What is the Bible? – why the Bible matters

What is the Bible? Was it written by human beings, or by God? Can we trust it? And what difference does that make to us? In this session we look at why the Bible is so important to understand.

Links mentioned in the video

Three books for beginners to help beginners understand the Bible.

Interview with Andy Brown about Bible reading.

If you’d like to find out more about the Bible, you can try a course here on the website or subscribe to the Understand the Bible YouTube channel.

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Does God give us what we want?

Verses such as Psalm 37:4 say that God fulfils our desires. But what does that mean? Why is it that so much of the time it seems like we don’t have everything that we want?

Key Points

  • Psalm 37:4 suggests that God does fulfil our desires: “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” – so why does that seem so alien to our experience?
  • There are two wrong ways of looking at desire:
    1. Our desires are all sinful and wrong (asceticism). This is the belief that godliness is denying ourselves of everything, people such as Simeon Stylites. However, this is wrong because of e.g. 1 Timothy 4:3-5 – God made good things in the world to be received with thanks. Our desires are not all wrong.
    2. Our desires are everything (hedonism). This is the belief that we should seek for all our desires to be fulfilled all the time – think about the song I Want it All by Queen. BUT – this is wrong because we are not to do what we want (Galatians 5:17), plus when we get our desires we often them empty (see the book of Ecclesiastes, such as Eccl. 2:10-11).
  • Does this mean we are stuck with one of these two options, or somewhere in between?
  • There is a third way! “God + Desire = fulfilment”.
  • The first part of Psalm 37:4 is “Take delight in the Lord”. When we desire God first and foremost, then we can really start enjoying everything else.
    • We enjoy good things as a gift from God (James 1:17)
    • We ask our heavenly Father for the things we want (James 4:1-3)
    • We mustn’t be resentful for when God doesn’t give us things! God is not a cosmic killjoy.
    • God often wants us to have a deeper fulfilment than we could desire for ourselves.
  • Ultimately, our desires are fulfilled in Jesus – as God forgives us for our sin (including sinful desires), and makes us new by giving us new desires.

Explore Further

The series on Ecclesiastes is on the YouTube playlist.

Your questions answered

This is part of the Your questions answered feature. See that page for more videos in the series.

If you have a question about Christianity or the Bible, please send them in or comment below.

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Why did God command Abraham to sacrifice Isaac?

In Genesis 22, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Although in the end Abraham did not have to sacrifice Isaac, it still raises questions: why did God make the command in the first place? The answer to this question appears if we stand back to look at the bigger picture.

Key points

  • Child sacrifice was a serious offence to God – it was forbidden under penalty of death (Leviticus 20:2)
  • Jesus loved children – for example Mark 10:13-16
  • So why did God command it?
  • v1 says that God “tested” Abraham
    • Testing is an exercise in trust. v5 and v8 suggest that Abraham thought he was going to come back with Isaac and that God would provide a sacrifice.
    • In v12 the angel says “Now I know you fear the Lord” – there’s often a difference between knowing something intellectually, and knowing it so that it makes a difference.
    • The quote is taken from C.S. Lewis’ book A Grief Observed
  • In v13-14 we see that God himself does provide. What’s the big picture?
    • v2 says that Abraham was going to the region of “Moriah” – only found in one other place in the Bible (2 Chron 3:1) – where the temple was built. God is giving is a picture.
    • Who did provide their only loved son as a sacrifice? – God!
    • Genesis 22 is a lesson for us, that God’s blessings come through sacrifice – but that God himself provides the sacrifice.
  • Why was it right for God to sacrifice Jesus? – John 10:17-18. Jesus laid down his life – it wasn’t like human beings sacrificing an innocent child!

Explore further

The video that provoked this question was about understanding violence in the Old Testament.

Your questions answered

This is part of the Your questions answered feature. See that page for more videos in the series.

If you have a question about Christianity or the Bible, please send them in or comment below.

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How do we understand violence in the Old Testament?

People often find the violence in the Old Testament off-putting. Why is there so much violence? And why does God seem to command it sometimes? In this video we look briefly at how we should understand violence in the Old Testament.

