The Most Misunderstood Word In The Bible

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A Biblical fundamentalist, responding to my last blog, asked me to explain John 1:1-14.

Apparently he thought the picture (with the Bible telling a worshipper that it can’t save them) meant that I didn’t believe the Scripture and went on to declare the Bible as being “the only road map we have to salvation.”  Which, ironically enough, is in direct contradiction to what is actually recorded in Scripture.

Jesus said, according to the Gospel of John, that the “Spirit will teach you all things” and that he (not a book) was the only way to the Father.  It is a very clear pattern, throughout the Gospels and Paul’s letters, that it is the Spirit that “quickens” (John 6:63, Romans 8:11) and that it was the Spirit that led Jesus (Matthew 4:1, Luke 4:1), and this:

But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. […] But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.  He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you.  All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you. (John 16:7‭, ‬13‭-‬15 NIV)

If you believe in the Spirit then you won’t settle for a road map.  If you believe that then you will receive the GPS—which is to say the “mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2) and the only thing that will make Scripture useful.  Because, lest we forget, those who rejected Jesus also believed in the Scripture and looked to it for their salvation:

And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent.  You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. (John 5:37‭-‬40 NIV)

These people “diligently” studied the Scriptures yet did not have “his word” dwelling in them and rejected Jesus as Savior.  They were using Scripture as their “road map” and failed to recognize Jesus as Lord.

How can it be?

Well, it is simply this: The Bible, while “inspired by God” according to 2 Timothy 3:16, does not provide its own interpretation.  Scripture is written in human language, translated by human translators and requires the reader to correctly understand the words which it contains.

Peter warned the early church:

[Paul] writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. (2 Peter 3:16b)

Think about it.

Again, Scripture does not provide its own interpretation.  It can be misunderstood and distorted.  It did not lead those who diligently studied it to recognize Jesus as the source of life and the book itself testifies that we should expect something much greater than a book to lead us to all truth.

What is the most misunderstood word in the Bible?

There are many things in the Bible that are difficult to understand.  There are many words and phrases in it that are misunderstood and misused.  But there is one word that stands out above the rest.  It is the “Word” found in John 1:1-14:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. […] The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1‭-‬5‭, ‬14 NIV)

First off, we should consider the intent and context.  John, in this dramatic introduction to his narrative, is making a thesis statement that establishes the divinity of Jesus.  He uses “Word” to create a link between the Spirit of God that was present from the beginning of time to the perfect incarnation in Jesus.

Second, John wrote in Greek, not English.

The “Word” used by John is “Logos” in the Greek.  It does not mean the same thing as the English word used by translators.  Logos is a word originally coined by Greek philosophers; it is a word used to describe the order of the cosmos, spiritual principles or divine reason.  John, borrowing the terminology of the Greeks, used “Logos” to describe God’s divine reasoning that created the universe, that is behind all events, and became flesh in Christ.  To reduce such a rich and powerful concept to merely written text is a crime against language.

Logos ≠ Bible

John says that the Logos “became flesh and made his dwelling among us” but he never claimed that it became text.  Nowhere in the Bible is “Logos” described as being synonymous with Scripture.  Many, their assumptions formed by an English translation and fundamentalist commentators, read “word of God” to mean Scripture.  However, there is no evidence in the Bible to support this assumption and an unbiased look at the descriptions of the “word of God” in Scripture would lead one to believe otherwise:

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)

Do an experiment: Take your Bible, set it on a shelf and don’t touch it for a week.  

Will it be “alive and active” if you do that?

No.

The book will not chase you or cause you to do anything unless you read it and that is quite different from what we read about God’s word.

The “word of God,” according to Scripture, is something that can’t be shelved.  Jesus once said that “the stones will cry out” (Luke 19:40) if his disciples were to remain silent about his being Lord.  We read about Balaam’s donkey speaking in Numbers 22:22.  There is also the amazing conversion of Saul, whose vast knowledge of Scripture had prevented him from accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior.  He was confronted on the road to Damascus by a light from above and a voice.  The “word of God” is clearly not a kind of word that is constrained to a page.

The “word of God” is something heard and obeyed, not read and studied.  Again, in John 5:37-40, we read where Jesus confronts those who diligently studied Scripture and yet never had “his word” dwell with in them nor did they “hear his voice.”  If the phrase “word of God” was synonymous with reading Scripture then Jesus would be contradicting himself by saying what he did.  Scripture is “inspired” by God, but it is not God.  God’s word, according to the book of Isaiah, does not “return void” and we can’t say that about the Scripture read by those who rejected Jesus.

The Word is God

This is where the rubber meets the road: To claim that Scripture is equivalent to the Logos of John 1:14 is to claim a book is God.  To do that is idolatrous.

The Bible is inspired by God, a written testimony of his work throughout the ages, but it is written in human language and depends on our ability to interpret it correctly in order for it to be profitable.  Correct interpretation of the sacred text is virtually impossible without the “mind of Christ” or promised Spirit of truth.

The Logos is infallible.

All human language is fallible.

