Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

When the Bible Goes Missing

May 9, 2011

For Christians the Word of God should be everything. It should form the basis of all our thinking about all things – not just religious, spiritual and theological, but ethical, social and political. But it increasingly seems that the Bible is just becoming an optional extra for many believers.

Not only does biblical illiteracy seem to be at an all time high amongst so-called biblical Christians, but it is getting harder to even hear it in our churches. I have been to many churches where the Word of God hardly gets a mention. Certainly in many churches the old practice of having a public reading of Scripture is gone, and many so-called sermons are largely devoid of biblical material.

And without other forms of Bible teaching (at least in America adult Sunday School is still popular), it seems there is little room in our modern evangelical churches for solid Bible teaching and study. Unless one goes to Bible college, Australian believers are more or less left to their own devices as to biblical literacy and theological education.

A prime example of this woeful lack of basic biblical knowledge occurred following the death of Osama bin Laden. Not only were many Christians actually bummed out at his death, but they tried to take the high moral ground on this. And very few of these folks in fact quoted any Scripture about this.

What did happen instead – and with annoying monotony – was for them to quote this from Martin Luther King: “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the… death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

Of course the first thing to say about this quote is that he never even said it! Bits of it, or things a bit like it, maybe – but this is not a genuine quote of his (see the link below). Yet believers all over the place were throwing it around not only as a legitimate quote, but as if it were gospel truth.

Indeed, what we had from so many Christian quarters was anything but gospel truth on this. Instead we had heaps of mushy moralising and secularist sentimentalism, but we certainly had hardly any Scriptural pronouncements offered on this.

At best, a few people started throwing around Ezekiel 33:11: “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked.” This is obviously an important passage, but it is not the end of the story. And like every other text, it requires a context. Of course there is rejoicing when people come to know God (Luke 15:7,10).

Of course God desires that everyone be saved (1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9). But he also desires justice and social order in a fallen world, and that is why he ordained the institution of government, as well as the death penalty. The magistrate has been given the sword by God to punish evildoers in this life (Rom. 13:4).

And he has ordained that those who reject him and refuse his gracious offers of mercy and reconciliation will live in eternal separation and judgment. Thus God himself has established the death penalty for sin in this life, and he has established two separate eternal destinies for mankind.

Was he wrong in both cases? Some of these critics would seem to think so. As is so often the case, they think God is not moral enough, compassionate enough, caring enough. These people actually seem to think they can do a better job of running the moral universe than God can.

And speaking of context, Ez. 33 is about the coming exile of Israel if they do not quickly turn things around. Yahweh does not want Israel to meet this fate, but it will happen if they continue in sin and refuse to obey him. That is what Ezekiel is referring to here.

Indeed, he repeats what is found in Ez. 18:31-32, and says that death is not inevitable. This exile need not happen. It is not too late to repent and avert this fate. That is what Yahweh desires. It is the same today. God has done everything in Christ to secure our salvation. But if we refuse that, then we will fully get what we deserve.

Yahweh’s delight is to have this ongoing love relationship with Israel, and not see it all lost – at least temporarily – by going into captivity because of their hard hearts. But God here is not rescinding or reversing his establishment of the state, or the eternal fate of those who reject him.

Thus retributive justice is something which God has established and which is his will to carry out. Of course there is a lot of fuzzy thinking here which I have spoken to elsewhere, but the short story is this: retribution is not revenge, and justice is not hate.

God always delights in seeing justice maintained, and he has delegated authority to see to it that justice in this life is carried out. When Osama declared war on the US and the West, and became a mass murderer of thousands of innocent people, he was an enemy combatant who had forfeited his own right to life.

He lost his life as a result, and the world is rid of a cruel, evil and bloodthirsty terrorist. And the Bible is full of passages which speak of rejoicing at the death of God’s enemies, and of God’s people’s enemies. There is nothing at all amiss in rejoicing in the establishment of justice and the defeat of evil.

Consider just a few of many passages:

-In Exodus 15 we have the Song of Moses, in which God’s people rejoice, exalt and worship God – why? Because of the destruction of their enemies.

