"What the Bible Is For"#89-38
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on May 22, 2022
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2022 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: 1 Timothy 4:13
It's been called the Monopoly of our time, created by German board game-maker, Klaus Teuber, The Settlers of Catan has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide, making it one of the bestselling board games of all time. But it's a very different game than Monopoly, so much so, one prominent board game geek said, "If I could wave a magic wand and replace all the copies of Monopoly out there with Settlers of Catan, I truly think the world would be a better place." Catan is a relatively simple game. Players compete the build the most successful colony on the fictional island of Catan. But the game is rigged; it's rigged to force players to work together. You can't win by hoarding all the property and money like you do in Monopoly. You must cooperate with your fellow settlers. It's this social side of the game that makes him most proud, said the game's creator, Klaus Teuber, in an interview with The New Yorker.
Teuber developed the game over the years by spending his weekends playing early versions of it with his wife and three children. He designed the game to be a tool for inviting community. Now maybe you've never played the game before, and you decide you want to try it out. But after you break out the 16-page instruction manual and try to decipher it, you might be ready to give up on it before you start. And you'd have plenty of reason to do so. For starters, you have to custom build the board for each new game, and there are many rules and exceptions to the rules, several possible strategies. Plus, there are additional spin-offs, expansions, and several special editions, which allow for about 80 different official varieties, making it an endlessly complicated game.
Yet, at the same time, paradoxically simple. Here's the secret to Catan, according to its maker. You need to remember what the game is for. It's a tool for inviting community. To use it well, you need to remember what it's for. The same could be said of the Bible. For a lot of people who read the Bible, it can be overwhelming, much, much more overwhelming than even the most complicated of board games. It's true for Christians too, who've been told that the Bible has a straightforward message, "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so." Whether you're a Christian or not, when you open up the Bible and try to decipher a passage about how God decimated the Canaanites, as well as the Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, you might be ready to give up on the Bible before you start.
Nonetheless, I want to encourage you to keep at it, to rediscover it. That's what we've been talking about on this program for the last two weeks. The first week, we talked about what the Bible is like. The second week, we said what the Bible is about. And this week, we're saying what the Bible is for. So, I want to offer you five principles for discovering or rediscovering what the Bible is for. Principle number one: the Bible is God's tool for inviting community around Jesus. In other words, the Bible is a little like Settlers of Catan. Klaus Teuber, Catan's creator, said his game is a tool to bring people together, so also, the Bible is a tool, not just anyone's tool, God's tool.
Christians are called not to worship and revere the book as an end in itself, because it's a tool, a means to an end. See, even if you have a Bible, a big, beautiful, embossed Bible, enshrined on a lighted shelf in your house, that tool is not yet doing what it's designed to do. Even if you read it daily, silently, by yourself, isolated, alone, that tool is not yet serving its Maker's purpose. See, God personally conspired, He worked with and through the human writers in all the writings, every page, every paragraph, every word of the Bible, with a goal in mind, with an end in mind. And that goal is to draw you into a community, to bring you together in person, face to face with other people, into a community of struggling, yet forgiven, sinners gathered in the name and in the presence of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ.
Now perhaps you don't have the ability physically to gather with others right now. Then let this and other Christ-centered publications and programs be your temporary community, your virtual community, and ask God to send you someone, to send you someone in person for Christian fellowship. And then read the Bible out loud together because the Bible is God's tool for creating community in Christ. So, when you're faced with a problem of understanding passages in the Bible that describe God wiping out the tribes of the Canaanites, start by going back to principle number one. The Bible isn't for you alone. The Bible is God's tool for inviting you into a community around Jesus. And then continue on to principle number two: the Bible is complex. It's a library of books, so pay attention to context.
When you pick up a book in the library, you have to respect its genre, its category, what it is and what it isn't. For example, a Vietnamese cookbook can help you make some delicious rice noodle soup, but it can't help you understand the complex political situation of President Ho Chi Minh back in the early 1960s. The Harry Potter book series is a fascinating parable for understanding the human experience, but it wouldn't make a good Latin textbook. To shine lumos on any text, I must understand its purpose and the way it achieves that purpose. A psalm, for example, from the Bible, aims at the heart, a proverb, or a letter like James from the Bible aims at the hands and the feet. The letter to the Romans aims at renewing the mind, which has implications for the hands and the feet. Books like Genesis and Exodus, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are artistically shaped historical narratives. They focus our eyes on what God has done in the world through Jesus, and to see the world in His light.
