A classic text for Bible Sunday today:
All scripture is inspired by God and is
useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in
righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be
proficient, equipped for every good work.
(2 Timothy 3:16-17)
Not sentiments that many in the world would agree with.
Popular estimations of the Bible range from it containing nice morals that
no-one can attain, to it being a bunch of fairy tales, to the extreme position
held by eminent scientists such as Richard Dawkins that its apparently lovely
stories are a justification for violence (as he claims in his new book The God Delusion).
And inevitably these attitudes influence us in the church.
We can find the Bible irrelevant, unbelievable and even abhorrent. Why, then,
on Bible Sunday, should we hold this
collection of ancient writings in high esteem and make it key to the practice
of Christian faith?
1. Because It Is Inspired
‘All scripture is inspired’, says Paul. A strong statement –
but what does he mean? Let’s quickly dismiss the other alternative translation
possible from the Greek of ‘Every inspired scripture’ which might imply that
some scripture is inspired but other parts aren’t. It’s a tempting translation
to cope with the difficult parts of the Bible, but not one Jews like Paul or
Timothy would have recognised. No, he claims that all scripture is inspired.
But in what sense? Is it like saying that Mozart or Bach
were inspired in their composing? Is it like the fundamentalist claim that God
dictated the words of Scripture to the human writers?
There is a better translation in the NIV. It says, ‘All
scripture is God-breathed’, and George Carey has some helpful words on what
‘It comes from the belief that every
human being has his or her lungs inflated by God’s breath at birth, and that at
death one’s breath was given to him. Heroic figures like the prophets were
thought to have been inspired with a fuller burst of divine breath than
ordinary mortals. Logically then, the sacred writings must have received a
special anointing, because they came from men specially inspired by the breath
So it’s about the work of God’s breath, God’s Spirit, in the
writers of Scripture. Now that does not mean dictation of Scripture. When the
Holy Spirit is at work you do not become less human, just being a channel for
words, you become more human. God inspires you and you become passionate to put
that into practice. So I think this sits quite well with some of the evangelical
Christian leaders of pre-fundamentalist times such as the hymn writer Philip
Doddridge and the missionary pioneer Henry Martyn, who said that inspiration
was God giving the thoughts, but men giving the words.
In other words, the Holy Spirit is not a dictator, but a
supervisor. Inspiration is preserved, but so too are the different styles of
the human writers. So you get the Gospel writers giving different accounts of
the same incidents, partly because they each have different messages to convey
about them. It’s why some believing scholars say that we don’t have the ipsissima verbi, the authentic words of
Jesus, but we do have the ipsissima vox,
the authentic voice of Jesus in the Scriptures.
And this is slightly different from saying that an artist or
a composer is inspired. They are using the gifts God has given them, for sure,
but not necessarily in terms of communicating something of lasting importance
about God’s supreme final revelation in Christ. For the great goal of
Scripture, according to Jesus himself in John 5:39, is that the Scriptures
point to him. And he comes to fulfil the Old Testament law, according to
So the Old Testament points to Christ. Parts of the Jewish
ritual law that we don’t keep have found their fulfilment in him, such as the
laws about sacrifices or the dietary laws. It’s OK; you can eat pork for your
Sunday lunch! Others assume a situation different from ours, where there is a
nation recognising the rule of God. We may find relevance in the sections where
the faithful are a small number in a pagan society.
People may argue that Jesus and Paul were just referring to
the Old Testament. But in Paul’s previous letter to Timothy (at 1 Timothy 5:18)
he quotes a portion of Luke’s Gospel (10:7) as Scripture. And 2 Peter 3:16
refers to Paul’s letters as Scripture. So there was an ongoing recognition of
special inspiration. Eventually the Church made a decision on the inspired
writings, but it wasn’t so much the Church passing judgement as seeking to
discern which writings carried the special anointing.
So first of all, we should take the Bible very seriously
because it is inspired. In doing so
we make greater claims for it than we even do for other helpful spiritual
resources such as the traditions of the Church, spiritual experience and human
reason. And our conviction that the Bible is inspired becomes the bedrock for
struggling with the difficult passages in it and also for the other claims that
Paul makes in our text this morning.
2. Because It Is Useful
Our children love books. Often, first thing in the morning,
they will want to bring books to us to read to them. Among their many
favourites are the Thomas The Tank Engine books. And if you have read them you
will know that sometimes the highest form of praise that Thomas gets from the
Fat Controller is to be told he is a Really Useful Engine.
Paul makes claims that the Bible is Really Useful: it ‘is
useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in
righteousness’, he says.
There are many metaphors for the rôle of the Bible in the
Christian life: Augustine called it ‘our letter from home’ and it is sometimes
called God’s love letter. But here Paul sees it more like a tool that God uses.
It is useful, practical.
So it is not to be treated the way I once saw a Muslim
friend treat his mother’s Qu’ran, when he was almost afraid to touch it –
something paralleled in some superstitious distortions of Christianity where
people believe that if you read the Bible your hands and feet will drop off. It
is not to be lauded for the poetry of the Authorised Version – a translation we
now know to be based on less reliable manuscripts than contemporary
translations. It is of practical use, so the habit of some Christians of making
notes in their Bible is not sacrilege as some believe, but a proper application
of treating the Bible as useful.
