For many people, the thought of reading or studying the Bible is imposing. As a Pastor and Bible teacher, I’ve often heard people say “I don’t know where to start” or “I don’t understand what I’ve read.” Many have voiced their frustrations, “I am confused how one passage relates to another” or “there were too many words I didn’t understand.” Many confess, “I find it hard to believe words written thousands of years ago apply to my life today.” Sadly, many set their Bibles aside concluding, “I didn’t get anything out of it.”
Consider the word but for a moment. Not very imposing, is it? It’s a little three-letter conjunction you use every day in virtually every conversation. “Thank you, but” is the polite rejection of an offer. “I’m sorry, but” may cause you to question the authenticity of an apology. Even in traffic court, a Judge is likely to give you three options: a plea of guilty, not guilty, or guilty but with an explanation. Yes, I’ve been to traffic court—what can I say? Sometimes when you work for the Lord you have to go very fast! The point is, the word but functions as a great clarifier. It helps us understand, more particularly, what’s being communicated.
In 1923 the Pan-American Conference convened in Santiago, Chile. The New York Times declared that this conference would be crucial, as tensions between South American countries were coming to a head, Argentina, Brazil and Chile were in an arms race, and posturing for war.
Secretary of State, Charles Evans Hughes, represented the United States. Hughes was viewed by many nations as the only mediator who could ease tensions. He would have to be very clear on the various parties and their positions—especially tricky for an English speaking man, as most of the dialogue would be in Portuguese and Spanish, coming to him through translation.
Hughes, it is said, gave these instructions to his translators: “While a running translation is ample for my purposes, you must take great care to give me each and every word after any speaker says ‘but.’”
Wise man. The words that follow but in conversation are often of the utmost importance. The same is true where the written word is concerned; the same is true of your Bible.
Consider a few examples: A very complex passage on the birth of Jesus is clarified a bit when we consider a statement like, “Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.” Many difficult teachings in the Sermon on the Mount are set in a clearer context when Jesus used the formula, “You have heard it said… but now I say unto you…” How about the simplicity of the gospel when Jesus boiled it down, “He who believes is not condemned, but he who does not believe is condemned already” as recorded in John chapter three? But is a word you should train your eye to observe—it can be a great tool in your Bible reading.
But is a game changer. But calls for action. The Bible records a conversation Jesus had with his disciples. He asked them, “Who do people say I am?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” Jesus said, “But what about you? Who do you say I am?” But brings the conversation home—this isn’t really about what others think, anymore. Now it’s about you—what do you think?
Consider the three examples I gave earlier—they, too, call us to respond. Do we believe that Jesus wasn’t conceived in the ordinary way? Do Jesus’ teachings call us to abandon the old ways in which we’ve viewed things? Which side of this fence called belief do we stand on? But beckons us to choose.
For many years I’ve joked with members of our congregation that I should write a book called Big Buts of the Bible. Well, you’re looking at it. I’ll encourage you, as I have preached to them for years: Wherever you see that little three-letter conjunction in a passage, highlight it. It will forever change the way you read your Bible.