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How To Read Scripture

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The ministry of Jesus from the moment he was announced by John the Baptist, up until he ascended into heaven, was disruptive, disturbing, revolutionary, shocking and uncomfortable, sharp edged, in your face and uncompromising. It was also challenging, exhilarating, inspirational, transformative, anticipatory, sure and certain. See for example what it does to violent murderer Saul who became the apostle Paul.

The apostle Paul is coming to the end of his first letter to the church at Corinth. He is explaining to them about resurrection. He is describing the victory Jesus has over death, and how that victory means that there will come a moment, when the trumpet sound is heard around the world, and those who have died will live again - this time clothed in immortality. Those who have passed away will be given a new life in a new body, and live with the Lord forever.

Then I can imagine Paul getting excited as his mind projects forward to that day for which the whole world waits, when pain and suffering and death is gone forever. So he writes these words ...

1 Cor 15:54,55
When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”
O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?

Wait, Paul, what are you doing? You're quoting a passage from Hosea which promises violent punishment on sinners, and calls for death and the grave to do their worst. Look at it!!

Hosea 13
1 When Ephraim spoke, there was trembling; he was exalted in Israel. But he incurred guilt through Baal, and he died.
2 Now they sin more and more and make for themselves cast images, idols skillfully made from their silver, all of them the work of craftsmen. People say of them, “They offer human sacrifice and kiss the calves!”
3 Therefore they will be like the morning mist, like the early dew that vanishes, like chaff blown from a threshing floor, like smoke through an open window.

9 You are destroyed, O Israel, because you are against Me - against your helper.
10 Where is your king now to save you in all your cities?

14 Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol; Shall I redeem them from Death.
Where, O Death, are your plagues? Where, O Sheol, is your sting?
Compassion is hidden from my eyes.

16 Samaria will bear her guilt because she has rebelled against her God.
They will fall by the sword; their little ones will be dashed to pieces, and their pregnant women ripped open.

The Hosea passage is surely horribly violent from start to finish and you, Paul, have picked one verse out of the middle, completely ignored the threatened violence in the start and finish sections, and interpreted what surely must be a call to bring on the anguish of the grave, to bring on the final victory of death, because everyone, even the little ones are going to die, and you've twisted it round so that it is mocking both death and the grave because they have no victory and no sting, because Jesus is raised from the dead, and we will be too!

You have completely changed it's meaning.

That's how Paul reinterprets the Old Testament! And not just once. Whenever he can, he deliberately chooses violent passages from the Old Testament, and completely changes their original meaning.

See what he writes to the church in Rome - a church comprised of both Jews and Gentiles - Greeks and Romans. He's encouraging them to be united, to be of one mind, to accept each other as Christ has accepted them. Read what he says:

Romans 15:9 As it is written, "Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles; I will sing the praises of your name."

He's quoting Psalm 18, but note carefully what he omits to write ...

Psalm 18
I destroyed my foes!
They cried for help, but there was no-one to save them
... to the Lord but he did not answer!
He is the God who avenges me, who puts Gentiles under me...
Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles, I will sing hymns to your name.

He quotes this passage from the Psalms, which is about how the Jews will tread down the Gentiles, leaves out all the divisive and violent parts, and uses the remainder as an encouragement for unity!

I know this is hard to swallow! We have been taught for so long that scripture should be read in context, with preeminent consideration for what it meant to the original readers. So to be convinced, it's best that you do some discovery work yourself now! Take a look at Romans chapter 3, and locate the six Old Testament passages that Paul quotes. Then check how they appear as originally written by the psalmist.

Surprised? Shocked?

Okay, so if you decided to read straight on without doing the work, here's what you would have found. Each of the Old Testament passages describes the violent sin of wicked men and calls for God's vengeance to come on them. And what does Paul do? He quotes text describing the violent sins in detail, and then applies them to everyone - highlighting that the whole world is guilty of this behaviour, and he completely omits the repeated calls for God to violently punish.

Why does Paul do this? You see, after he was converted, after he spent three years in Arabia being tutored by the Holy Spirit, his understanding of the character of God was totally changed. He turned away from the retributive religious violence that he had been involved in, that he believed in, because he realised the character of God is perfectly and fully represented in the life of Christ.

