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Linus once remarked to Charlie Brown that he always felt guilty reading the New Testament.
BY MARK SHEA
Part one in a series
Linus once remarked to
Charlie Brown that he always felt guilty reading the New Testament.
When Charlie Brown asked why, he
replied, “Because I always feel as though I’m reading somebody else’s mail.”
Linus is a wise kid. For the truth is,
when you read Scripture, the first thing to realize is that you are reading
somebody else’s mail.
True, Scripture is “a love letter from
God to us” but before it is that, it is a collection of writings by human
beings to other human beings, written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
So if we are going to read it well, we have to start by knowing what it is we
Otherwise, we can wind up playing
foolish games with the Bible that will only get us in trouble. One of the most
popular games is to treat Scripture as a sort of “Holy Ouija Board” and go to
it looking for direct answers to our divination questions. Not a few Christians
have asked the Bible, “Should I take this new job?” or “Should I marry this
person?” and then literally stuck their finger down on to a randomly chosen
verse and hoped for God’s answer. This is as crazy and ignorant an approach to
Scripture as the guy who asked for divine guidance and accidentally fingered
the verse about how Judas “went and hanged himself”
(Matthew 27:5) and then fingered “Go, and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).
No, the first thing we have to do
in reading Scripture is realize that we are listening in on a conversation
between the authors and an audience that is not us. That doesn’t mean it
doesn’t apply to us. Rather, it means that we can only apply it to ourselves
once we realize how it was intended to be applied by the writer in the context
of the lives of his audience.
A classic example of this is the
shocking remark of the crowd at the crucifixion that is recorded in Matthew
27:25: “His blood be on us and on our children!”
Matthew records this remark, not to declare the Jews “accursed” but to point
out a sort of divine pun.
The irony of these words is, of
course, that this is precisely the prayer of every Christian for himself. The
mob is not calling down a curse on Jews in Matthew. It is unconsciously
speaking prophetically, like Caiaphas when he says,
“It is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the
whole nation should not perish” (John 11:50). Matthew and his readers likewise
get the divine pun.
They see that what the mob
intended for evil, God has turned to good. Every time we approach the cup we
ask for his blood to be upon us. Every time we baptize our babies, we pray his
blood will be upon our children.
But if we are not familiar with
the way Matthew and his audience think, we can easily
begin to make the error of so many Christians who did not see the divine pun
and who therefore committed the heinous sin of pretending that “Jesus died
because of those Jews over there, not because of me.”
In doing so, we effectively deny
that Jesus died for our sins, a rather serious thing for a Christian to deny —
and far more culpable than the average non-Christian who knows nothing of Jesus
and comes no closer to knowing thanks to witless anti-Semites who heap the
blame on Jews while forgetting that it was their own sins that put Jesus on the
I mention this in order to impress
upon the reader the necessity of understanding how important it is that we
really grasp the original intent of the authors of Scripture.
Because the simple fact is, as the
Church teaches, that Scripture is the inspired word of God. What the authors
intended to affirm is what God himself intends to affirm, because the principal
Author of Scripture is not human beings, but the Holy Spirit.
When you are reading it, you are
literally reading the word of God. But because of that power, misunderstanding
it can also have immense consequences — as can ignoring it.
This involves Scripture in the
Incarnation, just as everything else pertaining to Christ is involved in the
Incarnation. That is, just as Christ is both God and Man, so Scripture is both
a book written by God and also the work of human beings.
For this reason, it is both
necessary and difficult for us to understand it. However, God has given us lots
and lots of tools for doing so.
In the next couple of weeks, I
intend to use this space to provide a few pointers on how to make use of the
single greatest theological resource we have: Scripture.
Mark Shea is senior content editor