f The Wittenberg Door: Topical Bibles and Red-Letter Editions

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Commenting on Christendom, culture, history, and other oddities of life from an historic Protestant perspective.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Topical Bibles and Red-Letter Editions

For the first time ever, all of the statements Jesus made in the New Testament have been brought together and organized under more than 200 topics. When you want to know his will in a specific area of life, or you're seeking the answer to a perplexing question, or you are desperate for his encouragement, comfort, or wisdom-you can easily find the help you need.

The Greatest Words Ever Spoken: Everything Jesus Said About You, Your Life, and Everything Else

One of the church’s problems is biblical illiteracy. I think part of it is due to topical sermons. Before I became Reformed, I was treated to a steady diet of, “How Jesus Calms the Storms of Your Life, “How to Slay Your Personal Goliath,” “10 Spiritual Benefits to Regular Car Maintenance,” etc. In topical sermons, the topic drives the message, while the passages are brought in for support. This is in contradistinction to expository preaching, where you have the text driving the sermon. Reason being, in expository preaching you preach verse-by-verse through a book of the bible. By this method the people learn what the verses mean in context. In other words, the preacher reads the passage and then explains it in context.

Like topical preaching, reading verses in isolation can cause the reader to misunderstand the passages; it can also contribute to the bad habit of proof-texting: using decontextualised verses to support a position. These are a few of my concerns with topical bibles. Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason has a great rule of thumb: Never read a bible verse. What he means is, to properly understand a text you must read it in context.

When I'm on the radio, I use this simple rule to help me answer the majority of Bible questions I'm asked, even when I'm totally unfamiliar with the verse. It's an amazingly effective technique you can use, too.

I read the paragraph, not just the verse. I take stock of the relevant material above and below. Since the context frames the verse and gives it specific meaning, I let it tell me what's going on.

The Words of Jesus

Another concern I have with The Greatest Words Ever Spoken is the same concern I have with red-letter editions of the bible. People sometimes think that the red words are more important than the black words. That is certainly what I take away from the book title: If Jesus’ words are the greatest ever spoken, then they’re greater than Paul’s, Peter’s, John’s, etc. But this isn’t true.

All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness;

so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.

2 Timothy 3:16-17

All Scripture is God’s word. There is no “greatest” or “not as great,” which is what the book title implies. It’s the same implication drawn by some when they use red-letter bibles.


Topical bibles can be a good resource when studying, but they should never be used in isolation. When we study, or when we preach, we must take great care to protect the integrity of God’s word. And that means we must read passages in context, and that we don’t impose a hierarchy of value based on who uttered or wrote them.

--The Catechizer



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