For many of us in the Church today, using the Bible as the go to, definitive, and final answer for everything is how God intended the Bible to be used.
Otherwise, God wouldn’t have chopped it up into nice chapters and verses that we could weaponize at the drop of a hat, right?[Fun Fact: The chopping didn’t start until at least a 1,000 years after the New Testament was written.]
But what if God had other intentions for the Bible? What if God didn’t intend for it to be the unquestioned final authority we’ve turned it into? What if God isn’t a fan of the way we rip verses out of the Bible to prooftext everything?
What if God doesn’t approve of our blind, often idolatrous devotion to a book?
I know that might sound crazy, but I have a sneaking (biblical) suspicion why that might actually be the case.
My suspicion begins in the gospels where time and time again we hear Jesus declaring, “You have heard it said… but I say…” Now, sometimes he’s just talking about tradition or the teachings of other rabbis. But a lot of times, he’s talking about scripture itself, what we would today call the Old Testament or the Hebrew Bible. We tend to gloss over Jesus’ words as nothing more than a rhetorical device, but when we do, we miss the gravity of what he’s actually doing.
And what he’s actually doing is breaking the bonds of scripture to bring new truth and breathe fresh life into the people of God.
But the liberation doesn’t stop there.
It culminates at the birth of the Church. In particular, the story of the apostle Peter and the sheet that fell from heaven.
According to the book of Acts, the apostle Peter was at a house in the town of Joppa when he decided to go up to the roof and pray while lunch was being prepared. Not long after he began praying, he fell into a trance and had one of those famous biblical visions from God. In the vision, he saw a sheet fall from heaven full of all sorts of creatures – “four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air” – and he heard a voice saying, “Take and eat.” Peter said “no” because scripture explicitly forbade him from doing so. The voice told him again to take and eat and once more Peter refused. This happened three times and three times Peter said “no,” citing scripture each time.
It’s an odd vision that only becomes odder when you step back and realize what’s really going on.
That voice from heaven was God and God was telling Peter to violate scripture.
Like the “You have heard it said…” sayings of Jesus, we like to gloss over this passage too as part of the whole “we’re no longer under law, we’re under grace” thing as if that was some how a fulfillment of scripture – but it wasn’t. Sure, there was a promised Messiah by the time Peter had his vision, but there was no sense in the Old Testament that the Law would pass away and be replaced by a covenant of grace. Even if there was, the Law was at the very heart of the people of God’s identity. In other words, Peter says “no” because like every other Jew and Christian of his day, he had no expectation that the Law would eventually pass away because the Messiah (Jesus) had finally arrived.
So, even when we say the people of God are no longer under the Law, but under grace saying so is nothing short of a biblical revolution.
You see, what’s happening in Peter’s vision, the book of Acts, the gospels, and throughout the New Testament is a fundamental and radical shift from the old way of doing things (no more sacrifices, from how God related to God’s people (no more need for a high priest), from scripture itself (no longer bound by the Law).
It’s not a break because the continuity is critical, but it is a seismic shift to something radically different than what had come before.
So why was God doing something so radical and so obviously contradictory to scripture?
Because God decided to do a new thing in Jesus and through the church that would transform the world and reconcile all of creation with its Creator. This radical transformation was a Spirit thing that couldn’t be bound by scripture, and either Peter (and the rest of God’s people) could come along for the ride or stay shackled to the past.
When we hear this story taught in Sunday School, most of us respond the way we always respond when Peter sticks his foot in his mouth – we’re baffled that he could be so dense when God was being so clear in what God wanted and expected from him. But as much as we might like to think we would have responded differently if we had been in his position, I think the truth is most of us still use the Bible the same way Peter did – as an idol to be blindly followed, an idol even God is answerable to.
Imagine if we had responded to Peter’s vision then like we do today to things we think are the Bible clearly opposes. We’d start off with an internet rant about wolves in the church trying to deceive the faithful, then we’d string together a bunch of Bible verse to “prove” we’re right, follow that with a thorough trashing of our opponent’s knowledge of the Bible, and finally wrap things up by denouncing them as a liberal heretic.
And then when all our righteous work was done, just like Peter, we would have successfully quashed the movement of the Spirit.
I think our fundamental problem today is that we’ve forgotten that the Bible is meant to be a guide on how to live and love in this life and the next, but instead we’ve turned it into a jailer that shackles us to ideology, dogma, and legalism.
Instead of letting the Bible lead us to the Truth, we use it as a weapon to attack our enemies and defend our ideological idols.
If Peter had continued to use the Bible the way we do today – declaring the Bible as the ultimate, unquestioned authority that requires little if any interpretation, if he had kept quoting Bible verses and refused to get out of the way for God to move, the power of the Spirit would have been stifled by bibliolatry and the Church would not have gotten off the ground. If Paul had used scripture the way we do today, he could have never taken the gospel to the ends of the earth and ministered to the Gentiles because they were outside of Israel’s covenant as described in scripture. And if Jesus had used scripture like we do today, his ministry would have never left Nazareth and lepers, outcasts, and the least of these would still be left outside the kingdom of God.
Answering the call of God to join the new work of the Spirit doesn’t negate the inspiration or authority of scripture. It simply puts it in proper perspective and allows it to serve its proper function – as a guide to be followed, not an idol to be worshipped or a weapon to be wielded.
How do we let it guide us?
The same way the Church has always let the Bible guide us before we fell for the delusion of sola scriptura – tradition can lead us, the church teach us, reason inform us, and experience shape us into the people of God formed, but not shackled to the Book.
So does God approve of how we use the Bible today?
I can’t speak for God, so I can’t say for sure, but I think the gospels and the story of Peter in particular should give us pause before we fill up anymore Facebook threads, message boards, comment sections, or Twitter feeds with never-ending strings of Bible verses.
In other words, we need to be careful.
Because God may be doing a new thing in the Church today and, if God is and we’re so busy quoting Bible verses and holding God hostage to scripture that we can’t see the work of the Spirit unfolding like a sheet from heaven right before our very eyes, we may just find ourselves not standing up for the Truth.
But standing against It.
FROM THE VAULT: As I’m always welcoming new people to the blog I sometimes like to revisit an old post or two that sparked a good conversation, but may have been missed by those who weren’t around when it was originally posted. A slightly different version of this post originally appeared a little over a year ago.