It would be quite odd if you showed up to a football game and heard a ref or a player ask, “Has anyone seen the ball?” But it would be even more bizarre if someone replied, “Forget the ball! Let’s get on with the game.”
When it comes to Christian faith, the Bible is the ball. Without it, there is no game.
The Bible is central in Christian faith because God Himself is central. As the psalmist writes, “You have exalted above all things your name and your word” (Ps. 138:2). Christians don’t worship the Bible itself, of course—as if a collection of printed pages or pixels on a screen could replace the person and work of Jesus Christ! But we do honor and pay careful attention to Scripture, because we can only truly know and worship Jesus Christ if we listen to Him in His Word. To that end, it is important to know what the Bible is, who wrote it, and how to understand it.
What Is the Bible?
Fundamentally, the Bible is the Word of God, and it teaches us how to know, love, and obey God through the Gospel of Jesus Christ (John 20:30–31; 2 Timothy 3:14–17). But the Bible doesn’t come to us in the form a single letter or book that was written by God without any sort of human involvement. No, God in His creative sovereignty chose to reveal His Word to us in an incredible manner.
The Bible Is a Library
First and foremost, the Bible is a sort of library, a collection of sixty-six books in one volume. These sixty-six books were written in three different languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) on three different continents (Africa, Asia, and Europe) by dozens of authors over the course of thousands of years. They are divided broadly into two parts: the Old Testament, which includes the thirty-nine books from Genesis to Malachi; and the New Testament, which includes the twenty-seven books from Matthew to Revelation.
The Old Testament includes all the books that were written before the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It can be further divided into three parts (Luke 24:44): the Law, which contains the five books written by Moses; the Prophets, which include books about the history of God’s people Israel and books that record the messages that came to Israel through God’s prophets; and the Psalms (sometimes called “the Writings”), which describe all the rest of the various books the Old Testament contains.
The New Testament includes those books that were written after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Within it, the four Gospels are accounts of Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection; the Acts of the Apostles is the record of the early years of the Christian church; the Epistles are various letters written by leaders of the church to Christians in various places; and the book of Revelation records a vision of spiritual realities given to the apostle John.
The Bible Is Like No Other Book
On the surface, the sixty-six books of the Bible and their many stories, poems, and teachings seem quite different, but together they tell one cohesive story about God’s unfolding plan of redemption, culminating in Jesus Christ. In fact, Jesus taught that the Old Testament Scriptures that came before Him were actually about Him (Luke 24:27, 45–48; John 5:39). In the Bible, God has composed a single, harmonious score, every note resounding with the glory of His grace in Jesus Christ.
Because the whole Bible is about Jesus, it’s like a book with the answers in the back. Some have said that it’s like a mystery novel, in that as you begin to read it, you don’t really know how everything fits. But as the story unfolds, all of the various pieces begin to come together, and it becomes apparent just what it all was building up to.
Jesus is the answer at the end of the book. Many who have tried to read the Bible front to back have given up early on (often partway through the laws about garments and dietary restrictions in Leviticus). But if you lose your way around the Bible, always turn your eyes back to Jesus, and He will gradually bring you to an even keel. In the Old Testament, Jesus is predicted; in the Gospels, He is revealed; in the Acts of the Apostles, He is preached; in the Epistles, He is explained; and in the book of Revelation, He is expected. Look for Jesus, and you will find clarity.
If you lose your way around the Bible, always turn your eyes back to Jesus, and He will gradually bring you to an even keel
Who Wrote the Bible?
The books of the Bible were written by dozens of authors in various places and times, but they are also the very words of God. Perhaps the simplest way to explain this reality is to say that the Bible has dual authorship: on the one hand, God wrote it; on the other hand, human beings wrote it.
In 2 Timothy 3:16, the apostle Paul writes that “all Scripture is breathed out by God.” God’s breath in this verse is a picture of His power and authority. In Psalm 33:6, the psalmist similarly says, “By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host.” “Word” and “breath” in this verse are not two things; they are one and the same. In a type of Hebrew poetry we call parallelism, the psalmist says one thing in two different ways in order to reinforce it. When the Bible talks about God “breathing” the Scriptures, what it means is that they are His words. But the Bible is also human words. Many of the books even identify their human authors—like the Gospel of Luke, which begins with details about who Luke was, why he wrote, and to whom he was writing. (See Luke 1:1–4.)
The apostle Peter solves this dilemma in 2 Peter 1:21. There, he says of Scripture, “No prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” In other words, as they raised the sails, God, who is the Holy Spirit, filled those sails. Some, but not all, claimed to be speaking for God directly (see, e.g., Jer. 1:4), but they weren’t like stenographers recording a message verbatim from God. The authors wrote to their issues, to their time, to their culture, and with their own style, all driven by the will of God’s Spirit.
God has breathed out the Holy Scriptures through human authors, imbuing the words they wrote with His reliability and authority, preserving them from error while allowing their unique personalities to remain. It is accurate to say that God spoke and that men spoke. God used human beings without overpowering their wills, and human beings, using their own human faculties, wrote God’s words without distorting the message.
How Can We Understand the Bible?
