Today on Renewing Your Mind... I want to look in this session at a very important principle that may be a little bit surprising to you as we begin, and that is the principle that we ought to read the Bible existentially. And when I talk about reading the Bible existentially, I am not using the word in the philosophical sense. I do not mean that we ought to apply the philosophical method that is married to existentialism to the Bible, as many are doing.
But what I mean by it is simply this, that we ought to read the Bible as people who are personally, passionately, and intimately involved with what we are reading. There is a link, of course, to existentialism at this point. I think of the philosopher Kierkegaard, the 19th century thinker who was so important for the shaping of later philosophy in the field of existentialism, who looked at mankind and said that there are different stages along life's way, or what he called stadia along life's way. And as he explained that to his readers, he made a significant difference between what he would call the aesthetic stage and the existential stage of life. The aesthetic stage is defined as that dimension of life whereby we stand on the fringes of human activity and we remain always and forever spectators.
We're never personally involved. And what Kierkegaard was calling us to was that particularly as Christians we are called to be passionately involved in the affairs of life. We cannot afford as Christians to stand back on the fringes and merely be observers. Now it's that principle that I want to translate now to the reading of the Scriptures. We are not to come to the Bible and simply remain aloof from its message, try to reduce it to an objective bit of information that we are to dissect and analyze and record in our memory banks. But this book is a book that is filled with life.
It is addressing us in the midst of the stream of our own lives, and if it is going to speak to us, we need to step into its skin to read these stories in a certain sense as if they were written especially for us. I remember Adele Rogers, St. John, wrote a novel a few years ago in which the hero of the story was a man who was puzzled about what the Christian faith was all about, and he had a casual acquaintanceship with it. He knew of people who were Christians, but he had never been serious about investigating the content of the Christian faith. And he was like many people who felt, well, religion is something that we do by way of institutions and by church attendance, but I'm not going to get too personally involved in it. But somebody explained to the hero of the story that if Christianity was going to be meaningful in this man's life, he had to see its personal ramifications.
So by way of experiment, what the man did was he went back to his office. He was a successful businessman, and he instructed his secretary to type up each of the epistles of the New Testament as if they were personal letters that were written just for this man. And she even went so far as to address these letters, not as Paul to the Philippians or Paul to the Thessalonicans or Paul to the church at Rome, but rather it was Paul to Hank so and so.
And then they were put in an envelope, and they were sent to this man's home to his home mailbox, and he would go out every week, and there would be a letter from the apostle Paul addressed to him. And what that little game did was that it forced him to read the Scriptures personally and existentially. The Bible is filled with drama, and to read it existentially means to try to bridge that gap between ourselves in the first century and the culture in which the Bible was written and try to project ourselves into the life situation of the Scriptures so that we can feel it as well as read it with our eyes. There's some license that goes on here that preachers use all the time.
It involves the task of reading between the lines. Again, it was Kierkegaard who in his little book Fear and Trembling did this with a very poignant passage from the Old Testament. We know that the 22nd chapter of Genesis, for example, records one of the most moving stories in all of Old Testament history. It's the story of God calling Abraham and telling him to take his son, the child of promise, Isaac, and to take him into a far mountain, and there Abraham was asked by God to deliver Isaac to that mountain and to offer him on an altar of sacrifice to kill his own son. And of course the narrative of that event comes very abruptly, very concisely, and succinctly to us in the Old Testament where God comes to Abraham and He says, Abraham, take now thy son, thine only son, the son whom you lovest, Isaac, and take him to this mountain where I will show you, and so on goes the instructions. And Kierkegaard was reading that on one occasion, and he himself had suffered greatly in his soul from the pangs of a broken engagement.
