My oldest son Sam, who has autism, loves to go to a local cafeteria in town. Ever since he was a little boy (he is now in his twenties), he has chosen the same things from the cafeteria line: Chocolate cake, pinto beans, mac and cheese, chocolate milk, roll. He never deviates from this.
We enjoy going to the cafeteria because everyone can get what they want. I like it when the line features liver and onions: something I never cook, and enjoy about twice a year. Everyone can eat fairly healthy, and exactly what they want. A cafeteria line is the ultimate in pick-your-own food.
The Bible, however, is not. Written by a number of different men who were inspired by God Himself, it gives us a direct line of communication to us from God. In studying the Bible, we have to take into consideration context, history, culture, and audience. Most importantly, though, we have to know Who God is, and that He never changes. Time, space, earth may change. Technology may change. God does not. We need to remember this in the study of Scripture. Picking and choosing what to believe in the Bible are activities of someone with a token faith.
A passage of Scripture that gets tossed around a lot is “God is love.” This verse is often quoted by people who use it to give themselves carte blanche permission to justify any number of sins. Quoting just “God is love,” is taking this very important part of Christian doctrine out of context and actually, diminishing its power. Coming from 1 John 4:8, the full verse is this: “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”
If we look at the verses around it, 1 John 4:7-11, the passage is much deeper than what is often quoted: “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”
This passage states that yes, God is love, and this is how He showed it: He sent His only Son, Jesus Christ, to give Himself as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Because of this, we should love others as God loved us. It does not give God’s stamp of approval on sin but explains that sin was why God sent Jesus to die for us. He not only loves us, He is love. We cannot possibly understand the depth of God’s love for us in our limited imagination ... but we can learn about God to deepen our relationship with Him through study of His Word. Because of God’s love, we can turn away from sin and because we have God’s love, we can encourage others to do the same. Jesus did not die an atoning death for us to wallow in continued sin.
Studying the Word also entails knowing about the history and culture of the time and place in which the Bible was written. This deepens our understanding of the gravity of the Father’s love for us. Knowing the background of Scriptures moves them to being just Bible stories to communications from our Lord. We see the soundbite Scripture, “I can do all things through him who gives me strength,” but it’s when we read this in context with the historical knowledge that Paul wrote this while in chains, imprisoned for the Name of Christ, that we fully grasp what the Lord is telling us through this passage:
“I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength,” Philippians 4:11-13.
The Philippians passage gives us a clear picture of contentment. No matter what circumstance Paul found himself in, he was content, because of his relationship with Jesus. The strength that Paul had was solely based in Christ. We too can have this level of contentment and joy in any circumstance in which we find ourselves, by totally surrendering to Christ. Scripture tells us how to do this: “Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” [Matthew 16:24].
Taking up the cross and denying ourselves does not mean living a life of silence in a monastery, beating ourselves with sticks and leather on a daily basis. It means that we daily put Jesus first, others second and ourselves last. I like the acronym “JOY,” for if you take the first letter of the words “Jesus-Others-Yourself,” you will find JOY. Taking up your cross means that you end the token offerings of a shallow, “have-to-do-this,” checkmark Christianity and you replace it with real, deep, solid, Jesus-first, can’t-wait-to-pray-and-study-the-Word faith. This kind of faith does not happen because of a one-time act but a daily desire to get closer to Christ.
In studying the Word, knowing the audience of particular books is important too. The message of Romans is different than the passage in Hebrews but the point is the same: Jesus was born to die so that we may be, through Him, reborn and live. The audience of Hebrews (Jewish people in Israel) would have not understood the legal discourse that is the book of Romans, as that book was written for the legal-minded people of Rome. The Romans would not have understood the deep religious meanings behind High Priests, Melchizedek, or the curtain, but the audience of Hebrews understood those examples.
Most importantly, when studying the Bible, knowing Who God is, through His Word, helps us not to be cafeteria-plan Christians. The God of the Old Testament is the God of the New Testament. Jesus said, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End,” in Revelation 22:13. Sins that were mentioned in the Old Testament were sins still in Jesus’ time, and in our time today. The specific words “homosexual” or “abortion” may not have passed over Jesus’ lips, but Father God did mention homosexuality and killing children. Psalm 55:19 states, “God, who is enthroned from of old, who does not change — He will hear them and humble them, because they have no fear of God.”