Human language is dependent on words and words are basically metaphors and never actually the same thing they describe.  Words are only an arrangement of sounds and symbolic representations that are assigned to or associated with meanings.  These sounds and symbols representing the sounds require proper use and interpretation—words are not always understood as originally intended.

Human language is fallible because it depends on humans for interpretation and we are fallible.  Our words fall empty and void of meaning unless our readers or listeners make the same assumptions of meaning that we intend for the representative sounds or letters we strung together.  How much we understand depends on both parties “being on the same page” or, in other words, sharing the same assumptions about their words.

So how do we get the correct assumptions about Biblical language?

Correct assumptions come from relationship with the writer or speaker.  The better we know a person the more likely we are to understand the language they are using and come to the correct conclusions.  However, since even close friends occasionally have moments of confusion, having absolutely correct understanding requires that author and receiver literally share the same mind.

That is essentially what Paul is trying to communicate:

We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written: “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived”—the things God has prepared for those who love him— these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words.  The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, “Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:6‭-‬16 NIV)

Paul emphasizes the need for the Spirit as a prerequisite for understanding Scripture, but Biblical fundamentalism gets that in reverse and tries to find God’s living word through diligent study of Scripture.  Yet no amount of study can help a person who stubbornly holds to an incorrect understanding of the words in the book—their study could be a path to destruction.

It is the Spirit that conveys the meaningful content of Scripture.  And we don’t receive the Spirit through our own diligent efforts.  It is a gift of God’s grace that we are saved (Ephesians 2:8) and if we aren’t “quickened” (made alive) by the Spirit we will remain dead in our sins and ignorant.  Our salvation is fully dependent on God’s grace and therefore is not a product of anything else we have done—that “anything else” including our own human ability to read and comprehend Scripture.

A person can’t understand Scripture without having God’s word dwelling in them first.  One must be brought to life through a work of the Spirit because it is humanly impossible to bridge the gap between God and man.  There is no theological or intellectual tower tall enough to reach God.  God must first reach us and that is something done through his own mysterious means.

Biblical fundamentalists get things in reverse and think they save themselves through their reading Scripture.  However, if they understood what they read they would know that Biblical language does not provide it’s own interpretation they might be more humble and give God all the credit for their conversion—afterall, we are saved by grace, through faith, and not by our human knowledge or abilities.

Bibliolatry: A modern bull calf of Yah?

Remember the story in the book of Exodus where Aaron, pressured by the people, helped to create a golden calf as an idol to worship?

What you might not know is that in the original Hebrew they used the proper name of God (Yhvh) to describe their idol.  In other words, their idol was a false representation of the true God and not necessarily made in honor of false gods.  Note what Exodus 32:5 tells us:

When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord. (Exodus 32:5 NIV)

They were using the correct word for God (Lord = Yhvh) in their worship before their idol and it seems very likely that they realized the calf was an object constructed as a symbolic representation of God and not God.  But their worshiping this representation in an object was idoltarous because it diminished God—it did not truly bring honor to God.

Modern religious people may think it is absurd that people would worship a golden bull on a pedestal.  Sadly many today worship a symbolic representation of God constructed out of human language.  Unfortunately, for them, in the same way that Yahwah is not a gold bull, the true “word of God” is not merely language.  We are in grave danger of falsely representing God if we turn to written symbols as our path to salvation rather than rely on the Spirit of the living God to guide us.

A person who can’t see the absurdity of putting written text of the Bible on the same level as the one who inspired it doesn’t understand language or God.  The Bible does not save anyone and we should never settle for a “road map” when we were promised a navigation system.  We need to consider thay 2 Timothy 3:16 and other passages written for the benefit of believers who already had the Spirit—the Bible is only profitable for those who have already been made alive.

In conclusion, we dare not confuse a symbolic representation of God created in human language with God.  The Bible should be venerated as something inspired by God—but never worshipped or made equal to God and his Logos.  To reduce God’s Logos to the text of a book is idolatrous.  It is putting human comprehension first and God second.

Sailing Beyond Safe Waters

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I’ve been on a journey of faith.  I have left the comfortable waters and ventured to territory of expectations where few would dare to go. 

Many people claim faith.  But oftentimes what some call faith is actually the safe harbor of religious tradition and cultural obligation.  They never go beyond what is reasonable to themselves or their peers, they live within reasonable boundaries and never question the limits of their own reasoning or grow beyond it.

It requires a small degree of faith to sail in a harbor and some skill too.  But, going beyond the harbor, sailing beyond the navigational charts, trusting that inner compass of promised lands over the horizon and beyond sight, that requires true faith.  It is a faith for a journey that can’t be planned in advance, a journey where provisions could run out, where there is no shoreline to see, where storms arise and hope can seem distant or even an impossibility.

Some days I do long for the simplicity of that harbor I left before starting this journey.  I pray that my faith will lead me to the place of solace that promised to be right over the horizon.  It becomes hard to believe your own eyes when a sight of land at a distance has too many times before become a mirage.  The food has become stale, the rations have been diminished and the ship has been in better repair.

