You can Trust the Bible by John R.W. Stott 1991
IN CHAPTER ONE, “GOD AND the Bible,” we considered — the origin of Scripture, where it came from — the great subject of revelation. Now we shall be thinking not of its origin but of its purpose; we are asking not where has it come from, but for what has it been given?
Our text is John 5:39-40. Jesus, speaking to his Jewish contemporaries, says, “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.”
From these words of Jesus we learn two profound and complementary truths about Christ and the Bible.
The Scriptures Bear Witness to Christ
Jesus himself says very plainly, “It is they that bear witness to me” (v. 39). The major function of Scripture is to bear witness to Christ.
Note that the context in which this text is embedded is concerned with testimony to Christ. What testimony can validate the claims of Jesus of Nazareth? He himself tells us. To begin with, he does not rely on his own testimony to himself, as is clear from verse 31: “If I bear witness to myself, my testimony is not true.” Jesus is not suggesting, of course, that he is telling lies about himself. Indeed he later rebuts a criticism of the Pharisees by insisting that his testimony to himself is true (8:14). His point here is that self-testimony is inadequate; there would be something suspicious about it if the only testimony he had came from him alone. No, “there is another who bears witness to me,” he says (v. 32).
So the testimony he relies upon is not his own testimony. Nor is it human testimony, even the testimony of that outstanding witness John the Baptist. “You sent to John, and he has borne witness to the truth. Not that the testimony which I receive is from man” (vv. 33-34). So then, says Jesus, it isn’t from me and it isn’t from human beings. Of course, John was “a burning and shining lamp” (v. 35), and people had been willing “to rejoice for a while in his light.” But the testimony that Jesus claimed was greater. It was greater than his
own testimony to himself, and greater than the testimony of any human being, even of John. It was the testimony of his Father. “The Father who sent me has himself borne witness to me” (v. 37). Moreover, the Father’s testimony to the Son took two forms. First, it was given through the mighty works, the miracles, which the Father enabled him to do (v. 36). But second, and more directly still, it was given through the Scriptures, which are the Father’s testimony to the Son. Verses 36-39 make this plain:
I have testimony weightier than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to finish—the very works that I am doing—testify that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me.
It was the consistent teaching of Jesus that Old Testament Scripture was God’s Word bearing witness to him. He said, for example, “Abraham rejoiced … to see my day” (John 8:56). Or here in John 5:46 he says, “Moses … wrote of me.” Again, “the scriptures … bear witness to me” (v. 39). At the beginning of his ministry, when he went to worship in the synagogue at Nazareth, he read from Isaiah 61 about the Messiah’s mission and message of liberation, and he added:
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). In other words, “If you want to know whom the prophet was writing about, he was writing about me.” Jesus continued to say this kind of thing throughout his ministry. Even after the resurrection he had not changed his mind, for “he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Thus from the beginning to the end of his ministry Jesus declared that the whole prophetic testimony of the Old Testament, in all its rich diversity, converged upon him: “The scriptures … bear witness to me.”
But Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries missed this testimony. They were very diligent students of the Old Testament, and we have no quarrel with them over their study. “You search the scriptures,” Jesus said. They did. They spent hours and hours in the most meticulous examination of the minutiae of Old Testament Scripture. They used to count the number of words, even the number of letters, in every book of the Bible. They knew they had been entrusted with the oracles of God (Romans 3:2). They somehow thought that an accumulation of detailed biblical knowledge would bring them into right relationship with God. “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life.” What an anomalous thing that was, to imagine that the Scriptures themselves could give eternal life! The Scriptures point to Christ as the Lifegiver and urge their readers to go to him for life. But instead of going to Christ to find life, they imagined
that they could find life in Scripture itself. It is somewhat like getting a prescription from the doctor and then swallowing the prescription instead of getting and taking the medicine.
Some of us make the same mistake. We have an almost superstitious attitude toward Bible reading, as if it had some magical efficacy. But there is no magic in the Bible or in the mechanical reading of the Bible. No, the written Word points to the Living Word and says to us, “Go to Jesus.” If we do not go to the Jesus to whom it points, we miss the whole purpose of Bible reading.
Evangelical Christians are not, or ought not to be, what we are sometimes accused of being, namely, “bibliolaters,” worshipers of the Bible. We do not worship the Bible; we worship the Christ of the Bible. Here is a young man who is in love. He has a girlfriend who has captured his heart. Or indeed she may be his fiancée, or his wife, and he is deeply in love with her. As a result he carries a photograph of his beloved in his wallet because it reminds him of her when she is far away. Sometimes, when nobody is looking, he might even take the photograph out and give it a surreptitious kiss. But kissing the photograph is a poor substitute for the real thing. And so it is with the Bible. We love it only because we love him of whom it speaks.