Jesus was very clear that He and the Father are One, along with the Holy Spirit: “Jesus replied, ‘If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me. Though you do not know him, I know him. If I said I did not, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and obey his word. Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.’
“’You are not yet fifty years old,’” they said to him, ‘and you have seen Abraham!’
“’Very truly I tell you,’” Jesus answered, “’before Abraham was born, I am!’” At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.” [John 8:54-59]
Jesus, God the Father, and the Holy Spirit are one. This is called the Trinity. If God the Father said that homosexuality is a sin, then Jesus also said it. Christians who barely dust off their Bibles, or don’t study it, or pick and choose what in the Bible to believe have no grounds to stand on when they make the poor argument that “Jesus didn’t say it.” Christ-centered, true Christians do not hate people who are homosexual. On the contrary, Christ-centered, true Christians love the person but hate the sin – just like God – and homosexuality, according to God, is sin.
For nonbelievers, or Christians who pick and choose Scriptures to believe, this is a hard concept to understand. When one reads and studies the Bible, aided by the direction and guidance of the Holy Spirit which indwells all believers, it is crystal clear. Satan, the deceiver, wants people to not believe, or study the Word – and he incites people to twist Scriptures to serve his evil purpose. His purpose is to draw people further away from God and solidly into hell.
Christians need to remember that all Scripture – ALL Scripture – is from God. “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work,” [2 Timothy 3:16-17].
The Word of God can stand on its own. It can affect people to repent, to act, to pray, to think and to worship. Christians must understand the power of God through the Scriptures, and the only way to do that – and to know when Satan is trying to twist the Word to deceive us – is to study.
The two verses in 2 Timothy above this passage are crucial to understanding this. “ But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”
Studying Scripture is an ongoing process. We don’t just read the Bible once and get it, as the Holy Spirit can use the very same verses you’ve read a dozen times in new and fresh ways. It is also critically important to learn the Bible from knowledgeable, Christ-centered, Bible-believing teachers, just as Timothy learned the Scriptures from two special believers – his mother and grandmother. The Bible is the roadmap to lead others to salvation in Jesus Christ, and its words and teachings will draw you closer to God – especially if you apply what you learn to your everyday lives, for the Word is not meant to be put on the shelf of your heart to be taken out on special occasions, but to be on the side table for easy access, well-read and prayed over. Praying the Scriptures, as I did in Africa, is a powerful way to worship God.
Cafeteria-plan Christians tend to pick-and-choose the Scriptures they believe. Some might believe that Jesus loves them and will never leave them, but balk at believing that God shut the mouths of lions when Daniel was thrown to them. They may believe that Jesus died for them but a virgin birth is out of the question. Picking Scriptures to believe like you’re picking your lunch from a cafeteria line diminishes the power of the Word. “OK, I’ll have some meatloaf and mashed potatoes, but not green beans, and definitely not corn, but I will take two rolls and some sweet tea.” That’s like saying, “OK, I’ll have some God is love and He hears my prayers, but not that Jonah swallowed by a whale thing, and definitely not being against homosexuality, but I will take the creation theory and some sweet tea.”
Beloved, when we do this, we are creating a god (lower case g) in our image, of what we want. We don’t get to choose what God deems to be sins. We are not God. “’For my thoughts are not your
thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord,’” [Isaiah 55:8].
We can have head knowledge of the Bible, and win Bible trivia games, and still not have a relationship with the Lord. Jesus said in the Book of John, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about
me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life,” [5:39-40].
As long as the Word of God is trivial in your life, and you pick and choose what to believe, instead of believing God in all His Word, committing His promises to heart, a relationship with Him will be another facet of token faith: empty, shallow, and without root.
This post is an excerpt from my book "Token Faith: Moving from Fake to Real Faith in Jesus Christ." It can be found at Park Road Books in Charlotte, NC or online here.
(c) 2017 Terrie McKee
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