Almost seems like a rhetorical question. But it’s not. Really, why do we study the bible? I’m sure each of us can come up with a number of reasons. Topping the list might be, to learn how to be a ‘better Christian’. Others might be to simply learn more about God’s Word in general, or to know more about Christian history. Some study to find encouragement for themselves, or for others. Some study to prepare a sermon or a devotional message. For that matter, some study to prepare a blog post. The reality is that practically, none of these answers are wrong. Applicationally, they are correct as well. What I want to share with you today is that while these answers are all proper in every context, at the same time they all fall short. the common denominator in all these is obedience.
Working on a couple of book manuscripts that have been escaping me for a dozen years or more have had me looking over notes, reviewing my commentary, going back to book resources for clarification, for useful comments and quotes, and to be sure that I’m properly representing a previous author’s words when referenced. Sometimes, looking for a particular item quickly become moments of, “oh, I forgot I had read/written this”, and the revelation of other notes and comments in still different areas that need to be included in the discussion as well. Soon the search for a single quote leads to a stack of new books, resources and six or seven new tabs being opened up in my web browser. A new pile of work emerges in the attempt to clarify a single thought. Such is my life.
In just such an effort, something I have come to call a “source-nado” (a tornado of resources) began to appear on my desk and I came across a note from a book titled “Excellence” by respected author Andreas J. Köstenberger. I had read this book about a year or so ago and opened it top read some of my highlighted area. I found a quote in a section where Andreas was speaking about bible study. Here he revealed and extrapolated on a solid truth:
There is no place in the bible where God’s people are enjoined to study the bible for the sake of study: the goal is always obedience.
There are many times in scripture where we note believers gathered together. But gathering together, church services, or what we might call generically ‘worship services’ today, are not the only place we find people studying, or being taught God’s Word. As a matter of fact, we most often find references of studying scripture, or meditating on God and/or His Word, referring to individuals. Considering this, it makes perfect sense.
Yes, God has given us some corporate guidelines for us as mankind. These laws are a constant and apply to all of our lives all of the time. But without going into a lengthy theological discussion on salvation and grace, we must constantly remind ourselves that our salvation is not accountable to, or contingent on obeying a law, a rule, or a set of guidelines. Our acceptance from God does not rely – thank goodness – on remaining sin free. Ultimately, our salvation lies in what Christ has done for us, and our full and undying faith in the sufficiency of that sacrifice. Nothing more. That said, we are still accountable to being obedient to God in all things. Self contradicting? Confused? Allow me to explain.
In my mind prayer is the second most important thing we can do as a Christian. This is followed closely by studying God’s Word. Studying implies effort. It is more than just reading text and then quietly slipping off to sleep. Please note that I am in no way attacking bed-time reading of scripture, or in any way lessening the fact that simple bible reading comes with its own set of unique and qualified benefits, as it does. Isaiah 55:11 reminds us of that where it states, “So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me void. But it shall accomplish what I please, And it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.” But all too often, especially in today’s world of social media, 24-hour news cycles, on demand shopping with free two-day delivery and a culture of instant gratification, simply spending time reading often doesn’t cut it. Rather, it has a tendency to, and often does become, a vain repetition. In other words we do it simply because we ‘feel’ like it is required of us as believers. We do it out of a twisted self-imposed legalism so that it becomes a “works” issue, rather than reading and studying with a rightful purpose out of desire.
So to the people who are studying with a purpose in mind, keep up the good work. But let’s take a moment here and consider the topic at hand. What really is the purpose for our studying? What are we trying to accomplish with our study? And perhaps more importantly, what is the end goal when we apply practically, the lessons that we have learned while studying? If Köstenberger is right – it’s obedience. I tend to agree.
In the opening paragraph we listed some reasons why we study the bible. Each of them legitimate in their own right. How to be a ‘better Christian’, to learn more about God’s Word, to know more about Christian history, for encouragement for themselves or for others, or even to produce devotional writings or blog posts. We can make an endless list of benefits or reasons for bible study I’m sure, but I think there is a commonality in them as Köstenberger suggests.
Becoming a better Christian involves so much. Our faith, buy its very nature, impacts ever aspect of our life. How we think, how we act, what we say, what thoughts we dwell on. Christianity shapes our world view and impacts our perspective on social issues like abortion, same sex marriage, legalization of marijuana and the entire LGBT movement. All thoughts are to be take captive to our faith and beliefs (2 Corinthians 10:5). We want to align our thoughts on these issues with God’s thoughts, being of “one mind” (Romans 15:5-6, Philippians 1:27, 1 Peter 3:8). And why do we desire to do these things? The least common denominator to all these reasons is to become and remain obedient to our call as Christians, obedient to the will of God.
