I wonder; how well do you know the Bible? There is a story told about a young lad who brought his friend home from school, but he was embarrassed because his granny was sitting in the armchair reading her Bible. The boy, feeling uncomfortable, turned to his friend and whispered, ‘Don’t worry about Granny; she’s revising, she’s swotting for her finals!’
This evening we are looking at ‘why and how should I read the Bible?’ I want to begin by reading you a short piece of sentimentality, which was given to me on a card with the title, ‘A Note from a Friend’. It’s a bit like a love letter – a little soppy, I have to admit – but I’d like you to see through that and try to focus on the underlying message:
My Dear Friend
How are you? I just had to send a note to tell you how much I care about you. I saw you yesterday as you were talking to your friends; I waited all day hoping you would want to talk with me too. I gave you a beautiful sunset to close your day and a warm breeze to comfort you, and I waited, but you never came. It saddened me… but I still love you and I am still your friend. I saw you sleeping last night and longed to be with you so I spilled moonlight on your face and, again I waited, wanting to rush down so we could talk. I have so many gifts for you! You woke up and rushed off to work. My heart was heavy again. If only you would listen to me! I love you! I try to tell you in the blue skies, and in the green grass. I whisper it in the leaves on the trees, I breathe it in the colours of flowers; I shout it to you in the mountain streams and give the birds love songs to sing. My love for you is deeper than the ocean and bigger than the biggest need in your heart! Ask me! Talk with me! Please don’t ignore me or forget about me. I have so much to share with you! I won’t trouble you any further. I won’t force myself upon you. It is your decision. I have chosen you and I’ll wait… for a while longer yet, because I love you. (Signed) Jesus.
The Bible is sometimes called God’s love-letter to us. I would like to start with a little quiz to see how much how much of the Bible we all know, but first a little warm up exercise – a bit like Catchphrase – to get the old grey-matter working… Complete the following everyday sayings for me:
- Nothing but skin and… bones (Job 19:19-20)
- I escaped by the skin of my… teeth (Job 19:20)
- There’s a time and a place for… everything (Ecclesiastes 3:1)
- Going the extra… mile (Matthew 5:41)
- United we stand, “divided we… fall” (Matthew 12:25)
- Red sky at… night (Matthew 16:2-3)
- In the twinkling of an… eye (1 Corinthians 15:52)
- A man after my own… heart (1 Samuel 13:14)
- A little bird… told me (Ecclesiastes 10:20)
- A leopard cannot change its… spots (Jeremiah 13:23)
- How the mighty have… fallen (2 Samuel 1:25)
- Pride comes before a… fall (Proverbs 16:18)
- By the sweat of your… brow (Genesis 3:19)
- Out of the mouths of… babes (Psalm 8:2)
- Eat drink and be… merry (Luke 12:19)
- The blind leading the… blind (Matthew 15:14)
- Along the straight and… narrow (Matthew 7:14)
- Tearing your hair… out (Ezra 9:3)
- At my wit’s… end (Psalm 107:27)
- The writing is on the… wall (Daniel 5:5-6)
Show of hands: who got them all right?
Who can tell me what all these everyday sayings have in common? (They all come from the Bible.) It may surprise you, but we all know a lot more of the Bible than we might think we do. Many of us, today, don’t realize that the Bible (the KJV in particular) has been enormously influential in the development of our own English language.
Years ago, when I first began to explore the Christian faith; I picked up a Bible, determined to read it for myself, and I started to read from page one (which was a mistake). As I recall, I managed to get through about two hundred pages, reading through Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus before I finally gave up, threw in the towel and came to the conclusion that the Bible was a dead book full of dry, lifeless words, and at the time, it puzzled me that anyone else could think otherwise. (The problem was I started in the wrong place! The Old Testament sets out the problem but it stops short of giving us the answer to the problem; that doesn’t come until the New Testament. I should have started there.) Later on, however, after I became a Christian and the Holy Spirit entered my life, I picked up the Bible again and this time the words came alive and God spoke to me on every page, and I gained insights and inspiration that I had just not seen on my first reading. Of course, what made the difference was that now I knew the Author! When you know the author of a book or a letter the reading of it takes on a whole new dimension. Now I love the Word of God and I read my Bible daily, and have done for many years. Indeed, the Bible is like a love letter to us from God and it has become one of my most treasured possessions.
