Writing completely changed the human race — in fact it is one of three turning points that are often pointed to in the long story of the human race on the earth. Before writing everything is vague; writing ushered in a whole new way of thinking. Though it took about one thousand years, by 2000 bc, a new kind of elite has developed — those who could read and write. They could record and read what happened; now rulers could compare their accomplishments to previous rulers. Religions could trace their development. Various subjects could be thought through as philosophers and physicians could record what they thought and future generations could compare and build on it.
That one ability — the ability to read and write — bore its rich fruit for 3,500 years, from about 2000 bc until about 1500 ad, just five-hundred years ago. Then a second, world-shaking invention changed everything. That was in the invention and wide-spread use of the printing press. With printing, reading and writing could no longer be limited to a class of learned people. Now it became available to everyone and the growth and development of human life and culture exploded. Now, anyone could learn to read and they could think for themselves. They could reason their way through written materials and develop in a variety of ways. We are the heirs of that explosion — world culture as we know it now has developed from the printing press.
Many people believe that we are experiencing a third world-shaping invention — the computer. The computer can mix print (words) with pictures in such a way as to completely re-shape civilization. Books, in print on paper, are no longer necessary. Words are still important but in many ways can be either supplemented by or replaced by pictures. For example, why read through a description of how to bake a cake when someone can show you on YouTube? Why get out a map and labor through visually seeing the route when someone can speak to you and tell you where to turn?
I want to ask this morning, what does that mean for Christian faith? What place should the printed Bible (a big book with no pictures) have in our thinking when we have so many aids to help us visualize and understand the Bible? If someone who is more intelligent than we are and knows more about culture and history can tell us about the Bible on YouTube, that better than laboring through it ourselves?
Mary Kay just read to us an extremely important passage of the Bible — in an event of central significance in the Old Testament: the people of God stood at the base of a mountain in what is now the Sinai Peninsula, and they were called into a covenant with God. This may seem far away and long ago to us, but we are the heirs of those who stood there and trembled when they heard the law. They were the people of God in our childhood being introduced to relationship with God through a covenant which God initiated. We are the people of God in adulthood (as sons and daughters) through a covenant which God initiated in Jesus.
(Then) God called them into covenant with himself. They prepared for the establishment of the relationship. Moses went up on the mountain and God gave the covenant standards, verbally, audibly — the Ten Commandments, which Moses later was given from God’s hand written on two tablets of stone. The people were so frightened that they begged Moses alone to hear the voice of God.
(Now) That experience formed the basis of what we are today as God’s people. What happened in that passage is paralleled in the experience of the new covenant. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus went up on a mountain (like Moses) and sat down and gave his law, the authentic, heart-penetrating exposition of the Ten Commandments that forms the basis of the new covenant.
So it is incredibly significant to ponder this event — is compared and contrasted throughout the Bible with Jesus Christ and what we possess today.
But I want to focus on one aspect of this passage because it relates to our subject this morning. We call it the second commandment—Exodus 20.4–6. Look at Exodus 20:
First, the introduction:
1And God spoke all these words, saying,Then the prologue to the Ten Commandments, reminding the people of who is calling them into covenant with himself:
2“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
Then the first command, the demand for exclusive devotion to the Lord:
3“You shall have no other gods before me.
And now, the second command, the second longest of all ten:
4“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
In order to carefully note what is being forbidden here, the two sentences must be taken together: You shall not make an image of anything (v 4) to use as a means of worshiping God (vv 5–6). Israel made statues and pictures in the subsequent history; some of them, like the cherubim over the mercy seat, were commanded by God. What was forbidden was any physical representation of God or spiritual things which are treated as holding God or of being a window into the presence of God — that is forbidden.
The reason for this command is two-fold. First, any time you try to “image” God you reduce his majesty. If I gave you each a piece of bubble gum and said, “Chew this up and get it good and pliable; now let’s all take our bubble gum and fashion it into a miniature replica of what we think God is like.” You would say, “That ludicrous — how could the majesty of the all-powerful, all-knowing, creator-God ever be imaged in a piece of chewing gum? And that’s the point. God, as he reveals himself in his word, is far too great to ever be reduced to visible representation.
