The strength of the faith of the Lord’s ecclesia lies in its knowledge of God and of His Son, knowledge about their creative purpose and work with people. This is knowledge that we may learn from the Bible. To this end, we as the Lord’s people should be thankful that we live in this age of increasing knowledge and increasing access to that knowledge — especially as it relates to the Bible itself.
To maintain our own faith, to teach our young, to edify the Lord’s ecclesia, and to preach the gospel… we must learn to “rightly divide the word of truth”, while not arguing over words, but shunning profane and vain babblings (2 Tim. 2:14-16). Thankfully, profane and vain babbling is almost unknown among us, although striving over words to the harm of our hearers is not altogether so.
Rightly dividing the word of truth depends on a reverence for this word as the oracles, the utterances of God brought to us by His prophets and by His Son. The Bible is not written as a dictionary or encyclopedia of religion might be — that is, with chapters on sin, mortality, human nature, God, the Lord Jesus, and the future of God’s creation — although it tells us so much on all these subjects. Nor is the Bible a mere collection of proof texts, by which we prove our beliefs and disprove doctrinal error.
First — An overview of the Bible!
Reverence for the Bible means reading it as the account given to us by God of His work with people — a work culminating in a new and perfected creation brought into being through His Son.
The Old Testament
Genesis simply and beautifully describes God’s initial creation, as well as His declaration of His creative purpose. It then describes the coming of sin into the world through the choices made by Adam and Eve, and the consequences of those choices for them and their descendants. Then Genesis follows their descendants’ decline into lawless violence — a decline that God brought to an end by sending a great flood, while saving eight people for a new beginning.
We read in Genesis 12 that, after the Flood, people multiplied and were dispersed, and the first city-states and nations began to be formed. God tells us how He then called a man of faith to leave his own country and people for a foreign land. There he would become, through God’s power, the father of a new and special nation, Israel. God wanted the people of this nation to serve as His witnesses to the other nations and peoples of the world. In other words, Israel was to be the channel of God’s communication with all peoples and nations (Rom. 3:1,2).
God called Israel to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exod. 19:4-6), and to make His wise laws known to all peoples (Deut. 4:5-8). From its beginnings, God’s work with Israel drew the attention of other nations. Out of these other nations God called into Israel individuals whose faith led them to God, and to joining His people Israel.
From Genesis to Malachi, in the first 39 books of the Bible, God tells us about His work with and through His people, Israel. Here we have the words of the God-inspired prophets, who communicated to Israel His instructions, reproofs, warnings, hopes, and encouragements. Through the prophets God also promised His people a glorious future, when He would judge the nations but save forever those who would truly be His own.
In this first part of the Bible, the Old Testament, we read of the ten-command covenant God made with the people of Israel, the civil law that He gave them, and His laws about sacrifice and cleanliness. Even these more technical laws have much to teach us today, about our own approach to God.
The first part of the Bible also includes songs of praise and lamentation, often prophetic, and filled with beautiful imagery and poetry. Finally, there are also books of wisdom about living, books of philosophy about the meaning of life, books of mourning, and even a love poem.
Yet, this inspired account of God’s work with people through Israel seems to be more about failure than success — excepting the response to God’s prophets of a faithful remnant among them. Incomplete by itself, the Old Testament is always looking forward to a coming savior who will fulfill God’s purpose to bring blessing to all families of the earth (Gen. 12:1-3; 22:15-18).
The New Testament
In the New Testament, the gospels tell of that savior’s coming, that is, of his con- ception, birth, life, death, resurrection and exaltation as Lord and Christ. He is the culmination of all God’s work and promises in the past, and he is the focus of all that follows after, as the good news about him bears fruit all over the world.
As that work continues in the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus Christ is the risen and glorified Lord who guides, encourages, and assists in the preaching of the gospel. With his guidance and the blessing of the Holy Spirit that he had promised to his apostles, they establish communities of new believers, and write them letters of instruction.
The New Testament ends with Jesus revealing to his servants the trials and joys that lay before them in the symbolic book of Revelation.
