This section is written in the hope that you will have an awareness of the story of the Bible which will help you understand each part of it better and you will be equipped with practical ways of reading it which you can use in your daily life.
These first two aims lead to the main one: that you will have a deeper confidence in how to listen to God through the Bible and a desire to do so. In the middle of the Bible the writer of the Psalms says, “Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long….How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Psalm 119: 97, 103) This writer loves his Scriptures, and experiences them as “God’s words”.
However, in order to get to a point where we have this kind of confidence in and love for the Bible, we need to recognise that many people (whether they call themselves Christians or not) struggle with it for understandable reasons.
Understanding it can be challenging – the Bible is complex in its content but also may make us ask questions such as: how could God write a book? Or…is every part of it equally important?
Applying it to our daily lives can take effort – the Bible is old, written during times very different from ours. We may ask: in what ways can it still be relevant?
Reading it can be daunting – the Bible is made up of lots of styles of writing, many of which might be unfamiliar to us. It is larger than most books we might ever read. We might struggle to know where to start.
The aim of this module is not so much to take us through the story of the Bible (there are other courses and resources that do this well, most recently the Bible Society’s Bible Course or the Bible Project). We will be doing that, but not in as much detail as these other courses.
The aim is to address those things which might be stumbling blocks to our love for, and confidence in, paying attention to God through Scripture.
Each session will offer four things:
Looking at the story and big themes of the Bible, so we can see how it fits together.
Exploring how we read it well, in terms of, for example, being good at interpreting what it means for today.
Examining difficult questions which might undermine our confidence. For example, asking how the Bible was put together, or what it means for it to be a divine book.
Offering some practical suggestions and resources which will help make listening to God in Scripture a normal part of life for everybody.
In ‘Being with God’ we have seen that being a disciple (someone who “learns as they follow”) in our day to day lives is about paying attention to what God is saying to us and responding to Him.
What God ‘says’ to us makes all the difference. In his book What is the Bible? Rob Bell writes that, as the One who brings things alive by His words, God can ‘speak’ in many different ways – through all that He has made: planets, music, people, children, life circumstances…God is active in everything, if we are open to listen.
It is also good to remember that for thousands of years many people did not have a book called the Bible, and, even when it existed, still might not have had access to it – as many do not today. This does not mean that God’s words are unable to be heard.
Yet, alongside this, the claim is that in the Bible we are given, through a selection of books, an incredible and reliable record of what God has been and is doing in the world.
The Bible pulls together the rich variety of what God has revealed of Himself through the story of His relationship with people, which comes to its fulness in the record of Jesus, into a laser-sharp focus. To read the Bible is to have access to our most complete way of seeing into the heart and work of God.
This is why the Bible is called “Holy” – it is unique, special or sacred in its power to reveal God to us.
While God may speak to human beings in many ways, the Bible claims that God’s Spirit works as we absorb its words to transform our lives in every aspect of our discipleship, making us more fully human by:
Teaching us about how we and the world are rescued and made whole in Christ and
Training us in right living (“…. you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” 2 Timothy 3: 14-17)
Refreshing our sense of God’s love and helping us to grow as disciples. (“Blessed is the one whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law, day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither— whatever they do prospers.” Psalm 1:3)
Giving us wisdom in how we develop as people and make good decisions (“Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.” Psalm 119:105)
Helping us understand our deepest motives and thoughts as we follow God. (“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” Hebrews 4:12)
Building our lives on what God is doing forever. (“Jesus answered, ‘It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Matthew 4:4)
Each part of the Bible only makes sense in relationship to the whole.
Even though the Bible is divided up into 66 books and the Old Testament (39) and New Testament (27) (testament means ‘statement of belief’ or covenant), it is one unified story.
The more we can read it as one story (nearly half the Bible is written as narrative), the more the details make sense. For example, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah only make sense when we know the context and hope of Israel’s story. Despite the incredible variety of books (written over 1500 years by over 40 people) the whole Bible has a remarkable unity of direction.
There are common themes that occur throughout. Do you recognise any of these Old Testament ideas from the New?
“For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness.” (Ezekiel 34: 11-12)
‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:18)
“Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.” (Psalm 82:3)
The Bible shapes us by being a story.
Every human being lives their life with a certain understanding (whether it is assumed or known) of who they are and why they are here. This underlying story shapes the decisions and priorities they live by.
The unified story of the Bible not only tells us what God has done, but it also reveals what God is doing and what ultimately God will do. It shows us where we have come from, what we are here for and where we are headed.
We read it well when we allow the story of the Bible to shape us in this way. By knowing God’s story as best we can we find ourselves living as part of His-story, rather than seeking to fit God into our story.
Tom Wright and others have described this as being like taking part in a play of five acts. The first four acts describe what has happened – God has made the world (1), yet it has fallen (2). He has called a people to be a blessing and yet the conflict between good and evil continues (3). The play reaches its climax in Jesus, in whom God deals decisively with sin and death (4).
But now we are waiting for the final act (5) in which God’s creation will be completely healed when Christ returns and we will reign with Him forever.
We live between acts four and five, and God calls us to live out His continuing story through our day-to-day obedience and love. The more we are familiar with the ‘script’ of the Bible, the more we will naturally be able to continue the story.
This will mean we ‘improvise’ faithfully, based on what has gone before, and on how we know the play ends.
The Bible contains some rules and instructions – but we don’t primarily read it in order to be able to keep them. Rather, to read it well means to become so familiar with God’s story that our own daily stories become increasingly part of it.
At the centre of the story is Jesus
Whatever we read in the Bible makes most sense when it points us to Jesus. He is the one in whom we see the complete character of God, and who shows us God’s purposes. He is the one to whom the whole story of the Old Testament points, and who fulfils its hopes. When we read parts of the Bible which are hard to understand, the only way to approach them is to ask how they relate to Him.
John writes that He is the Word of God who has been with God from the beginning, and through whom God became flesh and blood for us.
As we have seen, this was something Christ Himself claimed, saying that all the earlier books of the Bible point to Him: “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me.” (John 5:46) After His resurrection, Jesus taught two of His disciples about what had happened in this way: “Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27)
This brings us to an important point. The main way in which God speaks to us is not through the Bible (or any other means) but through Jesus Christ. The Bible is God’s word, but only exists to point us to the Word of God – Christ.
It is possible to read the Bible in a way that turns it into an idol, building up our knowledge as an end in itself, or to somehow earn our sense of being right with God. Yet Jesus was sharp with those in His day who failed to see its true purpose. “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (John 5: 39-40)
To read the Bible well is always to understand it through Christ, and always be led to Christ through the Bible.
The Bible is a living word.
We can approach the Bible for knowledge, instruction, or understanding of ultimate truths about God and His world. When Paul writes to Timothy, he has this in mind when he encourages him to be someone “who correctly handles the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)
But to read the Bible well is to approach it as God’s communication of truth, for me personally, in a given moment. It is a “living and active” word, an encounter with God as His Spirit takes the words from the page and applies them to my mind and heart. This is the kind of listening to God through Scripture which Jesus longed to see His disciples experience: “The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life.” (John 6:63)
In 2020, Pope Francis preached, “To follow Jesus, mere good works are not enough; we have to listen daily to his call…He, who alone knows us and who loves us fully, leads us to push out into the depth of life…..That is why we need His word: So that we can hear, amid the thousands of other words in our daily lives, that one word that speaks to us not about things, but about life.”
This reading of the Bible for knowledge and revelation is reflected in the two words for “word” in the New Testament. One word, logos, is used to describe God’s eternal, unchanging truth. Jesus is the “Logos” at the beginning of John’s gospel – the true Word of God.
The other word, rhema, is the word that speaks into a specific situation and quickens our hearts. In the verse from John above, the words that give life are Jesus’ rhema.
Logos and rhema never contradict each other, and both are needed. This means that there are thankfully many ways to approach reading the Bible. But our desire is always that we may encounter God in reading, just as we “encounter” a loved one through the words of their handwritten letter. St Augustine described the Scriptures as “our letters from home”.
As we do so we will hopefully find ourselves in the same position as Karl Barth the theologian, who, when he read the Bible, said, “I have read many books, but the Bible reads me.” The more we can open the Bible with an expectation that this ‘living and active’ book will help us to meet with God, the better we will read it.
This is why Saint Isaac of Nineveh had this advice: “Do not approach the reading of the Divine Scriptures without prayer and asking the help of God. Consider prayer to be the key to the true understanding of that which is said in the Holy Scriptures.”
The Bible’s language is meant to be accessible.
Much of the Bible, in Old and New Testaments, began as stories told by word of mouth. The Old Testament stories were told by storytellers, priests and judges and passed down through the generations. Many of these were put together by rabbis about 1000 years before Jesus, written on rolls of parchment or papyrus. These Jewish scriptures were written in Hebrew – read from right to left across the page and beginning at what we think of as the back of the book.
Two other languages can be found in the Bible. Daniel and Ezra are written in Aramaic which was the official language of the ruling Persian empire. There are a few verses in Aramaic in the New Testament.
At the time of Jesus the main language was Greek. A Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures was written 200 years before His birth called the Septuagint – from the Latin for 70 – because they believed this number of people had worked on it. It is this that the New Testament writers use when quoting the Old Testament. The New Testament writings are all in Greek.
Importantly, knowing this highlights three important things about how accessible it is:
The Bible is not linked to one language – it is meant to be translated into whatever language is needed for it to be understood.
The Bible is rooted in story – and stories which people remembered.
The style of language in the New Testament is for everyday use, not academic study. The Bible was written in a way that ordinary people are meant to be able to understand.
If we want to read the Bible well, it is important to find a version that we find understandable and memorable. It is not meant to be a test of our ability to read difficult language.
Not all parts of the Bible are the same.
The Bible is like a library (the meaning of ‘Bible’ comes from the Greek ta biblia which means little books) made up of many kinds of books, with different purposes and styles.
The Bible’s diversity is a gift – it reflects the wonderful variety of God’s world and the different ways in which people encounter Him. It is a book for all personality types!
There are eye-witness accounts, historical stories, poems, laws, prophecies, songs, political tracts, letters, mythical stories, parables, wisdom literature and what is known as ‘apocalyptic’ writing – a poetic style of writing using powerful images to explore hidden things about what God is doing in the world and what will happen in the future.
This means that part of reading the Bible well is about understanding the kind of writing that the part of the Scripture we are reading is. It is not difficult to work out – alongside our own wisdom, there are many simple resources that we can use to give us the necessary background.
We are used to doing this. The way we read a car manual – looking for specific bits of information – is very different from the way we read a novel – from start to finish. Or the way we read a poem – slowly and deliberately – is very different from the way we read a magazine article.
Similarly, we will need to ask the right kind of questions of what we read in the Bible. The story of the Prodigal Son is a parable – a made up story to reveal a spiritual truth. It would therefore not help us to ask factual questions such as, “What was his name?” or “When did he live?” to understand it better.
On the other hand, when we read the accounts of Jesus, it is helpful to know, as Luke claims at the beginning of his gospel, that these are meant to be read as reliable history.
The opening of the Bible in particular needs this kind of background understanding. Were the two accounts of creation in Genesis 1 and 2 written as scientific/historical documents meant to be understood literally? Or is the reason they are in a poetic form because they were only written to express the deeper truths about why God created the world and human beings?
If we don’t read with the kind of literature in mind, not only might it lead to disagreements about how we should understand it, but we can miss out on the kind of truth that the writers were trying to convey.
For example, the account of the talking snake was not written to teach us something about the animal kingdom, but to reveal how Eve gave in to a lie about who God was and who she was – revealing the way in which we can all be pulled away from the truth about God and ourselves.
While some parts of the Bible are clearly meant to be understood literally, not all parts of the Bible make sense as literal fact. In fact, to try and shoehorn a literal understanding into something that was not intended to be read as such might be to make it less truthful. Taking the Bible seriously does not mean taking it all literally.
Similarly, when the names of those who wrote the books of the Bible don’t match up with their original authors, or the period in which a book is set doesn’t align completely with the writing, we can read better if we understand the purpose and expectations of the writer. Here are three examples of how exploring this might help us to read the Bible more truthfully:
For example, we will have greater understanding by knowing that the single book of Isaiah comes from three different time periods and is broken up into three different parts, addressing separate periods of Israel’s history. (Many scholars think Isaiah is a collection of religious tracts written at different times by a ‘school’ of prophets started by Isaiah. Some scholars, however, think the book was written in one time period around 740 BC.)
The Book of Daniel is set 600 years before Jesus while Israel was in captivity in Babylon. Yet its style and detail reflect an accurate picture of Israel only 200 years before Jesus (called the Maccabean period).
Many people therefore read Daniel not so much as a historical account, but better read as an inspiring story about a man loyal to God in captivity, written to encourage Jewish people who were struggling against Greek occupation.
It helps to know that the Psalms are not the work of one person and that King David may have written some but not all, or even most of them. At first there were probably small collections of psalms, or separate psalms, which were put together by the end of the 3rd century BC.
In the book The Drama of Scripture the authors write this: “Imagine that the Bible, with its 66 books, written by dozens of human authors over the course of more than 1000 years, is a grand cathedral with many rooms and levels and a variety of entrances….You can, for example, enter the Bible through one of the gospels….If you want to gather a sense of the cathedral as a whole, you face an important question: where is the main entrance, the place from which you can orient yourself to the whole? The cathedral of the Bible has many themes.”
As we go through its whole story as part of gaining confidence in the Bible, we will be focussing on its themes as a way of entering the whole book. The Drama of Scripture writers offer covenant and kingdom as the two main themes of the Bible which hold it all together.
Covenant is about the relationship that God wants with His people throughout history.
Kingdom is about God’s rule over His people and creation.
The two are linked – when people enter a covenant relationship with God (or a human king) they begin to live under His reign.
As well as these two themes, we will open up the Bible through the themes of Creation, Image of God, Fall, Exile, Worship, Presence, Justice, Grace, Salvation, Hope, and Right Living
The handout The Story of Scripture gives a brief overview of this big story, with themes, books, key characters and dates highlighted, plus a few missing words for you to fill in.
We have seen how the Bible emerged over time, but one question that may undermine our confidence in it is uncertainty about how it was finally put together. Who decided which books should be included, why and when? And can we trust their decision as authoritative?
The list of books that make up the official ‘canon’ of the Bible (the books seen as inspired by God) was finalised at a series of Councils of bishops from across the churches in the 300 ADs.
By the time of Jesus, the existing Jewish scriptures had been mostly agreed upon – and this was officially recognised by 250 AD.
After Jesus died and rose again nothing was written down for some time and the early Christians were used to using their memories to tell stories and ideas. The first written New Testament texts were Paul’s letters – known as the Epistles.
As the church grew it became necessary to write the accounts of the good news – known as the Gospels. There were other ‘gospels’ in existence, some of which we still have, such as the Gospel of Thomas.
It became necessary to establish which were the authentic, God-inspired, accounts. The twenty-seven books we have today began to be recognised early on. By 50AD the apostles had written or endorsed 23 books, and by the end of first century most of the books were already established. Paul sees Luke’s gospel as having authority in his letters, and Peter recognised Paul’s writings as Scripture.
The first New Testament, known as the Muratorian Canon was compiled in AD 170. It included 22 of the 27 books that were eventually decided on by 397AD.
In deciding which books had been truly inspired by God’s Spirit they asked questions such as: Was the author of the book an apostle or have a close connection with an apostle? Is the book being widely accepted in the church? Is its teaching consistent? Is it transformative?
The crucial thing to know is that we can have confidence in the way the Bible was put together because the Councils that met 400 years after Jesus were not deciding what should be in the Bible from scratch but were confirming what was already known and used – and had been for a long time.
Finding the Bible for me:
One of the reasons we can lack confidence with the Bible is because we haven’t found a version we find easy to read. Yet there are many different translations of the Bible, which means there is a version for you!
The reason there are different translations is because some provide a literal, word-for-word translation of the Hebrew or Greek, but on the other end of the scale some offer an equivalent version, which emphasises the meaning of the Bible but in language which is more familiar to us. And some land between the two.
If you want to study the original text as closely as possible you will go for the more literal version, whereas if you want to be able to read and understand the meaning of the Bible more easily you will want an equivalent paraphrase.
The Bible Society have an excellent webpage which leads you through some questions to discover which kind of Bible is right for you. https://www.biblesociety.org.uk/explore-the-bible/which-is-the-best-bible-translation/
A good literal translation might be the English Standard Version.
Translations which try and combine word-for-word accuracy with more of an emphasis on meaning might be the New Revised Standard or the New International Version.
A contemporary language version which unpacks meaning (a paraphrase) is the Message.
You can easily buy a paper version, but the Bible is also available on websites such as Bible Gateway https://www.biblegateway.com/ or apps such as Youversion.
You can even place different translations of Bible passages side by side on these sites.
Getting the background:
As we have said, understanding the background to the kind of writing you are looking at in the Bible helps us read with confidence and understanding.
In recent years the Bible Project has created short, animated videos on each book of the Bible which help you see its overall meaning and context. https://bibleproject.com/explore/book-overviews/
The Bible Society has created a resource of three page notes on each book of the Bible. https://www.biblesociety.org.uk/explore-the-bible/bible-book-club/
Starting to read regularly:
It can be hard to know where to start reading the Bible, which ‘entrance’ to use.
