How (Not) to Read the Bible
We’re going to begin today with a little announcement about our community groups.
Our community groups meet during the week at nine different locations to go back over what we’ve seen on Sunday and to help one another, in a more personal way, apply what we saw to our lives, to see how we can live out these things together, as a group.
Up until now, we’ve kept to a very simple format: we read last Sunday’s text together, then go over some study questions, to remember what we saw, then we ask some discussion questions to apply it. We pray together, we talk about other things, we get to know each other.
But the more time has gone by, the more we’ve felt the need to change things a bit. Most people, when they come to listen to a sermon on Sunday, practice what you could call passive listening. They don’t do any preparation beforehand; they sit down; they listen; and they simply absorb what is said.
The problem is, as I’m sure you’ve often experienced, if you try to recall on Sunday night what we saw on Sunday morning, often it’s hard to remember. When you listen passively, you simply aren’t as engaged with the text as you would be if you had been properly prepared.
So we’ve decided to change things up a bit in our community groups. Starting this week, we will be asking ourselves study questions, not on the text we saw last week, but on the text we’re going to see on Sunday. (We’ve been doing it this way for the last three weeks in my community group, as a test, so this past week we asked study questions for the text I’m about to preach on today.)
The big advantage to this is that it enables us to listen actively. When you come to a sermon prepared for what you’re about to hear, you listen in a very different way. Your attention is more engaged; you remember better what was said; you can better see the stakes when it comes to applying these things to your life. And, eventually, you learn how to better read and study your Bible on your own, when it’s just you and God.
I’m telling you this because the simple question of how to read your Bible is at the heart of our text today.
If you remember, the story of the Bible is one story, split up into two parts. In the first part, the Old Testament, we see God promise to live with his people as their God and King. He reigns as King through the kings of Israel (like King David), who were his representatives; and he reigns as God through his presence inhabiting the temple.
But both the monarchy and the priesthood in Israel fail in their tasks: the kingdom is split, the people are exiled into foreign countries, and even after their return from exile, the monarchy is broken, and God’s presence doesn’t return to the temple.
But through his prophets, God promised to bring his presence and his reign back to his people. And he would do it, he said, through a figure called the Messiah, or the Christ.
The big question was, how would this Messiah come, and what would he look like?
The people had some ideas.
The promises of the Old Testament said that this Messiah would be a descendant of King David. In Isaiah 9, for example, we find one of the most famous prophecies concerning the Messiah, and Isaiah says (v. 7):
Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom.
Everyone knew these promises. Everyone knew that God promised a Messiah to his people, and everyone knew that this Messiah would come from the family of David. This was common knowledge.
The funny thing is, David himself wrote about the Messiah to come.
The most famous of his Messianic psalms—the one most often quoted in the New Testament—is Psalm 110. Let’s read the first four verses of that psalm, just to get our bearings:
1 The Lord says to my Lord:
“Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.”
2 The Lord sends forth from Zion
your mighty scepter.
Rule in the midst of your enemies!
3 Your people will offer themselves freely
on the day of your power,
in holy garments;
from the womb of the morning,
the dew of your youth will be yours.
4 The Lord has sworn
and will not change his mind,
“You are a priest forever
after the order of Melchizedek.”
Now obviously, the word “Messiah” never shows up here. But what we see is the prophecy of a future King, whose reign will come not just because of his family, but because God himself made him King. The Lord sends the king’s scepter and tells him to rule in the midst of his enemies.
In addition, David describes this King as not just a King, but a priest. V. 4: You are a priest forever...
So David’s saying that this Messiah wouldn’t only be King; he would be a priest of God, chosen and equipped by God to fulfill that function, and he would reign as priest and king forever.
God had promised to send a Messiah; this Messiah would be of the family of David; he would be not just a king, but a priest-king, chosen and sent by God himself. All of this information was constant in the minds of the Jews at the time of Jesus.
So you can see why the religious authorities were in such a twist over Jesus at this point in our text.
In chapter 19 of the gospel of Luke, Jesus enters Jerusalem as King of God’s people, and begins exercising his authority as King of God’s people. This, of course, freaks out the religious authorities, who want to maintain their control over the religious life of the people.
So in chapter 20, they begin to challenge Jesus’s authority. They try to show that he is not the King everyone says he is, the King he seems to suggest he is.
They come after him with three separate attacks. First, they directly question his authority. When that doesn’t work, they ask him a moral question about where the loyalty of God’s people should lie—in the government, or in God. When that doesn’t work, they put him before a theological puzzle, hoping to trap him in an indefensible position.
