What Is The Bible?
And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. —Luke 24:25-27
Here are these two disciples of Jesus late on the day of his resurrection, not knowing who they were talking to, telling Jesus how disappointed they were with him. And he doesn’t let on. There is so much he could have said to them. Of all the things he could have said in that moment, what was it that he chose to emphasize? We should believe all that the prophets have spoken, because it’s all about him.
What is the Bible? The Bible is a gospel-unfolding story, with Jesus as the hero. That’s how Jesus himself read it. It’s how he wants us to read it. The whole Bible is good news for bad people through the finished work of Christ on the cross. Let’s think about that.
And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” —Luke 24:25
The Lord gives us the reason why we should receive the Bible as worthy of our full confidence. What is it? Jesus himself, his own authority, his own demand. I don’t believe the Bible because the Bible calls itself the Word of God. Why should I accept that? I do believe it is the Word of God. But how did I get into that belief? Jesus himself. Everything in Christianity starts with Christ. I don’t follow Christ because I believe the Bible; I believe the Bible because I can’t follow Christ without believing it. He believed it. He expects me to believe it. Look how he rebukes his two followers for not believing all that the prophets have spoken. These words – “O foolish ones and slow of heart” – do you know what those words mean? “What a couple o f uncomprehending retards you guys are!” We have no right to say that to each other. But the Lord has the right. And he doesn’t apologize for it. He knows how important it is for all of his disciples to come alive to the Bible. Why is Jesus so insistent about this? Because everything the prophets said bears witness to him. For every one of us, the final question is not what we think of the Bible but what we think of Christ. Your relationship with Christ parallels your relationship with the Bible. If you hold back from the Bible, you cannot get close to Christ. If you will receive the Bible fully, your experience of him will get traction. Have you forever settled it in your mind that you will love, trust, study and obey the Bible for the sake of the Lord Jesus Christ? Are you definite about that?
Have you noticed in the gospels how Christ himself uses the Old Testament? He quotes it often. His mind is saturated with Scripture. He even quotes the sections we modern people doubt – Adam and Eve, Noah’s ark and the flood, Jonah and the whale. And significantly, in all his references to the Old Testament, Jesus never once breathed the slightest hint of doubt or unease about the full truth-value of everything in Scripture. He accepted it completely. John Wenham of Latimer House, Oxford, studied the Lord’s use of the Old Testament and came to this conclusion: “To Christ the Old Testament was true, authoritative, inspired…. To him what Scripture said, God said.” If you will follow Christ in this respect, you will be greatly blessed. You will move out of uncertainty and confusion into peace and joy.
But some people today will reply, “But of course Jesus accepted the Bible that way. Everyone did back then. Jesus was a great man, but he was a man of his times. And we know better by now.” But that objection will not do. That objection is very much a function of our times. The most striking thing about Jesus and the apostles and prophets was how unlike their times they were. They were not in lockstep with the established opinions of their day. It’s why they were rejected and suffered. The truth is, they were competent thinkers for all times and all cultures. They spoke with an objectivity and wisdom that can advance our thinking on all the most important fronts today, where it really counts in our lives and our homes and our city. Reading the Bible, you’ll never know how to change the oil in your car. But that’s not where your life is on the line. If you need wisdom for your life that has stood every test, start doubting yourself and study the Bible.
How do we get hung up? Our hearts come up with two different kinds of doubt. One kind is slow doubt, like these two disciples. The other kind is stubborn doubt. Slow doubt (“slow of heart to believe”) is willing to see things in a new way. It’s open. It’s just slow. It needs multiple exposures over time, to get it. But stubborn doubt uses argumentation not with honest openness but in order to evade Jesus. Stubborn doubt folds its arms and says, “I don’t care what you say, no way am I ever believing that.” God is willing to work with slow doubt, as we see here in Luke 24, but he is offended by stubborn doubt. Stubbornness isn’t reasonable. It’s a form of hostility. And God turns away.
If you find stubbornness in your heart, here’s a reason to let that go and open up. Only under authority will you ever find freedom. We all want to be free. We all resent oppression. But of all the tyrants we fear, there is one we rarely suspect. Ourselves. How can we ever get free from ourselves, our past, our defiance, our prejudices, our cultural limitations? If the only instrument I have for connecting with reality is myself, and my self is unreliable, what chance do I have? Only God. We can trust him more than we can trust ourselves. Will you come under his authority, where alone you’ll start getting free from everything about you that holds you back? He will give you growing freedom, as you receive the Bible wholeheartedly.
“Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” —Luke 24:26
The message of the Bible is counterintuitive. It’s not what we expect. The Jewish people expected a Superman Messiah. They thought he would come free them from Rome. And who can blame them? Rome was an oppressor. And the Old Testament itself presented Messiah as a kind of Terminator. Have you ever read Isaiah 63:1-6? But the first time the Messiah came, he suffered and died. His life looked like a failure. Their eventual belief in his resurrection was no wish-fulfillment. They didn’t expect him to die. They were reading their Bibles with one eye closed.
What happens in our minds when we read the Bible for what we expect to find there? That’s all we see. We don’t notice other things. Isaiah 53 clearly presented Messiah as a suffering servant. But it made less impact than the passages about Messiah’s victories. They thought of his sufferings as avoidable; he saw his sufferings as necessary (“Was it not necessary?”). Now he is saying to his disciples, “That man Jesus you were banking on – the very things about him that have shaken your faith are in fact essential proofs that he really is the Messiah.”
I’ve studied the Bible long enough to know this. When I stumble onto something in the Bible I don’t expect, something I don’t even like, I’ve learned to pay attention to that. I’ve learned that I’m on the threshold of a breakthrough. If I’ll dig in with honesty and prayer and thought, inevitably that troubling passage will show me something glorious about God I’d never seen before. And the hardest thing in all the Bible for us to get the hang of is that suffering is our appointed path to glory. God himself came down and walked that path, first, ahead of us. It must be very wise.
