Play it Again…As Time Goes By

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. 2 Timothy 3:16

On many past occasions and in many different ways, God spoke to our fathers through the prophets. But in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son…Hebrews 1:1-2a

For many years I have made it a personal devotional practice to read through the Bible each year, beginning with the creation stories in Genesis on January 1 and finishing with the poetic description of a restored universe in Revelation on December 31. Although I’ve tried other reading schedules, this is the one that has worked best for me. If I get behind and miss a day or two, it’s easier to play catch-up. Since I don’t read Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek, I try to use a different translation each year. The invention of apps like YouVersion allow easy switching between translations, which has broadened my choices considerably. This year I’m using The Bible Project for my daily readings, which includes a video element.

Over time, the results of this practice have resulted in the Bible truly becoming a living, breathing book for me. Each time I read it, I find it has something new to say to me, which often speaks to me at the point of my deepest need of the moment. It may be something I find relevant or applicable to something that is going on in my personal life, or something that is going on in the world around me. This phenomenon is not limited to the time I spend actually reading the scripture passage for the day, or even the selected passages. I can be going about my ordinary activities of the day and find that a verse pops into my head that offers assurance or direction, and I understand this as God speaking to me.

Reading the Bible from start to finish multiple times also helps me to see connections between different parts of the Bible. The scriptures that make up our Bible were written by many different people over thousands of years, each bearing the stamp of the writer’s individual perspective in time and space, yet also attempting to communicate a consistent message. Keeping that message in mind helps me better understand the weird parts…and there are some weird parts. It’s a mistake to construct an entire theology based on a few passages taken out of context (including their historical and cultural context) especially when other passages may say something completely different.

The best commentary on the Bible is the Bible itself and as a Christian, I understand Jesus as the lens through which the Bible should be interpreted. I’m sorry to say that I think Biblical illiteracy is just as much of a problem today as it was in the Middle Ages prior to St. Francis and Martin Luther, when the common people fell for the line that “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings / the soul from purgatory springs”. If we aren’t familiar with the whole Bible, we are at the mercy of those who would use it to advance their own agendas rather than God’s. As Shakespeare phrased it, the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose (based on Matthew’s depiction of the second temptation of Christ) If we are not thoroughly familiar with the whole Bible, we’ll believe anything anyone tells us is “biblical”, even if it directly contradicts the life, teachings, and example of Jesus.

So what is the consistent message of the Bible? Here’s how I understand it: There is a God, and it’s not us. In fact, we humans consistently fall far short of God’s design for us and mess things up when we try to assume the role of God. We can’t even manage to follow one simple rule which is supposed to govern our interaction with others: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” Yet God has never given up on his creation, and God never will, until all is as God intended it to be.

And that’s good news to me!

Timothy and Titus: Passing the Torch

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for instruction, for conviction, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, fully equipped for every good work.

The letters to Timothy and Titus are known as the “pastoral epistles” because they are directed to church leaders rather than to entire congregations. Timothy and Titus were both protégés of Paul and accompanied him on several of his missionary journeys. If actually written by Paul (there is some dispute among Biblical scholars), 2 Timothy was likely the last letter Paul wrote, as apparently he had lost of all of his appeals to Caesar, and was awaiting execution. “As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus serve as a bridge between the first generation of Christians and the next, a kind of “passing of the torch” if you will. Many of the original apostles had already died for their faith, and even the last survivors would not make it into the second century. Soon there would be no eyewitnesses left. If Christianity was to survive and thrive, it would be up to the next generation of spiritual leaders. Already distortions of the original gospel were beginning to creep into the churches. One of the earliest of these distortions was Gnosticism, which promoted a number of ideas that differed substantially from the gospel the Biblical writers proclaimed. Gnostic teachers held that there was a great deal of secret knowledge about spiritual matters that was only available to a select few. In addition to unsubstantiated speculation about the nature of Jesus that reminds me quite a bit of The Da Vinci Code, it often led to inappropriate behavior- extreme asceticism on the one hand and antinomianism on the other hand. Furthermore, more than a few of these false teachers took advantage of gullible people, both financially and sexually. Paul was quite concerned about the future of the church. Would the next generation of Christians build on his legacy, or demolish it? Soon it would be no longer up to him.

Paul warned Timothy and Titus to beware of false teachers who perseverated on myths and endless genealogies that promote speculations rather than the divine training that is known by faith”.He advised that they “avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. Those words of advice are just as relevant now as they were then, and it makes me sad and angry because I think such distractions tend to have the effect of making faith look even more silly and pointless to those without it than they already think it is.  It’s easier and perhaps more entertaining to speculate about apocryphal passages in the Bible  than it is to wrestle with the personal implications of Jesus’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. It’s easier and perhaps more reassuring to pick parts of the Bible out and apply them to other people, than it is to think about the parts that imply that I might need to change myself.

In terms of human evolution, the invention of writing was a quantum leap forward. Knowledge could now be passed on from generation to generation without lossiness, making it easier for each generation to build on what the previous generation had learned. This principle could be applied to all kinds of learning, theological as well as technological. The Jewish exiles seemed to grasp this concept exceptionally well, which led most Jewish communities throughout history to place a high value on literacy.   I think that’s what Paul must have been thinking when he wrote his often-quoted words about the inspiration of Scripture in 2 Timothy 3:16-17.  Thoughts that are spoken may be misquoted or forgotten. Thoughts that are written down endure.

But I think this passage is often misunderstood and misapplied. Often only the first part of Paul’s sentence is quoted, “all scripture is inspired by God”, ignoring the phrases which follow and which I think are of critical importance. That mistaken truncation leads to the kind of thinking promoted by biblical inerrantists who insist that every word in the Bible is straight from God’s mind to the writer’s quill. I have a few problems with that. First of all, what does Paul mean by “all Scripture”? It’s hard to believe he was bold enough to be talking about his own letters as he was writing them: much less the gospels, which were written later: much, much less books like the letters of John and Revelation, which were written after Paul’s death. Second, what does he mean by “inspired” or “God-breathed”? Is that meant to be taken literally, or figuratively? Did God choose the exact words the writers used, as God wrote the Ten Commandments on stone tablets with his own fingers? Or does Paul mean that, as we read and study and even wrestle with the Bible, God breathes life into it and we find that its words come alive and seem to speak directly to us?

For me, the most important part of Paul’s sentence is what comes after the “and” of the clause. God breathes life into Scriptures for a purpose. Scripture is “ useful for instruction, for conviction, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, fully equipped for every good work.” The Bible is not a history book, a science book, or even a rule book for the game of life. That isn’t its purpose. Its purpose is to serve as a catalyst for change, so that we open ourselves up to God, and allow him to begin the process of transformation into the kind of people we were created to be. We were created “in the image of God” to live in love with other human beings and in harmony with all creation. We messed up, and continue to do so. But God hasn’t given up on us.

And that’s good news to me.