The Written & Living Expression (LifeLift #11)

lifelift podcast Apr 07, 2020

There’s an interesting tension we find in the New Testament: Jesus is the Word of God and Jesus does the Word of God. We’re consistently confronted with deciding the proper place of each “Word.” 

The Pharisees thought the written words were more important than the living expression. Repeatedly, they confronted Jesus over actions that seemed to violate what was written— things like healing on the Sabbath. 

His response?

“You come to the Scriptures— the written Words— because you think that in them you have life. But, those are all words that point to Me. Oddly enough, you refuse to come to Me and enjoy true life” (John 5:39-40, my paraphrase). 

Or, to say it another way, “You’re selling yourself short.”

I saw a cartoon while scrolling through my social media feed the other day. In the black and white drawing, Jesus walks into a room full of church people. It looks like they’re studying the Bible. 

He interrupts them, telling them to do something.

One of the men studying the Bible replies, “Hold on, let me see what’s written.”

You get the point. The artist satirically points to the reality that many of us dive deep into the text while ignoring the Jesus in the room. That is, we can be like the Pharisees.

Now, a confession. Artists like that get under my skin. Generally, they create with an ax to grind— a far cry from the “perfect love” we described  in talk 7. As such, they’re not really engaging in meaningful conversation; they’re launching grenades. 

Yes, I understand what the drawing attempts to say. But, the reality is that we don’t have to choose between the written expression of God’s heart and the living expression. That is, we don’t find ourselves in a position where we must choose between the Bible or Jesus, as if it’s an either-or scenario.

You see, in the same way that Jesus is the perfect expression of the Father, revealing Him completely, Jesus is also the perfect expression of the text. John says the Word (logos, written word) became flesh and walked with us (John 1:14).

 

Which way is that?

One of the most often quoted verses in church-world is John 14:6: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No man comes to the Father except through Me.”

Whereas most evangelicals use this passages as the proof text for exclusive salvation through Jesus, that’s not at all what Jesus was claiming here. Before I go further, let me clarify: I do believe that salvation is found in Jesus alone (see Acts 4:12). But, in this verse, Jesus shows us something more relevant to this conversation about the written Word, something far more beautiful. 

In His deeply Jewish culture, people commonly referred to Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament, the Law) as “The Way, the Truth, and the Life.” They believed the “Five Books of Moses,” as they were commonly called, encouraged and empowered them to live a life of honor before God and each other.

When the disciples heard Jesus talking about being the Way, they wouldn’t have heard, “Oh, this is an argument for exclusivity.” That was already a given. The One True God revealed Himself. There was nowhere else they would want to go, no other path they wanted to pursue. Every other scenario was a proven dead end. They were already convinced that the things He taught, the path He created, was one of life (John 6:68).

To them, Jesus was saying something more like this: “I came to show you what the Scriptures really look like when you live them, when you put them in action, when you take the black ink and express it in living color.”

Or— “I came to show you what Torah looks like.”

That’s in large part why He told the listeners of the Sermon on the Mount that He came to fulfill the Law (Matthew 5:17). It wasn’t just an “obedience” issue; it was a “let me show you how to walk out  relationships with the Father and with others” issue.

It’s also why He prayed for the Father to sanctify His followers with the truth.  Then, after doing so, He elaborated, “Your Word is Truth” (John 15:15-17). 

 

Shallow Christianity— saying something which says nothing at all

In the past few years it’s gotten en vogue— especially in hipster-ish churches and on social media— to say things that sound true but just don’t hold up to the weight of actual truth. For example, a pastor I know stood in his service a few months ago and epeated the mantra that “Jesus hates religion.”

Um, nope… I’m pretty sure He doesn’t. In fact, his little brother (James) penned an entire book of the Bible (of all things) about “pure and undefiled religion.” Pure religion seeks orphans and widows in their distress (James 1:27). Throughout His ministry Jesus consistently drives the people He teaches back to the text, back to study the themes of mercy and justice (i.e., Matthew 9:13).

The word “religion” comes from the Latin word religio, that is “re-connect.” That’s what pure religion does. It reconnects us— to the Father and to the people to whom He wants us to express His love.