To every attack, Jesus responds calmly and efficiently: the religious authorities can mount any verbal attack they want, and it always just slides right off, like water off a duck’s back.
And they come to a point (we see in v. 40) where they no longer dare ask him any questions, because he keeps showing them up.
But that doesn’t mean Jesus is finished with them.
This passage is the climax of chapter 20—after the incessant challenges from the religious authorities, Jesus gives a challenge of his own.
And it shouldn’t be surprising that when Jesus gives a challenge of his own, it’s a very tough nut to crack.
Jesus’s Challenge (v. 41-44)
41 But he said to them, “How can they say that the Christ is David’s son? 42 For David himself says in the Book of Psalms,
“ ‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
43 until I make your enemies your footstool.” ’
44 David thus calls him Lord, so how is he his son?”
Jesus’s challenge hinges on two important facts.
The first was the language of Psalm 110. The first “Lord” in Psalm 110.1 (and Luke 20.42) is a translation of the Hebrew word “Yahweh”—meaning, God himself. The term “my Lord” in the same verse was commonly understood to refer to the Messiah.
Literally, David is saying, “Yahweh [God] says to my Messiah: ‘Sit at my right hand...’”
The second reality to keep in mind is that in that culture, at that time, no father would revere his own son. In fact, it was quite the other way around. The Hebrew society was profoundly patriarchal: fathers did not submit to their sons; sons submitted to their fathers.
So that’s a problem for Psalm 110. Everyone knew the Messiah (or “the Christ”—literally, “Christ” is not a name, but a title meaning “Messiah”) was to be a descendant of David; and yet, David calls him “Lord.” How could David call his descendant “Lord,” when by all rights, if the two should ever meet, it should be the other way around?
If you think about it, you can see why that’s odd.
Imagine I’m walking down the street with my seven-year-old son, and someone decides to mug us. Jack’s a tall kid, but he still only comes up to my elbows; he weighs about sixty pounds soaking wet. So imagine we get mugged, and I shrink down behind Jack, saying, “Jack, save me!”
Unless Jack’s a boy superhero, that’s completely backwards thinking. I’M the dad here; I should be the one to save him.
In the patriarchal culture of the Jews, what David said is backwards in a similar way. David isn’t just prophesying that the Messiah would come from his family or his lineage; he is saying that the Messiah to come will be his Messiah. David’s not just reassuring the people of Israel that the Messiah is coming to save them; he himself is looking forward to the day when the Messiah will save him, to rule as his King.
So Jesus’s simple question is, “How can this be?” Why does David talk like this?
There is no record in any of the gospels of Jesus ever explaining the answer to the religious authorities. But we know the answer, because of what we see in the rest of the Bible.
First, by birth, God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, became a human being, Jesus, and was born into the family of David. He literally became a descendant of David.
And second, through his finished work, he became David’s “my Lord.” He lived, died, was raised from the dead, glorified. He ascended into heaven, and took his throne at the right hand of God.
Remember how I said my expecting Jack to save me would be backwards unless he was a superhero?
David’s calling his descendant “my Lord” would be backwards…if the descendant in question were just an ordinary man.
But Jesus isn’t just an ordinary man. He is “the Christ.” He is the Messiah the prophets had spoken of.
And it would have been obvious to anyone watching, if they had had eyes to see. The prophets said time and again that the Messiah wouldbe a humble servant who cared for his people—exactly the kind of servant Jesus proved himself to be.
Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
2 He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
3 a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
4 He will not grow faint or be discouraged
till he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his law.
The Messiah would be a suffering servant, who would bear the punishment of his enemies—exactly what Jesus would soon become.
…he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
4 Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
This is the fact that every religious leader had missed. And they missed it because, quite simply, they were reading their Bibles wrongly.
When they read the prophecies of the Messiah, they interpreted those prophecies through the lens of what they wanted. They wanted to be a powerful nation. They wanted to be free from foreign occupation. They wanted to maintain their religious traditions.
And what is the answer to all of those desires? What do most nations do when they want those things? They hope for, or they vote for, someone they see as a powerful political leader.
In other words, the religious authorities read the Bible through the lens of their own political aspirations for their nation. They wanted to be free and independent and powerful, so when God promised to send a Messiah to set them free, they thought, Of course the Messiah will be just the kind of leader we’ve been hoping for! A warrior; a gifted politician; a skilled leader.
Now of course, those desires—to be a powerful, independent nation, free from foreign occupation—are not bad in and of themselves. The problem wasn’t what they wanted.
