councilman Cleveland. I am sure he has some knowledge of the Bible and could teach a few Sunday School lessons to children about the miracles that Jesus performed. Yet he still fails to see clearly.

How about us? Do we read the Bible? If we proclaim the Christian faith, then we should. But… How do we read the Bible? Does the way we read the Bible open our eyes to clearly see Jesus and the Kingdom of God he has inaugurated? Or has our vision become obscured by the way we were raised or by our favorite church traditions? Is whatever cable news and talk radio we listen to or blind partisan loyalty to whatever politician and political platform we side with obscuring our vision?

Jesus touched the blind man’s eyes a second time and as Mark tells the story, the blind man “looked with his eyes wide open, his sight was restored, and he could see everything clearly” (v. 25). He needed to be touched again by Jesus to see clearly. The same is true for the Pharisees and the disciples, then and now.

As we read the Bible, if our reading obscures us from seeing Jesus then we are the blind!

The Gospel of Mark, along with the rest of scripture, is clear that the invitation of Jesus is to come follow him. We are called to follow Jesus, learning to live by the same beliefs and values of Jesus so that we may embody the Kingdom life that he embodied. That’s what discipleship is. But it is increasingly becoming obvious that discipleship is not Christianity is often known for in America. In fact, as the dichotomy between who Jesus is and what Christianity is, it seems more like a Christless Christianity has sprouted.

We can shake our heads at people like Councilman Cleveland, especially those of us who don’t defend racism, but we may be more like Mr. Cleveland than we realize. That we can justify war and violence, freedom of choice over the life of the unborn, national boundaries over mercy for refugees and immigrants, vitriolic rhetoric for the sake of partisan politics, and so forth with the most unGospeled wisdom and logic is revealing. We show that it is very possible to call ourselves Christians and yet fail to see Jesus and his Kingdom clearly. It shows that we can read the Bible and still miss Jesus, still miss what the Bible is all about and the life it reimagines for us to live as people called to follow Jesus.

I am glad that we read the Bible but let us read with eyes to see Jesus and his kingdom clearly. May the Lord come, by the power of the Holy Sprit, to touch our eyes again that we may see with eyes wide open!

A Little Truth On Loving Our Neighbors

“What must I do to gain eternal life?” It’s a question that many sermons, evangelistic tracts, and other church literature has answered. And if you’ve been around any church, you know how the answer goes. In the churches I have been a part of, the answer has always seemed to include teaching about the necessity or repentance and baptism. But when a Jewish lawyer came testing Jesus by asking the same question, the conversation about gaining eternal life went in a very different direction.

Bulletin Message Picture

In Luke 10:25-37 we have a well known story that has traditionally been known as The Good Samaritan. But the story, as Luke tells it, doesn’t begin with a man encountering assailants along a desolate road. It begins with a Jewish lawyer asking “What must I do to gain eternal life?” So Jesus answers the lawyer but not in a way that most Christians would expect. Jesus simply asked the lawyer “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”

There are two observations worth noting here. First, Jesus seems to assume that knowing what is necessary for gaining eternal life is found in the Law of Moses. If living the eternal life is understood in terms of the kind of life we live and not just the length of life, then it makes sense. We can begin knowing how to participate in the kind of life Jesus is offering by reading the Old Testament. Why? Because the Law in its essence is about loving God and neighbor (we cannot do one without doing the other), which the Lawyer knows. So when he answers Jesus’ question by reciting the two great commands, Jesus replies “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”

But, but but…

The lawyer wanted to justify himself, so perhaps with some chutzpah he asked “And who is my neighbor?” That brings up the second observation about Jesus’ question. How one reads the Law of Moses, or in our case, the entire Bible, will indeed shape how we define our neighbor. If we are followers of Jesus then we must read the Bible in light of who we know Jesus to be, the life we know that he lived, and the aim (telos) for which he lived his life — the kingdom of God.

Lest we misunderstand, Jesus tells the story of the good Samaritan. The Samaritan was despised and seemingly beyond the boundaries of God’s kingdom in the eyes of the Jewish people. Yet this Samaritan became The Good Samaritan or the one who was a neighbor because he exemplified love for his neighbor. Perhaps if Jesus was telling a story today, perhaps he might speak of an American Evangelical Christian and a “Truth-defending, Sound-Doctrine” Preacher as he tells a tale about an undocumented immigrant or a Muslim loving their neighbors (like Imam Abubakr Absullahi, an 83 year-old Muslim Cleric who is being honored by the US Government for hiding 262 Christians to protect them during an attack in Central Nigeria last year).

I mention this because we all have known of Christians who have made defending Biblical truth and sound-doctrine, which always seems to be their own dogma, the essence or primary focus being a Christian. Don’t misunderstand me. Truth and doctrine matter but when such concern is elevated about loving God and neighbor (and history is replete with examples), not only does such a pursuit become an idol but it takes a wrong turn away from eternal life.

Yes, I just said that. When our concern for sound-doctrine is elevated above or ignores loving God and neighbor, we turning away from participating in eternal life. That doesn’t mean we can’t turn around and get back on the right path. The grace of God says we can. That is why, when the Jewish lawyer recognizes that the neighbor is the Samaritan “who demonstrated mercy,” Jesus says “Go and do likewise.”

To love our neighbors as ourselves is to love God and if we love God with all our heart, being, strength, and mind, we will delight in loving our neighbors. But let’s also remember, that it’s possible for a Samaritan, an undocumented immigrant, or a Muslim just might be closer to the kingdom than some Christians because of the way they love their neighbors.

So what must we do to gain eternal life? And what does the Bible say? How do we read the Bible? Well, here’s a little truth on these questions that we should notice. In essence, the answer is that we should love God and love our neighbor. But to be clear, Jesus tells us a story of about loving our neighbor and how that involves extending mercy. Then Jesus simply says, “Go and do likewise.” Stop trying to justify ourselves like the lawyer, saying “Yes, but…” and just hear Jesus say “Go and do likewise.”

“Go and do likewise.” ~ Jesus