(You can read Part 1 in the series here)
I have never met an entire group of people who were all bad. As Corrie Ten Boom writes in the Hiding Place, there were even compassionate guards in the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp where she and her sister were interred during World War 2. If a German death camp worker can have a degree of goodness about him, I’m sure there were some wonderful, kind and gracious Pharisees. But the measure of a group is usually how they acted as a whole, not how each individual lived their lives. And the Pharisees of Jesus’ day were his primary target for criticism.
On the surface, the average Pharisee had a lot to commend him to a religious observer. We don’t know exactly what qualifications one had to have to be a Pharisee, but the consensus is they had to know the Old Testament thoroughly. Some scholars have suggested they had the Torah—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy—committed to memory. Others have said they probably knew large portions of the Prophets, Psalms and historical books and had committed those to memory as well. Each Pharisee wore phylacteries, which were boxes attached to their wrists and foreheads, containing Scriptures to memorize. Some of the more learned Pharisees would commit large portions of the Talmud to memory—a commentary on the Torah—and others memorized the Mishnah, another rabbinical commentary.
They loved their Bibles. Too bad it didn’t do them much good.
John’s Gospel is laid out very deliberately in an outline of various confrontations. As with the other Gospels, Jesus travels around from place to place, but the real crux of John’s writings is to show the major battles between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day. Perhaps his most frequent and memorable debates featured the Pharisees.
In John 5, Jesus instigated one confrontation by healing a man on the Sabbath. This provoked anger from the Pharisees, who had hundreds of regulations regarding what may and may not be done on the Sabbath. They claimed biblical authority for all their rules, and they liberally gave their opinion and censure concerning anyone who broke one of these laws or encouraged others to do so.
I think Jesus deliberately did proscribed things on the Sabbath just to make them think about what they believed. I can’t say definitively, but it fits with his program of starting fights for effect.
In John 5:36-38, he explains more about his nature, calling and legitimate right to call himself the Messiah. He begins by building on John the Baptist’s endorsement and then takes the teaching in an entirely new direction:
But I have a greater testimony than John’s, for the works that the Father has given me to complete, the very works that I am doing, testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me.
Moreover, the Father who sent me has himself testified on my behalf. You have never heard his voice or seen his appearance, nor do you have his word abiding in you, because you do not believe in the one whom he sent.
In these short declarations, he lays out the evidence for his credentials:
The greatest prophet of our day – John the Baptist – endorsed me.
The works (i.e. miracles, healings, exorcisms) are proof that God is working through me in unique ways.
God spoke audibly in front of many people and told them that I am his Son.
In a Jewish court, these three “witnesses” would stand up as credible and overwhelming. But he isn’t done with his teaching. Now he takes out his big gun and pops them all between their spiritual eyes. “You have never heard his voice…” he begins. He speaks to these veritable champions of Bible Memory Month. He speaks to these Keepers of the Laws, the real “Bible Answer Men”. No one knew the Bible like they knew it. Yet in all that biblical memorization, something was missing: The Voice of God. That strikes me as almost impossible to fathom. How can someone read that much of the Bible, study that much of holy writ, and yet miss the voice of the one who wrote it? I have my favorite authors and even if I had never heard their voice before, it wouldn’t be that difficult to tell it was them in a lecture. A person lets their character flow out in their writing, if they write with integrity. God wrote the Bible, so how could they miss the author as they perused the pages?
Verse 38 explains the problem quite clearly:
…nor do you have his word abiding in you, because you do not believe in the one whom he sent.
That’s an odd thing for Jesus to tell them. I thought the Bible was the Word of God. He never claims they ignored the Bible or deliberately misinterpreted. He says that the ‘word’ never abided with them because they didn’t believe in the one God sent to them. He is saying that if they really abided in the word, then they would instantly recognize that God had become a human being and was living among them.
Years ago, I was in a used book store and picked up a hymnal about 100 years old. It contained songs I had never heard before. Tucked away near the back was a hymn with this title, “Holy Bible, Book Divine.” The writer of the hymn was referring to the Bible as a Divine Book, meaning it ascribed Godhood to a book; in my mind, that was false teaching of the highest order. Someone had made their Bible an idol, and had the audacity to write a song about it.
The purpose of the Bible has always been to guide us to the God who inspired it to be written. It was never meant to replace God or to shove God and his works into a corner. The ‘word’ spoken of by Jesus is so much more than the paper, ink and concepts found in the Scriptures. It includes the illumination of the Holy Spirit, the daily guidance we need to survive another round of walking in a fallen and broken world. “Word” includes the personal voice of God as he takes the eternal truths of the Bible and shows us where, when, how and with whom to apply those truths.
The word “great” is in the Bible. The word “falls” is also there. But if God wants me to go to Great Falls, Montana, I would be hard pressed to read that direction on any page. If I used my Bible as some kind of GPS system, I could only find out God’s will if I agreed to play what my wife calls “lucky Bible”. That consists of asking God a question and then dropping the Bible randomly and just going with whatever verse it falls open to.
What Jesus has already said to the Pharisees would have been scandalous for them to hear. But now, he pushes this confrontation to its climax, with a verbal knife between the ribs:
You diligently study the Scriptures because you suppose that in them you have eternal life. Yet they testify about me. But you are not willing to come to me to have life.
Apparently, Jesus is not criticizing their religious work ethic; he admits they study the Scriptures “diligently”. They don’t play “lucky Bible”, they “study” it. He criticizes their overarching supposition; that through studying the Bible they will find some God-life (i.e. Eternal Life) flowing into them. Jesus gives them proof this hasn’t happened because they didn’t use the impetus of the Scriptures to come to him for eternal life.
They read the Bible in the Flesh and because of this, they missed out on the wondrous life of Spiritwalking and following Jesus.
In the next two articles we will discuss other ways people read the Bible in the Flesh and then how to read it in the Spirit.