I read the Bible with dead people.

Of course, that’s not strictly true, for as Jesus our risen Lord and Saviour tells us, “God is not the God of the dead but of the living.” (Matthew 22:32; in context—vv.23-33)

I read the Bible with dead people. I think it all started when I was a boy

But the fact remains, that I do learn a lot from believers who are now with the Lord. I think it all started when I was a boy. I would scan all the colourful and intriguing spines of my father’s books, and read the author’s names: Westcott, Lightfoot, Andersen, Childs, Morris, Hughes, Barrett, Von Rad, Kidner: Who were all these people, and why did they write so many books about the books of the Bible? As I moved into adolescence I became more interested in the spines of Dad’s LP’s[1] and those I unearthed in second-hand record shops around Melbourne; where I spent my ‘clothing’ allowance: Morrison, Pink Floyd, The Who, Dylan and Zappa became the names that intrigued me.

‘A Man of One Book’

When I got to University a miracle happened. God switched the light on. I went along to a Christian Union (CU) public meeting; and the book that was opened there, a book I had known from childhood, suddenly made sense of the world, my life, my sin, God’s love, and the future with a new urgency and power. I had come to University as an Arts student—to read more books and listen to more records. But it all became clear to me: the Bible is the ‘greatest story ever told,’ the Book of books; the only book that has really changed—and will continue to change—the world! From its pages I heard God’s voice: the same Spirit that breathed out these words was the Spirit of Christ who was unblocking my deaf ears, and softening my hard heart. That is, I heard the voice of Jesus say, Andy—“These are the very Scriptures that testify about me; you must come to me to have life.” (John 5:31-47 c.f. 20:30-31)

And by God’s grace, I did! John Wesley’s testimony, the testimony of countless other Christians throughout history; now became my own:

I want to know one thing, the way to heaven-how to land safe on that happy shore. God Himself has condescended to teach the way: for this very end He came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book!…Let me be homo unius libri (a man of one book). Here then I am, far from the busy ways of men. I sit down alone: only God is here. In His presence I open, I read this book; for this end, to find the way to heaven.[2]

The Bible Amongst God’s People

But of course, that was only one part of the story. All those men and women from my family church; all the new friends I was making at CU—they were my brothers and sisters and God was our Heavenly Father, and we were all sitting under the Scriptures and hearing God’s voice from it together.

Now many of the names on the spines of Dad’s books became my brothers and sisters too—and conversation partners around God’s word.

This also meant that now many of the names on the spines of Dad’s books became my brothers and sisters too—and conversation partners around God’s word.

Much to the shock of my parents, my record buying slowed considerably. I spent my first ‘clothing’ allowance on a second-hand copy of Leon Morris’ commentary on John ($8, and the first of many such purchases). You can imagine my excitement when it was announced that Leon Morris would be doing the Bible talks from 1John at my first ever SUMMIT (mid-year conference). That meant a conversation in person, with the brother who, thus far, I had only read.

Those first CU Bible study groups continued on into hundreds and thousands of conversations around the Bible with brothers and sisters; from both the past and the present, in person and in the pages of books. I was intuitively learning what Graham Cole points out—that “No one reads Scripture in a vacuum.”[3] I was experiencing the truth that God gives us the Scriptures so that we can grow up together — a truth known from the earliest days of the church:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer … They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42, 46-47)

Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture [in this case, the OT], to preaching and to teaching. (1Timothy 4:13)

Let the word of Christ dwell among you [plural] richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. (Colossians 3:16_)

This is how Christ builds His church. We listen to God’s word, and share it with one another; we ask questions and we discuss it together; we turn it into prayer and praise, and we spur one another on to love and good deeds as our lives are conformed to God’s truth. And we neglect meeting together around the Scriptures to our peril (e.g. Hebrews 10:19-25).

‘The Ancient Church is on Our Side!’

One of the wonderful privileges of belonging to God’s people is that our fellowship includes those who may be dead as far as the world is concerned, but who are very much alive to God in Christ. I came to love this prayer from the liturgy of the church in which I grew up.

We praise you, Lord God, for your faithful servants in every age, and we pray that we, with all who have died in the faith of Christ, may be brought to a joyful resurrection and the fulfilment of your eternal Kingdom.[4]

This was a weekly reminder to God’s gathered people that,

We are not the first generation to follow Christ…We all stand in a tradition of Christian thought and practice…[and] whatever tradition we stand on needs to be open to reform by the word of God. [5]

In the Bible, we hear God’s voice and our listening to that word will be enriched by brothers and sisters from other parts of the world, or other times of history.

