why we (desperately) need the Bible

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever;
the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover, by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward. Psalm 19:7-11

If you are a Christian, you believe in the Bible. Whether or not you have read it yourself, you believe that it is true and that it is authored by God. Christianity has nothing to stand on – no source – if it does not have that.

You may intellectually agree that the Bible is true, but you may not personally and wholeheartedly agree that the Bible is desperately necessary, in your life, in your church. People who desperately depend on the Bible in that way are rare, even in Christian circles.

Part of the reason for this is that the Bible is difficult to understand. Part of the reason is that most people have not been taught either to treasure or understand the Bible properly. The most profound reason, however, is that bent, that perversion, in our humanity which reaches to our core: self-reliance, above relying on God.

Christian doctrine says that the whole world is in a state of brokenness and fallenness. We were whole, and exalted, in Eden. Now we are broken and fallen: our instincts and intuitions are bent towards evil and foolishness and away from good and godliness, towards Self and Satan and away from God. Our intuitive ideas about how to live, think, and relate are distorted versions of the truth. In other words, they are lies.

One thing every Christians learns is, “I cannot trust myself.” Learning to distrust yourself – your own perceptions, inclinations, desires, and opinions – is the flip side of learning to trust God. Fundamentally, you cannot do both.

Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. Proverbs 3:5

Trusting God means depending on him. Depending on him means depending on his revelation to inform and define who you are and how you live, comprehensively.

The reality is that as humans beyond Eden, we need to re-learn how to be human, in every part of our humanity. We need to be re-taught, by God, in scripture.

Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. Psalm 25:8-9

Consider the alternative. The alternative, individually or collectively, is making it up as we go along. It is placing our faith most essentially in our own ability to perceive reality, make choices, think correctly, and define God. If everything we do and are and think about God does not come directly from the truth he has defined, given in the Bible, we are making shots in the dark like the rest of our race, shots in the dark which are inherently inclined away from the truth.

Truth comes to us not only from the doctrinal statements and explicit directives of scripture. It comes from the stories and parables, too. It comes from how things are said, from what is included and left out, from the flow of the narrative, from the repeated cycles of God and man interacting, portrayed in individuals’ lives. Truth comes from all the genres of biblical literature, from the outright statement of James, John, Peter, and Paul, to the subtler presuppositions of the Israelite poets. Truth comes from the framework of thought which undergirds all of scripture.

Absorbing the paradigms of the Bible into our thinking causes us to think in new categories, and ask new, better questions. It guards us from our tendency to take on the roles of both beasts and gods and instead demonstrates to our minds and hearts, in a thousand ways, how to be authentically human.

And that is our goal: to be human, really and truly, participating in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) while maintaining our honored, blessed role as servants and sons of the transcendent God, after the pattern of the Heavenly Man (1 Corinthians 15:49). Only scripture elucidates redeemed humanity and how it behaves.

Even more: scripture tells us about God himself. It is not theology – man making statements about God. It is doctrine – God making statements about himself, for man to believe. God gave us doctrine the way he did intentionally, that is, in the voices of particular cultures and people. The expressed truth itself is absolutely universal, but the phrases themselves are limiting. We are not at liberty to embellish, stretch, or “improve on” the statements of scripture, especially in light of the original point about our inclinations toward falsehood and foolishness.

Credit must be given where credit is due. The power of the Bible to change lives and communities is the Holy Spirit of God, speaking the words through the writers, persuading hardened hearts of the words’ truth, and granting the grace needed for people to convert the words to actions in the human sphere. So the glory is God’s, and the benefit is ours, and the necessity is desperate.

Read it, and keep on with it, without giving up. Let it change your categories of thought as well as how you behave. Discuss it with people who love it. Hear it preached by preachers who preach nothing more or less than the Word in its purity. Feed on it and feast on it, dive into it and absorb it. The Spirit will not leave you untouched. He will pierce you, crush you, build you, change you. He will recreate you.

