Depending on your background, the question, “What’s the Bible got to do with me?” may seem silly.
If you’ve had any encounters with church at all, this isn’t a question that gets asked a whole lot. There’s a fundamental assumption that the Bible speaks directly to you and to your situation as if it were a letter God wrote to you. Metaphors for the Bible abound that capture this idea: the Bible is God’s love letter to you, the Bible is God’s instruction manual for life, etc. The idea is that anyone should be able to pick up the Bible, read it, and get information that is directly relevant to their lives right off the page.
If that’s where you’re coming from, then the rest of this post is probably not going to be very interesting.
I have taken a view of the Bible that the writings in it were produced at specific times for specific purposes primarily for the audience who received those writings at that time. As such, the writings rely on the events, worldviews, theologies, and concerns of the people at the time, and that becomes our primary reference point when determining what the Scriptures meant.
When this approach is taken, the content of the Scriptures can seem somewhat limited compared to our evangelical theology, especially when we look at the gospels. Instead of a Jesus engaged in a cosmic battle against the forces of darkness or a Jesus focused on the spiritual condition of every individual, we have a Jesus who is concerned about the state of Israel in his day, has prophetic warnings for them, works to restore them to wholeness, dies so that they might be saved, and is exalted to God’s right hand so that their fortunes in the world might be reversed.
As we read further in the New Testament, we see that what happened with Israel begins to roll out to the nations. A great overturning of fortunes is seen for the whole Empire, and the Gentiles who believe in what God has done in and for Jesus, and specifically believe that Jesus has been exalted to lordship by God, receive the same Spirit of God that faithful Israel has. Their sins, too, are forgiven, and they, too, have hope of being saved from a coming judgement that, on the other side, will result in the reign of the saints both dead and alive. Again, this is viewed as an imminent event.
Historically, however, we are long past this time frame.
Jerusalem was sacked by the Roman Empire and the Temple destroyed, bringing an end to the Israel-specific religious and political power structures of the day. Through the ridiculously rapid spread of Christianity in the Empire, Roman paganism was overthrown, bringing an end to persecution of Christians, and Jesus was declared Lord over the same Empire that executed him.
And then time went on. The Temple was never rebuilt. The Roman Empire declined and faded. These were the key scenarios anticipated by the Scriptures, and they happened.
So, that raises the legitimate question: what does the Bible have to do with us, today? Or, maybe more to the point, what relationship do these truths, teachings, narratives, and observations have to us, today, who are living so long after the main concerns have come and gone?
One answer is that everything I wrote above is pretty much wrong. The biblical writings are not primarily concerned with their proximate historical situation and, instead, are focused on timeless, trans-historical truths that speak equally to everyone everywhere. This is a well-established position and, if it is yours, you are in good company. It’s not the purpose of this post to argue against it, and as I said, you’ll probably find the rest of this a little boring because you’ve already rejected a key assumption of it.
But if you’re me or someone who thinks somewhat about the Bible like I do, then this is an important issue, and I’d like to address it in a few ways.
This Has Always Been an Issue
Because we have had a closed canon for so long, we can sometimes forget that the writings in the Bible were produced over a very long period of time – even longer if we consider the stories and traditions that came before writing them down.
Our Jewish forefathers in the faith produced Scripture at a given point in time, and generations much later had to discern the significance for them at a later time. Yet, at no point did anyone think these Scriptures were no longer relevant.
For instance, we read in 1 Maccabees of the persecution and paganism forced upon the Jewish people by Antiochus Epiphanes. In the early chapters of 1 Maccabees, we read of faithful Israel being urged to keep the covenant of her ancestors, and in 2:49-70, Matthias on his deathbed recites the faithfulness of various figures from the Old Testament and uses them as examples to his audience. They are examples because they are Israel’s forefathers. If Israel remains faithful in her hour of trial, then God will preserve them even as the pagan empires around them pass away.
Not a single one of those Old Testament episodes were written to address Matthias’ current situation, nor were they written to establish a timeless principle of how God deals with people being persecuted – like that’s the “moral of the story” or what have you.
Yet, Matthias turns to these narratives to offer guidance in Israel’s present (to Matthias) situation. This happens in two ways:
- What has happened in the past has ramifications for the present.
- What we see happening in the past can be transposed into our present situation for understanding and guidance.
Note, I am not condoning how Matthias specifically chose to apply the Old Testament to his present situation (which was, basically, let’s take revenge on the Gentiles), but rather to demonstrate that this is something the believing community has always had to do – take Scriptures that focused on past history and concerns and use them in a later context.
