Evangelicals assume the Bible is good. It is God’s word, we reason. And we would be right to make this claim. But if we interrogate further, we may not have any more ready answers to the question, Why is the Bible important for the Christian life?
Scripture is God’s word. Certainly. But why does that matter? What does that mean for us? These questions are not abstract. If we simply read the Bible due to some deontological push, then I fear we might miss the wonderful and graceful means by which we grow in the Christian life.
Here I will argue for the necessity of the Bible for the Christian life in real and substantial ways. I claim that apart from the Bible we miss out on the key way that the Spirit of Jesus makes Jesus personally present in us so that we become lost in the identity of Jesus.
To make this argument, I sadly can only assert a number of claims without fully proving them and then conclude from these claims the conclusion. The limitations of online writing and time prevent what should require a 20–50 page explanation.
I do not think you will mind, however, to read a short online article, however!
As a snapshot, here is the argument that I will make:
- First, Scripture is entirely about Jesus from Genesis to Revelation
- Second, Scripture reveals the heart of Jesus from Genesis to Revelation
- Third, the Spirit makes Jesus Present to us through Scripture
- Fourth, the only way to live the Christian life is to live Christ’s life
I should note that I am here influenced greatly by the work of Grant Macaskill, although not completely, as I have been trying to work out similar ideas for some time. With that overly detailed introduction out of the way, let me begin.
First, Scripture is entirely about Jesus from Genesis to Revelation
Todd Hains recently claimed, “If Jesus isn’t in the Old Testament, Christianity is false.” The Puritan divine John Owen likewise argued, “We shall not benefit from reading the Old Testament unless we look for and meditate on the glory of Christ in its pages” (Glory of Christ, ch. 8). What should we say to such claims?
We might ask some questions. Where is Jesus in the Old Testament? He was born sometimes around 4 B.C. in Bethlehem. That happened after the Old Testament was written. The second question we might ask is: how is Christ in the Old Testament? Like, Jesus is not David in a direct way; he also is not Isaiah. They are real people who are not Jesus.
To the first question, I answer that Jesus is present throughout the entire Old Testament. Moses spoke of him (John 5:46). The prophets and psalms did too (Luke 24:27, 44). Some would like to specify that these texts refer to the place in which Jesus is specifically prophesied about. Hence, Jesus is not present thoroughly but here and there. The promises in Genesis 3:16 and Deuteronomy 18:15–18 provides examples of such prophetic material.
I concur that both passages do speak about Jesus. But I deny the implication that Jesus appears in the Old Testament only through futuristic prophecy. Claiming that typological connections also exist does not go far enough. And even here, some want to restrict typology to connections that the New Testament explicitly make, while others broaden out and allow for all sorts of typologies.
Moving in the latter direction is better. But I am still ready to affirm that Jesus is personally present throughout the whole Bible. I affirm that futuristic prophecy and typology provide two valid ways in which he becomes present to us.
But both avenues to see Christ in the Old Testament still push towards a prospective view of Jesus. I am claiming that Jesus is truly and really present in the Old Testament. I take Paul’s words straightforwardly that “the Rock was Christ” who followed Israel in the wilderness (1 Cor 10:4).
Hebrews opens by claiming that God spoke partially and in many ways in the past (Heb 1:1) but now speaks exclusively in the Son (Heb 1:2). How? In and through the Old Testament. Hebrews 1 and 2 cite the Old Testament showing how it is about Jesus. These texts show the Father speaking to the Son through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This personal reading of the Old Testament is called Prosopology (see here).
These show a more immediate and direct way to see Jesus in the Old Testament. And if we take the arguments of Origen and Irenaeus seriously (and we should), then we need to affirm that Christ sojourned with the fathers in the Old Testament. He spoke to Abraham, wrestled Jacob, led Israel out of Egypt, appeared to Moses, and so on.
Rather than being hidden in futuristic prophecies, Christ is everywhere present in the Old Testament. Granted, we saw him there in shadow until the light of the cross came. Now, we can see him much more clearly: he is the treasure hidden in the field of the Old Testament.
Second, Scripture reveals the heart of Jesus from Genesis to Revelation
The temptation towards Marcionism—seeing the God of the Old Testament as different from the God of the New Testament—remains a constant danger for us. Yet we do not have to fall prey to such thinking as long as we can affirm what Scripture affirms.
The Bible says this about Jesus: what we can know of God’s character in finite creation Jesus communicates.
Whatever you think about God, if you do not start with Jesus, then you do not start with the best and clearest manifestation of God in creation.
