February 20, 2017
I watched a bunch of YouTube videos this week. I was looking for a really good video arguing that the Bible is, in fact, outdated. Cause, you know, there’s some really smart people and I wanted to see what they were saying. I wanted to find something really quality, some really respectable secular scholarship. And then I was going to show you how God’s word eats secular scholarship for breakfast.
So, I looked at dozens of videos. But, the people out there trying to say the Bible is outdated and irrelevant all come down to the same basic argument—even the big names out there like Bart Erman and Richard Dawkins, the “scholars.”
The argument is like this. They choose an Old Testament passage, like when God told Israel not to eat shellfish. And then they say that Christians don’t follow that because it’s ridiculous and shellfish is delicious. And then they conclude that no one should follow the Bible at all since we aren’t willing to follow all of it.
And the irritating thing is, for many, that’s a great argument. Because no one wants to be so inconsistent.
And yet, as Christians, we intuitively know we are supposed to reject certain passages in the Old Testament as being irrelevant to the church today even though we embrace many others as truth. We know God doesn’t care about shellfish.
What’s that about? It’s all the Bible, isn’t it? Shouldn’t we follow all of it?
We know intuitively that certain things are irrelevant and others are still important. But, intuition isn’t rational or scientific enough. There has to be a way to explain this issue.
The world looks at Christians and says to us, “No, you can’t be inconsistent.” “You need to follow all of the Bible or none of it.”
And that’s compelling because the Bible actually affirms that sentiment. Repeatedly in the New Testament, we are told to retain all that the scriptures teach.
Jesus said this about the Law—he was referring to the first 5 books of the Old Testament, which is where most of the really weird stuff like what you aren’t allowed to eat come from. Jesus says,
Matthew 5:18 ESV
For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.
But, Jesus doesn’t stop with the Law. He goes on to include his own teaching. Jesus says,
Matthew 7:24–27 ESV
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”
Jesus says that if you don’t affirm and live out all of His own teachings then you are a foolish man whose life will fall apart like a house with no foundation. That means the Gospel accounts—the first 4 books of the New Testament—are just as important as the Law—the first 5 books of the Old Testament.
So, do the math, that’s 9 books. But, there are 66 books in the Bible. Jesus says we need to follow every word of the 9.
But, what about the other 57?
Well Paul picks up the slack. He says,
2 Timothy 3:16–17 ESV
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
“All Scripture,” all 66 books. All of the Bible is apparently important because it is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness. All of the Bible—all of it!—is important for living out the Christian life.
These laws are important it seems.
So, the issue was: what do we do with outdated laws? What do we do with laws that we know we don’t think we should have to follow? How do we know that we don’t have to follow them if Jesus seemed to say that even those really weird laws are still in play?
The author of Hebrews makes this very clear. He quotes the prophet Jeremiah in the Old Testament saying,
Hebrews 8:10 ESV
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws into their minds,
and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
I love this, because he argues from the Old Testament that there will be a change to how people relate to God. And then he says,
Hebrews 8:13 ESV
In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.
He says, yes, some of that stuff from the Old Testament—all that law, all of the old covenant—it’s vanishing away; it’s obsolete. In other words, it is most certainly outdated—at least in some sense. And it’s not just the author of Hebrews that says this. It shows up all over the writings of the Old Testament prophets and all over the New Testament.
So next time someone tries to make you feel stupid because you don’t follow all of the obscure Old Testament laws, you can confidently tell them that you aren’t supposed to. The Bible says so, from beginning to end that those laws were for a particular people—the Hebrews—for a particular time.
The Old Testament prophets said the law was going away. And the New Testament authors affirm that it’s usefulness to God has come to an end.
So, wait, though. There’s still an issue, because Paul said, ‘all scripture’—even though those obscure Old Testament laws—‘is still useful.’
I mean, how is it useful if it’s outdated?
Well, we have to realize that the Bible wasn’t written to us. It was…
The Old Testament was written to the Hebrew people while they were under the law or under the Old Covenant. It was written to them and it was not written to you. Yet, Paul says it is useful for you even though it was not written to you.
I think that’s an important distinction.
Have you ever read a love letter?
Or better…Have you ever read a love letter that was not written to you?
A good love letter should be cryptic to anyone besides its intended reader. A really good love letter is usually going to sound stupid to anyone else.
Because it’s going to make some references that don’t make a lot of sense. A good love letter does that; it references conversations and stories that are only shared between the writer and the reader.
That’s the romance of it. It’s a letter that’s only meaningful to the reader and the writer. It’s intimate that way.
So you may have read a love letter that was written to a friend of yours or someone you know really well, so you can figure some or most of it out. But, not all of it, because you don’t have the full context for all of it. You weren’t there for all of it.