The problem was that what they allowed their reading of the Bible to be shaped by those desires, rather than letting the Bible shape their idea of what they should desire.
We do this all the time. Naturally, we come to the Bible like some kind of divine vending machine (“I’ll take a Mars Bar, and a Snickers, and a Twix… But no, I hate Bounty, I’ll leave that there”). We want something, and so when we read the Bible—surprise, surprise!—we find God promising exactly what we want!
We come to the Bible with our desires for happiness or prosperity or comfort or peace, and we want these things so badly that we suffer a kind of selective myopia when we read the Bible. We’ll see promises of all these good things—which are in the Bible—and we’ll conveniently skip over the suffering and the toil that await us before we get there.
It is a dangerous thing to come to the Bible with a fixed idea of what you want, rather than letting the Bible teach you what you should want.
And that is the mistake these religious leaders made. What they wanted—this powerful political leader—was never how God intended to set his people free. And if they had read the Bible for what it was, they would have seen that.
They would have seen the Messiah would not appear powerful, but humble; that he take his place through what seemed like defeat.
Or, to put it another way—David said, “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’”
How would the Messiah “make his enemies his footstool”? He would let himself be killed by them. He would suffer at their hands, for the sin of his people. Just like Isaiah said.
But the authorities can’t see that, because they think they already know all they need to know. They spent their lives reading Scripture, so of course they knew how to read it. They weren’t going to be told differently by this carpenter from Nazareth.
So Jesus leaves them there. He doesn’t give them an answer to his question. He doesn’t explain how the Christ could be both David’s descendant and David’s Lord.
He shouldn’t have to—if they really knew the Word of God, if they had read the Word of God for what it was, rather than for what they wanted, they would have known the answer to his question.
And that is what Jesus was really trying to show here. His main goal wasn’t to solve a theological riddle about the Messiah.
His main goal was to show that the religious authorities have a knowledge of Scripture that is fundamentally wrong. That they don’t know the Scriptures they claim to know.
They may know the stories, they may have the entire thing memorized…
But they don’t know it, not in their hearts, where knowing is conviction. They have read the Scriptures, but they have never seen them with spiritual eyes. Their knowledge is false knowledge.
And in the next verses, v. 45-47, Jesus will give the people visible proof of that fact.
Proof of False Knowledge (v. 45-47)
45 And in the hearing of all the people he said to his disciples, 46 “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, 47 who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
So what he’s saying can be summed up in one sentence: if we have a true, right knowledge of God’s Word, it will show. Knowing the Bible rightly doesn’t just fill our heads with information; it changes us, and that change is visible.
By the same token, false knowledge of the Bible changes us too, but not for the better.
Jesus points out “the scribes”, those men who claim to have detailed and comprehensive knowledge of the Scriptures. And he tells the people to beware of them.
He warns them of the pride of the scribes.
You could always recognize a scribe because of their white robes with long fringes—they always dressed to be recognized. People revered them, never neglecting to greet them in public as “Rabbi” or “teacher” or “master”. When they went to the synagogue they sat in the place of ultimate honor, facing the people, with their backs against the chest holding the Torah. When rich people held feasts, they always invited a scribe or two to come; it was a badge of honor for that household.
In other words, they did what they did to be seen and admired by others. They used their “superior” knowledge of Scripture to massage their own egos.
Jesus warns of their greed. They “devour widows’ houses”, he says in v. 47. The scribes were specialists of the Law of Moses, which made them almost like judges who interpreted the law for others. If you remember what we saw last week, women had rights only insofar as their husbands had rights. So a widow would find herself in a particularly precarious situation.
The scribes would offer legal aid to widows…but they required payment for their services. Doing such a thing was not allowed under the law, but these were the specialists of the law—so how could you argue with them? To line their own pockets, they took advantage of women who couldn’t resist their help, because they needed it.
Jesus warns of their hypocrisy. They would pray long and eloquent prayers because it was an easy way to display their knowledge, and make people think they were holy, pious men. But they did it “for a pretense” (v. 47b). They didn’t actually care about what they were saying; all the time they prayed their prayers, they were well aware that this prayer was making them look really good. And they milked it for all they could.
What Jesus is saying here is shocking, especially for us, living in the 21st-century West, when “not judging” others is the seen as the height of virtue.
Jesus is speaking to a crowd of people here, among whom are at least some of these religious authorities, some of these scribes.
And he tells the people, “Here’s whom you should beware of, and here’s how you will recognize them.”
