What is the Bible?


Part 2 of 4 of a Summer Sermon Series (2012) by Rev. John Goldingay
Pervious Sermon: What is the Gospel?

So this is the second of four sermons on some basics of Christian faith, as we look forward to the Confirmation service in a month’s time.  Today I’m going to talk about the Bible.

Every week in a service at St Barnabas we read four passages from the Bible.  Why do we do that?  What is the Bible, and why is it important?

Now it is a fantastic, great coincidence that this week we have had delivered these Bible bookmarks, and in a way all I am going to do is talk about them.  We are very grateful to Adele for the idea of the Bible bookmark, an idea we stole from another church.  And we’re very grateful to Edette for designing the St Barnabas version.  What we intend from now on is that you can all take a supply of the two bookmarks, the general St Barnabas one and the Bible one, and keep them so you can give them to people.  We’ve got lots and there were not expensive to get made, so use them.  We intend that there should always be two or three of each in every pew, and we want to make sure that every visitor who comes, we send them off with one of each – so feel free to give them to a visitor.  We’ve also got these St Barnabas cards, by the way, to send to visitors when they give us their address.  They’re blank on the inside, so you can use them for any purpose such as sending greetings or condolences.

But today we’re thinking about the Bible.  Why is it important?  Why do we spend so much time reading it in church?  In a way the answer comes from what I was saying in the first of these four sermons, last week.  I tried to show then that the central, key, distinctive thing about Christian faith is that it’s a gospel, it’s a piece of good news about something God did.  God created the world, God got involved with Israel, with the Jewish people, God sent his Son into the world as a Jew to restore the life of the Jewish people and also to make them into a people who would reach out to Gentiles like us.

If the central, key thing about the Christian faith is that it’s a piece of news, then you need the equivalent of the newspaper to tell you about it.  And that’s the basic thing that the Bible is – it’s a newspaper, a news book.  That’s why it’s more important than what any modern Christian says.  The church today or a Christian today can’t tell you about the good news first hand – we are all dependent on the Bible as our source of news.   If you look at the side of the bookmark that’s all black, you’ll see it gives you a summary of the Bible story.  At the bottom it tells you where to look in the Bible for the answer to some key questions about life.

The fact that the Christian faith is a gospel explains why the Bible is the kind of book it is.  Now turn over to the other side of the bookmark, the side that’s like a mosaic, and start at the top.  There you’ll see it says “Books of Moses – The Pentateuch” and lower down it says “Old Testament History.”  Then if you jump right down to where it says “New Testament,” you’ll see it says “New Testament History.”  The Pentateuch and the Old Testament history tell the story of Israel.  The New Testament History tells the story of Jesus and of the beginnings of the church.  In terms of the number of pages, you have covered over half the Old Testament and over half the New Testament in these books of history, books telling that story, telling us the news.

Last week I said you could think of the Bible story as like the episodes of a television series, and someone asked if I was going to write one.  Well, one reason why I can’t is that the Bible has already done it.  If you start reading at the beginning, with Genesis, you will find that each of the books is like a episode in a series.  They aren’t really separate books – they are episodes.  Genesis is episode one, Exodus is episode two, Leviticus is episode three, and so on through Numbers and Deuteronomy and Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, and Kings.  Those twelve books tell the story from creation to the time when the Israelites were taken off into exile in Babylon.

Then an odd thing happens.  The next time you turn the page over, into Chronicles, the first person it mentions is Adam.  Chronicles retells the entire story from Genesis to Kings and then continues the story into Ezra and Nehemiah, which tells us about how God made it possible for the Israelites to come back home and rebuild Jerusalem, but also about how other Israelites stayed in the place where their ancestors had been taken – which is what the story of Esther is about.  So the Old Testament tells its story twice.

When you carry on into the New Testament, something similar happens.  You get the story of Jesus told four times, with the book of Acts continuing the story into the time after Pentecost.  So the Bible doesn’t just tell its story once.  It tells Israel’s story twice, and it tells the story of Jesus four times.  Why does it do that?  I can think of two reasons.

One is that it is an extremely rich story.  It can be told in different ways, all of them true.  My son sent me two photos of my granddaughter this week; she had just taken part in a soccer cup final and she won!  Now I didn’t say to Steven, it’s okay, I’ve got a photo of Emma, you needn’t ever send me another one.  Every photo tells me more about her.  You could say that the Bible is a photo album, with shots of Israel and of Jesus from lots of angles.

The other reason is that the different versions of the story are told for different audiences.   In the Old Testament, there is one version told for people when they are in exile and they need to acknowledge the way they have rebelled against God, so the story is told that way.  The other version belongs to when they need of encouragement, so it tells the story from a more encouraging angle.  With the Gospels, they were originally written for different churches – for instance, Matthew was written for a church where many people were Jews who had come to believe in Jesus, while Luke was written for a more Gentile church.  So they tell the story in a way that shows its significance for different sorts of people.

There’s one other thing that the history books in the Old Testament and in the New Testament have in common.  As well as telling the story of what God has done for his people, they talk about what God expects of his people.  In the Old Testament story you get the Ten Commandments and lots of other teaching on the life God expects of his people.  In the Gospels you get the Sermon on the Mount and other teaching on the kind of life God expects of his people.

