Can the Bible Be Both Literal and Inspired?

I find it odd that those that most vociferously proclaim that the Bible is the inspired word of God also insist that the Bible should be read literally. But, for me, reading the Bible literally and as an inspired book is a complete contradiction.

How so?

Typically, when someone says that the Bible should be read literally they mean that we should read the text by strictly adhering to exact idea conveyed by the words on the page. In other words, there can be no deviation from what the words mean, what the author intended, and what the one meaning of those words and intent is.

I understand that for these same people, the Bible is inspired because it the authors were divinely influenced to write what they did. Some even believe that this divine inspiration gave the authors the exact words to use.

Therefore, these people believe that the Bible can be both literal and inspired.

However, for me, this fails to account the actual idea and meaning of inspiration. Something is inspired when it moves the intellect and emotions. Inspiration influences and suggests, but it does not dictate. Dictation is literal. Inspiration breathes life into something. Life never has a singular meaning. Rather, it is varied and complex.

We speak of art, music, books, poems, etc. as inspired.

Why do we call works of art inspired?

We call works of art inspired because there is a meaning that is deeper than what is directly seen or heard. Inspired works of art are not to be taken literally, as if they are they are to convey one word, one thought, one meaning only. Rather, works of art move and influence the heart and mind to see deeper, opening up meanings and possibilities. Perhaps even thoughts and ideas that the artist did not originally intend.

Inspiration means that there is more than what is obvious. Or, in contrast to many who believe the Bible should be read literally, there is more than the “plain” meaning of the text.

Paul stresses these very ideas about inspiration – that the meaning is more and deeper than what was originally written – throughout his letters. Just read 2 Corinthians 3 and 4. Or, read the the analogies and allegories Paul uses to make Old Testament passages relevant to his audience. Paul interprets the scriptures creatively.

For Paul, there seems to be a range of meanings to the Old Testament, as long as those meanings serve the word that he was occupied with (Acts 17), which was that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer, die, and be resurrected. This was the one thing Paul had a habit of teaching everywhere we went.

The Bible is inspired when the Holy Spirit breathes life into it. This breathing into the words that are written by the Holy Spirit may have happened at the time the words were written. But, more importantly, the breathing into the words by the Holy Spirit happens each time we read the words of the Holy Bible with the Holy Spirit as our teacher. The inspiration of the text happens on a moment by moment basis. The inspiration of the text has happened every day for the last 2,000 years, it is happening now, and it will continue to happen into the future.

When we truly understand God, it is not surprising that the reading of the Bible can be inspired when the Holy Spirit breathes into it.

What is the first thing the Bible says about God?

“In the beginning, God created…”

God is a creator.

God is an artist.

Creation, art, happens through inspiration.

But, God’s creation, his art, can never be captured by a single, literal meaning of words on a page.

What is God’s ultimate artwork, his true masterpiece?

It’s not the Bible.

Ephesians 2.10 says, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” The Greek word for workmanship is poeima, from which we get our word poem. Go back to the creation story in Genesis 1. In that chapter, the only portion of text translated as poem is the portion where God creates man, which I find fascinating.

We are God’s poem. We are God’s masterpiece. We, not the Bible, are truly what is inspired by God. When the Holy Spirit breathes into us, then we read the Bible in new and creative ways that make the text have meaning for our time and our culture.

Paul says that we are living letters. We are living witnesses to the Christ. For us today, Christians are to be living Bibles for the world around them.

So, can the Bible be both literal and inspired?

For me, the answer is no.

Literalism kills inspiration.

Experiencing Jesus Opens the Bible: Introduction

(This post is the Introduction to the series Experiencing Jesus Opens the Bible. The other posts in the series are Part 1 – Drawn by the Holy Spirit, Part 2 – The Word of the Lord Appeared, and Part 3 – A Low Whisper, Part 4 – Seeing Jesus, and Part 5 – Knowing His Resurrection.)

Do you know Jesus through the Bible or experience?

The Bible is an amazing book. I believe studying the Bible is important. That is why I just spent every day last year reading and writing about the Bible on this blog.

However, we often fail to recognize something very important, which is that we come to the Bible with certain presuppositions about who God is. For the most part, these presuppositions about God formed before we even knew they were forming. Forces that unknowingly form our presuppositions about God include parents, friends, pastors, churches, culture, and society. Of course, there are many more.

As we study the Bible, we think we are discovering truth. But, oftentimes, we are simply finding evidence in an inspired book that strengthens and hardens our presuppositions about God.

Why does that happen?

How do we guard against that?

