Understanding the Bible
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WHAT IS THE BIBLE?
An explanation of what the Bible contains, what it is about and what it means.
(This page prints on to 12 A4 sides)
This article is designed for those who have not had any previous contact at all with the Bible. It will assume nothing. It explains what the Bible consists of, what Christians believe it to be, and how to read it to the best advantage.
The Bible (sometimes referred to as the 'Holy
Bible' to denote its sacred nature) is the book from which Christians receive their beliefs. The
word 'Bible' is derived from the Greek word 'biblia' which means books.
2. What the Bible consists of
Although the Bible has the form of a single book, it consists of 66 documents, divided into two sections. The documents are also usually called 'books' (eg the 'Book of Genesis').
The first section - called the ‘Old Testament’ - has 39 documents; the second part - called the ‘New Testament’ - has 27 documents. The two Testaments together are sometimes called ‘The Scriptures’ or the ‘Holy Scriptures’.
The New Testament is sometimes published as a separate book.
The word 'testament' has come down from the Latin 'testamentum', but before that, in Greek, the language in which the New Testament was written, the word used was 'diatheke' which means 'covenant'. A covenant is an agreement between two parties, but in the Bible it has a special meaning which indicates a very important aspect of what the Bible actually is.
In the Bible a covenant is 'an initiative by which God, out of His undeserved kindness, sets down the conditions by which mankind may relate to him, and in which He commits himself to relate to mankind.'
So while there are indeed two parties to a Bible covenant, the emphasis is very much on God as the initiator and guarantor.
This confirms the nature of the Bible as a message or revelation from God to mankind, not a collection of ideas that man has had about God. We shall return to this issue later.
The Bible is not a set of men's ideas about God, but a revelation of Himself by God to man.
In view of this we could refer to the Old and New Covenants just as well as the Old and New Testaments but the latter has been in common use for centuries. The fact that there are two covenants - an old one and a new one - points to the coming of Jesus Christ who brought the new covenant. He is the main subject of the whole Bible, as we shall see.
3. The Nature of the Bible
The documents of the Bible were not received in some trance-like state of the people who wrote them down. Nor is the Bible of the same form as, for instance, the Koran or the Book of Mormon. Moslems believe that the Koran was given directly from God without human intervention. Mormons believe their Book was copied straight from miraculous golden plates given by God.
The Bible consists of documents written by human beings. Christians believe that God used, but in no way distorted, the real-life characters of the writers in recording what they wrote. But God so guided the writers that what is written is what God has inspired to be written. Hence, for example, there are four eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus Christ in the New Testament which record some of the same events with details that the writer himself saw or was impressed by that others do not record. Otherwise some record events that the others do not.
The documents of the whole Bible consist of real-life historical accounts, law books, poetry, wisdom writings, prophecies, eye witness accounts and letters. The whole Bible was written and compiled over a period of about 1,200 years. The authors of the documents were from varied backgrounds including statesmen, historians, leaders, prophets - who were priests, shepherds and farmers; governors, kings, a tax collector, a physician, a business man, a fisherman, and a theologically trained academic. Most of these people never met and yet there is a fundamental unity about the whole Bible. This is most remarkable and very compelling, and leads to the conclusion that the Bible is much more than just a human document.
4. Reading the Bible
If you open the Bible you will find each document (book) divided into chapters and verses. These were not in the original documents but were inserted later to make it easier to find your way about. A sequence of verses is often referred to as a 'passage'. A particular verse in the Bible may be referred to by a shorthand form, as follows - Name of Book (then a space) number of the chapter (then a colon) the number of the verse or verses.
For example, the 2nd verse of chapter 12 of the first book in the Bible, Genesis, would be written as Genesis 12:2. A group of verses, say 2 to 5, would be written Genesis 12:2-5. Also in common usage, the names of the books are abbreviated (some of them are rather long). So it would be Gen.12:2-5 or Gen 12:2-5 .
