This message was offered at Lee Memorial United Methodist Church on Sunday, August 9, 2015.
Reading: 2 Timothy 3:1-5, 14-17
It has been said that Methodists are people of two books: the Bible and the Discipline. This week, we’re looking at the Bible. Next week, we will look the Discipline and explore the structure and ministries of the church. While there may be some truth to the idea that we are a people of two books, the reality is that Scripture is “the primary source and criterion for Christian doctrine” and life. It contains “all things necessary to salvation; so that whosoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any [person] that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.” Scripture—the Bible—is the foundational document of our faith; therefore, it would behoove us to spend a little time talking about it.
Gracious God, in the moments to come, give me the words to speak and they the ears to hear that together, we might be inspired to not only speak but to live your Word in the world starting today. It’s in that most holy Word’s name—Jesus the Christ—we pray. Amen.
It has been suggested that the Bible is and has been the world’s best-selling and widely distributed book in the world. For centuries the Bible had been handed down by the meticulous work of scribes who would hand copy the text. The first printed edition of the Bible, in Latin, was created by Johann Gutenberg in the mid-1450s. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the Bible has been fully translated into 349 languages, and 2,123 languages have at least one book of the Bible in that language.
Here are a few facts you may or may not know about the Bible:
- The Bible is comprised of 66 separate book: 39 books make up what we call the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures and 27 books make up the New Testament.
- The earliest writings in the Hebrew Scriptures are believed to have been penned nearly 3,000 years ago
- The Hebrew Scriptures were translated from the Hebrew and Aramaic into Greek in the 3rd century B.C.E when Greek replaced Hebrew and Aramaic as the common language of the region. “This translation came to be known as the Septuagint [LXX for short], Latin for ‘seventy,’ because of the legend that the committee of translators numbered seventy-two, six elders from each of the twelve tribes of Israel.” When the Hebrew Scriptures are quoted in the New Testament, it is most often from the Septuagint; this is because the New Testament was written in Greek.
- The first thing to be penned in the New Testament was not a Gospel, it was Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. The stories of Jesus circulated for several years by word of mouth. The first Gospel to be written, wasn’t Matthew, it seems that Mark was actually written first somewhere around 50 C.E. roughly twenty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus.
- We don’t really know much about the people who wrote the books of the Bible or the communities they were written for, but there is little doubt that the stories that we read on paper were first heard; and, faithful people throughout the generations then took those stories they heard and wrote them down. The only Biblical author that scholars can really agree on is Paul who, they claim, wrote seven of the letters attributed to him in the New Testament (1 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Philemon, and Romans)—the other letters seem to be written in his name by others.
- The books of the Bible as we have them today were first listed by Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria (Egypt), in his Easter letter in the year 367. It seems that the Church adopted the 66 books of the Bible as we know it today as the official canon of the church soon thereafter.
- Chapter markings (the big numbers in your Bible) were added by Cardinal Hugo de Sancto-Caro in about 1250; and verse numbers (the small super-script numbers) were added by a French printer named Robert Stephens in 1551.
- John Wycliffe was the first person to translate the Bible from the Latin Vulgate into English in the 1380s. He was eventually deemed a heretic and killed. William Tyndale, in the 1520s, was the first person to translate the Bible from the original languages into English. He was deemed a heretic and killed. The King James Bible, completed in 1611, drew largely from Tyndale’s work.
As a kid, I was taught—I’m not quite sure how, but I was—that the Bible should never be laid on the floor and that in a stack of books it should always be on top. The Bible should never be thrown away. This idea has led to the proliferation of Bibles in my library. I was taught that the Bible was to be treated with the utmost respect. In the church I grew up in, like here, it sits on the altar. It was, they said, a holy book.
As I’ve grown older my understanding of what the Bible is has changed quite a bit. I no longer think the Bible to be a holy object. It is a book. In fact, to call it the Holy Bible just seems wrong to me. The Bible isn’t holy. It reveals and describes the holy. The Bible points to the holy. Too often, I think, we can make the Bible an idol: worshipping it instead of what it describes, reveals and points us toward. Just as a freeway sign directs us toward a destination, the Bible directs us on a path of discovering God’s faithful love. What we discover in the Bible isn’t some theory that we have to get our mind around. Scripture reveals to us the living God who is just as active today in our world and our lives as God was in the world of Scripture and the people described within its pages.
The Bible is, I think, best described as a library written by holy persons inspired by and under the influence of the Holy Spirit. It is a collection of “legends, histories, liturgies for community worship, songs, proverbs, sermons, even a poetic drama (Job)” and letters. This library took millennia (approximately 1200 years!) to compile and has inspired people around the world to discover God’s love for themselves and to then share it with others.
…but there is a dark side. The Bible—the epic collection that reminds world that God is Immanuel, God with us—has been used to separate people. There have been crusades and inquisitions. The Bible has been used to enslave entire races of people. It has been used as a club to people into submission. It has been used to oppress the rights of women and the GLBTQ communities. The Bible, meant to help us see and understand the God of Love, has been used to evil ends as a weapon to demean and divide people.
The Bible shouldn’t be regarded with such high esteem that we turn it into an idol and it shouldn’t be used as a weapon, but it is a tool we’re called to engage and use. Like one’s favorite hammer or garden tool, our Bibles should be well worn. Through the reading of Scripture, God’s will is revealed, through it we come to understand the purposes of God. In the words of Paul to Timothy, it “leads [us] to salvation through faith that in is Christ Jesus. Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good” (2 Timothy 3:15-16, Common English Bible).
The Bible is the “primary source and criterion” for our faith and practice. It’s our book. Through it God is revealed through the writings of persons inspired by God; and, if we’ll let it, that same Spirit will stir us in our time to bear witness to God’s unfailing love too—to live God’s Word today.
It’s my prayer that you will find ways of engaging the Scriptures so that you might know God’s love and share it with others. If you do not have a Bible of your own, let me know. I’ll give you one. If you want a tool for reading the scriptures we provide one each week. The Bible is our book, it reveals to us the love of God and offers examples of how we might share it with all the world. The Bible is our book and while most people will never read it, they will know it through the way in which you live. So read it and let the Holy Spirit transform you as you do. Amen.
 The United Methodist Book of Discipline—20012 (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 2012), page 81.
 “Article V—Of the sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation” in “The Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church” in The United Methodist Book of Discipline—2012.
 “Best selling book of non-fiction,” GuinessWorldRecords.com <http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/best-selling-book-of-non-fiction/> Accessed August 8, 2015.
 Bernhard W. Anderson in his book, Understanding the Old Testament, Abridged Fourth Addition (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1998), suggests that the oldest traditions in the Penteteuch can be dated to around c. 950 B.C.E.
 JPS Hebrew-English TANAKH (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1999), xxi.
 “Our Christian Roots: The Bible,” UMC.org < http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/our-christian-roots-the-bible> Accessed August 8, 2015.