What Has Happened in the Past Has Ramifications for the Present
It seems like this is so obvious that it goes without saying: narrative about the past is vital for understanding your present situation.
How did we get here? Where did we go wrong? What did we do right? How did people deal with this in the past? How did it go? Are there keys in here for undoing the present ills the past has produced? Are we headed in a direction where we are doomed to repeat this fate? Have past events imposed obligations on us in the present? Are we, who are far removed from the original participants in historical events, still experiencing the effects and ramifications of them?
For example, I live in the United States. If someone said that the Revolutionary War or the Constitution or slavery were all irrelevant to the present experience of the United States simply because they occurred in a historical scope that is long past, everyone would consider that person profoundly ignorant.
These events, stories, and documents are formative for the United States and continue to “live on” in values, practices, and institutions both for good and ill. An ignorance of them only leaves us at the mercy of the trajectory they have set us on.
We learn them so that we can understand who we are and how we got here, hold to the things that serve us well, undo the things that have plagued us, avoid the errors (ideally) of our past and pursue the virtues and victories.
This is not really different from the role the narratives of Israel’s past played in their present experience over time, and you can see it in the biblical writings themselves, as later stories draw from figures, images, and outcomes of older ones.
Even in stories we have of these events, a concern that later generations will remember the story and draw meaning from it is present. For example, in Exodus 12, the story of the Passover establishes it as a perpetual practice – one where children might well ask, “Why do we celebrate this?” Their parents are to respond that this celebrates when the Lord brought Israel out of Egypt, striking the Egyptians but sparing Israel.
This event, long in Israel’s primordial past, is meant to serve as a perpetual reminder of who their God is, what He has done for them, and the special relationship they have with Him that the other nations do not. This complex of truths undergirds the entirety of Israel’s experience as narrated through the Scriptures. Even the Ten Commandments begin with, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt. You shall have no other gods before Me.”
By the time we get to Jesus, we find a Jesus who is not at odds with the narrative tradition behind him but continuous with it. He sees himself as the last of a line of messengers sent by God to turn Israel from her path and holds out the prophetic possibility of restoration that repentance can bring – restoration from a specific situation that has been brought about by Israel’s past history, not some generic spiritual condition that has plagued mankind since Eden.
See, there is a reason Jesus has to arrive in the first century.
Even when we see shocking events in the New Testament like Pentecost, Peter sees this as a progression of the Old Testament narrative. Stephen explains his martyrdom and the exaltation of Jesus in terms of Israel’s past story. Paul sees the inclusion of Gentiles as an outcome of the covenant made with Abraham, who is the spiritual forefather of both Jews and Gentiles and whose promise will bring them together.
They have to understand past events because they have ramifications for the present.
So, when we talk about the Bible’s relevance for our present experience, this is one way: we understand what happened in the past to understand our present.
God has made a way of justification apart from the Israel-specific Torah: it is faith in Jesus Christ. This is what God has done in the past. Today, we join His people by believing in what He has done in Jesus in the past, and when we do this, we receive His Spirit. We know this by what we know of the past. Jesus has been exalted to God’s right hand in the past and this explains his current lordship over the church. The observation of God’s faithfulness to His promises and the survival and fortunes of His people give us comfort and hope in our own circumstances as the church. God’s past operations beyond the grave have ramifications for our own future.
The destruction of the Temple has ramifications for our present. The rise and fall of Rome has ramifications for our present.
In the name of Jesus, I can offer all people forgiveness of their sins, the promise of the Spirit, new life in a new community with a new mission that will restore everything that is broken, and I can offer them this on the strength of what God has done in the past.
Just like the study of America’s formative documents, stories, and events – these things tell us how we got here, help us understand our present, and give us tools for navigating it.
I have told people before that, if I were financially independent, I would like to spend my time going to churches and telling them, from history, what God has done in Jesus, who they are, and what that means for their hope and mission. This identity-forming practice of sharing stories is something that has strong roots in our tribal past but isn’t terribly common these days. In fact, a “timeless truths” approach to Scripture can sometimes undermine this. The story of David and Goliath is no longer part of who we are or how we got here and is, instead, basically a fable like the Fox and the Grapes – a story whose particulars are unimportant that serves to teach a general, moral lesson.
Transposing the Past
He might not have been the first person to put it this way, but Andrew Perriman was the person who introduced me to the image of transposing the biblical narrative.
