By the Book

Scripture:  2 Timothy 3:14-4:5

Nathaniel Greene was born into a well to-do Rhode Island family.  Though taught the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic Greene did not have much formal schooling because his father thought industrious work was the best teacher.   Nathaniel was indeed industrious, and upon the death of his father in 1774 he successfully took over and led a growing business empire.  However, war with England was on the horizon.  Nathaniel, an American patriot, turned his mind to military matters.   He did not settle for being a solider but set his eyes on command.   Which is what indeed happened.  By 1775, Nathaniel Greene was a Brigadier General in the Continental army.   He had only been a solider for six months, he had never been part of a military campaign, and he had never even set foot on the battlefield.    What qualified him for his high rank was his extensive knowledge of the military arts that he acquired almost entirely from reading books.   Before enlisting, Greene had used his considerable wealth to buy every book, treatise, and pamphlet on military theory that he could get a hold of.   As historian David McCullough writes, “It was a day and age that saw no reason why one could not learn whatever was required- learn virtually anything- by the close study of books, and he was a prime example of such faith.”   Despite the fact that his experience initially came from books, he was successful in his military career.  When America achieved victory in the war for independence he was second in command only under George Washington.

I find the idea fascinating that someone can learn virtually anything by studying books.  We believe books are important, but we do not believe they are the key to doing everything.  Imagine if I read hundreds of business leadership books and then applied to be the CEO of a fortune 500 company, claiming that being well read qualified to helm the company.   I probably would not be taken seriously at all, but that is more or less what Nathaniel Greene did in his era and no one questioned it!   Even crazier, it worked!  Believing in and then proving the power of books to that degree is amazing and almost unbelievable.

Of course as Christians, perhaps we should not find the power of a book to change lives to be that unbelievable.   John Wesley once wrote, “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!  . . . Let me be [a man of one book].”   We believe that one book, the bible, does have the power to change lives.    However, we have to confess that by and large that belief is academic and not always based in experience.   Study after study has shown that biblical literacy in this country is decreasing.  Statistically speaking, even the majority of regular church goers do not have a deep understanding of the Holy Scriptures.   In 2014 the Barna research group reached a sad conclusion:  “Americans love the Bible, but they do not read it.”   This morning’s scripture reminds us how important the bible is.   This morning’s scripture reminds us that we are to be people of the one book, because it has the power to change our lives.

Culturally one of the issues that happens with the bible, is it gets viewed completely wrong from the get go.   It is common to view the bible as an instruction book.  There is even a cutes-y phrase floating around out there that turns the word Bible into an acronym meaning Basic Instructions before Leaving Earth.   At first glance that seems clever, but it also could not be more wrong.   The bible is not an instruction book.   An instruction book is linear, dry, and efficient.   The bible is much more nuanced than that.  An instruction book is what we use to build a Lego set not live a changed life.   It is not right to call the Bible basic.  It is full of poetry, of wisdom, and of truth.  It is so much more than just a list of steps.   We do the scripture a profound disservice when we treat it like simple instructions that we only look at when we need an answer.  We do the scripture wrong when we proof text a scripture out of context and try to shoe-horn it into a situation in our life where the scripture does not honestly apply.  An instruction book is something we only use when we need it to fix a problem, and the Bible should not be used that way.  The bible is not meant to just tell us what to do, it is meant to transform us.

If the Bible is not an instruction book, then what is it?   As far as the United Methodist church is concerned, there is an official answer.   Our official doctrine states, “We believe the Holy Bible, Old and New Testaments, reveals the Word of God so far as it is necessary for our salvation.  It is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for our faith practice.”   The Bible is not an instruction book but it is an authority.  The bible is the ultimate authority on the essentials of salvation, and in doing so reveals God to us.

This morning’s scripture puts it simply:   All scripture is God-breathed.   The simple and deep truth of the Holy Scriptures is that from Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21 they are all divinely inspired.   The scripture was written in three different languages, it was written over a period of hundreds of years.  Some of it existed as oral tradition to be compiled by editors, other portion have been preserved by the church since it was first written.    The context the scripture was written to ranges from an apostate nation of stiff-necked people, to Greeks needing to be convinced of their need for Jesus, to start-up churches struggling with doing life together.   Church tradition, our own experience, and scripture itself confirms that the one thing tying all of scripture together is the divine inspiration of God.    The Bible is our primary source of knowledge for knowing God.  Through the scripture God has revealed Godself.  It is because and through the scripture we know of God’s everlasting mercy and love.   It is because of the Bible we know the story of God’s grace.  It is because of the Bible that we know Jesus Christ is the source of salvation that reconnects us with our heavenly Creator.   What is the Bible?  It is the fount of truth that reveals how our souls are saved and it is one of the key ways that God transforms our hearts.

