beyond playing with words | John 8.48-53
The Jews answered him, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” Jesus answered, “I do not have a demon, but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me. Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is One who seeks it, and he is the judge. Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” The Jews said to him, “Now we know that you have a demon! Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say, ‘If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death.’ Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died! Who do you make yourself out to be?” John 8.48-53 | ESV
The opposition had had it. They snapped, “Aren’t we exactly right when we say that you are no better than a Samaritan half-breed and demon-possessed to boot?!” Jesus stayed cool. “I don’t have a demon. I honor God, and all you can do is diss me. I’m not tooting my own horn, promoting myself. Someone Else makes that call and does the promoting. So, again, I’ll say it twice and mean it, ‘If anyone goes beyond merely playing with my words to actually carrying out their full meaning and intent, no death for him! Not now. Not ever.”
The Judean in-crowd didn’t miss a beat. “That settles it. You have ‘satanic’ written all over you. Abraham is dead. The prophets are all dead – and yet you have the gall to say that if anyone who carries out the full meaning and import of your words won’t have to deal with death, not now, not ever! Who do you think you are? Greater than Abraham? Greater than the prophets? Handing out life while all they ultimately experienced was death? Who are you making yourself out to be?” MAV (Mike’s Amplified Version)
“These words I speak to you are not incidental additions to your life, homeowner improvements to your standard of living. They are foundational words, words to build a life on. If you work these words into your life, you are like a smart carpenter who built his house on solid rock. Rain poured down, the river flooded, a tornado hit—but nothing moved that house. It was fixed to the rock. But if you just use my words in Bible studies and don’t work them into your life, you are like a stupid carpenter who built his house on the sandy beach. When a storm rolled in and the waves came up, it collapsed like a house of cards.”
Eugene Peterson’s version of this classic Jesus storytelling moment has always made me squirm just a bit.
I love playing with words.
I love digging into etymologies and origins, sucking the verbal marrow out of root words and seeing how this form leads to this and then to that.
So easy to frame devotions that do little more than tickle our verbal fancies – or stroke our massive theological egos at how very smart and orthodox we are – or how savvy and progressive we are. This, unfortunately, is what too often passes for our “word work” – and it’s what mostly passed for “scholarship” in those vaulted temple halls.
And such play turns nasty and even deadly when in the presence of someone who doesn’t play according to the rules – or, even worse, who refuses to play with words at all. This repeated challenge of Christ to “abide in his word” or, alternately, to “let his word abide in us” is precisely this: the challenge to stop playing holy scrabble and ingest the word tiles; to work the words into our lives until they are absorbed into our very bones, the reality they communicate transforming the very nature of our being.
A delicate business, such absorption.
Like an organ transplant, often the body rejects it and makes war upon it, treating life-giving DNA like a virus to be eradicated. That’s what’s happening in this body in this temple scene. Wordy religious white blood cells are attacking the ultimate, DNA defining Word of life, treating it like an infection, a foreign body, seeking to eliminate it.
Oh what a slippery, dangerous business is this playing with words…
How would you quantify the difference, practically, between “abiding in his words” and merely “playing with them in Bible studies”? How would you describe your own relationship with the Bible? What does the study of the Word look like for you?
Word of Life, forgive me for the ways I try to manipulate you like letter tiles in Scrabble. Study me. Define me. Conjugate and pronounce me. Through Christ.