Saturday 2 March 2024


What do each one of us as individuals see the purpose of the bible as being, because this will steer our reading and approach to “God’s Word”
A young man that I met this week got me wondering. He is someone who came to faith through the internet. His coming to Jesus has profoundly changed his life and he has assimilated an encyclopaedic knowledge of the bible, significantly influenced by internet sources. In the group that we were in he was asserting that several scriptures teach us that the earth was originally flat.

In support of this the scriptures quoted included the use of expressions like “the four corners of the earth” (e.g. Isaiah 11:12) “He will set up a banner for the nations, and will assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth” and “the ends of the earth” (e.g. Job 37:3) “Hear attentively the thunder of His voice, and the rumbling that comes from His mouth. He sends it forth under the whole heaven, His lightning to the ends of the earth”. Spheres of course don’t have corners or ends and so, if taken literally, the earth would have to have edges. There are other bible passages which may be used to argue this way.

Of course, most bible believers and bible scholars will recognise that these passages are not intended to be taken literally. They are by and large figures of speech which indicate something else. In this example the passages are referring to reaching across the whole earth; or the extent / size of the earth; or going deeper, perhaps a Hebrew term relating to the extension of a bird’s wing that is used to suggest the extremity of anything stretched out.

I am not mentioning this discussion though, to go into “flat earth theology”, merely as a starting point, because the conversation that I have described made me think some more about the purpose of the bible and what it means to the world generally and followers of Jesus today. Every follower of Jesus will be aware that there are some areas of scripture where their interpretation will be different from someone else’s. There may be straight-forward reasons for this. From personal experience, sometimes I have discovered that even after years of reading the bible, I have just not read a passage properly. I read it again and well, it just doesn’t say what I thought it said. Sometimes I will look something up and find that I have taken a word out of context or not understood its full meaning. Sometimes a brother or sister will have pointed out something I have missed. Sometimes it will be a sermon, someone sharing or “teaching” which changes my view. Some scripture is still completely hidden from view.

Does it matter that I have not got it right first time? At one time in my life, I was really concerned about getting everything as “right” as possible (and of course failed)! Now I am not so worried… The passage of time has taken me from a point in my 30s when I “knew everything” (not!) to a point now where I realise that I know practically nothing at all. (Of course, I may have learned a few useful things in the course of life’s journey that might be worth passing on to younger generations - but by and large they are too busy learning the same things, by making the same mistakes for themselves to listen).

I am still trying to work it out, but I think that it is important to understand why God gave us the bible? In a favourite quote John Wesley said:

“I have thought I am creature of a day, passing through life as an arrow through the air. I am a spirit come from God and returning to God; just hovering over the great gulf, till a few moments hence I am no more seen. I drop into an unchangeable eternity! I want to know one thing, the way to heaven--how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach the way: for this very end he came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price give me the Book of God! I have it. Here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius libri [a man of one book].”
Here John Wesley points to a purpose for the bible – to show us the way to heaven. Of course, Jesus is the way (John 14:7: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me")  and Jesus Himself said (John 17:3) “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent”. What do each one of us as individuals see the purpose of the bible as being, because this will steer our reading and approach to “God’s Word”?

There is another quote commonly attributed to St Augustine but more recently tracked down to a 16th Century believer which says concerning unity amongst Christians and interpretation of scripture:

“…If we preserve unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials, and love in all things, our affairs will be in the best position…”

In other words there are some things that all followers of Jesus believe, that all followers of Jesus must allow liberty for others to explore non-essentials, and then there are “my pet ideas and theories”… This is a useful quote perhaps except we are then left with distinguishing between what is essential and non-essential?

There is a diagram above showing the three areas of belief. What would you put in the circles? Perhaps relabelling them “Core truths for Followers of Jesus”, “Things where its OK for Followers of Jesus to differ in interpretation” and “Things that I know are strictly my own beliefs about what’s going on”? Or – choose your own labels to help decide.

I think that having a clear view of the purpose of the bible is useful in helping to decide what interpretations and beliefs go in which circle – or “everything else”. With an honest approach we might be surprised at what goes where – and it may affect the way that we see and relate to others. For example, my fellowship with my young friend will not be harmed by his current belief in the shape of the world but it does have an impact.

Neither the Lord nor I might not mind at all that at this stage my friend has a perhaps ill-informed belief that at some point the world was flat. But was it wise for him to share it in a study group? He thought so because to him it was “essential” that we were not deceived by the world. I thought not because it offered unnecessary difficulties for others in the group over something that I saw as “everything else”. You might think that this is an obvious example, but I wonder how many times we have wandered from the true essentials onto “our particular convictions” with the result of discouraging others, or if they are still young in the faith, giving them unnecessary confusion?

Many have pointed to disagreements about “non-essentials” as the cause of church splits; such disagreements have even led to congregations being torn apart in the middle of great revivals / moves of the Holy Spirit. In this we might include attempts to label “non-essentials” and even personal favourite “anything elses” as part of the “essential core” for the fellowships in question. No wonder in his struggle with the problems in the Corinthian Church Paul took this stand: 1 Corinthians 2:2: “When I came to you, my friends, to preach God's truth, I did not use big words and great learning. 2 For while I was with you, I made up my mind to forget everything except Jesus Christ and his death on the cross” – essential ground indeed!

Author: Chris Pearson

May God bless and enrich your life

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