Biblical?

by Ron Julian


At McKenzie Study Center we strongly emphasize the importance of being “biblical.” For years we have urged people to reexamine their lives in the light of the Bible, to seek to think and act in exactly that way the Bible calls us to think and act. Some people are puzzled, however, that we at MSC do not get more excited when they jump on the bandwagon with us. “Yes,” they cry, “let us get back to doing things the way the Bible says they should be done. Let us raise our hands when we pray, just as Paul commanded us to. Let us draw lots to decide who should lead our churches, just as they did in Acts. Let us…” On and on the list goes of the “biblical” ways of doing things. The problem is that being biblical means more than just “doing what the Bible says.” In fact, sometimes “doing what the Bible says” can be profoundly unbiblical.

In the life and teaching of Jesus we see a great example of the difference between the apparently biblical and the truly biblical. This distinction emerges clearly in Jesus’ interaction with the Pharisees. The Pharisees of Jesus’ time portrayed themselves as rigorously “biblical” in their beliefs and practice. This can be seen in the following encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees:

At that time Jesus went on the Sabbath through the grainfields, and His disciples became hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, “Behold, Your disciples do what is not lawful to do on a Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:1-2)

The Pharisees were concerned with what was “lawful”; that is, they were concerned with what the Scriptures, the law of Moses, had commanded the Jews to do. They were certainly not wrong to urge obedience to God’s law. And they were absolutely right that God had commanded observance of the Sabbath.

Therefore you are to observe the sabbath, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people. For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there is a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall surely be put to death. (Exodus 31:14-15)

The law says “complete rest” from “any work”; the Pharisees would seem to be on solid ground in saying that the disciples of Jesus were being “unbiblical” that day. Jesus, however, does not see it that way:

But He said to them, “Have you not read what David did, when he became hungry, he and his companions; how he entered the house of God, and they ate the consecrated bread, which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those with him, but for the priests alone? Or have you not read in the Law, that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath, and are innocent? But I say to you, that something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire compassion, and not a sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

My purpose is not to explore the theology of the Sabbath, so I am not going to comment in detail on the points Jesus is making. Instead, I want to highlight the way Jesus makes those points.

First of all, Jesus says, “Have you not read…”. The Pharisees are not wrong to be turning to the Bible; their problem is they have not considered enough of it. Jesus is strongly implying that it can be misleading to consider one command apart from the complete picture of God that emerges from the entire Bible.

Second, Jesus did not confine himself to passages that specifically dealt with the Sabbath, even though the Sabbath was the issue at hand. Of the three passages He uses, only one of them even mentions the Sabbath. These passages, however, tell us a lot about the larger values and purposes of God, which put the Sabbath commands in perspective. We see Jesus doing the same thing when some of the Pharisees questioned Him about divorce. Jesus did not go to a “divorce” passage; He referred back to the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis. How can we understand what the Scriptures have to say about divorce if we do not examine them in the light of what God says about marriage?

Third, Jesus is strongly suggesting that being “biblical” involves much more than just “doing” what a particular passage says to do. Why did Jesus not praise the Pharisees for their desire to obey the law? Because their version of Sabbath-keeping was not really obedience. God was not ultimately concerned with reducing the amount of work on Saturdays; He was concerned to raise up a people who loved Him and valued what He valued, a people who obeyed His commands because they shared His heart. To stop working on Saturdays from a heart that is uncompassionate and judgmental is not really obedience, however much it might conform to the outward requirements of the law.

Finally, Jesus is strongly suggesting that being biblical can actually look at times as if we are not being biblical at all. From the Pharisees’ perspective, the disciples of Jesus were working on the Sabbath by harvesting grain for themselves to eat. Yet Jesus calls them innocent. God gave the commands concerning the Sabbath for certain reasons, to promote certain ends, and with certain limitations as to their applicability. How do we know this? Because it must be true in the light of what God reveals about His character and purposes throughout the rest of Scripture. At any rate, that is how Jesus sees it. Therefore the truly biblical person is one who obeys the command when and how God intended it to be obeyed, which can look like disobedience to anyone who does not understand the purpose of the command in the first place.

This last point is very important, but it is quite obviously dangerous as well. Many foolish, worldly, and disobedient people have justified their rebellion against the Scriptures by claiming to understand the “spirit” of the law, the “true intent” behind the Scriptures. How many people have rejected the Bible’s teaching on lust and perversion, following their desires in the name of the Bible’s “true spirit of love”? We cannot prevent this, however, by insisting on a mindless literalism in our approach to the Bible. Jesus showed the Pharisees, and us, how dangerous that approach can be as well. We cannot thoughtlessly set aside what the Scriptures say, but neither can we just jump in and start applying verses right and left. No, there is only one option. We must decide to follow Jesus’ approach to the Scriptures; we must seek to understand the purpose behind a passage of Scripture in the light of the picture of reality that the entire Bible supplies.

Let me give a simple example. I referred at the beginning to the command to raise our hands when we pray. This comes from I Timothy 2:8:

Therefore I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and dissension.

There is no question in my mind: if Paul wants me to lift my hands when I pray, then that is exactly what I should do. So what else is there to talk about? Paul says he wants men to pray, lifting up holy hands; isn’t that a clear statement of his desire? Shouldn’t I raise my hands when I pray if I want to be obedient to the wishes of the apostle Paul, if I want to be “biblical”?

Well, it is a little more complicated than that. In this section of Paul’s letter to Timothy, Paul is reminding the men that Jesus died for all men, Jew and Gentile alike, and therefore they should be praying for all men. We do not know the situation exactly, but evidently a spirit of hostile factionalism has grown up among them, and that ugly spirit is making itself evident in how they are praying. Paul is not urging them to pray; they are doing that already. He is urging them to pray with a different attitude. Nor, I would argue, is he urging them to lift their hands when they pray; they were doing that already as well. The cultural practice was to raise one’s hands in prayer. Paul is saying, “I want the factionalism to stop. I want the hands that you raise in prayer to be holy hands, hands that are not lifted in wrath and dissension.” Paul was trying to elevate their values, not their hands.

So what then would Paul say to us, living in a cultural situation where many people do not raise their hands in prayer anymore? Would he command them to do so? Nothing in this passage suggests that he would, and the rest of Scripture suggests to me that he would not. The Bible’s teaching on prayer is little concerned with the fact of prayer or the manner of prayer; rather it focuses on the heart being expressed in prayer. The evidence suggests that Paul would respond, “Put your body in whatever position you like, but if your prayers are an expression of worldliness and self-righteousness, then you have a real problem.”

It is of utmost importance that we all strive to be “biblical” in our approach to life. A truly biblical worldview, however, is one that is becoming more and more like the worldview of God himself. (See David Crabtree’s chapters in our upcoming book on biblical interpretation for a great explanation of this.)* The journey toward a truly biblical worldview is a long and demanding one, and there are no shortcuts. Jesus has made it clear to us: it is not enough to “have a verse” to justify the way we live our lives. In the Scriptures God has revealed something of what He has done and why He has done it, and He has revealed how He wants us to live and why we should live that way. We cannot rightly understand or obey the “what” and the “how” without understanding the “why.” And only a growing understanding of the whole picture will allow us to understand the pieces rightly. The process of understanding may seem slow at times, but in the end the understanding of life that results will truly deserve to be called “biblical.”

Copyright January 2001 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Ron Julian