October 22, 2020

Mondays with Michael Spencer: June 6, 2016

Photo by Beth Wyse

Photo by Beth Wyse

Mondays with Michael Spencer: June 6, 2016

Today we continue a series of Monday posts with excerpts of Michael Spencer’s thoughts about the Bible and what it does and does not promise to do for us.

• • •

So why do we have four Gospels? To get the story right, and to get all the various sub-themes and sub-points into the recipe. Luke has more to say about Jesus’ compassion and inclusion of women than the other Gospels. It’s the same story as Mark, but you see it differently and you overhear more things that help you understand Jesus. John has a lot more of Jesus’ self-understanding and the depth of his identity in relation to the Father. He makes it much clearer than the other Gospels that faith is what takes hold of Jesus and receives all that he gives us.

Some of the Gospels have more about discipleship than others. When you understand who Jesus is, there is a life to be lived, but keep it straight. The Gospel is about Jesus and what he’s done, not really about you and what you’ve done. All the Gospels show the disciples as pretty disappointing, so the bar is set about right for me and for most of you.

So this book actually goes to an immense amount of trouble to tell us the important things. If you go off and treat it as an aisle in the grocery store to shop for “verses that speak to me,” that’s your perfect right, but you are missing the point. And if you miss the point of the important books in the Bible, you miss the whole message. Screw around with the recipe….No cake. A lot of people in a lot of churches haven’t had any cake in a long time. They are getting a lot of something, but all together it doesn’t amount to Jesus Christ, crucified God, meaning of life. Believe and be saved.

One of the nice things about the New Testament is how so many of the books tell us what they are all about on a first reading. In fact, we can actually have no clue about some of the individual verses and passages and still get the meaning of the book. For example, I really have no clue what some parts of the book of Revelation are all about, but I think I get the meaning of the book pretty well: Jesus is the key to history. He wins. He makes a new world and we get to enjoy it. Before that happens, things will get pretty awful for many Christians, and you have to decide if you are going to be loyal to Jesus. So even if I don’t understand all the magic verses, I understand how the book of Revelation fits into the Bible, and I see that its larger message is more important than any individual passage.

My favorite example is Hebrews. Here is a book that explains the entire Bible to you in a Christ-centered way. Now some of Hebrews is difficult, and some may never be clear to some of us, but what is the book about? I’d say, “Hebrews tells us that everything in the Old Testament was leading us to Jesus. Jesus completes and fulfills everything in Judaism, and in fact, he speaks the final Word from God to all of us about everything in relation to God.” The OT is shadow, Jesus is reality. It’s a great book.

Paul’s letters are more eclectic. Romans and Ephesians are highly thematic, while I Corinthians and the Thessalonians are more diverse in topics. Still, in every book there are larger passages whose themes point us in the important directions. We can get diverted into head coverings or double predestination or the nature of wifely submission, but these matters can be interpreted various ways without damaging the inspired function of these books in relation to Jesus Christ.

The New Testament books, rightly interpreted, lead us to Jesus the great mediator, and his great Gospel. They lead us to faith in Jesus and discipleship. They lead us away from superstition, legalism and mysticism to life and resurrection, hope and a new world arriving in Jesus. They lead us to a Kingdom where love and washing feet are the rules, and power is God’s to give, not ours to play with.

The New Testament isn’t a collection of verses on how to be a success in business or how to cast demons out of unruly teens. It tells us how to think and live in a world of mammon, and what is the truth that sets teenagers and their parents free to live with failure, disappointment and death. It tells us of the cross and the empty tomb, of Jesus’ compassion and his victory. This isn’t a book of plans, principles and magic bullets for life’s problems. It is the New Testament of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

• • •

Photo by Beth Wyse at Flickr.


  1. Ronald Avra says

    Good summary

  2. Richard Hershberger says

    Testify, brother!

  3. If what we call the New Testament had turned out to consist only of the four Gospels and Acts, I wonder what difference this would have made in our personal world and the world at large.

    • Rick Ro. says

      Excellent question! I, too, have wondered what the world (and maybe more specifically, “the Christian church”) would be like had Paul’s epistles, James, etc been treated as nothing more than how we treat Christian books today, good stuff to read and mull over, but not THE WORD OF GOD. It seems to me that a lot of “bad religion” stems from those add-on books.

      • Perhaps we should regard them as extra-biblical stuff. Christianity has been ‘split’ ever since Peter and Paul disagreed publicly. Yet we don’t seem to have a lot of Peter’s words recorded in the canon.

        …maybe we shouldn’t even have a canon per se.

        • The early church was settled pretty early on having Paul’s writings in the Canon. However much we may bemoan their recent abuse, let’s not all become Marcionites in response, eh? 😉

        • Rick Ro. says

          Actually, the way I see it, I think a lot of stuff we experience as Christians could be short little add-ons and addendums to the Bible.

        • Robert F says

          StuartB, If we didn’t “have a canon”, everything would be canon, and everybody would add and subtract the books they like or dislike. If you think there is disunity in the Church today, just watch what happens if ever the canon is opened up.