“Transposing” is a musical term. See, a given piece of music is written in a certain “key.” A key is basically the boundaries of the notes used in a piece of music.
Well, once you bring singers into the mix, you sometimes have a problem. What if the notes are too high or too low for your singers?
Then you can move the notes into a higher or lower key. You still get the same song because the relationship between all the notes is exactly the same, but they now run in a higher or lower range. Moving the same notes into a different key is called “transposition.”
In other words, you have taken the exact same musical structure, but you have moved it into a range that fits your current singers.
The gospel writers are experts at this. Maybe even a little overzealous at times.
For example, Matthew’s gospel portrays Herod as ordering the execution of infants in Bethlehem because he is afraid a child has been born that will overthrow him. In reference to this event, Matthew quotes Jeremiah 31:15 about Ramah weeping over her lost children.
Jeremiah 31 is not at all a prophecy about Herod. It’s about Israelite sons being taken captive into Babylon. It even specifically says Ramah, not Bethlehem.
So, was Matthew written by a total idiot or what?
No, Matthew is transposing Jeremiah 31. Jeremiah posits that Israel is weeping because her children are being taken from her by an oppressor, but God will hear the grief of His people and will restore their fortunes, returning their children from exile and delivering them from oppressors.
Matthew is saying, in essence, “Israel under Herod is like Israel under Babylon. And just as God removed Babylon and brought Israel back to her land, so God is about to accomplish another deliverance of Israel in Jesus Christ. God is about to overturn this oppressor, who is so much worse, with a salvation that is so much greater in scope.”
Matthew is using a text bounded by specific historical circumstances and significant in the past to explain present circumstances and offer both explanation and hope to his readers.
This is, I believe, the kind of thing that needs to happen, today, and is in large part what my blog is about – trying to do this (and screwing it up a lot) better and better.
In this way, we use past history to serve the present, but not by stripping it of its historical significance. Rather, its historical significance is exactly what allows it to have value in the present.
It has been my experience that the most powerful forms of preaching and proclamation are the ones where the present voice of God is brought forward from the original voice and the two are strongly connected.
Joe Frazier was a professional boxer who had a particular habit. When he punched people at head level, he turned his fist vertically instead of horizontally. He called this the “power line,” because it brought his fist, wrist, and arm into better alignment when punching at that height. You can actually test this for yourself without punching anyone. Stand next to a wall and press your fist against it at the height of your face and look at your alignment, then turn your fist vertical and do the same thing.
The point is that the greater alignment of all the parts involved delivered a much more powerful punch, and I have discovered this to be the case when preaching or even talking about the Bible. It’s not as though you can’t have a powerful punch without connecting the meaning of the past with your present proclamation; you can. But I have seen powerful things happen when all the pieces are in alignment.
In this way, transposing the past into our present circumstances gives the Bible a new and powerful voice.
When I talk about the story of Jesus casting out Legion, it is no longer simply a tale of spiritual power or a model for dealing with demons; it is the story of Jesus taking on a complete world system – all the powers working together that have oppressed this man. There is no bifurcation in this story between the spiritual forces of darkness and the political oppression of the Roman Empire. One is a physical embodiment of the other, and Jesus, with the power of God, confronts them simultaneously.
What a holistic call to mission this is, and what assurance we have of the victory of God when we act in His name. I do not have to choose between “saving souls,” addressing people’s psychological needs, addressing their material needs, or working for the betterment of the structures that people have to live under. All of it is a war against darkness, all of it is subject to Jesus’ power and authority, and there is nothing the Church needs to fear from any principality or power whatever form it takes, and there is no limit to the deliverance we have to offer suffering people.
The historical confrontation of Jesus and Rome is in our past – and Jesus won it. Go to Rome, today, and tell me who won that confrontation. We have our own oppressors, our own manifestations of darkness, our own people afflicted with all kinds of holistic suffering, and we have the commission and power to bring deliverance to them and every hope from the historical success of Jesus that we, too, ultimately, will be successful in ridding this world of everything that oppresses and afflicts, culminating ultimately in a new heavens and earth that are the product of God Himself.
If that doesn’t motivate you to fight, if that doesn’t give you hope, I don’t know what would. Compare that to a story about demonic possession where the point is, essentially, that Jesus really cares about even crazy people, and since he’s God, he can send demons away. I mean, not that those things aren’t necessarily true, but you see how anemic it can become when we strip away the historical significance of the story where Jesus faces the Legio Romana.
