Updated: Sep 8, 2020
When I was in youth group, my youth pastor challenged us to search for the strangest stories in the Bible. If we were able to discover a Bible story so obscure that no one else in the group had heard of it before, we would win a prize. I thought I had found a good one, but it turns out some of my peers had already heard about the venomous snakes that bit and killed many Israelites and Moses’ bronze snake statue that healed the bitten (Numbers 21:4-9). I didn’t win a prize. However, my youth pastor’s attempt to get us unruly teens interested in reading our Bibles worked pretty well. Realizing that there were so many weird tales to be discovered, I started to see that the Bible was something more than a collection of rules by which to live.
As we focus this month on deepening our biblical literacy, I could recount for you some of those strange stories of the Bible—stories that will leave you thinking, the Bible says what?! But I think I will leave those stories for you to discover on your own. Instead, I want to encourage you to deepen your biblical literacy by discussing what the Bible is and why it is so important for the life of our community.
To begin to understand what the Bible really is, I think it is important to note what it is not. Though the Bible contains much wisdom, it is not a self-help book. Though the Bible contains records of Jewish laws and regulations, it is not a rule book. Though the Bible depicts the beginnings of creation, it is not a science textbook. Though the Bible recounts many stories of Jewish history, it is not primarily a history book. The Bible cannot be reduced to any one of these categories of books. Indeed, the Bible can be aptly described as “the good book,” but it really is so much more than a book.
Recently I listened to a podcast that considered the following question: If there were some kind of cataclysm—some great disaster—in which all human knowledge was destroyed, what one sentence would you pass on to the next generation? This question is meant to draw out whatever information you think is most essential for human living. If the next generation had to start from just one sentence, what would you tell them? What would be your cataclysm sentence?
Now, the Bible is certainly longer than one sentence, but I think that we can imagine the Bible as God’s response to the cataclysm question. What information is essential for human living? What kind of resources does God think we need in order to flourish as the humans we were created to be?
For starters, we might need some stories—myths, legends, folktales—to help shape our theological imaginations about the designs and purposes of creation and about who we are as humans. Genesis is a great place to read some of those.
We might also need accounts of how God acted to rescue, form, and guide a people in order that we might come to understand the character and intentions of God. Also helpful are the stories of how that people succeeded and failed as they attempted to live faithfully under God. The Old Testament offers a comprehensive drama of Israel’s best moments as well as their worst, perhaps in order that we would learn from their mistakes and follow them in their successes.
It might also be useful that we have a collection of poems and songs that would help us express the full range of human emotions that come in the pursuit of faithful living. In the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, and other books of the Old Testament we discover expressions of praise, doubt, grief, anger, love, and hope. In this way, the Bible provides for us a model of how to cry out to God with any and every emotion we may be feeling.
Then, God goes a step further and offers himself, in the person of Jesus, as the most definitive answer to the question of what is needed for human flourishing. Jesus—the Word made flesh—is God’s ultimate cataclysm sentence. Every other resource that the Bible offers is filled with fuller meaning when understood through Jesus. The Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), therefore, are in many ways the centerpiece of the Christian Bible.
And if we need some guidance on how to be a people following Jesus, the rest of the New Testament offers us stories of the early church and some of the letters circulated amongst those churches. The book of Acts recounts the very beginnings of the church including the coming of the Holy Spirit, the first missionary efforts, and the struggles of figuring out how to be one community made up of diverse people. The letters of Paul then demonstrate some of the challenges faced by the early churches and Paul’s words of encouragement and rebuke that we might also find useful today as we face our own challenges.
These are just some of the major categories of what resources the Bible offers. Collectively, they make up God’s response to the cataclysm question. And indeed, we live in the midst of a constant cataclysm. Particularly in our current moment as a society, the ancient or “traditional” narratives and resources are being abandoned. We are becoming increasingly individualistic, thinking that we can create human purpose and meaning from scratch. As the church, however, we place ourselves within the greater narrative of God’s people and God’s actions in the world. We read our Bibles not because we are naïve people who believe ancient fairytales, but because the words of the Bible shape us into more humanly humans. The Bible directs our eyes to see God’s glory and our hands to work for our neighbor’s good.
Of course, the Bible has not always been used in ways that reflect God’s glory and neighbor’s good. It has been and continues to be often misused by Christians in ways that glorify themselves (not God) and do harm (not good) to their neighbors. That does not mean we throw out the Bible though. Rather, it reinforces the importance of truly knowing the narrative of Scripture. Only when we read the Bible as a community (with our current Christian brothers and sisters, but also with those of the past centuries) do we safeguard ourselves from misinterpreting and misusing God’s word.
My prayer this month is that we would read our Bibles with fresh eyes and be shaped by its words in surprising ways. And when we encounter those texts that leave us thinking, the Bible says what?, may we read them together to discover how those texts shine light on God’s glory and how they might move us to act for our neighbor’s good.
What do you feel you need right now? Are you weary? Are you in search of meaning? Do you long for hope? Do you feel the need to be a part of something larger than yourself?
Where have you looked for answers to those needs? Where might you find those resources in the Bible?
What does your neighbor need right now? How can you read your Bible with your neighbor’s good in mind?
If you are unsure of how to use your Bible or where to look for a particular kind of resource, ask a pastor or send me a message/comment.