Each Monday, for the last eight years, I have published an e-article called the ACT 3 Weekly. Many readers of this blog do not even know these articles are published and I’ve discovered that readers here have never been to our ACT 3 site to sign up for these mailings. Presently we are rebuilding the ACT 3 website and reworking our entire online presence. Until everything is synchronized I am going to post this ACT 3 Weekly here on the blog site so readers can discover the most important weekly writing that I do. I hope more of you will discover this resource by this post. This present post is in a series on understanding the Bible. Back issues are available at ACT 3.
In this short series about learning how to read the Bible we have considered that Jesus is the reason for the entire biblical story. The Bible is principally about him, not science, history or even religion. This is not to deny that at times these subjects are touched upon, at least in non-technical ways. I say this to underscore the myriad of ways that we mis-read the Bible when we do not see it as “the story of Jesus crucified and risen from the dead.”
We are now separated from the time of the apostles by seventy generations. That is a long time but not as long as it might seem. Let me explain.
Recently my children encouraged me to do some study of family genealogy. I was surprised to discover a great deal about my father’s family line–the Armstrong family. I have not taken this story back as far as I may someday but I have studied the family back to the time they arrived in New York (from Scotland) in the 1800s. I recently visited the grave of my great-grandfather, who was a bank president and a founding father of the city of Phoenix. (He argued the first case from the new state of Arizona before the U. S. Supreme Court.) His legacy is quite significant but until some months ago I knew nothing about my great-grandfather at all. I say this because my family study revealed something about my own life and that moved me deeply. I felt like I was part of this bigger story even though I had no choice in the matter. This revealed to me something of how God works. He places us in families, in history, and in a very big story. As a Christian, my family lineage goes back seventy generations to the lives of men like St. Paul, St. John and St. Peter. I am not a rootless individual with no connection to the past. When I stood in an ancient room (from the early second century) in Rome, a place where Christians once worshipped, I was struck again that I am not that far removed from these people or their time. Their lives and mine are connected and we share a family lineage.
To speak about the Bible is to speak about the church, and to speak about the church is to speak about brothers and sisters who lived over the course of seventy generations. It is easy to criticize Christians from another time. We think we might have done some things better. (I doubt it!) It may be even easier to criticize Christians today. But when all is said and done, we are still related. We are brothers and sisters in the One Christ and we share in the one story that saves us all.
Christians in the First Century
Keep in mind that Christians of the first century did not have a Bible like mine. (I have so many that I forget where they are and what versions I actually own!) These early Christians had a deep experience of their newly-found faith and freedom. They felt freed from pagan rites and religion. They were delivered from fatalism and cruelty in their personal lives but they paid a high price, often with their own blood, to obey Christ. In their day there was no law greater than that of the emperor, and the customs of their neighbors were totally opposed to their newfound faith.
In spite of all this opposition these early Christians placed Christ above all human authorities and practices. They loved one another, their neighbors and even their enemies. They objected to murder and sexual immorality and lived quiet lives of simplicity and dignity. This love, as well as their sexual purity, were seen by their ancient peers as ridiculous, even scandalous. The Romans believed that the “gods” were offended thus they often blamed this sect of the Jews for the anger of the gods when things went bad in everyday life.
During the first three centuries these Christians were hunted down like animals and tortured for their faith. Martyrdom came in waves. Some emperors would leave them alone while others made them scapegoats for their political problems. The crowds mocked them and even used them for entertainment. Christian love and virginity were an insult but these evidences of godliness led many to repentance as the biblical story was lived out in the power of the Spirit.
The Witness of the Apostle Peter
There is much debate about the role of Peter in the early church. Some believe that he was the first bishop of Rome, thus a/the pastor of pastors. Others, like me, have doubts about this claim. Regardless, this man of God gave a powerful witness about the way we should hear the Bible through the witness of the apostles.
10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, 11 trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow. 12 It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.
13 Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming. 14 As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. 15 But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; 16 for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”
7 Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear. 18 For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. 20 He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. 21 Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God.
22 Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart. 23 For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. 24 For,
“All people are like grass,
and all their glory is like the flowers of the field;
the grass withers and the flowers fall,
25 but the word of the Lord endures forever.”
And this is the word that was preached to you (1 Peter 1:10-25).
Note that Peter says the Word of God, in this case he clearly means the Holy Scriptures, will “endure forever.” To what end? That we Christians would be purified by obeying its truth. And what is that truth? “Sincere love for each other . . . lov[ing] one another deeply, from the heart.”
The only way to read the Bible correctly is to read it with the desire to see and know Jesus Christ and then to walk in true holiness. This holiness is centered in the love of Christ. We love because he first loved us. When we love as he loved then we live the message of the Bible preeminently. When we fail to love–arguing, quarreling, calling each other names and undermining fellow Christians–we destroy the work of the Spirit in each other thus nullifying the impact that the Bible should have on our lives. Is there any serious doubt that we may know a lot about the Bible but miss the kind of understanding that God actually intended for us?