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How To Read Your Bible So That It Means Whatever You Want

Mon. Jul. 13, 2015By: Paul Carter

We’ve all had the experience of reading the Bible only to stumble across a verse or a teaching that seems to contradict a belief that we treasure or a behavior that we indulge in.  This can be very unpleasant.  In addition the Bible seems to teach things that do not align with contemporary wisdom.  At times the Bible seems to be completely unaware of just how much culture has progressed in its gradual journey towards enlightenment.  It can be embarrassing to discover just how out of date God’s Word can be.  To avoid these sorts of experiences I offer these 7 suggestions for how to read the Bible such that it means whatever you want it to mean. 

1.         Read it sparingly, if at all

Of course the very best way of avoiding the clear message of Scripture is to remain completely ignorant of its content.  This strategy has been well used within the mainline church for almost a century and has been more recently adopted by younger Evangelicals as well.  Reading through the comments on a blog article posted by an Evangelical pastor that I know I encountered a lady who stated without hesitation: “Anyone who disagrees with homosexuality should read their Bible.  Jesus and the Apostle Paul never said anything about homosexuality”.  The same argument, more or less, was made by a pastor in my own denomination.  The best way to sound convincing when making such statements is to be, in fact, completely ignorant of the content of the Bible. In today’s Biblically illiterate culture, vehemence is often a fair substance for veracity and sincerity very frequently trumps all.  Therefore it is best to maintain a real rather than feigned ignorance of Holy Scripture.

2.         Be selective

If you are going to read the Bible then be sure to be selective about what you read.  I recommend completely avoiding the Old Testament. I find it much easier to distort the message and meaning of Jesus if you completely disconnect him from the narrative and prophetic context of redemptive history.  Jesus was the answer to the great question of the Old Testament:  How can a Holy God abide with sinful people?  If you know that question then it forces a certain interpretation of Christ’s life and death upon you that you would do better to avoid.  Therefore, you must sever the connection between the anticipation and fulfillment.  In addition, try to avoid the Apostolic interpretation of Jesus.  Avoid everything after the Book of Acts.  Scratch that.  Don’t read Acts.  Read only the Gospels, and better yet, read only the Red Letters.  The Red ink implies a higher level of inspiration and trustworthiness.  Pretty much anything in black is to be avoided.  And be careful with those Red Letters. Some of them are actually worse than the Black Letters.  Here are a few Red Letters to steer clear of:

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matthew 7:21–23 ESV)

“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you? (Luke 6:46 ESV)

19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a person. (Matthew 15:19–20 ESV)

14 You are my friends if you do what I command you.  (John 15:14 ESV)

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. (John 14:15 ESV)

Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” (John 7:24 ESV)

41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, 42 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  (Matthew 13:41–42 ESV)

As you can see, reading the Red Letters cannot be done entirely without risk.  You have to be careful; you have to plan ahead.  Upon reflection, it might be better to not read any letters at all. See suggestion #1.

3.         Know when to stop

If you absolutely must read the Bible, it is very important that you know when to stop.  Some verses are altogether ruined by the verse or verses that follow it.  Consider for example the very helpful verse in Matthew chapter 7:

1 “Judge not, that you be not judged. (Matthew 7:1 ESV)

That verse is GOLD!  That verse carefully used and rigorously protected from contextual analysis can function almost as a sort of defeater verse.  If you protect that verse from the abuses of its context and original meaning it can be used to lay waste to mountains of inconvenient Scriptural teaching.  When someone says to you:

Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. (Ephesians 5:4 ESV)

You say: 

1 “Judge not, that you be not judged. (Matthew 7:1 ESV)

If you wish, you can follow that up by shouting BOOO-YAH!  Spiking your Bible on the ground is also permissible.

If someone says:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? (1 Corinthians 6:9 ESV)

You say:

1 “Judge not, that you be not judged. (Matthew 7:1 ESV)

Its absolutely brilliant and it works every time! Protecting the ignorant sanctity of this verse should be among your very top priorities.  The whole game is lost if you make the mistake of reading too far.  The verse is qualified in very unhelpful ways in the verses that come after it in Matthew 7: 

2 For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. 3 Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:2–5 ESV)  

Reading too far in this case actually lends to the conclusion that Jesus is not forbidding all judgment, rather he is saying that if we are not willing to extend mercy to others then we should not expect it for ourselves and that we must engage in rigorous self examination before confronting others about their sins.  That is far too nuanced to be useful. 

Even worse, if you make the mistake of reading other, similar sayings from Jesus you are likely to be further inconvenienced:

3 If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, 4 and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” (Luke 17:3–4 ESV) 

That saying would suggest that Jesus wants his disciples to be characterized by mercy AND truth – thereby destroying the utility of our favourite defeater verse.  This is a further reminder that the Red Letters themselves are grossly over rated.  Only a few of them are truly useful.  If you read them all they begin to self interpret.  Consider for example the damage done to Matthew 7:1 by these other, less helpful Red Letters: 

“And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? (Luke 12:57 ESV)

Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” (John 7:24 ESV)

I think the lesson here is to find some Red Letters that appear to mean what you want them to mean and then to immediately stop reading.  If you keep reading, almost inevitably, you will discover what these phrases and verses actually mean, and this tends to be very distressing.  If you’re going to read the Bible, you have to know when to stop.

