“These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). Thus John explains why he wrote his Gospel account. Thus God gave to us the Scriptures. Thus we read the Bible: to have life through faith in Jesus, who is the Son of God. With these words in mind, we open God’s Word and read His book.
Like any book (that’s what “bible” means in Greek), the Bible has covers and pages and numbers and words. Yet the words in this book are God’s words, and therefore this Bible (book) is “holy.” It is different from any other book. And we read it differently. Yet like every book, this one was written by humans. God inspired people to write human words to reveal His truths. We read this book knowing it is both divine and human. The words in the Bible are not magic or supernatural. They are normal human words. Yet the Spirit’s inspiration means that these words accomplish something only God can accomplish. These truthful words reveal God’s Word, Jesus, and in so doing they give life.
“All of Scripture … is pure Christ,” taught Luther (LW 15:339). The Word in the flesh (John 1:14) stands as the primary content and goal of the Word of God. All are invited into the Scriptures to receive “the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6; see also John 1:14). God’s people are marked by their constant and continual reading and meditating upon the Scriptures (Psalm 1; 19; 119). The Word dwells in us richly (Col. 3:16) and provides the sustenance of life (Deut. 8:3). All of this is given through Jesus. And with Him, our God gives us all good things (Rom. 8:32). Scripture delivers Christ, who was delivered up for your sake and who conquered death to give you life (Rom. 4:25). Read. Believe. Live. All in Christ Jesus.
Yet this book can be intimidating. Most translations contain over 1,000 pages, plus maps, notes and other matter. This book contains 66 books, divided into two “Testaments.” One labeled “Old” and the other “New,” yet both quite ancient compared to our day. The characters and cultures are foreign to us. The customs and contexts differ from what we experience. The stories vary from familiar and comforting to strange and troubling. Although all Scripture is focused on Jesus (see John 5:39; Rom. 10:17), nearly two-thirds of the Bible was written before He was born, and the other third was written after He ascended. Very few of the pages discuss Jesus’ life, and those four ac – counts (Gospels) relate parts of three years, with most of their focus on the final week of His life. Yet we are to read the Scriptures as “pure Christ” according to Luther, and more importantly, according to Jesus (see John 5:39; Luke 24:44).
Unlike most books, the beginning might not be the best place to start. Instead, turn to the Gospel according to John. There, read about Jesus as God in the flesh, as the fulfillment of the Old Testament, as the crucified and risen Son of God who is the love of God, and who gives life to all who believe. When you read John (or the other Gospels), you will notice that Jesus lives in this world (although centuries ago) and prays to God, just like you and me. Yet Jesus performs miracles and gives eternal life, unlike you and me. Jesus dies like you and I will. Yet He rose from the dead, unlike anyone before Him (apart from those He raised). Here, in Jesus, heaven and earth meet. In Jesus, God and humanity are reconciled and God dwells with His people. Yet this unity and this togetherness come about through a distinct and shocking event. The divine Word in the flesh dies.
The heart of Scripture beats in the person of Jesus. His death and resurrection stand as the climax of God’s activity to graciously save mankind and therefore as the focal point of Scripture itself.
After John, read Romans. Paul’s letter to the church in Rome outlines our salvation. Every person is sinful (Rom. 3:9–20). But God, apart from any effort of man, provided salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the redemption of all (Rom. 3:21–26). Justification by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8–9) all on account of Jesus (Rom. 5:1) is how sinners are forgiven and saved by God. And this salvation is given through the Means of Grace (Rom. 10:17; 6:3–5). Those marked by God’s gracious forgiveness and salvation live as God’s people (the church in the New Testament) in love (Rom. 12–16).
But what about the Old Testament? What about all those books we skipped when we turned first to John? Don’t fret. They are not left behind or forgotten. As you read John and Romans, you read a lot of the Old Testament. The evangelists (Gospel writers) and apostles proclaimed Jesus based on two things: (1) His life and teaching and (2) the Old Testament as the Word of God. Read Peter’s sermon in Acts 2:14–36. Peter quotes the Old Testament as the truth fulfilled in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We read the Old Testament in the same way.
