Teaching Extra 2 - Open the book
Build your faith by becoming familiar with the Bible
Opening reading: 2 Timothy 3:14-17
A. What the Bible is
1. 'Bible' is the Greek word for book. The Bible looks like a book, because it is usually stitched together in one cover but in actual fact it is more of a library than a book. It contains many books, which are grouped into two sections: the Old Testament or 'Hebrew Scriptures' and the New Testament or 'Greek Scriptures'. The Old Testament contains 39 books from before the coming of Christ, the New Testament 27 books (many of them just letters) from after.
2. It might help to liken the Bible to a great cathedral, to a musical symphony or to a great painting. All are impressive and take a lot of getting to know. All can be visited, or listened to, or looked at time and time again. At the same time, each can make an immediate impact and impression. A cathedral, for instance, may have taken many years to build. Usually it is built on the site of an ancient church and has gone through various stages of reconstruction. Bits of the original buildings are embedded in the final structure and can be made out by the expert eye. Parts may not seem to fit properly. In the same way, the Bible we now have took over 1,000 years to write and to put together. It includes very ancient writings or stories. Parts of it seem a bit odd to people like us in the twenty-first century. Yet the final form has integrity and beauty. Likewise, a musical symphony can be very complex, yet the same themes and tunes occur over and over again in different settings, and the more you listen, the more you get used to recognising them. Sometimes the music is fast and sometimes slow, sometimes loud and sometimes quiet. A great painting, say of a famous figure, must be faithful to the person painted. But every artist will bring his or her particular interpretation to the task in order to bring out someone's distinctive personality and qualities. Often a painting can do this in a way a photograph cannot. The painting will have a foreground and a background. Our eyes may be drawn to the foreground, to the person being painted. But the background is important too in setting off what is in the foreground.
3. Cathedral, symphony and painting are just three ways of thinking about the Bible -the most influential book in the whole of human history. It has the power to change both individuals' lives and whole communities.
B. What the Bible does
1. It is helpful to think of the Bible as a witness to God and what he has done. Witnesses are called to give testimony to what they have seen and what they know. The Bible bears witness to God - showing how he has acted through the people of Israel, through Jesus and the early church, and helping us to understand what his acts mean. The Bible is therefore a means to an end. It tells the story of God at work in human history and lives. Most of all, it bears witness to Jesus Christ, the Old Testament by looking forward to his coming, the New Testament by looking back to it.
2. The important thing, therefore, is to discover the God who is behind the Bible by letting the Bible's witness lead us to God. Jesus himself taught this when he said to some people who were very keen readers of the Bible, 'You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life' (John 5: 39-40). Notice from these verses that:
the Scriptures testify (witness) about Jesus
the Scriptures themselves do not bring us eternal life, but Jesus (whom they speak about) does
as we read the Scriptures, we need to come to the Jesus we learn about in them, so that from him we might have eternal life.
Our opening reading says something similar when it points out that the Scriptures are 'able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus' (2 Timothy 3: 15).
3. The Bible, therefore, is the all-important witness to God and Jesus Christ. It has an energy and power which make an impact upon people who read it with open hearts. The Bible itself calls this being 'God-breathed' or 'inspired' (2 Timothy 3:16). God has been behind the writing of the Bible, and now his Spirit enables it to speak powerfully to us and direct us to him.
C. Reading the Bible
1. There is a saying, 'How do you eat an elephant? A piece at a time!' The Bible is a big book, but the way to tackle it is a piece at a time. Another way of thinking about this is to see the Bible as a jigsaw. We have to start piecing it together until we get the big picture. Most people start a jigsaw by collecting all the straight-edged bits and putting the frame in place. Then they start filling in the centre.
2. The best place to start reading the Bible is with the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), which are at its heart and which speak directly about the earthly ministry of Jesus. The Acts of the Apostles then tells the story of the first Christians and the spread of the church. The first eleven chapters of the Bible (Genesis 1-11) are very important for getting the overall background. Paul's letter to the Romans is also of the greatest importance. Anybody who has read these and 'got the picture' (even if they don't understand everything about it) is well on the way to tackling the rest of the Bible.