Much of this chapter was adapted from my book Empowered Personal Evangelism, Chapter 6
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!’
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? – 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 King James Version in particular) has been enormously influential in the development of our own English language.
But when it comes to the Bible people sometimes wonder what the fuss is all about… ‘Does God really reveal himself to Christians through a book?’
I used to think like that. I remember when I first picked up a Bible to study and read it earnestly. 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 – a “fallen” world and mankind’s broken relationship with God – but it stops short of giving us the answer to the problem; that doesn’t come until the New Testament. I should have started reading 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 of Scripture 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 so many years. Indeed, the Bible is like a love letter to us from God and it has become one of my most treasured possessions.
Let me share with you a piece of sentimentality, written by an unknown author and which was given to me on a card with the heading: ‘A Note from a Friend’. It reads a bit like a love letter – a little soppy, perhaps – 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 you would only 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 like a love letter to us from God and as Paul Little, professor of evangelism at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, once noted: ‘The people that God used to record His words in the Bible were themselves uncommonly moved by them.’ They said the Word of God is:
‘honey in my mouth’ (Ezekiel 3v3);
‘spiritual food for the hungry’ (Job 23v12);
‘dwelling in me richly’ (Colossians 3v16);
‘a lamp for my feet’ (Psalm 119v105);
‘a joy and delight to my heart’ (Jeremiah 15v16);
‘renewing my mind’ (Romans 12v2);
‘a fire that burns in my heart’ (Jeremiah 20v9);
‘more precious than gold’ (Psalm 19v10);
‘sharper than a two-edged sword’ (Hebrews 4v12);
‘a great reward’ (Psalm 19v11);
‘true and righteous’ (Psalm 119v160);
‘penetrating my thoughts and attitudes’ (Hebrews 4v12); ‘perfect and trustworthy’ (Psalm 19v7). Citation
Hebrews 4v12 says: ‘the word of God is living and active.’ Christians believe that the Bible, the word of God speaks to us. ‘But how does it speak’, people may ask; ‘how is the word of God living and active?’ To answer that I want to look at three related issues or topics that I have often taught on Alpha, Christianity Explored and Just Looking courses, namely: how God has revealed Himself to us through the Bible; how God speaks to us through the Bible; and, how God feeds and nurtures us through the Bible.
How God has revealed Himself to us through the Bible
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 1v21). God has revealed Himself to us through the Scriptures. Paul wrote, in 2 Timothy 3v16: ‘All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.’ In other words, the claim is that 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).
What do we mean when we say that the Bible is God inspired? Let’s ponder that for a moment. Author, H.O. Mackey puts it like this: “Who built St Paul’s Cathedral? So many masons, carpenters, iron-workers, carvers, painters – and then was Wren. He was not a mason or a carpenter… and never laid a stone. What did he do? He did it all. He planned it; inspired it with his thought.” Mackay does not intend to dishonour the workmen who toiled hard and long, but simply to make the point that in the final analysis St Paul’s Cathedral is Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece. – Who wrote the Bible? Moses, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, John, Peter, Paul and many others. But whose book is it really? It is God’s. Citation
When Paul wrote the second letter to Timothy and said, ‘All Scripture is God-breathed…’ most of the New Testament hadn’t actually been written by then, but we should note that the apostle Peter held that Paul’s writings were also Scripture (Paul wrote 13 of the 27 books in the New Testament), and Peter said: ‘Our dear brother Paul also wrote to you with the wisdom that God gave him. (…) His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction’ (2 Peter 3v15–16).
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 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, the 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.
The Bible we have today is known as the complete or closed ‘canon’ of Scripture, that is, those books that are recognised as being the inspired Word of God. The New Testament canon first became established in 367A.D., when Athanasius – known as the father of orthodoxy – listed all of the books of the New Testament in his thirty-ninth Paschal Letter, and the canon was also later confirmed at a gathered church council in Carthage in 397A.D. (The word ‘canon’ comes from the rule of law that was used to determine if a book measured up to a particular standard.) Three criteria were used in recognising and acknowledging canonicity; these were:
- was the book known to be apostolic in its origin – that is, did the book derive from the teaching of the apostles?
