The Bible a Great Comfort
For seven years, Terry Anderson was held as a hostage of Shiite Muslim fundamentalists. The former reporter for the Associated Press had been taken captive and held as a political prisoner, and for seven terrible years, he was moved from location to location, hidden successfully, and sentenced to horrible loneliness. Before he was taken as a hostage, Anderson had given much thought to matters of faith. But in prison, he was allowed to have a Bible.
“Constantly over the years, I found consolation and counsel in the Bible I was given in the first few weeks,” he wrote, after his ordeal ended. “Not other world, ‘this is just a test’ kind of consolation, but comfort from the real, immediate voices of people who had suffered greatly, and in ways that seemed so close to what I was going through. I read the Bible more than 50 times, cover to cover, in those first few years.”
The Bible Calls Us
God speaks the decisive word that puts us on the way, the road. The path of life. The Hebrew word for Bible is Miqra, a noun formed from the verb “to call” qara. The Bible is not a book to carry around and read for information on God, but a voice to listen to. I like that. This word of God that we name Bible, book, is not at root a word to be read and looked at and discussed. It is a word to be listened to and obeyed, a word that gets us going. Fundamentally, it is a call: God calls us.
The Bible & The Koran
Muslims are taught that Muhammad had no creative role in the production of their holy book. He acted simply as a secretary who wrote down what was dictated to him by Allah via the angel Gabriel. They would be outraged by the suggestion that the Qur’an was in any way a human book.
But Christians should have no qualms about accepting that the Bible was written by people. Its books were written by a variety of authors at different times in history and bear the marks of the personalities and eras that produced them. But God ensured by his Spirit that everything they wrote was exactly what he wanted them to write. Just as the Lord Jesus was both fully human and fully divine, so the Bible is both a human and a divine book. It is God’s Word: he is the ultimate author.
The Bible Outlives its Pallbearers
The Bible has, amazingly—no doubt with supernatural grace—survived its critics. Thirty to sixty million copies are produced annually. The harder tyrants try to eliminate it and skeptics dismiss it, the better read it becomes. Voltaire, for example, who passionately sought to erase the Christian influence during the French Revolution, predicted that within a hundred years no one would read the Bible. When his home was later auctioned off after his death, it was purchased by the French Bible Society. As one pastor said, the Bible outlives its pallbearers.
Biblical Manuscripts vs. Other Writings in the Ancient World
New Testament scholars face an embarrassment of riches compared to the data the classical Greek and Latin scholars have to contend with. The average classical author’s literary remains number no more than twenty copies. We have more than 1,000 times the manuscript data for the New Testament than we do for the average Greco-Roman author. Not only this, but the extant manuscripts of the average classical author are no earlier than 500 years after the time he wrote. For the New Testament, we are waiting mere decades for surviving copies.
Taken from An Interview with Daniel B. Wallace on the New Testament Manuscripts; accessed 1-7-19.
The Dickensian Approach to Storytelling
Sometimes great stories introduce the protagonist in the very first paragraph. In Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, for example, we are immediately introduced to Pip, the central figure of the novel, and we learn why he has such an odd name. Yet other stories wait for some time before the protagonist appears. In Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, Jean Valjean does not show up until around page 50 (out of 1200). If you were not familiar with Hugo’s classic story, you might think while reading the first chapters that the Bishop of Digne is the main character. As it turns out, he plays a pivotal but relatively small role in the story of Les Misérables, in which Valjean is the main character.
The Bible takes a Dickensian approach to its protagonist. The leading figure appears in the very first verse: “In the beginning . . . God.” …today, I want to underline the centrality of God in the biblical story.
God is the protagonist. God is the main actor. God is the one who ties together all the pieces of the story. God is the one who orchestrates the events. Indeed, God is also the author of the biblical story. To be sure, the Bible tells a human story as well, with people playing an essential role from the first chapter of Genesis to the last chapter of Revelation. The Bible also narrates the affairs of the nations, especially Israel. The Bible can be useful for philosophy, psychology, and a wide array of other disciplines. It provides the sure foundation for right theology. But, at its core, the Bible is a story, a story of God, the story of God.
Eat This Book
Christians feed on Scripture. Holy Scripture nurtures the holy community as food nurtures the human body. Christians don’t simply learn or study or use Scripture; we assimilate it, take it into our lives in such a way that it gets metabolized into acts of love, cups of cold water, missions into all the world, healing and evangelism and justice in Jesus’ name, hands raised in adoration of the Father, feet washed in company with the Son.
