For years, I have heard people declaring that the words spoken by Jesus, the red-letter words in many editions of the Gospel accounts, are the most important ones in the New Testament. Some make this declaration and leave it at that, while others follow up by discounting the rest of the NT writings by the apostles and prophets. Paul’s writings are often especially discounted or totally dismissed using this approach. People who are offended by what he says about homosexuality and other “accepted” sins in our society are leading the parade in this regard.
Let me begin my observations by saying that we are at an all-time low in America of Bible reading and thus Bible knowledge. Many who claim to know the Bible know much of what they know from listening to or watching podcasts and other public communication mediums rather than digging into the biblical text on their own. The majority of those who appear to be very positive toward what Jesus said in person while on earth don’t really know much of what he did say. They know John 3:16 and a few more scattered passages but have little idea of what his overall teaching actually contains.
For example, he said that most people were going to hell and by comparison, few to heaven. Keep in mind as you read the following passage that these are all red-letter words.
“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”
A few verses later in the same context he said that claiming to be his follower, a Christian as we would term it, doesn’t make you one. Here are a few more red-letter words for your reading enjoyment.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”
You cannot do God’s will without knowing it. Where do you learn it? In the Bible, which is God’s only source containing his stated will. Is that will only stated in the red-letter words? Keep reading. By the way, why did Jesus utter these shocking words recorded in Matthew’s Gospel in the first place? The parallel passage in Luke’s account tells us he was responding to a question that would naturally arise, given his strong emphasis on God’s expectations of us.
“Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. 23 Someone asked him, ‘Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?’”
For those who have actually studied the Bible carefully for themselves, they know what Jesus taught about the narrow road and what it takes to be a disciple of his. It is not surprising at all that someone asked Jesus the above question. The earthly ministry of Jesus did not consist of him walking peacefully through the fields and meadows uttering nice little epigrams suitable for printing in Hallmark greeting cards. Far from it. He challenged people to the core of their beings and most rejected him and were only satisfied when he was on a cross bleeding for having delivered such direct challenges. But yes, we definitely need to be reading those red-letter words alright, because we are going to face them on the Day of Judgment.
“There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day.”
What About the Black-Letter Words?
Are the words in Acts through Revelation not as important as the ones spoken directly by Jesus while on earth? Are they less inspired or perhaps not inspired at all? Let’s just ask Jesus and allow his red-letter words to answer that question for us.
“All this I have spoken while still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”
“I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. 13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14 He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. 15 All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.”
Do those quotes need explanation? Did the apostles have any question about being guided by the Holy Spirit to write just as authoritatively as Jesus spoke in person? That’s not what I read in passages like the following, written by the two most prominent apostles, one designated as the apostle to the Gentiles and the other as the apostle to the Jews.
“Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, 3 that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. 4 In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets.”
2 Peter 1:19-21
“We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. 20 Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. 21 For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
By the way, Peter went on to refer to Paul’s writings by the term, “Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16). The Bible has come under attack since it was written, but the attacks have increased in modern times as have the tragic consequences of Satan’s successes. My alarm system is increasing accordingly, especially since my age guarantees that I don’t have much time left to help us fight back. Satan’s simplest plan is to keep people from taking the Bible seriously, and if he can keep us from reading it, his plan will continue to work. If we do start reading it, the next part of his plan is to undermine trust in it, or at least some parts of it. Hence his strategy to confuse us about both red-letter words and black-letter words, the latter being in actuality “red-letter” words also from Christ through the Holy Spirit to the apostles and prophets.
Which Letters and Which Words—Moses or Christ?
Another part of Satan’s plan is to get our biblical focus misdirected. A current misdirection is to have us focus more and more on the Old Testament, oddly enough. At one time, the difference in the Mosiac and Christian covenants was well understood because people read the New Testament for themselves. Even a cursory reading of the book of Hebrews should bring us back to Christ and the new covenant as our primary focus. Paul’s goal as an inspired writer of thirteen books of the NT is made clear in the following passage.
“My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, 3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”
If ALL the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ, pray tell why are so many becoming more and more enamored with Moses and the Law? Sometime within the past year, a friend suggested that I tune in to a recorded video sermon by a guest speaker in one of the congregations in our family of churches. I did and listened very carefully. He spent the entire sermon focusing on an Old Testament passage that he admitted at the outset was impossible to understand with certainty (although he seemed pretty certain of his interpretation of it). Yet, because he is purported to be an OT scholar, people in the audience appeared to be spellbound as they listened. I was far from being spellbound. I was wondering where Jesus was and why I was spending my time listening to Moses being preached instead of Jesus.
What I Am Not Saying
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t study the OT. I’ve not only studied all of it in some depth and continue to read through it almost every year as a part of my Bible reading program, but I used to teach courses in OT at a Preacher’s School training full-time ministry students. One of my consistent courses taught was the Pentateuch, the first five books of the OT. In teaching it, I gave an assignment to my students on a document which was many pages long and involved digging out hundreds of details from the OT text.
In looking back on it, I think I made a mistake in asking them to examine the minutia of such details. One student, an excellent straight A student who was always very respectful with this one possible exception, said as he passed by me on the last day of the course, “This (holding up the long assignment document) had all the educational value of a roll of toilet paper!” He had been a public-school teacher prior to entering ministry training and I think his assessment was correct. Coming from him, it was also pretty funny at the time!
Since the NT is in the OT concealed and the OT is in the NT revealed, our study of the OT should be mostly limited to what is necessary to our understanding of the NT. We simply do not need in-depth study of the OT in all of its details that no longer are a part of the requirements of our new covenant with God. Those details would include hundreds of requirements about sacrifices, feast days, other special days (yes, including the Sabbath), food laws and other parts of the Mosiac covenant. If all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ, we need to focus on him. Period.
Yes, the OT contains prophecies about Christ that Paul and others used to convince the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah, and yes, some of those prophecies were housed in typology pointing to Christ. Please keep in mind that the early teachers like Paul used these prophecies and typology in addressing Jews while trying to convert them, not Gentiles (unless they had joined themselves to the synagogue as Jewish proselytes or “God-fearers”). He decidedly was not simply teaching them the OT for edification!
The huge majority of those now claiming Christianity are Gentiles, having no Jewish roots at all. Therefore, to make the OT a major focus of our study is more than unwise; I believe it is an affront to Jesus. I can’t make this point better than Paul did in Colossians 2:17: “These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” Why would we want to focus on studying shadows in the OT when we can study the realities of Christ stated in plain language in the NT?
More will be said about this concerning tendency among us in upcoming articles on my website, starting with one by my friend and fellow teacher, Douglas Jacoby. Watch for it. In the meantime, spend more time reading the NT for yourself, making notes, and digging deeply into the “red-letter” words of Jesus (in the entire New Testament). I am currently reading through the NT once a month, focusing on digging out the treasures of Jesus, and even after all these years, I continue to find new ones. Doing something similar would be a wonderful starting place for you too!