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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He is Risen Indeed

I struggled to fully embrace Christianity. I saw the value in living by the Golden Rule, to love your neighbor as yourself. I appreciated the Ten Commandments as laws for a successful society. I even believed in God, the Creator. But could I accept Jesus as more than a man who did good?

In our pluralistic society there used to be an “everyone to his own” attitude back in the sixties and seventies. But that has changed to everyone conforming to a new set of values which essentially oppose some of the very basic tenets of the Christian faith. In other words, we are facing an anti-Christian mindset.

In view of this it is imperative to be convinced of one’s faith. We not only need to know what we believe, but why we believe, or we will be easily shaken.

Recently I have been challenged by those in Christian circles who are taking issue with several basic tenets of the Christian faith, including the atoning death of Christ for the forgiveness of sins.

This brings me back to the time when I chose Christianity above other faiths. Not only was I drawn to the character and life of Christ, I believed in his atoning death and resurrection.

One day during the time when I questioned Christianity it became apparent to me that the validity of the Christian faith rested entirely on whether Christ was indeed resurrected from the dead. I visited a Mosque once where I had a conversation with a Muslim who said, simply, that Jesus never died on the cross. When Jesus prayed for this cup of death to be removed, God answered his prayer.

On another occasion I sat with a Muslim man on a flight and was reading Psalm 32 in my Bible.

Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.

Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile.

We had an interesting conversation and he claimed, rightly, to know more about the Christian faith than I did about the Muslim faith. He told me that Muslims believe in the Old Testament. I still intend to do a deeper study on how the Muslim faith is informed by the Old Testament. What we know, however, is that Muslims are descendants of Abraham, as well as Jews, only through the line of Ishmael, not Isaac.

The Jewish and Muslim faith are closest to Christianity but both reject Christ as the Son of God or Savior. They are the two faiths I have been inclined toward, besides Christianity.

In my search I saw that I had to establish for myself, as satisfactorily as possible, whether or not Jesus died and was resurrected. I pondered the evidence over a period time and finally came to the conclusion that indeed, Christ died and was resurrected. No, his disciples did not steal the body out of the tomb and start a new religion. They went and hid, afraid for their own lives. And the Jewish leaders themselves asked Pilot to set a guard before the tomb to prevent theft, already anticipating this possibility. When the stone was rolled away and the grave was found empty, the soldiers were not punished with death. That was remarkable. The Jews, instead spread the rumor that the body of Christ was stollen.

Well, we could say the writers of the gospels made up this complex story. I don’t think the gospels would have gained much momentum if they were known to be a clear fabrication. What finally cemented my faith was the book of Acts. It was seeing how these timid followers of Christ turned their world upside down preaching the gospel of salvation through the atoning death and resurrection of Christ. They could not all have been willing to give their lives for a lie. No, they were completely convinced, and faced extreme opposition.

This opposition continues to this day. And that is another thing that adds credibility to Christianity. Major world governments consider Christianity to be a threat. The beliefs of Christianity are peace loving, living by the Golden Rule and the Ten Commandments. The church, historically, has not always been effective in communicating the essence of the gospel and so we have seen unpardonable atrocities. Even today we see gross misrepresentations. In the words of J. I. Packer (Knowing God), “it is a long time since theology has been so weak and clumsy at its basic task of holding the church to the realities of the gospel.”

The notion that is gaining popularity today is the idea that God would not require atonement. That he would not sacrifice his son. This teaching also casts doubt on the entire Old Testament, reducing it to inspirational stories and myths. The reason behind this is the difficulty people have with reconciling the wrath of God with their view of a God of love. Of course, hell does not fit in either.

For decades now the church has emphasized the love of God in an effort to be seeker friendly and it has largely avoided reference to wrath, judgment and hell. Of course, if none of these are to be considered, then why do we need atonement? They don’t go so far as to say that we don’t need forgiveness, but God can forgive without requiring a human sacrifice, they claim. I happen to agree with them and this may be a surprise to some. I believe God can do as he pleases.

I think God can indeed forgive without a sacrifice. But I believe he chose to sacrifice his son and he had his reasons. For those who don’t believe this, you will have to do your own study, as I did.

The atonement causes the entire Bible to make sense. In fact, for me it causes life to make sense. My faith informs my life and gives it meaning. The atonement means there is justice.

The atonement means there is justice. There is judgement. There is just reward. And there is mercy and grace and forgiveness and newness of life. The old dies and the new is resurrected to life in Christ. Christian baptism is a symbol of this experience.

I don’t claim to fully understand how God became man in the form of his Son. Or how the Son of God could die. How he was able to descend to the depths to preach deliverance to the captives. How he was resurrected. But I know his forgiveness and his power in my life. I have his abiding peace and joy. I experience his indwelling presence. And today I declare, He Is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!

 

 

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.