In 2011, we celebrate 400 years of the Bible translated in English with the publication of the King James Version. We need to get on our knees and thank God that we have the Bible in our heart language, and we should stand up and cheer for those men and women around the world who are translating the Bible for the 2000+ groups who still don’t have the Bible in their heart language. It is an essential step toward the fulfillment of the great commission. Merely possessing the word of God, however, is not enough. Let me tell you a story or three.
Before the Israelites entered Canaan, Moses retold them the mighty acts of YHWH, the one God, who brought them out of the land of slavery and made them his treasure and his priests to make him known among the nations. “Engrave God’s mighty acts and his law on your hearts,” he said, “Teach your children how God redeemed his people and to keep his laws—never stop telling them about it: in the house or on the way, laying down or getting up, write it on your doorposts, tie it to your hand and forehead if you have to, but don’t forget!!! When you settle in the promised land, don’t you forget all the Lord has done for you and start following after idols.” (my paraphrase of Dt 4.9-14 & 6.6-15)
Well, Israel forgot, and by the time young king Josiah had come to the throne of Judah things were a royal mess. The kings before him had led the people deep into the wasteland of idolatry. While the majestic temple Solomon built for the Lord fell apart, the people offered sacrifices to idols on every hill and high place in Judea. Even at eight years old, Josiah could see there was a problem and set about making things right. When he ordered workers to begin repairing the temple of the Lord, a priest found the Book of the Law. (It was apparently misplaced among the Asherah poles, idols, the women weaving tapestries for Asherah and the male cult prostitutes that filled the temple of the Lord at that time.) “When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law he tore his clothes” (2 K 22.11). He repented and then he called together the whole country to listen as he read them the words of the Book of the Law. King Josiah and the people made a covenant to live according to God’s law once again. Josiah systematically swept idolatry out of the country and they celebrated the Passover feast for the first time in hundreds of years—a feast that remembers and retells the mighty acts of God to save his people.
Rightly so, we marvel at the power of God’s word to change the heart of a nation. If only they’d had their own Bibles all along! You see, like any good Christian Church/Church of Christ lad, I am was a Bibliolator. You know what I mean. At 17, I saved my hard-earned pennies from working at Taco Bell ($4.25 an hour) to buy my own navy blue, leather bound, NIV Study Bible and paid a little extra to have my name engraved on the cover in silver ($85). Then I dropped another $20 for a zippered leather Bible cover with pockets. I highlighted the texts of Daniel and Revelation in a complicated multicolor system to prepare for Bible Bowl. I jammed to Southpaw’s “Baby got Book.” People who needed to know Jesus, well, I gave them Bibles for presents.
I remember sitting in a room full of budding Bibliolators at Milligan College when a professor rocked our world. Someone had dutifully quoted Hebrews 4.12 to underline our devotion to the powerful written word of God. (SWORD DRILL! Who can find it first?):
“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
The Rabbi looked at us over the top of his glasses and asked, “You do know what this verse is talking about don’t you?”
Several of us responded a little too quickly, “Well, the Bible, of course.”
The Rabbi continued to study us over the rims of his glasses, “Or should I say Whom?” Uncomfortable silence. After taking a deep breath the Rabbi broke the feet of our idol: “Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the living and active Word of God who became flesh and lives among us.” The Bible, the word of God, enables us to encounter this great high priest, the Word of God, through whom we may in confidence draw near to God to find mercy and grace in our time of need.
Possessing the written word of God is not enough. If it is not written on our hearts, if we aren’t retelling God’s story of redemption to those around us, if the word of God stays zipped up in our Bible covers, it might as well be lost in the temple of Josiah’s day. . . I live and work in Burkina Faso, which has the 4th lowest literacy rate in the world at 28.7%. The continent of Africa is home to the 14 lowest ranking countries in literacy. Throughout the world, most people don’t read. Even those who can don’t read more than they have to. In America, about 50% of adults operate on an illiterate or functionally illiterate level (National Adult Literacy Survey, 1992.) We spend 12-20 years in school becoming literate, but 58% of high school graduates and 42% of college graduates never read another book. Missionaries at the Lausanne conference summed up the challenge nicely:
“From the time of the Gutenberg Bible, Christianity “has walked on literate feet” and has directly or indirectly required literacy of others. However, 70% of all people in the world are oral communicators—those who can’t, don’t, or won’t learn through literate means. Four billion in our world are at risk of a Christless eternity unless literate Christians make significant changes in evangelism, discipleship, leader training and church planting” (LOP 54, 2004 ).
