Why Bother with the Bible? — Part One
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Why Bother with the Bible? — Part One

From Series: Why Bother with the Bible?

2 Timothy 3:14-17  (ID: 2349)

It’s the best-selling book of all time: Written over thousands of years by dozens of different writers, the Bible is a timeless and remarkable piece of historic literature. Is that all the Bible is, though—a classic book? Why bother with it? In answer to this question, Alistair Begg examines 2 Timothy, teaching us that the Bible is central to all we do as Christians because it is the means through which God speaks to us.


Sermon Transcript: Print

And I invite you to turn now with me to the New Testament, to 2 Timothy chapter 3 and the instruction that Paul gives to Timothy as his young understudy in pastoral ministry at a time where paganism attacks the church from outside and confusion assails it from within. And in 2 Timothy 3:14, Paul writes to him as follows:

“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it,and how from infancy you[’ve] known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

Now, you may want to hold that before you, although I’ll mention a couple of references as we go along. And if you don’t normally take notes, today would be a good day to take notes. I say that just because there are so many different things that I have to say that are informational rather than inspirational, and you will be aided in the information by making note of them, I’m sure. I’ll try and be clear in delineating the points as I go along.

If you’ve been attending Parkside for any length of time at all, you will be familiar with the steady drumbeat of biblical exposition. You know that it doesn’t matter who is standing behind this pulpit—whether it’s myself or one of my colleagues, or perhaps a visitor—but in each and every instance, it will be apparent to all that the Bible is afforded a central place in all we do. And indeed, some who, when they initially visit, are surprised by this and find themselves asking the question, “Why does the Bible have such a central place in all that you do at Parkside?” Well, because, we suggest, it is important. “But,” says the individual, “is it really as important as you seem to suggest?”

You may have heard of the group of individuals who organized a pick-up game of football at a local field. They all got together, and having assembled, somebody said, “We don’t have a ball.” And one of the group replied, “Forget the ball. Let’s get on with the game.” And in many cases, that is exactly how it goes in a church service: “Forget the Bible. Let’s get on with the service.” And you can worship in a variety of places where it very quickly becomes apparent that the Bible is not being read; it is perhaps not even being referred to at all, and if so, only tangentially. And some are actually asking, “Why bother with the Bible at all?”

Indeed, that may be the question that’s on the lips of some of you who are here today: “Why do we even bother with the Bible?” You have acquiesced to the notion that we spend time with it. You come routinely. But if someone were to say to you, “Why do you actually spend so much time on the Bible in that place? I mean, you seem to spend longer with the Bible than you do with any other part of the time in the room together. Why is it that you do that?”

Well, before we resume our studies in Luke’s Gospel, I thought that we would address this question briefly. We gave three weeks to part A of our cornerstone verse, which you’ll find as you exit through the main doors this morning, on your right-hand side, Psalm 138:2b: “For you have exalted above all things your name and your word.”[1] We spent three weeks on the name of Jesus, the Anointed One, our Prophet, Priest, and King, and we spend time this morning, and perhaps another Sunday morning, on the Word of God itself.

I make no apology for the simplicity of our study, for the fact that my target audience is probably the intelligent eighth grader rather than some vast intellect, working on the assumption that the vast intellect will be more than able to cope with the information supplied to an intelligent eighth grader, but if we address it in the other way around, it may be difficult for some to follow.

What Is the Bible?

So, before we address this fundamental question—“Why bother with the Bible?”—I have a number of general questions with which I want to begin. And the number one is the most basic of all: What is the Bible? What is the Bible?

Well, of course, everybody immediately says, “Well, I know what the Bible is.” Well, I’d like to hear your answer. And probably some would say, “Well, the Bible is… The Bible… Well, the Bible is… The Bible…” Yes, exactly. Okay, so let me help you out.

