Previous | Next

Spring 2021 · Vol. 50 No. 1 · pp. 97–106 

Getting into the Story: An Introduction

Rod Schellenberg

Here, in my hand, I have the very first Bible I owned. Circa 1976. It’s a Living Bible, a paraphrase popular at that time. What The Message became for the early 2000s, The Living Bible was for the 1960s and 70s. It includes color pictures, and words that I could understand as a child. Yet, to me, it seemed un-Bible-like. Not as “holy” as those verses I memorized for Sunday School, in their elegant King James English. Funny thing, this idea of being “relevant.”

The authority of Scripture comes from Jesus, the Word made flesh, the one who understands and has revealed the heart of the Father.

You may have grown up unfamiliar with the Bible. Or perhaps you’re like me, and by the time you reached adulthood you had accumulated a shelf full of Bibles. Whatever your background, what’s one of your earliest associations with this book?

Another childhood memory: a Sunday School song about the Bible. It starts like this: “The B-I-B-L-E. Yes, that’s the book for me!” {98}

The Bible is, admittedly, a book . . . of a sort. Significant portions of what we now find bound between these covers began as oral tradition. Learned and passed along for years until, one day, some ancient person or persons collected these sayings and stories and scratched them onto some sort of ancient writing material.

This “book” is also, in truth, sixty-six individual “books” of various lengths. A collection we can divide into two (unequally sized) parts written in three original languages by forty (plus or minus) individual authors, compilers, and editors over the course of about 1,400 years. Then add a couple more centuries for the church to finalize the books that should be included in this one library. For that’s what the B-I-B-L-E is: a small portable library.

Over the past two millennia, this library has been meticulously hand-copied, then, later, typeset, printed, scanned, and posted . . . over and over and over again. Perhaps the greatest collective effort of preservation ever carried out by humankind—not to mention the labor involved to translate this library into thousands of human languages. All to pass along this two-part library.

The first “part”—thirty-nine books in our current English configuration—contains the thirty-six-book Hebrew Bible. It’s written in Hebrew and (a few small parts) in Aramaic, a related Semitic language spoken by Jesus and his friends. Christians share this collection of Scripture with their Jewish sisters and brothers. Traditionally, the Hebrew Bible can be divided into three sections: the Torah (or “Law”) (five books); the Prophets (nineteen books); and the Writings (twelve books).

After these come the Christian Scriptures, written mostly by Jews who had come to believe Jesus was the fulfillment of the Hebrew Bible. Here we find four sections: the Gospels, which tell the story of Jesus (four versions); the story of the beginnings of the church in the single book of Acts; a collection of letters written to churches and individuals (twenty-one of these); and a final book of prophecy that echoes the later prophets of the Hebrew Bible—with a Christian interpretation.

Most “books” can be cataloged into a single section of a library. But because the Bible is a library of its own, it’s more difficult to pin down. There’s poetry, romances, genealogical records, ancient legal codes, personal letters, group letters, biographies, war stories, parables, prayers, proverbs and much, much more, from the staggeringly mundane (how many tent pegs for the tabernacle!) to the most magico-mystical (visions of God as flaming chariot wheels!)

In a library, each of us would gravitate to a different section. For some, it might be automotive magazines; for others, nineteenth-century {99} romances. For some, biographies of World War 2 leaders; for others, a book on organic gardening. I realize each person here has a different level of experience with the Bible—and a different level of interest in books in general—but when you walk into the library that is the Bible, where do you drift? What’s your favorite book or section of the Bible? Why?

“The B-I-B-L-E, yes that’s the book (library?!) for me.” The song goes on: “I stand alone on the word of God . . .” Really? Today? Let’s be honest: the idea of a twenty-first-century Canadian “standing alone” on a book—basing their life on an ancient book—well, that sounds crazy, doesn’t it?

For starters, it seems an overly narrow perspective. Why would you base your life on only one source? Why not pick and choose? These days, you’ve got Google—the fount of all human wisdom!

Second, aren’t books outdated? Can’t I just pull up the video instead? Or follow God’s Twitter account?

Furthermore, isn’t this particular library of books outdated? The Bible comes from so long ago. And it’s written by and for people on a different continent, who spoke ancient languages, whose cultures are long extinct.