He’s saying that you will be able to see a person’s spiritual state on the outside. You’ll be able to see to see outward proof of what’s going on in their hearts, of whether or not they actually understand the Word of God as well as they say.
He’s not telling them this so that they might be prejudiced against religious leaders; not all scribes were this way, as we see in the gospels; some of them did humbly listen to Jesus’s teaching. He’s not telling them this so that they might condemn other people based on a subjective idea of their character.
He’s telling them what will characterize someone with a false knowledge of Scripture, that the people might stay safe. That they might beware. That they might not fall in with these men who will receive a greater condemnation.
You see, it’s not just about who you are; it’s about whom you follow. Make no mistake, we all follow someone. We all learn from someone. We all look up to someone.
It’s the way we were created. God created us for community—to live in community, to grow in community, to learn from one another in community. And we naturally tend to want to follow those people who are impressive, who are eloquent, who can explain things to us, who have answers to our questions.
The problem is that we don’t just learn from what we hear; we learn from what we see. Loanne and I have often talked about how, several years ago, Philip and Rachel Moore took us under their wing. We learned as much, if not more, from Philip and Rachel by watching them as we did from listening to them. Sometimes we’d talk doctrine, sure—but mostly, we watched how they talked to each other. We watched how they were with their kids. We observed their interactions with other people. We saw what Christian life looks like in practice.
The simple fact of the matter is that some people are worth following, and others aren’t—even within the church. These people Jesus warned against were the leaders—the best of the best.
And yet, he said, look at their lives. Look at the way they conduct themselves. Look at why they do what they do, and you’ll see that they aren’t the kind of people you’ll want to imitate.
And that fact should make you question the things they say.
When reading this text, it’s hard not to wonder, How did these religious leaders, these scribes, get it all so wrong? What caused them to so badly misinterpret the Bible? What made them so prideful? We want to know, because we want to know how to avoid making the same mistakes—and if these men, who literally memorized the Bible word for word, screwed it up this badly, what hope do we have?
These religious leaders so badly misunderstood the Scriptures because they came to it with an agenda—with a preconceived idea of what they wanted to get out of it. But the Bible isn’t meant primarily to give us the things we’re looking for.
What is the Bible, really? Why do we read it?
To know how to manage a church? To find out how to live ethically? To find out how to have happy marriages? To learn what not to do, by seeing others’ mistakes?
We find all of these things—and far more—in the Bible. But we don’t read the Bible mainly to learn these things.
We read the Bible to meet the one true God, in the person of Jesus Christ.
That’s the whole point, and the only point, every time we open the Bible; everything else is a happy side effect.
The Bible is the Word of God; it is, today, the main way in which God discloses himself to his people, by his Spirit. The Bible is how we know who God is, and why he is good, and what he is like, and what he desires, and what he loves.
Knowing him is the goal, every time we open the Word.
We may not get everything right, every time. We still have some hard thinking to do when we read the Bible, and thankfully we have two thousand years of Christian thinkers, and the community of the church, to help keep us on track. But if we come to the Bible with the primary goal of knowing our God, with the help of the Holy Spirit and the help of our brothers and sisters, we’ll get it right more often than not.
So when you come to the Bible, do it for the right reason.
Don’t go to the Bible to “get a blessing.”
Don’t go to the Bible to justify your own opinion.
Don’t go to the Bible to find reasons to complain about someone else's sin.
Don’t go to the Bible to feel better about your own sin. (Habitual sinners love reading passages about God’s grace, like Romans 8, but they always manage to forget passages like Hebrews 12.14, which tells us to strive for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. God’s grace drives us to fight our sin, not to excuse it.)
Don’t come to the Bible to get what you want; rather, come to the Bible to meet your God. To hear his voice. To learn his will and his plan for the world he created. To see his glory. And let that vision of the God who created you, who loved you, who saved you, and who redeemed you teach you what you should desire. Let the God you meet in the Bible shape your hearts and loves and desires.
He decides how we can be saved.
He decides what is right and what is sin.
He decides what is worthy of being admired, what is worthy of being desires.
Come to the Bible for what it is, and take the God you find there as he is. Because I guarantee you, God as he is is infinitely better than God as you want him to be.
We have a Savior, a Messiah, who is not a military or political leader, but a humble servant, who gave his life for his enemies. He saved us out of sin, that we might grow into a global family of brothers and sisters who help one another grow in him.
He is the goal of every Scripture, the fulfillment of every promise. So let us be, and let us surround ourselves with, people who come to Scripture to see him. Who help one another live in his image. Who are constantly awed before the glory we find in him, each time we open our Bibles.