“Thy word have I hid in my heart, that I might not sin against you.”
“Thy world have I hid in my heart, that I might not sin against it.”
We are reading Hebrews this week as a church and there's not way to read this beautiful book without running into one of the greatest verses on the power of the Word of God...
"For the Word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart." - Hebrews 4
We don't just read it, it reads us.
But that's not what I want to focus on in this bit of writing. I've been thinking about the Words we read in the Bible and how powerful they are. But there is more going on than just a collection of words. There are worlds being interacted with. Everybody is a world unto themselves. Every place has a world all its own. Every author is talking to an audience. They are coming from a world and speaking to a world. You can't dismiss this without gutting the gospel. I've known this, but only in the last couple years have I seen all that I missed when I overlooked the culture behind the Scripture. The culture and the Scripture must both be held highly and delicately.
What good is it to interpret Scripture if you misinterpret culture? You have the right words set in the wrong world. Background, context, storyline, timeline, characters and culture matter as much as the words penned to explain them. You can’t have rich theology without rich history.
We live in a Christian society that rewards incompetence and illiteracy. We market positive, family-friendly phrases. “Call upon the name of the Lord and you shall be saved.” There you have it, the one stop shopping network. It is accessible, memorable, and pleasurable. “I’ll take it! Now how much do I owe you?” This cheap theology gets distributed in bulk. Most of the time, people don’t care what something really means, they just want to suck on a pacifier.
But equally as important as what God said is where he said it and to whom he said it to. You can’t accurately represent someone if you don’t take those facts and facets into consideration. You can’t airbrush your own backdrop and handpick your own characters. No one has that freedom when it comes to the Bible. If you’re looking for a fictitious novel that invites your imaginative tampering, then hit the bookstore and find a New York Times bestseller. But leave the Scripture to speak for itself; it needs no facelift, it needs no editor. If you desire something more, go further in, not further out.
Even the word interpretation gives us too much room to make the improvements we deem necessary. “They won’t understand unless I rework this and reword that.” Language is lost. Settings are sterilized. Rome is traded for Raleigh. Jerusalem looks like Jacksonville. Palestine feels every bit like Pennsylvania. Aramaic turns into American. The Middle East takes on a Mid Western feel. What we call interpretation many times is nothing less than bible butchering. Words lose their meaning when they are ripped out of context and sold to the highest bidder.
Too often we have befriended the text and offended the context. We have made much of Scripture and very little of culture. We have embraced the modern and replaced the ancient. In our search for a truth that’s timeless, we have settled for a truth that’s worthless. The one-size-fits-all approach to studying the Scriptures leaves a good many wanting. It’s not that it doesn’t make sense; it makes too much sense. It’s not that it doesn’t connect, it’s that it connects too well. It’s not that it is too difficult, it’s that it’s not as difficult as it should be. Convenience never leads us to the truth and almost always to corruption. Yes, our faith has found a resting place, but it is just that rest that is starting to unnerve me. I think the hymn would be better phrased, “My faith has found a restlessness.”
So as we attempt to build bridges from The Middle East to the East Coast, let us not forget that we do our fellow man no favor by memorizing Scripture and trivializing culture. When we avoid culture, we start cults.
And as we recognize this, the Word of God comes to life, cuts like a double-edged sword. The sword of culture and scripture. The two edges are a powerful weapon in the hand of God.