Monday, March 6, 2017

Following Jesus: Studying the Bible

During the Sundays in Lent we are looking at 7 essential elements of following Jesus. On Ash Wednesday we spoke of how prayer is just talking with God and is not terribly different from how you should communicate with your spouse. But you should also listen to your spouse, Now, aside from mystics and prophets, not many of us hear God's voice, at least not in an auditory way. My experience is that as I talk to God, his responses form in my head. If I say “Lord, I can't do _____,” the rejoinder “You can with my help” immediately occurs to me. The answers often formulate themselves in my mind as I formulate my questions and objections before God.

What helps is that I have steeped my mind in the written word of God. While I can't always quote chapter and verse I read the Bible enough to have a pretty good idea what it says on various issues and I can Google to find the passage and get the exact wording. But just as my familiarity with Sherlock Holmes would make me suspicious of any story in which he believed in spiritualists and mediums, my familiarity with scripture gives me a pretty good idea of what it does and does not say. Then I check it out to make sure. And occasionally I am wrong, which is why I keep studying it.

In 2013 we did the Bible Challenge, which consisted of reading the whole of scripture in a year. I salute the people who took up the challenge with me and those who read my daily blog posts as I reread the Bible. But you know who puts most Christians to shame? The inmates at the jail. They typically read through the entire volume in 2 to 3 weeks. Of course, they have little else to do. But it is possible for those of us with more demanding schedules to read the Bible in as little as 90 days. And if you take a year, it is easy.

That said, I recommend not only reading but studying the Bible. For one thing, it is not one book but 66, written by roughly 40 authors. It is not just a tome of moral instruction but also of story, history, poetry, parables, legal texts, letters, visions, and a family saga that encompasses love and romance, treachery and tragedy, politics and intrigue, nobility and triumph. And it is also an ancient Near East document written in a couple of Semitic languages as well as Greek, with customs that go back millennia. There are several good Study Bibles out there that will help you understand the whole array of biblical literature.

And if you don't have a study Bible there are websites like and where you can read the Bible in any number of translations and languages and get lots of commentaries to study as well. You can get these sites as free apps as well as the Logos app which gives you access to a whole library of scholarly but readable reference works by Intervarsity Press, and the app which will read the Bible to you in various translations, with music and dramatization if you like. I also like the Touch Bible app which has the easiest navigation for finding a passage or a verse. And on YouTube you can find every Psalm sung in every musical form you can think of.

So there's no excuse not to read and understand the Bible. But I will give you a Cliff Notes tour of the scriptures.

The Bible begins with 5 books that make up the foundation of Judaism. The Torah is Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, a mixture of story, history, moral and legal principles.

Genesis tells us the beginning of humanity's dealings with God, in a form that was readily understandable to those in the Ancient Near East but simple enough to be understood universally today. It tells us that human beings, both male and female, are created in God's image. As such, we are moral agents in the world. It also tells us how we have totally botched up taking care of God's creation and each other, turning a paradise into something like hell on earth. It tells us how God decides to use the descendants of Abraham and Sarah to bless all the peoples of the earth. (Genesis 12:1-3) We follow that family as its members both reflect and fail to exemplify the image of God in mankind. Genesis concludes with the sons of Jacob or Israel moving into Egypt to avoid famine.

In Exodus we find that after hundreds of years in Egypt, the children of Israel have become a slave class. God hears their cry for help and sends Moses to lead them out of Egypt and back to the land he promised to Abraham and his descendants. This climaxes in chapter 20 where God enters into a covenant or agreement with the people of Israel. If they will be his people, he will be their God. The rest of the Torah is the extended version of that contract, plus priest craft and a census, interspersed with the Israelites' wanderings in the wilderness for 40 years. That's where most people get bogged down so I recommend reading a chapter of the New Testament each day as well.

Joshua tells the sometimes harrowing, sometimes rousing story of the Israelites conquering the promised land and its apportionment among the 12 tribes of Israel.

Judges tells how the land fares as a lawless, loose federation of tribes, led occasionally by charismatic individuals called judges.

Ruth is a story of faith and romance about King David's grandparents.

First and Second Samuel cover the transition of Israel to a monarchy and stories of the warrior-king David. First and Second Kings tells the story of his dynasty, the split of the nation into a northern and a southern kingdom and the tale of the rival royal houses until both nations are conquered and taken into exile. The books of First and Second Chronicles recaps Biblical history with special emphasis on the nation of Judah.

Ezra and Nehemiah recount the people's return from exile and their efforts to restore the kingdom of Judah once more.

Esther tells a story of how a Jewish princess in a pagan land saves her people.

After those books of history come the wisdom literature of the Bible. Job recounts the drama of a good man undergoing a terrible ordeal and wrestles with the problem of why bad things happen to good people.

The Psalms are the hymnbook of the Hebrews, covering the whole range of human emotions in relation to God, from sorrow, anger and indignation to compassion, praise and hope.

Proverbs collects the aphorisms of Jewish sages, elevating the concept of wisdom.

Ecclesiastes is a down to earth meditation on life and death and how to live.

Song of Songs is a poetic wedding drama with some surprisingly racy passages on erotic love.

