Reflections on the Torah, Jesus, Paul, and the Role of Scripture Today
A Holy Encounter
I was walking where Paul walked when it happened.
My friend Tom and I were on the Egnatian Way in Philippi, Greece, where the Apostle Paul and his friends walked and talked almost 2,000 years earlier as they came to Europe from Asia Minor (see Acts 16:11-12). We were so deeply engrossed in discussing culture, theology, and the challenges of being faithful to Jesus and his word today that we didn’t notice where we were.
Noticing our obliviousness, my wife Jennifer turned to us and said, “Do you know where you are walking? This is the same road that Paul walked on!”
And at that moment, Tom and I were struck by the significance of where we were and what we were talking about. The hair on our arms literally stood up, and we both sensed that the Spirit was getting our attention. I don’t think either of us will forget that moment.
To make sense of this experience, let me backtrack for a moment. We were almost halfway through a New Testament Church teaching tour with MB Seminary. We had spent a few days in Türkiye exploring many archaeological sites related to the Seven Churches of Revelation, and now we had crossed over to Greece.
While in Türkiye, I had read and taught from six of the seven letters to the churches at the places where the churches used to be (within reason, given the limitations of archaeology). As I read each letter in different locations over the space of a couple of days, two dominant themes emerged from the words of Jesus to his churches:
- Stay true to Jesus. “Remain true to my name,” “Be faithful,” “Remember what you have received and heard; hold it fast,” “Repent and do the things you did at first.” In other words, Jesus called his followers not to waiver or drift but to stay true to him and his word.
- Repent of non-biblical beliefs. “Some hold to the teachings of Baalam … and the Nicolaitans. Repent,” “Do not hold to her [Jezebel’s] teaching,” “Hate the practices of the Nicolaitans.” In other words, Jesus called his people not to waiver or drift but to stay true to him and his word.
Wow. It seems that the challenge of being a faithful follower of Jesus transcends time, space, and culture. We could replace the ancient illustrations of Baalam, the Nicolaitans, and Jezebel with any number of beliefs, worldviews, or systems of power today. And I think that is the key. The goal of being a faithful follower is not to focus on the particularities of the non-biblical beliefs of the day, but rather to stay true to Jesus and Scripture, regardless of what other beliefs there might be.
A very long time ago, I worked as a bank teller (aka a customer service representative). Over time, we became so familiar with the look, feel, and movement of authentic bills that we could automatically detect a fake bill regardless of what kind of “fake” it was. We didn’t need to study fake bills simply because we were so familiar with the authentic bills.
I wonder if there is a parallel today for those of us who identify as Jesus-followers. Are we so familiar with the entirety of the Word of God (i.e., from beginning to end) that we can sense when something is not biblical? Do we immerse ourselves in Scripture so much that it invades all areas of our lives and functions authoritatively whether we are consciously aware of it or not? Are we so intimate with the Bible and its Author that its wonderful vision of a reconciled humanity influences our words, actions, and relationships? Finally, are we convinced enough of the trustworthiness of the Bible that we will have courage to live the way Jesus called his followers to in his Revelation to the Apostle John?
Okay, back to Tom and me on the Egnatian Way in Philippi.
In that moment, I believe God was calling us to have courage to stay true to Jesus and the Bible in a world where it has become increasingly unpopular to do so. I don’t mean this in a weird conspiracy kind of way, but simply that the values and ethics of Jesus are not the same as the values and ethics of Canada. Or the United States. Or anywhere, for that matter.
Further, to quote Paul when he wrote to Jesus’ followers in Phillipi, the same city in which I was standing, “Our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20). In other words, our allegiance is to Jesus first and to everything else second.
So what might this look like today?
One of the many ways that “stay true to Jesus and his word” plays out is how followers of Jesus treat the Bible in their discipleship and decision-making.
For example, some of us firmly believe that “If the Bible says something, it must be true. And if it’s true, I must obey it. So why are we having this conversation?” But others of us are at the opposite end of the continuum, and we say that “Um, no, the world is different now, and I’ll determine truth for myself and don’t try to tell me what to believe or do.” And, of course, there are all kinds of other ideas and opinions in between, sometimes based on worldview, sometimes based on good or bad experiences we’ve had, and sometimes just because that is what everyone else seems to think.
The World of the Scriptures
Let me invite you to engage in this topic, starting with your imagination. Step away from whatever is on your mind, whatever is happening at home, school, or work, and experience a bit of the world from which these questions emerged for the first time.
To do this, in your mind, leave where you are right now. Go back in time, over three thousand years ago, to the world of the Ancient Near East.
