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July 1978 · Vol. 7 No. 3 · pp. 36–38 

Hearing the Word

Gospel: Good News or Gloomy

John Regehr

I find myself in the middle of a slow change. Perhaps it is more growth than conversion; but certainly it is a turn, and it is redemptive. I am learning to hear the gospel of Christ as good news instead of bad. I want to let you in on five texts which I have come to hear differently.

1. “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). Already the term “the word of truth” held for me a negative ring, as though that word were judgment and not revelation. Yet the truth in Jesus is that God is among us in the flesh, and that is good news, not gloom.

Through the years an anxious cloud has hung over the words “rightly dividing the word of truth.” In reading and explaining it we had better make “a straight cut.” And, of course, we looked askance at all those we thought were so terribly wrong. But this criticism did not cause the cloud to dissipate, because the fear remained that we may be making some error in the “cutting” too.

Together with that fear came the “warning” of the verse itself: “Try hard to get God’s approval! Do your work in the kingdom so you never have to be ashamed!” So then, anything short of perfection in the interpretation of the Scripture means we miss out on God’s approval. To fall short is to earn shame. To hear the text in that way is heavy, to be sure.

But the word is positive, and the injunction is positive. “Speak the word flat out with courage. Be forthright. Let the sense of God’s approval about how you sound out this truth of God help you over the need for people’s approval, and over the attempts of people to shame you into silence.” That is the message, and it is positive. God approves our forthrightness, so let’s be that way. We don’t have to be ashamed.

2. “For the word of God is alive and active. It cuts more keenly than any two-edged sword, piercing as far as the place where life and spirit, joints and marrow, divide. It sifts the purposes and thoughts of the {37} heart. There is nothing in creation that can hide from him; everything lies naked and exposed to the eyes of the One with whom we have to reckon” (Hebrews 4:12-13).

The first time I used this as a sermon text a brother said to me on Monday, “John, you left us with nothing.” The comment stuck like a burr even though I tried to convince myself that it was a commentary on my prophetic forcefulness. The words of the text, taken by themselves, are indeed crushing in their effect. The word of God is inescapable, relentless, denuding. There is no refuge. All is laid bare. We are defenseless.

And then one day I heard that word in context: “Since therefore we have a great high priest. . . . Let us therefore boldly approach the throne of our gracious God, where we may receive mercy and in his grace find timely help” (vv. 14-16).

We do not stand alone and friendless in the presence of the double-edged sword. We have a high priest, one who stands with us in the glare of truth. In his presence the disclosure of our darkness becomes a cleansing process. In this context of grace and mercy, the word does not destroy—it disinfects. We can hear the incisive word and yet “hold fast our confession.” We can acknowledge “our weaknesses” and yet “draw near with confidence.”

3. “Every branch that bears no fruit, he takes away. . . . The branch cannot bear fruit unless. . . . Apart from me you can do nothing. If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned.”

I once asked a student to read John 15, picking out its positive messages. Out of 85 lines, she had heard the 10 lines which declare conditions and warnings. The promises and the affirmations she could not hear. They were not meant for her, she said.

What strange perversion! We hear the put-downs and not the positives. From time to time I have been tempted to blame persons and contexts of my past for this deep-seated sense that anything I do or am is never quite good enough. But surely I am responsible for the way I hear the word by now. I can choose to hear the negative or the positive, or to hear them in a proper and redeeming balance.

4. That same perversion has been operative in the way I have judged people who are described in the biblical account. For example, we forget the fact that Peter actually walked on the water because we are so pre-occupied with his sinking when he became fearful.

In my early years I heard sermons condemning the request of James and John for special positions in Jesus’ Kingdom (Mark {38} 10:35-45). How could these selfish opportunists dare seek positions of power over the other disciples! And I have whipped them plenty myself. It was Lee Whiston who helped me hear the story in a different way.

Jesus did not label them as power-hungry but suggested that they were somewhat naive. They didn’t really know the price. When they stated their confidence in their own commitment and grit, Jesus affirmed them. In the hour of impending anguish Jesus treasured friends who promised to stand by him. His teaching about the difference between power over people and service among them came when the ten misread the concern and the initiative of the two (see verses 41-45). The ten read James and John negatively, just as I did; but Jesus did not.

5. Over the years I have had a predilection for those passages which make the Christian way out to be a grim route. To soften Jesus’ demands is to make light of the cross, and that is not an option. Yet to make self-denial and cross-bearing the focus of the faith is to make of the Christian way a spectre rather than a delight.

Help came for me a few weeks ago during a discussion of Mark 8:31-38. My thrust had been this: To hear the word accurately we need to put ourselves into the context of the persons in the text and hear the words with the meaning they held for them. Jesus here (Mark 8) was at the point of going to Jerusalem and to his death. At that moment the temptation which he had experienced in the wilderness at the outset of his ministry (Mark 4) came back again in full force. Was there not another way to save the world? Self-denial, saving one’s life, being ashamed of that to which one is committed, these ideas all take on meaning when we see Jesus making the choice again which he had made at the time of his baptism three years earlier.

But, said two friends, if this is so, then we can make room for the life of joy and friendship which Jesus had experienced in the meantime. He enjoyed life. Some thought he enjoyed it too much. But the cross was a direction, not a constant cloud. He knew the world could not endure him for long, but he did not live in the anguish of that end. He lived in the ministry of the moment, fulfilling both his task and himself. At specific points he experienced the heaviness of his commitment, but the heaviness did not pervade his life. His mission did, and in its fulfillment Jesus had joy.

I have found liberation in these insights. The negatives remain, but I am being freed from the bondage of the negative. Redemptive hearing is to hear the positive and the negative in proper balance and in creative tension.

Dr. John Regehr is Professor of Contemporary Ministries at Mennonite Brethren Bible College, Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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