This is the main key to the understanding of Scripture. The Bible is God’s picture of Jesus. It bears witness to him. So whenever we are reading the Bible, we must look for Christ. For example, the Old Testament Law is our “schoolmaster” to bring us to Christ (Galatians 3:24).
Because it condemns us for our disobedience, it makes Christ indispensable to us. It drives us to him through whom alone we may find forgiveness.
Next, the Old Testament sacrifices foreshadow that perfect sacrifice for sin made once and for all upon the cross, the sacrifice of Christ for our redemption. Another example is the teaching of the Old Testament prophets who foretell the coming of the Messiah. They speak of him as the king of David’s line during whose kingdom there will be peace, righteousness and stability. They write of him as the “seed of Abraham” through whom all the nations of the world will be blessed. They depict him as the “suffering servant of the Lord” who will die for the sins of his people, and as “the son of man coming in the clouds of heaven,” whom all peoples will serve. All this rich imagery of Old Testament prophecy bears witness to Christ.
When we move into the New Testament, Jesus Christ comes yet more clearly into focus. The Gospels are full of him. They speak of his birth and his public ministry, of his words and works, of his death and resurrection, and of his ascension and gift of the Holy Spirit. The book of Acts tells us what Jesus continued to do and teach through the apostles whom he had chosen and commissioned. The letters of the apostles set forth the glory of Jesus in his divine-human person and his saving work. When we come to the last book of the Bible, the Revelation, it too is full of Christ. For there we see him patrolling the churches on earth, sharing God’s throne in heaven, riding forth on a white horse
conquering, and coming in power and glory.
The old writers used to say that, just as in England every footpath and every country lane, linking on to others, will ultimately lead you to London, so every verse and every paragraph in the Bible, linking on to others, will ultimately lead you to Christ. The Scriptures bear witness to him. That is the first truth which is very plainly taught in our text.
Christ Bears Witness to the Scriptures
In declaring that the Scriptures bear witness to him, Jesus is himself bearing witness to them. When he spoke of the testimony (John 5:33-34) and added that the testimony which attested him was “not … from man.” The testimony he had was greater. It was his Father’s testimony through his works (v. 36) and his word (v. 38). Here then is Jesus’ plain statement that the Old Testament Scriptures are his Father’s “word,” and that this biblical testimony was not human but divine.
This too was Jesus’ consistent teaching. In fact, the major reason why we desire to submit to the authority of the Bible is that Jesus Christ authenticated it as possessing the authority of God. If we are to understand this point (as understand it we must), then we need to distinguish between the Old and the New Testaments. The Bible, of course, comprises them both; but Jesus was born and lived and died in the middle, between them. As a consequence, the way in which he authenticated the one is different from the way in which
he authenticated the other. He looked back to the Old Testament, he looked on to the New Testament, but he authenticated them both.
1. Jesus endorsed the Old Testament. He not only described it as his Father’s “word” and “witness,” as we have seen; he also said that “scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount he declared, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-18).
Jesus’ personal attitude toward the Old Testament Scriptures was one of reverent submission, for he believed that in submitting to the written Word he was submitting to his Father’s Word. Since he believed in its divine origin, he interpreted his own messianic mission in the light of its prophetic testimony and added that certain things must come to pass because the Scripture must be fulfilled. Further, Jesus obeyed the moral injunctions of the Old Testament, so that in the temptations in the Judean wilderness he commanded the devil to leave him because of what stood written in Scripture. However subtle Satan’s insinuations might be, Jesus was prepared neither to listen nor to negotiate. He was determined to obey God, not the devil, and what stood written in Scripture settled the issue for him (for example, Luke 4:4, 8, 12).
Jesus also made the Scripture His ground of appeal
in all his arguments with the religious leaders of his day. He was often engaged in controversy, and on every occasion it was to the Scriptures that he appealed. He criticized the Pharisees for adding their traditions to the Scriptures; he criticized the Sadducees for subtracting the supernatural (the resurrection) from the Scriptures. Thus Jesus exalted Scripture as his Father’s Word which was to be both believed and obeyed. He permitted no deviation from it, either by addition or by subtraction.
