John Alan Turner

Speaker, Author, Mentor, Coach, Facilitator

Filtering by Category: The Bible

Reading Revelation

I am convinced that one of the reasons we avoid Revelation is the same reason we are so prone to misinformation regarding it. The plain truth is this: The Book of Revelation is not about us. Don't get me wrong; we're in there. We're just not front and center like we are with so many of the passages we love to study -- the passages that come out of the second half of Paul's epistles, for example. We like those passages. They're pretty straightforward. It's pretty easy to grasp the message of, say, Ephesians 5:15-16 or Philippians 4:6 or Colossians 3:13. Those verses are all about us and how we ought to behave.

The subject of Revelation is not us, and this confuses us. We don't know how to read things that aren't about us.

The subject of Revelation is Jesus, and you can look for a very long time in Revelation before you find a command addressed to us.

For that matter, you can read a lot of Jesus' words and not find a command addressed to us. More often than not, Jesus was content to tell us what God is like, what humans are like, what the world is like, what the kingdom of heaven is like. Then he trusted that, if we trusted his words, we would adjust our lives accordingly.

I've talked on this blog before about the danger of anthropocentric hermeneutics -- reading the Bible as if we're the main subject -- as opposed to theocentric hermeneutics -- reading the Bible with the understanding that God is the main subject. But it bears repeating as it will determine to a large extent how much we get out of our time in Revelation.

Before we get to asking ourselves how to apply specific passages in specific ways, we must go through the exercise I spoke of yesterday. We must dig beneath the obvious to find a principle that can apply universally without being bound by time or language or culture. But before we even do that, it will be helpful for us to ask ourselves the question that all good Bible reading begins with:

What does this passage teach me about the character and nature of God?

After we've answered that question, we should probably follow up with this one:

How should I adjust my life to fit with that brand new understanding of reality?

Asking ourselves those two questions before we do anything else will greatly enhance our experience reading any text -- especially Revelation.

The Questions That Keep Us Awake

There is no such thing as a life without questions. No. Such. Thing. It begins as a child asking why the sky is blue and why the cat scratched me when I was only trying to pet it. It continues through adolescence asking why this girl doesn't like me or why I can't stay out as late as I want. We sometimes operate with the assumption that the questions stop at a certain age. They do not. If anything, they get more pressing and -- sometimes -- more depressing.

We all have our tricks to keep the questions at bay, but inevitably they sneak up on you. When you least expect it you find yourself lying awake at night contemplating the mysteries of the universe:

  • Where am I?
  • Who am I?
  • Why am I here?
  • What is wrong with me and this world?
  • What is the solution for this mess?

These are the fundamental, existential questions that beg to be answered by all, but how do we answer them? Where do we even begin looking for answers?

Some say the Bible. I grew up in a faith tradition that maintained we would only speak where the Bible speaks and would remain silent where the Bible is silent. We didn't actually stick to that principle; you can't -- it's impossible -- but we tried with terribly frustrating results.

The reason this was so frustrating is because the Bible doesn't plainly answer those questions. The explanations found in the Bible are long and meandering and disjointed and scattered across the pages of a gigantic book with tiny print and onionskin pages. Unless you've been to seminary, it can be difficult to know which parts of the Bible address these questions.

I wish we would have been honest and humble enough to add that we would look to the Bible for answers and we would also study church history and tradition to see what wisdom we could glean from the people who came before us. We need not be afraid of philosophers and theologians and psychologists who have lived with these questions and come to some kind of understanding through prayer and study and deep reflection. Rather, we would be wise to learn from them and examine the Scriptures alongside of their conclusions.

My hope is to spend the next few months exploring these big questions. Last night I began a class with a group of college students and young adults where we opened this can of worms. I will endeavor to use this blog to further my exploration. And I'm honored to have you come along with me.

So, let me know if you think I've missed any of the big questions that keep you awake. And let me know if you're interested in taking this journey with me.

The God of the Old Testament -- Part 2

Earlier this week I suggested that one very good reason to read and study the Old Testament is that we find therein a great and detailed survey of the Jewish worldview. Even if a person didn’t believe in the divine inspiration of the text, this certainly has significant historical importance as one of the earliest documentations of why a people lived the way they lived. Then I suggested that the entire Jewish worldview began with the concept that there was one God (YHWH) who alone created everything and should alone be worshiped.

