How easy is it to get distracted by marginal issues?—Count how many times your Bible study group wanders off topic this month and you'll have the answer to that. We’re fascinated by the peripheral and our insatiable curiosity means that we love to discuss and debate and seek answers to all our questions on life, the universe and everything. Many of us would love to spend time hanging with the ancient Greeks at the Areopagus if given half a chance. But talking about curiosities all day means we never get to the important issues, we get fixated on the unimportant, and this is definitely the danger of the subject matter in a book like this. I must admit the first time I heard about it I wondered whether there was something to worry about. Were we about to see exorcisms en masse in Anglican churches across Sydney? (... imagine that! ...)
If not handled correctly, the issue of the underworld can be blown out of all proportion. Just as well we're in the safe hands of Peter Bolt! I was relieved (and not totally surprised) to read quite early on the very clear distinction being made between those things at the centre of the Bible and the things at the periphery, and that Peter sees the underworld as being on the edge and not in the centre. In fact he writes that the peripheral matters are only there because they have a part to play in the communication of the central message about God’s love in Jesus Christ (see page 21). He urges us to always be asking what the various smaller topics tell us about this main message. What a great principle to take away from this book—and we're only at the end of the second chapter! We could apply this to all sorts of issues, it’s a helpful answer to give to common questions about the nature of eternity, the how of creation, predestination and understanding the trinity, among other things. Even if this book doesn't teach us anything about the underworld, it’s already taught us a vitally important concept.
Many people get disillusioned with the Bible because they expect it to tell them everything they want to know, instead of it being a place to find out everything God wants us to know. As Bible readers we need to work hard at paying attention to the things that interest God, rather than following our own flights of fancy. Peter's surprising claim that understanding the underworld properly will help us understand the Bible better is the logical end of this principle, that is, we need to not get distracted as we think about the underworld, but be disciplined to think about it in the light of what the Bible wants to tell us about the saving work of Jesus Christ. I love how Peter puts John 3:16 at the heart of this. It’s a verse many of us know (I learnt it in kindergarten) and therefore a concept we can lock on to, and that Peter will return to again and again in the book.
So, next time you get stuck in Bible study in the thick of a going-nowhere debate about angels or the trinity, why not bring this helpful principle to play. Ask: 'How much air time does the Bible give to this? Is there a reason for that? And what does this have to do with John 3:16 ...?’ Let me know how it goes ...
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