Instead of dividing the bible in two parts, we’d be better off embracing the whole as a collection of sacred stories that shape our understanding and relationship with God and others. With that said, if we don’t take what’s been written in it seriously, there’s a good chance we’ll never truly know God, our neighbors, or who we are in the space between them.
So yes, we are a Bible-based church in that we use scripture to strengthen our faith. But we don’t just blindly accept it as historical doctrine. We wrestle and struggle with its content because we believe that’s how we grow closer to God and create stronger communities.
We may not take it literally, but take these words seriously, believing this collection of wisdom is a living, breathing map of life. One that guides us to become more righteous, not more religious. Let’s consider what Jesus had to say here in Matthew's Gospel.
I think most world religions could agree Jesus is an ideal model of someone who honors his religious tradition. Yet, he often opposes and ignores certain parts of Jewish scripture - the stuff that’s punitive, exclusive, and dogmatic. (Rohr)
Instead, Jesus spends his time focusing on the texts that bend toward inclusivity, mercy, and justice – the things, that according to the prophets, are the weightier matters to God. So, if Jesus isn’t a biblical literalist, what is he?
A favorite scholar of mine, Amy-Jill Levine, loves to say, “If Jesus came back today, he wouldn’t be found in the church.” I don’t think she’s insinuating that the Christian church has become void of Christ, although some might argue differently.
Instead, Levine is reminding us that Jesus was Jewish and will always be Jewish. His home is in the synagogues where most of our rites and rituals have also come from. Jesus was neither Catholic or Protestant. He was one of those people from the left side of the book.
Somewhere between Passover and Easter, Christianity snuck in the back door and claimed authority over our Jewish kin. This wasn’t a power grab based on the mystery of the resurrection, or Jesus’ miracles and healings.
According to Barbara Brown Taylor, a line was drawn over the authority of Jesus’ teaching, “which sounded more like God to some of his listeners than what they were hearing from God’s authorized spokespersons.”
She continues, “From the Sermon on the Mount to his teaching in the temple, Jesus said things that made people swoon – both with fervor and with disbelief – because he taught things contrary to Torah.”
Most scholars agree that Jesus only contradicted the oral interpretations of the Pharisees, not the written ones.
Whether or not that is true, his teaching with authority caused people to choose sides. You either “remain loyal to the word of God, through Moses, or believe that God was speaking a new and improved word through Jesus.”
As Matthew’s gospel points out, Jesus made it very clear he didn’t come to abolish the law and prophets, but to fulfill it. You see, “Jesus’ argument wasn’t with Torah, but with those who did not follow Torah.” (Taylor)
He was committed to the practice of righteousness. And challenged his followers to do the same. “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you’ll never enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Let that one sink in for a moment.
Jesus isn’t telling us to break from Judaism. He’s calling us “to become the most righteous Jews the world has ever seen.” We can’t do this by disregarding Torah or not abiding by what’s written in it. If we look to him as our Way, then we too must live out Torah his way.
Which makes me wonder why Christianity often dismisses or disregards it - calling it an “old” testament as if it is no longer relevant?
Sure, some of us make our kids memorize the 10 commandments, but how often do we take them seriously? Or the other 650 laws God gave us to help us live in a community of peace with one another? What about the ways God laid out a beautiful plan that cares for the poor, supports the widows and orphans, protects the aliens, and tends to the needs of the prisoner?
Are these parts of the Bible no longer applicable? I’m pretty sure my Jewish neighbors would disagree. “For them, as it has always been since those laws were handed down, Torah is the incarnation of God’s love for humankind. And an invitation to become holy, as God is holy.” (Taylor)
The words of Torah are the way of Jesus, the reason this church made it our goal to love God, love others and serve both.
Whether Jesus was divine or human, or both human and divine, is not the point. He is, as John boldly proclaimed, the Word of God - a title given to him because he lived out God’s word perfectly in the world.
He is the embodiment of Torah, bringing God’s love to life in the flesh. He, and only he, can claim authority because he lived Torah authentically and with authority. By this Jesus bridged the gap between our world and God’s – focusing on the bigger, weightier matters of life like justice, mercy, and faith.
It’s also worth noting that Jesus wrestled with the scriptures like we do. When he had to decide between ritual cleanliness or sharing a table with a known sinner, Jesus chose sharing the table.
When given the choice to heal a person with a withered hand or being obedient to Sabbath law, Jesus chose healing the withered hand. He brought God’s Word to life knowing love will always win.
Jesus can claim authority because he lived intentionally in the space between the spirit and the letter of God’s Word without removing one iota or dot. That’s what it’s all about, fulfilling God’s love and grace in the world; to bring to completion what God began at the beginning of time.
Again Taylor writes, “Jesus did this not by acting it out exactly as it was written on the page, but by acting like the one to whom all scripture pointed. He did it by acting as God’s Son.”
Jesus was, is, and will forever be the incarnation of God’s Word who fulfilled Torah with his life, his flesh and his blood. He promised those who follow him that they too could fulfill Torah as sons and daughters of God. The only way we can claim authority is by living our life like Jesus lived his.
So the best way I can answer the people who ask if we’re a bible-based church is to follow Jesus’ lead. He always invited people to come and see for themselves. And likewise, I answer by saying “Come and see.”
Come and see how we love God, love others, and serve both. Come and see how we follow the one who said, “They will know you belong to me by the way you love one another" (John 13:35).
Come and see how we share the gospel, less with words and more with simple deeds – feeding the hungry; sitting with someone who’s grieving; opening the doors of this holy space where God is always ready to welcome everyone with a hug.
The way I see it, all of scripture calls us to enter Anamesa, that space between us and them, as the living fulfillment of God’s love, mercy, and grace. This means being the salt of the earth, the light of the world just as Jesus was. And continues to do through us.
It’s not so much that Christians need interpreted the whole Bible “in the light of Jesus.” Instead, I think we’d do better to read each page with his light guiding us. If we can see scripture and the world it belongs to through his loving lens, then I believe we will exceed righteousness.
Whenever we do for the least of these who are unable to do for themselves, we make God’s Word come alive, again and again until all has been accomplished.
When we welcome, and love, and honor our neighbors – in the ways God has welcomed, loved and honored us – “then, and only then, will we truly know what the laws, the prophets, and the gospel are all about.”
When we live a life that mirrors Christ then and only then will others come to know what we’re truly all about.
Rohr, Richard. “The Jesus Hermeneutic,” The Mendicant 3, no. 3 (Fall 2013), 1.
Taylor, Barbara Brown. The Seeds of Heaven. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004) pp. 1-7.
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”