Should Christians Follow The “Red Letters” In The Bible?
“Red Letter” editions are undoubtedly the most popular Bibles among Christians. How they originated is described in the following account:
“The term red letter edition is used to describe Bibles in which words spoken by Jesus, commonly only while he was on the Earth, are printed in red ink. The red letter edition was invented by Louis Klopsch, then editor of The Christian Herald magazine in 1899, and first published in 1900. This style of Bible instantly became popular, and is sometimes favored by Christians in the United States. Especially in King James Bibles, this format can be useful as are used.
Klopsch's idea of printing the words of Jesus in red originated in Luke 22:20, which says: This cup is the new testament in my blood, which I shed for you. This inspired Klopsch to ask his mentor what he thought of printing the words spoken by Jesus in red, to which he replied, "It could do no harm and it most certainly could do much good.”1
The consensus of belief among Christians today is that the primary message and doctrine for the Christian Church is to be found in the red letters, or the actual words of Jesus, as recorded in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Thus, the familiar and oft repeated refrain; “you can't go wrong if you follow the red letters in your Bible.”
The following quotations from various websites and blogs, are illustrative of this belief:
"I am more committed to Jesus Christ and his teachings than ever before. I believe in following HIm and following Him means to live like he lived: caring for the poor, loving my neighbor, giving sacrificially to those in need, embodying compassion, living for justice, forgiving, etc. If that’s what we were known for, nobody would really care what we called ourselves."2
"The criterion for the interpretation of Scripture is Jesus Christ....The following text is just the Spoken Words of Jesus with all other text deleted. Some Bibles show theses words and His commandments of Jesus Christ in Red. As disciples we need to obey what Jesus commands. Obedience (obeying His word) shows that we love Him”3
“When was the last time you set aside your preconceived notions of what Christianity truly was about, and simpy looked at what the "Red Letters" of the Bible said? What might your life be like? What kind of person might you become?”4
With all due respect to the sincerity of the folks who made the above statements, the idea that one cannot go astray if he/she will stick to following the red letters in the Bible could not be more wrong. In fact, most of those who claim to be doing this—following the commands of Jesus, as he gave them to his 12 disciples—aren't even coming close to following what Jesus required for discipleship. To prove this point, let's begin by examining the commands embodied in the most famous and revered part of the red letters; the sermon on the mount (my emphasis):
Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.
18 For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.
19 Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
20 For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.
21 Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment:
22 But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.
28 But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.
29 And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.
30 And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.
31 It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement:
32 But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.
38 Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:
39 But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.
40 And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also.
41 And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.
42 Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.
Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.
44 But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;
Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.
Not only do these passages clearly demand the strict observance of the law, but they magnify it by forbidding anyone to even imagine transgressing it. In chapter six, we see added to this certain things they are not to do nor even to think about doing (my emphasis):
1 Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.
3 But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth:
4 That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.
5 And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
6 But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.
7 But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.
Almost without exception, church denominations and church congregations which teach that the red letters are now doctrine for the obedience of faith, prescribe "the plate" to be passed in their meetings, where everyone can view each other's "alms" giving. And, of course, there are the customary corporate, repetitive prayers and reciting of creeds in these meetings, which are in direct disobedience to verses 5, 6 and 7. But Jesus certainly understands that "things have changed" in the world, and the "church" has had to adapt to those changes, you know?
19 Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:
20 But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:
21 For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
22 The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.
23 But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!
24 No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.
25 Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?
26 Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?
27 Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?
28 And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin:
29 And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
30 Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?
31 Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?
Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.
Really, is their a Christian soul alive today, who hasn't lost his/her mind, who doesn't "lay up treasures" for their's and their family's future financial well-being on earth? Is there one who, if asked to hand over his checking/savings account to a perfect stranger, would willfully do such a stupid thing? Moreover, is their anyone who doesn't "take thought for the morrow?"
Furthermore, they (those Jesus is addressing) are not to be concerned with study or preparation for what they will say (Compare Hebrews 8:11; 1 John 2:27):
11 And when they bring you unto the synagogues, and unto magistrates, and powers, take ye no thought how or what thing ye shall answer, or what ye shall say:
12 For the Holy Ghost shall teach you in the same hour what ye ought to say.
Finally, Luke adds this to these demands for discipleship:
26 If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.
27 And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple.
Let's break down this most famous of all sermons, that we may see exactly what it is commanding, and ask the question: is there anyone in existence, presently, who is actually fulfilling these requirements, or could fulfil them?
1. First of all, those to whom this sermon is being addressed are under the law (5:19)--the whole law (compare James 2:10)--and it is to be kept perfectly (without "wavering"), every “jot and title” of it—extending it to even their thoughts—to the end of their lives (Matt. 24:13).
2. Second, anyone who desires to be a disciple must disavow themselves of all worldly possessions and relationships, and thoughts of such. This is why he tells them to “take no thought” for these things, because they are not allowed to have them! Matthew chapters 10 and 19 corroborate this (my emphasis):
These twelve Jesus sent forth, and commanded them, saying, Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not:
6 But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
7 And as ye go, preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand.
8 Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give.
Provide neither gold, nor silver, nor brass in your purses,
10 Nor scrip for your journey, neither two coats, neither shoes, nor yet staves: for the workman is worthy of his meat.
To a young man desiring to become one of his disciples, Jesus responds with the requirements:
but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.
18 He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness,
19 Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
20 The young man saith unto him, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?
21 Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.
