We often call the Bible the Word of God. Sometimes, in fact, we use the “Word of God” and the “Bible” interchangeably. But what do we mean when we call the Bible “God’s Word”? Obviously, we’re saying that God speaks to us, and the Bible somehow reflects what God “said” and “says.” But how does that happen?
Throughout the Bible, when God speaks, something always happens. Consequences follow, which people hear and see. Then, what they hear and see, they talk about it. Finally, after talking about it and pondering its meanings, they write it down, and pass it along to others.
People who heard, saw, talked and wrote did so because what God said mattered. Indeed, what God “said” shaped the understanding, relationships and life of the people who “heard” and ”saw” this word. They became a certain kind of people who lived as they did because this word had created, nurtured and sustained them. You could sketch how this worked as follows: God speaks somethings happens hearing and seeing talking writing word-shaped living.
To say that the Bible is God’s Word is to claim that God has “spoken” in this way and what God “says” works in this way. To claim the Bible as God’s Word is to claim to be people whose identities, relationships and lifestyles are among the things God has created and formed through the Bible’s pages. But this only raises the question, “How?” Here are five principles important for understanding, and living by, what we find in the Bible:
First, understand what it is we are reading.
If you survey the Bible you notice it contains different kinds of material within its pages. For example, within 66 separate “books,” there are laws and regulations, promises and curses, poems and songs, as well as different kinds of stories. There are teaching sections, genealogical tables, and extended accounts of individual persons but also of tribes and nations. Some materials are exciting and riveting, others monotonous and boring, and still others just strange and incomprehensible. This variety can make it hard to read, harder to understand, and impossible to apply. At least, this is the way it seems to many people.
So a good place to begin is to be clear about what exactly we are reading. Because that will determine how to read and understand the Bible. You read a dictionary one way, an owner’s manual another, and a newspaper in another. You read a laundry list one way and a poem another. You wouldn’t read or make sense of a dictionary the same way you do a poem. You read a story differently than any of these other kinds of materials.
Here is a foundational principle: The Bible is essentially a story. It begins with the book of Genesis and it concludes in the book of Revelation. There is no title page or introduction that tells us that this is what we are reading. Rather, we must discover this by reading enough of the Bible’s different parts to “see” the connections between them. Then, the fact that it is essentially a story helps you make other connections you would never notice if you hadn’t understood there is a storyline that coordinates everything.
To say it’s a story immediately gives some insight on how to read it. It makes sense to read a story from beginning to end, rather than from the middle toward the beginning or ending. Of course, when it’s a big story, as the Bible is, we need to get a grasp of how the story moves in general as a way of orienting us when we read various parts of the story.
The Bible’s story is relatively easy to follow. It begins with a good creation, moves to a sad series of human choices, and even sadder consequences for the whole of creation. Either the story ends catastrophically or can somehow be continued and set right. Sometimes it is not clear which it is or will be. Along the way, an amazing variety of elements and array of materials encounter us, perhaps at times even sidetracking us, but eventually there is a way forward. That fact draws us to the next principle.
Second, understand the parts in relation to the whole.
If the Bible is essentially a story, we must read and understand the varied parts of the story in relation to the whole. All stories have sequence and all their parts are coordinated in certain ways and not others. What we find in one part does not play the same role and have the same significance as what we find in other parts. When we read what happens later in the story, we see earlier events or features in a different light. Sometimes we understand what we didn’t before or understand more about what we did before. And sometimes we can see that what we thought about early parts of the story was wrong or incomplete. Because it is a story.
Most people know the Bible has two big parts — first the Old Testament and then the New Testament. But often they do not appreciate how important it is to read each testament, and the parts of each, in relation to the other. The two big parts are not “equal” but different, and the difference between them is very important.
So what is the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament? Whole libraries could be filled with books written to answer that question. One thing is sure, however. In a story one part relates to another, and without seeing how we cannot understand what is going on. This suggests the next principle.
Third, understand how the story moves.
One way to access the relationship between the Bible’s two testaments is to note that the Bible has movement as the story unfolds. Here are three important ways the Bible story moves.
First, the story moves from problem to solution. In the beginning a problem presents. The human beings — man and woman together — choose no longer to trust the Lord God, and they do the one thing God has asked them not to do. This choice brings catastrophic consequences for the humans and for the whole of creation. In fact, the rest of the story moves toward a devastating unfolding of those consequences, an amazing series of responses from the Lord God, and a totally shocking and stunning way of redeeming the catastrophe and “solving” the problem (see Romans 5:20 for a summary in a sentence).
Second, within the broader sweep from problem to solution, the story also moves from promise to fulfillment. Almost immediately, when the humans have broken trust and disobeyed, there is a promise made that God’s people have consistently understood as the first indication of the coming good news (see Genesis 3:15). Indeed, God makes multiple promises to His people. As the story unfolds, it shows how those promises are kept, ultimately in Jesus.
