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Oh for the Simple Life

By Richard Gunther


Someone said to me "The whole Bible can be condensed down to a few simple statements can’t it?" and the only answer to this is "Yes it can" but the question was barbed. What my friend was really saying was "Can’t we just forget about the deep things of God, and the need for real Bible study, and ‘get by’ on a few simple rules?"

I would have great difficulty in saying "Yes" to this, because it would imply several things :

1. It would imply that the entire Bible is nothing more than an amplified expression of a few basic sentences, in which case what on earth was God doing when He expanded those few lines to fill sixty-six books?

2. It would imply that all those keen, hard-working Bible scholars 'out there' are wasting a lot of time when they compile dictionaries, lexicons, encyclopaedias and concordances.

3. It would imply that God’s main aim is to keep the Church at the infant level, rather than encourage it to grow in understanding and wisdom. Since most of the Bible is superfluous to the Church, it must have been written mainly as decoration.

As I see it, God has an infant level into Christianity. It may be called the John 3:16 gate. This entry point is the most fundamental, basic and immature level of understanding. It consists of seeing oneself as a sinner and acknowledging Jesus as the only Saviour. It brings a sinner to the foot of the cross, where they have the very first inkling of God’s saving grace.

Now what would happen if the entire Church (figuratively) remained at the foot of the cross. Obviously there would a great deal of congestion, and the gospel would circulate mainly within the Christians, hardly ever making it out to anyone else.

But the picture of the Early Church presents quite a different scene. Christianity was both internal (within the body of believers) and external (available to all).

If we look at the way the Early Church behaved, we see a combination of several things. Acts 2:40-47 lists the main activities of those early Christians as :

1. Preaching

2. Teaching

3. Baptising

4. Bible study

5. Fellowship

6. Common meals/communion

7. Wonders and signs

8. Sharing to meet needs

9. Meeting regularly in homes.

As you can see, the Christians spent a lot of time (percentage-wise) learning from the Bible. If the Christian faith consisted of a mere handful of simple sentences, these first Christians were certainly tigers for extra work! On the other hand, it may be that progressive learning is a normal result of salvation.

The following examples are not meant to be personal criticisms of any fellow Christians. I record them here merely as object-lessons.

Example One.

I was invited to a ‘Bible-study’ meeting many years ago. I knew beforehand what the subject was to be so I dutifully studied up on it, and prepared some notes to share, should there be an opportunity. At the meeting, when I pulled my page of notes out, the group reacted quite negatively. One member said : "Why did you write all that?". The whole group was very reluctant to allow me to even read some of my notes. Another said : "We just want it simple thanks". They wanted the ‘study’ group to comprise mainly their own personal comments, opinions, views . . . and none of them had even considered the passage before the meeting.

Example Two.

Another group I was invited to was working through a New Testament book with the help of a handbook commentary. As usual I did my own independent study and arrived at the meeting ready to contribute, but when I was asked a question and shared from my notes, the leader (a dear, elderly gentleman) asked me to stop reading them. The whole group, it turned out, was reliant on the handbook commentary, and no independent study was encouraged.

Example Three.

I began attending a ‘Bible-study’ group where singing seemed to be the main activity. Eventually the Christian with the guitar had to move on to some other work, leaving the group without a leader. I was invited to lead the group in Bible-study, so I prepared some notes and asked the group to bring pads, pens and Bibles.

I introduced the group (all long-term Anglicans) to the use of the Concordance, and encouraged them to look up topics for themselves. This was quite foreign to them, and it took several weeks before they began to realise that they could search God’s Word for themselves! As the weeks went by, the members of the group became more and more enthusiastic. They arrived with dozens of questions, pages of notes, and dog-eared Bibles. They said things like "Look what I found!" and "The minister never told us that!" and "I never knew that was in the Bible - why weren't we told?!"

It is clear then that a Christian may happily remain at the entry point, the ‘kindergarten’ stage of their faith for as long as they want. It is not a sin to be an infant. But God has a great plan for Christians, which begins at spiritual Kindergarten and progresses through Primary school through to High school and then University.

There are two ways that this can be demonstrated. The first is biological, and the second is by example.

1. Biology.

The human brain is structured in such as way as to present an almost infinite capacity for retaining information. It is so close to being infinite that there is hardly any way its limits can be measured. If you pause for a moment to recall some incident from years ago, you will find that, instantly, images, sounds, smells and feelings come back to you, all stored in your brain for all those years. At the same time, you will be aware of the fact that you have learned some things today, which you know you will probably never forget.

What this means is that we may continue to learn about God and Creation and Spiritual truth from the moment of our salvation right through to the end of our earthly lives. Logically, if this were not so, then God would probably have given us a much simpler and shorter Bible.

2. Example.

There are many instances in the Bible where people or believers are exhorted to learn.

"Moses called all Israel, and said to them, Hear, O Israel, the statutes and judgements which I speak in your ears this day, that ye may learn them, and keep, and do them". Deut. 5:1

There are some six hundred rules in the Law - this is far more than the rules contained in the Road Code - yet Moses urged the Israelites to learn them all, and apply them.

Christians are urged to systematically study the Bible.

"Study to show yourself approved unto God, a workman that needs not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth". 2 Timothy 2:15

Christians are urged to study the Bible regularly.

