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History's Bestseller: Part One

HISTORY’S BESTSELLER: PART ONE

Ted Schroder
January 23, 2005

Bestseller lists are to be found in many newspapers and magazines. They chronicle the interests and entertainment of that portion of the public that reads. There is a fiction list, a nonfiction list, a list of business bestsellers, and lists devoted to the nationality of the authors: best American writers, best British writers, best foreign writers, best aspiring writers, best first books etc. What is a bestseller one year may be forgotten in ten years. Some writing dates fairly quickly. The classics endure because they address, with creativity and imagination, the perennial issues of the human condition.

No book has sold more copies than the Holy Bible. This library of 66 books in one has been history’s bestseller ever since the invention of printing. The Gutenberg Bible which appeared in 1456 is considered to be the first book printed in Europe, and the Psalter of 1457 was the first dated book to appear in print in Europe. Since then the Bible has been translated into as many languages as have been recorded, and in a multitude of versions in the English language. When the Revised Standard Version was published in 1952 it became an instant bestseller. The same occurred when J.B. Phillips published Letters to Young Churches, and then the rest of the New Testament in 1960. I can remember standing outside a bookstore in Christchurch, New Zealand, when I was a student at the University of Canterbury in 1961, waiting in line to buy a copy of The New English Bible before it sold out, which it did that day. I have nineteen different editions of the Bible shelved behind my desk.

Why is the Bible history’s bestseller? Why has it retained its perennial appeal? Why do we read it, study it, discuss it, and are concerned that others learn from it? Why is it so important? What is so thrilling about it?

The words of the Bible reveal to us the character of God and his purposes. It is the book of God revealed through his words and actions, and through his dealings with his creation, and human history. In Isaiah 55 the prophet is given a word from God. God is speaking directly through his prophet to his people. They are inspired words through the medium of the prophet. God reveals himself as the generous host, graciously inviting us to the banquet of the richest of fare that will satisfy our souls.

“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; hear me, and your soul may live.” (1-3)

The Bible is soul food. We are called to listen to the words which are spoken to us in these pages. We are to give ear and hear, so that we might live. Remember that people read aloud in those days, so that what was written was meant to be heard. The listener is called to pay attention so that his spiritually starved soul is fed with the truths imparted by these words. The reader/listener is characterized by his need: he is thirsty, hungry, and poor. He also is tempted to spend his money on worthless objects in an attempt to satisfy his needs. God tells us to come and find our needs to be met in the truths communicated through these words.

Jesus picked up the same refrain when talking with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water that I give him will never thirst.” (John 4:13) “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35) “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come!’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come!’ Whoever is thirsty let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.” (Revelation 22:17)

I can remember discovering the Bible for the first time after I had committed my life to Christ in my teens. I was spiritually hungry and devoured the Bible. It spoke to me of the living God, of the risen and present Christ, and the power of the Spirit. As I read it I feasted at the table of the Lord. It cost me nothing except the time. God charges nothing for his light and his truth. The words of Jeremiah became real for me: “When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart’s delight.” (15:16)

Why do the words of the Bible satisfy so many human hearts? They are the right words for the right occasion. The truths they convey meet the needs of the moment. Just as certain food and drink can make us sit back from the table at the end of a meal with sighs of contentment, so reading the Word of God can fill our souls with comfort and peace, assurance and hope.

Not only is the subject matter the most sublime and the most relevant: the ways of God with man, but it is conveyed in such forms as to give us aesthetic pleasure. Properly studied, the Bible provides a generous education from a literary, as well as a spiritual, point of view. It covers a wide range of history. It was written and edited by hundreds of authors working through at least a thousand years, and using historical records and orally conveyed memories that reach back several thousand years.

It contains examples of every form of writing and speech. There are bare lists of family names showing how ancestry was treasured in the East. There are the memoirs of national origin, and the choicest examples of narrative – the telling of a story, simple, graphic and beautiful as well as full of reality. There is world famous oratory in the sermons of the prophets and the apostles. Poetry is scattered lavishly through all the books, beginning with the majestic vision of the creation of all things and ending with the vision of eternal day. There is also the poetry of song – odes to victory, tender laments, outbursts of pious adoration and magnificent nature poems saturated with the images of God. There is sublime drama, as in the books of Job and Jonah, and lastly, there are the letters in many styles – some familiar notes about everyday things, some good advice, some closely-reasoned argument, some lofty expositions of the mysteries of death.