To help us get there, let’s think about the grand narrative of Scripture. God’s first recorded act was to create the world and bring order out of chaos. Humanity brought chaos back into the world by rejecting God and committing the first sin. God then chose Abram to be the father of a people group, eventually known as the Israelites, through whom he would restore order and beauty to the world, eventually culminating in the arrival of Jesus.
Near the beginning of this story, though, after God had delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt (the greatest act of grace in the Old Testament), he described how the people were to live in response to his act of grace. In other words, the first scriptural writings simply described how to live loyally to God. These texts were known as the Law (or Torah), or more commonly today, as Scripture.
Purpose of the Scriptures
We won’t explore all of the content of the Law here, but let’s listen to the purpose of Scripture. Let’s pay attention to how Deuteronomy chapters five and six describe the nature, function, and purpose of the Word of God. Watch for the repetition of ideas.
- Hear, Israel, the decrees and laws I declare in your hearing today. Learn them and be sure to follow them. (Deut. 5:1)
- Tell us whatever the Lord our God tells you. We will listen and obey. (5:27)
- Oh, that their hearts would be inclined to fear me and keep all my commands always, so that it might go well with them and their children forever! (5:29)
- But you stay here with me so that I may give you all the commands, decrees and laws you are to teach them to follow in the land I am giving them to possess. (5:31)
- So be careful to do what the Lord your God has commanded you; do not turn aside to the right or to the left. (5:32)
- Walk in obedience to all that the Lord your God has commanded you. (5:33)
- These are the commands, decrees and laws the Lord your God directed me to teach you to observe. (6:1)
- By keeping all his decrees and commands that I give you, and so that you may enjoy long life. (6:1-2)
- Hear, Israel, and be careful to obey so that it may go well with you. (6:3)
- Be sure to keep the commands of the Lord your God and the stipulations and decrees he has given you. (6:17)
- The Lord commanded us to obey all these decrees. (6:24)
- And if we are careful to obey all this law before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us, that will be our righteousness, (6:25)
Wow, that doesn’t need much explaining or interpreting, does it? The relationship between followers of God and the written words of God is pretty clear.
Those of you who are astute readers of the Bible likely noticed that I skipped over some verses in the middle. Verse four starts what is commonly known as the Shema, one of the great texts and creeds of both Judaism and Christianity. Let me read it to you, and as I do, notice the beautiful picture that it paints.
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.” (Deut. 6:4-9)
Did you notice that it starts with who God is? There is one Lord, he is our God, and we are to love him with everything in our being. The commandments that Moses references in this passage came directly from God on Mt Sinai.
Have you ever noticed that the person speaking the words is what gives power and authority to the words?
In your mind, think back to when you were a child eating dinner with the rest of your family, and one of the foods was something you did not like at all. For me, I can imagine my brother looking at me and saying, “Mark, eat your broccoli.” Would I obey? Of course not. I’d look at him and say, “Eat your own broccoli, Brent. And here, eat mine too,” and I’d try to put some of mine onto his plate whether he wanted more broccoli or not. And chaos would ensue.
But if my Mom were to say the same words, “Mark, eat your broccoli”, what would I do? I’d eat it. I’d grumble under my breath of course, but I would eat the broccoli. Why? Because my Mom had authority in my life.
It makes a difference who says the words. We’ll come back to this later.
Did you also notice how continually present the words of Scripture were to be in their lives? The very words of God were to be embedded into the hearts, minds, and relationships of the followers of God. Every day, all the time. The centrality of Scripture was so important that the first followers were to even physically keep it close as a way of expressing their devotion to it.
Throughout the scriptures, we see that God’s spoken and written words are meant to invade all of life, relationships, and activities. Scripture is intended to be all-pervasive and continually be at the front of our minds. Right from the beginning, followers of God were called to have the words of God be the ever-present foundation on which their entire lives were built.
In many ways, we could consider the Law to be not only the guiding description of a healthy relationship with God, but also the founding constitution of a new country. God was building a new community and culture, with his words as the foundation. It is not a stretch to say that the purpose of the Law was to start to restore the previously broken relationship between creation and Creator.
Authority of the Scriptures
Earlier, I mentioned that the person saying the words is what gives authority to the words. Let’s explore that a bit more.
Fast forward to a few years after Jesus, when the first Christians led the early church. There was a young church leader who was being mentored by Paul the Apostle. Life and leadership were getting quite challenging for him, and Paul discerned that he needed to remind this young leader what was critical for him and the church. Listen to what he wrote to Timothy, captured in his second letter:
“…everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:12-17)
There are so many things to unpack here.
Did you notice the connection between being faithful to Scripture and being persecuted? Did you notice that living a godly life often leads to some sort of suffering? Faithful, godly living is not for the faint at heart. Giving in to the world around us is easy and takes no courage at all. Living for Jesus means living a life of biblical conviction and relational compassion, which means that you and I will stand alone at times. If you want to live a radical life in 2023, live the way the first Christians lived.
