The Risk in Trying to Be “Relevant”
Perhaps you have heard a Bible teacher or preacher say something like: “We have to make the Bible relevant to our hearers.”
On one level, I fully understand. The teacher’s best intention is to make sure that the message of the text is clearly communicated to the listeners so that they can understand and apply what the text says. But I don’t think that is how Biblical texts are always approached.
Too often, the Bible teacher or preacher (whether intentionally or not) seems to think the idea that what the passage is actually talking about has little bearing on and is of little interest to contemporary listeners. So, the text is used to launch an idea the preacher or teacher believes has more traction or will have more impact with his hearers.
Consider the account of Jesus’ feeding of a multitude (as found in John 6:1-14). It’s an amazing account–as well it should be because it is an astounding miracle. Five thousand men (probably not counting the women and children) were fed through the miraculous multiplication of five small loaves and a couple of fish that had come from a small boy that had been in the crowd that day.
What are we to make of this account? What is Jesus communicating in doing this? Why does John (and the other Gospel writers) record it for us?
You may have heard some pastor or teacher draw on this account and explain how “We should be generous with what little we have” or “If we only share with one another there will be enough to go around to meet everyone’s needs.” But it is worth noting that the passage says nothing about anyone’s generosity (not even the little boy) and there is nothing in the text that speaks of the people sharing with one another.
The account is about Jesus doing something miraculous. Not about people doing something kind and generous. I doubt anyone at that particular picnic concluded: “Why Jesus just miraculously multiplied a few scraps to feed all of us. I guess I should be more generous with what I have and watch what might happen.” (In fact, notice the postscript to the feeding account in John 6:26. It doesn’t look like those who had been fed drew the conclusion that the point was they were to be generous.)
Now is it wrong to encourage generosity? Of course not! Is it possible (in spite of the absence of any mention in the text) that the boy had been generous and willing shared? Perhaps. But if what Jesus did was not fundamentally an object lesson on generously sharing, than to use this text to teach that idea does two detrimental things.
First, the hearers are given a poor model of reading texts well. The text itself did not control the message; the application did not rise naturally from what is read. Second, what the text might really be saying to us is overlooked. What the Spirit intended to communicate in this particular passage is by-passed in order to make what is perceived by the teacher to be a more relevant or helpful or compelling point.
It could well be more challenging to pay close attention to a Biblical passage and wrestle–with the assistance of the Spirit–so as to rightly understand and rightly apply the text. It does seem to be easier (and common) to use passages as launching pads for relevant and compelling ideas.
I know that I don’t appreciate it when people take my words out of context. I’ve found myself, more than once, having to explain to someone that they were misconstruing what I said.
I think that if we let the Spirit speak plainly through the text He inspired, the message communicated will be clear, relevant, and applicable. That is His intention . . . if we but read well what He has preserved for us in the text.