Was the Bible Written to Me?

In some recent discussions, mostly related to my Seventh-day Adventist background (for those who may not know, I’m now a member of a United Methodist congregation but was raised SDA), I have encountered quite a number of questions regarding who various elements of scripture are for. For example, many Christians will say that the law of the Old Testament was for the Jews, and is not binding on them. Others will say that the law itself was made void for everyone due to the death of Jesus. Seventh-day Adventists divide the law into two major parts, the moral law or ten commandments and the ceremonial law which covers just about all the rest of the Torah.

Alden Thompson, an SDA author, uses the “law pyramid” starting at the top with the one law of love to God, then the two laws of love to God and love to one’s neighbor, then the 10 commandments, making this more explicit in more commands, then the 613 “mitzvoth” or commands found in Torah. Each group of laws expands on the principles in the greater law. (You can find Thompson’s eplanation of this in his book Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?, in chapter 4, “Strange People Need Strange Laws,” page 60. (Note: This book is published by my company, Energion Publications.) The result is a variant on the SDA position which makes the 613 commands simply a more detailed expansion on the more basic one and two laws, but leaves an open question as to whether the 10 commandments are universally applicable (Thompson as a committed SDA believes they are), or whether one must take the laws more as a whole and determine their applicability to time and place.

I tend to bounce this question off of my SDA roots for the simple reason that I think that the more general Christian community has often not done enough thinking about what we believe about the law. In just about any congregation I will find people who think that the entire law was nailed to the cross, and no laws apply to us at all, to those who firmly hold that the 10 commandments must be kept, but aren’t sure just what the consequences will be for failure. At the same time, we have an almost exaggerated reverence for monuments of the ten commandments, expressed by people who are not all that sure about a good number of them.

I’m also focussing on the issue of the ten commandments, because that is a common area of disagreement. But I’m really more interested in how we read the Bible in general, because this same type of question is quite valid for any scriptural passage.

The fact is that none of the Bible was, in fact, written to me personally, nor to my church as a whole. (Now please pause a bit before jumping on me about the prayer of Jesus in John 17. I’ll allow that some passages can be read more broadly, but there are very few.) The SDA distinction between the 10 commandments divides a single instance of lawgiving into multiple parts, supposing one part to be directed to all people, and the other to Israel. But the 10 commandments themselves begin with “I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt . . .” (Exodus 20:2) That’s addressing a group of Israelites near Mount Sinai at a particular time and place. The Israelites through their celebrations participated as a people in God’s acts of salvation, and made themselves part of this as well. As Christians, we feel that we are a part of that deliverance as well, metaphorically through Jesus, called from Egypt (Matthew 2:15), and spiritually through being Abraham’s seed by faith (Galatians 3:29). We gain from the experience even though we did not experience it directly and physically.

So despite the fact that I believe SDAs have thought a great deal more about the law and its relation to grace, I find myself in profound disagreement here. The Bible itself doesn’t make a distinction between the 10 commandments and the rest of the law. There is no part of the Torah that was addressed to non-Israelites. There is no indication of greater sacredness, except for two things: 1) It’s actual content and 2) That it is spoken by God directly to the people. In the history itself I see considerable reason to believe that the fact that the 10 commandments were spoken by God directly is not a good indicator. As I read Exodus 19, God was quite prepared to give his law directly to the people, but the people were not prepared to receive more. But I do believe the actual content of the 10 commandments sets them apart to some extent.

But once I’ve said that the 10 commandments are addressed to someone else, I must start looking at the rest of scripture. There I find that this is nothing unusual. My favorite passages are all addressed to someone else! Even Jesus addresses most of his words to other people, to his Jewish audience, to his disciples, to crowds in Galilee. Paul addresses his letters to specific Greek churches. In Revelation, John addresses the report of his vision to the seven churches in Asia. There are a few items addressed to the church generally that I can read pretty directly, but I seem to be reading someone else’s mail a good deal of the time when I study scripture.

