I take the city bus to and from work most days and have come to talk to certain people on an almost daily basis on the way home from work. I was talking to one about a common interest in science fiction books one day, when we were interrupted by an eager young man who recommended the Bible as a good book to read to find out God’s truth.
The man’s response, “I’m sorry, but that kind of fiction doesn’t interest me.”
I was already aware of his view from previous conversations and had not pursued the matter due to the obvious lack of openness. Not so the young man, who parried with the ever-so-clever response, “It’s not fiction! It’s the truth of God!”
Naturally, he got nowhere.
That view of the Scriptures has become increasingly common in our generation here in North America. How do we reach people with a message from a book that is widely perceived as a collection of myths and legends from a pre-scientific age?
I think that we need to reach back into our understanding of the Scriptures and remember what the Bible itself teaches us its purpose is.
Jesus himself gives the religious authorities of his day a very big clue in John 5:39-40 when he says, “You search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me. And ye will not come to me, that ye might have life. “
They seemed to think that the Scriptures were designed to give them rules to live by to guarantee eternal life.
The irony is that these people were the experts in the Bible (what we call the Old Testament) of their time. Jesus is telling them that they missed the point by missing the very purpose of the Bible. We want to make sure that we also don’t miss the point.
The two main divisions of the Bible are called the “Old Testament” and the “New Testament” for good historical and theological reasons.
A modern English-speaker can be forgiven for thinking that a “testament” involves the disposition of the estate of a dead person. The only other way we normally hear the word is in the expression “last will and testament.” The word itself has a much wider meaning than just the post funerary one.
That word was chosen for the titles of these sections precisely because of what the Bible was intended to be: a testament, which literally means a witness or a testimony.
The earliest mention of books later compiled into the Bible that I’m aware of is in Exodus 20-24. This story begins with the famous “10 Commandments” spoken by God at Mount Sinai. What many of us don’t notice the first few times we read it is that God doesn’t stop talking after the 10 Commandments. The people leave Moses to listen to God, but leave because God’s voice scares them. God continues giving the conditions of his covenant with Israel for the next three chapters, finishing at the end of Chapter 23. In Chapter 24 Moses reads those instructions, which are then called “the book of the covenant” (v. 4-12). He then goes up the mountain, where God gives him the words of his law written on the two tablets of stone.
The stones did not come with only ten commandments etched in a 600 point font. They were covered in front and back with the words of chapters 20-23. Each stone tablet had the entire covenant written on it. One copy was God’s copy and the other was Israel’s, according to the covenant-making conventions of the time.
Both tablets were kept in the box we know as the “ark of the covenant.” We don’t normally notice the other name for that same box: the “ark of the testimony.” We find that, for instance, in Ex. 25:22, where God says, “And there I will meet with thee, and I will commune with thee from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubims which are upon the ark of the testimony, of all things which I will give thee in commandment unto the children of Israel.”
It is also called the ark of the testimony in Ex. 26:33, Ex. 26:34, Ex. 30:6, Ex. 30:26, Ex. 31:7, Num. 4:5, Num. 7:89 and Joshua 4:16.
In the verse just before God names it the “ark of the testimony” he tells us why it has that name. (Exodus 25:21) “And thou shalt put the mercy seat above upon the ark; and in the ark thou shalt put the testimony that I shall give thee.” It is important to note that Moses is still on the mountain receiving instructions when this particular instruction is given to him.
It is interesting also to note the name that is given to the stone tablets in Exo 32:15-16 “ And Moses turned, and went down from the mount, and the two tables of the testimony were in his hand: the tables were written on both their sides; on the one side and on the other were they written. And the tables were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tables.” (emphasis mine)
So here we have the two stone tablets of the covenant referred to as the “tables of the testimony” as well as a box called the “ark of the testimony.” Anybody want to take a guess about where the tablets end up? Yes, as noted in Ex. 40:20, “ And he took and put the testimony into the ark, and set the staves on the ark, and put the mercy seat above upon the ark.”
By the end of the book of Deuteronomy we have an interesting development. Moses has written five books, which have come to be referred to as “the law.” Guess where it is to be kept? (Deut. 31:24-26) And it came to pass, when Moses had made an end of writing the words of this law in a book, until they were finished, That Moses commanded the Levites, which bare the ark of the covenant of the LORD, saying, Take this book of the law, and put it in the side of the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God, that it may be there for a witness against thee.
At a bare minimum, Moses is putting the book of Deuteronomy into the “ark of the testimony.” It was probably the entire five books that modern Jewish people refer to as “the law,” but I won’t quibble with those who think it is only Deuteronomy.
The fun part is the reason Moses wants it included in the ark of testimony. As Moses puts it, “that it may be there for a witness against thee.” Not only are we told specifically that it is there to be a “witness,” but it is to function as a witness “against” them.
So we see that the heart of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch or Law, was designed to go into the ark of testimony as a witness that they were going to break that very covenant.
We actually see how the scriptures function in a story in the life of a king of Judah. Josiah had assumed the throne at a young age, and was set to overturn the apostasy of his father. During the process of cleaning out the Temple on the request of the young king, a priest discovers a copy of the Book of the Law in the ark of the covenant. He brings the book to the king’s secretary, who presents it to the king and reads it to him.
The reaction of the king is found in 2 Ki 22:11-13 And it came to pass, when the king had heard the words of the book of the law, that he rent his clothes. And the king commanded Hilkiah the priest, and Ahikam the son of Shaphan, and Achbor the son of Michaiah, and Shaphan the scribe, and Asahiah a servant of the king’s, saying, Go ye, enquire of the LORD for me, and for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that is found: for great is the wrath of the LORD that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not hearkened unto the words of this book, to do according unto all that which is written concerning us.
Here we see the Bible in action, doing what it was designed to do: be a witness against a hypocritical people that always say they will do whatever God says – and then doesn’t do it. When you get right down to it, that includes every human being who has ever been confronted with a word from God. King Josiah gave exactly the response God looks for from anyone who reads the scriptures with understanding: repentance.
We notice that when Peter, Philip, Stephen and Paul preached, they used the scriptures in ways designed to produce the same reaction: a stunned realization that they need Jesus Christ. Some respond positively and others negatively.
We also know, however, that they all spoke to an audience that was familiar with the scriptures. In our society, many no longer have any connection to the words of “the testimony” that we now call the Bible. We may need to find a way to help people understand that the Bible is not a rule-book or moral guide (thought it does provide guidance in both those areas for those who obey).
We probably need to present it as what it is: a testimony of multiple generations of people who interacted with an entity who calls himself our Creator. For whatever reason, these multiple authors of many styles of books, poems and songs seem to have believed in Him and changed their lives accordingly.
The Apostle John opened his testimony of the life and work of Jesus Christ with a wisdom that does not come from man in John 1:1-4. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
In his first letter he tells them exactly why he writes to them when he says, “And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.”
God has made a record – a witness – that can be shared by the community of faith. This witness testifies about Jesus Christ the Son of God, our Lord, just as Jesus told the Pharisees and Scribes in the passage that began this message.
May we see the Bible for what it is – a witness! And may we find ways of using it as it was intended: a witness intended to illuminate the dark places of the human heart with the light of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, whose life is the light of humankind.