Reading the Bible

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We're in a series of talks entitled, 'The Christian life', and the aim is to help us with some of the 'How?' questions of living for Jesus. And tonight's question is: How can we read the Bible? And whether you're already a Christian, or still just thinking Christianity through, there are three ways to get into the Bible, each of which is important. One is what we're doing now – hearing someone explain it and show what God is saying through it to us today. Another way is to look at it in one of the many small groups we run – like Life Explored, Focus, Home Groups – which gives everyone the chance to talk and question in a way that what we're doing now doesn't. But the other important way is to read the Bible on our own. That's easier said than done – and if you've tried, I'm sure from time to time you've got stuck. So to help us, I want to ask and answer three questions about the Bible:

1. What is the Bible?

That needs asking because the way you read a book – how you use it and what you expect from it – depends on the kind of book it is. So think of these three books: Mary Berry's Real Food Fast, the Lonely Planet Guide to Mallorca, and the Reader's Digest DIY Manual. The point is: you know straight away what kind of books those are and therefore how you'd read them and use them. So what kind of book is the Bible? Well the answer is: it's the story – by which I mean the true story – of the relationship between God and us.

So the story begins with when God created time and space, and us. And he made us to live in relationship with him, consciously living under his rule. But that's not how things stayed, because what happened next is what Christians call 'the fall' – when the original human pair turned away from relationship with God in favour of ruling their own lives as they wanted. The Bible calls that turning from God 'sin', and it says we've all been dragged into it as a result of the fall – so we were not born like Adam and Eve were created; we were born like Adam and Eve became when they turned away from God: born sinners (which is why no-one ever had to teach you to be selfish or untruthful – you just are, by birth).

And our sin brings us under God's judgement now – and ultimately, at the end of our lives, we will face God's judgement and rejection unless something is done to save us from that. The rest of the Bible is the story of how God has acted to save us, and bring us back into relationship with himself. So next the Bible records how God promised to do that, through a salvation plan that would unfold over centuries. And everything that then happened, recorded in the Old Testament, was designed to prepare the world for Jesus' coming. It was designed to show up the problem of sin – which is why much of the Old Testament is grim reading. And it was designed to get people expecting that a solution to the sin-problem would come (which it did in the person of Jesus). So that's the Old Testament – which records what God said and did before Jesus.

The New Testament is then the part of the Bible written after Jesus' coming. And it says that Jesus was God's Son become human. It says he lived here in this world 2,000 years ago. It says he died on the cross to take on himself that judgement we deserve, so that we can be forgiven and saved from facing it. And it says he then rose from the dead, returned to his Father in heaven, and will one day bring history to an end. At which point, how we responded to Jesus will entirely determine whether we spend life beyond this life rejected by God or accepted by him thanks to Jesus' death on the cross.

So what is the Bible? It's the true story of the relationship between God and us – leaving the unwritten chapter of how each of us will respond to Jesus before our lives are up.

And it would help your Bible reading no end to get more of a handle on the whole story I've just sketched. And to do that, you could either read Vaughan Roberts' book God's Big Picture, or watch the video version on Clayton TV.

Now that story, of what God has said and done in history, was written down by many writers over a long time-period – for example, by Moses, David and Isaiah before Jesus; and by Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Paul after Jesus. But Jesus taught that what they wrote was actually guided by God – so that the Bible is actually God's Word through human words. So let me show you one place which says that. Please turn in the Bible to 2 Timothy 3.16. This is the apostle Paul summarising what Jesus himself taught about the Bible. And he says:

"All Scripture [that is, the collected writing of the Bible] is breathed out by God"

So if you stand in front of the mirror and breathe out through the air, you'll create on the mirror a patch of mist. And that's the word-picture Paul uses here. Paul is saying that it's as if God breathed out his thoughts, through human writers, so as to create on the pages of the Bible his Word through human words. And Christians have called that 'the inspiration of the Bible'. And here's one helpful definition of that:

"Inspiration is that supernatural work of God's Holy Spirit on the human authors of Scripture such that what they wrote was precisely what God intended them to write in order to communicate his truth."

(Don Carson in his essay Approaching the Bible, New Bible Commentary 3rd edition).

So for example, as John wrote his Gospel, he would have remembered what he had seen and heard of Jesus with his own eyes and ears; he would have talked to his fellow-eye-witnesses; and he would have thought what to include and what to leave out. But as he did all that God was guiding him so that his facts and his interpretation of the facts would be reliable.

So that's what the Bible is: it's the story of the relationship between God and us – told in words that are God's Word through human words. Then my next question is,

2. What is the Bible for?

And for this would you look down to 2 Timothy 3.14-15. The apostle Paul was writing here to his missionary partner Timothy. And whereas (like today) many others were drifting away from belief in Jesus, Paul says to Timothy…

"But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it [in other words, knowing that Paul and the other apostles were reliable in what they'd told him about Jesus] and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus."

Now at the time Paul wrote that, 'the sacred writings' meant the Old Testament – because the New Testament hadn't yet been written and put together. But we would now say 'the sacred writings' equals the Old Testament plus the New Testament – the completed Bible. So look at the end of verse 15 again to see what the Bible is for. It's

"to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus."

