I have a love/hate relationship with the Bible. I mean, I really love the book. I do. I find it fascinating. But at the same time, I have a long and painful history of wrestling—and mostly losing—with and against many of the biblical texts. Sure, most of the troubling passages are in the Old Testament, but mentioning that fact never really helps if I’m supposed to believe in an eternal God who is the same yesterday and today and forever (Hebrews 13:8).
Plus, in the pre-millennial, dispensationalist way I was taught to “clearly” read Revelation, that Janus-faced monster God who demands blood in order to forgive sins was coming back with a vengeance. Jesus may have kept dear old dad medicated for a while, but due to rising healthcare costs his lithium isn’t covered any longer, and he is coming back pissed. The only silver lining I had when I bought into this theology was that we just happened to live in the in-between, so perhaps God still kind of resembled first-century Jesus. Perhaps.
If you’ve read my book or my articles, you know that I no longer buy this lie about our Abba. Instead it’s my view that “God is like Jesus” and “theology begins at the cross.” In my forthcoming book, From the Blood of Abel, I’ll give an overview of how I came to believe in a God such as this, but for now, just know that I got there … somehow.
In reality, the most difficult part of “getting there” was the Bible. That is, until I heard some guy named Michael Hardin ask the question, “How did Jesus read his ‘Bible?’” (That “some guy” is now a good friend of mine.) Wow! What a great question, yet in hindsight, how could I and every Christian I’ve come across have missed it? It’s beautiful, yet so very simple.
So, how did Jesus read the “Bible?” Well, he cherry-picked it. Gasp! It’s okay though, so did Paul. Double gasp! That’s okay too because there’s a pattern, which I am going to show you now.
Cherry #1: Luke 4:18–19
Close your eyes. Imagine you’re a Second-Temple Jew, living in a Roman-occupied province. You are there in the synagogue and a man named Jesus comes in (hopefully bathed after that 40 day trek in the wilderness). He starts to read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. It’s one of your favorites, Isaiah 61:1–2.
As Jesus reads, you start mouthing the words. Why not, right? You know this one by heart. He reads: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God.” Oh wait! He doesn’t say that. Allow me to edit: “
and the day of vengeance of our God.” He leaves that part off, rolls that puppy back up and says: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
“What! No day of vengeance? Then no deliverance from the almighty Rome,” you think. “Who does this guy think he is?” After everyone “bears witness” to this Jesus, he goes on—the nerve of this guy! He starts talking about prophets not being welcome in their hometown and about how two of Israel’s best, Elijah and Elisha, aided a Sidonian and a Syrian (bad guys) while people in Israel (good guys) failed to be comforted. Now, not only are you furious, but so too is everyone else. There is only one thing for you to do, toss this dude off a cliff! But he escapes just in time. Almost had him!
Cherry #2: Luke 7:18–23
Close your eyes again. Imagine you are John the Baptist. Herod has you in a crappy jail cell, so you can’t go ask Jesus the burning questions you have for him. Instead, you send some disciples of yours. You have just gotta know if Jesus is the Messiah, the Savior, the deliverer of the people. He’s just not quite what you imagined—you’re still stuck in the view that God is a God of wrath and vengeance (Luke 3:7). And Jesus, well, he isn’t exactly that.
When your disciples find Jesus, they approach him and ask: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” That question seems simple enough. Well, in typical Jesus fashion, he answers in a mysterious way … by quoting Scripture … selectively. He quotes Isaiah 29:18–19 but not 29:20, quotes Isaiah 35:5–6 but not 35:4, and Isaiah 61:1–2 but not the last part of verse 2. Is this a hint? Well, I don’t think Jesus is that flippant, so I believe it is. The Master is saying to drop the vengeful stuff! And if you do and can still accept that Jesus is who he says he is, then blessed is he who takes no offense (Luke 7:23).
Cherry #3: Galatians 3:13
Imagine now that you’re in your home church in Galatia. You’ve just received a letter from Paul and he’s furious! And you don’t blame him. You understand the Gospel but it seems many in your church have been seduced by a false gospel, one that places emphasis on Torah interpretation and holiness codes, rather than on the Risen Christ. “Been there, done that!” you think. As the reader gets into the letter, you’re quietly excited—and a bit apprehensive—about how this is going to all go down.
During the letter (which, by the way, you’re actually enjoying—although not everybody is by the look of things), you pick up on something that Paul says. It’s genius. After his scathing critique of the false brothers’ “law-inspired” stance, Paul writes: “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.” You can’t help but let loose a wry chuckle, because as you know, Deuteronomy 21:23 says that those hung on a tree are cursed by God. But not according to Paul. No way! And you are with him, knowing that it is in fact the law that is a curse. And that is exactly what you and your brothers will be under should this cancer continue to infect the Galatian churches.
The reader continues and you listen with anticipation, refreshed by the Good News of Paul’s gospel. You wonder which gospel—Paul’s or the false one—will take hold in your church. Time will tell …
These are only three examples from the New Testament. There are others, such as Matthew 5:39, Mark 12:35–40, and Romans 15:8–9. And of course much more could be said about hermeneutics and exegesis and authority of Scripture and all that jazz. My goal is to simply introduce the evidence of a specific hermeneutical pattern in both Jesus and Paul–I’ll leave the exhaustive details to the scholars.
- ^ Most translations of Luke 4:22 say “all spoke well of him,” instead of simply “all bore witness to him.” That is to say, “all spoke well of him” is an interpretive move. For more information, see Michael Hardin’s article “Reading the Bible from a Peacemaking Perspective” or pick up a copy of Hardin’s The Jesus Driven Life where he talks about this passage on pages 60–62.
If you’re interested in subjects like hermeneutics, I recommend The Jesus Driven Life by Michael Hardin. For those interested in the apocalyptic reading of Paul, I think Galatians by J. Loius Martyn and The Deliverance of God by Douglas Campbell are both excellent. Although, I will admit, they are both really long and really dense (over 600 and 1200 pages respectfully).
About Matthew Distefano
Matthew Distefano is the author of All Set Free: How God is Revealed in Jesus and Why That is Really Good News. He is also a Regular Contributor for The Raven Foundation and previous Guest Contributor for Sojo.net. You can find him on his website, Facebook, and Twitter.