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Thousands of years in thirty hours.

One Sunday, the high school teacher at our church asked the students to break up into groups. One of their assignments was to summarize the book of Esther. As a high school adult sponsor, I walked around the room, trying to help. Pencils lay untouched; no one was writing anything down. Why? Most of the kids had never read Esther. The teacher ended up having to change his plan and explain the story to them. Now, these weren't all new Christians; many had been believers for years.

As I saw the reaction to the assignment, I realized many people, not only high-schoolers, are unfamiliar with the Bible. I think many of them feel overwhelmed at the idea of reading the entire book. Those who bravely start in Genesis bog down somewhere in Leviticus, feeling frustrated and bored. For new Christians and those who feel the entire Bible is too big an undertaking, what's needed is a guide to biblical highlights.

As a college English professor who has taught the Bible as literature, I have had to compile a condensed list of key books and chapters for my students to read. The challenge is to cover the major people, stories and themes. The following analysis with the list of key chapters amounts to about one-third of the Bible. Maybe this list will help give you a head start toward understanding this sacred book that has been protected at the cost of many lives over the years. It's our duty to read it and apply it to our lives.

The first part of the Old Testament gives us the early history of the human race as well as the history of the special people God chose to work through -- the Jews. The book of Genesis is a fascinating collection of great stories: the first people, the first attempt to reach God on their own, crimes and punishments, faithful Abraham, the sneaky ways of Jacob and Joseph's rise to power against tremendous odds (Genesis 1-4, 6-9, 13, 15-19, 21-22, 24-25, 27-30, 32-33, 37, 39-45). Genesis ends with the Jews in Egypt; Exodus deals with the miraculous escape from slavery under the leadership of their hero Moses (Exodus 1-17, 19-20). Life could have been good for the Jews, but, like so many of us, they blew their opportunities (Numbers 1114, 20). Finally, after a long delay, they entered the Promised Land under a fierce general (Joshua 2, 6-8, 24).

Even after gaining a foothold in the land, the Jews had to fight constantly against local tribes antagonistic to the newcomers. They turned repeatedly to leaders who rescued them from their problems; yet, they soon forgot the lessons learned and fell into further difficulties (Judges 4-7, 13-16). Right in the middle of all this struggle and uproar comes a small book that has been praised as a beautifully written love story of a foreigner in the land of the Jews (Ruth). The Jews, dissatisfied as usual, cried out to be like the others around them; they wanted a king even though God warned them this would not be the solution to their problems. They got their king, who turned out to be a failure; but God blessed them with the most famous political leader they would ever have David. The stories of the first king, followed by David's rise, rule, successes and failures, have fascinated people for centuries (I Samuel 8-31 and all of II Samuel).

Solomon took the kingdom to new heights, but a tragic civil war split the nation. The kings of both sides were mostly huge disappointments. God raised up strong men, Elijah and Elisha, as prophets to challenge the spiritually bankrupt regimes. But the people ignored all the danger signs until fierce enemies from the northeast, Assyria and Babylon, invaded the land and carried off the Jews (I Kings 1-3, 6, 10, 12, 17-22 and II Kings 2, 4-6:23, 17-19, 25). However, God was not done with the Jews. He graciously allowed many to return to their land, but the conditions were harsh -- enemies lived there, the words of Moses had been forgotten, and city walls lay in ruins. Two strong leaders overcame these difficulties, providing great lessons in leadership (Ezra 3 and Nehemiah 1-2, 4-6, 8-9, 13). The history books end with an amazing escape from sure annihilation at the hands of a rabid Jew-hater (all of Esther).

The next section of the Old Testament is composed of various poems. We encounter the sufferings of a righteous man and wonder why (Job 1-14, 3842). We know the Bible is the word of God to humanity; but the next book, the Psalms, might be thought of as humanity's word to God -- our prayers and praises directed to God (Psalms 1, 8, 19, 22, 23, 51, 68, 90, 103, 139). Proverbs and Ecclesiastes are examples of wisdom literature -- thoughts on life by those who have experienced it (Proverbs 1, 4, 10, 31 and all of Ecclesiastes). The Song of Solomon is a beautiful series of love poems exchanged between a man and a woman (Song of Solomon 2, 4).

The last section of the Old Testament is devoted to the writings of the prophets -- men chosen by God to deliver sermons of rebuke to the Jews and other nations as they wandered far from God. The most famous and the longest is Isaiah, the prophet known for beautiful phrases, who wrote of both disaster and future glories (Isaiah 6, 25, 36-40, 52-53, 55). There were others who also wrote of visions, prophecies and warnings (Ezekiel 1-4, 37-39, Daniel 7-12). The first half of Daniel contains some of the best-known Bible stories (Daniel 1-6). One other prophet is interesting to read about because he doesn't seem to be as courageous and noble as the others; he runs from God with surprising results (all of Jonah).

The New Testament is split into three sections too. The first are the historical books, similar to the initial section in the Old Testament. Three different authors give us a similar, overlapping view of the life of Jesus. You can read any, but I would suggest Luke because it gives a lot of details (it's the longest of the three Gospels mentioned). Luke emphasizes Jesus as the Saviour of the whole world, and he shows Jesus interacting with outcasts of the time -- women, children, the poor, the oppressed (all of Matthew, Mark or Luke). You should also read John because it is a different Gospel that doesn't cover the same events as the others. It is less a history and more of a meditation on the theological significance of Jesus and his divinity (all of John). To complete the history of Jesus and his Church, you should read portions of Acts, the second part of Luke's history that started with his Gospel. Here you encounter the courage, joy, conflicts and missionary outreach of the early believers (Acts 1-4, 6-8:3, 9, 15-17, 26-28).

The second section of the New Testament is composed of letters sent by Christian leaders to churches or to individuals they knew well. You should start with the longest one that presents a clear, complete explanation of salvation and the Christian life (Romans). Others discuss important specific issues: church worship, spiritual gifts and the coming resurrection (I Corinthians 11-15); an emphasis on salvation by grace rather than works (Galatians); the church and personal relationships (Ephesians); the coming of Christ (I Thessalonians 4-5); faith (Hebrews 11-12); good lessons on the Christian life (James); and the importance of obedience and love as characteristics of the Christian (I John).

The last section of the New Testament is composed of only one book, but what a book it is. Revelation is a visionary roller-coaster ride that has puzzled people for centuries. It is full of strange symbols, unusual animals and awful events. The ending is comforting to all Christians for its uplifting vision of God's triumph and the creation of a new world (Revelation 1, 4-6, 11-13, 17, 19-22).

That's it. If you follow the above reading suggestions, you will have worked your way through most of the important Bible passages in probably less than 30 hours of total reading time. Your knowledge of the Bible will have improved significantly, and you will feel good about what you have accomplished. More important, God's word will be more real to you. Later, you may feel confident enough to go back and read the rest of the Bible. There are hidden treasures throughout the book awaiting discovery. Enjoy the trip.
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Author:Zacharias, Gary
Publication:Presbyterian Record
Date:Sep 1, 1999
Words:1420
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