Third, within the Bible, the story moves from conflict to resolution. This movement is like that from problem to solution, except that the focus remains on the battle between God and all who oppose God, and all that God loves. From the beginning, the story assumes a backstory that is never actually told, but constantly reflected. There is the serpent, and then the consequences of human disobedience are unleashed upon the world. At times these consequences seem “natural,” but at other times they seem animated by darker powers that dominate and influence spiritual as well as earthly spheres and systems. As the story goes, eventually it leads to a final showdown between God and those defiant powers. In truly epic fashion, the entire story reveals how God defeats those powers, though in a way no one expected, and many have struggled to believe.
Fourth, understand the main characters of the story and the role they play in the story.
This may seem impossible at first thought. But read this short list of some main characters and note what comes to mind, especially in light of the ways in which the story moves.
• Prophets and Priests
• Exiles in Babylon
• Disciples and followers of Jesus
For most readers of the Bible and its story, simply to list such names brings to mind a stream of episodes one after the other, and likely connections and relationships between the characters and the episodes in which they play a part. One doesn’t need to think about it. Just say the names and the connections engage, the movements come alive, and various stories as well as The Story come into view.
Fifth, understand the story leads us to the person of Jesus who brings it to fullness and its goal.
When I suggest that the story leads to Jesus who brings to the story its fullness and goal, I am saying more than one might guess. Let me begin to unpack the role I am ascribing to Jesus in the story the Bible tells.
In Psalm 113 Israel’s worshippers are called to celebrate the greatness of the Lord because, though highly exalted, the Lord stoops down to the level of the poor and needy, and lifts them up to dwell with the princes of the people (see Psalm 113). My point is not so much that Psalm 113 “predicts” the coming of the Messiah. Rather, in praise, the psalmist does anticipate the person of Jesus, His teachings about the kingdom of God, and the ministry He had among the people. The psalmist especially anticipates Jesus’ ministry to the poor and the needy, His literal stooping to see children and those who are cast down, and His lifting of people to vitality and wholeness. But the psalm not only anticipates Jesus…
Psalm 113 celebrates a God who does more than simply call the poor and needy to rise up — a God who does more than send various messengers to teach people His ways. Ultimately, this Lord God enters the story and visits the people most in need. Then from the inside, down on the human level, the Lord connects, lifts up, delivers and rescues the needy. The Lord God treats them as royalty and brings them joy.
Now, set this reading of Psalm 113 alongside the Apostle Paul’s description of “the mind (or way) of Christ.” As in the psalm, Jesus discarded His privileges, stooped down to the human level, entered the lowest places, and suffered the most shameful death. Then, God lifts up Jesus from the dead as a sign of the new life He empowers followers of Jesus to live (Philippians 2:5–11). These connections between Psalm 113 and Philippians 2:5–11 illustrate well how the biblical story leads us to Jesus, is fulfilled in Jesus, and offers worshippers what the psalmist celebrates. But again, there is more.
To say the story leads to Jesus and finds its goal and fulfillment in Jesus also reveals how God brings change to the story. Namely, God stoops down, empties self, becomes human, lives as a slave, and obeys to the death. That is, God accepts the story and its peoples as they are and then takes them where He wants them to be.
Observing how God works through the self-giving of Jesus helps us understand and assess many features in the larger story that are troubling. Most of human history has been incredibly violent, dominated by men, abusive to women, dismissive of children, reckless, vengeful, power-driven, proud and arrogant, and deeply idolatrous. But God did not enter the story, issue ultimatums, and blast people off the planet and out of the story when they behaved poorly (though we may wish God had).
Instead, in Jesus, God enters the story to reveal the way, the truth and the life He calls us to embrace. As He does, the powers at work in the world oppose Him and eventually kill Him. But Jesus’ sacrificial dying then becomes the way God defeats evil, disarms death, and empowers His followers to live as Jesus lived.
Which suggests one final observation about this principle of understanding the Bible. If the story’s central character is Jesus, then the character, manner and method of Jesus is critical to note. The kind of person Jesus was, the kind of things Jesus did, and the way Jesus did them show us what it means and looks like for God to be present and at work in our world today.
To say the Bible is God’s Word is to claim to be people shaped by what God says in His Word. As we read the biblical story, we are led to the person and way of Jesus, the story’s central character. Because the Bible is God’s Word, therefore, we expect to be shaped into people who are like Jesus, who live like Jesus, and who participate in the ongoing story of Jesus in the world today.
Bishop David Kendall is an ordained elder in the Great Plains Conference who was first elected to the office of Free Methodist bishop in 2005. He is the author of “God’s Call to Be Like Jesus” (fmchr.ch/godscalldk) and the co-author of “The Female Pastor: Is There Room for She in Shepherd?” (fmchr.ch/fpsisdk).