What do we need to stop that from happening?

Experience.

Not any experiences.

Not all experiences.

But a certain, specific experience.

Why does the Bible strengthen and harden our presuppositions about God?

Because we have not experienced the life of Jesus Christ.

How do we guard against the Bible strengthening and hardening our presuppositions about God?

By experiencing the life of Jesus Christ.

What do we need at all times to stop the Bible from strengthening and hardening our presuppositions about God?

Experiences with the life of Jesus Christ.

I was inspired to think about this by a comment from Blaine Keller on my post “What Love Is or What Love Does?” Blaine stated how his understanding of the Bible was changing. I mentioned how I had changed by a direct encounter with Jesus. Blaine said he would love to hear about this direct encounter some time.

As I thought about the discussion with Blaine, I realized how much my experiences with the life of Jesus Christ changed my thinking. Further, I realized that in almost every case I experienced the life of Jesus in some specific way and then my thinking, particularly my presuppositions about God that I approached the Bible with, changed as a result.

At roughly the same time I was having this discussion with Blaine, I read the first blog post in a series titled “Our Need for Religious Experience” by Richard Beck. He made the connection that people, particularly younger adults, do not desire to go to church anymore because they were not having religious experiences with God there. Beck argued that the problem was not so much with the church. Rather, the problem was that we have closed ourselves off to religious experiences. I think we can extrapolate Beck’s point to Bible study as well.

People do not want to read the Bible because they have not had an experience with the life of Jesus Christ.

People read the Bible wrongly because they have closed themselves off from experiencing the life of Christ in their daily lives. It has become more or less an intellectual pursuit. Then, there is nothing standing between their presuppositions about God and the Bible. The Bible becomes their presuppositions about God.

People experience the life of Christ in their daily lives, but that experience does not line up with what they are taught about the Bible in church. So, they turn away from the Bible or want to get rid of the Old Testament because they deem it offensive to the life of Christ they are experiencing.

But, instead of not reading the Bible, using the Bible to harden and strengthen our presuppositions about God, or turning our backs on the Bible in whole or in part, we should allow our experience with the life of Christ to change our presuppositions about God that we bring to the Bible. We should allow our experience with the life of Jesus Christ to be the foundation of our belief of who God is and what God is like. When we do this, the Bible becomes an entirely different book, and we see God in the Bible in an entirely different way.

That our experience with the life of Jesus Christ changes our understanding of the Bible is found within the Bible itself.

John 5.36-40 says, “But the testimony that I have is greater than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard and his form you have never seen, and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent. You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.”

John was the greatest person of the Old Testament. Therefore, he had the greatest testimony of the Old Testament. But, Jesus’ testimony was even greater than John’s. Jesus’ testimony, the works that he was doing, bore witness about himself and that the Father sent him.

Amazingly, Jesus, the most important person in history, didn’t write a book to reveal who God, his Father, was. He did works. He did things that could be experienced. Jesus did things that people could see, hear, and touch. Therefore, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our own eyes, which we have looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us – that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, that you may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” (1 John 1.1-3)

Why could the Jews Jesus was speaking to in John 5 not receive his testimony?

Because they were locked into a certain way of reading scripture formed by their presuppositions about and traditions of who God was and the messiah, Jesus Christ, would be. But, instead of looking to the scripture for eternal life (a.k.a God), Jesus told these Jews they needed to come to him. They needed to experience him, his testimony, his works. Then, these experiences of the life of Jesus Christ would change their understanding of scripture.

We read something similar in Luke 24. Two disciples were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus after Jesus was crucified. They were talking to each other about everything that had happened when a stranger asked them what they were talking about. The two disciples didn’t know it, but the stranger was Jesus.

Jesus went on to tell the two disciples that it was necessary for everything that happened to have happened. “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24.27) Even though this stranger, who was Jesus, had just explained all scripture to them in a new and different way, these two disciples still were not getting it.

What caused the stranger to be revealed?

What caused them to see Jesus?

What gave them the full understanding of what Jesus was teaching them about the scriptures?

An experience of the life of Jesus Christ.

“When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?'” (Luke 24.30-32)

It was when Jesus broke bread with the two disciples that they understood everything. It was then that they realized their hearts were burning within them as Jesus revealed to them the truth of scripture.

Of course, breaking bread is symbolic of the breaking of Jesus’ body, the giving of his life, for us. When we experience Jesus giving his life for us, the breaking of bread, it changes how we perceive and understand scripture. Then, our hearts begin to burn within us as we read scripture.