Well, the books of the Bible are letters, stories, and documents intended for particular people to read. And the people the letters were written to are nothing like you. You share almost no context with them. The books of the Bible were written to very different people than you and I.
So, if it was written to them, we need to read it like they read it.
Does that make sense?
We need to learn the humor they know. We need to learn the stories they tell. We need to learn the people they knew. The politics of their lands. The gods and the worldviews that they shared.
And it’s funny because everyone intuitively reads other literature this way. We always try to place ourselves in the context of the original author. But, then we read the oldest book on the planet, the Bible, and we try to place our names right there in the text…
Like, “Thus said the Lord to His servant Anthony, thou shalt not eat of the goat that was boiled in its mother’s milk” (Deuteronomy 14:21)
Of course, we shouldn’t read the Bible that way. That’s silly. But, that’s what we often do. And that’s what Bible critics who say its outdated, that’s what they do. So, of course, they’re critical. Reading the Bible that way makes it absurd and ridiculous. And it makes it impossible to follow consistently.
Thinking was different then…so reading was different then.
So, to get to the heart of this, I’m going to show you three examples from the Old Testament that will help guide you to read scripture the way it was meant to be read.
GET THE SENSE: So, here’s the picture. All of the Israelite people have been taken away from their homeland into Babylon. And they spent 70 years there. You can imagine in that amount of time, it would be really hard to maintain your cultural identity.
In fact, that’s about what we see today. It takes three generations for immigrants to the US to become culturally American. That’s 60 or 70 years.
So at the end of that time, the people are allowed to go back to Israel. And they do, but their culture has changed quite a bit. They aren’t ethnically the same as their great-great-grandparents who left Israel.
So we can pick up the story in the book if Nehemiah in the Old Testament, chapter 8.
The people have moved back to the land of Israel…
Nehemiah 8:1 ESV
And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the LORD had commanded Israel.
That’s the Bible, they were reading—the first 5 books of your Old Testament.
Nehemiah 8:2–8 ESV
So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose. And beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand, and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground. Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places.
They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. The Levites helped the people to understand the Bible. They read it clearly and they explained the sense so that the people understood the reading.
Have you ever read a passage from the Bible and had no idea what you just read?
Your problem is, you need a Levite.
Actually, you just need someone to explain the text. I used to hate reading the Bible because I didn’t think I understood any of it. But, the more I listened to teaching, the more I understood the sense of the Bible and it’s story.
And the more I understood the sense, the more I was able to help other people understand the sense.
That’s why the author of Hebrews writes,
Hebrews 5:12 ESV
For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food,
And that’s where you start. If you aren’t real sure what the Bible is talking about, you need to be committed to Sunday Mornings and Life Groups and you probably need a good study Bible. Because you need to get the sense of the Bible.
You need to learn the story and you need to learn the way the Gospel works. Those are the milk teachings, the basics.
But it’s not really enough to understand the sense. You need to move on to solid food. And for that, you are going to have to…second…
USE DISCERNMENT: And this is funny, like, why doesn’t the Bible just say what it means, right?
Let’s go to a story. A long time ago in a land far, far away, a man named Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. And they were wandering in the wilderness as a punishment from God for being faithless. And Moses’s Father-in-law, Jethro comes out to the wilderness to visit and to offer sacrifices to God.
Some of you know the story. We won’t tell the whole story because I just want to show you one key element. So, Jethro shows up in the wilderness to offer sacrifices and…
Exodus 18:13–16 ESV
The next day Moses sat to judge the people, and the people stood around Moses from morning till evening. When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, and all the people stand around you from morning till evening?” And Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God; when they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make them know the statutes of God and his laws.”
So, when Moses is judging the issues of the people, he does two things. He tells them God’s law…AND…he discerns the dispute according to God’s law.
Moses practiced the discernment of the law before the people because laws are rarely as simple as they seem. There’s always a loophole, always a nuanced interpretation to analyze, always an argument when it comes to laws.
We all know someone who is good at getting out of speeding tickets. If laws were that objective, there would never be a way to get out of a ticket.
So, if you know the sense of the text; if you have the milk and you’ve moved on the the solid food, if you have a mature understanding of the Bible, then for you the author of Hebrews says this,
Hebrews 5:14 ESV
But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.
Do you see where you get the powers of discernment from?
Powers of discernment come from ‘constant practice.’ The more you practice reading the Bible, searching for the sense by listening to preaching and teaching and reading study notes in your study Bible, the more mature you become in your understanding and the more your powers of discernment are formed by your constant practicing of the scriptures.
