“I did not send these prophets, yet they ran with a message; I did not speak to them, but they prophesied” (Jeremiah 23:21).
What if we sliced off a bit of scripture here, pasted it in there, omitted a reference over yonder, and pretended the result is what Jesus actually said?
That happens. (Fortunately, it happens rarely. But it is done often enough to make it a concern to those who value God’s word and our integrity.)
Here’s my story from a few years back, one that still smarts….
At a preachers conference, we heard a stem-winding brother drive the several hundred of us to our feet in a shouting, hand-clapping final eruption of praise and joy. He was good, I’ll give him that.
His text was Hebrews 13:8, “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today, and forever.” His theme was that God’s people today have no trouble with Jesus Christ being “the same yesterday”–His birth in Bethlehem, His miracle-working ministry across Galilee and Judea, followed by His sacrificial death and His divine resurrection–and no trouble with Jesus Christ being “the same forever”–as we proclaim His return to earth, the judgment, and His forever reign.
The problem present-day Christians have, said the preacher, is with “Jesus Christ today.”
We have no difficulty believing He did all those great things in the past and that He will do all He has promised for the future. We just refuse to believe He can help us at this moment, said the speaker.
In order to illustrate this scripturally, he directed us to Bethany where Lazarus lay dead four days while everyone waited for the Lord to come. (That’s John 11.) When our Lord arrived, Lazarus’ sister Martha rushed to meet Him.
“Lord, if you had only been here!” she exclaimed. “He would not have died. You could have done something.” She believed in Jesus Christ yesterday.
A moment later, she said, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” She believed in Jesus Christ forever.
The problem she had was Jesus Christ today, said the minister. Just like many of us.
The preacher drove home the Lord’s response to the mourning sister: “I am the resurrection and the life! He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live! And whosoever believeth in me shall never die!” This good news is for today and forever!
It’s good stuff. As far as it goes. (It is indeed true that the Lord’s people sometimes have difficulty believing He can do anything with/for them in the here and now.)
That really works until you go back and read the text.
Uh oh. Read the text!
It turns out the preacher misrepresented Martha’s faith. What she actually said was, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that what you ask of God, God will give you.” The Lord said, “Your brother will rise again.” To which she answered, “I know He will rise in the resurrection at the last day.”
Even now I know! Get that?
By leaving out a key sentence, the preacher made Martha say what he wanted her to say.
There was absolutely nothing lacking in Martha’s faith. She had every confidence in “Jesus Christ today .” Even now I know!
The preacher played loose with scripture in order to make it dance to his tune.
And that was unworthy of the Lord, unkind to Martha, and dishonoring of Scripture. Furthermore, it was dishonest.
I wonder how many preachers went home and preached the truncated text the way that orator had delivered it that day.
I know I did.
Only later did I see what he had done and rebuked myself for being so gullible. I should be more like the Bereans, who according to Acts 17:11, “received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.”
Now, I’ve long since forgotten the identity of that orator who played around with Holy Scripture in order to make it support his point, but if someone confronted him about what he did, I can just imagine him saying, “What I preached was right. What we concluded was the truth. People were helped and Christ was exalted. How can anything be wrong with that?”
One wonders if he knew he was being dishonest or was just sloppy in his study? Or what’s more likely, I expect, is that he heard someone else playing that little game with John 11 and decided to palm it off on his next audience. To the shame of everyone in the room, we let him get by with it.
Playing fast and loose with God’s Word in order to make it dance to our tune is never Christ-honoring. It’s always wrong.
And, let us say to the people in the pew, it is never dishonoring to preachers to check out the text they’re preaching. That’s why mature congregations sit there with their Bibles open and pens handy to jot down notes.
The standard has been the same from the beginning: “Rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).
Here are a few more “preacher games” I’ve noticed over the years, all of them being dishonorable and unworthy….
1) Lifting truths completely out of their context and dropping them down into another situation where they do not apply.
2) Taking a great story from someone else and adapting it to our situation, and then claiming it as our own. Not something an honest person would do.
3) Taking a solid text and then never returning to it again in the sermon. (The way I’m doing with the text at the head of this article. But this article is not a sermon, and you need to know I do not preach this way.)
4) Allegorizing stories in Scripture that were never meant to be parables or anything less than the plain truth. Historians say the early church fathers, such as Augustine, were notorious for this.
5) Overwhelming the hearers with a ton of Scripture references, some applicable and some not, in order to discourage anyone from checking to see if the Word says what the preacher claims it does. Preachers wisely select appropriate scriptures and limit the number to what the congregation can absorb.
6) Giving a scripture his own interpretation, one no other minister or teacher or scholar in the history of the world would give.
7) Making a joke about a scripture. “Baseball is in the Bible, did you know that? The scripture begins ‘in the big inning….’” And this one: “Did you know the disciples drove a Honda? Scripture says they were all together in one Accord.”
Some such jokes can be humorous, but they exact a heavy price. Thereafter, every time the individual reads that text, he/she remembers your dumb joke. The jokester has soiled God’s Word. (These days when I see someone making a joke about a scripture, I message them privately to impress on them the hurt of that, as they forever ruin that text for this person.)
8) Planting doubts in people’s minds about scripture, particularly when dealing with the woman caught in adultery (John 8), the ending of Mark 16, and a few other places. Some pastors have no idea what to do about the same story being told in different ways in the Bible.
9) Those hostile to the Word say “the Church” or “some council” fine-tuned the Bible and tossed out things that did not fit, doctrines with which they disagreed. But if so, why didn’t they correct the small discrepancies that are still there? That would have been the perfect time. Answer: Those who preserved the Bible did not tamper with it at all, but went out of their way–even to the point sometimes of laying down their lives–to deliver to us a Bible that was intact and fully trustworthy.
10) One more. A game preachers like to play concerns the original languages. In sermons, they will say something like “Now, I realize the Bible in your hand says (such and such). However, the original Greek says (thus and so),” something vastly different. Doing this has several negative effects, the worst being these two: it exalts the preacher in his own mind (“What an expert I am!”) and it destroys the confidence of the hearer in the Bible he/she is holding.
We need to strengthen people’s confidence in their Bibles and encourage them to read them daily. Every church should periodically encourage their people to “read the Bible through in a year” and provide a plan for that. (Not that a plan is needed. I’ve done it several times simply by starting at Genesis 1 and reading large quantities at a time.)
God’s Word is an amazing thing, a treasure given by Him for those wise enough to recognize pure gold when they find it, then to read it and heed it. There is nothing like it on the planet, even those books which attempt to duplicate or even improve on it. Two that come to mind are Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health with Keys to the Scripture and the LDS church’s Book of Mormon. (One reason I’m not worried about hotels which leave this latter book in rooms is it is so mind-numbingly boring, we do not have to worry about people reading much of it. )
Read the Word, Christian. “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).