Jesus said, “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39-40).
Imagining that merely possessing and studying the Scriptures, the Pharisees believed they had life. Life with God in God’s kingdom. They were Book-obsessed. Book worms. Jot and tittle types that boasted in owning “the oracles of God.” When “the Word made flesh” stands before them, opposes them, warns them, the Book-centered folks dismiss him as an alien, as a life-destroyer, not the life-bringer.
The Pharisee syndrome is still alive and well in USAmerican Christianity. Many Christians are much more at ease with studying the Bible than coming to Jesus. Reading a Book is safer, more comfortable than relating to a Person, especially an enigmatic Person like Jesus. An insidious pride lurks in the heart when one presumes to know the Book, to possess it and revere it and use it to fence off undesirable types of people from our tidy lives. People, well-intentioned, begin to substitute finding something new and refreshing in the Bible with relating to a holy, very present God.
As a pastor I’ve observed how the Bible is used to distance a person from God the Spirit. If I view the Bible as a box of matches from which I can draw one match and light it and see the flame and feel the fleeting warmth and call that a devotional life, then I am happy. To walk into the flame-thrower named Jesus the Christ is a different story. I don’t want to be burned up in the fiery passion and mission of God–that’s too extreme. I’m happy with “this little light of mine…”. Living as a whole burnt offering is too…what shall I say? Indelicate. I want to stay in charge of my commitment and piece-meal it out at my discretion. Dying to self is a nice metaphor after all.
Imagine a newly married couple reading to each other each night from a Christian book on the sexual life in marriage. They even memorize sentences or paragraphs of it. They write songs about love and intimacy. They arrange sexual topics into a nice groupings of thought and make charts and graphs. They study all sorts of other books to understand what is in their manual…medical and anatomical definitions, history, and issues. After years of this they wonder why they are still childless. They know the book backwards and forwards. They diligently study the book, but have not come intimately to each other as persons.
You diligently study the Scriptures…you refuse to come to me. Saints and scholars have not been reluctant to make daring parallels between the sexual life of a man and woman and life with God. The Song of Songs is notoriously used to make those parallels. Eugene H. Peterson as a pastor strongly suggests that a person’s prayer life is a mirror of their sexual life (in Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work on the “Song of Songs”). It is entirely possible to use the Bible as a book about intimacy with God and actually be very far from God. Jesus confronts folks who thought they were intimate with him and passionate for him, but were in fact “evil-doers” (see Matthew 7:21-23).
A common objection I hear to this is, “The only way I can know God is through the Bible. The Bible has to be first, God second. If I don’t go to the Bible first, then I may concoct crazy things about ‘God’.” This sounds noble and right, but is in fact a lie. God has not locked the awesome Trinitarian reality of Being in a book with a cover and pages with ink. Jesus had to bluntly make this plain to Nicodemas in a night conversation. My intimate life with Julie and the fact of the existence of my four lovely daughters never were locked in a sexual informational guide. Never. Adam and Eve were procreating the race long before the printing press gave us sex manuals. The living God-head Three in One has been and is and forever will be independent of the Bible. God is totally able and free to introduce God-reality to anyone, anytime, anywhere. The humbling strategy that the living God has chosen is for those who intimately know God to go and bear witness to God’s loving, present, gracious, saving Trinitarian Being. We aren’t commissioned to go read a manual to people, but to bear fruit as we abide (stay in union with) Jesus.
Behind the insidious insistence upon the Bible first and God second is the fear that God cannot make himself truly known without our help, you know, those of us who “know the Bible.” The Bible becomes our precarious and presumptuous replacement of the Spirit poured out on the planet at Pentecost. Again, we would rather have a nice, controlled “lamp to my feet” than a fire-breathing, untameable Spirit to contend with.
Please, please don’t misunderstand me. I am not belittling or ignoring or demeaning the Holy Scriptures. My passion is that the Bible find its rightful place in our lives. The Pharisees no doubt loved God and they made a fatal mistake of placing holy writings between them and Jesus. Why do we think we cannot make the same grievous mistake? I am afraid many have…yes, even pastors.
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