An Expert in Biblical Trivia
The prince of Grenada, an heir to the Spanish crown, was sentenced to life in solitary confinement in Madrid’s ancient prison. The dreadful, dirty, and dreary nature of the place earned it the name, “The Place of the Skull.” Everyone knew that once you were in, you would never come out alive. The prince was given one book to read the entire time: the Bible.
With only one book to read, he read it hundreds and hundreds of times. The book became his constant companion. After 33 years of imprisonment, he died. When they came to clean out his cell, they found some notes he had written using nails to mark the soft stone of the prison walls.
The notations were of this sort: Psalm 118:8 is the middle verse of the Bible; Ezra 7:21 contains all the letters of the alphabet except the letter J; the ninth verse of the eighth chapter of Esther is the longest verse in the Bible; no word or name more than six syllables can be found in the Bible.
This individual spent 33 years of his life studying what some have described as the greatest book of all time. Yet he could only glean trivia. From all we know, he never made any religious or spiritual commitment to Christ. He simply became an expert at Bible trivia.
God’s Word and Calvinism vs. Arminianism
It has been my earnest endeavor ever since I have preached the Word, never to keep back a single doctrine that I believe to be taught of God. It is time that we had done with the old and rusty systems that have so long curbed the freeness of religious speech.
The Arminian trembles to go an inch beyond Arminius or Wesley, and many a Calvinist refers to John Gill or John Calvin as an ultimate authority. It is time that the systems were broken up, and that there was sufficient grace in all our hearts to believe everything taught in God’s Word, whether it was taught by either of these men or not.
If God teaches it, it is enough. If it is not in the Word, away with it! Away with it! But if it be in the Word, agreeable or disagreeable, systematic or disorderly, I believe it.
Charles Spurgeon, in a sermon delivered at Exeter Hall, London.
The Importance of Holiness in the Bible
There’s no question holiness is one of the central themes in the Bible. The word “holy” occurs more than 600 times in the Bible, more than 700 when you include derivative words like holiness, sanctify, and sanctification. You can’t make sense of the Bible without understanding that God is holy and that this holy God is intent on making a holy people to live with him forever in a holy heaven.
The whole system of Israel’s worship revolves around holiness. That’s why you have holy people (the priests), with holy clothes, in a holy land (Canaan), at a holy place (tabernacle/ temple), using holy utensils and holy objects, celebrating holy days, living by a holy law, so that they might be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
Is the Bible More Like a Rule Book or a Compass?
The Bible contains rules, but it’s not helpful to think of it as a rule book. As important as rule books are, they don’t inspire devotion. Imagine curling up with a cup of coffee and your company’s employment manual. Good times, right? Instead of a rule book, think of the Bible as a compass. When my children and I tested for our advanced open-water diving certification, we descended to forty feet below the surface and took turns swimming in a square, a hundred feet in each direction.
At the farthest point, we were about 140 feet from the rest of our group in an environment where visibility was fifty feet at best. Believe me, at that moment I didn’t want a compass that pointed at me; I wanted one that offered a reliable reference point outside me. Only then could I find my way back. Just as a compass points us north, the Bible points us to God. It reveals God, making the unknown known. Through revelation, God’s truth rises like the dawn, making clearer who God is, who we are, and what kind of world we live in. The Bible is God’s Word.
Jumping out of the Bible
In Francis Chan’s latest book “Letters to the Church,” he shares about his first year after leaving his large church in suburban Los Angeles to start something new. It was something Francis himself wasn’t exactly sure what it would ultimately look like. He ultimately ended up in San Francisco, serving in a rough neighborhood known as the Tenderloin District:
I made some friends over the first year…We fed the homeless and went door to door to pray for people in low-income housing. It was scary at times, but I loved the fact that I was living by faith in America…I remember asking my kids what they felt after one of our first outreaches. Rachel, my oldest daughter, blurted out, “It felt like we jumped out of the Bible.” I knew exactly what she meant. We were experiencing something in America that was congruent with what we read about in the New Testament! We felt alive, on an adventure that required faith, and it was right here in our backyard.
