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Confessions of an Adult Christian:
What I Learned from My First Bible Class

Dennis Bratcher, ed.

Editor: This essay was written by a middle-aged Christian for a basic Bible class in an adult degree completion program at a Christian college. It was the first formal class in Scripture that the person had ever taken and was her first encounter with the study of Scripture beyond a local Church Sunday School or in preaching. She had grown up attending church in a tradition that is strongly and even aggressively Bible-based. Yet she confesses her lack of knowledge or even interest in Scripture, as well as confusion and lack of understanding of the role of Scripture in the Church and her own life.

In working in both ministry and religious education for several decades, I have found that her confessions and her awakening to the relevance and depths of Scripture when given an opportunity are not that atypical, whether for college freshmen or for adult learners. Much could be said about the reasons for such a high level of biblical illiteracy even among evangelical clergy, what one writer called "the strange silence of the Bible in the Church" (James Smart, Westminster, 1970). And we can debate fault and remedies.

Yet, perhaps this essay provides the best testimony to a simple response: provide people the opportunity to read and think critically about Scripture on a level beyond Vacation Bible School and most typical Sunday Schools, or even listening to preaching. And do that in an atmosphere in which God can fill the biblical witness with new life so that it becomes once again for contemporary people the "living and active word of God" (Heb 4:12). To do less is to fail to fulfill one of the primary mandates of Scripture in both Testaments: to instruct God’s people in their Faith (for example, Mal 2:6-8 , Matt 28:19-20) - Dennis Bratcher, ed.


What I Learned from My First Bible Class

Confessions

This is the most difficult paper I have ever had to write. The difficulty comes in not knowing where to begin and where to end. Although I have gained many new insights, broadened my knowledge, reexamined my beliefs, and discarded those that were faulty, I feel that I have hardly scratched the surface. There is so much to know and to learn that we couldn't get to, that I know my study is still incomplete.

The easiest way for me to begin is with our first lesson on the Bible. I came to class a little late, was a nervous wreck, and was scared to death that I would be asked a question that I couldn't answer. What a laugh! I didn't know the answer to any of the questions asked for the entire course, but I did learn many things that night.

The most important perspective I learned was that the Bible is not just a book of rules by which we live. The Bible is a revelation -- the revealed word of God in which he tells us, "I exist." God revealing himself to humanity is what the Bible is all about. The revelation is God acting in history to reveal Himself to the world. It is a record of the way God deals with people. God revealed His nature to us through Jesus.

The Bible actually has two facets that can be used for study. The factual Bible contains stories, history, a collection of books, laws, and ethics. These are facts that don't require any faith professions to accept. Those who study the Bible and accept it through faith can study the Bible as a theology (a talk about God), as a source for guidance and of spiritual laws, and as the Word of God.

How much less threatening that makes the Bible! It is more like curling up with a good book. Imagine that -- God revealing Himself to us! "This is Me; this is what I am all about; I am here - I exist!" Just learning those few things has made the Bible more personal to me. God wants me to understand just like He wanted the Israelites to understand. What a shame they did not know and understand then what we know now - that God is the only god and He is awesome.

The impact this new insight will have on my future life is immeasurable. I can hardly wait to read more but I want my studies to be with a Bible scholar, not a lay person who is anxious to impress me with his intelligent theories. Most of my life has been spent viewing the Bible only as verses a minister preached to us about. It was something preachers and pious people read; certainly not a book to be enjoyed and read over and over and certainly not much of which applied to us in these modern days.

About the only thing in the Old Testament I thought we needed to know was the ten commandments. Also, I thought the people in the Old Testament and the people in the New Testament followed different rules. I did not realize how important it is to study the Bible in context rather than a few isolated verses. I could never understand the comfort just reading it could bring to people. Now I think I do understand. I feel like I have wasted my money on the self help, positive thinking, how to be successful books when I have had my Bible the whole time.

Biblical Perspectives

The study of Genesis brought about several new insights. The first is that Genesis was dealing with a community of faith trying to come to grips with how they came into being. The thought that Genesis is a collection of works that have been handed down over the centuries explains to me how people came to recognize the story of Genesis as the beginning of the world. My main concern was how anyone could know for sure that was the way the world began because who was there to see it? After learning of the Ba'al myth, Genesis made a lot more sense to me.