There are many resources available which offer daily readings, with background information, which you can listen to or read.
https://www.bible.com/reading-plans offers daily Bible reading plans for long or short periods, on lots of different topics to guide you through and help you listen to God. These can even be emailed to you every day.
The handout Daily Prayer resources handout offers a list of resources you can use on phone or computer to help you read the Bible and pray every day.
Suggestions for getting going:
In building our Bible confidence here are a few short opportunities you could explore:
Each of us has a way of looking at the world and understanding why we are here. We may not always acknowledge (or even realise) what our ‘worldview’ is, but it will be framed around the answers we give to four questions:
Where am I? (What kind of world do I live in?)
Who am I? (What kind of creature am I?)
What is wrong? (What is the problem with the way the world is / I am?)
What is the solution? (What will put the world, or me, right? Where might it be headed?)
The story of the Bible gives us a worldview which addresses these four questions, and the answers to the first three are laid out in the first chapters of the Bible – Genesis 1-11.
Genesis describes why things and people exist, what is wrong, and begins to unfold God’s solution.
The world is made by and continues to exist because of God.
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Genesis 1:1
The Bible says that the world we live in is a place created by God. “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, who created the heavens and the earth.” To say that God created this world immediately challenges the worldview of thinking we can plunder it, use up its resources and take it for granted. The world we live in exists for God. The first verse of the Bible also introduces us to the reality of a seen and unseen world, a physical and a spiritual reality – the ‘heavens and the earth’, originally created to be united.
From the beginning of the Bible, creation is not worshipped – but it points to God’s glory (“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” (Psalm 19:1)) and reveals His reality: (“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” Romans 1: 20))
The world continues to exist because of God – creation is ongoing. He did not wind it up like a big clock and leave it to run itself. He made an agreement with it. Through Jeremiah, God said this about His relationship with the world: “If I have not established my covenant with day and night and the fixed laws of heaven and earth, then I will reject the descendants of Jacob and of David my servant.” (Jeremiah 33: 23-26)
God loves His world and remains faithful to it.
God is saying that His love for Israel is as certain as his commitment to keep day and night going. The only reason there will be a sunrise tomorrow morning is because God has decreed it will be so. Jesus celebrates God’s intimate relationship with the world when He says, “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. …. God clothes the grass of the field….” (Matthew 6: 26,30)
The world is ordered by God
“And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” (Genesis 2:16-17)
God rules His creation by His law. He has designed his creation at every level to work in certain ways. There are two ways He rules. The first is directly without help from anyone – through what we call “natural law” – so he has made the planets move in certain ways without help from anyone, he makes seeds germinate, weather fronts form, animals exist without help from anyone. (Psalm 104)
The second way that God rules His creation is indirectly, through human beings. Crucially, God has written laws for both ways of ruling. Just as there are natural laws, so too God has designed human life to exist in certain ways, and not others. He has norms for human life.
We are used to talking about God’s will for my life in terms of specific events – who should I marry, what job I should have. But God has an equally specific will for every area of life.
Isaiah talks about how God has set up creational laws for good agriculture, asking, “When a farmer ploughs for planting, does he plough continually? Does he keep on breaking up and working the soil? When he has levelled the surface, does he not sow caraway and scatter cumin?…His God instructs him and teaches him the right way.” (Isaiah 28: 24-26)
God has created all of life to flourish in different ways. For example, if I am an artist, I can know that there is good art and bad art. God has designed art to be created in certain ways and not others. I am called to serve God by working out how art should be pursued to reveal God’s creativity.
If I am a teacher, I am called to discern God’s creational norms for how children should be educated. If I am a business person, it is possible for me to explore ways that my business can be run which reflect God’s goodness.
However, there is a big difference between God’s order of things for the natural world, and His ordering things for us. Natural laws don’t have any choice but to obey God’s norms. Human beings do. We can choose to follow God’s norms or not. A stone has no choice but to obey the law of gravity. But, as the second chapter of Genesis makes clear, human beings are given the choice as to whether to apply God’s laws to human situations or not.
Schools, businesses, families, art all have certain structures along which they should run which are part of the reality given by God. God instituted the state and has designed it to run in certain ways and not others.
The Bible assumes that just as we should be able to work out from looking at things how the natural world works, so we should be able to work out how human affairs are made to work. For example, you know that if you try and run a school like a business it creates problems. God did not create education to function in that way. If you try to run a business like a family it won’t work. And if you try to run a family like a school you will do violence to the structure of family life God has created.
A proper understanding of God’s world makes our relationship to it healthy.
“Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7)
For some religions the world is seen as a prison from which we must ultimately be freed. ‘Carnal things’ such as the human body, sex, art, sport, literature, theatre, food, dancing, parties, and playing cards are distractions from the ‘spiritual’.
But Genesis tells us that this is a terrible mistake, because God called what he created good.
Seven times it says in Genesis that God looked at things and said they were good, and the final time it states that “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” (Genesis 1: 31)
At the beginning of the story soil and spirit are united. There isn’t somewhere else. This is God’s theatre. Human beings are living body‐souls. God thoroughly approves of the body.
Whereas Plato said that the body is a prison of the soul, in Genesis God does not split human beings up. He breathed his spirit into the human being’s body.
This is paralleled in the description of God creating the heavens – the spiritual, and the earth – the physical, intending for them to be knitted together in one unified creation, and it is good.
William Temple said that Christianity is the most materialistic religion in the world. He didn’t mean we all need more things, he meant that God loves our physical, material life. That’s why Jesus could become flesh.
This understanding should help us to be unafraid to enjoy God’s good gifts. It should help us not to split our lives into sacred and secular compartments.
Being in God’s image means being made for relationship with God and each other.
“Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness’….So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1: 26-27)
By breathing His personal spirit into human beings, God distinguishes us from other animals. Genesis describes this as meaning we are uniquely in His image.
At the heart of imaging God is being made for relationship – with God and each other. These first verses portray God as having a conversation with Himself. From the beginning God is social – a divine community of love. Just as God is a relationship, so as human beings, part of what makes us bear His image is needing others. The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18)
Being in God’s image means being His representatives and knowing our primary task
“God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’” (Genesis 1:28)
As we have seen, the second way in which God rules His world is indirectly, through human beings. The beginning of the Bible reveals what human beings are here to do. At the beginning of the story God’s first words to human beings are to image Him by being fruitful and to “fill the earth and subdue it”. (Genesis 1: 28)
God gives humans enormous power to image Him in the world – intelligence, creativity, leadership, and ingenuity – and God gives Adam and Eve a world inherent with possibilities: Minerals wait to be mined for metal instruments; plants grow to be cut for food or herbs; animal skins can be converted into human clothes: trees to be made into furniture, houses, cities, books, musical instruments.
This is the main human task and has been called the “cultural mandate”. To fill the earth, not just with babies, but with music, creativity, technology, learning, art, architecture, parks, photography.
Understanding this creational task can help us to see discipleship as not just being about personal worship and morality, but about changing and developing the world that the Lord of everything created. We will avoid thinking seeing stewardship as maintenance, keeping things ticking over until He comes again.
The task Adam and Eve got, and the role that we have inherited as a result, is one of building a civilisation which teases out of God’s creation all He primed it to be able to do, to the glory of his name. We can image God just as much outside the church as within it.
As well as “filling the earth” in this way, we represent God by “ruling over” the earth. Rightly, understood, this is about protecting the earth (rather than exploiting it for our own ends).
In her book, ‘The Mystic way of Evangelism’, Elaine Heath writes, “Creation should see in redeemed humanity the same loving care and respect that God has for his creation.” What she calls “Eco-evangelism, being good news to creation in the name of Jesus, must become key in the mission of the church.”
She says that the world is becoming “…increasingly mutilated (under) the unholy alliance of science, technology and industry which threaten the very future of the planet….Evangelism is not good news until it is good news for all of creation, for humanity, animals, plants, waters, and soil, for the earth that God created and called good.”
Being in God’s image reflects the dignity and authority of human beings
“The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it…. He brought (the animals) to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.” (Genesis 2: 15, 19)
The creation of human beings is the climax of God’s work – we are named as “very good” in the story. This underlines how to be made in His image is to grant incredible dignity to each person.
The Bible Project authors point out how in ancient times kings would claim to be God’s image on earth. For the Bible to apply this title to all human beings is to say that God gives every human being this royal authority.
Psalm 8 wonders at the incredible responsibility and worth God gives us, asking, “…what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honour. You made them rulers over the works of your hands you put everything under their feet…” (Psalm 8: 4-6)
Genesis reveals God the way God works in the world as being willing to take the risk of a genuine human-divine partnership, in which human beings are not equals with God, but are nevertheless ‘under-kings’.
The story of the Bible starts and ends here – with God wanting to restore each human by being “renewed…in the image of the creator” (Colossians 3:8-13), and eventually ruling with Him once again.
The Bible describes the root of the world’s problem.
“And the Lord God said, ‘The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.’” (Genesis 3: 22)
In 1937 HG Wells wrote, “Can we doubt that presently our race will more than realise our wildest imaginations, that it will achieve unity and peace, and that our children will live in a world made more splendid and lovely than any palace or garden that we know, going on from strength to strength in an ever-widening circle of achievement?”
Yet nine years later in 1946 he wrote this, “The cold-blooded massacres of the defenceless, the return of deliberate and organised torture, mental torment, and fear to a world from which are such things had seemed well-nigh banished ‐ has come near to breaking my spirit altogether. Homo sapiens, as he has been pleased to call himself, is played out.”
The Bible begins with a description of the original dignity and calling of human beings, but also the reality of how far we have universally “fallen” from the glory given to us. As Paul wrote, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3: 23)
The story describes this as the result of eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The issue in Genesis is not about whether we should be able to distinguish between good and evil – rather, the root of our human condition is our attempt to be wise like God is wise. To define in ourselves what is good and evil, effectively becoming our own gods.
Genesis claims that human beings fall because we stop referring to God in obedience and faithfulness and instead make our own path. Yet the paradox is that apart from God, we have no way of really knowing how to flourish. Sin in some ways always seems to be a good – no one goes for something that is ugly to them. The root of sin is to confuse what is evil with what is good, and call good what is evil.
The Bible describes how the fall affects three relationships:
“He said to the woman, ‘Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden?’…But the Lord God called to the man, ‘Where are you?’ He answered, ‘I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.’” (Genesis 3:1,9,10)
The cause but also the effect of this disobedience is the breakdown of the relationship of trusting love between human beings and God. The story portrays the serpent as suggesting that God cannot be trusted. “Did God really say…?”
As she absorbs this lie, Eve begins to make changes in her account: The Lord had said, “You may eat freely” but Eve simply reported that He said, “We may eat.” Then she adds to what God had prohibited. Though the Lord had said nothing about touching the tree Eve claims that God had said, “Neither shall you touch it.”
These portray humans as falling from seeing God’s love and holiness, and so beginning to view God as less than trustworthy – that His way is not necessarily the best.
As a result, humans become estranged from their Creator – they hide from Him. This breakdown is not portrayed as God giving us what we deserve, but as the natural consequence of turning away from the love and holiness of our creator. Sin itself has a built-in mechanism that leads toward perishing. We die the further we get from God. Sin is literally killing ourselves.
We can sense the effects of it in the cooling of our desire to worship and obey Him. We find that we may not want to talk to God, we may only want to talk about God.
The tone of God’s question, “Where are you?” is not of anger, but of pain.
With one another…
“Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realised they were naked…”(Genesis 3:7)
There is breakdown of relationship between human beings. In losing God as the centre of their identity, and having to define themselves, they become vulnerable in front of each other, and self-protective.
This results in violence, as Cain kills Abel, and in the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) we see human beings losing sight of the beautiful diversity in God’s creation and seeking to get rid of cultural differences. (We shall explore this more in session 5.)
Identity apart from God cannot be eternally reliable and give stability. This fall is portrayed as the cause of human society becoming deeply fragmented and analyses the root cause of conflict in the world as the result of replacing God as our highest love.
In addition, every part of human life and every good gift that God has given can now be distorted or turned away from his life‐giving purposes. Technology, thought, emotion, art, sexuality, science, language, media. The scope of our fall infects everything.
“Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.” (Genesis 3: 17-18)
Disobedience, according to the Bible, is the root not just of human frustration, but the frustration of all of creation – the whole creation is groaning to be liberated from its “bondage to decay”. (Romans 8: 22)
Sin has drastically affected not only us but the whole of creation – going some way to explaining the presence of suffering in this world. The story of the Bible is that when human beings fell, because we are so integral to the world, everything unravelled.
Humanity’s fall is linked with sickness, disease, drought, famine, spiritual oppression and environmental collapse. Human disobedience to God’s offer of life has touched everything – it’s most obvious in our personal lives, in our greed, self-obsession, hatred, lusts, lies etc, and in our physical and mental diseases.
Yet it also affects the material creation. We live in a culture where the term ‘Act of God’ has a negative connotation with legal documents and insurance companies often referring to natural disasters as ‘Acts of God’. Beneath all of this lies the assumption that God is directly responsible for natural disasters, so the final explanation for why a particular disaster happened is to be found in why God would punish whomever the victims happen to be.
It is important to note that, as revealed in Christ, God never wills suffering or disaster. Natural events such as earthquakes are not attributed to God’s will, but to the groaning of a fallen world.
It is essential to note the order of the beginning of the story – human beings and God’s creation do not start out as broken and sinful, but as “very good”. Human beings are sinners, but remain made in the image of God. We are affected by evil, but we are not evil in ourselves.
Nothing God has made is evil in itself – the world is good, and remains good. Understanding the truths of creation, before the truths of the Fall, helps us to see that in its essence, in its structure the world remains good – as the story unfolds we shall see how God can thus remain faithful to it.
As the one who fully reveals the character of God, Jesus taught and demonstrated both God’s complete love and compassion for His world, and also the need to acknowledge the reality of sin. To those who were convinced of their own righteousness, He taught the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector to illustrate that the truly liberated person is the one who has a good grasp of this reality. (Luke 18: 9-14)
Whereas the Pharisees in Luke 7 were offended by the idea of forgiveness, the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears was commended by Him because she was honest with her sin, and profoundly knew her need of God.
The Bible describes a human and spiritual fall.
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth….. After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.” (Genesis 1:1; 3:24)
From the beginning of the story, the Bible reveals creation as containing two realms of existence – the heavens and the earth, a spiritual realm and physical realm, initially created to be united.
Just as God delegated responsibility to humans to have to dominion over the earth, God also gave responsibilities and authority to angels. Like human beings, spiritual beings too have freedom – to choose to obey or disobey. But a mysterious glimpse into the spiritual structures of reality reveals that they, like us, fell from God’s rule.
There is a consistent picture throughout Scripture that, just as human beings can choose to disobey God, so too have spiritual ‘principalities and powers’. The fallenness of this unseen realm of existence has led to conflict, and to Jesus teaching us to pray, “Deliver us from the evil one.” (Matthew 6:13)
Satan, who was the most powerful of the angels—with the greatest amount of responsibility—represents this best (indeed, the Bible recognises him as “the god of this age” 2 Cor. 4:4, “the power of the air” Eph. 2:2, “the ruler of this world” John 12:31).
This understanding is foundational in the whole story of the Bible and Jesus’ ministry. Paul talks about us being transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light. Jesus said, “The thief comes to steal, kill and destroy. I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10)
As we look ahead, Paul makes it clear that Jesus’ death on the cross dealt a death blow to Satan and his demonic forces which have had the world under siege. “When you were dead in your sins …God made you alive with Christ….And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” (Colossians 2: 13-15)
But in our lived experience the spiritual effects of the Fall have yet to be cleared up completely. The New Testament is clear on this point: creation itself still groans for the restoration of the children of God to their proper place so that creation itself will be set free from bondage, decay and violence (Rom. 8:19-‐23; Mark 4:39; Luke 13:4-‐16).
This is important because for the first 300+ years of Christian faith violence, evil, even sickness and so called “natural” disasters or “Acts of God” were never understood as originating from God. They did not “happen for a reason”. They are the result of the corruption of creation, not the Creator.
Why did the religious groups of Jesus’ time – Pharisees, Sadducees or Essenes – disagree about some aspects the Torah means, even though they had the same text? Why do Christians have different understandings of what the Bible means?
It is impossible for us to read anything without interpreting it. Two things stand in our way when we seek to have a perfect understanding of any text:
A book that was written over 1500 years by multiple authors can be doubly hard to interpret.
To read the Bible well it is therefore important that we seek to understand the original meaning as best we can, and also become aware of how other perspectives – including our own – can influence that interpretation (we will focus on this in session 4).
Particularly when we are teaching others, being sure we are trying to draw out the original meaning as much as possible (known as exegesis) as opposed to having our own ideas and trying to use the Bible to justify them (eisegesis) is vital in reading it well.
Some of these questions may help us to understand the original purpose and meaning:
How can I read this prayerfully, asking the Holy Spirit to guide me?
