How do we understand the Bible?
What is God telling us?
What does it mean for life today?
1. WHAT IS THE BIBLE?
Christians believe the meaning and purpose of our lives comes from the fact that our ‘life story’ is actually part of a ‘much bigger story’. And that particular story is about God and his relationship with our world, including each one of us.
Christians also believe that we can know that story because God caused it to be written down for us in our sacred writings which are today called the Bible. The word “Bible” means “book”. In fact the Bible is a library of books written by many authors over hundreds of years. In some other religions the sacred texts were written down by just one person and represent only that person’s private experience. But the Bible records the experiences of God from a wide range of people and communities.
The Bible also has a very wide cast of people who feature in its pages: kings, soldiers, prophets, farmers, fishermen, prostitutes, thieves, homemakers, and civil servants, to name just a few! As we would expect from such a large cast of people, they show us both the best and the worst of human behaviour. We see acts of love, faithfulness, compassion, integrity and other virtues alongside unfaithfulness, selfishness, hypocrisy, and so on. That’s why it is important to ask if the part of the Bible we are reading is describing the way things are (a description) or the way that God says they should be (a prescription)?
A modern newspaper has lots of different types of writing: editorials, political and financial reports, sporting pages, advertisements, cartoons, and so on. Like a newspaper the Bible tells the story of God and how he has related to human beings in many different writing styles: history, poetry, short stories, prophecies, laws, letters, biographies, and much more.
When we read the Bible we need to be careful to ask what type of writing we are reading at each stage. If we’re reading a newspaper today we don’t go to the cartoons for history or the financial pages to get the sporting results. It’s the same with the Bible – different types of writing communicate in different ways. Of course, because we live in a different time and place we will sometimes need the help of other people or Bible reading notes or commentaries to help us understand what type of writing we are reading and how to understand it.
2. THE EARLY CHAPTERS OF GOD’S STORY
The largest part of the Bible, now called the “Old Testament”, tells us that every person was created to have a relationship with God. Because we were created to know God, our spirituality is an essential part of who each one of us is intended to be. The Old Testament then tells us how human beings sometimes got things right but also kept getting things wrong when they got out of that relationship with their Creator and off track from the Creator’s design for human wellbeing.
Most of the Old Testament books are about how God expressed his love for humanity by working to rescue us. Beginning with Abraham and his family (in the book of Genesis, chapter 12) God starts building a new community of people called “Israel” who will live life the way God intended. Their mission from God was to show others what it means to live in a relationship with God. While there are some bright spots there are also a series of failures as God’s people of Israel reject him and his way of wellbeing again and again.
3. THE FINAL CHAPTER – JESUS
Eventually God promises to send a special person who will be born as one of the people of Israel and will succeed in God’s mission where Israel had failed. The second part of the Bible, now called the “New Testament”, is the story of the person Christians believe was sent by God to complete the mission of Israel – Jesus of Nazareth – and his impact on the first generations of people who followed him.
The early parts of the New Testament (the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) tell us about Jesus’s life, his death, and his extraordinary resurrection to live again. The later parts of the New Testament (the book of Acts and the letters) teach us about what it means to follow Jesus through the experiences of the earliest followers of Jesus.
Jesus was born and lived like us. This is the message of Christmas. He was human – he got tired, hungry, sad and even angry. But Christians believe Jesus was also more than human. In Jesus we meet God in a human life. Jesus shows us what God is like and how deeply he loves each one of us.
The extraordinary depth of God’s love is shown in the death of Jesus for us; to free us from everything that separates us from God and from each other. We believe this is the only remedy for the hurt we do to ourselves and one another. In raising Jesus to life again God shows us how much God wants to share new life with us. This is the message of Easter. Jesus said: “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly” (from the Gospel of John, chapter 10).
Jesus taught that we discover the truth and wisdom needed for life today within those ancient words in the Bible that God had led others to write. Jesus also taught that as we read, think, and pray about the words of the Bible we are inspired and empowered for life by God’s Spirit.
Continue to the next article, “Building sound faith”.