Key points…

  • We need to distinguish between two kinds of violence in the Old Testament.
  • First, the violence which people do.
    • We often read about violence in the papers – this is because the violence is factual! The Bible often reports factual violence without condoning it.
    • Why is it included? Because shows the depth of human sin.
    • Similar to the book Lord of the Flies, where the violence there is shocking holds up a mirror to human nature.
    • The violence shows us what human nature is like.
  • Second, the violence which God does or commands, e.g. the command to drive out the Canaanites and other nations from the Promised Land.
    • This command was giving because of the sin of the Canaanites (Leviticus 20:23). The command to drive them out was actually a judgement upon them.
    • The uncomfortable truth is that God’s character remains consistent across the Old Testament and New Testament: he is loving to those who trust in him, but he punishes sin and wickedness.
    • Compare Nahum 1:2-3, 7-8 with Revelation 19:11-21.
    • God will defeat his enemies in the end because he is just and cannot leave sin unpunished.
  • BUT – Jesus did not come into the world to condemn the world but save the world (John 3:16-17). The offer stands open to anyone to come to him and not receive what our sins deserve, but to find forgiveness.

Explore further

There’s a whole session of the What is Christianity? course on the Old Testament.

Your questions answered

This is part of the Your questions answered feature. See that page for more videos in the series.

If you have a question about Christianity or the Bible, please send them in or comment below.

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Do you have to go to Church to be a Christian?

People often say that you don’t have to go to church to be a Christian. But this is a misunderstanding: church in the Bible is not something that you can actually go to.

This session is part of the Your Questions Answered series.

Key Points

  • Church is NOT…
    • A building. In the New Testament, a building is NEVER called a church.
    • A meeting. Again, in the New Testament, church is never called an event (like a service).
  • Church is always the people. A building or an event is only church inasmuch as it’s about the people.
  • In a sense, you can’t go to church. If you’re a Christian, you ARE church.
  • A lot of people seem to think of church like a social club, or something which we can dip in and out of. But actually we should see church like seeing our family.
  • When we come to Christ, God puts us in a family of believers. He gives us a whole new family. In fact, in Mark 3:31-35, Jesus says that anyone who does God’s will is in his family.
  • So asking “Can I be a Christian without going to church?” is like saying, “Can I be in a family without seeing my family?”
  • We need to change our mindset! Being a Christian means loving others, especially loving our church. It’s not about “going to church” – it’s about being with our families.

Explore further

There’s a whole session on church as part of the How to live as a Christian course.

You might also like Heidelberg session #21 on The Church.

Your questions answered

This is part of the Your questions answered feature. See that page for more videos in the series.

If you have a question about Christianity or the Bible, please send them in or comment below.

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Should Christians get involved in Politics?

The Bible doesn’t tell us which political party to vote for. But, it does give us some principles to think about politics. In this session we take a brief look at some of those principles.

This session is part of the Your Questions Answered series.

Key points

  • The Bible gives us some principles which help us to think about politics. This session looks at five principles that help us think about political engagement as Christians.
  • #1: God made everything – Psalm 24:1. Christians should not be concerned just about themselves but concerned for everyone to worship and serve God.
  • #2: Real change comes through proclaiming the gospel. Faith comes through hearing the gospel (Romans 10:14, 17). This is how societies really change.
  • #3: Politics can aid the proclamation of the gospel. Many of us in the Western world have benefitted from a government which is broadly Christian. People involved in politics such as Thomas Cromwell have made a very big difference to Christians in this country.
  • #4: God calls us to care about others. Proverbs 31:8 – we are called to speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves. Some people feel a special call by God to go into politics to help people in this way.
  • #5: Politics has limitations. Psalm 118:8-9 – it’s better to trust in God than to trust in human beings. At the end of the day, humans have limited power and not every inequality or issue in society can be fixed. God is the only one who can solve all those things, and we should look to him.
  • We finish by looking at two examples, William Wilberforce (who was instrumental in abolishing the slave trade) and Black Lives Matter. I think these illustrate that politics can be a force for good, but at the end of the day only God can change people’s hearts.

Explore further

There’s a lot more you could say about Christians and politics! I’ve written a few posts on my own blog about politics which you might appreciate:

I hope that some of those are helpful.

Your questions answered

This is part of the Your questions answered feature. See that page for more videos in the series.

If you have a question about Christianity or the Bible, please send them in or comment below.

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Main difference between Protestants and Catholics

What is the main difference between Protestants and Roman Catholics? When I ask people if they have any questions about Christianity, one thing which often comes up is what the differences are between denominations. It’s a good question! It would take far too long to go into all the distinctions – some of them are more important than others. The most important one (in my opinion) is the main thing which divides Catholics and Protestants. It is justification by faith alone.

