We stood in the desert heat squinting into the sun as the tour guide waggled his finger at a tiny cave entrance a few hundred metres away. “That’s the cave,” he announced to our sweaty tour group. We all took our photographs. The cave was across a steep valley and not a place where tourists were allowed to enter—this was a special cave.
According to our guide, a bored Bedouin shepherd boy named Muhammed was throwing rocks into cave entrances on a cliff when he heard a smash come from one of them. He had hit a ceramic storage jar and contained within it were ancient Jewish and Hebrew scriptures and religious documents many hundreds of years old. He took them back to his father, and they eventually made their way to an antiquities dealer where someone recognised them for what they were. One of the scrolls was a thousand years older than any known copy already in existence. Scholars were astonished at the preservation of these documents—the conditions in the cave were ideal to prevent their deterioration over time. Eventually, from 11 different caves in the area, scholars were able to recover more than 900 different documents.
We were standing at Qumran, near the Dead Sea in Israel, and the tour guide was pointing at what is known as “cave number four” where more than 90 per cent of the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1946. A fair few of the scrolls were copies of scripture in Hebrew which dated back to the time of the early church, and they are remarkably unchanged from what we read in the Bible today. While maybe not the original texts, they stand as a monument to the enduring legacy of this book we know as the Bible.
I wonder what you think of when you hear the word Bible? Do you think it’s a series of fairytales passed down from the first Jewish people or early Christian Church? Is it the inspired word of God given written form? Perhaps you think of it not as sacred scriptures but a helpful book of life advice. Growing up I knew my family had a Bible in our bookshelf but we never opened it up. I really didn’t know what was in it.
And honestly, for many of my younger years I didn’t really care. I would hear sermons at my church but I didn’t understand them, and they didn’t really seem to be about anything I could relate to.
Later in life, going through difficult times, I wondered if the Bible could help me. One day I wandered into a bookstore, bought a Holy Bible, took it home and placed it next to my bed just hoping that somehow its presence would mean life would start to get better, as though it was a magic talisman.
It didn’t work.
Turns out I had forgotten the most basic fact about the Bible. It’s a collection of stories that are for reading. To get the most out of the book I needed to open the cover. There are 66 books in the Christian Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. These books are further divided into two halves: the Old Testament books and the New Testament books. Each of those books tells a story about how people had an encounter with God, and what happened when God entered their lives. The Bible is a book of stories, with every single book contained within revealing something new about the God at its centre.
Those scrolls found in the Judean desert showed that the stories we read in the Bible today are the same stories that were written down thousands of years ago. They are very real stories, they haven’t been sanitised, but share the warts and all stories of people who experienced God’s intervention in the course of their lives.
Some of the books in the Bible tell the story of the Hebrew people and their escape from slavery through God’s intervention and led by a prince of Egypt. You might think Game of Thrones told a sordid tale, but what the Bible relates puts it to shame. There are stories of war and brutal battles against ferocious enemies. But there are also stories and poems from people heartsick and crying out to God wondering why He won’t answer. There are words from people who were afraid, had regrets in their lives and needed help. There are stories of people who had everything in life but then lost it all. There are tales of political intrigue and revenge. The Bible doesn’t hold back or try and make its characters look perfect. They are people living their lives with good times and failures for everyone to see. But at some point each of the people have encountered God.
More than simply stories
When you read enough of those stories from the entire Bible you start to see a common thread running through them. Despite these stories being written over the course of hundreds of years by very different people, God‘s character, and the message He reveals in the book is consistent. God’s people are told that one day He would intervene to fix the issues they had by sending a Saviour. God’s plan for His people is summarized in Isaiah 9:6 which states: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given . . . And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” The consistency of God’s word shows that He inspired each of these authors to write down their experiences with Him.
Others recognised the truth of what they wrote and that’s why those books were kept as holy scriptures; because God’s purpose for these stories was to be read and to inspire, encourage and teach others who were searching for Him. An example is the revelation about where that promised Son would be born. Micah 5:2 says “But you Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” Jesus’ arrival fulfilled this prophecy, showing more than just human imagination was inspiring the stories written in the Bible—the narrative it contains is God’s story.
Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem, the One who had been promised and written about centuries earlier. The New Testament books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell the stories of Jesus’ life and the lives of His followers. These stories were written down by those who knew and had seen Jesus. They were written at a time when there could have been enough witnesses to deny what the stories in the Bible say, but we don’t see that happening in the written accounts. Instead, we see the life of Jesus recorded by non-Christian historians like Josephus. The Bible isn’t the only history book to tell the story of Jesus, though it is the most well known.
When I started reading these stories, I noticed something about them. They were changing me. I would read what Jesus says, something simple like Matthew 5:43,44—“You have heard that it was said ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy’. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”, and those words would ring in my ears and persist in my thoughts all day. I would ponder if there was anyone I considered my enemy, and how I treated them. How should I treat them? How would my life be different if I moved away from hate and toward loving and praying for those who harmed me? I found myself changing because of the words I was reading.
The Bible isn’t just about others encountering God. It is a way for us to encounter Him through the stories of others, and the words Jesus spoke that changed the world. The Bible can have an impact on us today. When I ask people what they think of when they hear the Bible’s words, the most common answer is that they don’t really know much about it. If that’s your answer, let me recommend the most astonishing book of stories you will ever read—it just might change your life!
Justin Bone supports and trains pastors and congregations around Victoria for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He is passionate about helping people understand the Bible better.