The Word of God: How Not To Read The Bible (1/5)
This is the first post in a five part series considering what the Bible teaches about itself. The remaining posts in this series are 2. How to Read the Bible, part 1, 3. How to Read the Bible, part 2, 4. How the Bible Reads Us and 5. Reading the Bible, a practical guide.
In his gospel, the Apostle John describes a confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees. The Pharisees were the religious leaders of the day and picking a fight with them would have been as outrageous as you or I heading down to our local Cathedral and punching the Bishop out. It would certainly have made headlines.
The confrontation begins with the Pharisees plotting to kill Jesus for ‘calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God’ (John 5:18). Jesus then proceeds to set out the evidence that he is indeed who he says to be. Jesus firstly points to John the Baptiser who bore ‘witness to the truth’ of who Jesus is. In many ways, John the Baptiser’s ministry culminates in the moment he points into the crowd directly at Jesus and says, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’ (John 1:30).
Jesus then points to himself and explains that his own work authenticate his claims about himself, ‘the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me’ (John 5:36b). In other words, the reason Jesus draws crowds of thousands when he preaches and that he is able heal the sick is because he is who he says he is.
Finally Jesus points to his Father and says, ‘the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me’ (John 5:37). At this stage we might recall Jesus’ baptism and the moment heaven is torn open and the audible voice of the Father declares, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased’ (Mark 1:11). However, I don’t think this is what Jesus is pointing us toward.
Jesus says that we can be confident that he is indeed the Son of God, God made flesh, because the Father testifies that Jesus’ claims are true. Jesus then directs the conversation to address the way in which the Pharisees read the Scriptures,
You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. I do not receive glory from people. But I know that you do not have the love of God within you. (John 5:39-42).
The first thing that Jesus makes clear is that if we want to hear the Father’s voice clearly, we should look to the Scriptures. In a day in which an increasing emphasis is being placed on the prophetic we need to remind ourselves that ‘more sure, the prophetic word, to which [we] will do well to pay attention’ is the Scriptures. This is why the Reformers boldly proclaimed Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone).
Now think about how Jesus begins, ‘You search the Scriptures…’, the NIV puts this more forcibly, ‘You diligently study the Scriptures…’. It is easy to miss that this is the beginning of a stinging rebuke. I don’t know about you, but I was always taught that it is a good thing to ‘diligently study’ the Scriptures. Jesus seems to be saying that there is a way of ‘diligently studying’ that is altogether wrong.
Jesus continues, ‘You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life…’ The passage is so familiar it is easy to miss how altogether shocking Jesus’ observation is. Jesus seems to be saying that to search after eternal life as an end in itself somehow misses the point.
This should give us pause to think. Consider how we present the gospel. Often times we will implore and exhort people to chose eternal life over eternal torment in hell. Now, there is nothing wrong with this in and of itself. Jesus himself declares, ‘I came that they may have life and have it abundantly’ (John 10:10). It seems that the problem is when we go no further, ‘I attend church, I read my Bible, I try to be a good person so that I won’t go to hell’. This is not a mature way for Christians to think or to live.
How should we understand Jesus’ rebuke and what does any of this have to do with how we should read Scripture; Jesus continues, ‘You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me…’
Jesus’ issue is this: there are two ways of approaching Scripture.
The first, the wrong way, is to read Scripture to get something. For the Pharisees the something was eternal life. They believed that, through their diligent study and searching of the Scriptures, they would attain eternal life. Their energies, effort and focus was fixed upon the end and the end they sought was eternal life. We know from reading elsewhere in the gospels that this had a profoundly negative effect upon the way in which they conducted themselves and treated others. Indeed, elsewhere Jesus pronounces condemnation upon the religious leaders for the pedantic adherence to the letter of the Law while neglecting the very heart of God, ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness.’ (Matthew 23:23).
For us, our wrong approach might be that we read Scripture as an intellectual exercise, ‘I want to know my Bible better so that I might impress people or that I might appear godlier’. Of course, it is unlikely that we would rationalize it in this way and it is entirely possible that we would be blind to our heart-motives. The life-evidence, however, is clearly evident: as we read the Scriptures we feel better about ourselves, our position and our spiritual maturity and this leads to the sin of pride. As a result, we begin to look down on other less ‘mature’, less ‘spiritual’ believers and we begin to throw our spiritual weight around.
Maybe we read the Scriptures out of duty because we have been taught that Christians should read their Bibles regularly (and so we should). Again, we may not verbalise our motives in this way, but again the life-evidence is abundantly clear. When we read, we find ourselves hurrying through the passage checking our watch; the words seem dead to us and there is no thrill or excitement. This then effects how we view others who seem fired up at the mention of the gospel and we begin to deride them in our hearts as fanatics or lunatics for their excessive enthusiasm.
How then should we read the Scriptures? Jesus makes this clear, ‘it is they [the Scriptures] that bear witness about me’. The true and proper motive for our reading, our searching and our diligent study of the Scriptures is that we might find, see and know the Son of God and that, in doing so, we might come to him and have life.
The problem with the way in which the Pharisees read Scripture and the problem we so often find in our own lives is that our hearts-aim, our deep-seated and desired end is something other than Jesus.
The heart of the gospel is this: the Lord initiates and reveals himself to us, the Lord calls us to himself and, as we respond, we gain him. The Apostle Paul puts it this way,
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him… (Philippians 3:8-9a)
Our hearts-motive for reading Scripture must be that we would see and know Christ and, in seeing Christ, that we would run to him and that we would gain him. When we remind ourselves that Jesus is the end of the gospel, that we come to Christ that we might gain Christ, everything changes.
Suddenly the pages of Scripture come alive with the truth of who he is. Suddenly we no longer pursue abstract knowledge or practical advice for living, instead we pursue a greater revelation of him. Suddenly we find that as we behold Jesus more clearly we become more like him and this, my friends, changes everything.
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another… (2 Corinthians 3:18)