The second insight was in comparing the Ba'al myth with Genesis. In the Ba'al myth, the cycle of Ba'al, Apsu, Ea, Tiamet, and Marduk was geared around the cycles of nature. The mythical view was that whatever happened on earth was a consequence of what happened between the gods in the heavens. There was chaos. The Book of Genesis countered the Ba'al myth. It presented a very structured world with boundaries set by God. In it was explained what would happen to humans if we crossed those boundaries.

Then, a third perspective in Genesis was explored. Never before had the fact that there were two different stories of the creation in Genesis dawned on me. My first reaction was embarrassment because I had never noticed that, but my next thought was one of interest. It was interesting to learn that the first story was about God's place in the creation and that the second story was about man's place in the creation. In the first story God brought order into the world. In the second story, man brought disorder into the world. It brought forth a theological commentary on human beings and their desire to do exactly what was forbidden to them. The stories were not so much about God's creation but about the nature and guilt of humanity. God made the rules and it was up to man to obey them. Man was told that failure to obey the rules would result in immediate death. Whether the death was the death of his innocence (to be naked with no shame) or a fact that God changed His mind about killing them tells us something about the nature of God.

In studying Exodus, it surprised me to learn that the Israelites were not already God-fearing people who prayed daily for deliverance from Egypt. Perhaps I have watched too many movies and my perspective is warped. Also surprising was that Moses did not want to lead the people and whined about the barriers he would have to face. I had always thought that whenever God asked someone to do something, that person knew he could do it because God would help him. My knowledge of the Bible has never been my strong point. Whatever I did not know or had misunderstood, I thought would not make a difference in my life because I was comfortable with my religious beliefs. It never occurred to me to read the story of Exodus because I had seen the movie, The Ten Commandments, so I thought I knew what it was all about.

I liked learning that the idea of being one of the chosen people is not one of privilege, but rather, a responsibility. Something that has bothered me for a long time was the fact that the Israelites were said to be God's chosen people and since I am not Jewish, I could never hope to be considered as one of His chosen. Now I know that I can be one of the chosen because I have chosen Him. For God to lead the people out of Egypt into the land of milk and honey and to watch over them for forty years so they could bear witness that He is the only God and that He is in charge put a new dimension on the story of the Israelites. I had originally assumed that they knew God and knew He was capable of delivering them. That is why it was so hard for me to understand why they began worshipping idols just as soon as Moses was away from them for a while. I have a new respect for what they went through and for how hard it was for them to kick their old habits.

To learn the significance in the death of the first born made the whole story even more interesting. In order to prove that He was superior to any other gods, Yahweh caused the first born of the king of Egypt to die along with every other first born who was not deliberately passed over. The significance was that the king of Egypt was supposed to be Ra incarnated. If Yahweh could kill Ra (the next king of Egypt) then He was greater than all gods since Ra was the chief god of the Egyptians.

During this chapter I learned what a covenant actually is. The covenant formula is that, "I will be your God and you will be my people." We give up certain freedoms in return for a relationship with God. Breaking a covenant does not mean I have broken the law; it means I have broken the relationship. That insight makes my relationship with God seem much more special now that I realize I have made a Covenant with Him. It also helps me to understand that I do not obey His laws to be good. I obey His laws because I am good and because I have a Covenant with God.

Studying Isaiah and how his prophecies were interpreted by the Gospels Matthew, Mark, and Luke was very interesting. Isaiah's message to the people was not necessarily that a messiah was coming to save the Israelites. His content message was in the name of the child Emmanuel, which means, "God is with us". He prophesied God's will to the people and should be interpreted according to the events that were happening right then. Isaiah was trying to convince Ahaz to trust in God in order to win against Assyria, not predict something that would happen hundreds of years later.

