The Challenge of Reading the Bible

How many of my readers have read the Bible from cover to cover? It may surprise you how few Christians have done so.

Reading the Bible can be a challenging endeavor. I have seen young Christians start at the front of the Bible, treating it like any other book. I think by the time they got into Judges they had some questions about where this was going and why. Chances are they got stuck and gave up back in the book of Leviticus.

It is not surprising to learn that church leaders in the past actually discouraged lay people from reading the Bible, believing that the average person without theological training would not properly understand or correctly interpret the Bible. Indeed, the Bible is difficult to understand, even today.

When the printing press was invented the Bible was one of the first books to be printed.  Before that, we must remember, there were only a few cherished copies in the possession of church leaders. Significantly, the Protestant Reformation began as people saw discrepancies between the Bible and the teaching of the church.

It seems logical that we would want to read the Bible and study for ourselves the source of the teachings of the church, rather than rely on priests and ministers.

I didn’t read my entire Bible until I was in Bible College, at which time I had some helpful guidance. Before that I probably read most of the New Testament, Psalms, Proverbs, the book of Genesis, and a few other select passages. This may actually be a good way to start reading the Bible.

The New Testament is generally easy to understand, with the exception of the prophesies in the book of Revelation. It is the Old Testament–the first half or more of the Bible–that can be difficult to grasp.

In a nutshell, the OT is the story before the story. It is the backdrop. It sets the stage for the New Testament. For this reason, it is helpful to be familiar with the NT before beginning to read the OT.

The meaning of the NT is enhanced by an understanding of the OT. The writers of the NT had a considerable grasp of the “Scriptures”–the collection books we call the OT. These books include history, law, poetry and prophesy and were written by various authors. The OT is the greatest collection of ancient books in the world, and today we have numerous actual copies and fragments dating back to before Christ.

At the centre of the OT we find the poetic books, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon, followed by a collection of prophetic books. At the beginning of the Bible are the historical books and books of the law. It helps to have this understanding of the genres as you are reading.

The historical books begin with the story of God creating the earth and then relate how God chose Abraham to be the father of a nation to whom he would reveal himself and show his glory. The Bible contains not only the story of a nation but many personal stories as well. Sadly, many of the stories are about how God’s people failed to obey and serve him, and missed out on the blessings he promised. We read story after story of God “delivering” his people, only to have them turn away from him again in disobedience.

The prophets prophesied that God would send a “deliverer,” the Messiah who would save his people from their sins. There is a four hundred year break between the OT and NT writings before this story continues with Mary, a virgin, being visited by an angel who tells her she will conceive a child, Jesus, by the Holy Ghost. He will be the “Savior” of the world, the Messiah promised by the OT prophets.

The first four books of the NT are different perspectives of the life of Christ, written by different authors. They are commonly called the gospels, gospel meaning good news. In the gospels Jesus Christ prophesies his own death as a sacrifice for forgiveness of sins. The need for sacrifice is understood in the context of the teaching of the OT books of the law in which God required animals as a sacrifice for sins. Jesus also predicted his resurrection after three days, as proof that he was indeed the Son of God.

The gospels are followed by the book of Acts which is a continued history of what happened to Jesus’ followers after he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven.

The remaining NT books are letters, or epistles, from Christian leaders giving instruction and encouragement to churches and individuals, with the exception of the final book, Revelation, which is a book of prophesy.

The Bible contains the story of the origin of three religions–Jews, Muslims, and Christians. All three consider the Old Testament as a holy book, but only Christians are accepting of the New Testament as a continuation of the story. Muslims and Jews both trace their lineage to Abraham.

The Bible is the story of faith in one God, a righteous God who expects to be honored and obeyed. It makes the claim of literal inspiration by God. Each book is written from the perspective of faith in one God, creating a consistent narrative. Christians, as distinctive from Muslims and Jews, see God as a triune being with different expressions as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The over-arching theme of the Bible is, The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. Psalm 103:8

This message of grace, compassion and love was introduced in the book of Exodus when God revealed himself to Moses.

Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands,and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” Exodus 34:5-7 NIV

Our modern cultural view of love makes it difficult for some to embrace the biblical message of a God who not only rescues the oppressed but also punishes evildoers. There are things in the Bible which we may never understand.

I hope this summary is helpful and I encourage serious readers to seek out and study other resources.

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Can you understand the Bible?

Don’t be deceived into thinking you cannot understand the Bible. The Bible is the richest resource we possess for guiding us in life. It reveals to us the nature and character of God. Through the Old Testament stories we begin to see how God relates to his people. We gain an understanding of the heart of God.

There was a time when only priests had access to the Bible. In fact lay people were discouraged from reading the Bible because it was presumed that they would incorrectly interpret the Bible. There is some room for incorrect interpretation, but the danger of not reading it is much greater.

When you read the Old Testament, look for a common theme. I had a Bible scholar teach me that the theme of the Old Testament is found in Exodus 3:5-7.

5 Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord. 6 And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, 7 maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.”

While reading through the Old Testament, think about the character of God. You will see he is consistent throughout. Ask his Holy Spirit to guide you as you read. Jesus promised that when he left he would send a Comforter, the Holy Spirit, to guide his followers into all truth.

The Bible is a great source of strength to those who study it and try to understand its message. It is like a treasure in a field. Not everyone will search it out, but those who do are richly rewarded.

Freedom from the fear of death

The first consequence of evil, when Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden, was a sense of guilt and separation from God. In the Old Testament God instituted an animal sacrifice ritual to atone for the guilt of the people. This was a temporary remedy pointing to the coming of Christ.

The Bible teaches us that sin results in death.”The wages of sin is death….” (Romans 6:23). The ordinance of sacrifice was instituted as a reminder that there was a great price to pay for sin, but the blood of goats and lambs could not take away sin indefinitely.

With the coming of Christ, animal sacrifices for sin were done away with. Jesus, God’s Son, born of a virgin and without sin, died and rose from the dead. He was the, “spotless lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29).

Because Christ was without sin, death could not overpower him and keep him in the grave. Similarly, everyone who believes in him and accepts his gift of “salvation” from sin will experience the resurrection power of Christ. They will live with him for eternity.

This gift of salvation and eternal life is offered to everyone. However, people do not automatically receive forgiveness of sins. We must acknowledge Christ as our “Saviour.”

It is really very simple, but surprisingly difficult at the same time. The reason is that it is not just a matter of praying a prayer asking for forgiveness. If you believe that Christ is the Son of God who takes away the sins of the world, it follows that accepting his forgiveness also means you are committed to his kingship in your life. The Son of God deserves no less than our surrender and worship.

The prayer of acceptance of salvation and commitment to Christ may go something like this,

“Heavenly Father, I believe that Jesus died and was raised from the dead. His life was sacrificed for the sins of the world. I ask you to forgive my sins, in Jesus’ name. I give my life to you. I invite your presence to indwell me and empower me to live for you. Amen.”

When you have prayed this prayer you will want to tell someone about it and you will also want to find a group of people who have come to a similar faith. You may encounter resistance from those who do not believe. This is not uncommon. There are many groups of believers, some meeting in churches, some in homes, some in schools or other facilities.

If you do not find a group of believers immediately, you can still have a growing relationship with God by praying, talking to him daily about all aspects of your life, and by reading his word, the Bible. I encourage you to start reading the New Testament, that is the second section of the Bible. It is easier to understand and more relevant for daily living. It also begins with accounts of the life of Christ.

If you desire you may email me at: friesentina@gmail.com.

The consequence of evil

The first consequence of evil Adam and Eve experienced was a sense of guilt and shame. They were ashamed and hid. Instead of  becoming like God, as the Serpent had told them, they became different from and distant from God.

