Which Bible? And Does it Matter?

Due to illness I have not posted anything on this site for some time. However now fully recovered from a rather nasty cold virus, I have also ventured out preaching again in my local Methodist circuit. Sunday October 24th was also Bible Sunday, a day to celebrate the scriptures and the central role they play in our faith and worship practices. This blog is taken from the sermon I preached on what Bible Sunday means to me.

The readings used in the service were Psalm 19:7 – end, 2 Timothy 3:14 – 4:5 and John 5:36b – end.

Today is Bible Sunday, a day when we celebrate the Scriptures which for Methodists in particular, forms the centrepiece of our faith and of the protestant faith in general; our faith in God, in his Son our Lord Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit.

Today’s readings have been taken from different versions of the bible. In our first two readings we heard the narrative from The Good News Bible. In the Gospel reading, I read from my own KJV Bible. Some people call the KJV’s language archaic; I prefer poetic. Even Richard Dawkins the well-known atheist, has conceded that the language of the KJV is among the most beautiful in the English language.

This particular bible was a present from my late mother for my 50th birthday a few years ago. She actually signed it and it is one of the few things I have which reminds me of her. I have often said, if my study caught fire and I could only rescue one thing from it, this would be the thing I rescued. Everything else, photos, books, certificates, computer, golf bag, Rat Pack poster, all of them are replaceable in one way or another. But this, this is not, which is why it only gets taken out on certain occasions such as today.

It has several marker ribbons marking favourite passages from scripture;

Isa 40 – those that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength

Matthew 5 – The sermon on the mount – which even influenced Mahatma Gandhi

Luke 2 – the birth of Jesus

Luke 11 – the giving of the Lord’s prayer

Luke 24 – the road to Emmaus

Romans 12 – Paul’s blueprint for Christian conduct

Lastly, the epistle of James, which calls us to be doers of the word not merely hearers who deceive themselves into thinking they are actually doing good.

Go on google and you can find lists containing so many different versions of The Bible, for example-;

Good News Bible, Jerusalem Bible, NIV, RSV, NRSV, KJV, NKJV, ESV, ASV, NASB, Douay-Rheims Catholic Bible, New Living Translation, Holman CSB, The Message and so on. I didn’t dare look on Amazon, I might have ended up buying one!!

All these different versions, each with their own way of expressing the truth of biblical scripture, so many different ways of telling the history of our faith – and the Bible is as much a work of history than a work of theology or teaching. Yet despite what some scholars say is a book containing over 4,500 years of human existence, we still seem to be unable to grasp its full meaning.

But does it matter that we have so many different versions? The reasons for the differing versions are many and often complex and needless to say have led to violent conflicts as well as martyrdom for some. Think of William Tyndale who was the first to translate the Bible into English, and the Oxford Martyrs, Nicholas Ridley, Hugh Latimer and ABC Thomas Cranmer, burned at the stake during reign of Bloody Mary in 1555.

For some people and indeed some churches, the version of the bible they use is sacrosanct to the exclusion of all else. Why is this so? From a preaching perspective it would certainly be easier if every church and denomination used the same version, but I tend to disagree. One of the joys of reading differing versions of Christian scripture and also preaching on it, is the opportunity it provides to look at how language is used to express the message the writer is trying to get across. In my version of the KJV the gospel readings show the spoken words of Jesus printed in red, this allows the reader to slow down and focus more on these words because they emphasise what Jesus actually said in the context to the story being told. Other versions do something similar. Modern translations do tend to use more everyday language like the Good News or NIV and may be considered more story telling than scripture.

I mostly use the NRSV myself, because it retains that formality of the KJV and older translations, but is expressed in slightly more modern idiom thereby also retaining much of its poetic form. But here I digress: surely what’s important especially today, is not the version we read or the form of language it uses but what it tells about us, how we react to God’s word and deeds and how we live our lives in response to what are the two basic commandments. Love of God and love of Neighbour?

In our Old Testament reading from Psalm 19 it says quite clearly that the Law of the Lord, Yaweh’s law, is perfect. It is immaterial which version we read it from, God’s law restores the soul. How? Faithfulness to God’s law is truly life-changing.

God’s law (especially as interpreted by Jesus) is easy to understand.  Love God.  Love your neighbour.  What could be easier to understand than that?  God’s law is easier to understand than to put in practice—it isn’t always easy to love God, and it especially isn’t always easy to love our neighbour—but even the simplest mindset can understand what needs to be done.

In Vs 9-10, it says that the Lord’s ordinances are true and righteous, more valuable that earthly riches. Ordinance is another word for law.  God’s laws are true; they are dependable; they are reliable; we can count on them to guide us rightly.  They will not lead us astray. If only we could learn to keep them!

The psalm ends with verse 14, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight O Lord, my rock and my redeemer which emphasise that the law of the Lord is perfect, and reveals perfectly the will of God for the world and the individual. The Lord or “Yahweh” is my rock”, strong and immovable.  The person whose life is built on the Yahweh-rock is like a wise man whose house is safe from storms and floods because it has a strong foundation (Matthew 7:24-25). The redeemer being the one who frees us from sin.

Paul in his letter to Timothy tells him to remain in the things which you have learned and have been assured of. Timothy will find great comfort and security in those things, just as he would find at home with his family. Again, the version used to transmit the message is irrelevant. We know from our own experiences that it takes great faith and courage to remain in the things we have learned in church or at the feet of our parents when the common culture is awash with deception and greed. That it takes great self-discipline to practice faith, honesty and sexual fidelity when inundated by the pressures associated with a prevailing culture, are calculated to lead us in the opposite direction.

And in our Gospel reading from John, Jesus tells us that he brings testimony greater than John the Baptist, by his works he has shown that he was sent by the Father who has testified on his behalf by allowing him to do the things he has done. But they his hearers, have never seen or heard the Father because they still do not believe in the one who he sent. They like we, search the scriptures in the hope for eternal life but Jesus reminds them – and us – that we have to be prepared to give ourselves fully to follow him in order that we may find eternal life. They, like us, still find it hard to have the love of God within them and therefore cannot fully accept the authority of Jesus because of our human frailty and our continually committing sin.

We glorify all that is worldly so who can we expect to seek the glory that comes from God. Jesus at the end of this passage very cleverly turns the interpretation of the scriptures and of the law back onto those who he is speaking to. He tells them that if they believed Moses and his commandments they would believe him, because Moses foresaw the arrival of a Messiah much like the other prophets did. Yet if by their actions they then show they did not believe what is written in the Scriptures, how will they believe what he says?

In some ways our focusing on the format or version rather than trying to understand the central message to love God and love our neighbour is perhaps one of the reasons we have the plethora of different bibles. We reject one version because it does not satisfy our own particular worldview, or because the language is seemingly too hard to understand or because we feel the message needs a modern makeover.

The bible was written for its time and describes the world back then not the world as it is today. While our understanding of the bible has improved and has been revised due to centuries of scholarship, it still concerns the central relationship between humanity and God. How human frailty and sinful behaviour is still ongoing and rather than trying to re-interpret the bible for our own time, we should be focusing on the timeless message of love; love of God and love of neighbour. While times may change along with different forms of expression and communication, we still seem unable to learn the lessons of the past.

The answer lies in the word of God in holy scripture, we just need to be more open and more diligent about how we put it into practice, rather than worry about which version we read it from.