Letter No. 3: What God Says to Us in the Bible

Introduction

I didn’t grow up reading the Bible.  I heard it read in church, Sunday after Sunday, and I learned about many of the stories in it through religious education classes in school.   But I didn’t pick up a Bible to read until after college.  Now I read from it daily, often several times a day.

The Bible is a life-line for me, the source I count on to give me a dose of God’s take on the world.  It clears my mind and reorients my perceptions, setting me back on the right course.   What it tells me is what I want running through my head day after day, not the messages I’m bombarded with in the media which say I need to be (or look) young, have lots of money and act somewhat scandalously in order to be considered interesting and of value in this world.

In this letter I try to explain to Caleb how God speaks to us in the Bible, and why we can trust what He says in it.  My hope is that he, too, will turn to it daily throughout his life and consider it his life-line.

Dear Caleb,

In the previous two letters I’ve talked about the Bible: how by reading it you can get to know God better and how it contains some terrific examples of prayer.   I’ve got more to add to that list: In the Bible you’ll find everything you need to know about how to live a faithful life.  You’ll also find mentioned what things to avoid in life, the kind of things that will only cause you grief and misery.

In the Bible God tells us the truth we need to hear about ourselves and the world around us.  He also revealsHis true nature in the Bible through the stories, reports, prophecies, prayers, letters and gospels we find there.

These two passages sum up the most important aspect of God’s nature:

…the Lord is good; His love endures forever.  (Jeremiah 33:11)

 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

“But what makes the Bible so special?” you may ask.  “Why should we trust what it says?  How is it different from an internet site with lots of helpful information, or a great book of literature like,Treasure Island?”  These are great questions and I’ll attempt to address each one and explain why I say with great conviction that the Bible is God’s word to us.

To begin with, the Bible does not offer up facts so that we can add to our store of knowledge like other books of information do, such as an encyclopedia or a website that answers questions.  The Bible does contain a lot of information, but the purpose of this information is not to help make us a smarter person, or even a better person.

Instead, the Bible helps us discover our need for God.  It shows us, through the lives of the people God singles out to speak to, what happens when they choose to rely on themselves, and how wonderfully blessed their lives are when they choose to rely entirely on Him.  In it we learn all about selfishness, greed, lust and hatred and how if left unchecked, these forces will just take over our lives.

In the Bible we find out that God knows everything about us – that nothing about us is hid from Him – but yet, He still chooses to love us and save us from our sins.  We are told how to choose wisely and live a faithful life.  And we are given the promise, that at the end of life, God has something wonderful in store for us.  So, the Bible is unlike any other book of information.

However, the Bible is not presented to us as a menu from which we can select what we want.  It all hangs together, from beginning to end, Genesis through Revelation, so either we accept it on its terms, in it’s entirety, or not at all.  The Bible doesn’t worry about what we think concerning this chapter or that, whether it makes sense or not, or whether its point of view is considered out of date.  We’re the ones who are being challenged by what’s between its covers.  It asks the questions; it’s we who have some explaining to do.  This passage highlights the statement I just made:

For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Hebrews 4:12-13)

The Bible is not like a great work of fiction, either.  Its purpose is not to provide us with a new way of looking at something, or give us a warm feeling about God.  Instead, it reveals to us what we need to know in order become the kind of people who resemble a God who will do anything – even sacrifice His own life – to win His creation back.   This is a God I want to know about and the Bible is the place where I can find out more about Him.

So the Bible is basically telling a story.  It’s the true story of a people who encountered God and found out He always keeps His promises, even when they don’t keep theirs.  We call this “good news” and to this day, when the Bible is read, or studied, or preached, God speaks and affirms His promises.

This story began many thousands of years ago.  In it we hear how God spoke directly to specific people, like Abraham, Moses, Elijah and David.

Abram and the angel, Lord Frederic LEIGHTON, 1881

In everything God said to these people, He proved Himself trustworthy.  God made good on all that He promised.  He formed an entire nation from this one man, Abraham.  To all of Abraham’s descendents, called the Israelites, God provided a land to live in, sound laws to live by, many blessings to enjoy and constant care.

At first, the reports of all that God had to say to His people were passed on by word of mouth and retold again and again whenever the Israelites got together for worship.  Eventually, these details were written down.  To these stories were added a record of all that the judges and kings of Israel did, both good things and bad.  No deed is left unexposed.

Also included are warnings from God through the prophets, as well as prayers, poems, and words of instruction and guidance.  Historians can verify specific incidents in the history of these Israelites.   Ancient copies of all the stories,which have since been translated into many languages, still exist.

