Lately I have been fascinated by questions about Christianity that are foundational but that very few ever seem to address in any substantive manner. When these questions do get discussed I generally find that we talk about them in ways that are not helpful to people that have just discovered faith in Jesus, and they reinforce misguided ideas amongst those of us who have been in the faith for a long time. Many Evangelical Protestants (including Adventism) consider themselves people of the book. The cry since the Reformation has been sola scriptura! We believe in the Bible and the Bible alone! But this begs the question – what is the Bible for?
I think the beginning of the answer to this question can be found in John 5. At the beginning of the chapter, we find Jesus healing a lame man at Bethesda’s pool on the Sabbath day. When the Pharisees complain about Jesus healing on the Sabbath He creates a new problem for himself in his answer to their critique. He says, “My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working.” This creates a new problem because He has just put Himself on the level with God, blasphemy in the eyes of the Pharisees. Jesus then marshals the evidence to prove He is who has insinuated Himself to be. He cites John the Baptist. He cites His own works. He cites the words of the Father. Finally, He cites Scripture, and here we find the beginning of the answer to our question. He says in verse 39 and 40, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life.” It seems to me that Jesus chastises the Pharisees for exalting the gift above the giver. The Pharisees had made an idol of the Bible of their day, and I am afraid that sometimes we do the same.
We are still left with the question – What is the Bible for? Many of us turn to the Bible because we want to know what to do. We use the Bible as a codebook. Tells us what the laws are so that we can follow them. I want to be absolutely clear – in no way am I attempting to say that the Bible should not be used for that purpose. It is the guide for the Christian life. The same Jesus who criticized the Pharisees for the overuse of the Scriptures is the same Jesus that said that not even the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the law. (Matt 5:18) Clearly the Bible is a book that has answers in it. But I submit that using the Bible as a codebook or an answer key is only using a small piece of what the Bible has to offer. First off, I find the Bible raises way more questions than it answers. Here’s just a smattering a questions the Bible raises – How do I respond in love when someone messes up? How do you make something out of nothing? Who is my neighbor? Can I sacrifice all for the Master? The way I answer these questions in my day to day experience says so much more than the answers that the Bible provides.
I have also found that my experience with the Bible is much richer when the Bible becomes not just a codebook, but a casebook. The Bible is a record of men and women who struggled to understand God. They made progress in that understanding and lost ground and wrestled with these questions in the same way that I do. Furthermore, the Bible is a story of God’s response of never-ending love and compassion towards all of us, both sinner and saint. But unfortunately we miss (or underplay) this important aspect of the Bible when we treat it as if it’s ultimate job is to tell us what we should and should not do. The Bible should raise more questions than it answers, we should be seeing the lessons that come from reading the bigger picture, and then we come together in community and wrestle with those things together.
The second reason the Scriptures exist is given to us directly by Jesus in John 5. He says that we search the Scriptures… but these are they which testify of Me. The Bible is supposed to engender a desire for a relationship with Christ. The whole point of the Bible is to lead us to a real and true relationship with Jesus, not just knowledge of Him and what He wants. The relationship is an actual thing, just like a relationship with any human being. But Jesus also makes an interesting statement in verse 40. He says that “you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life.” What is it that makes us unwilling to come to Christ and have that real relationship? Why do we stop at a relationship with the Bible instead of pushing to the Messiah of whom the Bible testifies? I think there are two answers. First, we’re afraid. There is a fear that if we get into a real relationship with Christ, He will ask us to do something harder than what we think He wants from us. It is so much easier to look at the Bible and do what we think He wants instead of actually finding out what He wants from Him. Second, having a relationship with Jesus is hard in the actual sense. Jesus is not visible in the same way that our loved ones are. Having a relationship with the divine and intangible stretches our faith beyond the bounds of comfort. It is so much easier to have a relationship with this tangible book that we can see, read, touch, feel, and beat others over the head with to make ourselves feel superior. It’s easier to wrap ourselves in the Bible and use it to separate ourselves from people, to use the Bible as a shield so that we don’t have to wrestle with other people’s frailties and pain – or our own.
It’s kind of ironic that we use the Bible so often to stifle the very thing that the Bible is ultimately for – relationships. First, the Bible is a conduit by which we have a relationship with Jesus. But when we begin to use the Bible more as a casebook as opposed to a codebook, when we begin to formulate the questions that the Bible presents to us, it leads us to come together as a community. We come together as a community not to browbeat each other or measure our holiness by each other, but to share what we have seen in God’s word and praise the great God that we have all come to know. I long for the day when the Bible can be the thing that brings us together in relationship with God and one another, instead of being the very thing that divides us.