Why Read Scripture?
If God’s objective in providing us with His written Word was to teach us the way to heaven (and, while waiting, also how to live a pious life here) then the Bible is a very strange book for the purpose. Why, for example, is it such a large book? It surely does not take so many words to tell us the way to heaven, and any one that knows the Gospel is aware that just a few texts (thank God) will suffice to make this plain with absolute clearness. As to living a godly life here, the simplest way to show us this would be an index of Christian principles. But Scripture is not at all like this. Though there are blessed statements of the gospel, and many a paragraph of Christian exhortation, these are not put together as we might think they would be, and they are mixed with much else of a different character. Nor are things so definitely stated that there can be no possible mistake about them, as is witnessed by the conflict between Christians over their meaning. What a help to a common understanding would be a divine summary of faith and practice like those the various denominations have adopted! If such a creed had been written by the apostles would not all Christians have subscribed to it? But it has not pleased God to give us truth in this way, and we have to hunt up Scriptures upon any given subject from every part of the Bible—not even always sure that we have got the right ones. Does God not care about this? Does He not know the feebleness of our minds and the multifarious occupations that we have to be engaged in? Is He not aware of the trouble and anxiety caused by our many differences, and the obscurity in which even true-hearted saints grope after His will? Does He not know, above all, the tendency we have to follow men who will do our thinking for us? Yes, God knows all this (and more), yet despite it, He has written Scripture as He has—a book so needing to be searched and studied! There is clearly purpose in this—a purpose that many of us have missed if we put value on no more than a few key texts.
Where is Spiritual Food Found?
Clearly, God’s will for us, whatever that may be, is not to save us from labour—He does not wish to let us off from the necessity of work. We see this in the Bible itself. Thus it was not to theological students, but to men so poor that they followed the Lord for loaves of bread, that He declared “work not [for] the food which perishes, but [for] the food which abides unto life eternal, which the Son of man shall give to you” (John 6: 27, my emphasis). Now just as normally we cannot put food on the table without labour, so work is also required for our daily spiritual food—and that not by a special class of selected, capable workmen, but from all who need and desire such nourishment. Indeed, the Lord uses an interesting turn of phrase to a company who knew all about labouring in order to get enough just to survive: “Work not [for] the food which perishes” (my emphasis). Instead, they were to expend their energy on “the food which abides unto life eternal”. The men addressed had been filled with the loaves but the effect of such material food is temporary, for it was only “food which perishes”. What the Lord would urge on them was food which abides, and not only abides, but “abides unto life eternal” (my emphasis).
So what is this food? To answer, look at the context in which John 6: 27 is set. In verses 5-13, a crowd of five thousand men had been fed with bread. Later they “came to Capernaum, seeking Jesus” (v 24). They were fed, and they sought Christ. It is these two facts that the Lord uses to bring out the teaching of the rest of the chapter. In verse 27 He tells them to “work not [for] the food which perishes, but [for] the food which abides unto life eternal”. However, having told them to work for the food which abides, He follows this up by describing it as food “which the Son of man shall give to you; for him has the Father sealed, [even] God” (v 27, my emphasis). Not understanding this, the crowd respond by asking what they needed to do (see v 28), and the Lord responds by saying, “This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he has sent” (v 29, my emphasis). It was not a questioning of obtaining food through their own efforts, but of a right relationship with Christ. Everything else was trivial when compared to that one great objective, and, indeed, it could only be achieved as “the work of God” (v 29). The Jews had great faith in their own merit, but the Lord was teaching them that the only ‘work’ that had lasting value was to make everything dependent on the Man that God has chosen. In verse 15, the Jews would have made Him king, but they failed to see that the kingdom was only assured to them in terms of right relation to Him. He knew where they really stood: “ye have also seen me and do not believe” (v 36). The Lord speaks four times in chapter six of raising up men and women in the last day in order to enter the kingdom (see vs. 39, 40, 44, 54), but in every instance it is independent of any merit on their part. The words used are given, see, believe, draw and eat.
All turns on Christ. The only thing that mattered was believing that the Lord was truly “he who comes down out of heaven” (v 33), as the sent one of the Father (see v 38). This was difficult enough, but the Lord was not finished with the crowd. In vs. 51, 53 and 54 He reveals that “the bread withal which I shall give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” and “unless ye shall have eaten the flesh of the Son of man, and drunk his blood, ye have no life in yourselves. He that eats my flesh and drinks my blood has life eternal”. The end result was that “many therefore of his disciples having heard [it] said, This word is hard; who can hear it?” and from that time they “walked no more with him” (vs. 60, 66). Spiritual food then is found in Christ, but it is only really obtained where his death is appropriated for ourselves. The concept was utterly foreign to the prevalent Jewish expectations. The Jews could not understand a Messiah who would die, let alone whose death was the only source of their blessing.