As I sat through another church service a few weeks ago, I heard another empty soundbite: “If you’re reading the Holy Bible and it causes you to oppose someone then you’re reading the wrong thing. You need to go back and read the Holy Spirit.”

Again, it sounds right, but it’s just… stupid.

Speaking of God’s Word, David says, “You have magnified Your word above all Your name” (Psalm 138:2 NKJV).

Lest this sound like legalism, remember what Paul told Timothy about Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16-17 NIV): 

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

Notice, the Word can inform (teach) and correct (rebuke). Furthermore, it equips us to live righteously and to “do” all of life.

(By the way, righteous is a relational term and not an “obedience” term. It means to walk in correct harmony with others.)

It’s interesting that the aforementioned “job description” which Paul gives the Bible in 2 Timothy 3:16 is similar to what Jesus said the Holy Spirit does for us (John 14:16 NIV):

But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.

Again, we don’t have to choose between one or the other. The Spirit who conceived Jesus, the living Word, is the same Spirit who breathed life into the written Word (see Matthew 1:18, 2 Timothy 3:16-17).  

 

Total alignment 

I've referenced 2 Timothy 1:7 several times. I mentioned that we want walk in power, love, and a sound mind— all three. We’ve discussed love (the context of our ministry) and power (the Holy Spirit), so we’re now working our way through the third (sound mind, discipline).

I reviewed a few translations of the verse. The different ways in which “sound mind” is presented helps us understand the tone of what Paul writes. “Sound mind” is also communicated as— 

  • Self discipline (NIV)
  • Wise discretion (KJV)
  • Self control (ESV)

Each of these are important as we pursue our calling. Whereas our emotions are given to us by God to experience, explore, and interact with the world around us, we don’t want to be controlled by them. We want to live with open hearts as we express the living Word to the world around us, using the written Word as our guide. 

(You can learn more about emotional health in this entire series of talks.)

Everything Jesus did was in congruence with Scripture. Everything. 

Everything He continues to do, then, remains in alignment with His Word. That means things like—

  • He won’t lead us to do anything in contradiction of what He’s already shared. 
  • He won’t instruct you in prayer to do something that defies what He’s penned on parchment or paper. 

For our purposes in this book, that means everything we do in ministry should be governed by Scripture. As we seek to live an expression of the Word, Christ in us, the written Word serves as our guide and our guardrails. A “sound mind” is essential to walking in truth and in living the truth.

 

Bulletproof your life

The Father understands our propensity to walk untethered from Scripture— to let a little success in one area go to our heads and forge ahead out of balance.  As such, He instructed the kings of Israel to do something that seems a bit odd— particularly when you’ve got a long “to do” list full of the important things required to run an empire. He told  them to write a copy of the Law in their own handwriting. And, no shortcuts. Don’t pay someone to do it for you. Write it out, long-hand, in front of the priests. You can find His command to do this in Deuteronomy 17:18-20.

A few years ago I was reading through the Old Testament and I thought, “I wonder if Solomon actually did this?”

Here’s why. Solomon was the third king of Israel— right behind Saul (horrible king) and David (the greatest king). God appeared to him one evening at the beginning of his reign and offered him a blank check.

“Ask for whatever you want,” God told him. “I’ll give it to you.”

You may remember the story. Solomon requested wisdom (1 Kings 4:29). Because he asked for that instead of the other things he could have requested instead, he was gifted with so much more.

Now, follow me for a moment. In the same passage where God (through Moses) instructed the kings to make a copy of the Torah in their own handwriting, He also gave a few specific instructions. You find them all in Deuteronomy 17:15-17, literally in the sentences preceding the admonition to write this down. 

Let me show you.

First, God highlighted them three things future kings shouldn’t do, almost as if they might be a few of the biggest temptations future leaders would face (17:15-17 ESV, emphasis mine): 

One from among your brothers you shall set as king over you. You may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother.  Only he must not acquire many horses for himself or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to acquire many horses, since the Lord has said to you, ‘You shall never return that way again.’ And he shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold.

Second, notice the very next instruction (17:18-19 ESV, emphasis added):

And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes…

Third, we’re told the reason for this is so that they will prosper for generations. That is, God’s Word isn’t legalistic; God’s Word is safe (17:20 ESV).

…that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel.

When you read through Solomon’s story, you notice that it’s almost like he took God’s plan of what not to do as the playbook for what he actually did:

  • He was told not to acquire many horses, yet he collected stalls and chariots (see 2 Chronicles 9:25).
  • He was told not to pursue relationship with multiple women, yet we learn that Solomon amassed 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:1f.). Predictably, his heart shifted towards them.
  • He was told not to hoard silver or gold, yet he made “silver as plentiful as stones” (see 1 Kings 10:27).

Furthermore, the Israelites were once slaves in Egypt. God heard their cry and freed them (Exodus 3:7). Throughout the Law they’re told to remember their former plight, so that they might empower others instead of restraining them, so that they might use their privileged position to impart hope rather than oppression. Ironically, the former slaves became slave-holders under Solomon, though, levying huge taxes and demanding thousands to become forced laborers. One of the first laws Moses received forbade this, as God’s people knew what oppression was like (Exodus 22:21, 23:9).

God appeared to Solomon a second time after he built the temple— the very thing he used the taxes and labor and treaties and horses and silver to construct. No doubt, Solomon could have spiritualized everything he  did— even placing a halo atop every Scriptural violation. 

After all, he had good reasons— Godly reasons— right?

He could argue he built a place of worship and made alliances to seal Israel’s borders. His people were not (it appeared) safe and prosperous.

Again, no. Scripture is a safeguard. Even when we don’t understand it, and even when we feel it’s restraining us, the written Word holds us in a safe place for our good.

God reminded Solomon— after he dedicated the Temple— to walk in His ways, so that His heart might always reign blessing on him and the work of his hands (1 Kings 9:4). I see the Father graciously revisiting a beloved son, offering him a “do over.” 

It’s almost like God sees that Solomon has jumped the tracks and He’s pleading with Him, “Hey, wait… you’re driving this thing off the road. My blessing is all over here, waiting for you. Don’t go after that, come get this…”

Watchman Nee writes, 

To confirm whether or not we are moved by, and walk in, the Holy Spirit, we must see if any given thing harmonizes with the teaching of the Bible. The Holy Spirit never moves the prophets of old to write in one way and then moves us today in another way. It is categorically impossible.

What we receive in the Spirit’s intuition needs to be certified by the teaching of God’s Word.

We often feel like the exception to the rule— just like Solomon. And, we even spiritualize our disobedience. 

 

Where does the enemy really attack?

Many times the enemy chooses to attack us not in the areas in which we’re the weakest, but in the areas where we’re strong. Or, even if it’s not the enemy, that’s the area where we may find ourselves tempted to leap ahead of the Spirit and move in our own  strength.

Think about it…

How was Solomon able to build an empire so rapidly— how could he collect horses and wives and money?

Answer: he was extremely wise.

And where did he get the wisdom?

Answer: It was supernatural. God gave it to him. 

Like Solomon, you might be able to look back at your life, identity the areas the enemy attacked, and recognize that those were your strongest areas. Because of that, and because you could manage those areas in your own strength, you did. And that is what left you vulnerable.

Here’s the tension: 

  • The Lord supernaturally gifts us so that we can out-perform what we’re able to do in our own strength. He wants to do immeasurably more than we can ask, think, or imagine— as Paul proposes (Ephesians 3:19-20). 
  • At the same time, grace sticks almost exclusively to weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9-11). In other words, we’ve got to consistently remind ourselves where the gifts originate as well as the purposes for which we have them.

Circle back to 2 Timothy 3:16-17. Scripture is given for teaching and for reproof, that is, for disapproval. That’s another word that’s fallen out of use in the church today. Whereas God never disapproves of me and you— anymore than I disapprove of my kids— He sometimes disapproves of the things we do. Because we’re apt to lean on feelings or what we “hear” in prayer, He offers an objective signpost— a written Word that’s always in alignment with the living expression. Adhering to that written expression of His heart is what we mean by “instructional obedience.” We'll hit that concept in our next discussion, because it has everything to do with discovering the "will of God" for your life.

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