-In Judges 5:1-31 we have the Song of Deborah, in which she and Israel celebrate the death of God’s (and God’s people’s) enemies.

-In 1 Sam 25:37-39 we read about how David praised the Lord because the Lord had struck down his enemy Nabal.

-In the Book of Esther we read about the institution of one of Israel’s major annual festivals, the feast of Purim (Esther 8:11-17), which is a celebration of the death of God’s enemies.

-In Proverbs 11:10 we read that “When the righteous prosper, the city rejoices; when the wicked perish, there are shouts of joy.”

-In Revelation 18:20 and other passages we read about great praise and worship services – why? Because God has judged his (and his people’s) enemies. Indeed, this fulfils the deep longing of God’s people for retribution as recorded in Rev. 6:10.

There are many more such texts. Yet all the other side can do so often is throw out a MLK quote which is not even the real deal. Then I get accused by these people of taking passages out of context. Hey, at least I am using the Word of God. Most of these guys seem to be ignoring it altogether.

Another critic of mine said we should remember the flood, and spoke of “how it grieved God’s heart so that ‘He repented of Himself’ that He had even made man?” But this is getting things back to front. We are clearly told in Gen. 6:5-8 that he was grieved at making man because of his “great wickedness,” so he decreed the flood as just judgment. He was not grieving about, or repenting over, sending the flood, but of human wickedness, which resulted in the flood.

But this lack of biblical awareness is found all over the place. Consider what a letter writer to the Age said: “I watch the world rejoice at the death of a sinner, as if one fewer makes the world a better place. If that’s the case, then the world would be infinitely better if we freed it from every sinner. But who would be left?”

This is more moral and biblical confusion. Of course we are all sinners. So what? Does that mean all human justice must come to an end? If I shoot dead my neighbour and stand before the judge, can I simply say, “Yes I sinned, but you judge are also a sinner, so surely you have no right to judge me. Just let me go free.”

And the world most certainly is a better place with Osama gone. So too when Hitler met his end. People all around the world rightly celebrated the death of this horrendous dictator, and the defeat of the Nazis. They danced in the streets over this at war’s end.

Indeed, just as the Israelites did with the defeat and death of Pharoah. Just as the Israelites did at the defeat and death of Haman. Just as Deborah did at the defeat and death of Jabin and the Canaanites. Just as David did with the death of Nabal.

Just as all God’s people will rejoice and worship over the defeat of God’s enemies when he justly judges unrepentant and rebellious mankind. While we all should pray and weep over the lost, and do all we can to reach them for the gospel, we should also exalt in what God exalts in.

When he is glorified in his judgments and rejoices over them, so too should we. But to do this we need a bit of biblical awareness. Selectively citing sentimental misquotes is not how Christians are to grapple with complex ethical issues. Dealing carefully and completely with the Biblical revelation is.

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37 Responses to When the Bible Goes Missing

  • Hi Bill,

    Sorry to go off on a bit of a tangent, but why are so many Christians happy to quote Martin Luther King Jr anyway? This is a man who from his own writings:

    “asserted that liberal theology, or that line of thought critical of a literal reading of the Bible, was “the best or at least the most logical system of theology in existence.” He agreed with liberal theology’s teachings that “the Pentateuch teachings were written by more than one author, that the whale did not swallow Jonah,” and “that Jesus never met John the Baptist.”

    King’s serial adultery and socialist economic and political beliefs also show that he had little understanding or fear of God’s law.

    Whether not a Christian at all, or an extremely confused and immature Christian; either way he’s hardly a great role model.

    Mansel Rogerson

  • Thanks Mansel

    Yes there is a double problem here: what you just mentioned, and the fact that so many believers would rather cite him as the authority on this matter than the Word of God. Sloppy secular sentimentalism has replaced reliance on the inerrant Scriptures for some of these Christians. No wonder we keep losing so many of battles of the day.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • On the topic of Biblical illiteracy in the Christian world, I’d recommend every Christian to read the Bible from cover to cover. That’s one of my goals for this year. I don’t want to sound like I’m gloating, but I’ve done it before, using a chronological reading plan, and it was a great blessing to me during a night season. This was prompted by some sober self-examination. I had to ask myself, am I part of the problem or part of the solution?
    Ross McPhee

  • Yes exactly right Ross

    We all should be reading the Bible cover to cover, either straight through or as part of some reading plan, of which there are many. But as I have said before, if Christians simply read three chapters a day (which takes what? A measly 15 minutes) they can handily get though the Bible once every year.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Unless one goes to Bible college, Australian believers are more or less left to their own devices as to biblical literacy and theological education.

