By Ed Rybarczyk
Did you ever hear a pastor or priest pleading with his congregation to regularly read their Bibles? Me, too. I’ve attended several churches across my lifetime and I can’t think of a sole minister who didn’t promote Bible reading and study to the local congregation. It goes without saying that the Bible is the book of Christianity. Pastors rightly want their church members to be sculpted by the stories, lessons, and wiring of the good book. Indeed, it’s nearly impossible to confess faith in Christ apart from a biblical tether.
So then just how should one read and learn the Scriptures? Actually, there are many ways to read-well the Bible: devotionally, historically, thematically, and exegetically, to name a few. Here’s another way that has been jumping out at me: to read observing the character of God. Different Old Testament stories teach us about God’s holiness. Various Psalms acclaim God’s tenderness to us. Most of Jesus’ parables teach us about the glory, the beauty, and the unprecedented nature of life under God’s reign, the Kingdom of God. The Epistles regularly explain that we little-Christs (a.k.a. Christians) ought to live in light of our identity in the risen Lord. We learn about the character of God in every single type of biblical literature. And that makes sense since God is the primary character of every biblical book.
Recently scholars have been pointing out that the Bible is more than a historical record. True, it does preserve a Judeo-Christian memory, but its aim is more than cataloguing history one event at a time. The Bible is also more than a compendium of moral stories, even if we frequently learn about the justice and moral wiring that God desires for all of humanity. And just as importantly, the Bible is more than a collection of exciting stories about God’s miraculous intervention; praise God for each intervention in everyone’s life, then and now! The Bible, scholars note, was written to shape us. The fancy term is performative: it is enacted in our hearts as it is read aloud. But we don’t need to get bogged down in technical vocabulary to land on the gist of this: God gave the Bible in order to sculpt us.
God cares about the design of our souls. He wants our identities to be shaped in such a way that we naturally respond in Christ-like ways without having to spend big bunches of time intellectually processing the ins and outs of every possible outcome. He wants us attuned to the frequency of His character. He wants us, like sheep who follow their shepherd, to immediately recognize our Master’s voice. Me? I like that notion: attunement. Those who know the Lord are tuned to the frequency of His own character. Those who walk in the light share the ethos – the disposition, the likes and dislikes, the desires – of the One who is light Himself. Again, the Bible was written and preserved to tune us, to mold us, to sculpt us after the very character of God Himself.
In his Gospel’s intro, John writes about how historically unprecedented Jesus was: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14). John wanted his readers to understand, from the get-go, right at the beginning of the Gospel, that Jesus’ character was one of both grace and truth. Not only grace, lest He be a cuddly pushover. And not only truth, lest He be terrifyingly unapproachable in His holiness. Both grace and truth. Always ready to extend grace and unhesitatingly ready to speak the truth. (What must it have been like to look into His brown eyes?!)
For us? We who know now that Scripture was inspired by God to shape us, we realize that that is what the Father wants for us, too. He wants us to be souls who are, like our Savior, full of grace and truth. And here in 2021, where we watch a constant public spewing of ugliness and lies, what a revolutionary idea grace really is! A couple decades ago the rock band U2 wrote of grace, “she takes the blame, she covers the shame, removes the stain, it could be her name. Grace, it’s a name for a girl. It’s also a thought, that changed the world.” Jesus? For all his holiness, He was tender and approachable. The man from Galilee? For all His ability to peer directly into the infected core of people’s souls, He longed to extend mercy and grace. Lamb of God!
But, wow, such fulness of truth, too! Jesus never excused the sins of those whom He encountered. Across His many earthy parables, Jesus never qualified the holiness of God the Father. For all of His ability to welcome the outcasts and the religiously unclean, not one time did Jesus suggest that disobeying God’s law was acceptable practice. Realizing the fulness of truth about Jesus? I apprehend Him with awe. What a strong personality He must have been! The singularity of His character either attracted or repelled those who encountered Him. A man overspilling in grace and truth? Jaw-dropping.
But that’s what we’re called to be, too. Persons full of grace and truth. Ever looking for simple ways to extend grace, to offer kindness in situations fraught with tension, to speak a gentle phrase when the room is electric with friction. But because we know His voice, we Christ-followers are also souls committed to the truth. In a historic era that openly loathes truth, we relish its clarity and celebrate its life-giving power. After all, we are sculpted from the pattern of Him who is Himself grace and truth.
Ed Rybarczyk, Ph.D., is both an ordained minister and a retired History of Theology professor. He now produces and hosts the Uncensored Unprofessor podcast @ uncensoredunprofessor.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.