I started regular reading the Bible when I was eight years old. This was triggered by my ‘giving my heart to Jesus’ in a Sunday School class -saying a simple prayer with a counsellor. As part of my coming to Jesus, I was given Scripture Union Junior Notes. These notes specified a Bible reading for every calendar day (6 to ten verses for juniors) and had simple commentary and prayer based on the reading.
From the beginning I had trouble doing this reading every day. I would either forget or simply be too caught up with playing or working. When I slipped behind I tried to catch up by reading a number of readings on one day. This never worked. Missing my quiet time was a source of guilt for me right through my growing up.
By the time I was a teenager I had progressed up a couple of levels of the Scripture Union Notes. It was then I started to notice that the daily readings, although sequential, sometimes skipped bits. At this stage I had a simple view of the Bible. That is, God used people to write the Bible and every verse was true and holy. But, I started to read the verses that the notes skipped. Some of these were dead boring, about rules and regulations, but others had me puzzled.
For instance when reading the Psalms we read Psalm 136 – God’s love never fails – but then we skipped to Psalm 138 – Praise the Lord with all your heart – but we skipped Psalm 137, – A prayer for revenge – . With horror I read, ‘May the Lord bless everyone who bashes their (the enemies) babies against the rocks’. From then on I was always careful to read the passages that the notes left out. They were often about terrible violence or sex.
Shaking the Foundations
As a young adult I felt called to be a minister. To achieve this I would have to go to Theological College. I had often heard that going to Theological College destroyed a person’s faith. I soon realised that what the Theological College detractors were taking about was the way we were required to study the Bible. This was very different from reading a few verses and then accepting without question their interpretation in the Scripture Union notes.
It certainly was a shock. For the first time I realised that the four gospels, Matthew, Mark Luke and John did not tell the same story – well not exactly. There were differences in sequence, differences in locations, differences in detail. Three of the four books obviously copied from each other and probably some other book. And apart from the Jesus story they also contained some weird stuff – for instance about handling snakes, plucking out your eye, about fathers rejecting their sons and many prophesies of coming catastrophes and the end of the world.
In the Old Testament, these questions were even more extreme. The person whose name was on the book possibly did not write the book. Some of the books were written by a number of authors. Stories of murder, slaughter and mayhem were more numerous than I had ever imagined. The laws of ancient Israel were severe calling for the death by stoning for many offences. And our Professors suggested that some stories I had always taken as fact were better understood as poetry or parable.
Theological College certainly shook me up. As predicted some of my friends dropped out. I no longer believed that God wrote (or dictated) every word in the Bible. However, my faith in Jesus grew. I came to believe that he was the focus, the pinnacle of the whole huge rambling book. In the end he was the key to understanding the Bible. Everything written in the book was intended to point to him. To understand the book it had to be seen through the prism of the Jesus story, his words and deeds If it didn’t fit with him then it was off the track, a dead end!
In later years I have come to the conclusion that my view of God was too small. I had started off confining him/her/it to my church, then my denomination, then Christianity. Gradually it dawned on me that all of these definitions were inadequate. God had to be more and different than human understanding could grasp. In recent years I have been thinking about the expanding universe, black holes and quantum physics.
The New Testament says lots about Christ being in everything, beyond everything, before everything. These claims have always been there but I had cut them down to size, my size and confined them ‘Christian’ organisations. I came to realise that the core message of Jesus has never been confined certain, races, sects, religions. The presence and purpose of God, supremely shown in Jesus has been glimpsed and responded to by a few amazing people in different cultures in different ages.
These days my reading of the Bible is in this larger context. The New Testament claims about Jesus and what we are learning through science, astronomy and physics are not contradictory. I acknowledge that some people on paths different to mine are responding to the ‘Way’ Jesus embodied. Jesus is the universal light that darkness could not put out. The unique purpose of the Bible is to expand on this theme. It is exciting.
Reading the Bible – a few suggestions
There are many modern English translations of the Bible. My favourite is the Good News Bible – sometimes known as Todays English Version or GNT. Most modern translations have a short introduction to each book. On every page in the margin or at the bottom of the page, usually there are explanations of some words, and cross references to related passages in other Bible books. Whilst it is not essential to follow each of these, if and when you do, you will find that these notes add to your understanding of what you are reading.
It is helpful to have a time of quiet before each Bible reading session. In prayer ask that there will be something in the passage you read that will stimulate, challenge and/or relate to you.
I would start with one of the Gospels in the New Testament. Mark is the shortest and it is action packed. Read it sequentially in episodes or chapters. Don’t hurry. Reflect on what you are reading and see if it applies to you. Is there a message there for you, for your life, for this day?
The letters of Paul and others can be hard going. However, in every book there will be passages you can understand. Don’t worry about the passages that puzzle you. Perhaps next time you read them they will become clearer.
The history books of the Old Testament tell stories which are fairly simple to follow. The books of the law are complex and can be tedious. The poetry books speak to every situation and mood of life. The prophetic books will blow your mind but don’t spend too much time trying to work them out. Many have tried but none have got this right – yet.
I encourage you to read the Bible. Find a way that works for you. It is a resource for the whole of life.
Always glad to chat about this topic!