- was the attitude towards such a book as inspired Scripture, accepted and recognized by the early churches?
- did the book promote sound doctrine and truth? Citation
Here are 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
Time and again 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. It’s true 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’ second coming: The Bible teaches that Jesus will one day return to earth. In Matthew’s Gospel (24v40–41) we read 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 would seem to indicate that Jesus’ return will be during daylight hours, when people are at work. However Luke’s Gospel (17v42) says: ‘on that night two people will be in one bed’ (night time?): 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 does not contradict itself.
It is fair to say that many people have tried to disprove the Bible, or they have searched for flaws to try and discredit it, and in doing so many have also ended up being converted. Such is the power of God’s Word: it has stood the test of time. Sir Isaac Newton was an avid student of Scripture, after years of diligent study he came to the conclusion that the Bible was ‘a rock from which all hammers of criticism have never chipped a single fragment.’ Citation One poet describes the Bible as ‘The Anvil of God’s Word’ and wrote this:
Last eve I passed beside a blacksmith’s door,
and heard the anvil ring the vesper chime;
then, looking in, I saw upon the floor
old hammers, worn with beating years of time.
‘How many anvils have you had,’ said I,
‘to wear and batter all these hammers so?’
‘Just one,’ said he, and then with twinkling eye,
‘The anvil wears the hammers out, you know.’
And so, thought I, the anvil of God’s Word,
For ages sceptic blows have beat upon;
Yet, though the noise of falling blows was heard,
The anvil is unharmed – the hammers gone. (Anon)
Sometimes people say: ‘How do we know the words of the Bible haven’t been lost in translation; how do we know the Bible is accurate?’ The answer to that is simple: the accuracy of what has been written, copied, and passed down through the centuries is remarkable. The Bible is indeed 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 (which is exhibited in John Ryeland’s Library in 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). Also 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. The only ‘Bible’ Jesus had at that time was the Old Testament, but Jesus is recorded as quoting verbatim from it nearly forty times (from thirteen different books), and he also referred to Scripture on many other occasions. Citation But more than any of this, Jesus himself is the most compelling proof that the Bible is God inspired and true. Jesus fulfilled Scripture and, indeed, He will fulfil what few prophecies remain in the Scriptures when He returns. In regards to the Bible being God inspired, or God-breathed, John Benton, author of Looking for the Answer, makes the valid point that the Bible’s prophetic teaching is ‘probably the most direct evidence for the special involvement of God with this book’. Citation Let me share a visual aid to help illustrate the point:
David Watson told of one biblical scholar who worked out that there are 332 distinct prophecies in the Old Testament, which were literally fulfilled in the person of Jesus. 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. That figure looks like this: Citation
1 in 84
Now just how accurate that figure is, or how someone actually goes about calculating such mathematical probabilities – or even how to pronounce how many zillion, trillion, billion, millions that figure represents – is beyond me, but I wanted to show this illustration to, at least, provide some perspective on how improbably it really is that Jesus isn’t the promised Saviour or Messiah that the Old Testament prophets spoke about.
So let’s now look at…
How God speaks to us through the Bible
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 ever grow cold or stale (which seemed to have happened with older members of the church)! My friend at the time 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 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 such a powerful book it literally changes people’s lives – if they allow it to, that is! We read earlier from Hebrews 4v12: ‘the word of God is living and active’ – but 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! God speaks to us through his Word. The famous nineteenth century preacher, Charles Spurgeon wrote, “We are blessed to have God’s Word always to guide us. Without a compass the mariner would be lost. So would Christians without the Bible. This is the unerring chart in which is described all the channels from the quick sands of destruction to the haven of salvation by one who knows all the way.” Citation
And what happens when God speaks through the preaching or reading of his Word? Nicky Gumbel reminds us that God brings the gift of faith to those who are not yet Christians. Citation In the book of Romans (10v17), Paul says: ‘Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.’ And in John’s Gospel, the evangelist tells us that he has only written about a select few of Jesus’ miracles but John says, ‘These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name’ (John 20v31). It is often as people read about Jesus in the Bible that they come to faith in Him. I have seen this happen time and time again on our own ‘explorers courses’ where we often use Mark’s Gospel as a starting point to explore Jesus’ story – who He is, what He taught, and how that relates to our story. For many of the seekers who join the course, Jesus walks off the pages of Mark’s gospel and into their hearts.