The Bible is complex, so pay attention to context. That's principle number two. Before we get to principle number three, let's talk about a false principle. I first heard this false principle while attending a dorm Bible study back in college. One evening, we read from the Old Testament about God decimating the Canaanites. A guy in the room said that he didn't follow the God of the Old Testament because that God was judgmental. But the God of the New Testament is loving. He was practicing a false principle. Let's call it isolating. The temptation to isolate the Old Testament from the New can be strong because it may seem like the God of the Old Testament is different from the God of the new. But there's another way to make sense of this paradox that doesn't involve isolating the testaments.
For example, a few years ago, I was working in a Christian school, and I got to know a seasoned teacher there. I'll call her Mrs. J. If you met Mrs. J. outside of school, you would think she's among the most tender, kindhearted people I've ever met. However, if you saw her in a certain classroom setting, one in which one student was showing disrespect for themselves and for their fellow students, you would see another side of Mrs. J. You would know that she means business. And you would not want to face her wrath. How do you make sense of her in that moment? Do you conclude that the Mrs. J. in that setting is different from the person in the other setting? No. You don't need to isolate her actions to understand her. If you observed her over time, you would discern a deep abiding love for her students that holds her together in spite of the apparent contradiction. She has a simple motivation of love. Yet, she must act in complex ways to respond to complex people in complex situations. You don't need to isolate the judgment from the mercy of Mrs. J. And you don't need to split up the Bible.
Besides, Jesus Himself holds them together. He said in Matthew 5:17, "I did not come to abolish the Law and the prophets," that is the Old Testament, "but to fulfill them." So stick with principle number two. The Bible is complex. Pay attention to context. Yet, paradoxically, we also have principle number three: the Bible is simple. It's one continuous story of God's kingdom coming on earth in the crucified, risen and returning Jesus. Like settlers in Catan and settlers in the land of Canaan, God is bringing His kingdom little by little, first in the children of Israel, and finally in Israel's king, Jesus. Sometimes God brings His kingdom slowly and tenderly, easing people along like He did with Moses at the burning bush, Exodus 3-4. Or like Jesus did, teaching His disciples on the road to Jerusalem. See Mark 10.
Other times, God works harshly, like in decimating the Canaanite tribes who trusted in gods of their own making, Exodus 23:20-32. Or when His own tribe in Jerusalem rejected Him, and Jesus announced that God, His Father, would come and decimate them, Mark 12:1-12. The God of the Bible acts in complex ways. But in Jesus, we can see His abiding motivation. God's goal is simple. It was, is, and always will be to bring the community of His kingdom as it is in heaven, on earth, and to welcome us into it. God's goal is to save us from our self-destructive isolation. So Jesus, even as He was being rejected, He took our isolation onto Himself. Jesus died with it on the cross. He buried it forever by His resurrection from the dead, and He promised to return to raise us from the dead, and to invite us into His kingdom that will have no end. Only in Jesus do we discover the Bible's simplicity, its unbroken unity, the singular story of God's love.
What does God's love mean in the Bible? That question takes us to principle number four: in Jesus and through the Bible, God wants to speak to you personally and to lead you to trust Him as a dearly loved child trusts a loving father. When the Bible speaks of God's love, it doesn't mean what some North Americans and Western Europeans often mean by love. It doesn't mean minding your own business and letting your acquaintances have their personal space so that they can do whatever they feel is best for themselves. No, the Bible is more Middle Eastern or Latin American in its definition of love. It's a love that realizes we're not made to be isolated individuals. It's a love that realizes we are individuals created for a diverse yet common community—a family in Jesus. Because God loves us, he speaks to us.
He speaks to us and leads us out of ourselves, out of our isolation and into His family, as His beloved children. This is the foundational principle to discover what the Bible is for. This principle says that we are justified by grace through faith, which means God puts us in the right with Him by grace alone, through His Word alone, when He brings us to trust in Him alone. God does this because He is love. God's love isn't permissive indifference. God told Moses that He would drive out the Canaanite tribes because He hates their idols. He hates their false gods. God hates whatever destroys what He loves. God loves us with that kind of love, with an all-consuming, passionate love. But when we trust in our own creations and in our own creativity, rather than our Creator, our false gods will isolate us and destroy us.
