I’ve been thinking about how we handle some of the more incongruous portions of scripture.
The book of James, for example. Martin Luther wanted to toss the book out of the Bible; he called it the “Epistle of Straw,” and he had a good reason: James is such a completely different presentation of God than the rest of the New Testament. It doesn’t mention Jesus’ name even once. How can we have a book of the Bible that doesn’t point to Jesus?
But eventually, we figured it out. James’ epistle doesn’t stand alone. It stands in context with the rest of the NT, and we interpret James’ comments about the value of works, for example, in the light of the rest of the revelation about who Jesus is and what he has done.
Because Jesus is all about grace apprehended by faith instead of by works, we know how to interpret James’ words about works: through the life of Jesus, through the cross of Jesus. James is talking about working out our faith, working from the forgiveness we’ve received, not working to earn forgiveness.
If we didn’t interpret those passages, through the life of Jesus, if instead we used James’ words about works to define Jesus (I have met some confused, law-based people who have), then we could seriously misunderstand Jesus.
We’ve figured out how to interpret James. Why do we not, I wonder, apply the same lesson to Revelation?
We should take the difficult to understand fire-and-brimstone passages of Revelation, and interpret them through the very clear revelation of the life and words of Jesus. “OK. Jesus taught us that God is perfect love, and Jesus himself took all condemnation on himself on the Cross. So how do I understand the four horsemen in that light?”
But there aren’t very many people who do that. I’ve met hundreds of people who take this most-bizarre, most difficult-to-interpret book of the New Testament, and use it to define Jesus by employing their best guess about what the strange imagery and bizarre metaphors are referencing. It requires that they completely ignore the clear revelation of the life of Jesus in four first-hand testimonials, and we ignore the clear revelation of his own teaching.
I am NOT saying that either James or Revelation are not inspired scripture, or that we can do without their teaching. I AM saying that we must interpret these passages through the greater revelation of Jesus, and not use them to define our understanding of Jesus. We always use the clear passage to define the less clear passage, and there is no clearer understanding of God than the person of Jesus.
Jesus rebuked people who would “strain out a gnat, but swallow a camel.” I’ve met a bunch of those people. That’s gotta give them indigestion.
Jesus is the clearest interpretation of God that there has ever been: God himself became human, and walked among humans so that we could know who God is. We need to base our understanding of Scripture off of that clearest revelation; everything else that we think we understand about God must be interpreted through the life of Jesus. If we hold a belief about God that is inconsistent with him, then we need to let it go.
We need to apply the lessons we’ve learned from the book of James to Revelation and other less-clear passages about who God is.