Finally, while there may be bits I can pull out—straightforward good advice like “Love your neighbor as yourself”—so much of it is hard to understand. Beasts from the abyss with horns and wings and eyes? Fights in the church over meat slaughtered in pagan temples? Instructions on holy kisses and on (not) cooking goats in milk? Not to mention all those promises of coming doom and destruction upon kings whose names I can’t pronounce? How could a person “stand alone” on such a book? And why would I want to? And I haven’t even mentioned that it’s a book that offends my modern ethical sensibility—all that patriarchy and racial genocide—what’s with that?

Yet, it remains a fact that, like our sister monotheistic religions (Judaism and Islam), Christians are “people of the book.” Our Canadian family of MB churches has always felt strongly about the Bible. “Biblicists,” we’ve been called. Our Confession of Faith—a written summary of our shared core convictions—has this to say about the B-I-B-L-E:

God’s Self-Revelation

We believe that God has made Himself known to all people. God’s power and nature have always been evident in creation. The Old Testament reveals God as the One who established a covenant relationship with Israel to make known to all people {100} the eternal plan of salvation. God revealed Himself supremely in Jesus Christ, as recorded in the New Testament. The Holy Spirit continues to make God known to individuals and the church; this revelation is always consistent with the Scriptures.

The Written Word of God

We believe that the entire Bible was inspired by God through the Holy Spirit. The same Spirit guides the community of faith in the interpretation of Scripture. The person, teaching, and life of Jesus Christ bring continuity and clarity to both the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament bears witness to Christ, and Christ is the One whom the New Testament proclaims. We accept the Bible as the infallible Word of God and the authoritative guide for faith and practice. 1

Our church—this church—claims that this particular library is “the infallible word of God and the authoritative guide for faith and practice.” So, is this “holy” book [note: we don’t call it that!] the “authoritative guide” for your life?

“Uh . . . yeah. Maybe. But . . . gosh . . . it’s so hard to keep up with reading it.” “I’m not a big book person.” “I find it so hard to understand.”

We’re right at the start of a short series we’re calling “Getting into the Story: Coming to Love the Bible Enough to Let It Shape Your Life.” In the weeks ahead, we’ll do our best to give you a few tools that might help you love the Bible just a bit more than you do today—so that it can shape your life. We’ll try to deal with the daunting, to pick away at some of the puzzles, and to get rid of unhealthy guilt.

For today, however, I want us to pause for a few minutes on this question of the Bible being an “authoritative guide” for our lives.

We may think of the authority of the Bible like a loudspeaker, some blowhorn blaring “THOU SHALT . . . or else!” Or maybe we have a gentler sense of its authority: a lecturer carefully explaining the way it is. Or perhaps we have a more mystical sense of holy writ, ominously sacred words dropped straight out of heaven.

If we think of the Bible’s authority as step one, then step two comes down to “li’l ol’ me.” I have to figure out what is being said. For some of us this is a straightforward task. Take the words at “face value.” More skeptical types might dig around a little more. “Well, it could mean . . .” Either way, this step, where I render my understanding of the {101} Bible—exegesis, hermeneutics, interpretation, whatever we might call it—this step rests with me.

As does step three. The putting into practice what I learned. Living it out. We might illustrate it this way:





Living it out

Makes sense, doesn’t it? That’s because we’re modern people. This is the modern approach. This is how we’d approach any written text.

When I open my new IKEA furniture, the first thing I do is dig around for the instructions on how to assemble this designed-in-Scandinavia puzzle. I accept its authority because of the IKEA logo on the corner (and the twenty-three languages on the back). Then I scratch my head for a while as I pull out various look-alike pieces and flip through the booklet. I do this in an effort to understand what’s been written. Eventually, I grab the hex wrench they’ve so generously supplied, and I attempt to live out those instructions until I have a more hip and functional living room.

Authority. Understanding. Living it out. Notice that the real pinch point, the crux, of this approach is step two, in the middle. Coming to a right understanding. Everything hinges on this. And it’s all up to me/us. The other parts don’t matter much if I don’t do this work of coming to know.