4.         Avoid literal translations

Literal translations are bad because they translate the words that were originally there in the Hebrew or Greek text.  They take us very close to what the prophets, Jesus and the Apostles actually said.  Given what these folks actually believed we obviously want to avoid being confronted with what they said.  Less literal translations give us far more room in which to wiggle.  Consider for example The Message translation of Matthew 5:48 as read to us for morning devotions recently at CBOQ Assembly.  It says:

“In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.” (Matthew 5:48, The Message) 

This is Matthew 5:48 in a literal, word for word translation:

“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48 ESV)

The literal translation is impossibly burdensome, whereas The Message translation is entirely redeemable.  We all need to “grow up” and who doesn’t want to “live out their God-created identity”?  With just a little bit of creativity and 23 words that were not there in the original text, Jesus can be made to sound like Tony Robbins, and the Gospel can be essentially by-passed.  What was meant to convict becomes rather encouraging.  What was meant to drive us to our knees now invites a pat on the back.  Always avoid literal translations; they sound too much like the voice of God. 

5.         Exaggerate ambiguity

If you get quite into this Bible reading thing you will need to cloak yourself in exaggerated ambiguity.  People nowadays are very impressed by questions and by expressions of uncertainty.  Answers and authoritative proclamations are passé. The Bible very awkwardly states things as though they unambiguously are.  It palpably reeks of certainty and is burdened with a plethora of dogmatisms.  Consider just a few of these horribly unambiguous statements:

  “ ‘See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand. (Deuteronomy 32:39 ESV)

And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12 ESV) 

18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.  (John 3:18 ESV)

Those sorts of clear and perspicuous declarations are very hard on modern ears.  Statements like these leave a person with no wiggle room at all.  It is far better to take refuge in passages that could conceivably support a more charitable and obscure meaning.  Consider for example:

3 God our Savior, 4 who desires all people to be saved (1 Timothy 2:3b–4a ESV) 

You’ll notice that I only quoted the last half of verse 3 and the first half of verse 4; see suggestion #3 for why this sort of thing is necessary.  The point is that, looked at quickly, or quoted haphazardly, preferably from a non-literal translation, this verse could suggest that God means to save all people without distinction.  It could mean that.  When asked to defend this view you should say something profoundly ambiguous like: “There is so much we don’t know about the mercy of God!  Texts like this (don’t offer the reference or they might look it up!) suggest to me however, that God’s mercy is far wider than we tend to think.  What does “all” mean?  The smart people will tell you this or that about the original Greek, but to me, “all” just means “all”.  As in “all people will be saved”.  Is that the right interpretation?  I don’t know.  Maybe you see it different but that’s how it looks to me.”  

That kind of humble sounding gobbly gook is virtually unassailable.  Only a person willing to sound legalistic, mean and overly particular can reasonably challenge a statement like that.  Few will take the risk.  Few will know enough about the Bible to spot the manure they just stepped in.  Sigh a lot, ask questions and don’t forget to smile.  Look like you feel bad for the people who care so much for what the text actually means.  Trust me; this never fails.

6.         Pursue confirmation bias

If you want to avoid the clear meaning of Scripture you will need to surround yourself with people who will tell you what you want to hear.  Thankfully, these folks have never been in short supply.  The Bible itself assures us that these people will exist and that they will be relatively easy to find: 

3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. (2 Timothy 4:3–4 ESV) 

"from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them." (Acts 20:30 ESV)

According to the Bible there will always be plenty of people in the church – even in the pulpit – willing to tell us whatever we want to hear.  In most towns there are a variety of churches to choose from.  Be sure to find one where the pastor preaches his own opinions rather than the word of God.  Be especially wary of churches that preach through the Bible sequentially.  This virtually ensures that you will hear things you do not want to hear.  You want short sermons, topically chosen, supported by lots of drama and video clips.  With just a little bit of homework you can usually find a church that will confirm you in all your ignorance of the Bible.  Trust me, its worth the effort. 

7.         Determine your allegiance in advance

I’ve ended here because this is by far the most important piece of advice I could give.  You absolutely must decide what you believe before you read the Bible.  If you are truly committed to maintaining any vestige of cultural respectability, you must be firm in your allegiance to the wisdom of the day before you take up the Scriptures to read.  Do not go undecided into the deep places of God’s Word.  If you venture in with your heart unguarded you open yourself to spiritual seduction.  God’s Spirit speaks to our spirit when we walk unprotected into the sanctuary of his Word.  It is a dangerous place.  It is not safe.  It is a whispering wood filled with siren song.  A person who reads God’s Word with every value and belief and conviction up for grabs may as well surrender his soul at the onset.  The Bible warns that sitting in submission under the Word of God leads both to conversion and to progressive change:

So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17 ESV)

Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. (John 17:17 ESV)

Only a fool ventures into the strange new world of the Bible with his heart unprotected.  Decide in advance that you will not be swayed by the Spirit or the Word of God.  Clarify your non-negotiables.  Decide right now, before you take up and read, that you will not be challenged on issues of gender, or sexuality or personal autonomy.  Draw some lines in the sand.  Say as Gandolf said in the Mines of Moriah: “You shall not pass!”

If you do that, you should be able to read the Bible and still hold on to your culturally conditioned beliefs and your socially respectable convictions.  If you don’t do that, you will be lost.  You will find yourself convicted, chastened and converted. 

Reading the Bible is a very dangerous thing to do.  Its not for everybody and you need to plan ahead if you want to be unaffected.  

Yours in parody,

Pastor Paul Carter

 

 

Category: General, CLRA, Top Ten, Must Read


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