And, second and along with that, any time you “image” God, you reduce him to manageable form. That’s the whole point of idolatry — you make an image of God which brings him into your presence. In some forms of idolatry, the god actually is present in the image you put before you; in others, the image effectively represents God and allows you to come into his presence. As long as he carries his god with him the worshiper has control.
And those ideas weren’t simply common in the ancient world — they were universal. No one conceived of an unseen, eternal spirit, who was free from human control. No one thought God was unconnected to the major functions of life—birth and death; everyone saw him as responsive to fertility rituals or sympathetic magic or the like, because they assumed God was tied to these deep and mysterious concerns of human existence.
When those people stood at the base of Mount Sinai, these words were an unbelievable demand — no images of God, no pictures, paintings, statues small or large to bring God close to you, right into your home. Only words — like the Ten Commandments, first chiseled on stone and then written in ink, dried on a piece of paper. That’s all. This commandment required that these people become completely counter-cultural. Talk about not being like your neighbors!
In fact, later, when Moses was preparing the people to enter the Promised Land, God gave them a little more information about how to apply this:
1“These are the statutes and rules that you shall be careful to do in the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, has given you to possess, call the days that you live on the earth. 2You shall surely destroy all the places where the nations whom you shall dispossess served their gods, on the high mountains and on the hills and under every green tree. 3You shall tear down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and burn their Asherim with fire. You shall chop down the carved images of their gods and destroy their name out of that place. 4You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way” (Deuteronomy 12.1–4).
And so, God’s people became “the people of the book.” This required that everyone learned to read and so it became a custom that the local priest would teach the children of the town to read and write the law from earliest times. This is why, about two hundred years later (in 1300 bc) during a time of conflict, Gideon captured a young man from a small city in Israel and questioned him. And we are told:
“…he wrote down for him the officials and elders of Succoth, seventy-seven men” (Judges 8.14).
Why do you think it is that the Jewish people are disproportionally represented among the Nobel laureates, or on university faculty, and so forth. They come from a culture that has taken this seriously for three-thousand years!
I’ve belabored getting to my point: Because God chose to reveal himself and his plans in words — rather than in pictures, symbols, or statues — we must read the Bible carefully, thoroughly and responsively.
Let me just underline this one more time! God could have given Israel the permission to make statues and paintings that represented their greatest historical events — a miniature sea with people look back as the water drowned the Egyptian army, a picture of a burning mountain for Sinai, a lamb being slain outside a home for the Passover and so on. Each of the physical representations could have been a visual way to put yourself right there when God was evidently at work, a way for the generations to identify with God’s saving acts.
But he didn’t. He forbid physical representations as windows into his presence, as means of worship. And he shut us up to the word of God as the only source of our clear knowledge about him. Jesus asked the Father on behalf of his followers: “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.” He invites us to come to the Father in our spirit, through the Spirit of the Father and armed only with what the word of God tells us, and tells us we will be received.
Remember this word came to us in our childhood at Sinai as a demand that was difficult to apply. It was completely against everything the world thought. We live in a world that is rapidly changing — but this doesn’t change. We are confined to get our knowledge of God from his word.
So here’s what we need to know: We must read God’s word carefully, thoroughly, and responsively.
Carefully. I have come to the conclusion that reading is the key that unlocks the Bible. The advent of the television in the 1950’s marked the turning point when, for the first time since about 1500, the reading level began to decline; the computer has accelerated that. In the last one hundred years, the English language has simplified, the active vocabulary has become much smaller. The end result is that most people aren’t reading at the level of a generation ago.
Now, I’m not content to say that the answer is we should use translations of the Bible that are written at a lower reading level to accommodate people reading level. Here’s why: No study has ever demonstrated that providing a Bible at a lower reading level causes people to read the Bible more.
I have no problem with lower reading level Bibles. In fact, the difficulty of translating the Bible is that, in the original languages there are whole books that are written at a four grade reading level (the Gospel of John, for example) and whole books that are written at a very high reading level, like twelfth grade (Ecclesiastes in the New Testament or Hebrews in the New Testament). It would be difficult to translate the Bible exactly as it was written. But I think it’s hard to translate something written at a twelfth grade level at a fourth grade level.
To read the Bible carefully means, first of all, to read it. Reading is like a muscle — the more you use it the stronger it becomes. My plea is that, if God has truly shut ourselves up to this book, we need to read it.