Something else I learned, but is still hard to acquiesce, is that true prophets of God apparently were not right 100% of the time. The whole idea is that the things the prophets said would come to pass were written down because they did come to pass. Sometimes the prophets were mistaken and sometimes God changed His mind. It is easier for me to accept that change in my thinking when I realize that God did change his mind several times in the Bible.

Isaiah 53 is about the nation of Israel paying for the sins of everyone who came before them. Because they bore the punishment, they would be blessed by forming a new community. In the New Testament a single man bore the penalty of sins for others. It was not a future event that was being predicted in Isaiah, but a continuity.

Isaiah understood that God was with us and was active in the world. Matthew understood that theological thought and used it to tell us about the virgin birth. Matthew was the only gospel to use the word church. His whole vision was what it meant to be God's people in the world. Matthew told us who Jesus was (God is with us) and that He had a specific purpose of building the church on earth.

Our study about miracles gave me a special insight into why the miracles were included in the Bible. They were included to help bring us to an understanding of who God is. Whether every specific spectacular event mentioned in the Bible actually happened just as it was reported is not the most important issue. What message the story is telling is the important thing to remember. For instance, whether Jonah was actually swallowed by a fish and then spit back up to tell his story is not the point of the account. The story of Jonah is a story about forgiveness. The story of Adam and Eve is not a story about Satan tempting Eve. It is a story about human nature. The miracles are included to show God's presence with us and that helps us live in the real world.

Studying Psalms was especially enlightening to me. Learning that each Psalm was apparently a prayer being prayed by a person made them seem more real. I thought David wrote all the Psalms and that some were memorable and could apply to us but others were just there because they were a part of the collection. How much more interesting they became when I learned they were written by many different people in many different circumstances and that there were different kinds of Psalms.

(1) lament (which includes most of the Psalms). The lament deals with feelings, not reality. How we feel about things is rarely the way things actually are. Laments have a particular structure.

-They start with an address to God (usually in first person).

-Some kind of problem is presented.

-Trust or thanksgiving is presented.

-They conclude with an affirmation of trust or thanksgiving.

(2) thanksgiving in which the entire Psalm gives thanks to God.

(3) hymns which praise God in terms of who He is.

(4) doxology which are pure praise.

Psalms are to help people live in the real world. There is a dimension where we need to articulate our deepest cares and pains to God. Psalm 137 is utter and absolute honesty before God. Christians have been told they are not supposed to feel anger, fear, or frustration. But real people in the real world experience all those things and God knows that and understands. We can take our angers and frustrations to God and then leave them there. In Psalm 88, the author never made the turn to thankfulness. He was angry and upset with God the whole time. He understood how humanity had to fit in the world.

Psalms are not actions or promises; they are prayers. They let us know there is a larger system of justice in the world and God takes care of it. Christians need to know and study Psalm 137 and know what purpose it serves before we can turn the other cheek. We need to know it is okay to get angry with people and tell God about it. We need to know that someone can get so upset over wrongdoings that the anger just takes over all logical thought. Taking our anger to Him is the first step to healing.

The wisdom literature (Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Job, and Solomon) presents an alternative approach to reality and our biblical world views. Their theology is that God is the creator of the world, human beings, and human intellect. Truth may be gained through revelation (God revealing Himself to mankind), experience, and human reflections. They help us to learn how to get by on our own.

Proverbs deals with common sense sorts of things. It tells us how to structure our lives around God. We are encouraged to use our heads to make decisions. It puts importance on human values and on the human social system. In Proverbs we learn that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

Ecclesiastes is about whether or not it makes a difference to serve God. It is very skeptical but says we should serve God and trust God for the outcome.

Job is a book that poses the questions, "Why do righteous people suffer," or "Why do bad things happen to good people." Job was merely a pawn in the story that said he was a faithful servant of God because he had always been rewarded for his faithfulness. Maybe if some problems were thrown into his life, he would no longer be a faithful servant. Job is a story of trust and faith in God.

The Gospels presented quite a few new perspectives for me to digest. The fact that the books were probably not written by the persons whose names they bear, that they were written after Christ died, that they are not presented in the order in which they were written, and that they tell several of the same stories but the facts are different bothered me a bit because not once when I was growing up in the church were those things pointed out to me. But, on the other hand, those facts did not change my opinion of the Bible; they just broadened it a bit.