The majority of people in the world (reached or un-reached) are primary oral learners and will not pick up a Bible and read it to encounter Jesus. Not only that, most of our preaching and presentation of the gospel is abstract and reads like an essay. Not many enjoy reading or listening to an essay, but just about everyone from the age of 3 to 103 can understand, and usually enjoys a story well told. The irony is that most of the Bible is oral literature: Psalms are prayers to be sung, the Prophets and Wisdom literature are mostly poetry, proverbs and parable are oral forms, much of the Old Testament, Gospels and Acts are dramatic narrative, even the letters of Paul were intended to be read out loud. Strangely, we tend to shackle Scripture by transforming its oral artistry into an abstract outline. We need to tell THE Story.
When Jesus, the Incarnate Word of God, called his disciples, he said “follow me…” (Mark 1.17; Mt 9.9). When would-be disciples wanted to know more about Jesus or questioned if anything good—much less the one of whom Moses and the prophets spoke—could come from Nazareth, the answer was “come and see” (John 1. 35-51). For three years these men were with Jesus observing him and listening to him teach, often through stories. After his resurrection, Jesus walked them through God’s grand story of redemption to help them understand who exactly he was: “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Lk 24.27).
Once we landed in Ivory Coast and began making friends among our Muslim neighbors, we naturally found ourselves in discussions about who Jesus was: whether he was or wasn’t the son of God, whether he was or wasn’t crucified, and whether the one Jesus promised would come after him was the Holy Spirit or Mohammed. While everyone remained friendly and respectful, nobody budged an inch. We all dug our trenches deeper and lobbed scriptural bombs back and forth. Even when I was “winning,” I was losing my friend and he was closing his heart to Jesus. We decided to try a chronological Bible storying approach. I was—am stunned at the difference. While doctrine repels people and puts them on guard, stories draw us in and catch us off guard. I’m still amazed every time I find myself sipping tea with my friends—Muslim holy men, tailors, farmers and village chiefs—retelling God’s stories.
My wife Tabitha and our friend Juli began a storying group with our Muslim friend Fatou and the young people that hung around her house to watch tv. Fatou’s husband Noufou was a nominal Muslim who worked nights at a hotel in town. It annoyed him that a group met in his living room listening to Bible stories while he was trying to sleep. Noufou tried but could not keep himself from listening to the stories on the other side of the wall. He started to look forward to the visits and was disappointed if they were cancelled. Before long, he put aside his pride and joined the group. In Old Testament, they listened to stories of prophets familiar to Muslims. The stories of Adam and Eve and Noah (Noufou’s namesake) vividly illustrated God’s holiness and steadfast love in the face of man’s willful sinfulness. The stories of Abraham, Moses, David and Daniel showed God at work to redeem his people and whispered of one to come who would redeem all people. And then Jesus, they met Jesus. Muslims “know” a lot about Jesus, but our friends had the chance to “come and see,” to walk along beside him and experience his compassion, his power, his teachings, his death and his resurrection. After the story about the day of Pentecost, Noufou, Fatou and a young man named Dao decided to follow Jesus as his disciples and we had the honor of baptizing them into Christ.
Not long after, Tabitha and I went on furlough and then on to serve in Burkina Faso. Our three friends have had a hard time living out their faith for a number of reasons, so during a recent visit we turned to Bible stories to encourage and disciple them. We told the story about Jesus healing the man with a “legion” of demons and how Jesus told him to go back and tell his family and friends about what God had done for him. God convicted us ALL to share what God has done for us with specific people around us. We retold Acts 3-4 where Peter and John refuse to stop speaking in Jesus name under the pressure of threats from the Jewish leaders. We prayed the believers’ prayer asking for boldness to share our faith even in the face of threats (and there are real threats for Noufou and Fatou). And while the house wasn’t shaken, God chased fear from our hearts and replaced it with boldness and joy to tell God’s story. In our last meeting, we showed Noufou and Fatou how we tell Bible stories and pray with our children every night and admonished them to diligently teach their children about God’s story of redemption, lest they forget.
We live in a post literate world where 70% of people are primary oral learners. So while we celebrate the translation of the Bible into English some 400 years ago, and every Bible translation since, we must dig out the word of God from where it’s hidden in the temple or zipped up in our fancy Bible covers to tell and retell the stories of God’s redemption to all people. By retelling God’s stories, we engrave them on our own hearts and we invite people to “come and see” who this Jesus is, to encounter our high priest, the living Word of God, through whom we may in confidence draw near to God to find mercy and grace in our time of need.