Some of my favourite Bible passages

Note: This page was written some time ago, when I was still a Christian. I'm not any more, so it's likely that some material in here no longer reflects my current opinions.

All quotations are from the New International Version, but here and there I have made trivial changes to punctuation, capitalisation and layout. I have changed no meanings.

Micah 6:6-8

    With what shall I come before the LORD
      and bow down before the exalted God?
    Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
      with calves a year old?
    Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
      with ten thousand rivers of oil?
    Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
      the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

    He has showed you, O man, what is good.
    And what does the LORD require of you?
      To act justly and to love mercy
      and to walk humbly with your God.

I have always considered the ethical side of Christianity to be immensely important. This passage is an amazing "pre-echo" from the Old Testament of something very like the Christian ethic. It's also extremely beautiful.

Revelation 21:22-25

    I did not see a temple in the city,
      because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.
    The city did not need the sun or moon to shine on it,
      for the glory of God gives it light,
      and the Lamb is its lamp.
    The nations will walk by its light,
      and the kings of the earth will bring their splendour into it.
    On no day will its gates ever be shut,
      for there will be no night there.

The most important thing about heaven, of course, is that God will be there. I don't know about you, but I find this a hard thing to grasp, my experience of God being so dim and vague. This passage is one of the things that makes it clear to me that living in the presence of God really is all anyone need ask for.

Psalm 8:3-4

    When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,
    the moon and stars, which you have set in place,
      what is man that you are mindful of him,
      the son of man that you care for him?

Go out on a clear night and look up at the stars. See if you can avoid thinking of this.

Ephesians 2:1-10

    As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins,
    in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world
    and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air,
    the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.
    All of us also lived among them at one time,
    gratifying the cravings of our nature
    and following its desires and thoughts.
    Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.

    But because of his great love for us,
    God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ
    even when we were dead in transgressions --
    it is by grace that you have been saved.

    And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him
    in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus,
    in order that in the coming ages he might show
    the incomparable riches of his grace,
    expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.

    For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith --
    and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God --
    not by works, so that no one can boast.

    For we are God's workmanship,
    created in Christ Jesus to do good works,
    which God prepared in advance for us to do.

That's a pretty good summary of the Gospel, I reckon: particularly the second section above: every phrase is priceless.

The last two sections, I think, hold a large part of the key to the resolution of the faith/works problem. I'm not going to go into that here, though, because it would probably only lead to endless arguments about Calvinism. :-)

Isaiah 40:21-31

    Do you not know?
    Have you not heard?
    The LORD is the everlasting God,
      the creator of the ends of the earth.

    He will not grow tired or weary,
      and his understanding none can fathom.
    He gives strength to the weary,
      and increases the power of the weak.
    Even youths grow tired and weary,
      and young men stumble and fall;
    but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength.
    They will soar on wings like eagles;
    they will run and not grow weary;
    they will walk and not be faint.

Now there's a promise. I just wish I remembered it more often when I'm tired, hassled and depressed. It's good to be reminded that however weak and unreliable we may be, God will "not grow tired or weary".

Psalm 51

    Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love;
    according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.
    Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.

    For I know my transgressions,
      and my sin is always before me.
    Against you, you only, have I sinned,
      and done what is evil in your sight,
    so that you are proved right when you speak
      and justified when you judge.
    Surely I was sinful at birth,
      sinful from the time my mother conceived me.

    Surely you desire truth in the inner parts;
      you teach me wisdom in the inmost place.

    Cleanse me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
      wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
    Let me hear joy and gladness;
      let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
    Hide your face from my sins
      and blot out all my iniquity.

    Create in me a pure heart, O God,
      and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
    Do not cast me from your presence
      or take your holy Spirit from me.
    Restore to me the joy of your salvation
      and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

    Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
      and sinners will turn back to you.

    Save me from bloodguilt, O God, the God who saves me,
      and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
    O Lord, open my lips,
      and my mouth will declare your praise.

    You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
    you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
      The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
      a broken and a contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

    In your good pleasure make Zion prosper;
    build up the walls of Jerusalem.
      Then there will be righteous sacrifices,
      whole burnt offerings to delight you;
      then bulls will be offered on your altar.

This psalm, we're told, was written by David after he was confronted by Nathan with an account of what he'd done with Bathsheba and her husband Uriah. (See 2 Samuel 11:2-12:14.)

The wonderful thing is that David's prayer for forgiveness was answered. If God is willing to forgive sin on that scale, then he is certainly willing to forgive our sins.

On top of that, this is one of the most marvellous pieces of writing in the Bible. Oh, and if you don't know Allegri's setting of the Latin text of this psalm (the "Miserere", so called because that's its first word), you should get hold of a recording and listen to it. Yummy.

Philippians 2:1-11

    If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ,
      if any comfort from his love,
      if any fellowship with the Spirit,
      if any tenderness and compassion,
    then make my joy complete by being like-minded,
      having the same love,
      being one in spirit and purpose.
    Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit,
      but in humility consider others better than yourselves.
    Each of you should look not only to your own interests,
      but also to the interests of others.

    Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:

        Who, being in very nature God,
          did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
        but made himself nothing,
          taking the very nature of a servant,
          being made in human likeness.
        And being found in appearance as a man,
          he humbled himself
          and became obedient to death --
            even death on a cross.

        Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
        and gave him the name that is above every name,
          that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
            in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
          and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
            to the glory of God the Father.

This is a very familiar passage; and with good reason. But it seems to be quite common to attend only to the "hymn" in verses 6-11, despite the fact that it's put there as an illustration of how Christians ought to behave.

Incidentally, this happens all the time in the New Testament. The most wonderful bits of theology come in, not because the writer is preaching on the theology of the Incarnation (or whatever), but because they illustrate some down-to-earth and practical point of ethics or discipline or love. I think our Christian lives should be like that: the doctrine is not the point, but is there to nourish us so that we can do God's work. That said, the doctrine is sometimes very nourishing, and very tasty, indeed. This is an excellent example.

Job 38:1-42:6

    Then the LORD answered Job out of the storm. He said:

        Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?
        Brace yourself like a man;
        I will question you, and you shall answer me.

        Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation?
          Tell me, if you understand.
        Who marked off its dimensions?
          Surely you know!
...

    Then Job replied to the LORD:

        I know that you can do all things;
          no plan of yours can be thwarted.

        You asked, "Who is this that obscures my counsel
        without knowledge?".
          Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
          things too wonderful for me to know.

        You said, "Listen now, and I will speak;
        I will question you, and you shall answer me."
          My ears had heard of you,
          but now my eyes have seen you.

        Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.

This is terrific stuff, for at least two reasons. Firstly, chapters 38 to 41 (which, by the way, you really must read if you want to appreciate this passage; you might also like to read Proverbs 8:22-31) contain some of the finest sarcasm I know, and to my mind make it entirely clear that God has a sense of humour. (Incidentally, this stuff is also the finest case I know of what is sometimes referred to as "Ha ha only serious".)

Secondly, Job's response has a really remarkable vividness to it.

If only these chapters of Job survived, I think they would still be regarded as one of the best pieces of poetry in existence.

John 8:3-11

    The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman
    caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and
    said to Jesus,
      "Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery.
      In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women.
      Now what do you say?"
    They were using this question as a trap,
    in order to have a basis for accusing him.

    But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground
    with his finger. When they kept on accusing him, he
    straightened up and said to them,
      "If any one of you is without sin,
      let him be the first to throw a stone at her."
    Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

    At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time,
    the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the
    woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and
    asked her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned
    you?"
    "No one, sir," she said.
    "Then neither do I condemn you," Jesus declared.
    "Go now and leave your life of sin."

(This passage probably wasn't originally in John's gospel, but it definitely has a ring of authenticity about it.)

There are two deslightful things about this passage. Firstly, and less importantly, it shows what a very clever guy Jesus was. The point of the question was that the law of Moses demanded, and Roman law forbade, the woman to be stoned: Jesus got out of this sticky situation with amazing skill. I like to think that the stooping down and writing on the ground was an indication that these people, with their silly trick questions, weren't really worth attending to.

More important, though, is that mixture of justice and mercy which is so characteristic of Jesus. I think we should remember it whenever we're tempted to pass judgement on anyone.

John 1:1-14

    In the beginning was the Word,
      and the Word was with God,
      and the Word was God.
    He was with God in the beginning.
      Through him all things were made;
      without him nothing was made that has been made.
    In him was life,
      and that life was the light of men.
      The light shines in the darkness,
      but the darkness has not understood it.

    There came a man who was sent from God;
      his name was John.
    He came as a witness concerning that light,
      so that through him all men might believe.
    He himself was not that light;
      he came only as a witness to the light.

    The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.

    He was in the world,
      and though the world was made through him,
      the world did not recognise him.
    He came to that which was his own,
      but his own did not receive him.

    Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name,
      he gave the right to become children of God --
      children born not of natural descent,
      nor of human decision or a husband's will,
      but born of God.

    The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.
    We have seen his glory,
      the glory of the One and Only,
      who came from the Father,
      full of grace and truth.

You all know this already. But, I mean, like, wow. Has anyone ever written like this before or since? If so, I want to read it.

Incidentally, the presence of this sort of stuff in John's gospel has sometimes led people to conclude that John somehow had his head in the clouds, that he wasn't really concerned with what Jesus really said and did, that his accounts are not reliable as matters of fact but are used as an opportunity for John to show off his theology. I have never understood this: why shouldn't a great writer and theologian also be a competent historian?

1 Corinthians 13

    If I speak in the tongues of men and angels,
      but have not love,
    I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.

    If I have the gift of prophecy
    and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge,
    and if I have a faith that can move mountains,
      but have not love,
    I am nothing.

    If I give all I possess to the poor
    and surrender my body to the flames,
      but have not love,
    I gain nothing.

    Love is patient, love is kind.
    It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
    It is not rude, it is not self-seeking,
    it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
    Love does not delight in evil
      but rejoices in the truth.
    It always protects, always trusts, always hopes,
      always perseveres.

    Love never fails.
    But where there are prophecies,
      they will cease;
    where there are tongues,
      they will be stilled;
    where there is knowledge,
      it will pass away.
    For we know in part and we prophesy in part,
      but when perfection comes,
      the imperfect disappears.

