Please join me in a spirit of prayer, Loving God guide our thoughts and words today, You are our Potter we are Your clay, in Christ’s Name we pray, Amen.
Jesus in the 4 gospels, constantly quotes or refers to scripture, what we would call the Old Testament or the Hebrew Bible. For instance, Jesus in the gospel Luke, begins his ministry in his home town by reading a portion of the book the prophet Isaiah and then speaking about how he would live out and fulfill the message of that passage.
17 The synagogue assistant gave him the scroll from the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
19 and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
20 He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him. 21 He began to explain to them, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.”
Likewise, In the gospel of Mark Jesus’ final words on the cross are a quote from Psalm 22 “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani,” which means, “My God, my God, why have you left me?”. (Mark 15:34b)
In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus frequently quotes scripture in his Sermon on the Mount quoting from some of the books of the law, for example
21 “You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment. If they say to their brother or sister, ‘You idiot,’ they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council. And if they say, ‘You fool,’ they will be in danger of fiery hell. (Matthew 5:21-22). Here Jesus takes one of the 10 commandments and reminds us that its meaning and calling on us is deeper than we might think
Finally in the gospel of John Jesus makes reference to Old Testament stories to help people understand his teaching, such as John 3:14 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up. Jesus’ teaching was from first to last grounded in the scripture he knew, and which we still have access to today.
The way Jesus used scripture and the way his first followers used it are different from us today. Most people of Jesus’ day could not read, or at least not read at a high level. Few people in that time could write either, and due to the cost of writing materials (paper wouldn’t come to that part of the world for perhaps 800 years, and the printing press another 600 after that) very few people and usually only very wealthy ones had books that had been painstakingly copied, letter by letter by letter. The scrolls that made up the Hebrew Bible in a town synagogue might be the only book many people would ever get near, and many folks wouldn’t have been able to read it even if they had the chance. Jesus we know could read, he does so in the synagogue in Luke chapter 4, mentioned above, but we don’t know of Jesus writing down anything in a scroll or book. Because of the reality of the world Jesus lived in 2000 years ago, much of the bible was passed on by word of mouth and memorization, and memorizing bible passage would have been how most people had access to any of the bible.
So, we have a seeming contradiction here. Jesus quoted the bible often, clearly saw it as foundational to his ministry, but most people he spoke to could not read, so we don’t hear of Jesus commanding people to read the bible. But, Jesus made a serious effort to help people know the bible, and for them to remember parts of it. Jesus knew that the houses of the farmers and crafts people who heard his preaching wouldn’t have a bible in them, so he would have tried to in his preaching to share with them the scriptures and the wisdom and comfort the scriptures offer to all people.
We 2000 years later live in a very different world. We are surrounded by written words, sometimes more than we need, for instance the pages of legalese that so often appear in the box each time we buy a new appliance, or the numerous forms we have to read and sign at the doctor or dentist. However, those annoyances aside we are greatly fortunate that most of us can read, and we are fortunate that bibles in printed or phone form are easily available to virtually anyone who wants one. Jesus’ followers in those early days might only have access to as much scripture as they could memorize, we have access to the whole bible whenever we wish, it’s a profound gift, and an amazing tool to help us better follow Jesus.
In our scripture for today we hear a letter written to a young man Timothy who is a minister of the early Christian church, but the advice of the letter is not just for pastors, but for anyone who seeks to follow Jesus and share Jesus’ Good News with our world. Lets’ look at verses 16-17 again:
16 Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, 17 so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good.
This book we have access the bible is inspired by God, or translated another way breathed into by God. The scriptures are the product of God working through humans who had a deep relationship with God. God changed their lives, and called on them to write (or speak and then their words were written down later), and the Holy Spirit uses this life changing book to speak to us today.
The scriptures are not all one thing, they are songs, poems, sermons, law codes, short stories, genealogies and more. Some parts of scripture are instructions, and some of those instructions are easy to grasp, like “don’t steal” for instance. Other passages use parables, like a story of trees electing a king in Judges 9, to make some statement about life, God, justice, or the human condition; some parables might be easy to understand some can be harder to make sense of. Some stories, are tales of warning, stories about how people let fear, anger, or lust get the better of them and the damage their sin caused. Some passages are words of hope and comfort for use when we are sick, when we are mourning, when we are afraid. The bible is a library of books, by who knows how many authors, all of it something the Holy Spirit uses to prepare us to better love God and love others. Some part of scripture are easy to understand, some are hard, but God is greater than us and God can use the Spirit to help us grow as followers of Jesus through the reading of all of it. As our official statement of theology for the United Methodist Church says though we draw on tradition, reason, and experience, the scriptures are the primary way we know of God and God’s purpose for us through Jesus Christ.
How to understand the bible is not something we will all agree on, we could read a passage here in worship and have 40 different ideas on how we should understand it. That’s okay we don’t need to all agree, but we do need to read it. The bible is foundational to our faith, and we need to read it daily. Now as with any aspect of faith we don’t need to all read the bible in the same way. Many people try to read the bible cover to cover, that works for some, that doesn’t for others. Some people read the bible as part of a daily devotional magazine like the Upper Room or Daily Bread. Some people find a reading plan on line, or they find a reading plan as part of a book. As with prayer, it doesn’t matter too much the specific way you read the bible, but the most important thing is to do it, and to read many different books of the bible. Reading the bible, will open up so much that will help you grow in faith. Sometimes the bible is challenging, sometimes the bible shakes us out of our complacency and reminds us that Jesus calls on us to live a new way, sometimes the bible gives voice to our feeling be they anger or joy, sometime the bible inspires us with the faith and courage of people who were everyday like us, but who God called to extraordinary things. The bible will change your life, and it will help you mature in faith, but only if we open it, and read it intentionally.
Finally, today, reading the bible can and is often best done as part of a community. God speaks to us through scripture in different ways, and the different life experiences of people can help us see the bible in new ways. For instance some passages in the bible talk about the experience of a serious life-threatening illness particularly in some of the psalms. For a person who has never experienced an illness like that such passages might be hard to understand. However if they sit down and talk about them with a cancer survivor, the experience of that sister or brother might help someone see how God speaks to us all through the passages.
As with all aspects of being a follower of Jesus we need to read the bible in as part of community. This might be two friends reading the same passages and meeting regularly to discuss them. This might be being part of a Sunday school class for years. This might be being part of a short term bible study from time to time. The point is that when we sit down together to look at the bible the Holy Spirit can use us and others in the group to help everyone more deeply experience and understand the what the scriptures offer us. As a pastor I regularly learn from many of you and from my friends and colleagues new insights scripture offers. It is in the communication with community that often we can best learn from the bible as the Spirit uses others to teach us and can use us to teach others.
So people of God, people of a book, a good book, let us take this gift God has inspired and use it. If you aren’t already start reading it daily today! And let us as a community read this book together so that we can understand more, mature in our faith, and finally help each other to day by day grow as disciples and followers of Jesus, may it be so, Amen.