And also the people that God used to record His words [in the Bible] were themselves deeply moved by them. They said that the Word of God is:
- honey in my mouth (Ezekiel 3:3)
- spiritual food for the hungry (Job 23:12)
- a lamp for my feet (Psalm 119:105)
- a joy and delight to my heart (Jeremiah 15:16)
- more precious than gold (Psalm 19:10)
- sharper than a two-edged sword penetrating my thoughts and attitudes (Hebrews 4:12)
- perfect and trustworthy… a great reward (Psalm 19:7, 11)
Well, let’s look at why and how should I read the Bible?
1. God Has Spoken: The Bible Is God’s Revelation To Man
God wrote the Bible. He used human agents to write down the actual words but God is the author. The apostle Peter penned these words: ‘[the Bible] never had its origins in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit’ (2 Peter 1:21). God has revealed Himself to us through the Scriptures. 2 Timothy 3:16 states: ‘All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.’ In other words, God inspired the writing of the Scriptures to tell us what is right (teaching), what is not right (rebuking), how to get it right (correcting), and how to live staying right (training in righteousness).
People often ask: ‘How do we know that what the Bible says is right; how do we know it is actually true – just because it says it’s true are we to take it at face value?’ Well, there is lots of evidence to corroborate what the Bible says is factual and accurate (we will look this shortly) but at the end of the day, accepting the Word of God as being right and true has always been, and will always be, a question of faith. It’s a bit like asking the question, how do you know your spouse loves you? We accept it by faith but we can generally tell when someone loves us, not just because they say they do, but also because they demonstrate their love in many and various ways. It is the same with God.
Is there any proof, then, that the Bible, the “inspired Word of God”, is true? The answer to that question is yes. Apart from the personal testimony – witness statements, if you like – of countless millions of Christians down through the ages, there is plenty of other hard evidence that the Bible is indeed trustworthy. Let me give you a few facts and some examples to show you what I mean.
- The Bible is a holy book – we call it the Holy Bible – but there is nothing holy, religious or spiritual about the word ‘bible’, which is derived from the Latin word ‘biblia,’ and simply means books. The Bible is actually a collection of 66 books (39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New) written by at least 40 different authors, who had various professions such as kings, scholars, historians, prophets, poets, fishermen, a doctor and of course, apostles of Christ. The genre of literature is also varied and includes history, story-narrative, poetry, wisdom writings, prophecy, biographies (gospels), letters and apocalyptic literature.
- The earliest books are from around Moses’ time (15th century BC) and the latest from the end of the 1st century, around 95AD, so the material was published, collected and brought together over a period of around 1500 years. Although the books are not in chronological order there is a clear and definite logic to the way they have been assembled, an amazing development of common themes and an overall unity. It truly is an outstanding piece of literature. ‘Out of this world,’ some would say! Others might not agree. Sometimes people object and say: ‘Surely you can’t (or don’t have to) believe everything you read in the Bible.’ The first thing I want to say in response is that we do not need to believe or agree with everything that is written in the Bible before making a decision for Christ. Secondly, and let’s be clear here, Christians do not venerate or worship a book. We are not called to believe in a book, as such, we are called to believe in Jesus Christ as revealed to us in and through this holy book. The main point of the Bible is to show us how to enter into and remain in a relationship with God through Jesus.
It’s a bit like when someone brings a new baby into church. We don’t admire the buggy and say, ‘Oh what a lovely upholstered buggy: truly an outstanding design and manufactured with such skill.’ We don’t admire the buggy we admire the baby contained within the buggy. Similarly with the Bible, Christians don’t revere or worship a book, but God who is revealed to us in and through the book.
