When Jesus was 12, he gave his parents the slip and snuck off to the temple in Jerusalem to talk scripture. The learned elders were amazed at his knowledge and perceived he was clearly a prodigy destined for great things. But his parents experienced this event somewhat differently. For three days and nights, they frantically searched for their son. When they eventually found him, instead of apologizing, Jesus simply stated that he needed to be about his Father’s business. His parents, however, discerned otherwise, and back under their wing Jesus went. We hear nothing further about him until his “coming out” miracle at the wedding at Cana 18 years later (prompted, tellingly, by his mother, who signaled to Jesus that yes, it is finally time to be about your Father’s business).
Like the precocious 12-year-old Jesus who reveled in his knowledge of scripture, fully-grown men and women today engage in the same type of display. But instead of using temples, they vie to one-up each other on blogs, online forums or YouTube videos. And in so doing, they completely miss the point of knowing scripture.
Being godly isn’t about knowing scripture, it’s about knowing God. It’s about having and maintaining a close relationship with God – like grown-up Jesus had – so that God can work through you and you can put the principles of God’s Kingdom to work in the world. Jesus’ followers are the spiritual rubber that hits the secular road, but you’re not going to be able to roll with it (as grown-up Jesus did so well) if you don’t have a strong and loving relationship with God. Such a relationship grows and is nurtured over time. Knowing scripture is part of it (think of scripture as a family history and instruction manual combined), but even without scripture, one can know and love God. I know this for a fact, as I loved God the instant I was born again from atheism, despite having near zero knowledge of scripture. Conversely, fallen spirits have near perfect knowledge of scripture, but that hasn’t led them to godliness or a loving relationship with God.
The more you know and love God, the more you’ll be able to love (that is, help: love = help) whoever God puts in your path. In his final teaching to his disciples, Jesus said his followers would be known by their love. But the less you know and love God, the less you’ll be able to love those God brings to you to help. The “good Samaritan” was not Jewish. The starving widow who shared the last of her food with the prophet stranger was also not Jewish. Neither of these people knew scripture, but knowledge of scripture does not automatically infer godliness or some special status or protection. As scripture tells us, God has written his Commandments on our hearts. Even if we go our whole lives never hearing the name of Jesus and never having the gospel preached to us, we can still know and love God and do his will. True knowledge of God is an inner “knowing” that God has enabled in all human souls, not memorization and regurgitation of words, however profound.
There is precious little love of God in the online displays of scriptural hubris. There isn’t even the excuse of youthful folly, since most of the braggarts are middle-aged or older. It’s good to know scripture, but as a source, not as an offensive weapon. Grown-up Jesus found himself in many disputes with temple elders during his ministry years, but he didn’t start the disputes; he defended himself and others using his knowledge of scripture. Yes, God’s Word is a weapon (often depicted as the two-edged sword proceeding from Jesus’ mouth), but it is not to be used offensively to provoke and attack: its purpose is to inform, defend, correct, and clarify. One of the most common tricks of demon-deceived people is to twist or misrepresent God’s Word. That’s why knowing scripture is useful – to correct errors, willful or otherwise.
I am not bashing scripture. I love God’s written Word; I fall asleep hugging a Bible every night, and I always have one within arm’s reach during the day. I know that the Bible is unlike any other book in the world and that its mere presence can send people into rages (I was one of those people once) or bring them comfort (I am one of those people now). But I also know and love God as my heavenly Father, and I know, from God, that my relationship with him is more important than my knowledge of scripture. Even so, I read the Bible every day, just as I hang out with God and Jesus every day. The two activities – reading scripture and consciously being in God’s and Jesus’ presence – are not mutually exclusive. They are complementary: one feeds the other. Still, if I lost my sight and could no longer read or if all the Bibles in the world were destroyed, my loving relationship with God would remain intact. That cannot and will not be taken away from me, as long as I choose to do God’s will.
This is what I hope you take from these words today – knowing scripture is important, but knowing and loving God is more important. If you know and love God, you’ll naturally want to know his written Word, which will be to you like letters from a loved one that you never tire of reading. But don’t base your knowledge of God on scripture alone and don’t use scripture as a weapon to demean others or make them feel inadequate. Scripture is meant to teach, not to brag; to defend, not to attack; to clarify, not to confuse or bedazzle; and to inform, not to mislead. Twelve-year-old Jesus knew God (certainly), loved God (certainly), but misunderstood (being so young) what scripture is and the reason why God gave it to us. Grown-up Jesus both knew scripture and the reason why God gave it to us, and was therefore able to apply God’s Word as it was intended.
Go and do the same.