Shame is a natural by-product of guilt. Our society has tried to recondition people and remove shame and guilt but it is not possible because we are programmed to desire unity with our Creator. Distance from God makes us uneasy.

The ultimate end result of evil is death. If Adam and Eve had not sinned, death would not have been introduced into the world. Since that time we all find ourselves living a life that is out of harmony with God.

When Adam and Eve sinned God removed them from paradise. He told them that life would be difficult. They would continue to strive against the cunning of Satan, the deceiver. But he also promised that one day Satan would be crushed under their feet. This was a prophetic word concerning the coming of Christ.

In the Old Testament we have numerous stories of how men and women encountered God. Some of them chose to obey him in faith and did great exploits. Others sank into deeper and deeper degradation. The Bible does not white-wash sin. God did not edit the bad parts out of the Scriptures.

Evil robs, kills and destroys. Christ offers the alternative–life, hope and peace with God. But don’t be fooled into thinking that by becoming a Christian a person is taken out of the battle against evil. The Christian can be identified as the one who is on God’s side in the fight against evil.

What is evil?

According to Genesis, mankind was created perfect in every way, even in his thoughts. But humans were endowed with the ability to desire. Misdirected desire can cause us to sin.

Adam and Eve had no understanding of evil. It was the unknown and the unexperienced and this made it mysterious and intriguing. Satan, in the form of a serpent, dangled the knowledge of evil before them.

Satan also introduced the notion of being “like God.” Remember that Adam and Eve were created in the image of God. They may never have thought of themselves as anything but “like God.” However Satan, the serpent, twisted the truth to his advantage.

Satan made them consider for the first time the possibility that they were ignorant and incomplete. He insinuated that God was holding out on them, that they were missing something.

He also made himself look like an authority. He implied that he had something more to offer than God when in reality all he was doing was subtracting from all that was God. He was introducing deficiency.

The serpent deceived Adam and Eve. He had nothing to offer that God had not already given. All he could offer was the experience of something less than godliness. Their sudden self-doubt and their doubt of God made them vulnerable. They had no experience with recognizing or resisting temptation. Their desire became overwhelming and they decided to accept Satan’s lies in place of God. That was the evil. It wasn’t the apple.

How do we experience the presence of God today, without the Ark of the Covenant?

What is it like to experience the presence of God? Well, for Uzza it meant he was struck dead. Not very comforting. In fact, this does not fit well into our theology today.

Some people might dismiss it as an Old Testament story, but I wouldn’t be so quick to do that. After all, we have a New Testament parallel. Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead for pretending they were giving all the money from the sale of their land when they were keeping back a portion (Acts 5).

There is an interesting verse in the book of Proverbs that says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” The truth is that anyone who takes on the challenge to read the Old Testament will discover that the fear of the Lord was woven into the fabric of faith, so to speak.

Our popular concept of love is one that rules out fear in a relationship. In some ways it is right. There is a verse in the New Testament book of 1 John, that has been a comfort to me, which declares, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear, for fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.”

Another version of the Bible says, “fear has to do with punishment.” That is why it is not part of perfect love. My understanding of this would be that when we have been perfected by love, we will no longer be in fear of punishment.

So, what is the presence of God like? Is it a feeling? Is it a vision? How can we know God is present?

The experience will vary from person to person. Some do indeed experience a feeling. Others have a vision or may even hear God’s voice, as we read that Paul did, in the book of Acts. Feelings may include a sense of awe, a feeling of being loved, or being flooded with peace. There may also be less pleasant feelings of conviction of sin, and fear of punishment.

Feelings are not always reliable indicators of the presence of God. At times a Christian can be flooded with feelings of condemnation and worthlessness. These feelings are most often an indication of the oppression of the devil who seeks to rob, kill and destroy. God, on the other hand, offers hope and release from bondage. He wants to lift us out of this dark pit of despair. He may chastise us for a moment, like a father disciplines a child, but it is for the purpose of bringing us back into a closer relationship with him. Remember, God is love.

