Sometime on the first day of the week, the same day that Jesus was raised from the dead, two of Jesus’ disciples walked despondently on a road headed for Emmaus. Luke tells us that one’s name was Cleopas, while he leaves the other disciple unnamed. This sad stroll turned out to be a road to hope and joy unimaginable. This is because Jesus himself came along side to walk and talk with them (see Luke 24:13- 53).
At first they didn’t recognize him. Luke tells us that their eyes we kept from doing so. Jesus inquired from them what they were discussing and found that they were left hopeless because the one they thought to be the deliverer of Israel had turned out to be another would-be-but-failed crucified-messiah as others before and after him, or so they thought. They told him of the strange reports of Jesus’ missing body and visions of angels as reported by the women who claimed he was again alive, but they still didn’t believe that he could possibly have been raised from the dead. They were still hopeless. That’s when Jesus begins to reprove them.
Luke 24:25-27 (NRSV)
“Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”
As they walked along a dusty road to Emmaus, Jesus took them on a life-changing journey through the word of God, all the scriptures. He reproves them for the foolishness of being “slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared.” Luke seems to emphasize the importance of all the scriptures again in verse 27. Later when Jesus appears in flesh and bone to these same disciples along with some of the others Luke highlights again how he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, all of them, beginning with Moses, the Torah, as well as the writings and the prophets.
Only after having their minds opened to understand the scriptures, all of them, were these two disciples able to recognize Jesus in the breaking of bread later at their house. We too would do well to heed Jesus’ reproof.
Throughout history there have been those who seek to do away with certain portions of scripture for one reason or another. Marcion in the second century claimed that the entirety of the Old Testament and much of the New Testament was not to be heeded. According to his Gnostic bent he especially dismissed the Old Testament as being about an evil creator god rather than the true God revealed in Jesus Christ. There were others who followed suit.
About the same time Saint Irenaeus contended for “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3) with those whom he said were “boasting that they [were] correctors of the apostles”. He himself claimed that the scriptures, here specifically referring to those handed down by the apostles, were handed down by them “to be the foundation and pillar of our faith” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies III, p. 128 in Wiles & Santer “Documents in Early Christian Thought”). He insisted against his opponents, of whom he says “when they are refuted from the Scriptures they turn around and attack the Scriptures themselves, saying they are not correct, or authoritative, that they are mutually inconsistent and that the truth cannot be found from them …” (p. 128), that the scriptures are a true and authoritative word with regards to the genuine content of the Christian faith. Again Irenaeus’ opponents were Gnostics who had a very different idea of who Jesus was. For them he was a docetic enlightener rather than the incarnate Lord and atoning Savior who was raised bodily from the dead. They’re attack on the scriptures themselves sounds all too familiar. It seems that’s where the opponents of orthodoxy and/or traditional Christian morality usually end up, doesn’t it?
Muslims also reject the scriptures of the Old and New Testament as they are, insisting that they cannot be correct and must have been tampered with by Jews and Christians. Of course they too have a very different idea of who Jesus is.
Similarly, Mormons also reluctantly accept the Old and New Testaments “so far as they are translated correctly”, and that would be by their prophet, Joseph Smith. Again as a result they too have very different idea about who Jesus is.
I was involved with a group called the Way International for over a decade. They privileged seven Pauline epistles, Romans through Thessalonians, over the Gospels, the Old Testament and the rest of the New Testament. They ended up with a Jesus who was an absent Christ who was lord of some, but not Lord of all. Their Jesus had no preexistence at all before his birth in Bethlehem and was only human, not divine.
Others in some of the progressive camps try to privilege the four Gospels at the expense of the rest of the Bible, especially the writings of Paul. One professor I heard during a continuing education class that I was taking had us look up passages in some of the epistles such as Romans and Titus that referred to the importance of the “gospel” (singular). The professor then insisted that those verses meant that we should privilege the four Gospels (plural) over the rest of the New Testament. This ridiculously brazen attempt to mislead, which probably would have succeeded if I didn’t speak up, is all too common. Unsurprisingly the same professor also attempted to sideline passages of scripture that referred to Jesus as an atoning sacrifice as “divine child abuse” as is the custom in some progressive quarters. Tex Sample is a bit more subtle. In a talk I heard him give he spoke respectfully of the apostle Paul but warned that he got some things wrong. But Tex assured us that we shouldn’t be too surprised, because after all it was just Paul, not Jesus. Guess what Paul got wrong according to Sample! It’s a three letter word that begins with s and ends with x. Again we have an attempt to marginalize and dismiss scripture. But narrowing “the cannon within the cannon” down to the four Gospels really isn’t good enough for some.