The narratives of the Gospels are a unique kind of literature. They are not meant to be history; instead, they are faith confessions. They represent four different perspectives on the interpretation of Jesus's life. Those perspectives probably represented commentaries from four different communities. The spreading of the message of Jesus' life was told by the disciples but as they began to get old and die, others thought someone should commit to written word the life and ministry of Jesus. Also, things were written down to send to outlying regions where the disciples had not gone.

The books are not in chronological order and they have stories taking place at different dates in different books. For instance, in John, Jesus' cleansing of the temple took place early in the story. From the very beginning of His ministry, Jesus was in conflict with the religious authorities. The truth is not necessarily the proper order of data. John likely wrote as a Christian being persecuted by Jews and Romans, so His view of the life and message of Jesus certainly would be different from someone like Matthew who spoke to Jews who were converted to Christianity. Luke spoke and wrote to Gentiles the messages of Jesus, so his approach would be different because they had not been educated in the Jewish faith.

One message being sent from the Gospels is that signs or miracles are not a basis for faith by themselves. We should believe in Jesus because He is the Son of God, not because He could perform miracles. Jesus' own disciples were confused by His teachings. They did not exactly understand what they were supposed to do or what they were supposed to understand about Him. The statement Jesus made about trees walking was a story about the disciples who had eyes but could not see. Even after Christ was resurrected from the dead, the disciples did not understand what they had witnessed. Through their doubts and lack of understanding God finally helped them figure out they needed to carry the message of Christ to the rest of the world so everyone could know Him. The message of Mark told what it was like to be a confused disciple of Jesus.

The book of Revelation has always been a little frightening to me. I have been afraid I would be caught up in the end of the world and not be one of God's chosen. It really helped me to know that Revelation was written during the reign of Domitian at the end of the first century when people were suffering because of their faith. Revelation was meant to be a book of comfort for those who were facing death because of their faith. It tells of God's final victory over evil and that not only those living in the day of the victory will be rewarded, but all those who maintained their faith.

New Directions

Insights on the new (to me) perspectives have made a profound impact on my life and will continue to do so in the future. It has been brought home to me (somewhat painfully) that my knowledge of the Bible and of biblical times does not extend much past the Vacation Bible School, "Jesus loves me, this I know," color, cut, and paste stage of training. No wonder I have never been interested in reading the Bible from cover to cover. I thought I already knew the most important things. Never before did I realize that the Bible is a wondrous book full of stories to study and to ponder. Never before did I realize that the point in most of the miracles was not in the fact that the miracle occurred but in the story of why the miracle occurred. Never before did I have an opportunity to study the Bible with someone who had actually studied the books of the Bible in Hebrew and had translated those books into English.

What helped me the most was that no one was asked or told to change the ways we believed but, rather, to look at each passage in its entirety and know what was actually going on in history at that time. That made so much more sense to me than just being told to believe because it was right.

As far as my future is concerned, I have set several goals for myself.

(1) I will take more bible classes at school for my own enjoyment and for expanding my knowledge of the Bible.

(2) I will read and study the Bible on my own using resources in my local library.

(3) I will read a passage of my Bible daily and not go on until I am certain I understand what is being discussed.

(4) I will allow others to believe what they want but I will never be reluctant to profess what I believe just because I could not justify it with faith passages from the bible. What I believe is my own perspective of what I have been taught from the Bible.

Several years ago I asked my adult Sunday School class a special question. We were talking about how easy it was to have faith. I asked, "If Jesus came into this room today and said, 'Come, follow Me,' would any of you be able to walk away from your job, your friends, and your family to follow Jesus?" The answers ranged from, "What a stupid question! We all know the next time Christ comes to earth will be the end of the world," to "God would never make us choose between Him and our families." In other words, our faith is okay as long as we are not asked to do anything we would rather not do. The impact this class has made on my life for the future is to help me want to strengthen my faith so I can say, "You bet I will!" and be grateful to be called.

-Dennis Bratcher, ed., Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher and CRI/Voice, Institute
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