Tucked away in my bedroom drawer are a handful of badges I used to wear. One of them says ‘Are we nearly there yet?’ When I spot it, the memory of a thousand car journeys with young children come back to me. And the truth was that sometimes we were almost there but so often there was still a long way to go.
In a sense, that’s the story of the second part of the New Testament. After the gospels, we get 23 glimpses of what it was like to be part of the people who followed Jesus in the years after his resurrection. Some days everything seemed to be going swimmingly, with generosity, miracles and wonders surrounding them from dawn till dusk. At other times, you begin to think some people had just joined the early church in order to squabble and disagree with each other.
What makes the Bible accounts of these early Jesus followers special is that there’s so much to discover from the bad times as well as the good. The church in Corinth had more than its fair share of problems, but there was hope, too. When I tried to sum up what could be learnt from Paul’s second letter to them for Bible in Ten, this is what I came up with:
‘What makes the Bible accounts of these early Jesus followers special is that there’s so much to discover from the bad times as well as the good.’
If we feel fragile, it doesn’t mean we’re not useful. Even when our bones ache, our hearts are still beating. We may seem crazy but we’re crazy for the right reasons. The most beautiful message has been given to us to share, so don’t let quarrels or big-headedness cast a shadow across the sunshine of God’s love.
Tougher times than these
Of course, you don’t only find out about the early church in the New Testament, you also discover a fair bit about its leaders, especially Paul, who doesn’t always get a good press. If you ever have doubts about him, take a look perhaps at one of his letters that gets read less frequently, such as 1 Thessalonians. At the end of my introduction to it in Bible in Ten, I decided to sum up what I’d discovered about Paul there:
He’s not a one-man band but part of a team.
He tells it like it is – straightforwardly.
He pays his way whenever he can.
He knows not to worry about the detail but to trust God.
He is concerned about how others are doing.
Too often, we read the Bible for wise instruction and skip past the moments where we get glimpses of people living their lives in even tougher times than these. In his second letter to Timothy, Paul asks his younger friend if he can bring his coat when he visits. He is in a dungeon, in chains, and winter is coming.
‘Paul asks his younger friend if he can bring his coat when he visits. He is in a dungeon, in chains, and winter is coming.’
In spite of that, he’s writing to help Timothy take the right routes through the complications of life:
Don’t get drawn into nit-picking about details. The church, like everything else, is a real assortment. Become one of the best bits of that mixture.
One chance to explain
This letter is, in essence, some final instructions to a young friend. It makes an interesting challenge for a Bible study group to do the same. Scribble down and share what you might want to say to someone about a life of faith if you had one last chance.
I picked out five things that Paul said to Timothy:
1 Stay true for it’s a joy to see who you’ve become.
2 Work with a team you trust and don’t get drowned in detail.
3 Read the scriptures and sense the very breath of God.
4 Be kind, patient, useful, cheerful.
5 And may God’s love be there in all you do.
Focus on what resonates
Like anything you read, some parts of the Bible will resonate more than others. Take the letter to the Hebrews. The writer talks about Melchizedek the priest, who comes across as something of a mysterious figure. If you know your Old Testament through and through, the writer’s argument can be followed. If you don’t, you’ll probably be scratching your head, but there’s still plenty in the letter that will strike a chord.
So focus first on what does speak to you in the Bible without worrying too much about what doesn’t at a particular moment. And what strikes me most of all in Hebrews is that sense of people being on a journey:
‘Like anything you read, some parts of the Bible will resonate more than others.’
We step out with confidence because we’ve discovered someone who makes that possible. However long the road seems, wherever it goes, we don’t travel alone. Jesus is with us, breathing through everything we do, bringing us close to God. Our belief isn’t a set of rules; our trust is in Jesus, who is the same yesterday, today and forever.
Like so much good writing, the Bible is shot through with pictures in words, and the New Testament finishes with a good example of that in Revelation. John’s dreams and visions are drenched in memorable images. You get worship with the sparkle factor fully in place: thrones, jewels, rainbows, torches.
It’s easy to get absorbed by how vivid the vision is and perhaps concentrate less on what John is saying. He actually finishes his book with a warning about not misreading or misusing it. That was still a concern when the New Testament was being put together.
‘Revelation: worship with the sparkle factor fully in place – thrones, jewels, rainbows, torches.’
So the final words of Bible in Ten found me trying to pick out the heart of what John is saying. I don’t often feel pressure but perhaps a little bit in trying to get these words right!
Remember who you once were and how you were forgiven. Hold on and you’ll come through like stars that light the dark night sky. When God calls, open the door as he makes all things new again. Out of chaos comes a world without grief. Step out of the shadows. Choose life.
I’m glad the Bible finishes with Revelation, because it talks about where all our journeys end. We may not be there yet but one day we will be.