I want to start out with a quiz. I want you to write down your three favorite books of the Bible. Where does your favorite passage come from? Or if you know a story, but don’t know where it comes from, write that down. Or just put them in your mind if you don’t find a pencil….
OK, I’m going to name a few books, and see how many of them are on your list. If you have it on your list, mark it or cross it off:
Genesis (or stories of Creation, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph)
One of the Gospels – probably either Matthew or John
Now think about your list and see how many of them I named. Did I name one of your three? Two of your three? All three of your three?
I learned in seminary a phrase: “the canon within the canon”. The word canon (with one n in the middle, not two) is a list of books or literary works that is considered legitimate or authoritative. So the Bible is considered a canon because it is a collection of books, and during the history of the people of God, scholars have made decisions about what is included in the canon and what is not. What is considered legitimate and authoritative and what is not.
But then, most of us have this canon within the canon. A second, shorter list, of what is really legitimate. What really matters. What books we really can’t do without. Your list of three probably starts to reveal your canon within a canon. There are probably more on it, but maybe not much more. There are for most of us a handful of books that we tend to go to. For preachers, we call it our honeypots. We know where those honeypots are that we like to sneak back to again and again. I cannot tell you how many times I have preached on Matthew 25, or on Romans 8.
And it is a good thing to have parts of the Bible that speak to us, that are central to our faith. But what about the rest of it? What about the parts outside of our canon within the canon?
I think we have to be careful only picking the parts of the Bible that we want to read. How many of you are Harry Potter fans? If you know Harry Potter, you know of the Room of Requirement. The Room of Requirement is a place within the school of Hogwarts that has a magical power. When you walk up to it, you tell it what you require, and then when you open it, that thing is there. Pretty cool, huh? I’d like one of those rooms in my house.
But sometimes we treat the Bible like a Room of Requirement. Whatever we think we need, we go to it and tell the Bible to give it to us. And, the Bible being a rather large and diverse set of documents, there’s a good chance we’ll be able to find it there. We go to the Bible and tell it to re-affirm our thinking or our theology, and we open the door, and there it is!
I had a friend tell me earlier in the summer, “I like the way you preach. It reaffirms what I already believe!” Now they were speaking totally tongue in cheek, aware of the problem with that way of thinking. But how many of us are not so self-aware? We don’t understand that we have a canon within a canon, a rather small theology that we only want to have reaffirmed for us every time we hear a sermon or go to the Bible?
It is tempting to suggest that we get to pick and choose which parts of the Bible matter to us, but what that does is put us as judge and jury – make us the theological gatekeepers – which books are right and which ones are wrong.
It’s not a new problem. About a hundred years after the death of Christ, there was a man named Marcion. Marcion had a canon within the canon. He believed that the God of the Old Testament had been entirely replaced by a new God in Jesus Christ. And so, there was no need to consult the Old Testament…ever. It was outdated, unnecessary, and even problematic. But even before his teachings, the early Church struggled with how it would compare the God of Israel in the Hebrew Scriptures with the God represented by Jesus in the New Testament. For Marcion, it was simple: they were two gods. The god of the Old Testament was different and secondary. Therefore, the Old Testament itself was not important, not necessary, not really even God, paling in comparison next to the hope and grace of the God of the New Testament.
Which is what happens when we only rely on that a canon within a canon – you get to decide not only what books matter, but what God matters. You decide who God is, rather than the other way around.
But you may not have heard much about Marcion because the church long ago considered him a heretic. They saw a danger in the line of thinking that suggested that the God of the Old Testament was gone, and a new God was now present in Christ. In fact, we see this disagreement playing out in the pages of the Gospel of Matthew…as Matthew gets ready to present this block of Jesus’ teachings that we know as the Sermon on the Mount, in which he takes aim at some of the teachings of the Old Testament and looks at them in a new way, Matthew anticipates what some in his church will say: “why do we need the old books? We have Jesus now, so none of that matters! In fact, maybe it’s not even the same God?”
And so, at the beginning of this block of teaching, or midrash on the Torah (from the Old Testament), Matthew includes this teaching from Jesus: “I have not come to abolish but to fulfill. Not a stroke of letter will pass away….”
