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Understanding the Bible, Book Summary

Understanding the Bible, Book Summary

Chapter 1: The Purpose of the Bible

The author laments that people normally ask varying questions and employ diverse strategies to read the Bible. Others, he asserts, give up Bible reading altogether or never start reading because they cannot see the relevance of accounts of people in the distant part for them today. However, Christians believe that although the Bible has a wide variety of human authors, there is a single unifying theme for a divine Author. It is perhaps most succinctly presented by Paul to Timothy in I Tim. 3:15-17. The apostle brings together the origin and object of Scripture. The writer investigates the nature of the Bible’s usefulness and analysis three words used Paul – salvation, Christ and faith.

Stott presents the central idea that the supreme purpose of the Bible is to instruct its readers for salvation, implying that Scripture has a practical purpose which is moral than intellectual. Since this is neither scientific nor literary, the Bible could be rightly seen as a book neither of literature nor of philosophy, but of salvation. He notes that salvation, in addition to forgiveness of sins, includes the entire sweep of God’s purpose to redeem and restore mankind and indeed all creation. The main thrust is God’s love for the rebels who deserve nothing but judgment.

God’s plan, originating in His grace, Stott emphasizes, took shape before time began. He made a covenant of grace with Abraham, promising through his prosperity to bless all the families of the earth. The rest of the Old Testament tabulates His gracious dealings with Abraham’s posterity, the Israelites. Although they rejected His Word, He never casts them out. In the New Testament, the apostles emphasize that forgiveness is possible only through Christ’s sin-bearing death, and a new birth leading to a new life only through the Spirit of Christ. The New Testament authors insist that though people have already in one sense been saved, in another sense their salvation still lies in the future. Conceived in a past eternity, achieved at a point in time and historically worked in human experience, it will reach its consummation in the eternity of the future.

Stott’s hypothetical argument is that if salvation is available through Christ and if Scripture concerns salvation, then scripture is full of Christ. Christ’s assertion was that in each of the three divisions of the Old Testament, the Law (the Pentateuch/First five books of the Bible), the prophets [history books or former prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings) and latter prophets (major-Isaiah to Daniel- and minor prophets- Hosea to Malachi)] and the Psalms (writings), there were things concerning Him and all these things must be fulfilled. Discovering Christ in the New Testament is not strange. The gospels, acts, epistles and revelation vividly portray Him. In the latter for instance, He appears as a glorified man, a lamb, majestic rider on a white horse and a Heavenly Bridegroom. The survey of the two testaments demonstrates that we must turn to the Bible if we want to know about Christ and His salvation. The writer puts faith in its right perspective after lamenting its misuse.

Chapter 2: The Land of the Bible

Stott observes that some knowledge of the historical and geographical setting of God’s people is absolutely necessary to put the study in perspective. The reason for the recording of God’s dealing with Israel in general and individuals in particular is to teach us (Rom. 15:4; I Cor. 10:11). Scripture refuses to conceal the faults of great characters in the Old and New Testaments.

The writer dismisses the claim that Jerusalem was the centre of the earth as a sheer geographical nonsense even though Christians would defend it theologically. However, Christians believe in the providence of God whose choice of Palestine cannot be an accident. An obvious feature is that it acts as a kind of bridge between Europe, Asia and Africa. Strategically, therefore, God set Jerusalem in the centre of the nations (Ez.5:5).

When God told Moses that He’d bring the Israelites out of Egypt into Canaan, He described it as good and spacious. Joshua and Caleb, unlike the other spies, confirm that the land was exceedingly good. Several popular expressions were used to refer to the whole country from north to south. The commonest simply is from Dan to Beersheba. Stott suggests that perhaps a simpler way to remember Palestine is to visualize four strips of the country between the sea and the desert – the coastland, the central highlands, the Jordan valley and the eastern tableland.