          • Rick Ro. says

            The Epistle of Rick Ro. to the church of Kent, WA. Grace and peace to you, brethren. Drink more beer!

            Yep, not so good.

          • Robert F says

            Exactly what I’m talking about. Just watch the personal revelations multiply, and turn into new gospels and epistles and who knows what else, maybe The Acts of the Super Apostles.

          • flatrocker says

            Kinda like turning 73 books into 66.
            And then turning 66 into KJV only.

            StuartB actually has a valid point. Why stop with 66? And if one set of canon is viewed as more licit over another simply because of the historicity, then why not consider the full 73.

            If not, then allow the canon to be whatever you want it to be. Isn’t that partially what the reformation was about when the “canon was opened up?”

            Why the freedom then but not now?

          • Robert F says

            Well, at the Reformation the Protestant churches rejected some books of the OT on the basis of current scholarship, which disputed the place of those books in the Jewish canon existent at the time the Church came into being. Today scholarship disputes that there was such a canon to begin with, either comprising the Catholic or the Protestant versions. But there is no dispute about the extent of the NT canon: on this Catholics and Protestants agree, and that’s what the discussion has been about heretofore on this thread, the NT as witness to Jesus Christ.

            I wonder, flatrocker: How do you adjudicate the difference between the Eastern Orthodox OT canon, which is larger, and the Roman Catholic OT canon, which is smaller? Which is the true canon? A problem of differing OT canons existed before the Reformation occurred.

          • flatrocker says

            While “dispute” may be too strong a word, within the content of this particular thread, StuartB and Ric Ro raise a valid point on what should constitute the NT. By simply referencing historicity or “current scholarship,” aren’t you requiring them to submit to a higher authority than their own conscience? What if they don’t recognize or submit to such authority? What if that authority is recognized as the source of confusion and dispute, which seems to be their point.

            So where does that leave us all? Do we watch the personal revelations multiply (re: the Jeffersonian Bible)?. This is the valid point you raise in the thread – of which I agree btw. The issue that I raise is why must others submit to your (or mine for that matter) recognized authority? Within a reformation mindset, Isn’t conscience and personal revelation enough?

            As for the EO canon, touche. Our conversation is as ancient as the faith.

          • Robert F says

            Well, they obviously do not have to submit to any authority in this matter. They can do their own thing. The question is: what books will the gathered Church use in its corporate worship, its prayer and theological reflection? They are free to question to what extent the canon should be open (some would say that it’s always open, in any case); but then they have to convince the rest of us that their additions and/or subtractions should be observed in our worship together, that Bibles should be changed or eliminated, etc. Then their changes must have the kind of self-authenticating power that the NT canon has (remember that, though no universal council ever defined the NT canon, the extent of the canon was a settled by around 500 CE; this was due to what I consider the self-authenticating power in those gathered texts), which includes the staying power to survive intact for generations and centuries. If they can pull that off, then I’ll go along with their changes, should I still be alive, Methuselah-like.

    • Robert F says

      Some of the Epistles, especially the ones attributed to Paul himself, are the oldest literature in the New Testament. They were written and circulated long before the Gospels were composed and redacted, by a period of decades. They are the oldest strand of witness to the life and resurrection of Jesus in the canon; on what basis would it be academically legitimate to treat them as lesser authorities than the Gospels, when they were composed closer to the historical events witnessed in the Gospels, and so themselves are actually earlier written witnesses? That makes no sense to me.

      • Rick Ro. says

        Valid point!

      • Robert, recent discovery of a Mark fragment that dates to the 40’s would rival Paul’s earliest letters.

        • Robert F says

          That fragment, if authenticated, would go back to around 90 CE; Paul’s body of authentic letters go back to 55 CE, or so. There would still be a gap of decades between Paul and the earliest Gospel.

          • Robert F says

            To be clear: Both Paul and the Gospels use and refer to very ancient traditions, and both interpret them. But Paul can by no means be demonstrated to be an corrupted “add on” to the pure Gospels: the finished letters Paul were there at the beginning, in a way the finished Gospels weren’t.

  4. The book of Hebrews literally tells us what it is about:

    8:1-2 “Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man.”

    For most of my adulthood, having a high priest seemed irrelevant to the questions in my life. But perhaps I’ve been asking the wrong kinds of questions… setting up the wrong tent.

    • Rick Ro. says

      I, too, viewed that as irrelevant, but when I did a study on Hebrews a couple years back I had a revelation: to me, it’s saying that all that stuff God and the Jews had established to “get right with God” (priesthood, temple, sacrifice) is taken care of by Jesus. He’s High Priest of his own sacrifice, with His body as the temple! All that stuff that God told the Jews is required to get right with Him is taken care of by one man, Jesus Christ! Over and done!

  5. Rick Ro. says

    I hadn’t read Hebrews (and understood it) until about two years ago. Then it was like scales falling from my eyes. Brilliant book, and as Michael Spencer pointed out in this short essay, it’s very clear about all that OT stuff being a shadow of Jesus’ reality.

  6. I LOVE that picture! I grew up in the Great Lakes area and remember seeing the churches on the corners in older residential neighborhoods. Now they are almost extinct, being replaced by multi-family dwellings 🙁

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