A lot of people seem to read the Bible this way:
God’s Little Instruction Book. Sounds pretty good, no? You want to know what to do or not to do in your life, you flip open to the right chapter-and-verse in the book and it tells you. Thou shalt give 10% of thy net income to charity bi-weekly (1 Hesitations 3:15). Thou shalt not eat meat that is overly high in sodium (3 Bob 11:9). Thou shalt tell three people a week to read this book for themselves (Leeroy 22:6). Thou shalt be a good boy and share thy toys with Tommy (Obscurities 47).
I kid, but I know we’ve all heard that kind of thing before, in all those sermons and tracts and articles and self-help books. And sure, there are many parts of the Bible that you can take more or less that way without too much difficulty. The book of Proverbs, anyone? The Ten Commandments? Why not?
The problem is, if you just pull out verses here and there looking for instructions about what to do, you’re not really looking at the book for what it is. A few minutes of study will reveal the obvious fact that the Bible (with the possible exception of certain parts of Proverbs) wasn’t written as a collection of isolated moral aphorisms. The chapter and verse numbers we know and love were added by editors over 1300 years after the Bible was written—helpful for reference and study, of course, but not part of the text.
So if you just take the instructions and never get around to studying the text as a whole, eventually you’ll start to miss some important things about the Bible itself—like maybe why these particular instructions were given. What if the instructions themselves aren’t even the point? What if they’re afterthoughts, expansions, and applications of a larger and more significant point? What if (since God has, I believe, an ironic sense of humor) the point is, “Don’t read this book as an instruction book to follow the rules; read it to follow Jesus”?
Some people might object to that thought, being used to the “Little Instruction Book” paradigm (or “legalism” as it’s technically called). Some even object to it eloquently. Not long ago I left a comment on another website pointing out that just because a certain scheme of behavior quotes from the Bible doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a Christian scheme—it could be a legalistic scheme, whereas a Christian scheme is one that follows Jesus. In response I got this well-worded reply:
“Sorry, but I make no distinction between the two. To me, following the Bible… is the very same thing as just following Jesus. Where does anyone get Jesus’s words? I’d assume from the Bible. If someone follows the Bible, they also follow Jesus; it’s all the same. To me this self-professed Christian couple [in a fictional illustration of failure at rule-keeping—EP] who followed the Bible were following God’s will and Jesus’s will by following the, you could call it, Bible’s will. … I can’t see why you demand that everyone parse out guidance from Jesus from guidance from the Bible when you get one from the other.”
Fair enough points, on the whole. If we’re trying to answer the question “How do you learn what God’s will is?” the answer of course is “Read the Bible (assuming the Bible is what Christians believe it to be).” The action of reading a book is more or less the same, whatever your motivations are.
The thing is, having read the Bible quite a bit, I don’t think that God’s will, or Jesus’ will, or the Bible’s will (can a book have a will?) is for us to follow rules for rules’ sake. I think God’s will is for us to know Jesus. In other words, where my acquaintance sees no distinction, I see all the distinction in the world.
Think of the difference this way. Say somebody hands you a book and says, “Here, this book tells you what to do or not to do.” “Who says so?” “Mr. X says so, and he should know.” That’s the system my acquaintance objects to, and I think quite rightly so.
Now suppose somebody hands you a book and says this: “You should really get to know this friend of mine. You’d like him a lot. This is a book about him. It tells about some things he did, some conversations he had with people, and even some things he likes and doesn’t like so you can avoid offending him. Actually, reading this book is probably the best way to get to know him, except for talking to him yourself.”
What’s the difference? You mean, what isn’t the difference? In one, the system is all about the rules; in the other, the system is all about the relationship. In one, you get to know some things to do; in the other, you get to know a person. In one, following the rules is based on some unspecified appeal to authority; in the other, the rules are based on friendship.
This might look like a good setup for a debate over the validity of these two conflicting methods of reading the Bible. But there’s a way that could be short-circuited. What if you looked in the Little Instruction Book, hoping to find some rules to live by, and found these commandments: “(56) For goodness’ sake, don’t read this book like it’s just a Little Instruction Book! (57) Instructions on their own won’t do you any good anyway! (58) Read it to develop a friendship with the person it’s about!”
That would be delightfully ironic. That would be a spectacular way to answer the question. That would be what the Bible actually says.
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations––“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)––according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (Colossians 2:20-23 ESV)
Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (John 6:28-29 ESV)
The rules, according to Jesus as recorded in the Bible, aren’t effective on their own, and aren’t what God wants us to be concerned with anyway. The real subject of the Bible, again according to the Bible, is not rules but Jesus Himself:
[Jesus speaking] You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. (John 5:39-40)
Then [Jesus] said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:44-47)
Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. (Acts 8:35)
What does God want us to be concerned with? Why did He send Jesus? Simple: God wants us to know Him.
“But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:33-34)
[Jesus speaking] And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. (John 17:3)
I will give them a heart to know that I am the LORD, and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart. (Jeremiah 24:7)
But from there you will seek the LORD your God and you will find him, if you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul. (Deuteronomy 4:29)
And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. (1 John 5:20)
Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me. When you seek me with all your heart, I will be found by you, declares the LORD… (Jeremiah 29:12-14a)
Seek the LORD while he may be found;
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake his way,
and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. (Isaiah 55:6-7)
So forget the instructions. Forget the legalism. Forget the rules. Forget everything except this one fact: There is a God who is the most amazing, wonderful, and loving of all personal beings, and He wants you to know Him. Like a friend. Like a Father.
And if you want to find out how to know Him, well, I can recommend a book.