What is the purpose?
This overview of the Bible is intended to illustrate both the unity of its theme and the extraordinary variety of its contents. Some of it is not easy to understand. However, the important truths that the Bible reveals to us are few and simple. Nevertheless, our human nature makes it hard to put these truths into practice in
daily living — which is, of course, God’s whole purpose of revealing them to us. It requires the Lord’s gracious help for that purpose to be fulfilled in us.
“I commend you to God and to the word of His grace which is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified”, says the Apostle Paul to the elders at Ephesus (Acts 20:32). The Bible has this extraordinary power to change and sanctify us because it is a revelation of the mind of our Creator and the word of His grace. It reveals Him for the wonderful Being that He is — as we see throughout the Bible in His patient and merciful work with very imperfect people like ourselves.
God is revealing Himself to us in all His word, especially when He speaks to us through His Son (Heb. 1:1,2). In contrasting human wisdom, which has no lasting value, with the wisdom of God given to us by the Holy Spirit, the Apostle Paul rejoices that “we have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:1-16). The Bible is given by God to teach us to know His mind and that of His Son. This is a knowledge not gained solely by learning facts about them from the Bible. It grows through the practice of living by faith as Jesus’ disciples in an intimate relationship with him. This is the secret of the Bible’s power.
With reverence and care
With what reverence and carefulness must we, therefore, read the Bible and use this word of God in teaching others! In his lovely book, The Prophecy of Hosea, Bro Cyril Tennant writes:
“Sound Bible exposition is based upon two very simple but often ignored steps. They are:
- ‘What is the Bible actually saying?’ and
- ‘What does the Bible mean by what it is saying?’
So often the meaning is sought from a superficial reading of the text with the context being almost completely ignored. This leads to a fanciful interpretation of scripture and even stretching the meanings of words to make them fit in with a previously conceived theory. Before attempting an explanation one must be sure that everything possible has been done to ensure a correct understanding of what is actually written. This is the only way to listen to what God is saying; and failure to achieve this will not only cause one to miss the truth — it may also lead to sin through teaching others that which is not Bible teaching” (p. 19).
Knowing God and His Son
What Bible words actually say, and the context in which they are said, are both key to understanding the meaning of the inspired word. This may be seen in the lovely prayer of the Lord Jesus for his disciples and for future believers in him in John 17. There Jesus says, “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (v. 3).
Sometimes these words are read incorrectly: as though knowing the facts about God and His Son (e.g., that they are not two Persons in a “trinity”), leads, by itself, to eternal life.
But Jesus’ words to his Father do not say that. Jesus says, “This is eternal life”, i.e., this is what eternal life consists in: knowing God and Jesus Christ whom God has sent. “To know” (Greek “ginosko”) is used in the New Testament with a deeper meaning than knowing facts about someone. It means knowing someone personally — as we might know a close friend. It is used in both the Old Testament and the New Testament to describe the intimate relationship between a man and his wife.
So, the Lord Jesus’ words about knowing God and himself mean something more and something deeper than just knowing facts about them — although some facts are essential as a first step. But, above and beyond that, the knowing involves a close personal relationship experienced in life — a relationship that begins with, and grows through, a trusting faith in our Father and His Son.
In the context of the gospel of John as a whole, eternal life is not just life without end. It is a life lived in the closest fellowship with God and His Son.
The words “eternal life” and “everlasting life” (from the same Greek words) are used 17 times in John’s gospel — often in the present tense as something that a believer in Jesus has now. Such usage may seem, at first glance, to be confusing and contradictory of other Bible promises of what is plainly a future eternal life — but they should not be. For this transforming relationship begins now, however imperfectly, and grows until the day when we shall be changed to be like him, and to see him as he is (1 John 3:2).
We must read carefully and reverently to see what the Bible is actually saying — seeking to understand its meaning in harmony with the context. This is how we “rightly divide the word”.
There are many aspects of “rightly dividing”. Some of these will be developed in subsequent articles, if the Lord will.
(Next: Respecting the actual words)
Bob Green (Brantford, ON)