This is the fourth in a five week series based on Adam Hamilton’s book Half Truths. I particularly enjoyed researching this saying. I hope you will enjoy this sermon. As always, please feel free to share any feedback you may have! – Jonathan
Half Truths: God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It
A Sermon Preached at Shiloh United Methodist Church – Stanton, KY
Rev. Jonathan K. Tullos
September 4, 2016
1 Peter 2:13-14 (NLT)
13 For the Lord’s sake, submit to all human authority—whether the king as head of state, 14 or the officials he has appointed. For the king has sent them to punish those who do wrong and to honor those who do right.
One of the greatest things I have experienced in my career as a paramedic has been that I have been able to have some great partners. I’ve had a few that I would rather forget and many who I am grateful for and will never forget. One of those great partners was Brother Mike. Brother Mike is an ordained Southern Baptist pastor who serves a small church near my hometown. At the time he was only drawing a part time salary so he worked at the ambulance service on my shift to pay his bills. As we were both pastors we were regularly put together. We always seemed to have unique opportunities to minister to many people we would come into contact with and we also got to have many great conversations about our faith, about God himself and about the Bible. As he is Baptist and I’m Methodist, you can imagine that while we did agree on many things we had some interesting conversations about the views we held differently.
One such conversation happened when we were on our way back to town from a transfer We were talking about scripture and how to best understand it. I had just taken a workshop on the various ways we can look at the bible and one of the things the presenter covered heavily was how John Wesley used scripture itself, tradition, reason, and experience to determine if what he was hearing, reading, or believing was true. Brother Mike listened to me and said, “Well, that sounds nice but I’ve always been of the opinion that we should just take the Bible as it is, unvarnished, and as God’s word. He said it, I believe it, that settles it.” This was not the first time I had heard this expression. Being in Mississippi and growing up around a lot of Baptists, one heard this saying quite a bit. In light of what I had been learning through my own study of how to understand scripture, this was the first occasion where I can remember truly pondering the meaning of this saying.
During this series on Half Truths, we have been looking at sayings that sound biblical but really aren’t, at least not in the way we say them. I acknowledge that with you knowing how I have treated the other sayings you may be growing a little uncomfortable right now, perhaps because you think that perhaps I’m going to make a case for why we can’t trust the Bible. I assure you, that’s not what I’m out to do. But what I do want to challenge you to do today is to think about how you have understood scripture and perhaps to consider a new way to think about what we read and hear about. The point that I want to make is this: We are not meant to check our brains at the church door and just take things at face value. It’s ok to question and to wrestle with things we read in scripture. God gave us brains and I believe we should use them to our fullest ability, including when we read the Bible. To simply take the Bible at face value and chalk it up to “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” shows a very simplistic view of the Bible. We don’t truly get the message, we simply get a few grapes off the vine and call it good.
Perhaps you were raised in a similar fashion as me: If something was in the Bible, you better not dare question it. I can remember when I was growing up that I would ask someone what something in the Bible meant or why it was there and more often than not I was simply told that it’s a sin to questions something we read in the Bible because it’s God’s word. I certainly believe that the Bible is God’s inspired word. But I don’t believe this means that things we see within the pages of these books are not above being questioned, pondered and wrestled with. Think of exercise: If you want bigger muscles, you have to exercise them. When you lift weights you are pushing against a force putting resistence against your body. By pushing against this resistance you’re growing stronger and can exercise with more and more weight. The next thing you know, you’re in a great shape and can even keep going.
The same is true when we flex our spiritual muscles and push against the resistance of questions and doubt. When we wrestle with the things in the Bible that we may not understand or perhaps even make us uncomfortable, we are opening ourselves to truly hearing God’s voice and the message he wants us to receive from his word. As we continue to wrestle, to pray, ponder, and study we grow stronger in our faith and in our knowledge of God’s will and nature. It’s ok to question and wrestle. Doing such exercise is how we get in better shape.
The short passage I read out of 1 Peter 2 is one of those passages that is often wrestled with. If we take literally and completely at face value what we read in Peter’s letter we may believe that God wants us to bow down and kowtow to all of our earthly leaders no matter what, period, full stop. We can think that it’s our God-decreed responsibility to, without question, follow the commands of any earthly leader no matter who this person is or what they ask us to do. But what if the leader is a dictator like Kim Jong Un of North Korea, who starves his people to death while getting rich off of their backs. His latest shenanigans involve his education minister who fell asleep during a meeting of the Communist leadership of North Korea. Kim Jong Un was so incensed by this transgression that he executed two high level North Korean officials… with a large caliber anti-aircraft gun. If we take 1 Peter 2 literally, are we to believe that this is someone worthy of giving our undying obedience to?