How is it useful? Paul says it is useful ‘for teaching, for
reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness’. We can take those
four words – teaching, reproof, correction and training – in two pairs.
The first two – teaching and reproof – are about our beliefs. The Bible teaches us what is
right and wrong about God, human life, creation and destiny. Get your moorings
right in your beliefs and you have a good foundation for Christian living –
provided you then apply those beliefs. Get the picture of a loving and holy God
supremely revealed in Jesus Christ, who made us in his image and entered on a
rescue project when we turned from him, and who desires to heal all of wounded
creation, and you will have a sound basis for faith. Get this wrong and if you
have a distorted image of God or humanity you will live a shrivelled, fearful
life that accomplishes little. The Bible is God’s instrument to teach us his
truth and preserve us from the practical dangers of wrong belief.
The second two words – correction and training – are about
our behaviour. Our behaviour needs to
be corrected and we need training in the right way to live. The Bible provides
this, too. It does not simply give us a list of rules, though: it shows us how
to live in tune with the Holy Spirit’s desires for life.
One profound example of the difference this makes will soon
be in the public eye. Next March we celebrate the bicentenary of the abolition
of the slave trade in the British Empire. The
name William Wilberforce will therefore be greatly honoured again. Wilberforce
described his calling as for ‘the reformation of manners’, and this is actually
how the New English Bible translates this part of the verse. Correction and
training in righteousness are what Wilberforce called ‘the reformation of
manners’ – and what a reformation he and others achieved. He was treating his
Bible as a useful book in terms of Christian behaviour. Is it any surprise he
was also one of the founders of the Bible
The inspired Bible, then, is useful – significantly useful
in shaping healthy belief and behaviour. This should be a deep motivation for
engaging with it regularly.
3. Because It Is Fruitful
What is the consequence of Paul’s teaching here? It is ‘so
that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good
work.’ (verse 17).
Do you want to be equipped as a Christian to face the world
with faith and love? Then, says Paul, you need to be someone who drinks deeply
of Scripture. If you do, you will be equipped for Christian discipleship. There
was once a pompous man who introduced himself as a tree expert. Someone
replied, well so is a monkey! Some may study trees, but the monkey lives in
them. So we need to ‘live’ in our Bibles.
Let me therefore make the plea for regular Bible reading.
There are Chinese Christians whose motto is ‘No Bible, no breakfast’. I’m not
going to advocate that as a rule for one and all, worthy as it is to start the
day in tune, because it doesn’t fit everybody’s routines. It certainly wouldn’t
work for us with small children. But just as we make time to eat food, so we
need to make time for spiritual nourishment. Find the right time each day for
You may want to use Bible reading notes, and there are many
to choose from, to fit all sorts of temperaments and abilities. Any Christian
bookshop can show you a wide variety. It’s worth the pilgrimage. I use one designed for Christian
leaders from Scripture Union.
They are helpful in taking you to read parts of the Bible that you might not
choose if just left to your own limited inclinations. My only caution about
Bible reading notes is you need to read the passage for yourself before reading
Read the Bible, too, in fellowship with other Christians. So
a Bible study group like the Tuesday morning one here or the others run in
conjunction with St Mary’s is very helpful. It is only a consequence of the
printing press that people read things alone. Throughout most of history the
books of the Bible have been read communally.
And of course remember that if the Bible is inspired, then
look to the Holy Spirit for illumination as you read (which is another reason
for reading it with other Christians – to check out your understanding). For if
the Bible is inspired, then what makes more sense than to rely deliberately on
the one who supervised the human authors? So read prayerfully. And that may
mean reading slowly, meditating on the words, and reflecting on them by chewing
them over in the presence of God.
I am not going to kid you that all this will always make
Bible reading exciting. Sometimes it will feel deadly dull and you may not
receive any earth-shattering revelations. But you are being equipped.
Think of it like this. I have a friend who realised he was
overweight. He decided the solution was to go running first thing every
morning. Most mornings he would wake up and not feel remotely like getting out
from the warm duvet. But his wife would prod him and remind him he needed to,
so he would. He didn’t feel like it, but he has felt progressively better
physically as a result. And I think it’s a little bit like that with our Bible
reading, too. We may not feel motivated. We may find every excuse not to do it.
But unless we build in a disciplined spiritual habit here, we are risking our
spiritual fitness. There is no short cut, no instant solution for spiritual
maturity. It requires discipline. And one of them is a regular, prayerful
engagement with Scripture.
I conclude with this story. During the reign of terror under
Nicolai Ceaucescu in Romania,
frequent raids were carried out on the homes of Christians. One Eastern
Orthodox Christian called Stephen had his house turned over and books, including
an English translation of the Bible, were removed. It was the loss of the Bible
that hurt him most. ‘Without a Bible, you are not a man,’ he said.
Some of us who have the gift of the Bible are in such danger
of neglecting it that we risk not being men – or women – of deep faith. Why
should we be so cavalier?