Sermon – Your Bible Does Not Read Like Mine

Psalm 33; Isaiah 30:8-14

Farmville Presbyterian Church

June 2, 2024

– Intricacies of reading the Bible as people of faith


One of my favorite things to talk about is the Bible.  It is so full of wealth, challenge, comfort, and invitation.  I grew up loving the Bible and tried a Bible collection when I was younger.  That is actually a tricky thing to do because there are so, so, so many Bibles out there and all different kinds.  I had a cowboy Bible, military Bible, Jehovah’s Witness Bible, old Bibles, new Bibles, even a reproduction of the 1560 Geneva Bible which was the main Bible of the 16th and 17th centuries, predating the King James by 51 years.

When I was in my third year and last year of seminary, I had the opportunity to preach at a little country church in Guston, KY.  This was a great, little 40-member church that did the impossible – they stayed after church every Sunday for food and conversation.  Before I was part of all of that, however, I had to preach my test sermon as an audition.  I did and got the job.  Great (there was not a lot of competition, however)!   At that point of exhilaration of getting a preaching job, I began to panic.  I was going to have to preach a different sermon every week for what ended up being seven months.  Even with all that I had learned by that point in my last year in seminary, I was terrified that I would run out of things to say from the Bible by the time I reached about three months.  I figured I had about three months of sermons in me!

After doing this for 25 years, I feel like I have not run out of things to preach on, yet.  And part if that is because of the richness of Scripture.  I have not and cannot exhaust the wonder that is Scripture.  There are literally many hundreds of translations of the Bible.  Perhaps that does not sound strange to you, but on the other hand, why would we need so many different translations – don’t they all just say the same thing?  Simply put… no.

Psalm 23:4

NRSV and NIV – Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

ESV – Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

“Well, preacher,” you might say, “they basically mean the same thing even if we might be inclined to the traditional king’s English.”  There is something about that valley of the shadow of death that grips us.  On the other hand, what if the different translations do not mean the same thing?

Philippians 3:9

NRSV –  and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law but one that comes through faith IN Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.

KJV – And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith OF Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith:

Is the righteousness that we are supposed to have and in which we are supposed to stand before God something that we obtain through our faith IN Christ or given to us because of Christ’s own faithfulness (through the faith OF Christ)?  Most translations go with the faith in Christ that seems to place the burden of righteousness on us which is sloppy, in my opinion.  The Greek literally says the faith of Christ making the whole experience more of a gift of grace.  I will always try to err on grace.  Grace wins!  Your Bible might have a note about this difference, and people who care do argue about this, but you cannot deny that there is a semantic difference depending on how it is translated.  The meaning itself is different.

Of course, you might not care.  You might not care that there are over 5,800 Greek New Testament manuscripts known to date, along with over 10,000 Hebrew Old Testament manuscripts and over 19,000 copies of Scripture in Syriac, Coptic, Latin, and Aramaic languages that we use to translate our modern Bible, and many of them are not even complete copies but sections of passages.  Here is a copy of the Greek New Testament published by the American Bible Society.  They provide an official Greek text of the New Testament (the original language of that part of the Bible).  In the notes on every page, there are ratings by the editors as to how much they agree with each other as to which text is the best one.  In other words, for Acts 2:11 (for instance) there may be 24 different ancient language variations that are all slightly different but different.  There might be another 3 or 4 that are more significantly different.  Which one do we use as the basis of our modern Bible?  This group of learned and scholarly editors vote on which verse they choose and tell you in the notes how well they agreed with each other.  They also give you the major variants.  I may have lost you at this point, but this is fascinating because this means the Bible is more of a living, breathing thing that any of us realize.  It requires so much thought and study and conversation before it ever ends up in our hands.  And the ones who really determine what you read when you open its pages are these editors for whom we should always be praying!

This means that the Bible is not one thing.  We have so many different ones all saying something different, usually not dramatic differences but differences, nonetheless.  I have not even gotten into paraphrases like Today’s English Bible, the Message, or the Contemporary English Version that put the traditional Bible in more modern and easy-to-understand words but will sound very different.

The Bible is the most amazing and intriguing book for all of this.  It is like a gem mine where the more and more you dig, you find more beautiful and valuable things, and there is no end to it.

I hope you are not worried about the Bible in your hands, whether you can trust it or not.  You absolutely can.  What is amazing about the book itself as such a rare thing in our world is that even though it has been around for so long, it has changed very little.  Our Bibles capture the truth of God’s Word and will still deliver that truth when we allow it to speak to us in the Holy Spirit.  I say this for all major Bible translations at least.  Anyone can get a copy of original texts and take a whack at translating their own Bible, but all translations are not equally helpful.

I have also been challenged by my reading of the Bible and been forced to understand things differently as I have learned more and read passages anew.  The way I read the Bible when I was younger is not the way I read it today.  Passages about the role of women in the church and worship, for instance, mean something different to me today than they used to.  Honestly, I used to read the Bible more at the face value of the words, but the Bible is richer than that and deserves more interpretation and understanding than that.  Our Bible is full of different kinds of writing, each meant to be read differently.  No one reads history like you would a poem or a song or a letter or a list of laws.  Stories are not the same as prophecies.  Apocalypse is something completely different altogether.  Respect for the Bible, love for the Bible means reading for understanding in more informed and nuanced ways.  I hope we would all be open to allowing the Bible to inform our understanding however it speaks.

There are even different ways of reading.  Some read the Bible with more of a meditative spirit, dwelling on one passage, one verse, even one word for many minutes.  Listening to the Bible and reading it may give you a different sense of the meaning as we all learn with different learning styles.  Reading in a group is absolutely going to enhance your appreciation if you are willing to hear the perspectives of others.  We will not all agree about meaning, but we are also not always as right as we would like to think we are.  One of the things that I love most about our larger church is the wealth of perspectives that add to my understanding.  We might all like for everyone to agree with our own perspective, but can you imagine how poor our understanding would be if we all just agreed about everything?  And what if that understanding was wrong?  We have had times in history when big groups of people mistakenly had the same beliefs, some of them terribly harmful.

We are a better people for being in conversation about what matters most.  At the heart of what matters most for us is the Bible.  This book has been through many hands over the ages.  This book conceived in ancient foreign languages speaks to us today as we wrestle with understanding and interpretation and difference.  It is our rule of faith and the guide for our shared life.  It is the story of God’s love and expresses the good news of Christ Jesus.  It is absolutely not something simple or easy, but if we allow it to speak to us in intentional, informed ways, we will be the better for it, and God will be glorified in the faith OF Jesus.  To God be the glory.  Amen.