But there’s more to this God of the Old Testament than his oneness. For example, this God created the heavens and the earth. That meant that the world had a beginning. It was an intentional creation. There was a plan, and the plan came from an intelligent being. Everything depends on God, and without his sustaining providence, things would cease to exist.

This benevolent Creator actually related to his creation. Material substance wasn’t “beneath” God. He enjoys his creation, calling it “good”. Through various episodes and stories, we see this Creator relating to people, demonstrating compassion, calling them to join him in a covenant of love and grace. He cares for and protects individuals and his people as a whole.

This God is also terrifyingly holy. His moral standards and demands are too high for fallen human beings. His holiness allows him to judge, and his judgments are universal — extending even to those who refuse to acknowledge him. His holiness and judgment, however, are never malevolent. His intent is to rid the world of evil and establish goodness on the earth.

Finally, this gracious and holy Creator is trustworthy. What he says can be trusted. He is utterly dependable, and what he promises will surely come to pass.

This is the beginning, the center and the circumference of the Jewish worldview as found in the Old Testament. And it is from this view of God that we are able to draw conclusions about their view of things like humanity, the cosmos, truth, meaning, morality, history, etc.

Now, I realize that most of the people reading this blog are at least somewhat familiar with this Jewish concept of God. But can we appreciate how radical it was. Try to imagine how the idea of a God who is holy and loving, compassionate and powerful, set apart from and yet involved in the lives of humans would have impacted the daily life of Jewish people.

What are the implications of this concept of God?

The God of the Old Testament

Yesterday I suggested that we could read the Old Testament to find out more than just ethics and morality. I suggested that as we read the Old Testament we could actually discover one of the most ancient worldviews in recorded history: the worldview of the Jewish people. Now, any worldview has to reckon with big questions and fundamental issues. The Jewish worldview begins, ends and has as both its center and circumference its concept of God. And their concept of God stood in stark contrast to other belief systems of the time in the most significant of ways.

The Jewish people believed that there is one God. There may be other supernatural beings — both good and evil — but there is only one God (YHWH), and this God alone is to be worshiped.

This is a huge shift from the commonly accepted wisdom that was around when the Old Testament began to be written. If we take a conservative approach (and — believe it or not — I’m considered theologically conservative by most measures) and say that Moses started writing Genesis during the 40-years of wandering in the wilderness after the Exodus, we can safely assume that the Jews coming out of Egypt may have bought into some of the Egyptian assumption that there was actually a pantheon of gods — several dozen of them — each with specialized abilities and powers — most with limitations and geographical boundaries.

So, they might have been a little surprised to find out that there’s really just one God who had no limits and was not bound to a specific location.

This, to me, is fascinating. Think through this with me. If the Old Testament is accurate, all human beings came from one man and one woman (Adam & Eve). Furthermore, all human beings could trace their lineage back to one man (Noah) and his family (Shem, Ham & Japheth). Even if these names and stories are viewed metaphorically, we can agree that the Old Testament claims all humans come from common stock if you go back far enough, right?

Now, that would mean that at some point in time, everyone believed in the same God, wouldn’t it? That theory is called “original monotheism” — and much has been written about it. The most compelling case is probably provided by Dr. Winfried Corduan. His version of the theory actually states, “[R]eligion began with God himself, who revealed himself to human beings. Consequently, all other religions are deviations from this original starting point” (A Tapestry of Faiths: The Common Threads Between Christianity & World Religions, p. 17).

Okay, that’s the theory, and it makes a lot of sense to me. What I’m wondering is why do you suppose humanity moved from monotheism (the belief that there’s just one God) to polytheism (the belief that there are multiple gods) in the first place? And why do you think it was so important for Moses to establish the oneness of God?

The Old Testament -- Why Bother? Part 2

People have always had theories about the big questions like where we come from, where we’re going and how we ought to live in the meantime (origin, destiny and morality). It’s safe to assume that these theories of theirs generally fit together to form some sort of cohesive worldview or philosophy. It’s also safe to assume that people have always shared their theories with the people around them. Communities formed shared opinions about these things and cultures were established on the basis of these shared beliefs, passing a way of life down from generation to generation.

Every once in a while someone might come up with a new idea, but it would have probably taken a long time for that new idea to become generally accepted and absorbed into the commonly held beliefs of a community. So, it’s most likely the case that worldviews were handed down without much variation.

But every so often, something radical might happen to change things. It could have been a flood or a fire or some other natural disaster. More often than not, however, it was war. See, war wasn’t just considered a conflict of military strength; it was often a conflict of ideologies. One community with its beliefs attempted to overwhelm another community with its beliefs.