First of all, the Bible is a library; it is a collection of books. It is one book, but it is one book encompassing sixty-six other books. Anybody who takes a Bible and opens it up will notice that it is apparently broken into two disproportionate pieces. There is a part which in the table of contents is called the Old Testament, which goes from Genesis to Malachi, and then there is the New Testament, which goes from Matthew through to Revelation. The Old Testament is made up of the books of the Prophets, and of the Law, and of the Psalms. And when Paul talks about the advantage, in Romans 3, of being from a Jewish heritage, he says that one of the advantages is simply that “they have been entrusted with the very words of God,”[2] and he is making reference there to the Old Testament Scriptures.

In the New Testament, we have the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and John; and then we have the Acts of the Apostles, the minute book of the early church, or its history book; then we have the Letters, written by different individuals to different gatherings of God’s people; and then we have the book of Revelation—not the “Revelations,” plural, as it is sometimes mistakenly referred to, but rather the Revelation, the Apocalypse, the insight into a realm yet experienced that was granted to the apostle John.

Now, when you think about the Bible in this way, something, I hope, will cross your mind. It came home to me forcibly just a couple of weeks ago when, in Dublin, I went to Trinity College Library—a place I’ve wanted to go to for all of my life but never visited—and there I had the opportunity of seeing the Book of Kells. Some of you’ll have been there, and you will know about it. Those of you who don’t can go on the internet and find out all about it. It’s not my purpose to tell you this morning, except to let you know that in an ancient time, around the eighth and ninth century, Monks penned their gospels and illustrated them in such a beautiful fashion that they have been preserved through the years, and pieces of them are there in the Trinity College Library.

And as I stood looking at them, it suddenly dawned on me: “What did the ordinary people do for a Bible in the ninth century—or the tenth, eleventh, twelfth, thirteenth, fourteenth, fifteenth century?” No pastor in any of these centuries ever admonished his congregation to make sure that they were reading their Bibles every day. He couldn’t, because they couldn’t, because they didn’t have a Bible. And not until the Reformation and the great, triumphant statements of Luther—“Here I take my stand, I can do no other”—suggesting to the Roman Church that the future of the church is to be found in the people having the Bible in their own tongue in a way that they can understand—which, of course, was an anathema to the pope at that time—Luther stands and does this, the printing presses get alongside him, and all of a sudden, the ordinary Christian is able to take up this library and read it for themselves: sixty-six books written in a variety of languages, mainly in Hebrew and Greek, over a period of more than a thousand years, originating in places as far apart as Babylon and Rome, and penned by as many as forty different individuals.

Well, that’s what the Bible is. It’s a library. It’s a compendium. But it’s not only that. It is also a book like no other book. Oh, it has sold more than any other book and continues to sell as the best-selling book always, all the time. But that isn’t what makes it unique. It’s an interesting book. It is a book that you can almost read from the back to the front, because we might even refer to it as a book with the answers in the back—that if you start at the back and read forward, it sometimes is a little easier.

Alec Motyer suggests that perhaps if you think of it in terms of an Agatha Christie novel, you’ll begin to get a flavor of what’s going on. If you read Agatha Christie at all, you’ll remember they’re all on the train, or they’re all in the one room, all these different characters. Nobody really knows, as they begin to read the book, how they all fit together—who did what, when, and where—but gradually, as the story unfolds, all of these various themes begin to weave together, and suddenly, in a denouement, it becomes apparent just what this thing is all about. The Bible is a wee bit like that when you read it. At first you say, “Well, I don’t understand how Moses fits in here with Abraham and what Abraham’s doing with Isaiah. And what was Jeremiah on about? And frankly, the whole thing’s a mystery to me!”

And also, we’ve spoken of it frequently as being like a two-act play where you need the first act to give the foundation for all that follows, and you need the second act to give the completion for all that the first act has introduced us to.

Scripture has a dual authorship. On the one hand, God wrote it. On the other hand, men wrote it.

And ultimately, it is a book like no other book because it is a book about Jesus. If you lose your way around the Bible, always take your eyes back to Jesus, always look for Jesus, and it will gradually bring you back to an even keel. I’ve made almost a mantra here—or I have tried to—my own Sunday school instruction, so that you would have it as well, if you didn’t get it when you were small: that in the Old Testament, Jesus is predicted; that in the Gospels, he is revealed; that in the Acts of the Apostles, he is preached; that in the Epistles, he is explained; and in the book of Revelation, he is expected.

