Where is it now, that beautiful Bible your grandparents
gave you for Christmas? In the back of a drawer? On the top
closet shelf? Worse yet, is it still in the box it came in,
resting safely in some now forgotten spot in the house?
Wherever it is, it may have a way of making
you feel guilty even when it isn't in plain sight. Why guilty?
Perhaps because deep inside you know it isn't just an ordinary
book. Many people call it the Word of God, and that makes
you feel that you really should pay some attention to it.
Maybe you've even tried a few times to get into the Bible
but didn't have much success. So you put it back in the gift
box, deciding that you really don't know enough about this
complicated and thick best-seller called the Bible.
Don't Sell Yourself Short
Don't be too quick to put down your knowledge
of the Bible. You probably know more than you think. Every
time you go to Sunday Mass, you hear many passages quoted
directly from the Bible. In fact, the whole first part of
the Mass is called the Liturgy of the Word, and when Word
is capitalized like that, it means the Word of God. So when
we read or listen to parts of the Bible, we're really hearing
God speaking to us.
In this Liturgy of the Word, the Church presents
us with three Scriptural readings each Sunday. The first is
nearly always from the Old Testament. The second is usually
from one of the epistles. "Epistle" is simply another
word for "letter," and there are 21 of those in
the New Testament written by a number of different people.
The third and last reading is always from one of the four
Gospels. That's because for us as Christians, no part of the
Bible can ever be as important as the Gospels, accounts of
Jesus' life and teachings. Since we are his followers (disciples),
we find in the Gospels almost everything on which we center
When we hear the Scriptures read in short sections
a week apart, however, we tend to lose the continuity of the
story. It's not like a miniseries, where much of the next
episode is spent reviewing what happened before. We might
forget what happened before the passage we're hearing
now and miss the connections between this week and last. And,
unlike most miniseries, the Gospels are life-changing, with
power to influence the direction of your life. So it's good
to have the total picture, the big story, in mind.
Gospels are not merely stories or simple biographies.
In school, you've read a lot of biographies of great people,
and you know that these are the tales of their lives from
start to finish. A Gospel isn't like that, and we shouldn't
expect it to be. A Gospel tells episodes from Jesus' life
and teachings, usually those things the writer thought we
most needed to know.
Behind the Scenes With Gospel Writers
Anybody who writes anything has a reason for
doing it. When you write a term paper, you have a very good
reason for doing that: You won't get out of that class if
Gospel writers weren't that different. They
all had reasons for writing what they did about Jesus, and
their reasons were different because they lived in different
times and places among different kinds of people.
Suppose you decided to write a gospel. How would
you go about it? It might be pretty much the same as writing
a letter to a friend. First, you'd decide what that friend
would be most interested in hearing. Once you've settled on
what you're going to say, you would probably get most of that
information from your own experience. None of us can speak
from any other perspective than our own.
Those are two factors behind each of the Gospels.
The individual writers wrote those parts of Jesus' life which
they felt best suited the people for whom they were writing,
and they wrote from their own experience. The men who were
the authorities behind two of the Gospels, Matthew and John,
knew Jesus personally. The other two, Mark and Luke, more
than likely did not. But all four told the same story from
Mark's perspective, for example, was shaped
by the absence of Jesus from the earth for some 35 to 40 years.
The eyewitness generation, those who actually knew Jesus and
heard him speak, were dying, either of natural causes or in
the persecution by Roman Emperor Nero. Little communities
of Christians were springing up all around the Mediterranean
world. They needed an organized account of Jesus' public life
to safeguard the accuracy of his teaching and preserve what
the eyewitness generation had always provided by word of mouth.
Mark very possibly composed his Gospel in Rome
where his Christian community, mostly people who converted
from ancient pagan religions, was in real danger. These people
could be arrested, imprisoned, even killed for their new faith,
and they wanted to know, as you would, whether this faith
was worth putting their lives on the line for. Mark, therefore,
says much about discipleship, what it really means to follow
Jesus, pointing out that Jesus never said it would be easy.
