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Monday, August 01, 2016

Making the Bible Relevant

In the period between the Old and New Testaments, the Pharisees came to be. Right after the Maccabean revolt, they emerged as a group of laymen and scribes, distinct from the Sadducees -- the party of the priesthood -- who wanted to make the Scriptures relevant. The Sadducees refused to accept anything that wasn't from the Torah. The Pharisees tried to harmonize what they found in the Torah with their own ideas. The Law, they held, wasn't set. They argued that it was evolving, that "men must use their reason in interpreting the Torah and applying it to contemporary problems." Working to make Scripture relevant, they came up with new rules. The 613 found in the Old Testament may have been tough to follow, but they produced the Midrash, a compilation of layered and complicated regulations that were placed on the backs of the Jews. For instance, God commanded, "Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you." (Exo 20:9-10) Working on "relevance", they broke "work" down into 39 different categories with their own sub-categories. For instance, in order to make it more clear, they required that you were not allowed to take more than 3,000 steps from your property. Thus, 3,001 constituted "work" and you'd be a Sabbath-breaker. Of course, they also figured out that you could bury pieces of "property" within 3,000 steps of each other that would allow you to be within 3,000 steps of your "property" and you could go almost anywhere. But it was relevant, you see? Not some literalistic, legalistic book.

Christians, thanks to the New Testament image, have come to dislike the Pharisees. To call someone "Pharisaical" is not a compliment. And if someone calls you that, you will likely feel the need to defend yourself. Yet, in our day "relevant" is the key word. Youth leaders try to jazz up the Word to catch the attention of their students. If you looked around recently you would have seen a lack of "VBS" and a substitute of other things because "Vacation Bible School" isn't cool. Now "Summer Blast" is cooler and kids would be much more likely to attend a Mega Sports Camp" than some silly event with the word "Bible" in it. But it's not just the youth in view. Seminaries teach pastors-to-be to make their sermons applicable. Teach doctrine? Not really relevant. You need to provide application. Oh, it's not that it's bad. "God said it, so you need to ____." That much is true. But how often is the pastor right about what God wants you to do with the text he preached on?

Back in 2001 I was attending a rather large church. Pretty good pastor. Preaching through Ephesians. That's good. But I have to admit, on the Sunday following September 11, I wasn't really keen on going to church. I had already endured too many conversations in the media and with people regarding the event and I was pretty sure we'd get it there, too. And then I remembered. The text for this Sunday would be Eph 1:11-12. Hold on! This had real potential! Because what we Christians really needed to hear at this moment was exactly that.
In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will, to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ would be to the praise of His glory. (Eph 1:10-12)
Yes! That's what we needed to hear. God had not lost control. These events, as tragic as they were, were not without purpose. We could trust Him!

Well, the pastor did preach on the text, but didn't expand on the phrase at all. Just read on over it. No help at all. Why? Well, I realized when he started preaching on Ephesians 2 (beginning with "And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. (Eph 2:1-2)) and taught the entire chapter as a guide to marriage that Scripture had suffered the death of "relevance" here.

Nice idea, but misguided. You see, Scripture is relevant (2 Tim 3:16-17). It is applicable -- applied by the Holy Spirit to the lives of each believer. Peter said, "His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence." (2 Peter 1:3) What makes us think we can improve on it? Expound on it? Sure. Teach it? Absolutely. Explain it? Yes! What we've tended to do is try to pick out stuff we think would be relevant, blur stuff we think might not be, and even hide some that we consider irrelevant. We've expanded on Scripture to make it more "real" and dumbed it down to make it more palatable. We've become modern-day Pharisees.

It is not our job to make Scripture relevant. It is our job to give them Scripture. Explain it, teach it, cover it all. Sure, some applications are easy. "This is a sin" means "Don't do it." "This is a command" means "Do it." But Scripture is what is needed, not our tricks, our modifications, our creative renditions. Because it is complete (2 Tim 3:16-17) and effective (Heb 4:12) and is not the tool of the pastor or the teacher as much as it is the Holy Spirit (Eph 6:17). It is relevant. We just need to give it to each other.


Bob said...

Relevant: interesting word. the implication of the word is that we must be attuned to the spiritual and emotional issues of today. that we must be aware of current events and modify our thinking to accommodate the ever changing landscape of our condition. the problem is that what we call relevant, is nothing more than and moving target. if we are trying to maintain a modicum of Relevance as applied by today's standard then we will in effect always be one step behind the times. because no sooner do get it all together, then the landscape changes. don't forget that even vacation bible school is nothing more than an effort to be relevant hence the name. . but it too has been eclipse today. the hunt for social relevance in a dynamic society is a fools errand. where as the scriptures are an anchor by which all of man's social conditions can be addressed no matter the social dynamic of the day.

Stan said...

While I do believe relevance is a "moving target" -- varying applications to various people in various circumstances -- I don't think 1) the principles of God's Word changes and 2) any single teacher can accomplish the matching of those principles to every single person's life or circumstances. I think that's God's job, the function of the Holy Spirit. Unfortunately, in our efforts to make Scripture relevant, we end up twisting it, warping it, and then cutting it short ... which is a bad thing for that anchor of which you speak.