What is the goal of studying the Bible?
Or maybe, what is the goal of studying the Bible at Church?
I can think of two answers: 1) We study the Bible as a form of corporate worship. And 2) we study the Bible to gain from it godly wisdom so that we might navigate our lives in Christ honoring ways.
Although, and while this might seem a bit backward at first, studying scripture isn’t always about understanding it in all of the correct ways.
If you’ve read any of my other blog posts, you know that I strongly advocate for proper biblical interpretation. That is the point of this website. Yet it is absolutely possible for someone to not have any clue about the historical background of a text, or to have no knowledge of Greek or Hebrew, but still read and apply the passage in a Christ honoring way. Scriptural exegesis is not necessarily synonymous with good Bible reading. Biblical literacy isn’t the end goal. Biblical discipleship is.
Israel did not have a Bible like we do now. Believers having the ability to read this compilation of texts that we’ve labeled “Bible” is actually a relatively new thing, comparatively speaking. But Israel did have Temple and Torah. And despite Torah’s proclamation and the priestly adherence to temple ritual, their worship was still labeled as inappropriate when it didn’t align with the heart of God. For example, consider Isaiah 1:11-15 –
“What are all your sacrifices to me?” asks the Lord.
“I have had enough of burnt offerings and rams
and the fat of well-fed cattle;
I have no desire for the blood of bulls,
lambs, or male goats.
12 When you come to appear before me,
who requires this from you—
this trampling of my courts?
13 Stop bringing useless offerings.
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons and Sabbaths,
and the calling of solemn assemblies—
I cannot stand iniquity with a festival.
14 I hate your New Moons and prescribed festivals.
They have become a burden to me;
I am tired of putting up with them.
15 When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I will refuse to look at you;
even if you offer countless prayers,
I will not listen.
Your hands are covered with blood.”
These passages in Isaiah talk of a time when Israel was still very good at adhering to their temple system. They were still observing the sacred feasts and making sacrifices to God on the altar of the Lord. They were still gathering together in solemn assemblies for the reading of Torah and for prayer. But, and despite this corporate worship, they were missing something.
They were hearers but not doers of the word. They were performing their religious duty, but they weren’t allowing the Lord to transform their hearts through it. Instead, the opposite was happening. Israel was carrying out unjust acts, and failing to love those in their midst. They were then attempting to hide all of this behind the disguise of good worship.
To What Kind of Spirit do You Belong?
There is a short story that’s found within Luke’s journey to Jerusalem narrative that’s got a lot going on within it.
In Luke 9:51-56, Jesus begins to make his way toward Jerusalem, but chooses to do so by traveling through Samaria. But when he and his disciples enter into one Samaritan villiage, they meet resistance. The Samaritans refuse to welcome them. At this, James and John, whom Jesus elsewhere calls “the sons of thunder,” ask their Lord if he’d like them to call fire down from heaven so that this Samaritan villiage might be consumed. But Jesus refuses their request. He rebukes them.
There’s an interesting textual variant contained in some Lukan manuscripts that adds a bit more detail to this narrative. After the end of verse 54, there is a later scribal insertion that makes the verse read: “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them as Elijah did?” And then, after verse 55, in some manuscripts we find an additional scribal insertion that makes that verse read: “But he turned and rebuked them. And he said, “You do not know what matter of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man came not to destroy people’s lives but to save them.”
These insertions are clearly not original to the biblical text. But they do shed light on how this text might have been interpreted in in the first few centuries of the Church. Why did James and John feel that they were justified in calling down fire from heaven on this Samaritan villiage? It might have been because Elijah called down fire to scorch some Samaritans before them (1 Kings 1:1-18), and the prophet’s actions then were deemed just. The Bible that James and John read contained this story, and if this textual variant is to be given any consideration, it may have been the reason for their request.
But, again, Jesus rebukes this action. They were letting the offense of the moment take them captive. They were acting cruel and unmerciful. They knew their Bibles very well, and they could produce examples in scripture to justify their actions. But they were not operating in the right spirit. While they were focused on judgement, Jesus wanted them to be focused on grace.
What Does Our Studying of Scripture Produce?
Ron Rolheiser, Catholic theologian and former president of the Oblate School of Theology writes:
“This is a cruel thing to say, but all this angry zeal and passion, no matter how high the cause which fuels it, is not a sign that truth and the gospel are breaking through. When truth and the gospel break through, the first mark is compassion, not anger. The word of God first meets the world in compassion, not judgement. Irrespective of whether we attempt to speak our truth and prophecy from a liberal or conservative pulpit, we want to remember that. We mediate the word of God correctly, and speak for truth and justice, when, and only when, we are recognized for gentleness, compassion, and forgiveness – towards everyone, and not just towards those in the same ideological camp as ourselves.”
James and John, despite knowing their Bibles deeply, were content with operating from a place of angry zeal instead of compassion. They were using scripture as a weapon of war instead of an instrument of healing. And Israel in the time of Isaiah was functioning similarly. They were using religious adherence and Torah observation as a mask to cover sinful behavior.
But what might a bad use of the Bible look like in church today? How might we know that we’re studying scripture improperly?
Consider this incomplete list to help you and your congregation discern if such a thing is happening in your context:
- Are fears being stoked against other groups or churches who might not hold the same beliefs as you (even on small tertiary things)?
- Is there a growing sense that others are “out to get you,” and does such a sentiment invoke anger or wrath within you?
- Is there a lot of talk about outside threats or “agendas,” but especially from the pulpit?
- Do you take pride in the fact that you know much more about God’s word than those in other congregations down the street?
- Is there a large emphasis on the sin of the world without an equal or greater emphasis on how we might extend love to those trapped within it?
What does our studying of scripture produce? Does our Bible reading bring us closer to God by challenging us love each other all the more? Or does it divide us, and consequently, allow us to justify worshipping our Lord in inappropriate or apathetic ways? Are we just learning more Bible facts and memorizing stories in scripture to use as bullets against those we dislike or distrust? Or are we allowing God to disciple us through scripture by transforming our hearts to be more like His?
These are questions that those who want to seriously study the Bible must ask themselves. Because, remember, the “Son of Man came not to destroy people’s lives but to save them.”
 The first list of official canonized books we’ve got was written in 170 C.E, but it doesn’t include books like Hebrews, James, Revelation, or either of the Petrine letters. It wasn’t until the 360’s C.E. that those missing books were officially canonized into the Bible (they were still widely read as such well before then, however). It would then take many more centuries until Bibles were produced in such a way that an average person could own one themselves or easily read the text that was printed within it’s binding.
 Why, then, did Elijah get to call down fire upon Samaritan soldiers but Jesus’ disciples couldn’t when confronted with the unwelcoming Samaritan villiage? This might be why that additional textual variant was added between Luke 9:55-56 within some manuscripts. God once used fire from heaven to consume soldiers acting on the orders of an idolatrous king of Samaria. But within the context of that story, this judgement was a show of strength in the attempt to prove that YHWH was mightier than Baal-zebub, the deity that the king of Samaria was attempting to contact after his injury. The “spirit” of these situations was different. In the 1 Kings passage, God was proving himself as supreme through his appointed prophet. In Luke, God was attempting to offer grace and love through an encounter with the incarnation. The disciples were not prophets, either. Their role was to offer mercy toward neighbors, even Samaritan ones, as is highlighted just a chapter later (Luke 10:25-37).