In some churches, the reading of the Bible ends with the statement, ‘This is the word of the Lord’, to which the congregation normally replies: ‘Thanks be to God’.
That declaration and response capture something significant about the Christian confession of Scripture – that the Bible is the very word of God, God speaking to us. And it’s to be received with gratitude – ‘thanks be to God’ – which isn’t always easy, perhaps, depending on the passage!
God has spoken in the Bible, and continues to speak through what he has spoken.
That gives us great confidence as preachers. We preach what was being said in the biblical passage, so that the same instruction, encouragement, commission, warning, or promise is passed on to the congregation. And we trust that the same Spirit who inspired the text will press it home to today’s hearers.
So it is that Paul tells Timothy that Scripture makes us ‘wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus’, and is useful for ‘teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness’, so that God’s people ‘may be thoroughly equipped for every good work’ (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Echoing that, he goes on to say to Timothy: ‘preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction’ (4:1-2). The Bible is the means by which God speaks to his people today and equips us to live out the salvation brought by Jesus.
So, we confess the Bible to be God’s ‘word’. But what kind of ‘word’ is it?
1. God’s covenant word
The titles given to the two parts of the Christian Bible – ‘Old Testament’ and ‘New Testament’ (where ‘testament’ means covenant) – remind us that Scripture is God’s covenant word. In fact, the whole biblical story can be seen as a series of such covenant agreements that God makes with his people, binding him and them together. As a covenant word, it confirms his relationship with us.
As such, the Bible is not merely a vehicle for ‘information’ or ‘answers’. Nor is its first purpose to provide a set of ‘timeless principles’ or ‘tips for living’. Rather, it gives shape and substance to the relationship between us and God. It reminds us who we are and to whom we belong. It contains God’s promises to us, and tells us what he desires from us. Engaging with Scripture – in preaching or elsewhere – is engaging in relationship with our living Lord. That ongoing relationship, nurtured through God’s covenant word, then carries significance for our everyday contexts.
2. God’s word about Christ
God’s covenantal promises and acts come to their climax in Jesus. Jesus himself was clear that the Scriptures testify about him (John 5:39, 46-47). He explained Scripture to the travellers on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) in such a way to show he cannot be understood apart from the Old Testament and the Old Testament cannot be understood apart from him.
So, preaching of the Bible is Christ-focused, involving an unfolding of the good news of Jesus and its implications for his people and the world. A goal of our preaching is to be a people whose lives are focused on the promises of God now fulfilled in Christ, the one who stands at the heart of God’s plan for all things.
3. God’s word to the church
When we engage with Scripture, we don’t do so as isolated individuals but from the perspective of the believing community – a people indwelt by the Spirit, who are formed by his word. Whole-life preaching assumes the significance of the church – gathered and scattered – not merely a collection of individuals who happen to gather for an hour or so each week.
This is why the Bible is read aloud, proclaimed and sung in community (Colossians 3:16; 1 Timothy 4:13), and why some from the church are set apart to minister the word to others (Ephesians 4:11; 1 Timothy 5:10; 2 Timothy 4:2; Titus 2:15; 1 Peter 4:10-11). Being discipled through Scripture is bound up with prayer and worship, baptism and communion, as God works through his Spirit to build up the body of Christ. Here is a reminder that faithfulness is best cultivated in the context of the church; that preaching is given by God as a means to create and sustain faith amongst his people, and to equip them for everyday discipleship.
So it is that a covenant-focused, Christ-centred preaching of Scripture forms the gathered community that is then sent into the world in his name. Dispersed during the week we testify, in word and deed, to the presence of God’s reign in the world, bearing witness to what God has done in Christ.