Who wrote it and to whom? (Was it intended for all people in all times i.e. the record of Jesus written by eyewitnesses or for a particular situation i.e. food laws in Leviticus?)
Why did they write it and what did they intend it to do? (What kind of writing is it? i.e. does the fact that Genesis 1 is structured like a poem for worship help us understand its purpose better?)
How does the particular passage relate to what is written before and after it? (i.e. sometimes paying attention to how a parable is introduced can help us focus on its main meaning: “Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.” (Luke 18:1))
How does this passage work alongside other passages? (i.e. How might we harmonise Luke 14:26, which tells us we must hate our parents, spouses, children and even ourselves if we are to be Christ’s disciple and Ephesians 6:2, which tells us to honour our parents?)
How does the whole Bible story help us to understand this passage? (i.e. how does our understanding of Abraham help us to interpret the writing about covenant in the New Testament?)
How might we see the meaning of this passage through Jesus? (i.e. how do we make sure we read the accounts of warfare in the Old Testament in the light of His self-sacrificial love?)
In addition, these two questions are often helpful, and can be illustrated well by looking at how we might better understand the creation stories in Genesis.
What was going on at the time that is relevant? (What historical events or cultural background might help us understand it better? What does archaeology reveal about the place involved?)
For example, knowing that other cultures had their own creation stories, that the biblical authors who wrote Genesis would have known about, can open up some exciting possibilities in appreciating the meaning of Genesis.
Indeed, the writers used aspects of these stories, but in a way that contrasts with these other myths.
At the time Genesis 1 was written, while the Israelites were in Babylon, people worshipped many gods, including the sun and moon. Genesis emphasises that there is one God and calls the sun and moon “lesser lights” (1:16), in other words, not to be worshipped.
During this period a Babylonian myth called the Enuma Elish portrayed creation as the fallout of a battle between two gods, and human beings, who are created from the blood of a slain god, as the slaves of the gods.
We can understand Genesis 1 better when we see it in contrast to this – rather than the world being created from a battle, it is created as “good”. Rather than humans being slaves, they are ‘under-kings’, made in God’s image.
The people who originally read this would have been slaves in Babylon – to read that God has ordered the world, and made them to be free and in His image would have inspired hope in the face of despair. Genesis 1 is a liberating story.
Are there meanings of particular words we need to pay attention to?
This final question can be illustrated by looking at the meaning of how we understand human “dominion” in Genesis, and how important a good understanding of individual words can be.
In 1967, a professor named Lynn White wrote an article in Science magazine called ‘The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis’. In a nutshell he said that the real problem…the real danger to the environment…actually comes from the Christian faith. He went back to Genesis 1:28 and human dominion to rule over the earth.
White said Christianity created this idea that nature is not sacred, it is just disposable, and that in the Bible human beings are not really a part of nature, they are above it, so nature exists just kind of as a thing for people to use and exploit. He called this selfish anthropocentrism and that this is what characterises Christianity. Even today a lot of environmental activists are highly suspicious of Christianity.
So understanding the intended meaning of the word dominion (or ‘rule over’) is crucial in reading the passage well.
The writers of The Drama of Scripture put it this way: “….it is incorrect to read dominion as legitimising a ruthless mastery over nature and exploitation of it. In God’s own creative work, He acts for the good of what he has made and not for his own selfish pleasure….Over this good creation, God calls the human ‘ruler’ to serve as steward under-sovereign, to embody God’s own care for, and protection of, His good creation in his own sovereign rule over the earth.
“It is impossible to read this as suggesting that humans are free to do what they like with God’s workmanship. …A better way of expressing the concept of ‘dominion’ over creation may be to say that we are God’s royal stewards, put here to develop the hidden potentials in God’s creation so that the whole of it may celebrate His glory.”
When Stuart Pimm, a Professor of Conservation Ecology, buys land in Brazil to protect a species of primates called the golden lion tamarin on the verge of extinction that is not something apart from being a disciple, that is central to being a disciple. He was interviewed by the New York Times about his work, and at the end of the interview they asked him, are you religious?
He replied, “I’m actually a believing Christian and Christians have an obligation to care for the planet because it was made by God and does not actually belong to us. So we cannot simply fail to care for oceans, or forests, or creatures. That would be to fail to fulfil our obligations to God.”
There are many resources available seeking to help us find answers to the questions we might want to ask when trying to find the intended meaning of a text.
The Bible Project provides excellent overviews of key themes and each of the books of the Bible.
Study Bibles have useful maps and introductory material for each biblical book, as well as comments on individual verses.
Bible Commentaries are written to provide detailed background, summarize they key points, and help us to apply passages well. There are commentaries for each book or one volume books on the whole Bible. There are some free New Testament ones online here.
The Lion Handbook to the Bible has proved popular and immensely helpful over several decades and the short commentaries on each book by Tom Wright, published by SPCK have proved very helpful.
A Concordance cross-references individual words, showing where else the author used particular word, and the meaning of the original Hebrew or Greek.
Many of the tools listed above can be found on the Internet. www.biblegateway.com is a reliable resource.
The relationship God wants with human beings is the same throughout the Bible story and is best described by the word covenant – a theme that is repeated throughout. Both knowing the story and growing in discipleship is centred around the meaning of covenant. God seeks to restore His creation through a relationship of covenant.
Covenant is at the heart of God’s faithfulness to creation.
“But I will establish my covenant with you: and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you.” (Genesis 6:18)
The first mention of covenant is in the story of Noah. The Flood story is written as God’s wanting to restore the world through saving Noah, not to destroy it.
(It’s worth noting that God is portrayed not so much as angry towards humans, but filled with pain at the way the world had become: “God regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled…..The earth was corrupt in God’s sight and full of violence.” (Genesis 6: 6,11))
The story makes clear that God cannot contradict Himself by abandoning His faithfulness to His creation, but re-commissions Noah in the same way as Adam was and with the same words. “As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it.” (Genesis 9:7)
God gives him again stewardship over creation, tells him he can eat meat (as long as it’s well and truly dead – a good health tip!), and tells him to protect life. Noah takes this call seriously – he’s the first one to start making wine! This is a continuation of the original plan, not a redirection.
But the covenant with Noah brings in an extra dimension to the human calling which is absolutely essential to our story here on planet earth. This story presents us a profound question which completely shapes how we view the world and its story: Why did God include the animals?
When God makes His covenant with Noah, we read, “Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you— the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you— every living creature on earth….” (Genesis 9:8-11)
He gives the rainbow as a sign of protection (like a bow) as a sign of the covenant. Christians thus have the most profound reason for caring for this earth because not only do we believe it is a creation, but we believe God has bound himself to the animals, the fish, the birds in loving relationship.
God’s covenant with us enables us to be a blessing to the world, joining in with God in its restoration.
“The Lord had said to Abram, ‘I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing…and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.’” (Genesis 12: 1-3)
“Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. God… announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: All nations will be blessed through you.” (Galatians 3: 7-8)
In what way are Christians still “children of Abraham”? Abraham’s story is our story. Our calling is the same as his. God calls a people who will work with Him to undo the damage of the Fall. The meaning of God’s calling and covenant with human beings becomes established through Abraham and the whole Bible is an outworking of the promises and calling made to Abraham.
Throughout the Old Testament God never tells His people that their purpose is to escape from the good earth He has made. He increasingly leads them to understand that His plan is to restore both their relationship with Him and their presence in the earth. The story is about God making a people who will restore and recapture their original image.
Abram is blessed by God in order to bless the world. In the first eleven chapters of Genesis there are five times when God describes how the world has been cursed by the fall. In the call of Abraham the word “bless” is deliberately repeated five times – in every way in which the world has fallen, God will work through Abraham to reverse the curse.
For Christians, Jesus does not change God’s original covenant but fulfils it – enabling us to be a people who continue the call to bless and restore God’s world, in the same way that Abram was called by God to do.
God intends to fix creation through a covenant people who will be a blessing, so that ultimately everything will be renewed (Revelation 21:5), “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay…” (Romans 8: 21) and human beings can be “new creations”. (2 Corinthians 5:17)
Covenant reveals the kind of relationship God wants with human beings.
Covenant begins with being chosen. In about 1800 BC God chooses Abram, a nomad who lived in the basin created by the Euphrates and the Tigris in modern day Iraq, (previously Babylon, Assyria) and was probably a moon worshipper.
After the opening of the Bible, which has had a universal focus, the rest of God’s story is written through the lives of individuals and groups or tribes. It is through particular people (even today) that God chooses to work His purposes.
By continuing to call people, the Bible demonstrates God’s continuing commitment to working in human-divine partnership – just as He does not abandon His creation, so He does not let go of the calling on people to image Him in the world.
As Peter writes millennia later, “…you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2: 9)
(This “chosenness” is never portrayed as favouritism – in a sense everyone is a child of God – but as Peter writes, we are chosen for a purpose – to be a blessing.)
Covenant is relationship in which God binds Himself to us. Throughout the Bible it is God who initiates the restoring relationship. Having called Abram to be a blessing, God establishes a covenant with him.
The pattern of the Old Testament is that whenever God makes a promise was made, it is always sealed with a covenant, most frequently expressed with the words: “I will be your God and you will be my people”.
A covenant is an agreement between two parties that brings the two into an experience of oneness. Marriage is our most familiar existing covenant. In the Old Testament covenant was the fabric of society.
Monarchs and subjects would make covenants. A king would confer upon his subjects the right to be in covenant with him. When a nation was conquered, the conqueror would give rights to the conquered to be included in the greater society.
There are two ways to have a covenant. In the first, two equal parties agree to become one. In the second, two unequal parties become one. In this, the one who is greater and stronger confers upon the weaker the right to come into an equal relationship.
In the Bible, the type of covenant is usually the stronger to the weaker. Because usually it is between God and people. God confers rights on human beings. But it is still a relationship of oneness.
Having called Abram in Genesis 12, in chapter 15 of Genesis God is ready to ratify His promise to him. At that time when a covenant was made it was always ratified in blood. It usually involved the exchange of property, and often included a change of name and the scarring of the person’s flesh.
It was a serious affair – it meant that life was going to change. If two tribes entered into a covenant together, they slaughtered their animals – a precious possession. The old life ends, a new begins. The life of the animal symbolised this death. They partook in a blood covenant by creating a corridor of blood. At each end of the corridor stood the representatives of the tribes – the chief or groom. They exchanged places by walking along the corridor of blood.
For example, if a tribe of cattle keepers and sheep keepers changed places, they would be signifying this: “We who once looked after cattle, now look after cattle and sheep,” and vice versa. We possess everything of each other. We two have become one.
They changed their names and to indicate it was a lifelong covenant, two representatives would cut the heel of a hand and rub mud in it to keep the scar there forever. There was a new oneness between what had been a twoness.
Abram has received the promise – that he would become a great nation, a blessing, but in Genesis 15 he worries that has no heir who would make this promise possible and questions God.
In response God tells him to count the stars in the sky, and then bring Him a heifer, and a goat, and a ram. Abram splits them in half and lays out the pieces to create a corridor of blood.
“When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking brazier with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram and said, ‘To your descendants I give this land…’” (Genesis 15: 17,18)
Abram is now one with God in a way that’s never been known before. The God of heaven has made a covenant with mortal man and has symbolised it with images that will continue through the Scriptures to reveal the presence of God. Everything that belongs to God is now available to Abram. The land belongs to God but is now available to Abram. However, this is not an exchange of property – Abram gives nothing to God in return.
The further two parts of the covenant are given in Genesis 17 when Abram is ninety-nine years old, with no children. God graciously says, “I will confirm my covenant between me and you…” He gives Abram a new covenantal name, to remind him of his new identity. “No longer will you be called Abram (exalted father); your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a ‘father of many nations’.” (Genesis 17: 5)
To do this, in Hebrew God took from his name YHWH one of the pieces of his name and included it in Abram to become Abraham. He gives a sign of the covenant: “Every male shall be circumcised”.
Crucially, in the days of Abraham, a man who walked along the street with a visible scar was to be feared – you didn’t know who he was in covenant with. But God institutes a personal, private scar, signifying a private and personal relationship.
For Christians who are children of Abraham, how does understanding covenant shape us?
Exchange of identity: “This is my new covenant, sealed in my blood.” (Luke 22:20) In the same way that a covenant was established through blood, to be in Christ means we have passed through a corridor of blood ‐ His. And through the cross we exchange identities: He takes our rebellious identity – our sin – and we take His – His righteousness.
Inheritance: Just as in Abram’s covenant God shared His ‘property’, so through Christ we receive the same identity and relationship that Christ has with His father. “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ…” (Romans 8: 16-17)
Change of names. “…to him who overcomes…I will write on him the name of my God and my new name.” (Revelation 3:12) In the early church when you were baptised you got a new name – your Christian name.
Sign/scar/seal. “Circumcision is of the heart by the Spirit.” (Romans 2:29) Paul’s teaching is that the Holy Spirit has made a scar which is so intimate it is not on our bodies but within us –on the heart – the inner person. “Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance…” (Ephesians 1: 13-14)
Incredibly God continues to bear the scars of His covenant with us, taking them into His resurrection. In Luke 24, when the resurrected Jesus appears and shows his disciples his scars first of all he is saying, “This is a covenant. Not only is it ratified in blood, but it’s an everlasting covenant…These scars are precious tokens of the covenant I have with you.”
Covenant shapes how we see God’s character throughout the Bible.
Understanding covenant can help us to avoid having a split view of the God of the Bible. Some may read the New Testament God as loving and kind, but the Old Testament as angry and vengeful – as if there are two gods.
There are certainly difficult things in the Old Testament, and part of coming to terms with that is understanding it as an unfolding story.
But at the heart of it is the story of a covenant God who does not abandon His people despite their faithlessness. God makes a number of covenants throughout the Old Testament – with Noah, Abram, Moses (Genesis 19: 1-6) and David (2 Samuel 7: 12-13). To the Jews in Egypt He promises, “ I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God.” (Exodus 6:7).
Through Ezekiel He assures His faithless people, “I will deal with you as you deserve, because you have despised my oath by breaking the covenant. Yet I will remember the covenant I made with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish an everlasting covenant with you.” (Ezekiel 16: 59-60)
A people who are “dry bones” will be resurrected: “My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. Then the nations will know that I the Lord make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever.” (Ezekiel 37: 27-28)
The result of this renewed covenant with His people is that “…they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” because “It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors…because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them…This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel: ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts’.” (Jeremiah 31: 31-34)
In the Old Testament we meet a God who tells his people not to take revenge or bear a grudge, that to rip people off in business is an abomination, that they should help the poor, not oppress the stranger, always offer peace to an enemy before going to war and love their neighbours as themselves.
One historian has said that God gives His people the idea of “equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person; of the individual conscience and so of personal redemption…of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the moral furniture of the human mind.”
In ‘Being with God in Worship’ we saw that worship is the first practice of any disciple. Alongside covenant, worship is the most consistent theme throughout the Old Testament – our first calling – and it shapes the meaning of Christian discipleship.
The story of Israel reveals that human beings are made for a mutual relationship of love with God. The daily Jewish prayer, called the Shema, calls God’s people to “…love the Lord your God with all of your heart, with all of your soul, and with all of your strength.” (Deuteronomy 6: 4-5)
Worship is the expression of this love and seen in these ways:
Obedience. This is a love rooted in genuine feelings, but also expressed in actions. “What does the Lord your God ask of you, except to fear the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, to love him and serve him… and to keep His commands.” (Deuteronomy 10: 12-13) One of the most common words used for worship in the New Testament (latreuo) carries the meaning of serving.
Yet this is not a dry obedience, but a response to God’s love. In the New Testament this is expressed in the simple line, “We love because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)
Sacrifice. Leviticus describes the ceremonial practices through which God’s people could worship Him. Central to these were five separate sacrifices or offerings which the people were instructed to give in their temple meetings. Some were sacrifices to deal with sin, but some were expressions of giving thanks.
The sacrifices were an expression of worship because of the cost involved. After God tells him to buy a place to build an altar, and the owner offers to give it to him, King David replies, “No, I insist on paying you for it. I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.” (2 Samuel 24:24)
Sacrifice also expressed that God the Creator was of greater worth than the created thing being offered.
After Jesus’ death and resurrection there is no need for a sacrifice to take away sins but the theme of worship that costs us something continues, with Paul encouraging Christians to, “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship.” (Romans 12:1)
The Message paraphrase expands on what this means in daily life. “So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering.”
Praise and thanksgiving. After God had rescued Israel from Egypt the first recorded response is thanksgiving: “Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women followed her, with tambourines and dancing. Miriam sang to them: ‘Sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. Both horse and driver he has hurled into the sea.’” (Exodus 15: 20-21). After Solomon dedicates the temple the people worship. (2 Chronicles 7)
At the heart of the Bible is the book of Psalms, meaning “book of songs or praises”. Some of them are by David, but they are a collection taken from across Israel’s history and probably put together in the third century BC.
Not every psalm is praise or thanksgiving – there are a variety of different kinds and are divided into five sections (like the Torah) – but they were the spiritual vocabulary of God’s people, known and used by Jesus and the apostles and the most quoted book in the New Testament.