Burning symbolizes purification throughout the Bible. So, as we experience the life of Jesus Christ, he interprets scripture for us in a way that our hearts are purified. Therefore, the presuppositions about God that we brought to the Bible are burned away and we are left with the pure image of Jesus, and God, as the only thing that the Bible bears witness to.

Study the life of Paul and you will find the same thing. He had an experience with the life of Jesus Christ that radically changed the presuppositions about God that he brought to scripture. Paul wrote about this repeatedly in his letters, perhaps most clearly in 2 Corinthians 3 and 4.

So, over the next few posts, I will share some of my significant experiences with the life of Jesus Christ that changed the way I read and understand the Bible.

Who Is Worthy to Open the Scroll and Break Its Seals?

TODAY’S READING: REVELATION 4-7

“And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, ‘Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?'” (Revelation 5.2)

Revelation 5.1 says that there was one seated on a throne who had a scroll in his right hand. The scroll was written “within and on the back,” but it was sealed with seven seals.

What is this scroll?

Almost everything in the book of Revelation is an allusion to something in the Old Testament. But, often John turns the imagery of thing being alluded to in the Old Testament on its head. So, it is with the scroll.

The scroll in the right hand of the one on the throne was sealed with seven seals. The Greek word translated scroll is biblion and also means book.

First, the sealed scroll is an allusion to Daniel 12.4, which says, “But you, Daniel, shut up the words and seal the book, until the time of the end.” The previous verses give us an idea of what “the time of the end” is.

“And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.” (Daniel 12.1-3)

At the time of the end there shall be trouble like never before in the history of Israel. There could be a time of worse trouble for Israel than when their messiah was crucified?

At the time of the end, Daniel’s people, Israel, would be delivered. Did not Jesus’ crucifixion mark the beginning of the deliverance of Israel?

At the time of the end those asleep in the dust of the earth would awake. It even seems that some of these would witness like the stars in the sky. Speaking of the time immediately after Jesus’ crucifixion, the time of the end, Matthew 27.52-53 says, “The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went in the holy city and appeared to many.”

Second, the sealed scroll is an allusion to Isaiah 29.11-12, which says, “And the vision of all this has become to you like the words of a book that is sealed. When men give it to one who can read, saying, ‘Read this,’ he says, ‘I cannot, for it is sealed.’ And when they give the book to one who cannot read, saying, ‘Read this,’ he says, ‘I cannot read.'”

Whether one could read or not, the scroll couldn’t be read. It could not be understood.

But, what is the vision that couldn’t be understood?

Let’s just highlight one part that is important to the context of the scroll in Revelation. Isaiah 29.1-2 says, “Ah, Ariel, Ariel, the city where David encamped! Add year to year; let the feasts run their round. Yet I will distress Ariel, and there shall be moaning nd lamentation, and she shall be to me like an Ariel.”

The city where David encamped is Jerusalem. It seems Isaiah is calling Jerusalem by the name Ariel.

What does the name Ariel mean?

Lion of God.

As you read the rest of the vision, Jerusalem, Ariel, the lion of God, will be besieged and brought low. But, this vision was sealed, like a book that could not be read, “because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men.” (Isaiah 29.13)

Several times in the book of Revelation the number seven seems to speak of the Holy Spirit.

  • “from the seven spirits who are before his throne” (Revelation 1.4)
  • “before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God” (Revelation 4.5)
  • “with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God” (Revelation 5.6)

The Greek word for seal is sphragis. It means a signet. But, the meaning has the idea of sealing as fencing in or protecting from misappropriation. And, a signet is a stamp that is a mark of privacy or genuineness. We could think of this scroll sealed with seven seals as being sealed by the Holy Spirit to protect it and keep it from being misused. The Spirit also mark’s the scroll’s genuineness. These are interesting ideas when we consider the inspiration, or God-breathed, nature of scripture.

In addition to being “sealed with seven seals,” this scroll or book in the right hand of the one on the throne was “written within and on the back.” This is an allusion to Ezekiel 2.9-10, which says, “And when I looked, behold, a hand was stretched out to me, and behold, a scroll of a book was in it. And he spread it before me. And it had writing on the front and back, and there were written words of lamentation and mourning and woe.”

It’s very important to read all of Ezekiel 2 and 3 for the full context. Ezekiel saw this scroll when he was told as the “son of man,” Jesus’ favorite name for himself, to go “to the people of Israel, to nations of rebels,” who rebelled against God. They were “impudent and stubborn.” God tells Ezekiel, “whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house) they will know that a prophet has been among them.” “You shall speak my words to them.”

Sounds like the mission Jesus was sent on doesn’t it.