The side that won got to claim that its worldview was superior. They got to force their worldview on those who had been conquered.

Consequently, most of the earliest philosophies have been completely lost or have come down to us in very limited and fragmented forms. We have no way to go back and discover what they believed. All we can do is guess. And it’s always wise to remember that guesses are just guesses — some are educated, most are not. The fragments that remain will always be open to multiple interpretations.

But the earliest collection of materials that can reasonably be called a coherent worldview is contained in the Old Testament. There were certainly other cultures that predate the Hebrews, but we don’t know very much about what those older cultures thought — especially compared to the legacy contained in the earliest portions of the Jewish Scriptures.

Now, this brings us to what I consider to be a rather interesting question. I absolutely believe that there is much more contained in the Old Testament than simply the components of an ancient worldview. There is beautiful poetry and historically accurate data. There are ethical teachings, and there is prudent wisdom.

But how might it change the way you understand the Old Testament if you read it as an explanation for why the Hebrews thought and lived as they did? What if we stopped reading it simply for moral instructions or practical advice on how to live and started reading it to find a way of thinking about God, ourselves and the world in which we live?

The Old Testament -- Why Bother?

I sometimes hear people say this: “We are a New Testament church producing New Testament Christians.”

Ever heard that? The sentiment may not always be expressed in these same words, but it’s a prevalent mindset in Christendom. We spend so little time studying the Bible at all, when we do go to God’s Word, we tend to reach for the Gospels or one of Paul’s letters (usually the second half of one of Paul’s letters — you know — the really practical parts).

The Old Testament seems to be relegated to children’s Sunday School (where it serves as a good source for morality tales) or adult Bible studies related to biblical prophecy (where it serves as a kind of Ouija-board, giving us shadowy clues for the future of our nation and our world).

It hasn’t always been this way. Christians throughout the centuries understood the profound sense of unity and harmony between the two testaments. But when Nazi Germany officially forbade the study of the great “Jewish book”, it was only reinforcing what many people already thought: we don’t need the Jewish parts; we just need the Christian part.

Here’s the problem with that statement: You can’t really be “New Testament” anything without being “Old Testament”, too. Just try to understand Hebrews or Revelation without the Old Testament background. When the apostle Paul told Timothy, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17), what “Scripture” do you think he was talking about?

He was talking about what we now call the Old Testament.

To be clear: it is my belief that the Old Testament is incomplete without the New. It is also my belief that the New Testament is incomplete without the Old. Apart from the Old Testament we would have an incomplete understanding of what God is really like. We could never understand the origins of our truest problem: our alienation from God and others. And thus, we would have an incomplete understanding of what people are really like too.

The Old Testament consistently reminds us that God is the center and source of life. The world does not revolve around us. We are not the center of the universe. The earth is not ours to do with as we see fit. We are given the task of being stewards of God’s creation, and our lives are sacred — meaning we belong to God and are set apart by him for his purposes.

We learn from the Old Testament how life with God actually is, not necessarily how it should be. It is alarmingly real, refusing to gloss over life with all of its humanity and brokenness. Abraham, Jacob, Job, Moses, David, Jeremiah, Jonah — God refuses to wait until a golden boy hero comes along with his perfect teeth and broad shoulders and spotless character. He deals with people as they are, enduring arguments and complaints and wrestling matches and moral failures, and he is not unmoved by our problems.

The Old Testament gives us a history to join, a promise that God doesn’t kick us out at the first chance, choosing instead to enter into a relationship, with all that involves. We know from the Old Testament that we can actually interact with God, that he prefers an honest argument to dishonest compliance.

More than anything, Christians should value the Old Testament because Jesus did. These are the stories he learned and the prophets he quoted. These are the Psalms he prayed and the laws he lived.

Without a good understanding of the Old Testament, it will be impossible to become like Jesus. So, next time you open the Good Book, do some reading from the first half (more like 3/4). Read Genesis. Read the Psalms. Read the Proverbs. Allow yourself to steep in the wisdom of the same Bible Jesus read.

The Most Obvious Way

I could probably think up a big, long list of ways God guides people, but I should probably state the most obvious way first. God communicates his will for his people through his word contained in the Bible. Not really earth-shattering news, is it?

In the pages of Scripture you'll find some things that are crystal clear. Do not steal. Forgive one another. Speak the truth in love.