And it is also a book like no other book inasmuch as it is a book that understands us. We’re familiar with being given books all the way through school. The teacher says, “I want you to take this book and go home and read it, and see if you can’t understand it and write a paper on it.” And, of course, there is a real sense in which that’s what we do with the Bible: we take it home, and we seek to understand it. But in seeking to understand it, we make this amazing discovery: that it seems to understand us—that when you’re reading its pages, sometimes you feel as though it’s a description of you. Sometimes you feel as though someone actually had looked inside your mind before you even read that section. You were feeling peculiarly downcast, and the Bible came and brought a word of encouragement. You were thinking of making a run for it, and you read a section in the Bible that said, you know, “The ways of [a] man are before the eyes of the Lord.”[3] “[The] man’s heart devise[s] his way: but the Lord direct[s] his steps.”[4] And you put the Bible down at your table with your coffee, and you said, “You know, this is not like any other book I know. This book apparently understands me.”

Who Wrote the Bible?

Well, that’s the first question: What is it? Second question is, who wrote it? Who wrote it? And the answer to that is that Scripture has a dual authorship. A dual authorship. On the one hand, God wrote it. On the other hand, men wrote it. Or, if you like, God spoke, and man spoke.

We read here in 2 Timothy 3 this great statement in verse 16: “All Scripture is God-breathed.” The word that Paul uses there is a unique word, but he’s conveying a familiar idea: the idea of the breath of God expressing the power and authority of God. You find it not only in relationship to the Scriptures but also in relationship to his work of creation. In Psalm 33:6, the psalmist says, “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth.” Now, he’s not saying two things there. He’s saying one thing. It’s what we refer to as Hebrew parallelism. The Hebraic writer takes one truth and says it two different ways in order to reinforce it. I want you to notice: “By the word of the Lord” the heavens were made, “by the breath of his mouth” the starry host was set in place.

Now, it is this same notion which is then conveyed by Paul to Timothy. And what he’s saying is that God breathed out the Scriptures, not in some strange way but in a very natural way—in the way in which you and I have made words this morning. What has happened? How did you make intelligible sounds today? Presumably, you have made some intelligible sounds today, but you did so by the passage of air over your larynx, your voice box, resulting in intelligible communication. And what the Bible says is that God has breathed out the holy Scriptures and that it is this which provides Scripture with its reliability and with its authority—that God has spoken, revealing truth and at the same time preserving the human authors from error, and doing so in such a way so as not to violate their personalities. So it’s accurate, then, to say that God spoke, but also that men spoke. And men spoke using their faculties freely and doing so without distorting the message. Did you get those two points? That God uses human personality without violating it and keeping men from error; and men, using their own human faculties, write things down without distorting the message.

Now, there’s perhaps one classic reference to this. It’s in 2 Peter 1:21. And there, speaking of the work of God in Scripture, says in verse 21, “For prophesy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” Now, the Greek word is an interesting word; it’s pherómenoi. I’m not sure that you’re particularly interested in that, but it is. It is the word which means—the verb—it’s in the present continuous tense: “to be carried along.”

If you read in Acts chapter 27, for homework, the story there of the shipwreck involving Paul and the others, you will discover that this same verb is used to describe what was happening to their vessel in the midst of a storm. And twice, in verse 15 and then again in verse 17, Luke records that as a result of the power of the storm, their vessel was simply “driven along”; it was “driven along” as a result of the influence and power of the wind. That is exactly the picture, the metaphor, that is used here by Peter. He says that men were driven along. In other words, as they raised the sails, the Holy Spirit filled their sails.

And the Scriptures did not originate in their will. It wasn’t that one of them came down for breakfast and said, “I think I’ll write the Bible today.” But they wrote to their issues. They wrote to their time. They wrote to their culture. And they were driven, they were moved, by the Spirit of God. The process wasn’t mechanical. They weren’t like word processors, sitting, as it were, like inanimate objects, and then, all of a sudden, something happening to them, zapping them, and they’re like [imitates typing sound], and then, all of a sudden, it stops, and then that’s Isaiah chapter 1, you know? And then [typing sound], and then he does Isaiah chapter 2. There is no sense in which this was a mechanical process. The individuals wrote according to their own personalities, according to their own styles, according to their own circumstances.

