Thinking Biblically: Reading the Bible as a Whole

Thinking Biblically: Reading the Bible as a Whole

Primary Text: Hebrews 111:-12:

Scripture quotes in this sermon are from the NRSV, unless otherwise cited.

Although it was not read in it’s entirety in two of the three services, Hebrews 11 is included here in it’s entirety.

11Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.

The Examples of Abel, Enoch, and Noah

By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain’s. Through this he received approval as righteous, God himself giving approval to his gifts; he died, but through his faith he still speaks. By faith Enoch was taken so that he did not experience death; and ‘he was not found, because God had taken him.’ For it was attested before he was taken away that ‘he had pleased God.’ And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. By faith Noah, warned by God about events as yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark to save his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir to the righteousness that is in accordance with faith.

The Faith of Abraham

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11 By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised.  12 Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, ‘as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.’

13 All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, 14 for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

17 By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, 18 of whom he had been told, “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.” 19 He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead—and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. 20 By faith Isaac invoked blessings for the future on Jacob and Esau. 21 By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, “bowing in worship over the top of his staff.” 22 By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave instructions about his burial.

The Faith of Moses

23 By faith Moses was hidden by his parents for three months after his birth, because they saw that the child was beautiful; and they were not afraid of the king’s edict.  24 By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called a son of Pharaoh’s daughter, 25 choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. 26 He considered abuse suffered for the Christ to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking ahead to the reward. 27 By faith he left Egypt, unafraid of the king’s anger; for he persevered as though he saw him who is invisible. 28 By faith he kept the Passover and the sprinkling of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel.

The Faith of Other Israelite Heroes

29 By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. 30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. 31 By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.

32 And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. 35 Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— 38 of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.

39 Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

The Example of Jesus

12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God

– Hebrews 11:1-12:2


Today we come to the end of a journey.  For the past several weeks we have been thinking about how to interpret scripture, taking time to look at the various genres of books found in this sacred anthology, inspired by God, an in which we meet the living God.  We have explored how to interpret prophecy and wisdom literature, biographies, and parables.  Yet, there is still one more skill that we have not touched on.  It is perhaps the most difficult, and certainly the one that takes the greatest amount of time to practice: reading the Bible as a whole.

The Bible is not a single book, but an anthology.  But this does not mean that it is just a bunch of individual texts that each have their own things to say and that’s it.  It is a sacred anthology, inspired by God which collects, not desperate stories, but  stories that are at times cosmic in scope, but center around a people.  The prophets grew up knowing the stories of Moses, Paul, and the Gospel writers, and even Jesus himself grew up immersed in Moses and the prophets, and the wisdom literature.  While The Bible is not just one whole, but has distinct parts which are very different from one another, it is, likewise not is not just a bunch of distinct parts, but a whole.  In order to “read” a car engine, one must not only be able to identify the individual parts, and how they function but be able to identify the whole and how things fit together.  In order to appreciate a complexities of symphony, one must not only be able hear and appreciate the individual instruments, but how it all fits together and how the woodwinds compliment the brass and strings.  So it is with scripture.

Even the arrangement of the books tells us things.  There is a reason that the New Testament begins with the four gospels.  There is a reason that the Hebrew Bible, what we call  Old Testament, has a different order Christian Bibles than in Jewish Bibles.  In Jewish Bibles, the last book is second chronicles.  The Jewish cannon ends with first and second Chronicles, which are a grand retelling of the story of Israel..  The Christian arrangement ends with Malachi, which talks about the day of the Lord, the coming of God. 

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.Malachi 3:1 

This may sound a bit familiar, because Jesus quotes it in Matthew 11. 

“As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written,

‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,

    who will prepare your way before you.’”

– Matthew 11:7-10

In a Christian cannon of scripture is arranged the way it is to point to Christ.

 One of the the best ways to begin is to look at those passages of scripture in which connect different parts of sculpture, like like John 1, which connects creation with the story of Jesus, or which summarize and comment on large chunks of the scripture, like Psalm 139,  with that repeated refrain of “his mercy endures forever” or Hebrews 11.  Passages like these draw attention to the themes of scripture, which permeate the whole Bible.  John 1 for example, is all about the initiative that God takes, that creation and salvation are all rooted in God’s actions, and the unity between the Old and New Testaments, that the God of Genesis, the God of Exodus, came to earth in Christ.  Psalm 139, should be fairly clear is all about how God’s love and mercy never end.  And Hebrews, we’ll take a closer look at.

(Please take a moment to go back and reread all or part of Hebrews 11:1-12:2)

In this passage, the mysterious author of Hebrews (no one knows for sure exactly who it was), retells the entire story from Genesis to (what was for them) the present day.  And it deals with two major themes: that the biblical story is one of faith, it is not one of heroes who earned their keep, but one of people who trusted God, and even more importantly (remember the climax of this passage is the end, when it gets to Christ), that they were able to be cause God is faithful.  God kept God’s promises and did so in a way that was even better than they ever dreamed.  God came to earth in the flesh.  God bore sin and death upon his back, and rose victoriously over all of it.  This is gives us all the more reason to hope, all the remote reason to stand unafraid, because God is faithful and therefore we can have faith in God, always.  Our faith is not a blind faith but in the One who proved faithful over and over and over

Scripture is many things.  There is a lot to it.  Read carefully, taking time to develop your skills.  Read with a careful eye toward genre and historical context, asking “What type of literature is this and what was going on when it was written?”.  Read with the themes repeated over and over through out The Bible – themes, like like the love and faithfulness of God – in the back of your mind.  And read it again and again, constantly searching, constantly wondering, and growing.

Understanding scripture is not a moment, but a journey.  It is not something you just sit down and do it is a journey you embark on.  This is a long task and complicated task, but one thing I have learned in my short time and Windover Hills is that the people in this church love scripture, and that you are up for the task.  That is the beauty of it.  Scripture is like a well that runs infinitely deep, and the more you drink from it the more water there is.  No matter how many times you return to scripture it there is still more to understand, more to wisdom to mine, more of God’s heart to be revealed. Our discussion today and this whole series was not about how to do that, but about how to begin.  It is a journey, and while you walk that road, always keep your eyes on Christ, the author and finisher of our faith.  He will guide you through.

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