1. A Difficult Book
Without a doubt, one of the most difficult books to read is the Bible. Whilst others books can be picked up and easily read from cover to cover, for most of us, that is not true of the Bible.
For example, the Old Testament tells the story of God’s people over several thousand years. But if you try to read it like a novel, then there are a few snags for the uninitiated. First of all it’s not just a history book—a straight story of God’s people—it’s history, mixed with poetry, wisdom and sayings. And even the historical narrative is interspersed with lists of names, which in our culture do little to add to the storyline. There are lists of laws, some of which seem totally inexplicable. There’s a sort of Do-It-Yourself manual, on how to build any number of things—arks, tabernacles, and goodness knows what. And there are lists of different sacrifices, and specific details on how they are to be offered.
On the other hand, in the New Testament, the Epistles provide another problem. They present us with a one-sided view of situations that are not explained. Now obviously Paul and the other writers knew exactly what they were responding to, but us … Well we have to somehow fill the gaps.
Now I’m sure most of you would have been given a letter read, or you’ve been in the same room as someone talking on the phone. But if you’ve ever taken up the challenge of trying to piece what’s going on, without being able to ask any other detail, well that’s exactly what it’s like when we read an Epistle.
Now, with these peculiarities of the Old and New Testaments, add in the equation of a different culture, a different time, and a different world. Plus add in a different language, particularly the apocalyptic literature in the book of Revelation, and parts of the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Joel, Zechariah, Matthew, Mark and 2 Thessalonians, and what have you got? Well, as I said at the start, one of the most difficult books in the world to read.
2. The Importance of Studying It
And yet, aren’t we as Christians, constantly told that this is the manufacturer’s manual, and we need to study it?
In the Old Testament, King Josiah obviously thought so. Because when the Book of the Law was found in the temple, having been neglected for years, he immediately had it read to him. He then tore his robes as a sign of repentance for ignoring the contents of the book.
Jesus obviously thought so too. Indeed he was always quoting from the Old Testament, teaching people about God, and trying to show others that his very presence on earth was the fulfilment of scripture itself.
And the Apostle Paul certainly thought the scriptures were more than a casual read. Because he wrote to Timothy, saying, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for instruction, for reprimand, for correction, and for training in righteousness, in order that a man of God may be proficient, fully equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:16-17).
So then, today, we are faced with a dilemma. The bible is not an easy book to read; nevertheless we are encouraged to study it. It’s not like any ordinary book, but we are supposed to try to understand it.
Indeed, if we want to know more about God—who he is, what he’s done, and what he is offering us—then the Bible is the book we need to read. If we want to know more about ourselves—who we are, and our purpose in God’s creation—then the Bible is the book for us. And if we’re serious about being Christians, then we should make reading this book an indispensable part of our Christian life.
Of course that may mean sometimes, we might need a little extra help—and there are many helps available, big and small. But persistence with this book can be very rewarding.
B. THE COST OF DISCIPLESHIP
For example, take today’s Gospel reading. Now it’s one of those passages where Jesus speaks some very harsh words. Indeed they’re the sort of words that on the surface appear totally contrary to the nature and teaching of Jesus. But dig a little deeper, and they make perfect sense. The words: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters—even his own life—he cannot become my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)
Now one of my good friends, who has since died, had a solution for this type of passage … Tear the page out. But he always said it with a grin. That, of course, is one solution. But it’s also one that if you did that for every difficult passage you came across, you would end up with a very slim bible indeed. But there is another solution. We can try to understand what was going on; we can use the helps that are available. And when we do, we should come up with something like this:
1. Introduction (v25)
Jesus had been followed by a great crowd. In fact the crowd that was with him had been following him for quite some time. But Jesus was concerned about their sincerity. He’d talked about the cost of following him before, and he was concerned that whatever their motivation in pursuing him, they still didn’t really understand what it meant to be one of his disciples.
2. Two parallel sayings on discipleship (v26-27)
As a consequence, Jesus needed to respond to that, and his emphasis needed to be pretty strong. As far as Jesus was concerned discipleship involved total commitment–wishy washy wouldn’t do. So he needed to emphasise that that in order to get his message across. Hence the short pithy saying about hating one’s father and mother etc. Which he then followed up with a second, “If anyone should not take up his cross and follow me, he cannot become my disciple.” (Luke 14:27)
In other words, what Jesus was trying to do, in these two short sayings, was to get the crowd to curb their, perhaps, overzealous and misdirected enthusiasm, and instead get them to focus on what it really means to follow him.
3. Two parabolic sayings with an application (v28-33)
And so the meaning of Jesus’s sayings is resolved. He didn’t really mean that we should go around hating people at all. But he did need to use those sorts of terms in order to make his point. And his point was: where there is a conflict between our obligations to our family and God, God should always take priority.