It is a subtle difference, and a subtle passage. “Not abolish, but fulfill.” The meaning of the passage hinges upon the meaning of these two words: katalysai and plerosai.
- And so the word of Jesus here is that he is not going to katalysai, or annul, or set aside the teachings of the Old Testament.
- But instead, he plans to plerosai, or complete their original purpose.
- They are not two messages, but a first and second chapter of the same message.
- They are not two gods, but a completion of the work of the same God.
Ben Witherington says it this way: “this involves bringing a promise to fruition and so to its intended end or goal, to teach what the Old Testament was aiming at, to bring forth the reality to which the Old Testament was pointing. As (Matthew) is constantly reminding us, this is what happened in the whole life and ministry of Jesus – fulfillment of the Scriptures.”
So, the good news that Matthew wanted to lift from the words of Jesus is that the same God who was there from the beginning is the one who showed up in Christ. The truth that they experienced from the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the God of the Psalmists, the God of Prophets, is completed and fulfilled in the personhood of Christ!
And, more subtly, it takes away that burden of being the theological gatekeepers of Scripture. If we were to be judge and jury about what part of canon is acceptable, then it is up to us to decide what is of God and what is not. But if Jesus refused to abolish any part of Scripture, who are we to do it in his place?
Jesus rejects that role and instead suggests that the whole thing is important. “Not a letter, not a stroke of one letter will be taken away.” It all matters. A high view of Scripture, to be sure, but one that Matthew had, and Jesus seemed to as well. For even as he wrestles with Scripture, argues with Scripture, reinterprets Scripture, which is exactly what he does in the Sermon on the Mount – teachings on prayer, on divorce, on lust, on anger – it isn’t as if he is rejecting Scripture. The God who taught through the Torah is the same God who now through Christ completes, fulfills, brings to fruition those original intentions. God has been at work since the beginning, and so we can trust that God is at work now!
And so, if we take this teaching back to our view of Scripture, and our canon within the canon, it is good news once again. It is not up to us to decide which parts of the Bible are important and which ones are not. We are not the theological gatekeepers of Truth. That’s the problem with the Room of Requirement in Harry Potter – you have to ask for the right things. And so you have to know what those right things are.
Imagine instead of there was someone who knew you better than you knew yourself. Who didn’t just wait for you to decide what you thought you wanted, but knew what you needed. Who didn’t just give you what you thought you required, but actually gave you what you required. Who gave you a testimony, a set of documents, of stories, of truths, of promises that served as this written revelation of that Someone. That’s what Scripture is.
The Bible, from beginning to end, is a testimony. A narrative of those who have struggled and wrestled and believed and hoped and acted and loved and messed up and asked for forgiveness. It is a story of God and God’s people throughout generations of expectation and promise and fulfillment of promise.
And so, the good news to us, as we pick up this story is that even the parts of the Scripture that are less clear, less read, less understood are also a part of the written revelation of God! Genesis matters. Psalms matters. Matthew matters. And Obadiah matters! Zechariah matters. Jude matters.
To just read a handful of our honeypot verses means that we will miss out on some great stuff about how God has been in the world, and how God might be working in our world today. To return only to our canon within a canon means that we will just continue to have our assumptions affirmed, our egos stroked, our biases confirmed. Instead, what if we read the whole thing? With eyes open to this whole myriad of ways that God has been at work throughout history!
A few weeks ago, at our annual brainstorming session for the year, the worship team asked that very question: why don’t we ever talk about some of those lesser known books? Do they matter, too? Absolutely! According to Matthew and to Jesus. So that is our plan in the coming weeks, to search and study a handful of less-read books. So, pull out your magnifying glasses, Church, because it’s time to find the book of Haggai!
But more importantly, it’s time to open our eyes to books and history and discussions and stories that we might not know. And, in so doing, I hope we will discover anew the truth that God cares about us, about our stories, about our particular manifestations of humanity and God’s deity. The God that knows us better than we know ourselves cares about our story…in fact, is writing it alongside us as we go. Together, in the coming weeks, and every time we open this fascinating and enigmatic document, let us discover afresh the fulfillment of God’s grace and love once again.