They are there in black and white (sometimes red and white), so you never have to wonder about them.

Dear God, should I do this thing? No! You have your answer already. You had your answer before you asked the question. God doesn't need to know about the circumstances. He's told you.

But, honestly, while there are precepts in the Bible, mostly what you'll find in the Bible are principles -- general guidelines that require discernment and maturity in order to really understand.

For example, we're told to be generous. Well, what is generosity? Is that just giving a certain percentage of my income to my local church? No, it's something much more than that. What it is exactly, I'm not sure. And it's not binary; it's more of a continuum.

The apostle Paul writes about how "the peace of God" can guard our hearts and our minds (Philippians 4:7). Allowing the peace of God to guard your heart and mind isn't like having a speed limit sign that says "55mph" -- it's more like a sign that says "Drive Carefully".

"Drive Carefully" might mean 55 or it might mean 40 -- depending on the conditions. Is it foggy? Is it clear? Is there traffic? "Drive Carefully" might mean going 10mph around an icy curve.

There is no sign large enough to list all the options you have when you're behind the wheel, so you must know the rules of the road, follow all the signs posted and use your skill combined with discernment.

I've said it before, though, and it bears repeating: the more clearly I know God's Word the less confusing I find God's Will.

Read the Bible. It's the most obvious way God uses to communicate what he wants for your life.

The Story That Contains All The Other Stories

God is the main character of the Bible. He’s the hero. Satan is the enemy. Humanity is the damsel in distress. For thousands of years, God has gone to ridiculous lengths (and I mean that literally, subjecting himself to ridicule in the process) to rescue humanity, who is held captive by Satan since shortly after the beginning of the story. Our Hero has enlisted a band of freedom-fighters who work under his command to liberate others from this oppressive and malicious enemy. We don’t know the details of how all of this will end (and if someone ever tries to break it all down for you, you should probably not give that person any money), but we know it’s headed for some kind of ultimate conflict. And we’re given assurance that our Hero will eventually win once and for all.

Some say this conflict already took place on a hill far away when an innocent man gave up everything for the sake of guilty people like you and me. Maybe that final battle is over, and our enemy has been mortally wounded. But it’s not over just yet. A mortally wounded enemy is a desperate enemy, and he may just have one more big assault up his sleeve.

The big question the Bible ultimately asks and demands an answer to is this: Will you take your place in God’s story, or are you content to do your own thing? That’s an option. You can star in your own show. Of course, you have to write, produce, direct, act and do your own stunts. And what kind of budget are you going to come up with?

I get exhausted just thinking about it!

If you choose to embed yourself in God’s story, though, it has no beginning and no end. It has an unlimited budget, and they say the wrap party is going to be out of this world!

The only problem is you don’t get to be the star.

There are great miracles in the Bible. The story of the Bible itself is a miracle. The way the books of the Bible came together from many writers over so many years to form one book is also a miracle. But the greatest miracle that the Bible offers us is that the Hero of the story loves us, saves us and invites us to play a part in the greatest story, the greatest miracle of all time.

Missing The Story Because of The Stories

Reading through a theocentric lens can be dangerous. It changes things -- especially about the way the Bible gets taught in most churches. See, I think the way we deal with the Bible is kind of messed up. Imagine signing up for a class where the instructor is going to walk you through a great work of literature – say, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. You get a copy of the book and wait for the teacher to let you know the reading schedule.

To your surprise, the reading schedule doesn’t start at the beginning of the book but in the middle. Then it skips around a bit, concentrating more on some parts of the book than on others. In fact, some parts of the book aren’t scheduled to be read or discussed at all!

It becomes clear that the teacher has no intention of examining the whole book. Instead, the teacher is fascinated with various episodes from the book. So, class time is devoted to discussing these episodes, often interpreting them in ways that are contrary to the overall theme of the novel. The teacher seems to be missing The Story because of all the stories.

You’d probably want that teacher to give you your money back, wouldn’t you?

That’s how a lot of churches handle the Bible. They ignore the fact that the Bible is telling one central story and focus in on certain episodes within that story, often interpreting those episodes in ways that diminish or even denigrate the overall emphasis of the Bible story. Rather than interpreting these stories in light of the overall message, we reinterpret the overall message in light of these small scenes (often taken terribly out of context).

This is one reason why there are so many ugly arguments over which translation is the correct version -- because we get hung up on the way one translation affects our favorite story within The Story. If we could remember that there's a much larger story than just the first 11 chapters of Genesis being told, perhaps we could realize that the differences we often debate are pretty small and don't change the central plotline much (if at all).