Now, if you research it, you’ll see that that’s obvious. You take Amos. We’ll read Amos. It’s got a real edge to it, Amos: “You bald-headed rascals,” he says. “Dark days, and shaved heads, and I’m coming to get you,”[5] you know? Must’ve been an interesting character, Amos. And it’s no surprise that he is the prophet of God’s justice. But when you read Hosea, the story’s much lighter. It’s warmer. It’s softer. It’s more tender. No wonder, when you read the life story of Hosea, that he would be the prophet of God’s love, or Isaiah would be the one who spoke of the kingly sovereignty of God: “And he will reign forever and ever”[6]—Isaiah standing over the panorama of time, looking forward and declaring God’s kingly rule.

When you go into the New Testament, you find the same is true: Paul as the apostle of grace and faith; James, the apostle who addresses the issue of works; John, the apostle of love; and Peter, not surprisingly, the one who concentrates so much on hope.

So, who wrote this Bible? Well, ultimately, God wrote the Bible, but men wrote the Bible. B. B. Warfield, in a very helpful quote, says, “If God wishe[s] to give [the] people a series of letters like Paul’s, He prepare[s] a Paul to write them, and the Paul He brought to the task was a Paul who [could] spontaneously … write … such letters.”[7] I leave that with you.

But here’s the issue: the church did not write the Bible. The church did not write the Bible. Prophets and apostles wrote the Word to the people of God. And the reliability of what they wrote lies in the fact that behind them is the work of the Holy Spirit. And this is the reason why the church has no right to rewrite what God has written. The church has no right to rewrite what God has written. You must always be careful of anybody telling you, “Oh, no, but that doesn’t matter now, you know. We have superseded that now. That was a long time ago. That was six hundred years BC,” or “That was the first century. That’s what they believed about women in the first century, but it’s irrelevant in the twenty-first century. That’s what they believed about human sexuality then, but this is way different now. This is after the splitting of the atom,” and so on—as if somehow or another the Word of God that was given then is irrelevant now.

Listen carefully: in the Scriptures, God was and is speaking to us. He was speaking, and he is speaking. If you want to listen to God, open your Bible. The safest way to hear God speak is to read your Bible. And beware of every other notion about how you’re going to hear from God, the mystical ideas that have come out of the dark centuries—understandably so; when they didn’t have a Bible to guard them and to keep them, they came up with all kinds of notions. The trivial ideas of contemporary modern writing, which seem to suggest that somehow or another we can hear from God absent what he has said in his Word. Again, Luther (sic) helps us: “What more can he say than to you he has said, to you, who to Jesus for refuge have fled?”[8]

I warrant you that some of the craziest people you will ever meet are the people who have decided that the Bible is insufficient for them when it comes to hearing from God. And some of the Bypath Meadows of contemporary evangelicalism are directly related to a willingness to listen to books, no matter how influential the author may be, which suggest that the answer to your quest is to be found over here in a corner somewhere, listening for something, finding out where God is going, finding out what God is doing. My dear friends, if you want to know where he’s going and what he’s doing, read your Bibles.

You see why this is so important? And this, incidentally, is the importance of the sermon, is it not? And some of you are saying, “Well, I’m sure you were building to this to justify your employment or something. I mean, you have to say that, don’t you? I mean, why would we ever come? I mean, we knew you were working…” No, not at all! Who wants to come and listen to somebody pontificate, somebody give you his ten cents’ worth of information that he’s gleaned—a few ideas, a couple of jokes, an illustration, and a how-do-you-do? What’s the point in that? I have no interest in that. I have no interest in being a servant to that kind of objective. But to be made the vehicle of God’s truth through the Bible, to be simply its servant, to be underneath it, to be holding out one’s hand, to be offering it afresh, that’s something very different.

