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Why do we read the Bible?

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Faith, focus, and Biblcal authority

Why do we read the Bible? I grew up in church, and I spend a lot of time listening to people talk about the importance of reading the Bible. I went to Sunday school, where I was encouraged to memorize Bible verses. At home, my parents incorporated daily Bible reading into our family schedule. Honestly, at the time, it never occurred to me to question why the Bible occupied the role in our family and in our church that it did.

What does it mean to be a Christian? This is the sort of question that, when answered, says as much about the respondent as about the issue being addressed. This insight became real to me during my graduate studies, when I was a TA for a professor teaching the history of Christianity. The class was reading correspondence between Roman Emperor Trajan and a governor named Pliny from very early in the second century. Pliny was consulting Trajan about how to deal with people he called christianoi – the translation rendered the work Christ-niks in English, and the translation struck me as jarring. 

I soon realized that this was the point. Members of this group were noticeably different from average people, and the most obvious common element was that they acted like this Palestinian rabbi named Jesus, the Christ. The term Christian (or Christ-nik) meant “little Christ,” and it was not a compliment. But the notoriety of being associated with Jesus meant nothing. What was essential was that their identity was bound up in him.

I spent about a year reading the writings of early Anabaptist leaders while researching my doctoral thesis. One of the things that drew me to their ways of following Jesus was the uncompromising zeal with which the early Anabaptist leaders made discipleship all about imitating Christ above all else. Even their word for discipleship – nachfolge, which means “following after” – reinforced this point.

The Anabaptists took very seriously the call to seek first the Kingdom of God. They went to great lengths to persevere even when it cost them dearly. Abuse and worse meant nothing to them because they were following Christ’s example. The point for them was to find their identity in him.

Jesus revealed the mysteries of God through his teaching, but not only in the things he said about God. Jesus had a way of asking questions that cut through the pretense of hearers whose motivations needed adjustment. Particularly interesting are the occasions when Jesus responded to questions with another question.

For example, Matthew 21:23-27 records a conversation in the temple courts between Jesus and the chief priest and elders. They demanded to know by what authority Jesus was doing the things he was doing. Rather than answer their question, Jesus asked them a question, one that they were afraid to answer. In doing so, Jesus avoids an unproductive debate, ostensibly about legitimate authority, but really about jealous hatred of Jesus’ leadership and popularity.

In Mark 2:1-11, Jesus seems not even to wait until his listeners ask a question before responding with one of his own. In answer to how it is that Jesus might forgive sins, Jesus asks a question in a way that confirms not only that he is claiming to be God, but also that he truly is.

Jesus had a particular way of answering people – not answering the questions that they wanted to ask, but rather answering the questions for which they needed to hear answers. Often, the questions and statements Jesus made did as much to reveal the attitudes and motivations of his conversation partners as they did to clarify matters at issue.

Jesus’ authority rested in his ability to get to the true heart of matters. He was not interested in playing to the crowds. Jesus knew what his mission was, and what priorities that mission necessitated. His disciples did not always understand what Jesus meant or why he did things; their maturation into leaders required that they relinquish certain ideas and reorient a number of their thinking. 

When James and John not only recognized Jesus’ kingship but also asked to sit beside him in glory, Jesus gently rebuked them by not only outing them, but by teaching his disciples what true greatness is (Mark 10:35-45) Jesus’ teaching reminds us to be great, on his terms, not to seek greatness.

When the disciples asked the risen Christ about the restoration of Israel in Acts 1, Jesus reminded them that this sort of focus is not helpful for citizens of the Kingdom of God. How is it, then, that so many Christians have become fixated on trying to identify prophecies with dates and people? Have we forgotten our commission to be agents of God’s reconciling work in the world?

Throughout the Bible – as Tim Geddert calls it, “The Word about THE WORD,”1 we see a similar dynamic at work. Biblical authority is not a matter of reading the Bible to get answers to the questions that are pressing to us. It is far more a matter of learning what matters are truly important, and refocusing our thinking in light of the priorities we see in Scripture.

This means that submission to the authority of Scripture means appreciating the precedence of the agenda that Jesus laid out, and recognizing that it has not lapsed or been superseded by more recent concerns or new information. It means that we maintain a tension between being sensitive to what new things the Spirit might be teaching us while still remembering that we are called to test the spirits using the truth of Scripture, so that we follow not just any spirit, but only the Holy Spirit.

New ideas, insights, and discoveries do not invalidate truths that Christians have long confessed. Modern scientific discoveries have not overturned the truth that God created the universe, though they have helped some Christians revisit faulty interpretations of creation narratives in Scripture.

Modern capitalism does not invalidate the biblical imperative to seek the welfare of the poor and underprivileged. Despite what we may think of the long-term viability of their project, the early church was basically a socialist community, not an assembly of rugged individualists. What do we know now that they did not?

Modern psychology has shifted the location of personal identity from being the product of divine creation to being the product of self-determination. Autonomous individuals are now the arbiters of not only their own identities, but also of acceptable behaviour – their own and that of others. 

Jesus took a dim view of those who came to him with exaggerated ideas about themselves, their ideas, or their importance. The Jewish leaders were zealous guardians of morality, and they were scrupulous about not only observing the law but also adapting it to new realities. Yet Jesus did not embrace them – quite the contrary. Matthew 21:31 says this: “Jesus said to them, “‘Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you [the chief priests and elders].’” Why? They were seeking righteousness on their terms. That is not how righteousness works.

In fact, no one who came to Jesus looking for affirmation fared well. Jesus preached a consistently uncompromising message that told his hearers that the call of discipleship is one of total surrender. It necessitates an embrace of a cross-shaped life that inverts human priorities and instincts about how to live. Greatness is about becoming the least of all (Mark 10:43-44). Seeking to save ourselves means we will lose ourselves (Mark 8:35), and vice versa.

Everything we read in the Gospels about the life of Jesus, and everything we read in the rest of Scripture leads us to conclude that there is a loving, gracious, sovereign God at work reconciling people to himself. In the process, God’s call is for people to relinquish everything for which people habitually look inward – security, identity, morality, community. People seek these things because we were created for them, but we seek them in the wrong places. 

What God desires is that we seek and find them in Jesus. Nothing we desire is lacking in Christ, and nothing we bring apart from Christ is worth anything. Biblical authority entails a recognition that in the Scriptures we can find not simply answers to questions that we are already asking, but more importantly, awareness of the sort of questions we need to be asking in order to find the fulfilment that God wants for us. It is not until we surrender to being visible representatives of Jesus—Christ-niks—than of anything else that we have truly embraced this truth.

1. Geddert, Tim. “The Authoritative Function of Scripture.Direction (Fall 2020). 

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