The italicized phrase in verse 21 explains what the requirement is for perfection in chapter 5, verse 48: total, literal sell-out to the program. None of this is to be taken as a figure of speech or a metaphor; the usual treatment of it by preachers. These are exacting, literal commands for discipleship, and no one qualifies who is not willing to keep them to the letter, and “unto the end.”
One might respond to this contention that no one ever met these requirements, but scripture says, not so. In Matthew 19, after the young man Jesus was addressing “went away sorrowful”(verse 22) because he wasn't willing to “sell out,” Peter proclaims:
29 ... Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore?
28 And Jesus said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
“We” means himself and the other eleven disciples. How, pray tell, could they comply with such a severe code of conduct? The first chapter of John has the answer:
But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name
Power. They were “empowered” by God to carry out, to the letter, this program. The question is; are you and I empowered to carry it out? The answer is NO. Therefore, we are not commanded to carry it out, because God would not place a requirement, or requirements on us that he did not give us the ability to perform.
The Revelation of the Mystery
While there are, indeed, spiritual principles embodied in “the red letters” (the words of the Lord, as he spoke them in the four gospel accounts of his life and ministry) that we can apply to our own lives, the commands he gave for “the obedience of faith” are by no means written to us. Here is what's written to us in that respect:
25 Now to him that is of power to stablish you according to my gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery; which was kept secret since the world began,
26 But now is made manifest, and by the scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made know to all nations for the obedience of faith.
If “the mystery” the apostle Paul addresses here was not known (“kept secret”) until he revealed it, then it could not have been known during Jesus' earthly ministry. Therefore, it is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the same “gospel,” with its accompanying commands, as the one the Lord preached in that three year period on the earth. Let's compare the differences:
- Under the red letters, or “the gospel of the kingdom” (Matt. 4:23), the first requirement for perfection (righteousness) is to “keep the commandments.” In other words, adherents in this program remain “under the law.” According to Paul's mystery, or “the gospel of Christ” (Rom. 1:16), he says that adherents are “NOT under the law, but under grace.” (Rom. 6:14)
- The second requirement of the red letters for obtaining perfection is to “sell-out” (Matt. 19:22), and to forgo any gainful employment (Matt. 6:25,26). Under the mystery program, as revealed to the apostle Paul by the Lord from heaven (ref. Gal. 1:11,12), It says that those individuals who refuse to work, and provide for themselves and their families, “should not eat,” and are to be considered “worse than an infidel.” (2 Thess. 3:10; 1 Tim. 5:8)
- According the the Lord's directive to his disciples, they are NOT to take their message to Gentiles, but only to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matt. 10:5) In fact, the Lord said to a Gentile woman desiring his blessing, that he “came not but for the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt..15:23). On the contrary, Paul was given, by the Lord from heaven, a ministry in which he claimed to be “the apostle of the Gentiles” (Rom. 11:13), and said that he was sent “far hence unto the Gentiles.” (Acts 22:21)
- Jesus said, if a man marries a divorced woman he is committing adultery. Statistics show that at least 50% of married people who call themselves Christians have been previously married and divorced. Paul said to those who were “unmarried” (you cannot be unmarried if you've never been married), that if they “burn” (with desire) to get married (1 Cor. 7:8,9). Never did he say, or even insinuate, that this would be tantamount to committing adultery.
- The final requirement of the kingdom gospel was to “endure unto the end to be saved.” In other words, in order for them to be counted righteous, they had to comply with all the Lord's commandments to the death. Contrariwise, Paul said that God's righteousness (perfection) would be imputed to the account of "them that believe,” from the get go, without the benefit of any works (Rom. 4:4-6)
- Jesus said, in the red letters, anyone referring to a brother as a fool would be in danger of damnation. Paul referred to his brethren, the Galatians, as fools (Gal. 3:1)
- According to the red letters, no true disciple will have to prepare himself (study) for what he will speak; for it will be supernaturally given him in the hour that he will be demanded to speak it. On the contrary, Paul very plainly tells his adherents that they must "study to shew thyself approved unto God....rightly dividing the word of truth." (2 Tim. 2:15)
The Dispensation of Grace
I dare say, there is not a soul on the planet, including the most austere, ascetic, self-denying individual, who comes even remotely close to being in obedience to the commandments of the Lord in the red letters. For those of you who have tried keeping them (I was, at one time, one of you), and have come to the realization that you've failed in that effort, I've got some good news for you; the red letters aren't written for your obedience. Your letters are Paul's 13 epistles, which are the blueprint for faith and practice in the present dispensation of grace (Eph. 3:1-3). Concerning his gospel, Paul said in his first letter to the Corinthian church, “If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord.” (1 Cor 14:37) In other words, Paul's epistles are the final words of the Lord Jesus Christ to the present "church," not the red letters.
If you have trusted Christ for your salvation, then you are saved, sealed and bound for heaven, and whatever you do or fail to do cannot affect this. This is called grace. Jesus didn't preach this in the red letters, nor did he offer it to those who followed him in his earthly ministry. Folks who think they will be justified by following the red letters will fail, and in the end be cast into the fire with the rest of the chaff (Ref. Matt. 3:12; 13:30; 25:41) If you happen to be one of these folks, I implore you to give it up and trust Christ as your Savior, believing that he “is the end of the law for righteousness” (Rom. 10:4)--that he died for your sins, and was raised again for your justification (1 Cor. 15:3,4; Rom. 4:25)--and begin walking in the rarefied air of the grace of God.
Feel at liberty to re-publish this essay as you see fit. All Scripture quotations are from the King James Bible.
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"Take No Thought"