The words of the LORD are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times. Psalm 12:6

So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. Romans 10:17

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly… Colossians 3:17

What do you think? I want to know, especially on this one!

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Judges: when society crumbles

Judges, the biblical book, is two things at once: a record of historical heroes, and a detailed, exhausting chronicle of human failure.

Reading about the heroes is fun. The entertainment never lasts, however, because the author painstakingly takes care to point out the flaws in every hero and the crumbling society in which the judges found themselves. The author of Judges, like all the other authors of the Bible, zoomed in uncompromisingly on that one most unpopular topic: sin.

It can be hard to read the Bible for exactly this reason. It doesn’t let up on sin. Many people especially shy away from books like Judges, for an understandable reason. Reading Judges is like watching an extended movie called “This Is What Sin Looks Like.” It is a brutal read.

After a chapter and a half of setting the scene with some essential background information, the rhythm of the book gets going in chapter 2:

And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals. And they abandoned the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the LORD to anger. Judges 2:11-12

If you come to the beginning of Judges having read Genesis through Joshua, these verses will break your heart. For six books straight, God had set up every precaution, prescribed every law, held up every incentive, to keep the people of Israel faithful to him. He had given them a glorious vision of themselves as the beacon of hope for humanity, the shining city on a hill, a blessing and example to all people. To accomplish this, all God had asked of them was to “fear him, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve him, and to keep his commandments” (Deuteronomy 10:12).

By the beginning of Judges, the potential was huge. God had freed Israel from slavery and brought them to Canaan where he had led them in a string of military victories under Joshua, giving them the land and the security they needed to flourish as a nation. The question on everyone’s mind at this point in the biblical story is, “Will Israel pull it off? Will they keep God’s law and fulfill their God-given mission as a nation?”

The author of Judges wrote his or her book (the author is unknown) for the purpose of answering this question with an unambiguous NO. Why, you may ask, write 21 chapters expounding upon this simple answer, in such painful detail? Perhaps it is because the reason for the No was sin, and sin is complex and convoluted. Apparently, although we dislike hearing or reading about sin, we must understand it if we want to be deeply joyful, deeply useful Christians.

For Judges-era Israel, the disease of sin most often expressed itself by blending in with the pagans around them by intermarrying with them (3:5-6) and adopting their religious practices (8:27, 10:6, 17:4). It was the spiritual, not ethnic, dilution that mattered. In the same breath, people said things such as, “I dedicate the silver to the LORD… to make a carved image and a metal image” (17:3), as if even in the wake of Moses’ life people had not heard of the second and third commandments.

You shall not do according to all that we are doing here today, everyone doing whatever is right in his own eyes… Deuteronomy 12:8

In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes. Judges 17:6 (repeated in 21:25)

Overall, the author of Judges gives very little direct commentary about the events he recounts. At two brilliantly ironic places in his narrative, however, he pauses to say, “Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” The author deliberately uses the same phrasing Moses had used several years earlier, before Israel entered Canaan.

“Everyone doing what was right in their own eyes”; that is how the author of Judges explained Israel’s chaos. And perhaps that is the most fundamental way to define sin: me defining my reality, what I will call good and what I will call bad; me deciding whom or what I will worship and love. Me deciding what is worth my time, my self. The god of Me, doing what is right in my own eyes, with no thought to God or the debt of love.

To list for your reading enjoyment a complete catalog of the disturbing, heart-breaking, and dreadfully ironic examples of human sin recorded in Judges would take a blog post unto itself. Suffice it to say the list is long, and diverse.

But why did Israel fail? They possessed God’s law, and every privilege. God had carefully inculcated into their culture both the motive and the opportunity for obedience. The Apostle Paul reflected on this question some eleven centuries later, and concluded, in light of Jesus’ advent and the Spirit’s outpouring:

For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin [or as a sin offering], he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. Romans 8:3-4

Because Jesus (1) came to the world as a man, “in the likeness of sinful flesh,” and (2) offered himself as an atoning sacrifice for sin, (a) sin is condemned and (b) the law is fulfilled in us whose hearts and lives are penetrated by the Spirit.

