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Understanding the Bible

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John Stott, the British theologian, is considered one of the most influential Evangelical leaders and teachers of the 20th Century. Here are a selection of engaging statements from his classic bestseller, Understanding the Bible:

The Bible is the prism by which the light of Jesus Christ is broken into its many and beautiful colours. The Bible is the portrait of Jesus Christ.

The supreme purpose of the Bible is to instruct its readers for ‘salvation’ … this purpose is moral rather than practical (salvation includes the whole sweep of God’s purpose to redeem and restore mankind, and indeed all of creation).

Since Scripture concerns salvation and salvation is through Christ, Scripture is full of Christ. But their object in pointing us to Christ is not simply that we would know about him and understand him, nor even that we should admire him; but that we should put our trust in him.

Scripture bears witness to Christ not in order to satisfy our curiosity, but in order to draw from us a response of faith.

Whenever we read the Bible, we must look for Christ. And we must go on looking until we see and so believe.

Only as we continue to appropriate by faith the riches of Christ which are disclosed to us in Scripture shall we grow into spiritual maturity, and become men and women of God who are thoroughly equipped for every good work.

God’s revelation … must never be divorced from its historical context; it can only be understood within it.

The Bible is essentially a revelation of God. It is, in fact, a divine self-disclosure. In the Bible we hear God speaking about God … For what God says about himself is, above all else, that he has conceived and fulfilled a plan to save fallen man through Christ.

Behind every word that anybody utters stands the person who speaks it. It is the speaker himself (his character, knowledge and position) who determines how people regard his words. So God’s word carries God’s authority. It is because of who he is that we should believe what he has said.

Every word of the Bible is true only in its context. Isolated from its context, it may be quite untrue.

To accept the authority of the Bible is a Christian thing to do. It is neither a religious eccentricity, nor a case of discreditable obscurantism, but the good sense of Christian faith and humility … it is what Christ Himself requires of us.

We bow to the authority of Scripture because we bow to the authority of Christ.

It is essential that we wrestle honestly with biblical problems. It is not Christian to bury our heads in the sand, pretending that no problems exist. Nor is it Christian to manipulate Scripture in order to achieve a forced, artificial harmonisation. No, we work at the problems with intellectual integrity.

God gives us no possible excuse for slovenliness in biblical interpretation. On the contrary, if the Bible is indeed God’s word written, we should spare no pains and grudge no effort to discover what he has said (and says) in Scripture.

No Christian individual, group or church, has ever been or will ever be an infallible interpreter of God’s word.

The best interpreter of every book is its author, since he alone knows what he intended to say. So God’s book can be interpreted by God’s Spirit alone.

In our reading of Scripture divine illumination is no substitute for human endeavour. Nor is humility in seeking light from God inconsistent with the more disciplined industry in study.

Scripture itself lays great stress on the conscientious Christian’s use of the mind, not of course in order to stand in judgement on God’s word, but rather in order to submit to it, to grapple with it, to understand it and to relate it to the contemporary scene.

Those who would increase in the knowledge of God must both abase themselves before the Spirit of truth and commit themselves to a lifetime of study.

For it is God’s loving purpose to enlighten, save, reform and nourish his people by his word as each hears it or reads it for himself … and … we must not deny that the Church has a place in God’s plan to give his people a right understanding of his word.

You can make the Bible mean anything you like if you are unscrupulous enough. But if you are scrupulously honest in your approach to the Bible and in your use of sound principles of interpretation, far from you being able to manipulate Scripture, you will find Scripture controlling and directing you.

God chose human language as the vehicle of his self-revelation. In speaking through men he used the language of men. As a result, although Scripture is unlike all other books in being the word of God, it is also like all other books in being the words of men.

Since the Bible is unique because divine, we must study it like no other book, praying to the Holy Spirit for illumination. Since it is ordinary because human, we must study it like every other book, paying attention to the common rules of vocabulary, grammar and syntax.

Precisely how the individual Christian or the Christian family seeks to receive the message of the Bible is not the most important question. What is vital is that in some way at some time, and that regularly, we learn to listen to God’s word and to feed upon it in our hearts.

To ‘do’ the truth is to practice what it teaches, to translate its message into action. This sounds simple, but it has far-reaching implications simply because the truth we have to ‘do’ is so rich.

Both life and health are – quite literally – impossible without God’s Word.

There are in the end only two possible attitudes to God’s word, to receive it or to reject it.

Stott, John. Understanding the Bible, Cox & Wyman, 1998

© Scripture Union Canada 2016

2 Corinthians 4:5

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