There was one occasion during my time as a hospital chaplain in Kalamazoo when I was called upon to visit a man who was recovering from surgery. This was during one of my extended shifts. After 5:00pm all the other chaplains go home, but Bronson hospital always kept one chaplain on site after-hours and through the night. I was working one of those overnight shifts. As the only chaplain in the entire hospital, that meant a lot of walking. Bronson Hospital is a sprawling campus with more than one building all connected by underground tunnels that go underneath the streets. The overnight chaplain does a lot of running around. It was after 5:00pm and I was just finishing up with a family in the pediatric unit when the call came that a post-operation patient was requesting a visit from the chaplain. I went to the room and this gentleman immediately jumped into a spiritual conversation with me. I could tell that this person was a man of faith. As I asked him questions about his comfort and assurance and peace, he talked about his faith and how the words of his favorite hymns and memorized Bible passages keep coming to mind as a reminder of his faith in God.
As he shared about his favorite Bible passages, a Psalm came to mind that seemed appropriate. I asked if I could share a word of scripture and read the Bible with him in that hospital room. He immediately agreed and said he would love it for me to spend some time sitting there and reading scripture out loud for him. Since this was an after-hours shift in which I was running all over the hospital, I did not carry a Bible with me at all times. Not a problem, though. I reached into my pocket and pulled out my phone. I opened a Bible app to Psalm 27 and began reading.
That’s where everything changed. This kind gentleman with whom I was having such a encouraging conversation about faith and assurance in God interrupted me as I was reading. He started yelling at me and swearing—I mean really swearing (I’ll leave those words out). He told me, “You do not read the word of God from an electronic gadget screen. No one should disrespect the Holy Bible by placing it on a device like that.” He told me to get out of the room, and not to come back unless I had a real Bible. And it better be a King James Version Bible. And it better have a leather bound cover.
Christians are most definitely not all in the same place when it comes to how we understand the Bible—what the Bible is, how the Bible is understood, what authority the Bible has. We tend to make all kinds of claims about the Bible. We say we are a Bible-believing church. We say we have a biblical worldview. We say that scripture is the word of God. Yet, I am not convinced that we all understand those things in the same way.
Correctly understood, the Bible is the life-giving revelation of God immersing us in the true story of God's faithful love so that we become more like Jesus as we grow in recognizing God, ourselves, and the world around us.
Incorrectly understood, the Bible can be maligned, misused, and distorted in ways that actually perpetuate abuse and evil instead of revealing God’s faithful love.
It’s pretty important for our Christian faith that we get it right when it comes to using and understanding scripture. And wouldn’t you know it, there is a faith practice of engaging scripture which can help us with exactly that. Let’s see today what James has to say about the word of God in his letter to the New Testament church.
James 1:19–25 (NIV)
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you. Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.
Before we get into this passage, a note of context. When James talks in verse 21 about getting rid of all moral filth and evil, he has something very specific in mind. James is referring to speech—he is talking about the words we say that are morally filthy and evil. The surrounding passages in James make that clear, that James is focusing attention on our words and what we say. Even the introduction to this passage today makes that clear in verse 19, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak…” James is framing God’s word in the context of our own words.
Let back up for just a little bit and consider some of those big questions about the Bible. What is the Bible? How should the Bible be understood? What role does the Bible have in my life? In order for scripture to be a helpful faith practice that grows us closer to God, we should at the very least have a clear understanding of those three questions. And, as I suggested earlier, various people of faith tend to be all over the map in their answers to those questions. We come into this place week after week and we read from the Bible and hear and sermon from the Bible. It seems like we should know what this book is, and how is should be understood, and what role it plays in our lives.
What is the Bible?
What is the Bible? We call it a book, but it is more accurate to call it a collection of books. Even that is not entirely accurate, because some of the documents in the Bible are better understood not as books, but as letters. The Bible is a collection of 66 documents divided into Old Testament and New Testament. Don’t think for a moment that we any original complete manuscripts for anything that is in the Bible. What we have today comes from centuries of hand copying text, which over the centuries has become fragmented and diverse. Some manuscripts say one thing, some say another. Some manuscripts include words and sections that other manuscripts leave out. This is an entire field of biblical scholarship called textual criticism.
vast assortment of various fragments and pieces of ancient manuscripts
The Bible that we have today comes from a vast assortment of various fragments and pieces of ancient manuscripts (none of them old enough to the original copy from the original author). Choices have been made along the way about what sections to include and what to leave out based upon evidence from the fragments and pieces.
example: Mark 16
Let me give an example. Mark chapter 16 is worth noting. In the NIV Bibles that we use, there is a line drawn halfway through Mark 16. This is because the best and most reliable scripts of Mark’s gospel end chapter 16 at verse 8. It is widely accepted that verses 9-20 in Mark 16 were added later by another author and were not a part of Mark’s original gospel writing. Our NIV Bibles call that one out because it is fairly certain there was a later addition to the end of Mark’s gospel. But understand that those same kinds of choices have been made all over the place in every part of the Bible based on bits and pieces of manuscript fragments that often don’t all line up in complete agreement.
