The Once and Future People of the Book

Christian discipleship will remain an ever-receding goal without real Bible renewal in our churches.

From the beginning God’s people were people of the Word. All God had to do was speak and new creations sprang into being. Then came a mysterious creature promoting distrust and disobedience, misdirecting God’s people and threatening the good creation. So God gave new words, promising not to abandon but to work through his now-fallen people to crush this serpent and restore God’s creational intent. This is how God’s words gave birth to God’s story.

In this ancient beginning God’s people lived within the words by simply sharing, telling and singing them. It was still early in the narrative, but fathers told sons of divine encounters and new callings while sisters sang songs of liberation. Israel was brought into existence and given an identity, a relationship and a mission. The story grew and so did the words.

In the Beginning

The words continued to be spoken, then to be written down. God wrote first, giving his people two handwritten copies of his covenant to keep in a special place. Then records started being kept, songs turned into songbooks, stories into storybooks and the people of the words started the journey to becoming people of the Book.

Now we should be clear. Lots of ancient peoples had written records of their founding myths and the doings and histories of their kings and kingdoms. But only in Israel did a story like the Bible’s take shape. It was not just another story, but a bold declaration that the one true God of all things was hard set on taking the story of Abraham’s children—and through them, the story of the world—to a new and better place. God promised to make this story one of healing after trauma and pain, a full restoration after crisis and loss. He covenanted the return of a robust and enduring creational life that would defeat and dismiss the archenemy powers of sin and death.

There was no other story in the world like this story, and God’s people clung to it. Those who could write wrote it down. Those who could read read it aloud. The people heard it, knew it, lived by it. Even when many of the people struggled to do this, enough of them did to keep the story alive, to pass it on, trusting more in the God whose story this was than the people it was about.

At one decisive turning point there was a disaster so devastating it was enough to cause people to question their status as God’s chosen people. The whole story seemed in doubt. When the temple was burned and they were exiled en masse to another country, even the faithful ones had to wonder what was happening.

But it turns out that it was this very crisis that caused the people to recommit deeply to the words of the Book. When they eventually returned to Israel, all the people assembled as their leaders stood on a platform in Jerusalem to read aloud from the forgotten Book once again. Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law read the words and then the assistants explained things, because it had been a very long time since the people had heard the words. The people began to weep, realizing everything they had been missing. But the leaders told them to feast and celebrate instead, since God’s message was being rediscovered.

It was soon after this that more and more of the Hebrew Bible came together as a collection of writings. Growing along with the collection was the commitment to read it regularly and know it deeply. As synagogues began to be formed in Israel’s villages, steady annual cycles were developed for reading weekly through big chunks of the Bible in community, especially the Torah and the Prophets. Training in the Scriptures was available for young people throughout the land. As language changed, the community adapted. In Palestine, the rabbis would perform live translations of the ancient Hebrew into Aramaic so everyone could understand what was being read. When Jews dispersed throughout the Mediterranean world, the Scriptures were translated into Greek, the most common and widespread language in the Diaspora.

Whatever it took, this community was determined to have the Scriptures at their very heart. The Bible was for God’s people, and God’s people were for the Bible.

Thus, even though very few had the ability to read or write, they could all listen and live by the words. Whenever the people came together, the words were continually heard, learned, engaged and followed. Ongoing and sustained immersion in the words of God only grew stronger. God’s people had become people of the Book.

People of the Book

Into this story came Jesus of Nazareth, synagogue reader and traveling rabbi in his own right. Israel’s backstory was his backstory, and so he joined his people in learning the Scriptures, following the Torah, making pilgrimages to Jerusalem and celebrating all the great festivals. And then he stepped out and spoke up, breaking into Israel’s national life with the bold announcement that the longed for, hoped for, dreamed of time had come. Israel’s story was coming into its own and God’s reign was coming to earth.

The story Jesus told was Israel’s story now being fulfilled in surprising ways. In first-century Israel this was debatable. Many groups were vying for control of the story—some said it was time to fight, some said more study and a more determined obedience would bring redemption, some went out to the desert believing they alone were the chosen ones, and some called for calm—don’t do anything to provoke the Romans. But the man from looked-down-on Galilee proposed instead a new path, the radical way of embracing Israel’s first calling and ultimate destiny by becoming a light to the nations.