So, then, would a Gospel be a good place to
start your Bible reading? Absolutely, because it's the center
of Christian faith. Just don't expect any one Gospel to give
you the whole story or to tell the story exactly like another
Which Gospel would be best to read first? It
really doesn't matter. You might scan a little of each to
see which writing style you like best. You may find one you
like so well you want to stick with it. By all means, do.
But if you don't have a preference, Mark makes a good starting
point. It's the shortest Gospel and is written in such a fast-paced
style that it's sometimes called the action Gospel. In this
Youth Update, it is being used as an example throughout.
One Gospel = One Book
Let's say you have now opened your Bible to
the Gospel of Markor have tried to. Maybe you can't
find it. If that's the case, head for the table of contents.
This is your road map through the Bible. Generally speaking,
you'll see two bold titles: Old Testament and New Testament.
The word "testament" simply means covenant or solemn
agreement between two parties. In the Bible, those two parties
are almost always God and God's people. The Old Testament
could also be called the Hebrew Scriptures since it's the
part of the Bible still used by our Jewish friends as their
Scriptures. The New Testament, which you'll notice is considerably
shorter, could be called the Christian Scriptures because
everything is centered on Jesus. So that's easy to remember:
For anything happening before the time of Jesus, go to the
Old Testament; for anything dealing with Jesus' life or the
early Christian period, refer to the New Testament.
For now, go right to the New Testament section
and look up the page number for the Gospel of Mark. All New
Testaments are arranged exactly the same way, so you can count
on Mark always being the second book of any New Testament
you pick up.
Upon turning to Mark's Gospel, the first thing
that meets your eye may not be the text of the Gospel at all,
but rather an introduction. This introduction can help dig
deeper into what this Gospel is all about, but right now all
you want to do is read the book. And Mark is a book all by
itself. The Bible is really a whole collection of books. The
word Bible is taken from a Greek word that means "books."
And that's books, plural. When you examine your Bible's table
of contents, every title you see is a separate book and no
more intended to be read one right after the other than books
on a library shelf.
Back to Mark: Now that you've found him, enjoy
him. Just read the book the way you ordinarily do, start to
finish. Mark is reasonably compact, so if you can set aside
a good part of an afternoon or evening and read the whole
Gospel, you'll get more out of it than you ever have hearing
short snatches on Sundays.
For one thing, you'll understand two people
much better: Jesus and Mark himself. As you read through Mark's
account, Jesus will begin to take shape as a real person with
a personality you can easily identify with in your own life.
You'll see Jesus as a man on the go. This is a Jesus not a
lot different from you at the end of a busy day: tired, stressed
out, wanting nothing so much as to be given a little space.
But he doesn't get much. People are always crowding around
wanting something from him, even when he tries to take time
You'll understand Mark a little better, too,
after you read enough of his work to see what's important
to him in Jesus' ministry. Maybe you'll relate well to his
writing style since it's like today's fast-paced media method
with its emphasis on the main message.
As you read through Mark this first time, pay
little or no attention to chapter headings and verse numbers.
Those are helpful later when you're really digging into this
book and need some reference points. But Mark didn't put those
numbers there. None of the biblical writers did. Chapter and
verse numbers were added much later to help us. But just so
you'll know how they work, suppose you run across a reference
that reads: Mt 6:9-13. That would mean the reading is from
the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 6, verses 9-13. Look that up
and you find Matthew's version of the Lord's Prayer.
Don't spend time on footnotes or cross references
this first time through. Pausing constantly to look
something up disrupts the flow of the story and the flavor
of the writing. For now, all you want to do is read. When
you finish, don't worry about how much you might not understand.
Think of how much you do understand, things you see in an
entirely new way, things that make Jesus realas if he
were right there with you.
Jesus, Up Close and Personal
As a matter of fact, Jesus is right there with
you. When Christians read the Gospels, they're not reading
about some ancient hero who's long dead and gone. They're
reading about the living Jesus. Jesus is as alive today as
he was in any of the episodes Mark describes. That's why Jesus'
resurrection is the most important event in history for Christians.