- Some more facts: The Bible is the world’s all time out and out bestseller: it has far outsold any other book in history and remains on the best sellers list year after year. Currently there are 44 million copies of the Bible sold each year, and that figure continues to grow annually. Nothing comes anywhere near it. To date the Bible, or parts of it, have been translated into over 1,240 languages worldwide, and there are translation projects currently under way for more than 450 further languages. Citation
Jesus said the word of God, the Bible, is like a rock, a solid foundation that the wise person builds their life upon. – The Bible is also a strangely powerful book; it has the power to change lives forever. Funny, but sit on a train or in a café or restaurant and read any other book or magazine and people won’t give you a second glance. But read the Bible and people around you will go quiet, and they will keep glancing over and watching you, and when you get up to leave they will watch to see where you go, or what car you get into in and even read the number plate! – Such is the allure and magnetism this holy book. Open it and people notice; they are intrigued and captivated but often don’t know why!
- Often critics will say (usually because they have heard it somewhere else first), ‘the Bible contradicts itself and is full of errors’, but I have personally read the Bible through several times and I’ve never found any. And when, on occasions, I’ve challenged someone to go and find a mistake and show me, no one has ever really been able to so! It is true, it has to be said, that there are a number of minor differences in the way some of the authors report certain events – the Bible says ‘all Scripture is God-breathed’ [God-inspired]; it does not say it is God dictated – but the Bible never contradicts itself.
One typical example of a ‘supposed’ contradiction surrounds Jesus’ return: The Bible teaches that Jesus will one day return to earth. In Matthew’s Gospel (24v40-41) it says that at the precise moment Jesus returns: ‘Two men will be in a field (…) and two women will be grinding with a hand mill’, which seems to indicate that it will be during daylight hours, when people are at work. However Luke says (17v42): ‘on that night two people will be in one bed.’ This looks like a glaring error or contradiction, until we remember that the middle of the day in one part of the world is the middle of the night in another. The Bible doesn’t contradict itself.
- And the accuracy of what has been written, copied, and passed down through the centuries is remarkable. The Bible we have today is a precise translation of the original texts. We know this because we can compare it to the original manuscripts. There are some 24,300 ancient manuscripts or fragments of scripture known to be in existence today. The oldest fragments of New Testament scripture are a piece of papyrus containing part of John’s gospel dating back to between 117-138AD (exhibited in John Ryeland’s Library, Manchester), and three fragments of papyrus in Magdalen College, Oxford that have been dated to the third quarter of the first century (i.e. somewhere between 42-66 years after Christ’s death). And then, in 1947 the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. These contained fragments of every book in the Old Testament (except Esther), and included the complete book of Isaiah. The scrolls have been dated to around 100BC and the discovery of them has proved beyond any shadow of doubt that the Bible we have today is an authentic copy and translation of the original documents. So, the Bible is accurate, very accurate.
- We should also remember that Jesus quoted scripture often. He is recorded as quoting verbatim from it nearly forty times (from thirteen different books) in the course of his teaching, and he referred to it on many other occasions.
- But more than any of this, Jesus himself is the most compelling proof that the Bible is true. Jesus fulfilled scripture and, indeed, He will fulfil what few prophecies remain in the scriptures when He returns. In fact, it’s been said that the Bible’s prophetic teaching is ‘probably the most direct evidence for the ‘inspired’ or special involvement of God with this book. Let me show you a visual aid to help illustrate the point:
The OT is full of predictions about the Messiah/ or Christ. In fact, one Biblical scholar has worked out that there are 332 distinct prophecies in the O.T., which were literally fulfilled in the person of Jesus (29 of them in one day, Good Friday). He further worked out that the mathematical probability of all these prophecies being fulfilled in just one man is 1 in 84, followed by 97 zeros. (Show visual aid).
