What is the Bible?
In 1788, Rev. Raymund Harris published this tract: “Scriptural researches on the licitness of the slave trade[…].” And in it, he said this:
"The [Revealed] Decisions of God have positively declared that the Slave-Trade is intrinsically good and licit, [and that the holding of slaves] is perfectly consonant to the principles of the Law of Nature, the Mosaic Dispensation, and the Christian Law." Slavery has "the positive sanction of God in its support."
As we read through the Bible this year, we are going learn more about God and His story, try and learn to recognize when we oppose God’s story individually and also learn to recognize the collective stories we are all immersed in that oppose God’s Story.
But it is often harder to uncover collective stories that conflict with God’s story when:
- People – like Rev. Harris – have used the Bible to claim something about God or our place in His Story that is false.
- The Bible itself presents us with all kinds of odd or even disturbing stories that we don’t know what do with.
Jeremy is going to deal with some of the things that fall into that second category next month as we get into Joshua and Judges. But to help us in this year of “Story Shapes Life”, we need introduce the question: What is the Bible?
And a good place to start is with what the Bible says about itself:
2 Peter 1:19-20
“And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention has to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
So – in some way or another – the Bible is God's prophetic word, it came by men carried along by the Holy Spirit and it is good for us to pay attention to because it is like a 'light shining in the darkness.
But it is still difficult to know what to do with the Bible even when we have some view of its value. Part of the difficulty comes from the fact that it comes to us in the form of a book, so we compare it to other books:
- Not a Novel: It is not ‘one story’ where every chapter directly builds on the one before it and all the pieces make sense when we finish reading. But it does contain one unified story. God’s story as it relates to humanity and the rest of His Creation.
- Not a Textbook/Guidebook: It is not a how guide for how to accomplish certain tasks or a list of moral requirements, where the stories are just there to keep us entertained as we work through the home- work. But it does have quite a few rules and instructions for living under God’s kingship.
- Not a Letter: It was not written by God and then delivered to humans for us to read. But we do believe that God speaks through the Bible in a way that is especially important.
Instead of a book, the image that I find more helpful for God's word is a tree: At different stages – seed, sapling and plant with fruit – the plant is still a plant. When is it not a plant? Never. But it grows and develops and what we understand about the plant changes with it. Is there ever anything wrong with the plant in one of those stages? No. It is good at every stage, even if it isn't fully developed.
This doesn’t answer every question about the Bible, but it gives us a place to start to understand what we see in Scripture at different points. It also helps us understand what different people through-out history have done with Scripture.
On April 8th 1630, four ships left England in hopes of reaching the recently established Massachusetts Bay Colony. Soon joined by seven more ships, the fleet carried over 700 men, women, and children – along with livestock and necessary provisions – to start new lives in this new land they had all heard so much about. Ten weeks later, John Winthrop – a puritan lay-leader, lawyer, and soon to be Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony – preached a sermon that ended something like this:
So stands the cause between God and us. We are entered into covenant with Him for this work. We have taken out a commission. The Lord hath given us leave to draw our own articles. Now if the Lord shall please to hear us, and bring us in peace to the place we desire, then hath he ratified this covenant and sealed our Commission[…]
[...] The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us, as his own people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways. [...] We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when he shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of [future] plantations, “the Lord make it like that of New England.” [W]e shall be as a city upon a hill. I shall shut up this discourse with that exhortation of Moses, that faithful servant of the Lord, in his last farewell to Israel, Deut. 30: Beloved there is now set be- fore us life and good, Death and evil, [..] Therefore let us choose life—that we, and our seed may live, by obeying His voice and cleaving to Him, for He is our life and our prosperity.
If nothing else, most of you probably recognized that last part about Deuteronomy. Last week we saw how Deuteronomy is Moses speech to the Israelites who are about to enter the Promised Land, offering them the choice of blessing in God’s Story or curse in their own.
And those are the only two options, choosing God or opposition to God. There is no middle ground. This is why Moses and Aaron feel on their faces in Numbers 14 – because the gravity Israel’s ‘miswanting’ – saying no to the Promised Land and trying to go back to Egypt – was not just a ‘bad choice’ but rebellion and sin against God. They were writing their own story in opposition to God’s Story.
A City on a Hill…
Which brings us back to John Winthrop. He and the rest of the puritans claimed that the society which they would form in New England would be "as a city upon a hill.” They were dissatisfied with the Church of England's (Anglican) tolerance of practices which they associated with the Catholic Church. They formed and identified with various religious groups advocating greater purity of worship and doctrine, as well as personal and group piety. They wanted a ‘purer’ form of church. They did not want a ‘top down’ religion but their own particular expression of religion and faith. Wanted to establish a theocracy. Essentially, they read the story of Israel in Deuteronomy and said: “We are the chosen, we choose blessing…” And being a "city on a hill" became a large part of our collective American story.
Here are a few examples:
Thomas Jefferson. departing presidential speech in 1809:
"Trusted with the destinies of this solitary republic of the world, the only monument of human rights, and the sole depository of the sacred fire of freedom and self-government, from hence it is to be lighted up in other regions of the earth, if other areas of the earth shall ever become susceptible of its benign influence."
Herman Melville. American Authoer (Moby Dick) 1850:
"We Americans are the peculiar, chosen people--the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world. Seventy years ago we escaped from the thrall; and, besides our first born-right--embracing one continent of earth--God has given to us, for a future inheritance, the broad domains of political pagans, that shall yet come and lie down under the shade of our ark, without bloody hands being lifted. God has predestined, mankind expects, great things from our race; and great things we feel in our souls."