    That’s where Bible Study Fellowship International or BSF can be very helpful. It’s an expository Bible study carrying over a period of 8 years. You can attend either a night or a day class (once a week) in school terms. You’re given detailed notes and homework questions to do during the week. In class you discuss your homework questions in a small group and then listen to a lecture – all on the same topic. It actually costs nothing, but you can make a free-will donation.

    Topics include:

    * Isaiah
    * Acts of the Apostles
    * Genesis
    * Matthew
    * The Life of Moses
    * Romans
    * History of Israel and the Minor Prophets
    * John

    Annette Nestor, Perth

  • John 1:1-5: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

    And what is that darkness? It is our own human understanding and imaginings, our orientation towards denial, deception, defiance, distraction, diversion, delusion, deviancy, despair and dare I say democracy, where church elders and congregations vote on this and that issue, instead of referencing all to what the Bible says.

    John 8:32: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

    David Skinner, UK

  • If those calling themselves Christians would bother do a bit of topical studying, they might actually get a better picture of what the Bible says about various topics. Too many claim that Bible is silent on topics that it plainly covers or have the warped understanding that you have highlighted

    Making sure that they read the whole of every book and not skip parts also enables people to find those “hidden” answers to questions. Some times it is a single neglected verse that makes sense of the issue, along with getting the chronology right.

    Mark Bachelor

  • Thanks Annette

    Yes there are many parachurch groups filling the void, offering solid biblical teaching, of which BSF is one. My own website is being increasingly devoted to this, in the effort to help take on the rampant biblical illiteracy amongst so many believers. We all have to do our bit to turn this around.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • And equally important – teach it to your children.
    Anita Gerardi

  • Biblical illiteracy could be stopped now if those calling themselves Christians would choose today, to start getting Biblically discipled, reading their Bibles daily (abiding in the Word of God), and started being doers of the Word, not hearers only!!!
    To speak the Truth is to demonstrate amazing love – the religious were called ‘white washed tombs’, Jesus rebuked His disciples, and we are definitely shown both the goodness and severity of God through out the Bible.
    It’s time “Christians” got their heads out of the sand and realized we are at War and we have a responsibility to get off our backsides and go out and preach the good news to those who are perishing for lack of knowledge!!!!
    Barb Hoc

  • Biblical illiteracy is indeed rampant in Australian churches. What is worse, few people seem to care! We need to go on the offensive wherever we can and turn this around, by the Spirit’s power. Good as BSF, etc may be, it’s the local church that needs to take up the cause here.
    Jon Newton

  • Thanks Jon
    Yes the churches have a lot to answer for here.
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • No wonder Rob Bell pastors a mega church.

    Praise God for the internet. What I cannot receive from the pulpit, I receive from the websites of orthodox teachers like John MacArthur, Ray Stedman, Albert Mohler, Wayne Grudem, etc.
    Barry Koh

  • Bill, it’s true that your website offers solid Biblical teaching. I for one have been helped by your insights. Many issues that were once quite confusing to me have now been made clear to me. I would say that because of it (your website), I don’t think the same as I used to…..and that’s a good thing.

    Annette Nestor, Perth

  • Many thanks Annette

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Bill, you were going to provide a link explaining the MLK mis-quote:
    “but this is not a genuine quote of his (see the link below)”

    Haven’t seen it yet.