After the histories, in the Old Testament if you look down the bookmark you will see that you then get some books of poetry – Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs.  You could say that the history books are about the past, but the poetic books are about the present.  Job is about how to cope with suffering.  The Psalms are about how to worship and pray.  Proverbs is about how to be sensible.  Ecclesiastes is about how to doubt.  The Song of Songs is about how to love.

Move down the bookmark again and you get the Major Prophets and the Minor Prophets – they are major and minor simply in the sense that some of them are long books and some of them are short books.  If the histories are about the past and the poetry is about the present, then the prophets are about the future.  Admittedly that could be a misleading thing to say.  You know the world was supposed to end yesterday?  Well, as far as I know it didn’t.  Often people have tried to calculate from the Prophets when the world was going to end, and they have always been wrong.  One reason is that for the most the prophets don’t talk about the distant future.  They are concerned about their own people’s future, about what is going to happen to them.  They are challenging people about their own relationship with God, about the way they try to make images of God, about the way they worship other gods.  And they are challenging people about their relationships with other people, about the way they take advantage of poor people and trust in political policies rather than in God.  They do talk about the future, but it’s then the future that hangs over the people when they ignore what God says, and the future that will come about when God fulfills his purpose for them.

In the New Testament when you move down the bookmark below the history books, you get Paul’s letters and the general letters and another book of prophecy, the Book of Revelation.  Like the Gospels, these letters started off life as messages to particular churches.  They took up issues in their life about what people needed to believe and how they ought to be living their life – in this sense they are quite like the prophets.  The church as a whole came to realize that even Gospels and letters that were written to particular churches could speak to all the churches, which is how they came to be in the Bible.

There’s one other part of the bookmark that I have said nothing about.  In the middle you will see it says “Between the Testaments” and then there is a list of some more books.  There are more history books such as Tobit and Judith and Maccabees, and more books of poetry such as Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus.  These books used to be called the Apocrypha.  Nowadays the politically correct term for them is the Deutero-canonical Writings.  Canon is a word for the collection of the Scriptures as a whole.  The Old Testament is the main Jewish canon, the Bible the Jewish people accepts.  These are a kind of second canon.  They are also Jewish books but they were never accepted by the Jewish people as Scripture.  In the Episcopal church we sometimes read from them but they don’t have quite the status of the main Bible.

There it is then.  The Old Testament Histories, the Poetry Books, the Prophets.  The books from between the Testaments.  The New Testament Histories, the Letters, the Prophecy in Revelation.

Maybe you’d like to read the Bible for yourself.  If you turn back to the all black side of the bookmark, at the top it gives you a quote from the New Testament about how useful the Bible is.  If you do want to read it for yourself, I’ve nearly finished writing a series of books about each of the Old Testament books called “The Old Testament for Everyone” and there is a copy of each of these books that have come out so far in the quiet room – though I think some have been borrowed.  There’s an equivalent New Testament series called “The New Testament for Everyone” by an English bishop called Tom Wright.

The temple was a place where people knew they could meet God.  As God’s home, it naturally had rooms where guests could go and also quarters where only the person who lived in the house went.  That arrangement safeguarded the extraordinary, supernatural nature of who God is; God’s 2000-volt holiness could electrocute you if you got into too close contact with it.  So having a house for God made God more accessible but also less accessible.  God was there, but ordinary people didn’t go into God’s private rooms.

The tearing apart of the curtain reasserted the fact that God really was accessible for everyone.  It’s a particularly significant moment for people like us, who are Gentiles.  We would never have gone to Jerusalem to the temple.  That fact didn’t mean we couldn’t have contact with God; God is present everywhere.  But we wouldn’t have had access to that guaranteed place where you knew God was especially present.  Tearing the temple curtain down was important for us.  We can go into God’s presence.

Dead People Start Walking About

An even stranger thing happens as Jesus dies.  As the curtain tears, dead people start getting out of their tombs and wandering about.  They do it again later when Jesus rises from the dead.

Until Jesus came, nobody was going to heaven or hell.  When you died, you died; that was it.  Of course most people in the world don’t believe that.  In the Bible’s world, many nations did believe there was going to be life after death, like people in our world.  It’s hard to believe death is the end.  The Israelites knew it was the end.

The Old Testament does not talk about a positive life after death. Only Jesus changed that.  As his dying opened the way into God’s private quarters, for us Gentiles as well as for Jews, it opened the way into God’s presence in heaven.  It opened the grave.  When Jesus died, he joined the rest of the dead people in history, but he went there as the one who was not destined to stay, and could tell people who had belonged to God that they were not due to stay.

God’s raising of Jesus then proved this was so.  It completed the process of opening the grave.  Jesus bursts a hole in the walls of the realm of death and makes it possible for anyone else to follow him, if they want to.  Mostly that is what will happen at the End, when we all leave the grave together.  But the guys in Jerusalem won’t wait.  They burst out now, even when Jesus dies and then when he rises, because they know that Jesus’ dying and Jesus’ rising is what makes it possible.

Next: What do we Believe?