This is a rather dense passage of scripture and it takes some reading and rereading. I sometimes think that it is the Bible that reads us rather than we reading it.
When you read a novel or most other books there’s no way you want to go back and read them again. If you did read them again you probably wouldn’t find anything new. But the Bible is different; it has treasures to offer us every single time we read it if we read it well and right and attentively.
This reading from the gospel of John begins with a familiar issue. How do we know that Jesus is who he said he was?
Indeed the question can be even broader than this; how do we know that Jesus existed at all? I was having a cup of tea last week with some people I have just got to know. They told me that they didn’t believe in God because there was no evidence at all for his existence. It is a sweeping statement and in itself needs quite a lot of faith to sustain it.
Jesus begins by saying that there are witnesses to the truth and that he can be relied upon to be who he said he was. Interestingly I think that we can be as certain as possible that Jesus did exist and possibly alone amongst ancient figures of history to say such a thing. There are references to him in contemporary texts. But the best evidence we have for him I think is the way that his followers behaved. There was nothing in it for them to believe that he was God. In fact, quite the opposite. Their belief in him and who he was probably cost them their lives. It did not bring riches or acclaim.
Indeed, we see that Jesus’ death upon the cross and resurrection, transform them from being a rather lukewarm, and incompetent bunch into lions of the faith. They saw something that they knew was true and that something was Jesus.
Also, they didn’t travel far from home. If you were setting up a cult or a lie you would not set up in the place where you could beat easily disproved. Instead, they ministered and lived in the areas in which they had always lived, and they did that because they knew that people also knew that Jesus was who he said he was.
And so to my second point. This reading helps us understand how to read the Bible.
I grew up in a house without a Bible and I always thought it would be a kind of dusty and outdated document. I used to say how can you base everything on just one book when there are so many millions of other great books out there?
But now I think that the Bible truly is the great word of life. It isn’t a manual or a manifesto. Jesus certainly doesn’t set out truth propositions or strong arm us into believing. Instead, it is the story of God and the story of people and families responding to God. It has absolutely the ring of truth.
In the second part of this reading Jesus criticizes the great contemporary scholars of the word. These are people who had spent a lifetime understanding the minute details of the Jewish law. They could quote scripture chapter and verse. I wonder if you have met people, as I have, who are just like this. They could tell you exactly how and where to find a quote to support their own arguments. Some clergy do this.
Personally, I refuse to get involved in what I call Bible tennis. I will not knock a Bible reading over to you to prove my point – to knock back your argument.
When we read this part of scripture it is pretty confronting in its way. Jesus says that the pharisees have made their knowledge and brilliance of understanding scripture into a kind of idolatry. You have elevated your understanding and you’re learning at the expense of encountering the flesh and blood God who shines out of the pages of this extraordinary book.
Jesus’ charge against his contemporaries is that they have been looking at the right book but reading it in the wrong way and this is a very important corrective. Those of us who spend a great deal of time writing our sermons, reading books, can become very confident that our ideas are the only ideas. We can become absorbed in what we have and exhilarated at the challenge of finding new and novel readings of the text.
Of course, God wants the very best minds to be working on the job of studying the Bible but it is possible to allow the study of the text and the interpretations of the text to become a substitute for allowing the text to bring us into the presence of the living God. It is very easy to know everything we need to know about the Bible and the Messiah and not to know the Messiah himself in person. It’s a very important corrective for our academic institutions and seminaries. It is a comfort to me as I have a very bad memory for references.
I studied for ordination at Wycliffe Hall Oxford. It was an extraordinary conservative evangelical institution, and I must say the Bible teaching was brilliant. It is the thing that has lived with me most. However, we were very very clear that just knowing the Bible is not having a faith.
There is only one proper way to read the Bible and that is to read it as pointing to Jesus. It is puzzling at times it is difficult and we will need to wrestle with it but the function of the scriptures is not to give life but to point to him who can.
In verse 34 Jesus says this; that the purpose of his words is that you may be saved. Before I became a Christian this was a very challenging idea, and it still is to me. The idea of needing to be saved takes a change in worldview from a comfortable complacent sense that all is OK with me and us and our world to knowing that it isn’t; but that there is an answer to the conundrum of sin.
It is also a beautiful sense a tremendous sense that God is love and that he loves us and that he actually wants to save us.
Yes we may well come across opposition but what we notice is that Jesus doesn’t cram his opinions down other people’s throats; he talks because he loves men and women and his voice is there to echo down the centuries with the accent of yearning love. His eyes might flash fire but the flame is the flame of love.
Jesus warns that there will be many impostors and the impostors today I believe are all the things that tempt us to believe that having things and owning things are the secret to happiness.
I for one want to go back and read my Bible again.