It means that, even though we can't see him, Jesus exists
in a new kind of glorified body right nowtoday. And
we can talk to him and try to live the way he asked us to
(that's what it means to be a disciple) because someday we're
going to move on to a new and more fantastic part of our lives
with Jesus in our glorified bodies in the kingdom. That's
such great news that all the Gospel writers talk about it.
It's the central event of the entire New Testament.
After reading Mark, you might like to find out
how another writer handles the subject. A good place to turn
next would be the Gospel of Luke. Read it the same way you
read Mark, right straight through, without looking up references
or reading notes. After all, this is your "get-acquainted"
tour of the Bible. There'll be plenty of time to revisit these
books later, and then you can linger longer.
Where To Next?
Having gotten a pretty solid grounding in Jesus'
words and deeds through two of the Gospels, where to next?
Since the Gospels take you only as far as the end of Jesus'
earthly life, it might be interesting to find out what happened
after he left this little planet and returned to his place
with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
The Acts of the Apostles is written by Luke,
so you'll already be familiar with the writing style, and
you'll know the kinds of things Luke likes to emphasize (we're
purposely not telling you what those are because it's much
more fun to discover them for yourself).
While Acts tells about many events in the early
days of Christianity, it shouldn't be viewed as a history
book. It doesn't tell everything that happened, just those
events the author thought would give us the best idea of how
Jesus' followers preached his message and how they spread
it all across the known world (which, for them, was primarily
the regions around the Mediterranean Sea). You'll meet a great
character in Acts who doesn't appear in the Gospels because
he wasn't a disciple in Jesus' lifetime.
Paul is the central figure in the second part
of Acts. Here is a fascinating man. When you first meet him,
he hates Jesus' followers and is making a career out of tossing
them in prison. On his way to a city called Damascus to continue
arresting Christians, he has an unusual encounter with the
risen Jesus which changes his whole life. How? That's for
you to find out as you get into the Acts.
Acts is an adventure story from beginning to
end. You may not be able to put it down, so don't. Read right
through it as you did with the Gospels. You'll receive an
exciting picture of how Christianity began.
Worried about these little groups of Christians,
but unable to see them very often, Paul wrote them a number
of letters. Some of these are preserved as part of the New
Testament, and they may be found right after the Acts. Don't
look for neat, chronological order here, either. The letters
are arranged according to their length (longest to shortest),
rather than the order in which they were written. While this
may seem an unusual way to line them up, it does mean that
once you have become acquainted with their order, you will
know where to locate them in any edition of the Bible.
From the New to the Old
Aren't we going backward in all this? We started
with the New Testament and have said almost nothing about
the Old. The reason is that the wonderful story of Jesus is
by far the most interesting and most familiar to Christians,
especially Christians who may be blowing the dust off their
Bibles for the first time in ages. Following that story helps
a newcomer feel at home with the Word of God. Reading the
books as books without regard for study helps build confidence
in a person's ability to read the Bible profitably. Even though
it may be just a first reading, everyone gets something out
of it, and most people get a lot!
Does it matter, then, if we read the Old Testament
at all? Oh, yes. If it didn't matter, the Church would hardly
include an Old Testament reading in every Sunday Liturgy of
the Word. The Hebrew Scriptures are every bit as much the
inspired Word of God as the Christian Scriptures. In the 46
books that make up that section of the Bible, there are all
kinds of beautiful songs and poetry, intriguing history and
amazing stories. As Christians, we see the coming of Jesus
as savior of the human race foretold on Old Testament pages.
Getting into all of that is great fun, but it's an enterprise
for another time. In the meantime, get acquainted with the
marvelous collection of books you hold in your hands!
Youth Update advisers who previewed
this issue, suggesting helpful changes and asking questions
of the author, are Nathaniel Belvo, Corina Dalton, David Grooms,
Lisa Lehman and Kathy Nartker. Mary Ehret, youth minister
for the three parishes of St. Augustine, Germantown; St. Henry,
South Dayton; and Our Lady of Good Hope, Miamisburg, Ohio,
convened this group which represents all three parishes.