Do you have a favourite Bible verse? Or rather is there one verse that you go back to whenever you need a short summary of the gospel? My guess is that verse may be John 3:16, “for God so loved the world… ”
I have just read the letter written to the church by R.T.Kendall, a man whose preaching ministry had an impact on me many years ago, but I found myself questioning a statement in this letter as he proposed that this well known verse as “the Bible in a nutshell”.
The whole Bible in one verse?
In an age of sound-bites and short pithy mission statements it is tempting to feel that we need to have a quick answer for people who want to know what our faith is all about but I’m not sure that it is possible to reduce the message of the Bible to one verse. and even if it were then I don’t think John 3:16 is really it.
Don’t misunderstand me, I really like this verse and it does offer us a helpful and useful description of one way in which we understand the message of Jesus but it is only one way and its definitely not the whole story.
These words were spoken by Jesus to Nicodemus in a specific context and specific time, they weren’t spoken to others at other times (as far as we know) but instead Jesus speaks different things to others. To some the gospel means ‘go and sin no more’, to another, ‘go and sell all you have’, to another, ‘come follow me’, and yet another ‘repent for the kingdom is at hand’. The message of Jesus and the Bible is not simple and we do it a disservice if we try to reduce it. Not only that but the danger of focusing on one verse is that this comes to define what we believe rather than explain it or help with our apologetic. In other words we come to believe what we preach, that this verse really is what Christianity is all about and we wonder why it is only attractive to a small section of the population.
This is not to suggest we shape the story to fit the culture (which Kendall is also arguing against) but as so often happens the real problems occur when we take verses out of context and try to build our theology around them rather than applying the whole counsel of scripture. It is ironic and disappointing that Kendall states that we need to ‘affirm the whole of Scripture’ and not ‘water down the message’ whilst doing the opposite! He suggests there is only one reason for people to become Christians but surely this can’t be right?
I was first set to thinking about this by a comment by Brian McLaren speaking at Greenbelt when he asked what if we defined the gospel by 1 John 3 instead of John 3? As I reflected on this I recognize it would take us away from an emphasis on individual sin – believing in Jesus and thereby avoiding judgement and instead it would lead us to an emphasis on God’s actions in loving us first and on the way we live in that love. A more Hebraic rather than Greek understanding of faith maybe? A faith that emphasises the whole of life and not just what we believe, where belief refers to knowledge or acceptance of certain doctrine. What if we’d chosen another verse , maybe one of the ‘I am’ sayings – living water, or bread of life, or even Jesus ‘words from the sermon on the mount. Or maybe words of St Paul – there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus or nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8), we are God’s workmanship created in advance to do good works (Eph 2:10) or the gospel as the power of God transforming us into His glory (“Cor3). If one of those verses became our starting point for explaining the meaning of our faith in Christ then we might end up with a different story that included more people in the same way that Jesus was able to do.
The difficulty is that this would be seen as heresy, a departure from the accepted tradition but it could open up a new way of understanding the Bible story that will connect with our culture in ways we have often failed to do. The Bible contains a whole wealth of words, images and metaphors to describe the purposes of God in our world and
one verse cannot rule them all.
* R.T. Kendall Letter to UK Church can be read here