People of any book are well adept at wielding their book in ways that are contextually convenient. We, are no different. The better we know the Bible, the more able we are to conveniently turn to one verse or another, ignoring verses which should carry more weight, in order to justify our positions.
Somehow along the journey, many of us are either directly taught, or simply come to believe, that all parts of the Bible carry equal weight. Perhaps it is a result of the doctrine of inspiration (which I affirm), which states that all scripture was inspired by God. Yet, we mistakenly come to believe that simply because all scripture was inspired, all scripture carries equal weight or importance in the here-and-now.
This, is a tragic mistake.
However, this is a mistake that is wonderfully convenient. When we don’t like one verse that seems to disprove our preconceived position, we simply keep flipping the page away from Jesus until we find one that better suits our palate. Since all scripture carries equal weight, as long as we find one author who seems to support our position, we’re golden. All we have to do is whip out that verse and claim “I believe the whole Bible”, and wallah! We’ve either won the argument or lulled ourselves into a false comfort with our bad theology.
Or, maybe not.
Although scripture claims to be equally inspired (2Tim 3:16), it doesn’t claim that all scripture carries equal weight- in fact, it claims the opposite.
While Israel was sent a host of prophets throughout the ages, when Jesus arrives at the scene, he actually declares that John is the greatest prophet of all: “For I say unto you, Among those that are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist….” As Jesus spoke to a deeply religious audience, they correctly understood this radical claim that the message of John carried more weight than that of Micah, Amos, Isaiah, or anyone else who had come before John. It didn’t make the previous prophets any less inspired, but simply pointed to the fact that John was greater; thus, his message carried more weight.
Jesus goes on in John chapter 5 to take the claim one giant leap further, by claiming that John may be the greatest, but that his message actually carried more weight than even that of John: “I have testimony weightier than that of John…”
The beauty of the context of this discussion in John, is that Jesus is talking to religious people who are quite similar to a lot of folks we encounter today- folks who, when confronted with the radical teachings of Jesus will keep flipping the page away from Jesus, backwards or forwards, until they land on a verse that makes them feel a little safer. This process of flipping the page away from Jesus until we find something more comfortable- in the name of “believing the whole Bible”, is a gross abuse of scripture. When Jesus confronted these people he blasted them, saying (my paraphrase):
“You know the scriptures backwards and forwards, but you’ve missed the most important part: me.“ (John 5:39-40)
Believers must learn to recognize that Jesus is the central point in all of scripture– all scripture exists to point us to him! When we fail to treat the life and teachings of Christ as “weightier”, we completely miss the entire point of every word of scripture.
It’s all about Jesus.
It exists to point us to Jesus.
It shows us who God is, and who God isn’t, through the person of Jesus.
It exists to help us follow Jesus.
It’s all about Jesus.
If you’re missing that, you’re misusing the scriptures the same way the critics of Jesus misused it.
If you see something in Jesus that makes you uncomfortable, but flip the page forward until you feel more comfortable, you are misusing scripture.
If you see something in Jesus that makes you uncomfortable, but flip the page backwards until you feel more comfortable, you are misusing scripture.
Oh, how we especially like flipping the page backwards. As Boyd often describes, the Old Testament has so many different verbal portraits of God, that everyone would probably find something to suit them. There are portraits where God is angry, portraits where he is sad and regretful, portraits where he is a warrior, portraits where he commands baby killing, portraits where he is feminine and compares him to a nursing mother, portraits where he is loving and patient, portraits where God is…
There are a lot of portraits. This provides a very convenient opportunity for those who wish to avoid the teachings of Jesus, and instead turn the pages backwards until one finds a portrait of God that seems to line up with who we want him to be. I see people do this for a host of reasons- there are all sorts of things we can seemingly justify if we flip the page away from Jesus.
Want to justify nationalism, oppression, violence, sexism, and ____ (fill in the blank)? Just keep flipping the pages away from Jesus and you’ll probably find something to make you feel justified.
From my interaction with readers, we especially do this with violence. I can’t count the e-mails I’ve received that say: “God commanded violence in the Old Testament”, as justification for Christian violence today (even though Jesus rejected the Old Testament concept of an “eye for an eye” in Mt 5:38-39). We do it with other things too– the Old Testament is a very convenient document if we’re looking for loop-holes in the message of Jesus.
