The idea of this post is to list the Bible verses — or, more accurately, Bible passages — that are the most significant. The notion came to me because I find myself often going back time and again to particular passages, especially when arguing some point or wrestling with hard questions.
A few caveats. First, Scripture is Scripture and, as Paul says, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (II Timothy 3:16). So I’m certainly not suggesting that some passages are more valid than others: They’re all valid. Second, “most significant” is not the same as “favorite.” For example, I’m really moved by Peter crying when the cock crows, and David’s lament when told of his son Absalom’s death, and the father of the Prodigal Son spotting his son when he was still far away (showing, poignantly, that the father must have spent his days looking for him and hoping for his return), and the fact that David doesn’t just face Goliath as the giant advances but actually runs at him. But, favorites though they are, none of those passages makes this list. Third, more than with most posts I suspect I’ll revisit this one from time to time to change my mind; for that reason, I’ll add a “P.S.” at the end where I’ll note changes I’ve made.
And how do I define “most significant”? I think it has to do with the importance of doctrine and/or the historical event that’s related in the passage. One way to think of it is to ask yourself, Which passages would significantly change the Bible and/or what it teaches if they weren’t there?
On to the list! They’re not in order of importance, by the way. Instead I’ve grouped them thematically and largely chronologically: The first three describe God to us; the next three tell us what God wants us to do; then there are two prayers for us; and I finish with two passages related to the Resurrection.
Genesis 1:1 — “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” In the Bible’s very first verse, the timelessness, total sovereignty, and awesome power of God are established. That’s an important point! And of course it frames everything that follows.
John 1:1-18 —
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. …
9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. …
16 Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.
Just as the first line of Genesis establishes who God is, the opening lines of John’s Gospel give us a powerful picture of who Jesus Christ is theologically and why He matters to us personally. I suppose I could have chosen instead, or in addition, the birth accounts of Jesus from Matthew or Luke, and certainly there has to be something in this list about the crucial (literally) historical event of God becoming man, but with John here you get the birth and more, not only the what but the how and the why.
Exodus 3:14 — “God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: “I am has sent me to you.”‘” The background to this verse is that Moses has asked God, who has told Moses to go to the Israelites and lead them out of Egypt, what he should tell them when they ask His name. God’s answer makes clear that He is a god like no other, that we cannot even name Him let alone begin to fathom Him, that He is timeless and ageless, omniscient and omnipotent. It is a breathtaking answer, and I have to add that I do like its mysteriousness and poetry.
John 3:16 — “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Well, you knew this had to be on the list, didn’t you? I had thought about including something from the Abrahamic covenant, and that is certainly significant historically — but John 3:16 eclipses it, does it not? On that point, see also another verse that I thought about including in this list, Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Matthew 22:37-40 (see also Mark 12:30-31 and Luke 10:27-28) — 37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” If you want to know why the Ten Commandments doesn’t have to be on this list, Jesus just told you.
Luke 6:31 — “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (See also Matthew 7:12 — “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”) As with John 3:16, you knew this one had to be on the list, right?
The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13; see also Luke 11:2-4). Prayer is one of the most important things we do, and here is God telling us how to pray.
Jesus’ Prayer at Gethsemane — Matthew 26:36-46, Mark 14:32-42, and Luke 22:39-46. When I said in the introduction to this post that there were some Bible passages that I turn to frequently in dealing with this or that issue, this is one I had in mind. It seems to me that this is a particularly important and reassuring passage for us, since it shows that even Jesus could be frightened about the future and unhappy with a course that God the Father has mapped out to follow. See also Matthew 27:46 (on the cross, Jesus prays, “My God, my God, why hath thou forsaken me?”). Thus, there’s no shame in being afraid and unhappy sometimes with what lies before us and even with what God asks. But at the end of the day we are to put God’s will ahead of our own and run toward the battle. (I devote a separate post to this prayer here.)
The Resurrection — Matthew 28:1-7, Mark 16:1-8, Luke 24:1-12, and John 20:1-9. It’s the most important event in history, is all. Without it, there is no Christianity; as Paul says, if it’s not true, then Christians are hapless fools, only to be pitied. But since it is true, it changes everything.
The Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) — “18 Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.'” Let’s give Jesus the last word. Having saved us, He now explains our salvation role to play. What could be more significant than that?
There are, as you would expect and as noted in some of the discussion above, some passages that could easily have been included but weren’t, and I’d like to flag them and acknowledge their claims.
- Except for a brief mention in the last item, namely the Great Commission, I neglect the Holy Spirit, so perhaps I should have have at least included, say, the Pentecost passage in Acts. It’s very odd not to mention Eve and the apple and original sin. And it’s very odd not to have something explicit about what is probably the central event of the Old Testament, namely God’s deliverance of the Hebrews from Egypt.
- I’m uncomfortable not having anything from the wisdom books. Not so much the Song of Song or Ecclesiastes, but maybe from Proverbs (best pick would probably be Proverbs 9:10 — “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom …”) or from Psalms — perhaps number 19 (about which C.S. Lewis wrote, “‘I take this to be the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world”), 22 (quoted by Christ on the cross), or 23 (perhaps the Bible’s most beloved verses) — or God’s answer to Job in chapters 38-41 of that book (a critical passage whenever, in particular, we’re tempted to think that we should be able to understand everything that God does).
- And how can there be nothing about Paul, and nothing from his letters? As a Protestant, shouldn’t I have included something from Romans supporting salvation by faith alone? Or the passage at Galatians 3:28, quoted above? How about that clanging gong passage about love (I Corinthians 13), so often read at weddings? And, given the fact that Paul wrote so much of the New Testament and was so influential in spreading the Gospel and explaining it, shouldn’t his own conversion in Acts have been included?
- Finally, it would have been nice to include something from Revelation (a good friend suggests 21:1-5) — although, as I note at this post, I could plausibly argue that, by the time you get to this book, you should already know how the Book is going to end.
I made no attempt to have each genre represented, and there was no affirmative action to achieve balance or inclusion. In particular, there’s much more New Testament than Old Testament: nothing regarding post-Pentateuch Jewish history; nothing, as noted, from the wisdom books; and nothing from the prophets, major or minor (a good friend suggests Micah 6:6-8). I didn’t even, as noted above, include David killing Goliath — one of my favorite passages, one rightly taught early to children and which everyone knows, and which is not only stirring but also has inspired countless believers faced with what appear to be insuperable odds.
I’m not happy about all that but, as Pilate said when He was accused of slighting the Hebrews in a different context, I wrote what I wrote.
P.S. As promised, I’ll include here a record of instances where I’ve changed my mind about my list in this post. So far, none.