God had hoped that the Israelites would always trust Him and heed His words, but they didn’t.  They began to worship the gods of their neighbors, mere objects of metal or wood.  They disobeyed God’s laws and made treaties with nations with whom God told them to have nothing to do.  God warned them through the prophet Isaiah:

Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help, who rely on horses, who trust in the multitude of their chariots and in the great strength of their horsemen, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel, or seek help from the Lord…Return to him you have so greatly revolted against, O Israelites. For in that day every one of you will reject the idols of silver and gold your sinful hands have made. (31:1, 6-7)

God had such hopes for His people.  He wanted them to be a shining light, a sign of His justice and mercy, to all the nations of the world.  But they began to think they didn’t need Him so much, after all.

God gave them many chances to mend their ways, but they ignored them all.  Finally, He let foreign nations overrun their country.  Although many of the Israelites were killed and the rest sent off into exile, He preserved the lives of people who had remained faithful.

Behold a virgin shall conceive/Isaiah 7:14; Salvador DALÍ, 1964-67

To this remnant He promised to send a Savior.  And with that promise, the stories of what Christians call the Old Testament come to a close.

One of the many amazing things about these stories is that whenever we read or hear them, we begin to see a bit of ourselves in them.   Whether it’s the old man, Abraham, who is both faithless, at times, and yet, full of trust in what God says He’s going to do, or King David, who loves the Lord, but makes a number of really poor judgment calls, or the Israelites, who always seem to forget, when faced with a new challenge in the wilderness, how God has always provided for their needs – on some level this is also our story.

These are not tales about super-heroes or super-villains; they are the accounts of people just like you and me.  We are invited to learn from their mistakes and take up the task of following faithfully after the God who always keeps His promises, even when it costs Him dearly.

The story continues on in the New Testament with the news that the awaited Savior, Jesus, is on the way.   This news is proclaimed by a cousin of Jesus’ called, John the Baptist.  It was of John whom the prophets Malachi and Isaiah wrote:

I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way – a voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’ (Mark 1:2-3; Malachi 3:1; Isaiah 40:3)

Jesus gathers around him a group of followers, from whom he chooses twelve to be his apostles.  To them alone he reveals his identity: he is the promised Messiah, sent to save God’s people from their sins and turn their hearts back to Him.  He will accomplish this by allowing himself to be put to death and then raised back to new life.  (More about this in letter No. 5: Why Jesus Had to Die.)

After his resurrection, Jesus charges his disciples to bring the good news of his victory over sin and death to people everywhere.  The story is carried on through the lives of the apostles who spread the good news about Jesus far and wide.

Pentecost, Estelle Louisa CANZIANI, 1887-1964

Through them the Christian church is launched and the number of believers grows exponentially.  From now on anyone can come to know God, believe in his Son, Jesus, and belong to the community of fellow believers, called the Church.  And to every generation of believers since then God speaks when they open their hearts and minds to hear what He says in the Bible.

Here is what one of Jesus’ apostles has to say about the Bible being God’s word to us:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:14-17)

In the Bible you’ll find the truth you need to hear at every step in your journey through life.  For instance, I turn to Paul’s letters to the Romans and Galatians when I need to be reminded about God’s free gift of forgiveness through faith in Jesus.  I turn to the stories about King David in 1 and 2 Samuel when I need to be reminded that God loves sinners.  In Philippians, Colossians and Ephesians I hear again about the responsibilities I have to fellow Christians.  The books of Daniel, Ezekiel and the Revelation to John remind me God is much larger than my imagination and deserves my awe and respect.

The Song of Songs speaks to husbands and wives about how to love and cherish each other.  Hebrews and 1 and 2 Peter tell us how to stand up to persecution.  When life is hard, the books of Job, Isaiah and Jeremiah offer comfort and hope.  Genesis can help us understand the tensions that arise within families — and how God can take the mistakes we make and turn them into something good.   If you come to the Bible ready to listen to God, it will give you what you need to hear.

You may ask, “Can God speak to us in other ways, through other writings, besides the Bible?”  Yes, He can, but wise members of the church decided within about two hundred years after Jesus’ death and resurrection that everything must be tested against what God says to us in the Bible.  If something written or spoken doesn’t agree with His word in Scripture then it is not to be trusted.  The church also decided that there is nothing in the Bible that needs to be deleted, added to or amended.