They encourage the people to, “Sing the praises of the Lord, you his faithful people; praise his holy name” (30:4) and “Clap your hands, all you nations; shout to God with cries of joy.” (47:1).
David proclaims, “…at his sacred tent I will sacrifice with shouts of joy; I will sing and make music to the Lord” (27: 6) and “Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you.” (80:4)
When the Magi come to the stable their natural response is to bow down and worship. (Matthew 2:11) When the disciples see the resurrected Christ, they worship Him. (Matthew 28: 17) Paul encourages the Ephesians to, “Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Ephesians 5: 19-20)
Such devotion expressed through praise captures the meaning of the most common word for worship in the New Testament (proskuneo) which means to come forward and kiss the feet of someone.
Worship throughout the Bible
To worship God in these ways is the key calling of God’s covenant people – the purpose of their lives – running throughout the story of the Bible. Towards the beginning of the story God tells Moses to approach Pharaoh with these words: “Then say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the Lord says: Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, ‘Let my son go, so that he may worship me.’” (Exodus 4: 22-23)
In our era Peter makes it clear that Christians have inherited Israel’s covenant calling to worship when he tells them, “…you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9)
At the end of the story the vision of God’s people (and all of creation) will be that we hear, “…every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying: ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honour and glory and power, for ever and ever!’” (Revelation 5: 13)
We all worship something
The Bible describes how as human beings we can choose whether to worship God, but we cannot choose whether or not we worship. Being made in God’s image means we are religious creatures by nature.
Every human being is a worshipper – the choice is between God or idols, between what and how we worship.
The story of Israel shows how when human beings turn from worshipping God, we put something else in His place. Throughout the Bible idolatry is the central symptom of our disobedience, putting something at the centre of life where God is meant to be.
Most famously, when the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “’Come, make us gods who will go before us.’’….he took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’” (Exodus 32: 1-4)
One of the problems with idolatry is that it robs the people of their freedom. When they make the calf the materials for it are demanded from them, not given voluntarily, just as in the old life of slavery.
The first three Commandments (Exodus 20) call the Israelites to have no other gods. Moses later reminds them, “Be careful not to forget the covenant of the Lord your God that he made with you; do not make for yourselves an idol in the form of anything the Lord your God has forbidden.” (Deuteronomy 4:23)
Yahweh alone is worthy of worship. But if allegiance is not to Him, there is no reason to keep His other commandments.
More seriously, for God, the issue is not that His people are breaking the law, but that they are breaking relationship with Him. God tells Moses, “…these people will soon prostitute themselves to the foreign gods of the land they are entering. They will forsake me and break the covenant I made with them.” (Deuteronomy 31:16)
Throughout Scripture and history, the human tendency to have idols is desperate. Paul wrote “They traded the glory of God who holds the whole world in his hands for cheap figurines you can buy at any roadside stand….And all this because they traded the true God for a fake god, and worshiped the god they made instead of the God who made them – the God we bless, the God who blesses us.” (Romans 1: 23,25 The Message). Such disobedience is a travesty of who God made His people to be.
Augustine said that sin isn’t breaking the law but is loving things in the wrong order. The order we give things in importance makes all the difference. By loving something fourth that should be first, we court disaster. It is right to love our career and our family, but if we love our career ahead of our family, there is breakdown. Relationships with children can be sacrificed in the cause of extra hours at work.
Idolatry is making things that ultimately cannot fulfil us into what we worship, into what we place at the centre of our heart. The essence of sin is not bad things. It is turning a good thing into an ultimate thing.
God’s call on His people to love Him first is the call to live a life of worship in which we love things in the right order.
Throughout the Bible the call to be a worshipping people is linked to the reality that God wants His people to experience His presence with them.
It is through various forms of a Temple (three physical and one spiritual) that God both creates a way in which He can dwell with humans, and a sign of how He is working through them to recreate the world. The Temple is a way in which heaven (God’s presence and space) and earth (human presence and space) can overlap.
Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush (Exodus 3) is an astounding encounter with God’s presence. Yet after the Exodus when the people return to Mount Sinai the whole mountain is on fire (Exodus 19). God wants to be present to His whole people.
After the escape from Egypt God seeks to find a way in which the holiness of His presence can be with His covenant people once again. “Then I will dwell among the Israelites and be their God. They will know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of Egypt so that I might dwell among them. I am the Lord their God.” (Exodus 29: 45-46)
After giving Moses the law, nearly a third of the book of Exodus is taken up with detailed instructions for a moveable Tabernacle, a Tent of Meeting, and the setting up of a priesthood, so that the Israelites may have a place of being put right with God and coming to Him in worship. The fact that there are so many details recorded shows its significance.
It contained altars for sacrifices and places for ceremonial washing. Its twelve loaves of bread symbolised both the tribes of Israel and the completeness of God’s provision, the Ark (containing the Ten Commandments) symbolised God’s presence and the lampstand His protection.
Exodus finishes with God’s coming to the Tabernacle. His occasional presence is now His permanent presence with His people – the full restoration of His presence within creation as He originally intended. “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” (Exodus 40: 34-35)
This emphasis is why the Temple is not often referred to as ‘Temple’ in the Old Testament. Rather it is “the House of the Lord” or “the place which the Lord will choose to make his name dwell” (Deuteronomy 12:11) or a “temple for my Name.” (1 Kings 5:5) Someone’s “name” represents the fulness of their being.
The way in which the Israelites experience God’s presence through the Temple is in contrast to that of their pagan neighbours in two key ways.
Whereas it is God who gives instructions to Moses, and later David, for the Temple (400 years later), surrounding pagan nations would build a temple themselves and then invite their gods to come there. There is a big contrast as well in which surrounding nations saw their gods as located within their statues. When the statues were destroyed, so were the gods, and the religious practices disappeared.
Yet, although the Ark was within the Holy of Holies, the focus of God’s presence, when the Temple was destroyed and the Ark lost, the Israelites were able to remain faithful. Their sense of God’s presence was highlighted by the Temple, but not dependent on it.
This is clear from Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem: “But will God really dwell on earth with humans? The heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!” (2 Chronicles 6:18)
Yet in the same way as God had filled the Tabernacle in the desert 400 years earlier, “When Solomon finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the Lord filled the temple. The priests could not enter the temple of the Lord because the glory of the Lord filled it. When all the Israelites saw the fire coming down and the glory of the Lord above the temple, they knelt on the pavement with their faces to the ground, and they worshiped and gave thanks to the Lord, saying, ‘He is good; his love endures forever.’” (2 Chronicles 7: 1-3)
This connection between the Temple, worship and God’s presence are repeated themes in the book of Psalms. “How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God. Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you.” (Psalm 84:1-4)
The Temple as a recreation of the world
Both the way the Tabernacle is made, and the manner of God’s instructions, are an expression of God’s continued faithfulness to His plan to bring creation back to what it should be.
The tabernacle in the wilderness is an ordered creation in the middle of chaos, people centred around God, priests worshipping regularly in the same way that all of creation was made to worship God. Enns writes it is a “piece of holy ground amid a world that has lost its way”.
There are echoes of creation in the way it is created. God tells them to erect the tabernacle on “the first day of the first month” to emphasise a new beginning (Exodus 40:2). The word for “making” (asah) the tabernacle is the same word for God making the world.
Both tabernacle and temple are built and dedicated in a series of seven speeches, seven days (Tabernacle) and seven years (temple). The temple is modelled on the original garden filled with images of flowers, pomegranates and trees. They use every kind of skill and material in building it, reflect every sense in its sounds, smells, sights, tastes and textures. Its precise measurements and beautiful materials reflect order in a disordered world and affirm the goodness of God’s creation. It was a kind of microcosm of the universe.
The wonder of being God’s temple.
As the Bible story continues the promise that God’s presence might fill all creation is increasingly realised as the physical Temple becomes replaced by a “living” one.
Solomon’s temple survived for around 400 years but was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586BC. Haggai challenged the Israelites to start to rebuild the temple after the Exile, yet the second temple was always a poor replacement for the great temple of Solomon.
For the next 500 years it stood on Temple Mount in Jerusalem, as we call it today, until it was completely replaced by the temple of Herod the Great. Built primarily between 20-‐18BC some of the outer courtyard area was still under construction in Jesus’ day. This was completely destroyed by the Romans in AD70.
Despite being rebuilt after the exile, the second temple remained corrupt, and the prophets pointed to a future “messenger of the covenant” who will come to God’s temple. (Malachi 3:1)
It is Jesus who renews God’s temple and brings God’s presence, but not in the way any of the people expect. He refers to His own body as God’s temple: “Tear down this temple and in three days I will build it again.” (John 2:19)
When Jesus dies on the cross the curtain screening the Most Holy place in the Temple was torn from top to bottom (emphasising this is God’s work) – breaking down the barrier between God and humanity.
Understanding the story of God’s presence and Temple helps us to grasp the wonder of the gift God’s Holy Spirit for disciples.
Since AD 70 there has been no physical temple because the fulness of God’s presence is now given through the coming of the Holy Spirit. This is a fulfilment of Christ’s promise, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” (John 14:23)
In the Old Testament people come to meet with God at the temple. In the New Testament God comes to people and we become His temple. The letter to the Hebrews is a meditation on how much the meaning of Temple, and the reality of God’s presence, has been fulfilled in Christ.
Paul is at pains to communicate the privilege of this inheritance. As individuals each disciple can now become a Temple, in which God dwells: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” (1 Corinthians 6:19) As such, he calls us to treat our bodies with dignity and holiness.
As a Christian community we have become God’s temple. “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?” (1 Cor 3:16‐17). As Peter puts it, “… you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2:5) This calls us to a unity through which the presence of God can be displayed to the world.
“All scripture is inspired by God (God breathed).” (2 Timothy 3:16)
Christians believe that the Bible is divinely inspired. However, it is also a very human book. For example, as we have already seen, it draws from other sources, such as the creation myths of other cultures. It is obvious as well that being breathed by God cannot mean that the personalities, experiences, and characters of the individual authors are not included in the Bible.
Paul says that he cannot remember who he baptised. (1 Corinthians 1:16) Matthew has Jesus incorrectly referring to Zechariah as the son of Berekiah instead of the son of Jehoiadah. (Matthew 23:35) Paul admits he received no command from the Lord regarding unmarried women, but was willing to give his own judgement as a trustworthy person. (1 Corinthians 7:25)
Large parts of the Bible are not written as God speaking to us but rather humans speaking to God and in Psalm 89 the writer accuses God of breaking His promise. Most of what Job and his friends say to God throughout the book of Job is not true.
Rather than this being a problem which we have to try and find ways of getting around, the human-divine nature of the Bible is a precise reflection the way God works.
It is consistent with the way in which God always works indirectly with human beings to achieve His purposes. The way God relates to the world is not one-way but through mutual relationships. The writing of the Bible is a partnership in the same way that God giving human beings a ‘cultural mandate’ is a partnership.
This means that throughout the writing of Bible God acts towards humans, but He also allows them to act towards Him (just as we see most fully on the cross), even at the cost of absorbing our sin and mistakes as part of the text.
John Henry Newman describes this way of God breathing Scripture by comparing two Latin words for writer.
The word author describes someone who creates a work without any help or influence from anyone else – much as the Quran is a direct reciting of Allah’s words.
But the word auctor describes someone who is the first cause of a work, but who allows for other influences to contribute to the work that the writer produces.
God breathes His word by emptying Himself – just as throughout the Bible He accommodates Himself to us in order to reach us. This means that He is willing to speak to human beings from inside the world, taking our own experiences as His starting point.
So it is not a case of God taking away human beings’ ability to speak so that He can replace our words with His words. Instead, as an auctor, God takes the words and actions of human beings and uses them to become the reliable “word of God”.
He takes the initiative as His Holy Spirit works in the hearts and minds of the human writers, but always leaving the personhood of the human authors in place, which affects the results of His breathing through them.
“Freedom, oh freedom, is coming, oh yes I know!”
For many centuries and in many different struggles for justice people have been inspired by the story of God rescuing His people from slavery and oppression in Egypt and read the story of the Bible as one of God’s rescue.
The Exodus is a repeated theme of the Bible. There are at least 24 references to it in the Old Testament and the New Testament.
In order to be truly free, God gave His people a way of remembering that they had been rescued – the Passover meal – and a way of experiencing their freedom – Sabbath.
Passover and Remembering Freedom
The Exodus helped shaped ongoing understanding of who God called them to be and the Passover meal was the way God enabled them to pass on that identity:
“And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.’” (Exodus 12: 26-27)
Various symbols and foods are used to tell the story.
For Christians, both the Exodus and the Passover meal help us to understand the eternal freedom more fully which we have in Christ.
Jesus talks about his “exodus” to Moses and Elijah in Luke 9, referring to his death and resurrection. He is called the “greater Moses” and in 1 Corinthians 10 we read: “For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptised into Moses in the cloud and in the sea…These things happened to them as examples…”
Early Christians understood that while the people of Israel were rescued from human oppression, this was an early version of how in Christ God had freed people from deeper kinds of slavery – freedom from sin, from the fact that they could not keep God’s law in their own strength, and the forces of death and evil.
This was most powerfully demonstrated at the last (Passover) supper, when Jesus took the broken bread and drunk the wine.
“For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Corinthians 11: 23-26)
Early Christians have seen this as Jesus saying, “The bread which reminded you of slavery in Egypt, is now my body. Before, when you drank the cup, it reminded you of your delivery from Egyptian bondage. Now it will remind you of your delivery from the bondage of sin and death. Do this in remembrance of Egypt but also now in remembrance of me.”
Paul, who has been called the ‘apostle of freedom’, unpacks how in Christ, while Christians still experience some of the “slavery of sin”, through the cross the issue has been settled for good – sin, death and evil have been ultimately defeated.
It is through the truth of Christ that the freedom that was originally intended for us can be restored. “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:36)
Through His Spirit Christians now have genuine freedom to choose a new way of life, and, as we are able to surrender to Him, the Spirit changes us from the inside out, bringing greater freedom. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (2 Corinthians 3:17)
In the same way that Jewish people are called to remember their freedom through the Passover, and live into that identity, our continuing remembering of the Last Supper through Holy Communion or Mass is to shape us as free people.
Sabbath and Experiencing Freedom
We have already explored how the practice of Sabbath is essential to a balanced, free life. In order to experience their new freedom, God gave His people the sabbath. (Exodus 20: 8-11). It is the longest of the ten commandments, and as one writer puts it, is a rejection of slavery, then and now:
“There had been no Sabbath in Egypt, no work stoppage; no work stoppage for Pharaoh who worked day and night to stay atop the pyramid. There had been no work stoppage for the slaves, because they had to gather straw during their time off; no work stoppage of anybody in the Egyptian system, because frantic productivity drove the entire system. And now (God) nullifies that entire system of anxious production.
“There are limits to how much and how long slaves must produce bricks! The limit is set by the weekly work pause that breaks the production cycle. And those who participate in it break the anxiety cycle. They are invited to awareness that life does not consist in frantic production and consumption that reduces everyone else to threat and competitor….You are in the image of the creator God who did not need to work to get ahead. Nor do you!” (Walter Brueggemann)
Freedom and Justice
While contemporary culture may tend to understand freedom as the right to be who we want to be (expressive individualism) the story of the Bible offers a different vision. For the Jewish people escaping from Egypt, the rescue was both from something, but also for something – the freedom to be God’s people in God’s land.
And, as The Drama of Scripture unpacks, this was so they could continue to be a blessing to the nations,
“The role of the priests within Israel is to mediate between God and the people. Thus, on an international scale, Israel is called to mediate between the Lord and all the nations. Israel is to be a display people, a showcase to the world of how being in covenant with Yahweh changes a people. As the Israelites obey God, they will demonstrate what life under God’s reign looks like. The nations will be able to catch a glimpse of God’s plan for all peoples….It is to be such a full and rich human life that the nations of the Earth will be drawn to it.”
Similarly, for Christians, freedom in Christ includes, for example, the freedom to join in with God’s Spirit in the re-creation of the world, or the freedom to allow God to change our characters to become more like Christ. “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10)
There is therefore a constant theme in the Bible that we respond to freedom by putting God’s life on display.
In order to do this, as “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation”, set apart for God’s purposes, Israel was not only given instructions for worship, but they were also given laws in Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, through which this life might be demonstrated. Importantly, the laws were given after God had re-established His covenant with His people at Mount Sinai. In other words, they were to obey them in response to God’s love for them, and not to earn it.
Placed a value on human life and dignity. Some of the laws of that time valued property above people – making the punishment for stealing greater than that for murder. Israel’s law always places the value of people above that of property believing that only people, of all God’s creations, have been made in His own image.
Placed a value on the land and on every area of life. As the people of Israel move into the Promised Land Joshua describes it as a “good land” (Joshua 23:15) – a place like a second Eden, which the people cannot exploit. The detailed laws they are given show how to manage the land properly but also show how concerned God is for every area of life.
Placed justice at the heart of God’s people. When we looked at “transforming the unjust structures of society” in ‘Joining in with the Spirit’ as a mark of mission, we saw that God’s people were called to pursue righteousness and justice. The belief that all are made in God’s image results in peace or “shalom” for everybody, and everything.
