A third shocking discovery of my early life was this: the Bible wasn’t written to me.
It did not come as an 1141-page book (if you have the right copy) addressed to me.
It was written, instead, to the Israelites, to the Corinthians, to the Christians in Matthew’s community, to Titus, to Timothy, to Christ-followers in the seven churches of Asia Minor. And those “books” or “letters” were later handed on to others who handed them on to others and so forth. And eventually they were handed on to me.
So in one sense, I’m reading someone else’s mail.
In the first piece in this series, I wrote about the shock of learning that the Bible has to be interpreted. I was focusing on what the Bible meant. But today I’m talking about what the Bible means.
To me, even more disconcerting than learning that the Bible requires translation and interpretation to try to figure out what it meant was the discovery that once you do that you have to attempt to figure out how it still speaks today.
For example . . .
Here are a few passages from Paul’s first letter to Timothy. Tell me which of these only applied to Timothy and his church and which ones also apply to us.
Stay in Ephesus.
I urge you . . . that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone–for kings and all those in authority . . . .”
I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands . . . .”
I want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elagorate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds . . . .”
I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be quiet.
An overseer is to be . . . apt to teach . . . .”
Women who are deacons are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.
Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching.
Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through prophecy when the body of elders laid their hands on you.
No widow may be put on the list of widows unless she is over sixty . . . .
Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses.
Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.
Isn’t it obvious that women should not take any leadership roles in an assembly? Well, isn’t it also obvious that they shouldn’t wear clothes from Neiman Marcus (or Dillards . . . or K-Mart — depending on what your personal definition of “expensive clothes” is)? And isn’t it quite clear that we should never give financial assistance to a widow who’s only 59?
The church not only has to seek–in community through the leading of the Spirit–to discern what the text MEANT; it also has to try to figure out what it MEANS today. Why don’t we wash feet? Why don’t we greet one another with a holy kiss? Why do we think it’s all right to help a widow in need, even if she’s just 35?
Because we have struggled to discern what in scripture was “cultural” (in the sense that it applied only to that situation — because in another sense it’s all cultural) and what was intended as permanent.
Scripture wasn’t written for me.
And yet . . . in another sense, it IS written for me. It speaks afresh.
In one of his brief homilies based on OT texts, the writer of Hebrews begins by quoting Psalm 95 (Hebrews 3:7-11). It’s an old hymn of Israel that speaks about something that had happened hundreds of years before–the testing at Meribah and Massah in the desert. When the psalmist referred to those old events recorded in the history of Israel, he thought they spoke a new word to his people: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as YOU did in the rebellion.”
To be technical, THEY hadn’t rebelled. Their ancestors had. But he was thinking of the people as a community that cuts across the decades.
When the writer of Hebrews quotes it, he thinks it’s as current as the morning news. “See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ‘today.’”
The actual event happened about 1300 years before Christ (give or take, depending on how you date the exodus). Psalm 95 was written hundreds of years later. The Hebrews writer applied the word in the first century. And his words and the words he quoted are still relevant and insightful in 2006.
No wonder he ended this homily by reflecting on scripture: “The word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the toughts and attitudes of the heart.”
So is the Bible written for me?
No. It came initially to others in real live situations. So anything I apply must come by application as discerned by the community of faith.
But yes. It comes as a guiding document for the church, seeking to lead me to Jesus.
Scripture is old/new, ancient/current, used/fresh.
Originally posted at Mike’s blog, Preachermike.com