Third Sunday after Epiphany

15Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters,[a] of the good news[b] that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain.

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters[c] at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.[d] Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 11 Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.

A new pastor was visiting the homes of his parishioners.  At one house it seemed obvious that someone was at home, but no answer came to his repeated knocks at the door. Therefore, he took out a card and wrote “Revelation 3:20″ on the back of it and stuck it in the door.  When the offering was processed the following Sunday, he found that his card had been returned. Added to it was this cryptic message, Genesis 3:10.” Reaching for his Bible to check out the citation, he broke up in gales of laughter.  Revelation 3:20 begins “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.” Genesis 3:10 reads, “I heard your voice in the garden and I was afraid, for I was naked.”

Who doesn’t love a good joke using scripture?  But how do we read and understand this ancient text?  How do we study this divine manuscript that has just as many different messages?  What does application of Holy Writ mean today in an incredibly pluralistic society?

Many ask, “How can documents written by humans be truly God’s Word?” For Presbyterians the best answers can be found not so much by speculating over the “idea” of biblical authority—which inevitably leads to many more questions—but by studying the Scriptures themselves. The “doctrine of inspiration” is best grasped as we practice the essential task of study—that is, reading the text.

In recent decades, The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church has provided essential guidelines for such reading and interpretation. To put those guidelines simply,

  • “Read the text,
  • in its historic and literary contexts,
  • within the broader biblical context,
  • and look for appropriate points of application in order to live it in the here and now.”
  1. First, in order to understand the meanings of Scripture, we need to be reading Scripture – daily!
  2. Second, we need to read in context. Each of the Bible’s books was written in a particular genre by a particular person at a particular time for particular readers to provide particular information that addressed particular concerns. The first challenge for today’s reader is to try to identify as accurately as possible what those particulars were.Some books are written like history texts (such as Joshua and Chronicles), while others read more like memoirs (the four Gospels), letters (Romans), poems (Psalms), or sermons (Hebrews).

    Some writings assemble a mix of genres (such as the parables and miracle stories found in the Gospels). When reading such varying genres, common sense dictates that we “hear” the way the writer is writing, just as newspaper reading requires us to differentiate between the varying approaches of the news reporter, the editorial writer, the sports reporter, and the comic strip writer.

  3. We also need to read within the broader biblical context. Having considered the intended meaning of a particular text, we need to compare that text with other biblical texts that address related subjects. A basic Bible study library can facilitate such study. Concordances list the particular places where a word is found in the Bible. Topical Bibles categorize Scripture passages by subject matter. Cross-references, such as those found in most study Bibles, offer texts on comparable subjects.When comparing Scripture passages, some apparent contradictions will emerge. Such dilemmas are usually solved when each passage is studied in its own context.

    Ultimately the topic needs to be considered in the context of the broadest biblical themes. Special weight ought to be given to the “rule of love”—that is, “How does this passage help the reader better fulfill Scripture’s highest law to ‘Love your Lord with all your heart, your soul, your mind, and your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself?’”

  4. Finally, we should hear the text through the voices of the church through the centuries. The work of many scholars’ interpretations can inform our study as we read their commentaries, study guides, and theological treatises. The church’s Confessions are also essential.

Even after the best and most thorough study is done, we must all acknowledge mysteries we cannot hope to fathom in our mortal lifetimes.  So, I believe that we must hear the Apostle Paul’s reminder about keeping the main thing – the main thing! For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures… 

Until that day when God reveals to us a greater understanding, grace must rule our hearts as we seek to remain unified in those things we know to be true.  We must focus on the things of first importance.

Ultimately, the best biblical student is the one who not only seeks to understand but also is committed to applying the message of Scripture. “Be doers of the Word, and not merely hearers,” says the writer James (1:22). May it be so for all of us! And may it be that by doing the Word, we will fight a little less and love a little more.

Commentary provided by Susan Hedahl, Jack Haberer and William Placher