And this, incidentally, answers the question that I get all the time: “Could we have a service where all we do is sing?” No! Why not? Isn’t singing important? Yes! Isn’t praise vital? Absolutely! Doesn’t the whole of Scripture pulsate with the notion that God’s people have been created to praise him? Yes! And therefore, we do. And therefore, we must. And therefore, we have much more to learn about praise and singing and involvement and commitment in this congregation, today and every day. But think about it: what God has to say to us is much more important than what we have to say to him. And indeed, we have nothing to say to him until first we have heard from him.

If you want to know where God’s going and what he’s doing, read your Bibles.

And that, in passing, is one of the reasons why perhaps our whole approach to the study of the Bible and the praise is upside down, traditionally so. But little comes after having heard from him. We’re talking to him before he speaks to us. It presupposes that we’ve been listening every day of the week. But if we haven’t, then we arrive cold, uneducated, uninspired, and are exhorted to praise a God with whom we have spent no time in the preceding seven days. That’s why the hymn writer says, “’Tis what I know of thee, my Lord and God, that fills my [life] with [praise], my lips with song.”[9] “It’s what I know of you that fills my heart with praise, my lips with song.” So you understand the context in which I answered no to the question. When we finally put “Parkside Praise” together, there’ll be no preaching on that occasion; it’ll be all singing.

How Are We to Understand the Bible?

What is the Bible? Well, it’s a compendium. It’s a collection of books. It’s like no other book. Who wrote it? Well, it has a dual authorship. Thirdly, how are we supposed to understand it? How’re we supposed to understand the Bible?

Let me give you the answer in one word: properly. Properly. The Bible does not have a special, esoteric, spiritual meaning which can only be gleaned by setting aside the plain, grammatical, and historical sense. Let me say that to you again: the Bible is not a book of special, intriguing little ideas that are only found by initiates who are able to set aside the grammar and the history and discover these little nuggets. You’ll find people like this all the time. They pop up in Bible studies all over the place: “Well, I believe that what this is saying is… Because I…” such and such, and so on. I say, “Well, listen, sir, if you could just maybe make a cup of coffee or something and just sit over there in the corner for a little while, we’ll come back to you, maybe. But right now, our concern here is to understand the Bible properly. We’re not really interested in what it means to you.”

And if you’ve been reading your Bible during the week saying, “Well, I got nothing out of it, because it didn’t mean anything to me,” what did you expect to happen to you? I mean, if you’re reading the book of Leviticus, what do you really think is supposed to happen? “And the robes of the priest had the seven and the nine and the twelve and the fourteen and the three, and the porthole, and the nine by six by four by eight,” and you’re going, “Listen, I gotta get outta here! I’m going to my office. What is this about?” Well, what it’s about, you need to stand back from it. It’s like certain paintings: you can’t see them up close; you have to take them in the process. And when you stand back and you realize what God is conveying of his holiness and of his power and of his grandeur and pointed, then, to the nature of substitution and sacrifice, then suddenly all these elements begin to take on form.

Great harm, you see, has been done and continues to be done by those who claim infallibility for dubious, often eccentric interpretations of the Bible. And again, these people bounce into places all the time. Now, let me give you one illustration from of old. Two Samuel 9:13. I’ll just quote the verse for you. You needn’t turn to it; it’s not important. But the verse reads, “So Mephibosheth dwelt in Jerusalem: for he did eat continually at the king’s table; and was lame [in] both his feet.”[10] The preacher announces that as his text, and then he preaches a sermon, the outline of which was as follows. Point one: “This verse speaks to the issue of human depravity, because Mephibosheth was lame.” Point two: “This verse addresses total depravity, because we can see that he was lame in both feet.” Point three: “This verse addresses the issue of justification, because we’re told that Mephibosheth dwelt in Jerusalem.” Fourthly: “This teaches us the doctrine of adoption, inasmuch as Mephibosheth sat at the king’s table.” And fifthly: “It teaches us the doctrine of perseverance, in that Mephibosheth sat at the king’s table continually.”

