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This time last summer, I was nearing the end of a 40-day/40-night Bible read-through. Some hardy souls read along with me, while others did the deed at their own pace over the following months. I was thinking about that read-through last night and the unique perspective you get from God’s Word when you read through it without pausing to mull it over. It’s somewhat like the difference between taking a quick shower and a long hot bath. I love taking baths, but a quick shower can also be refreshing.
The Bible is a really, really, really, really, really long book with lots of words in it (around 800,000). Some scholars study the Bible as their life’s work, but most people – including those who call themselves Christian – never bother to read it. As born-again believers, we should be reading scripture every day, not as an obligation, but as something we just do naturally, like breathing.
When I was first born-again, I couldn’t put the Bible down. I read all four Gospels in one sitting within a few hours of being reborn. God’s Word was like mother’s milk to me as a new-born-again. I couldn’t get enough of it.
That hunger for and dependence on God’s Word has not left me in the 23 years since my rebirth. I always have a Bible close at hand, which got me interrogated a few times by Homeland Security for having one in my purse while boarding a plane. For me, scripture is a reminder of who and how I need to be. I sometimes wear a cross around my neck for the same reason – to remind myself, when I’m out in the world, that I’m not of the world, that I need to respond to situations differently than the world.
The very physical presence of the cross and what it represents to me and others has kept many a sharp word from spilling over the boundary of my lips and has also reminded me to say a quick prayer instead of muttering a curse when I encounter conflict. Physical objects that are close to hand are helpful that way. I guess I could just as well tie a string around my finger as a reminder, but the neck cross serves the dual purpose not only of reminding me how I should act in the heat of the moment, but also of branding me as a believer in the eyes of the world. Moses advised the children of Israel to put physical reminders like frontlets on themselves so they would always keep the Ten Commandments in mind and act accordingly. My cross serves the same purpose.
Last year’s Bible read-through left an impression on me that I hadn’t anticipated. When I recall doing the daily readings, I also remember the time of day (almost always the morning), the sunlight streaming through the window, the stillness and quietness of the country setting, and the jumble of boxes and sheet-draped furniture that I sat among to read (I had brought my things out of storage, hoping finally to go through them). It seems that the physicality of my surroundings became part and parcel of God’s Word. In the same way, when I recall my first reading of the Gospels in the hours after my rebirth, I also recall the kitchen table I sat at, and I can still hear the fridge humming and buzzing behind me.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that our seemingly random physical realities are part and parcel of our experience and understanding of God. Jesus tells us that God is a Spirit being. But we are very much trapped in the physical realm of time and space, so how can the physical comprehend the spiritual? Or maybe the question should be: How can we move beyond the physical to comprehend the spiritual?
I don’t think God wants us to do that. If he did, he wouldn’t have given us our senses. In many ways, the physical impressions made on us reinforce the spiritual impressions, just as the spiritual impressions reinforce the physical ones. The two work hand-in-hand to impress on our memories the things we need to remember, each working as triggers for the other. So our physicality in the mortal realm, far from keeping us from knowing God, allows us to know him in a way different than we’ll know him in Heaven. But we can still know him while we’re yet on Earth. He is still with us, if we’re born-again. Jesus is, too, through the power of God’s Holy Spirit, because he told us he’d be with us until the end of the world.
When I was thinking last night about the Bible read-through and the Bible in general, I asked myself whether I could sum up the Bible in one word, and if I so, what would that word be? I decided instead of taking the Bible as a whole, I would divide it into the Old Testament and the New Testament, and assign one word to each part. The Old Testament I would sum up as “God”, and the New Testament I would sum up as “Jesus”.
That was easy.
But if I moved beyond the personalities that dominate each part of the Bible and looked instead at what those personalities did to dominate it, I found that “promises” describes what God does in the Old Testament and “fulfills” describes what Jesus does in the New Testament.
So, taken together, we have “God promises” and “Jesus fulfills”. That pretty much describes the whole Bible and would have saved us 40 days and 40 nights of reading if I had just posted a blog article with those four words.
But of course, we need to go deeper and look at “promises” as being both an encouragement and a warning, and at “fulfills” as being the very physical walking out of God’s promises over time. Without the intensely physical context of Jesus living and moving and working physically in and through the world, both before and after his resurrection, God’s supernatural promises could not have been kept.
I’ve mentioned before how Jesus is the rubber hitting the road when it comes to God. Jesus not only made real all things pertaining to God, he kept it real. There was no pretentiousness with Jesus. There was no “thee” and “thou”, no demanding that people bow before him. He was just a regular guy, a carpenter’s son from Nazareth who’d turned preacher. Other than for the one time he rode on a donkey to fulfill scripture, he walked or took a boat everywhere he went. He didn’t drive a chariot. He wasn’t carried around by half a dozen slaves. He was very low-key, hands-on, and accessible.
I like knowing this because remember that Jesus did everything that God advised him to do. He took all his cues on what to say and how to act from his Father. Now if Jesus took all his cues from God, then that means God acts very much like Jesus, or better said, Jesus acts like God. If Jesus was without pretentiousness, then so is God. If Jesus was low-key, hands-on and accessible, then so is God.
Scripture shows us glorious visions of God resplendent on a throne, but it also shows us God walking in a garden in Paradise in the cool of the day, God making coats for Adam and Eve, God meeting up with Moses in various places, and God spending time, one on one, with Abraham and Noah. In all those encounters, God is very much like Jesus with people, with a very low-key, rubber-hitting-the-road kind of vibe. That’s the heavenly Father I know. He doesn’t want me to “thee” and “thou” him. He just wants me to be real with him, the way he is with those who love him and do his will.
Our physical bodies during our time on Earth are a rough draft of the perfect bodies we’ll have in Heaven. And just as our bodies now are crude and imperfect compared to what our heavenly ones will be, so are our senses crude and imperfect when it comes to spiritual things. Paul says we see now through a glass darkly, but we’ll be able to see God as he really is when we get Home. The Bible can only show us God through a glass darkly; we can get an idea of him from scripture, but we can’t fully know what he’s like. The way Jesus was during his time on Earth is as close to God as we’ll ever get, not only in how God is in and of himself, but what he wants and expects from us, and what we’ll get in return if we do what he wants and expects.
Jesus famously summed up the Law and the prophets of the Old Testament as “treat others as you want to be treated”. Mind you, that’s more than one word, but it’s a pretty good summation. In fact, I think it’s as good a summation as you’re going to get, and also very characteristic of Jesus’ approach to keep things low-key and accessible to all. Why write (or read) over half a million words when you can say the same thing in less than 10?
Even so, given the choice, I’d rather eat a delicious five-course meal than just swallow a vitamin that has the same nutrients. The Bible is a smorgasbord of wisdom, advice, warnings, history, promises, tragedies and prophecy. It needs to be read, all ~800,000 words of it. Sometimes we graze on it, sometimes we gorge, sometimes we gnaw slowly but steadily on it, and sometimes we do a whirlwind 40-day read-through to get the gist of what it has to say and to note which sections we want to return to later to study more in-depth.
But we need to read the Bible; that is without a doubt. And we should be reading parts of it every day, not as an obligation, but as a need.
It doesn’t matter what time of the day you read the Bible and it doesn’t matter how much of it you read; it just matters that you read it.