Let me take a brief detour here to make a point about revelation in general. My wife was recently asking me about the story of John the Baptist identifying Jesus in John 1. The question is this: If Jesus is John’s cousin, does he not already know him? Doesn’t he have some history on which to base his conclusion and identification? Assuming we take Luke seriously, certainly John has some basis for knowledge, but apparently God didn’t choose to just tell him, “John, your cousin Jesus is the anointed one. When he comes to be baptized, point him out!” Instead, he tells John that the person on whom the Spirit descends like a dove is the anointed one. Sounds convoluted, doesn’t it? Sometimes I have to wonder about these things. Revelation seems to come in such a round about way.

But you could look at books like Ezekiel, Daniel, or Revelation in a similar way. Ezekiel is amongst the exiles in Babylon, but is moved around by the Spirit in vision. The major thrust of the entire first chapter is simply that God is present, active, and powerful even away from Israel’s land. (Admittedly there is more there, but that’s the key message.) Why couldn’t God just say, “Ezekiel, I’m here and I’m still in control”? Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 2 could have had a dream that showed armies moving and maps. The man knew most of those countries after all. But instead we have an image, and a call for Daniel to interpret. Later, in Daniel’s visions, for some reason we have a vision followed by an angelic interpretation. Those of us who have studied these books for years hardly notice. That’s just the way it is. But if you stand back and think about it, it can seem a little strange. Revelation again presents symbolically much that we might like to have laid out plainly. I’m reminded of Tolkien’s hobbits who “liked books filled with things they already knew, set down plainly without contradiction.”

Jesus also used some convoluted ways, using parables and signs to aid in his teaching. He even expressed his reasons (Mark 4:10-12). Discussing this passage extensively would go beyond the scope of this essay, but let me simply suggest that Jesus was keeping the message from people who were never going to get the message anyhow. He was confusing the “5 minute a day” crowd. I regularly encounter people who want to become good Bible students on 5 minutes a day. I have to tell them I have no such quick method. Knowing your Bible, and more importantly knowing the God of the Bible requires much more commitment than that. (For more on parables see Interpreting Parables.)

For whatever reason, God has generally chosen to give his word in a context of experience. From that experience we can then derive principles, lessons, and even commands that apply to us personally or as a community. In this way all of scripture is important, even though it may not apply to me directly.

The key is that in each of these cases, God is dealing with real people in a real way. I want to know God better and so the way that he dealt with Israel back in the wilderness, or the way he dealt with the church at Corinth or the churches in Asia is very, very important to me, because it tells me how God deals with people under different circumstances and at different times. This doesn’t make the 10 commandments inapplicable, but it may make them applicable in a different way. At the same time, it means that all those other chapters in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are also applicable in that they say something about how God works. If we believe that God was really dealing with Israel, operating in a relationship with them, then we need to ask what we can learn from the way in which he dealt with them.

Recently, in studying through the Torah I have found that there is much more there than normally meets the Christian eye. We are so used to dismissing the “ceremonial law” as all pointing to Jesus and done away with at the cross that we have missed much of the content. There are things to learn here about community, about holiness and sanctification, about sacrifice, about thanksgiving, about order, and about commitment to God as his people.

At the same time, as we realize these laws were not given to us gentiles, we are not looking to replicate the sytem of worship of the Israelites. We want to learn everything we can about living in covenant with God as it is applicable to our time, our covenant and our relationship with God.

In that sense, the 10 commandments are simply a part of that whole picture. As you study them, I think you will find that they embody much more universal principles than do the many laws, and that you will find many more ways in which they apply to your personal and church life. Nonetheless there is more there to learn throughout the Torah (Pentateuch).

Similar Posts


  1. quite interesting post, thank you. I do have a question though… you say “There is no part of the Torah that was addressed to non-Israelites. ” I am currently studying in Genesis and read in a commentary that Genesis 9:4-6 regarding not eating food with its life, that is its blood, still in it and not to murder are the prohibitions in the Old Testament given universally. Would you disagree with this? Thanks.

  2. Good catch on Genesis 9:4-6. I should have been just a bit more clear. That passage as written was addressed to the Israelites, but it does specifically address duties of non-Israelites. I should be just a bit more carefully talking about (1) who received it written (2) who it was first spoken to, in this case Noah and family who were not Israelites, and (3) who else it applies to. My original comment was a little too broad.

Comments are closed.