Now, if you were to come here and hear a sermon like that from me or from any one of my colleagues, the best thing you could do is grab your Bible and run for your life. Because a careful reading of the passage would make it clear that what we’re being told there is that David is loving and he’s kind. And that’s what that verse tells us—not that his lameness was a picture of this, and his two feet were a picture of that, and Jerusalem was a picture of this, and so on.

Everywhere you go, you’ll find people that want to distract you with that kind of information. And it’s not unusual in the circles in which we move. That’s why it’s so important that I tell you how you need to understand the Bible. The reason that people make those applications is simply because they refuse to accept that the plain meaning of a passage is the plain meaning of a passage. They’re unprepared to accept that the main things are the plain things and the plain things are the main things, and they have the idea that the plain meaning must always defer to some hidden, spiritual interpretation.

Incidentally, that is why you can write a book that is fairly true and straightforward, and only ten people buy it and read it—and those are all members of your family! Or you can write a book that takes a notion, spins it into an interesting dimension, and retire in the islands. Why? Because of the perversity of the human mind—the idea that perhaps in this secret notion, in this strange meaning, in this little idea, there is the answer to spiritual fitness. It’s the same way that people are plugged into their televisions every afternoon listening to Dr. Phil, listening to Oprah Winfrey, listening to anybody who will get on there and tell them, “There is an easy answer to the complexities of your life. Simply plug this in.” And they are made vastly rich because of the longing of the human heart. But if you tell the person, “If you want to look like this, it will take this and this and this. It will take this effort,” and so on, says, “I don’t have time for the pain. I don’t have time for the pain.”

Principles of Biblical Interpretation

Well then, let me end—because I have to end, my time is gone—by saying that the way to avoid that kind of foolishness in interpretation and application is to keep certain principles before you. And let me just give them to you quickly.

Number one: if you’re going to interpret the Bible, the answer is not “Let’s go and see what the pastor has to say.” Pastors have been given Ephesians 4:11–12 so as to help in the process of edifying the saints. We have a unique role. We understand that. But we are not priests and popes and potentates. We’re just learners from the one who knows the answers. We have been given the privilege of spending our time to do more study than others have done and to unearth the plain teaching of Scripture, but not in such a way that would then deprive the individual Christian of the necessary endeavors on their own.

So, Scripture needs to be interpreted on the basis of the straightforward sense of the passage. The way to interpret a passage is on the basis of its straightforward sense. In order to do that, you have to interpret it first according to its original meaning. According to its original meaning. So Paul writes to the Corinthians at a certain point in time, at a certain place, a certain latitude and longitude. We must first understand the historical context to which he writes in Corinth before we start making application here in Cleveland. If you go immediately to application in Cleveland without first understanding “Why Corinth?” then you can make the Bible say just about anything you want it to.

If you’re going to interpret it according to its straightforward sense, not only do you have to pay attention to its original meaning, but you have to pay attention to its literary form. Its literary form. Am I reading poetry or prose? Am I dealing with a parable? Am I dealing with history? Am I dealing with allegory? Am I dealing with a metaphor, with a simile? Because it makes a difference, doesn’t it?

Two Chronicles 16:9 speaks of “the eyes of the Lord” ranging to and fro throughout the earth.[11] Now, unless you understand that that is a figure of speech, that it is a metaphor, then you will inevitably conclude that two great, cosmic eyes scan the globe intermittently, and that somewhere or another, out in the solar system, there are two gigantic eyes looking all around. Is that what it is saying? Well, the person says, “Well, I’m taking the Bible literally. Therefore, yes, it is.” My dear friend, you’re taking the Bible literalistically. To take the Bible literally is to take it in the genre in which it is conveyed, and this is clearly a metaphor. What it is teaching is the omniscience of God. It is a picture to convey a truth.

That’s the first point. Scripture has to be interpreted according to its straightforward meaning.