How is Spiritual Food Accessed?
How is this food to be accessed? It is all very well saying that we are to feed on Christ, but what does that actually mean? Certainly such eating is not literal but spiritual—but that is not the only problem. We do not have His presence with us in a physical sense as the Jews did, so how do we reach Christ in order to feed? Some would say by the Holy Spirit, but that is an incomplete answer, and, left as it is, leads to all kinds of fanciful error. It is by the Holy Spirit that we find food, but it is by His illumination of God’s Word that we get it. Spirit and Word go together, as indeed they must do, the Spirit of God being the author of the Word of God (see 2 Tim. 3: 16; 2 Pet 1: 21). However, it is not just a question of reading. Earlier the Lord had castigated the Jews with these words: “Ye search the scriptures, for ye think that in them ye have life eternal, and they it is which bear witness concerning me; and ye will not come to me that ye might have life” (John 5: 39, 40). It is vital that we grasp what the Lord means by this. He is not depreciating the value of the Scriptures, but stipulating that their worth can only be accessed if there is an understanding that “they it is which bear witness concerning me”. The believer finds Christ in the Bible, and in so doing, he receives the food for his soul that abides unto life eternal. We have a beautiful example of this in Luke 24 where the Lord, beginning “from Moses and from all the prophets … interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (v 27).
At this point, objections are likely to be raised by those who trust to their own mystical experience and openly deprecate the value of the written Word. Apart from the occasional referral to a few foundational texts, this version of ‘Christianity’ (if it can be called that) is entirely focused on ‘spirituality’. Frankly, this is a lie of the Devil—a deception which has the effect of keeping many of God’s children in a state of perpetual spiritual infancy. Now of course, we need to be actively living our faith, for “faith without works is dead” (James 2: 20), and it is only as we “walk in [the] Spirit” (Gal. 5: 16) that we will not fulfil the lust of the flesh. However, the idea that this can be done by ignoring the Scriptures is not only wrong but results in lasting spiritual damage (we shall see exactly why later).
The Christian mystic (if he has any use for Scripture at all), characteristically has a self-interested approach to the Bible. What I mean by this is that it is interpreted to suit ideas conceived outside Scripture rather than any real attempt to establish what God is saying. A passage might even mean something one day and something else the next. Verses are read in isolation with no regard to context, or placed side by side with other verses with whom they have no particular relationship. All this is deplorable—no other book would be treated in this way. The supreme irony of all is that the Bible itself is often quoted to justify the neglect of Scripture in favour of a supposedly richer spiritual experience. One favourite is 2 Cor. 3: 6: “for the letter kills, but the Spirit quickens”. The clear implication of those who misuse this verse in this way is that the choice is between a Christianity of the Spirit and a Christianity of the Bible. Not only is this a false choice, but it is not the choice presented by the apostle, either here or anywhere else. Read in context, anyone can see that the apostle is contrasting the “ministry of the Spirit” (v 8), with the “ministry of death, in letters, graven on stones” (v 7). The latter is a reference to the Mosaic Law, the effect of which is death, because “I was alive without law once; but the commandment having come, sin revived, but I died” (Rom. 7: 9). This has nothing to do with the believer’s attitude to the Bible. Certainly a dry and intellectual approach to reading Scripture is abhorrent, but to insinuate that it is a dead letter is reprehensible. It is truly “[the] living and abiding word of God” (1 Pet. 1: 23, my emphasis).
The Time to Eat
Yet even if we admit the value of Scripture, how much are we actually partaking of this rich provision? A little here and there perhaps to satisfy our consciences, before we return to our own interests? Is that really what Christianity is supposed to be? And if we are not growing spiritually, how can we pretend that we are feeding on Christ? Certainly we turn over the pages, and our eyes scan the words, but what life-changing impressions of Christ are we gleaning—both from our own personal meditations on Scripture, and also in studying the Bible with others? This is no mere academic question but intrinsic and vital to the life we profess to possess! Eternal life is a dependent life—dependent on feeding on Christ. The Lord Jesus tells us this Himself: “He that eats my flesh and drinks my blood has life eternal … He that eats my flesh and drinks my blood dwells in me and I in him. As the living Father has sent me and I live on account of the Father, he also who eats me shall live also on account of me. This is the bread which has come down out of heaven” (John 6: 54; 56-58). Now it is important to see that this bread is presented as superior to its imperfect OT counterpart, for “your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness and died. This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, that one may eat of it and not die” (vs. 49-50). Nonetheless, that wilderness food was important enough to be preserved in a golden pot (see Heb. 9: 4) and carried into the land in order that subsequent generations might see “the bread that I gave you to eat in the wilderness, when I brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Exod. 16: 32). It therefore remained, but only as a memorial to be pondered over. When, however, we come to the promise to the overcomer in Revelation 2: 17, something additional is said in relation to this ‘hidden’ manna. The Lord’s word there is “I will give of the hidden manna” (my emphasis)—meaning that the overcomer would partake of it, not simply look on it. The lesson of this is that Christ as enjoyed in the wilderness here will be enjoyed afresh in the place to which we are going—indeed, more perfectly, surely, for all shall be perfect there.