At the front of every Bible there is a Contents page and this is the easiest way to start finding what you want. There may also be a page giving the abbreviations used for the names of the books. You will soon get used to this system.
In many Bibles there is a list of 'references'. These references lead from one verse to another where the same idea is mentioned. The list may be found in a central column down the centre of each page or at the bottom of each page. These references have been added and are not part of the sacred Bible as originally assembled.
The Bible is available in several translations and in many languages. The translations are from the original texts in Hebrew (for the Old Testament) and from the Greek (for the New Testament) into modern English (and other modern languages, of course) to make the Bible easier to read. The most popular current English translation is the New International Version (often abbreviated to the NIV) and is used throughout this website. Other versions include the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) and the English Standard version (ESV). There are also what are known as 'paraphrases'. These are not word-for-word translations but include much interpretation using modern types of phrase to show the meaning. 'The Living Bible' is a good example of this type.
We shall now examine the two testaments in more detail so that you can understand what the Bible is about.
5. The Old Testament lays down the fundamental issues of the Bible
The Old Testament documents actually comprise the archives of the ancient people of Israel. The kernel of the documents relate the history of how the nation of Israel came into being from about 2,000 years before the coming of Christ. This story begins with the calling by God of a man called Abram (later modified to 'Abraham') who lived in Ur of the Chaldees, which was near the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in what is now southern Iraq. He - like his family and surrounding peoples - was a worshipper of idols. But God called him to worship Him - the One True God - and what followed laid the foundation for the mono-theistic religion of the Jewish race and nation, the Islamic religion and eventually of Christianity. This account of ancient Israel is not primarily about Israel, but about God and how He related to them.
However, before starting to relate this story, the Old Testament begins with an account of the early history of Man in order to lay down great truths without which the rest of the Bible cannot be understood. These truths also help us to understand the world and mankind as we see them today.
These great truths are:
(1) That the God spoken of in the Bible is the One True God who created the universe ('the heavens and the earth') - this is portrayed in the first book of the Bible, Genesis (which means 'beginnings'), chapter 1.
(2) That human beings were the high point and ultimate purpose of God's creation - this also is in Genesis 1 - in verses 26-30.
(3) That God created everything perfect - Genesis 1:31
(4) That God gave mankind a good earth to live in (typified by the 'Garden of Eden'), to look after and to develop. But He also provided a moral framework in which to live under His (God's) rule. This is pictured by a particular tree in the wonderful Garden of Eden (Gen 2:8) known as the 'tree of the knowledge of good and evil' (Gen.2:17). God instructed the first man and woman not to eat of that tree, because if they did they would be able to define good and evil and so set themselves up as rivals to God's moral rule over them. The implication is that only God can define good and evil. In other words, God was to be God with the rights of God; mankind was to be God's creation living under His rule.
God was to BE God with the rights of God; mankind was to be God's creation living under His rule.
5. At first all went well, with mankind living in close relationship with God. But eventually mankind became proud and disobeyed God by eating of the prohibited tree. In other words, mankind started to ignore the rule of God and make moral decisions for himself. This terrible act of treason is vividly described in Gen.3:1-13. The consequences were devastating: mankind was driven out of the Garden - signifying a break with God who created them; there was a breakdown in the relationship between men and women; and the moral guilt of mankind before their moral creator-God was established. This breakdown is what the Bible calls 'sin', and the acts of wickedness which mankind has been committing ever since are known as 'sins'. These theological truths explain why the world we live-in is the way it is.
What the Bible tells us, explains the characteristics of the world we live in and the human race of which we are part.
The next 8 chapters of Genesis describe how in antiquity (the ancient years of pre-history), sin invaded and pervaded every aspect of human life, both personal, family and in human civilisation. Mankind still bears the image of the creator God (Gen.1:26) and is capable of small and great acts of goodness, but is also contaminated and spoiled by sin which also makes us also capable of small acts and great acts of terrible wickedness. The immediate appeal of the Bible account is that it explains exactly the world as we know it and experience it.