But what is the role of Scripture in the life of a follower of Jesus? To answer this, let’s look again at Paul’s words.
“…continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:14-17)
Wow, that is a pretty high view of the Bible, isn’t it? Let’s unpack a couple of the phrases.
The phrase “God-breathed” speaks to the Bible’s nature, origin, place, and, ultimately, the rationale for its authority. Scripture comes from God. There are all kinds of implications to Scripture being “God-breathed”, but one of the big ones is that not only does Scripture come from God, but God himself is the key to reading and interpreting it. The person of God and the words of God are inseparable, and to try to live life without one or the other is maddening and futile.
“Teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” speaks to its purpose. Scripture is so much more than a rule-book.
I’ve been fortunate to be able to do a few ultra-marathons in my life. A rule-book for a race is necessary in that it tells me what I can and cannot do. The rule-book describes the route for the race, whether I can use earbuds when I run, the minimum time for completion, etc.
The rule-book, however, does not tell me how to run the race to get the best experience – what is good strategy, what is bad strategy, what happens when I hit the wall and want to quit. The rule-book definitely doesn’t tell me why I’d want to do the race in the first place. There is no vision or inspiration in the rule-book.
This is why the idea that “the Bible is my rule-book” is an inadequate picture of the beauty and value of Scripture. Are there rules, and do they need to be followed? Absolutely. But there is so much more!
What about Today?
Let’s look at one more text, and then we’ll wrap this all together. Let’s see what Paul wrote next to his young protégé Timothy.
“I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.” (2 Tim. 4:1-5)
That could have been written today, couldn’t it? The human tendency to drift away from the words of God started in the Garden of Eden, continued through followers of God before and after Jesus, and continues today.
So, where does all of this take us? What difference does this make today? How should the authority of Scripture affect my life today? And equally as important, how does the Bible not become another oppressive or obsolete rule-book?
For those of us who want to live the full life that God intended, a life of radical dependence and impact, I have five ideas for us to think about. For me to be a follower of God who experiences the beauty and power of the word of God …
- I need to know the Bible. Here I am thinking of the actual content of the Bible. Have you read most of it? Have you read all of it? Do you have a plan to read the Bible? Step one is to make yourself aware of what the Bible (and not just your favourite verse or two) actually says about sexuality, environment, grace, sin, miracles, finances, relationships, eternity, etc. Read big chunks, read it all, and you might be surprised by what the Bible says (and does not say).
- I need to believe the Bible. Maybe your or my challenge isn’t awareness, but belief. You know what it says, but you don’t like it. You don’t want to believe it because it makes you, or others, uncomfortable. Or maybe you want to believe it, but you have lots of questions. A great suggestion is to enrol in one of the courses offered by MB Seminary. Or join a Bible study group. Or find someone to disciple you.
- I need to submit to the Bible. Oh, this is a rough one. No one likes to submit to anything. I don’t. If you don’t like the word submit, switch it out for obey or follow. The word is less important than the attitude and action. And don’t forget who the author of the Bible is.
- I need wisdom to know how to live out the Bible. Sometimes the hard part is not knowing what the Bible says, but instead, it is knowing how to do what it says. Life is complicated, and figuring out how to be a faithful follower of Jesus in your specific context can be hard. A small group or someone who can disciple or mentor you is really good for this.
- I need courage to act on what the Bible says. Actually do what it tells us to do. Or stop doing what it says not to do.
For me, if I’m candid about which is most difficult for me right now, it is probably courage.
Nine times out of ten, I usually know what I need to do (or not do). But I don’t always like doing or saying hard things. I don’t like uncomfortable relationships. Courage is something that I often need to remind myself to have.
For you, which is the hardest? Everyone’s experience will be different, and one of the five ideas is not better or worse than another. Take a minute right now and reflect on why it might be the most difficult for you.
Once you’ve done that, think of someone you know who might be able to help you work through it. Maybe it is a pastor, mentor, friend, family member, or someone else. Then, and this is sometimes the hardest step, reach out to them today and ask if they would help you have the Word of God become the transformative foundation of your life in a way you have not yet experienced.
Based on my personal experience and what I read across the pages of history, I am confident that as we immerse ourselves in the Scriptures and let the written Word of God become authoritative in our lives, we will more fully experience the life that God intends for us.
I believe that what Tom and I sensed God’s Spirit was saying as we walked along the Egnatian Way is relevant for every follower of Jesus.
Will you and I have the commitment and courage to follow God and his Word today with the same devotion as his first followers?
“Oh, that their hearts would be inclined to fear me and keep all my commands always, so that it might go well with them and their children forever!” (Deut. 5:29)