Seeking justice for all was to be a defining feature of God’s people, which set them apart. Because they had received God’s freedom, the only reasonable response was to seek justice for other people made in God’s image – to love their neighbour as they loved themselves.
In fact, as the Bible Project points out, “This is a unique Jewish-Christian contribution to the history of human civilisation. For contrast, the entire Greek-Roman political system was built on the concept that all humans were not created equal. Aristotle argued that only rational humans (which did not include slaves) were equal. Therefore slavery was deemed just and right.”
The Bible often uses the words justice and righteousness interchangeably, because the two help create each other. If, for example, people live in right relationship with the land, they will not exploit it in an unjust way.
This is captured in the Hebrew word for justice (mishpat) which can refer to two things. The first is dealing with what has gone wrong with just punishment (retributive justice). But the second is a much more active meaning – working to restore what has been broken (restorative justice).
This second meaning is the most common – God’s people are called to speak up for those who have no voice and rescue the disadvantaged. “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17)
In the Old Testament there are two main things that distinguish God’s people: being a worshipping community and being a community of justice for all – even the outsider. “Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” (Deuteronomy 16:20)
As the story progresses, it is clear that the main mark of God’s people was to be concern for justice for four particular vulnerable groups (the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor), more than religious worship. “Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5: 23-24)
Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and the goats to illustrate God’s heart for the oppressed. (Matthew 25:31-46). He points out the hypocrisy of those who continue their religious duties but use them to cheat the poor (Mark 7:1-10). He tells another parable to promise, “ …will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.” (Luke 18:7-8)
Ultimately Christ lived with righteousness and justice but died on behalf of the guilty. Through Him, God’s people are declared righteous before God not because of anything they’ve done, but because of what Jesus did for them.
The Christian response to this righteousness God gives us in Christ is to continue this story seeking a world in which we are compelled and given power to act on behalf of those who are oppressed.
The Jewish Scriptures were collected together at a time when Israel was adjusting to a huge shock. God’s people had been taken off into exile (Israel in 772 BC and Judah in 586/7 BC) after warnings from prophets such as Amos and Hosea who warn of a Day of the Lord when judgment will come.
They had been driven from the land God had promised them, and the Temple had been destroyed. Lamentations describes how catastrophic this felt: “All her gateways are desolate, her priests groan, her maidens grieve, and she is in bitter anguish.” (Lamentations 1:4) Psalm 80, one of several psalms written in in this time cries out, “Your vine is cut down, it is burned with fire; at your rebuke your people perish.” (Psalm 80:16)
The whole story of the Bible is shaped by this experience of being driven from ‘home’, and longing to return. Reading it with this understanding not only helps us understand the Bible, but also sheds light on how we can experience discipleship in the world as it is.
Exile is the human story. The story of exile begins in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve being driven from their ‘home’. The link between the experience of the Jewish people in Babylon and this deeper story about our alienation is made clear in Genesis. Here, the exile created by sin leads to human beings revealing how far they are from home by attempting to build a city, Babel – a city with the very same name as the city to which the people of Judah were taken captive.
In the same way that our fallen condition has led to spiritual exile, so the Jewish prophets warned God’s people that their repeated patterns of disobedience and injustice were the reason exile was happening. Before the exile Amos “You only have I chosen of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your sins….An enemy will overrun your land, pull down your strongholds and plunder your fortresses.” (Amos 3: 2,11)
Jeremiah warns, “Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!”…if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever.” (Jeremiah 7: 4-7)
The Bible reveals that exile is not shown to be God’s desire for His people, but the consequence of their and our actions.
Exile shapes how God’s people live in the world. In exile, God’s people found themselves having to shape an identity within a culture that was opposed to the values of God’s Kingdom. In the context of the destruction of former certainties, many of the Scriptures were put together in order to reinforce this identity.
Daniel is the story of a Jew in Babylon fifteen years before Jerusalem is destroyed, who demonstrates how God’s people live in exile – both then and now. He combines two things: he refuses to compromise His faithfulness to God, or to worship other idols in a culture which puts him under tremendous pressure to do so. At the same time, he rises to political heights in Babylon, managing to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which God has carried you into exile” as Jeremiah puts it. (Jeremiah 29:7)
This combination of being in “exile” in the world in terms of not being shaped by a lot of its values, and yet, knowing that God is not abandoning His world, continuing to join in with its restoration, is the balance Christians are called to live in.
Many years after the exile, Paul describes this tension when he reminds the Philippian Christians that many who live around them oppose the life of God’s kingdom, but that that their true home is to come: “our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ…” (Philippians 3: 20)
While Christians may continue to feel in exile in the world, Paul is not saying that they will return to another place called heaven one day, but that they are ambassadors for the life of heaven on earth – a good earth which one day God will restore, and in which they will be fully at home in again.
Christians continue to live in “exile” in the world which belongs to God. (See the handout ‘How involved can Christians be in the world?’.) The story of the Bible shapes us in living faithfully as those who are in the world, but not of it.
Exile points to the Messiah. Right from the beginning of the Bible story there is a theme of God’s solution to our “exile” coming through a promised “anointed king” which runs throughout the Old Testament and helps us understand the mission of Jesus.
A series of promises build a picture of this figure. In Genesis, God warns the snake, who has brought evil into the world, that an offspring of the woman shall come who “will crush your head (but) you will strike his heel”. (Genesis 3:15)
Later Judah is promised that a royal figure will come from his family line “…and the obedience of the nations shall be his”. (Genesis 49:11)
The crucial promise is to David. God tells him, “I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.” (2 Samuel 7: 12-16)
As the Old Testament period developed, Jewish belief began to focus on a particular person or earthly ruler – the messiah or anointed one. This ruler would be a descendant of David and would usher in an era of peace for Israel.
Famously Isaiah predicted: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.” (Isaiah 9:6-7)
Through the experience of exile, and between the end of the Old Testament and the New, in which the Jewish people were invaded by different nations, the hope that this Messiah would be a royal, priestly, representative human-figure who would restore Israel grew. Exile was not the end of the story.
Exile points to a restoration of home. Even in the Old Testament the people’s longing for return home is not spoken of just with reference to the restoration of the land or Temple but to a global renewal.
Chapters 60-66 Isaiah paint a picture in which Israel shall once again be God’s bride, (62:5) but that God will “create new heavens and a new earth” in which God’s exiled creation is fully restored:
“’Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, and dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,’ says the Lord.” (66: 17-25)
It is through this hope of return for the whole world that Christians understand the coming of Jesus as Messiah, and, as we shall see, anticipate the very same hope being fulfilled in the restoration of all things.
As much as we have been able to see God’s covenant love for people and creation through looking at themes in the Jewish scriptures, it is equally true that the story of the Bible contains material that leads writers such as Richard Dawkins to write that,
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
This can be a huge stumbling block for many. For Christians, who see God’s character fully revealed through Jesus, it is hard to honestly square this with a god who performs violence himself – undoing His creation in the flood – or commands human beings to do violence (“…when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.” (Deuteronomy 7:2))
The exile Psalm 137 relishes violence: “Blessed is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” Exodus describes God as a “warrior” (15:3) while in Deuteronomy God promises, “I will take vengeance on my adversaries and repay those who hate me. I will make my arrows drunk with blood, while my sword devours flesh.” (32:41-42) Even in the New Testament, the violent imagery of Revelation can be disturbing to our picture of God.
It is not helpful to deny such passages, or to ignore how savage they are. But this creates a moral problem – how can we believe in a god who seeks violence and war? It is hard as well to reconcile this with the picture of God through Jesus who told His disciples to love their enemies, refused to call down fire on His enemies (Luke 9: 51-56) and most importantly died for His enemies on the cross.
We must also avoid the kind of language which portrays the God of the Jews as somehow less compassionate and loving – as we have seen, the covenant-God of the Old Testament is consistent in His love and faithfulness throughout the Bible.
Christians have wrestled with this in three ways. Some, like Augustine, have said that both texts reveal truths about God – that He is loving and violent or vengeful. The issue here is that the New Testament portrays Jesus as the exact representation of God in whom the “whole fulness of God” lives. (Colossians 2:8) It is hard to reconcile the different portraits without easily ending up with two gods (some people think of an Old Testament and New Testament God) or seeing Jesus as only one side of God.
Others have said that the Old Testament should be rejected – Marcion was a famous example of this approach. The issue here is Jesus’ own rejection of that route in regularly referring to the Scriptures and saying that not one “stroke of it will pass away”. (John 10:35)
Others, such as Origen have said that the Old Testament needs to be seen (and sometimes reinterpreted) through the lens of the New in order to hold on to two truths:
The fact that Jesus endorses the Old Testament.
But that as the full revelation of God, He sometimes contradicts the portrayal of God’s character in it.
What might help us reconcile these two ideas? The writer Greg Boyd has offered several approaches seeking to wrestle with this.
Facing up to evil, and seeing God’s judgment as His withdrawal
He points out that we might acknowledge that the Bible is a book which is unafraid to describe the results of human sin in warfare and conflict. The Bible also consistently reveals that there are cosmic forces of evil – sometimes represented in symbols by the chaos of “hostile waters” or monsters such as a Leviathan, sometimes described as satan – “the whole world is under the control of the evil one”. (1 John 5:19)
Boyd argues that in some instances the violence of God in the Old Testament is more a question of God leaving people to their own devices and allowing evil to run its course. In Genesis God says, “Then the Lord said, “My Spirit will not contend with humans forever…” (6:3) In other words, God can only go so far in restraining evil.
He writes that many of the times God judges people are about Him withdrawing His presence, and turning people over to consequences of choices. Sin carries its own judgment. Psalm 7:15 states, “The trouble they cause recoils on them; their violence comes down on their own heads.” Isaiah says to God “for you have hidden your face from us and have given us over to our sins.” (64:7)
In Psalm 106 God’s response to Israel’s many sins (including child sacrifice) is that “He gave them into the hands of the nations.” (106:41) In Romans Paul repeats how God’s judgment is seen in how he “gave them over to” the results of their sin. (1: 24,26,28)
There is a consistent theme in the Bible of God not wanting to use violence or punish directly, but nevertheless allowing others as free agents to do so by withdrawing. This is most clearly illustrated on the cross, in which as Christ is “forsaken” by God, others are free to crucify Him.
But throughout the Old Testament the violence is often perpetrated by others – even though God takes responsibility for what wicked humans (or angelic beings) do.
God takes responsibility for the death of the firstborn in Egypt (Exodus 12:12) but it is a “destroyer” who carries it out (Exodus 12:23). Moses warns the people of Israel that if they forsake God “The Lord will send on you curses, confusion and rebuke in everything you put your hand to, until you are destroyed…” (Deuteronomy 28:20) but three chapters later God says, “I will hide my face from them, and they will be destroyed. Many disasters and calamities will come on them, and in that day they will ask, ‘Have not these disasters come on us because our God is not with us?’” (31:17)
Finally, Israel and Judah go into exile because, “…the Lord was very angry with Israel and removed them from his presence. Only the tribe of Judah was left, and even Judah did not keep the commands of the Lord their God. They followed the practices Israel had introduced. Therefore, the Lord rejected all the people of Israel; he afflicted them and gave them into the hands of plunderers, until he thrust them from his presence.” (2 Kings 17: 18-20)
Despite allowing people to experience this chaos, God is always grieving over their pain. Hosea portrays this compassion at the heart of God: “How can I hand you over, Israel?…My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused….I will not carry out my fierce anger…For I am God, and not a man…” (Hosea 11: 8-9)
Trusting in the clearest picture of God’s character
We can see that not all violence in the Bible is about God acting directly. Nevertheless, there are still over 1,000 passages in which God commands or acts violently in the Bible, particularly as the Israelites take over the Promised Land. To this Boyd offers four other thoughts:
However we understand these passages, it must be through the lens of the clearest picture of God’s character the Bible gives us. As we have already seen, in a general sense a key way of understanding the meaning of individual parts of the Bible is always to see them through the lens of Jesus, who fully reveals God’s character.
Looking at Jesus on the cross reveals the full heart of God as one who loves His enemies, takes on our sin, becomes disfigured and scarred and empties Himself, becoming nothing, out of self-sacrificial love for humankind.
Unless we trust that the cross is the most complete way in which God’s character is shown to us, and see the rest of the Bible through that, we will be forced to think that the violent portraits of God actually reveal His character.
But Boyd argues that if the God on the cross is the same God as of the Old Testament, God is doing something else, which is consistent with His self-sacrificial love, in being presented as violent.
Boyd uses an analogy of an imaginative story where he happens to see his wife across the street. Before he can get close enough to greet her, he observes her walking up to someone who is begging, stealing his cap, knocking over his collection cup, and kicking him over in his wheelchair. But because he knows and trusts his wife after 37 years of marriage, he cannot believe that these actions truly reflect her character. Instead there must be something else going on.
In the violent portraits of God, what could be going on that is consistent with the loving God we see in Christ crucified?
Self-emptying: God is allowing human beings to see Him as ugly in order to reach them.
If the cross reveals what God is truly like, then it shows what God has always been like – even from the beginning of the story. On the cross, we see that, because of His self-emptying love, God in Christ was willing to appear to many as a criminal, and under the curse of sin.
If this is the case, Boyd asks whether we shouldn’t expect to find other examples in the Bible of God revealing himself by stooping to bear the sin of his people, taking on an ugly appearance that mirrors the ugliness of their sin?
When we come to ugly sinful portraits of God that contradict the beauty and holiness of God revealed on the cross, one question to ask is whether what we are seeing is God’s willingness to be viewed as less than He is, out of a loving desire to be in relationship with sinful human beings?
We have already seen how God allows Old Testament authors to portray Him as violent, whereas in fact He often had only permitted violence.
Perhaps another element to understanding the way that the cross-bearing God risks being seen as ugly helps us to read violent passages as God allowing Himself to be seen as being like the vengeful gods of other surrounding cultures because that is what people expect Him to be.
In the Ancient Near East people saw their gods’ violence as something to be praised and they would have naturally believed that God told Moses to slaughter everyone. But God allows people to perceive Him in this way in order to move them towards gradually understanding what He is really like.
Self-adapting: God is accommodating Himself to human behaviour in order to be in relationship with human beings.
This is consistent with something else Christ reveals about God – that He is willing to stoop down and enter into our humanity to reach us. God adapts Himself to us by becoming a human being, knowing that, in our own fallen state, we are not able to see Him as He fully is.
The famous hymn from Philippians reveals how God is willing to go to the furthest extreme possible – becoming His opposite – to accommodate Himself to us. In becoming human, Jesus, “being in very nature God…made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant…And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2: 6-8)
Boyd uses the example of how even as humans we accommodate ourselves to reach others by telling a story about missionaries who lived with a tribe that practiced female circumcision. Because they could not force the tribe to stop the practice, they remained silent while they built relationship, even appearing to condone it by offering medical sanitation and clean equipment – taking on the appearance of that ugly sin. After three years the tribe began to become Christians – as a result of which they began to stop the practice.
Another perspective on what is happening in the violent portrayals of God in the Old Testament is therefore understanding how, in His love, God always comes alongside people as they are, even if this means appearing to condone aspects of their sin.
Because God’s self-giving love never forces people to change, He necessarily must bear with us, seeking to influence His people towards His love – a pattern we see through the Bible. God accommodates things early in the story which are then left behind as the story progresses – allowing His people to practise polygamy for a time, to have a king even though His ideal is no king, to see Him as violent, even though He loves His enemies enough to die for them.
Self-giving: God allows our picture of Him to develop throughout history and the Bible, at cost to Himself.
God’s self-giving love leads Him to allow us to have the freedom to see Him as less than He is, and leads Him to accommodate Himself to our behaviour.
A final principle in interpreting the violent passages of the Bible well is in grasping the way in which God allows people’s understanding of Him to develop. This is true in the Bible, but still true for us today.
For example, Isaiah talks about how God can only teach some of His people in very simple ways – they are like weaned children who need simple instructions and are not ready for the full picture. (Isaiah 28:9-11)
Because we are His covenant-partners, God allows us to have genuine freedom in growing to understand Him more over time. As we have seen as well, His “breathing” into the writing of Scripture does not remove the human voice either – God influences Scripture more than He dictates it. This means that what is revealed about God through the Bible progresses and grows (Progressive Revelation).
For example, the letter to the Hebrews talks in detail about how much of the Old Testament is fulfilled in Christ: The temple worship has become only “an illustration for the present time,” (9:9) “The (Old Testament) law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming – not the realities themselves…” (10:1) Talking of how animal sacrifices are no longer needed, the writer says, how Jesus “sets aside the first to establish the second”. (10:9)
The same God is walking with His covenant-people, accommodating Himself to them, allowing them to see and portray Him as less than He is, and their understanding to develop over time.
Boyd argues that this is because God is most fully seen through the self-giving love of the cross. When we read violent portrayals of God in the Bible on the surface they are terrible, but could it be that they reveal a cross-bearing, self-emptying God who will allow humans to see Him in whatever way they want in order to reach out to them in love?
For many people Jesus is just a good teacher or moral example. Others find it difficult, or even offensive, to believe that He is divine. Others might wonder if the New Testament, and particularly the gospels, are beginning a completely different story.