"These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so". Acts 17:11

The word "choke" appears only twice in the whole Bible, and in both cases it refers to the effect of this world on believers. In both cases the word came from Jesus as a warning to all believers :

"He also that received seed among the thorns is he that hears the word; and the care of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful". Matthew 13:22

"And the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things entering in, choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful". Mark 4:19

How often does this happen? Sadly, it all too common. The young, enthusiastic teenage Christian, with piles of homework, drama, sport and other good, legitimate things to do, gradually loses his or her zeal. Like an incoming tide the world's pleasures pour in. There has to be time for swatting for exams, for learning lines, for dance practise. The piano test is coming up, the boy or girl-friend is on the phone, the dishes have to be done, the favourite TV program is on, the video is waiting to be enjoyed, the trip starts on Saturday. Every night, as the clock moves towards midnight, the believer is too tired to say much more than a quick prayer before falling into bed. "Tomorrow" he or she says, "I'll put more time into God . . ." but tomorrow is just as busy, and tomorrow never comes.

Eventually the new life which once had a small root in that heart is withered and gone. There is now no difference between the believer and the worldly, unsaved people he or she associates with.

Beware of good things!

But getting back to the main theme, it is easy to simplify something, and then forget the work involved in bringing it all to that single point. A good example would be Einstein's famous formula. Anyone can say it, but can everyone explain it? What exactly does E=mc2 mean? How does the speed of light relate to mass? If mass and energy are equivalent, how does this affect our view of Time? And does Relativity affect our daily lives?

The Bible can certainly be reduced to a few simple outlines, but it would be foolish to think that, having reduced it thus far, that we may now throw the Bible away and keep the formula. I doubt whether Einstein would be very impressed if, after all his years of thinking, and making of notes, and applications, and testing of his theory, if the science world threw out all his notes and kept the formula. But this is what many Christians do. They think the whole Bible consists of John 3:16, (plus a few other general rules), and that is all. Ask any real Bible-studying saint what they think of this approach to the Word and they will probably laugh with incredulity.

What are the main sources of Bible-teaching?

There are many answers to this.

1. Teachers.

There are, in the Body of Christ, people who have been blessed with the time and ability to study the Bible. They speak and write their findings, and share it with other Christians. Often they bring to light many wonders from the Word. These privileged and hard-working students of the Word may be a great benefit to the Church, but they must also be listened to very carefully because not everything they teach is perfect. No teacher is perfect.

2. Self-study.

It is possible for any saint to study the Bible for themselves, though for most saints at the 'entry point', this is an overwhelmingly huge task. The Bible is like a vast, unexplored planet, and they are still babies in Christ.

For these saints, simple teaching, easy and basic, is essential.

As the understanding increases, the young saint can be given some tools. Like the early-reader books in Primary school, young saints need suitable aids to their spiritual growth. There are many child-level Bible books, picture books, and so on.

Eventually, the best tools can be brought in. Dictionaries, concordances, lexicons, commentaries and encyclopaedias. (Commentaries are to be treated with extreme caution!) Armed with a pen and paper, or a computer with a Bible CD ROM program, the student may now begin to work through the Word for themselves.

Some simple tips - always start with the first mention of a subject and work through the whole Bible, seeing how God develops it.

C.O.M.B. the Scriptures. Context, Other related words, Meaning, Background.

When seeming contradictions crop up, try to fit them together in the light of the majority of other examples. i.e. if the Bible says something one way 9 times, and once another way, that 'once' must be seen in the light of the other 9. (Otherwise God is faulty and contradicts Himself, in which case you might as well throw the Bible away and be an atheist.)

3. Reading.

Simply read the Bible, from one end to the other, in the same way one might scan a beautiful scene by turning slowly and looking at the whole picture in one sweep of the eyes. Too many Bible-study booklets wok like 'luck dips', plunging in here and there and fragmenting the whole story. The panorama method, reading cover to cover, is a good way to see everything in context. It also helps when it comes to questions of world events, and where Bible events fit into the last 6000 years of recorded history.

A friend of mine once challenged me on the matter of young Christians and their lack of enthusiasm for the Word. I agreed with my friend that it was sad that so many saints showed so little interest in actually reading the Bible. It occurred to me that there are many different levels of zeal in this area because there are many kinds of salvation. There is the sort which takes a derelict, depressed, morally ruined sinner into glorious forgiveness - the result is boundless zeal. Another sort is the middle-class, self-satisfied, materially-content sinner, who sees Christianity as a useful addition to their life. In between these two extremes are all the variables, but I think it is true to say that 'you can tell what sort of conversion someone has had by the time they give to the Bible'. The matter is clearer still when you realise that Jesus, the Living Word and the Bible, the Written Word, are almost synonymous. Time spent with the Bible is almost exactly the same as time spent with Jesus - so what does this indicate?

"As new-born babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby:

If so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious". 1 Peter 2:2,3

I have never heard of a healthy, hungry baby refusing food! Could it be that those Christians who show almost no interest in God's Word are either false Christians? Or perhaps there is something still held back in their heart which is preventing God from entering all the way? Perhaps there is an idol or two, or perhaps some sin which they still refuse to give up?

The best and only remedy for the Church is Bible study. If every Christian spent time learning from the Bible, cults would find that, at every Christian's door, they met a confident student of the Word instead of a timid, ignorant, page-fumbling saint. If Christians studied the Word they would be able to speak with understanding into every area of the world's confusion - Education, Politics, Science. Heresies would die almost instantly if Christians checked up on everything they were taught. Traditions and formalism and legalism would fade away if Christians searched the Scriptures and did only what God required - no more, no less.

It seems strange that, unlike the first believers who had only a few pages, or small books to read, we at the end of the Age have a massive amount of Bibles and Bible-aids, yet, in many ways, we are worse off than those earlier saints who had so little. Obviously, the answer is, and always has been, in our own hands.

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