The rest of the Bible is the outworking of God's plan to provide a way back for mankind into a full relationship with Him again. The Bible declares that we (ie all humankind) need to be reconciled to God because of our sinful nature. But because God is revealed in the Bible as a completely moral God who is unchangeable and implacably hostile to sin by His very nature (not by whim or resentment), reconciliation to Him is not easy. The life of Abraham, starting in Gen.12:1 is the beginning of the revealing of the way back to God.
6. What the Old Testament is about
The page on this website called 'Bible Time-line' will also be helpful alongside this section. Click to go there.
If you look at the Contents page of a Bible showing the list of 39 books (documents) in the Old Testament, it will look something like this:
Song of Songs
Notice that three of the books are in two parts (Samuel, Kings and Chronicles). These are so arranged because the original texts were too big to go on one normal-sized scroll. This arrangement is preserved in modern Bibles.
This illustration will now be repeated with different colours to help the description that follows....
Song of Songs
The first six books, coloured RED, describe the growth of the nation of Israel from one man (Abraham) until it became a nation of over a million people settled into the land of Canaan on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. This took about 700-800 years and included a very significant period of about 400 years in Egypt in which the fledgling nation was at first very prosperous but later became enslaved by the Pharaohs. Eventually after about 400 years the nation of Israel, then almost a million, escaped from Egypt led by their great leader Moses. The documents declare that this 'escape' was the result of the intervention of God. The people are called 'Israel' after one of their ancestors. After 40 years of nomadic life in the wilderness of the Middle East the nation entered and settled in Canaan, which to them was called 'The Promised Land'.
The five books coloured BLUE describe the fortunes and affairs of the nation of Israel over the next 600 years, during which time a monarchy came into being. The first King was Saul, the second was David - during whose reign Israel prospered - and the third was Solomon, who was famous for his wisdom. After Solomon the nation split into two kingdoms (Judah and Israel). Eventually as a act of judgement for their corruption of worship and their rank social injustice, God allowed Israel (the northern kingdom) to be over-run by Assyria and it was never re-established. The population of the southern kingdom of Israel suffered a similar punishment when they were taken into exile by Nebuchadnezzar the King of Babylon for a period of 70 years. After this a remnant of Israel returned to re-settle Palestine.
The two books coloured dark green (Ezra and Nehemiah) describe the re-settlement of Israel back into Palestine. The previous two books (coloured dark purple) written during the time of the re-settlement are a second account of the history of the period of the kings. Historically this is the end of the story of Israel recorded in the Old Testament. There is then a period of 400 years during which the Bible is silent until the coming of Jesus Christ which opens the New Testament.
The books coloured LIGHT GREEN are the prophecies of the Prophets sent by God to Israel and Judah because they had neglected to keep the covenant God had established with them. The Prophets warned them of God's pending judgement if they did not return to obey Him.
The books in BRIGHT PURPLE are books of wisdom, mostly written by Solomon. 'Psalms' (in BROWN) is a collection of poems and songs written by King David and others, often for use in worship. 'Ruth' and 'Esther' (in BLACK) are accounts of two women, one who was the great-grandmother of David and the other a brave Queen who was a Jewess but the wife of the King of Persia during the exile in Babylon. She interceded to prevent the extermination of the Jews.
This then is the historical and political story of the Old Testament. But of far more importance is .....
7. The Spiritual Message of the Old Testament
It has already been explained (in section 5.5) that the Old Testament begins by describing the origin of mankind as the highest creation of Almighty God, who made the whole universe. But mankind disobeyed the rule of God and thus became morally guilty (Gen.3). The next 8 chapters of Genesis describe how this moral contamination corrupted every part of human existence - men and women, family, community, civilisation.
We are meant to understand that this moral condemnation of man's guilt by God was not a result of His whim but of His eternal unchanging holy (perfectly good) character which could not and cannot be other than implacably hostile to sin and evil. As was indicated earlier ...
