Hermeneutics,  New Testament,  Scripture

Are the Red Letters Special in the Bible?

When it comes to the red letters of the Bible, as Christians we often revere and cherish those portions of the text more highly than others. After all, the red letters are the words of Jesus! Why shouldn’t we value what Jesus says higher than other parts of the Bible?

It is certainly popular to value what Jesus says over and above other parts of Scripture. In fact, there is a whole group called, Red Letter Christians, who exist “to take Jesus seriously by endeavoring to live out His radical, counter-cultural teachings as set forth in Scripture, and especially embracing the lifestyle prescribed in the Sermon on the Mount” (quote from their stated purpose).

photo of the red letters of Scripture

Perhaps you are not a card-carrying member of the Red Letter Christians. But, I imagine you gravitate to the person of Jesus. I bet that you value him above anyone else who is mentioned in the Bible. So, isn’t it natural to value what Jesus says to a higher degree than other portions of the Bible?

Should we treat the red letters of the Bible differently than the rest of Scripture?

It is quite common for people to assume that, since the red letters are the words of Jesus, those words carry the most weight in an argument. For example, unbelievers will often quote Jesus’s words, “Judge not” or, “Love one another.” They treat these words as if they are some sort of trump card against what the rest of the Bible teaches about sin and the need to live righteously.

Similarly, those who advocate a gay lifestyle as a legitimate Christian practice also use a similar argument. They will argue that Jesus said, “Love one another.” And since it is unloving not to let gay individuals experience the beauty of committed loving relationships, we would be disobeying Jesus if we did not support our gay brothers and sisters. According to this reasoning, our foundation for understanding other Scripture must be that Jesus only wanted to promote love. (Note: If interested, I have done a recent podcast on how people argue for homosexuality from the Bible.)

The above approach often misinterprets the intent behind Jesus’s words. But even beyond that, it is also flawed in presupposing the words of Jesus (i.e., the red letters of Scripture) carry with them more weight or authority than the rest of Scripture.

In order to help us think about this issue, I want to give two fundamental truths to remember when thinking about the value of the red letters of the Bible in contrast to other Scriptures.

1. All Scripture is equally inspired by God.

All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16)

Although it is unquestionable that Jesus is to be the supreme object of our focus and attention, are the recorded words of Jesus “more true” or “more inspired” than the rest of Scripture?

Not at all. In fact, it was the habit of Jesus to rely upon the Old Testament to explain things. He did that because the Old Testament was God’s authoritative Word, even in His day. For example, Jesus educated the two disciples on the road to Emmaus by using the whole Old Testament (cf. Luke 24:27). When asked a question about marriage, Jesus quoted Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 (cf. Matt 19:3-6). Clearly, Jesus viewed the Old Testament as being completely authoritative.

But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God (2 Peter 1:20-21).

Here Peter also points out that all of Scripture ultimately finds its source in God. We know from elsewhere that when God speaks through people, the words are completely true and carry God’s authority. The test of a true prophet is whether or not what he says is true (cf. Deut 18:18-22). So, those in Scripture who spoke prophetically on behalf of God spoke the very words of God.

Thus, it is completely incorrect to say that the red letter words of Jesus carry more authority than the rest of the Bible. Every passage of Scripture, in both Old and New Testament is inspired by God. This means that all Scripture is equally backed by the authority of God and comes directly from Him.

2. Scripture writers assume their words hold the same authority as Jesus.  

Not only are we told that every passage of the Bible is inspired by God, but the testimony of the writers of Scripture indicates that they knew they were speaking for God.

We are from God; he who knows God listens to us; he who is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error (1 John 4:6).

Here John makes a claim that nobody can make today because John was an Apostle directly commissioned by Jesus as a spokesperson. Clearly, John expected his words to be received with authority and obeyed, thus demonstrating whether or not someone was loyal to God or not. Jesus said something similar:

But you do not believe because you are not of My sheep. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me (John 10:26-27)

Another evidence of the authoritative equality of Scripture is Paul’s discussion of marriage in 1 Corinthians 7. After giving the instructions which the Lord had given (1 Cor 7:10-11), Paul then gives another set of instructions:

But to the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he must not divorce her (1 Cor 7:12).

Paul is not saying his words carry no authority. Rather, he is simply letting the Corinthians know that these words were not given during Jesus’s ministry. These words have been given by Paul on behalf of Christ as His authoritative representative. Paul’s words stand parallel with Jesus’s words as authoritative for how a believer should view marriage.

Later on in 1 Corinthians, after Paul had given extensive instructions to the believers, he gives this intriguing statement.

If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized (1 Cor 14:37-38).

Paul is making a very bold claim. Paul is saying that if anyone does not recognize Paul’s words as being authoritative, he is not recognizing the Lord’s authority. Although the Apostle is speaking, He is speaking the words of Christ as His ambassador (2 Cor 5:20).

In both the Old and New Testament, each and every word carries the authority of God. It is unwise and wrong to treat certain sections of the Bible as carrying more authority than others. Scripture should be viewed holistically. Although there is a progression of thought through progressive revelation, that does not mean certain words are inherently more valuable or more inspired. All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable. So, when it comes to the red letters in your Bible, sometimes it would be better if we were color blind.

photo credit: jypsygen via photopin cc

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs the Bible Sojourner podcast.

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