Maybe then we could move out of our intramural arguments and present the world with a truly compelling story that has the power to change everything.

Hermeneutics Matter

For the record, I believe the Bible is God’s message to all people, written by human authors under the supernatural guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit. I do not believe the Bible contains God’s message; it is God’s message. That may seem like a small distinction, but it has some pretty hefty implications. If the Bible just contains God’s message, there’s an obvious problem: How do you know which parts of it are God’s message and which parts aren’t? You could never know for sure if the part you’re clinging to is the part you’re supposed to cling to. The fact that the Bible is God’s message solves that problem.

But it also presents us with some things that can’t be ignored. If it is God’s message, it must become our moral compass, our source of guidance, a new standard for living.

But none of that is enough. It’s not enough to read the Bible to learn how to live. Sure, it shows us the true nature of humanity, and it can teach us how to fully live life both now and for eternity. It is the supreme source of truth for Christian living, but it’s so much more than that, and it’s when we stop here that we get away from what makes the Bible so incredible.

See, the Bible wasn’t just written to show you how to live a better life. It wasn’t even written primarily to do that. The Bible was written to reveal God’s character. It offers us the best glimpse of God, his will, his work and the way he has chosen to interact with people from the beginning of time.

The Bible is an amazing book and is filled with all kinds of great principles. But it’s possible to read the Bible and come away from it less like Jesus than before you started. In fact, most of the meanest people I’ve ever met have known a lot of Bible verses. They even use Bible verses to justify their meanness.

What’s their problem? How can they read the Bible and still be like that?

Their problem is that they read the Bible (big word alert) anthropocentrically. That means they read the Bible as if humans are the center of the universe. Of course, they would never say that. But they read the Bible and immediately begin asking the wrong questions – questions that reveal their false assumptions – questions like, “What does this mean to me? Is there a command I should obey? Is there a promise I can claim? What is this text telling me to do?”

That’s anthropocentric hermeneutics – reducing the Bible to a rulebook.

The reason we can’t do that is because the Bible’s not about us. We’re in there, but we’re not the main character. The Bible is about God. It was written primarily to reveal his character and nature. That means the first question we should ask is, “What does this text reveal about the character and nature of God?”

That’s theocentric hermeneutics, and, when you read the Bible that way, you find that it really is amazing.

Reasons for Reading the Bible

You could read the Bible as literature alone. It’s got all of the big ideas you want in great literature. Kings and Queens. Romance. Lies. Money. Sex. Violence. Good and evil. Sacrifice. Honor. It’s all in there. When you read the Bible – if you’re used to reading good literature for grown-ups – you know you’re reading one fantastic story. In fact, it’s not just a great story; it’s not even just a great true story. The Bible is The Story. The story we read in the Bible is the story that makes sense of everything else, giving structure and meaning to life. I’d go so far as to say that until you understand this story, you’ll never really understand your story.

But it’s more than just great literature.

You could read the Bible for intellectual challenge. I’ve certainly been there and done that. Graduate courses in Pauline Theology sort of force you into that boat. And there are plenty of benefits to be derived from such study. If you read the Bible, you’ll understand more about Shakespeare and other great works of literature. You’ll learn ancient history and strategic thinking. You’ll amaze your friends with your newfound command of the English language.

Intellectually speaking, rigorous Bible study is like going to graduate school – only without the term papers and book reports. But it's more than just intellectual stimulus.

You could also read the Bible as a divinely-inspired self-help resource. The Bible, as intellectually stimulating as it is, was meant to be a practical book, after all. It contains the finest wisdom in the world about things like relationships, money-management, etc. If you read the Bible and take its counsel to heart, you’ll be spared a lot of trouble that befalls the rest of us. Read through the Proverbs on a consistent basis and you’ll be like Dr. Laura and Dr. Phil and Dave Ramsey combined! You’ll be the relationship guru, the money expert, the best parent on your block and the best employee anyone could ever hire.

But you’d still be missing out on something important.

You could read the Bible for inspiration and comfort. Millions of people turn to the 23rd Psalm or The Lord’s Prayer. They read the story of David & Goliath or the parables of Jesus. They go over 1 Corinthians 13 (that bit about love) and draw strength from these passages. I understand that, but I think it, too, is insufficient.