This section aims to address these questions by focussing on two things:
How the gospels fulfil the Bible story: Jesus is the climax of God’s plan to rescue His fallen world through being the divine King who in Himself brings God’s healing kingdom to the world.
How the gospels help us to see who He is and to “follow Him” by shaping us to live under His rule today, seeking His kingdom above everything else.
Jesus is the one in whom all the main themes of the Bible come into focus. He reveals fully our identity and purpose as human beings – who we are called to be and what we are called to live for. The gospels show how:
Jesus is the one who fully restores our covenant relationship with God – showing us who we are.
Jesus is the one who brings God’s kingdom fully into the world and invites us to join Him as God’s covenant-partners – showing us what our lives are for.
(The module ‘Becoming like Christ’ offers a more detailed way to help us grow in understanding who Jesus is and at how our characters and lives can be shaped to be like His.
Among other things it covers:
The main ways we understand who He is – as Saviour and Lord.
The titles Jesus used for Himself.
The four gospels and the different perspectives they offer.
The significance of Jesus being fully God and fully human.
The nature of salvation.
How God is involved in the work of the cross.
The defeat of evil and death.
How Jesus’ death and resurrection establishes Him as Lord.
How discipleship involves obedience.
How Jesus reveals the distinctive nature of God’s love.
The significance of, and evidence for, Jesus’ resurrection.
Having a balanced view of suffering.
The nature of Christian hope and the difference it makes to my everyday life.)
In a universe that is fourteen billion years old, could a period of just thirty years two thousand years ago be the centre of the story of everything? Only if those thirty years were the pivot for God’s plan to rescue all things, and God became a human being.
The four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John outline those thirty years, choosing eyewitness stories and shaping them in different ways, but all with a common message. Through Jesus God was completing the task of restoring His fallen world, including His people.
That plan had started with a small tribe, Israel, but the prophets had repeatedly promised it would extend to everyone and everything when God’s anointed King arrived.
When this happened God would reign fully over everything again. Isaiah had prophesied that God would create a “new heavens and new earth” (65:17) and Habakkuk looked forward to the time when “…the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” (2:14)
A “gospel” means an announcement of good news – and usually news that a new King had arrived, or a victory had been won. The four “gospels” are the stories of how in Jesus the King had arrived, and that in Him the “kingdom of God” – the effective rule of God which brings wholeness and restoration is being established. (There are over a hundred uses of the term in the gospels – particularly Matthew, Mark and Luke). The world will never be the same.
Jesus does this in three short years. After growing up in Nazareth He begins His ministry in Galilee, teaching about God’s kingdom and demonstrating its healing reality. He gathers a group of disciples around Him, twelve people who form a new Israel – God’s covenant people to be a blessing. As His ministry grows, He comes to the attention of hostile religious leaders.
From Galilee, He journeys to Jerusalem – the centre of the nation and the focus of opposition. He is arrested, crucified and then is raised from the dead.
His death and resurrection bring His whole ministry to a climax. Sin, death and the powers of evil exhaust themselves in Him on the cross, but His resurrection demonstrates how their power has been broken forever.
With all opposition defeated, this ultimate victory and sacrifice opens the way for God’s covenant people to receive forgiveness and for the kingdom of God to be released into the world.
In Jesus’ resurrection body heaven and earth are once again reunited, and Christians are given the promise that His resurrection is the foretaste of the time when God will make all things new.
The gospels invite those who read them to receive this promise for themselves and be restored in their covenant relationship with God through Christ. They ask us, “Who do you say Jesus is?”, and invite us to live with Him as King, living our lives as those who “learn as we follow” to join in with the establishing of His kingdom.
Jesus is the Messiah who fulfils the story and is the Good News of God’s Kingdom.
The gospel writers all want to show how Jesus fulfils the entire story of the Bible. To do this they are constantly referring to the Hebrew Scriptures – sometimes explicitly, and sometimes in the way in which they tell the story – offering us different emphases which help a fuller picture to emerge.
The gospel writers name Jesus directly as the one who fulfils God’s plan as the Messiah in many ways.
Matthew begins: “This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham…” (1:1) He is rooting Jesus in the story of Israel. He quotes regularly from the prophets – Jesus is the “Immanuel” (God with us) prophesied by Isaiah (1:23). The Magi call Him “king of the Jews” (2:2) and He is the fulfilment of Micah’s prophecy that a “ruler” will come from Bethlehem. (2:6)
Mark begins, “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God…” (1:1) In Luke the shepherds are told to find the baby who is “born in the city of David. He is Christ the Lord.” (2:11) Simeon and Anna recognise Him as the “Lord’s Messiah.” (2:26)
Matthew and Mark record Peter stating, “You are the Christ”. (Matthew 16:16; Mark 8:16) Matthew adds “the Son of the living God.” While all of God’s people were His sons, the Jews of Jesus’ time believed the Messiah would be a son of God like the Old Testament kings. This is the sense in which Jesus in John is God’s “only Son”. (John 3:16)
John locates Jesus before creation – He is the “Word of God” (1:1) and named as “God’s Chosen One” by John the Baptist. (1:34)
In other ways Jesus is described or acts as the fulfilment of God’s story.
Matthew shapes his gospel into five blocks of teaching, mirroring the first five books of the Bible – Jesus is the new and greater Moses – the new teacher.
In Mark with the arrival of Jesus God’s promised future erupts into the present. Jesus’ first words and actions are to go “into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (1:14-15)
John the Baptist calls people to prepare for the Messiah by being baptised in the Jordan – the river which reminds Israel of God’s original calling on them. When Jesus is baptised, He does not need to be cleansed from sin, but He is identifying Himself with this original mission.
The words spoken to Jesus by God at that moment recall that He is both the anointed King spoken about in the Psalms “You are my beloved Son” (Psalm 2:7) and the servant who will suffer but will be “God’s delight” (Isaiah 42:1) in whom He is well pleased.
In Luke and Mark Jesus is revealed as the one who is greater than Moses and Elijah, and who fulfils the law and the prophets at His transfiguration. (Mark 9: 2-8; Luke 9: 28-36)
As Jesus approaches His death, we have seen how he reinterprets the Passover meal to demonstrate how in Him God’s plans will be fulfilled. The gospels reveal Him as the Messiah in two other key ways in Jerusalem.
All four gospels record how Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey, laying claim to David’s throne, fulfilling a prophecy from Zechariah which predicted the Messiah coming to Israel’s throne in victory, and bringing God’s kingdom. He will be “…righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey…He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend…to the ends of the earth.” (Zechariah 9: 9-10)
The crowds understand and use a Messianic Psalm 118 to greet Him, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.”
Having entered the city in Mark Jesus does what a victorious king would always do by going to the Temple. The Jews expected that when the Messiah came, He would re-establish God’s throne at the centre of Israel and cleanse the Temple of pagan influences. But Jesus, acting as the Messiah, cleanses the Temple by judging God’s people.
Israel was called to be a light to all nations. But they have lost this calling and instead turned the Temple into a way of separating people. Jesus acts as the Messiah, but in a way that turns the Jewish authorities against Him.
In the gospels Jesus’ entire mission, and the purpose for which God sent Him, is to establish the Kingdom of God. He talks about God’s kingdom more than anything else and claims that all the Old Testament Scriptures testify about Him. (John 5:39)
The beginning of the Bible story describes a world which has fallen. As a result:
People are cut off from God and His image in us is distorted.
Creation is under a ‘curse’ leading to sickness and death.
Opposing powers blight God’s creation and oppose His goodness.
Jesus’ ministry demonstrates God’s kingdom rule by reversing these in every way – bringing wholeness (or “salvation”) in all these areas. Through Jesus
The kingdom means people are restored to God and one another.
Jesus brings “salvation” to Zacchaeus (Luke 19), a Jew who has fallen away from God’s calling by cheating people and collaborating with Romans. Responding to Jesus’ compassion, Zacchaeus recognises Him as “Lord” (19:8) and begins to pay back what has been broken. Jesus declares him a “son of Abraham” – in other words, restored to covenant relationship with God.
The kingdom means sickness and death is reversed.
When John the Baptist questions whether Jesus is the Messiah, Luke records the evidence of God’s kingdom like this: “At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind. So he replied to the messengers, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” (Luke 7: 21-22).
Through Him, God’s healing power is breaking into human history to end the grip of sickness and pain. In His ministry Jesus demonstrates the reversal of death – raising Lazarus, the widow’s son and Jairus’s daughter.
The kingdom means opposing evil forces are defeated.
In Mark Jesus’ first public action is to confront an evil spirit who recognises His true identity. The coming of the Messiah intensifies this spiritual reckoning. “Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” (Mark 1: 23-24).
Both Matthew and Luke show that for Jesus this confrontation is evidence of God’s kingdom. “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” (Matthew 12:28)
The kingdom means creation is in harmony.
The Old Testament prophets had foreseen the coming of God’s Messiah as bringing peace to all of creation. (Isaiah 11) Matthew, Mark and Luke show how in being the one whom the wind and waves obey, by stilling the storm and reversing the waves of chaos, Jesus demonstrates to His disciples how in Him God’s kingdom brings peace to the whole created world.
Despite the impact of these signs of God’s kingdom, Jesus was not the Messiah many Jews were expecting. Instead of the kingdom being about re-establishing Israel with a display of power against the Romans Jesus reveals it has:
A different focus: Restoring the rejected, the unclean and the outsider.
Luke in particular draws us to Jesus as one who has come “…to seek and save what was lost.” (Luke 19:10) Jesus is focussed on restoring those rejected by society – sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, and the poor and sick – a wonderful reversal at a time when poverty and sickness were often interpreted as signs of God’s judgement against sin.
While religious authorities in particular are scandalised by the way Jesus “eats with tax collectors and sinners”, equally challenging is His demonstration of God’s kingdom restoring those who are “unclean” or non-Jewish Gentiles.
In Mark 5 Jesus heals a demon-possessed man, a woman who has been bleeding internally for twelve years and raises a dead girl. Whereas previously people would have avoided being contaminated by the “uncleanness” of all three, Jesus reverses the situation as God’s kingdom comes.
Their uncleanness does not affect Him. Rather, in approaching, touching and healing them, God’s kingdom through Christ makes those who are unclean clean again.
Similarly, whereas Gentiles (non-Jews) were seen as excluded from God’s purposes, Jesus has an (at first evolving) sense that He has come for all people. The parable of the Good Samaritan is shocking in placing someone seen as an enemy by the Jews as the example of being a true neighbour. (Luke 10)
Yet as we have seen, Jesus is not introducing anything new into God’s purposes. God’s people had always been called to care for the foreigner, and to seek justice for those who are oppressed.
At the beginning of His ministry in Nazareth, Jesus quotes from Isaiah 61 and claims to be the anointed one sent to “proclaim good news to the poor…to proclaim freedom for the prisoner…to set the oppressed free…” He also pointedly reminds the crowd of how often in the Old Testament the Gentiles had responded to God (Luke 4: 16-30) – setting the Nazarenes against Him.
In prioritising the outsider Jesus is calling His people back to the original calling to be a blessing to the nations.
A different character: Being shaped by upside-down ways of living.
In every way Jesus describes those who seek God’s Kingdom first as being shaped by self-giving love, rather than power over others – even their enemies.
Having embraced His calling in the Jordan river, Jesus immediately faces three temptations as to how He will carry it out. In the temptations (Matthew 4: 1-11) He wrestles with turning stones into bread – using power for His own needs – throwing Himself off the Temple – making Himself the centre of people’s attention – and gaining the kingdoms of the world – acquiring earthly power for Himself.
To all three of these temptations Jesus replies with Old Testament Scriptures placing obedience to God at the heart of the Kingdom.
In the Beatitudes, a series of teachings which show the character of those who seek God’s kingdom, (Matthew 5 and Luke 6) Jesus emphasises that it is those who are humble, who know their dependence on God, who are often rejected by the world and who hunger for His kingdom who are His disciples.
In His teaching and practice Jesus emphasises that the more the Kingdom comes the more the social order is turned upside down with the last being first (Matthew 20:16), “the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame” being invited in (Luke 14:21) and the “tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God” ahead of those seen as religiously righteous. (Matthew 21:31)
It is John who describes how at the Last Supper Jesus demonstrates the servant-heartedness of the Kingdom, shockingly taking the role of a slave in washing His disciples’ feet and setting out a living example of a disciple’s character. “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” (John 13: 14-15)
John the Baptist’s confusion shows that neither the things Jesus does to demonstrate the Kingdom nor the character with which He goes about it fit with people’s expectations. It is clear as well, particularly in Mark, that Jesus goes out of His way not to be misinterpreted as a political Messiah by the people. (This is known as the Messianic secret).
He avoids declaring Himself to be the Messiah, He withdraws from the crowds when they want to make Him King (John 6:15) and He tells people not to spread news of healings (Mark 5:43).
In the light of how difficult it is for many to understand His mission, how might Jesus help people grasp this very different Kingdom, giving them the imagination to see it? He knows not everyone is ready to accept the Kingdom, and that the nature of God’s love with His covenant people means He will not force people to receive it – they must be willing to do so.
His method is to teach the nature of God’s kingdom through over forty parables. Often parables begin with the words, “The kingdom of God is like… “(or in Matthew the kingdom of heaven, meaning ‘where God rules fully’).
Parables are not just moral tales, or stories to make a point, but bring the hearer face-to-face with God’s kingdom in a way that will deepen their response to it. The parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-9) demonstrates how people respond in different ways to the coming of God’s kingdom.
But it also shows how the story itself opens up different reactions. “The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them.” (Matthew 13: 9-10)
Jesus was building on a tradition from Old Testament prophets, for example, Isaiah, who used parables in ways which would either open the hearers up to God or harden their hearts against Him.
In some ways Jesus used parables to buy more time – to allow the true meaning of His Kingdom ministry, and His journey to the cross, to unfold, without people being able to impose other ideas or agendas onto Him.
Rather than simply making a point, parables are “used to get God’s people to stop, reconsider their way of viewing reality, and to change their behaviour.” (Kyle Snodgrass). They put the ball in people’s court.
The parables describe how surprising God’s Kingdom is.
They reinforce the upside-down values of the Kingdom.
They challenge people to make decisions about placing the Kingdom at the centre of their lives.
They describe the way that the Kingdom influences the world, rather than controls it, like yeast in dough.
They talk about the presence of God’s kingdom now but are mostly about its future fulfilment and the need to be ready.
In our time the Kingdom of God continues to turn the values of the world upside down. Jesus’ parables remain a source of alternative imagination for disciples – shaping us to see the world as God sees it.
Jesus demonstrates God’s healing kingdom through His life – bringing restoration and making things new.
But all four gospels write extensively about Jesus’ death – seeing it as the centre of His mission as God’s Messiah.
It is through His dying that Jesus decisively confronts the powers of sin and evil, absorbing them into Himself and defeating them. The gospels all emphasise His death as Jesus’ ultimate enthronement as King – with a crown, a robe, His “lifting up” – not on a throne, but on the cross and a sign that declares Him to be “King of the Jews” written in the main languages spoken by all people (Luke 23:38). Matthew emphasises how, although Jesus is rejected as Messiah by His own people, on the cross His true royal nature is disclosed.
While many found (and find) the idea of God being crucified obscene, Christians view the crucifixion through the resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection is the proof that He is God’s truly victorious Messiah whom death cannot hold.
The nature of Jesus’ resurrection was unexpected. Throughout the Old Testament and the inter-testamental period God’s people had come to believe that one day God would renew all things and that as part of this “Last Day” Israel would be restored and human bodies resurrected. (Martha tells Jesus that she knows Lazarus “will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” (John 11:24))
Yet rather than waiting for the end of history, Jesus’ resurrection erupts into the present as a representative of God’s future. He is its “firstfruits” and confirmation of the ultimate “gospel – announcement of good news” – that God’s enemies have been defeated, and people and creation have been bought back.
As individual Christians we are set free through the cross and resurrection. But our restoration is within the larger story of Scripture – God’s plan to rescue all things. Jesus dies for the world.
Through the victory of the Messiah the kingdom of God has come, and a renewed creation is unfolding. Jesus invites disciples to live in this new reality and anticipate its fulfilment in our daily lives.
Jesus renews God’s plan to call a people to be a “kingdom of priests”, imaging Him in the world and being a blessing to the nations.
But rather than this being achieved through a nation, centred around a Temple, it will now be through a community with Him at the centre, which will draw all nations to God.
Jesus calls twelve disciples to be a different kind of Israel. They will fulfil the calling of the Old Testament, not by establishing a geographical kingdom, but by accepting God’s rule, making Him their Lord and having changed hearts so that they can truly love God and love their neighbour, including their enemy.
He calls them to be with Him, become like Him, and to join in with His mission, sending them out “…to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.” (Luke 9:2)
In Matthew He tells His disciples, “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (5: 14-16) They are a covenant people, and, as a result, put God’s Kingdom on display.
For some this means seeking the Kingdom by staying in their homes and villages. For others it means leaving everything behind. For all, it involves cost.
