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When Christians read the Bible

By Mike Ruffin Author’s note: this column is addressed to Christians. If you aren’t one, I hope you’ll read it anyway. Maybe it’ll help you understand better how Christians think’”or at least how we’re supposed to think. In my day job, I edit Bible study materials for adults. I recruit writers and shape their efforts into a form that’s suitable for publication. Hundreds of churches and thousands of people depend on our company to provide dependable materials to assist them in studying the Bible and following Jesus. I reckon it’s work worth doing. Every great once in a while, a writer fails to come through and I have to write the lessons myself. In fact, I just finished writing five lessons on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which is found in Matthew 5-7. As I worked on those lessons, I was reminded again of how Christians are supposed to read the Bible. I need to make a few preliminary comments before I get into that subject further. First, Christians should actually read the Bible. We shouldn’t just accept somebody else’s words – not even those of an erudite columnist – about what it says. We should read it for ourselves. Second, if we’re Christians, then we should read the Bible as Christians. We aren’t Biblians; that is, we’re not saved by a personal relationship with a book. As the old hymn ‘Break Thou the Bread of Life’ puts it, ‘Beyond the sacred page, I seek thee, Lord.’ We’re saved by a personal relationship with the crucified and resurrected Lord Jesus Christ. So we do everything, including reading the Bible, in light of our relationship with Jesus. Third, there’s more than one way to read the Bible. What I’m talking about is how the Bible itself directs those who follow Jesus to read it. Christians should read the Bible in light of the fact that Jesus is our ultimate authority. How do I know? The Bible tells me that Jesus tells me so. Early in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished’ (Matthew 5:17-18). Christians believe that Jesus is God’s Messiah. That means, among many, many other things, that the law and the prophets point to and are fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus fulfills Scripture. That’s why Jesus can say, as he says six times in the Sermon on the Mount, ‘You have heard that it was said,’ then quote something from the Old Testament law, and then say, ‘But I say unto you ‘¦’ As he earlier said, he doesn’t abolish the law; he fulfills it. He completes it. He gives it its fullest meaning. And, since he is our Lord and Savior who has ultimate authority in all things, we listen to him. The Bible is important, but Jesus is more important. The Bible is authoritative, but Jesus is more authoritative. Jesus is the Christian’s ultimate, absolute authority. Christians, therefore, read the Bible through the lens of Jesus. Our reading and interpretation take the life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus into account. A person can read the Bible in other ways and still be a Christian. But a person can’t read the Bible any other way and call it a Christian reading. Reading the Bible as a Christian is challenging. That’s because Jesus didn’t offer his own interpretation of everything in the Old Testament. That’s a good thing, because if he had, the Sermon on the Mount would be 3,000 chapters long instead of just three, and few enough people read it as it is. But he gave us enough examples to guide us in reading the Bible through his lens. Let’s look at just one example. And it’s a doozy. In Matthew 5:38-42, Jesus says, ‘You have heard that it was said, ‘˜An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.’ The law stated the principle ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ three times: in Exodus 21:23-24, Leviticus 24:19-20 and Deuteronomy 19:21. It’s right there in the Bible, so, as Christians, we’re obligated to live by it, right? Wrong. As a matter of fact, Christians are obligated not to live by that principle that is stated three times in the Bible. We are obligated not to because Jesus points us to another, greater, more demanding way to live. We are not to seek ‘an eye for an eye;’ we are rather to turn the other cheek. We are not to refuse to give up what someone wants to take from us; we are rather to share graciously, to the point of ridiculously . Jesus has the authority to say, ‘You have heard it said ‘¦ but I say to you,’ because he is the Son of God, the Savior, the living Word, and the Messiah. As followers of Jesus, we’re not bound by ‘you have heard it said’ – even if we heard it said in the Bible. Because we are Christians, we’re bound by ‘but I say unto you.’ Jesus is our ultimate authority, and Jesus tells us how to read the Bible. Since Jesus fulfills Scripture and thus is our ultimate authority in all things, the only way to take the authority of the Bible seriously is to read it in light of Jesus. How does reading the Bible through the lens of Jesus change our understanding of it? Well, that’s the hard part. We have to find our way, bathing our reading in prayer, submitting to the guidance of the Spirit, and checking every possible interpretation and application against Jesus’ teachings and example. But based on this one example in the Sermon on the Mount (and I encourage you to read Jesus’ other ‘You have heard it said ‘¦ but I say to you’ sayings in Matthew 5), it’s pretty clear that our motives and attitudes, especially the ways that we think and feel about other people, even (and maybe especially) those that we regard (or that regard us) as enemies, matter a whole lot. I have a sneaking suspicion that Jesus really expects us to take all that love and grace stuff as seriously as he did ‘¦ Mike Ruffin has never forgotten the advice his father, the late great Champ Ruffin, gave him when he was trying to learn how simultaneously to believe and think: ‘Son, just keep trusting Jesus. Everything else will take care of itself.’ Through the earning of three degrees, including a Ph.D. in Old Testament, and an almost four-decade career as a pastor, professor, writer and now editor, he’s tried to steer by that compass.

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