Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Who is the Bible for?

Most Bible-believing Christians would say that the Bible is the Word of God and is applicable to their lives on a daily basis. But I want to go deeper than that and ask who it was actually written for and why.

For many years I held the idea—with many others—that God's word, though written so long ago, is just as relevant and pertinent to us today as it was to those to whom it was initially given. But I've gradually come to see how this view fails to make a distinction between any of the sayings of Jesus or commandments of the prophets—for example—and can lead one very far afield and present a very inconsistent hermeneutic that creates problems for the honest seeker.

To illustrate the problem: we all know the Sunday School joke of the guy who, seeking for divine guidance, cut open his Bible twice; the first verse told of Judas hanging himself and the second was Jesus own words "Go and do thou likewise." But this is only a joke because it is so obviously not divine guidance. Our laughter is mingled with a little nervousness for we don't know really where to draw the line.

Yesterday I ran across a line on a Christian web site I was visiting that I liked a lot for it seemed to encapsulate a partial solution to this problem and is certainly the conclusion that I have been coming to of late:

The Bible was written for us but it was not written to us.

These things are written that you might know ... and believe, says John. All these things happened to them (the Old Covenant people of God) and are written as examples to us ... upon whom the ends of the age are come, says Paul to the Corinthians. We take much edification from the countless stories in the Old Testament but how far can we take the admonitions and apply them to our life today? There is a fine line.

When Jesus gave specific instructions of things he expected his disciples to do we seem to know instinctively which ones we should really carry out. (We don't usually take to heart his command to go out and buy a sword, if we don't have one, though we do take to heart the idea of going into all the world and preaching the gospel to every creature.) But what about sayings that are not commands but just instruction, edification, or general teaching? Let me give another example that illustrates what I mean.

When Jesus said to the twelve that some of them would not die until they'd seen him come in glory with his holy angels, or told the multitudes that their generation wouldn't pass away until everything was fulfilled, or when he told the high priest that he would personally see his second coming in the glory of his father, what do we do with these sayings?

Eschatology has always been a thorny issue and the past two thousand years are full of the Christian follies that have come about by people taking these words as if they were written to them when in fact they were spoken to someone else entirely.

You may say, yes, but Jesus said he's coming and I believe it. Well, so do I. But don't forget he also said he was coming quickly. Whoops!

Doesn't time mean anything to God? And if he knew he wasn't really going to come for, say, two or three thousand years—or more!—what was the point of using words like "at hand", "quickly", "soon", "at the very doors", and "the last hour"?

Maybe there is something we are completely missing in this whole equation because another favorite Christian expression is "the end times". It's just so much a fabric of our culture that I wouldn't be surprised to learn that even unbelievers believe we're living in the end times!

But what I want to know is: the end times of what?

Can't be the Christian age since we're told the Christian age has no end. Can't be the kingdom that Christ established two thousand years ago since we know his kingdom will last forever. Can't be the physical world since we're told the earth will never be moved.

So nowadays when someone tells me we're living in the last days I ask him, the "last days" of what? Strikes me to be a question of some importance with a certain logic behind it.

Jesus spoke constantly of two ages: "this age" (meaning, obviously, the age in which he was living—the mosaic covenant, the law, etc) and "the age to come" (meaning, again, obviously, the next age that would come about once his present age was finished. Well which age are we living in now?

Are we living under the old covenant of moses' law? Or are we living in the new covenant of grace prophesied by Jeremiah and Isaiah and others? And if we are now living in the new covenant of grace (which, of course, we are) then at what point did the old covenant pass away?

Could we have called the days of the passing away of the old covenant the "last days"?

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