And you will know that Jesus himself was frequently in his teaching, turning around, contradicting, reframing and reinterpreting various Old Testament passages, rejecting vengeance and violence to ensure the crowd on the mountainside understood the depth of love and compassion and kindness which is the character of God.

And it is true that over the centuries, our theology is becoming more Christ-like, but oh dear it is so, so slow.

It has been a story of brave honest men and women led by God's spirit, struggling with a church institution that has had to be dragged kicking and screaming closer to Jesus.

So no longer is the earth considered immovable even though scripture says it is.

No longer do we say slaves should stay slaves and be happy with their lot.

No longer do we beat children with the stick, especially since scripture goes on to say:

Proverbs 20:30 "The blueness of a wound cleanses away evil."

John Wesley's mother Sussana, literally followed scripture's command that children are to be beaten with a stick such that there is visible bruising. Billy Graham's mother confesses that she had to leave the room in tears when her husband beat him, but she still thought that's what God approved of.

Countless generations of people have believed that the earth is stationary, slaves should stay slaves, and the way to raise children is to break their will with violent discipline.

And they got it from scripture.

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So here's the question that has been lurking in the back of your mind! Given that scripture seems to contain these widely differing views of the character of God, and how we should treat each other, some of which are clearly incompatible with the revelation of Jesus Christ, why did Jesus say that not a single stroke of the pen should fall from the law until all is accomplished?

Why did God allow Scripture to be written like this in the first place. Why did he allow these cultural perspectives, these so frequent calls to violent behaviour, to remain in scripture? Scripture appears to me at least, to be the record of a historic debate, or argument even, between priests and prophets, between warriors and poets, between the traditionalist reactionary status quo institution and the fringe rebels, a debate which slowly leads to a developing understanding of God's character, which is only revealed in clarity when men and women encountered God in flesh, and experienced an up close and personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Philip confused says, "Show us the Father and it will be enough for us".

"Have I been such a long time with you Philip" replies Jesus, "and still you do not know me? If you have seen me, you have seen the Father."

So why has scripture, both the Old and New Testaments, ended up like this?

I think there are two very good reasons.

Here's the first reason - let me tell you a story ...

It's 1300BC. The Israelites are suffering from a plague which is killing them left and right. Under God's instruction, Moses makes a model of a snake in bronze, and sticks it on the top of a pole. Then God tells the people that if they look at the snake, the plague will not touch them. And it works. It just works. God has provided a way to heal the people. A way which is intended to be a picture of the coming Christ who centuries later will be hoisted up on a cross, carrying all the sin of the world.

But when it's job is done, and the plague subsides, the people don't want to throw away the snake-on-a-stick. So they put it in a safe place for a rainy day.

Wind forward in time 120 years. There is now an increasing number of people who believe that their snake-on-a-stick can save them from all sorts of other bad stuff. And they are actually worshipping the snake-on-a-stick. And now, the Israelites are being harassed by the Midianites who have a huge army. God tells Gideon how to fight the battle, and against the odds, and in the face of a superior army, Gideon wins the battle.

The Israelites are delighted, and want to crown Gideon as their king! He declines but requests that each warrior donate a gold earring, and Gideon collects around 20kg of gold. Gideon then decides to commemorate this great victory by making a golden replica of a priest's fancy waistcoat.

Within a very few years, the people have decided to add this golden priest's waistcoat to the snake-on-a-stick in their cupboard for a rainy day. And when they haul out the snake-on-a-stick to worship, they haul out the golden waistcoat as well.

So now wind forward in time another 680 years. Although nobody would admit it, the worship of God is totally compromised. The people are trusting in all sorts of ancient religious paraphernalia. People say they trust God, but they have a lot of other stuff around too, which they are also trusting in.

Things that began as honest and helpful and instructive are now replacing God himself in people's worship. And God has to instruct good old King Hezekiah - to restore the worship of the true God in the land by literally smashing to pieces all the idols that are being worshipped, including the miraculous gift of God that healed. Yes, the snake-on-a-stick had to go.

You see, as humans living transitory lives in an ever present physical world, we would much rather have something solid, physical, and preferably ancient to see and feel and touch, that we can rely on, rather than this stressful process of putting your hand in the hand of the man who stilled the water. It's called superstition!

