1. How Did We Get the Bible We Have?

Matthew 5:17-20

Reading a book from the past is like taking a journey to another land. For all its timelessness, the Bible also has that distant feel to it. After all, it was written over two millennia ago. Its roots do go back to a different time and place.

All of that distance raises questions about whether or not what I read really belongs only to such a distant world. Does the Bible really reflect what that world was like, much less what my world is like? So it is natural to ask the question if the Bible is really trustworthy in its content.


What book took you on your favorite journey as a child? Where did you go?


Nearly two thousand years ago, the apostle Matthew listened to Jesus on the Sermon on the Mount and recorded his words, which we find in chapters 5-7 of Matthew's Gospel. Jesus' teaching is sometimes perplexing: "Blessed are the poor in spirit." "Blessed are those who mourn." "Blessed are the meek." He calls his disciples "the salt of the earth" and "the light of the world."

Then Jesus says this: "Do not think that I am doing away with what the Law or Prophets taught, for I am the fulfillment of all their teaching." Read Matthew 5:17-20.

17"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven."

  1. What does Jesus mean when he speaks of "the Law and the Prophets"?
  2. How does Jesus see his teaching and ministry in relation to the Scriptures?
  3. If you had been with the group listening to Jesus, what do you think your response would have been after he spoke these words in verse 17? Confusion? Doubt? Fear?

The term canon means a "measuring reed" and refers to a standard that is applied to some topic. When biblical books are described as the canon, they are identified as those books that the church has for centuries looked to as revealing God's way and will, those works inspired by God. The books contained in the Bible were written over a period of about fifteen hundred years, up through the first century a.d. The New Testament canon contains twenty-seven books. Once it was finalized in the mid-fourth century, it has never been challenged—until recently.

When it comes to what we call the Old Testament, the process of recognition of sacred books was pretty much complete by the time of Christ.

  1. How were the biblical books of the canon recognized?
  2. Note again the statement, "When it comes to what we call the Old Testament, the process of recognition of sacred books was pretty much complete by the time of Christ." What does this information tell us about Jesus' audience and their knowledge of the Scriptures?
  3. Read again Matthew 5:17-18. What does this passage reveal about Jesus' own view of the reliability and authority of the Scriptures?

The initial message of the first Christians combined a message about what Jesus said and did with what was written in "the Scripture." In effect, the earliest Christians accepted the sacred books of Judaism as their Scripture. The books we now possess were consistently named as Scripture, with only a few books being disputed now and then as to whether they should be included. The rule seems to have been, If a book is really in doubt, leave it out.

The canon emerged through a long and careful process of reflection in which the church, considering what it believed and what these books taught, embraced some as reflective of its faith in a way that caused it to recognize, receive and affirm their inspiration. By the end of the second century, the core of what became the New Testament was recognized. Many other works continued to be assessed in the next two centuries that followed. The list of recognized books, once it emerged, has since served as the New Testament.

  1. Does the idea that "the rule seems to have been—if a book is really in doubt, leave it out" give you more or less confidence in the reliability of the Scriptures? Why?
  2. Have you ever wondered whether the Bible is really God's Word—his personal revelation to you? When does this question seem to surface for you?
  3. Read again Matthew 5:19. The NIV says, "Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments"; other Bible translations read "relaxes" or "annuls." With these additional word pictures, summarize what you think Jesus is saying in this passage.
  4. What is the connection between "practices" and "teaches" in verse 19 with "righteousness" in verse 20?
  5. Jesus says in Matthew 5:6, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled." In what ways is righteousness a good thing? Why does Jesus want people to be righteous?
  6. Look again at your response to question 3. After studying this passage, has your response to Jesus' words changed or remained the same? Explain.


Journal or consider some of the questions you have about God and the Bible, perhaps giving more attention to the second part of question 8: When does this question seem to surface for you?

Additional Reading

Michael Green, The Books the Church Suppressed (Grand Rapids: Monarch, 2006).