Secondly, Scripture needs to be interpreted by Scripture. There is a harmony to the Bible, there is a unity to the Bible, there is a self-consistency to the Bible that you would expect given a single divine author. And when you interpret Scripture with Scripture, you need to interpret it according to the purpose of Scripture. What is the purpose of Scripture? Well, we’ll come to this eventually. He says to Timothy as a young man, he says, “You should be paying attention to all these things. You should be thankful that you’ve known the Bible for a very long time—the Bible, which is able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” What is the purpose of the Bible? It is to make men and women wise unto salvation. It’s not a book about astronomy. It’s not a scientific textbook. It’s a book that has been written to make us wise for salvation. So we should be very, very careful, then, about trying to extrapolate scientific terminology and deductions from a book that does not have that as its express purpose.

What is the purpose of the Bible? It is to make men and women wise unto salvation.

And we need to understand a passage or a writer in relationship to their purpose. I can illustrate this for you easily. People come to me from time to time, they say, “Well, I found a contradiction between James and Paul. I find that what Paul is saying is that it’s all grace, and then I was reading James—I read his little five-chapter thing—and it seems to me that he’s saying it’s all works. And it’s an obvious contradiction.”

Well, it is an apparent contradiction, until you interpret Scripture with Scripture, and in doing so, you acknowledge the fact that you have to understand the purpose of the writer. What is the purpose of James in writing his letter? It is to address a group of people who are going around saying, “My morality and my social involvement is irrelevant. All that matters is that I have faith in Jesus.” And James writes to them to say, “You’d better be very careful of a sterile faith. You show me your faith without works, and I’ll show you faith with works.”[12] So he’s addressing people who are tempted to say, “All I have to do is believe in Jesus and nothing matters.” He says, “Oh, yes, everything does matter. If you’re a snob, you call in question your commitment to a humble Christ. If you simply say, ‘Be warm,’ and do nothing to help, then you apparently haven’t understood what it means to prefer your enemies and to love those who despise you.”[13] But when Paul writes to the Galatians, he’s writing to a group of people who have got the exact opposite problem. He’s writing to a group of people who are so convinced that on the basis of their own good works and their own good deeds they’re made acceptable to God; they keep themselves going by what they do. And Paul writes to say, “It’s not what you do that matters. It’s the grace of God that matters.”

Now, how do you understand that? According to the purpose of each writer.

And therefore, it’s obvious that you need to interpret other passages in the light of passages that deal with the same theme. You see a difficult part? Then you look elsewhere in the book to see if it’s the same issue as dealt with in a way that’s easier to understand. You understand that. You do it all the time in a textbook.

And also, as I said earlier, we interpret the earlier in light of the later and the fuller. The New Testament interprets the Old Testament, and the Epistles interpret the Gospels.

We’re about to have this movie come out—it’s apparently going to come out—the movie on Jesus. I saw trailers for it this week: a powerful description of the passion of Christ—horribly brutal and gory and disgraceful in every aspect. If it stays as it is, it will never have any English text in it; it will all be in Aramaic. Therefore, it will be totally unintelligible. Therefore, the viewing audience will only have the opportunity of gazing at this atrocity and making deductions. Would that be a problem? Of course it would be a problem! It’d be the same problem of reading the Gospels and never going on to read the Epistles. Because in the Gospels, it is clear that Christ died. But it is really only in the Epistles that it becomes perfectly clear why Christ died—that he died for our sins, and that he died for our sins according to the Scriptures. According to what Scriptures? According to the Old Testament Scriptures.

So you read Peter, and he says, “Christ died.” “Oh,” you said, “we know that. I saw it in the Gospels.” “He died for our sins.”[14] Oh, that explains it! “And he did so according to the Scriptures.”[15] Oh, that makes sense of Isaiah! That’s why he was saying “he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is dumb, it never opened its mouth. He was wounded for our transgressions, and he was bruised for our iniquities; and the chastisement that brought us peace was upon him.”[16] I read that, and I hadn’t a clue what it meant! And I saw it in the Gospels, and I wondered, “Perhaps this is how it fits.” And then I read the Epistles, and the Epistles said, “Christ died.” Got it. “For our sins.” Understand it. “According to the Scriptures.” And suddenly, you’re reading from the back to the front, it begins to make sense.