The Bible informs our minds, stirs our hearts and shows us how to live. There are solid reasons for reading the Bible as an intellectual pursuit or in search of moral guidance or as a source of inspiration. These reasons keep us going back to this book, and I don’t mean to be too hard on any of you for enjoying the Bible for these reasons, especially since I’ve spent considerable time in each group myself.

But each of these groups has a serious moral failing: namely, you end up using the Bible for your own purposes. And those purposes don’t really require anything of you relationally. It’s possible to come to the Bible sincerely, because you want to get smarter or better at life. Perhaps you just want to feel better about things and need a little boost that the Bible can provide.

But if you just do that, you’ll never have to deal with the God whose character and plan for your life is revealed in the text. It’s possible to read the Bible for various purposes without dealing with God as he actually exists and has revealed himself, without allowing yourself to encounter the author of the text.

And that would be a shame.

I know that not everyone who picks up the Bible wants to get involved with God. But God’s the main character of that book. So, if you miss God, you’re missing the main point.

What's So Amazing About...the Bible?

Think about the Bible. Over the course of 1,400 years, 66 books were penned by about 40 different authors in three different languages all telling one single story: the story of redemption. And it wasn’t like they all got together in a room somewhere and sat down to figure out how to accomplish this. They didn’t outline it and make assignments (“Moses, you write this first part here. Matthew, you take some of this second part. Then John, after Paul finishes all of his letters, you can round the whole thing out.”). Most of these guys never even met. And I’m convinced that at least several of them had no idea that what they were writing would be considered Scripture a couple of thousand years later.

But there you have it.

The Bible is the best-selling book of all time. More than 13 million copies of the King James Version alone sell each and every year. Owned and cherished by millions of people in thousands of languages in hundreds of countries. People gave their lives to faithfully preserve this text and transmit it down the generations to us.

The story of how we got the Bible is miraculous in and of itself. It didn’t just drop from the sky leather-bound with gilt pages intact one day. Extraordinary men like John Wycliffe and Martin Luther labored to get this book into the hands of common people. Probably half of the people you know are named after someone in the Bible. The Bible changed the course of human history, and it continues to do so wherever it is given a fair reading.

All the miracles we've mentioned over the past few days -- creation, the Incarnation, the Resurrection -- we wouldn't even know about them if not for the Bible. So...yeah...that's what's so amazing about the Bible, and that's why it gets my vote for the greatest miracle of all time.

The Greatest Miracle?

I got lots of responses to my question yesterday. Resurrection. Incarnation. The 1969 Mets. I was surprised no one said creation. It’s pretty amazing to think that there was once nothing and then there was something. Something created out of nothing (theologians refer to this as creation ex nihilo) is astonishing and pretty hard to believe. But there aren’t many other logical explanations for how we got from nothing to something, let alone something as extraordinary as this planet and these bodies.

Still, I’m not going to say creation is the greatest miracle of all time.

What about the Incarnation of Jesus? Virgin birth is pretty remarkable. And let’s just dispense with this nonsense that people back then were primitive and backwards and gullible about this kind of thing. They knew how babies were made, and both Mary and Joseph were absolutely convinced that miraculous circumstances were involved.

God putting on skin and walking among us would be startling enough, but the way he chose to enter our world is nothing short of stunning. He came as a baby, born in terribly unhygienic surroundings, to two peasants in a backwater town. And have you ever been to an actual birth before? They’re gross.

Still, as miraculous as all this is, I’m not going to say the birth of Jesus is the greatest miracle of all time.

Most people said the resurrection of Jesus, and I understand that. Dead men tend to stay dead (then as well as now) so a man coming back to life after having been dead for three days is pretty spectacular. And, again, people weren’t more superstitious about this in those days than we are today. Roman soldiers were professional killers. They knew what they were doing, and they knew the difference between dead and passed out. Jesus was dead for three days, and then he was alive. People saw it with their own eyes.

The resurrection certainly is the pivotal event of human history, the one event that makes sense of all the other events in Jesus’ life and in ours. If there’s no resurrection, it’s every man for himself. Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die – and after that there’s nothing.

But...no. I don’t think it’s the greatest miracle ever.

None of these get my vote because we wouldn’t know about any of them without the Bible. See, for the record, I don’t think the greatest miracle of all time is in the Bible; I think the greatest miracle of all time is the Bible.

Agree? Disagree?

