I’ve discussed this before, and discussed it both in my books When People Speak for God and Not Ashamed of the Gospel: Confessions of a Liberal Charismatic. I was asked after my Sunday School lesson last Sunday whether Zephaniah’s prophecy in 3:1-8 applied to America.
Let me annoy everyone: No and Yes.
There is pretty much nothing in the Bible that’s addressed to you. One could argue such passages as John 3:16, which are talk about the world in a way that probably encompasses all time. But in general, the words of the Bible are addressed to specific people at specific times. They are also spoken by specific people, but that’s a bit beyond this post.
I start this with the Ten Commandments. They were not written to you. We often treat them as the most universally applicable part of scripture there is, though we don’t actually keep them as Christians. As someone who grew up Seventh-day Adventist, I’m unusually aware of the Sabbath command. We Christians don’t even start to keep it, yet we pretend the Ten Commandments are central.
And we’re right not to keep them literally and specifically because we can read right at the start that they were addressed to a particular group of people at a particular time, and that group was not us, nor was that time now.
Nonetheless, if we consider the Bible in some sense inspired, we will see divine principles going into action in the life of the people of Israel. Those divine principles will be relevant, and will likely make those Ten Commandments applicable again—in principle. It’s interesting that while we claim to keep the Ten Commandments, and fail to do so literally, we also seem to miss out on the principles, such as not portraying God with any images. There’s an important principle behind that command, yet we create both mental and physical images of God that are both limiting and indestructible. God, for us, is in a box.
And that fourth commandment isn’t irrelevant. Time belongs to God because he’s the creator. In my view, God doesn’t claim less time, but rather more. How do we honor God with our time and recognize him as creator with each minute?
But further, the Bible was not written to people with our philosophical and scientific views. Our options for how to think about things have changed. So if we’re going to find the principles, we’re going to have to see through the cosmology and the metaphors and translate them to our time and place.
Why couldn’t God speak directly to us and make it clearer in our terms? I would suggest several things: 1) God does speak to us today if we’ll listen, 2) It’s important to realize that God has spoken at many times and in many ways (Heb. 1:1), 3) It’s important to become part of the faith community over time as well as across space and culture, 4) The search for God may well be more valuable than finding God.
I think that if we truly treated the Bible as the treasure it is, as the combined experience of a community of faith over time, it would help us understand how to be God’s community today. Understanding metaphors that are foreign to each of us personally can help us bridge the gaps that must be bridged every day in order to live as God’s people doing God’s work in God’s world.
God has spoken. God is speaking. God will speak some more.
Are we truly listening?
Note also: I’m Right and You’re Wrong: Why we disagree about the Bible and what to do about it by Steve Kindle.