Storms of fear and doubt come and go.  It is hard to distinguish friend from foe in a place where true colors are often hidden and only discovered after a cannon blast has ripped a hole in your side.  There are days of pleasantness, a good tailwind and clear skies.  There are days of fog, days of doldrums, dark nights, moments of terror and times where all seems hopeless.

Still, one has little choice, one must continue to sail on in faith because the harbor is too far gone to return back. You continue ahead knowing only in your heart that is land ahead.  It is a faint glimmer of hope in a vast empty ocean, but it is a hope that cannot be lost. 

So I continue in faith…

What is God?

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“The question is: is the way the universe began chosen by God for reasons we can’t understand, or was it determined by a law of science? I believe the second. If you like, you can call the laws of science ‘God’, but it wouldn’t be a personal God that you could meet, and ask questions.”  (Stephen Hawking)

Professor Hawking is one of the most intriguing men of our time.  He is known for his work in the field of physics and was popularized by a book, “A Brief History of Time,” that reached a broad audience.  He is undoubtedly a brilliant mathematician, he can reconstruct the universe in his mind using numbers and formulas, and has basically proved that the universe (including time) had a definite beginning.  But Hawking is agnostic, he sees a big impersonal ‘God’ when he looks into the expanse of space and is probably right about what he sees.

A Small View of God

Many people (religious fundamentalists and atheists especially) subscribe to a small view of God.  They confine God to simple ‘black and white’ human moral or logical thinking (theirs) and essentially demand a God on their level.  But if God is the creative force behind the entire universe, then God is bigger than the universe and also bigger than any of the concepts of morality or logic in the universe.  A big concept of God is a God that transcends universal moral categories and exists above or beyond all human reasoning.  A God bigger than scientific law or religion.

Finding God in Our Humility

Picture humanity as an infant, this earth as our playpen and the universe the house over our heads.  We can see the room, we can speculate about other rooms and theorize about some sort of reality beyond house.  We know house is predictable, the temperatures fall between certain parameters, schedules are somewhat consistent and yet we see through a foggy window that there could possibly be more than the house we are in.  God is like the parent who can come and go, lives beyond the playpen and our childish mind.

Finding God Beyond Our Own Dimensionality

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But my concept and understanding of God goes beyond that have a celestial parent or personality.  I believe Biblical personification of God is simply an attempt to explain what is inexplicable.  Still, I do believe God can give himself personality to relate to us and is more than some vague life force or abstraction.  I believe God is a spirit or mind, but one that dwells beyond the rules of science that govern the dimensions of this universe.  In other words, God sees the Tesseract of our limited dimensionality and exists beyond all dimensionality.

Finding God Beyond Material Reality

I know this might not appeal to those with the materialism perspective who do not feel inclined to accept reality beyond their ability (or the ability of their scientific instruments, mathematics and logic) to see.  But science has many limits.  We cannot scientifically prove our own consciousness exists and still accept it as reality.  Not everything of our reality is provable by experiment or calculations, some things we must just know and accept as reality, the reality of our consciousness one of those things and the idea of greater consciousness another.

Finding God Beyond Cold Calculation

“Consideration of black holes suggests, not only that God does play dice, but that he sometimes confuses us by throwing them where they can’t be seen.”  (Stephen Hawking)

Professor Hawking and other theoretical physicists seek a ‘unified theory’ for their science, an explanation for the paradoxical discoveries that upset a simpler idea of the universe, but the day it is found (if these ‘dice’ were left within our reach) there will be more questions unanswerable by science.  Questions of why, of purpose and morality are probably beyond math.  Why we do not believe it is immoral for a cat to eat a mouse, both sentient beings, the cat remorseless, and yet to kill becomes an issue of morality for us.  Why care if the weak are exploited?

A Unified Theory of God

We are sentient, we are also moral creatures and our morality needs to enter the grand equation or we are left with little more than cold calculus that starts with star dust then ends with the heat death of the universe.  We know there is something more just as we know we consciously exist and therefore we need a bigger view of God than Hawking’s.  We need a God so big he can be personally involved or, in other words, a unified theory of an intimate and big God.  Consciousness, morality and science offer us a place to start a pursuit of God, but we need to pursue further…

The Personal and Intimate God

“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”  “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.  You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.  Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.  God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”  The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”  Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”  (John 4:19-26 NIV)

Looking Backwards and Beyond the Universe for God

Many search for God, but do they look in the right place to find God?  The religious are like this woman who met Jesus, they seek God in physical objects like places, rituals or books.  The scientific mind looks further out, they search the universe for answers down to the tiniest particles and up to the lights of the sky.  But both are looking outward to find God and truth.  Could it be our mind is the closest possible connection we could ever have to the realities beyond the material, mathematical and time universe?

Finding God in the Moral Mind

If the entire universe can be compressed to the size of a point as small as the period at the end of this sentence, then a God big enough to be simultaneously small is not such a big leap.  So perhaps Hawking, like that woman talking to Jesus, is looking in the wrong direction to find the person of God?