I love the Word of God. I think everyone who is saved does, in no small part because Jesus is the Word. But it has been an interesting journey through my Christian life in how I think about the text that informs my faith.
I wouldn’t know who Jesus is without the Bible.
I wouldn’t know how he came to earth. I wouldn’t know he died for me. I wouldn’t know about the incredible truth of the God who became man, to save people.
The heart of God, his character, his love, his justice, all on display for me in the pages of the Bible.
I love the Word of God.
But I have to confess a concern in how I see myself tempted to read it. And this concern is about how I have read in the past, and how I am often encouraged to read right now.
The concerning behavior is reflected in how people take 1 Timothy 3:16. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” Paul writes to his protégé.
And I was taught, then, that every passage, every sentence, every word, is perfectly set up so that I can discern timeless truths for living in them. I mean, Paul was referring to the Old Testament, and saying that it can be used as a basis for teaching, reproof, and correction, right?
Practically that became an exhortation to “search the passage for a timeless truth you can use today.” The procedure was to read the Bible in its context (or sometimes, out of it), and then generalize it to today’s setting, and come up with a truth that we should strive after.
Context was hard, because as a ‘regular reader’ I didn’t have a lot of experience with languages, so what I’d do is go to a commentary and get the ‘real reading’ from someone who was more learned than I was.
So I could read about Joseph being sold into slavery, reading of the jealousy of his brothers at his father’s preference for that firstborn of Rachel. “Favoritism is a killer of families” became a timeless truth. “Jealousy is terrible,” another. “God protects those who are faithful,” yet another as I read on and saw that Joseph didn’t die. Really, the timeless truths were only limited by my creativity and time in the text.
This approach was a direct application of my understanding of 2 Timothy 3. And the approach reinforced ethical guidelines and behaviors that I already knew were good. I was raised in a Christian home. “Be good” was always something we aimed for.
Some readers at this point may not understand why this grieves me so.
Here’s the concern: where’s Jesus? Not like “where’s Waldo?”, trying to find Jesus somewhere in the bushes of the text. But it is a real question.
One answer is that Jesus is the instruction. Jesus is the Word, so the timeless principles you get from the word is Christ himself instructing you in increasing righteousness. That the instruction and the training is Christ himself increasing your morality and goodness. Not sure anyone would actually say that, but that’s a possibility.
Another answer, perhaps more honest for most, is ‘who cares?’. I mean, the bulk of Christian experience, in my cultural setting, is squarely aimed at individual improvement. Tell me how to be a good parent, good child, good spouse, good Church-goer, good person. Let’s work on personal holiness, because that is the default understanding of what it means to “do” the Bible. The Word, in this instance, becomes an instruction manual on living, and the timeless principles become the things to do to get there. God functionally becomes window dressing, an enabling power or distant observer.
But what if the foundational assumption of this approach is wrong?
What if Jesus is the message of the Bible? What if the “instruction in righteousness” isn’t personal holiness, but renewal of the mind about who Jesus is, and who we are? What if “timeless principles” towards more ethical behavior really aren’t the focus of the instruction we are to have? After all, the Sciptures are identified as those which make you “wise for salvation through faith in Christ” in the verse before our famous 2 Timothy 3:16.
What makes you wise for salvation through faith in Christ?
Perhaps we should be asking this question of our text. Perhaps our text becomes more about worship, more about humility and trust and wonder and loyalty. And less about timeless behavioral principles.
So Joseph’s story becomes a magnificent opus to the failure of even the chosen (Jacob) to raise his family right, and God’s faithfulness in the midst. Joseph becomes an incredible look at the upside-down ways of God, saving through the least and the little, taking the lowly and raising them up in the midst of the so-called powerful.
Perhaps the training Paul is after is to exalt Christ, forgetting ourselves… not forgetting Christ and exalting ourselves.
That may sound a bit harsh. I mean the reason why people often exhort personal improvement is so that you will “glorify God.” But the work of God is not presenting him your goodness. It is trusting in Christ’s goodness. The work of God, famously identified by Jesus himself in John 6:29, is to “believe in the one whom he has sent.”
This changes the whole idea of Bible reading. We don’t read to get ourselves better, in any normally understood way. We read because Jesus is the Word. He is the revelation, the perfect revelation, of who God is; and by so revealing him, we also see our need for him, our lack. The Bible births things like gratitude and humility simply because the story is one of God reaching down, not us building up.
This doesn’t change one bit the idea that the text is inspired. That it has authority. The issue is, what it is for? Your answer will mark your life. For Luther, father of the reformation, I think he’d distill it to two words: law and gospel. Law to condemn, the gospel to free. And all of it Jesus, revealing God’s plan for us in Christ forever.
It isn’t too late to change your Bible habits. So change this one. Read your Bible, looking for Jesus. The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory. Go ahead. Behold his glory, in the pages of the most important reading you’ll ever do.