So throughout the Bible in both Testaments, we see the loving God declaring war on anything that becomes a false god for us. And that's why to discover what the Bible is for, we also need principle five: which says to receive what God wants to give us in the Bible, we must hold two truths in tension. First, each of us has a terrifying power to destroy ourselves. And second, God's love for us in Jesus will never fail. In this present life, we must hold these two truths together. We can't split them apart. We can't isolate them. We can't play them off against each other. We have to hold them in tension because each of us does have a terrifying power to isolate ourselves, to destroy ourselves. That means I am responsible for my actions and you are, too.
If you ignore God's warnings, if you stop listening to God speak to you, then you will isolate yourself. And all that will be left for you is destruction on the day when God finally brings his wrath down on all the idols we've made for ourselves. And so to save you in His love, God keeps calling you back. He's doing it right now, as I speak. He's inviting you into His community. The Bible tells you so. God's love for you in Jesus will never fail. Klaus Teuber, the maker of Settlers of Catan, said he once received a letter from a worker in a mental hospital for children. The worker told him about a boy there, a boy who had never spoken to anyone. He just sat there, isolated, alone.
One day, this boy saw a group of kids playing Settlers of Catan. He came to the other children and he started to play. Catan became a medium for drawing him out of himself and into a community, if only temporarily. The Bible is God's medium. It's God's tool, complex yet simple. And in love, God uses it to draw you out of yourself permanently and into community around Jesus. In one of the inspired letters of the New Testament, the writer, Paul, encourages a young pastor, Timothy. You can find this in 1 Timothy 4:13-6. Paul tells Timothy to keep on devoting himself to reading the Bible out loud, in public, for everyone, to invite people, to warn them, to guide them and to teach them. Paul tells Timothy to keep at it because he says, "By doing this, you will save both yourself and your hearers." Because that's what the Bible's for. In the name of Jesus. Amen.
Reflections for May 22, 2022
Title: What the Bible Is For
Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. For FREE online resources, archived audio, our mobile, and more, go to lutheranhour.org. Once again, here's our Speaker, Dr. Michael Zeigler.
Mike Zeigler: Today I'm visiting again with Dr. Peter Nafzger, a professor who helps prepare future pastors at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. Thanks for joining us again, Peter.
Peter Nafzger: It's good to be here.
Mike Zeigler: When I've talked with people about the Bible, they'll sometimes tell me how the Bible has helped them in the past. For example, when I was serving in the military, I was talking with a man who packed parachutes for a living. And he told me that years ago, he had said a prayer to God, "God, show me what You want me to do with my life." And then he opened up his Bible and he put down his finger and his finger landed on, I'm not kidding, Acts 10:11, which says, "And he saw heaven opened and a certain vessel descending unto him as it had been a great sheet, knit at the four corners and let down to earth." My friend, of course, what's he going to picture, he pictures a parachute and decides that God wants him to be a parachute rigger for his career. Has anything like that happened to you?
Peter Nafzger: Even people who don't believe it's God's Word, even non-Christians respect the Bible. And what ends up happening sometimes is people will take that respect for the Bible and do things that are kind of interesting with it.
Mike Zeigler: Interesting is a good word.
Peter Nafzger: Such as find your career choice, or I've heard stories of people when they have a toothache, putting their Bible underneath their pillow to help with a toothache, or trying to decide if I should ask this gal to marry me and reading through some portion of the Bible, looking for an answer. Each of these practices, each of these uses of the Bible, flow from a common idea, and that is the Bible's important. But they leave out a pretty important question.
Mike Zeigler: Yeah.
Peter Nafzger: Why did God give us the Bible? And that's a question that I think we probably need to ask a little bit more often.
Mike Zeigler: It's like with a tool—you need to know why the tool exists.