Although there is no original version of any part of the Bible in existence today, there are, in some instances, hundreds upon hundreds of copies of the originals.  Biblical scholars, over a period of 500 years, examined all the known copies of the Old and New Testaments.  They compiled an accurate version of each book in each Testament, based largely upon what all the copies share in common.  Our modern Bibles are the result of their work.

Each section of the Old Testament was written originally in Hebrew and the New Testament was written originally in the Greek language.  Back then, everyone wrote on a papyrus scroll.   Book binding, the process by which a hard outer cover is bound together with leaves of paper, was not invented until about 1400 years later.  If you want to see what these ancient manuscripts look like you can view some of them on the internet.  They are fascinating to see.

A photo of Psalm 119:59-64 from the Dead Sea Scrolls; each line begins (on the right) with the Hebrew letter “Heth”

You will notice that Hebrew words are written from right to left, as they are to this day.

Matthew 11:8b-10a; Codex Vaticanus

The writers of the New Testament wrote  using capital letters and they did not leave space between each word.

Also, they did not use punctuation, nor did they divide the letters and gospels they wrote into verses and chapters. In fact, the entire Bible wasn’t divided into chapters and verses until about 500 years ago.

The Bible we read today in English has been translated from the original languages in which it was composed.  I know of at least twenty-five different translations of the Bible into English.  Some of them are accurate, word for word, to the point of being wooden, or even in a few instances, misleading.  That is because in every language figures of speech are used (such as the phrase in English, “skating on thin ice,”  which we use for saying that someone is on the verge of getting in trouble) and these are not meant to be taken literally.

And some translations of the Bible are done so that the flow of each sentence and thought are easy to read and remember.  However, these translations might not always be exact.   So my advice is to read the introduction to the Bible you are using so that you know the intention of the team who did the translation. I find it helpful to keep several translations of the Bible on hand and to consult more than one when I am studying a particular passage.

However, in addition to reading and studying the Bible on your own, it is also important to belong to a church which teaches that the Bible is God’s word to us; a church where the pastors always preach on a passage from the Bible and offer classes so you can study it more thoroughly.  This is what pastors are trained to do in seminary.

Studying under someone who has been authorized to teach by the Christian church is important because you will learn how to interpret Scripture correctly.  You will be able to bring your own understanding in line with what the church has believed and taught for over two thousand years.  It is never a good thing to rely solely on your own judgment or on that of someone who is not accountable to a recognized Christian organization.  If you regularly attend a church where the Bible is taught faithfully and accurately and the members seek to live out what God says to us in it, your faith will grow and you will thrive.

In all of my letters to you I will make reference to the Bible.  It is never far from my side.  In fact, I even keep one in the car.  I read from a Bible several times a day.  And when I do, I try to take my time and not hurry through the reading.  I remind myself it’s not like other books I pick up to read.  I turn to it in order to hear God speaking to me, to be encouraged and steadied in my journey through life, and to learn how faithful people in the Bible lived their lives so I can pattern mine after theirs.

As I draw this letter to a close, here are the points to remember from it:

  • In the Bible God tells us the truth we need to hear about ourselves and the world around us.
  • The Bible helps us discover our need for God.
  • It doesn’t worry about what we think concerning this chapter or that, whether it makes sense or not, or whether its point of view is considered out of date.
  • In the Bible there’s something for you at every step in your journey through life.
  • In addition to reading the Bible, study it under someone who is authorized to teach by the Christian church.

The following verse from one of the psalms sums up what the Bible means to me:

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path. (Psalm 119:105)

I hope the Bible will always be the book to which you turn in order to hear the truth you need to know.

Love,

Mom

Discussion Questions for Letter No. 3: What God Says to us in the Bible

  1. What does the Bible reveal to us about God’s nature?
  2. What does the Bible help us discover?
  3. How is the Bible different from other sources of information?
  4. Why is the Bible not a menu from which we can pick and choose what interests us?
  5. What stories in the Bible stand out in your mind?  Why do these stories capture your attention?
  6. What different kinds of stories are in the Old Testament?
  7. Do you see a bit of yourself in any of the characters from these stories?  If so, which one(s)?
  8. How would you sum up what God says to us in the Old Testament?
  9. How does God’s story continue from the Old Testament to the New Testament?
  10. How would you sum up the story that’s told to us in the Bible?
  11.  Why is the Bible trustworthy?
  12. What would you say to someone who thinks God speaks to us through other writings?
  13. Why is it important to read from it often and study it thoroughly?
  14. Why is it important to belong to a church which teaches that the Bible is God’s word to us?

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