The key points

  • There are lots of different denominations with lots of differences. This is a question people often ask. Some differences are small and insignificant, some are bigger.
  • In this session, we’ll focus on the most fundamental difference between Protestants and Catholics – there is one which is most significant.
  • It is justification by faith alone (I should have made clearer in the video: it’s a doctrine which Roman Catholicism rejects – see the books below for more information about that).
  • It is taught in the Bible in places such as Ephesians 2:8-10, which teaches:
    1. We are saved by God’s grace – his unmerited favour (GRACE = God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense);
    2. Through faith – our faith is the empty hand which clings onto God’s promises (“nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling” – Rock of Ages);
    3. This is not from ourselves – we cannot even claim the faith that we have to be something good which we’ve done ourselves;
    4. So that no-one can boast.
  • The reason this doctrine is so important is for two reasons. Firstly, because otherwise we could become proud. The Bible does not allow us to take any personal pride in achieving our salvation! It is not at all down to us.
  • Secondly, because of where it leads. If you go down the ‘we deserve salvation’ road, you will end up in a very different place. Ultimately only justification by faith alone frees us to love God and others.

Explore further

I appreciate this is only a brief introduction! If this is a topic which interests you, you might like to read further.

The book I mention in the video is called Freedom Movement by Mike Reeves. It’s a (VERY) short and readable introduction to the Reformation and is available from 10 of those.

For a more detailed book you might also like Why the Reformation Still Matters by Mike Reeves and Tim Chester, available here.

The Heidelberg Catechism course is available here, but the specific video I mention is part #24 – Why are good deeds not enough? This deals with the issue of why it’s so important to believe in ‘faith alone’.

Your questions answered

This is part of the Your questions answered feature. See that page for more videos in the series.

If you have a question about Christianity or the Bible, please send them in or comment below.

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How should Christians keep Sabbath?

One of the things which has cropped up several times over the last few weeks is thinking about the Sabbath. Before Christmas, my wife’s book group read The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry by John Mark Comer. Then I listened to an episode of the Cooper & Cary podcast about Sabbath. All this has got me thinking about the Sabbath commandment.

It’s a command that I’ve always struggled with a bit. When I was younger, the chief thing I remember about Sundays is that I wasn’t allowed to watch TV like normal! We went to church in the morning and the evening, and I would often play with a friend in the afternoon. It certainly felt like a different kind of a day. But is that right? What does the Bible say? And how should Christians think about the Sabbath?

It’s a big question and I don’t pretend to have all the answers here! There’s a session in the Heidelberg Catechism on the Sabbath Day, and there I link to a helpful article by John Piper, you might like to have a look at those as well. But let’s dive in and see what we can learn from the commandment first of all.

The Sabbath Commandment

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

Exodus 20:8-11

The Ten Commandments are repeated in Deuteronomy (shortly before the Israelites enter the Promised Land). Interestingly, the commandment there is slightly different. Instead of “For in six days…”, it finishes:

Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.

Deuteronomy 5:15

Let’s think about a few basic principles which we can draw from this.

Sabbath Principles

One day per week

The first principle is the clear pattern of ‘one day a week’. Work for six days, then have a day of rest. In the Cooper & Cary podcast I mentioned above, they talked about a fascinating article from someone who tried working a seven-day work week. He tried working the same pattern every day, seven days a week, and just tried to build enough rest into each day so he could manage it. It just didn’t work out in the end:

Overall, I feel like the 7-day work week failed because of lack of an extended period of renewal. My hypothesis – that a couple of extra hours during the day and fewer overall daily hours working would be enough – was invalidated in my experience.

It does seem like there is something built into our nature that means we need to take a day off per week. We human beings cannot work continually, even if we have rest time during each day. We need rest. Everyone needs daily time to sleep, along with occasional longer breaks, and we need the weekly rhythm of a day off.

It’s for the whole community

One of the things it would be easy to miss about the commandment is that it’s given to the whole community – “you, your son or daughter, your servant”, etc. In other words, it’s not simply an individualistic ideal but something which is for the whole people of God. This is why Christians have traditionally met together in church on a Sunday (more on that in a minute). Sabbath is not simply a private, individual activity but something which the whole community should get involved with.

This is important for 21st Century Westerners to understand: we live in a world where everything is very individualistic. We live our own private lives, and meeting other people is something which happens almost as an optional extra – something which is an addition to our lives. By contrast, the Bible puts community front and centre. We are individuals, yes, but we are saved as part of a bigger family – the people of God, the church. Sabbath doesn’t involve just us but the whole people of God.

It’s about “Rest”

People resting in a hammock

One of the most intriguing things to me about the Sabbath commandment is the last line (from Exodus 20) – “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth…” So there is a pattern, built into the very fabric of creation itself: God made everything in six days, then rested (Genesis 2:2-3).

