THE BOOK OF LOVE
by Father Theodore Stylianopoulos
The Bible is a story of love. It tells about how God expressed His overflowing love through the creation of this magnificent universe and all life in it. It tells about how God blesses, sustains, teaches, corrects, redeems and leads persons to His Kingdom of Love without violating their free will. This supreme expression of God’s love, an outgoing love engaged in a dramatic battle with evil for human souls, is Jesus Christ. As St. John put it: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3.16-17). Through the Bible God tells each person: “I love you.” This is the central message, the “Good News” of the Bible: God’s love for the world and for each human being supremely expressed in Christ.
To take the Bible in hand is also an act of love. What response is worthy of God’s love except love? Only by love can each person be united with divine love and find his or her way to the Kingdom of Love. Jesus said to His disciples: “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14.24). If a believer loves the Lord, he or she will faithfully read His Word, will come to know it and be eager to observe it. The fruit of the believer’s labors is the gift of having the Father abide in him through His Son by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Church in all its worship, teaching and life rests on the Bible. The Apostles, Church Fathers, Saints and numerous great men of all time have built their lives on the Bible. Through the Bible God asks each person: “Will you know My will? Will you know My truth about yourself and life? Will you learn of Me and from Me?” St. Kallistos of Constantinople has said that Christians, as children of light, should be taught by God Himself and have the truths of the Bible inscribed in their hearts in letters brighter than flame and be guided by the grace of the Holy Spirit.
Where God’s Word is earnestly read and obeyed, new life takes hold by God’s grace. This has been the universal experience of Church Fathers, Saints and individual Christians of all ages who were devoted Scripture readers. They discovered the Bible as an unfailing source of wisdom, strength and joy. They joyfully recognized that the prayerful reading of the Bible is a spiritual encounter with God Himself.
The Bible is for every Christian
In the great tradition of the Orthodox Church the Bible is the central source of truth and the most creative factor behind the worship, doctrine and practice of the Church. It is also intended to inspire and strengthen the daily life of the average Christian. St. Cyprian describes the Gospels as four rivers within the Church which water fruitful trees — the faithful. He views the New Testament as a fountain which provides a steady flow of nourishment for the lives of Christian believers. The great Fathers of the Church looked upon the Word of God as the primary teacher and guide for life. They viewed the Bible as an ocean of divine mysteries having inexhaustible breadth and astonishing depths, to strengthen us in our weaknesses and to fire our souls with zeal of God.
St. John Chrysostom is a great Father who held the truth of Scripture at the center of his life and work. Chrysostom directed himself to ordinary Christians and sought to anchor their lives on the Bible. He saw the Bible as a spiritual weapon to combat the evil one, to struggle against the impulses of the old Adam, and to life up men’s hearts from earth to heaven. His chief pastoral resource was the Bible, especially the New Testament. For many years he held Bible classes two or three times a week to interpret the Scriptures to his flock. In his commentaries, which are the abiding fruit of these classes, he constantly exhorts Christians to be alert and watchful, to show zeal of inquiry and to devote themselves to the study of the Bible. According to him ignorance of the Bible is the main cause of evil in the world. Consequently, St. Chrysostom counseled Christians to acquire the books of the New Testament, to read especially the Gospels, and to take the truths of the Bible wholly into themselves for they are medicines for the soul.
In more recent times, Father Kosmas Aitolos, an itinerant preacher-monk and canonized Saint of the Church, urged ordinary Christians to apply themselves to the reading of the bible. His own ministry, resulting in a significant spiritual awakening in northwestern Greece in the eighteenth century, was significantly inspired by the reading of the Bible. Wherever he went, St. Kosmas counseled the villagers to sit in groups of five or ten and discuss the divine teachings of Scripture, and put them inside their heart so that they might find eternal life.
The impact of the Bible as God’s Word is well attested in the Orthodox tradition. Today we need to recover that role of the bible as a spiritual resource for our daily lives.
The Essential Content of the Bible
The Bible has been called the most unique book humankind has ever seen. Actually it is more than a book. It is a whole library. The Old Testament contains forty-nine books written over a period of many centuries prior to the birth of Christ. Closely bound to the history of ancient Israel, the Old Testament contains history, law, prophecy, psalms, wisdom and edifying stories. The New Testament includes twenty-seven books written mostly in the first century A.D. The New Testament gives an account of the redeeming life and work of Jesus (Gospels), the origins and life of the early Church (Acts of the Apostles and Letters), and ends with the awesome book of Revelation which anticipates God’s final victory over evil and the establishment of a new world. The Bible, therefore, features a rich variety of books, authors and contents. Some of the sacred authors remain anonymous. In certain instances books were produced by a process of compilation, revision, or the merging of several oral or written traditions.
