As I drive to work in the mornings over the same route I’ve used for five years, sometimes I arrive and cannot recall a single thing I saw. Familiarity does that to us.
The same process occurs when we turn to the Scripture. Those who have read the Bible for years — particularly who have read it cover to cover several times — tend to see what they have always seen, to hear the words they’ve read again and again, and to rush through without seeing anything fresh.
It’s a hazard we should watch out for in all of life, but especially in reading the living Word of God. The dangers are numerous and serious, from missing out on some truth God planted for us on this particular day to eventually laying aside the Bible with a bored “been-there-done-that.”
“I’ve never noticed that before!”
Ever say that about something in the Bible? Most of us have, even after multiple readings of the Word. The reason for this “aha moment” is simple and enlightening and even encouraging: we’ve changed, we’ve grown, and we’ve moved. God’s eternal truth stands where it always has, but now we are in a position to see some portion that has eluded us until now.
Stand outside and watch the evening sunset. Now, press the ‘pause’ button and let’s freeze that image. (You with me here?)
Now, move a couple of miles toward the sun. The way you view that sunset has radically changed–the colors, the images, everything is different. Move to the north a few miles or to the south, and the scene is different again.
Or, even if you don’t move, just wait a few minutes and everything about the sunset changes.
The sun and the clouds are basically unchanged. The only that that has changed is the refraction of the sunlight reaching us due to the rotation of the earth on its axis, causing us to see everything differently. That is, we are in a different relationship to the light than before.
Now, think of that as a metaphor for you and me as we approach God’s Word. Today, we read a chapter and see wonderful truths. Tomorrow or next month or next year, we may read the same passage and see insights that escaped us earlier. Come back in ten years and there will be even more discoveries.
This is not true for any other book in your library, or any other library on the planet. This book — this Holy Bible — is unlike all the others. By its own testimony (Hebrews 4:12 and I Peter 1:23 for starters), it is alive.
During World War II, J. B. Phillips was a young Anglican priest leading the young people of his parish in Bible studies in an attempt to find meaning in the midst of tragedy and God’s purpose for their lives. Since he was trained in the Greek language, he decided to translate Paul’s epistles into modern English to assist the youth to grasp the meaning of Scripture. In time, the results were published, first as “Living Letters,” then as he enlarged their scope, to the “Living New Testament,” and then “The Living Bible.”
These books became a phenomenon in the 1950s and 1960s. For many years, The Living Bible outsold all other versions other than the King James. In a book entitled “Living Letters,” Phillips told of a transformation that came over him as a result of this in-depth study of God’s Word. He had been classically trained in Greek, he pointed out, and was taught that the ancient Greek philosophers’ writings represented the peak of that language. The Greek of the New Testament, he said, was Koine’ Greek, of a lower class, the kind people spoke on the street in everyday life. Therefore, Phillips added, he had learned to look down his nose at the Greek of the New Testament.
But when he began studying the Bible in the Greek, something radically happened. This was unlike anything he had ever studied before. The words were literally alive beneath his pen. The experience changed him forever.
In a Seattle bookshop, I ran across “Surprised by Jesus,” by Tim Stafford. His experiences were a lot like mine, from what he writes. After multiple readings of the Bible, he felt he knew what there was to know about Jesus, even though he admits the picture was not as full and three-dimensional as he could have wished. Then, something happened. A friend and mentor helped him to see Jesus as a Jew. “As I have begun to understand Jesus in his first-century Jewish context, I have found his life imbued with depth and astonishing majesty.” As a result of this, Stafford writes, “Everything I knew before seems to have gained new dimension and color and texture.”
Stafford’s 2006 book (the good news is since the book has been around 3 years, you can buy it second hand at any online bookseller at a saving!) is all about seeing Jesus in a new light. Nothing we’ve learned about him before from our earlier readings of the Bible is necessarily in error, but it’s just that there is so much more to be seen. High definition, maybe?
Any teacher or writer who can do this to me — that is, make me see Jesus more clearly and more fully in familiar Scriptures — is my new best friend. Thank you, Tim Stafford.
I’ll include a few quotes here just to make the point. (Although, I recognize the hazard in that. A reader may decide he did not need that particular insight and move on, and thus miss out on a wonderful new way of looking at our wonderful Savior.)
Referring to Luke 4:16-30 in which Jesus preaches his keynote message to the homefolks in Nazareth, who promptly grow enraged and want to execute him on the spot, Stafford says: “Jesus knew a God whose agenda disturbs our hometown comfort. As God told Jonah, so Jesus told Nazareth: I love the people you hate.” (p. 81)
Concerning the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7, Stafford writes, “These are not lofty truths about the nature of reality, but practical instructions on what he expects of his disciples. He wants his followers absolutely free from contempt and bitterness, their relationships untainted by lust, their words lacking manipulation and deception. Why? Because they have joined a new community, a renewed Israel, which God will use to transform the world. They are the salt of the earth, the light of the world.” (p. 102)
“The church is a parade of crippled people helping each other to hobble along. They have grins on their faces. They also have grimaces. Excited to see where Jesus leads, they call out as they go, ‘Come with us! Walk with us!’ God made a decisive intervention in history through the life of Jesus. Something began, real and visible. The church is the beginning of the resurrected world.” (p. 105)
“Though a great many people have tried to heal like Jesus,” Stafford writes, “nobody ever has. Surely that is because Jesus uniquely brought in the kingdom of God. God was on the march. He was doing at last what he had said he would do. Israel’s history was coming to a climax. The healings were like artillery fire at a battle scene. The bigger the battle, the louder the thunder.” (p. 123)
(Tim Stafford is a senior writer for Christianity Today magazine, and the author of a number of excellent Christian books.)
Sometimes it takes a teacher to open our eyes to sights that have lain “hidden out in the open” because we did not know what we were looking at. A good Bible teacher does that.
One day a few years ago, Pastor Ron Kelmell and I agreed to meet for lunch. As we chatted, he told about growing up in the neighborhood close to our associational offices. As a kid, he had gone swimming in Lake Pontchartrain and spent his summer days just across the street in the old Pontchartrain Beach amusement park, a site now occupied by a research and development zone. He said, “Got a few minutes? Let me show you World War II in this neighborhood.” Being a history buff, I was enchanted.
For the next hour, Ron pointed out a) the 1840s Milneburg lighthouse located not two blocks from here which I passed every day but had never noticed, b) the site of a German POW camp in World War II, c) the open area in the sea wall where PBY Catalina planes were test-launched into the lake after being manufactured one block from here, d) the open field just up the street at the University of New Orleans that was an air-field for young Naval pilots during the war, and e) the paved streets of the old Camp Leroy Johnson, asleep and unseen in the green grass, not a single building left, but the paved lanes occupying the same grid as from a half-century earlier.
It had been there all along; I just needed a teacher, someone to show me.
A friend called to tell me about a quirky religious movement he was starting. A quarter-century earlier, he had belonged to a congregation I pastored. When I asked how his new ideas fit in with what the Bible teaches, there was a long pause. Then he said, “Joe, you don’t understand. I’ve been there and done that.”
Not good. Anyone who thinks he has mastered the teachings of God’s Word and found them lacking—or boring and unchallenging even — is fooling only himself.
This word is bottomless, its depths never plumbed, its fullness never measured, its insights and discoveries never fully realized.
“Teach me, O Lord, as I come to Thy Word” is the only prayer that makes sense for frail humans like you and me as we turn once again to the Book of all Books, the Word of God.