We stood in the desert heat, squinting into the sun as the tour guide pointed toward a tiny cave entrance a few hundred yards away. “That’s the cave,” he announced to our sweaty tour group. We all took our photographs and marveled at the cavern that lay across the steep valley. The cave was special—a place where tourists were not allowed to enter.
According to our guide, a bored Bedouin shepherd boy named Muhammed was throwing rocks into the cliff’s cave entrances when he heard a smashing sound come from one of them. He had hit a ceramic storage jar, and within it were ancient scrolls, hundreds of years old. He took them back to his father, and they eventually made their way to an antiquities dealer where someone recognized them for what they were. One of the rolls was 1,000 years older than any known copy already in existence. Scholars were astonished at the preservation of these documents. Fortunately, the conditions in the cave had been ideal for preventing their destruction over time. In the months and years that followed, scholars recovered over 900 documents from 11 different caves in the area.
Of course, the place we were standing at was Qumran near the Dead Sea in Israel, and the tour guide was pointing out what is known as cave number four, where more than 90 percent of the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947. A fair number of the scrolls were copies of scripture in Hebrew, remarkably similar to what we read in the Bible today.
I wonder what you think of when you hear the word Bible? Maybe you have one on your bookshelf and are familiar with it. Maybe you shake your head and roll your eyes that anyone would take it seriously. Perhaps you have been confronted with words from the Bible, but they felt more like a weapon than encouragement. I’ve seen these reactions and many more. Growing up, I knew my family had a Bible on the bookshelf, but we never opened it for reading. I really didn’t know what was in it.
For much of my youth, I didn’t really care about this ancient book. The church I grew up in had a Bible in the pulpit, and I would hear sermons from it. But I didn’t understand them, and they didn’t really seem to be about anything I could relate to. To be sure, I was taught a few of the stories. Noah and his ark. Daniel in the lions’ den. Even some stories about Jesus. But other than that, I knew only one thing. Somehow, the Bible was God’s book.
Later in life, going through difficult times, I wondered whether the Bible could help me. One day, I wandered into a bookstore, bought a Bible, took it home, and placed it next to my bed, hoping that somehow its presence would make my life better, as though it were a magic talisman.
It didn’t work. It turns out I had forgotten the most basic thing about the Bible. It’s a collection of stories that are for reading. And to get the most out of it, I needed to open it. The Bible contains 66 books, and each of them tells a story about encounters with God and how these interactions changed people’s lives.
Those scrolls found in the Judaean desert showed that the stories we read in the Bible today are the same stories that were recorded thousands of years ago—unsanitized, unembellished tales of people who, in the course of their lives, experienced God’s intervention.
Some of the stories describe the Hebrew people and their miraculous escape from slavery in Egypt. Some books record the acts of the kings who ruled Israel and Judah. There are passages that would rival the sordid tales from Game of Thrones. There are also stories of war and brutal battles against ferocious enemies.
But there are also stories and poems from people heartsick and crying out to God, wondering why He won’t answer them. There are words from people who were afraid. People who had regrets in their lives. People who needed help.
There are stories of young women in strange lands, accounts of people who had everything in life but then lost it all, and tales of political intrigue and revenge. The Bible holds nothing back and does not seek to make its characters look perfect. But despite the failures, the Bible carefully shows how each of these people encountered God.
more than simply stories
When you read the stories at the front of the Bible, you begin to see a common thread running through them. You will sense a consistency, a story line that, despite being written over the course of hundreds of years by different people, conveys the same message of hope. God is telling His people that one day He will intervene to fix their issues. Isaiah 9:6 says it this way, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given. . . . And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” This consistency, this message, shows that God inspired each of these authors to write their experiences with Him. Others recognized the truth of what they wrote, and that’s why the books were valued as sacred.
God wanted these stories to inspire, encourage, and teach others who were searching for Him. It might seem overstated, but these ancient words echoed far into the future. One example is from the book of Micah and his description of a promised son. “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times” (Micah 5:2). If this prophecy came to pass, it would show that more than just human imagination was inspiring the stories written in the Bible.
Remarkably, the prophecy of Micah 5:2 was precisely fulfilled. Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the One who had been promised and written about centuries earlier. The New Testament goes on to relate the stories of Jesus and his followers, stories recorded by those who knew Jesus, those who were intimately acquainted with Him. They were written when there would have been plenty to gainsay their account, but we don’t see that happening in the written documents. Instead, we see such non-Christian historians as Josephus also noting the life of Jesus.
As I began to read the Bible, I noticed it was having an unmistakable impact on my life. Its stories changed me. I would hear Jesus tell His listeners, “You have heard that it was said ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43, 44). Those words would ring in my ears and persist in my thoughts all day long. Whom do I consider to be my enemies? How do I treat them? How should I treat them? How would my life be different if I moved away from hate and toward loving and praying for those who have harmed me? I found myself changing because of the words I was reading. Later, I read that “the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). And I found that to be true. The inspired words in the Bible were changing me for the better. That’s because the Bible isn’t just about others encountering God. It is about you and me encountering Him.
So if your first impulse is a shrug when someone mentions the Bible, I invite you to take a second look. You will find it to be the most astonishing book you have ever read. A book that just might change your life!
Justin Bone supports and trains Seventh-day Adventist pastors and congregations in Victoria, Australia. He is passionate about helping people understand the Bible better.