What Is the Bible?
By Jim Dempsey
Mar. 25, 2012
Our Christian school was an outreach to the community. There were more students from outside our church than from our membership. One of these, a young woman from a Jehovah’s Witness background who could not attend public school because she had gotten married (yes, that was long ago), raised her hand, and I stepped over to her desk to give her assistance.
She was preparing for an essay assignment. I have never forgotten her question because it illustrates so much about how the average member of our society views the Bible.
“What page is smoking on in the Bible?”
She was writing an essay on the evils of smoking, and she knew she would have to provide biblical proof for her opinions. As a product of her culture, she had the idea that all the rules about behavior were in the Bible. And, as a product of that culture, she had little actual experience in reading the Bible. (This was 30 years ago, and, tragically, knowledge of the Bible is even less in the general population today.)
The Bible is God’s Word in written form. You can believe that statement entirely, but first, you must know what it means.
The Holy Spirit inspired the human writers to record an accurate history of God’s dealings with man. That is what God was intending to give us, a revelation of who He is, what He has done, and what He will do. Satisfying human curiosity and settling human arguments are not His purposes here, and when we try to use the Bible in that way, we do so at our own peril.
The writers each wrote part of the story, as God’s Spirit breathed upon them. God inspired them; He did not “hijack” them. They did not write from a trance, but consciously, with knowledge of their readers and a revelation from God.
I once visited a church building in which the congregation had posted a notice informing the reader that the church believed that it was God who had directly written the Bible as His own Word and had given it to men of old, who recorded God’s message. Therefore, they found it improper to refer to earthly writers as if they were authors of the books of the Bible. They would not say, “The apostle Paul said ...” or “John wrote ....” Taken very literally, this approach can cause problems in the teaching of the Bible.
Who the earthly author was is often important to understanding the context of what we are reading, and this should be considered and respected. James was not Paul, and neither of them shared the experiences of Moses or Solomon. Who wrote the book does matter, but it does not remove the fact that God inspired the writing, using the life experiences and even the vocabularies of the writers, who faithfully recorded the revelation.
The date of writing, the writers, and their readers vary significantly. That is why the books themselves vary. Later leaders of the Church compiled the separate books into one collection, our Bible. Those leaders did not decide what books they wanted in the Bible; they recognized what books belonged there, based on the characteristics of the books themselves.
When we say the Bible is God’s written Word, that is some of what we mean. Let’s add a few examples of what we do not mean:
The Bible is not simply a rulebook to keep your behavior in line. Some people’s take on the Bible is that it’s all about “Thou shalt not,” with occasional “Thou shalts.” God has given us so much more than rules. He has shown us what He expects, for sure, but He has also given us books of examples of those who lived by His commands, and those who did not. When you read it and understand how the whole thing fits together, you don’t just get the “do’s” and “don’ts,” but a lot of the “what” and “why.”
The Bible is not just a fine example of ancient literature, to be studied and respected, but not lived by. Many people’s approach to Scripture is that it is respected, but not relevant. Recent generations have no regard for what is not relevant, and scoff at or ignore the Bible completely, believing it to be irrelevant and useless. They are misinformed. Part of my purpose in life is to let people know that without an education in the Bible, we are undereducated, and inadequately prepared to live life.
The Bible is not a mystical, magical text, with special inherent powers to be discovered and used. It has no spells or incantations that may be used for magical purposes. The Bible is about faith. You don’t get its benefits by just doing what it says, but by becoming what it teaches us to be.
The Bible is not to be interpreted as a coded document. Is there a “Bible code”? I am not so dogmatic as to say no, but I will tell you that what it says right out in the open, without decoding, is what God intends for you to get. Attempts at discovering a secret code, to get hidden knowledge, or to prove the miraculous nature of the Bible can be distracting, causing us to miss the most important message.
The Bible is not a spooky mystery about the murky future. I have seen folks who seem to have more interest in the Antichrist than they have in the Christ. Perhaps there are people who get excited about Bible prophecy who really shouldn’t, since the return of Christ is not good news to those who do not know Him.
Biblical prophecy is not given for the purpose of satisfying our curiosity about the future, but as a revelation for the present. In other words, God is not trying to give a few smart people inside knowledge about who “the beast” will be. He wants those who live in that time to receive comfort and direction in how to cope.
The Bible is not an obscure, hard-to-understand text, which only a few experts can explain, usually with disagreement between them. Hear this: You are only responsible for what you can understand in the Bible. Not just what you do understand, but what you could if you would apply yourself. There is no excuse for lazy ignorance of God’s Word. When you become a disciple of Jesus, you are called to a lifelong, diligent study of Scripture.
God does not intend for the understanding of His Word to be confined to an elite class of scholars. He wrote it for you. Those who make it confusing are mishandling the Word. This is not to say that you don’t have to work at understanding the Bible — you do. But have no doubt that if you do the work, you will attain the understanding, in ever-deepening levels.
So what is the Bible? Above all, it is the true story of man’s redemption. It starts with how we came about, explains how we got separated from God, then tells us what our loving God did to get us back.
The Bible’s purpose is to tell us how this all happened, so that we can believe and receive it. In addition, we get information about how it will all wrap up. This is the story of redemption from beginning to end.
From 40 Stories Behind the Story: An Introduction to the Bible, Volume 1 by Jim Dempsey (Peoria, Ariz.: Intermedia Publishing Group, Inc., 2011). Excerpted with permission.
JIM DEMPSEY is an Assemblies of God U.S. missionary to Native Americans and a graduate of Assemblies of God Theological Seminary.
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