All Scripture is God-breathed and useful one way or another—showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes—training and shaping us that we may be up to the tasks God has for us.
II Timothy 3:16-17
Have you ever thought that you really knew a song? That you knew it so well that you had all the lyrics down cold—only have someone else tell you that you missed it? That you didn’t really understand the song—or that the words you were singing were not the actual words of the song? I have…and it was pretty ridiculous.
About 15 years ago, while I was serving as a worship leader, one of my friends mailed me a CD that had a demo of a new worship song he was recording. Many of you may know this song now—it’s entitled “Your Love is Amazing.”
It’s been recorded by a number of artists at this point, but back then, it was brand new. No one had recorded it, and I had never heard it. There was no recording for me to find online—there was no website that had the lyrics. All I had was a rough-cut demo of a brand new song. If I wanted our team to learn the song for worship, I was going to have to create a chart for it from scratch…so I did.
I listened to the demo CD over and over and over, figured out the arrangement, and created a chart for our team, which included me transcribing the lyrics as best as I could understand them. Now, I need you to understand that this demo had not been mixed or mastered—that the levels were not good and that at different points, the lyrics were really hard to decipher. I need you to understand that before you hear what I did.
The first verse—which you will probably recognize—is supposed to say:
Your love is amazing
Steady and unchanging
Your love is a mountain
Firm beneath my feet
Unfortunately…that is not what I heard. What I heard was:
Your love is amazing
Steady and unchanging
Your love is a mountain
Of fur beneath my feet
And that is exactly what I put on the chart that I passed out to the band for practice. As you can imagine, when my crazy lyric was surrounded by chords and other musical information, it didn’t really jump off the page—so no one noticed it at first. But then we started to sing it together, and as soon as the vocalists got to “mountain of fur,” the wheels came off.
I couldn’t understand what the problem was. The words and their meaning made sense to me. Who doesn’t want a mountain of nice soft fur beneath their feet—in between their toes—it sounded so pleasant! I figured, “Of course God’s love is warm and fuzzy!”
You’ll be relieved to know that one of the vocalists corrected the lyric that night—so we never actually sang the “fur” lyric in worship—though it does still come up from time to time. And I challenge you—the next time you hear that song—not to think about fur beneath your feet. You won’t be able to do it...and you’re welcome.
We all do this. We could probably all share lyrics or words we thought were saying one thing that were actually saying something else. There are actually websites devoted to this phenomenon—sites that list the strange lyrics and meanings we think we hear in our favorite songs. Here are just a few of my favorite examples:
In Jimmy Hendrix’s "Purple Haze," some of us don't hear Jimmy's poetic line, Excuse me while I kiss the sky but a much more practical, Excuse me while I kiss this guy.
The Monkees hit, "I’m a Believer" is transformed into, Then I Saw her Face, now I’m gonna leave her!
The verse in Queen’s "We Will Rock You" is not heard as, Kicking your can all over the place but as Kicking your cat all over the place.
Once again steering away from the poetic and toward the practical, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s hit lyric changes from There's a bad moon on the rise to There's a bathroom on the right.
And given the scripture with which we are wrestling, Bob Dylan’s famous song "Blowin’ in the Wind" is particularly relevant. Some us don't hear Bob saying, The answer, my friend... and instead hear The ants are my friend... or The aunts are my friend... Now, whether that makes you think of your aunt—or little bugs that bite—they’re all blowing in the wind.
Clearly, coming from the 60’s and 70’s, these examples are a little dated, but I assure you this phenomenon still happens, even in the new songs we hear this year. As long as we are listening, we will inevitably sometimes mis-hear and misunderstand. We will continue to arrive at mountains of fur beneath our feet.
When I think about the words of II Timothy 3, it occurs to me that perhaps this phenomenon is not limited to music. We might also be capable of mis-hearing and misunderstanding the words of the Bible and arriving at some really strange ideas.
The words of II Timothy 3:16 are pretty well-known. If they were a song, they would be among the greatest hits of the Bible. We probably all recognize at least a few of the lyrics. Especially the first part:
"All Scripture is God-breathed."
Or perhaps a slightly different translation, "All Scripture is inspired by God."
As soon as we hear the words, we know the song. We know exactly what is being said. We know what these words mean. Don’t we?
If you’re like me, you have heard that what these words mean is that "God wrote the Bible." Maybe we have even heard someone try to explain what that looked like exactly:
that God dictated divine thoughts to willing scribes.
or perhaps whispered into their ears with a still, small voice.
or even possessed the writers of the biblical books in some way to have them write down exactly what God wanted written down.
This line of thinking hears the opening words of II Timothy 3:16, “All scripture is God breathed” and determines not only that God literally wrote the Bible but also concludes that since God is perfect, the Bible must also be perfect, that it’s inerrant or without error, that it is not up for debate or discussion. God wrote it. That’s it. Right?
I am going to ask you to take a deep breath…breathe in…and now breathe out slowly. It’s good for us to connect to our breath. It’s good for our health. We take our breath for granted. Go ahead and take another deep breath...in and out, slowly.
Now, we should feel calmer, more rooted, more connected to our bodies and even to each other as we do that. And, while we are all nice and calm and centered, let me take this opportunity to invite you to recognize that the idea "God literally wrote the Bible" as "a mountain of fur beneath our feet."
It’s just not what is going on in II Timothy at all. We have mis-heard or misunderstood. It’s too small of an idea. It’s not what this lyricist is hoping we will understand. The reason I say this lyricist is because the identity of the actual writer of II Timothy is an area of scholarly debate. We’re not sure who wrote it.
Traditionally, the thought was that the apostle Paul wrote this letter to his disciple Timothy in the mid 60’s of the first century—thirty years or so after the death of Christ and just a few years before Paul’s own death.
And if that’s the case, then II Timothy is Paul’s last letter—at least the last letter that we have. Modern scholarship contends that II Timothy is just too different from the rest of Paul’s writing to have been written by Paul. It was more likely written by a student of Paul’s teaching somewhere between 90 and 120 CE.
Why does this matter to us?
This is important because whether these words were written by Paul in the 60’s or by a student of his doctrine 30 or so years later:
The Bible as we know it didn’t exist.
The New Testament did not exist, and it wouldn’t for over 200 more years.
If Paul wrote these words in the 60’s to Timothy, the Gospels weren’t even around yet.
Which, in turn, should cause us to ask: When the writer of II Timothy says, “All Scripture is God breathed…” what scripture is the writer talking about?
They’re not talking about the Gospels.
They’re not talking about a New Testament or a Christian Bible that does not yet exist.
They’re talking about the Hebrew scriptures, the sacred books that were accepted and available to them at the time when these words were written.
They’re talking about the Writings, the Prophets, and most specifically, the Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
This historical reality in and of itself should cause us to loosen our death-grip on the Bible and consider the possibility that the writer of II Timothy might be driving toward a bigger idea than “God literally wrote the Bible.”
The good news is, if we are willing to look at the actual words written in verses 16 and 17, there are clues to help us discover bigger ideas.
The good news is:
If we are willing to look, there are clues to help us discover bigger ideas.
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