Stott affirms that God’s revelation as the ‘Shepherd of Israel’ was natural because of the intimate relationship which grew over the years between the Palestinian shepherds and the sheep since the latter were kept more for wool than for mutton. Jesus further developed the metaphor, calling himself the Good Shepherd. Though many Israelite farmers kept livestock, even more cultivated the soil. The three main products of Palestine (grain, new wine and oil) are normally grouped together in many biblical passages (Deut. 7:13; Joel 2:19). The writer notes the tremendous importance of the early (autumn) rain and the latter (spring) rain to harvest. Without them the corn would remain thin and desiccated. God Himself linked the rain and the harvest together and promised them to His obedient people. Three annual festivals had an agricultural as well as a religious significance. In them they worshiped the God of nature and the God of grace as the one God, Lord of the earth and of Israel. They are the Feast of the Passover, the Feast of the First fruits/Harvest and the Feast of Booths/Tabernacles/Ingathering. The observance of these was obligatory. They commemorated the signal mercies of the covenant God of Israel who first redeemed His people from their Egyptian bondage and gave them the Law at Sinai and then provided for them during their wanderings in the wilderness. From another standpoint, they are all harvest festivals marking respectively the beginning of the barley harvest, the end of the grain harvest and the end of the fruit harvest. Stott’s use of three maps showing the Fertile Crescent, the historical and natural regions of Palestine clearly puts the study in perspective.

Chapter 3: The Story of the Bible – Old Testament

Stott observes that Christianity is essentially a historical religion and that God’s revelation is an unfolding historical situation, through Israel and Jesus Christ. The writer forcefully argues that biblical historians quickly sank in the quicksand of subjectivity since they were writing ‘sacred’ history, the story of God’s dealings with a particular people for a particular purpose. They were selective in their choice of materials and in the eyes of the secular historian, unbalanced in their presentation of it. Other regions were only included if they impinge on the fortunes of relatively unknown Israel and Judah. Great heroes were either scarcely mentioned or introduced obliquely. Christians believe that Christ’s advent is the watershed of history, dividing time into BC and AD and the Bible into the Old and New Testaments.

The order of the thirty nine books is dictated neither by the date of their composition, nor the date of the subject matter but their literary genre. Broadly speaking, the three types of literature in the Old Testament are history, poetry and prophecy. The historical books (Pentateuch) and then twelve more tell a continuous story. After these come five books of Hebrew poetry or wisdom (from Job to Song of Solomon) and finally the seventeen prophetical books [five major prophets (Isaiah to Daniel) and twelve ‘minor’ prophets (Hosea to Malachi)]. Stott describes the creation, observing that God was not a national mascot. He observes that several forms of pre-Adamic ‘homicid’ seem to have existed previously for thousands of years and believes Adam was the first ‘homo divinus’. The writer highlights the call of Abraham, the groan of the Israelites under Pharaoh and their eventual release. Subjectively dismissing the Red Sea crossed by the Israelites as probably some shallow water, he observes that the miracle lay in the fact that God sent it as the moment Moses stretched his hand. At Sinai, God gave Israel three precious gifts – a renewed covenant, a moral law and atoning sacrifices.

The Israelites wandered in the wilderness and none of the adult generation which brought a negative report – except Joshua and Caleb – entered the promised land. God appointed Joshua to succeed Moses. Israel’s history was a cycle of backsliding, oppression and deliverance. God raised judges who combined several functions. The greatest was Samuel who remonstrated with the Israelites and warned them that future kings would be oppressive. They did not listen and Saul became the first king, ending the theocratic state ruled by God directly. David was designated heir to the throne of the disobedient Saul. As king, David unified Israel and devoted himself to God. His son Solomon, who succeeded him, did not love God with all his heart. The kingdom was divided into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah after his reign.

Stott highlights the Babylonian captivity which lasted for fifty years. The hardest trial was religious for the Israelites felt spiritually lost in their separation from temple and sacrifice. Ezekiel was among them as a guide. Israel had to wait for another four hundred years before the Messiah was born. Throughout the uneasy period of Maccabean rule, important movements were developing in the Jewish community which later hardened into the various religious parties of our Lord’s day.

The writer, in addition to end notes, arranges dates in chronological order at the end of the discourse.

