How should Christians regard the Bible?

There are many different views about the Bible, concerning what it is, how it came about and its importance or irrelevance to life today.

For Christians the first place we should turn to learn about the Bible is Jesus himself. We must admit that this looks like a circular argument, but the fact is that we know virtually nothing about Jesus apart from what the Bible itself tells us.

The Bible has two main divisions.

The first is what we call the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, which were written before the time of Christ. They were written in the Hebrew script, mostly in the Hebrew language, though a few parts are in a language called Aramaic (or Chaldean).

The second part is what we call the New Testament, written in the few decades following the earthly ministry of Jesus. They are written in Greek, not classical Greek but in what is called common Greek.

For Jesus and his first followers the Hebrew Scriptures (our Old Testament) were their Bible. Therefore we can learn from them how we should regard the Bible. Of course we are still left with the question of how to treat the New Testament, but since most people find the Old Testament far harder to accept looking at Jesus’ attitude to this first should help up.

At the time of Jesus, the people of Israel spoke Aramaic in daily life, Hebrew was used in the synagogues, Greek was the language of commerce and Latin was the language of the law. Most people were to some degree multi-lingual.

Jesus and the Hebrew Bible.
The starting point for the Christian in our attitude to the Bible should be the example of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Some statistics
In the four Gospels there are some 186 times when the Hebrew Bible is quoted or paraphrased. Jesus himself quotes from 36 different passages from 13 different Old Testament books. In addition there are many incidents mentioned where no specific reference is given, for example Jonah, Sodom, Lot’s wife etc.

The followers of Jesus put the same store by the Old Testament, excluding the four Gospels and the final book Revelation, there are at least 250 quotations in the rest of the New Testament. The book of Revelation is so steeped in Old Testament language and imagery that it is hard to count them, around 400 is a figure given by some.

Both Jesus, and as a result his first followers, used the Old Testament a great deal. This implies that they saw it as very important.

Jesus used it for teaching
Much of Jesus’ ministry was spent in teaching. He regularly quoted the Old Testament and in such a way as to show its continuing value and importance.

A few examples:
Matthew chapter 19 verses 16 to 22.
A rich young ruler came to Jesus, Jesus taught him using the ten commandments.

Matthew chapter 22 verses 34 to 40.
When Jesus is talking with a lawyer he quotes from both the Old Testament Law and from the book of Psalms.

Matthew chapter 19 verses 3 to 6.
When teaching about divorce.

John chapter 6 verses 25-34.
When he describes himself as the Bread of Life.

We see from the example of Jesus that the Old Testament is both important and relevant. We can learn from it about God and about how to live as His people.

Used in disputes with men.
This is really just another dimension of teaching.

Matthew chapter 22 verse 32 is a particularly striking example.
Jesus quotes from Exodus chapter 3 verse 6. He uses not just the general thrust of the words, but their precise and literal meaning.

A famous verse in the New Testament is 2 Timothy chapter 3 verse 16:
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

We can see how the disciples of Jesus learnt this from him, they witnessed him using the Old Testament Scripture to teach, to rebuke, to correct and to train in righteousness.

Of course, this means that we must actually read the bible, listen to what it says and then direct our own lives to the teaching we find there.

In dispute with the Devil.
Right at the start of his public ministry Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness fasting. We read about this in Luke chapter 4. Jesus was tempted by the Devil three times and in response to each temptation Jesus quotes from the Old Testament.

Here we see a good reason to know the Bible well. Many people over the centuries have testified how in times of temptation, of suffering or of fear, being able to call to mind the promises and commands of God has been a great comfort and stopped them from stumbling.

However, this dispute with the Devil also highlights a problem. On the third occasion, wise to the game, the Devil also quotes scripture! This shows that it is never enough to just quote a single sentence, it is possible to misuse the bible.
This has been a serious problem through the years. We must always ask whether our understanding of particular parts of the bible is consistent with the whole teaching of the bible.

'We need to make sure that what we say is in accordance with the whole of scripture not just a Woolworth’s pick and mix of texts.'  (Peter Cotterell)

Who wrote the Bible?
The Hebrew Bible was written by a number of different people. Each book is written differently and bears the stamp of its author. Isaiah for example is eloquent, poetic and in places extremely difficult to translate, Isaiah was an educated court prophet. Amos on the other hand is more earthy, as might be expected from a rural Shepherd.