In other words, it's for making you see your need of Jesus, and for bringing you to faith in Jesus – to trust in what he did on the cross to save you from judgement. So I'd sum that up by saying: the Bible is for enabling you to trust in Jesus as your Saviour. And that's not just something you do at the start of your Christian life. Trusting in his love for you on the cross and in his ongoing, total forgiveness and acceptance of you is the heart of the Christian life from start to finish.

But the next verse says: the Bible is then for teaching you how to live for Jesus as your Lord. Look at verse 16 again:

"All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable [in other words, useful] for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness"

So once you've asked Jesus to forgive you and to come into your life by his Spirit as your Lord, he sets about changing you to be more the way he meant you to be. And the primary change-agent he uses is the Bible – to correct what's wrong and train us to live rightly in his sight.

So if that's what the Bible is for – for enabling you to trust in Jesus as Saviour and live for him as Lord – then there are lots of things the Bible is not for, lots of questions it won't answer. For example, it doesn't tell us what the processes of creation were, and how long it took (even if you take a '6 periods of 24 hours' view of the 'days' of creation in Genesis 1). It doesn't give us a complete answer to why God allowed sin and suffering and death to be part of his plan. And it doesn't describe what heaven and hell are like in any great detail. But that's because we don't need to know all that in order to trust in Jesus and live for him. And verse 17 says the Bible is all we need for doing that. Look down to verse 17 again – where it says: God has given us the Bible so…

"that the man [or woman] of God may be competent, equipped for every good work."

In other words, in the Bible God has given us everything we need to come into relationship with him, and then live in relationship with him. Which means we don't need him to speak to us in other ways. Of course he can speak in all sorts of other ways – from burning bushes to dreams and visions. But instead of looking outside the Bible to things like that, God wants us to trust that the completed Bible is everything we need to come into relationship with him, and then live in relationship with him. That's where we should expect him to speak to us.

Now I realise that, when we're facing decisions, we often wish God would tell us what to do – by an audible voice or writing in the sky or whatever. So, for example, I know a church minister who worked in London. And one of his old cockney parishioners told him how he came to marry his wife. This old guy said, 'I was rather taken by two girls – Maria and Joan. And I didn't know which to pursue. So one day as I was walking past a church, I thought, 'I'll go in and pray about it and see if I get any answer.' So I went in and sat down and prayed. And when I looked up… there it was, on the wall in big letters, 'AVE MARIA'.' (It was a Roman Catholic Church with that prayer to Mary painted up there.) And he said, 'I thought to myself, 'That's clear enough for me.' And that's how come I married Maria.' But that's nonsense, isn't it? And God wants us to trust that we don't need an audible voice or writing on the sky (or the wall) – but that the Bible is all we need.

Now that doesn't mean it will make all our decisions for us. There are plenty of questions where it does make the decision for us. For example, if you're struggling with the career question, 'Should I become a bank robber?', the Bible makes that decision for you. It says: No. Exodus 20.15:

"You shall not steal."

But there are loads of questions where the Bible does not make the decision for us. For example, if you're wondering, 'Should I go out with Maria?', or, 'Should I ask Maria to marry me?', then you look in vain for the Bible verse that gives you the answer. Because in the Bible God doesn't tell you who to marry. He just tells you how to marry. He says, if you're a Christian, you're to marry only someone 1) of the opposite sex, who is 2) also a Christian, and 3) who's not already married (or divorced from a marriage partner still living). And within those 'lines', it gives you all sorts of wisdom about what kind of person to look for. For example, Proverbs 21.9 says:

"It is better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife."

But in the end, with those kind of questions, we have to make a decision. The Bible won't make it for us. And we shouldn't try to make it make our decisions by misusing it. For example, maybe you're a bloke wanting to start a relationship. And you flop the Bible open at Isaiah 55 and it says, "You shall go out with joy and be led forth in peace." So you start looking around for girls called Joy. But that's nonsense, too. That's misusing the Bible.

So we've asked, 'What is the Bible?', and, 'What is the Bible for?' Then the final question is,

3. So how should we read the Bible?

Well, remember what we saw earlier: the Bible is God's Word through human words. So first, let's underline 'through human words': the Bible is human words written by human writers in particular languages, at particular times, against particular backgrounds. Which means we shouldn't read the Bible as if it was written directly to us. It wasn't.

Just turn back to John chapter 14 for an example of this. John was one of the apostles and eye-witnesses of Jesus. And chapter 14 is his record of what Jesus said to them on the Thursday night before he died on Good Friday. So look down to John 14.25-26, where Jesus says…

"These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you."

And it's a big mistake to read that thinking that 'you' means you. If you read that as spoken directly to you, you might think, 'Wow, the Holy Spirit will teach me everything I need to know, and he'll put in my mind what Jesus said when he was here on earth – so I don't need the Bible; I've got a hotline instead!' But Jesus didn't say that to you. He said it to the apostles whom he'd chosen to be his eye-witnesses. And it was his promise to them – not to us – that God's Spirit would teach them all the things they didn't yet understand about Jesus (like what was about to happen on Good Friday and Easter Sunday). And it was his promise to them – not to us – that God's Spirit would help them remember accurately what he'd said to them.