And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. —Luke 24:27
Isn’t it interesting that Jesus proved his point by taking them into the Bible? Why didn’t he just tell them himself on his own authority? Maybe he didn’t want to blow his cover yet. But it was more. He wanted to help them access the Bible for themselves all the time. So he showed them how to interpret the Bible. He showed them the Messiah as its central theme. Even in the books of Moses, the central message is not the law but the coming Savior.
The key to the whole Bible is Jesus. Every page of this book, from beginning to end, finds its only true meaning in relation to him. So the Bible is not like a Where’s Waldo? book. Those are books for kids with detailed drawings of hundreds of little human figures, and somewhere in each scene is Waldo. The trick is to find Waldo in the crowd. The Old Testament is not like that. It’s not a crowded hodge-podge of religious sayings and antiquarian rituals and historical events, with something about Christ sprinkled in there now and then. He knew how to interpret the Old Testament, and he taught us how to read it. He saw it as a fascinating human landscape of persons, events and institutions all pointing to himself. The Old Testament is like one of those pictures you see in Wendy’s, with the hundreds of small human photographs together that make up a human face. The Bible, in all its detail, is a composite portrait of Jesus. He wants you to find him and meet him and see him wherever you go in the Bible.
That means the whole Bible is gospel – good news for bad people through the finished work of Christ on the cross. Jesus is the ark taking us through the flood of divine judgment in Genesis 6, the Passover lamb in Exodus 12, the prophet like Moses in Deuteronomy 18, the promised land in the book of Joshua, the lowly king of Zechariah 9, and so forth. The Old Testament is not a dark book of law before you get to the cheery New Testament gospel. It’s all gospel. Both Old and New Testaments show us how terrible our sin is, and both testaments show us how merciful he is. The Bible is the most serious book in the universe, and it is also the happiest book in the universe.
In Galatians 3 Paul puts into practice the right way to read the Old Testament. Why is he even talking about it? Because some false teachers had come into that church. They were teaching the people to read the Bible as a book of law, a book of principles for practical life management, a guidebook for living successfully, handy tips for relief from stress, five steps to effective parenting, and so forth. What is the insidious thing about that? The insidious thing is that, if you follow that logic, you don’t need Jesus any more. You can save yourself. You can keep complete control of your life, even achieve greater self-mastery, and you’re getting it from the Bible itself!
How does Paul argue against that abuse of the Bible? He points out the obvious. As the Old Testament unfolds, which comes first, promise or law? Promise. God made promises of grace to Abraham in Genesis. Law was something he added in later, in Exodus. So the deepest interpretative category in the Bible is not law but promise and grace. Even the commands of the Bible are, at their deepest level, promises of what God will accomplish in us and for us by his grace. The Ten Commandments describe the loveliness of Christ, which he will give us by his grace. Don’t be threatened by the commands of the Bible. Receive them. Rejoice in them as the commands of the Lord Jesus Christ. He promises to write them on your heart, if you turn to him even in all your failure. What’s most important about the commands of the Bible is not that they are commands but who is speaking them, not how he speaks but who it is that speaks. If the One issuing the command is the Friend of sinners – how can we be injured by anything he says?
When we see the Bible not with our natural eyes but as the gospel only God could give us, it becomes beautiful and its impact is beautiful. True Bible reading does not simply move people from being secular rebels to being religious legalists. It moves both rebels and legalists to Christ, who frees us all to live in constant faith and repentance before him.
Immanuel Church is a Bible-loving, Bible-believing, Bible-studying church. In every sermon, every class, every home Bible study, every small group, here is what we do with the Bible at Immanuel. Two things. One, keep your finger on the text. Two, ask what the biblical author meant. Just sitting around and talking with open Bibles in our laps is not a Bible study. It might be a gab-session. But that isn’t Bible study. We all bring a pre-understanding to the Bible. But we don’t have to stay trapped in our histories. There is a way into newness – real Bible study. In your interaction in a small group, if you say, “This is how it strikes me. This is what I get out of it. Here is the thought it triggers in my mind. This is what it reminds me of,” those may be interesting thoughts, but it isn’t Bible study. Bible study is getting outside our heads into the mind of the biblical author. So in your interaction in a Bible study, put your finger on the word or phrase you don’t understand and ask, “What did the author mean by that?” That’s Bible study. And when you ask that question with a prayerful, teachable heart, you are on the threshold of an exciting breakthrough. Many of us could tell stories of God doing in our lives what only God can do, and that is, reveal the gospel to our hearts through his word with such power that we find ourselves saying, “I can never be the same again.”
I’ve been reading the Bible all my life. And I can’t remember coming away from a time of Bible study and saying, “That was unhelpful.” This book is God’s good news for bad people through the finished work of Christ on the cross. There is so much I don’t understand. But it helps me. I have come away from interactions with Christians who wanted to “speak into my life” and I’ve thought, “I know they meant well, but that didn’t help.” There is only One who deserves to manage your sanctification and mine, and that is the Lord Jesus Christ. He does it well through his Word. Here at Immanuel, we’re not here to set each other straight. We’re here to cheer each other on as we seek the Lord through studying the Bible. And everyone grows, and everyone retains personal freedom and dignity. Let’s keep our finger on the text, let’s keep asking what the biblical author meant, and God the Holy Spirit will do the rest.
The Lord Jesus loves people who are foolish and slow of heart. Won’t you move toward him, not away from him? Here is his word to you today: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Learn from me” (Matthew 11:28-29). Will you come to Christ today?