If you’ve spent any time with Christians at all, you know that the Bible holds a pretty central place in our world. But maybe you haven’t read it—most people haven’t. And so you might be wondering what the point of it is.
What the Bible Is Not For
Here are some of the things that are not the main purpose of the Bible. People may use it for these purposes on occasion, and most of them are valid, but they are not the main point.
- To give us good advice on life;
- To teach us about God (knowledge and data);
- To offer us a philosophical framework that gives meaning to our lives;
- To learn stuff about ancient people and cultures;
- To teach children to behave the way we want them to;
- To beat other people over the head with when they do things we disagree about.
Seriously, these are not the main reason why God gave us the Bible, and I’m pretty sure they aren’t reasons why you personally would want to bother with it. For instance, the Bible is simply too difficult and too odd for it to be an effective source of advice for most people. It isn’t a “how to” manual—it’s a library full of stories and rants and genealogies and odd rules and great poetry and geography. You have to work hard to get advice or philosophy or educational material out of something like that. And it’s certainly not meant to be used to hurt other people with. Those who use the Bible as a weapon need to get to know the God of mercy better.
What the Bible IS For
No, the main reason why Christians value the Bible is because it’s where God meets us and we meet him.
A lot of people are looking for something spiritual—a connection to God, a sense that someone or something gives a meaning to their lives. They may look to the occult—to tarot cards, to astrology, to attempts to contact angels or the dead. Others look to eastern religions or to cults. Some try drugs. Christians have gone to the Bible—and found what they were looking for.
Getting to Know God Personally
Christianity teaches that the Bible is God’s message, God’s “word,” we call it—a major way God communicates with us and makes it possible for us to know him as a person and have a relationship with him. Clearly we need something like that—it’s really hard to imagine how we could “track down” and get to know someone whom you can’t usually see with your eyes or hear with your ears, let alone communicate with him. It isn’t like you could pick up your cell phone and call! But we believe that God has made the choice to track US down—to make himself known to us human beings—to begin a relationship with us.
And one of the ways he does this is through the Bible. He connects with us there, whenever we read or hear or just remember bits of it. Sometimes he has something to say that relates to a choice or decision we’re making right now; other times we’re just spending time together, building love and closeness. Sometimes we read or hear the Bible and have absolutely no sense of anything going on at all—we’re bored, things are flat and stale, we’re falling asleep. That’s okay. Because it isn’t about our feelings all the time. God can take those flat, boring times and transform them, so that weeks or years later we’re thinking, “Oh yeah, so that’s what that part of the Bible was talking about, now I get it.”
And the place we see God most clearly is in the man Jesus Christ. He is God who came down into the world, God who came to be a human being among us. When we read about Jesus, we are getting a close-up view of the invisible God and how he operates, what he’s like, how he feels about us. All that information is available in the four books of the Bible we call the Gospels—that is, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. You can see Jesus in action there if you want to.
For so many of us Christians, the sense of “watching” Jesus by reading about him in the Bible soon transformed into a real interaction with him—a sense of knowing him, a chance to talk with him (prayer) and to hear what he says to us today. That “hearing” is sometimes a bit mysterious, but it tends to involve the Bible 90% of the time or more. The Bible seems to be God’s preferred method of communicating with us today, being much more reliable than mere feelings or hunches. And the more exposure we have to it, the stronger our trusting relationship with Jesus becomes. That’s the reason it was written, according to Jesus’ disciple John: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30-31)
But What’s It Like to Read the Bible?
So what’s it like to read the Bible? We aren’t going to kid you—it can be awesome, difficult, boring, insightful, confusing, comforting, and odd—sometimes all at once. Keep in mind that God uses the Bible to speak to people from all sorts of cultures and time periods—what appeals to you or makes sense to you isn’t necessarily going to be the same thing that speaks to an Asian villager or someone farming in Africa. Plus the Bible is a whole library of stuff—it’s 66 books which include everything from romance and humor to poetry and biography. Naturally some of it is going to appeal to one person more than to another.
If you get curious and decide to take the dive, you don’t have to read it in order, starting on page 1. We’d recommend instead that you start with the book of Luke. Luke is telling the story of Jesus’ life, and he takes a special interest in how Jesus interacted with poor people, foreigners, women and children, and the like. There are also a lot of the interesting little stories Jesus told in the book of Luke—we call them parables. They tend to stick in the memory.
If you like it, Luke has a sequel written by the same guy—it’s called Acts (or “Acts of the Apostles”). This deals with the very beginnings of Christianity, with everything that happened during the first years after Jesus was crucified and then rose from the dead. Again, there are a lot of great stories in there, and it shouldn’t put you to sleep.
But why not start with Genesis? For a very practical reason—because you’ll start out with interesting stories, but just a few chapters in, you’ll run into all sorts of genealogies—long lists of who was the ancestor of whom, and who their children were, and so on and so on. These chapters have a lot of meaning to certain cultures, but chances are they won’t be high on your “most interesting” list. The author of this article actually DID start reading the Bible for the first time with Genesis, because I had nobody to teach me better. I survived, but Luke would have been a better choice.
But Isn’t the Bible Sort of Weird?
Well, yes. Yes, it is. God, in his infinite wisdom, did not send down a PowerPoint presentation from on high, or even the clear and concise “Guide to Life” that a lot of us wish he had. Instead he gave us the Bible—this weird, off-beat, and sometimes off-putting collection of books. And I’m going to suggest that its weirdness isn’t a bug, but a feature.
The Bible has the same sort of oddity that any real thing does—a new scientific discovery, a new human being you’re getting to know, a new job or roommate or ethnic food to try. It isn’t slick; it isn’t plasticky or carefully calculated to appeal to the market. It just sits there in all of its strangeness, more or less daring you to take a dip.
If you do, you’ll find things that make a whole lot of sense—and things that make you scratch your head. And some of the strange things will make sense some day—and some might not.
In the Bible, you’ll find all sorts of stuff. Do you like:
- History? Try 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles.
- True crime? Try Judges.
- Biography? Try Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.
- Poetry? Try Psalms or Song of Solomon.
- Humor? Try Jonah.
- Romance? Try Song of Solomon or Ruth.
- Thrillers? Try Esther.
- Philosophy? Try Ecclesiastes or Job.
- Law and customs? Try Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
- Family saga? Try Genesis.
- Royal intrigue? Try 1 and 2 Samuel.
- Social justice issues? Try Amos, or really, any of the prophetic books.
- Spooky stories? Try Ezekiel, chapter 37.
- Creepy weird but cool symbolic stuff? Try Ezekiel (particularly chapters 1 and 10) or Revelation.
Among all of this other stuff, you’ll also find God—calling out to you, wanting to relate to you, inviting you to get to know him. As Christians, we can say from our own experience that it’s worth it. But make up your own mind.
Anyway, here’s Luke, if you want to see it. We’re just going to tiptoe away and leave you with it. Do what you like.