PRAYER: God of peace and love, we read stories in the Bible remind us of how you love us, and how you want us to love one another. Yet we often read the Bible and then apply our own agendas to justify the things we do – even though those things are counter to what you teach us. Let us see your scriptures with fresh eyes, a fresh heart, and a new outlook, that we can be – at last – disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you O God, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
When I was about 15 or so, I went to a concert at a local church in my town. The performers were a couple of guys – probably in their 20s or so who fashioned themselves as a kind of a Christian Simon and Garfunkel. The music was very good, but one song in particular that evening stood out to me. It was based off of 1 Peter 2:9 which says that we are called to be set apart and to give praises to God. In particular, these two guys had written this song around one word in particular from that passage. In the King James Version of 1 Peter 2:9, it doesn’t just say that we are to be set apart; it says that we are to be “peculiar”.
But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
Now, many of you know that I am not a fan of the King James Bible for a myriad of reasons, and I’m happy to talk about those reasons offline. But for now, let me just point out that the point of this verse is not that we’re supposed to be peculiar… the point of that verse is that we are to praise God. We cannot simply live our lives like everyone else; God has set us apart for more. We are to declare the praises of God who has called us out of darkness.
As a 15-year-old kid, I could not have possibly known that this one verse would be with me forever. Every time I get a new Bible, the first thing I do with it is I open it to 1 Peter 2:9 and read it. If the Bible has a marker in it, it is more-than-likely on that page. One of my personal email addresses is firstpedro29. The WiFi password in my house spells out 1 Peter 2:9. And many years after I first heard that concert in the late 1970s / early 1980s, 1 Peter 2:9 serves as an affirmation of my call to ministry.
Many people, Christians included, are intimidated by the Bible. The text can be confusing and even shocking. There are a multitude of beliefs when it comes to how to interpret the Bible. There are some that believe that the entirety of the Bible – every single word – should be interpreted literally, which would mean that the entire earth was created in 144 hours and there was a guy who spent three days inside the belly of a fish. On the other hand, there are those who believe that every single word in the Bible is to be interpreted metaphorically – not that everything happened exactly as it says, but that there is a deeper meaning to the stories and narratives. The United Methodist Church ascribes to neither of those extremes. Rather, our Book of Discipline states that we come to know the truth of the biblical message in its bearing on our lives through tradition, experience, and reason. We do not ascribe to a strictly literal understanding, nor do we view all scripture through a metaphorical lens. It would probably be a lot easier to just pick one of those extremes and go with it, but that would not be authentic to how we grow in our faith as people or as a community.
When we struggle in our understanding of scripture or in our faith, we become more in tune with wisdom. The Jewish tradition of reading scripture (which is the tradition that shaped Jesus, the disciples, and Paul) promotes active and lively debate so that all community members might better understand each other and the Bible. We don’t need to be afraid of or avoid disagreements about how best to understand a passage of scripture. Instead, we can choose to embrace our roots and view disagreements as a healthy process God uses to develop unity and consensus in communities of faith over time.
Debate about how to interpret the Bible is nothing new. There have questions since the very first words were written about whether or not it’s historically accurate, whether the narrative itself is consistent from one book to another, or how historical facts affect the Bible’s meaning. Whenever we address the reliability of Scripture it is important to start by remembering what the Bible is reliable for. The Bible is reliable because it rests upon and points us toward the Word of God, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the Word of God made flesh. Even though we often refer to the Bible as God’s word, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that when we say the “Word of God”, we’re not talking about our sacred book, we’re talking about our Savior, Jesus Christ. Understanding Jesus as God’s Word helps us better understand how the writer of Hebrews uses the term “word of God.”
The Hebrew Scriptures shine a light on what God is doing in the writer’s time and place. Remember what I’m often saying about ‘context’. By understanding the context of a particular biblical story or narrative, we get a better understanding of what the writer is trying to say. The persecution the people of that community is facing from the Roman empire is being used by God to reveal the evil of human sin and the community’s faith in Jesus. Ultimately, Jesus, who was also tested, will pour out grace and mercy to help those who trust in him. The writer then compares what is happening in their own time and place to what happened in the Hebrew Scriptures, so that the audience can “see themselves” in the Scripture. When we understand the context, we can better see ourselves in the story. At the same time, the writer continually reminds them that Jesus is the one to whom all Scripture points – the ultimate “Word” of God for and about humanity. Just one chapter prior to our reading in Hebrews 4, we see the writer pointing to Jesus as the one to whom we confess our faith, greater than Moses, and faithful over God’s house.
The Methodist Articles of Religion speak of Scripture as “containing all things necessary to salvation,” (Book of Discipline, ¶104). As the writer of Hebrews states it “exposes us,” “No creature is hidden from it…” We spent some time last week in our group discussion talking about the language in verse 13 about how “everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of the one to whom we have to give an answer.” There is a vulnerability that may, at times, scare us. But God, through scripture, can help us to see who (and whose) we really are. Scripture leads us to repent and turn to Jesus. The book of Hebrews reminds us that when we hold on to our confession and trust in the Word of God made flesh, we can draw near to God in confidence. (Hebrews 4:14-16)
One thing we see a lot of in some circles is using Scripture to prove a point or to promote an agenda. The question we must ask ourselves is, “Are we using it to help us clearly see who we are and our need for God’s grace?” When we use the Bible for our own ends, we keep it from challenging us and drawing us into a deeper relationship with Jesus. When we make the Bible about us and not God, we drive others away from engaging with it. The existence of the Christian community 2,000 years after the death of Jesus speaks to the power of the stories and wisdom contained in the Bible. Your changed life is the greatest proof of the reliability of the Bible. The purpose of the Bible is to call us back to God by retelling the story of salvation that culminates in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In our first Sunday of this series “Questions to God”, we asked the question “Who is God?” and the answer is a resounding, “God is Love.” You may remember that our Advent Series this past year was entitled “Reflecting the Sacred”, and it taught us that through contemplative practices such as Lectio Divina or contemplative prayer, we discover that Christ came not just to get us into heaven, but to bring heaven to this earth. We also talked about that in our Bible study on The Lord’s Prayer: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, ON EARTH as it is in heaven. To the extent that our lives reflect this heaven – to the extent that we become more Christ-like and just in our own daily lives – we are the blessed ones to whom God has, once again, come. That is the nature of God’s incarnation.
With all of this mind, when we ask if the Bible is reliable, then the answer is a resounding YES because the Bible tells us the stories of God and how God’s people throughout history have listened to God and thrived. The Bible shows us the way that God pours out grace upon us and leads us into everlasting and sacred relationship with God. The Bible teaches us about the life, death and resurrection of our Savior and how his teachings reflect God, who is love.
As Christians, we must always remember the purpose of the Bible is to call us back to God by retelling the story of salvation that culminates in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And so, in April – probably the week after Easter, we will be starting a new Bible Study in which I hope we will all participate. It is one that takes us all the way back to the beginning. Not the beginning in Genesis, but the beginning of the church – the book of Acts. This 6 week study on the book of Acts can ignite our imagination about the character of the Christian gospel, the work of God’s people (the church), and the challenges of living faithfully in a complex and changing world.
There is never a time in which God has given up on us. Our reading today reminds us that the Bible exposes us to our true selves. We are encouraged to not be afraid of being laid bare, and allowing scripture to transform us into the people whom God has chosen to be… peculiar… set apart… called to declare the praises of the one who called us out of darkness and into God’s marvelous light.
To God be the glory.