The Bible pays a price for being one of the most quoted and talked about books in the world. Even those who haven’t read it for themselves often assume they’ve heard enough to know what it’s about.
But there’s more to this Book of books than its reputation may suggest. Being anything but predictable, first impressions of the Bible can give way to very different conclusions:
1. The Bible is full of embarrassing stories. Both testaments describe the dark side of the people whose stories they tell.
The prophets of the Old Testament didn’t overlook the moral and spiritual failures of their own people. Nor did the authors of the New Testament Gospels ignore the self-centeredness of Jesus’ disciples or the sins of the church they founded.
Such honesty and self-disclosure does more than give historians indicators of authenticity. It also resonates with the realism of our own lives.
2. At some point the Bible becomes a tough read. The world’s bestseller has a reputation of being the greatest story ever told. Many of its stories are easy enough for a child to understand. But it takes considerable effort to read the Book of books from cover to cover. Just ask anyone who has tried to slog through its intermingling of ancient history, ritual sacrifice, case law, subplots, genealogies, songs, poems, and prophecy.
The surprise, however, is that all of these details eventually morph into the story of one person, Jesus of Nazareth, who claims that Moses and the prophets are telling His story.
Yet even if we are convinced that the Old Testament points to Jesus, we may need to take another look at how it does this.
3. Some of the ways the prophets anticipate Jesus are not clear in the Old Testament. All are not as direct as the prophecy of Micah who foresaw that an ancient ruler would come out of the small town of Bethlehem (Micah 5:2; Matthew 2:1-6). Sometimes when the New Testament says that an event in Jesus’ life fulfills the Scriptures, it is difficult to find a corresponding Old Testament prediction (E.G., Matthew 2:15, 23).
The need for clearer and more direct predictions, however, turns out to be less important than it at first seems. Before the New Testament is done making its case for Christ, it uses His life, death, and resurrection to give fullness of meaning to patterns, principles, and word pictures of the Scriptures and history of Israel (Matthew 5:17). For a culture focused on temple worship and schooled in the practice of atoning sacrifice, Jesus is presented as the ultimate Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).
But if all this is true, why do we find differences in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life?
4. The Gospels offer eyewitness accounts that are sometimes difficult to reconcile. For example, Matthew says there was one angel at the tomb of Jesus (Matthew 28:5); John says there were two (John 20:12).
While there’s no point in denying such problems, is it a necessary contradiction? Could the gospel writers be describing different moments or perspectives?
Many believe that the apparent discrepancies in the gospel accounts are a mark of authenticity. Rather than suggesting collusion to deceive, they sound more like witnesses in a court of law who agree on the basics while offering different perspectives on the details.
5. Like so many ancient religious myths, the Bible builds its story around supernatural events. But is there a difference? The main storyline of the Bible is not told in the language of “once upon a time.” Instead, from Moses to the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, the drama of the Old and New Testaments is linked to specific events, times, geographical locations, and people.
The result is that while the storyline of the Bible moves forward on supernatural claims, the validity of those claims rests on the credibility of the individuals and communities who witnessed these events in real times and places.
Many of these witnesses died for their refusal to deny what they saw and heard. Their suffering and deaths deserve consideration. While millions have died for what they believed to be the truth, how many have died for what they claim to have seen, while knowing it to be a lie?
Conclusion: At first sight, there are reasons to wonder why so many view the Bible as the Book of books. The embarrassing stories; the effort it takes to read it from cover to cover; the foreshadowing that doesn’t always look like prophecy; the apparent differences of eyewitnesses; and the Bible’s claims of miracles all can seem like real problems. On closer look, however, the same facts combine to become important dimensions of the Bible’s credibility and witness to the Living Word of God (Hebrews 1:1-3).
Father in heaven, we are beginning to see that You have given us a book that we’ve too often taken for granted. Please help us to continue to find, in the story of Your Son, a realism that puts all of our struggles and doubts in perspective.