Thursday, July 21, 2005


Red Letter Bibles

Printing the words of Christ in red ink is a common marketing approach. However, it implies an erroneous conclusion: that these words are more important than the other words of Scripture, more authoritative, maybe even more inspired. This is doubly false.

You can’t blame the average reader of the Bible for being misled. Most would prefer to read black ink, except for the longstanding practice of red letters. It is the publishers who are at fault. And they may only be following a tradition whose meaning they do not know. Preachers and authors compound the problem by making a reference to the redness (and, in their view, the superiority) of Jesus’ words.

The words Christ spoke while he was on earth were certainly inerrant. He claimed, “I speak just what the Father has taught me” (quoted in John 8:28). So, his words were a revelation to those who heard them. But to everyone else, they are an event in the past. We today cannot count them as “God’s revealed word” to us, because we didn’t hear them. Many of Jesus’ contemporaries, even, didn’t hear them, and so received no divine revelation from them. We only know them through the inspired writing of the New Testament. And the authority is the work of the Holy Spirit who inspired not only the quotations of Jesus’ words, but all the authors’ words.

Jesus’ words have been quoted by many, with more or less accuracy and for various purposes, but it is only in the apostolic preaching and the writing of Scripture that their telling has been divinely authenticated as a verbally inspired revelation to others. In your Bible, all the words of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are the Scripture, inerrant in their presentation of the story of Jesus and in their lessons for faith and life.

To hold the words of Jesus, quoted by the authors of the New Testament, in higher esteem than the authors’ commentary about them opens the reader to the frightful risk of giving his or her own interpretation of them, separate from and perhaps opposite from the God-breathed interpretation of the Bible writers themselves.

When God put his word in writing through the process of inspiration, he claimed the right to select not only the way the events would be told (which details, which quotations, in what order, with what emphasis and repetition, etc.) but also the meaning of the events (God's role and motives, human motivations, the moral of the story, etc.--in other words, how we should understand what those quotations mean). We had best understand the words of Jesus in the context of the inspired Gospel story and draw the same conclusions that the writers did about Jesus’ words.

Some might protest that the words in red do not indicate a greater importance or a higher authority, but the red ink is needed to show which words are quotations of Jesus and which are not. But, a simple “Jesus said” (which the writers already put there) or a set of quotation marks would do that.

Let’s read with our eyes open, and focus on the black ink, too.

Pastor Jerry,
i just found your blog through Keith's blog...I look forward to reading it.
Barbara Cripe
Say HI to Laura for me
Great your premise and approach! Keep it up!

I was given a "red letter" Bible as a teenager and liked it okay, but you are correct when you say that it actually takes away from the whole of Scripture, and creates a built-in limitation when reading the Living Word.

As an adult, having picked up several different versions and even a couple paraphrases (such as The Message) I have found that in reality, you would have to make the whole Bible red, because every page consists of the Words of Jesus, one way or another. And, more importantly, each page is red...with his blood. And praise be to God for this, so that each of us can become white as snow!

We are preaching a sermon series on exactly this - the BLACK letters. I preach Oct. 2nd on "They fell down before Him" ref. Matt 2:11, Matt 9:18, Mark 7:25, Mark 10:17, Luke 5:12, John 11:32, John 18:6, Luke 5:8, Mark 3:11, Mark 5:6, Mark 5:33

I'm still working out the details, but it'll clearly be focused on how those around Jesus worshipped him.

Big Chris
Because I said so
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