Chapter 4: The Story of the Bible – New Testament

Stott observes that it is an account of the words and deed of Jesus of Nazareth. The gospels, strictly speaking, are testimony and not biography, bearing witness to Christ and the good news of salvation. He highlights five reasons why the gospels would be approached with confidence and not with suspicion. Four evangelists were Christians, honest men to whom truth matters. They give evidence of their impartiality. Thirdly, they claim either to be themselves eye-witnesses of Jesus or to report the experience of eye witnesses. Jesus seems to have taught like a Jewish rabbi. Lastly, if God said and did something absolutely unique and decisive through Jesus, it is inconceivable that he would have allowed it to be lost in the mists of antiquity. The gospels tell the same story, yet differently. The first three are usually known as Synoptic Gospels because their stories run parallel and present a synoptic – that is, similar- account of Jesus’ life. Every reader of John’s gospel is immediately struck by the differences between it and the synoptic gospels in subject matter, theological emphasis, literary styles and vocabulary. Commenting on the birth and youth of Jesus, each evangelist begins his story at a different place. Mark plunges almost immediately into Jesus’ public ministry, heralded as it was by John the Baptist. John goes to the other extreme and reaches back into a past eternity to the pre-incarnate existence of Christ. He was brought up in Nazareth in Galilee. The only incident from His boyhood recorded in the Gospels took place when he reached the age of twelve and was taken up to Jerusalem for the Passover. He eventually noted that His duty is to spend time in the Father’s house. Growing in wisdom and stature in favour with God and man, the evangelists did not give a strictly chronological account of the Lord’s public ministry which appears to last approximately for three years. The writer refers to the first year as the year of obscurity, the second year of popularity and the third the year of adversity.

Stott traces Jesus’ final hours of liberty which he spent privately with the twelve disciples in a furnished room. In the garden of Gethsemane, He prayed with an agony of desire that He might be spared having to drink ‘this cup’. Crucifixion was a horrible form of execution. How Jesus viewed and endured his ordeal is shown by the seven words which He spoke from the cross. Finally, He commended His Spirit to the Father, indicating that His death was a voluntary, self-determined act. The writer traces the story of the resurrection on Easter Day. The Lord eventually began to appear to people. These appearances continued for forty days. The last one took place on the Mount of Olives. After promising them power to be His witnesses once the Holy Spirit had come upon them, and having blessed them, He was taken up into Heaven.

The writer vividly highlights the dawn of the infant church. Waiting for the promise, the Holy Spirit came and filled them all. Stott affirms that Pentecost must also be understood as a fundamentally missionary event when three thousand people were converted, baptized and added to the church that day. Unable to crush it by external pressure (persecution), the devil tried to undermine it from within. The writer also comments on Paul’s missionary journeys, his arrest and journey to Rome and the deeds of the apostles after the book of Acts. The map of Paul’s missionary journey and significant dates to remember at the end of the chapter further illuminates the discussion.

Chapter 5: The Message of the Bible

Stott re-echoes that the message of the Bible concerns salvation through Christ. He expresses the Bible’s own claims that it contains neither a ragbag of miscellaneous contradictions, nor a gradual evolution of human ideas but a progressive revelation of truth by God. The author concedes that there are several differences between the Old and New Testament revelations. The revelation was given at different times, to different people and in different modes. This notwithstanding, God is the ultimate author of both testaments. The Bible is essentially a revelation of God. There are two basic truths about God to consider which Scripture emphasizes. The first is that He is a living and sovereign God and the second is that He is consistent and does not change like shifting shadows. He is constantly contrasted with the dead idols of heathenism. Stott further observes that the principal way in which the living God has expressed Himself is in grace. The God of the Bible is the God of all grace (1 Pet. 5:10). Grace is God’s free unmerited people. God’s grace is covenant grace. The writer further investigates what may be described as three stages in the outpouring of God’s covenant, expressed in the three dynamic words – redemption, adoption and glorification.

Redemption was originally not a theological but a commercial word. To redeem, Stott confirms, is to purchase someone’s freedom, to recover by payment of a price something which had been lost. New Testament authors draw an analogy between the Passover, which initiated Israel’s redemption from Egypt, and the death of Christ which has secured our redemption from sin. The New Testament fulfillment is dramatic. John showed in his gospel that by one reckoning Jesus was shedding His blood on the cross at the precise time when the Passover lambs were being killed. Christ, the Lamb of God, offered Himself as our Passover sacrifice. Now He is seated at God’s right hand, resting from His finished work of redemption and crowned with glory and honour. He has won an eternal redemption for us.

Redemption from sin by Christ’s blood is to be redeemed from slavery and adopted into sonship. It is because we are sons that God sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts (Gal. 4:6). To be a son is to be an heir. Suffering is the pledge of glory. This leads to the third stage in God’s unfolding plan of salvation, which is glorification.

