Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 12/22/1996
2 But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity. 3 Therefore, He will give them up until the time when she who is in labor has borne a child. Then the remainder of his brethren will return to the sons of Israel. 4 And He will arise and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they will remain, because at that time He will be great to the ends of the earth. 5 And this One will be our peace.
If Isaiah 9:1-7 ("And His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace . . .") is among the most well known of Messianic prophecies, Micah 5:2-5 is among the most useful. By it the Magi found Christ, and without it they might have come all that way and got so near for nothing. But I do not want to think about the Magi today, but rather about the terrible irony of those rabbis, court chaplains to Herod, who were able to find the Text but who did not bother to find the Savior. They teach us something about how not to read the Bible.
My usual emphasis is to encourage serious Bible study using sound hermeneutical methods. I am appalled and even frightened for the future of the Church when I reflect on the rising tide of biblical illiteracy among her members. I am even more concerned about the prevalence of subjective interpretation among those who still do study the Bible. One thinks of small-group Bible studies where you go around the circle asking, "What does this passage mean to you?" And then we transfer this pooling of ignorance to our personal Bible reading, expecting the Holy Spirit to "zap" us magically with the right interpretation and application, discerning that He has done so by the warming of our hearts or by whether what we have gotten out of the text supports our preconceived notions. There is even a certain impatience with anyone who raises the annoying and inconvenient question, "Well, that's a find and pious sentiment, but is it really what this passage is teaching?" And why shouldn't there be such an approach among the laity when the clergy seldom deal responsibly with such issues in their preaching? Such subjective hermeneutics simply makes the Bible a mirror that reflects our own thoughts. And it will leave the next generation defenseless against the inroads of secularism and false religion.
Therefore I am in the habit of exhorting God's people to serious Bible study: consistent in practice, intense in effort, rigorous in methodology. The Book that God inspired and which the Saints transmitted to us, often at the cost of their lives, deserves no less, and it repays such study with rewards inconceivable to the lazy. It is important that not just ministers but every believer encounter the Word of God as it is and get its message accurately. Indeed, the minister's job is to equip the saints to do just that. That is why I do not want you to be dependent on my teaching, but rather encourage you to use, and try to equip you with, the tools that can let you dig for yourselves. That is why I try to model such study for you when I preach, trying to squeeze every drop of nourishment I can (not every drop that is there!) out of every verse. That is why I try to preach in such a way that not only the truth but also the connections between that truth and the texts on which it is allegedly based are constantly emphasized and made plain. Nothing less could fulfill my obligation both to you and to the Text; nothing less can meet the needs of the hour.
But though the importance of serious Bible study is my constant emphasis, today I wish to stress the fact that there is another emphasis which is also needed: accurate knowledge of the Bible is necessary, but it is not enough. Countless hours spent in Bible study every week is not enough; competent use of all the right methods is not enough; answers to all the tough questions at your fingertips is not enough; facility in the original languages is not enough. You could become a walking concordance and profit spiritually not at all. For all these things the rabbis of Jesus' day had. But they did not find the Messiah whose very address they could give. All the things we have emphasized are helpful; some of them are essential. But unless you add two more tools to the list, you may dig as deep as you please and still come up as empty as the rabbis. Therefore I want to examine with you two deficiencies that wrecked the rabbis' reading.
Micah's prophecy was given for a purpose: to help people find Christ! The Magi, who did not have access to it, were nonetheless looking for Him; the rabbis, who had that access, were not. It is when the Word and the Seeker come together that something significant happens. And what is clearly true of this passage is equally true of the whole Bible: it is there, not to satisfy idle curiosity, but to help seekers find the One whom they are seeking. What is the Law but a Schoolmaster to lead us unto Christ? What are the Prophets but the predictors of his coming? What is the Sacrificial System but a foreshadowing of his death? What is the Psalter but the Hymnbook of his praise? What are the Proverbs but wisdom for his followers? What are the Gospels but the Record of his life, death, and resurrection? What are the Epistles but the explanation and application of the meaning of all of this for all of life? And what is the whole Bible? "You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that bear witness of Me" (Jn. 5:39). Truly Martin Luther did not exaggerate when he said that "The whole Bible is about Christ only everywhere."
Therefore, when you read the Bible, do not be satisfied until you have followed its words to a fuller revelation of Christ, a sweeter fellowship with Him, a closer walk with Him. This is why accurate and sound interpretation is important. We are following the Star; we want to find Christ where He is. We are seeking the Savior; we want to see Christ as He is. But, having read accurately, what do you do with that information? Be wise like the Magi, not merely learned like the rabbis: don't stop short of the Stable!
Jesus himself gave us one of the most important principles of interpretation: "If any man is willing to do His will, he shall know of the teaching, whether it is of God" (Jn. 7:17). In Bible study, blessing is tied to obedience. It is not enough to know that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem; you have to follow the star until it stands over the house. Think of the Magi, the classic illustrations of this principle. T. S. Eliot imagined their journey well:
"A cold coming we had of it, Just the worst time of the year For a journey, and such a long journey: The ways deep and the weather sharp, The very dead of winter."
Yet on they came, and nothing could hold them back. And think by contrast of the rabbis. With the same Star shining over their heads and the Text sitting comfortably under their fingers, they would not walk five miles to see if it was true.
If you want your Bible reading to be profitable, you have to be ready to follow the Truth wherever it leads. And where it leads will be to some uncomfortable places: to the searching of the thoughts and intents of your heart, to the taking up of your Cross daily to follow Christ, and to the ends of the earth with the Good News of His Salvation. Make no mistake: Scripture does not yield the riches of Christ until your feet have taken the road of the Cross. The bottom line? Be wise like the Magi, not merely learned like the rabbis: don't stop short of the Stable!
It is appropriate that Jesus, the Bread of Life, was born in Bethlehem, which in Hebrew means literally Beth Lechem, "House of Bread." We feed on that Bread in public worship, in the Lord's Supper, in prayer, and in the Bible faithfully preached and personally studied. In your Bible study this year, don't be satisfied to chew on the dry wrapper trying to get a little of the crust. Feed richly on the banquet of grace by coming to Scripture for the purpose of finding Christ and for the purpose of following Him.
Bethlehem, Beth Lechem, "house of bread": Your white stones waited silent in the sun For long years (long as people feel them run). The Prophets wrote no more; the Rabbis read The old words and unraveled every thread And found your secret out: you were the one. Yet when the Time came and the Thing was done, The spent the night at home asleep in bed. Oh, they could put their fingers on the pages That told the old fox Herod it was you. But those uncircumcised, stargazing sages Came first, and shepherds, wet with evening dew, Had long since been there and had all been fed In Bethlehem, Beth Lechem, "house of bread." (D.T.W.)
This Christmas season and throughout the new year: Don't stop short of the Stable!
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams