To understand Christianity, you have to understand Christ. The best way to understand Christ is to read the accounts of his life, death and resurrection in the Bible.
Some people rely on other people to tell them what to believe about Christ. They learn about Him through their pastors and Bible teachers and draw conclusions based upon what they hear. I'm not knocking pastors or Bible teachers. They can certainly help you understand Christianity. But it’s a mistake to avoid the source document itself, the Bible. Relying solely on the opinions of others to come to your own conclusions about Christianity is like a jury relying on hearsay evidence to determine the guilt or innocence of a defendant.
The Bible can be an intimidating document. This is why a lot of Christians avoid it. It was written a long time ago, in an unfamiliar language. At approximately 1000 pages, it is imposing. A lot of people don't even know where to begin. The read it rarely, and when they do read it, they read only parts of it.
But what a lot of people don't understand is that the Author is more than willing to help you interpret His work. And once you begin to navigate the Bible, you will realize that the Bible is an incredibly well-organized book designed to serve a number of purposes. You can begin to read the Bible today. The Author of your faith will help you to understand it. If you understand the basic structure of the Bible, the intimidation factor will begin to dissolve. And if you will allow Him to do so, the Holy Spirit will guide you through it.
Most books are read once and then quickly forgotten. The Bible, on the other hand, is a lifetime read. You can read a scripture verse as a child and gain something meaningful out of it. As an adult, you can read the same verse and discern something completely different but equally meaningful from it. Can you think of any book that can satisfy the spiritual, physical, and intellectual needs of approximately two billion people? The Bible is spiritual “milk” for new Christians, but also spiritual nutrition for people who have been Christians for decades.
The Bible can also be read simply as narrative, cover to cover. It describes the story of God’s relationship with mankind. And it can be read as a daily devotional, with scriptural guidance on how we should live. The Bible is a book that remains absolutely constant. But in practice it seems as if the Bible was designed to be flexible, in terms of meeting the needs of a person at any point in time. And the Holy Spirit helps to get what we need out of the Bible when we need it.
Organization of the Bible
The Bible contains 66 “books”, which function a lot like chapters do in other literature. The New Testament has 27 books and the Old Testament has 39 books. The following is a grouping of these books and brief overviews, which will provide you with an overview of the basic layout of the Bible.
The Old Testament
The Old Testament describes the events that ultimately led to Jesus’ birth.
Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy: These books describe the creation of the world and mankind, the temptation and original sin in the Garden of Eden, God’s covenant with mankind, the development of the nation of Israel and its freedom from Egyptian slavery, the Ten Commandments and other rules of cleanliness and obedience, and God’s deliverance of the Israelites into the “Promised Land”.
Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, Second Kings, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job: These books describe the lives and acts of the early nation of Israel and the ongoing principles of mankind’s cyclical rebellion, repentance and obedience to God, and God’s continuing forgiveness.
Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon: These books contain principles and rules for man’s relationship with God and with each other.
Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi: These books are the stories of God’s prophets through the years, as well as their messages of the coming of the Messiah, who Christians believe is Jesus of Nazareth.
The New Testament
The New Testament describes Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and the growth of the early Christian church.
Matthew, Mark, Luke, John: These Gospels describe life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. The Gospels tell the “good news” of Jesus and provide the basis for the Christian faith.
Acts: This book describes the acts of the early Christian apostles, including Paul, who wrote much of the remainder of the New Testament.
Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews: This almost staggering volume of works was written by one man, the apostle Paul. Originally a persecutor of the early Christian church, he converted following a dramatic encounter with Jesus following his ascension into Heaven. These epistles are letters to the early Christian churches and describe some of the foundational principles followed by believers today.
James 1, James 2, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude: These are the epistles written by original apostles of Christ, describing Christian principles and instruction.
Revelation: This book was written by the apostle John, this work is the final chapter of the Bible and describes in apocalyptic terms, the second coming of Jesus and the end times for Earth.
A Suggested Approach for Reading the Bible
To the uninitiated, the Bible can be pretty intimidating. But it doesn't have to be. All you need is a plan of attack. And that’s the purpose of the following section- to give you a methodology to use as part of your regular Bible study.
Read it Cover to Cover
Dedicate at least thirty minutes a day to Bible study, the length of a typcial television sitcom. Read the Bible as you would read any book. Consider reading it cover to cover. Begin with Genesis and read about the beginning of mankind. Read about the first sin and its consequences. You’ll find an incredible story. It’s incredible because it resonates so perfectly with what we know about how we act. The basic problem with mankind is the same today as it was then. God wants only the best for man, but man wants to do it his own way. This is important because the Old Testament describes man moving further and further away from God. And it becomes apparent that only something extraordinary can fix this problem.
Some people set a goal of reading the Bible through in one year, which works out to be between three and four chapters per day. Reading the Bible cover to cover will help you to understand its broad concepts and ideas. You will start in the Garden of Eden and trace the development of the relationship between man and God. You will begin to discern “themes” throughout the Old Testament, which ultimately center on mankind’s disobedience and redemption. As you read the New Testament, you will learn about Jesus. He was the fulfillment of God’s plan, once and for all, for mankind through the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus.
When I first read the Bible this way, I was amazed. I had previously thought it was a disjointed collection of materials. Instead, I realized it was a beautifully seamless and consistent book. In Jesus, God solved the sin problem once and for all. Man had proven time and time again that, despite God’s love, he would rebel. God had given mankind the power to choose, and mankind repeatedly made choices which were against God- we call it sin. In response, God could have done any of a number of things. He could have destroyed mankind. Or, He could have imposed His will. But there was a third way- through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
As you read through the Bible, consider also reading Psalm, a Proverb and a snippent from the writings of Paul (most of the epistles in the New Testament). This will help you to also gain daily nourishment, something critical to
After you have read the Bible cover to cover, then read it strategically. This means choosing sections to read based upon your spiritual needs at that time and based upon particular issues you may be faced with. The more familiar you become with the Bible, then the more often scripture will come to mind as you approach your life.
Reading the Bible sequentially will allow you to understand its big picture. But reading it strategically will also enable you to extract gems of wisdom. The Bible was designed to be a lifetime read. It is probably the only book ever written, which can be read in parts just as beneficially as reading the whole. Some people have favorite scripture that they refer to over and over again, in times of difficulty. I’ve found that no matter what I’m going through, my daily Bible study finds me in a particular passage that helps. It’s as if the Holy Spirit is always there in the background, guiding me. If we listen carefully to the Holy Spirit, He will guide us to scripture that fulfills our needs at any given time. Further, the Bible can be read in big or small pieces, or from cover to cover, depending upon the needs of the reader.
But the important thing is to incorporate Bible study into your daily routine. Set aside time each day to read it.
You won't be disappointed.
I'd like to make a wager with you. You'll need one book to participate- the Bible. Here are the conditions of the bet: tonight or tomorrow morning (or right now, for that matter) collect your Bible and find a quiet place. If you don't have a Bible, you can visit http://www.biblegateway.com/
and wherever your computer is can be your quiet place.
Once you're settled, sit quietly for a minute. Say a simple prayer. Ask God to show you something, reveal something to you, if you will. If you don't believe in God, of course, this will be a problem. I've written previously why I think it takes much more faith to be an athiest than it does to believe in God. The fact of our very existence, leads me to believe that their has to be a Creator behind all of it. Believing that we evolved into our current state (especially when we know that matter tends to move from order to disorder) from a cosmic blob is hard for me to believe. I can't accept that we are a cosmic accident. It's just easier to start with the premise that Someone was behind all of it. In any event, if you don't believe in God, humor me for a minute. Say the prayer.
Now, open your Bible (or web brower to http://www.biblegateway.com/
). It doesn't matter where. You can randomly pick a page. Now, read that page. Take your time and read it carefully. If you encounter something unfamiliar, read it again. Read the page like you would read any unfamiliar text. Read it for content. Read it for context. If you need definitions for terms, look them up in a dictionary or an online source such as http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page
. The point is to read it actively and not passively. Ask yourself, "What does this mean?"
Now, here's the wager. I'm betting that if you do this, God will speak to you. Something will resonate for you. It might be a sentence. It might be a story. It might be a person. Or it might be something else. But something that you read will strike a chord. It might be instruction. Or it could be that you've been struggling with something and, lo and behold, an answer jumps out at you from the pages. You might realize that you need to change something in yor life. Or perhaps you'll read something that will encourage you to treat someone differently.
That's how God speaks to us. Of course, there are many other ways He can do it. He can impress you during prayer. Or He may speak to you through the circumstances of your life. But He can speak to you regularly and predictably through the Bible. That's why Christian call it His Word (or Words). God may speak to you through a snippet of scripture. Or you may read a story and it will absolutely resonate for you. But if you read the Bible, God will speak to you.
I'm betting on it.
I have to confess, I can be a pretty cynical person. On the other hand, in my defense, in today's world it's pretty easy to become jaded. It seems as if our entire political system has degenerated into a melange of posturing, sound bites and strategy. Politicians, even the good ones, don't say anything that they really believe, for fear of offending some segment of the electorate.
It seems like everyone has an agenda. Lately, there have been a lot of "Wall Street" protests. "Tax the Rich" is their battle cry. It's in vogue again to hate corporations and, for that matter, capitalism. A lot of people subscribe to Robin Hood's mantra- "steal from the rich and give to the poor."
But the truth is, it's not so simple.
Jesus boiled His entire platform down to two rules: (1) love God with everything you have; and (2) love people. I've previously blogged about it. Some of the relgious elite, trying to trap Jesus, asked Him which was the greatest commandment. There were thousands of commandments described in the Septuagint, in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Asking Jesus this was akin to the classic, no win, "when did you stop beating your wife" question. But somehow, He cut through all it, with these two simple commands. Love God and love man. Loving God is the greatest commandment. Loving your fellow man is the second greatest commandment.
You'll notice the new link to the left of this blog post, to a website called "Amazima". Amazima is a not for profit organization, founded by a 22-year old Brentwood, Tennessee woman, Katie Davis. I don't know her. I've never met her. I am not affiliated in any way with Amazina. But I read about it and am amazed.
One day, not too long ago, Katie took a trip to Uganda. She planned to stay for a while and then go to college. When she saw the poverty and conditions in which Ugandan children live, she decided to stay. Katie founded Amazina Ministries when she was 19 years old. She is currently raising 13 Ugandan children on her own. Amazina feeds 1600 children and sends 400 orphans to a Christian school. She's not going to college.
When I read about Katie, I thought about what I would have done when I was her age. I would have been thinking about college. I would have been thinking about my career. I might have entertained the idea of going to law school. I would have been thinking about cars. I would have been thinking about girls. The last thing I would have considered would be raising 13 Ugandan children, alone.
I'm also a Brentwood, Tennessee resident. Brentwood is an affluent community, populated by lawyers, country music stars, executives and other successful people. I imagine Katie grew up, having a pretty nice life. But she gave it all up to help others.
Katie Davis has obviously decided to honor Jesus' second commandment. She describes it as "loving one person at a time." But I'm betting that she's doing it because she is honoring his first commandment as well. Katie loves man because Katie loves God.
Amazina's website is at http://www.amazima.org/history.html
if you want to read more about it.
I just read an article in the newspaper which described the results of a recent study on homogeneity in American churches. The article indicated that most U.S. churches are congregated by people who are a lot like each other. This is true in terms of race, background and economic status. Simply, we go to churches with people that are like us. Conversely, we don’t go to churches with people that aren’t like us.
This obviously raises the big question of “why?” Why do we prefer churches with members who are like us? And, more importantly, why do we avoid churches with members who aren’t like us?
When Jesus started the first Christian church, he populated it at least in part with a ragtag group of laborers, tax collectors, and societal outcasts who clearly couldn’t cut the mustard, in terms of the Pharisaical standards of proper membership. In those days, the Pharisees required all kinds of behavioral compliance, in order to qualify for membership in their group.
Jesus, on the other hand, seems to have largely ignored a lot of the trappings of membership and focused instead on two things: loving God and loving your fellow man.
He didn’t seem to worry too much about whether people conformed to the optics of religion. Instead, He taught that it was what was in your heart that matters.
