Sermon for October 8, 2023
First in a 3-part series
How many books are there in the Bible? It’s actually a pretty easy number to remember: 66. But how many books are in the Old Testament, and how many in the New Testament? You might think that’s a bit harder to remember, but it’s really not. All you have to remember is that 3x9=27.
But why are there 66 books? Why are there 39 books in the Old Testament and 27 in the New? Were those the only books ever in existence? Weren’t there others?
Of course! Most of you are probably aware that there were indeed other books. In fact, if you pick up a Bible endorsed by the Roman Catholic Church, you’ll probably notice that it includes some books that aren’t in your Protestant Bible. These books are called the Apocrypha, and they include books such as 1 & 2 Maccabees, Ecclesiasticus (which isn’t the same book as Ecclesiastes), and one with the strange title of Bel and the Dragon.
Protestants have nothing against these books, but they were included in an early Greek translation, but not in the original Hebrew Bible. And so we don’t include them in what’s called the Canon of Scripture.
And you’ve probably all heard of certain books that never made it into the New Testament. They’re usually called gospels, such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and the Gospel of Peter. If you read (or saw) The DaVinci Code, you definitely know what I’m talking about. Some of these books are nearly as old as the other books of the New Testament. But the church early on decided that they just didn’t meet the criteria of a book of the Bible. Some of them were too undependable. Some just weren’t known to that many churches. Others strayed too far from the stories the other gospels told. And others were just downright weird. And so they didn’t make the canon.
And what is this word canon, anyway? A canon is something that’s a rule or a guide or something by which other things are judged. It comes from an ancient Greek word for measuring rod—which in turn came from the word for cane (as in sugar cane). This may seem weird, but cane is very straight and regularly sized. And lots of kinds of cane are divided up into sections. So before there were rulers, cane was used as a guide for measuring. Hence the word canon.
By the way, because cane is also often hollow, it could be a kind of weapon—you could use it like a pea-shooter. So if you think it’s weird that we use the word canon to refer to the Bible, and cannon to refer to a big gun, now I hope you can see the relationship.
Though the books that the churches used were obvious pretty early on, some were not quite as widespread as others. So for the first three centuries or so, things were a bit fluid. It wasn’t until the late 300’s that the canon was finally decided by a council that included representatives from lots of different churches. So when we think about the Bible, perhaps it’s important to remember that its contents were decided on by the church.
Maybe I’m wrong, but I’d like to think that the councils that decided these important issues spent a lot of time in prayer before, during, and after their decisions—because prayer is one of the most important ways we should approach the Bible.
I’m preaching this little three-sermon series on how to approach the Bible after reading a little book called Before You Open Your Bible by Matt Smethurst. I admit I’d never heard of the author before, and I don’t always agree with him. But this book was worth reading, and I’ll be using it quite a bit in this series—mostly just for the chapter titles. And the first chapter title says that we should approach the Bible prayerfully.
Most of us don’t hear the voice of God directly. We’re not Hebrew prophets or Saul on the road to Damascus, being spoken to with words that change the world. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t communicate with God, or that God doesn’t communicate with us. And the main way God has of communicating with us is through the written Word. It’s the same Word that has been read by God’s people for thousands of years. And it’s often obvious, it’s often easy to read, it’s often what we want to hear. But at other times it’s none of those things. And so we need to make sure the communication goes in both directions. Thus, before we open our Bibles, we pray.
They say that prayer changes things. And we hope it’s true when we’re desperately praying for healing or for change. But we know it’s true when the thing that needs changing is ourselves—our mind, our attitude. To speak to the One we want to speak to us is a way of acknowledging that the communication is two-way. It shows God—and us—that we’re not viewing our Bible reading as just an intellectual exercise or mere curiosity. It prepares us to listen and opens our lives to the kind of change that God can bring about in our lives.
Which brings me to the next approach, and that is humility. We can read the Bible with certitude, sure that we’re going to get what we want out of it and then teach others what we know. But that might just mean that we don’t really understand it. Because to truly hear God speaking to us through the scriptures, we have to be humble.
It takes humility to admit your ignorance. It takes humility to receive, not out of greed but out of need. It takes humility to admit that you don’t deserve what you receive. And so we need to approach the Bible humbly.
Psalm 8 (vv 3-4) asks a question: When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers—the moon and the stars… what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them? We are so obsessed with our own lives, and feel so often that everything depends on us. But in the scheme of things, we’re just grains of sand on a beach, drops of water in the ocean. Yes, we should try to make a positive difference. But no, we are not the center of all that is.
The universe is unimaginably large, and it’s billions of years old. Our entire planet—our solar system—are little more than a pin-prick in the night sky of some distant world. Who are we to bother the Maker of All with our concerns? Who are we to expect to find the Creator in a book we hold in our hands?
And yet this is what we believe God not only allows, but desires. And so we must approach the Word humbly or not at all.
At the tail end of humility comes the notion that we do not already know what the Word is saying to us. And so we must be open-minded before we even begin reading the Bible. To approach the Word open-mindedly, we have to take it seriously. And here’s where I want to get a bit controversial.
So the book that gives the church its authority was itself established (at least in a way) by the church. And you can’t help but be aware that these days, different churches claim to take different approaches to the Bible. The most obvious difference is that some churches say they take the Bible literally, that it is the inerrant word of God.
Neither the UCC nor the Disciples make any such claim. But that doesn’t mean we take the Bible any less seriously than churches that do. To ignore inconsistencies in what the Bible says in different places, or to ignore inconsistencies in the way virtually everyone interprets certain difficult passages—to me at least—seems not to take the scriptures all that seriously.
To open our minds to what the Bible is saying is to look at context—religious, yes, but also historical and cultural. Nobody (and I mean nobody) takes every word or every passage in the Bible literally. Don’t boast that you take literally certain vague verses about homosexuality or even very specific verses about women’s rights, as long as you explain away sayings of Jesus about giving away all your possessions, acting with love and compassion toward despised minorities, or turning the other cheek when you encounter violence.
The Bible is a record of God’s people over many centuries. It is a faithful record. But not every word in it dictates how we are to live our lives. The words of Jesus are the exception. If we cannot fit our attitudes and actions into the life of Christ, then chances are, we are mistaken and need to ask ourselves if we approached the Bible prayerfully, humbly, and open-mindedly.
The reason the words of Jesus, his actions, his very life, belong in a different category—that’s something I’ll talk about next week. And I’ll use some of the words of the 19th Psalm—today’s call to worship—to help us see that our theology about the Word of God is one of the things that makes Christians unique among world religions.
As we look to God as a shepherd, let’s realize more and more that the Bible is one of the main ways that God guides us through life. Let’s take that seriously enough not only in our reading of the Bible, but also in our approach to the Bible.
—©2023 Sam Greening