A very serious consideration follows on from this: the one who has not had the wilderness experience will not have the repetition of it in heaven. Why? Because it is impossible to revisit the wilderness-condition, except in memory. We cannot recall what we have never known. Thus, there is a correspondence between the measure of apprehension of Christ here and the measure of apprehension of Christ there. Take an angel’s knowledge: an angel cannot have the knowledge that men and women who have been redeemed have. Why? Because an angel knows neither sin nor redemption, save as an observer. An angel’s knowledge is therefore subject to a limitation. So it is with the babe taken out of the world early in life—even the perfecting of its faculties in another scene will not give it experiences of a state in which it had never been. Now in measure this same principle applies with every believer. Of course each one in heaven will look back with eyes purged from the dust of the earth, and with memories that will have been perfected, but the knowledge will still be constrained by limitations set here on earth. I will not be able to recall things I have never known.
If Christ is the “food which abides unto life eternal” (John 6: 27) and the food so laid up must be gathered here, how important then is our gathering of it now! Of course, there is in Christ more than can be justly spoken of as manna, for the manna speaks of a heavenly man in earthly circumstances—the provision of grace to sustain us in the wilderness. However, this will not make Scripture less important to us. Christ in death, Christ in resurrection, Christ in glory—all these are also learned here in the same way, however much that knowledge may be enlarged and enhanced in heaven. Hence, the “edifying of the body of Christ” is “until we all arrive at the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (Eph. 4: 12, 13). We are now growing up to this, and for that purpose the Word of God is given to us—not simply that we may be saved, or even live here a life of piety and good works—but that “we may grow up to him in all things” (v 15). No wonder therefore that Scripture is as large as it is!
I believe that a false and limited idea of the design of the Bible is shutting masses of Christian people out of the desire to possess themselves of what our gracious God has given them in it. It is a book larger by far than many feel that they have any use for. To find salvation and to live a blameless life on earth are the ends they have before them, and which they suppose to be all that God has in His mind for them. If they feel any particular responsibility about the Word of God, they are mystified as to what to do with it all. They may read it conscientiously, even perhaps all through, but have no idea why large swathes of it should have been written. Of searching it for themselves, except certain favourite parts, they know very little. They get light here and there upon it through others, and read books, as long as they are not too deep. They really have no concept that what God means by it all is to form them in likeness to Christ, to make known His mind and to train them for co-heirship with His Son (see Rom. 8: 17). To accomplish this the word of God is not too large—for these subjects can never be fully plummeted. It is plain, therefore, that He means us to be busy with it. To His people of old He spoke earnestly about this occupation with Scripture: “And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thy heart; and thou shalt impress them on thy sons, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thy house, and when thou goest on the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign on thy hand, and they shall be for frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and upon thy gates” (Deut. 6: 6-9). All this implies a constant keeping of the words of God before the eye and mind, the constant meditation upon them and the constant conversation about them. Is it to be supposed that God would have us less fully occupied or that we should have less joy or profit from the occupation? If there be what may seem strange to be from Him, would He not have us inquire all the more because of its strangeness? As Christians, we have the Spirit of God as our Teacher; and He, let us remember, “searches all things, even the depths of God” (1 Cor. 2: 10).
Here then is what we are called to enter into: a field to be worked which will call for all our faculties to be engaged with, and in all their energy. Mind, heart and conscience will then develop together, for Scripture, while it makes mighty men, never itself produces monsters of intellect without heart. Our work is not simply doctrine, nor even faith in a doctrine. This is a deepening knowledge of a Person, an apprehension of the truth—such that one who knew the reality of it could say “Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2: 20), and “looking on the glory of the Lord, with unveiled face, are transformed according to the same image from glory to glory” (2 Cor. 3: 18). Thus the Christian on earth is prepared for heaven. It is the only way.