The New Testament is full of Christian hope. It reminds us that in spite of what we are presently enjoying, there is still far more to come. Paul referred to it as the hope of glory which has several meanings outlined by Stott. Firstly, the return of Christ (Matt. 24:27); secondly, the resurrection in which our incorruptible body will be a body of glory like Christ’s (Phil.3:21; I Cor.15:35-37). Thirdly, the judgment. We shall be judged according to our works (Matt. 16:27; Rev. 20:11-15). Fourthly, the new universe will make everything new.

Stott brilliantly compares Genesis and Revelation. He observes that the Bible begins with creation of the universe and ends with the recreation of the universe. It begins with the fall of man and concludes in a garden with Paradise regained. God’s kingdom will be ultimately consummated. All creation is subject to Him. His redeemed, adopted and glorified will share His reign for ever (Rev. 22:5).

Chapter 6: The Authority of the Bible

Stott attributes the confusion of the contemporary church to the lack of an agreed authority and argues that it will never recover its moral or mission unless it first recovers the source of its authority. Christians normally use three interrelated but distinct words in connection with the special nature of Scripture – revelation, inspiration and authority. Inspiration indicates the chief mode God has chosen to reveal Himself – in nature, Christ and by speaking to particular people. Authority is the power or weight which Scripture possesses because of what it is, namely a divine revelation given by divine inspiration. It carries God’s authority.

The writer identifies three disclaimers which may anticipate objections and disarm possible criticism. Firstly, the process of inspiration was not mechanical since God did not treat the human authors as tape recorders or dictating machines but as living and responsible beings. His second is that every word is true in its context and Job is cited as a classic example when he noted that he spoke of things he did not understand. The ‘anthropomorphic’ descriptions of God, representing Him in human form and referring to His eyes, ears, outstretched arm, mighty hand, fingers, mouth, breath and nostrils. We do not interpret these literally simply because God is a Spirit and therefore has no body. His third disclaimer concerns the nature of the inspired text of Scripture, which alone can be regarded as God’s written word. This is the original Hebrew or Greek as it came from the author’s hand. He argues that no special inspiration/authority is claimed for any particular translation as a translation. He dismisses the absence of the actual autograph presumably as God’s deliberate providence probably to prevent us giving superstitious response to pieces of paper.

Stott further treats the grounds Christians base assurance that the Bible is God’s written word, originating with God and authoritative for men. Firstly, the historic Christian churches have consistently maintained and defended the divine origin of Scripture. Secondly, the prophets introduced their oracles with formulae like ‘Thus says the Lord’ or ‘The Word of the Lord came to me saying…’ The third is supplied by the readers of Scripture. Fourthly, the authority of Scripture is believed because of what Jesus said. He gave His reverent assent to the authority of the Old Testament Scripture for He submitted to its authority in His personal conduct, the fulfillment of His mission and in His controversies. He endorsed the New Testament differently. This is evident in His appointment of His apostles. Secondly, they had an eye-witness experience of Christ. Thirdly, they had an extraordinary inspiration of the Holy Ghost. Lastly, according to Stott, they were empowered to work miracles. Our impression of the uniqueness of the apostles is confirmed in two ways. Firstly, they themselves knew it and so exhibit in the New Testament their self-conscious apostolic authority. Secondly, the early church recognized it, dismissing both the ‘kenosis’ and ‘accommodation’ theories.

Stott concludes by providing reasonable justification for submitting to the authority of Scripture. Firstly, it is a Christian thing to do. Secondly, to submit is not to pretend that there are no problems. However, problems do not overthrow our belief. Thirdly, it confirms the Lordship of Christ. It is reasonable to bow to the authority of Scripture because, according to Stott, we bow to the authority of Christ.

Chapter 7: The Literature of the Bible

Stott firmly asserts the infallibility of God’s Word and observes that He has given us three teachers to instruct and guide us. These include the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, the Christian’s disciplined study and the teaching of the Church. Our foremost teacher is the Holy Spirit Himself and Stott believes He enlightens four groups of people – these are the regenerate/born again (John 3:3), the humble (Matt. 1:25-26), the obedient (John 7:17) and the communicative. He notes that if the Holy Spirit is our first and foremost teacher, there is a sense in which we ourselves must also teach ourselves, implying that we are expected to responsibly use our reason. The spiritual person, unlike the natural, has the mind of Christ. Paul’s conviction leads him to appeal to his readers’ reason. Stott argues that we cannot deny the place of the church in God’s plan to give His people a right understanding of His Word. The pastoral ministry is a teaching ministry. Luke gives a striking example of the role of the teacher (Acts 8:26-39). Although it is true that no human teacher is infallible, Stott vehemently argues that God has appointed teachers in His church for a purpose. It is our Christian duty to treat them with respect and to feed on God’s Word when faithfully exposed, cautiously examining the Scriptures to verity the truth of the teachings received (Acts 17:11). The writer believes that it is by receiving the illumination of the Spirit, reasoning and listening to the teaching of others in the Church that we grow in our understanding of Scripture.