For a little of the levels of reading and how they apply to the Bible, see the paper I wrote a few years ago called, “Reading the Bible with Mind & Heart.” It is on the Resource Wall in the South Wing and also can be printed off of the church website under the Resources tab.
Thoroughly. We should read the whole Bible. From beginning to end.
I encourage people to start with the New Testament because that is the part of the Bible that is most immediately relevant to us as Christians. It is about the new covenant, under which our relationship with God is now experienced. However, you will find if you read through the New Testament that you need to read the Old Testament. I believe the Old Testament and the New Testament together constitute God’s single revelation. They form one storyline and one is incomplete without the other.
Granted, reading the Old Testament raises all kinds of questions about, “How does this relate to the New Testament? Am I supposed to do these things that Noah was commanded? Or Abraham? Or Moses?” The simple answer is “Yes” and “No.” And the only way to put it together is to read it and grapple with those questions.
But let me tell a story of two different men who attended our church—one was early in our history, one later. They never met each other. Both came with their wives originally and they made it clear to me, “I’m here for the family. I’m not interested in this religion thing.” In both cases I met with them personally and was able to talk to them about faith in Christ and encourage them to read the Bible. In both cases they told me they weren’t big readers. And, in both cases I gave them a Bible to read. Early on in the church’s history I was given a case of Bibles from the Gideons — these Bibles were not in the most readable version though it wasn’t too difficult but they were printed in a way that I felt made it more difficult to read. Everything was in bold print and each verse was separate so the very appearance I thought might be a little off-putting to someone who didn’t read a lot.
But both of them went home and did what I suggested. (Can you believe it!) In the next year, each one read through the entire Bible! And, to tie them together even more, at some point they asked to meet with me and they brought a written list of questions they had from what they read. Both became Christians, were baptized, and began following the Lord. One moved away and I don’t have contact with him; the other is still a part of the church.
Reading the Bible has little to do with level of education or reading ability — it has a great deal to do with conviction that it is important. And the whole Bible is important, every part. Yes, some are more relevant to our present situation but even those are shaped by everything that went before.
Carefully. Thoroughly. And, lastly, Responsively. I’m not encouraging you to read the Bible because it shaped western civilization or it’s an important book to have some knowledge of. You should read it because tells us what God wants us to know in order to make our way through this world that he created.
Consider a young man, twenty-five, who meets a girl through his work. He has taken her out a couple of times and at the end of the second date, he tells that he is interested in her, he likes her, and would like to develop their relationship and see where it goes. The next time she sees him in the office she gives him an envelope with a note in it.
Before he opens it, he asks himself what it means. Most people don’t give written notes any more. Is this an easy way to let him down without having to face him or speak to him directly? He opens it and takes out the note...and he reads it. He doesn’t ask himself, “How can I be sure I understand and apply this note correctly?” All he does is to read it. But how he reads it will make a great difference. He “automatically” goes through a number of steps in the following order:
· He glances at the whole email to see how long it is—he sees that it is more than a sentence, two paragraphs, in fact (that’s good) She opens “Dear James” — hmmm. That’s better than not having the word “dear” but maybe it’s just perfunctory. He looks at the end to see how she closes—“thank you” it says—not sure what that means. But she signs her name. Neutral so far!
· Now, he skims through the letter to try to quickly determine if it will make him happy or sad— is she turning him down or responding to his desire to get to know her? Does she share his feelings or is she standoffish?
· And it’s positive! So now he reads it more carefully, pondering each line as he reads that she “appreciates” his interest, she “looks forward” to getting to know him, and she “hopes” he’ll call her soon. And “thank you” doesn’t mean “thank you for not bothering me anymore” but “thank you for letting me know how you feel.”
· Later, before he goes to bed, he reads and re-reads the note savoring each line and meditating on the words and phrases.
The Bible is a love letter from God to us. The storyline is the story of our rebellion and God’s relentless plan to call a people to himself. Unlike two paragraphs from a young woman, it is a long, complex, endlessly fascinating story of God’s love that invites us to put ourselves into. But like the young man we have to read — from the skimming that helps us try to understand the content of Old Testament and New Testament, to the careful reading of trying to take in each word and see how it builds the whole, with the heartfelt desire to reflect on it and make it our own. That’s what we, as Christians should do with our Bible.