Saturday, 4 February 2012

GO BUY THE BOOK ... AND THEN GO BY THE BOOK

I recall seeing a notice outside a church which had a large picture of an open Bible, and written alongside were the words, ‘Go buy the Book … and then go by the Book!’ Now much needs to be said as to how we make right use of the Bible but, nonetheless, the Bible plays an important part in how God guides us, in how we discern the will of God. Essentially the Bible is narrative, a book of stories about God’s gracious dealings with individuals, people groups, and even nations, rather than a book of rules and regulations we are slavishly meant to follow.

The old idea of God’s eternal plans and purposes being akin to some kind of overarching rainbow above us, which presented us with an idea of God as being wholly ‘other’ and distant from us, has been replaced by a more perceptive understanding of God’s eternal plans and purposes being more like a divine safety net undergirding us. Biblical history is to be seen as a kind of eternal time line of stories of God’s gracious dealings with humanity in which individuals, various people groups, nations have come to encounter God for themselves in a meaningful way. Their little stories have found a place in God’s big story, if you like. And when we read their stories in the Bible, and see how they fit into God’s big story and how God dealt graciously with them, it encourages us not just to find parallels with their stories, but to see that our own particular story also fits into God’s big story and that we too may expect God to deal graciously with us if we allow him to shape and mould our destiny.

A classic example of this, and one that also helps us with our understanding of how the Bible can enables us to find and follow God’s plan and purpose for our lives, is found in 2 Timothy 3:10-17, where Paul is writing to encourage his young protégé, Timothy. It is c.66/67 AD, Nero is the Roman Emperor, Paul is in prison in Rome, and Timothy (one of Paul’s Apostolic Team) is now the Senior Pastor of one of the largest and most influential churches in the Roman province of Asia Minor, the church in Ephesus. It is Timothy’s first pastoral charge, and he is having a number of problems with his church, not least because of his comparative youth and the fact that the Ephesian church contained a number of older people (older than Timothy that is), and a number of difficult people some of whom held some pretty unorthodox views.  Timothy was obviously worried and anxious about everything, hence Paul’s advice in his previous letter that Timothy should ‘Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illness’ [1 Timothy 5:23]. Timothy was in charge of a difficult church, his mentor was hundreds of miles away and in prison to boot, and he was clearly beginning to doubt that he was up to the job, hence Paul’s encouraging reminder to Timothy that when he was set apart for this ministry through the laying on of hands by Paul himself, he ‘did not receive a spirit of timidity, but a Spirit of power, of love and of self discipline’ [2 Timothy 1:7]. Although Paul cannot be there in person to provide guidance for Timothy, the Apostle reminds Timothy of something that he already has near at hand, something that will help him with the guidance he needs – ‘But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of … from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. All Scripture is God breathed and is useful for teaching rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that all God’s people may be thoroughly equipped for every good work’ [2 Timothy 3:14-17].

From his Jewish mother and grandmother [see 2 Timothy 1:5] Timothy had received a thorough grounding in the Old Testament. The ‘Holy Scriptures’ or ‘sacred writings’ [v.15] referred to here probably mean the Old Testament since the books which now make up our New Testament had not yet been brought together into a ‘Bible’ – indeed some of them had not yet been written. Besides it was ‘from childhood’ that Timothy had known these ‘sacred writings’ – long before Paul and the Christian gospel had come on the scene. Paul’s reference to ‘all Scripture’ [v.16] may indicate that Paul has more in mind than just the Old Testament? He may have been aware that other books were already being incorporated into the canon of Scripture by the early church, including some of his own writings [ see 2 Peter 3:15,16]. And the alternative translation of v.16 – ‘Every scripture inspired by God …’ [see NRSV footnote] if correct, probably contrasts those Scriptures accepted by the early church as truly inspired by God with  –the Gnostic Scriptures which were considered to be false. Whatever the case, I would suggest that if the Old Testament is inspired by God, then the New Testament is even more inspired, especially the Gospels because they carry the story and teaching of Jesus himself!

For Paul, what makes the ‘Holy Scriptures’ unique, and different to any other kind of writing, is the fact that they are ‘inspired by God’ [NRSV] or ‘God-breathed’ [TNIV]. Peter helpfully unpacks this idea for us in his Second Letter when he tells us that the various writers of Scripture did not simply record ideas of their own but ‘they spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit’ [2 Peter 1:21]. Just as the wind fills the sails of a sailing ship and carries it over the waves, so God the Holy Spirit filled the various Biblical writers enabling them to write what has come down to us today as ‘Holy Scripture’. Because everything about Scripture – its inception, essential message, and continuing usefulness today – is pervaded, impregnated by God the Holy Spirit, it is a unique instrument, channel that God uses to enable us to ‘grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ’ [2 Peter 3:18].

The problem we face with Scripture, however, is not primarily to do with the question of the inspiration of Scripture as with the interpretation and application of Scripture. Paul, therefore, is not content simply to remind Timothy of the essential value of the Holy Scriptures in finding sustenance, help, guidance, and direction – he explains exactly how Scripture works as a vehicle through which the Holy Spirit enables us to become the men and women of God that God himself always intended we should become. Thus Paul tells us that the Holy Scriptures are ‘useful for teaching, reproving, correcting and training in righteousness’ [v.16].

‘Teaching’ signifies ‘instruction’ – the imparting of information about God and the things of God, not just head knowledge but heart knowledge, practical stuff as well as theoretical, how to be or to do something, etc.

‘Reproving’ signifies ‘to convict’ or ‘to expose’, that is, to convince us or others or to enable us or others ‘to discover’ where we are going wrong, where we are ‘off kilter’ so to speak. ‘Rebuking’ [TNIV] is too harsh a translation. Scripture is never primarily meant to condemn us but to reprove us by showing us where we are failing to live or think as the people of God.

‘Correcting’ literally means ‘to restore to an upright position’, for example, helping someone who has fallen over get to their feet again. ‘Reproof’ and ‘correction’ must always be taken together – they are the head and tails of the same coin. Scripture corrects us by guiding us into right behaviour and thinking, it keeps us upright and moving in the right direction. 

‘Training in righteousness’ is an interesting phrase. ‘Training’ particularly signifies the ‘instruction of children’. It carries with it the idea not simply of the impartation of knowledge but also discipline, hence ‘training’. ‘Righteousness’ literally means ‘rightwiseness’, perhaps particularly the understanding and application of both imputed righteousness (the righteousness of Christ himself deposited in our spiritual bank account), and imparted righteousness (the ability to live a righteous life given to us through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit).

The objective of the exercise – the reading and discussion of Scripture, the study, preaching and teaching of Scripture – if it is to be effective, should have a practical outcome. For Paul the purpose of turning repeatedly to the Bible is not simply that we might find guidance there, but ‘so that all God’s people may be thoroughly equipped for every good work’ [v.17]. The Greek word translated ‘so that’ in our Bibles denotes ‘purpose’ or ‘result’ and the phrase ‘all God’s people’ means just what it says – not just Pastors, leaders, those with a ‘theological inclination’ but all of us! This purpose that Paul has in mind is summed up in two words – ‘perfect’ or ‘complete’, and ‘thoroughly equipped’ (one word in the Greek) which literally means ‘to be fully fitted out’ (for example, a ship fully prepared for a long voyage) or ‘to prepare perfectly’ or ‘complete for a special purpose’. Taken together, these two words Paul uses suggest something being ‘accomplished’.

When it comes to guidance therefore, to understanding something, receiving revelation from God, finding our path in life, fulfilling God’s plans and purposes, the Bible is an indispensible tool. So go buy the Book (if you haven’t got one already) … and then go by the Book!

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