translated from Hebrew and Greek
Now let me add another layer of complexity. The Bible was not written in English. Those of you who are multilingual know that there can always be understandings which get lost in translation because sometimes there are not one-for-one words matches between languages. The Old Testament is written in ancient Hebrew. And the New Testament is written in ancient Greek. Those languages don’t always translate neatly or clearly into English. Translators have to make choices about what words best take the original meaning of the text and express it in another language.
some books included, others left out
And now let me add another layer of complexity. Scholars have also had to make choices about what documents are part of the Bible and what documents are left out. We have four four gospels in our Bible, but there are more ancient writings about the life of Jesus. There is also a gospel of Thomas which exists and has been hand copied down through generations and was known to be used by the early church. But scholars have not given the gospel of Thomas credibility of sufficient witness to say it should be included as part of the inspired word of God. There is also a very fragmented and scattered gospel record which scholars just call “Q.” It is believed that this “Q” document is actually the earliest known writing of the gospel and that it was the source material upon which Matthew, Mark, and Luke based some of their own writings. But not enough evidence of “Q” manuscripts remain for us to piece it together as its own gospel writing. There are also a handful of books written between the times of the Old Testament and the New Testament which did not make it into the Bible as we have it. These books still exist and are called the Apocrypha. There are some fascinating stories in the Apocrypha and none of it contradicts or refutes scripture. But since the authenticity of Apocryphal books cannot be confirmed and since these writings do not add anything significantly new to the message of scripture, church leaders of long ago decided to leave those books out. During the time of the Reformation Martin Luther fought hard to have James removed from the Bible (the very passage we are looking at today). The Reformers also made arguments to have the book of Hebrews removed from the Bible since it is the only New Testament book with no identified author.
consider the amazing endurance of scripture’s harmony of purpose and message
All this to say, do not think for a moment that what we have today as the Bible has always existed or been agreed upon since the beginning of time. But lest it sound like I am casting doubt on the authenticity of the Bible actually being the word of God, consider the amazing endurance of this writing. A collection of 66 documents which spans thousands of years from the first books of the Old Testament to last letters of the New Testament. An amazing and otherwise unexplainable harmony of purpose and message exists in these writings even though they spread out over centuries and include a diverse collection of individual authors. With all the fragments and pieces of manuscripts that have been lost throughout thousands of years, consider how the most recent archaeological discoveries of the past century (what we call the Dead Sea Scrolls) have given us a new collection of the oldest, most complete, and most reliable biblical manuscripts to date—and as it turns out, those manuscripts pretty much perfectly agree with the piecing together of the Bible as we have had it for the thousands of years before. There is something amazing and spectacular about this collection of writings we call the Bible which we cannot say about any other historical documents anywhere else in the world. The Bible is different; the Bible is special.
How should the Bible be understood?
Next question: How should the Bible be understood? In our tradition we say that the Bible is the infallible word of God. Infallible means that the message of the Bible is without fault. Let me make an important distinction here. In our Reformed tradition we do not claim that the Bible is inerrant. That may sound controversial because there are plenty of other Christian traditions in America which do claim that the Bible is inerrant. In the Christian Reformed Church, we say that the Bible is infallible, but we do not claim the Bible to be inerrant.
infallible word of God — not the same as inerrant
Here is the difference. Those who say the Bible is inerrant claim that the Bible is without errors. We already know that cannot be true because so many discrepancies exist between available manuscripts. And we also know that cannot be true because once you take the Bible out of its original Hebrew and Greek, the process of translation will inevitably result in errors. We don’t sweat over the discrepancies and translation issues because we don’t hold the Bible as being inerrant. But we do see strongly that the infallible message and purpose of the Bible remains perfectly intact even if there are discrepancies and errors in the exact collection of manuscript fragments and lost words which cannot be accurately translated into our own language. Even through those things, the Bible still speaks as the holy word of God.
inspired word of God — the Spirit moved individual authors to use words | the Spirit moves those who read it yet today
And this is how we understand the Bible. We read and interpret and apply the words from this very ancient collection of documents in a way that sees the Bible for what it is while also holding the premise that, within these words, God himself communicates to us. This speaks to what we mean when we say that the Bible is inspired. God through his Spirit inspired the original authors of these documents to write those things down. Each author wrote in his or her own words what God has revealed, each using their own vocabulary and style of writing. And yet the unifying message of God’s revelation holds within these stories and letters and poems. But we do not leave biblical inspiration to rest only with the original authors. We would also say that the Holy Spirit is active in the hearts and minds of those who pick up and read those words yet today. This is what I am saying: we need the Holy Spirit speaking to our hearts in order to really read and understand what the Bible means. Just as the Spirit was active in the original writing of these words, the Holy Spirit is just as active in the reading of and listening to these words.