Here’s some good news: Jesus isn’t a modern person. Jesus takes our IKEA approach and flips everything on its head. John, chapter 8, picking it up in verse 30:

30 As [Jesus] was saying these things, many believed in him.

31 Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”

34 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36 So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:30-36 NRSV) {102}

We’re going to zoom in on verses 31-32. But first, some context. This scene takes place at a point in Jesus’s public ministry when the religious folks are taking issue with Jesus. He’s making all kinds of strange and wild statements about his authority, about some special connection with the Father—by whom he meant the one God of Israel. Yet people continue to believe Jesus. So, Jesus turns to these believers and gives them a bit of encouragement, explaining that if they stick with him, they’ll find freedom. This, of course, distracts the wider audience: What do you mean we need freedom? Jesus’s “very truly” response might be better translated as: “Are you serious? Like, really, people . . . you can’t see the human propensity to mess everything up? And if you think you can fix this by your religious willpower, you are really clueless. You need a more-than-human-rescuer. Which [hint] is me.” With me, Jesus says, you’ll become “free indeed.” Elsewhere in John he calls it “eternal life” (i.e., “real life”).

But back in verses 31-32, Jesus speaks a simple little encouragement to those who do believe him, who are already entering into this “eternal life.” To you who trust what I’m saying, “If you continue in my word . . .”

Continue. It’s a common word in John’s gospel. It can mean “remain,” “abide,” “stick with,” “stay put,” “keep on with,” “hold onto,” or, more forcefully, “live deeply into.” It’s a word of persistence. It’s a word that takes place through time. “If, through time, you abide in, live deeply into my word . . .”

My word. My logos, meaning not only teachings, but also “pattern,” “logic,” “way of being.” “If you live deeply into my pattern . . .” “If, year after year, day in and day out, you hold on for dear life to my way of being . . .” Imagine Jesus as the coach of a sports team, inviting you to keep on showing up to practice, week after week. To stick with the team no matter what. If you do that, “you are truly my disciples.”

Disciple. A “disciple” is simply a learner. If your life begins to conform to my pattern, Jesus says, then it’ll be obvious to everyone: you’ve become a Jesus-learner. Just keep on showing up. Because that communicates something. It says that you’re taking Jesus seriously. You’re making him your “coach,” the authority for your life.

In Matthew, Jesus invites all of us:

28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30 NRSV)

“You’re burdened, enslaved, weighed down. Let me set you free. Give me authority over your life, instead of your own twisted minds and hearts. Come, learn from me.” “And you will know the truth.” {103}

The truth. To us moderns “the truth” is an abstraction, floating somewhere out there. For Jesus, the truth is concrete, hands-on. (He was a carpenter’s son, after all.) He knew what it meant, for example, to say a wall was true. “True” as in straight, as in the right shape, which means, of course, it’s reliable. (Another example would be the way we speak of a bicycle tire being “true.”) It’s true: you can ride it, you can lean on it, you can build on it. It won’t let you down.

So, Jesus says, ride my pattern, my word. Then (and only then) you’ll know the “trued” way of being. You’ll understand the right shape of a life. Because your own life will be in the process of becoming true, becoming rightly shaped. “Oh, this is how life is supposed to turn.” “What!!? My life isn’t meant to be crooked and wobbly?” “There’s something I can trust?”

Elsewhere, Jesus described himself as “the way, the truth and the life.” This is the truth we come to know: the perfectly reliable Jesus, who, if I stick with him, takes shape in my life. I become trued to his pattern. And then I begin to see, to know. “And the truth will make you free.”

Free. Being trued, you’ll be free to run! You won’t wobble anymore. It’ll be like you’ve been “born again.” You’ll be free to be yourself, because you’re in the process of becoming true to who you’ve been created to be.

