redletter

‘Red Letter Christians’ approach the Bible with the premise that the foundation and starting point for understanding the Gospel should be the direct words of Jesus, as quoted in the Gospels. This is a corrective, they claim, to the traditional approach of evangelicals in which the Pauline epistles are the lens through which the rest of the Bible is interpreted. It sounds all good and pious to say that the actual words of Jesus himself should be our starting point, and the rest of the Scriptures be interpreted through them. There are however a couple of problems with this approach:

  1. Not all the words of Jesus have a direct application to us in the same way they did to those to whom he spoke. As with all biblical passages, we need where possible to understand the situational context in which they are spoken, and to understand what they meant to them then, before we ask what they mean to us today. A classic example of this is Jesus’ exchange with the rich young man (Mark 10:17-22). Jesus commands this man to ‘sell all you have, give to the poor… and come follow me.’ Why then do Christians own things? If these are Jesus’ direct words, shouldn’t we all obey them literally and refuse to own any property? No, we understand that these words were given to this man at that time because it addressed both the deepest need and biggest problem he had – loving his riches more than God. This does not mean we cannot learn from this story, nor take action to remove those things in our lives that have become idols; however this example shows us that simply ‘obeying the words of Jesus’ is not always as simple as it sounds.
  2. Sometimes, especially in the Gospel of John, it is hard to be clear on exactly where the words of Jesus end and those of the Gospel writer begin. For example, is the world’s best known verse, John 3:16, (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.) the words of Jesus or John? My Red Letter bible has them in red, and continues the quotation right through to the end of verse 21. However some commentators would suggest that the quotation ends with verse 15 – and 16-21 are John’s commentary on Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, directed to the reader. So, we have a problem if we are going to give a priority to the quoted words of Jesus, in that we cannot say precisely what they are!
  3. It’s really a false distinction anyway, to suggest that the direct quotations of Jesus are somehow more authoritative or inspired than the words of the New Testament writers. As Jesus commissioned his apostles, he commanded them to ‘[teach] them to observe all that I have commanded you.’ (Matthew 28:19) Along with this, he had already given them the promise that the Holy Spirit would, ‘teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.’ (John 14:26) What this means for us is that the words we have in the New Testament – be they direct quotations of Jesus or the testimony of his apostles – are equally inspired by the Holy Spirit, and all an accurate communication of all that Jesus commanded.

We need to have an implicit confidence in the work of the Holy Spirit to faithfully communicate the will and mind of God to us in all of the Scriptures, and to avoid making false ‘red letter’ distinctions.

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