The sacred writings lay at the heart of his program, but it was a fresh reading with an unexpected ending. The conquering messiah was not supposed to die at the hands of Rome. This was a triumph over a redefined foe, the dark powers that held humanity in idolatrous bondage. Self-sacrificial love rather than endless, useless violence was his weapon. His resurrection was the forgiveness of sins for both Jew and Gentile alike, restoring everyone to the divine-imaging vocation they had from the beginning. Jesus was Israel-in-person and humanity-in-person for the sake of the life of the world.

It was all good news worth sharing with all people everywhere. But how do you tell Gentiles the story of the Jewish Messiah?

You tell them the whole long tale—from God’s first cosmos-wide Temple, to the great rebellion, and on to the stories of Abraham, Moses, Ruth, David, Esther and all the rest. It is too good a story not to be true, filled with covenants and failures and gifts and sacrifices and life and death and life again. And where do you get that story? Only one place: the Holy Scriptures.

The Early Church

And so it was that the earliest followers of Jesus determined that this new worldwide family of Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female had to be people of the Book too. The church began a journey of extraordinary effort to immerse these new daughters and sons of Abraham in the ancient words.

Literacy remained a challenge, and it wasn’t possible to send everyone home with their own copies of the scrolls anyway. So what did they do? Whenever they came together they read the Bible communally. What First Testament scholar John Walton says about the ancient Israelites applies equally to these new covenant communities: There was no reading public, but there was public reading. Early Christian leaders made sure that gospel telling was “according to the Scriptures.”

By so firmly founding the Jesus movement on Israel’s own story, that movement was necessarily built as a network of textual communities. Jesus followers were fundamentally oriented toward a set of sacred writings. They had all heard—and they believed—that the work of Jesus was for them. He was their life, their Lord, their redemption and hope. But the only way to understand what the work of Jesus was and what it meant was to be continuously and seriously committed to hearing, learning, knowing and living those writings.

Consider what Christianity was in those days, and what it did. As a scattering of groups of people spread throughout the vast reaches of the Roman Empire, it would have been easy to end up as a collection of disjointed and divided small congregations, developing wildly divergent self-understandings. That there was some diversity of opinions is not the surprise. What’s remarkable is the strong bonds of communication and fellowship they maintained, and a clear and firm grounding in a shared story.

Have you ever noticed how many quotes and allusions there are to Israel’s ancient Scriptures in the apostle Paul’s letters? He was writing to mixed congregations of Gentiles and Jews and yet he expected them all to know what he was talking about when he referenced a royal Psalm, the Servant of Isaiah or Moses hitting a rock in the wilderness. He was either a poor communicator or these communities really were well versed in Israel’s Bible.

In addition to knowing the backstory, the early church was continually learning the instruction of the apostles. Writing in the mid-second century, Justin Martyr described a typical Christian worship service: “On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.”

We shouldn’t underestimate what the apostles did to communicate with fledgling Christian communities and keep them grounded in truth and living the story appropriately. Reading Paul’s Corinthian correspondence, we pick up that there were at least four letters to this challenging church. Paul was a missionary with a big vision, constantly on the move. But he maintained leadership in his various newborn congregations via regular authoritative letters to guide and encourage.

So apostolic writings were read at length, weekly if not daily, alongside the Hebrew Scriptures. They were read communally and accompanied by instruction, just like in Israel’s synagogues. Through the Messiah the ancient story has given birth to a fresh expression of the people of God, but they, too, maintained their vitality only by being people of the Book.

Alongside the basic fact of apostolic instruction, there is a noteworthy level of commitment to doing whatever was necessary for all the Messiah-centered communities to have access to all the essential writings, both ancient and new. Paul writes in his closing instructions to the Colossians, “After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea.” This then was the regular pattern: When a church received a letter they would read it aloud for their own people to hear, but they would also copy it and send it to others. Every new community of faith began to maintain a library of Scriptures and to read from them all faithfully.

These communities were essentially small, premodern publishing centers—locating scribes and writing materials, hand-copying books and letters, and then faithfully dispersing the writings to others. All of this was done at great expense and without any compensation. Travel took a long time and could be dangerous, but all of this was taken on for the sake of sharing the Book.

Making sure its members knew the ins and outs of Israel’s story and its culmination in Jesus was not optional for the early church. Its leaders went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that Christ-followers heard the Scriptures read at every gathering and were taught the meaning and implications of the writings by those who were worthy to lead. All of this was countercultural. No other religion in the ancient world (except Judaism, of course) had anything like this book-based expectation for its members. If you acknowledged the truth of the gospel announcement about King Jesus, and pledged him your loyalty, then the clear expectation was that you would be a lifelong learner, immersed in God’s holy writings.