In fact, so much of Kierkegaard's writings, his poetry and drama focuses on that release of the anguish of his soul that he experienced from that lost love. And so when he reads this story in the Old Testament of God asking Abraham to take the most precious thing in his life and give it away, Kierkegaard felt it in his own soul. And he began to muse on it, and he tried to think what was going on in Abraham's mind, and the text says simply as it continues, and Abraham rose early in the morning. And when Kierkegaard got to that portion of the text, he stopped and he said, wait a minute, why did Abraham rise early in the morning? The Bible doesn't tell us. In order to know it, we have to read between the lines.
We have to try to project what it would be like to be in that life situation. And so he began to muse on it, and he thought, well, maybe it's because Abraham was such a man of – so vital of faith, so disciplined, so rock hard in his commitment to God that no matter whatever God asked him to do, Abraham reported for duty early. God, you want me to sacrifice my son in the altar, so let it be said, so let it be done. I'll set the alarm clock for five o'clock in the morning, and I'll get up and I'll report for duty and I'll take my son and do exactly what you said. I won't miss a beat. I won't skip a step.
I'll do whatever you want me to do. Well, that's one way we can understand the text, and Kierkegaard sets that forth for us. But then he said, wait a minute, Abraham was a man. Maybe he was the friend of God.
Maybe he's the prototype of all faithful men. Maybe he had faith such as to move mountains. But even Christ Himself swept beads of perspiration that were of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane, and he was greater than Abraham. And Kierkegaard looks at the idea. He says, don't tell me that Abraham got up early in the morning out of a simplistic sense of obedience and duty to God. And Kierkegaard said, now if that were I, and God had come to me and said, kill my own son, I think the reason I would have woken up early in the morning is because I know I would have never been able to fall asleep. As soon as my eyelids grew heavy, the pain of that decision would intrude into my mind, and I would begin to think, how could this be God for me to sacrifice my own son? What kind of a God is that?
Is He simply testing me? Maybe at the last second God will deliver me, but then maybe He won't. And so the anguish of a soul wrestling with his trust in God, the anguish of a soul hanging to faith by his fingernails was tormenting Abraham, and maybe, said Kierkegaard, that's why he got up early in the morning.
We don't know. As I said, the Bible doesn't tell us it's silent, and of course it can be a very dangerous and irresponsible thing for us to take too much license and intrude too much into the text, and we don't want to do that. I've already given a lesson on the dangers of subjectivism in interpretation, but that's not what I'm talking about here. I'm talking about feeling what the people in the Scriptures are feeling, because the biblical characters are not fictional. They are not fairy tale characters. They are real people, real flesh, real blood, and we need to be reminded of, even as the Scriptures itself remind us from time to time, as St. James does in his epistles when he exhorts the people of God to pray, he reminds them of the effectiveness of the prayers of Elijah, and he said, remember that Elijah was a man like unto you. His passions were just like your passions.
His heartaches were just like your heartaches. But it's so easy for us to so romanticize the heroes and the personages of Scripture that we forget that they were just as we are. One of my favorite illustrations comes in the 10th chapter of Leviticus where we have there the record of the death of the sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu.
We read the text as follows. Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took either of them his censer and put fire therein and put incense thereupon, and they offered strange fire before the Lord, which he commanded them not. And there went out fire from the Lord and devoured them, and they died before the Lord.
Now listen to that. Two verses, and we get the action. We don't get much explanation as to why they did what they did, but in two verses, Nadab and Abihu's act is recorded for us, and their deaths are recorded for us.
Very, very sketchy by way of outline, really not filling in the details in their fullness, but it's hitting the main point that you would find in the front page article of a newspaper. Then Moses said unto Aaron, This is it that the Lord spoke, saying, I will be sanctified in them that come near me, and before all the people I will be glorified. And Aaron held his peace. There's not a word in there about Aaron's reaction to the slaughter of his sons except what is implied. Now what do you think it was like for Aaron? Do you think Aaron, after he hears that his sons have been slain at the altar, casually strolled over to the tent of Moses and said, Moses, I have a theological question for you. Perhaps you can help me. I'm just not quite sure why it is that God would take the lives of my two sons. Perhaps you can enlighten me. Do you think that's how it happened?