So, we need to remember that the Bible was written to other people, but for us – 'To them, then… for us, today.' So, for example, if that promise in John 14 isn't directly to us, how is it indirectly for us? Well, it's for us because it reassures us that people like John really were eye-witnesses of Jesus; and that when they wrote about him, God by his Spirit saw to it that they got their facts and their understanding of Jesus right. So this promise in John 14 is for us because it reassures us about why we can trust the New Testament. So when you're reading the Bible, always remember it was written 'To them, then… for us, today.' And so always ask these twin questions: 1) What was God saying to them, then? And then 2) What is God saying to us through it, today?

OK, let's go back to that definition of the Bible as: God's Word through human words. And this time let's underline 'God's Word'. The point is that once we've understood and worked out what a part of the Bible is saying to us today, we need to say to ourselves, 'It's not just the Bible saying it. It's God saying it – because this is God's Word through human words.' And we need to respond accordingly.

You don't know this, but here at the front, where the service leader sits, are the instructions for what to do if a fire breaks out. And it says, 'The service leader is to interrupt the service and give the following message: 'I have been informed that there is a fire on the church premises and that we need to evacuate the building.' Now if you ever hear that said, it's not just for information is it? It's not just, 'You may be interested to know that…' It's for action, for response. And so is the Bible. You see, what does Mary Berry want me to do in response once I've read Real Food Fast? Go and cook. What does the Lonely Planet Guide to Mallorca want me to do in response? Get on the plane – as I did this week. What does the Readers' Digest DIY Manual want me to do? To mend the leak – whereas what I'll probably do is admit defeat and call a plumber.

So what does God want me to do as a result, whenever I read the Bible? Well, remember what it's for. We've seen that it's for enabling you to trust in Jesus as Saviour and live for Jesus as Lord. So what God wants me to do, whenever I read the Bible, is to trust and keep trusting in Jesus; and to obey him and live for him as Lord. So here are two more twin questions to ask whenever you read the Bible: 1) What does this tell me about God – the Father and Jesus his Son and his Holy Spirit? And then 2) So how should I respond to him – how should I trust him first and foremost; but then also how should I obey him and live for him?

OK, for the last few minutes let me be very practical. Where do you start – or re-start if you've given up? First of all, you need a Bible. Here at church we use the ESV – the English Standard Version. It sells itself as a more accurate, word-for-word translation – so it's a good study Bible but it's not brilliantly readable. And if you find it hard to read, another well-used translation is the NIV, the New International Version. And you can find all the main translations online for free at sites like biblegateway.

OK, then where do you start? Well I'd say: in one of the Gospels. Because the Bible is for bringing us into relationship with God through Jesus and the Gospels are where we meet Jesus best. And my suggestion would be start with Luke, then Mark (as the most accessible). But how? Do I just read the whole of Luke, like I'd read a short novel one afternoon on holiday? Well, you could. And getting a handle on a whole Bible book at once is one good way to read the Bible. But you'll find there's too much to take in and respond to at once. So that's why Christians have always had the habit of regular, personal Bible reading, where you read a short section at a time – so that you've got time to think about those two sets of questions I've given you. So why not start with Luke and just let the divisions in the Bible guide you – just go 10 or 20 verses at a time.

And here's a simple running order to use:

a) Pray – that God would show you one thing about himself, and how to respond.
b) Read over the verses a few times. Try to puzzle out a few of the things you don't understand (but be aware that you'll never understand any passage 100%, and that Bible reading is a 'percentage game' – you need to focus on and respond to the percentage of the verses which you do understand). And try out those questions I've given you.
c) Pray again – only don't 'change the conversation'. You may have a hospital appointment or exam that day – and by all means pray about that. But first, try to respond in prayer to what you've just read in the Bible.

If you take 5 or 10 minutes and try that, I think you'll both get something out of the Bible and get stuck – which we all do. And when we get stuck it leaves us saying to ourselves, 'I wish I had someone to ask about this.' And that's why Christians have also had the habit of using Bible reading aids – which is really somone on paper to ask about it. And you'll find plenty of Bible reading aids in the Resources Area at the back – both short notes designed to help you with a short, regular Bible reading time; and longer books to guide you through books of the Bible (but beware that you don't spend all your time reading books like that – rather than actually reading the Bible itself). And one equivalent resources area online is the Good Book Company website.

I began a Bible reading habit like that 36 years ago, the day after I became a Christian. I've not been totally regular – I've missed days and weeks – but I've tried to be. I read my Bible in the morning – not because I'm a morning person, but because any other time more easily gets squeezed out. And often it's just like having my porridge for breakfast – it's nothing special, but it keeps me going spiritually. But sometimes it is more like going out for Eggs Bendict at the Butterfly Cabinet – and I do feel I've met with God in a more special way.

But don't get hung up on how it feels – that'll vary. And don't get hung up with guilt if you miss a day or days or weeks – just get going again. Because the important thing is simply to get ourselves on the receiving end of God's Word. Because that's how he creates faith and obedience in our hearts. And that's how he keeps them going.

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