    John Angelico

  • Thanks John

    Yes you are right, my apologies. It has now been inserted where it belongs.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Bill, your article almost makes me think you are omniscient, for that is exactly the content of what has been chewed over ad infinitum amongst me and my facebook friends this past week. It was pretty discouraging to see how much fuzzy thinking there is out there, among people who should know better. Thanks!
    Denise Hayden

  • Many thanks Denise

    It is not only reassuring to know that I am not the only one who thinks this way, but it is gratifying to know that I may have been of some limited help and encouragement here.
    Bless you,

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • If the time were not short even the very elect would be deceived. We avoid Gods rules at our peril. There is no democracy in Gods Kingdom it is what it says his kingdom and when he returns we will know that he is truly Lord of Lords and King of Kings. Not a President or a Prime Minister who has only been elected because of the millions spent indoctrinating the voters a large proportion of which comes from the death peddlers that exterminate our future generations…Evil does where evil is.

    Dennis Newland

  • While your observation of biblical illiteracy is well put the idea of using Old Testament examples of how we are to respond to the death of Osama doesn’t hold any weight for the New Testament church. If so, we should still pray for the destruction of our enemies as in the book of Psalm. We rejoice in Revelations because we are siding with God’s final act of Justice by bringing judgement on the world. No where, that I can think of, in the New Testament does Jesus instruct us to rejoice over the death of a person. While I’m glad that an evil person like Osama is dead I don’t see the benefit of this outward display of shouting over killing someone. We can’t even get christians to shout over the resurrection of Jesus. We should shout about that victory.

    William Hudson

  • Thanks William

    Actually we can and should use those OT paradigms, for the simple reason that Jesus and the apostles did. There are numerous psalms in which justice is called for, God’s destruction of his enemies is appealed to, and pleas for his righteousness to be manifest are made. They are known as imprecatory psalms, and are quoted on numerous occasions in the NT. Psalm 69 is a key example, and is quoted from frequently by Jesus and the disciples. We should always seek for God’s justice and seek for his vindication. We can desire it and pray for it. (But I will soon be writing an article on all this.)

    As to your concerns about “this outward display of shouting over killing someone” can I simply suggest that you are far too removed from the victims here, and therefore far too glib. If you had lost all your family to this evil man, and were still deeply grieving each day about it, you too – if you were a real human being – would also celebrate his just end. Respectfully, it is always far too easy to be an armchair critic and wax sanctimonious about these things when one has no personal involvement in such things. And by your reasoning, the Jews – and all those in the free West – were wrong to celebrate the defeat of Hitler and the Nazis. Sorry, but I find this to be an odd sort of morality, let alone Christian morality.

    Should believers celebrate the resurrection? Sure, but that is a non sequitur in your argument, so has no bearing on the issue.

    And you have answered your own objection: God’s people in NT times rejoice with God in the defeat of the ungodly and unrepentant as we read in Revelation. Maybe you will want to opt out of these celebrations, but I certainly won’t.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • As Annette mentioned i too have gained great insight through CultureWatch. I seriously thank God for this site Bill. Sadly i came to the conclusion that there’s no teaching in the 10 churches Ive been to. Oh yeah there’s the occasional spiritual food but on the whole its a social club. Its a bit like a English comedy, where nothing gets done and anyone who trys to is told in no uncertain terms, there’s a proper way to do things.
    Daniel Kempton

  • Spot on Bill. I was in a particular church on mother’s day with the intention of refreshing my spirit. Instead we had a complete service taken up with an interview of what life was like bringing up kids with mum by an ordinary member of the church. That was the end of the service wasn’t worth my time. Five minutes of prayer at home would have made me feel a lot better. I am beginning to feel some churches are places of entertainment rather than houses of worship.
    Patrick Brahams

  • Like him or not, MLK has been taken out of context. He’s clearly talking about extra-judicial violence taking place in the inter-racial conflicts of his day. He correctly observes that extra-judicial violence can lead to moral anarchy. This has nothing to do with the waging of just war by a legitimate authority (in this case the US Government), which has the opposite goal of restraining moral anarchy. Apples and oranges.
    Jereth Kok

  • Thanks Patrick

    While personal testimony can be quite important and edifying, and certainly has a place in church services, so too does the preaching of the Word. Ideally one would not squeeze out the other, but both would find a place.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thanks Jereth