Jesus declared, of course, that with him the time of fulfillment had come (see Mark 1:14-15) and that therefore the era of anticipation was over. This meant, as his followers soon recognized, that Gentiles were to be admitted to God’s kingdom on equal terms with Jews, and that the Jewish ceremonial system had been rendered obsolete, including its dietary laws (Mark 7:19) and above all its blood sacrifices. But there is no example in the Gospels of Jesus’ disagreeing with the doctrinal or ethical teaching of the Old Testament. On the contrary, he endorsed ti. What he contradicted was the scribal misinterpretations and distortions of the Old Testament. This was his point in the Sermon on the Mount, in which six times he said in effect, “You have heard this, but I tell you something different.” What they had heard were the so-called traditions of the elders. It was these which he was criticizing; it was not the teaching of Moses in the law. For what stood written in Scripture he received as his Father’s Word.
If this is so, and the evidence is overwhelming, we have to add
that the disciple is not above his teacher. It is inconceivable that a Christian who looks to Jesus as his Teacher and Lord should have a lower view of the Old Testament than he did. What is the sense in calling Jesus “Teacher” and “Lord,” and then disagreeing with him? We have no liberty to disagree with him. His view of Scripture must become ours. Since he believed Scripture, so must we. Since he obeyed Scripture, so must we. He emphatically endorsed its authority.
2. Jesus made provision for the writing of the New Testament. Just as God called the prophets in the Old Testament to record and interpret what he was doing, and then sent them to teach the children of Israel, so Jesus called the apostles to record and interpret what he was doing and saying, and then sent them to teach the church and, indeed, the world. This is the meaning of the word apostolos, a person “sent” on a mission with a message.
This parallel between the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament apostles was deliberate. Jesus chose twelve in order that they might be with him — to hear his words, see his works and then bear witness out of what they had seen and heard (compare Mark 3:14; John 15:27). Next he promised them the Holy Spirit in order to remind them of his teaching and to supplement it, leading them into all the truth (John 14:25-26; 16:12-13). This explains why Jesus could then say to the apostles, “He who listens to you listens to me; he who receives you receives me; he who rejects you rejects me” (see Matthew 10:40; Luke 10:16; John 13:20). In other words, he invested them with his authority so that people’s attitude to their teaching would mirror their attitude to his. Later Jesus added Paul and maybe one or two others to the apostolic band, investing them with the same apostolic authority.
The apostles themselves recognized the unique authority they had been given as the teachers of the church. They did not hesitate on occasion to put themselves on a par with the Old Testament prophets, since they too were bearers of the Word of God (1 Thessalonians 2:13). They spoke and wrote in the name and with the authority of Jesus Christ. They issued commandments and expected obedience (for example, 2 Thessalonians 3). They even gave instructions that their letters should be read in the public assembly when Christians were gathered together for worship, thus placing them alongside the Old Testament Scriptures (see Colossians 4:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:27). This is the origin of the practice, which continues to this day, of having an Old Testament and the New Testament lesson read in church.
A striking example of Paul’s self-conscious apostolic authority occurs in his letter to the Galatians. He had climbed over the Taurus mountains on to the Galatian plateau to visit them, and he had arrived a sick man. He mentions some disfigurement, which had perhaps affected his eyesight (4:13-15), and goes on to say: “You did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus” (v. 14). Not only had they welcomed him as God’s “angel,” or messenger,
but they had actually listened to him as if he were Jesus Christ himself. Notice that he does not rebuke them for this. He does not say, “What on earth were you thinking about, that you should have given to me the deference that you would give to Christ?” No, he applauds them for the way they had treated him. It was not merely Christian courtesy which had motivated them to welcome a stranger. It was more than that. They had recognized him as a divine messenger, an apostle, who had come to them in the name and with the authority of Christ. So they had received him as if he were Christ.
Not only did the apostles understand the teaching authority they had been given, but the early church understood it also. As soon as all the apostles had died, church leaders knew that they had moved into a new postapostolic era. There was now no longer anybody in the church with the authority of a Paul or a Peter or a John. Bishop Ignatius of Antioch is perhaps the earliest clear example of this; he died about A.D. 110, which was very soon after John, the last surviving apostle, had died. On his way to Rome to be executed, Ignatius wrote a number of letters to the Ephesians, the Romans, the Trallians and others. Several times in these he wrote: “I do not, like Peter or Paul, issue you with commands. For I am not an apostle, but a condemned man.” Now Ignatius was a bishop in the church. He is, in fact, one of the earliest witnesses to the rise of the episcopate. But, although he was a bishop, he knew he was not an apostle, and he therefore
did not have an apostle’s authority.