The King Belongs in the Middle
In his wonderful book, God’s Big Picture, Vaughan Roberts gives readers an overview of the Bible, focusing on the importance of context for developing a deeper understanding of holy scripture. In this short illustration, he points out the importance of keeping Jesus (the king) at the center of the greater narrative of the Word of God. Thus, when the king is at the center, we are more likely to find a faithful reading of a text than when we do not:
Two boys were bored on a rainy summer’s day, so they began to do a jigsaw puzzle. (That tells you how bored they must have been.) They made no progress until one of them turned the box lid over to see the picture they were trying to create. It was of a medieval court scene with a king surrounded by his courtiers. One of the boys cried out, ‘Now I see it – the king is in the middle!’ Once they recognized that, the puzzle was easy and they were soon able to finish it.
Lewis the Literary Critic on the Bible as a Genre
I have been reading poems, romances, vision literature, legends, and myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know none of them are like this. Of this [gospel] text there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage…or else, some unknown [ancient] writer…without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern novelistic, realistic narrative…
The Light of God in Language
Some people may wonder: why was the light of God given in the form of language? How is it conceivable that the divine should be contained in such brittle vessels as consonants and vowels? This question betrays the sin of our age: to treat lightly the ether which carries the light-waves of the spirit. What else in the world is as capable of bringing man and man together over the distances in space and in time? Of all things on earth, words alone never die. They have so little matter and so much meaning. . . .
God took these Hebrew words and breathed into them of His power, and the words became a live wire charged with His spirit. To this very day they are hyphens between heaven and earth. What other medium could have been employed to convey the divine? Pictures enameled on the moon? Statues hewn out of the Rockies?
Not Getting the Message
Reading the Bible without applying it to your life can be downright dangerous. On August 3, 1996, Melvin Hitchens, sat on his front porch and read the Bible. After his Bible reading, this 66 year old New Orleans resident went in his house and retrieved a .45 caliber hand gun. He went back outside, and shot his neighbors! He killed Donna Jett as she swept her sidewalk and injured Darryl Jett while he was mowing.
Family members and neighborhood residents testified that Hitchens and the Jett’s had a running feud over the care of their yards and the cleanliness of the gutters. No one, however, had an explanation how a man could put down his Bible, and commit such a violent act! Positive transformation requires the application of God’s Word. (Source: Houston Chronicle, 8/5/96, p.7A)
Not a Painting on the Wall, but a Window
In the book A Peculiar Glory, John Piper describes how he maintained a traditional view of scripture, even after he went on to advanced theological studies in California and Germany. He describes his experience here:
The Bible was never like a masterpiece hanging in a museum that I viewed this way and that. Rather, it was like a window. Or like binoculars. My view of the Bible was always a view through the Bible. So when I say that, all along the way, my view was getting clearer and brighter and deeper, I mean the reality seen through it was getting clearer and brighter and deeper.
Clearer as the edges of things became less fuzzy, and I could see how things fit together rather than just smudging into each other. Brighter as the beauty and impact of the whole message was more and more attractive. And deeper in the sense of depth perspective—I suppose photographers would say “depth of field.” Things stretched off into eternity with breathtaking implications—in both directions past and future. You could sum this up with the phrase the glory of God. That’s what I was seeing. This was not an intellectual effort. Seeing is not an effort the way thinking is. It happens.
“The Psalms Found Expression in His Innermost Feelings”
In 1977, at the height of the Cold War, Anatoly Shcharansky, a brilliant young mathematician and chess player, was arrested by the KGB for his repeated attempts to emigrate to Israel. He spent thirteen years inside the Soviet Gulag. From morning to evening Shcharansky read and studied all 150 psalms (in Hebrew). “What does this give me?” he asked in a letter:
“Gradually, my feeling of great loss and sorrow changes to one of bright hopes.” Shcharansky so cherished his book of Psalms, in fact, that when guards took it away from him, he lay in the snow, refusing to move, until they returned it. During those thirteen years, his wife traveled around the world campaigning for his release. Accepting an honorary degree on his behalf, she told the university audience, “In a lonely cell in Chistopol prison, locked alone with the Psalms of David, Anatoly found expression for his innermost feelings in the outpourings of the King of Israel thousands of years ago.”
Reading the Gospels for the First Time
Thomas Linacre was king’s physician to Henry VII and Henry VIII of England, founder of the Royal College of Physicians, and friend of the great Renaissance thinkers Erasmus and Sir Thomas More. Late in His life he took Catholic orders and was given a copy of the Gospels to read for the first time.
