Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Written On Their Hearts

“Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham …”

“Scripture imprisoned everything under sin …”

Yes, the scripture is indeed the word of God. All the same, I have great confidence in assuring you that scripture — graphē, if you prefer Greek — did not do a single thing described in these verses. Not literally. A piece of paper, papyrus or animal skin does not “foresee”. It does not “preach”. It does not “imprison” anyone.

It can’t. It couldn’t. Ink, paper, the printed medium — these things are inanimate.

A Reflection of Something Greater

And actually, that’s not what the apostle Paul is teaching in Galatians, is it. He is using figurative language, something with which we are all familiar. He is telling us that God knew he would justify the Gentiles at one point, and therefore passed on that wonderful news in writing through his prophet Abraham much, much earlier in history, so we would be ready for it when it happened. He’s telling us that God imprisoned everything under sin, and left that information for us in written form so we would come to grips with a problem that besets us all.

But men were not bound by what scripture teaches in the law of Moses because they had read the Hebrew Old Testament, understood it, or interacted with it, although doing those things certainly made them more responsible to obey it. They were bound because it reflects reality, whether they comprehended it or not. The “work of the law is written [graptos] on their hearts,” says Romans. That thing which the law transferred onto tablets of stone was grander and greater and more demanding and more gracious than any human language, words or set of characters could adequately express. Law is just a way of formalizing the external expression of a heartfelt obedience to the Creator in which humanity functions at its best.

So the law of Moses — like the prophets, psalms, gospels and epistles after it — reflects the truth, but truth is not limited to its expression in written form.

Truth That Cannot Be Erased

The scripture is God acting, speaking, anticipating and pronouncing his verdict. It affirms this formally, when it says things like “all scripture is breathed out by God and profitable.” It affirms it informally, when it says things like, “The scripture did this” and “The scripture did that.”

Paul said the scriptures spoke to Pharaoh. Again, that’s impossible. They weren’t even written at that point. They could not even speak to the king of Egypt figuratively, let alone literally. We are reading about a figure of a figure.

But Moses spoke to Pharaoh, didn’t he. When he spoke, he spoke God’s words. Those words were eternal. They could not be erased. Years later, they were written down for us, and Paul could rightly say, “The scripture says to Pharaoh …”

Speaking of Moses, here’s another one:
“Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife, but leaves no child, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother.”
Let’s leave aside the specific subject matter. It does not make a difference for our purposes. The fact is this: “Moses wrote for us.” We can stop there. The “wrote” there is graphō. It’s the word from which we get the idea of “scripture” in the first place. Moses put the word of God in writing, and he did it not just for his own generation but for a generation 1,500 years or more down the road. I can say with confidence that Moses also wrote for our generation, not that we should learn to obey the Mosaic law — God forbid — but that we should learn the lessons Israel did not.

More Than a Book

So when the book of Hebrews tells us that the word of God is “living and active”, this is precisely the sort of thing that is meant. We have that word on paper, or on our Kindles, or on YouTube, or in our hearts. The ancients had it on scrolls and parchment. It has been translated into virtually every written language in the world and printed by so many different people at so many times and places that nobody can even come close to keeping track of the copies that exist or have existed.

But scripture is more than a book, or a series of books, or even a specific set of words in any language. The God who spoke the universe into being spoke truth to mankind. That truth did not wait to be written down to become living, active and powerful. It was all those things long before it made its way into the form we know and love today. We may obscure its meaning a little by mistranslating, misquoting and misinterpreting it, but when we do that we have not changed the scripture itself, only our own ability to correctly apprehend it.

The word is out there in the world. It cannot be contained. Someone else is always getting it right and putting it into practice, even as we are distorting its meaning for ourselves and others.

We cannot recline at Jesus’ side as the apostle John did, or sit at the Lord’s feet like Mary. These options are not open to us in our day. We cannot personally interact with the incarnate God. The option you and I have open to us is to pursue with every fiber of our beings the most accurate possible understanding of what God has said about his Son, and then take those truths and incarnate them in our personal experiences day by day.

If there is a better goal to which Christians can devote ourselves, I can’t think what it might be.

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