Scripture Matters: Wrestling with the Word

The Holy Scriptures are our letters from home.
—Augustine

In Genesis 32, Jacob has a mysterious wrestling match with an unknown assailant. Everything about that wrestling match is strange. The assailant is unnamed and unidentified. Jacob insists that he will not let the man go until the man blesses him. Jacob’s hip is dislocated during the tussle. The man changes Jacob’s name to Israel. Jacob realizes that this bizarre struggle is with God. And Jacob, or Israel, limps away from the encounter at daybreak, his life forever changed. There is nothing normal about anything in that story.

But when I read that strange story in Genesis, I think about my own wrestling match with the Bible. I mentioned earlier that I tried to read the Bible every day even when I was a young boy. Those early encounters with Scripture were the beginning of what I now see as a lifelong wrestling match with the Bible. I’ve been reading the Bible, teaching the Bible, preaching the Bible, writing about the Bible, and trying to live the Bible my whole life.

Like Jacob, I’ve often whispered to Scripture, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” Like Jacob, I’ve found that this wrestling match has changed who I am and how I see myself. Like Jacob, I know that this wrestling match is, in truth, a struggle with God. Like Jacob, I’ve been wounded and confused by my encounters with Scripture. And like Jacob, I’ve limped away from many Bible studies forever changed.

But when I look back on my lifetime wrestling match with the Bible, I realize how much I still don’t know about it. When it comes to Scripture, my ignorance far outweighs my understanding. I’m living proof that a person can spend a lifetime studying the Bible and still not come close to exhausting its truths. The Bible still intimidates me, humbles me, and teaches me. But, after a lifetime of struggling with the word, I can tell you a few things about the Bible that I can affirm and celebrate with confidence.

First, Scripture gives us a new way to see the world. One of the things the Bible does for us is open our eyes to a new world, a world we might not even notice if the Bible didn’t call it to our attention. Neurological experts tell us that our brains are equipped with a reticular activating system, which serves as a filter to let some things in and keep some things out. There is so much stimuli around us that we can’t possibly take it all in, so our reticular activating system decides what we see and what we don’t see.

That explains why we can open a desk drawer every day and not see the screwdriver that has been there forever, or why we can look out at a crowd and fail to notice Mary, who is sitting in the front row. The screwdriver and Mary are there in plain view, but they get filtered out by our reticular activating system.

As Jesus reminded people frequently, that same phenomenon can happen spiritually. We humans can look out at life and never once see God. God is there but goes unnoticed. As Jesus put it in the Sermon on the Mount, we can become so fixated on what we eat, drink, wear, and possess that we don’t even notice God. Like that screwdriver in the drawer and Mary on the front row, God is there, but we don’t have “eyes to see.”

And that’s how the Bible comes to our rescue. It reminds us that God is there and not to be ignored. It tells us not to neglect the spiritual dimension of life. It gives us a new way to look at the world. It invites us to look at it through God-colored glasses. Once we put these glasses on and wear them for a while, we do start to see the world from a different perspective. We learn of God, Jesus, prayer, forgiveness, grace, and righteousness. We discover a cross and an empty tomb. We learn about Peter, Paul, and the woman at the well. The Bible introduces us to a whole dimension of life and a whole array of characters we wouldn’t see without it. As we immerse

I’m reminded of a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne called “The Great Stone Face.” It’s the story of a young boy who is so entranced by a face carved in stone that he stares at it for hours on end, day after day. After months of being transfixed, the boy’s face eventually is transformed into the image of the stone face he has looked at for so long. That’s what Scripture can do for us and why we need to stare at it as often as we can.

Second, Scripture changes and develops over time. There’s no telling how many well-intentioned folks have decided that they need to become better acquainted with the Bible. They have heard from others that reading the Bible can be a life-changing experience, so they decide to read it for themselves. They begin at the beginning, with the creation story, Adam and Eve, Noah and the ark, and the other people and events described in Genesis. Then they move on to Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, and my guess is that they lose their fervor about there. By the time they get to the end of the Pentateuch, they’ve become convinced that maybe the Bible isn’t really the inspiring book it’s cracked up to be.

They thought they would discover how to have a better family, how to handle their emotions, how to find the joyful life they crave, or some other crucial component of abundant life. Instead, they stepped into a strange and ancient world that seemed to have nothing in common with the one in which they live. They encountered bizarre dietary laws and precise instructions on how to sacrifice animals to God. They encountered a God who seems to talk out loud. They even encountered a God who commanded the Israelites to slaughter their enemies. All of this is foreign to their world and their personal experience. In frustration, they quietly put the Bible aside, secretly wondering how it could be so meaningful to other people.