And I want to provide a warning here. Watch out for people who want to tell you mysteries about God, but can’t tell you plainly about the Bible.
If someone can’t tell you plainly what the story of the Bible is, and if they can’t clearly communicate the simplicity of the Gospel, then don’t allow them to teach you about mysterious things. Don’t allow that person to teach you things about God. Because, if they don’t have a sense of the Bible and the Gospel, they don’t have the maturity to reveal the mysteries.
That person needs to return to the basic principles of the scriptures. They need to practice understanding the sense of the scriptures first. They need to practice the Gospel and they need to rehearse the story of the Bible.
And maybe you are there—many of you are there. Maybe you have the sense of the scriptures. You know what God is up to from the beginning and you know what that’s going to be like in the end. And you know how the Gospel is moving that narrative along throughout the history of Israel and the Church.
And because you have practiced and you got the sense, you are gifted at discerning truth and reality. You might be able to call yourself a scholar or a theologian of sorts, at this point, because you’ve really got a good handle on the sense of the Bible and you can discern the Bible’s truth.
Then there’s one more step. And this is the step that moves you from scholar to preacher. This is where the transformative power of the Bible is shown. This is the difference between a scholar and a preacher. A preacher’s job is move past discerning the text to…third principle of interpretation…
GET TO THE HEART:
(1) Get the sense, (2) use discernment, (3) get to the heart.
A good preacher can get to the heart of a text. To discern the Bible is to ask “What does it say?” And, “What must I do?” And, “What must I believe?”
But to get to the heart is to ask, “Why do I care?” And, “Why does God care?” And, “Why does God want this for me?” And, “Why would God say this?”
So, my favorite example is sin—the breaking of God’s laws. God has rules and when we break them, that’s sin. Pick your rule. It doesn’t matter which one you pick. But, it might help if you picked one that is hard to believe. Pick a sin people don’t like, like sex outside of marriage or something like that.
Okay, everyone got a rule?
So the Scholar takes the Bible and searches the text—and it’s not a big search because he really understands the sense of the text. And he finds a good text and he is able to discern that text and say confidently, yes, this is sin.
So, he teaches, this is sin. For my example, sex outside of marriage is sin. And the scholar knows good teachers need application, so he says, “Don’t have sex outside of marriage. It’s sin. Sex outside of marriage dishonors God.”
And that’s true enough, right?
It’s true. And it’s discerning. But the preacher goes further. He asks, “Why do I care?” And as the preacher discerns the Bible and all that it teaches, he confidently says, “I care about sin, because it grieves God’s heart!”
And then he has to ask, “Well then, why does God care? Why is God grieved by my sin?” And the preacher searches the scripture and concludes that God cares because sin harms people.
And then, “So what?! Why does God want this for me? Why does God care if I sin and harm myself!?” And the answer is because God loves me. God loves sinners. God cares because God wants the best for us.
And you keep asking the ‘why’ questions.
So, “Why would God say this? Why would God tell us his laws and why would God show us our sin?” And the preacher searches the Bible and discerns the text, and he prays for the heart of God behind the text…and he concludes that God shows us our sins through the law because sin is tearing us apart—sin is tearing the whole creation apart—its tearing the planet and the universe apart and it’s tearing us away from each other and it has already torn us away from God.
So, when we see our sin, then we see our need to be reconciled to God through Jesus.
You see, a scholar can easily discern the laws written in the text. But, we do even better when we search for the heart of God beyond the law. And that’s what makes all scripture profitable, even the obscure Old Testament laws.
So, then, even though the Bible was not written to you, when you understand the heart of God behind every divinely penned word, you will inevitably come to the understanding that it was yet…
The Bible was not written to you, but it was most certainly written for you.
And this is the error of the Bible’s critics. They criticize the Bible and call it outdated, old-fashioned, irrelevant, obsolete because they are reading it as if it was written to us. They read it as if every verse says, ‘Christian, thou shalt, BLANK.’
But, search it and see that it was actually written to other people, although it is also written for us.
Have you ever used the acronym for the Bible, “basic instructions before leaving earth?”
I don’t mean to step on toes, but if you use that phrase, please stop saying it. It gives the wrong impression of the Bible.
The Bible isn’t basic. It’s not simple. It takes years and years of reading and teaching just to get the sense. Reading the Bible is hard and it takes practice to get good at. In fact, it’s so hard, Paul tells us you can’t even do it right without the Holy Spirit.
It’s anything but basic. The Apostle Peter wrote in the Bible that Paul’s writing is hard to grasp. And they lived in the same world! The Bible is hard stuff. It’s not basic.
And the Bible is not just instructions or laws.