1 in 84
Now just how accurate that figure is or how someone actually goes about calculating such mathematical probabilities, or how many zillion, trillion, billion, million that is, is beyond me, but I wanted to show this illustration to, at least, give us some perspective, really, on how improbably it is that Jesus isn’t the promised Saviour or Messiah that the OT prophets spoke about. At those odds it’s a sure thing that trusting in Jesus and building your life on the Rock, the Word, is the right thing to do.
Again, one of the things that makes the Bible such an amazing book is the way it predicts events in the future, which then happen. I don’t mean the sort of thing you can read in your average horoscope – ‘Today you will meet a handsome stranger. Tomorrow it will be dry if it’s not raining.’ I mean specific predictions which are unmistakably fulfilled. There are hundreds of them in the Bible. Citation
One biblical scholar, David Pawson, has calculated… “There are over 700 (735 to be exact) separate and distinct predictions in the Bible, some are mentioned only once and one over 300 (332) times (the return of Jesus to planet earth). Of these, nearly 600 (596 to be exact, or 81 per cent) have already been fulfilled, quite literally. Some are happening now, before our very eyes, like the second return of the Jewish people to the land promised to them forever by God (see Genesis 13v15 and Isaiah 11v11). Not one prediction that could have been fulfilled by now has failed. The chances against this are astronomical. To take one example: Ezekiel prophesied [in the sixth century BC] that the city of Tyre (a major city and thriving industrial centre) would be stripped down to bare rock and thrown into the sea, a fate that has befallen no other city, before or since. Centuries later, Alexander the Great did just that, to build a causeway out to the offshore island where the population of Tyre had fled in all available boats on his impending arrival. The statistical chance of this happening is off the page! Citation
Among many other fulfilled predictions, Amos foretold the downfall of Israel, Jeremiah the capture of Jerusalem, Isaiah the return of the Jews from exile, and Jesus the destruction of Jerusalem. Jesus’ own coming to earth was predicted in a precise way. The Bible predicted the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). He would enter Jerusalem on a donkey (Zechariah 9:9), be rejected and killed (Isaiah 53:3-5), while men gambled for his clothes (Psalm 22:18). All these predictions were made over 400 years before Jesus came. Each one happened. In fact, not a single prediction in the Bible can be shown to be false – a remarkable record. Citation
Was Jesus betrayed and deserted by his friends? It was fulfilment of Psalm 41v9: “Even my close friend, whom I trusted, he who shared my bread, has lifted up his heel against me.” When he was painfully oppressed and repudiated? It was in fulfilment of Isaiah 53v3: “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.” Did he maintain a dignified silence before his judges? It was in fulfilment of Isaiah 53v7: “He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.” Was he flogged, punched, slapped, and spat on? It was in fulfilment of Isaiah 50v6: “I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting.”
Almost three thousand years ago, God said through the prophet Amos that just before the coming of the Lord, the Jews would return from the four corners of the earth and rebuild the nation of Israel. “I will bring back my exiled people Israel; they will rebuild the ruined cities and live in them. They will plant vineyards and drink their wine; they will make gardens and eat their fruit. I will plant Israel in their own land, never again to be uprooted from the land I have given them,” says the Lord your God’ (Amos 9:14-15 NIV). This prophecy was mostly fulfilled when Cyrus, King of Persia conquered Babylon in 538BC, and then issued a decree allowing the Jewish exiles to return to their homeland. But Bible prophecy has not been fulfilled until it has been fully filled. You might remember that Jerusalem and the Temple were completely destroyed by the Romans in 70AD and Israel was disbanded and ceased to exist as nation.
But nearly 2000 years later… In 1948 the nation of Israel was re-born. In 1949 they elected their first president, hoisted their own flag, instituted their own constitution and started minting their own money. It’s another amazing fulfilment of prophecy. Now [listen to] what Jesus said: “Learn this parable from the fig tree: When its branch has already become tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near. So you also, when you see all these things, know that it is near – at the doors!” (Matthew 24:32-33 NKJV).