    Yes quite right.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • I’m sorry to say sir but you are incorrect. If you said that Jesus prayed an imprecatory psalms then site me the verse. Jesus did not quote any of Psalm 69. Jesus said it has been said of old(old testament), But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you. Not get them Lord. Yes I am a real human being but your carnal rationale does not hold water the grace of the Word of God. You are ignorantly mixing up worldly responses with Spiritual responses. Jesus said forgive them for they know not what they do and he was the King of Glory. You are leading Christians down a path of incorrect thinking and heart that is contrary to Jesus. Lastly being from the hood we see far too many killings. Our families grieve over many murders that are committed in our communities that you never read about. Believe me I am very much in touch with the reality of death and morning. But none of these emotional positions that you have taken ursups authority over God’s Word. Yes the saints rejoice in the book of Revelations in the end of time. It’s not judgment time it’s grace time.
    William Hudson, US

  • Thanks William

    But as you obviously have your mind made up on this, it will do little good for me to respond any further. But despite your confident assertion, it is better not to live in ignorance. There are in fact 5 instances in the NT where Ps. 69 is cited, twice in the Gospels, once in Acts, and twice in the letters of Paul. Those who do desire biblical truth can quickly discover where they are.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Hi Bill,
    Thank you so much for your responses regarding issues of paramount importance.
    For me God is absolute just and He will sort all things out in the end. I love Gods word and the bible is my favourite book and you are right many do not wish to follow it’s teachings. What can I say but may the Lord continually bless you with wisdom and grace and as you stand alone on many issues, beloved press on, with God at your side. Indeed a voice as yourself, as His servant is as water on parched land. Be encouraged, may His armour shine on you continually as you walk the line of faith. Blessings brother “click the heels, salute the King and continue to march on”. 1 cor. 15. 58.
    Connie Bard

  • Many thanks indeed Connie, very much appreciated.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • William,
    Your painful experiences as members of the hood should not be compared with the experiences of the pains and sufferings of the families of innocent victims of 9/11. They did not participate or contribute to crimes, killings, and murders in their communities but are rather victims of them. The death of Osama brought a natural response of joy and relief to them. This was not a case of celebrating someone going to hell, that can make us so ‘righteously’ worked up. This was a war scenario. It was a cheer of victory and a rejoicing of justice done. Sometimes we tend to forget that we live in a fallen world, where it becomes necessary for the presence of the earthly police and security forces to take on and take out those who kill and murder. Nobody loves war or to see someone die. How nice it would be to live in a peaceful world, but we will have to wait for that perfect world until Jesus comes to reign in a new Heaven and a new Earth. In the meantime, we’ll just keep on praying His will be done.
    Barry Koh

  • Hi Bill,
    I too am one of those who visits your site daily – and I’m disappointed when there’s not a new post. I also read your respondents comments and find some good teaching there as well. Alas, some not so good. I send links to many of your articles to my friends and family. I am fortunate that the small assembly of which I’m a member seldom forgets to read from and/or preach from the Word.

    Please keep up what you’re doing. I pray that you’ll be blogging for long time yet, before you’re run out of business for all your “hate speech”.

    Kev Downes

  • Many thanks indeed Kev

    It is always nice to get the occasional bit of praise, given the rather steady stream of criticism and hate mail that I receive (most of which people will never see because it is unsuitable for public posting).

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • I’ll add my thanks too. Bill, I appreciate how you help your readers to understand the Bible through this website.
    Dan Brinkman

  • Dear Bill, I love your work, and praise God for the accuracy of your writing in reflecting His Word.
    In my view it is proper to rejoice when justice, a great human need reflecting the very nature of God, is done. But it is always a sad moment too when a human dies, even if justly, as perhaps he is lost forever, however that is his choice and responsibility. But rejoicing, even greatly, in the justice I believe is Godly indeed. Perhaps this is a little schizophrenic, but there we are.
    Biblical references I would use include Proverbs 24:17 “Do not gloat when your enemy falls….or The Lord will see and disapprove” and Psalm 89:14″…justice are the foundation of your throne”.
    I would like to add Jacob Prasch of to your list of tested bible teachers, a converted cocaine dealing Jew, he has taught and explained the bible to a 40 year university educated Christian (ie me) very professionally.
    Please keep up the good work Bill, regards,
    Tony Sasse

  • Many thanks Dan and Tony.
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

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