Bringing the Bible to Life: That the World May Know

By Scott Johnson
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Bringing the Bible to life, Ray Vander Laan leads a tour in the Middle East
© Focus on the Family
This groundbreaking video series visits the lands of the Bible to reveal more about God’s Word

The ancient land of Israel is a testimony. An evidence . . . of the greatness of what God did in that country. A testimony to the truth of the words that we find in the pages of the Bible.

Those were the introductory words of a groundbreaking video series that debuted in the summer of 1995—and continues today. It’s a series that takes viewers to the locations and settings we read about in Scripture. Bringing the Bible to life, it offers contextual insights into how the people of Bible times experienced and understood what we may have read—and perhaps skipped over—hundreds of times.

This long-running video series is hosted by a gifted communicator and teacher named Ray Vander Laan. And it’s called That the World May Know.

More than we recognize

When Ray was obtaining his Master of Divinity degree in the mid-1970s, he had the opportunity to study in Israel.

“When I got to the Middle East and looked at the Bible the way Hebrew people do,” he says, “it struck me there were insights, additional nuances and meanings that are not easily seen from a Western point of view. It isn’t that we have it wrong or can’t understand it. It’s that there’s even more than we might recognize.”

Ray embarked on a 45-years-and-counting career as a Bible teacher. Throughout it, he continued to bolster and inform his Christian faith. He took graduate and doctoral studies at some of the largest Jewish universities in the world. And he did extensive research into rabbinical tradition. He also began leading excursions to the Middle East.

In 1993, Ray led a tour that included Focus on the Family supporters and the ministry’s founder, Dr. James Dobson. The impact of that experience led to a revolutionary idea: Focus would send a film crew on one of Ray’s tours to document his teaching. 

When that first video was released in 1995, viewer response was unprecedented. Twenty-five years later, 16 volumes of the series have been released, and several associated resources are currently in development. Over the years “RVL” (as he’s affectionately nicknamed) has since guided more than 10,000 people on excursions to the lands of the Bible. Millions more have viewed video tours via That the World May Know.

Throw your stone

“The title for the series comes from a phrase I noticed in David’s confrontation with Goliath,” Ray says. “David said [paraphrasing 1 Samuel 17:46]: ‘I’m going to throw this stone that the world may know there is a God in Israel.’ And I thought that idea captures the essence of the biblical story, bringing the Bible to life.

“David, a teenager at the time, simply did what he had become good at doing as a shepherd—throwing rocks. So I challenge my students: ‘Throw your stone. God has gifted you in something. You throw the stone that He has entrusted to you. But you don’t do it so the world may know about you. Instead, you do it that the world may know what God is like.’ And I think that’s a great way of thinking about our role—to live that the world may know. God saves people and tells us to become His living picture of what it looks like when He is in charge of our lives.”

A recurring theme throughout That the World May Know is the Jewish concept of shalom—God’s peace, completeness and order amid chaos. “The way you shape a culture,” Ray says, “is by living out the message of shalom in your marriage, in your family, in your business, in your recreation. And as others see it, they’re drawn to God.”

Placed for influence

As Westerners, many of us don’t really have a good grasp on the geography of the Bible. Knowing where events took place helps bring the Bible to life in an unexpected way.

“Geographically speaking,” Ray says, “if you recognize that Israel was the land bridge that linked world empires, then you understand the concept that God put His people at a specific spot on the stage of history. It was the one place where they would be in constant contact with the world around them.” Ray suggests this was God’s way of conveying an important message to His people: “I’m putting you where everyone will know you and see you, because I want you to live out your godliness before the rest of the world.”

“Peter says it this way [paraphrasing 1 Peter 2:12]: ‘Live such good lives before your pagan neighbors, that though they may accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your good deeds and give glory to our Father in heaven.’ That only happens if your neighbors can actually see how you live.”

Another theme throughout the Bible—and the series—is the desert. That theme became very personal for Ray during a health crisis in 2005.

“I felt like I was in a desert,” he says. “Then I realized that God’s people were born in the desert. Abraham and Moses were desert men. David and Jesus spent time in the desert. And it dawned on me that in the desert, I can’t make it myself. There’s no water, and there’s no bread. There’s no shade. And so I turn to the only possible solution: God. That’s what the desert does. It drives people into the arms of God.”

Changing times, a timeless message

The first volume of That the World May Know was released a quarter century ago on VHS videocassette—the dominant format of the day—and the Leader’s Kit included pictures printed on transparencies (for use with an overhead projector!) to enhance group discussion.

Bringing the Bible to life in this way has changed since then. Today, all 16 volumes of That the World May Know are available on DVD, and the series’ website, ThatTheWorldMayKnow.com, offers each episode through streaming and digital download—along with an extended library of audio clips, supplemental articles and encyclopedia entries providing additional lesson support. Three of the more recent video volumes have been translated into Spanish and are now available digitally at ParaQueElMundoSepa.com.

Join the story

Ray Vander Laan’s forte is providing contextual background to familiar biblical passages. He often offers a metaphor: “If you look into a room through a certain window often enough, you get to know that room pretty well. But if there’s a second window, and you look into the same room from another angle—nothing has changed in the room, but you might notice something different.

The Bible, Ray says, is not simply the source of our doctrinal truth. It’s a story set in a Jewish context from history. “The more you know about the time and place, the more vivid the story becomes. The better you understand the story in its setting, the more it invites you in to say, ‘Become part of this.’ Don’t just know the story—join it.” •

© 2020 Focus on the Family. This article first appeared in the October/November 2020 issue of Focus on the Family magazine. All rights reserved.

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