Sometimes we think we should start in Genesis 1. Then we move chronologically up until the four Gospel accounts. That is not a bad option. It has one potential flaw, however. Jesus reveals God to us and the meaning of the Scripture. So while we can start in Genesis 1, we cannot read that chapter as anything other than the Father creating by his Word (“let there be light”) by the Holy Spirit who hovers over the waters (Gen 1:2).
So we read Genesis 1 and every part of Scripture theologically—with God as he is revealed in Jesus at the centre.
The implications for reading Scripture (the Old Testament) are wide and deep. We know that Jesus sojourned with saints in the Old Testament. We know that God as Father, Son, and Spirit speaks throughout the Old Testament. We know that shadows, types, and prophecies concern Jesus.
We also know that various institutions teach us about Jesus and lead us to life in him. For example, Hebrews 10:20 affirms that the curtain of the tabernacle is the flesh of Christ: “the curtain, that is, through his flesh.” In other words, the structure of the tabernacle represents something true about Jesus—his flesh is the doorway to God’s presence. Many other passages could be cited here, but this example suffices to clarify the point.
Jesus sojourns in the past in various ways—in real ways. It is worth noting that Jesus did not enter corporal existence until 4 B.C. or so. But the single person, the Word, the Son—Jesus always existed. His singular personality has no beginning. The Jesus we know in the four Gospel accounts is the Word who is God.
That is why the Jesus we know in the four Gospel accounts is the same as the God of the Old Testament. How Jesus lives shows us who God is. Jesus is the clearest and brightest manifestation of the living God in finite creation.
Hence, when Jesus says “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt 11:29), we can know God’s character.
Importantly, this revelation of God in Jesus teaches us how to interpret the Old Testament. We know that how God treated Israel are “examples for us” (1 Cor 10:6). In a real sense, the Old Testament only makes sense (at least the most sense) in light of Jesus.
John Calvin in his Institutes (2.7) speaks of the apparent absurdity of the cultus system in the law. But it is only absurd if taken literally. Yet the sacrifices in fact aim to raise the minds of worshippers up to God. And the law itself, for Calvin (his 3rd us), guides Christians in wisdom and how to live life.
That is to say, what often seems odd or out of place in the Old Testament when read from the point of view of the revelation of God in Christ falls into place. A reason exists for the law, for how God related to Israel, and so on. During those times, it may have felt unclear. Now, it is not.
The whole Old Testament exists as a training manual for the Christian life: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom 15:4). And this comes through a Christ-centered reading of the Scripture.
The Gospel of Jesus “has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations” (Rom 16:26). The writings here are nothing other than the Old Testament. God speaks now in the Scriptures through the Son because of the Revelation of God in Christ.
Jesus speaks in the Old Testament. We see his heart, and through his heart, we see the heart of God.
Third, the Spirit makes Jesus Present to us through Scripture
Why should Scripture focus entirely on Jesus as it certainly does? Not for any abstract reason. Not just because it is true, although it is true. The Bible is written for us. It is written for a specific purpose, namely, to make Christ present in us by the Holy Spirit.
I am here following the observations of Grant Macaskill, although pursuing them with my own words and thoughts. I suspect most think about the Bible in this way. We read it because it’s true or God’s word. Yes. But there is much more to it than these true affirmations.
The Bible is a creature of God (Heb 4:12). It acts upon us as we read it; more accurately, the Spirit acts upon us since Scripture acts as the medium for Spiritual illumination. Now what does the Spirit do when we read the Bible? He shows us Jesus and how to live. More specifically, he makes the life of Jesus present in our lives.
Paul exclaims: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). Elsewhere he says, “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3). The Christian life is the Christ-life. Christ inhabits us Spiritually. The Spirit of Jesus makes Jesus present in us.
Paul knew it. He wrote, “I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!” (Gal 4:19). And all of this seems to involve the Holy Spirit’s work in us as we “live by the Spirit” (Gal 5:25). We live in Christ by the Spirit. Or better: Christ lives in us by the Spirit.
A lot more could be said here, but the preponderance of passages on the Holy Spirit’s work in us and the oft-repeated phrase “in Christ” together indicate a close relationship between the two. The Spirit of Christ (Rom 8:9) makes us adopted sons of God like Christ is the natural Son of God. That is to say, the same Spirit that belongs to Christ belongs also to us; and we seem to gain the same status Christ does because of the sameness of Spirit.