So, did you catch how different what Jesus describes is from our modern way of approaching a written text? We think:





Living it out

Jesus seems to suggest that we begin by “living it out.” Doing that proves Jesus is our authority. Only then will we come to understand, to know where this is all heading. So, Jesus’s way looks more like this:

Living it out




Understanding {104}

Whoa! How different is that? Our modern way of thinking says, “Read the instructions first . . . then assemble.” Get it figured out first, and only then apply it to your life. Jesus invites us: “Rightly align your life through a lifetime of walking with me . . . and then you’ll arrive at the knowledge you were looking for.” Not knowledge to discipleship, but discipleship to knowledge. Or, if we want to put it another way (not nearly as memorably as Jesus did): In order to understand, we must first stand under. It’s not the scholar who knows the truth, says Jesus, but the one who, day-by-day, allows their life to be trued by my word. The lifelong learner is the one who understands the master. The player, not the sports reporter, knows the coach and the coach’s way.

I fear that I often fall back on my modern way of thinking as an excuse, a distraction, a delay. “Well, I don’t really understand.” And so, I don’t ever have to live it out. I never get to the “application” part.

Even if I do come to an “understanding” of the text, there’s remains a deeper problem with the modern model. It only pays lip service to the Bible being the “authority.” The real authority here is me. I remain in control of the whole process. I’m at the center. Which means I’m in no way “standing under.” I’m standing on . . . !

How beautiful, how different, how freeing is Jesus’s way. “Make me the authority for your life. Trust me to lead you to freedom. And, in the end, you’ll know all you need.”

Stand under. And then you’ll understand.

If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.

None of this is to say that there’s not a place for the labor of studying and discussing Scripture. Any words on a page can be distorted by humans. Jesus had much to say to the religious teachers of his day who knew their Hebrew scriptures so thoroughly—and yet missed the point.

In our upcoming series, we will talk about “literal” interpretations, about the troubles of the Old Testament, about literary genres, about the importance of the Holy Spirit and the community of the church in coming to understand Scripture. We’ll also explore a model for this that was introduced at our recent Canadian MB EQUIP study conference.

All that is good—and a part of coming to love the Bible. But this is where it must begin: Am I willing to live deeply into Jesus’s pattern? Am I learning to stand under his authority? For the authority of Scripture does not rest in some mystical power. The authority of Scripture comes from Jesus, the Word made flesh, the one who {105} understands and has revealed the heart of the Father, who said, after his resurrection: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt 28:18 NRSV). 2

The risen Jesus is our authority. He alone is the living Word of God. Will you and I become his learners? Will we become like that Old Testament saint, Job, who once prayed with the simplest of humility, “Teach me, and I will be silent; make me understand how I have gone wrong” (Job 6:24 NRSV).

In other words, true me, Lord. Reshape my twisted, crooked heart, so that I may run free. Only you, the Son, have the authority to do that.

Join me as we pause to pray.

Father in heaven, we thank you for the gift of your word that re-shapes us. We confess that we often put ourselves up as the authority over your word. Thank you for the invitation of Jesus to “stand under” his authority, that we may find the freedom of true life. We need it, Lord. Amen.

As a way of response, I invite you to read together with me a few statements from Scripture that speak about God’s Word:

Leader: Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.

All: He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,

Leader: We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands,

All: concerning the word of life—

Leader: this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us—

All: No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. {106}

Leader: Because of [these teachings] many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So, Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him,

All: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

All: Amen. 3


  1. “Revelation of God,” Article 2, The Confession of Faith of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, 1999. Included at the end of this article are the following references where the Bible bears witness to its own nature and purpose: Gen 9:1-17; 12:1-3; Exod 6:2-8; Ps 19:1-11; 119; Matt 5:17-18; Luke 24:27, 44-47; John 1:16-18; 16:13; Acts 8:34-35; Rom 1:18-21; Heb 1:1-2; Col 1:15-23; 2 Tim 3:14-17; 2 Pet 1:16-21.
  2. Thanks to Tim Geddert for the reminder of this important truth in his plenary address at EQUIP 2019.
  3. From Heb 1:1-3, 1 John 1:1-2, John 1:18, John 6:66-68 (NRSV).
Rod Schellenberg serves as Lead Pastor at Hepburn MB Church in Hepburn, Saskatchewan. This sermon was part of a five-week conversation at the church in October-November 2019, called “Getting into the Story: Coming to Love the Bible Enough to Let It Shape Your Life.” Through formal and informal teaching, study, and discussion, it proved to be a helpful way of bringing EQUIP 2019 home to our church community.

Previous | Next