For Evangelicals--and I'm among them--Jesus and the Bible are high on the priority list. Not just evangelicals but all Christians believe Jesus is the Savior, and that the Bible tells us about him.
But watching how these two priorities come together--watching how Jesus read his Bible (the Christian Old Testament)--can create some awkward moments, because Jesus read his Bible in ways evangelicals are taught over and over again not to read it.
1. Jesus didn't stick to what "the Bible says," but read it with a creative flare that had little if any connection to what the biblical writer actually meant to say.
Evangelicals are told to respect the Bible by "sticking to the text" and not go beyond it. Jesus did the opposite.
For example, in the book of Exodus (chapter 3), God speaks to Moses from a burning bush. This being the first encounter, God introduces himself (verse 6): "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." In other words, "The one speaking to you, Moses, is none other than the God of your ancestors, and I've got a very big job for you: go down to Egypt and bring my people out of slavery."
Enter Jesus. We find him in Luke's Gospel (chapter 20) debating a religious party known as the Sadducees. One of their beliefs is that after you die, you're worm food. Other Jews, including Jesus, were of the Pharisee party. They believed that God will one day raise the dead.
So to prove his point--that the Sadducees were wrong and God does indeed raise the dead--Jesus recites the verse from Exodus above, where God introduces himself to Moses.
There isn't a "deeper meaning" to Exodus 3:6. God is just introducing himself to Moses. It's not code for "I will raise the dead."
What Jesus is doing here wouldn't sit well with most Christians if, say, their pastor got up and preached like this. They'd ask him or her to try and stick to the text better and if not to start looking for another line of work.
But what Jesus does here in Luke's Gospel, however strange it seems to us, was par for the course in early Judaism. Luke tells us some of the scribes were very impressed with Jesus's ability to handle the Bible so well!
For Jesus, as for his fellow Jews, the Bible was ready and willing to be handled in creative ways to yield new and unexpected meanings that go far beyond what those words mean when they were first written.
2. Jesus felt he could "pick and choose" what parts of the Old Testament were valid and which weren't.
Evangelicals are taught in no uncertain terms that the Bible is a package deal. Believing what the Bible says isn't like being on a buffet line where you "pick and choose" what you like. Yet, that's what Jesus did.
For example, we have the famous Sermon on the Mount in Matthew's Gospel. Jesus on a mountain speaking to those gathered around him. Several times he quotes something from the Law of Moses and then contrasts what the Law says ("you have heard it said) with a teaching of his own ("but I say to you").
We shouldn't lose sight of the larger idea here: Jesus is acting like Moses. He is on a mountain declaring to the people what God commands of them. The "Sermon on the Mount" isn't really a sermon at all. For one thing no one was bored listening to it. Jesus's words were a public declaration that, now that he was here, there were going to be a few changes made.
At some points in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus simply expands what his Bible said--like murder being more than not just physical but also emotional (anger) and verbal (insults). But Jesus also claims that some parts of the Bible over and done and it's time to head in a new direction.
Moses may have allowed for divorce for all sorts of reasons, but Jesus said divorce was only allowed in the case of unfaithfulness.
God told Moses that Israelites were to make solemn oaths to one another (sort of a binding contract), but Jesus said the true people of God shouldn't make any oaths. "Let your word be 'Yes, Yes or 'No, no'; anything more than this comes from the evil one."
God told Moses that crimes were punished an "eye for an eye" (to insure the punishment fit the crime) but Jesus said to turn the other cheek rather than seek restitution. In doing so, they would be truly following the will of God.
Jesus taught that some of what God said in the Old Testament was inadequate, and real obedience to God mean it was time to move on. If evangelical pastors or professors pulled moves like this, they'd be working second shift at Target before the week was out.
3. Jesus read his Bible as a Jew, not an evangelical (or even a Christian).
As much as this might not need to be said, it does. When we watch Jesus read his Bible, we are watching a Jewish man reading his Bible. His creative flare and even his "debating" with his own Bible and going in a different direction were part of what it meant to read the Bible in Jesus's Jewish world.
That doesn't mean Jesus didn't revere the Bible. He did. But he revered it in Jewish ways, not evangelical ways.
And that may be the hardest lesson for evangelicals to learn, that Jesus did not agree with things about the Bible that evangelicals take for granted and consider non-negotiable--like "stick to the text" and, "God's word is eternal and never changes."
If evangelicals (and I am among them) pay attention to Jesus, they will learn a vital lesson: Our own Bible shows us that getting the Bible right isn't the center of the Christian faith. Getting Jesus right is.
Tune in next week for another post by Peter Enns author of The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It.
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