Over the past couple of years I have become increasingly convinced of the need to read the Bible on its own terms, in its own context, and to understand what it meant to its original hearers. All too often we are quick to ask “what does this passage mean for me?” or “how can I apply this to my life?” before we’ve really understood what it is saying.
I heard a question recently on a study of Acts 15:1-35, where the believers in Jerusalem debate with Paul and Barnabas about whether the gentiles need to follow the food laws of the Jews in order to be saved (c.f. Galatians 2:11-21 where Paul confronts Peter). The question asked of this text was “what can we learn from Peter and Paul’s interaction for our own personal disputes?”
To me this completely misses the point of the passage. I’m sure we can learn things from this about our own personal disputes, but to reduce this chapter to an example of conflict resolution misses the point. This wasn’t just a personality clash or a minor misunderstanding, but a crucial debate that led to a paradigm shift for the church in understanding God’s plan of salvation for all nations. The question addressed was ultimately whether God’s means of saving the world was through all nations becoming part of God’s Old Testament covenant with the Israelites, or whether they could know him whilst retaining their own culture, language and customs.
I definitely agree that reading the Bible should be a life-changing exercise for us, and that we shouldn’t just read it from an academic point of view, but if we’re serious about knowing God and his story, rather than simply looking for a self-help book, we need to first understand the significance and meaning of the story of the universe we are engaging with.
If we start with our own questions and ask what the Bible says about them, we’ll end up with a warped view of Christianity, where (to use N.T. Wright’s analogy) we throw away half of the jigsaw pieces and try to force the remaining ones to fit together according to our preconceived ideas.
Once we understand the true significance of the debate in Acts 15:1-35 about God’s saving plan for the gentiles, we can then start to see its relevance today. This debate, far from being a personal matter, is fundamentally about whether the gospel is inherently Jewish or whether it is translatable to other cultures. It is about whether individuals and communities can follow Jesus in their diverse contexts, or whether they should change their way of life to become Jewish. In this light, an important question for us today is then whether we are unintentionally teaching people that they need to become like us in order to follow Jesus, or whether we help them to know him in their own context, teaching them God’s good news but allowing the Holy Spirit to guide them in what it means to live out this radical faith in their culture.
To borrow another metaphor from a friend recently, we can often read the Bible like a Where’s Wally/Waldo? book, staring at it intently, trying to find ourselves in the text. If we’d only take the time to understand that the text isn’t really about us, I think we might better understand its true significance and end up realising that it’s actually a lot more relevant to our daily lives than we had ever imagined.