My Faith: Should we trust the Bible?
Ps 119. 1-16
‘Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, and I will observe it to the end.
Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart.
Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it.’ Amen.
During her coronation, Queen Elizabeth II was presented with a Bible and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland said:
‘We present you with this book, the most valuable thing that this world affords. Here is wisdom; this is the royal law. These are the lively oracles of God.’
The Queen was laden with gold and jewels at her coronation, a single diamond in just one of the sceptres has an estimated value of £400 million and yet it is the book she was given that is described as the most valuable thing. It is declared to be not just the most valuable thing in Westminster Abbey that day, but the most valuable thing the world has to offer.
What is the Bible?
The Bible is the best-selling book of all time; the majority of homes in this country have at least one copy of it lurking somewhere. A quick count revealed that I have more than 25 Bibles in varying editions and different translations scattered around my house.
But what is this book? Really the Bible is not one book at all but a library of 66 different books: part one is Old Testament which consists of 39 books and tell us about God’s dealings with his people; part two is the New Testament which tell us about the life of Jesus and the early Church.
These books were written over a period of more than 1,500 years by at least 40 authors including kings, scholars, philosophers, fishermen, poets, statesmen, historians and doctors. The writers of the Old Testament wrote largely in Hebrew, whilst the New Testament writers used Greek. Like all libraries, the Bible includes different kinds of literature: law, history, prophecy, wise sayings, poetry, biography and letters.
The Canon – the books which people accept as making up the Bible – was agreed in the fourth century. After much prayer and debate, the Church agreed that the Bible would include the Hebrew Scriptures, the Holy Book of the Jewish people – these make up our Old Testament – and that the New Testament would include only those books written by an Apostle and which represented the faith which had been passed on from earliest times. Thus the New Testament includes the earliest and most authentic witness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Why read the Bible?
The Bible may have sold more copies than any other book…ever…but if we are honest we know that the vast majority of those Bibles are rarely opened. So why should we read the Bible?
John Pritchard writes this in his book on ‘How to Explain your Faith’ which Amanda mentioned in week one:
‘Whatever else you want to say about it, the Bible has fed the world, and changed it. The overarching story of God has made sense of the world for countless millions of people. Civilizations have taken their moral shape from its teaching. The biblical narrative has inspired some of the world’s greatest art, literature, poetry and drama. For centuries no-one could be called educated unless they knew its rich text. In short, the Bible has permeated our culture and many others. Ours is the first generation to be estranged from this core script.’
This is sadly true: universities are now having to run courses that teach our young people the basics of the Bible so that they can understand the literature and art they are studying. However, for Christians, the Bible is more than a rich cultural inheritance. It is the Living Word of God to be listened to and grappled with and transformed by.
Before I became a committed Christian, I did not particularly wish to read the Bible. After my confirmation I tried reading a chapter a night from my new King James Bible which my granny had given me and I got part way through the Book of Numbers so did not do badly but it was hard work and I am not sure it was particularly fruitful. Once I had met with Jesus though, I had a hunger for reading the Bible. I wanted to read it because I wanted to know Jesus better and know more about how he wanted me to live my life.
In the powerful book that has been produced as a tribute for the Queen’s 90th birthday and which you will be receiving soon, the authors explain the true significance of the Bible:
‘For Christians, the Bible is the most valuable thing on earth because it is God’s message to all humankind. It shows us what God is like. It reveals his love and commitment to us, what his Son has done for us, how we can know and enjoy him, and how we can live and love in his ways.’ (‘The Servant Queen and the King she Serves’)
In his second letter to Timothy, St Paul wrote to his young friend and put it another way:
‘All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. ‘ (2 Timothy 3.16-17, NRSV)
We are going to spend a little time now thinking about these verses:
First ‘All scripture’…The Bible is a complex document made up of different kinds of writing which were written by different people at different times and in different contexts. There are some bits that we like in the Bible: Psalm 23 and stories of Jesus blessing the little children are always popular. There are some bits that we do not like such as the rape and violence we find between the covers. There are some bits we do not understand and have argued about for centuries such as what does it mean for the Jews to be God’s Chosen people and slavery. Some of the moral and historical difficulties are explained by the context of the passage: the women of Corinth were getting carried away by their new found freedom in Christ and needed some guidance on how to behave. Other challenges are resolved by looking at the kind of material we are dealing with: the Creation story at the beginning of Genesis is not trying to give us a scientific account of how the universe came into being but to paint a truth-telling picture of the heart of the matter: that the world is created by God and sustained by him and belongs to him no matter how much we mess it up. It is true that some difficulties are harder to resolve but it does not mean that we should only read certain bits or abandon our belief that ‘All scripture is inspired by God’.
Another way of putting it is that All scripture is God-breathed. It is this that gives the Bible its authority. It is not just a series of writings which tell us about how God dealt with people in the past but God speaking to us. God longs to communicate with his people and he does this primarily through the Bible. He spoke to his people through his prophets like Isaiah and John the Baptist who told people ‘thus says the Lord’. These men and women were inspired by the Holy Spirit and spoke God’s word to his people. Likewise, the writers of the scriptures were inspired by the Holy Spirit and wrote God’s word down. This is not divine dictation, God did not sit the psalmists down and tell them what to write, word by word. The truth is more exciting than that for in his generosity, God used human beings as a way of speaking to other human beings then and now. He inspired them and they wrote. The Bible is human and divine as Jesus was.