But, I really want to highlight that Ezekiel read the words of the scroll as words of lamentation and mourning and woe.

It is with this context, that John hears an angel ask the question, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?”

At first “no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it.” (Revelation 5.3) So, John began to weep.

“And one of the elders said to me, ‘Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” (Revelation 5.5)

Finally, there is one powerful enough to break the seals and open the scroll so that its contents can be read and understood. That one is the Lion of Judah, the Root of David, the Messiah. It’s none other Jesus. He can open the scroll because he has conquered.

But, refer back to the vision of Isaiah 29 that was a like a book that could not be read or understood by anyone. Jerusalem was like an Ariel, like a lion of God, besieged and brought low.

However, something is not as it seems. Something catches John’s attention.

“And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.” (Revelation 5.6)

John thought it was the lion of Judah that had conquered so the scroll could be opened. The lion is fierce, powerful, strong, mighty, the king of beasts. The lion is at the top of the food chain.

But, in reality, the lion was a lamb. A lamb is weak, helpless, defenseless. It has nothing with which to protect itself. And, it’s not just a lamb, but the Greek word means a little lamb. Everytime you read the word lamb in the book of Revelation it is the Greek word for little lamb.

And, the lamb appeared “as thought it had been slain.” So, it was not the lion of Judah that conquered and was able to open the scroll of the book. Rather, it was the crucified lamb, Jesus Christ crucified, that had conquered. It was Jesus Christ crucified that the scroll, the book, able to be read and understood.

What is John saying?

I have filled my revelation of Jesus Christ with imagery from the Old Testament. But, the only way you will understand this revelation and all of the imagery of the Old Testament is to read to read it through the lens of the lamb that was slain and not the lion of Judah.

This revelation, indeed all of the Old Testament, the scriptures, can only be read and understood through the crucified Christ, the crucified messiah, a king killed by his enemies.

This revelation, the Old Testament, the scriptures, cannot be understood through a conquering king who defeats, destroys, and kills his enemies.

This is exactly what Jesus proclaimed the meaning of scripture to be.

“Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead.'” (Luke 24.45-46)

The Greek word opened here has the same root as the Greek word for open in Revelation 5.3, 5.

Recall from Ezekiel 2 and 3 that the scroll written on both sides could not be read because Israel was “impudent and stubborn.” They were hard hearted.

“But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3.14-18)

The “old covenant,” the old testament, the scriptures, are veiled.

What removes the veil?

What unveils, uncovers, reveals, the true meaning of scripture?

What is “the revelation of Jesus Christ?”

He is the slain lamb, the crucified Christ, the Lord.

When you turn to him and see Jesus this was, the veil that has covered the true meaning of scripture is removed.

But, the Lord is the Spirit.

The Spirit is the signet, the fence that keeps scripture from being misused. The seal, the inspiration, of the Spirit infuses the scripture with its true meaning.

Therefore, 2 Corinthians 3.5-6 says, “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”

If you read scripture, the Bible, literally without first putting everything through the lens of the crucified Christ, then you get nothing but death.

But, if you read scripture, the Bible, through the lens of the crucified Christ by allowing the Spirit to open the seals protecting the true meaning of scripture, then you will only and always get life.

Therefore, Paul told the Corinthians, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2.2)

Recall from Ezekiel that he read the words written in the sealed book as “lamentation and mourning and woe.” Ezekiel saw that the son of man was being called to die despite speaking the words of God to the people of Israel.

But, notice the result of the crucified lamb opening the scroll so that it can be truly understood.

“And they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign.” (Revelation 5.9-10)

Then the angels said “with a loud voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Revelation 5.12)

But, not just the angels, for John says, “And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”

Lamentation, mourning, and woe has been turned into celebration, joy, praise and blessing.

Why?

Because the lamb, the Christ, did not just get crucified. He also rose from the dead for repentance and the forgiveness of sins (Luke 24.45-47).

Death and resurrection life.

Interestingly, this is the meaning of the number 23 in scripture. According to Dr. Stephen E. Jones, the number 23 is written with the Hebrew letters kaph and gimel. Kaph symbolizes an open hand, and gimel symbolizes a lifting up. Therefore, it is the open hand lifting up from death.

The imagery, symbolism, and use of words is very intentional in Revelation.

Can you guess how many times the Greek word biblion, meaning scroll or book, is used in the book of Revelation?

23!

When we read the book that was sealed, the Old Testament, scripture, through the lens of the slain lamb, the crucified Christ, and not the lion of Judah, it takes us from death to resurrection life.