I do not think this to be a controversial point. In fact, I think after thinking about the relationship between the Spirit and Son for a while that it really is the only possible conclusion. The Spirit of Christ indwells us to make Christ present in us because we have the same Spirit Christ has!
Fourth, the only way to live the Christian life is to live Christ’s life
Now we drill into the heart of it. The reason why the Bible is so important for the Christian life is because it is a primary means that the Spirit of Christ uses to make Christ present in us—to make his life dwell richly in us so that we become new creatures in Christ.
The Bible changes us because the Spirit shows us Christ there. The Book of Hebrews illustrates the point. It is likely a written sermon—or a written exhortation that has the feel of a sermon. Whatever its exact background, we can see that the whole letter underscores Christ. And it does so by continually pointing to the Scriptures. Yet the Scriptures at hand are the Old Testament.
There, the Son speaks and is spoken of. There, we see examples to emulate and promises to hope in.
Most importantly, we learn from Scripture Christ. We learn how the words of the Bible becomes ours. As Macaskill has argued, memory shapes and forms our identity. I am who I am because of my experiences.
Yet in Baptism, we die and rise in Christ according to his life. In the Eucharist, we remember him and anticipate him. These actions form Christ in us. The same type of thing is at play when we read the Bible—if and only if we read it Christologically.
The Bible’s memory becomes our identity. We remember in the past, know in the present, and hope in the future. We do so by remembering, knowing, and hoping in another: Christ. His past, present, and future is ours.
That is to say, when we read the Bible in a Christ-centered way, then his life becomes ours. Paul marks the difference in this way:
14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. 16 “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:14–16).
To read the Bible naturally amounts to simply reading it as words, even if you believe them to be true words. They are words but also signs. They point beyond themselves to the only mediator between God and man, the man Jesus Christ.
By so doing, they offer up Life. We read to see Life and the Spirit makes Life present in us. It is the sole basis for the moral life then. We walk in the Spirit; we avoid evil; we hold to the good. We do this through the Spirit’s work in forming Christ in us.
By this process, we become as the Image of God (Col 3:10; Eph 4:24). We become as the Son is, except by adoption and grace rather than by nature (e.g., Rom 8). We imitate Christ truly but not in some Spirit-less limping way. We do so by the Spirit making Christ’s identity ours: it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.
The Bible becomes a mirror. But instead of seeing ourselves in it, the clearer the mirror gets, the more we Jesus.
The Spirit wields the Bible to make Christ inhabit us so that we live as Christ does. The Bible forms Christ in us so that we act as adopted sons according to the natural Son.
It can be that eikon of Christ for us because Christ appears everywhere in it. He is the topic, the subject, the beginning, and the end.
The particular way and power to live the Christ-life comes from the same source: the man Jesus Christ whose life becomes ours by the Spirit of Jesus who inhabits us.
What does that look like then when we want to conquer lust or other evil? It means that the particular Spiritual disciplines like prayer, baptist, the Lord’s Supper, Bible-reading, and so on enact Christ in us.
What do I mean by “enact”? I mean that the Spirit makes Christ present in us by our minds. I mean that the non-material mind transforms by the Spirit’s work in us (e.g., Rom 12:1-2). I mean that Spiritual exercises transform a non-biological element of human nature (the mind) which then directs our lives.
As Paul says, “we have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16). I would add that we have the mind of Christ because the Spirit makes it present in us by inhabitation. Then through our Spiritual habits—Bible reading being one key one—Christ becomes ours. Our mind comes to know itself as Christ, as a son to the Father, as the chosen one, as the holy one of Israel.
As our identity becomes His, then our life matches His. We can game the system and we can create obstacles to sin. We can create technological barriers to avoid pornography. These stopgaps help. They are only gateways, however. They begin our journey into the Mind of God. The Goal is God himself in Christ as the Spirit ferries us to him.
The journey looks progressively like we are becoming as Christ is. This is why prayer, Bible reading, the Eucharist, and other like Spiritual exercises are so vital. In particular, reading or hearing the Bible reading according to Christ undergirds a huge part of the Christian life.
Churches have lost faith in small groups that study the Bible. The new way of thinking is that community matters more. As if we can play these off of each other. But both community and Bible study are important. And Bible studies are like keys that open the door to our Spiritual union with Christ who inhabits us via the mind.
So I have to say: do not avoid the Bible study. Encourage it but show that the only way Bible study matters for the Christian moral life is when reading Christologically in the Spirit. Elsewise, we might be learning a lot about history and grammar but very little about Christ.