We study scripture to know God’s Word better. We want to be able to quote it accurately. We want to be able to share God’s Word with confidence that what we are sharing is accurate and represents God and His character rightly. But again, we learn in order to be obedient to God’s call – ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all the earth’.
You have almost certainly heard the old adage of, “Those who do not learn from history are destined (or doomed) to repeat it”. This could not be more true than with the Jews of the Old Testament, and the followers of Christ in the new. The Jews made many mistakes. Some of them cost them 40 years in the desert, and others 400 in captivity. Peter made colossal mistakes. At one point Jesus called him Satan! The Jerusalem council got doctrine wrong in requiring converting Greeks (generically referring to non-Jews) to be circumcised. If we do not know our common Christian heritage and history, we too are destined to make those same mistakes. These would not be mistakes if there wasn’t a proper right action that requires obedience by the follower.
Searching scripture for encouragement is so very common. Countless people have gone to scripture in times of need and in states of feeling low, and closed their bibles feeling fresh, rejuvenated, and encouraged by God’s promises and love. But is there obedience to be found in this? Surely. Simply put, encouragement from any other source is at the very least temporal, and at worst an open door for the enemy. Encouragement from God’s Word, be it from reading scripture itself, or receiving it from loving Christian brethren is right and proper. It’s truth and warmth will find you and you will be warmed and lifted. No, we do not always get the positive, uplifting message from the word, but even if what we see and receive is scolding or convicting, it is in the end, a good thing for us nonetheless. Encouragement for the long run – learning from our past so as not to make the same mistakes again in the future, right? The encouragement comes from doing those right things. It comes from receiving correction and knowing that in the future we will be more prepared to be what? – Obedient. Obedience brings about a soothing success. Properly, this form of proper Christian pride comes not from having the strength to find success in areas that might formerly have been sin, but rather, in success in knowing that this strength comes from Christ as a gift from the Holy Spirit. It is His strength, His strength in us through the Holy Spirit by which we are able to stand against sin and former weaknesses. Obedience in Christ again is the source of the power.
Why then do some write or give sermons? Again, obedience. We write as this is part of our individual gifting towards the Great Commission. We preach and prepare sermons because we have been called to be teachers and preachers in accordance to out giftings in order to (here it comes) to be obedient to not only our calling, but again to the great commission.
If it is not important to obey God’s laws and commandments, why do we study them?If obedience has no meaning in our Christian lives, why does God mention it well over 50 times? Here’s a sampling. The easy answer to give, and perhaps the toughest answer to receive – is that it obedience is in fact very important, and is at the root of why we study the bible and seek to strengthen our personal relationship with Jesus. In short, Köstenberger is right.
After all is said and done, and after all this talk of obedience to God, its beginning to sounds an awful lot like legalism. Yet, a solid understanding of the Christian faith teaches us that legalism is a false doctrine frequently used by false teachers to coerce seekers and new believers into following a false doctrine that leads to death through works. The New Testament church received many teachings on the dangers of legalism, with Paul going so far as to tell the church in Galatia not to again fall into the “bondage of the law”.
As I mentioned early, and what is sometimes so hard to remember, we are not found worthy to enter into the joy of our Lord for eternity because our obedience to the law. We are found worthy to receive God’s Grace and salvation because of the work and sacrifice of the only Sinless One, Jesus – the Lamb of God. This is the only means by which we get to heaven. Period. BUT, our obedience is a gift of love to God.
I John 2:3-6 makes this point most saliently.
3 Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. 4 He who says, “I know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. 5 But whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in Him. 6 He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked.
In extrapolating this point the IVP New Testament Commentary Series, they add these points:
“We come then to the assertion that if anyone obeys his word, God’s love is truly made complete in him. Two important items should be noted. First, obedience and love of God are inseparably linked. Love of God, like knowledge of God, is expressed through “keeping God’s word,” through our allegiance to God. Second, note what the author does not say. He does not say that the more we obey, the more we show that we love God. In other words, the Elder is not criticizing Christians for failing to “do enough.” Rather, his statement is directed at those who had left the church and who may have denied the need for obedience in the Christian life. John contends that it is simply impossible to claim to love or to know God without also living in obedience to God. In obedience to the commands, our love for God is truly made complete, that is, not made morally perfect or without flaw, but lived out as it should be.”
Obedience is our gift to God. He revels in this gift from us. We are to live our lives as a ‘living sacrifice’ (Romans 12:1). Our focus should be on obedience in all things. Knowing that our sanctification process is ongoing, as we build our confidence in God and enrich our understanding of God and His Word, we renew our minds, and become more and more like Christ.
We may not set out to make each and every bible study or bible reading to be about growing in this area. But I do feel it is important to consider this end goal in our growth.