Peter Nafzger: Appreciating what the Bible is for is important. Because like any tool that is not a means to itself. The goal of the Bible is not to help us trust in the Bible; it's not to answer every question we might bring, every question we might have; it's certainly not to heal our toothache. The purpose of the Bible is pretty clear in the Scriptures. It comes across in a variety of places. My favorite passage, which I've brought up before and I bring it up all the time is John 20:31. The evangelist tells us, "These things are written so that we would believe in Jesus, and that believing, we would have life in His Name."
Mike Zeigler: So, we say that the purpose of the Bible, and explicitly the New Testament, in a related way, the Old Testament as well, is to bring us to trust in Jesus. But the first followers of Jesus were doing this before there was a New Testament, right?
Peter Nafzger: There were at least 20 years or so before the very first New Testament writings were even composed by the disciples, by the apostles. And so, you had the church living, you might say, by word of mouth, the first several decades, even the first century of the church. Before the New Testament had been gathered and collected, you had the people of God who had heard of Jesus speaking of Jesus, speaking His commands, His promises, telling His story and hearing that created faith in those who heard where God pleased and brought people together as the church. And then as the church grew, and as the church encountered false teachings, the apostles started to write down, they started to write letters.
Think of Paul's letter to the Galatians. "These foolish Galatians," he said, "you've abandoned the Gospel. So let me give it to you again." You have people asking people like Mark to write down. We heard Peter preach, write down for us what you said, so we have it. And so, the Scriptures then become kind of the definitive, the authorized version who is this Jesus? What does He say? But the Scriptures themselves were never meant to replace the speaking of Jesus, the encouraging, the proclaiming His Word. And so, one of the things we have keep straight is the Scriptures are there to help us speak clearly about Jesus, not to replace our speaking of Jesus.
Mike Zeigler: Last week we referenced John 1, how Jesus is referred to as the Word. We might say the personal Word. And then we've called the Bible, the written Word. And now you've mentioned a third way of thinking about the Word as the spoken word, the word that Jesus followers speak to each other and to others.
Peter Nafzger: When you read the Scriptures, they speak of the Word of God in a variety of ways. Most fundamentally, they speak of Jesus as God's Word to us, the Word through whom all things were made, who in the beginning was there at creation. And then this Word who became flesh. And then Jesus sent His disciples after He rose to go speak, to go teach, to go proclaim His Word. Paul writes about this in Romans 10. He says, "Faith comes by hearing the Word of Christ." Paul writes to Timothy, 2 Timothy 4, He says, "Preach the Word." And he's not just saying, read the Bible, especially because the New Testament wasn't in existence yet.
Mike Zeigler: Right.
Peter Nafzger: He said, speak of Jesus, speak His commands and promises. And so, we look at the speaking of Christians, the speaking of the Word as that word which creates life in people's hearts and in their minds. And then the question is, well, what do you say? What's the content of that word? And that's where the Scriptures, the written Word, provide the standard, the rule, the guide, here's what we say of Jesus. Only what the Scriptures say. No more, no less. And that's our standard for what we speak when we proclaim the Word of God. We speak the promises as His servants, as—you might even call us "deputies." We've been deputized to speak for Jesus, speak in His name so that others would believe. And then they would start reading the Scriptures to learn more about this Jesus.
In John 20 Jesus sent the apostles to forgive sins in His name. "If you forgive them, they're forgiven." They've been deputized. And then they deputize others, and the church deputizes others. And it goes on and on as the whole people of God are speaking the Words of God, always governed and normed and ruled by the scriptural Word that we have from the apostles.
Mike Zeigler: What would you want to say to someone who's listening that maybe this is the first time they've ever thought of themself as a deputy of Jesus.
Peter Nafzger: I think I would encourage people to imagine themselves as those who have heard things that have changed their lives, heard commands and promises, especially the promises of God in Christ, who have heard from Jesus words that have changed their lives, and now they have the honor and the privilege of speaking those very same words, those same promises that changed the lives of others. You don't have to be an expert in every verse of the Bible to share simply what Jesus has promised to you, to share the forgiveness that He has spoken to you, to speak words of forgiveness, as He has spoken them to you, to promise eternal life as it's been promised to you, to proclaim the salvation for all that has been proclaimed to you.
Mike Zeigler: Thank you for being with us, Peter, and may the Word of Christ dwell in you richly today.
Peter Nafzger: Thank you.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)