“Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand…. In a loud voice they sang: ‘Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!’” (Rev. 5:11, 12, NIV).
I’ve divided the article into three parts: First, What we’ve got; second, How to decipher it; and third, The point at the heart of it.
First: What we’ve got
I begin with a strange personal story out of my boyhood—those teenage years when girls feature uppermost in the heads of young boys. In my case, those were also the days when we young men had something bordering on dread for those mysterious creatures we called the opposite sex.
And so, with a dance party coming up, some of us, boys, wanted to know ahead of time whether that certain young woman we’d been drooling over would accept our offer for a dance, after we’d crossed the entire hall to ask her hand. We knew it would be most embarrassing to go back empty-handed, all eyes on us. So we wanted to know the outcome in advance.
To find out, we’d take the main house key—one of those long, large-headed keys of yesteryear. We’d place it in a Bible at a particular chapter (that I will not identify); strap the Bible tight around it; then two of us, the tips of our fingers at the neck of the key-head, would hold the suspended Bible in the middle. The contraption in place, we’d repeat together a certain formula (that I will not mention); then, in turn, we’d each put our question: “Will Diana [or Jane, or whoever] dance with me this Friday night, if I should ask her?”
If the answer was no, the Bible remained stationary between our fingers; but if the answer was yes, the Bible would turn of its own accord and drop to the floor, unless we grabbed it first.
I tell this quaint story not to suggest that this phenomenon could not perhaps be replicated using other books and other formulas, but only to show how, as a non-Adventist young teenager, I became impressed, for the first time, that the Bible is not an ordinary document. It was a lesson exclusively for me.
But leaving aside the prankishness of this boyhood experience, a fundamental question still remains: Was my conclusion, nevertheless, correct? What have we got here? What is this document we call the Bible? In a world literally choking with books and publications of every species and variety, what makes this one special—different?
As I reflected on these questions, my mind wandered back some 2,600 years across the centuries. With hostile foreign forces lurking on the outskirts of Jerusalem, waiting for an opportune moment to strike, a certain young man comes forward claiming to have special supernatural intelligence as to how the nation should respond to the crisis: Surrender to the Babylonians, he says. Give yourselves up. It’s your only viable option (see Jer. 27:6-17). For the powers in Jerusalem, that was treason. And Jeremiah was thrown “into a vaulted cell in a dungeon” (Jer. 37:16, NIV).
But one day a royal messenger appeared with a summons from the king. Entering the royal palace, Jeremiah faced a trembling monarch with a bad case of siege fatigue. Dropping his voice and bending forward, a frightened Zedekiah whispered the critical question we find in Jeremiah 37:17: “Is there a word from the Lord?” (NASB).*
It’s an extraordinary question! And the utterly outrageous claim of the Christian church is that this document called the Bible is, indeed, a word from the Lord. At the beginning of Romans 3, Paul raised the question as to whether Jews had any advantage in the world, then went on to give the (shocking) answer: “Much in every way! First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God” (Rom. 3:2, NIV).
As Christians, we believe we have what they had plus the New Testament, in a complete Bible. And what we discover—not unlike my boyhood experience—is that this book is not an ordinary document, but is “living and active” (Heb. 4:12, NIV), probing the deep, secret recesses of our souls. There is something uncanny about the way it tears us asunder…, then, thank God, puts us back together again!
That’s what we’ve got here: the Word of the living God!
Second: How to decipher it
The Scriptures are not like the Delphic Oracles of ancient Greece, whose forked-tongue messages could always be twisted to mean whatever suited the interpreter’s fancy. On the contrary, we need to approach the Bible with a “scientific” mind-set, if you please.
This means, among other things, having a feel for its original languages. And as we approach the text, we need to keep inquiring: (a) What did this particular scripture mean for those who first received it? (b) How have believers across the centuries understood it? And (c) What does it mean for us today?
There’s a high risk of seriously misunderstanding Scripture when we read it as though it were written directly to us in the twenty-first century. This calls for historical perspective, remembering that the Bible was written over the course of some 1,600 years; and under a wide variety of political, social, and cultural circumstances.
Furthermore, given the complexity of the subject, a multitude of disciplines must be brought to bear on the text. We need the linguist; the historian; the archaeologist; the biblical theologian; the systematic theologian; etc. Then we need to consider the different genres of writing in the one document we call the Bible: poetry, history, prophecy, apocalyptic, story, parable, etc. Each of these forms requires a different orientation, a different approach, a different set of tools.
That’s what I mean by a “scientific” approach to Scripture.
But here’s an extremely important caveat: Notwithstanding all of the above, we impugn the character of God if we leave the impression that everyone needs to spend years, if not decades, in college and university before they can understand the gist of the biblical message. That would be like saying that a newborn infant needs to be taught how to breathe and suck. No, breathing and sucking are too critical to have them depend on formal training.
So however risky it might be to say it, we have to affirm that this mysterious book is designed in such a way that we can spend several lifetimes probing its enormous depth and still not reach bottom; yet ordinary, uneducated people can have direct access to its most vital message—the essential message they need for eternal life.
This is part of what Jesus meant when He said in Matthew 11:25 that God had hidden certain things “from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children” (NIV).
Moreover, in our cynical, postmodern times, the message of the Bible becomes credible not when we’re able to articulate and expound it with flawless accuracy, but when it becomes incarnate in our souls; when our lives reflect the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us (see John 1:1, 14).
Third: The point at the heart of it
Vanderbilt University student Katherine Precht, responding to skeptical scholars who describe the Bible as “full of errors, contradictions and a murky historical record,” says none of that shakes her faith. “That’s because Precht embraces a big-picture view of biblical truth,” said a recent Washington Post article. For Precht, “it means the Bible speaks truth on ultimate things, such as Creation and salvation.”†
Properly understanding the Bible means seeing the big picture. The Creation story is what it is—a factual, historical account of the origin of the human family, an indispensible plank in what biblical theologians call Heilsgeschichte (“salvation history”); but in the wake of the Fall, Creation also points us to God’s re-creation in Jesus Christ. The Exodus is what it is—a factual account of the rescue of Israel from Egyptian slavery; but understanding the bigger picture means looking beyond the multitude of details in the story, and seeing the event as a depiction of the release of the entire human race from spiritual bondage through our Cosmic Liberator, Jesus Christ.
As we explain the Word, we should keep imagining millions of people wondering as they listen to us: What’s the point? And we should keep making the case that the point at the heart of it all is Jesus. He is the point!
As Revelation 5, the passage at the beginning of this article, opens, John sees a scroll in the hand of God, and weeps bitterly to discover that no one in the universe is worthy “to break the seals and open” it (NIV) — until Jesus steps forward, appearing as “a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain,” and depicted as “standing in the center of the throne …” (verse 6, NIV).
A difficult scene to picture; but I think it means to portray Jesus at the heart and center of universal power, with everything revolving around Him. As He opens the awful document in the hand of God, the entire universe—more than 100 million angels, joined by “every creature … on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them”—breaks loose in worship: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!” (Rev. 5:13, NIV).
Understanding the Word means knowing that the ghastly, age-old drama of this planet ends in a triumph of grace, with all creation singing around the throne of God, Jesus Christ at the shining center.