Stott presents three principles which, he believes, will guide us in our interpretation of Scripture. These sound principles of interpretation include the natural, original and general sense. He refers to the natural sense as the principle of simplicity. One of our basic Christian convictions is that God is light. He chose human language as the vehicle of His self-revelation. He used the language of men in speaking to men. Since it is ordinary because human, we must study it like every other book, paying attention to the rules of vocabulary, grammar and syntax. Stott believes that no serious bible reader can escape the discipline of linguistic study. He recommends knowledge of the original languages (Hebrew and Greek), acquisition of an ‘accurate’ modern English version and an analytical concordance. Stott refers to the original sense as the principle of history since God chose to reveal Himself in a precise historical context. Questions that should be asked when the reading the Bible include, what did the author intend to convey by this? What is he actually asserting? What will his original hearers have understood him to have meant? This enquiry is commonly referred to as the ‘grammatico-historical method’ of interpretation. The writer critically considers the situation, style and language of writing. The third principle of interpretation is referred to as assortment of contributors. Divinely speaking, the entire Bible emanates from one mind. It therefore possesses an organic unity. Implicitly, we must approach Scripture with the confidence that God has spoken and has not contradicted Himself in so doing. Scripture, therefore, must be interpreted as one harmonious whole. These three principles, Stott believes, arise partly from the nature of God and Scripture as a plain historical, consistent communication from God to men. The solemn responsibility to make our treatment of Scripture coincide with our view of it is apparent.

Chapter 8: The Use of the Bible

Stott’s discussion on the use of the Bible to punctuate his text is deliberate. He observes that the conviction that our God is living and vocal, rather than dead and dumb, is basic to our Christian faith. He explains the sound reasons for accepting the Bible’s authority and sound principles to guide us in its interpretation. He identifies two possible attitudes to God’s Word. These are to either receive or reject it. Jesus similarly warned His contemporaries about their response to His teaching. Those who build on a rock and will ultimately survive the storms of adversity and judgement are those who demonstrate His teachings.

Stott outlines basic principles of Christian living, stressing the importance of quality time in meditating on God’s Word. The practice of daily quiet time, Bible reading and prayer, he reiterates, is an inviolable tradition which has certainly stood the test of time and brought immeasurable benefits to countless generations of Christians. Christian meditation and prayer, however brief, at the beginning of each day prepare us to bear the day’s responsibilities and face its temptations. Stott emphasized the importance of personal, family and group Bible studies, and above all the public exposition of Scripture in Church. He observes that very often the pew blames the pulpit when the former actually determines the kind of pulpit ministry it wants. Congregations, he argues, have far more responsibility than they commonly recognize for this kind of ministry they receive. He recommends that they should encourage their minister to expound Scripture. They should come to church in a receptive and expectant mood. They must come with their Bibles earnestly eager to hear what the Lord says through the lessons and sermon.

Stott lists five facets of the life-cycle of the doer of the Word. The first is worship which is impossible without a knowledge of the truth. Since it is a response to the truth of God, it is only God’s Word (His self-revelation) which evokes the worship of God. In all public worship, there should be Scripture reading and an exhortation/instruction based on it (Neh. 8:8; I Tim. 4:13). The Bible’s place in private and public worship is indispensable. The second is repentance. God’s Word tells us what we are as well as what He is, discloses to us our sin and calls us to confess and forsake it (Jer. 7:3). The third is faith which is an integral part of the Christian life. The fourth mark is obedience. Yet obedience involves submission (John 14:15) and this, Stott argues, appears to be out of fashion today. The fifth mark is witness. Stott impresses that truth cannot be concealed or monopolized.

The Bible then has an essential place in the life of a Christian simply because God’s revelation leads to worship, His warnings to repentance, His promises to faith, His commands to obedience and His truth to witness. God’s Word is indispensable to us, irrespective of the medium through which we receive it. Indeed, Stott realistically observes that it is through His Word alone that the human being becomes equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:17).