You know that's not how it happened. When Aaron saw the bodies of his sons in front of that altar, he was tearing his hair out. He goes to Moses' tent. He's screaming, man, Moses!
What's going on here? What kind of a God would do this? I've served Him faithfully day and night. Whatever He's asked me to do, I've done.
I raise my own sons. I prepare them for the priest who had one small little transgression, and God destroys them. Why, Moses? And Moses says, Aaron, don't you remember that God made it perfectly clear?
And he was serious. He said, I will be treated as being holy by those who approach me and by those who minister in my name. Don't you see, Aaron? God will not tolerate sacrilege at the altar, even if it comes from the hands of your sons.
God won't tolerate it. And Aaron bowed his head. As the Scripture says, Aaron held his peace. He held his peace all right, but it took every ounce of strength and energy that he possessed to hold his peace, because his peace was screaming to let go into warfare against God. This is a moment of passion, and I suggest that as you read the Scriptures in this existential way that you look for the drama that's there, because the Bible's filled with drama. And when the person comes to me and said, I break down in my Bible study because I get bored, I say, how can you get bored?
The blood is flowing in the streets. The sexual impulses of men and women burn like fire throughout the Scriptures. Anger, hatred, hostility.
Again, I think of Kierkegaard who said about his own age in the 19th century in the church of Europe at that time, he said, my complaint is not that this age is wicked. My complaint is that it's paltry. It's dull. It lacks life. There's no élan. There's no verve.
There's no excitement, he said, and so I am driven from time to time when I'm bored by my contemporary surroundings. I am driven back to the Old Testament where people are real, and they breathe life. They lie. They kill. They steal. They cheat. They commit adultery in a word. They are men.
They are women. Now that's what I mean, that we get in touch with the lifeblood of Scripture as we read. If we practice looking for the drama, there's no way that we can be bored because I'm convinced, dear friends, that this book is the most dramatic book that has ever been written.
I remember back in the 40s there was a radio program borrowed from the bestselling book by Fulton Owsler entitled, The Greatest Story Ever Told. Hollywood has understood without any great desire to communicate the truths of Christianity that if you want to tell a story that has passion and drama, borrow from the themes of the Scriptures because the themes of the Scriptures lend themselves to this kind of drama. I can remember one last example that I'll give you later on in the book of Leviticus. We read in the 13th chapter the following instructions.
See how interesting Scripture is. And the Lord spoke unto Moses and Aaron, saying, When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a rising scab or bright spot, and it be in the skin of his flesh like the plague of leprosy, and it should be brought unto Aaron the priest or to one of his sons of the priest. And the priest shall look on the plague in the skin of the flesh, and when the hair in the plague is turned white, and the plague in his sight be deeper than the skin of his flesh, it is the plague of leprosy, and the priest shall look upon him and pronounce him unclean. But if the bright spot be white in the skin of his flesh, and in sight be not deeper than the skin, and the hair thereof be not turned white, then the priest shall shut him up that hath the plague seven days. And the priest shall look upon him the seventh day, and behold if the plague in his sight be at his stay, and the plague spread not, how are you doing? You still with me?
No? It goes on. And the priest shall look again on the seventh day, and if the plague be somewhat dark, and the plague spread not in the skin, the priest shall pronounce him clean. It is but a scab, and he shall wash his clothes and be keen.
But if the scab spread much abroad in the skin after the day, you read that it goes on, ladies and gentlemen, for three chapters. And I know the first fifteen times I read those chapters in Leviticus they gave me an excedrin headache. I couldn't wait to get past all these pedantic points of description of various illnesses and disease that was like reading somebody's book on anatomy, and I thought that's got to be the most boring stuff.
