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Understanding the Bible

– for ordinary Christians

Jacob Ninan

Chapter 2

What kind of a book is this?

It would be an understatement to say the Bible is a very unique book. In fact there is no other book in the whole world like this. This is the word of God, or a written book given by God to man. Many other books have been written about God, giving man’s ideas and concepts about God. But once we understand that God is the Creator of everything that exists and that He is far above our understanding as human beings, it becomes clear that we cannot discover God using our own limited mental capabilities. If we were able to sit down by ourselves, and use our intellect and imagination to draw up a description of God, it would mean that the God we describe would be within the limitations of our imagination and understanding and not the true God who is far beyond anything we can imagine. We can thus see the limitations of the mythological stories from other religions which have imagined gods to be in the form of super-human beings with essentially human features. But when God comes and reveals Himself through words we can understand, that is the Bible.

The word of God
When we say that the Bible is the word of God we should know what that means. It does not mean that every word in it is from God for us to believe and obey. For example, it contains many words and opinions that different people have spoken, and it should be obvious that since God did not say them they cannot be taken as truths just because they are in the Bible! The Bible has these words, “There is no God,” but this is actually a quotation of what ‘fools’ say (Ps.14:1), and not what God says. In the Book of Ecclesiastes there are many statements that come from the author which are the result of his human wisdom, and which cannot be termed as words from God to us. For example, the writer, possibly King Solomon towards the later part of his days, says, “As is the fate of the fool, it will also befall me. Why then have I been extremely wise?” Obviously this does not mean that we need not seek after wisdom. Actually Proverbs 4:7 says, “The beginning of wisdom is: acquire wisdom; and with all your acquiring, get understanding.”

God has sovereignly given to us in the Bible what we need for a life of godliness, putting together diverse types of material. All parts of the Bible are not equally important or relevant for us, but each has its own place in the overall revelation from God. There are parts that are especially important for us to believe and obey, while some other parts give us, say, historical background, or what people did (right or wrong) and how God dealt with them. So when we say that the Bible is the word of God what we understand is that the whole book, with its variety of topics, descriptions and styles is given to us from God. However, at this point it should be clear to us that we need to be careful how we interpret the different parts of the Bible. To put the same thing in a different way. Some words in the Bible are direct quotations of what God has said, but even the other words are given to us by God. Some passages of the Bible were specifically addressed to different people at different times. Some words were clearly spoken by people in different situations. So we see that not every sentence in the Bible is a direct word from God to us. But everything in the Bible has been put in place by God so that it can be of some profit to us in knowing God, how He deals with people, what He expects from us, what He is planning to do for us, etc. To understand the different portions of the Bible rightly we need to understand the particular meaning and relevance each of them has for us.

Some people reverence the physical book, the Bible, as if it is divine with supernatural powers, or as if it is itself God! They keep it under their pillow to ward off bad dreams or wave it at demons to scare them! No. This kind of worship is superstition. Some people wash their hands before they take the Bible, or kiss it before they read it. We must not think of the physical book as ‘holy’. The power of the Bible is in God who is behind its word. The paper book or the words do not have any power of their own. There is a mention in the Bible about the Word who became flesh and lived among people (Jn.1:1,14). This is referring to Jesus the Son of God, the second person in the Trinity. We capitalise the word ‘Word’ here because it refers to God the Son, but we need not capitalise the word ‘word’ when it refers to the Bible as the word of God.

The structure of the Bible
Even though it was God who has given us the Bible, it was many people, about forty of them, who wrote the books in it. The entire Bible got written over a period of 1500 years. The human authors came from a variety of backgrounds—fishermen, kings, prophets, scholars, priests, scribes, historians, shepherds—and most of them never met most of the others. Yet the wonder of it all is that they all speak of the same God and the same theme. There is one single story running from the beginning to the end, the story of God’s love for man. This is a miracle in itself that all these authors wrote independently in their different places on earth and in time, and still bring out this picture of unity in the midst of the diversity. This is because it was God who inspired all of them to write what they wrote. Later on, we shall be addressing the mystery of the inspiration of the Bible in detail.

