A Memo on The Message

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I recently picked up my wife’s copy of The Message (for those of you already rolling your eyes, more on this in a moment) and was skimming over the introduction, a couple passages, and then the endorsements on the back. After seeing many people commend Eugene Peterson’s excellent work on this popular volume, it was Warren Wiersbe’s endorsement that hit me like a ton of bricks:

The Message is the boldest and most provocative rendering of the New Testament I’ve ever read. If you’ve become so comfortable with your Bible reading that the Scriptures no longer excite you, then this book is what you need.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m appreciative of Dr. Wiersbe and his ministry has impacted me. And it is highly possible I could be reading too much into this quote, only going off the back-cover endorsement. But what it seems to suggest, in my opinion, is something startling. His first sentence appears to say that more than the Holy Scriptures themselves, The Message has achieved an unsurpassed level of boldness and enticement. But if that wasn’t bad enough, here’s the real rub: If we’ve grown complacent and “bored” with our Bibles, and we’re looking to be rejuvenated by the Word of God, we need not the Word itself, but The Message to reclaim that passion.

Wiersbe is (allegedly) expressing a sentiment that resonates with the masses. This is a reflection of the way we often treat our Bibles and our reading habits in them. It has become the stale, lifeless, drudging duty that lords over us, especially in my Bible Belt context. We commit to reading the Bible, begin with Genesis, make it to Leviticus 4 and say, “This is just not exciting” and there our reading plan ends. Or we begin with Matthew’s Gospel and commit to reading all of the Gospels, but we grow bored with the “same old song and dance” and deem it unnecessary to distinguish Matthew from Luke, Mark from John. Or perhaps we go through Revelation and are intrigued by the provocative imagery of this apocalyptic literature, but it’s too hard to understand, and therefore, boring. And don’t even get us started on the Major and Minor Prophets. What in the world does Nahum have to teach me? And 52 chapters of Jeremiah isn’t going to happen; we don’t have time for an irrelevant, dull book about prophecies and judgments.

We may say these things about Scripture, but it sings a different tune about itself. The whole of Scripture is God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16). Did you catch that? Every. Single. Word. Of. It. In the same way God breathed life into Adam (Gen. 2:7), God allocates life into the text. God didn’t animate the head of the man with life, leaving the arms and legs dead. It’s all alive and well. This ember of life takes action inside of us, and powerful, decisive action at that (Heb. 4:12). It works out this action through us, enabling and empowering us in every way (1 Thess. 2:13). This explicit power from God is what we rest in (1 Cor. 2:5). This is unmatched boldness and provocation. Ultimately, it is up to the Spirit to do the scales-removing and reveal the truths of God to us (1 Cor. 2:10). But this does not diminish our necessity to strive in pouring into God’s unadulterated Word.

If we’ve grown so comfortable with Bible reading that it no longer excites us, we don’t need a simplified, man-inspired, “refreshing” edition; we need to spend more time steeping in the power and life of God in the text itself.

So, what on The Message itself? Some call it heresy, some have forsaken their Bibles for it, some are unsure. I won’t spend too much time talking about the nuances of The Message, but here is what I will say, in four reflections:

  1. Eugene Peterson is a man of God, a brother in Christ, and his ministry has deeply impacted millions, including me. He is a trailblazer for spiritual, devotional, and meditative practices in the Christian life, and has helped so many of us practically and theologically with how to understand the deeper things of God. The “heresy” card should be put back in our pockets promptly.
  2. Where Bible translators translate with the original text as its primary concern, Peterson wrote The Message with the original audience as its primary concern. This is a key distinction. For this sheer fact alone (and others I won’t get into here), I personally would not call The Message a “Bible translation,” and therefore also advise against equating it to the sufficient, inerrant, authoritative Word of God. Eugene Peterson himself echoes this: “When I’m in a congregation where somebody uses [The Message] in the Scripture reading, it makes me a little uneasy. I would never recommend it be used as saying, “Hear the Word of God from The Message.”
  3. What I will call The Message is a helpful, practical, and easy-to understand commentary on and paraphrase of the Scriptures. The Message is Peterson’s attempt to communicate Scripture in a way that helps readers think through and respond to the text (and by the way, he does this well).
  4. I don’t think Peterson’s intent was to diminish Scripture’s ability to excite, or to offer a solution for a lacking Scripture. His original concerns were not with the words, but the audience. The problem is when we, the audience, turn to The Message not as a diluted perspective on the Word of God, but as a definitive position as the Word of God.

Scripture is undyingly exciting. Genealogies are exciting because we have historical and spiritual proof of prophecy fulfilled, being co-heirs with Christ, and seeing God’s hand in the timeline of human history. The major and minor prophets are exciting, because amidst all of their grave and terrifying judgments, there is still a Redeemer who was promised, and has come, and will come again. Revelation is exciting because it is the culmination of God’s bringing true Life to the living, and true Death to the dead. This is the only book we need.

You may think this entire article has been built on splitting-hairs conclusions. But with the firm conviction of Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) and the desire to see it excite, animate, enliven, and rejuvenate all the saints, I plead with you not to grow dismayed in “Leviticus 4” and search for a more palatable substitute to God’s Word. Use resources like The Message, but use them to help you dive head-long into the real Leviticus 4, where and throughout the Bible the Spirit will reveal the unsearchable riches and glory of God.

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