God speaks to us through the Bible, which is our instruction manual or guidebook for life; it tells us how we should live our lives… not in minute detail; we are not given the fine detail for every decision we will ever make, but in general terms. The Bible tells us what is good and what is right, and it gives us clear boundaries for our wellbeing, happiness and safety. And the Bible also tells us that certain things are wrong. But we get to make the choice.
There’s a Thomas the Tank Engine cartoon that pictures Thomas on his side, having fallen off the train tracks. He is shouting, ‘I’m free! I’m free at last. I’ve fallen off the rails and I’m free!’ Of course, the reality is that Thomas is far more ‘free’ when his wheels are on the rails and he is operating in line with how he has been created to function. Citation Same with us!
It is said ‘people are often put off by descriptions of God’s anger in the Bible. If you read, carefully, however, you realise that his anger exists because of the depth of God’s love for us. Love and anger go hand in hand: the more you love someone the more you care when they let you down. God’s anger is a sign of his love.’ Citation
Often critics of the Bible say that it is full of rules – ‘Thou shalt 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. Jesus 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 that 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.
A while ago I heard about 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 of the passing traffic on the other side of the low railings. Then one day the school brought in builders to erect a higher steel-mesh fence and from that day on, the children played in the whole of the playground. Why did this make such a difference? Well, because the children were a lot happier and felt much more secure when the fences were put up to show clear boundaries. It is the 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 well-being, happiness and safety. When the Word of God says, ‘Do not commit adultery’ or ‘do not covet your neighbour’s wife’, it’s not because God wants to restrict and oppress us or be a killjoy, but because He knows the pain and misery and suffering, and the lasting damage to relationships that such sins cause. God loves us and He wants to protect us: He wants us to be safe and happy and to enjoy life the way He intended us to do. Millions of products around the world carry this piece of advice: ‘For the best results follow the maker’s instructions’. That same message is stamped indelibly on every human heart! That’s why God gave us the Bible, so we could follow our Maker’s instructions.
How God feeds and nurtures us through the Bible
The Bible is one of the main sources of nourishment for a Christian. The only way that you or I can ever really get to know one other, not just know about each other, is for us to spend time together. Similarly, with God: if we want to discover who God is; his character; if we want to know his love for us and his plans for us, then we really need to get into the Bible. Not just reading it and going through the motions, like a tick box exercise, because then the words just flow through our mind like water gushing through a pipe – nothing sticks! We need to read it thoughtfully, prayerfully, expectantly and daily.
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: A few days after I first prepared these notes, a close Christian friend, 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 because of grief, 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 and feeds and nurtures us through the Bible, which is why I always try to encourage others to read it regularly and diligently. Besides which, the Scriptures you don’t read can’t help you.
Someone said to me recently, ‘Ian, You don’t have to read the Bible or go to church to be a Christian.’ And I responded, ‘No you don’t, that’s true! And likewise you don’t have to talk to your spouse or go home for you to be married, but then what kind of marriage would that be?’ The fact is we can’t come to know God personally if we don’t really spend any time with Him in prayer and in the Scriptures. So let me end as I began with the ‘note from a friend,’ and these closing words… ‘It’s your decision. I won’t force myself upon you. I have chosen you and I will wait for a while longer, because I love you.’
It’s your call!