It seems like there’s 1,000 ways to read the Bible today. Or at least it might seem that way to some people. Differences abound, and some people take the presence of many particular ‘sects’ of Christianity (Roman Catholicism, Presbyterian, Reformed, Seventh Day Adventist, Anabaptist, etc.) as proof that Christians really can’t ‘get it together’.
It might surprise some people to learn that Jesus spoke an awful lot to correct others. He spoke out against the unrepentant, even to entire cities (Matthew 11:20-24). He gave a staggering amount of parables as to what the kingdom of heaven was like (there are many examples in Matthew 13 alone). And of course, Jesus spoke out against the Pharisees, the strict religious leaders of his day who traded genuinely seeking God for a list of checkboxes (‘if we just do these things, we are pious’) in matters such as divorce (Matthew 19:1-9), legalism (Matthew 23) and justice (Luke 11:42). If, as some people today maintain, everyone can follow their own personal god and wind up where they want to be, why was Jesus like this? Here we should note that truth is by its very nature exclusionary. Because there is truth, that means there is something else that is untrue. Red cannot be red and green at the same time. The parable of the net (Matthew 13:47-50) should be a sobering reminder to us that, yes, there is such a thing as right and wrong, with eternal consequences.
So what should we do with this? God wants us to know about Him. God wants us to be righteous like Him. These things are not immaterial. God gave us the Bible exactly for this purpose, so that we could know God and follow Him more fully. He sent us Jesus to do the same in a slightly different (but far better!) manner. We can’t afford to miss what either Jesus or the Bible teaches us about God, or odds are we’ll end up worshiping something that is not God, which is to say we’ll worship something of our own creation or the creation of the culture around us. The entire Bible is pretty clear that bad things happen when we ignore (or worse, go against) our Creator.
How do we not fall into this trap and stick to what God has proclaimed? We won’t go over the trustworthiness of the Bible here – we do that elsewhere – but we will say that to better interpret the Bible, you need not just knowledge of the verses that do with the specific topic you are interested in, but knowledge of the entire cohesive story of the Bible: how God created the world, led his people to the promised land and revealed His law to them, how his people were quick to disobey him and kept bringing trouble upon themselves, how God sent Jesus into the world to fulfill the Law and save humanity, how the teachings of Jesus spread throughout the world, and how Jesus will in the future deliver final judgment to all on Earth. It is not quite enough to say ‘this part of the Bible gives laws about keeping slaves, so we are justified in prolonging the system’ as some in the south during the U.S. Civil War claimed. It is true that the Mosaic law in Exodus to Deuteronomy acknowledged slavery in the Israelite culture, but when using that to defend practices biblically today, we must answer our questions based on the entire narrative arc of the Bible.
The line of questioning may look something like this: The Israelite culture employed a slavery system. Ok, that seems be true, but that what slavery here mean? First, weren’t the Israelites enslaved to the Egyptians earlier in Exodus? Wasn’t God angry with that, and worked mightily to free the Israelites? Why would He do that just to institute the slavery system again? And to that effect, does that system mesh with Colossians 4:1, in which masters are supposed to treat bondservants justly and fairly? Or the book of Philemon which deals with receiving a slave as a brother in the Lord? Given all that information, is it possible that the definition of slavery in the Bible is different from the manifestation of slavery in 19th century America?…
And so on. You may discover, as we have, that slavery, properly practiced according to the Mosaic law, much more closely resembled the modern notion of having a job: voluntarily attaching yourself to a slave owner for a period of seven years (with the option for life) to work your way out of debt.
Having a working knowledge of God’s direction throughout history can aid us in making clear Biblical choices. Of course, having a comprehensive knowledge of the Bible isn’t necessary for salvation (simply the acceptance of Jesus as God’s son and our Savior is), but if we yearn to know our God more, we shouldn’t miss His clear attempts to communicate with us.