21 May 2024

To whom are the scriptures written? It’s kinda important.

Some months ago I visited another church. (So if my pastors are worried this article’s about them: Relax! I figure you know better than to do this.)

The passage was from the New Testament; Paul of Tarsus was, as usual, correcting Christians. I won’t say which of Paul’s letters was quoted; I don’t actually need to. In his sermon, Pastor Berwyn (not his name, but it’s what I’m calling him) expounded on what Paul had to say to all the sinners in our wicked world.

Except… was Paul writing to all the sinners of our wicked world? Or all the sinners of his wicked world?—namely the Roman Empire and its pagan practices. And maybe I should use the word “Pagan” with a capital P, because we’re not talking about today’s pagans, who lean monotheist thanks to the influence of Abrahamic religions: I’m talking old-school pagans, who believed in many gods, few of whom were good or moral or cared about humanity.

If you’ve read your bible, you’re fully aware every single one of Paul’s letters, whether written solo or with co-writers, was addressed to the Christians of various Roman Empire cities. And you’re fully aware every letter—the ones by James, Peter, John, Jude, and Luke—and all the gospels, were likewise written to Christians. The recipients and audience of the entire New Testament? Ancient Christians. And their posterity, which includes today’s Christians.

Not pagans. Not pagans then; not pagans now. Yep, even though we’ll give free bibles and gospels of John to pagans, in the hopes they’ll find Jesus in there: It wasn’t written to them.

Now, since the New Testament was written to ancient Christians, it stands to reason there are gonna be some things in it which dealt specifically with ancient Christian issues and problems. And for that, we gotta do a little historical research, and make sure we’re not borrowing the instructions about an ancient problem, and wrongly turning ’em into a current problem. (Like telling women they can’t speak in church.) Historical context is just as important.

Otherwise, the New Testament was written to Christians. Not pagans. And Paul’s instructions—and rebukes—are to Christians. Not the cold cruel world of the Roman Empire, nor the cold cruel world of the United States. He’s doing housekeeping. He’s trying to clean up the people who claim to follow Jesus. The people who make no such claims: They’re on their own. Ro 1.28-32 Till they repent.

If you ever hear a preacher angrily condemning the world… well, that’s gonna happen. Shouldn’t be done in anger, ’cause sinners aren’t gonna listen to an angry person; such preachers are speaking without love. (And don’t give me any rubbish about “tough love.” That’s just more anger.) But they’re gonna figure, “The Old Testament prophets did it; why can’t I?” and rant about it as much as they please, and maybe there’ll be some truth in it.

But if you’re claiming or implying the apostles did the same thing in the New Testament, you’d be wrong. You’re pulling the scriptures out of their context, and teaching your own bile instead of godly wisdom.

No, I didn’t forget the Old Testament.

Okay, so the New Testament was written to Christians. How about the Old Testament—whom were those scriptures written to? Well duh: Ancient Israel.

Under their covenant with the LORD their God, ancient Israel was expected to follow him and his commands—and if they didn’t, the LORD would let their enemies have at ’em. It’s different from Jesus’s new covenant which he has with us Christians; Jesus’s covenant isn’t with a nation or people-group, but anybody who receives him. Jn 1.12 And there are no curses involved in Jesus’s covenant, in which we call awful things down upon ourselves if we don’t follow him. Certain Christian nationalists are gonna insist the covenant with ancient Israel applies to our country too (and fret about our nation’s sins because they’re terrified God’s gonna take away their power our blessings because of it), but that covenant is not our covenant. Historical context again; toldya it’s important!

Since the LORD in the Old Testament is the same God we follow, there’s plenty we can learn about him from that part of the bible. What he likes, what he expects, what he’s offended by, and how he wanted the ancient Israelis to treat one another. We can learn a few things about his character, like his substantial patience and grace. And of course there’s Jesus’s historical and cultural background.

But again: When you’re quoting Old Testament at people, trying to claim God’s saying this to the people of today, you’d be wrong. The Hebrew scriptures were written to ancient Hebrews. Not us. The Old Testament prophets were condemning Israel for its various awful behaviors, not us.

Yes, our behaviors and misbehaviors regularly overlap with theirs. Yes, God’s just as outraged if we mistreat the poor and needy, as if an ancient Israeli did it. We always need to pay attention to the lessons of history; it repeats itself all the time. But if you start quoting Isaiah prophecies about ancient Israel or ancient Babylon, and claim they’re about pagans today: No they’re not. Again, you’re pulling ’em out of context.

“But it’s the word of God, and doesn’t return void!” Yeah, I’ve regularly heard that verse misquoted to justify misquoting verses. I remind you of what else God said in that verse: “It shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper [in the thing] whereto I sent it.” Is 55.11 KJV It does what God wants it to. Not what we wanna make God do with it, by bending it to fit our purposes. Doing that does void it.

You wanna rant about sinners? Fine. Don’t misquote bible!

I was actually able to take notes on Pastor Berwyn’s sermon. It’s just instead of writing, “The people of this world need to do [REPENTANT THING] about such-and-so,” I remembered Paul’s audience is Christians, not pagans, and emphasized, “We Christians need to do [REPENTANT THING] about such-and-so.” Paul’s letters were housekeeping, so let’s use ’em for housekeeping!

’Cause you can see the utterly destructive problem with the way Berwyn preached. The people of his church didn’t realize we might have a problem, or we might be the problem. They can, as easily as their pastor, self-righteously assume they’re not: They’re in the right! It’s the non-Christians. It’s the atheists. It’s the antichrists. It’s the godless people of our society who are trying to keep us Christians down. We gotta fight ’em!

Worse, when these people crack open their bibles in the future and read this particular passage, they’re again gonna think—’cause Pastor told ’em so!—it’s not about them; it’s not trying to correct them, and get them to follow Jesus better. It’s about sinners.

Thus you wind up with a church that’s much like this particular church Jesus criticizes in Revelation.

Revelation 3.17-19 KJV
17Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked: 18I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see. 19As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.

If your church never, ever looks inward, and asks, “How’re we doing? How’s our walk with Jesus? Are we growing in good fruit and good works? Are we surrendering and submitting everything to him?”—it’s not good. Likewise we oughta be looking at all the specific examples Jesus and the apostles brought up. And for that matter, some of the things the Old Testament prophets brought up with ancient Israel, where appropriate.

Are we doing this sort of fearless, thorough moral inventory? Or do we figure we’re good, because we’re saved? Because we might be saved, but as far as goodness is concerned, we could always do better!

I don’t know whether Pastor Berwyn was going thorough the letter of Paul passage by passage, or just chose that passage because he wanted to rant against sinners, and figured this’d work as a proof text. I can understand wanting to rant against sinners! I do that myself from time to time; there are a lot of feckless politicians who annoy me. But I also know better than to claim they’re wrong and I’m right: We’re all wrong. Jesus is right. If I’m gonna preach a sermon about sinners, I first need to preach about me as a sinner, about Christians as sinners, first. Because I have that covenant with Christ Jesus. Pagans don’t.