The simple answer is, of course not! No tyrant should ever be given this kind of affection and God certainly wouldn’t ordain such actions. Such is the danger of taking such passages literally at face value without regard to its true meaning. Taking 1 Peter 2 literally has several dangers, including that we could in theory use it to force someone to bow down to tyranny or, perhaps even worse, to express a notion that God condones such dictators and their actions. Yes, that people like Kim Jong Un, Hitler, and all of the worst dictators throughout history were put in their positions by God and that he orchestrated their actions. This is, of course, untrue and can cast God in a poor and false light. To be clear: God does not do these things. Such is not God’s nature!
We are not people called to check our brains at the church house door and leave them there. Christians are called to use our intellect to figure these things out and, yes, this even applies to when we come to worship and when we study the Bible. We have all sorts of tools for doing this, from commentaries to study Bibles and so much more. When I prepare for a sermon I not only study over the scripture itself extensively but I also take time to pray over it to ask God’s revelation for it. I also consult multiple commentaries, dictionaries, handbooks, and often look at Greek or Hebrew interlinear Bibles, which show the English and original languages in order to flesh it all out. My sermons may seem long but believe it or not they only average about 20 minutes or so. In order to prepare for that 20 minute sermon, I spend many hours per week in study.
If we were even intended to look at scripture through the lens of “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” then me spending all that time in prayer, preparation and writing in order to be standing up here preaching about God’s word would be a waste of time for both me and you. All we would have to do is read our Bibles and just let that be that. It’s really wrestling with scripture and trying to figure out the true message that draws us closer to God. Grappling and meditating on God’s word is the stuff that helps us to grow in our faith and in our understanding about God. It’s also in the course of this exercise that we become better equipped as disciples who will go from this place to make other disciples.
If we want to believe in terms of scripture that God said it then we totally remove the human equation from scripture. In other words, we remove the humanity of the authors who wrote down these words under divine inspiration. We have to remember that these were human beings who were inspired by God to write and to tell of things they were feeling in their very souls. To believe that this is God always speaking through them is to believe that God was dictating a message to robotic secretaries in this world and I just do not see how that could be true. Scripture itself does not indicate that this is the case. There are certainly a lot of places where the writer indicates that the words are from God but the vast majority of the time the authors make it clear that they are writing their own thoughts and ideas about what God’s will is for mankind. Even Paul never claimed that he and God were of one mind, Paul in several places very plainly states that the words written are his and his alone. To state that “God said it” means we totally remove humanity from scripture.
Yes, God inspired scripture. God is sometimes quoted in scripture. But did God dictate every word of the Bible? Not very likely. To simply say that “God said it” when it comes to any given piece of scripture just is not usually true and oversimplifies the message that scripture contains.
A similar thing happens when we say “That settles it.” We oversimplify the work that it takes to really get at the heart of what scripture is saying to us. It takes away the important work which has been done in translating from the original languages and trying to figure out what the author intended for the reader to understand. Let’s take a look at John 3:16, which I’m sure every single one of us can at least paraphrase. In the verse where perish is rendered, the Greek word is apollumi and it can indeed mean perish. But it can also mean to die, to be destroyed, to be lost, killed, or ruined. Each one of those possibilities can make the message of the verse slightly different depending on which translation one decides is most appropriate given the context and other factors.
Even Jesus at times did not agree with the traditional rendering of texts in the ancient Jewish tradition. How often in the gospels is it recorded him saying something like, “You have heard it said… But I tell you…?” Jesus was doing a type of push back against traditional interpretation called midrash, where rabbis would attempt to explain what a text was talking about. As the apostles studied and debated about the meaning of scripture, they also realized that the authors of these writings were, at the end of the day, humans. Even under the inspiration of God they were not immune from bringing their own experiences and circumstances into their writings. If we were in the room with them and simply said, “Well God said it, I believe it, that settles it” they may well look at us as if we’re crazy. They simply did not subscribe to that notion. The same goes for the majority of the early church fathers.
We can all sit around all day and debate how to best determine what a passage of scripture is saying and how we should apply it to our lives. Even when we disagree about these methods, I believe we can all agree on one thing. Jesus gave us the best lens through which we can weigh out what scripture is saying when he gave us the greatest commandment, to love God with all our soul, mind, body, and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Does the way we interpret a passage line up to that? Does the way in which we feel we are called to apply the scripture to our way of living line up with loving God and loving our neighbor? If the answers are no then we still have some work to do. We need to get some more exercise. Let’s make a new commitment to stretch and strengthen our spiritual muscles. In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – Amen.