Biblical texts: New Living Translation
39 “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! 40 Yet you refuse to come to me to receive this life.
12 For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires. 13 Nothing in all creation is hidden from God. Everything is naked and exposed before his eyes, and he is the one to whom we are accountable.
14 So then, since we have a great High Priest who has entered heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to what we believe. 15 This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. 16 So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it.
The Bible is the bestselling book of all time. There are more than 168,000 Bibles that are sold or given to others in the United States every day. Twenty million are sold each year in the US. That’s more than double the amount that was sold annually in the 1950s. Zondervan, a leading Bible publisher, has more than 350 different versions of the Bible that are in print right now. Ninety-two percent of Americans own at least one Bible. Two-thirds of owners, regardless of religious affiliation, say that the Bible holds the meaning of life.1
The Bible has within its history, poetry, letters, saga, proverbs, parables, sinners, and saints. Its message can change lives. However, it can also be used to emotionally abuse and has been used to justify some of the worst things that have ever been done—torture, murder, war, slavery, and misogynism.
Many people look to the Bible as the Word of God, seeking certainty about what to believe and know about life. The Bible inspires, lifts up, binds ups, gives faith, and awakens people to love. Theologian Hans Rudi Weber tells the story of an African woman who was routinely mocked for reading the Bible and carrying it with her wherever she went. She usually responded, “There are many books I could read but there is only one book that reads me.”
That is the draw, isn’t it? The Bible tells us about ourselves. We are Adam and Eve in the garden hiding after disobeying God. We are Jonah hating the mercy that God showed to the Ninevites, people whom he despised. We are the Pharisees pitching a fit when Jesus showed mercy to people they knew were SINNERS. We are the prodigal son returning home after wasting everything and finding infinite love and forgiveness.
This special book, filled with treasures about God becomes controversial due to disagreement on how to interpret what is within it. Today’s cliché, The Bible Says It, I Believe It, That Settles It, comes from people who interpret the words of the Bible literally, meaning every word has come directly from God. The Bible contains God’s actual words is what they believe and teach.
Some passages literally cannot possibly be from God. They just cannot be since they are so far from our understanding of God-is-love, that they cannot be reconciled as coming from the mouth of God. For instance, we find the following in Psalm 137:8-9
O Babylon, you will be destroyed.
Happy is the one who pays you back
for what you have done to us.
9 Happy is the one who takes your babies
and smashes them against the rocks!
Smash the babies of our enemies is what this psalmist is advising? Smash Afghan babies against rocks? Iraqi babies? Russian babies? How about the babies of the recent domestic terrorists in the US? Or, in the past, the Japanese babies, or Nazi babies? Biblical literalism can be ever troubling and baffling when confronted with texts like this one. Or texts like the following that were identified in very dramatic fashion in an episode of “The West Wing.” (For the video visit this link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3CPjWd4MUXs)
If The Bible Says It and That Settles It, what do we do with passages that encourage slavery or say that women should be silent in the church, or that call an entire group of people whom God created an abomination?
The Christian denomination for which I serve as a pastor is the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). The ELCA declares the Bible to be the inspired word of God but does not include the word inerrant regarding the Bible. In other words, the ELCA like some other Christian denominations (Catholic, Episcopalian, Presbyterian USA, etc.), when studying a particular passage of scripture, takes into account the historical and cultural contexts, and the original languages in which it was written. Hence, the creation stories (yes, there are two of them—the seven-day story and the Adam and Eve story written hundreds of years apart) usually are not interpreted literally. Nor are the tales of Jonah or Noah, for example. All those stories are clever and grand and tell us wonderful things about God’s mercy. They do not have to have come directly from the mouth of God for us to see that. And to try to make them literal means we often need to ignore the facts of science.
There is much more that could be said of this method of Biblical interpretation but this sermon is not meant to be a deep dive into that. I mean to address this cliché and its other form, The Bible Clearly Says, both of which too often divide Christian from Christian in often unloving ways.
It was not uncommon in my youth for teenagers to break up with their boyfriend or girlfriend with a note passed to them by a friend. Today, teens and adults break up via text message. It seems it is easier to break someone’s heart in writing. When Christians fight over the Bible, they break each other’s hearts, using the words of scripture as a weapon that then tears Christians apart.
The Hebrews text for today’s message tells us that God’s Word is alive and powerful, meant to build us up, not break hearts. This cliché attacks in a we-are-right-you-are-wrong manner. Every time we hear someone say, “The Bible clearly says” is someone’s heart breaking just then?
So why is the cliché used as often as it is? I think it is because people are looking for security in a black and white, and unarguable manner. Moral deliberation is hard and this cliché can suspend a person from deeply thinking about myriad issues.
Martin Luther brilliantly wrote that the Bible is the cradle on which Christ lays. He likely got that from John 5:39 which tells us that the scriptures point to Jesus. Our cultural contexts—the places where we live or grew up, our parents’ messages to us, our race—influence how we find Christ within the words of the Bible. Theologian Mark Alan Powell used the Parable of the Prodigal son to explore how different people view its message depending on their culture. For instance:
- An American reader often sees the son as having squandered his inheritance and cannot understand why the father forgives him and celebrates his return. What a wastrel! Yet the father embodied unconditional love to this son. Jesus the forgiver is God’s word for this reader.
- A Russian reader, having lived through more than one famine through no fault of his own, viewed the son’s money having run out as just bad luck. So why would the father not welcome him back? Jesus the welcomer and comforter is God’s word for this reader.
- Readers in Tanzania did not even think the son had committed any sin because they lived in a culture where others were supposed to have helped him. In their village, it was expected courtesy that everyone helps out a stranger. The sinners in the story were those who had not helped him when he was starving. Jesus the protector Is God’s word for such readers.
Is one interpretation more right than another? Of course, not. The Word of God is alive and powerful, using our culture, our history, and our individual life stories to color how we hear God speak to us in scripture.
When someone uses “The Bible clearly says” cliché that person is saying that this is the only way you should understand it—from my cultural perspective. Hence, it is used to control and it often hurts others and actually can turn them from a life with God. Annie was a girl who was raised as a fundamentalist Christian who attended a conservative Christian Middle School. She once questioned a teacher about her father who was baptized as a baby. His response was this, “The Bible clearly says in the gospel of John that “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved.”Your father was too young to believe so that same passage in John tells us he will be condemned.” Hell for her dad? The result for Annie was this: f God was going to send her dad to hell then she wanted nothing to do with such a God. She dropped out of that school altogether and never went back to church again. If only she had heard that same scripture from the viewpoint of one like me who had been baptized as a baby and had come to know God closely in life.
The Bible says it, I believe God-is-love always, and Jesus settles into my heart through it. Love—that much is clear.
Please leave a note in the comments for questions or thoughts. I would enjoy hearing from you.
2 Praying on Empty, A Female Pastor’s Story, pg. 179
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.