In Scripture the fig tree represents the nation of Israel. Surrounded and threatened by hostile neighbours, she stand today as a testimony to the accuracy and reliability of God’s prophetic Word. Citation Jesus said that when we see these things we should know that His return is near. He says: “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. (…) Be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” (Matthew 24v42-44 NIV).
The Bible is God’s revelation to mankind, so as well as prophecy let’s now look at how else God reveals himself in His word:
2. God Speaks Through His Word: The Bible Is About Building Relationship
I remember shortly after I became a Christian, asking an older Christian for some advice because I was concerned about spiritual dryness: I didn’t want to ever lose my newfound faith, or for my relationship with Christ to go stale. My friend gave me one of the best pieces of advice a mature Christian can give to a new believer, or to any believer for that matter: He told me, ‘Ian, every day read your Bible and pray.’ He compared our relationship to God to be like a marriage, saying that the more we communicate, share and spend time with our spouse the deeper and more meaningful our relationship and love for each other. And it’s the same with our relationship with God: The more time we spend in his presence, in prayer and in his Word, the Bible, the stronger and deeper our relationship and faith will be. I’m glad to say that I took my friends advice, and doing so has had a major impact on my life.
The Bible is so powerful a book it changes people’s lives, if we allow it to! Hebrews 4v12 says: “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. God’s word is dynamic and powerful, living and active.” How is it living and active? Well, unlike any other book in the whole world, every time we pick up the Bible and read it the author is present! Indeed, ‘the quickest way to get into the presence of God is by getting into God’s Word. It’s unlike any other book in my library. As inspiring as many of those books are, they are made of dead trees. The Word is living and active.’ Citation
D.L. Moody said: “The Bible was not given to increase our knowledge, but to change our lives.” It’s not about information but transformation.
God speaks to us through the Bible; it’s like a guidebook for life: It tells us how we should live our lives – It answers many of life’s questions – It feeds us and encourages us – It warns us – It’s like a spiritual antibiotic – It provides protection against the world, the flesh and the devil – It has the power to change us… making us more and more like Christ.
Critics often say the Bible is full of rules – thou shall not do this or that – which seek to confine and restrict our lives, but Jesus didn’t come to constrain us; he came to set us free. He said. “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10v10). The Bible is like a guidebook that provides us with boundaries so we can live as God intended us to live. These boundaries are not there to restrict us, in the sense of oppressing us, but to protect us from ourselves and from others dangers.
There was a nursery school situated on the corner of a busy road, with traffic constantly driving past. The school had a lovely playground, surrounded by small metal railings to stop the children running into the road. However, at break times all the children would stay very close to the school building because they were frightened by the passing traffic on the other side of the low railings. Then, one day the school brought in the builders to erect a higher steel-mesh fence and from that day on, the children played in the whole playground. Why did this make such a difference? Well, because the children were a lot happier and felt more secure when the fences were put up to show clear boundaries. Same with us: If we stay within the boundaries that God has set for us and we live by His rules, then there is freedom and joy. But if we cheat or break the rules people get hurt!
The Bible gives us clear boundaries for our wellbeing, happiness and safety. When the Bible says: ‘Do not commit adultery’, it’s not because God wants to restrict and oppress us, or be a killjoy, but because God knows the pain and misery and damage that sin causes; because He loves us and wants to protect us: He wants us to be safe and happy and enjoy life the way He intended us to.
3. How, In Practice, Do We Hear God Speak Through The Bible?
The Bible is one of the main sources of nourishment for a Christian. It’s great to hear the Bible preached and taught on a Sunday, but we need to have our ‘daily bread’ if we are remain fit and healthy. There is no substitute for a daily time alone with God, gathering fresh sustenance from his Word. You remember Jesus taught us to pray… give us this day our daily bread. – If we stay close to God through his Word, gathering spiritual food from the Bible daily, we will not dry up or suffer spiritual malnutrition.