God is everywhere. There is no place where he is not. But at times he makes himself personal to us. This presence, I think, has more to do with our personal awareness. We can experience his presence when we read the Bible, or listen to a teaching about God. We can experience it when we pray or worship. The Bible says, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.”

Christians throughout the centuries have endeavored to practice the presence of God through various spiritual disciplines like fasting, silence, giving, ministering to people in need, and other means. Some Christians compare the feeling that God is distant to going through a wilderness experience, a time of testing similar to what Jesus experienced as he was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by the devil, at the beginning of his ministry. A sense of distance from God can be a test, or it may be the consequence of disobedience.

In the early chapters of the book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible ,we read two stories about the presence of God. Adam and Eve heard the sound of God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day. I wonder how many pleasant evenings like this they had spent with God? But on this particular day they hid themselves from his presence because they had disobeyed him. Disobedience tends to move us away from God.

The other story is the brief account of Enoch in Genesis 5. Here it is: “When Enoch had lived sixty-five years he fathered Methusela. Enoch walked with God after he fathered Methusela for three hundred years and had other sons and daughters. Thus Enoch lived three hundred and sixty-five years. Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him.”

This is truly one of my favorite stories of the Bible. Enoch did not die. God took him. After he walked with God for three hundred years on earth, God thought it was time to take him to be with him forever in paradise. Talk about extraordinary!

This illustrates the ultimate experience of the presence of God. One day God promises he will come back for all “who love his appearing,” in other words, who love his presence, and take us to be with him for eternity.

The presence of God

In 1 Chronicles 13-16 we find a story of King David returning the Ark of the Covenant to the city of David where he had pitched a tent for it. It is an interesting story that raises some questions particularly surrounding the death of Uzza who reached out to steady the ark when it looked like it might topple off of the cart being used to transport it. After this David left the ark at the home of Obed-edom and it took awhile for him to get up the courage to make another attempt and finish the journey. We read that God blessed the house of Obed-edom and understand this was because the ark was at his house.

So what is the Ark of the Covenant? Essentially it was a box that was fashioned according to the design God gave Moses when he was on the mountain where he also received the Ten Commandments. Along with the Ten Commandments there were instructions for sacrifice and for building a tabernacle that would house the Ark of the Covenant. God’s presence would reside with the Ark of the Covenant. This was why David sought to bring it to his own home city. He wanted the presence of God and subsequently the blessing of God to be with him.

The ark was housed in the Holy of Holies, a separate area of the tabernacle that could only be accessed by the high priest once a year. Yet here we see the ark, unsheltered, in the midst of the people. This was because during time of war the ark had been captured by the enemy, who thought it was the ark that was giving the nation of Israel success in battle.

When Uzza died trying to steady the ark David was angry with God. Picture all of Israel, worshipping, “rejoicing before God with all their might, with song and lyres and harps and tambourines and cymbals and trumpets,” and suddenly one of the men driving the cart on which the Ark of the Covenant rested was struck dead. David, understandably, could not conceive why God would cause such a thing to happen. There is no question that he blamed God.

What impresses me about this story is David’s love for the presence of God. He expected God would be pleased that he was restoring the ark to its proper place, but evidently not even David fully understood the ways of God. It turned out that the instructions for transporting the ark had been disregarded. The ark was later carried by the Levites, on their shoulders with poles, as Moses had commanded them and safely reached Jerusalem.

In the New Testament we read that when Jesus died on the cross the curtain in the temple that separated the Ark of the Covenant from the area where the common people gathered, was torn from top to bottom. To the Jews this was a miracle that symbolized that Jesus opened the way for everyone, not only the priests to have access to the presence of God.

We can read of David’s love for God’s presence in the many Psalms that he wrote. David understood this New Testament truth of the accessibility of God. The death of Uzza merely showed that we must not consider God as common. We cannot presume that he will put his stamp of approval on all we do, even if we are worshipping him with all our heart. He has a pattern, a plan. We must seek it and heed it.