The problem for Jesus, though, was that even this very strong approach, didn’t work. And as a consequence he had to challenge them further.
Indeed Jesus knew the crowd were just being carried along with the excitement of the moment—the wonder of whom they perceived him to be. He knew that even with his difficult sayings they still had not really understood the implications of what they were doing; he knew that they would eventually just fall away. Which is why he challenged them again. But this time, in a further two sayings, he challenged them to consider not only what they were doing, but whether they’d thought through all the implications; whether they had truly considered the cost of discipleship. And so by way of illustration, he tried to get them to face up to the futility of their hollow commitment.
He used the example of building a tower, and the futility of a builder starting it without first making sure he had the means to complete it. And he used the example of going to war, without first making sure that the troops were going to be hopelessly outnumbered.
Jesus’s challenge to the crowd, then, was for them to make very sure of their commitment to him. They had physically followed him across the country, but did they really know what it meant to be a disciple? Discipleship involved commitment, and a commitment which put God first. But were they willing to make that commitment? Indeed had they considered what it meant in regards to the things they held dear in their lives?
4. Conclusion (v34)
Then having said all that, Jesus concluded his challenge with a final warning. For Jesus, the ultimate in uselessness was a half-hearted disciple. Indeed they were fit for nothing except to be judged.
1. The Value of Studying the Bible
Now today’s gospel is a very strong passage. Indeed he uses the term “hate.” But is that a bit strong? Well it’s certainly a bit strong on a superficial reading of the passage. That’s why it’s a good example of the importance of studying the Bible.
Because as we’ve found out, by looking at what was going on, Jesus needed to talk in those sorts of terms to get his message across. Even though, in the end, the crowd still did not respond to the challenge he was giving.
But maybe too, there’s an element of the limitations of culture and language. After all, the idea of “hatred” in this passage is not one of psychological hatred; it is not one of malice, revulsion, or anything like that. Rather, it is a term that Jesus used to denounce any obstacle that could get in the way of faith.
What this story illustrates, then, is there is value in pursuing the meaning of even the shortest passage. And if there is something to be gained in doing that, then imagine what can be gained in studying the rest—the history, the poetry, the wisdom and sayings.
After all if Jesus is the great High Priest—as he is described in the Letter to the Hebrews (Hebrews 4:14)—then surely an understanding of the Old Testament priesthood is essential to understand what that really means. If Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sins—as described by John (1 John 2:2), then we need to look at the sacrificial system to understand that. And if we are to live holy lives, then an understanding of the passages about God’s people needing to be holy, distinct, and uncorrupted of evil—as described in the story of Israel’s exodus from Egypt and the conquest of Canaan—should be essential reading, even though many people today consider that story to be the hardest of all.
The Bible may be a difficult book, but it only remains a difficult book when it’s left unread.
2. Sticking With It
So there’s no need to tear out the page in Luke, and there’s no need to ignore whole chunks of the Bible. The Bible may be a difficult book, but it doesn’t mean we should give up on it. Indeed there is great value to be gained by sticking with it.
The Bible may be different to other books. It may be full of strange ideas and concepts—from a different age, and a different culture—but we shouldn’t dismiss any of it as valueless, because it doesn’t fit comfortably with what we know. And we certainly shouldn’t ignore the bits that record only one side of the debate.
With a little help, and a little perseverance, we can put the jigsaw of the Bible together. There are books we can read; we can share what we know with one another; and most importantly we can read the text itself. Indeed there are many things we can do for the mysteries of the Bible to be resolved.
God has called us to be people of faith. And that means that he not only wants us to place our faith in Jesus Christ, but he wants us to grow as well. And what better way is there to grow that to use the tools he has provided—not least of which is the Bible.
So today we have a challenge. In other words what do we do with God’s book? We’ve seen an example of the benefit a little study can make, but imagine what would happen if we did a whole lot more.
Now the bible for some is a barrier to faith. It’s just too difficult. And many people don’t even bother to read it. And that’s sad, because that means for Christians it has become a barrier to growth; and for non-Christians a barrier to salvation itself. And yet it need not be. After all, a little persistence, and a little study, can make a remarkable difference.
For me the place of the Bible in the Christian life is paramount. Indeed, what better way is there to find out more about God? What better way is there to find out more about ourselves? What better way is there to learn more about the Christian life? And what better way is there to find out how God wants us to behave?
Things of value often require a little effort. And that is distinctly true of the Bible. So let us be encouraged in the faith. Let us see the benefit that study of the Bible will bring. And let us immerse ourselves in the book that God has given us, to help us in our understanding of him, ourselves, and the part he wants us to play in the life of his church.
Posted: 2nd September 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis