People of the Book: The Purpose of the Bible
My name is Kirk Neely, and I approve this message. Are you tired of hearing political candidates make that statement? Are you tired of getting phone calls and watching television commercials about presidential candidates? After awhile you wonder, Are these people really talking to me? You feel as though the messages are not for you. At least, I feel that way.
I make a habit of washing my hands in the men’s room when I enter and leave both Spartanburg Regional Hospital and Mary Black Hospital. Last week when leaving one of these hospitals, I stopped to wash my hands and heard a voice coming from one of the stalls ask, “Hey, how are you doing?”
I answered, “I’m doing just fine.”
“Good? Yeah, I’m fine, too. Been busy?”
“Yeah, I’ve been visiting church members.”
“Listen, honey,…” he began. I wondered what that meant.
“Listen, honey, I’m going to have to call you back. A preacher in here thinks I’m talking to him.”
Sometimes the message just is not for us, is it?
I have really prayed about this series on the Bible, and I ask you to do the same. We all need to hear the messages of the Bible. We all need to pray about this series on the Bible and to pay attention to God’s Word. This message is for you. This message is for all of us.
How do we read the Bible? We can come to the Bible and see it as a book of theology. We can see it as a book of history and a book of literature. Though more than forty authors had a hand in writing the Bible, we believe, of course, that the Bible had one divine Author, that the Bible is God-breathed and inspired by God’s Spirit. These sixty-six books, which are all very different, contain history. They contain literature. They contain stories and parables. The writers themselves stated that they were writing many different forms of literature, including psalms, poetry, and sermons. All of those details and more are important to remember when we come to the Bible.
Much of the content of the Bible reflects the culture of the time. For example, in the book of Exodus, we read the story of God’s covenant with His people, the covenant known as the Ten Commandments. We see in the structure of that covenant a reflection of the suzerain treaties, agreements between a sovereign and his vassals. The epistles of the New Testament follow true-to-form the writings of letters in the Greek and Roman world.
The approach to understanding the Bible as a story makes a great deal of sense if we think in terms of the Bible’s structure. First, the Bible is full of rich characters, some of whom are developed in some detail. Think about men such as Moses, David, Peter, and Paul. We know much about them because their stories are well-developed, but we do not know everything. We know much about Jesus, but not everything.
Other characters are only briefly mentioned. In our Sunday School class this morning, we talked about the three sons of a man named Lamech: Jabal was the father of those who herded cattle, Jubal was the father of those who are musicians, and Tubal-Caine is the father of metal workers, blacksmiths. Just that little bit of information enriches our knowledge of these characters.
Second, we can see the Bible’s clear plotline as it unfolds. John Lane, a friend who teaches literature at Wofford College, says that stories are really one of two kinds. The first is a man taking a trip. Consider the ancient story of the Odyssey. Consider the Old Testament’s story of God, leading His people on a journey.
Bernard Anderson, long-time professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, suggests that we study the Old Testament by beginning with the exodus. Anderson proposes that if understand the importance of that pivotal event in the life of the people of Israel, we can look back at the patriarchs and forward to the period of the judges, the prophets, and the kings.
The other kind of story, John Lane says, is a stranger coming to town. We see in the New Testament the story of the Son of God, the God-man named Jesus, coming to earth as an infant born in Bethlehem.
Dr. Eric Rust, a professor of Old Testament theology at Southern Seminary, surely knew the Old Testament. He says that we must study the Old Testament as a theological treatise, not just as a book of history and not just as a composite of literature. We must see the Bible as the story of God’s saving relationship with His people, the Israelites. God delivered them from bondage when they were in Egypt, carried them across the Red Sea, and eventually led them into the land of promise forty years later. On the first day of class, Rust used the German word heilgecheitch, which means salvation history. God’s saving acts among His people delivered them from exile in Babylon. The story of the Old Testament is God’s saving activity, His salvation history, with His people.
