The Word within the Word

John 1:1-2, 14, 18

This Sunday I asked the congregation to greet one another with a holy kiss. No one moved, in fact they laughed. Interesting; it’s in the scriptures, it’s commanded (Ro 16.16); so what’s the problem? Well, some things just don’t translate into other cultures very well. Kissing is too intimate to be used as a greeting in an East African church. Here we would be much more comfortable with a holy handshake. But is this disobedience to God’s word? Or alternatively, is it right to impose first century Middle Eastern traditions on modern Africa? Well, on this occasion I decided we would not. So we didn’t kiss, and everyone was quite relieved! But it raises an interesting question. Are parts of scripture just human expressions of God’s word? And do we sometimes err by preaching the expression (kissing) rather than God’s word itself (love one another)?
Let me take this a step further by throwing in a verse known for it’s controversy. Paul says, “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak” (1 Co 14.34). Well, that’s seems clear. But actually it isn’t, because Paul says women should cover their heads when they prophesy (1 Co 11.5) and how do you prophesy without speaking? Was Paul trying to stop illiterate wives from shouting questions across the room to their husbands in the men’s section as some scholars suggest? Was he trying to stop wives questioning their husband’s prophecies in front of the congregation as others suggest? We don’t know; and it’s a big rule to enforce when we don’t know. But here’s the interesting bit. God doesn’t seem bothered; he knows we don’t know and leaves it that way as if it’s not important. Perhaps again it’s a human expression of God’s word rather than the revelation itself, and as such it will have different applications depending on where you are.
I could sight many examples; especially ones that have divided the Church for centuries. It’s so easy to have different opinions on verses that lack clarity. But that raises another interesting question. Why does the Church argue over verses that God has no intension of clarifying? Why do we make something important when God doesn’t?
Let’s take this a bit further; we are going somewhere. Scripture not only lacks clarity on some things, it also doesn’t say much about many things. Think of it; even though there are doctors, businessmen and carpenters in scripture we are not told how to practice medicine, run a business, or make a chair. We are not even told how to cook or exercise! Ok, some Christians have tried to write books like ‘Healthy Cooking the Bible Way’ or ‘Bible Tips that Grow Your Business.’ And they collect all the verses that remotely touch on their subject. But when they do this they are collecting verses that are incidental to the Bibles real message. The Bible isn’t a book on cooking, business, medicine, carpentry or exercise. It doesn’t claim to be.
When we claim that the Bible is a manual for life, we are not saying it has answers for all things. We are saying it leads us to a relationship with God through Jesus Christ and that transforms the way we do all things. The Bible is not a manual for getting what we want out of God, it’s a manual for getting what God wants into us. It’s not about how to make our business prosper; it’s about seeing God’s business as our business. When we read the Bible for worldly gain, we miss the message.
One more step. We need to admit that not all verses in the Bible are equally important. Think of it. Is a verse like, “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas” (2 Ti 4.13) as important as, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16)? Is a verse like, “A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked” (Mk 14.51) as important as, But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Ac 1.8)? In a nutshell: I don’t think so! It’s quite obvious as we read through the Bible that statements directly related to the gospel are more important, that they even condition the way we read these lesser statements. Here’s my point: The Bible is focused, it has one specific purpose, and that is this: it points us to God’s supreme revelation; Jesus – the Word that became flesh.
Jesus is The Word. The Bible is only God’s word because it points to The Word. I’m being biblical now. John 1.1-2, 14, 18 says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning…The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth…No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.” Jesus is God’s primary revelation of himself; he is God’s Word. The Bible is a secondary revelation because it points to The Word. The Bible is focused. It is pointed like a mountain. It is not a flat. It is not a manual on all subjects with every verse being equal. It only wants to do one thing, and that is to point us to Jesus.
Jesus said “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Lk 24.44). John said “These (reports) are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God” (Jn 20.30-31). Jesus said to the Jews “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (Jn 5.39).
This last one shows how we can make the mistake of thinking that to have the Bible is to have The Word. Jesus was telling the Jews that they had the scriptures but not The Word. They did not embrace the revelation of God in the Person of Jesus.
This should act as a warning to all of us. It is possible for the Bible to become a barrier between us and The Word. This happens when we confuse Bible study with experiencing God. We are supposed to have relationship with God not a book. That’s why we have the Holy Spirit in us and at times upon us – for Person to person relationship. We evangelicals sometimes act like the Trinity is Father, Son and Holy Bible. We must be careful; when we cling to the Bible in order to avoid the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, we turn God’s book into an idol. We need perspective.
Jesus is The Word within the Word. He is the way, the truth, the life. The Bible only points to the way, truth, and life. Likewise Jesus saves. The Bible only identifies the Saviour.
Once we admit that the Bible has a specific focus and that the verses that contribute to that focus are the important ones, we can stop making a big issue of the less important ones that have divided the Church for so long. Jesus gives the scriptures perspective. All scripture should be read in the light of who he is, what he did, and what he said – that is the gospel. If we see all else as secondary, the Church will have a good chance of being united.
God’s Word has come to us in human words just as in Jesus God came to us as a human being. And just as there is an aspect of Jesus that is divine and an aspect that is human, so there is an aspect of the Bible that is divine and an aspect that is human. In both cases the divine aspect is eternal, almighty, and all-knowing, and the human aspect is temporary, weak, and limited.
When The Word became flesh, he came as a baby wrapped in cloths and laid in a manger. Like all babies this baby had little ability but The Word was mighty through him. Likewise when God inspired ancient people to write scripture, they had little ability. They were limited in language, technology, and science. But The Word shone through.
Acknowledging the divine and human aspects is important because it explains how the Bible can be both up-to-date and out-of-date at the same time. The divine side of the Bible is always up-to-date because it’s eternal. The human side of the Bible is often out-of-date because it’s ancient. The Bible contains out-of-date ideas on clothing, transport, communication and farming, to mention just a few. And God does not expect us to adopt those ancient ways of doing things because they are not The Word; they are the humanity that the divine revelation came in. Most Christians know this, but we could press the same idea further. The Bible also contains out-of-date ideas on astronomy, geography, climatology, anthropology, and science in general. And God does not expect us to embrace these ancient ideas either. They are just the wrapping. His revelation is within this weak and limited humanity.
Its Christmas time and we are celebrating the gift of God; The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We celebrate God’s gift by giving each other gifts. And when we receive our gifts we remove the wrapping because it’s the thing inside that we are after. Likewise when we read the Bible we need to peel away the ancient cultures, traditions and temporary aspects of scripture to find God’s timeless Word within. Merry Christmas!

Other Illustrations: Looking down on the Cretans | The Menu & The Meat | The Gospel Trajectory | Doctor – Don’t diagnose yourself.

This sermon is a summary of the book The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture – by Christian Smith. I have added my thoughts to his and so this post may not represent him perfectly in all matters, but I highly recommend his book.

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