Because of God's totally perfect holiness and moral purity it is not easy for God to forgive sin. But God is also shown in these first chapters to be merciful. He constantly acts to draw mankind back to Himself. The rest of the Bible concerns the plan of God to provide a way of 'salvation'; a way by which anyone can be forgiven and reconciled to Him.
It begins with the calling of Abram (later 'Abraham') at the beginning of Gen.12, when God makes Abram certain promises. These include the promise that he will be the father of a great nation, that this nation will have a land of its own, and that all the nations of the earth will be blessed through him (Abram). The nation that he fathers is, of course, Israel, and it is through His dealings with Israel that God reveals how His plan of salvation is going to be achieved.
In the Book of Exodus God reveals, first, that He has adopted them as 'His treasured possession' and, second, through Moses gives them a set of laws to live by. These consist of moral laws, ceremonial laws for when they worship God, and social laws for the cohesion and smooth running of their national life. The law is often thought of in the summary terms of the 'Ten Commandments' which are found in Exodus 20.These laws were given them while they were still nomads in the desert travelling from Egypt to the 'Promised Land' Canaan - (known as Palestine today). But these laws continued to be the basis of their national life and personal lives when they settled into the land and eventually set up a monarchy. The relationship set by God with the people of Israel is know as the 'Covenant'. The moral law reflected God's character. The ceremonial law spelt out how the holy God could be approached by sinful men. In particular it insisted that only the giving of a life as a sacrifice could open the way to God. This life was that of a perfect animal - referred to as 'the lamb without spot or blemish'. While at first consideration this might be seen as merely a tribal custom such as one would find in any primitive people, it turns out to be of enormous significance for the message of the rest of the Bible.
The family line of the Promises made to Abraham is carefully traced through the Old Testament so that, for instance, the initial kings, particularly David (their most famous King) were direct descendants of Abraham.
Unfortunately after a few hundred years the people of Israel began to neglect the Covenant obligations (the laws) which God had set them and He became angry with them. The nation split into two kingdoms, Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Only Judah continued to have kings which were descendants of Abraham. But even Judah turned away from the Covenant. As described in the last section, God sent prophets to warn them to turn back to him, but they would not. So in an effort to refine the nation and restore His rule over them, God used foreign powers to conquer them. The northern kingdom was completely eliminated by the Assyrians and was never formed again. Judah in the south was conquered by Nebuchadnezzar and the people taken into captivity in Babylon where they stayed for 70 years before returning as a remnant to rebuild their nation in Palestine.
The spiritual message that emerges from God's dealings with Israel is multifaceted, but may be summed up in a number of key revelations by God Himself. For example in Exodus 3:14 God reveals His name ..
This statement is very profound for it speaks of the uncreated, self-existent, self-sustaining God of the universe.
And Exodus 34:6,7
In other words, God is vitally involved with His creation, extending mercy to humankind - and yet a God not to be trifled with.
7.1 The One Who is to Come
During even the early books of the Old Testament there seems to be an implicit expectancy of something big that is going to happen in the future. But much later, at the time of the prophets, what had been implicit became much more explicit. The people of Israel who seldom seemed to enjoy a moment's peace from their aggressive neighbours longed for a time of stability, peace and prosperity. They got this during the time of King David, that's why he is such a famous king for them; but after he had gone it all went back to how it was before. They wanted a new permanent king - and God had promised them one. He is described 2 Samuel 7:11-16. God is speaking to David through a prophet....
Of course, Solomon followed David as King, as did all the kings of Judah, but the dynasty came to an end when the country was conquered by Nebuchadnezzar. So we are left with the question 'Whose is the throne that God says He will establish for ever?'
Furthermore in the writings of the prophets, particularly Isaiah, there appears a glorious future which is so magnificent that it seems (a) too good to be true and (b) unlikely to be achievable in human terms. It was even called 'the new heavens and the new earth'! (see Is.65:17)
Alongside this prediction of something wonderful, an un-named figure appears in the shadows of Isaiah's writings. He is referred to as simply 'the servant' (Isaiah 42:1). Later he becomes 'the suffering servant' (Isaiah 53). Altogether these predictions gave rise to the idea that someone special is coming - someone who becomes known as the 'Messiah' which means 'Anointed One'.