How could God the Holy Spirit waste His time inspiring stuff like that? Then one day I was reading, and I'd just been talking to a friend who had gone to their doctor and the doctor had found some strange shadowy marks that were showing up in an x-ray. The doctor wasn't sure what was causing these images and the x-ray plates. Was it a harmless mass of scar tissue, a benign tumor, or did it show the beginnings of a virulent cancer? And so my friend then went to the hospital to have a biopsy performed. And then the tissue that was taken in the biopsy was sent to the lab to go through the various procedures of pathology that are involved in modern medicine.
And you realize what my friend went through while waiting for the verdict that would come back from the lab, harmless benign tissue or a fatal cancer that would snuff out their lives. That's what these people were going through when they went to the priest, when they saw a scratch on their skin, when they saw a scab form on their skin. In those days they didn't just assume that it was a mosquito bite. It could very possibly be the first clue of the advent of the most dreadful, dreadful disease that could afflict them, the disease of leprosy. Even go from the Old Testament to the New and think of the drama that surrounds Jesus' ministry to the leper, how the leper comes down the street and sees Jesus and he cries out in a loud voice, Jesus, have mercy upon me. And that wretched man is begging on the street and Jesus walks over and breaks all the laws that are set forth here about contamination and contact with somebody involved with the scourge of leprosy.
Jesus comes over and touches him. What does that say to you about your Lord who will stoop down from His throne on heaven and place His hands on the most wretched flesh of mankind to bring healing to a human life? How would we understand it if we didn't first take the time to see the drama even in Leviticus, even in the dietary laws, as we read the dietary laws and we say, oh, what could be more boring than whether we're supposed to eat things that chew their cud or how many cloves they have in their hooves and all of that business. And then we see men like Daniel and Shadrach and Meshach and Abednego who are taken away into captivity in a process where the Babylonians take not everybody from Israel into exile, but they take the cream of the crop, the best scholars, the best musicians, the best artists, the best businessmen, and they try to integrate them into the life of the culture of Babylon. But the Jews don't want to give up their heritage. They want to remain Jews. They don't want to be assimilated into the Babylonian culture and so the Jews refused to break their laws of kosher, the laws of diet that God had prescribed from heaven itself.
They would not bow down to the images of the emperor and for that Daniel goes to the lion's den and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego end up in a flaming fiery furnace. We wouldn't understand the drama if we didn't understand the crucial role that the diet provisions have for the one who is chosen of God to be special. It's all there. It's there in passion. It's there in drama, but for us to get it and have it touch us where we live, we have to see the flesh, the humanity of the people in their existence and touch them.
Let their existence touch our existence. That's what I mean by an existential reading of the Word of God. Well, I hope that energizes your study of Scripture. You're listening to Renewing Your Mind on this Monday.
Thank you for being with us today as we feature Dr. R.C. Sproul's series Knowing Scripture. It is such a privilege to have the very words of God in our hands and along with that privilege comes a responsibility.
We need to know how to interpret Scripture, how to read it. That's why we'd like to send you this four-DVD set, and you can request it with your donation of any amount to Liget Air Ministries. You can call us at 800-435-4343, or if you prefer, you can go online to give your gift at renewingyourmind.org. And be sure to check your online learning library.
We'll add the PDF study guide there once you've completed your request. Before we go, I want to thank all of our ministry partners. You support not just Renewing Your Mind but all of Ligonier's outreaches around the world. If you're not a ministry partner, let me encourage you to consider joining the many people who prayerfully support us with a recurring monthly donation of $25 or more. Those gifts allow us to better plan the ministry opportunities that, by God's providence, are presenting themselves to us each day.
You can join at renewingyourmind.org, or if you prefer, you can call us at 800-435-4343, and my colleague here will be glad to sign you up. Well next time on Renewing Your Mind... What we have in the New Testament is not merely the record of the event of the cross, but also we have the record of the interpretation of the event. I hope you'll make plans to join us for another lesson from Dr. Sproul's series, Knowing Scripture, concentrating on how to interpret historical narrative. That's tomorrow here on Renewing Your Mind. ...
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