As the bountiful host, the Lord initiates the conversation at his table, and shares his thoughts with us. We cannot know what God thinks by ourselves. God is infinitely above and beyond us. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8,9)

The size of the universe makes us realize that our existence, and that of our planet and solar system, is miniscule compared with the reality that is God. Yet God, in his mercy reaches down to us through his Word. His thoughts are revealed through his words. God is not a dumb God – he can speak, he invented speech. His words initiated creation. Words convey the thoughts of the mind. The words of the Bible communicate the thoughts of the mind of God. Verbal revelation is an indispensable necessity if we are to know the thoughts of God; otherwise we would be only guessing, and the words we read would be only exercises in creative imagination by the writers. We believe that God has spoken. We do not need to guess at the thoughts of God. He has revealed them to us. He takes the initiative to bring his thoughts down to us, so that we can hear and understand.

As God speaks, things happen. It is not mere human speech, but the creative Word of God that is written down for us to read. The Word of God is the means God employs to accomplish his will and achieve his purpose. “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out of my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I send it.” (Isaiah 55:10,11)

This simile of the watering of the earth that brings forth food was so evident to me growing up in a part of the world where the rain was measured in feet. We used to get over one hundred inches of rain a year (over eight feet!). The result: the grass grew rapidly and plentifully – I know, I had to mow the lawns every week. But it also enabled our dairy industry to be the most productive in the world – cows love grass! Just as the rain brings forth food, God’s word written and then read and received into one’s life, produces spiritual growth.

Our lives are impacted by the word of God. As we read the Bible, the potential of our lives is watered to make it bud and flourish. Potentiality turns into actuality, ideality into reality, as the word takes root and grows in us. All that God has intended for us is encouraged into life. The words of the Bible become the fertilizing agent that stimulates growth into wholeness.

With the words of God come the power of God. “When you heard us preach the Word of God you accepted it, not as a mere human message, but as it really is, God’s Word, a power in the lives of you who believe.” (1 Thessalonians 2:13 J.B. Phillips) Just as food and drink energizes the body, and gives us the strength to do our work; so the words of the Bible gives us the fuel to power our lives. The words of the Bible do not give us information only, but the ability to transform our character, the power to change for the better. The inspired words are the vehicle of the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Bible is an extremely dangerous book. It has been banned in many countries, and at many times in history. It is subversive of totalitarian authority. It is an enemy of evil and cruelty, pride and ignorance. It is to be handled with care, for it can set off a chain reaction that will destroy old preconceptions.

Perhaps that is why Rolling Stone magazine has declined to run an advertisement for a new translation of the Bible aimed at young people. Zondervan, a division of HarperCollins Publishers, bought space in the magazine months ago as part of an ad campaign for Today’s New International Version. Doug Lockhart, Zondervan’s executive vice president for marketing said, “Last week we were surprised and certainly disappointed that Rolling Stone had changed their mind and rejected our ad.” I guess that the Bible is regarded by that magazine as out of keeping with its philosophy and values.

Don’t read it, or study it, if you don’t want to know God. Because if you read it, you will hear the thoughts of God, and discover that God is a generous and bountiful host, who invites you to his table, and wants to befriend you. You are not safe if you start listening to him.

Don’t read it, or study it, if you are addicted to the junk food of this world. Your present appetite may not satisfy, it may, in fact, be bad for you, but it sure tastes good. If you start reading God’s Word you will go off that food and find that your diet is changing. You will begin to eat what is good, and will become spiritually healthy and whole.

Don’t read it, or study it, if you are content with your own thoughts, or what thoughts the media stuffs into your head, or what thoughts crowd into your mind in the middle of the night. It is so much easier not to be disturbed by the thoughts and ways of the God of the universe. Who wants to know the big picture? If you start reading the Bible you might know where you have come from, and where you are going.

American patriot, Patrick Henry, near death said, “Here is a book, the Bible, worth more than all the others that were ever printed; yet it is my misfortune never to have found time to read it.” Will you find time to read it, study, meditate on it, learn from it?

Amelia Plantation Chapel

Amelia Island, Florida

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