How then do we hear God speak to us through the Bible; how does he feed and nurture us? Let me share a personal example to illustrate: Some time ago, a close Christian friend of mine called Gerry Muldowney – who was like a spiritual father to me – died suddenly of a heart attack. The day after I discovered the news I couldn’t sleep and in the early hours I came downstairs to pray and to read my Bible. God spoke to me very clearly; words of comfort and truth. The Holy Spirit reminded me of a number of specific verses, which came to my mind one after another. I wrote them in my journal:
‘Then I heard a voice from heaven say, ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on’ (Revelation 14v13).
‘No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him’ (1 Corinthians 2v9).
‘Well done, good and faithful servant… Come and share your master’s happiness’ (Matthew 25v21).
‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me where I am’ (John 14v1–3).
God led me to these verses so that I would be comforted in my grief and assured of His sovereignty. God speaks to us through the Bible, which is why I want to encourage you to read it regularly and diligently. Besides which, the Scriptures you don’t read can’t help you.
The problem often with reading the Bible is time, is it not? Time is our most valuable possession and the pressure on our time increases as life goes on and we get busier and busier. If we are going to set aside time to read the Bible then we need to plan ahead otherwise we’ll never do it, simply because other things will crowd it out. It boils down to this: If we fail to plan we really plan to fail. Now you mustn’t beat yourself up or feel bad if you don’t manage to keep to your plan 100% of the time, just start over again. Falling behind is sometimes inevitable and we all have a day off or oversleep occasionally! But seven days without reading the Bible makes one weak (spiritually)! So here are a few tips as we draw things to a close…
- I want to recommend you start by forming a habit of spending 15 minutes a day reading the Bible, maybe just a chapter a day – not to try, as quick as you can, to get through it but to try and get what you can out of it! It is the quality of time that matters not the quantity. It’s much better to reflect and mull over a single verse than to speed read and not absorb anything. A day is made up of 1440 minutes. Give 1% to reading your Bible and this adds up over 90 hours learning; equivalent to attending two full lectures a week.
What happens then if we pray and pick up our Bible for 15 minutes, to read and feed on it, and then we put the Bible down and because we’re so busy we forget or don’t pick it up again for another week or so? What do you suppose happens? Well, nothing much, frankly, it’s just like a drop in the ocean! Oh, the actual time spent happened but because it didn’t keep on happening it had no real lasting effect. It’s like me adding a drop of blue dye into a bucket of water. After adding one drop nothing much happens: after two or three drops – it’s the same: but after three or four weeks of continually adding a drop, day after day, the water in the bucket starts to turn blue. Same happens with us: if we will cultivate a daily habit of praying and reading God’s Word, things may not change overnight, but very soon we will start to see a very marked and positive difference. Life will become more colourful… more joyful, and we will start becoming more Christ-like!
- Chose a time that works for you. Many people (myself included) find that first thing in the morning is the best time, but maybe a mid-morning/afternoon break or last thing at night suits you better – whatever time works best for you stick with it, and guard this time jealously.
- Find a place where can go and not be disturbed, and pray before you start, asking God to help you understand what you read and to show you how to apply what you learn. I often use Psalm 119v18 as a prayer: Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law. If you come to the Bible hungry and expectant to learn, your Bible reading will become a place of nurture and growth, as well as a source of guidance, strength and encouragement each day.
- As you read look for God on every page, then look for yourself on the same page – ask: How is this applicable to me today? What is God saying to me? Is there something in this passage that I should pray about?
- If you are wondering where to start reading, a great place is Luke’s gospel – 24 chapters, so read one a day over three-and-a-bit weeks. Then read the book of Acts (see how the early church started, grew and spread), then maybe read Philippians and Psalms.
So let me end as I began with that ‘note from a friend,’ and these closing words: ‘My love for you is deeper than the ocean and bigger than the biggest need in your heart! Ask me! Talk with me! Please don’t ignore me or forget about me. I have so much to share with you! But it’s your decision. I won’t force myself upon you. I have chosen you and I’m waiting for you, because I love you.’
Let’s Pray: Thank you for revealing yourself to us in your Word, the Bible. Please help us to find a regular time and place where we can read the Bible, hear from you and deepen our relationship with you.