Using the Bible
How can an ancient text be relevant today?
Christians believe that the Bible was inspired by God. This means that they believe that God was speaking to the people who wrote each book, and so each book has something special that it can say to its readers. Christians read it together in church, or by themselves at home, to receive guidance and encouragement for their lives.
Of course there is an obvious question here. Is it possible to take something that was written between 2000 and 3000 years ago, and try to apply it to life in the 21st century? The earliest parts of the Bible were written for a nomadic people (i.e. people who had no fixed home but travelled around) based in regions of the Middle East. It was a time long before television and internet, cars and aeroplanes, global communities, modern medicine and the technological revolution. Family roles and relationships were very different to those in our Western culture today. During Bible times, Israel was ruled by kings and emperors from many different empires (including the Romans in Jesus’ time), each with different cultures, beliefs and practices. So can it say anything of any meaning to us today?
Christians would say that although the Bible is an ancient text, it is timeless and just as relevant today. There are a couple of things in particular which they might use it for.
Getting a picture of God
Christians use the Bible to help them understand what God is like. A verse like Psalm 145:8, ‘The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love’, may have been written millennia ago, but states something eternal about the God of the Bible. The stories in Bible add to a larger portrait of God. In our own lives we get to know people by seeing how they respond in different situations; Christians believe the same is true with God. The stories in the Bible – from Adam and Eve, through Abraham, Moses, King David and beyond – show God making promises to those who are oppressed, alone or in despair, and being a Saviour to those who call to Him. The books of prophecy in the Old Testament, for example Isaiah or Micah, record words spoken by God. These give an indication of the things He most cares about: for example, seeing people put Him first, treat each other fairly and stand up for the rights of others.
The fullest picture of God that Christians have is found in the New Testament, in the accounts of Jesus found in the gospels (i.e. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). Christians believe that Jesus was God Incarnate – ‘God with skin on’. To Christians, Jesus’ words, actions and life reveal what God thinks, feels and wishes to say. This is part of the reason Jesus is such an important figure in Christianity. (For more information on the stories of Jesus, please visit our Jesus section.)
Understanding how God wants us to live
People often think of the Bible as a rule book – a list of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’. The Bible does contain a lot of teaching alongside stories and prophecies. Probably the most famous piece of teaching is the Ten Commandments, found in Exodus Chapter 20. Christians would say that these are still relevant moral laws to live by and can be taken at face value. Three thousand years ago, God told the Israelites that it was wrong to murder. The law of our land says the same today.
Jesus’ teaching, found in the New Testament, also stands the test of time. ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (Mark 12:31) and ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you’ (Luke 6:31) make as much sense to us today as it did to Jesus’ followers 2000 years ago.
With other passages, however, a surface reading isn’t as meaningful. For example, the Book of Deuteronomy records the laws that were given to the Israelites as they built their own independent community. Their culture was very different to ours. Deut 24:19 says: ‘When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf… leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow.’ Unlike the Israelites, not many of us work our own fields today. A law like this, on the surface of it, seems irrelevant.
In these situations, Christians might look back to the context in which this law was written, to find the principle behind the practice. The ancient Israelites had no formal welfare system like we do. Women were looked after by a husband; children by parents or parents’ family. To be without these meant that you were completely on your own. The command to leave grain meant that those vulnerable people had the chance to be fed. (In the Book of Ruth, Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi, who are both widows, are helped by Boaz in this way – see Ruth 2.)
The practice of leaving grain behind might have nothing to do with our situation, but the principle behind it is to look after the most vulnerable in society. It is this principle that has led many Christians to start food banks, open hospices and a host of other charities, to support those who may otherwise ‘fall through the cracks’ of community care.Bookmark