Old Testament witness
Reading the Old Testament is often confusing and confounding. The people and events recorded therein do not always align with our conception of God. People ask why the God of the Old Testament seems mean and vindictive, while the God of the New Testament is nice and forgiving. But that is not accurate. God loves throughout the Old Testament. He is identified by His work to save His people. He shows unfailing steadfast love and faithfulness to Israel (Ex. 34:6). He loves and forgives His people, even as He has wrath on those who oppose Him and who ignore His commandments.
As you read the Old Testament, you will read about the God who promises to save the world through the seed of Abraham (Jesus), the son of David (Jesus), through the seed of the woman (Jesus). You will read about God whose suffering servant (Jesus) fulfills God’s will for His creation and suffers the curse for that creation’s disobedience. You will see God’s people, who struggle with their sin even as they believe in God and seek to trust in His Word. You will read from the prophets who proclaim God’s Word like your pastor does.
Read Isaiah 40–55 (I know this is not the beginning of the Old Testament). Read about the constant hope of dwelling in a place of God’s promise and blessing, a place where sin and evil are not heard of, because they are no more. And read about how all of this points to the One who fulfills God’s love through His perfect life, suffering, death and resurrection. Read the Old Testament with faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, who gives life and salvation to all who trust in Him. Read about God and know Him in Jesus.
In the beginning
The Old Testament tells the story of God’s people from creation to 425 B.C. In that time, a lot happens. Yet God works through the history of the world to save through His gracious love and provision. The first four chapters of Genesis tell the creation story, as well as the stories of Adam and Eve, and Cain and Abel. Then we move to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (the three patriarchs). Jacob, renamed Israel, has 12 sons who become the 12 tribes of Israel. At the end of Genesis, God’s people are in Egypt, and seemingly prospering. After Genesis, the history gets a little fuzzy to us; the stories are less familiar and a lot of details do not seem important (like the laws in Leviticus and the cursing of the nations in the prophets).
Read Exodus. In the beginning of the book, the tribes of Israel are enslaved in Egypt. God then rescues His people through Moses and miracles. When God’s people leave Egypt, they receive their identity as the people of God, marked by His work to save them and by His Word given to them. He dwells in their midst and defines their being.
Yet Israel (God’s people in the Old Testament) fails to trust in God and His promises. Thus, when they enter (the Book of Joshua) the Promised Land (where Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had lived), they fail to live as God’s people and desire to be like the nations who do not worship God. After a period of itinerant rulers (the Book of Judges), God’s people demand a king. This begins both the highpoint (David) and the low point (exile) of God’s people. The rest of the Old Testament (1 Samuel through Esther; Isaiah through Malachi) relates the events of Israel’s history, seen through the lens of living in His promises — the Promised Land and the promised king. Most of that history is marked by failure and unbelief, including gross idolatry. God exiles His people from the Promised Land, and only two of the 12 tribes ever return.
The Word of God went silent. And Israel waited. They waited for the day when God would provide a king and deliver all His people to the Promised Land. They waited for the promises to be fulfilled. They waited for God’s Word to come to them. We read the New Testament as the fulfillment of these prayers, hopes and longings. And we join all of God’s people longing for the day when He will come again and dwell with us as His people.
God’s people need a Savior, a king. God’s people need a dwelling place with God. God’s people need forgiveness and resurrection. God’s people need God’s love and grace. God gives His mercy and love to His people throughout Israel’s history. He speaks Law and Gospel to His people and enacts both judgment and grace through Israel. And these real historical events point to the fulfillment of God’s promises in and through Jesus. And Jesus is given through the Word. And thus, we read: “These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).
This article originally appeared in print in the February 2021 issue of The Lutheran Witness.