Approaching the Word II

Sermon for October 15, 2023
Second in a 3-part series


Have you ever paid attention to what’s in the New Testament? Even if you haven’t, I think most of us have some idea what’s there. I think just about all of us know that it begins with four books called gospels, and it ends with a weird book called a Revelation. It’s what’s in between may be a little fuzzy in some of our minds.

So let’s take a look. The first four books are those gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—and they’re about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the One Christians believe is the Messiah (Hebrew), the Christ (Greek), or the Anointed One (English). None of the writers of those books actually identify themselves by those names, and so we have to say those titles are just traditional. One thing we do know, though, is that Luke (or whatever his name was) was definitely the same person who wrote the fifth book of the Bible—the Acts of the Apostles—which tells the story of the earliest church.

As far as the Revelation goes (note, it’s Revelation, not Revelations), the author calls himself John, and tradition has it that it’s the same John we attribute the fourth gospel to. It’s okay to do that, but it might be interesting to note that it’s probably not the case.

Now in between the Acts of the Apostles and the Revelation to John are 21 letters, or epistles. Those letters take four forms. Nine of those letters (all of them attributed to Paul) were written to particular churches. Seven of the letters (four of them attributed to Paul) are what are called general epistles, or letters written to all Christians. Four of the letters were written to individuals. And one letter was written to the Hebrews—it’s obviously intended to show how Jesus fulfills the Jewish law and the Hebrew prophets. We have no idea who wrote it.

The Old Testament is also divided into different sections. There are the prophets (both major and minor), there are historical books, there are books of poetry or general writings, and then there’s the Torah. The Torah is the first five books of the Bible, considered the most important writings of the Jewish people. These books are often attributed to Moses, though they never make this claim. And it’s obvious he couldn’t have written them, since they record his death.

These most important books show evidence that they were written by several people (or schools of thought). And though they’re shrouded in mystery, one of the things we do know about them is one of the most interesting things in the whole history of the Bible. We know that they were edited and compiled while Israel was in exile in Babylon. This is a much more beautiful (and meaningful!) story than to say that Moses sat down and wrote Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy in the form we currently have them.

A. Studiously

So even the simplest overview of the scriptures tells us something important. And that is that every book of the Bible has a context. It was originally intended for a certain audience. It belongs to a particular kind of literature. It was written in a specific place and time. Now, none of this is to say that it’s not intended for people here and now, or that it’s not meaningful. But taking all this into consideration helps us understand a passage’s importance in the life of a particular community in a particular place at a particular time.

How amazing are the deeds of the Lord! says the second verse of the 111th Psalm; all who delight in him should ponder them. When we read the record that God’s people have left us about their experience of God, we don’t just read it and leave it where we left it. Nor do we look at it and it suddenly captures our heart and soul. Yes, there are passages of scripture that can be overwhelmingly meaningful if we read or hear them at a time when we really need them. But most of the time we need to ponder them—to study them.

And really, we do study the things we love. That’s to say that we want to learn about those things. We’re interested in them. And if that’s true of things, then think about the people in your life who mean something to you. You know all about them and you want to know more. That’s what love is. Not only do you know the people you love, you understand what they were going through during a certain period of their life, or why they were in the place where you found them.

The fact that you love God and you want to know more about God, the fact that you want to understand why God acted in a certain way, or why God’s people said this thing or that thing about God—this means you’re something that you probably don’t think you are… and that’s a theologian. Theologians aren’t just seminary professors or authors. A theologian is anybody who ponders the deeds of God.

B. Obediently

As I told you in last week’s sermon, I’m loosely basing this sermon series on a book I read by a guy named Matt Smethurst. The book is called Before You Open Your Bible, and I don’t agree with everything it says. One of his ways to approach the Bible that I wasn’t sure I wanted to include was obediently. It’s not that I totally disagreed, but I didn’t necessarily like the way he talked about it.

But I want to return to something I said last week, and that is that the words of Jesus take priority. I can’t just say, well, in one place the Bible says that disobedient children should get the death penalty, and in another it says to pray for my enemy, so I don’t have to do either one if I don’t want to.

I’ll talk about this more next week, but it’s important to remember that Jesus is the ultimate judge of how we should interpret the scriptures. He is both the Word of God and the fulfillment of the law. And so when we read in one place that the rule is “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” and then read where Jesus says—in response to that very same rule—to turn the other cheek, do we really need to argue which one is more important to a Christian?

And so we should approach the Bible obediently, willing to be transformed by the word of God as interpreted by Jesus, and to be obedient to God’s law as it was fulfilled in the life and teachings of Jesus.

C. Joyfully

So we’ve looked at studiously and obediently. Now the third approach we’ll look at this week is kind of an easy one: Joyfully. Of course we should approach the Bible with joy. We’re Bible-believing Christians, after all. But I think we’re in danger of being too shallow if we don’t think about this approach. The Bible contains wonderfully joyful passages, such as Rejoice in the Lord always! (Philip. 4:4) and Shout for joy, all you upright in heart (Ps. 32:11) and I will never leave you or forsake you (Heb. 13:5). It’s easy to be joyful when we know that’s what we’re going to be reading.

But what about other passages that aren’t so joyful—passages like My God, my God, why have you forsaken me (Ps. 22:1; Mark 15:34) or He was oppressed, and he was afflicted (Isa. 53:7) and many others. For all the joy that’s in the Bible, there’s just as much misery. So isn’t it just a bit pollyannaish to tell people to approach the Bible joyfully?

Not really. Because there’s always more to the story: Bondage leads to exodus, exile leads to return, captivity leads to freedom, pain leads to wholeness, crucifixion leads to resurrection. Perhaps Psalm 30 sums it up best when it says that weeping may last through the night, but joy comes with the morning (v 5). The Bible is not a book about positive thinking. It acknowledges difficulty, but helps us see how our faith in God guides us through the pain to come out on the other side.

The scriptures are God’s story, they’re the story of Jesus the Messiah, and they’re the story that God’s people tell of their struggles and triumphs. Reading them isn’t just learning facts; it’s getting to know someone—someone that you love… perhaps even yourself. When we love someone, finding out who they are deep down—even discovering their pain and disappointment—is a joyful thing, because it helps us appreciate them even more.


Helen Keller once said something very interesting about our approach to the scriptures. “Unless we form the habit of going to the Bible in bright moments as well as in trouble,” she said, “we cannot fully respond to its consolations because we lack equilibrium between light and darkness.” I interpret this to mean that we don’t open the Bible just to be cheered up or encouraged, and we certainly don’t turn to the Bible to prove ourselves right and somebody else wrong. We turn to the Bible to learn what God has said and how God is still speaking. In the best of times, it helps us be thankful and remember those who are going through difficulties; and in the worst of times, it helps see that, at the end of the night, the dawn is waiting.

I’ll end this series next week by talking about how we should be patient as we read the scriptures, how we hear and understand the scriptures as a community, and how who Jesus is might just determine how (or even if) we understand what we’re looking at when we read the scriptures. So let me close today’s sermon by remind you that the Bible doesn’t think for you, but it will always give you something to think about.
—©2023 Sam Greening