If you try to read like it is just basic instructions, I guarantee you will be reading an obsolete, outdated book, just like all the Bible critics who skim through BibleGateway looking for some obscure Old Testament verse to throw in Christians’ faces.
But, when we read it the way God intended, training ourselves in the sense of the Word, the Gospel and the story of the Bible, discerning the realities of God in the universe, and seeking the heart of God by the Spirit of God acting on the Word of God, the Bible is anything, but outdated.
We were never meant to read the Bible according to the letter of the law, but according to the heart of the law. And maybe you’ve never heard that. But, I’ll show you how I know it’s true.
One more story as we wrap up today.
The law written to Israel states:
Leviticus 24:5–9 ESV
“You shall take fine flour and bake twelve loaves from it; two tenths of an ephah shall be in each loaf. And you shall set them in two piles, six in a pile, on the table of pure gold before the LORD. And you shall put pure frankincense on each pile, that it may go with the bread as a memorial portion as a food offering to the LORD. Every Sabbath day Aaron shall arrange it before the LORD regularly; it is from the people of Israel as a covenant forever. And it shall be for Aaron and his sons, and they shall eat it in a holy place, since it is for him a most holy portion out of the LORD’s food offerings, a perpetual due.”
The law is clear. Only Aaron and his sons—that is, the priests—are allowed to eat the bread arranged in the presence of the Lord. The Hebrews called this the bread of the presence.
So, then fast forward just a few decades and the man who would become the second king of Israel, David, is fleeing from the first king of Israel, Saul, because Saul was trying to kill David. And David and his men run to the tabernacle before the priests. This is what happens.
1 Samuel 21:1–6 ESV
Then David came to Nob, to Ahimelech the priest. And Ahimelech came to meet David, trembling, and said to him, “Why are you alone, and no one with you?” And David said to Ahimelech the priest, “The king has charged me with a matter and said to me, ‘Let no one know anything of the matter about which I send you, and with which I have charged you.’ I have made an appointment with the young men for such and such a place. Now then, what do you have on hand? Give me five loaves of bread, or whatever is here.” And the priest answered David, “I have no common bread on hand, but there is holy bread—if the young men have kept themselves from women.” And David answered the priest, “Truly women have been kept from us as always when I go on an expedition. The vessels of the young men are holy even when it is an ordinary journey. How much more today will their vessels be holy?” So the priest gave him the holy bread, for there was no bread there but the bread of the Presence, which is removed from before the LORD, to be replaced by hot bread on the day it is taken away.
There’s actually a lot going on here, but I’ll point out a few things. David comes to the get bread from the priests, but all they have is holy bread, the bread of the presence that Moses commanded was only for the priests to eat. And David and his soldiers are not priests.
So, what does the priest do?
If this was a letter of the law sort of thing, the priest would’ve sent David off empty handed. But, he didn’t. No, he asks if the men have been pure—that is, not been with a woman. And David says, “of course!” because their wives are actually at home.
So, the priest reaches down deep into the law to grasp the heart of the law. He figures the issue is that the bread of the presence is only for those who are pure before the Lord.
And the men are pure before God, holy before God, clean before God—they aren’t priests, but they’re close enough, because they are pure. So, he gives them the bread. The priest doesn’t follow the letter of the law; he follows the heart of the law: the bread was to be consumed by those who are pure before God. God is concerned with the heart of the law not the letter.
That’s compelling, right?
But, look what Jesus does with it.
Matthew 12:1–8 ESV
At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”
Jesus says, there is something greater than the temple, something greater than the law. There is something more… Listen. According to Jesus,
God does not seek glory by condemning sinners. God seeks glory by redeeming sinners.
That is what is meant by ‘God desires mercy, not sacrifice.’
The Bible does not exist to condemn sinners. The Bible exists that sinners might fall at the feat of Jesus and receive mercy.
The letter of the Bible says, you’re a sinner and you’re headed for hell.
The heart of the Bible says, come, receive mercy, be healed, be redeemed, rejoice for you have been offered eternal joy and peace through Jesus Christ.
And that’s why preaching is so important. Because, preaching—real preaching—is the revelation of God’s heart written upon the Bible.
The Bible is to make our hearts be like God’s heart. And since the heart of God will always rule our hearts…Jesus says,
Matthew 24:35 ESV
Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
God’s words will never pass away, because they will be written eternally on the hearts of his people.
The Bible is always profitable. It will never pass away. The heart of the Bible will never become outdated. It’s alive. It’s relevant. It’s pertinent to every area of your life today and forever, because in every word of the Bible are the words of life; the words that make your heart like God’s heart; the words that offer mercy; the words that will one day bring you out of this broken and faithless world, into the presence of God.