Reading the Bible in public

Reading the Bible publicly . . . with a megaphone in a public square? Or, allowing the Bible's public character to express itself? Sometimes both, and always the latter.

Appears in Summer 2006 Issue: Reading the Bible
June 1st, 2006

Recall with me for a moment the stories in Acts about Paul's being kicked around from one court to another as he tries to defend himself against threats and charges from his fellow Jews. Paul is not going to a Roman court to ask for the protection of his right to practice his religion privately in a pluralistic society. No, the question of which god or gods one serves in the Roman Empire is a matter of public life or death.

As it turns out, because Paul is a Roman citizen as well as a Jew, he receives protection by Roman officials from a lynch mob and soon thereafter is called before the local governor Felix. Next, Paul is taken before Festus, the successor to Felix, and explains, "I have done nothing wrong against the law of the Jews or against the temple or against Caesar" (Acts 25:8). Clearly, Paul knows that he is in a public trial over public matters.

By the time Paul is taken to face King Agrippa and Bernice, we already know the main reason for his predicament, and he explains it to Agrippa. I have been a righteous Jew and even a Pharisee all my life, Paul says. "And now it is because of my hope in what God has promised our fathers that I am on trial today. This is the promise our twelve tribes are hoping to see fulfilled as they earnestly serve God day and night. O king, it is because of this hope that the Jews are accusing me. Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?" (Acts 26:6-8).

Can you believe it? Paul could, perhaps, have simply insisted that he had broken no Roman law and that his opponents should be told to back off. He could have just treasured privately, in his meditative heart, the hope of his own resurrection some day. After all, Christ's kingdom had not yet come. No need to cause a stir. But no, Paul has to pipe off in court and try to explain to a king who was acquainted with Jewish customs that he is simply doing what a faithful Jew should do now that Jesus has been raised from the dead. Precisely that public fact, Paul explains, affects every authority in the whole world, and he can't keep from announcing and explaining it. That's all I'm doing, says Paul, and that's why I find myself standing before you today, King Agrippa, testifying "to small and great alike. I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen—that the Christ (Messiah) would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles" (26:22-23).

Now Paul has gone too far. He's talking about Gentiles (which includes the Romans, of course) and not only about Jews, and he is refusing to stick to a discussion of a future resurrection in general. He has come right out in public to make the audacious claim that the Messiah suffered death and has now been raised from the dead. And they all know he's talking about Jesus.

Remember the earlier story about Paul that Luke tells in Acts 17. Paul goes up to the public square of the Areopagus in Athens to chat with philosophers and religious types of every kind, and after trying to show empathy with them in their various quests he has the audacity to break through the generalized religiosity and intellectualism. So politically incorrect and insensitive is Paul that he just comes out and says it: Sure, we are all God's offspring, but "we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by man's design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead" (Acts 17:-31). At that point on the Areopagus, Paul was cut off by sneers.

And what did Festus say when he broke into Paul's little lecture to Agrippa? Paul, he said, "You are out of your mind . . . Your great learning is driving you insane" (Acts 26:24).

The final court of appeal

Do you see what's going on here? Whether standing in a Greek public square or in a Roman court, someone who believes what Paul believes will appear to be insane or worthy of sneers. In the "real world" of the Roman Empire, the authorities simply tolerate the Jews. And Greek religious and philosophical types can look down their noses at someone who believes that a god could become incarnate and rise from the dead.

But Paul is not awed by Roman governors or the philosophical elite of Athens. How could he be? He was overwhelmed by someone far more awesome—by the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. It was Jesus who showed him that "small and great alike" are all small before the public throne of the King of kings. "I am not insane, most excellent Festus," Paul replies. And you should know better, because what I'm telling you about Jesus rising from the dead "was not done in a corner" (Acts 26:25-27).

The reason the Bible needs to be read in public, you see, is because it is a public document about the origin and final judgment of the whole world, including every public square from Athens to Ankara, from Beijing to Washington, from Cape Town to Canberra, from Oxford to Harvard. The Bible is not a private devotional book. It is not a collection of spiritual secrets passed on from one gnostic sect to the next. It is a generations-long public testimony to the deeds of the Creator of heaven and earth. Now through Jesus, God has issued the final constitution by which everyone on earth will live or die. That final constitution for humanity is God's covenant sealed by the blood of Jesus. And everyone with ears to hear and eyes to see will recognize that this really is the last announcement, the final court of appeal for human beings everywhere, in every sphere of life. That is Paul's testimony, which he cannot keep inside. The judge of all the earth—of Roman and American governors, of ancient and modern public intellectuals, of book publishers and media moguls, of farmers and students, of everyone—has now been identified by God. And how did God identify him? He raised him from the dead.

Demonstrating without a soap box

How should we read the Bible in public? A striking thing about both the Old and New Testaments is that public testimony is something demonstrated, exhibited, lived out in the practice of faithfulness to God's covenant. It's not so much like walking into some public square, standing up on a soap box, and reading from the Bible. That might be appropriate at times, and Paul certainly did it. But the biblical injunction is for us as Christian community to be witnesses, to show what it means to be citizens and public officials, parents and teachers, journalists and counselors, farmers and nurses by the way we serve the Lord of heaven and earth. We certainly need to be prepared to explain ourselves—to give an account of the hope that is within us—to those who wonder about why we live as we do and love Jesus and one another so much. But no one will interrogate us if they do not see in our lives a thankful obedience to the God who has called us out of darkness into light. No one will wonder about us if they do not see us thanking God in the way we exercise human stewardship on earth in the power of the resurrected Jesus. Reading the Bible publicly will be a communal demonstration of what it means to live in the Bible, to breathe the Bible the way the Spirit of God shows us how to breathe it in everything we do.

One of my chief occupations is working with others to try to discover and practice Christian obedience in the political arena. That means working to discern what a just law is and how citizens and public officials should hold one another accountable to do justice. The work involves countless details about government's relation to nongovernmental organizations, about the need for policy changes in education, welfare, the environment, and foreign policy, about the relative health and illness of America's dominant political ideologies, and much more. There is much that people like me can and should say publicly about the Bible and its good news, but as in most arenas of human responsibility, the words will carry meaning only if spoken at the right time and in the right place in ways that are consistent with the way we actually carry out our work. Otherwise, what the public may see and hear may be sheer hypocrisy.

The public truth is that political life, like all other dimensions of human life, should now be lived out in the light of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The ultimate authority in the political realm and in all others is not a legislature or a president, not a supreme court or "the people." The ultimate authority is Jesus, the Christ. That is good public news. Only those who choose to keep on living in the dark need fear the approaching day of the Lord.

Topics: Religion
 

Jim Skillen directs the Center for Public Justice in Washington D.C., where his job is essentially to read, write, and argue with people about government and politics. He is the author most recently of With or Against the World?: America's Role among the Nations (2005) and earlier of A Covenant to Keep: Meditations on the Biblical Theme of Justice (2000). He and his wife Doreen have achieved sufficient maturity to become grandparents. He would play more golf if he had more time and money and if Doreen didn't mock it as a silly little game.

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