This is why the Bible is so important.  Not only does it contain everything necessary for salvation and reveal that to us, but the Bible transforms us.  This morning’s scripture goes on to state that  scripture is useful teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped of every good work.  If we break this down we get a glimpse as to what makes the Bible so transformative.

First we are to use the scripture to train in righteousness.   The concept of training implies an ongoing work.   An example of this kind of training is found in Olympic athletes.  To be the best of their sport, and get the chance for gold every four years Olympic level athletes train constantly.  Olympic athletes tend to train six to seven days a week, and their training regiments often take up between three and six hours of their day.   That is the kind of dedication it takes for an Olympic level athlete.   We may not be able to immerse ourselves in the scriptures six hours a day, but that kind of regular, intentional, and daily training is what is being talked about here.  That kind of training forms and molds Olympic athletes to be the best in the world, and a similar type of dedication to the scripture can mold and shape us to be more like Christ

This morning’s scripture also points out that scripture is useful for correcting and rebuking.   Now this is a harder pill to swallow.  To be corrected means we are doing something wrong, and to be rebuked means we are doing it wrong enough that we need to be called out.   However, if we never fix our mistakes, errors, and short comings then we never grow, improve, or change.   Being corrected and rebuked is hard, sometimes ugly work but it is necessary for us to become the people of love, compassion and purpose God made us to be.

The bible is indeed very good at rebuking and correcting us.  One of the things that makes the Bible unique compared to other ancient literature is that the people contained within are not perfect.  From Abraham to Moses to David to Peter to Paul all of these people are portrayed as deeply flawed and imperfect.  When we read and immerse ourselves in their stories, we see ourselves in them and our own flaws or shortcomings become apparent.   When Paul writes in his letters of the ways the churches fail to love one another or live a Christian lifestyle it can sometimes hit to close to home.   The Bible is good at pointing out what we need to correct, and it often points us in how to do it.   The Bible transforms us when we study it and allow its eternal truth and wisdom to rebuke our pride and change our behavior.   Doing this is a lot easier than we tend to let on.   19th century Philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard accurately diagnosed this when he wrote, “The Bible is very easy to understand.  But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers.  We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly.”

Nathaniel Greene became an army general because he read books.   These books were not just instruction books, but they were knowledge that he internalized and claimed.  He allowed the books to mold and shape him.  He made what they contained part of who he was.   This is what we should do as Christians, this is what it means to train in righteousness and this is how the Bible corrects and rebukes us.    The scriptures are God-breathed and as such they do transform us.   When we internalize and claim the eternal truth of scriptures, when we allow the one book to mold and shape us, it becomes part of who we are.   And who we become is more like our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ whom the Holy Bible has revealed and made known to us.

If the Bible is truly that important to our faith and has the potential to make that much of a difference in our lives, then it brings up the question how do we begin to engage it?  Quite simply we read it.  That has to be a starting point.  We have to stop being a nation that loves the Bible but does not read it.   When it comes to reading it I do have four tips to help you with that.  First, get a Bible you enjoy reading.  If your Bible is a translation that you do not like then find a different one.  We are so spoiled in that regard.  We are lucky to live in a place with a wide variety of bible translations that are readily available.   Second, be strategic in how you read the Bible.  Do not start at Genesis and try to read cover to cover.   That tends not to be a great way to approach the Bible.  If it has honestly been awhile since you have read the Bible on your own then start with a gospel like Matthew or John.  Third, read with paper nearby.   The Bible is inspired by God, and I sincerely believe God speaks through it.  If something sticks out or a thought is triggered write it down.  If there is a question you have write it down, look it up, or if you prefer ask your pastor to look it up for you (we seriously LOVE it when people do that).  Finally and most importantly, whenever you read the bible pray first.  Ask God to reveal the truth of the scripture to you, ask God to transform you through the scripture.  It is my experience that God is faithful in answering that prayer.

Whether you are a longtime student of the scriptures, a relapsed student, or a new student may you continue on in what you have learned and have become convinced of.  May you love the Holy Scriptures and may you allow God to speak to you through them.  May you realize that the Bible is God breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.  May we all be a people of One Book, thoroughly equipped for good work to the greater glory of God and to his son Jesus the Christ.

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