The Bible has 39 books in the portion commonly referred to as the Old Testament (OT) and 27 books in the New Testament (NT). The OT was written in Hebrew (except for portions of the Book of Daniel in Aramaic) and the NT in Greek. There were other books written during the 400 year gap between the OT and the NT (the Apocrypha) and also after the NT (the pseudepigrapha), which are not included in the Bible because they contain historical inconsistencies, contradiction with Biblical truths or writing under false names. The choice of the books to be included in the Bible was the result of people recognising them as such over many years. The Jews in the days of Jesus already had with them the same 39 books of the OT in their synagogues even though they counted only 24 books (because several books were combined, e.g., 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel formed one book), and the fact that Jesus Himself recognised the Jewish Bible gives it the certificate of authenticity. The 27 NT books were recognised as part of Scripture by the churches over the years. The apostle Peter refers to the writings of the apostle Paul as ‘scripture’ demonstrating this recognition even in those early days (2Pet.3:15,16). The Council of Carthage (AD 397) put a formal stamp on the identification of the books that would form the ‘canon’ of the Bible. The Roman Catholic Church includes the Apocrypha also as a part of their Bible, but the evangelical churches have rejected those books from being recognised as a part of the word of God because of inconsistencies in them.

In the original form none of the books of the Bible had divisions into chapters, paragraphs or verses. These divisions which we have now are therefore not sacred. They were placed there for the convenience of reference and are very helpful. Unfortunately in a few cases these divisions cause a break in continuity of a passage, and can cause misunderstanding. For example, Romans Chapter 8 begins with “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Since many people read a chapter at a time, some may miss the connection between this verse and the previous passage in Chapter 7, which can explain why there is no condemnation. In some cases there is ambiguity about words whether they should belong to the end of one sentence or the beginning of the next. Look at Ephesians 1:4,5. V.4 says, “just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love” and v.5 says, “ He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will.” We are not sure whether v.4 should say, “we would be holy and blameless before Him in love,” or whether v.5 should say, “In love He predestined us…” This tells us that we cannot regard the chapter and verse divisions as accurate. However we can avoid misunderstanding the verse if we keep in mind that we should read whole passages rather than just verses from here and there.

Is the Bible really from God?
An outstanding proof of the divine origin of the Bible is that God transforms the lives of the people who read it honestly and sincerely. Through the centuries after Jesus many have come into a personal relationship with God through faith in Jesus just by reading this book. Many respectable looking people have been convicted of their sinfulness and many ‘hopeless’ looking sinners have found acceptance from the God of this Bible. The promises of the Bible have sustained, comforted and encouraged countless number of people going through difficult challenges in life, and its teachings have given guidance to others in the different phases of life. Lives of many who would be considered as gross sinners have been changed by the transforming power of God working through His word. The Bible, even though it was written centuries ago, is still a living word.

The Bible itself claims to be inspired by God. Jesus attested to this fact concerning the OT, and the NT books were recognised by the early church as scripture. The number of prophecies in the Bible concerning people and nations which have been fulfilled already, especially those in the OT concerning the details of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, pre-suppose divine authorship. Another interesting sign of authenticity is the honesty with which events concerning ‘heroes’ are mentioned without omitting shameful details.

Many have tried to destroy the Bible completely and remove it from the face of the earth, and many others have tried to destroy faith in the authenticity of the Bible. But the Bible continues to exist and bless those who come to it in humility. God has protected it so that it continues to conquer the nations. This is a miracle that the Bible and Biblical faith exist in abundance today, even after such attacks against them. Now the Bible is available all around the world through the internet so that even in countries where it is forbidden people can still manage to read it. The work of Bible translators is making it available to most languages in the world. The Bible continues to be the ‘bestselling’ book globally.

The Bible is a book written for everyone, and not especially for scholars or language experts. Ordinary people can now read it and be blessed. There are no hidden messages which only some special people can know. But many false teachers are trying to bring out ‘sensational truths’ by ‘discovering’ hidden codes, distorting the meanings of the original Hebrew and Greek words to bring out fantastic teachings, giving undue emphasis to historical or cultural aspects, reading meaning into passages which the author never meant (eisegesis), attributing supernatural ‘power’ to numbers, colours, or procedures, etc. We need to judge these by their fruit—fruit in the lives of people who bring such teachings as well as fruit in the form of lives being transformed in the people who follow them. We must keep in mind that the ultimate purpose of God for His word is to be “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2Tim.16,17). It is not meant to entertain, amuse or satisfy the curiosity of people who have no real interest in this work. Biblical exegesis (the process of bringing out the meaning) is not meant to impress the listeners or readers with new meanings or hidden truths, but to bless them by leading them closer to the God of the Bible.

Chapter 3 – The Bible we have now

Would you like to take a short course on the fundamental truths of the Bible? Then click here.

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