    When I was a child,
      I talked like a child,
      I thought like a child,
      I reasoned like a child.
    When I became a man,
      I put away childish things.
    Now we see but a poor reflection in a mirror;
      then we shall see face to face.
    Now I know in part;
      then I shall know fully,
      even as I am fully known.

    And now these three remain: faith, hope and love.
    But the greatest of these is love.

Another very very very well-known passage. But it deserves it, really it does. I advise not going on a guilt trip about the poor resemblance between our love and what Paul describes here: just do it, OK? :-)

I waver between thinking that this passage is primarily a description of God's love (in which case it has the merit of being accurate) and thinking that it's primarily a description of the love we should have (in which case it has the merit of being relevant to the surrounding passage). On the whole I think it's describing the ideal at which we should aim, as realised only in God's perfect love. So it's accurate and relevant. (Good.)

1 Chronicles 29:10-13

    David praised the LORD in the presence of the whole assembly, saying,

        Praise be to you, O LORD, God of our father Israel,
          from everlasting to everlasting.
        Yours, O LORD, is the greatness and the power
          and the glory and the majesty and the splendour,
          for everything in heaven and earth is yours.
        Yours, O LORD, is the kingdom;
          you are exalted as head over all.
        Wealth and honour come from you;
          you are the ruler of all things.
          In your hands are strength and power
          to exalt and give strength to all.

        Now, our God, we give you thanks,
          and praise your glorious name.

"The world is charged with the grandeur of God". And so is this prayer.

1 Kings 18:19-39

    [Elijah said:] "Now summon the people from all over Israel
    to meet me on Mount Carmel. And bring the 450 prophets of Baal
    and the 400 prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel's table."
...
    Then they called on the name of Baal from morning to noon.
    "O Baal, answer us!" they shouted. But there was no response;
    no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made.

    At noon Elijah began to taunt them. "Shout louder!" he said.
    "Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy,
    or travelling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened."
    So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords
    and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed.
    Midday passed; and they continued their frantic prophesying
    until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response,
    no one answered, no one paid attention.

    The Elijah said to all the people, "Come here to me." They came
    to him, and he repaired the altar of the LORD, which was in ruins.
...
    Then he said to them, "Fill four large jars with water and
    pour it on the offering and on the wood." ... "Do it again" ...
    "Do it a third time." ...
    At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward
    and prayed:
        "O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel,
        let it be known today that you are God in Israel
        and that I am your servant and have done all these things
        at your command.
        Answer me, O LORD, answer me,
        so these people will know that you, O LORD, are God,
        and that you are turning their hearts back again."
    Then the fire of the LORD fell and burned up the sacrifice,
    the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water
    in the trench.

    When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried,
    "The LORD -- he is God! The LORD -- he is God!".

I'm not sure whether my favourite thing about this passage is the scorn dripping from Elijah's mouth as he taunts the false prophets of their false god, or the mighty answer of God to the true prophet's prayer. Since the former just makes me laugh and the latter sends a shiver down my spine, I suppose it must be the latter. The LORD -- he is God!

Matthew 25:31-41

    [Jesus said:] "When the Son of Man comes in his glory,
    and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne
    in heavenly glory.
    All the nations will be gathered before him,
    and he will separate the people one from another
    as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
    He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

    "Then the King will say to those on his right,
        `Come, you who are blessed by my Father;
        take your inheritance, the kingdome prepared for you
        since the creation of the world.
        For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat,
        I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,
        I was a stranger and you invited me in,
        I needed clothes and you clothed me,
        I was sick and you looked after me,
        I was in prison and you came to visit me.'

    "Then the righteous will answer him,
        `Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you,
        or thirsty and give you something to drink?
        When did we see you a stranger and invite you in,
        or thirsty and give you something to drink?
        When did we see you a stranger and invite you in,
        or needing clothes and clothe you?
        When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'

    "The King will reply,
        `I tell you the truth,
        whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine,
        you did for me.'

    "Then he will say to those on his left,
        `Depart from me, you who are cursed,
        into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
        For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat,
        I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,
        I was a stranger and you did not invite me in,
        I needed clothes and you did not clothe me,
        I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'

    "They also will answer,
        `Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger
        or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'

    "He will reply,
        `I tell you the truth,
        whatever you did not do for one of the least of these,
        you did not do for me.'

    "Then they will go away to eternal punishment,
    but the righteous to eternal life."

This is perhaps the most terrifying thing in the New Testament. I shan't labour the point that the existence of this passage makes it very difficult to support the viewpoint that says that our actions simply don't matter for our salvation; that way lie flame wars and madness. But it should certainly give us pause.

But there's more to this passage than the theme of judgement:

  "Whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine,
  you did for me".

Here we see the depth of Christ's identification with us; here we see the importance of love for our fellows. In the next person we meet -- be they professor, down-and-out, industrialist or road sweeper (but especially in the down-and-out and the road sweeper) -- there is Jesus. And we must treat them with the love and respect which we owe to Jesus; and in doing so, perhaps we may indeed meet with Him.