On the Bible

For the record, I believe in the Bible. The whole thing. Authoritative and inerrant Word of God. In all my conversations with people who disagree with me on matters of faith and morality, I never let this go, though I don’t think it’s the central article upon which Christianity stands or falls. Christianity isn’t built upon the inerrancy of Scripture; it’s built on the historical life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Still, for the record, I think the Bible is awesome.

Let’s take a little survey so we can get started thinking about something. What would you say is the greatest miracle of all time?

Learning the Story & Living the Story

As I said the other day, John 3:16 is a summary of the story. The problem is that people who have memorized that summary often think that they now know the whole story. But they don't.

The gospel is such that we don't just need the summary. In fact, the story itself is the whole point. So, we need to learn the story. More than that, we need to learn the story so well that we begin to live the story.

I have three little girls, and they do this sort of thing all the time. They read a fantastic fairy tale and become so taken with it that they live it out -- assigning everyone in our home a role.

I'm not suggesting that the gospel is a fairy tale (though Frederick Buechner does this & he does it really well -- still, he's talking about a whole different context and that's another story -- nevermind -- anyway...). Far from it. If the gospel were a fairy tale, then living it out would just be a stubborn refusal to grow up and live in the "real world".

Rather, the gospel story actually reveals what the "real world" really is. It even goes so far as to show us how to really live in the really real world. It challenges us to consider that other "realities" are half-truths and distortions -- perhaps even outright lies. The story of the gospel presents us with a reality we dared not imagine existed. It is more real, more truthful than our wildest dreams.

Learning this story and living this story is what we might call "growing up". And growing up means learning and living this story more completely every day.

More Than John 3:16

A few years ago, I asked someone if they knew the verse John 3:16. She said, "Of course. It's the verse about love." I figured, Good for her! I should have let her finish.

"You know, 'Love is patient. Love is kind.' All that stuff that love is."

For those of you who don't have it memorized, John 3:16 says, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life."

The verse my friend was referring to is actually from 1 Corinthians 13.

John 3:16 is the centerpiece of the good news about Jesus Christ, and there's good reason why this is probably the most popular and most memorized verse in Christendom. But we should remember one really important thing:

John 3:16 is a summary of a story.

Now, sometimes a summary of a story is all we need. Our culture prides itself on being oriented towards the bottom line, and we like stories that can be summarized quickly and neatly. Get to the point! Give us the bullet list and save us the details or rhetorical flourishes.

But sometimes your soul needs more than a summary. Sometimes your soul needs the story. Sometimes the story is the point.

Imagine your English professor standing before you on the first day of class and saying, "Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love. Parents hate each other and object to their relationship. Boy and girl disobey parents. Girl fakes death. Boy drinks poison. Girl kills herself. The end. Now you don't have to read Romeo and Juliet."

Sometimes having the summary of the story just isn't the same.

And so it is with the good news of Jesus Christ. We don't need the summary; we need the story. We need more than John 3:16; we need Genesis and Revelation. We need the grand, sweeping narrative to come alive, draw us in, take our hearts and minds captive and provide us with a new lens through which to interpret life.

That is, after all, what a good story does. And this is, after all, the greatest story ever.

Note: When Reading Bible, Do Not Hit "Shuffle"

I'm a music guy. I almost always have some kind of music playing in the background (right now it's pianist Brad Mehldau's "The Art of the Trio, Volume 1). I find myself far more productive when I have some kind of music going, and I create playlists for different moods. I have "Jazz for a Sunny Day" and "Jazz for a Rainy Day". I have one playlist called "Block Party" and one called "Coffee House". I used to love putting about four or five different CDs in my stereo and hitting the "shuffle" button. I'd think a lot about which CDs mixed well, providing that perfect balance of continuity and variety.

Now iTunes allows me to take that to another level by tailoring these playlists down to the order of the songs. It'll even create "Smart" playlists for me with the assistance of this new feature called simply "Genius".

As I've gotten older, however, I'm coming to appreciate those artists who intentionally craft not only a good handful of songs but an entire album of songs. There are some recordings that are meant to be heard in context. For example, John Coltrane's rendition of "I'm Old Fashioned" is especially humorous coming on the heels of "Blue Train", "Moment's Notice" and "Locomotion".

There's a reason why U2 put "When I Look at the World" after "Peace on Earth". There's a reason they put "Breathe" -- a song about someone who has been reborn through an encounter with the grace of Jesus -- after "White As Snow" -- a song sung from the perspective of a dying soldier. These songs mean more when they're placed in their proper context. You don't get that context when you hit "shuffle" on your iPod.