The Bible is a unique and sacred text, but that doesn’t mean that only the specially initiated can read and understand it. The Bible does not have a special, esoteric, spiritual meaning that can only be gleaned by setting aside the plain, grammatical, and historical sense of its words. That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty that can challenge our categories and will cause the brightest among us to stammer. But the plain meaning of a passage is the plain meaning of a passage; the main things are the plain things, and the plain things are the main things.
Here are six principles that will help us arrive at the plain meaning of God’s Word.
1. Don’t just ask your pastor.
First, if you’re going to have any success interpreting the Bible, the answer is not “Let’s go and see what the pastor has to say.” Pastors do have a responsibility to teach (Eph. 4:11–12), and they ought to speak the Word of God to their people (Heb. 13:7), but they are not all-knowing. Pastors, like all Christians, learn from and are guided by the one who knows the answers. Yes, they have been given the privilege of spending their time to do more study than others have done and to unearth the plain teaching of Scripture—but not in such a way that would then deprive others of the opportunity of seeking God in His Word on their own.
The book of Acts, for example, describes the apostle Paul preaching Jesus Christ in a city called Berea. It then celebrates the Bereans as “noble” because they both listened and “examin[ed] the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). Preachers are a wonderful resource, but an imperfect one. They are at their best when they are pointing people to God’s perfect Word.
2. Look for the original meaning.
If we want to interpret a passage by its straightforward sense, then we must first interpret it according to its original meaning. For example, Paul wrote his letters to the Corinthians at a certain point in time and from a certain place. We, then, must first try to understand Corinth before making application in Cleveland, London, Tokyo, Delhi, or anywhere God has set us. Being so far removed from a book’s original time and place, we may never fully understand all the historical details—but if we jump immediately to our present setting, then we will be in danger of making the Bible say what we want it to rather than what it really says.
3. Account for the literary context.
There is a difference between taking the Bible literally and interpreting it literalistically. We read literally when we respect the intent of the writers, divine and human. We read literalistically, and often wrongly, when we give each individual word its literal meaning.
Take 2 Chronicles 16:9: “The eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth.” In this case, the plain, intended meaning is that God is omniscient and sees all, but it is stated metaphorically. It would be a travesty to conclude that floating about somewhere are two big eyeballs.
Literary form matters. We must therefore learn to ask a few basic questions about the biblical text: What’s the genre? Are we dealing with poetry or prose? Is this parable, history, or discourse? Allegory, metaphor, or simile? To ignore the genre is to miss the point. So yes, we aim for plain meaning, but that meaning isn’t necessarily literalistic. It is, however, always informed by the context.
4. Interpret Scripture with Scripture.
There is a harmony, unity, and self-consistency to the Bible that we would rightly expect, given the single divine Author. This means that we can expect Scripture to help us in interpreting itself.
This begins with understanding the purpose that Scripture claims for itself, which we find in 2 Timothy 3:15: “The sacred writings … are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” Let that sink in: the Bible is a book that has been written to make us wise for salvation. If we interpret everything in the light of God’s redemptive plan in Christ, then we are in a good place to understand even the more obscure passages. (See Luke 24:27; John 5:39.)
This principle also applies to individual books of the Bible. Sometimes, for example, we find apparent contradictions, such as Paul’s and James’s different statements about faith and works (Gal. 2:16; James 2:24). But in this case, if we attend to the occasion, purpose, and content, we can see that James is addressing those who claim they don’t need works, and Paul is writing to people with the exact opposite problem. If the issue is still hard to understand, we can also look to other passages about faith and works, like Romans 6 or John 15:1–17. When you come to a difficult problem, then, look elsewhere to see if the topic under consideration has been written about in an illuminating way.
The Bible is a book that has been written to make us wise for salvation.
5. Rely on the Spirit’s illumination.
Ultimately, the Bible can only be interpreted for us by God’s Holy Spirit, because true understanding is not natural to us. This is precisely why the psalmist asks God, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Ps. 119:18). It’s also why the apostle Paul instructs Timothy, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Tim. 2:7). As Timothy applied his mind to the Scripture, God would bring understanding. We, too, must really look with our eyes. We, too, must do the hard work of thinking and digesting and meditating. But it is ultimately the Lord, by His Spirit, who causes us to see—who makes us “wise for salvation.”
6. Apply the Bible dynamically.
Finally, we can never forget that God’s Word is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). For every passage there is one plain meaning, but the particular ways that meaning works itself out across space and time and cultures is dynamic, and it touches each of us in our own time and place. Our interpretive journey remains incomplete unless we ask, What does this mean for my life, for my family, for my church, for my culture?
In all our efforts to understand the Bible and how it impacts us and our world, we ought always to dwell on the truth that it is by the Word of the Lord that we come to know and commune with the Lord of the Word. Our God has spoken. The creator of all that ever was and all that will ever be—every dust mote and every celestial body—has breathed out His very words for us to delight in and cherish. What a treasure! This Word is a lamp to us, a light to our life’s path (Ps. 119:105), finer than gold and sweeter than honey (Ps. 19:10). We would search in vain for such brilliance and sweetness elsewhere—but here it is, all laid out for us on the pages of Holy Scripture!
This article was adapted from the sermon “Why Bother with the Bible? — Part One” by Alistair Begg.