Another example can be taken from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah. In chapter 34 verse 15, it is reported that God gave Jeremiah a message, saying 'In those days and at that time I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David's line; he will do what is just and right in the land.' To whom can this be referring? No notable figure appeared later in Jewish history who would fit this prophecy, until ...?
So the revelation which makes up the Old Testament finishes on a note of incompleteness and expectancy. God's relationship with Israel (the Covenant) and the ceremonial laws He gave them seem temporary awaiting a future fulfilment. And the prophets in their writings, made it quite clear that something big - even overwhelming was going to happen in the future.
In closing this section, it is important to recall that the Old Testament is not primarily about Israel, but about God. It reveals the nature of God; what his purposes are; and - most importantly - how He, with His moral perfection, is willing to relate to humankind that has rebelled against Him. It is the New Testament that completes this revelation in the person and work of the Jesus of Nazareth.
8. The Form of the New Testament
This is what the Contents look like (the colours are for ease of explanation):
Acts of the Apostles
The first 4 books (coloured RED) are eye-witness accounts of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. They are called 'the Gospels'. The word 'Gospel' means 'Good News'. It will emerge later why this title is used.
Two of them, Matthew and Luke, begin with the circumstances of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem in Judea (Palestine). In addition to their own experience of Jesus, the Gospel writers use sources from other eye-witnesses. Typical of this is Peter, a leading disciple of Jesus, who himself did not write an eye-witness account but provided material for the others who did. There is much common material in the first three books but each of the writers sometimes includes detail that the others do not choose to use.
It is important to remember the principle given at the beginning of this page, about the nature of the Bible, namely, that it was in no sense dictated to the writers, but was overseen and inspired by God's Spirit. This means that the writers were free to display their own characters in what they wrote. This influences what we find in the Gospels because the different writers included different detail according to what they wanted to emphasise. In any case, differently to modern western writing in which we think in terms of chronological order as paramount, this was not the way with writers of the first century. So we find events grouped by subject or theme as well by chronological order. The fourth gospel 'John' is rather different from the others in that it contains a lot more interpretation of Jesus' actions that the others do.
Of the writers, Matthew was formerly a tax collector: Mark was a young man related to Peter: Luke was a physician, and John was a fish merchant.
The next book (in GREEN) is the Acts of the Apostles - usually shortened to 'Acts'. It was written by Luke who also wrote the third Gospel. The 'Apostles' were the disciples who witnessed the life of Jesus, the Resurrection in particular, whom Jesus Himself appointed to carry on proclaiming His message after His departure. (Note this was not by death but by ascension to heaven). An additional Apostle was Paul of Tarsus who, while initially a sworn enemy of Jesus and all He stood for, received a special revelation of Jesus and was appointed as Apostle to the Gentiles (non-Jews). 'Acts' describes the spread of the Christian church along the eastern Mediterranean and into Europe over the thirty years after Jesus' resurrection.
The following nine books (coloured DARK PURPLE) are letters written by the Apostle Paul to 7 groups of Christian believers in places where he had been or wanted to visit. They are to Corinth (two letters survive but there were certainly more), Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi (the first church in Europe), Colossae, and Thessalonica.
The next four books (coloured in BRIGHT PURPLE) are letters written by Paul to three individuals Timothy, Titus and Philemon leaders in the local churches.
The next book Hebrews (in BLACK) has an unknown author and is addressed particularly to Hebrew (Jewish) believers in Jesus Christ.
The seven books (coloured in NAVY) are letters written by four leading members of the church: James (a family brother of Jesus) who was the leader of the church in Jerusalem, Peter and John were Apostles, and Jude a brother of James.
The final book 'Revelation' (in ORANGE) consists of a revelation given to the Apostle John. It is concerned with God's actions to bring to an end all human history and concludes with the setting up of the New Heavenly Jerusalem. It contains a great deal of vivid imagery.
