Last week, we looked at a popular passage from 2 Timothy 3:
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
2 Tim 3:16-17 NIV
As famous as this passage is, it raises numerous questions for a careful reader. Today I’d like to look another problematic dimension of Paul’s teaching.
Problem – “All Scripture” does seem to be “useful.”
Paul insists that “all Scripture” (the Old and New Testament) is “useful.” It’s true—there are many ways that the Bible is offers spiritual wisdom and even practical guidance. There are so many wonderful lessons to be found. Just a few examples from the Old Testament:
- How to honor God. (Exodus 20:2-17)
- How to respect the elderly. (Lev. 19:32)
- How to treat foreigners. (Lev. 19:33-34)
However, if you’ve read the entire Bible, particularly the Old Testament, you know that Paul’s teaching is not as straightforward as it may first appear. Among the “how tos” above, we also learn:
- How to attack hostile towns and enslave the residents. (Deut. 20:10-11)
- What do with the wives and children of those you kill in battle. (Deut. 20:13-14)
- Where to dig an outhouse. (Deut. 23:12-13)
- What not to do if your husband gets in a fistfight. (Deut. 25:11-12)
These texts describe things that are so foreign and morally problematic to modern sensibilities that we’d understandably ask how such material could be useful, much less God’s Word. Frankly some of these examples pale in comparison to texts like Judges 11, 19-21, Ezekiel 16 and 23. I’d be shocked if you’ve ever heard a sermon on these passages before.
Yet, Paul, under the Spirit’s direction tells us that all Scripture is useful. But how?! Briefly, I’d like to offer some perspective on how we can approach certain parts of the Bible that we’d just as soon avoid or maybe wish weren’t even there. (Read some of the texts I shared, and you’ll see what I mean.)
- Share your feelings with God about his Word. God knows what is in his Word. He also knows that we will struggle with it. Instead of trying to avoid these challenges, why not bring them to God? I spent some time in the difficult texts I shared with you this week. I hope it’s okay admitting that I needed to take a walk to process some of the disturbing stories I read. I found myself asking God, why are there stories here? How do they help me know you more? How can I reconcile certain texts with the example of Jesus of Nazareth? Prayer (even lament) is a good first step when we encounter problematic portions of Scripture. Don’t worry—God can handle it!
- Certain parts of the Bible teach what not to do. There are many lessons to be learned in the Bible that are taught through contrast. For example, King David commits adultery and murder, yet at no point does the narrator imply that we are to blindly imitate David’s behavior. (For those of you who are getting ahead of me, 1 Samuel 13:14 and Acts 13:22 are not intended to offer David a free pass.) In fact, David’s own story provides the commentary. Though David is used by God, he experiences incredible pain due to his sin. The Bible is replete with examples of God using human brokenness, yet he still commands us to, “be holy, for I am holy.”
- God’s commands in the Old Testament are not all meant to be normative. In the Old Testament, there are many examples of Yahweh commanding his people to do things that seem wrong to us. The book of Joshua is probably the best example. God commands Israel to displace the people of Canaan using brutal violence. These commands seem wrong to us because they are wrong for us! These passages are difficult to process and any conclusions we may come to will never be easy. However, we would be in grave error to assume that a temporal command to Israel would serve as justification for modern-day violence or dispossession.
- Struggling with Scripture is useful in and of itself. If we assume that the Bible is useful in the same way that a manual or self-help book might be, have failed before we have begun. The literal translation of “helpful” in 2 Timothy 3 is “profitable” which may be the better word for our discussion. When Paul says that the Bible is “profitable,” I think we can take this to mean that whenever we come to Scripture, something will happen in/to us that is for our good. For example, nothing in Judges 19-21 was helpful to me in the usual sense of the word. However, it was profitable. How? First, I was faithful in studying God’s Word. Second, I was moved (even negatively) by what I read. Third, I spent time in thoughtful study, learning from other faithful Christians who have struggled just like me. And most importantly, I was moved to bring my questions and sorrow to my Heavenly Father.
I will leave you with some words from Matthew Schlimm on the Old Testament:
Rabbinic writings say that with the Torah, readers should “turn it this way, turn it that way, everything is in it; keep your eye on it, grow old and aged over it, and from it do not stir—for you have no better portion than it.” In other words, some passages seem at first to have little to offer. Yet we should stick with them, turning them to different angles, considering them in different lights, reading and rereading them slowly… It’s the questions and mysteries we return to time and again that have a much deeper impact on our lives. Reading slowly leads to personal transformation.
All Scripture is for our good.