Conrad Gempf: 5th Sparrow

October 2000
St Paul's Spanish trip
Previous 5th Sparrows

If you or I were God, we would not have given humankind the Bible as it is. We would probably have constructed something less violent, more informative and, like any users' manual, a good deal less interesting.

Take the end of Paul's letter to the Christians in Rome, for instance. In Romans 15:23-32, Paul...

  • expresses his desire to visit Rome
  • plans to stop on his way to Spain
  • requests his readers' prayers for his current trip to Jerusalem
But things don't turn out that way. We know; the people who accepted the book of Romans into the canon knew; and God himself knew even while Paul was writing, that...
  • Paul would be arrested on that trip to Jerusalem
  • he would not be visiting Rome in order to reach Spain
  • instead he would arrive in Rome as a prisoner, handcuffed to a Roman soldier
It's all written up in the book of Acts, in the last few chapters. The same Bible that tells us about Paul's plans also tells us about the enemies of the gospel thwarting those plans. The same Bible that contains Paul's request for safety also tells us that Paul was not safe.

So why accept this passage into the canon? Why inspire it to be written?

Anyone who takes the Bible seriously has to reckon with the fact that God doesn't seem to have intended it merely as an instruction manual or text book. But there's more going on there, rather than less. It is a book about God's relationship with humanity and humanity's with God.

Any instruction manual is about ideal situations: press this and that will happen. Sometimes almost as a concession or afterthought, there's a troubleshooting section in an appendix. That's usually the only part you and I read.

The Bible is almost entirely troubleshooting appendix. As befits the God who thought up the incarnation, it's not just about How Things Should Be, it's always about How Things Are, including frustrated plans, minor defeats and lapses of judgment. This is a God who understands how messed up the world is and who is able to embrace that world nonetheless.

Dr Conrad Gempf is a lecturer in New Testament at London Bible College. He also writes for and edits the monthly webzine there.

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