But, if Jesus is what this story is ultimately all about– as he claimed it is– his words, behavior, and deeds must be our center and carry the most weight when we ask the question “What does it look like to be a Christian?” Now that we have seen him, there is no need to flip the page backwards in an effort to understand who God is. These previous portraits (Old Testament) should not carry the weight that we assign to the portrait of God found in Jesus. While such a Christocentric Hermeneutic was something I wrestled deeply with in seminary, I actually didn’t come to fully embrace and understand this Jesus-centeredness until I adopted my daughter Johanna.
Before I met my daughter Johanna face to face, I only knew her by the way other people attempted to describe her. We received an electronic file on her which attempted to describe her the best way the folks around her were able to. We received a brief history of her life until the orphanage, a brief medical history, school records, and a brief description of her personality. Because I had never met Johanna, I only knew her by the way others attempted to describe her. Negative portraits in her file described her as a “non-learner” who “doesn’t respond to school” and the orphanage described her as having a “low frustration tolerance” and “frequent outbursts” along with “poor coordination”. There were also some positive portraits of her in the file, such as portraits that described her as having a “desire for affection”.
Some were positive portraits, and some weren’t. But the file was all I had to go on– I didn’t have a personal knowledge of her to compare it against and discover what was an accurate description and what was a misunderstanding of who she really is.
Now that Johanna has been in my life for 2 1/2 years, I know who she is because I have her own testimony– and that carries more weight than the old file. Now that I have experienced her personally and directly, I see that so many of the descriptors which were applied in her file, simply weren’t accurate compared to the flesh-and-blood Johanna. Now that I have Johanna in my life, I don’t even feel the need to search the old file to discover who she is– I just look to her directly, and that shows me who she is.
Yet, I’m happy for both the accurate descriptors of her and the inaccurate descriptions, because they both point to her. The accurate ones give me a glimpse of who she really is, and the inaccurate ones point to her by revealing what she is not. Both the positive and negative object lessons are equally helpful in aiding me to see who she really is.
That file might as well be Johanna’s Old Testament. It would be erroneous at best for me to attempt to describe who Johanna is by using descriptors from her Old Testament that don’t line up with the real, live, breathing Johanna (who just ran into my office and jumped on my lap as I wrote this).
The same is true for our understanding of God. Now that we have Jesus, there’s no need to give equal weight to old descriptors which didn’t always do a great job at describing who God is. The apostle Paul, referring to an Old Testament portrait of God which made him appear to be a rules-based God, said:
“These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” (Col. 2:17)
What Paul is saying here, is essentially the same as what I have experienced with my daughter: the descriptors in the old file were just a shadow, but the living, breathing Johanna on my lap is the reality. Furthermore, the author of Hebrews goes on to tell us that:
“The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (Heb. 1:3)
What is God like? He looks EXACTLY like Jesus. Even Jesus himself testified to this, saying that “if you have seen me, you have seen the father” and “I only do what I see the father doing”. Now that we have seen God in the living, breathing person of Jesus, there’s no need for us to turn back to the shadows in an attempt to paint a picture of God. God painted his own picture- in the life of Jesus, and that carries more weight than any other portrait painted in scripture.
How do I know what God is like? I look to Jesus, because God always looks EXACTLY like Jesus.
A heart for those on the margins of society.
Includes the excluded.
Radical lover of enemies, who in his final breath, pronounces forgiveness- not condemnation.
What does God look like? He looks like Jesus on the cross.
This is why it is dangerous to flip the pages away from Jesus: the purpose of the whole of scripture is to get you to flip the pages toward Jesus, because it is only in Jesus that we find out what God is really like.
Are some parts of the Bible more important than others?
Is my experience of Johanna more important than how people attempted to describe her in the past?
If you want to know what God is really like, than you must give “weightier” consideration to the life of Jesus.
What does God look like? He looks like someone who befriended prostitutes and let them become followers.
He looks like someone who wasn’t afraid to touch the untouchables, love the unlovables, and receive the rejected.
If you want to know what God is really like, you’ve got to stop flipping the pages away from this Jesus guy, who says those uncomfortable things..
Because God always looks EXACTLY like Jesus.
(and sometimes he looks like a little Peruvian girl reading the Bible to her stuffed animals)
A big thanks to my theological hero, Greg Boyd for the inspiration behind this post and opening my eyes to this life-changing truth.