One day in 1899 when studying Jesus’ words in Luke 22:20, Louis Klopsch had the idea to produce a Bible emphasizing all of Jesus’ words in red. Not long afterward, his idea became reality, and Bibles with Jesus’ words in red started landing in the hands of people around the world. Since then, having Jesus’ words in red has been widely adopted by many Bible publishers.
For the past several years I have heard people claim to be red-letter Christians. What do they mean by that? And what does Jesus Himself say about it?
Since 2007, there has been an official movement known as Red-Letter Christians that is associated with progressive theology and social justice activism. Although similar in foundation to what we’re addressing in this lesson, the official movement is not the primary focus. So far everyone I’ve met who claims to be a red-letter Christian has not referenced the movement begun in 2007, but has described themselves simply like this: “I believe in the red letters of the Bible.” When asked to expand on that, they point out that since the red letters in the Bible came directly from the mouth of Jesus, “red-letter Christians” believe the red letters are inherently more valuable than the black letters.
There are two major problems with believing this.
We don’t always know which words Jesus verbally spoke, and which ones He did not. Sometimes we do. The great majority of red letters in the New Testament appear in the gospel accounts: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. There are other passages in Acts; 1 & 2 Corinthians; and Revelation as well. In most passages, it is clear which words Jesus verbally spoke and and which ones He did not. For example, John 14:5–7—In this passage, it’s clear what words Thomas said, what words Philip said, and yes, which words Jesus said.
However, in other passages it’s not so clear.
John 3 contains what is likely the most famous verse in all the Bible.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.John 3:16
Who said that? Probably Jesus. Indeed, most red-letter editions of the Bible have this verse in red. But some do not. Why? Koine Greek (the original language of the New Testament) did not have quotation marks. Most New Testament manuscripts didn’t even use punctuation. But when translating into modern English, we must use punctuation, like quotation marks. In John 3, we see the beginning of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus. John specifically tells us some of the things Nicodemus said and some of the things Jesus said. But without quotation marks, we don’t see the definitive end of that conversation. It’s clearly over by verse 22, but could it have ended earlier? Yes.
Some people believe it ended in verse 15, and if so, the apostle John (the writer of this account) continued this idea in the famous verse 16 as commentary. So if Jesus’ verbal words ended with verse 15, and if it really was John who said verse 16, does it make a difference? No, and that leads us to our second major problem with being a red-letter Christian.
To believe the red letters of the Bible are more important than the black letters, you have to disbelieve the red letters. Let’s break this down. Matthew 4:17 says, “From that time Jesus began to preach and to say,
See those red letters? Jesus was not the first to proclaim this publicly. The previous chapter begins:
In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”Matthew 3:1
These are the same messages. John technically preached it first. Why? According to John the apostle, John the baptizer was “sent from God” (John 1:6). So, although Matthew 3:1 does not directly quote Jesus, it still contains a message from God (yet it was written with black letters).
Later, Jesus sent His twelve apostles to teach a similar message.
And as you go, preach, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”Matthew 10:7
All three of these verses have the same message: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand,” but only one of them is red. When the apostles went out and preached this message, did it have less authority because it came through the mouths of Peter, Bartholomew, and James? Of course not. They were sent with Jesus’ authority.
Here’s our key passage to help us understand the futility of thinking the red letters are more authoritative than the black ones. The night before His crucifixion, Jesus told the apostles,
I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you. All things that the Father has are Mine. Therefore I said that He will take of Mine and declare it to you.John 16:12–15
Jesus had taught many things verbally to these disciples while with them. But He was going to teach them more, just not directly. A few weeks later, it all came true. Jesus sent the rest of His teachings in His name to the apostles through the Holy Spirit. The apostles then began sharing that message with the entire world. They were inspired by the Holy Spirit to teach all nations all things Jesus had commanded, just as Jesus instructed them (see Matthew 28:18–20). When they spoke by the Holy Spirit, they were speaking the message from Jesus, which He said He would say to them through the Holy Spirit.
So, if we are coloring all of Jesus’ words in the New Testament red, we might as well color the entire thing. Why? As the apostle Paul wrote:
If anyone thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things which I [Paul, an inspired apostle] write to you are the commandments of the Lord.1 Corinthians 14:37
That was true of all the apostles and prophets Jesus moved and inspired with the Holy Spirit.
We are commanded to read, believe, and use all the letters inspired by God, not just the red ones. And this doesn’t just apply to the New Testament. According to 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God.” Speaking of the Old Testament, Jesus said, “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me.” (John 5:39). “The entirety of [God’s] word is truth” (Psalm 119:160). All prophetic words, all Scripture are from people who “spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21).
If you believe the red letters are more important than the black, then you don’t actually believe the red letters that say the opposite. And so, who said John 3:16—Jesus or the Holy Spirit through the pen of John? Someone who truly believes Jesus’ words would say, “It doesn’t matter. It’s the message of God regardless.”