How Jesus Taught Us to Read the Bible (and How Not to)
Updated: May 18, 2021
While in Jerusalem on the Sabbath, Jesus healed a man that was disabled. According to the Law of Moses, work was prohibited on the Sabbath. It depends on your interpretation of “work,” but Jesus certainly could have side-stepped the issue by waiting until the next day.
Take a moment and think about being disabled for thirty-eight years. At this writing, 38 years ago was 1983. That’s a looong time ago. A lifetime. We’ve heard this story so often, we’ve become inoculated from its weight.
Back to the Sabbath. These Pharisees were blown away -- not because Jesus healed a human being, but because he broke the rules.
Jesus doesn’t apologize. He doesn’t explain the nuances of the Sabbath.
Instead, Jesus says something radical to the Pharisees: “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (John 5:39-40).
In one statement, Jesus tells them they’ve been reading the Bible wrong. And maybe we have too.
Jesus’s statement is revolutionary. A group of religious people had been misunderstanding, and therefore, misusing the Scriptures. Jesus acknowledges they diligently studied it. But they completely missed its purpose. They missed the point of God’s Word.
They made the same mistake too many Christians make today: They believe the Bible to be a behavior management book, or a sin vaccinator. They read, believing that the act of reading and memorizing scripture will result in holiness, maturity, or purity. But many are missing the Jesus that the Bible points to.
All the stories, all the teaching, the poems, the prohibitions, the encouragements, every detail of the Bible points to one story -- God created us to live in fellowship with Him. In fact, His response to our rejection of him is pure LOVE, in the person of Jesus Christ.
Here are some principles and questions to keep in mind as you read the Bible:
The purpose of rules, directives, and commandments in the Bible are to facilitate love, mercy, and justice.
Another time Jesus healed on the Sabbath, he asked the Pharisees, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” They had no answer. The Pharisees were looking at the Scriptures all wrong. God does not make arbitrary rules and commands. The Sabbath (and the rest of the law) was created for the benefit of humanity, not to be a capricious burden to us (Mark 2:23-28).
Jesus was gently teaching that God’s law is obeyed when we love one another: When asked by a Pharisee what the greatest commandment was, Jesus replied:
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” - Matthew 22:35-40.
Some scriptures are more important or weightier than others.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” Matthew 23:23-24
I love that phrase, “strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” Jesus draws an unforgettably vivid picture. Simply put, “You guys are meticulously following minor rules such as personal piety, but ignoring central principles of justice, mercy and faithfulness.”
Does this sound familiar? When your Bible reading draws you to personal perfection more than it draws you to care for the weak and needy around you, you’re reading it wrong.
Worse, if your Bible reading causes you to focus on others' behavior more than your own, you are now abusing the Bible. God’s word is designed for us to look inward at our own brokenness, and outward to others in mercy and love.
Bible knowledge is not a fruit of the Spirit
Have you noticed the fruit of the spirit doesn’t include Bible knowledge? Knowing the Bible is not the goal. It’s simply the guide that points us to loving God and loving others more fully. I know this sounds borderline heretical, but hang with me here.
Galatians 5:22-23 - "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law."
One thing we evangelicals need to watch out for is elevating the Bible where it could become an idol for us, rather than what it's meant to be, his word pointing us to himself.
Think about someone that knows the Bible, but doesn’t exhibit the fruit of the Spirit. These people exist. In fact, Paul warns us in 1 Corinthians 13 that if we have all knowledge but not love, we are nothing more than a clanging gong or resounding symbol. Paul says people with knowledge, but no love are human noisemakers that have no power.
Perhaps James puts it most succinctly by writing if we hear the word and don’t do it, we’re like someone looking at their reflection and forgetting what they look like (James 1:22-25). What’s the point of looking in the mirror if not to see our reflection? And what’s the point of studying the Bible if we don’t obey it.
And what does obeying look like? LOVE.
I’ve been challenged that I emphasize love too much, or that I’ve perhaps redefined it.
My reply? Take it up with Matthew, John, Moses, Peter, Paul, and Jesus (Matthew 22:35-40, Exodus 34:6-7, John 13:34, 15:12, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, Romans 13:8-10, 2 Peter 1:5-7, James 2:8, 1 John 3:23, 1 John 4:21, 2 John 5).
It is my strong belief in the Scriptures that make me draw these conclusions. The repetitive and deafening anthem throughout Scripture - love is the fulfillment of the law - is a theme we cannot ignore. Whatever else we think the Bible says, it must go through this filter. “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.” ~ Romans 13:8
How do I define love? It’s certainly not the strong feeling of an emotional middle school crush (no offense to middle-schoolers). It is the desire for another’s best, even at the sacrifice of self. “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” - 1 John 4:10.
When you read the Bible, ask yourself these practical questions:
What does this show me about the character or person of God? Often, we search the Bible for answers to our individual circumstances, but the purpose of the Bible is to unveil God and our relationship with him. It won’t reveal what job you should take, who to marry, or if you should move or not. God leaves that up to us. At times, I see a facet of God’s character I hadn’t seen before. It brings awe, wonder, humility, and thankfulness.
What does God want to reveal to me about me? This may be an encouragement of our identity in Christ, or it may be some area where we need to confess to God and to others. Often, when I read God’s word, I’m struck with how big and loving he is, and how he accepts me in spite of myself. In the midst of my inabilities and neediness, I’m left with the comfort of his competency and love.
How does God want me to love others? When reading God’s word, I’m sometimes prompted to do something. This can be large like asking someone for forgiveness, or choosing to donate money or time to an organization. It can also be small, like texting a friend and telling them how thankful I am for them, or choosing to treat a difficult person in my life with kindness instead of the rebuke they “deserve.”
Before he healed him, Jesus asked the disabled man, “Do you want to get well?” That’s the question for us as we read God’s Word. Do we want the Bible to be an ancient book that we read and hear but don’t “do.” Or do we want it to lead us to the only one that can heal us and fill us, as we walk with him day by day? ~
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