My advice to those people would be to start over again, only this time start with Matthew. The Bible is a book that develops and progresses over time. Its thought changes and develops as the centuries go by. If we ever doubt this, all we need to do is reread the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus takes six Old Testament laws and either updates them or changes them altogether. He uses the formula “You have heard it said of old . . . but I say to you . . . ,” and then he proceeds to bring the old laws up to date.

That passage in Matthew 5 underscores the fact that Scripture moves and changes—which is why we need to be careful about pulling out some obscure passage in the Old Testament and demanding that people believe it “because it’s in the Bible.” If we desired, we could use the Bible to justify war, slavery, racism, polygamy, the denigration of women, and the stoning of disobedient children. People have used the Bible to rationalize some of those things. But the passages that prescribe those things aren’t Scripture’s final word on those subjects. Scripture moves. And we need to move with it.

Third, Scripture is a rambling love letter. Just think of this one fact: the Bible was written over a period of 1,400 years. When we remember that the United States of America is less than 250 years old, we realize how long it took for the Bible to be written. It was written over all of those centuries by kings, shepherds, fishermen, physicians, tentmakers, preachers, and prophets. It contains poems, allegories, short stories, proverbs, prophecies, Gospels, letters, and apocalypses. The Bible I’m using has almost 2,000 pages. No wonder we sometimes feel overmatched when we try to understand it. And no wonder few of us ever feel as if we’ve exhausted the Bible’s riches.

So what’s the point of it all? If the Bible is really that long and complicated, how can we ever hope to get down to its essence? Well, that depends on who you happen to ask. People read and interpret the Bible in all different ways—as is evidenced by the thousands of sects and denominations that call the Bible their handbook. We Christians have one book but thousands (millions?) of interpretations of that book.

For me, though, the Bible is a rambling love letter. It winds and bends all over the place, often confusing us in the process. But there is a subtle storyline if only we have the eyes to see it. All of those strange laws in the Pentateuch, all of those scathing prophecies by the prophets, all of those heartfelt psalms by the psalmists, all of those gospel stories by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, all of those letters from the pen of the apostle Paul, and even that mind-blowing apocalypse at the end of the book all point to this truth: God loves us. That’s the bottom line of Scripture.

And that truth leads me to my final thought about Scripture: Scripture introduces us to the Living Word. The final, ultimate word of Scripture is not a written word but a living Word: Jesus of Nazareth. But you don’t have to take my word for that. Listen, instead, to the writer of the book of Hebrews:

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he inherited is more excellent than theirs. (Heb 1:1-4)

The final, governing word in Scripture is Jesus, the Living Word, the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being. By the time we get to the end of the Bible, the one, overriding truth that stands out is the arrival of Jesus in history and his death and resurrection to reconcile all things to God.

If those frustrated people who gave up on the Bible back there in Leviticus will just keep reading, they will eventually get to the “good part.” And they will realize why so many people refer to Scripture as good news. Those negative passages in parts of the Bible turn out not to be the final word in the Bible. The final, governing word is Jesus and his reconciling death on the cross for all people.

I’ll give you one more illustration and then bring my “why the Bible matters” chapter to a close. Imagine the Bible as a circus, which, if you think about it, is a pretty accurate depiction. The Bible is full of action, color, and larger-than-life characters, much like the circus.

Like the circus, the Bible has a bunch of sideshows and a center ring. Circus sideshows might include the world’s largest man, the world’s strongest woman, and other assorted fascinating characters. Scriptural sideshows could include Old Testament laws and customs, Paul’s counsel to first-century churches, and John’s wild visions in the book of Revelation.

But the center ring attraction in the Bible is Jesus. Ultimately, we end up at the foot of a cross and at the entrance of an empty tomb. We see a crucified and risen Lord who has given us the best picture of God we will ever have. And we realize that all of those words in Scripture, written by all of those people over a span of 1,400 years, have ultimately led us to him.

I’m happy to say that my wrestling match with the word is a tussle still in progress. For years, I studied the Bible every week as I prepared sermons to preach on Sunday. When I retired, sermon preparation was no longer required. But then I was asked to write the Formations Commentary, a guide for those who teach Bible study classes in churches. That means I still get to open Scripture and try to provide insight to others who teach Bible study classes in churches. I think I’ve learned more about the Bible as I write these commentary pieces than I did in all of my years at seminary.

Almost daily, I get out my Bible, open the commentaries, turn on my computer, and get ready to wrestle with the word. Like Jacob in Genesis 32, I usually whisper to the Bible in front of me, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And, if I wrestle hard enough and persevere, the blessing nearly always comes.

This post originally appeared in Panning for Gold: Looking Back on Life with Joy by Judson Edwards.

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