A Christian generally reads the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament. The latter presents a more unified vision centered on Jesus Christ. Thus the Letter to the Hebrews aptly says: “In many and various ways God spoke of old…but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son whom he appointed the heir of all things.” (Hebrews 1.1-2)
All the authors and books of the Bible have one thing in common: they tell about God’s dealings with His people. In various forms and ways they tell about God’s love for the world. In varying degrees of clarity they tell about the truths of God which are the basis of all life.
The Experience of God
What is the essential content at which reading and studying the bible aim? It is the experience of God by patriarchs, prophets, apostles, evangelists and many other less known righteous persons to whom God deigned to reveal Himself in different ways and at various times. Studying the record of their experience of God opens the believer to a similar spiritual experience of God by the grace of the Holy Spirit. What the righteous said or wrote about their life with God becomes a model, a guiding pattern, for the believer’s search for personal knowledge of God today. The experience of God by great men of faith and sacred authors in the Bible offers luminous insights in five important areas: a) Who God is; b) who we are as human beings; c) what life is; d) what God has done for us; and e) how each human being should respond — with his or her whole being — to God. The content of the Bible is not merely a collection of different books, nor the accumulation of religious customs and ideas, nor even a treasure chest of profound wisdom illustrating great truths of human life. It is above all a personal saving relationship, a mutual relationship of faith and love between man and god, which is expressed through the record of Scripture. The Christian best understands the Bible when he has in view this relationship of actual persons to God, in which God reveals Himself as a loving Father Who cares about each person as a father cares about his son or daughter.
The purpose of God’s personal revelation of Himself is to give life. The Bible is the record of how God worked in people’s lives; how He changed them, how they yielded to Him and became His instruments, or how they refused to yield to Him and received judgment. Scripture should be looked at now simply as a book of ideas but as the record of the personal activity of God — His love, His forgiveness, His healing power, His redeeming judgment, His sanctifying grace and His renewal of life. On man’s side the bible is the story of man’s personal need for God, his lostness, his yearning for true life, his rebelliousness and sinfulness, and his incomparable greatness in his intrinsic destiny to be united with god. Study of the Bible therefore aims not merely at historical knowledge but also spiritual content, not only at information but also inspiration, not only at religious wisdom but above all at a personal relationship with God—which changed lives then and continues to changes lives now.
The Gospel of Christ
Seen in this way, the skopos (central aim) of the Bible is a saving proclamation. The heart of Scripture is the Gospel: the Good News of what God has done for man. The Bible is not a neutral book. It proclaims God’s great redemptive acts and invites a response, not to itself as a sacred book but to God. The center of God’s redemptive work is Jesus Christ. Every page of the Bible either presupposes, anticipates, or proclaims the Good News that God intervened in history to rescue humankind from a distortion of life — fear, guilt, sin, corruption and death which are the tools of demonic powers — and to give abundant life — freedom, wholeness, hope, peace, joy and love. The supreme way by which God renews the world is by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The essential content of the bible is therefore the gospel of Christ. The central saving message of the Church from the day of Pentecost has been Christ incarnate, crucified, buried and risen. This is the Gospel which in the words of St. Paul is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1.16). Study of the Bible is true to its subject matter when it concentrates on the Gospel of Christ on which everything else rests — Church, sacraments, prayer, priesthood and Christian life. When biblical study seeks the saving message of Jesus Christ in Scripture then the Bible truly becomes that which it is: the Word of God.
Biblical study is therefore Christo-centric. The center of the Bible is Christ. He is “the Way and the Truth and the Life” (John 14.6). In the saving message of the Bible we have the written Word of God. In Christ we have the Word Himself in person. He is the eternal Word of God Who reveals God perfectly. He is the very Word of Life, Who has life from the Father, and gives life. To use the phraseology of St. John, Christ is the Only Begotten Son Who intimately knows the Father and makes Him known to men (John 1.18). He is therefore the Teacher and the “Theologian” (Theos-Logos). Christ is everywhere in and behind Scripture. The Gospels directly proclaim His ministry. The Acts of the Apostles record the story of the expansion of His church and the proclamation of the gospel of Christ. The Epistles give testimony to the mind of Christ expressed in those who write them and to His reign among those who received the epistles. In the Apocalypse we have the faith and hope of Christ’s final victory. In the Old Testament we have the hidden work of Christ Who is revealed to patriarchs and prophets in anticipation of His earthly ministry. Thus the whole of Scripture is a kind of sacrament of Christ, in which the eternal Word becomes incarnate and is humbly available to every person through human words. This is the essential content, the precious pearl of biblical study: Jesus Christ.
-excerpted from Bread for Life: Reading the Bible
By Father Ted Stylianopoulos