The Bible has been the subject of numerous and varying opinions.
Many people have not liked it. The great French philosopher Voltaire predicted the Bible would vanish within a hundred years. He said that more than two hundred years ago—in the eighteenth century. His kind of skepticism may have been rare when he lived, but it became more common place in the following century. One historian writes, “By the nineteenth century Westerners were already more certain that atoms exist than they were confident of any of the distinctive things the Bible speaks of.” By the twentieth century, great sections of the formerly “Christian” parts of the world had fallen into official skepticism about the Bible. A Dictionary of Foreign Words, published by the Soviet government about fifty years ago, defined the Bible as, “A collection of different legends, mutually contradictory and written at different times and full of historical errors, issued by churches as a ‘holy’ book.”
At the same time, many people have had a very high opinion of the Bible. Ambrose, bishop of Milan in the fourth century, described the Bible beautifully when he said, “As in paradise, God walks in the Holy Scriptures seeking man.” Immanuel Kant once stated, “A single line in the Bible has consoled me more than all the books I have ever read.” Daniel Webster said of it, “I pity the man who cannot find in it a rich supply of thought and of rules for conduct.” Abraham Lincoln called it “the best gift God has given to man.” He also claimed, “But for it we could not know right from wrong.” Theodore Roosevelt said, “A thorough knowledge of the Bible is worth more than a college education.” Certainly one of the most profound understandings of the Bible comes from the great Greek scholar A. T. Robertson, who attested, “Give a man an open Bible, an open mind, a conscience in good working order, and he will have a hard time to keep from being a Baptist.”
Some people believe they have great faith in the Bible, yet their sincerity is no guarantee of understanding. King Menelik II, the emperor of Ethiopia a hundred years ago, had great faith in the Bible. Whenever he felt sick, he ripped a few pages from the holy book and ate them! This was his regular practice, and it never did seem to harm him. He was recovering from a stroke in December 1913, when he began to feel particularly sick. He asked an aide to tear out the complete books of 1 and 2 Kings and feed them to him page by page. He died before he could eat both books. Whether you like the Bible or not, it has certainly been popular. It is an all-time bestseller. Polls show that Americans generally say they believe the Bible.
Yet the book is probably more purchased than read. Most Americans may not have the gastronomic fervor of King Menelik, which is just fine; but they may also have less knowledge of the Bible than he did. Pollster George Gallup reports:
Americans revere the Bible, but they don’t read it. And because they don’t read it, they have become a nation of biblical illiterates. Four Americans in five believe the Bible is the literal or inspired Word of God, and yet only 4 in 10 could tell you that it was Jesus who gave the Sermon on the Mount and fewer than half can name the Four Gospels.... The cycle of biblical illiteracy seems likely to continue—today’s teenagers know even less about the Bible than do adults. The celebration of Easter ... is central to the faith, yet 3 teenagers in 10—20 percent of regular churchgoing teens—do not even know why Easter is celebrated. The decline in Bible reading is due in part to the widely held conviction that the Bible is inaccessible and less emphasis on religious training in the churches.
It is exactly such ignorance we hope to help remove with this study. You or I may not be able to learn everything about Christianity in one fell swoop. In fact, I am certain we cannot. But I do hope to bring your attention to the overarching theme of the Bible as well as the basic message of Christianity, or what is called “the gospel.”
Many people are surprised to hear that the Bible has any sort of overarching theme or story. It is well known as a collection of books. As one Bible scholar put it:
No less than sixty-six separate books, one of which consists itself of one hundred and fifty separate compositions, immediately stare us in the face. These treatises come from the hands of at least thirty distinct writers, scattered over a period of some fifteen hundred years, and embrace specimens of nearly every kind of writing known among men. Histories, codes of law, ethical maxims, philosophical treatises, discourses, dramas, songs, hymns, epics, biographies, letters both official and personal, vaticinations....
Their writers, too, were of like diverse kinds. The time of their labors stretches from the hoary past of Egypt to and beyond the bright splendor of Rome under Augustus....
We may look, however, on a still greater wonder. Let us once penetrate beneath all this primal diversity and observe the internal character of the volume, and a most striking unity is found to pervade the whole.... The parts are so linked together that the absence of any one book would introduce confusion and disorder. The same doctrine is taught from beginning to end.... Each book, indeed, adds something in clearness, definition, or even increment, to what the others proclaim.
Clearly, the Bible is made up of many parts. Yet this book is one whole: “utter diversity in origin of these books, and yet utter nicety of combination of one with all.” It tells one great story.
The storyline that we will follow—and the outline of the next six chapters—is the story of promises made and promises kept. God makes promises to his people in the Old Testament, and he keeps his promises in the New Testament. This message of promises made and promises kept is the most important message in all the world, including for you. Maybe you will “get it” in this study. Or maybe it will get you. As Martin Luther said, “The Bible is alive, it speaks to me; it has feet, it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold on me.” I pray that happens to you.