Imagining that merely possessing and studying the Scriptures, some of the Pharisees believed they had life; life with God in God’s kingdom (John 5:39-40). They were Book-obsessed; book worms; jot and tittle types who boasted in owning “the oracles of God.” When “the Word made flesh” actually stood before, opposed, and warned them, these Book-centered religious folks dismissed Jesus as horribly misguided. To them Jesus was a life-destroyer, not the life-bringer.
This Book-centered flaw is still prevalent in USAmerican evangelicalism. Many Christians are much more at ease with studying the Bible than coming to Jesus. Reading a Book is safer, more comfortable than relating to a Person, especially an enigmatic, revolutionary Person like Jesus. Insidious pride lurks in our hearts when we presume to know the Book, possess it, revere it and then misuse it to fence off undesirable types of people from our tidy lives. People, well-intentioned, begin to substitute finding something new and refreshing in the Bible without ever relating to the holy, very present God.
As a pastor I have observed how the Bible is used to distance a person from God the Spirit. If I view the Bible as a box of matches from which I can draw one match and light it and see the flame and feel the fleeting warmth and call that a devotional life, then I am happy. To walk into the flame-thrower named Jesus the Christ is a different story. I do not want to be burned up in the fiery passion and mission of God revealed in Jesus. I am happy with “this little light of mine.” We would rather have a nice, controlled “lamp to my feet” than a fire-breathing, untamable Spirit with Whom to contend. Living totally sold out to Jesus is too extreme. We want to stay in control of our commitment and piece-meal it out at our discretion. We all long to transform “dying to self” into a nice metaphor. We desire a cruciform life without any pain.
You diligently study the Scriptures…you refuse to come to me. Saints and scholars have not been reluctant to make daring parallels between the sexual life of a man and woman and life with God. The Song of Songs is notoriously used to make those parallels. Eugene H. Peterson, a pastor, strongly suggests that a person’s prayer life is a mirror of their sexual life (in Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work on the “Song of Songs”). It is entirely possible to use the Bible as a book about intimacy with God and actually be very far from God. Jesus confronted folks who thought they were intimate with and passionate for God, but were, in fact, “evil-doers” (see Matthew 7:21-23).
A common objection is: “The only way I can know God is through the Bible. The Bible has to be first, God second. If I don’t go to the Bible first, then I may concoct crazy things about God.” This sounds noble and right, but is an error. God has not locked the awesome Trinitarian reality of Being inside a book. Jesus had to bluntly make this plain to Nicodemus in a night conversation about the workings of the Holy Spirit. The intimate life of a married couple that procreates children is never locked inside a sex manual. The living God-head, Three in One, has been and is and forever will be independent of the Bible. God is totally able and free to introduce God-reality to anyone, anytime, anywhere. However, the humbling strategy that the living God has chosen is for those of us who intimately know God to go and bear witness to God’s loving, present, gracious, saving Trinitarian Being. We are not commissioned to go and read a manual to people, but to bear fruit as we stay in union with and follow Jesus.
“In the beginning was the Bible and the Bible was with God and the Bible was God” is practiced, if not stated in many a Christian’s life. Behind the misguided insistence upon the Bible first and God second is the fear that God cannot make himself truly known without our help. God needs us who “know the Bible.” I am very grateful for and study and preach the Bible. Yet, my passion is that the Bible find its rightful place in our lives. The Pharisees no doubt loved God. Yet, they made the fatal mistake of placing holy writings between themselves and Jesus. The paradox: holy things harmed them. Why do we think we cannot make the same grievous mistake? I am afraid many have. Yes, even pastors.