Jesus does not deny the human authorship of the bible, indeed he clearly speaks of Moses as the author of the first books of the Bible. But Jesus also makes it clear that the Bible is more than just human words.

Matthew chapter 15 verse 4
Jesus quotes the Ten Commandments as ‘God said’. Of course the commandments are recorded as being what God said, but Jesus endorses this view, whereas many today will not believe this.

Matthew chapter 19 verse 5.
Jesus quotes from Genesis chapter 2 verse 24 as ‘God said’ - but this passage does not claim to be God speaking directly. So even the work of the human narrator is the word of God.

Mark chapter 12 verse 36.
Jesus quotes from Psalm 110, one of the most quoted parts of the Old Testament. The Hebrew title of the Psalm means something like ‘Of David. A Psalm’.
When Jesus quotes it he says:  ‘David himself, speaking by the Holy Spirit, declared:’

We see therefore how Jesus describes the Old Testament as what God has said. Moreover he explains how this can be - human authors speaking by the Holy Spirit. This is known as the doctrine of the inspiration of Holy Scripture.

Matthew chapter 4 verse 4.
Jesus said : 'man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God'
Here again we see how this leads to the statement we saw above from 2 Timothy that ‘all scripture is God-breathed’.
In the Hebrew language the word ‘breath’ also means ‘spirit’ (and indeed ‘wind’) - the Holy Spirit is the Breath of God. So God-breathed could be translated God-spirited, which leads to the English word inspiration.

In modern use, inspiration tends to mean a bright idea. But literally it means that God ‘breathes into’ the human writer of scripture. Therefore the Scriptures are human writing, in human style, with the character of the writer coming through, but it is God’s word, breathed out by him, into the writer, God safeguards its truth and its meaning. This understanding of the Bible is not something Christians have made up, it follows directly from the teaching of Jesus.

Of course, if the Bible truly is, as Jesus taught, the word of God, what God has said, ought we not to sit up and take notice?

It points to him.
On the day of his resurrection Jesus met with two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24). For a time they were kept from recognising who he was. If they had recognised him then, in their excitement, they would have been unlikely to taken in anything he taught them. Clearly what Jesus had to say during this time, before they were able to recognise him, was important. Luke describes to us what Jesus taught them at this time:
‘And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.’ Luke chapter 24 verse 27

Later on the same day, he appeared to a larger group of disciples. Once he had convinced them who he was he taught them. What was it that he taught? Again Luke narrates what Jesus said  "This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms”. Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.  Luke chapter 24 verse 44 to 45

This teaching of Jesus, about how the Old Testament points to him, is presented clearly by the rest of the New Testament writers. The disciples were not digging around to find bits of the Old Testament that fitted the life of Jesus, they simply passed on what Jesus had made known to them.

Here then is a clear guideline for Christians in reading the Old Testament. We should always want to know how it points to Jesus.

Today, many people cannot accept this view of the Old Testament, they want to read it ‘on its own terms’, by which they mean simply what the book meant to the people as it was originally spoken. It is important to understand what the words meant to their first hearers, but that is not the whole story. In Jesus’ day too there were people who wanted to understand the Old Testament simply on its own terms, listen to what Jesus said to them:
Jesus said: "Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw [it] and was glad." Then the Jews said to Him, "You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?" Jesus said to them, "Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM." Then they took up stones to throw at Him; but Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by. John chapter 8 verse 56 to 59.

From Jesus we have seen the significance and the importance of the Old Testament scriptures.
Christians came to regard the New Testament scriptures in the same way, and in places the New Testament itself directs us to this conclusion. Jesus gave a specific promise to his first disciples that when he had left them and ascended into heaven he would send the Holy Spirit upon them.
Jesus said the Holy Spirit would ‘remind you of everything I have said to you’ (John chapter 14 verse 25) and ‘guide you into all truth (John chapter 16 verse 13).

The remainder of the New Testament records the teaching of these first followers of Jesus. Because of His promises, Christians believe also that the Holy Spirit has also breathed through the writings of the New Testament.

There is therefore a certain circularity to the argument. But the main point is that if to be a Christian means believing and trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ, then we should learn from him, and his example. Almost everything we know about him comes from the New Testament, and in the New Testament we see it very plainly taught how we should regard the Bible, its authorship, its authority, and therefore its importance for our lives as Christian disciples.

David Phillips 1997

© David Phillips 1995-2021