Imagine, if you will, going to an underground Chinese congregation in China and telling them that at least their hearts are right so they’ll go to heaven when the government persecutes them. Now, imagine showing that same congregation the historical commitment God has demonstrated to the survival of His people, the steadfastness of His promise, the goal He has for His people to be a witness and agents to the world which no power of Hell or man can snuff out, and for those that do fall in the cause of love, death is answered in resurrection. Do you see the difference in those two messages? Do you see the difference in power and hope and mission?
What invitation do I have to offer the world based on what God has done in history? I invite you to leave lives behind that are full of dysfunction, guilt, and dissipation to return to a God who keeps His promises. A God who has for you the promise of the Spirit, filling you with His presence and bringing you into fellowship with a community of people who are also full of the Spirit and bearing healing fruits of all kinds as a result. And you will become part of the mission to push back the darkness that plagues the world in all its forms with this Spirit under the guidance and protective care of Jesus, your living king. And when this world has been made new and the last enemy of it has been subdued, the One who created all things will see you safely into it.
The Present Experience of the Church
It should be noted that, given that God has poured out the Spirit onto those who believe in Jesus and confess him as Lord, the present experience of the Church in the Spirit is something that absolutely must be taken into account alongside of our Bible reading.
The earliest church didn’t even have Bibles, at least not as we know them. They had the proclamation of the Apostles and the demonstrative life of the Spirit among them. Eventually, this produced letters and gospels and at least one apocalypse that was canonized, but the believing community did not live their lives buried in the pages of a book but in the lived out experience of the Spirit.
Sometimes, this experience manifested itself in drastic, crazy, remarkable ways. Sometimes, it manifested simply in the extremes to which people would love and sacrifice for one another in the midst of a world that did not understand why you would want to do that. And everything in between.
This is why I don’t go around telling people to stop getting meanings out of their Bibles that I think are ill-founded (as long as they stop short of telling me that’s what the Bible “means” or use their insight to bludgeon others). The Spirit speaks and works, and the Bible is one of the vehicles through which this happens. If someone reads a passage about Zacchaeus and it makes them think about whether or not their pricing is just at their workplace, I’m all for it. Who knows but that it isn’t the Spirit speaking to that person, working with them to create a more just and compassionate world?
People draw comfort and insight for their lives from the Bible who don’t know anything about the Bible. Who am I to say that is not the Spirit working with them through those pages? Heck, some people even have a theology that makes it impossible for the Spirit to speak to them, so how else is it going to get done?
Regardless of what we think about the Bible or history or interpretation, good, amazing stuff is happening in the Church. When we go out in faith and do Jesus things, Jesus things happen – often small, mundane stories, sometimes spectacular, but always about healing and reconciliation. Always bringing the new creation into the here and now by the power of the Spirit.
Does this mean that Bible knowledge isn’t important? No, although it might be less important than the position we’ve elevated it to in the West. Still, as I’ve noted, the importance of understanding who we are, where we came from, how we got here, and what guidance all that can give us in our present circumstances is not incidental to the Church, but vital.
But we were never meant for our lives to be stuck in the pages of a book. The story of God and His acts and His people does not stop with the maps in the back of your Bible. It keeps going. We aren’t supposed to be the first century church; we’re the twenty-first century church. We have oppressors of our own. We have struggles of our own. We have issues of our own. We have crises of our own. And God is with us, now, speaking and acting and moving.
We need our prophets to call us to renewal and chart the way forward. We need apostles to take the proclamation of what God has done to new places and start new faith communities. We need pastors to care for communities that exist. We need teachers to tell us who we are and who God is and disciple us in His ways. We need healers to heal the sick. We need givers to heal the poor. We need helpers to care for widows and orphans – those who society has bypassed. We need counselors with knowledge and wisdom to help people with their deep struggles and addictions and dysfunctions and broken relationships. We need leaders who can challenge the anti-gospel of the powers that be with new ways of leading in the world, being a servant of love to all. We need prayers who will draw forth the attention and power of God to all these needs and join His heart for the world.
There is no aspect of life into which God has not equipped and gifted people to bring the presence of Jesus and bring holiness to His name in the world. Wouldn’t it be great if instead of being famous as the people who don’t want gay people to get married or who want schools to teach Genesis in science classes that we were known as the people who were steadfast warriors for the welfare of the world and everyone in it – compassionate servants to all who brought love and healing and forgiveness to everyone in the name of the God who loved them so much?
I did not invent these things, and neither did my contemporaries. These are the things that are present in the Word.