Rest is actually a very important concept in the Bible. It’s more than simply ‘putting your feet up’. It’s more like a state of mind, or being. Think about the seventh day when God rested: when did that day end? There’s no “and there was evening, and there was morning” to finish the day. It’s almost as if the seventh day continued indefinitely – and still continues today. Is God resting still? I think Genesis leaves that question wide open, intentionally.

So what does ‘rest’ mean? Let’s turn to Revelation 14:13, which says:

“Then I heard a voice from heaven say, ‘Write this: blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labour, for their deeds will follow them.’”

Rest here is something that Christians enter into when they die. They will rest from their “labour”. I don’t believe this is something a simple as the earthly work that we do. It’s more fundamental than that: it’s the work that we do in order to earn favour with God. We human beings naturally think that we need to work – to do good deeds – to earn favour with God. This is how human life is set up: if you don’t work, you don’t earn; if you don’t earn, you don’t eat. (As a general rule – let’s ignore the question of the welfare state for now!)

So rest is not putting your feet up: it’s more fundamental than that. It means trusting in God’s grace: trusting that our deeds can never be enough to earn favour with God, and trusting that he alone is the one who provides our spiritual and physical needs. Sabbath, therefore, is about letting go of our own efforts to earn and trusting in God’s grace. I think this is why the second version of the commandment (from Deuteronomy) talks about bringing the Israelites out of Egypt: it wasn’t something they earned or did by their own efforts! God brought them out by his grace.

The Sabbath rest is designed to teach us that our works are not enough, but that God’s grace is enough. Therefore is it not about stopping working as such, but about not earning.

Keeping it holy

The final Sabbath principle we’ll think about is that the Sabbath should be ‘kept holy’. What does that mean? ‘Holy’ is a word that describes God. It’s hard to define concisely – it means God in his perfection, splendour, righteousness, justice, etc. God is the ‘most most-est‘. When we say he is holy we are saying he is perfect love, perfect light, everything good and perfect is contained within him.

So what does it mean to keep the Sabbath holy? Partly it means resting, as we looked at in the previous section. But I believe it includes more than that: it includes things like worshipping God together, learning from the Bible, and so on. Doing activities which are more explicitly ‘Christian’, if you like.

This is another reason why traditionally Christians have gone to church on a Sunday: it is the day set aside for corporate worship, when the whole church comes together. Personally I couldn’t imagine a Sunday without meeting as a church – it’s such an ingrained part of my life now! This doesn’t mean we can’t have church on other days, but rather that there is something special when the whole church meets together on the Lord’s Day.

Why Sunday rather than Saturday?

T-shirt with message "Jesus kept the sabbath every Saturday"

The Eagle-eyed among you may have spotted that the Sabbath pattern is to work for six days, then rest. If Sunday is the first day of the week, then this would mean the Sabbath day was a Saturday – as it was for the Old Testament people of Israel, and continues to be for Jewish people today. Why did the early church decide to change this day to a Sunday? Are we being disobedient to God by having Sabbath on a Sunday instead of a Saturday?

I don’t believe so. Early Christians changed the day of the Sabbath because Sunday was the day the Lord Jesus rose from the dead (all four gospels make clear that Jesus was risen on the first day of the week). Sunday is the day we celebrate the resurrection, when we can celebrate entering into the rest which God has promised us.

So how should Christians keep the Sabbath?

One of the things I like about the Sabbath commandment is that it’s actually quite open-ended. It doesn’t specify you must do this or that. Even the commandment not to work doesn’t actually say what that actually means. For example, in some jobs such as farming there are things which have to be done each day. You can’t stop feeding animals on the Sabbath – that would be a cruel thing to do!

In a dispute about what was lawful to do on the Sabbath, Jesus said: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” Jesus said that the Sabbath is made for us and our benefit. It’s not some arbitrary rule which we need to keep just because God doesn’t like us to have fun on one day! It’s supposed to be something which is beneficial and enjoyable for us.

So I think obsessing about what is and is not permissible on the Sabbath day misses the point. It’s up to our own conscience and situation to decide what is and is not appropriate for us. I don’t think a rule-based approach is really helpful.

I would say as a rule of thumb the following might be helpful:

  • Attending church at least once to worship with other Christians and hear from his word;
  • Maybe spend time socialising with other Christians – the ministers at my old church used to invite people round for lunch after church regularly;
  • Rest from whatever work it is that you usually do, and remember that with God you do not have to earn;
  • Spend some time doing something you enjoy with your friends / family and give thanks to God for it.

Give us your two pence!

Do you have any more insights about Sabbath? Have you found anything particularly helpful? Are there things you can recommend? Let us know in the comments below!

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