Last month we spent part of our prayer and planning meeting talking about where we wanted to go next with our teaching series on the Bible, and one of the questions we highlighted as being most important was What does a Jesus centred reading of the Bible look like? There are a number of ways to take that, so two weeks ago Simon started us off by looking at how we can read the Bible like Jesus, and last Sunday I tried to get us thinking about how we can read the Bible in the light of Jesus.
As was rightly pointed out at our prayer and planning meeting, if we want to place Jesus as the centre of our reading of scripture, we need to know who he is. And if we want to know who he is, we must make the scriptures about him the centre of our reading. Just as our character is revealed in the way we act and speak, so Jesus is made known to us through his words and deeds as recorded in the gospels, and that is then where we must start.
Not even I am foolishly ambitious enough to have attempted a complete overview of the life and ministry of Jesus in the space of little over an hour, so on Sunday night we turned our attention to the Sermon on the Mount, looking for the attitudes and principles and practices that are modelled and depicted by Jesus, and how they might shape the way in which we read the Bible. Here are my thoughts, as well as contributions from our discussions.
- the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12) reverse our expectations – the Bible will often be counterintuitive
- they also challenge the idea that blessing is the result of obedience and the belief that the kingdom comes through force – we must prioritise the prophetic voices of mercy and justice
- the call to be salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16) demands that we are wise and useful – scripture must lead us to that
- Jesus’ treatment of the law (Matthew 5:17-48) turns the focus from action to attitude – we must look beyond the letter to the spirit and ask not just ‘what does this say I should do?’ but ‘who does this say I should be?’
- the words on divorce (Matthew 5:31-32) hint at Jesus’ heart for the vulnerable and the dispossessed as they offer greater protection for women than existed at the time – we must listen for the voices in the Bible that speak of compassion
- the call to love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48) is radical and distinctive – if this is the ultimate ethic of Christ then scripture must lead us to generous and impartial love
- Jesus’ words about righteousness (Matthew 6: 1-18) are a call to humility and integrity – Bible study is not a place to show off
- the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) is the centre point of the sermon and framed in communal terms – relationship with God is at the heart of all discipleship but it is worked out in relationship with others which perhaps suggests that Bible reading should be a corporate as well as private activity
- the prayer also calls for the coming of the kingdom of heaven – if we are to recognise and encourage its breaking through to the kingdoms of earth then we must look to the scriptures to learn what it is like
- the section on treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:19-24) calls us to ask what our treasures are – this may encourage us to really value scripture
- the verses about worry (Matthew 6:25-34) question our priorities – this may prompt us to look to scripture rather than possessions for comfort
- Jesus’ caution against judging others (Matthew 7:1-5) is an important corrective – scripture is so often used to criticise others but that is not what it is given for
- the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12) is another guiding ethical principle – it is against these that we must measure every interpretation of scripture
- the warning about false prophets (Matthew 7:15-20) is also a wise word with respect to scriptural interpretation – we must think carefully and critically when reading or hearing the arguments of others and judge them by their fruit
That was a fair blast through three fairly dense chapters, but they say much about the conduct and character of Jesus, and the conduct and character he calls us into. The Jesus we see revealed through the Sermon on the Mount calls us to read with humility and gentleness and integrity, to practice discernment and expect challenge, to seek the spirit of the words and let the words transform our spirit, to pay attention to the voices that speak of compassion and justice and mercy, to look for hope and encouragement and signs of the kingdom, and to read in such a way that we grow in wisdom and love.
While preparing this, I was reminded of a song by DC Talk called Red Letters, named for the fact that some Bibles print the words of Jesus in red ink. The chorus says There is love in the red letters / There is truth in the red letters / There is hope for the hopeless / Peace and forgiveness / There is life in the red letters / In the red letters. I think the Sermon on the Mount gives us good reason to declare that we find all of these things in Jesus, and as he is the Word of God then any word from God must surely be characterised by these same things, so that our engagement with the scriptures may be framed as a quest for love and truth and hope and forgiveness and life.