The early church clearly understood this difference. When the time came to fix the New Testament canon in the third century A.D., the test of canonicity was apostolicity. The essential questions to be asked of a disputed book were these: Had it been written by an apostle? If not, did it come from the circle of the apostles? Did it contain the teaching of the apostles? Did it have the imprimatur of the apostles? If in one of these ways it could be shown to be apostolic, then it was admitted into the canon of New Testament Scripture.
It is extremely important to recover today this understanding of the unique authority of Christ’s apostles. For there are no apostles in the contemporary church. To be sure, there are missionaries and church leaders of different kinds who may be described as having an apostolic ministry. But there are no apostles like the Twelve and Paul who were eye-witnesses of the risen Lord (Acts 1:21-26; 1 Corinthians 9:1; 15:8-10) and who had received a special commission and inspiration from him. We have no right, therefore, to dismiss their teaching as if it were merely their own opinion. They were not speaking or writing in their own names, but in Christ’s.
Let me sum up. We believe the Scriptures because of Christ. He endorsed the Old Testament, and he made provision for the writing of the New Testament by
giving to the apostles his authority. We therefore receive the Bible from the hand of Jesus Christ. It is he who has invested it with his own authority. And since we are determined to submit to him, we are determined to submit to it. Our doctrine of Scripture is bound up with our loyalty to Jesus Christ. If he is our Teacher and our Lord, we have no liberty to disagree with him. Our view of Scripture must be his.
At this point some people raise an understandable objection. “The Scriptures bear witness to Christ and Christ bears witness to the Scriptures,” they say, accurately summarizing what we have been saying. “But surely,” they continue, “this reciprocal testimony, each bearing witness to the other, is a circular argument? Does it not assume the very truth you are wanting to prove? That is, in order to demonstrate the inspiration of Scripture you appeal to the teaching of Jesus, but you believe the teaching of Jesus only because of the inspired Scriptures. Isn’t that a circular argument, and therefore invalid?” This is an important objection to face. But actually our argument has been misstated, for it is linear and not circular reasoning.
Let me put it this way: When we first listen to the biblical witness to Christ, we read our New Testament with no preconceived doctrine of inspiration. We simply accept it as a collection of first-century historical documents, which indeed it is. Through this historical testimony, however, quite apart from any theory of biblical inspiration, the Holy Spirit brings us to faith in Jesus.
Then this Jesus, in whom we have come to believe, sends us back to the Bible and gives us in his teaching a doctrine of Scripture which we did not have when we started our reading. For he now tells us that its historical testimony is also divine testimony, and that through the human agency of prophets and apostles his Father is bearing witness to him.
Whenever you read the Bible, I want to beg you to remember its major purpose. Scripture is the Father’s testimony to the Son. It points to him. It says to us, “Go to him in order to find life — abundant life — in him.” Therefore any preoccupation with the biblical text which does not lead to a stronger commitment to Jesus Christ, in faith, love, worship and obedience, is seriously perverted. It brings us under the rebuke of Jesus. “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me [to whom they bear witness] that you may have life.”
Scripture, as Luther used to say, is the manger or cradle in which the infant Jesus lies. Don’t let us inspect the cradle and forget to worship the Baby. Scripture, we might say, is the star which still leads wise people to Jesus. Don’t let us allow our astronomical curiosity so to preoccupy us that we miss the house to which it is leading, and within it the Christ-child himself. Or, we might say, Scripture is the box in which the jewel of Jesus Christ is displayed. Don’t let us admire the box and overlook the jewel.
Dr. Christopher Chavasse, formerly Bishop of Rochester, once put the matter admirably. He said:
The Bible is the portrait of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Gospels are the Figure itself in the portrait. The Old Testament is the background leading up to the divine Figure, pointing towards it and absolutely necessary to the composition as a whole. The Epistles serve as the dress and accoutrements of the Figure, explaining and describing it. Then while by our Bible reading we study the portrait as a great whole, the miracle happens, the figure comes to life, and stepping down from the canvas of the written word the everlasting Christ of the Emmaus story becomes himself our Bible teacher, to interpret to us in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.
It is not enough to possess a Bible, to read the Bible, love the Bible, study the Bible, know the Bible. We need to ask ourselves, Is the Christ of the Bible the center of our lives? If not, all our Bible reading has been futile, for this is the end to which the Bible is intended to be the means.