Laura Fitzpatrick of the Telegraph has written a revealing article exploring a change in the way people are using and quoting Bible texts.
I’m excited to read about people who are reading the Bible. I pray that every Australian would open a Bible and begin reading it; it is a treasure of truth and love, and justice and mercy. However, the shift Fitzpatrick describes requires pastoral attention and correction.
Fitzpatrick notes that, whereas Bible passages focusing on Christ’s sacrificial love were once central and most popularly quoted, millennials are more likely to share verses that talk about hope and prosperity.
“People don’t want to put a verse about Jesus’s death upon the cross on social media. It’s a bit heavy.” The passage, which reads: “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life,” has been eclipsed in the UK by the offer of hope and prosperity in Jeremiah 29:11, according to YouVersion, a digital Bible provider with more than 350 million users.
It reads: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” Jeremiah 29:11 is also the favourite in nine other countries, including Canada and Australia.”
Dr Phillips, whose book Bible, Digital Culture and Social Media will be published later this year, said: “We find that millennials tend to share therapeutic messages—it’s far more about their own identity and how faith can help them in their future. The result is a shift in public display of the Bible.”
Surely this trend isn’t a new as the article suggests. Don’t we remember the days of ‘Christian’ calendars and bookmarks, with those same Bible verses printed on them?
Nevertheless, new or not, this (mis)use of the Bible is problematic.
THE BIBLE ISN’T ABOUT US
First of all, the Bible isn’t about you or me. The Bible is the greatest work of anthropology, history, and psychology ever written, and yet it is foremost not about us. The Bible is primarily written to reveal the person and work of Jesus Christ. The Old Testament prepares for, and points to, the coming Messiah. The New Testament unpacks his life, death and resurrection; explaining why his coming is good news for us.
So if the research is correct, and the most beloved verses are no longer about Jesus and his atoning death on the cross—but rather those that sound therapeutic and less harsh, then what we have uncovered is a case of idolatry. When the message we get out of the Bible centres on me and the wonderful life I believe God has for me, we have ignored the Bible’s own revelation of Christianity and created a religion that is foreign to its pages.
Jesus spent considerable time explaining to his disciples and crowds alike that the Scriptures were about him:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them (Matt 5:17)
He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures (Luke 24:44-45)
The Apostles were also at pains to make clear that the Christian message is about Jesus Christ,
Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all the Gentiles might come to the obedience that comes from faith”(Romans 16:24-26)
Sadly, the verses that people used to share take us closer to the heart of the Christian faith:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
RIGHT AND WRONG WAYS TO READ THE BIBLE
Second, there is a right way and wrong way to read and apply the Bible. Let’s take as an example, the Bible verse that is apparently the most popular in Australia today:
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11)
It is certainly a wonderful part of Scripture. We shouldn’t refrain from reading and delighting in it. But what does it mean? Is it a blank cheque that I can fill in with any notion of “prosperity” that I imagine or desire? Of course not. The promise wasn’t given to Australian Christians in 2019 but to people who lived six centuries before Christ—to a generation of Israelites who had been enslaved and exiled to Babylon. The promise related to a future generation of Jewish people returning to the land of Judah. This is a word of mercy spoken to a people experiencing God’s judgment. He was giving assurance that Judah’s future would not end in the ancient sands of Iraq.
Christians are not in exile in the same sense as 6th-century Jewish people living in Babylon. Christ has redeemed us from the wrath of God and we are perfectly safe and at home with him. Where there is a sense, that we are “foreigners and exiles” (c.f. 1 Peter 2:11) it’s because home for the Christian is not found in the here and now, but in the Kingdom of God; the new creation.
CHURCHES, TEACH YOUR CONGREGATIONS HOW TO READ THE BIBLE
Churches, Sunday schools, youth groups, and theological colleges, have a responsibility to teach the Bible accurately; not just to make true statements about God and about Jesus Christ but to show people how to read the Bible. Pastors and teachers must explain why context matters. They need to show the Bible’s interpretive framework and how it relates to Jesus Christ. They have to be ready to talk about history, genre, and literary device.
The Bible has a simple message but it is not a simple book. Ripping out verses and applying them without due consideration for the context in which these words were written, is as dangerous as reading the word paracetamol and proceeding to self-medicate without any regard for the instructions on the side of the packet; or getting behind the wheel of a car without allowing the road rules to inform how you drive.
No one likes to be quoted out of context. Using God’s words for purposes other than for which they were spoken, is intellectual and moral sloppiness at best, and just as likely, it is slanderous. Do politicians appreciate the media quoting a sentence out of context? Do journalists publish articles in the hope that readers will misread and misuse their words? Why should our approach to reading Bible verses by any different? Even non-Christians have a duty to read the Bible properly; how much more should the principle apply to Christians who believe that the Bible is the very word of God!
Paul once exhorted a young man by the name of Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.” (1 Timothy 2:15).
We would do well to remember it next time we hit share, tweet or post.