4. Ronald Reagan. 40th president of the US. The night before his election 1980:
“I have quoted John Winthrop's words more than once on the campaign trail this year—for I believe that Americans in 1980 are every bit as committed to that vision of a shining "city on a hill," as were those long ago settlers ...”
5. Barak Obama. U.S. Senator, during his commencement address on June 2, 2006 at the University of Massachusetts Boston:
“It was right here, in the waters around us, where the American experiment began. As the earliest settlers arrived on the shores of Boston and Salem and Plymouth, they dreamed of building a City upon a Hill. And the world watched, waiting to see if this improbable idea called America would succeed.”
It doesn’t matter what side of the isle you are on. Since the very beginning, a part of how we see ourselves as Americans has been: “We are the chosen people – a new Israel – and we will choose blessing...”
…Has To Perform
“What’s the big deal?” – some might say – “So we sometimes think we are bigger deal than we are.” Maybe, but Moses didn’t just give people a blessing. He gave them the option of a blessing or a curse.
“See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you today, and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn aside from the way that I am commanding you today, to go after other gods that you have not known.”
For Israel, disobeying the commandments meant giving up the blessing, and John Winthrop knew this:
“[…] but if we shall neglect the observation of [our laws] which are the [goals] we have [set for ourselves], and, [disconnecting from] our God, shall fall to embrace this present world and prosecute our carnal intentions […], the Lord will surely break out in wrath against us; be revenged of such a [sinful] people and make us know the price of the breaches of such a covenant.”
If we are like Israel in Deuteronomy, then we have to perform. This whole story we are caught up in is “We are the chosen, we choose blessing…but if we mess up, we will be cursed.” We have to keep the laws and make sure we are pure. Because a City on a Hill has to perform, it has to keep things clean.
And this distorted/lesser story where we are special and we have conquer the promised land and makes it good shows up everywhere. Like how we talk about:
- Dreams/Goals. “You can do anything you set your mind to.
- Sports. “A winner is someone who recognizes his God-given talents, works his tail off to develop them into skills, and uses these skills to accomplish these goals.”
- Relationships. “Couples that are meant to be, are the ones who go through everything that is meant to tear them apart, and come out even stronger.”
- Even in the American church! “God put laws into being – we put them into motion.”
Very often in churches across America you hear a version of this. “You do the work, you get the prize.” We know we don’t earn a relationship with God through good works, but we do earn God’s blessing through purity.
This comes out of our human desire for the world to be good. We want things to be better than they are now. But N.T. Wright has a great illustration for how this has lead a lot of churches in the US to talk about God as if He created us with a high moral bar and says “that’s what you have to jump over to be my friend” and we all fail…until Jesus comes along, the great high-jumper who gets over the bar for us. So now our job is to run around to the other side and swap places with Jesus and make sure we put on a good show as if we jumped over the bar. Jesus atoned for us – covered out debt, our sins – but we have to keep things clean so we can stay in the blessing.
But – like all of our sinful miswanting, our rebellious choice to go after lesser stories – there is a better story in God’s story. And the story of “We are the chosen, we choose blessing…but we have to keep the blessing going” and God’s Story collide here: Atonement.
Atonement is a word we rarely use any more outside of church settings and in much of America has come to mean what we just talked about: Jesus covered over our sins by His death on the cross.
The breadth of how this term is used is fascinating. Atonement is provided for inanimate objects such as the altar in the temple, the sanctuary or even a mildewing house. And sacrifice accomplishes atonement "for sins" in many places, these verses always mean atonement for people "because of" their sins. Why the distinction? Because Atonement doesn’t just mean “covering over.” Atonement – “at-one-ment” – means bringing back together, being re-unified to God.
So, if Atonement is our sin taken from us AND the cleaning up evil so things can be good in God’s presence, which sounds better?
- “Oh, Jesus took our sin from us? Great! Ok God, the second part, we got that!”
- In Christ, we who believe in Him have are sin taken from us AND we were brought into the blessing of being re-connected to God. Not a blessing we institute. Jesus has done the work! The blessing is in Him.
The thing is, a lot of us are tricked because we don’t like legalism so we think we haven’t listened to this conflicting story. But I know all of us love the idea of being the hero. This goes right back to what we talked about last week: our sinful miswanting, our rebellion against God’s story, but even when we want to choose blessing in God, we love the idea of earning the blessing, being good enough for the blessing. Whether that is through morality or right thinking or right voting or really right whatever. It can be easy to pick on the Puritans and their ‘right morality’ but the story of “we are chosen and we will choose blessing” is a cyclical lie in our country. “We are special, and we will get it right.” Conservatives, liberals, Baptists, Catholics, 1630, 2017, doesn’t matter. We are all tempted listen to the voice that says "The story around me is ordinary, I am the extraordinary hero." But the much greater reality is that we are ordinary and Jesus and His Story are extraordinary.
Active Trust: Abiding
Sin is still a big deal. Paul in Romans 6 says “If we are rescued, why would we go back to slavery?” The Psalms constantly talk about the goodness that comes from obedience to God. Sin still brings brokenness, pain, destruction, but our role is no longer to keep commandments, to get it right or clean things up. Our role – as Jesus Himself tells us in John 15 – to abide in Him.
We will read more about Jesus’ description of Himself as the Vine and us as the branches next week, but right now we are going to spend some time together recognizing and confessing where we have believed that we are the hero and therefore we have to perform. And like we saw in the video, the difficulty of remembering Jesus is the hero is part of why we do communion! To actively remember that – in and through Jesus Christ – we are free to choose life in the blessing of God’s story instead of retreat to the curse of our own and we don’t have to make sure we get it right to keep us in God’s story.
Confession and Communion:
- When this last week/month have you believed that you had to make things ‘right’ or ‘good’ on your own?
- What did you think you had to do to keep things good?