The Road Back

Today we have fallen from all this. The uncomfortable fact is that as a community, today’s church can no longer be identified as serious, committed people of the Book. Willow Creek Community Church’s 2007 Reveal: Where Are You? study showed that 9 out of 10 churchgoers wanted for their church to help them understand the Bible. Yet only 1 out of 5 said their church was actually giving them that help.

Leaving members to sink or swim on their own clearly is not working. We’ve inherited a modernistic framework for the Bible based more on the dissection and study of small bits rather than big, organic reading and absorption of the whole books the Spirit inspired. We have not adequately taught most church members what kind of book the Bible actually is, and what they’re supposed to do with it.

The opportunity clearly exists—we simply need to recommit to the right kind of Scriptural renewal in the church. Followers of Jesus know that the Bible should be close to the heart of their spiritual life. They just haven’t been led into the right kind of Bible experiences.

So what’s the road back to significant and life-transforming Bible engagement? The key is to follow the lead of the early church and do what they did but in a new and different cultural moment. Improvised for our own setting, we need a life with the Bible that is countercultural, communal and sustained over time:

• Countercultural. Not unlike the situation faced by the early church, we live in a time when serious reading is not widespread. We’re more post-literate than pre-literate, but the result is the same. Yet the first Christians, launching a movement born directly out of the synagogue experience, just flat out expected everyone to learn the revelation God had brought to his people.

There is no substitute for knowing the content of the Bible and understanding how to read and live it well. Christian discipleship will remain an ever-receding goal without real Bible renewal in our churches. A truly countercultural mind-set would include the understanding that Christ-followers constitute a reading nation with our own unique set of citizenship expectations. To know and follow Jesus is to know his story.

• Communal. For some time now we’ve been telling ourselves that the heart of serious Bible discipleship is dedicated individual time with God. Certainly nobody wants that to go away. But what’s been missing is what God’s people started with: time together around the Bible.

The fact is something significantly different happens when we gather to read the Bible out loud together, and then talk openly about what we’ve just read. Alone, we all read the Bible with our own filters and predetermined thoughts.

The new opportunity looks more like a book club than a Bible study, and people are ready for it. We can free them from their silos of individualized Bible meaning and recover the ancient way of learning from each other.

• Sustained. What we don’t need in this moment in the church’s life is yet another big one-off campaign. Bible renewal is not an event but a reshaping of regular church life that reflects a commitment to rich Bible immersion. This can only be the adoption of new Bible practices and rhythms that are both realistic and challenging.

Rather than just offering more choices for those who are already interested in God’s Word, church leaders must communicate that Bible engagement is something for all Christ-followers, something, in fact, they can’t do without. Bible reading worthy of the name must be relaunched in our midst.

Returning to the Book

Imagine a new future for the church with the Bible. Imagine what it would look like for the followers of Jesus to be people of the Book once again.

Of course, basic access to the Bible is necessary for this movement to even get started, and many in the worldwide church don’t have it. But those of us in places where Bibles are already ubiquitous know that having our sacred text available in a multitude of media is not sufficient. Too often we’ve been reduced to Bible “users” rather than serious readers who are being deeply formed. We’ve pretended that taking in a few decontextualized snippets of holy information is all that’s required. Widespread Christian malformation is the unsurprising result.

But all the evidence is there that God’s people are ready for a renewed Bible reading movement. Accommodating the late-modern cultural trend away from at-length and in-depth reading is not an option for the church. Loyalty to Jesus must include loyalty to the Scriptures that tell us who he is and what he’s done. That story in all its fullness is contained in one place only: the strange and powerful collection of books that has been handed down to us by those who’ve walked this path before.

It’s time for the church of God to take the Word of God seriously on its own terms. It is not a mere guidebook for our occasional reference, or even a love letter to make us feel better—it is the story of God and the world and all things made new. It is big and rich and complicated and challenging. It is the Bible God actually chose to give us, in spite of all the things we’ve done to turn it into a different kind of book.

The only way the Bible’s power will be released in the church is if the church gets reacquainted with it. We can gather once again around the texts. We can understand what kind of writings they are so we read them well. We can learn context. We can make the connections between the books and see how the story unfolds. We can read with Jesus himself at the center. And then we can enter into that very same story ourselves.

We can indeed be people of the Book again.

Read more stories from our State of the Bible coverage in the March/April 2019 issue of Outreach magazine and at OutreachMagazine.com/Bible.