Readings: 2 Timothy 3.14-4.5; Luke 18.1-8
I am sure that many of you have, at some time or other, tried to work out which eight discs you would take with you if you were shipwrecked on Radio 4’s famous Desert Island. Choosing the music and the luxury are hard enough but when it comes to deciding on the book, it is mind-achingly hard for a bibliophile like me. Which book of all the books in the world would be the third volume in your 3 volume library? Which book would keep you entertained and satisfied as you re-read it for the umpteenth time? Which book could stand that level of familiarity? I used to work for a man whose was very clear about his choice: another Bible. His argument was that he wanted a second copy for when the first wore out. His love for the word of God was such that he wanted to make sure that he would not be without it.
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 and yet it is the book she was given that is described as the most valuable thing the world has to offer.
In our reading from 2 Timothy, we are reminded why the Bible is so precious. Its value lies not in the quality of the binding – though some incredibly expensive Bibles have been produced such as the magnificent Winchester Bible (12th Century) which is adorned with gold and lapis lazuli. The edition that is printed on poor quality paper and cheaply bound is just as valuable because it contains the word of God.
‘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) writes St Paul to his young apprentice. I want us to spend some time thinking about these two verses this morning and what they mean for us as we seek to be disciples of Jesus.
First, ‘All scripture’. The Bible Society recently did an online survey about our Bible reading habits and one of their questions was about which book of the Bible is our favourite. It turns out the favourite book of those who responded is John whilst Leviticus is the least popular. We all have parts of the Bible that we turn to most readily: I am particularly fond of the Book of Ruth which came 4th in the poll for favourite books and John 10.10 which reminds us that Jesus came to bring us life in all its fullness.
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 and some bits that we would rather ignore: we like reading about Jesus coming as a baby that first Christmas, but would prefer to forget that Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead. 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 the role of women in the church. Our Gospel reading is probably not high on anyone’s list of favourite passages: we are far happier with the story of the Prodigal Son which compares God to the loving father who forgives his wayward son than this parable of Jesus which compares God with the unjust judge. However, Paul reminds us that we do not get to pick and choose. Yes, some of the moral and historical difficulties within the Bible are explained by the context of the passage or the kind of writing we are dealing with, but we cannot ignore those parts that do not suit us or interpret them to fit with secular values. ‘All scripture is inspired by God and useful’ for equipping us as followers of Jesus. This is one reason why it is good to follow a scheme for our Bible reading rather than picking and choosing our favourite bits.
We are told that Timothy had known the Scriptures from childhood (3.15); it was his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice who had taught him that ‘All scripture is inspired by God’. A closer translation of the original Greek would be ‘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 people 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, read the scriptures, lived by 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).
It is because the Bible contains the inspired word of God that ‘All scripture…is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness‘. Within the pages of his Word, we see the steadfast love of God; we see again and again how faithful he is to his promises; we discover how we can become his children. We are not saved by knowing the Bible, Satan knows the scriptures well enough to quote them to Jesus but that does not make him a child of God. It is Jesus who saves us. But knowing the Bible can teach us what is true; it can make us realise what is wrong in our lives; it can instruct us how we can live lives pleasing to God; it can encourage us in good times and in bad by speaking words of truth to us.
Reading the Bible is important to our growth as Christians, but it also a vital tool in sharing the good news with others. Paul reminds Timothy that the most effective way of teaching people about Jesus, is by explaining passages of the Bible to them. That is what Jesus did on the road to Emmaus. As he walked along the road with Cleopas and his companion, Jesus began with Moses and the prophets and ‘interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures’ (Luke 24.27). Later the disciples said to each other: ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ (24.32). We cannot tell others what the Bible says, we cannot follow the example of Lois and Eunice and teach our children and grandchildren (and godchildren) what the Bible says, if we are not familiar with it ourselves.
So if we are to grow as disciples of Jesus and share his love with the world, we need to know our Bibles. We will not ‘be proficient, equipped for every good work’ (3.17) if we do not. There are no short cuts in this; we can only know our Bibles if we spend time prayerfully reading them. There are lots of resources to help you and I will post some on the church website later today. If you would like some guidance, please speak to Amanda, Alex or me as we would be delighted to help you to get to know the word of God better. In meantime, here are my top tips:
- 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. 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.
- Choose a scheme to follow
If we are to get the most from reading the Bible, we need to read it systematically. It is not a good idea to dip into it randomly or just stick to the bits we know and love. At the beginning of Advent, I will start a scheme that enables me to read the Bible in one year. I have done this before and find it a good way of ensuring that I engage with all scripture and not just parts of it.
If you are wondering where to start, a gospel is a good beginning so try Mark or Luke.
4. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you
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, 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. The parable in our Gospel reading will make more sense if we read some notes that help us to understand it.
- how does the passage apply to me?
God has given us his word for a reason. As we read our Bibles and ponder on the word of God, we need to remember that we are not looking to get lots more knowledge about God but to grow in relationship with him and become more like him. Reading the Bible should make a difference to our lives. Reading the Bible should change us because within the pages of this book we can encounter the living God. ‘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).
Oh, and if you are wondering what book I would take with me when I am cast adrift for the Desert Island, it is an interlinear Study Bible so that I can brush up my Greek, learn Hebrew and understand the word of God better…oh, and my luxury is a supply of reading glasses so I can see the print! There will be lots of time, so what better way to spend the days than to read and ponder on God’s word.
‘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.
Revd Rebecca Fardell