And here's why I bring this up.

I was raised in a church that was prone to "proof-texting". We believed we could settle any doctrinal and ethical dispute by quoting a single, isolated text -- more often than not -- ripped completely out of its context. We were bullet-listers of Scripture. We would pick and choose our favorite verses and read them over and over.

But a mature Christian must repent of those childish ways of reading God's Word. That elusive thing called "A Christian Mind" (the thing we were talking about in yesterday's post) is formed as we saturate ourselves in the fullness of Scripture. After all, God did not choose to give us a bullet list of items. Instead, he has given us a comprehensive revelation.

So, please, when you're reading the Bible -- or even talking about the Bible -- do not hit "shuffle". It's not as helpful as you might think.

Wandering In the Dark

Most people I know -- probably most of you reading this blog -- own a Bible. But do they know what it is? Do they know how many people literally gave their lives to secure the availability of Bibles to common people? More importantly, do they even bother to open them up and read what they say? In the Bible, God has provided a gigantic feast of blessings, promises, warnings, hopes, assurances, encouragements, guidelines, principles -- pretty much everything we need to know in order to navigate the rough waters of life. But most people I know are all too willing to just make life up as they go along. We get into a jam and, rather than consulting the wisdom God provides for us, we just "wing it".

Maybe we trust our gut and don't realize the wisdom and clarity of God's Word. Or maybe we have a pretty good idea what we'd find if we cracked open the Bible, and we'd rather just do what we feel like doing. If we don't read it to find out for sure, we can always claim ignorance and ease our guilty conscience.

The Bible is called a lamp (see Psalm 119:105), but -- like any other lamp -- it has to be turned on to be of any use. If we want to allow God's Lamp to illuminate our darkened path, we have to open it up and shine it in the direction of our problems.

So many lamps; so many wandering around in the dark. Do you suppose they prefer the dark? Or do you think they don't realize what exactly the Bible is and how it could be useful for them? What do you suppose the problem really is?

Going Hungry

Stan Campbell wrote a parable about a scientist who was determined to help homeless and hungry people. This scientist worked tirelessly to invent a device that manipulated subatomic particles, turning them into actual food -- whatever kind of food you wanted -- fried chicken, pot roast, lasagna, tacos -- anything you like. Because he was driven by a desire to help rather than a desire to make a name for himself, he chose to give the device away to someone who really needed it. So, he walked up to the first homeless man he saw and gave him the machine -- explaining how it worked and waiting to see that the man could operate it.

Sure enough, the homeless man dialed up eggs, bacon, hash browns and coffee -- woofing them down in moments.

The scientist went happily on his way, excited to get working on a second device and hoping to find funding for mass production. This would certainly eradicate global hunger.

He was still working on the second device a couple of weeks later when he saw the homeless man from before digging through a dumpster for food.

Needless to say, the scientist was alarmed. "Is everything okay? Did the device stop working? Did it get broken or lost or stolen?"

The homeless man replied, "No, I still have it, and it works just fine. It's in my shopping cart with the rest of my stuff."

"Then what are you doing here looking for food?" asked the bewildered scientist.

"Well, the machine makes it too easy to get food. Sometimes I like to provide for myself, to earn my food. When I dig through the dumpster and find a box of half-eaten Chinese take-out, sure it may smell bad, and it may be a little green and fuzzy around the edges, but I feel like I earned my keep for the day. I may get sick and not be able to keep anything solid down for a while, but it's a sense of accomplishment I don't get from your machine. I get a sense of satisfaction from taking care of myself."

The scientist walked away puzzled. He never finished his second device, never got the funding to mass produce it. Instead, he went back to school to study behavioral psychology. The homeless man still digs through dumpsters, getting sick and going hungry most nights. The device is somewhere out there...unused, collecting dust...perhaps in a motel room drawer.

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Now, here's the kicker: Stan wrote that parable about the way people respond to the Bible. What do you think he was trying to say?

Story > Resume

Julie wrote in yesterday to say something really interesting. She said that a story is more appropriate than a resume "when the person asking for information wants to know about who you are rather than what you can do." Reminds me of something my wife said the other night. She said, "You send a resume when you want to impress someone. You tell a story if you want a relationship."

Mike said, "I can instantly forget a resume. A good story I'll remember for a lifetime."

Isn't it interesting, then, that when you read the Bible you don't find God's resume or CV. You find a story -- a whopping good story at that.

Why do you suppose that is?