They had the law, but we have the Spirit. How dare we forget that for a moment. God the Creator, the King, the Judge, the Promise-Maker, the Promise-Keeper – the God of Judges – is alive, and living in us. The same Spirit of Yahweh who “rushed upon” the judges and made it possible for them to deliver Israel militarily now abides in us without leaving, making it possible for us do outlandish, “foolish,” beautiful things for the kingdom of God in Jesus’ name.

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world.” John 18:36

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” John 8:34-36

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you… For all who are lead by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” Romans 8:11, 14-15

outside the camp

We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. Hebrews 13:10-14
Follow the logic of the author’s train of thought here – it is beautiful.

We as Christians are entitled to eat from the altar of the holy communion, the bread and wine which depict the very body and blood of Jesus, an altar which the priests of the old covenant neither understood nor accepted. Just as they burnt their sacrifices for sin outside Jerusalem’s gates as prescribed by the law they idolized, Jesus, the only efficacious sacrifice for sin, also suffered his death outside the city. He was hated and excluded from their religion and from his people as a “blasphemer” – yet he volunteered for this. He did it to cleanse the consciences of sinners and to bring them in his wake to the Father.

Therefore, says the author, let us abandon our familiar territories, our safety zones, and our mundane desires. Let us claim the reproach and the ridicule that is ours by right, as people named after the great Outcast, the supreme Reject. The “city” we too comfortably habitate at the moment is on its way out. We aim for a different city altogether: the New Jerusalem, the breathtaking city of God that will be here before the world knows it.

The New Testament book of Hebrews is one of my favorites in the Bible. It is something of a commentary on the Old Testament, with a perspective, a realness, and an urgency that all revolves around the person Jesus. Here at the end of the letter, the unknown author beckons his very persecuted, very human, very real recipients: “let us go to him outside the camp.”

Of people who would answer his beckoning, several things must be true.

Jesus must captivate them. Not in a passively impressed way, like observing an interesting specimen behind a glass. Nor simply in an ethereal, indefinably spiritual way, like being drawn by the Spirit into figurative clouds of heavenly understanding. As a person with a particular personality who lived a particular life, Jesus of Nazareth must inspire awe in them. No one can imitate someone, to the point of self-denial, whom they do not know, or do not cherish.

Jesus’ love for these people must saturate them. They must unshakably believe that he is on their side, that he belongs to them, that he treasures them. Not by right nor by nature – sinners assuming God’s blessing is ultimately ridiculous – but by his proclamation of mercy at the cross. They must be utterly convinced of the cross’ power to transform them from self-loving lawbreakers into the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). “Jesus paid it all,” they say. “All to him I owe.”

Jesus’ Spirit must empower them.  The Holy Spirit doesn’t fit into any of our ordinary categories, and we very much like categories. Perhaps part of his majesty comes from his refusal to submit to our categories. In any case, we underestimate him all too often. He is the agent of power within us, the power that builds new things where old things were destroyed, explodes God’s love into our hearts, resurrects corpses, gives gifts of a spiritual nature to the church with variety and creativity, leads the sons of God, and a thousand other things for which he deserves worship and thanks – and dependence. People venturing “outside the camp,” outside the mold of self-reliant, self-serving living, must, out of necessity, lean harder on the power of the Spirit than on any other thing.
At this point in writing this post, personal experience forces me to consider the question: “What if I don’t feel this way? Why should I even care?” Whether from non-Christian or Christian lips – or more likely, unspoken thoughts – these words uncover something important about all this. Captivation, assurance of Jesus’ love, and the Holy Spirit all sound to my ears like very intangible, emotional things than I can do little to stir up inside myself. Emotions peak and bottom out, and efforts of the will have little to do with them.

But God does not submit to our categories, he does not. He does not leave us because our emotions dry up, nor does he lessen what he asks of us.

