At its heart Christianity is a mixture a written past and a living oral tradition. What this means is that our basis for faith is the belief that God has acted in human history in the past and is continuing to act in the present and on into the future. Now the past aspect of this faith is contained in the Bible, a collection of books which describe humanity’s encounter with God as God has revealed the purpose of humanity and creation to us and worked within our lives. Inherently this is an ancient text and was written over the course of several centuries. As with any text, translation is difficult. It is not easy to take thoughts composed in one language and transition them to another language. But the basics are accurate, God created the world and humanity for a purpose, we rebelled and continue to rebel, God came to us in the person of Jesus and through his life, death, and resurrection has opened life to us, we have the opportunity to follow Jesus into God’s presence, despite this opportunity many will not follow and God will eventually remake creation in glory.
That is the basic outline, and this is where the “present” element comes into the story. We today continue to experience God and reconfirm the story of the Bible in our own lives. Meaning the basics of the story are fairly easy and everyone can get them “love God, love neighbor”, but some of the elements of how this plays out are difficult and take skill and study to learn (just like with many of life’s endeavors). This is where humility comes in, we humbly listen to those with training to help us understand the difficulties and make them clear to us. We pass on and share the information which will make the difficulties of Scripture clear. We don’t question how a doctor knows medicine and we try to find doctors who have the most knowledge of the field. The same is true of Scripture and Christianity, some have studied hard and we must find them and learn from them.
A practical example comes from 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. 15 For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 16 For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.
It is obvious that Paul is talking about Jesus’ return from heaven; however, much of this passage simply cannot be translated because the words used have specific meanings to the Geek used in 1st century AD Thessalonica. For instance the phrase “caught up in the clouds together”, has led some (who do not understand the original) to think that we are going to raise up to be with Jesus and float away to heaven on a cloud similar to the picture presented in Acts 1: 6-11. However, Paul did not mean that at all, Paul was using language which referred to a conquering king entering a city after a great victory. In the Greco-Roman world of Paul’s time a heroic general or king would return to his city in triumph and all of the people would flood out into the country, line the streets, and escort him home. This is the picture Paul paints; we are going to line the “street” from heaven to earth to welcome Jesus “home” to physically rule the world from this world. Now, anyone can read that passage and take the meaning, “cheer up have hope Jesus is going to return.” That is what I mean that the basics are clear. We often get a little arrogant and bite off more than we can chew saying, “we are all going to fly to heaven.” What we need to do is stay humble only accepting the basics until we have listened and learned enough to understand what is really going on.
For more information watch the Bible Project “How to Read the Bible” videos and “Read Scripture” videos OT and NT. Or check out their Podcast
You can also read about this in N. T. Wright’s Simply Jesus, Simply Christian, & Scripture and the Authority of God
Or Eugene Peterson’s Eat this Book or Gruden, Collins, and Schreiner Understanding Scripture: An Overview of the Bible’s Origin, Reliability, and Meaning
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