And it's true of all religions.

Muslims have a book which they say was dictated by God, which can only be read in the original language. It's just a book. But anyone who intentionally and publically tears a page out, better make sure they don't live in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia or Pakistan. Because it's a death sentence. The Quran is an idol.

And you and I are at great risk of doing exactly the same! If the Bible were divinely dictated word for word, which proved precisely correct in detail, in all points of philosophy, science, art, religion, history, as well as predictions of the future, all spelled out clearly, then it would absolutely become an idol.

Indeed many Christians are happy to spend time reading scripture, but have minds only open to the Holy Spirit if he confirms their existing opinions, and only allow God to write his word on their hearts if they are words that agree with what their previous teachers have taught.

If the Bible to you, takes the place of the Holy Spirit, then it is an idol. That's the first reason why I think God wanted the scripture to faithfully represent the struggle, the misunderstandings, the wrong cultural ideas, the breakthroughs, the revelations, the words of the people who got it horribly wrong, and those who got it right. To show us we need the Holy Spirit whenever we read scripture.

OK, that's the first reason. Here's the second reason.

You see the way scripture is written....

(Phone rings) .... Oh wait ....

Sorry about this. I have to take a phone call ....

"No, it's really not a good time! ....

I'm actually in the middle of ..

Look ....

No! ...

No! ...


Wait .. you'll just have to wait ...

OK, I've got the dishwasher instruction book in front of me now.

What's the problem? Well here it is! The instruction book says, and I quote, 'Rotate the left spannel clockwise, and the right spannel anti-clockwise when view from the rear, and release the tray catch'.

I'll tell you what's wrong with that. I have no clue what a spannel is, and who unloads their dishwasher by standing behind it?

And how about this on page four, 'Clean the filter by sliding the splined bobbin shaft to release the crockery tram'. I mean, come on, this is nonsense!

I'm supposed to call you??!! Every time? Are you kidding me?

The whole point of an instruction book is that you never ever have to talk to the designer or manufacturer.

No, I'm sorry, this is unacceptable. I didn't buy this dishwasher, secretly wanting to be calling you up every time I want to unload the thing. I don't exactly want a long term relationship with you, thank you very much.

(Slams down the phone)

Sorry about that. We've been having trouble knowing how to proceed with the complexities of our dishwasher. Right, where were we?

Oh yes, the second reason why scripture is the way it is.

This book is absolutely not a precisely detailed handbook for how to live your life! If you treat in that way, you'll be beating children, and lobbying parliament to bring back the death penalty for adulterers, then cashing in all your investments, and you'll spend Christmas morning explaining why you can have the turkey but not the pigs in blankets, and you'll be trying to apply the cultural norms of 4000, 3000, 2000 and 1000 years ago to your life today.

This book is not to establish a written moral code, nor is it to guide the way to administer a local church, nor is it to enable you to get your opinions exactly correct on transubstantiation, consubstantiation, immaculate conception, predestination, freewill, or the second coming.

If you use it like that, you'll simply distill it down into a set of opinions, principles and daily rules that you can carry in your head as you live life.

In the purpose of God, he has inspired people down through the ages to write this book for one reason only - to get you into a close personal loving saving relationship with God the Father, Son and Spirit. And for you to live in that relationship every moment of every day.

Our Lord Jesus Christ and the apostle Paul, both filtered and reinterpreted scripture to retain those parts that build up relationships of love. We need to learn to read scripture the same way. Your loving God wants to teach you, he wants you to come every day and talk with him, so that he can hold you and guide you and lead you in the way to go. And he will do that as you open your eyes to scripture, and your heart to the Spirit.

The good shepherd is looking for you this morning, but he keeps tripping over stuff that slows him down, or that causes him to have to take a different route. He is determined to rescue you, and to bring you home with shouts of joy ringing through the heavens. Get that stuff out of the way. Be ruthless. So that he finds a path that leads straight to your heart.

This week, as you open your bibles, and you open your minds and hearts, strive to grasp how high and long and wide and deep is the love that God has for you, and for every man, woman and child on the planet. Grasp that love in which you are securely rooted, grounded, solid and immovable.

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