What he asks of us is to run to him for help a million times over, to believe that one ounce of obedience is worth an ocean of vain emotion, to fight temptation in prayer, and to really obey his command to follow him “outside the camp.” He asks us to obey it, disregarding the cost, disregarding the fact that more often than not we crave the approval of our peers more than the approval of our God, because he is our Lord who has gone before us, and because on the outskirts of the city, among the outcasts, the enemy-lovers, and the counter-cultural anti-heroes, is where he most truly dwells.

Let us go to him outside the camp.

the intersection of heaven and earth

As everyone knows from 8th grade English class, every piece of literature has a theme. The theme of a book is the sweeping idea it communicates; it’s that one impression that stayed with you from that one book you read eight years ago. You can trace its development from the book’s beginning to its end.

The Bible, in all its brilliance, contains sweeping ideas as well; Genesis-to-Revelation ideas. One of the cover-to-cover themes of the Bible is the idea of temple.

In biblical thought, the temple is the intersection of heaven and earth. Jesus said, “Whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it” (Matthew 23:21-22). In the same breath he said God “dwells” in the temple and in heaven; that is, the fullness of God’s glorious presence is in heaven, but it breaks into the physical, human world at the temple.

Tracing the temple through the Bible:

When he calls it “very good.” Eden, before humanity’s first act of rebellion: God requires no temple. He lives with the people  he has created without restriction. Their relationship to him requires no buildings, no rituals. Humankind enjoys blessed peace, and unashamed love, with each other, and with the God who made them. God calls it “very good.”

God pitches a tent. Mount Sinai, around 1500 B.C.: Humanity is now estranged from God because of sin; evil is in the world. Moses has led the Israelites out of slavery and into the Arabian Desert. In an epic scene on Sinai, God forms a special bond, a covenant, between himself and this primitive bunch of former slaves in the desert. He gives them his law for their community, including in it a command to build a tabernacle – in effect, pitch a tent – for him (Exodus 26). “I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God,” he says (Exodus 29:45).

God moves in. Jerusalem, around 900 B.C.: Israel is unified and prosperous. King Solomon builds the beautiful and iconic First Temple at Jerusalem (1 Kings 5-8), and God consecrates it “by putting [his] name there forever” (1 Kings 9:3). This is the temple the psalmists sing about, and Jews reminiscence about forever after.

For hundreds of years, Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem is the place where the Israelites come to praise, pray, offer sacrifices, and celebrate their holidays. It occupies the highest place of importance in Israelite thought, life, and worship, for at the temple, the promise of the Sinai covenant is realized: God dwells with his people. David expresses the longing for God’s presence in Psalm 27 when he says, “One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple.”

The Temple goes on, but never lives up. Throughout the rest of the Old Testament, especially in the books of Ezekiel, Haggai, and Ezra, the temple continues to play a central role. The Old Testament writers continue to understand it as the place where God’s glory breaks into the realm of humanity; however, the temple building itself never seems quite good enough (e.g. Ezra 3:11-13). Foreign conquerors destroy and rebuild it twice before the beginning of the New Testament. It never again reaches the grandeur of Solomon’s Temple, and never in its history does it give more than a taste of what it means to be in the presence of God.

The Old Testament is clear: God is infinite and stone walls cannot contain him (1 Chronicles 6:18, see also Acts 17:24). In all its genius, though, this is the foundation the Old Testament lays for how we are to understand the idea of temple, and why it matters to us.

When God comes down. Judea, c. 30 A.D.: The New Testament begins and Jesus the Messiah comes on the scene. He makes an absurd claim: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). The Jewish leaders call him a blasphemer. They get him arrested and crucified. They think they’ve won until three days later when they discover to their horror – his tomb is empty.

Jesus was and is the true Temple, the real Intersection Between Heaven and Earth. He, God and man in one person, broke into our world as “the exact representation of God’s being” (Hebrews 1:3). In him, “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 1:19). He, the divine Word, “became flesh and dwelt” – literally, pitched a tent – “among us” (John 1:14). He said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).