When I think of that early church, I wonder what its members thought about each other. Certainly, some of Jesus’ followers had been on the receiving end of Matthew, the tax collector’s extortion. And we know that one of Jesus followers, Joseph of Arimethea was a member of the wealthy class of Jews of that day.
I wonder what Joseph would have thought about those two brothers, Simon and Andrew.
They were hardscrabble fishermen; dirty and probably hard to take from an olfactory perspective. And of course, most of us are familiar with the account of the woman anointing Jesus feet with oil.
Popular legend is that she was a prostitute, although we don’t know much about her other than that she was a sinner. Whatever her sins, they were notable enough to draw the attention of the gospel writer and be mentioned specifically. So, it’s likely that her sins were pretty serious.
So, the early church was populated with a disparate group of people who somehow found themselves all together under common circumstances. And those circumstances were at least on one level, very simple- these people all followed Someone who claimed to be God.
So, we are back to the question I asked at the beginning of this blog post. Why do modern-day Christians tend to congregate with people who are like themselves? And conversely, why do we tend to, consciously or otherwise, avoid Christians who aren’t like us? Perhaps it’s because we project our desired ideal of Heaven as replicating the comforts of our suburban utopia, with neighbors who are like us- successful, prosperous and comfortable. Perhaps it’s because we don’t like to think about a Heaven populated with folks from the “other side of the tracks.” Or perhaps, we just don’t want to be around people who have been fishing all day, rather than working in an air-conditioned office.
Jesus’ followers, who were each so different from each other and from such different backgrounds all somehow find common ground. The common ground was simple. It was their common faith in Jesus. That faith superseded everything else. Simon and Andrew didn’t look down upon Matthew the tax collector. The rich man Joseph didn’t avoid sitting next to the sinful woman when the group got together. They all just looked to Jesus. And Jesus welcomed everyone. He offered comfort to anyone who had been beaten up, spiritually or otherwise by this life.
So, the next time you are sitting in church look around you. Are the folks sitting next to you pretty much just like you? Are there people present who look like they could use a meal? Do you see any folks who look like they slept in their clothes? The truth is, these are rhetorical questions. I’m betting that the answer to the first question is “yes” and the answer to the rest of these questions is “no.”
Is there anything you can do about it? Probably not. Unfortunately, it’s in our nature to want to be around people like us. It’s unlikely that you will find some destitute homeless person visiting your church. They know better. They sense our discomfort and have decided to do something else. Many modern day Christian congregations have replicated the Pharisaical order of things right in their own backyards. It’s a tragedy.
But then again, church is on Sunday. That leaves six other days to jump into the marketplace with people who are nothing like you. And more importantly, you can use what God has given you to positively influence their lives. You can show them, those people who have had a rough time of it, exactly what Jesus has done for you. He loved you right where you were, in the midst of all of your sin.
He saved you from yourself.
And if you find yourself in the cultural majority at church- nice home, nice family, good job- think about the fact that there may very well be people in your midst who aren’t so fortunate. Perhaps it’s that person who stopped in for a visit. They had seen the signs outside, welcoming visitors, and decided to give it a try. You can spot them in your church. They don’t know where to sit. They don’t know when to stand. They look a little awkward. Rather than using your church time to chat with your friends (most of who you have probably grown up in church with), reach out to these folks. They need you to step up and make them feel welcome.
I’m betting God put them at this intersection for a reason. You can help them. But they can also help you. They can help you to become more like Jesus.
And if you are one of those fisherman/tax collectors who find yourselves in one of those churches, take heart. At their core and despite, their suburban homes, prosperous lifestyles and successful demeanors, they are just like you. In God’s eyes, they are just like you. We are all lost. We have all fallen short of God’s standards. You have done it your way. And I have done it my way. Yours might be alcohol or drugs. Mine might be moneylust or backbiting. But we are all in the same boat. And the boat, without a Captain, is headed somewhere that none of us really want to visit.
But here’s the good news. There is a Captain. His name is Jesus. If we do what He says, our ship is destined for some great ports of call while we are on this earth. And the journey afterwards, well that’s a trip of eternal happiness beyond anything you could ever imagine. If you want to read more about it, there is a great travel guide I recommend. It’s called “the Bible”. Open it up today and begin reading about it. You won’t be disappointed.
1 Corinthians 15.