The rest of the Old Testament is the writings of the prophets, often unpopular spokesmen for God, who comment on the current and future states of the northern or southern kingdoms. They offer warnings of judgment as well as promises of restoration, depending on how the people respond to God's call to return to him and to healthy relationships with their neighbors, especially the downtrodden. Some, like Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel, contain difficult-to-interpret visions of the future. Hosea is an enacted parable of God's love for his adulterous wife of a nation, while Jonah is a parable of God's love and forgiveness for all, even those outside his people. In the prophets we also get glimpses of the Messiah, a promised prophet, priest and king whom God will send to save his people.

The New Testament begins with the gospels, 4 overlapping accounts of Jesus, the Christ or Messiah, whom God sends to liberate all people from their enslavement to sin. From 4 different perspectives, they all tell of his ministry of healing and preaching and of his death on the cross, a shameful form of execution, and of his surprising resurrection. The book of Acts then follows the early years of the church, with special emphasis on the ministries of Peter and Paul.

The next 13 books are letters from Paul to his churches, to his colleagues in ministry and to an important Christian leader over the tricky question of freeing one of his slaves. Paul is an orthodox Jew with an unexpected mission to the Gentiles and his multi-ethnic ministry forces him to deal with issues of diversity and essentials. These letters are the earliest books in the New Testament, predating the gospels by decades.

Hebrews is an early Christian sermon revealing how the Old Testament relates to and foreshadows the New and especially Jesus Christ.

James feels like the New Testament's sole wisdom book, focusing less on theology than on the practical side of demonstrating one's faith in how one lives.

First and Second Peter focus on major problems that the churches were struggling with, including persecution from outside and false teachings from within.

The 3 letters of John continue the themes and heady mystical tone of the gospel of John, emphasizing the importance of love, truth and Jesus, the incarnate God.

Jude is a short book that recaps the prophetic themes of true worship and moral behavior.

Revelation is a prophetic book in the vein of Isaiah and Ezekiel. This book was a message of hope to a persecuted church, assuring Christians that when the worst is over, God will bring peace, healing and wholeness to the world. It is couched in deliberately difficult language to keep the Roman Empire from destroying the book. It starts with 7 letters to churches in various stages of faithfulness and laxity. The central chapters use images from the Old Testament prophets to depict a world in the throes of the final struggle between God and evil. The last two chapters give us a breathtaking portrait of a resurrected and restored paradise on earth where the God of love will live among his people and death and sorrow and pain are no more.

Overall, the Bible tells the epic love story of how God makes a beautiful world which his creatures fill with violence and ugliness and how God starts his long-term plan to win his creatures back. He even enters into his creation as a human being named Jesus (“Yahweh saves”) to take upon himself the consequences and brunt of our evil. He then pours out his Spirit upon those who open themselves to his love and transforms them into the body of Christ, the ongoing embodiment of his grace. The Bible ends with a glorious vision of this kingdom of God on earth and a prayer for Jesus to hasten and consummate God's plan for a new heaven and a new earth in perfect communion with each other.

Once you see the overall plot of the Bible, it is easier to figure out where each book fits in. Even so, it helps to check out reference works whenever you have questions. And you need to pay attention what genre each book is in. The stories in Judges and First and Second Kings read like Game of Thrones, depicting behavior that is sometime worthy of emulation and sometimes emphatically not. In fact, even the so-called heroes of the faith are fallible human beings who sometimes fall way below God's standards. No mere human is perfect. Yet God works through them. We can all relate to that.

In the poetic books, including parts of the prophets' writings, you need to make allowance for hyperbole and metaphor. Jesus uses both. You need to look out for Hebrew idioms and euphemisms. For instance, to “uncover one's feet” is to undress; stranger means foreigner or alien. It helps to compare translations, especially using more literal ones alongside paraphrases. No one translation can capture it all, though the Amplified Bible tries, basically by unleashing a thesaurus on some passages.

A good Bible dictionary can help you keep track of persons, places and things, as well as help you trace certain themes across the various books of the Bible. Commentaries can help you understand individual passages, and pick up on emphases and themes within books. Again you can get both through the Logos Bible app.

As students and followers of Jesus we live at a time when we have unprecedented access to the Bible and a wealth of scholarship. We need to know what scripture does and does not say. We need a deeper understanding of God so that we can cut through all the garbage out there about God, both from his detractors and from misguided and ill-informed supporters. We need to be able to, as 1 John 4:1 says, “test the spirits to see whether they are from God...” As Shakespeare said in The Merchant of Venice, and as Jesus saw in his temptation, “the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.” So we need to know not only what it says but what it means. We need to know context and nuance and how one verse that seems to make a sweeping generalization is modified by another verse on the same subject.

We also need to acknowledge that the Bible is not primarily a legal treatise, nor is it a science text, seeing as science was invented long after the last book of scripture was written. It is not really interested in how the world is constructed but why. It is about the meaning of creation and our place in it. If it is at all about “how,” it is about how to live a life of love and justice and peace. It is about how much God loves us and how far he will go to save us from self-destruction. It is about how to respond to that love.

The Bible is a portable library full of timeless wisdom and eternal truths. Jesus studied it to the point where he quoted it from the cross. As his students and followers, we need to get into the Bible deeply so we can know the mind of Christ. And we need to put what we learn there into practice.

But where can we do that? We'll talk about that next Sunday.

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