Can the Bible be authoritative in any other way than by commands? Can God exercise his rule over us – accomplish his purpose in our lives – in other ways than by commands or examples or inferences? Don’t get me wrong – the commands of God are authoritative. God must be obeyed. But is God through with us when we have done all his commands? I believe there is a deeper dimension to which he is seeking to take us than can be reached through commands alone.
The rule of God exercised through the Bible is manifested in many ways. In addition to the Bible operating through story as in the one thing we mentioned yesterday, there is the much broader concept of the Bible as story. From Genesis through Revelation, the Bible is one grand narrative of God and his creation. The narrative of Genesis 1:26-27 is a very small part of that comprehensive, overarching story that is the Bible.
No, it doesn’t read like a novel. But you can know that from the beginning to the end, everything is moving in a certain direction to a certain finale. The story consists of what God has done, is doing and will do in, through and for his creation – including man – especially man. Each man must identify with that story and live it out in his own life. That story is authoritative, not in the sense of identifying specific things that must be done, but in allowing God to accomplish his purpose for our lives as we live in the story. That purpose is the plot of the story. Unless we get the plot we won’t get the story.
This same thing is true as regards the church. We are “one new man” in Christ, the “body of Christ.” How else can we be these things other than by exhibiting the qualities we see in him as we “follow in his footsteps” living with him the livelong day? How much time do churches spend in close study of the four gospels? I don’t mean in a “Jesus went here, and he did that, at such and such a place,” as the little workbooks so often used by churches use approach Bible study. I mean really looking at the person whose image both individuals and the whole body of the redeemed are to take on. I believe it is because we are so focused on authority shown in commands that we pay little attention to the authority found in the story of the Savior when the commands are what might be called a “contributing side interest” in the story and not the focus of the story itself.
The Bible, taken as a whole, is the medium through which God accomplishes that purpose of restoring in us the image of God. We respect and cooperate with him in the accomplishment of his purpose by seeing our place in the story and living out his purpose in our lives. That is respecting his authority as it is mediated to us through the Bible. Our initial salvation – when we become a Christian – is a calling of us to participate in the story, to get caught up in it and live it out in our individual lives and in the collective life of the church.
We are powerfully affected by story. Think of how the cultural values that form our nation are taught. A nation, a culture, a people are influenced by the stories they tell and retell. Ancient people developed their sense of identity through story, told and retold, often and on many different occasions. They became people of the story, entering into it, being shaped by it, becoming what it meant to be part of whatever family, tribe or nation they belonged to. This brought cohesiveness and a sense of purpose to their lives. Today it is through books, movies, and music that our culture is shaped. Whoever tells the story is the one who determines the culture.
The Jews are a prime example of this very thing. Their sense of being God’s people, his distinct and special people, was planted in the hearts of the young and reaffirmed in the old by the telling of the story of God’s deliverance from Egypt and his leading them through the wilderness and into the promised land. The telling of this story is the heart of their observance of Passover. Even today that story is told during the Seder, the Passover meal.
“You shall tell your son on that day, saying, ‘It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.’” (Exodus 13:8)
You will notice that they were to put themselves into the story. “It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.’”.” That story was authoritative in that it molded their sense of who they were and informed their response to God. The exodus was not just something that happened in the past to people whom they just happened to be related. They became part of an ongoing story. This is much of the reason the Jews have maintained their separation and their unique identity to this day.
Even the observance of the Lord’s Supper is the retelling of the Christian’s controlling, authoritative story. If we observe the Lord’s Supper merely as a required ritual, we miss the power of this greatest of all stories. It is not just incidental that Jesus instituted the Supper during the Passover meal. The same element of telling a definitive story inheres in the observance of the Lord’s Supper as it had in the Passover.
Observed simply as obedience to a command it will not accomplish its intended purpose to transform us and draw us to Christ and together as a people devoted to God through the body and blood of our Redeemer. When we enter into the story, seeing ourselves as sharers together of the benefits and blessings of the Lord’s death, we take on the form of the body of Christ.
“The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” (1 Corinthians 10:16-17).
All the squabbles over when and how to observe the Lord’s Supper are based on a legalistic misunderstanding of the role the Supper is intended to play in the formation and transformation of the community of believers. If we were to practice all the supposed requirements from a legalistic point of view that could never accomplish what God intended because that approach just isn’t transformative. It results in outward conformity rather than inward transformation that produces in turn a real unifying effect upon the whole body of believers.