Jesus’ journey to His death in Jerusalem is presented as Jesus preparing His disciples for life after His departure – just as their physical journey is challenging so the way of discipleship is sacrificial. In Luke Jesus teaches the disciples that they need total allegiance to Him – not looking back. “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” (9:62)
In Mark it is the cross is the new reality which shapes the community of Jesus’ followers and calls us to live self-sacrificially. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34)
Finally, before His ascension Jesus explicitly commissions His disciples to carry on His work. Crucially, He gives them His own authority and promises the power of His presence with them.
Matthew describes the priority – Jesus’ Great Commission to go and make disciples. John offers the reassurance – the disciples are sent and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit as Jesus breathes on them. Luke emphasises the task – to be witnesses.
To read the gospels is not just to know about God’s kingdom, it is to be invited into being part of Jesus’ mission, taking part in the new creation He has started. In the next session we look at what this began to look like in the Early Church, as the first Christians began to seek God’s kingdom.
We have seen how Christians have different understandings of some parts of the Bible because it is impossible for us to read anything without interpreting it. We have looked at the importance of reading the Bible well by doing two things: firstly, by getting as close to the original meaning as we can and using different tools to give us the background knowledge we need.
The other part of interpreting well is about knowing that each of us has a certain perspective – no one is likely to have the full view of what is going on. This is true in any area of life.
When looking at the same object, one person might see a triangle, and another a circle. Neither are wrong in what they see, but they are actually looking at a cone, and it is not until their perspectives come together that they see the clearer 3D picture.
Sometimes people get worried by talk of there being lots of different interpretations of the Bible. They might ask, “Surely there is one truth from God which we all need to find when reading it?”
Acknowledging that there are different perspectives is not necessarily saying that they are all as valid as each other or denying that there is truth.
But because it is impossible for any human being to have a complete view, we need to read with humility and openness to keep on learning.
Rather than being threatened by this reality, our reading of the Bible can be enriched and challenged by those whose perspectives are very different from us, and who might open up new ways of seeing things.
This requires a trust that the Bible has been given by God as something that is best read in relationship with others. Ancient writers used to say that every Scripture has seventy facets, and so one of the reasons we commonly gather to hear or study Scripture is because it was written to be understood best as we learn together.
(The technical word to describe the way we interpret things is hermeneutics, and when talking about the Bible we talk about ‘biblical hermeneutics’.)
There have been, and continue to be, many debates what it means to interpret well, and about which perspectives to emphasise when we interpret Scripture. Some (like Luther and Calvin) have asked, “How do we discover the most literal way of reading the Bible, according to its original meaning and intention?”
Others (like Origen) have agreed with this, but asked, “Can we interpret the Bible in any allegorical ways, with a second level of meaning?” For example, they point to the way that Paul uses the story of a “rock in the wilderness” in the Old Testament as a picture of Jesus. In our own reading this might make us ask, “Can we read the account of Jesus calming the storm as only about God’s control over the weather, or more allegorically as a way of seeing His activity in our own ‘storms of life’?”
Others have emphasised a moral perspective, asking, “What might this story show us about how to live now?”
But in the last few decades another important question about interpreting well has come by people asking, “How can we make sure we are understanding the Bible better from the perspectives of those who have previously been left out or sidelined by history?”
For example, in 1949 Howard Thurman, an African-American professor, wrote a book called “Jesus and the Disinherited”. He argued that for centuries the Bible had for the most part been interpreted by those who were powerful in society – and even in order to justify slavery. As a result he wrote this: “The significance of the religion of Jesus to people who stand with their backs against the wall…is one emphasis which has been lacking….”
He said that to understand Jesus better we need to read the Bible from the perspective that Jesus was poor and a member of a minority group. When we do this, we see that “Christianity as born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed.”
His words reflect a desire to read the Bible from a perspective of liberation – particularly for those who suffer from injustice. ‘Liberation theologians’ look for ways in which the Bible can be understood as a resource for overturning unjust structures in the world. They offer the view that however we understand the Bible, we interpret it well when it is “good news for the poor”.
More recently this kind of perspective has been highlighted by people reflecting on the experience of Black Christians in the West – people who feel their experience has been missing from the way the Bible has been interpreted.
The writer Chine McDonald says that emphasising the way the Bible tells “a story of redemption, the overturning of power structures and a future kingdom where justice reigns” helps shape ‘Black Theology’ in which “Black people can see themselves reflected as made in the image of God and redress the imbalances that have left us feeling and being treated as ‘less than’.”
Others give better attention to the perspective of women when it comes to interpreting Scripture well. For example, while the Bible was not written for men, they notice how religion has traditionally been dominated by men and how most of the Bible has been written by men. They ask questions about what difference it makes that Jesus was a man.
Most of church history has excluded women from mainstream church leadership or ministry. Feminist theologians will ask how much this is to do with the fact that, when interpreting the Bible, women’s voices have been missing.
For example, what difference does the traditional way of talking about God using male-orientated language make? How could being more aware of the female imagery for God in the Bible will help lead to a higher view of women’s places in the church and society?
How much should these other perspectives influence our reading of the Bible? Some would say that these voices have been so ignored in the past that they need to be centre stage. (Some liberation theologians would argue that liberation is the main theme of the Bible.) At the very least, they can jolt us into thinking in fresh ways about what God might be saying through the Bible.
Taking these perspectives seriously will help us when we are thinking about which themes are important throughout the Bible, but they might also help us to read particular parts of it with fresh eyes. We might ask, “How would a refugee/rich person/poor person/differently abled person/male/female/black/white/child/adult see this passage and what could I learn?”
Good questions to ask when interpreting the Bible well are:
How can I read this with others?
Are there other ways of interpreting this which are still faithful to the original meaning?
Whose voices are missing in the way that this has been traditionally understood?
Disciples read the gospels to understand the story of God through Jesus, and how that shapes the story of our lives. But (as we have already seen in ‘Being with God’ Session 6), the Bible is a “living word” through which we can also meet with God in Jesus.
What does this mean? St Ignatius believed that we need to both understand God’s story with our minds, but in order to be able to make a true response to it, we know to also understand the feelings and desires we have when we read it.
The words of God can feed us spiritually, emotionally and mentally, bringing us into a life-giving sense of God’s presence and purpose. Psalm 1 says that as we meditate on God’s word we become like a tree with its roots in flowing water – always be bearing fruit, staying alive and flourishing.
When we meditate, or read contemplatively, we open ourselves up to God speaking to us personally through the rhema (living word) of the Scriptures. In Psalm 119 the writer experiences God’s word being like a “Lamp to my feet and light to my path”. (119:105)
As we have seen, the writer Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that we read God’s word from the heart: “… just as you do not analyse the words of someone you love, but accept them as they are said to you, accept the Word of Scripture and ponder it in your heart, as Mary did. That is all…Do not ask, ‘How shall I pass this one?’ but “What does it say to me?’ Then ponder this word long in your heart until it has gone right into you and taken possession of you.”
Meditation is being aware of God and using our imagination as we read the Bible and was seen by early Christians as the normal foundation of a spiritual life. Through our imaginations we can read the story as if we are present.
C.S. Lewis says it is like the difference between looking at a beam of sunlight in a dark shed in which he “was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it. Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam.
“Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun.
“Looking along the beam and looking at the beam are very different experiences.”
Meditating on the Bible is not looking at it, in order to study it, but looking at everything through it – and being changed by the view.
There are different ways of meditating. As we have seen, the practice of ‘holy reading’ (Lectio divina in Latin – see handout) starts by being relaxed and becoming aware of God’s presence – perhaps relaxing our breathing and centring our thoughts on Him.
We then read the text slowly and repeatedly, using our imaginations and perhaps a number of ways to help us see ourselves, and God in it.
This might give us a good opportunity to ‘see’ the story from the perspective of a ‘missing voice’. How might I see this if I am another gender? Or an oppressed person?
Then we read, reflect with questions, respond to what God is saying to us, and finally rest in His presence.
These suggestions may help us to read the Bible in this way:
Reading a sentence, but with a different word emphasised each time. For example:
“Christ in you the hope of glory”, Colossians 1:27.
Read: CHRIST in you the hope of glory – then unpack what CHRIST means.
Read: Christ IN you the hope of glory – then unpack what IN means.
Read: Christ in YOU the hope of glory – then unpack what YOU means.
Using guided meditations which lead us into the passage.
Personalising the passage by including my name as one of the characters.
Using pictures to visualise the passage.
The death and resurrection of the Messiah Jesus was the centre point of God’s plan to restore His people and creation in every way, and the fulfilment of God’s promises. The story of the Bible is one of this salvation, and, as we have seen the meaning of salvation is not about a rescue or an escape from the earth to a place called heaven. Instead, salvation means the world and human beings being made whole.
The books and letters of Acts to Revelation model for us how the early church began to respond to this, knowing that through Jesus God’s kingdom was present, but that the final defeat of evil was to come. Paul’s letters wrestle with the same tension between the already and not yet aspects of the kingdom of God seen in Jesus’ life.
As disciples who are in the same position – living between Jesus’ first coming and His second, the New Testament is a resource for us. A testament is a “covenant relationship”, and so the New Testament unfolds how a new world had begun and through the Holy Spirit disciples of Christ receive a new identity and a new relationship with God. These books paint a picture for us about how to live lives of discipleship, taking off the ‘old self’ and putting on the new.
As we end this module, and the ‘Way of Discipleship’ course, we can briefly trace how the life of discipleship is unpacked through important themes in these New Testament books. What do Acts, the letters and Revelation show about being with God, becoming like Christ and joining in with the Spirit?
The love of God.
The starting point for a relationship with God is His love, and in Christ the nature of that self-giving that love has been fully revealed. John writes, “God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:8-10)
Nothing can separate a disciple from God’s love. (Romans 8:38). Paul’s greatest prayer is that we “may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3: 18-19)
God’s relationship with human beings.
Reconciling us and all creation to Himself, bring peace and wholeness
“For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Colossians 1: 19-20)
Rather than having to wait until the end of time, in Jesus the fulness of God’s promise to restore the order and wholeness of creation and people is offered now. We are no longer cut off from God in any way.
Adopting us as His children.
“In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.” (Ephesians 1: 5-6)
Paul paints a picture of Christians who were once part of ‘Adam’s family’, and slaves to sin and a law we can’t keep. Through Christ, we are bought out of this slavery. “So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, you are also an heir through God.” (Galatians 4:7)
By using the language of adoption, the New Testament emphasises how much we receive as God’s heirs. In the film Ben-Hur Judah (a Jew) escapes from a sinking ship in which he is a slave. In doing so, he saves the life of a Roman commander, Arrius, whose son has been killed. Arrius adopts Judah, leading to his being forgiven for his supposed crimes, being given a new name, “young Arrius,” and receiving a full inheritance. Arrius declares the adoption by giving his ancestral signet ring to young Arrius, who says he has received “a new life, a new home, a new father”.
In the same way, a relationship of adoption as Christians means our debts are cancelled, and receive all that belongs to heirs of God.
Justification by faith has rightfully been emphasised as an important part of understanding salvation. It emphasises the complete forgiveness and right relationship we gain with God because of what Jesus did.
It means we find ourselves before God in a place in which it is as if we had never done anything to disobey Him.
A much-loved priest in the Philippines carried around the burden of a secret sin he had committed many years before. He had asked for forgiveness but still had no peace.
In his parish was a woman who loved God and who claimed to be able to speak with Christ and He with her. The sceptical priest wanted to test her and said, “The next time you speak with Jesus, I want you to ask Him what sin I committed while I was in training college.” The woman agreed.
A few days later they met and the priest asked her, “Well, did Christ visit you in your dreams?” “Yes, he did,” she replied. “And did you ask him what sin I committed in college?” “Yes.” “And what did he say?” “He said, ‘I don’t remember.'”
God’s final judgement has already taken place on the cross. Christians can live in the freedom of having been made right before God, and being in right relationship to Him. “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3: 22-24)
God restores us through grace.
We still struggle to accept the unconditional nature of God’s love, and the New Testament reflects this in the story of Acts, and in many letters, as early Christians worked out the relationship between God’s grace (His favour given to those who don’t deserve it) and God’s law.
God’s grace is not just a New Testament revelation – the Jewish people were never driven by works or effort – Judaism was always a religion of grace. Jewish people believed that they were saved because they had been chosen by God.
Nevertheless, they were marked out by ways of life given to them by God and by signs of His relationship with Him – such as circumcision or keeping certain food laws.
The good news of the New Testament is not that we are freed from any kind of law – those who are adopted as God’s children will still want to obey Him (“So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.” Romans 7:12)
The good news is that no one is excluded because they haven’t obeyed particular laws which act as ‘boundary-markers’. Non-Jewish people (Gentiles) are now invited into God’s family simply because of His grace – a grace shown to everyone.
To those who might fear that their behaviour or their tribal identity is the way they earn their relationship with God, the good news is that “…it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2: 8-9)
As disciples we can only “be with God” through His grace – it is nothing to do with our merit – and we can know that His grace means no one is excluded. This is a constant theme in the story of Acts, as the church began to realise that Gentiles were included in God’s plan, and in many of the letters (particularly Romans and Galatians).
The way that we receive this grace and relationship is through faith – and the New Testament explores this in detail. As we have seen in module 1, having faith is not about psychological certainty about a list of beliefs. Rather it is more about placing our entire confidence and trust in Christ (sometimes even when we don’t understand).
In Galatians 2:20 Paul expresses the way he entrusts himself to God by saying, “the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God.”
This kind of genuine trust will affect everything. James’ letter was written to those who thought faith was just about agreeing intellectually to the good news without any intention of living faithfully to it. Because they were saved by grace, they argued, there was no need to live differently.
But James argues from Abraham’s example, saying “faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.” (James 2:22) While we are brought in to relationship with God, not through our efforts but through His forgiveness, the sign that our trust and allegiance have meaning will be that we will naturally want to act in obedience to God.
We are saved by God’s grace alone and then we are called to live faithfully into that truth. Faith is an allegiance which leads to a new way of living.
We previously explored the fear that Christians can have about whether we have enough faith – if I am saved by faith in Christ alone the question is, “How much do I need?” This can lead to ‘salvation anxiety’ – the opposite of the grace God offers.
Steve Chalke asks, “How can we be saved by grace through faith? We are either saved by grace or saved by faith. It can’t be both.”
Tom Wright argues that when Paul speaks in Galatians and Romans about faith, it is more helpful to translate it as “the faithfulness of Christ” rather than “faith in Christ”. He is more concerned to emphasise that Jesus as the Messiah was faithful to God’s purposes, and that this is what matters, rather than the faith by which Jew or Gentile believe the good news.
By knowing that we are saved more by the faithfulness of Christ, rather than the amount of our faith in Christ, we can be free to know that being accepted by God is much more about Jesus’ faithfulness to God’s plan rather than how strong or weak our faith may feel.
However much we might agree or disagree with the translation, the most important thing is that God’s faithfulness to us always remains even if and when we find ourselves faithless. As Paul writes to Timothy, “…if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself.” (2 Timothy 2:13)
Humans are renewed creations.
The New Testament shows how God makes it possible to be with Him through making us righteous – those who trust in Christ can now be given a place among God’s covenant people with a new future.
But it then focusses on how this new identity leads naturally to a life in which we are being changed, as we live into being part of God’s new creation. Just as God’s plan is to restore all things, He wants to restore us. We look at others, and ourselves, differently:
“So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5: 16-17)
A restored person becomes more like Christ.
In the New Testament, a fully human life is one in which “Christ is formed in you”. (Galatians 4:19)
For disciples our baptism is a time when we died to our own way of living, and from now on live a new life – totally identifying with Christ, and living life as He would live it: “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Romans 6:4)
Our natural response to what God has done is to live differently.
Many of the letters unfold what God has done, and then pivot to challenge or invite Christians to live in response to that.
In the first three chapters of Ephesians Paul outlines God’s plan to unify humanity to Himself and one another, giving thanks for His blessings and goodness. In chapter 4 he calls them to respond, “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4: 1-3) Above all, this new life is characterised by self-giving love.
Paul writes that those who hear “about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus” will “put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness”. (Ephesians 4: 22-24).
Change comes as we cooperate with the Holy Spirit
The Old Testament pointed to the time when God would pour out His Spirit on everyone (Joel 2:28), and Jesus promised His disciples that when the Spirit came, He would lead them into all truth. (John 16:13)
On the day of Pentecost these promises come to pass as the fire and wind (which had demonstrated God’s presence in the Old Testament) come to rest on each disciple.
The New Testament describes and explores how the world now lives in the age of God’s Spirit. The presence of God’s Holy Spirit in the world, the power that raised Jesus from death and brings the reality of God’s future promise into the present, is the source of any meaningful change in our lives.
In the book of Acts, it is the Holy Spirit who directs all that happens, sending, warning and empowering the disciples at all stages.
As we seek to become more like Christ, the only path offered is in cooperation with God’s Spirit. Those “who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God” (Romans 8:14) and while Christians seek to live to God’s eternal standards, we cannot do it “by the flesh” (our own efforts) but by the Spirit. (Romans 8:1-13)
We have explored throughout the ‘Way of Discipleship’ how genuine transformation is not a matter of ‘trying’ but of ‘training’. It is the character of the inner person that generates our outward behaviours, and our deeper character is changed by the things we practise regularly, which allow God’s Spirit to shape our desires.