So the authority of the Bible rests in that it is inspired by God, it is God’s word to us. We can be confident of this by looking at the example of Jesus. Jesus certainly regarded scriptures as the living word of God and therefore as words with authority. He knew the scriptures and quoted them often: for example when he is being tempted by Satan in the desert he draws on chapters from Deuteronomy to respond, ‘Jesus answered,
‘It is written: “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”’ (Matthew 4.4, NIV).
Jesus knew the scriptures and read them: at the beginning of his ministry we are told that in the synagogue in Nazareth
‘The scroll of Isaiah the prophet was handed to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where this was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,
that the blind will see,
that the oppressed will be set free,
and that the time of the Lord’s favour has come.”’ (Luke 4.17-19, NLT).
Jesus knew the scriptures and could understand them: on the road to Emmaus, Jesus
‘started at the beginning, with the Books of Moses, and went on through all the Prophets, pointing out everything in the Scriptures that referred to him.’ (Luke 24.27, The Message)
Martin Luther wrote ‘The Bible is alive, it speaks to me; it has feet, it runs after me, it has hands, it lays hold on me’. The Bible is the living word of God, it is not just words on a page, it is him speaking to us. D L Moody, a prominent 19th Century American Evangelist, reminds us that ‘The Bible was not given to increase our knowledge. It was given to change lives.’ It has changed the lives of countless people through history and inspired radical service across the globe: Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Fry, Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu to name but a few were all inspired to change their lives and seek to change the lives of others because of what they read in the Bible. Reading the Bible had such an impact on William Wilberforce that he not only battled to abolish the slave trade but helped to found the Bible Society so that other people could be transformed by it too.
‘For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.’ (Hebrews 4.12, ESV)
Christian discipleship is about wanting to get to know God better and become more like Jesus. The Bible speaks to us about God and his steadfast love for his people; the Bible teaches us about how God acts, what excites him, what makes him sad and what sort of people he wants us to be. It is both a manual and a love letter which teaches us and trains us so that we may be able to serve God faithfully and well.
How should we read the Bible?
The Psalmist declares that
‘Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly,
nor standeth in the way of sinners,
nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.
But his delight is in the law of the Lord;
and in his law doth he meditate day and night.’ (Psalm 1.1-2, AV)
I want to give some practical tips on how to read the Bible so that it may be an encounter with the Living Word of God and transform our lives. However, first a health warning: none of us is perfect! None of us read the Bible as often as we would like or as much as we would like or as fruitfully as we would like. What follows is to help us, not to make us feel guilty.
- Choose a time which works for you
Like everything else, we need to set aside time to read the Bible or we will not get round to it. So choose a time but be realistic: if you are a night owl, planning to get up really early every morning to read the Bible may not be sustainable. If your brain ceases functioning by tea time, the evening is probably not going to work for you. Be realistic also in how long you plan to spend reading the Bible each day: it is better to commit to reading five minutes a day than do half an hour on day one and then nothing for the rest of the week. My experience is that the more you read God’s word and hear him speak to you through it, the more time you will want to spend reading the Bible.
- Choose a translation which you can understand
The Bible was not originally written in English so unless you are fluent in Hebrew and Greek, you are going to be reading it in translation. There are lots of translations available, some of which are better than others and some of which are easier to understand than others. I know that many of us have a real fondness for the Authorised Version of the Bible and its rich language resonates deeply with us. However, I wish to encourage you to try reading the Bible in a modern version: the language of the King James is indeed beautiful but it is not necessarily easy to understand. The translation committees which brought us the AV intentionally used archaic language because of their political agendas and were very aware that they were producing the best translation that was possible in 1662. They looked forward to the day when more reliable manuscripts and greater understanding of Biblical languages would result in more accurate translations. In the 21st Century we are able to profit from both of these so let’s embrace the opportunities we have which were denied to our forebears and use a modern translation. It is good to use different translations too, especially if you are not sure what a verse means or the passage is very familiar, look at it in another version and see what that says.
- Choose a scheme to follow
If we are to get the most from reading the Bible, we need read it systematically. It is not a good idea to dip into it randomly or just stick to the bits we know and love. There are lots of schemes available, some of which enable you to read the whole Bible in a year, others of which will take you through a book of the Bible or enable you to explore a theme. Whilst you might wish to vary your scheme over time, try not to be too random in your approach. In the main, you are aiming for a balanced diet not a quick snack. If you are wondering where to start, a gospel is a good beginning so try Mark or Luke.
- Ask the Holy Spirit to help you
On Sunday, we celebrated Pentecost when we recalled that the Holy Spirit came as Jesus had promised. Part of the task of the Holy Spirit within us is to teach us more about God. Just as the Holy Spirit inspired the writers of scripture, so he will inspire us as we read if we let him. Therefore, as you begin to read the Bible, ask God to speak to you through the words and be willing to be changed by what God says.
- Ask yourself three questions as you slowly read the passage:
- what does the passage say?
- what does the passage mean? This is where some notes might be helpful of which more later.
- how does the passage apply to me?
Remember, the aim is not to get lots more knowledge about God but to grow in relationship with him and become more like him. Therefore, reading the Bible should make a difference to our lives:
‘ “So everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, will be like a wise man [a far-sighted, practical, and sensible man] who built his house on the rock.”‘ (Matthew 7.24 Amplified Bible)
We are deeply privileged in this community: we have easy access to the Bible in books and online. We have had a good education so that we can read it and there are lots of versions available in our mother tongue. No one is going to punish us for owning a Bible or for reading it. This is not true for people in other parts of the world who lack the access, the literacy or the security to read the word of God. Let’s not take our blessed situation for granted: let’s commit to reading our Bibles more often, to reading our Bibles more fruitfully and to reading our Bibles in the expectation that God will speak to us for then we will see lives transformed and his kingdom come.