This is what the Corinthians had failed to see that had caused their abuse of the Lord’s Supper. Their failure was not that they were having a meal in association with the Lord’s Supper, but that they were dishonoring the poor among them (1 Cor. 11:22), not discerning the body (1 Cor. 1:29; 1 Cor. 10:16-17,) and not “waiting for one another” (1 Cor. 11:33). Whereas the Lord’s Supper was supposed to be a communion – a sharing together – binding their hearts in love through their “common union” with Christ, their failure to see that and “live within the story” was tearing the church apart!
Think of the observance of the Lord’s Supper in the way God taught the Jews to think about the Passover. Through the story of the Lord’s Supper, I am there at his crucifixion. I see him delivering me from my bondage to sin. I see his sacrificial love and it transforms me more powerfully than any superficial ritualistic observance could ever do. It binds me to all other believers because they, too, are with me at the cross, seeing him suffer and die for them as well and we sorrow together for our sins that put him there. But even as Christians partake, they know the “rest of the story.” They know the resurrection of the Lord will be soon and also that though he will go away, he will come again and our resurrection will be glorious because we will always be with him.
Instead of the perfunctory manner in which many churches observe without even a reading of our deliverance story, we should make the Supper the focus of our assemblies, telling and retelling our story in different ways and in this way make Christ the center of our assemblies.
Jesus used story as authority. Through the parables he taught the nature of the kingdom of God. When we live out the values of those stories they become authoritative to us. They shape and mold our understanding of what the kingdom is and how we are to relate to it. The story we call the parable of the prodigal son gives us a profound understanding of God’s love and grace toward man and therefore shapes our response to him and toward our fellow man, even – or maybe I should say especially – toward the wayward ones.
Even poetry is authoritative. The Song of Solomon was meant to be authoritative – meant to accomplish God’s purpose of teaching the beauty, purity and holiness of romantic love so as to transform those who read it. Meant for married people, this beautiful erotic poem, when read as it was meant to be – straight out for what it says – will totally reshape one’s thinking about God’s gift of sexuality and how it is to be enjoyed between husbands and wives. It will totally reshape a marriage along the lines of what God intended marriage to be. It is a shame it has been allegorized, ignored, hidden away and not taught because of the embarrassment of people who are more modest than God. When “God’s Marriage Manual” is not taught and people do not understand the beauty of God’s gift, it is no wonder even God’s people often are guilty of the sins of fornication, adultery, pornography and such like perversions. This is what happens when people have no sense of so wonderful a treasure they have – a treasure worth waiting for and too precious to abuse. I dare any husband and wife to read this poem together and stay out of each others arms!
The enjoyment of the gift of sexuality – not just in the sex act itself – but in the joy of the closest, most sensual kind of intimacy, is, in a manner of speaking, a return to Eden! It is going back to how God intended sexuality to work when he created Adam and Eve. To be restored to this ideal of relationship is really a facet of what salvation is all about – going back to God’s original intent for us as creatures made in his image.
If we approach this little poem in any other way, it either becomes an exercise in allegorizing assumption or to be read for titillating entertainment. The power of this poem could never have been conveyed by commands. As it is presented it reaches down deep within us and shows us what we are all longing for – what we are sorely needing in our lives – the intimacy of relationship that makes us complete. It shows us that the cheap thrill of casual sex is self-defeating because it is the using of another person for self gratification and can never reach the depth of fulfillment that rich, intimate, giving, romantic love can supply. It is a way in which we show and experience the image and glory of God in our lives. If that is not something sorely needed in this day, I don’t know what would be!
As powerful as story is, it cannot assure that it will have its intended effect on us unless we understand and accept the true – the whole story. We can nullify its power by not taking it as it really is. Take for example the Jews in Acts 7. Stephen told them their real story with all its unvarnished ugliness and they killed him for it. His version (the true version) was not what they wanted to hear. Their reaction only proved what Stephen accused them of. They had taken only the parts of the story they wanted to live in rather than taking the whole story and allowing it to change them.
Why do I cite these examples? I want us to understand that what God wants of us as his new creation is more than can be conveyed by just commands, examples and necessary inferences. Story can be – and is – authoritative. I want us to see that God exercises his transforming rule in our lives through story as well as in other ways.
What are other ways that God exercises his authority (rule) in our lives. How do we pull them all together to get a comprehensive look at the way that God exercises his rule? We can’t do that by imposing a simplistic one-size-fits-all formula as a lens to discover all truth and its authority. We can only do that by taking a holistic approach to understanding authority and how it operates in our lives and in the community of believers.
More tomorrow …