I understand that a guest preacher who preached from the gospel of Matthew at Duke Chapel a few years ago said that she “wouldn’t want to go to Matthew’s church.” Too much judgment and talk of weeping and gnashing of teeth would be my guess. In an Advent devotional from Duke Divinity School last year, one of the writers commenting on the proclamation and warning of John the Baptist found in Matthew 3 as well as Luke 3 described it as “deeply disturbing.” She didn’t mean, however, that John’s message was disturbing because it was true and inspired the fear of God and repentance in the people who heard it as Luke and Matthew describe it, but that it was way too harsh and not really representative of the good news as it would be revealed in Jesus. The subtle implication was that John’s apocalyptic warning of judgment was not in the same spirit of the truly loving Jesus. Never mind that Luke calls Johns message “good news” himself (3:18), and that Jesus himself never wavered from warning people of severe judgment to come for those who did not repent! I suppose some will probably only be happy though with a Jesus Seminar version of the faith that boils it all down to a few benign wisdom sayings of Jesus.
Take retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, preaching the Good Friday before last at a church in Richmond from the gospel of John. His contempt for the doctrine of blood atonement, “divine child abuse” of course, wasn’t veiled. It is reported that he insisted that John’s gospel is not about Jesus dying for our sins because the Church just got all this stuff about us being sinners wrong in the first place. We don’t need to be saved from sin; we just need to be enlightened. Never mind the way Jesus is identified as “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” in John 1:29. And of course he would also tell you that the resurrection was just a metaphor for a heartwarming reminiscence about Jesus life and teaching, which of course would be in harmony with liberal theology and progressive political positions.
Then there’s the would-be-funny-if-it-wasn’t-so-horrible “correction” of the apostle Paul and Luke in Acts 16. According to the Katherine Jefferts Schori, the Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal church the apostle Paul was wrong for casting a divinizing spirit out of a slave girl simply because he was wrongfully annoyed with her speaking the truth about what he and Silas were up to. He just didn’t recognize the beauty of difference that the demon possessed girl was! How dare Paul deliver her from demon possession and the exploitation that came along with it! I wish I were kidding! The “correctors of the apostles” and I would add the prophets and Moses too are alive and well and still among us today.
Now the very popular United Methodist pastor, Rev. Adam Hamilton, has decided that he too wants to throw his hat and a bucket, bucket # 3 to be exact, into the ring as well. According to Hamilton, scripture falls into three buckets. The first two aren’t really all that controversial. The first bucket is for the scriptures that definitely capture the heart and will of God for all people and all times. The second is for the scriptural passages that were only meant for a certain time and place. The third bucket, however, catches the scriptures that never “reflected the heart and will of God” because they are “completely inconsistent with the God revealed in Jesus Christ.” Obviously bucket # 3 is a trash can for the passages of scripture that fly in the face of modern sensibilities, especially those that condemn the fashionable sexual sins of today. Similarly, Thomas Jefferson did literally what Rev. Hamilton seems to propose metaphorically; he cut out the verses of the New Testament that didn’t fit his enlightenment deistic worldview. Jefferson got a Jesus who was a great moral teacher but not so much a Savior and not really Lord. Undoubtedly, Hamilton’s method will end up giving us a truncated picture of Jesus as well after all those passages of scripture end up in bucket # 3.
This simply will not do and it will not stand. There is a better way of understanding scripture, and a start would be to recognize that much of scripture wasn’t inspired to reveal the heart and will of God so much as it was meant to reveal the depravity and deceitfulness of the human heart. Just read Romans 7, especially note verse 13, where Paul says that the purpose of Torah was to expose sin. There is a better way, a way of understanding that won’t put one in the perilous position of being a “corrector of the apostles” or the prophets or Moses or even Jesus himself because he himself insisted that all of scripture is the word of God down to the last jot and title (Matt 5:17-18). I can think of a better use for bucket # 3 and it’s certainly not for the word of God.
“Conservatives” beware too. Don’t be self-assured simply by the label! Do you privilege certain teachings of Paul at the expense of the Gospels and the rest of the Bible? Do you dismiss or downplay what Jesus said regarding how to inherit eternal life because it doesn’t seem to fit your understanding of justification according to Paul? Do you dismiss the Old Testament because Paul said “Christ is the end of the law” (Romans 10:4)? The same Paul said that the scriptures of the Old Testament are for our learning that through them we may have hope (Romans 15:4) and by them be warned to flee idolatry and sexual immorality (1 Cor 10:1-22)!
There are many ways to miss Jesus and all of us are susceptible. To put it directly, if we hardheartedly refuse to believe “all that the prophets have declared” in “all the scriptures” then we will not be able to recognize Jesus in the breaking of bread or otherwise. When we find ourselves missing certain portions of scripture, we’ll likewise find ourselves missing Jesus. We will also be ill prepared for the Christian life and ministry to which God call us. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 stands as a beautiful, concise summary statement of the importance of the written word, a truth which is expressed explicitly and implicitly throughout the rest of the Bible. Eugene Peterson provides us with a very poignant paraphrase in The Message.
2 Timothy 3:16-17 (MSG)
“There’s nothing like the written Word of God for showing you the way to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. Every part of Scripture is God-breathed and useful one way or another—showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, training us to live God’s way. Through the Word we are put together and shaped up for the tasks God has for us.”