Two statements and I’m done.

One: ultimately, the Bible can only be interpreted for us by the Holy Spirit. Because true understanding is not natural to us. And if you listened carefully to the psalmist as it was read for us earlier, you would realize that Milne is right when he says, “What we understand of [God’s] truth is related less to the capacity of our brains than to the extent of our obedience.”[17] “What we learn of God’s truth is related less to the capacity of our brains than to the extent of our obedience.”

And that, my dear friends, is why it is that a young Christian begins to lap this older believer, because the older believer, thinking that they simply sit on the pew and flatten out their posterior over time, never taking seriously the Bible, never absorbing its truth, never applying it to their lives; and suddenly this young believer comes along, and they’re so crazy to think, you know, if you go to the morning service, presumably you go to the evening service too. After all, God’s Word is preached. And apparently, you do what the Bible says. Yeah, you believe and you get baptized, so let’s get baptized! And apparently, the people who got baptized, they join the fellowship, and so they join the fellowship, and they got involved, and they read their Bibles. And suddenly, they’re lapping you, and you’re saying, “Why is it that they’re away ahead of me now?” Well, it is because it’s not directly related to the length of time you’ve sat listening to sermons—or the length of time that I have preached sermons!—but it is directly related to the obedience of my heart. And my friends, that’s why it’s so important.

And finally, if we’re going to understand the Bible, we need to recognize that it needs to be interpreted dynamically. Dynamically. There is a dynamism to it. We look at the passage, and we understand it, what it meant in its own time. We considered it in the light of its surrounding context. We placed it in the framework of the whole purpose of Scripture. And then and only then did we ask, “What does this mean in my life and in my family and in my congregation, in my church and in my culture?” In the Scriptures, God was and is speaking to us—which then goes part of the way to answering the question “Why bother with the Bible?” And we’ll answer it more fully from Paul’s insights here in 2 Timothy 3 when we return to it.

O God our Father, we thank you that you have spoken, and therefore, as a result of that, we are enabled by your grace to respond. We thank you for the Bible, that it is a lamp that shines on our feet, it’s a light which opens up our path;[18] that the entrance of it brings light to us. And we pray that you will shine your light into our lives, so that in understanding its purpose—to make us wise to salvation—we may understand that we are in need of that salvation, in need of this Jesus to die on our behalf in order that we might be forgiven, and then, in embracing him and in bowing before his lordship, that we might be “thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

We long desperately, Father, that we’re not simply a group of people who are stoked by an interest in the Bible, but that we’re stirred by your Spirit as we read the Bible, and that you will make us a people of the Book, and then a people of Christ, and a people that live to proclaim your wonderful grace, having called us from darkness into your terrific light.[19]

May the love of the Lord Jesus draw us to him, the joy of Jesus fill our hearts, and the peace of Jesus guard and keep our minds as we live the hours of this day, as we gather around your Table this evening, as we go out into the week ahead. For we pray in his precious name. Amen.


[1] Psalm 138:2 (ESV).

[2] Romans 3:2 (NIV 1984).

[3] Proverbs 5:21 (KJV).

[4] Proverbs 16:9 (KJV).

[5] Amos 8:10 (paraphrased).

[6] Isaiah 9:7 (paraphrased).

[7] Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, ed. Samuel G. Craig (1948; repr., Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1970), 155.

[8] “How Firm a Foundation” (1787).

[9] Horatius Bonar, “Not What I Am, O Lord” (1861).

[10] 2 Samuel 9:13 (KJV).

[11] 2 Chronicles 16:9 (NIV 1984).

[12] James 2:18 (paraphrased).

[13] James 2:16 (paraphrased).

[14] 1 Peter 3:18 (paraphrased).

[15] 1 Corinthians 15:3 (paraphrased).

[16] Isaiah 53:5, 7 (paraphrased).

[17] Bruce Milne, Know the Truth: A Handbook of Christian Belief (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1982), 47.

[18] See Psalm 119:105.

[19] See 1 Peter 2:9.

Copyright © 2022, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.