After his resurrection, his followers understood that the temple he had spoken of was himself – his own body, crushed for us (John 2:21-22). Jesus was the Temple, the place at which God breaks into the world, because he is God, he is the glory of God, he is the revelation of God. He was Heaven, dwelling on earth.

Temples of the Holy Spirit. In these post-ascension days, Jesus is no longer on earth bodily, but he has not left the world without a temple – or more correctly, without temples. Here is a truth that will blow your mind: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16). You, Christian, are, now, God’s temple on earth. You are the place where heaven and earth intersect, because the Holy Spirit dwells in you, if you can believe it. By faith in Jesus, you are not your own, you were bought at a price (1 Corinthians 6:20). You are holy and blessed (1 Corinthians 3:17). You are the light of the world (Matthew 5:14). “God lives in you, believer, so don’t throw a tarp over a lighthouse” – to quote my favorite morning radio guy.

Buildings, churches, and cathedrals are not God’s house. The people belonging to Jesus are his house (1 Peter 2:4-6). Materials objects do not contain the Christian faith. “Now Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant, to testify to the things that were to be spoken later, but Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son” (Hebrews 3:5-6). Moses, the tabernacle, the temples of Jerusalem – all of it testified in advance to the truth that Jesus is Lord and Savior, and that the people redeemed by him are God’s house, and that God promises the people of his house unrestricted access and unashamed relationship with him, forever. That’s good news.

The culmination of it all. From the beginning to the end of God’s book, the idea of “temple” is there. Each time it resurfaces, it builds up our understanding of God and the grace he offers us. At the end of the book of Revelation, it comes up one last time: “I saw no temple in the city,” – that is, the New Jerusalem, John’s vision of the recreated world that is to come – “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (Revelation 21:22). When that world arrives, there will no longer be glimpses of God or foretastes of his glory. We will be with him, fully. No barriers. No processes. Eternal life, with our Creator – when heaven and earth are one.

comfort

“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God,” said Isaiah (40:1). “Comfort” is one of those awesome biblical words, like “peace” and “joy,” to which the Bible gives such a stronger, more substantial meaning than the meaning we give it in everyday conversation.

In everyday usage, comfort means: ease, relaxation, maybe a little luxury. To comfort a person means to make them feel better. In its shallower sense, comfort (the verb) means, basically, to make comfortable, to make relaxed and easy. The Bible never once uses comfort in this sense, or even considers this idea as a valid one: more often than not, it views an easy lifestyle as an enemy. God is, in fact, not concerned in the least with our “comfort” in this sense. He has far bigger things in store for us.

The Bible sense of the word is that of giving strength, compassion, and rest. It is related to the ideas of “building  up” (i.e., edification) and encouragement (see 1 Corinthians 14:3) and essentially means to “come alongside.” To “come alongside” means to walk the same path, to come under the same load, to be a friend that is relied on. David said, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4). Clearly nothing is comfortable about the “valley of the shadow of death.” But David is not afraid, and does not stumble or stray, because of the comfort that God’s presence and guidance bring. The comfort of God makes David strong.

Consider this: the Holy Spirit himself is named “the Comforter.” Jesus said to his disciples shortly before his crucifixion, in John 14:16, “And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever” (KJV). The word “comforter” here is deep and wide in meaning and is translated several ways: Helper (ESV), Counselor (RSV), Advocate (NIV), Friend (NIRV). He is the coming alongside-er. He befriends us, comes under our loads, teaches us, and guides us. We depend on him, learn from him, cast our cares on him, and seek his direction and help. “Walking with” the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, is what makes the believer strong, and unafraid, in this treacherous life.

Paul also speaks of God’s comfort in 2 Corinthians 1:3-5. He says,

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.
God’s comfort is less like a pat on the back and more like an arm under our shoulders. In our suffering, he does not often make us comfortable, but he does come close beside us and give us mercy. One of his purposes in our pain is that we will know his comfort deeply, for ourselves. Then, we can do the same for other people: come near to them in their troubles, be someone they can lean on, their advocate. That is what God does for us. It’s what he calls us to do for others.