The summer of 1975 I wandered into Wacker’s General Store and found a copy of Jaws. I had never heard of the title before, but the blurb on the back cover told me I needed to read it right away.
Bantam had listed the book at a ridiculously high $1.95. I got a copy from the library instead, and finished it in three days. I was also careful to avoiding mentioning to my mother I had encountered material not meant for eighth grade eyes.
That was my initiation into the world of thick, clunky novels. The rest of the summer saw me rack up an impressive list of reads, ranging from sci-fi to detective pulps. Since I was feeling such a surge of intellectual momentum, I decided to give the Bible a try.
I chose my family’s enormous black coffee table edition. Smaller Bibles were available, but I figured the bigger and heavier, the holier it would be.
I decided to read it out in the woods, thinking if I changed my setting from seventies kitsch to pine forest, it might flow better.
At the end of my street (like a lot of Louisiana streets) was a jungle. A path led off the road into underbrush and trees. People came and went along that path carrying hunting rifles and fishing equipment all the time, but never before or probably since did a boy in a faux silk disco shirt ever go down there carrying a fifteen pound Bible.
I got comfortable on a pine stump and started reading Genesis 1:1. The creation account was inspiring enough. But my reading mojo quickly stalled. Three chapters in, I was done. This book wasn’t like the others that I had sopped up with a biscuit. The author (God/Moses) seemed to have an agenda that went beyond narration. I began to feel a low-level moral obligation to it and uncomfortable. I was thirteen and didn’t know what any of those feelings meant. I put the Bible away and finished Tarzan of the Apes instead. People tend to stick with what they know.
I tried reading the Scriptures again over the years at various times with the same results. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Once in 1982 I got as far as Leviticus, but couldn’t wrap my mind around all the cook-outs going on in that book. Plus my religious mood passed. Before I knew it I was back to Stephen King.
I might have been done with the Bible, but it wasn’t done with me. A few years later I was born again, an event that began to change everything.
That night I dug out an abused old paperback Bible that had been sitting under a pile of stereo speaker wires, joke books, and an electronic chess set.
This time something seemed right. The content hadn’t changed, but I had. During that first month of Bible reading, I remember meeting Jesus in the four gospels with a crystal clarity I’d never before experienced. It was a landmark time for me. But to be honest, I can’t say I remember much beyond Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
The epistles (or, letters) just didn’t do it for me. Their phraseology and deep concepts seemed impenetrable. I noticed that other Christians felt the same way. I remember sitting in too many Bible studies where we tried to tackle an epistle by dumbing it down to more familiar territory.
No matter what we handled, whether it was Ephesians or 2 Corinthians, the lesson learned was always some type of Veggie-tale admonition—“And so, this reminds us to always be kind, honest, patient or ________________” (fill in the blank with an appropriate Christian ethic). At other times we’d settle on a foundational thought like Jesus loving us no matter what.
Now there’s nothing wrong with Christian ethics or foundational truth, but even as a new Christian I doubted every difficult passage in the epistles had a simplistic connect-the-dots meaning.
I solved the problem by mainly sticking with the Old Testament heroes and the Jesus story. I was a new believer. Why monkey around with advanced calculus?
I eventually came to realize though, that those epistles served a different phase of Christian life and ministry. Where the narrative portions of the Bible tended to tell the story, the epistles taught the implications and applications of it.
In the gospels for instance, we can see the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus as a historical event. In the epistles we find out the implications of those events on the past, present, and future and their applications at home, at work, in the church, and in every situation of life. Yes, that’s kind of a big deal.
If you really want to grow in faith, you can’t do without those further words. Some have tried. One outspoken guy I knew claimed that the epistles were simply the religious opinions of the apostles and no more authoritative than anyone else’s views. “I’m sticking with the words of Jesus in red!” he told me.
The problem is we don’t have any words of Jesus, much less in red. Jesus never directly wrote anything. All we have are what the apostles said that He said. And the apostles, according to my friend, were not authoritative sources of truth. Of course that leaves my friend in a logical quandary, because basically, the apostles whom he doesn’t want to hear wrote all the stuff in red, which my friend reads and treats as the Word of God.
Secondly, Jesus told the apostles that He had more to say (John 16:12), but they couldn’t bear it at the time. His further word came to them through the Holy Spirit and was written out in the epistles.
If you only stay with the four gospels only, you deprive yourself of Jesus 2.0. Incidentally, the guy I alluded to above, no longer follows Christ. He finally encountered situations that demanded an advanced word from—you guessed it—the epistles. In a lot of ways he could have been helped by paying attention to the words of Jesus in black.
Maybe we’re put off by seeing the introductions of the various letters beginning with Paul or Peter or John. But take a closer look at a verse like Colossians 1:1. Paul was an apostle (“sent one”) of Christ Jesus by the will of God. If that is true, it means the ultimate source in that verse is not a man at all.
The will of God is the originating address, the sending authority. We’re not dealing with somebody’s religious ideas, even informed ones. God gave Paul his particular content over a long period of time and then willed it to be sent through the letter.
Yes, Paul claims human authorship of the letter, but he himself would wholeheartedly agree that he was only part of the process, not the ultimate sender.
God willed the content of these letters to connect with us. If we want to get help from them, we have to learn not to pull them down to our level, but let them lift us up to theirs.
Consider what’s at stake in the epistles:
Romans—As a Christian, do you know where you were before Christ, where you are now, how you got there, and where you’re headed?
1 Corinthians—Do you know the difference between fleshly and spiritual living?
2 Corinthians—Is the ministry you follow (or claim to have) spiritually healthy? How would you know?
Galatians—Is your relationship with God performance based, or is it based on Christ?
Ephesians—What is God’s plan for you in relation to the church and His plan for the church in relation to the universe?
Philippians—What does the experience of Christ look like? Feel like?
Colossians—How big a deal is Christ, really?
1 Thessalonians—How should you live during this time before Jesus comes back?
2 Thessalonians—Are you accurately informed about the events surrounding Christ’s second coming?
1 Timothy—What does a healthy church look like?
2 Timothy—How should we serve God when spiritual decline surrounds us?
Titus—How do the people of a typical church honor and glorify God?
Philemon—What example do we have for handling social, racial, or economical differences in the church?
Hebrews—Why should we pay so much attention to Jesus and not merely settle for religion?
James—What should your faith look like when it is practiced?
1 Peter—How do you act when suffering for your faith?
2 Peter—What kind of provisions has God made for you to live according to His will?
1 John—Do you understand how to live in fellowship with God?
2 John—Does it matter what you believe about Jesus as long as you call Him “Jesus”?
3 John—How important is it to “walk the talk”?
Jude—What is the harm in wrong teaching?
Get ready. These further words of Jesus will take you places you’ve never been before.
You don’t have to read them out in the woods, either.
Photo credit: Todd Quackenbush