When Bible Study Goes Wrong

by David Prince February 22, 2018

The Pharisees were experts in the word of God. In light of their diligent study, they were sure they knew what God expected of them. They were thought to be the most principled in their serious-minded adherence to God’s word. They were particularly scrupulous in observing food laws and the rules about tithing. They tithed herbs as well as grain, wine, and olives (Matt. 23:23; Luke 11:42). They had developed traditions, which they considered to be direct applications of the word of God. Their external patterns of obedience were down to a routine, but Jesus still told them they were wrong. What were they missing?

The Pharisees read the Old Testament and believed a Messiah was coming - a Messiah who would restore the throne of David, the independence of Israel from Rome, and the prosperity of Israel. They were correct about all of those facts, but they were wrong about how those realities would come to pass. What were they missing? They were missing Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, the Messiah, come in the flesh to save his people from their sins. It is a haunting reminder that someone can give themselves over to study the Scriptures, become an expert in particulars about God’s word; yet miss the entire thrust of it - its most important theme.

To the Jewish crowds who desired to kill him, Jesus declared, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me” (John 5:18, 39). Jesus was speaking to diligent students who painstakingly explored Scripture; but, as D. A. Carson explains, “Jesus insists that there is nothing intrinsically life-giving about studying the Scriptures, if one fails to discern their true content and purpose.” Jesus’s words called them (and call us) to reexamine the Scripture in light of the revelation of God that has been manifested in his appearing (John 1:14, 18). He holds himself up as the key to understanding the Scripture (John 5:46).

Carson continues:

These are the Scriptures, Jesus says, that testify about me. . . . What is at stake is a comprehensive hermeneutical key. By predictive prophecy, by type, by revelatory event, and by anticipatory statute, what we call the Old Testament is understood to point to Christ, his ministry, his teaching, his death and resurrection . . . Like John the Baptist (vv. 33-35), the Scriptures, rightly understood, point away from themselves to Jesus. If therefore some of the Jews refuse to come to Jesus for life, that refusal constitutes evidence that they are not reading their Scriptures as they are meant to be read. [1] 

The pervasive testimony of the evangelical church has echoed the words of Jesus when He declared that all the Scriptures testify of Him (John 5:39). Consider John Calvin’s commentary on John 5:39, “We ought to believe that Christ cannot be properly known in any other way than from the Scriptures; and if it be so, it follows that we ought to read the Scriptures with the express design of finding Christ in them.” [2] Any attempt to segment the Bible in a way that does not recognize its divinely inspired, cohesive, Christ-centered storyline is tantamount to a functional denial of divine authorship and represents an attempt to interpret the Bible while proceeding on “antisupernaturalist assumptions.” [3]

Andrew Fuller, the great English Baptist pastor of an earlier generation, said:

To believe the truth concerning Jesus is to believe the whole doctrine of the Scriptures. . . . Upon this principle as a foundation, Christianity rests; and it is remarkable that, to this day, deviation concerning the person and work of Christ is followed by a dereliction of almost every other evangelical doctrine, and of the spirit of Christianity. How should it be otherwise? If the foundation be removed, the building must fall. 

There is Bible study, and there is Bible study. The Bible is not primarily about the Bible. It is not primarily about morality. And the Bible is not merely an encyclopedia of religious knowledge. The Bible is the word of God, and the entirety of the Bible points to Christ, the living Word. The Bible is preoccupied with the Messiah and we must be as well. We must not repeat the error of the Pharisees. We must search the Scripture, but we must search the Scripture to understand how each part uniquely witnesses to Christ.

Scripture’s goal is faith in the life-giving Messiah. At the Transfiguration, Jesus was surrounded by Moses (representing the Law), Elijah (representing the Prophets), and Peter, James, and John (representing the Apostles) and the voice from heaven spoke of the key to all of redemptive history: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him” (Matt 17:5). May we obey the heavenly voice and listen to Christ. As we read the Law, the Prophets, and the Apostles, may we listen to Him.

[1] The Gospel According to John, PNTC, Eerdmans, 1990: 263.

[2] Commentary on the Gospel According to John, Logos Bible Software, 2010: 218.

[3]  Millard Erickson, Evangelical Interpretation: Perspectives on Hermeneutical Issues, Baker, 1993: 30-31.

[4] The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, Sprinkle Publications, 1988: 1:691-692.

Editor's Note: This post originally appeared at David's blog, Prince on Preaching, and is used with permission.