Third, the two Testaments are different in structure. Let’s consider some key issues. The Old Testament is sometimes called the Tanakh – a Hebrew word combining the words for laws, prophets, and writings. The Tanakh contains all of the books we consider part of the Old Testament, but the arrangement of the books is different. The Tanakh Scriptures close with II Chronicles 36. Beginning in Verse 15, we see the fall of Jerusalem and learn of King Nebuchadnezzar, raiding Jerusalem, destroying the temple, and looting everything of value from the city, the palace, and the temple. Verse 20 tells us that he carried all the inhabitants into exile. Then in Verses 22-23:
In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah, the LORD moved the heart of Cyrus the king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and to put it into writing.
This is what Cyrus the king of Persia says: ‘The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah.”
The book of Chronicles says that the land of Judah and the city of Jerusalem, in particular, experienced seventy years of fallow time, a Sabbath time, when everything was at rest. Though the city and temple had been destroyed, the Jewish Tanakh ends with the hope of Cyrus deciding to build a new temple.
You might ask, “What about Eza and Nehemiah who came after this time?” You have to remember that the Council of Jamnia, which consisted of rabbis, met sometime between 90 A.D. and 100 A.D. to decide what books would be included in the Old Testament. What were these rabbis up against? This work of deciding what should be included in the Old Testament was so urgent because once again, Jerusalem had been destroyed, not by Nebuchadnezzar this time but by the Romans. The great temple of Herod was also in ruins. Now the Jewish people were being dispersed throughout all the known earth. The Council wanted to give hope that the city would be restored and hope that the temple would be rebuilt at the conclusion of the Jewish literature.
Our Old Testament ends with the book of Malachi, giving us a look at the difference between the Jewish perspective and the Christian perspective. Let’s look at Malachi 4, beginning at Verse 5:
See, I will send to you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers…
Our Christian version of Jewish Scripture closes by looking forward to the time of Elijah, to a forerunner who would come to proclaim the advent of the Messiah. We see a 400 year gap between Malachi and the beginning of the book of Mark, the earliest Gospel. During those 400 years, the hope remained constant that someone like Elijah would come as the forerunner that would declare the coming of the Messiah. The Gospel of Mark begins,
The beginning of the good news about Jesus, the Messiah the Son of God. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet: I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way. a voice of one calling in the wilderness, Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.
John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.
John the Baptist was the new Elijah, the one now who would carry forward the promise that the Messiah would come. You see the difference in the Jewish expectation that Jerusalem would be restored and the temple rebuilt and the Christian expectation that the Messiah would come.
Jesus himself said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets.” Jesus had the Tanakh, but it was not as complete as we have it now. He knew the law and the prophets. He certainly knew the psalms, which he quoted frequently. He knew a great deal of wisdom literature, but the Old Testament Canon had not been closed at the time of Jesus. He said, “I did not come to abolish this. I came to fulfill it.” We have here in Jesus a continuation of God’s great plan, the history of salvation for His people. The supreme revelation of God is disclosing what He intends to do in the life of Jesus Christ.
Salvation is mentioned seventy-four times in the Old Testament and forty times in the New Testament. The last reference appears in Revelation 19:1 where we have a scene of heaven: “After this I heard what sounded like the roar of a great multitude in heaven shouting: ‘Halleluiah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God.’” In John’s vision of heaven, God’s plan of salvation is complete. At the close of the book of Revelation, he writes about the Holy City. It is as if he combined the restoration of Jerusalem with the Christian hope that is ours in Christ Jesus. He wrote in Revelation 21:2-5,
I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”
Here we see the vision of Jerusalem restored, not on earth and not in Judah but in heaven. It is interesting that this new Jerusalem has no temple. A temple is not required. I quoted the first verse of the Gospel of John for the Call to Worship today: “In the beginning was the Word.” Verse 14 adds, “The Word was made flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father and dwelt among us full of grace and truth.” In heaven, we do not need a temple. In heaven, we do not need a place of worship. We have Jesus full-time. The new Jerusalem has no need for the temple to be restored.
In salvation history, we see God at work among His people, making a covenant with His people. God never breaks covenant with His people. God’s people, not God, broke the covenant again and again and again. God kept trying to redeem the people through the covenant.
Dr. John Claypool used to say that Jesus was God’s answer for a bad reputation. Thinking that God was not trust-worthy, the people kept turning away from Him repeatedly. Finally God gave us the supreme covenant, the new covenant in Christ Jesus, His Son. What is God’s intention? His intention is salvation, not for individual souls though He certainly wants that. His intention is to restore the created order, to make all things new.
John’s Gospel says that God loves the world. Think about that. He loves our worst enemies. He loves people in those countries we cannot stand to consider. He loves people that we fight against in war. He loves the whole world – not just the United States of America – and wants to save every single one of us. That is His heart. Everyone will not buy into that, but that is His plan, His story, revealed to us. The Bible is the story about God’s saving acts from the very beginning all the way to the present moment and into the future.
John Stott, a Bible scholar and very conservative evangelical, has written the book entitled Understanding the Bible. Stott says that the purpose of the Bible is best summarized in II Timothy 3:15: “From infancy, you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” As Christians we see Jesus throughout the pages of the Old Testament. We sometimes call these passages that stand out in our mind the Messianic Passages because they are all about the Messiah. We turn so often to Isaiah 53:6: “All we like sheep have gone astray. We have turned everyone to his own way, but the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
When we read the Old Testament from a New Testament perspective, we see God’s plan unfolding throughout all of history. The purpose of the Bible, to reveal the salvation history, unifies all of the literary genres in the Bible. God’s purpose is to redeem all of humankind. He does that by grace. We cannot make grace happen. We cannot engineer grace. We certainly do not deserve it. God gives us that unmerited grace because He loves the entire world, including all of us. His desire is to bring us back into relationship with Him.
If you are a parent or grandparent who has ever had a wayward child, you know your heart’s desire is to find a way to bring that child back. God has the same desire in His heart. He wants that more than anything else.
We come now to the passage of John 20:30 where John writes, “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book.” I wish I knew what those signs were. John goes on, “These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” Paul wrote the same message to Timothy in I Timothy 3:15-17. God’s plan of salvation, God’s plan of salvation history, has been unfolding for centuries, for millennia. The purpose of the Bible is to tell that story first of all in the way that God worked out His plan of salvation among the people of Israel and now in the way His plan of salvation comes to fruition, completion, in Jesus Christ.
I received an e-mail this week that I appreciated very much. The e-mail asked a very provocative question: Should we really be called people of the Book? We are the people of God. We are the body of Christ through the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. I say, “We are a family of faith” during the benediction. Why do we say that we are people of the Book? The Book tells the story about what God is up to and what He has been up to since the beginning. If we read the story and know the story, then we begin to see how this story is worked out in our own lives.
I hear couples say sometimes, “We never have an argument.” I have heard some of you make that comment. I cannot say that about my own marriage. Clare and I have an argument just about every day about something. We are both strong-willed people. She says that God knew that I needed a strong-willed wife, someone who could bring me up short and rein me in. She is right.
Clare does not like to fuss and fight. Her tactic, her combat style, is called unilateral disarmament. She knows how to disarm me by saying, “What can I do to help?” You cannot fuss about that unless you say, “Nothing. Just leave me alone.”
When Clare and I travel and we have some extra time, we like to leave the interstate highway and drive on the blue-lined roads. While doing that not long ago in the lower part of the state, Clare realized that I did not really know where we were.
She asked, “Do you know where we are?”
I answered, “We’re headed north.”
“Would you like to stop and ask for directions?”
No. I did not want to stop and ask.
We came to a little crossroad, and I did stop for gasoline.
When I got back in the car, she handed me a roadmap and asked, “Would this help?” Of course, I opened the map, determined our location, and got back on track.
I received a new cell phone this week because my other phone gave up the ghost. The phone is not complicated. All I want to do is make and receive calls…even in the restroom at the hospital.
While I was trying to figure out the phone, Clare walked over and laid a little book down in front of me. Printed on the cover was the word Instructions. She said, “This might help.”
If you have lost your way in life, the Bible is a map. If you are fumbling around trying to figure out the direction of your life, the Bible contains the instructions. It provides the way of salvation. The Bible reveals the way that we can know God. We are people of the Book. We know His great plan for all of His people and for us as individuals. We do not need to neglect the map. We do not need to ignore the instructions. We need to pay attention. This message is for all of us.
Do you know Christ Jesus as your Savior? Have you acknowledged him as the Lord of your life? If not, could I invite you to make that decision? Simply acknowledge Christ Jesus as your Lord.
Kirk H. Neely © January 2012