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Exploring the Christian Life: The Bible

26 January, 2008

b and lilyThis week I gave a talk to the Christianity Explored evangelistic course I’m helping to lead at church, on the theme of understanding and approaching the Bible as a Christian. I’ve posted some similar things here before, but I thought that this might be helpful for anyone looking for an accessible introduction to understanding the Bible, and esp. how to read it–the talk was very well received. It came in the middle of other talks about the church, prayer, and the Holy Spirit, so some of the references in the introduction and conclusion won’t make a lot of sense–but you’ll get the idea.

Exploring the Christian Life: The Bible

Last week Phil talked about the Church, and how vital the Christian community is for Christian faith and life; the next 2 weeks are going to talk about the Holy Spirit and prayer and their importance-this talk is about how Christians get to know the one we pray to through the work of that Spirit, and about where the Church comes from and what it’s built on-now we’re gonna talk about the Bible.

Who wrote the Bible?

There are two completely correct answers to this question: about 40 authors wrote 66 books over a span of more than 1600 years, AND God wrote the Bible–“All scripture is God-breathed” (2 Tim 3:16). We hear the voices of all these different people writing in different styles at different times from different perspectives and places in life, AND we also hear the voice of God speaking to his people, in the fulfilment of so many prophecies, and esp. in the unity of the message of the Bible from cover to cover. Many, many people and events and many, many years are wedged between these 2 covers–but only one grand story.

What does the Bible say?

As the words of men and the Word of God, then, what is this grand story that includes so many other stories? In a nutshell, from the first book to the last book, from Genesis to Revelation, the Bible tells the story of God’s saving love for those he created, who rebel against him, who he has come to seek and save in Jesus Christ. We’ll get back into this much more fully in a few minutes.

What does the Bible do?

This may seem like a strange question, ‘What can a book do?’. But because the Bible is all about the story of God’s redemption in Christ throughout history, and also because this book is the WORD OF GOD and FROM God, and not just words about God, we need to talk about what the Bible DOES-because when God SPEAKS, it’s powerful. God’s words are never empty words (read Is 55:6-11).

Through this powerful, effective Word God accomplishes all he pronounces on behalf of his people. That means those who look to this Word and look to Jesus who is the center of this Word, find wisdom and fulfilment and life in them (read Ps 1). Those who look to and walk according to the Word of the Lord find life, but those who spurn it choose a path that leads to death.

How should we read the Bible?

This is a great question to ask, because it brings the overall message of the Bible to bear on every single part of it-just like Jesus did on the road to Emmaus when he told his disciples all about himself from all throughout the Old Testament. This is also a practical question, because when we come to all the different parts of the Bible it’s often hard to clearly understand what’s going on and what God is saying there, so we often get it wrong. Because it is the living and active Word of God that speaks about Christ, we can’t just USE the Bible for whatever we want-it’s not a self help handbook. Because it’s the Word of God, all the different things it says are important for us, but all these different things all contribute to the one ultimate thing the Bible is about-sin and judgment, and esp. salvation from sin and new life in Jesus, who took on himself our judgment, and instead credits to us his spotless life by faith.

Let’s look at an example of how to read the Bible in the very way the Bible itself tells us to read it: In the Sermon on the Mount, one of the things Jesus preaches to the crowds is that they are to “love their enemies and pray for those who persecute” them in order to be sons of God, because this is the character of God toward his enemies (Matt 5:44-46). Too often, we read Jesus’ teachings primarily as something we are to follow and do, and see Jesus’ actions primarily as something we should try to imitate. If we read this and immediately say to ourselves, ‘He’s right, I need to be more loving toward my enemies-I’m really going to try to work on doing better at that,’ and that’s all we get from Jesus’ words, then we’ve really missed the point. We could get just about the same thing from Confucius or the Qur’an, and we’d have about the same level of success in God’s sight (none!).

There are three things we should always consider whenever we’re confronted with what Jesus is saying and doing in his preaching, and this applies to all the Bible. When Jesus says “Love your enemies,” the first thing we need to realize is that he’s saying to each and every one of us, “You don’t love your enemies; this is what God requires of you, and you either ignore it, twist it, or fall flat on your face trying to keep it.” Jesus is confronting us here with our hatred of our enemies, who are also our neighbors, made in the same image of God-it’s easy to love people who love you back (verse 46). But what God requires is for us “to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (verse 48). If we’re enabled by the Spirit to respond to his Word, we say with the Old Testament prophet Isaiah when he was confronted with the holiness of God, “Woe unto me, a sinner!” First of all, Jesus is confronting us with our sinfulness in the face of God’s holy and righteous standards.

The second thing we need to realize is that at the very same time Jesus is convicting us of sin when he says “Love your enemies,” he’s also pointing us to himself, saying, “I, I am the one who loves my enemies, who prays for those who persecute me-look away from yourselves and look to me. I am the Son who is well-pleasing to my Father in all I say and do, perfect as he is perfect. I have loved you, and in me God has loved you, our enemies, even though you persecute me.” With one hand he takes away all our hope (in ourselves), while with the other he gives us an infinitely better hope (in him). Again, if we’re enabled by the Spirit to respond to his Word, we turn to Christ in faith. Second of all, Jesus is confronting us with himself as the only righteous one, the one we should trust in alone for any hope before the judgment seat of God.

Only then, in the third place, should we turn in faith to understand how Jesus calls us to walk with him in response to such a great salvation. Only after believing the gospel (for the first time and every time) can we rightly and faithfully take up the call to “love our enemies” and everything else Christ calls us to as a people set apart for good works befitting the children of God (Gal 4:6, 7). This gospel finds tangible expression in our deeds through the Spirit of Christ at work within us. Thirdly, then, Christ calls us to take up our cross and follow him, all the while looking not to our own crosses, but to his.

The sixteenth-century church reformer Martin Luther said that whenever we read about what Christ said or did – his perfect life, his holy teaching, his righteous deeds – we should put ourselves in his place, doing and saying those very things-because that is the way God sees us in Christ when we believe in him. That’s the way to read the Bible in the conviction that Christ is for us. These are the ‘gospel lenses’ the Bible itself calls those who believe it to read it through. That’s why Luther said what he said; not because we’re good or holy in ourselves, but because Christ is good and holy on our behalf. This is the comfort and freedom of the gospel, and the message of all the Scriptures-that Christ is all our righteousness and life.

Looking Ahead

Next week Andy is gonna talk about the Holy Spirit, who is so essential for our understanding the Bible: the same Holy Spirit who inspired the people who wrote the Bible opens our eyes and unblocks our ears to the meaning of the Bible as it centers on and revolves around Jesus. But even more, it is only the Holy Spirit, as he brings this Word of salvation to us and powerfully impresses it on our minds and hearts, who can open our eyes and unstop our ears to embrace the meaning and truth of Jesus and Jesus himself as we encounter him in the grand salvation story of the Bible-so that we not only believe that it’s true, but that each one of is brought to say that it’s true for me too.

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3 Comments
  1. 28 January, 2008 4:59 pm

    sigh. yet another great Luther quote. let the gnomes call me a Lutheran. i am when he says stuff like that.

  2. 29 January, 2008 9:25 am

    I hope we’re all Lutherans when it comes to the gospel–at least that’s what Calvin and the Reformed used to claim.

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