As we grow in worship, or prayer or stillness, or other practices, we are keeping in step with the Spirit. (Galatians 5:25). In doing so the Holy Spirit can grow fruit of Jesus’ character (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness…) within us.
In these times of focussing on God “contemplating the Lord’s glory” we can find the way to “being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)
The Holy Spirit’s work in restoring humanity to each other.
The New Testament demonstrates people becoming more like Christ in unity and love as the Holy Spirit breaks down the barriers created between human beings, while celebrating the gift of difference.
In Genesis human beings had sought to remove and control the differences between people by building the empire of Babel, and ended up scattered (chapter 11). Babel (or Babylon) is a recurring picture of human control throughout the Bible.
But in Acts we see how at Pentecost this is reversed in two amazing ways – God uses all the languages of those who are present to communicate – He affirms their differences – but He gives His Spirit to all of them – making them one community in Christ.
The story of Acts describes this creation of a new family, as the Jewish followers of Jesus began to see and respond to how God was now calling all people. When explaining to his fellow Jewish believers how God is including Gentiles, Peter points to the work of the Holy Spirit as the evidence, “God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us.” (Acts 15:8)
The second half of the book of Acts focusses on the ministry of Paul in bringing the good news to all, and his letters contain many reflections on how the Spirit is working to break down barriers between people: “For we were all baptised by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” (1 Corinthians 12:13)
Through Christ God has broken down the wall of hostility (Ephesians 2:14) between different people groups…”in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:26-28)
This unity in difference is the ultimate picture of what a humanity restored in Christ looks like, and the vision God has for human beings. In the book of Revelation John sees “…a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’” (Revelation 7:9-10)
The New Testament reaches towards a vision for all disciples today – of being a people who are becoming like Christ, united in Him and worshipping Him forever.
Luke begins the book of Acts by reminding his reader that the first part of his story – the gospel – relates what Jesus ‘began to do and teach’. He is implying that in this second part (Acts) he is describing what Jesus continues to do and teach through His disciples.
By giving His Spirit and giving gifts to His disciples, Jesus empowers and sends them to bring His salvation to the world. What started in Jerusalem now goes out to the whole world – and we have taken up this mission.
When He ascends, Jesus is finally enthroned as King over all creation, and gives His disciples the authority to act in His name. The New Testament describes how our calling as Jesus’ body – His church – is to join in with His work in the world as we look in hope for God’s Kingdom to come to earth in its fulness.
The purpose and life of the church
As we have seen in module 3, the church is called to be a “sign of God’s reign and a foretaste of His rule” – who we are is as significant as what we do. The New Testament offers many images and descriptions to help us grasp this identity and task.
Who we are.
Paul describes disciples as God’s chosen and “holy” people – set apart by Him to continue His purposes in the world. We do this as people who know we are “dearly loved”. (Colossians 3:12)
The Bible finishes by celebrating us as God’s “bride”. (Revelation 21:2) Throughout the Bible God has called people into covenant relationship with Him. Paul describes how the way in which a husband and wife are united as “one flesh” is a picture of the deep covenant intimacy God wants with His people, (Ephesians 5:21-22) under Christ as the “head of the church”. (Ephesians 1:22)
Knowing ourselves to be loved and united in this way, we live as one body, the fulfilment of God’s plan for a newly created humanity in which “each member belongs to the others” (Romans 12:5), a “family of believers” (Galatians 6:10), no longer strangers, separated by ethnicity or background, but “fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household”. (Ephesians 2:19)
God’s plan was always to call a people to be a blessing to the world, set apart for Him, worshipping Him, demonstrating His love, acting in a priestly way to connect God to people, and people to God. The New Testament reveals this calling to Israel is now extended to all people.
The church becomes God’s temple and priesthood. No longer is God’s presence focussed in a particular building, but in Christ we “are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” (Ephesians 2:22) “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?” (1 Corinthians 3:16)
We are “like living stones…being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”
In Christ we are “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:5,9)
As such, we are living representatives of Christ in the world. “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” (2 Corinthians 5: 20)
The New Testament describes the life of the church as being distinctive in world-changing ways.
As we have seen, the life of this new temple, creation and humanity is uniquely multi-ethnic, breaking down barriers and marked by love.
It is striking how Acts focuses on how the good news comes to those who previously felt excluded. Persecution forces the church away from Jerusalem to Gentile areas. Philip takes the gospel to Samaria – Israel’s enemies, and many of them come to Him.
A persecutor of Christians, Saul, becomes the most passionate missionary – taking the gospel on (at least) three mission trips, planting new churches in Gentile areas. Peter has a vision about how non-Jewish people are not seen as impure, and then is led to Cornelius, a Roman soldier, on whom the Spirit comes.
Antioch, previously dividing people up into separate walled areas, becomes the first city in which people cross those barriers to worship Jesus together. It is here, where people’s ethnic identities become less significant than their allegiance to Christ, that disciples are first identified by His name – Christians.
The New Testament also describes how these early Christian churches live as salt and light within surrounding cultures. They have a calling to bring life to their wider communities, but challenge many of its values through their life together.
Within a context in which Christians were supposed to obey Caesar as the highest authority, a continuing theme is how to live with integrity under a different Lord – Christ.
By treating men and women, slaves and their owners, rich and poor as equals within God’s people, Christians challenged the very structures of societies around them.
What we do.
The New Testament describes in very practical terms what it looked like for God’s people to be joining in with the Spirit, as they lived within the salvation of God’s kingdom and sought to offer that salvation to others.
They did so both through their active witness and a Spirit-empowered life which put the message on display, transformed every part of life, and was energised by hope.
(See ‘Joining in with the Spirit’ session 3 for the difference between being a witness ands an evangelist). Jesus’ final words to His disciples in Acts link the coming of the Spirit with active witness – movement outward is a natural response to the sending Spirit. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
Paul is the most deliberate example of this missionary activity, with three trips through Asia Minor (Turkey) and Greece.
His aim is to start witnessing kingdom communities all over the Roman Empire: “So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.” (Romans 15: 19-20)
His planting strategy is simple – to start where people are, to pass on the message, and to establish leadership and the Lord’s Supper.
Yet when persecution breaks out against the church in Jerusalem (Acts 8) it leads to a rapid missionary expansion, with ordinary disciples now making the good news known – it is not only the job of the ‘official spokespeople’ of the church.
The life of the community.
The New Testament expects that most people witness in their locality, through their life together. The church is marked by a passion for mission far away, and nearby.
Acts gives us two pictures of the life of the church, meeting together daily in the temple. In other words, this new community is demonstrating what the Temple, as the place where heaven and earth meet, should be.
Luke describes this young church as having three defining features, which act as a framework for a healthy church. (Acts 2: 42-47)
They were devoted to God, living out the practices that helped them to be with Him, and open to His presence: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer….Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts…They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts…praising God.”
As Jesus’ body on earth, they demonstrated the life of God’s kingdom in their life together and in their individual lives. “Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” The church is the prime example of what the future kingdom will look like – a ‘film trailer’ for the ultimate masterpiece of God’s recreated world.
They experienced people being drawn into God’s salvation through the visibility of their life together. They were “enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
Just as the Old Testament imagined the nations being drawn to God by seeing the life of salvation through Israel, so the attractive life of God’s kingdom is the magnet which enables people to become disciples.
While much of the New Testament addresses internal church relationships and issues, the expectation is that the life of the church will be a transforming influence on the world, seeing God’s kingdom come.
Paul’s vision of Christ’s victory is that it will bring “unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.” (Ephesians 1:10) Christ rules over and redeems all creation. (Colossians 1:15). Through the church, God’s wisdom is to reach every part of creation: “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms…” (Ephesians 3:10) As such, Christians live in the world as “children of Light”. (Ephesians 5:8)
All of human life, including the most everyday activities, is lived for God’s glory. “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31)
In Romans Paul summarises this whole-life discipleship: “So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out.” (Romans 12:1-2, The Message)
Disciples live this life for the sake of the world. As those who are to seek to live as citizens as far as is possible, and seek the welfare of their society, they are to “shine like stars” among the darkness of a crooked generation (Philippians 2:15), to “do what is right in the eyes of everybody” (Romans 12:17) so that they can “win their respect” (1 Thessalonians 4:12).
The New Testament does not provide an inflexible blueprint for how Christians seek the Kingdom of God in every society. But its stories and very real examples shape our imagination for our contexts, inviting us to improvise.
In the Drama of Scripture the authors describe the story of Gary, a businessman, who wants to demonstrate God’s life through his business, being a “Kingdom professional”. He “witnesses to God’s good intention for business by placing love thy neighbour, stewardship of God’s resources, and justice above profit. He strives towards the ideal of a kingdom company, a business enterprise shaped by the biblical story that will bless the lives of its own employees and their families, its suppliers and its customers.”
The New Testament calls human beings to live out God’s kingdom in anticipation of Jesus’ return and the final renewal of all things. It is this hope that strengthens them in the midst of difficulties and the incompleteness of His healing work. Alongside faith and love, hope is the enduring foundation for any disciple.
The hope is not that Christians will leave earth, but that one day Christ will return to restore all things, revealing our true glory, and enabling us to live into God’s image, reigning with Him. To live in hope today is to live in anticipation of what we will one day experience.
Only a conviction about the future can give meaning and shape to life in the present. As Bishop Leslie Newbigin said, “Meaningful action in history is possible only when there is some vision of a future goal.”
The New Testament wrestles with changing expectations of when this might happen. It unfolds the harsh realities of living in our present in-between state, including in Revelation our sometimes horrific human and spiritual battles. But Peter promises that God will “lay everything bare” (2 Peter 3:1), and that what is not of His kingdom and love will ultimately be defeated.
For disciples, joining in with God’s vision, the New Testament is immersed in this hope which gives confidence: “Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold.” (2 Corinthians 3:12) As such, Paul prays that “the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.” (Ephesians 1:18, 19)
The New Testament reveals Christians working through issues and controversies together. While Christ is the fullest revelation of God we have, Paul writes that until the world and human beings are completely restored, we continue to “see through a glass darkly”. (1 Corinthians 13:12) We continue to live in a time of progressive revelation.
As such then, and now, there are questions about how to live faithfully which Christians disagree on, and new situations where we wrestle with how to apply God’s revealed truth well.
Our divisions are a reflection of the fact that historically Christians have been unable to agree on some theological matters, and Christians hold different understandings of some ethical questions – for example in our day the nature of human identity and relationships.
When we approach difficult questions, four chief lenses (or ‘sources of God’s revelation’) have been developed through which we can seek to get as close as we can to a faithful Christian response.
Three (Scripture, Reason, Tradition) were developed by Richard Hooker (1554–1600), a prominent Anglican priest, and a fourth (Experience) was added by John Wesley (1703-1791), who was responding to his sense of God’s Spirit at work in his life and speaking to him.
These four sources of guidance work together, often overlapping to act as legs of a table, helping us discern in a balanced way.
Scripture: What does the Bible say? For Christians the Bible is always the supreme source of authority, and the testing measure for everything else. Anglicans emphasise that ‘Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation’ (Article 6 of the 39 articles).
We have already explored some principles around interpreting the Bible well – seeking to get as close to the original meaning as possible and being aware of our own perspective, and those of others.
When talking with others about Scripture, part of our journey to be sensitive to the way they might interpret Scripture in different ways from us.
A key principle in interpreting well is reflecting on whether issues are seen as first order (in other words, essential) or second order in Scripture. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul begins the chapter by reminding them “of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved…For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.”
In 434 AD Vincent of Lerins was asked a question: “What should every Christian believe for sure?” He replied: “quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est.” That which has been believed everywhere, always and by all people. For centuries this has acted as a guide for first order parts of the Bible.
Questions to ask: Am I giving the Bible the full weight it needs? Am I aware of my own interpretations? What are first order and second order issues?
Reason: What makes sense? Hooker believed God had gifted us (as His partners in creation) with the ability to think and feel, and with conscience. Reason helps us to connect and analyse various ideas, concepts, and arguments. It can help us define and defend how we view Scripture, but also our traditions and even our experiences.
Reason is not the opposite of faith – reason can be exercised with faith, and faith can be defended by reason. As Christians we are transformed by the “renewing of our minds”. (Romans 12:2)
While faith might always go beyond reason, it never goes against it, and sound arguments can be made to explore and defend positions. Nevertheless, we will always be aware that no one person can be completely objective.
Questions to ask: Do I see my ability to think as a gift as I interpret the Bible and listen to others? Am I humble about my own brokenness as I consider this question?
Tradition: What have voices before us said? Each generation of Christians does not come from nowhere, but we have inherited wisdom from those who have gone before as they have sought to apply the Bible. They have developed principles of interpreting Scripture well and living it out. God has been active in the lives of those who have passed on their living tradition to us.
These voices have an important, but secondary role. The Church of England has historically drawn on the thinking of the early church ‘fathers and mothers’ yet always sees these teachings as being useful only as much as they are “agreeable to the…scriptures” (Canon A5).
Questions to ask: What voices and wisdom do I need to pay attention to?
Experience: How have I and others sensed God’s direct action? God is always at work in all His creation, and in our daily lives, and therefore we expect Him to be revealing Himself in new ways. Wesley believed it was only when we experienced something personally that we could have true confidence in our understanding.
We can be suspicious of experience because it is subjective. We think at best it can only reinforce our opinion, rather than inform it. Yet experiences have always really happened, whether physical or psychological. The question is how much is our interpretation of the experience subjective?
In addition, in making decisions, the experience of others can enable us to pay attention to perspectives we would be otherwise unable to understand or consider, particularly those who have been marginalised.
In making good decisions, a final principle is that it is in the context of a Spirit-led community – in which we are open to the Holy Spirit, learn from each other, and read Scripture together, that the peace of God to guide us will most likely be found.
Questions to ask: Am I open to God speaking to me today in this question? How am I listening to the experiences of those who can help me understand better? Where is God at work in the world?
One of the features of New Testament letters is that they were mostly written, and intended to be read, by groups of people – they are community documents.
Paul often collaborated with people (such as Timothy or Silas) to work on the material, they would then hire a professional scribe to write it, and give specific instructions to those delivering the letter as to how it should be read aloud. Our practice of reading Scripture aloud in services has a long tradition.
Most letters were obviously read from beginning to end, enabling those hearing to catch the flow of Paul’s argument, and would follow a standard pattern – an opening greeting between author and receiver, a prayer of thanks, the main points of the letter, and then the more personal conclusion.
The letters were expected to be able to be understood by everyone, not just by the ‘educated’, and would be discussed by the community and passed around.
This gives us a sense of how to read the Bible well. If we lack confidence because we don’t know where to start, or feel we are not clever enough to understand, we can be reassured by knowing that the Bible is intended to be for everyone – and that the best way of approaching it is always with others.
In addition, being able to lead a Bible study does not need to be the task of experts. Any Christian should be able to do this with others.
In recent years the Discovery Bible Study method has led to significant growth in the church around the world, and offers us a way of reading the Bible with anybody. It is a method that emphasises discovery, not teaching, and is particularly aimed at empowering people who may not have read the Bible before to be able to start.
Discovering truth is far more powerful than being told it. The process allows the Holy Spirit to be the teacher rather than a person, helping to avoid over-dependence on a gifted individual.
Crucially, it helps us not only to understand what the Bible says but also (as in so many New Testament letters) to respond in our own lives, putting into practice what we feel God is showing us. This is why it helps us grow as disciples.
It works with a simple way of reading together, followed by using the same straightforward questions each time.
Read the Scripture R-R-R-D (Read • Read • Re-tell • Details)
Read – Reader 1 reads passage all the way through
Read – Reader 2 same as above (useful to read from another translation)
Retell – With Bibles closed the re-teller tells the essence of the narrative/theme/parable from memory. The re-teller should feel NO pressure to memorise or capture everything and should not interpret the passage.
Details – The group follow up with any missing/important ‘details’. Retelling should only take a few minutes.
The leader asks 5 simple Questions:
What do we learn about God?
What do we learn about humanity?
What does this passage say about how God calls us to obey?
In the light of what we now know about this passage, what is God calling you to do? (I will…)
Who might you share this story with this week?
Some simple principles:
When interpreting the Scripture, try and keep away from linking to other books/theologians – this allows the new and mature Christian to be on an equal footing. No one should feel not knowledgeable enough to listen to God.
Questions 3 and 4 are the key questions, this is where the rubber hits the road – what is God saying to me and how will I respond?
The “I will…” statements may be nothing terribly profound, but they are often not easy or natural, requiring effort, intentionality, and faith.
These questions help form disciples who are ‘self-feeding’. They emphasise reading the Bible to hear from God, not just what the text says. They are reproducible in every setting. This method is accessible and applied. Used over time it will enable most people to have confidence in listening to God through Scripture, and leading others to do so.
There is a bookmark available with the questions on in our extended materials, and suggestions of passages that could be looked at over time, if, for example, you want to disciple someone.
As we finish the ‘Way of Discipleship’, Discovery Bible Study gives us a way of discipling others which any Christian can use.