The Bible, of course, was still the preserve of the clergy and not in the hands of ordinary people. And Linacre lived through the darkest of the church’s dark hours: the papacy of Alexander VI, the Borgia pope whose bribery, corruption, incest, and murder plumbed new depths in the annals of Christian shame. Reading the four Gospels for himself, Linacre was amazed and troubled. “Either these are not the Gospels,” he said, “or we are not Christians.”
Seeking a Spiritual Home in the Bible
Many people these days feel an absence in their lives, expressed as an acute desire for “something more,” a spiritual home, a community of faith. But when they try to read the Bible they end up throwing it across the room. To me, this seems encouraging, a good place to start, a sign of real engagement with the God who is revealed in Scripture. Others find it easy to dismiss the Bible out of hand, as negative, vengeful, violent.
I can only hope that they are rejecting the violence-as-entertainment of movies and television on the same grounds, and that they say a prayer every time they pick up a daily newspaper or turn on CNN. In the context of real life, the Bible seems refreshingly whole, an honest reflection on humanity in relation to the sacred and the profane. I can’t learn enough about it, but I also have to trust what little I know, and proceed, in faith, to seek God there.
The Underside of Our Experience with the Bible
We know there is more to this story than the official line. The Christian community doesn’t talk about it nearly as much, but there is an underside to the life of the Bible in our midst. This is the story of frustration, boredom and lack of connection. This is the story of failed expectations. Many of us try out the advice promoted in the official line and find that it doesn’t work. We commit to a daily “quiet time,” but after a while we give up.
We read our little spiritual morsel and discover it doesn’t nourish us all that much, and certainly not enough to carry us through the day. Actually, we kind of forget it pretty quickly. The unofficial line regarding the Bible is the story of weird, indecipherable passages. The “and yet” comes down to this: there is more guilt about secret noncompliance with Bible-reading standards in the self-proclaimed Bible-believing community than there is gratitude for promises realized. For far too many folks there is a hoped-for-but-as-yet-undiscovered spiritual meal in the Bible. After too long a wait they begin to doubt there is any real food there at all.
Which is the Bible Most Like?
What genre of literature is the Bible? How we answer this question will ultimately determine not just how we read scripture, but how it will ultimately shape our lives. One Sunday school teacher, teaching a survey of the Bible, asked just this question at the end of his first class. The question he posed was this:
Which of the following is the Bible most like: (A) Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, (B) The Reader’s Digest Guide to Home Repairs, or (C) The Collected Papers of the American Antislavery Society? What was this teacher looking for? He summarized it this way: “The correct answer is C, although we most often use the Bible like A and expect it to be like B.” Part of his intention in the class was to help the students realize that “the Bible is a series of occasional pieces of various genres that traces the development of a transformational movement.”
Who Knocked Down the Walls of Jericho?
A police inspector went to visit a primary school, where he was asked to take a Scripture class. He began by asking, ‘Who knocked down the walls of Jericho?’ There was a long silence as the children shuffled nervously on their seats. Eventually, a little lad put up his hand and said, ‘Please sir, my name is Bruce Jones. I don’t know who did it but it wasn’t me.’ The policeman thought that reply very cheeky, so he reported the incident to the headmaster.
After a pause the headmaster replied, ‘I know Bruce Jones; he’s an honest chap. If he said he didn’t do it, then he didn’t.’ The inspector was exasperated. The headmaster was either rude or very ignorant. The inspector wrote to the Department of Education to complain, and received this response: ‘Dear Sir, We are sorry to hear about the walls of Jericho and that nobody has admitted causing the damage. If you send us an estimate we will see what we can do about the cost.’
Writing out our Faith
We all desire to learn from our role models, but some take this ambition to the next level. The writer Hunter S. Thompson was so obsessed with the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and specifically his book, The Great Gatsby, that he began typing out the entire book, just for himself, in order to learn its secrets. His hope was to experience what it was like to write a masterpiece, word for word. What might we learn from Thompson and his dedication to his task?
Might we consider writing, for ourselves, the greatest masterpiece of all time? Might we attempt to experience what it was like for the Holy Spirit to guide the writing of the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) or the gospels, Paul’s letters, or the book of revelation? What might we experience if we took the time to manually write out the great books of Holy Scripture? How might we emulate those great saints who came before us, who showed us what it was like to be inspired by God?
Stuart Strachan Jr.
See also Illustrations on Scripture