How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth by Gordon Fee and Doug Stuart
Let me put this into some common sense principles that help with reading and understanding scripture correctly. Because we do not take a literalist approach to the Bible, but an interpretive approach to the Bible, we need a few principles of interpretation to guide our understanding. The best resource I can offer if you want to dig further into this is a book called How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth by Gordon Fee and Doug Stuart.
recognize the historical context
First, recognize the historical context. Everything in the Bible was written to an original audience for an original purpose. We cannot read and understand scripture today if we do not first recognize how these words would have been received and understood in their original context by their original audience. For every passage of scripture we read, we should also ask who wrote it (if the author is known), to whom it was written, and for what purpose the original audience received it. This is important because one of the axioms of biblical interpretation that I insist upon is this: the Bible can never mean something to us today that it would have never meant to the people who originally received it.
recognize the genre of writing
Second, recognize the genre of writing. The Bible contains historical narrative, poetry, prophecy, gospel, personal and corporate letters, and apocalyptic story-telling. We read and understand differently depending on the genre if literature. Think of it like the sections of a newspaper. We read the obituaries differently than we read the comics. We read the sports section differently than we read the classified ads. We read the business stock reports differently than we read the opinion editorial commentary section. We carry different assumptions and expectations of what we get out of the text based on the kind of text we are reading. This is true of the variety of literary styles used in the Bible as well.
recognize the broad themes
grace, redemption, love, hope, covenant, and shalom
Third, recognize the broad themes. There are major themes which present themselves woven all throughout scripture. Some of these themes are obvious: grace, redemption, and God’s faithful love figure prominently all throughout scripture. I would round out my list of most important themes of scripture to also include themes of hope, covenant, and shalom. These themes of grace, redemption, love, hope, covenant, and shalom are so prevalent as broad and overarching themes in scripture that we should be actively looking for them when we read the Bible. In this sense scripture itself helps us interpret scripture. If we face a particularly difficult passage which we find hard to understand, it helps to see those difficult passages in light of the broader themes more clearly understood elsewhere in the Bible.
recognize that Holy Spirit
Fourth (and I would say most importantly), recognize that Holy Spirit helps our understanding. You don’t need an advanced academic degree in biblical theology to correctly read and understand scripture. The Holy Spirit is our guide. The Spirit of God gives wisdom and humility to those who read the word of God. The Spirit gives us a posture of openness and receptivity to allow the word of God to convict each one of us. Whenever I read the Bible I should always be washed over in the awareness that this great love of God is for me, that the grace of God is given for my forgiveness, that I am the one being redeemed by the Spirit’s ongoing work, that I have assurance because of the hope God gives, that God’s covenant promises are promises to me that can never fail, and that God calls and equips me through his word to join in his shalom flourishing of a world being renewed towards its complete restoration when Jesus comes again.
In short, the Bible reminds me of my place inside the wonderful and enormous story of God.
What role does the Bible have in my life?
Last question: What role does the Bible have in my life? That very first survey our Church Renewal Lab team asked you all to take back in March was something called the REVEAL survey. It measures the spiritual vitality index of a particular church based on the results. The survey places people into certain categories of spiritual vitality ranging from “exploring Christ” to “centered in Christ.” The point of the survey is to map out where people in the church fall into this spiritual vitality index and create mechanisms for people to move up along the scale towards the top level of “centered in Christ.” What the folks at the REVEAL survey found is that there are a handful of church practices that show up significantly in each one of these moves. Meaning, churches which show improvement in moving people to higher levels of spiritual vitality share certain features in common no matter if they are large churches or small churches, young churches or old churches, traditional churches or contemporary churches. One of those common features in churches that move people to levels of higher spiritual vitality is that they seek to embed the Bible in all that they do.
James 1 — the Bible is a mirror | reflection to see ourselves
I am broken and sinful I am forgiven and received I am part of God’s larger family of people I am created, called, equipped, and redeemed for a life of shalom
scripture reminds me of exactly who I am by reminding me of exactly who God is
The role of scripture in our lives makes a difference in our own spiritual vitality. Let me take us back to James 1. I love the way James frames the word of God as a mirror—I find that to be a perfect understanding of scripture. The Bible provides a reflection in which we can see ourselves. It is a reflection that reminds me I am broken and sinful. It is a reflection in which the Bible reminds me that I am forgiven and received. It is a reflection that reminds me I am part of God’s larger family of people. It is a reflection that reminds me I am created, called, equipped, and redeemed for a life of shalom. Scripture is a mirror that reminds me of exactly who I am by reminding me of exactly who God is. I need to be looking into that mirror every day—we all do.