Our Sacramental Bible
The Bible is a very obliging book in at least one particular respect, and that is that the Bible explains in fairly straightforward terms what it is. That fact hasn’t caused scholars and others to refrain from arguing about the matter. That argument has been going on for centuries, off and on. But especially in the past few hundred years, scholars, church people, and others have carried on a vigorous argument about just what the Bible really is.
There will always be lots of debate and discussion about what the Bible says and what it means by what it says. But that is really a different matter. The discussion about what the Bible says and means is not the same as the argument about what the Bible is. They are really two different matters. They are related to each other, but they are not the same topic.
I want to draw your attention to what the Bible says about what it (the Bible) is. One of the key passages on this topic is 2 Timothy 3:16,17. There the Bible is called the “breath of God.” Literally, verse 16 says that all Scripture is “God-breathed.”
Now, that phrase may seem a strange way to describe a book. But it becomes less strange when we realize that to call something “God-breathed” is just a way of saying that that thing is “spoken by God” or that it is the “words of God.” Since we’re talking about a book that is full of words, this description, “God-breathed,” is not at all strange. The Bible is God’s communication to his people.
That fact is point number one. The Bible is God’s words communicated to his people (and others for that matter). But point number one is not point number last. We might well recognize the Bible as being God’s communication and yet think of it as a past tense sort of communication. It is, after all, a very ancient book. Some parts of it are over 3000 years old. Maybe when we read the Bible, we are simply overhearing an ancient communication from God to people who were long ago dead and gone. Maybe when we read the Bible, we are simply reading words that are way past their expiration date. In other words, maybe the Bible is words that God spoke not words that God speaks.
If that is all the Bible is – an out of date past tense conversation remembered and repeated from long ago, then the Bible might be interesting as a sort of historical document, and it may even contain some general wisdom. But it would never be a place to go in order to hear God communicate to us here and now.
But here again the Bible is very obliging. It tells us directly that it is not merely a collection of old, remembered conversations of God. The Bible defines itself as a present tense communication from God to people here and now – always present tense, never merely past tense.
Hebrews 4:12, “For the Word of God is living and active, sharper than a two-edged sword, piercing the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (ESV) We see here from what the writer of the letter to the Hebrews says that the Bible is a book like no other book that has ever existed or will ever exist. It never becomes merely a past tense communication. It is always present tense. It is the breath of God, the active present moving of his breath – the Holy Spirit. Henry Blackaby in his study, Experiencing God, says the Bible is the only book whose author is always literally present with us in the room whenever we read it.
So, whenever we read the Bible in faith, we have an encounter with the living God. That is God’s intention for the Bible – it is to be one of the primary means by which we meet Him in the here and now present.
The Bible is not a magical book. The Bible is not God. The Bible, as an object, has no power. But God has all power, and what God says he will do, that he does. God has promised to meet us in the reading of his word. He has bound himself voluntarily to his word, the Bible. And God is true to his promises. When we read the Bible, God is literally present there with us, spiritually, speaking to us and making his words present and addressed to us here and now.
The Bible is not a magical book, but it is a sacramental book. A sacrament is a visible act in, under, and behind which God is really, literally, and spiritually present and active. It isn’t magical. It isn’t a thing we make God do. He voluntarily promises to do it. He willingly, even eagerly, binds himself to it. That’s what a sacrament is.
We don’t call Bible-reading a sacrament, but we do believe it to be sacramental. We believe that, because we know that God has promised himself to us through the words of Scripture, as we have seen in the passages I mentioned earlier. In reading the words of Scripture we meet with God in the present moment.
And that is why reading the Bible is a crucial, necessary, and indispensable part of all true worship. It is impossible to fully and truly worship God without the use of the Bible. Just as we can’t really worship apart from the use of the Bible, neither are we wise to follow spiritual experiences if those experiences are leading away from the God we meet in the Bible. In that way, the Bible serves as a mooring line that keeps us close to God and safe from drifting away on every current or gust of cultural wind.
Soak your heart and mind in the Bible, and you will be led deep into the heart and mind of God. The reality and power of the Bible are not found merely in an intellectual understanding of the words. It is a deeper, richer, relational kind of understanding. I’m not saying that this deeper, richer, relational kind of understanding ever contradicts the meaning of the words. Still, God leads us to a kind of knowledge of himself that less like the knowledge we gain of a person from reading a that person’s biography, and more like the knowledge we gain of a person from reading a personal letter that that person has written to us.
And that, really, is what the Bible is, incomprehensible as it may seem. It is a personal letter written by God to each of us personally and to all of us together. It’s one of the most important ways that God gives us for getting to know him. A great gift indeed!
© 2009 Gary A. Chorpenning