In the Bible, we hear God’s voice—the contemporary word of God. At the moment we receive God’s word, He is speaking to us by His Spirit (e.g. Hebrews 3:7-19 cf. 4:12-13). And often, our listening to that word will be enriched by brothers and sisters—including those who live in other parts of the world, or who lived in other times of history.

The Church—past and present—is one family of brothers and sisters. We are children of the one Heavenly Father. We have one Lord Jesus Christ, and we are the Temple of the one Holy Spirit; with one faith, and one baptism. We belong to God and to one another, and we need one another (e.g. 1Corinthians 12:12-14; Ephesians 4:1-6; 1John 4:19-5:2)! We need to keep gathering together around the Scriptures, and we need to keep conversing with writers past and present who faithfully bow to the Scriptures and point us to Jesus.

A worked example: Time together in God’s Bible word from Micah

I am currently having such a “conversation” in response to God’s word in the prophet Micah. At home, in my study, I listen to one brother (Frank Andersen) who went to be with the Lord only a few months ago, and another (John Calvin) who went home in 1564. Sometimes Frank will make an observation on the Hebrew poetry that brings out the heart of Micah’s message. Sometimes John will apply Micah’s words first spoken to Israel, in such an incisive way for the church in these last days that I am inspired to keep opening the Bible and praying with University students.

I listen to one brother who went to be with the Lord only a few months ago, and another who went home in 1564.

I don’t always agree with the way Frank or John map out the structure of a passage, or their emphasis in applying a particular verse, and sometimes they disagree with me. But this just takes me back to grapple with God’s word, and leads me back to prayerful reliance on God’s Spirit to illuminate my thinking as God feeds me by his Spirit-breathed word.[6]

The conversation continues with the living. As Rob (our staff-team leader) opens the Bible with us over Zoom, and as we talk about what we see in the pages of Micah, God uses that discussion to shape our prayers and ministry.

Finally, on Monday evenings, we have the privilege of expanding that conversation to about 40 students—most of whom are brothers and sisters, some not yet Christians. Together, as we come to each new chapter in Micah, we listen to God’s voice and grapple with the message of God’s Kingdom. We learn more about Jesus: Christ the LORD; the Shepherd King, the only hope for the nations. Together we give thanks for God’s clear, true, and powerful word spoken by his Spirit, about his Son and received by his people—past, present and future.[7]

I give thanks and praise to God that all over the world—until Jesus comes again—this conversation will continue. I pray that through it—as he did with the first believers—he he will use it to daily add more brothers and sisters to our number.

A prayer in response to hearing God’s word

Almighty God, our heavenly Father, inasmuch as you have published your Law for us and have also added your holy Gospel, in which you call us to your obedience and invite us with all kindness that we might be encouraged to receive your grace, grant that we might not be deaf to your commandments or to the promises of your mercy.

Rather, may we render ourselves in all things submissive to you, and thus learn to devote all our faculties to you, that we may both avow and show in truth that the rule of a holy life has been given to us in your Law. And, in addition, may we so adhere to your promises that you not allow, through either the allurements of this world or through Satan’s flatteries and illusions, our minds to be drawn away from that love which you have once and for all revealed in your only Son, in whom you daily confirm us by the doctrine of your Gospel, until at last we shall come to enjoy fully this love when we attain to that heavenly inheritance which has been acquired for us by the blood of your self-same Son. Amen.

(John Calvin, Sermon on Micah 6:6-8, 1551) [8]

[1] That is, ‘Long-playing records: 2 sides with a combined total of 45min information, played at 33 & 1/3 rpm.

[2] Quoted in, G.A. Cole. Faithful Theology. (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2020), 39.

[3] Ibid. 40.

[4] An Australian Prayer Book (AAPB-of the Anglican church), 1978. Holy Communion, 2nd order; Intercessions, 141.

[5] Cole. op.cit. 51-52.

[6] F.I. Andersen & D.N. Freedman. Micah. (New Haven/London: Yale University; Anchor Bible, 2000). Regrettably a number of commentators in this series do not view the Scriptures as divinely inspired and so finally authoritative. Andersen and Freedman’s commentary stands out for its faithfulness to the Bible as God’s word, combined with rigorous engagement and helpful critiques of a number of the approaches of ‘critical scholarship.’

[7] This way of describing what ‘the Bible says about the Bible,’ is taken from Peter Adam, Written for us: Receiving God’s Words in the Bible. (Nottingham; IVP, 2008).

[8] John Calvin. Sermons on the Book of Micah. Translated and Edited by Benjamin W. Farley. (Phillipsburg NJ: P&R Pub, 2003), 337-8.