9. The Spiritual Message of the New Testament
The appearance of Jesus of Nazareth as a preacher and healer caused a considerable stir amongst the Jews in Galilee and Judea, the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. The Gospels tell us of his origins. He was born, during the reign of Caesar Augustus in Rome and King Herod in Jerusalem, into a poor family, in the town of Bethlehem and brought up in Nazareth. It should be noted that the place and circumstances of his birth (including its virgin conception) fulfilled various predictions in the Old Testament relating to the Messiah - the One who was to come (see earlier).
His upbringing in Nazareth appears to have been normal and unremarkable (we are not told anything about it) apart from two incidents; one when he was only 8 days old when the priest at the Temple recognised him as the Lord's Anointed (see Luke 2:21-38), and the other when he was only 12 years old, when during a visit to the Temple he engaged the teachers in theological discussion - 'Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers' (Luke 2:41-47). His father was a carpenter and it seems reasonable to assume Jesus learnt the same trade. He had several brothers and sisters.
Both Matthew and Mark tell us that Jesus appeared in public in what must have been his early thirties teaching 'Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near' (Matthew 4:17) and 'The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good News' (Mark 1:15).
He caused a stir wherever he went. 'The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority.... The people were so amazed that they asked each other, "What is this? A new teaching - and with authority! He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him"'' (Mark 1:22 and 27). On a different occasion '.. because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.' (Mark 11:18) And yet again in Matt.22:33 'When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at his teaching'.
In a very vividly recorded visit to the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:16-21) he preached from a messianic passage in the book of Isaiah quoting 61:1,2 and declared 'Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.'
However, Jesus' ministry while popular with the people was seen as a serious threat by the religious authorities. They opposed him from the start, plotted against him and eventually conspired to have him executed by the Romans by crucifixion. By a strange irony, despite his many miracles of healing, the people also became disappointed by Jesus because he showed no sign of being a Messiah who would lead a national revolt against the Roman occupiers of their land. Indeed, when standing accused before the Roman governor Pilate and asked if he was a king, Jesus replied that his kingdom was not of this world.
As one reads the Gospels it soon becomes clear that the writers from their own personal experience and observation of Jesus have concluded that he is the Son of God. For example, after he had calmed a storm on the Sea of Galilee his disciples declare 'Who is this man that even the winds and waves obey him?'. In Mark 8 Jesus specifically asked his disciples whom they think he is - to which they reply that he is the Messiah the Son of God. At the beginning of a letter preserved towards the end of the New Testament, John who was a close disciple of Jesus clearly says about him ....
'That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched - this we proclaim concerning the Word of Life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard..' (1 John 1:1-3)
Mark's Gospel is the shortest to read and a good place to begin in understanding what Jesus' message was.
But one very special thing emerges from an examination of the Gospel accounts, and that is that Jesus' life and teaching is a preparation for his death which is by far the most important event. It is clear that he gave up his life - it was not taken from him. He was illegally arrested and tried and convicted on the word of false witnesses. When asked by the High Priest if he was the Messiah, Jesus effectively said he was and this brought the full weight of the blasphemy law down on him.
Jesus did explain to his disciples that his death was the central act in God's plan for the ransom (salvation) of those who would believe in him. But it was only after his death and resurrection (rising from the dead) that under his tuition for a period of forty days, they really began to understand the full of import of his death as the fulfilment of the Old Testament requirement for the death of a perfect sacrifice to gain forgiveness from a morally perfect God. For more explanation of this see the articles 'What is the Gospel?' and 'What is the Christian Faith?' on this website.
Suffice it to say for our purposes here, that the message of a crucified and risen Saviour electrified the disciples who then set about spreading this good news, despite much suffering and persecution. The rest of the New Testament, especially through the writings of Paul (but also of Peter, John and James) further explains the eternal significance of what Jesus Christ achieved and how it should be worked out in the lives of believers; of the promises of God for eternal life and an insight into how how God will human history to a close.
All the articles on this website are designed to further explain and apply the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
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