Understanding the Bible

Understanding the Bible

by John R.W. Stott, John R. Stott

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Author John Stott examines the cultural, social, geographical, and historical background of the Bible, as he outlines the story with its central theme, and as he explains its message. The book now includes study questions, index, and maps.See more details below


Author John Stott examines the cultural, social, geographical, and historical background of the Bible, as he outlines the story with its central theme, and as he explains its message. The book now includes study questions, index, and maps.

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5.55(w) x 8.38(h) x 0.63(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

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Chapter one

The Purpose of the Bible

v What does it mean to say that the Bible is primarily a book of salvation?

v In what ways do we see Jesus Christ in the Old Testament as well as in the New Testament?

v How does Scripture draw from us a response of faith?

His choice of a book to read and the way in which we read it are determined largely by the author's purpose in writing it. Is it a textbook of science or history intended to inform, or a novel meant purely to entertain? Is it a piece of serious prose or poetry in which the writer reflects on life and stimulates the reader to think about it too? Does it speak in any meaningful way to the contemporary world? Or is it perhaps a controversial work in which he deliberately sets out to argue his point of view? Moreover, is the author qualified to write on the subject? Questions like these are often in our minds when we ask, "Is it worth reading?"

Most books supply the prospective reader with the information he wants about who wrote them and why. Either the author tells us candidly in a preface about himself and his object in writing, or the publisher does so in the "blurb" on the dustcover. Most readers spend time examining these before committing themselves to buy, borrow or read the book.

It is a great pity that readers of the Bible do not always ask the same questions. Many appear to pick it up and begin their reading at random. Some start at Genesis and get stuck in Leviticus. Others may doggedly persevere from a sense of duty, even setting (and achieving) a target of reading the whole Bible through section by section in five years, but without deriving much benefit from their study because they lack understanding of the book's overall purpose. Or indeed many give up Bible reading altogether, or never start it, because they cannot see how the tale of a faraway people in a faraway age could have any relevance for them today.

In any case, how can the Bible, which in fact is not a book but a library of sixty-six books, possible be said to have a "purpose"? Was it not compiled by different authors at different times with different objectives? Yes and no. There is indeed a wide variety of human author and theme. Yet behind these, Christians believe, there lies a single divine Author with a single unifying theme.

The Bible itself declares what this theme is. It is stated several times in several places, but perhaps nowhere more succinctly than by the apostle Paul to Timothy:

From infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Tim. 3: 15-17)

Here the apostle brings together both the origin and the object of Scripture, where it comes from and what it is intended for. Its origin: "God-breathed." Its object: "useful" for human beings. Indeed, it is useful for us only because it is God-breathed inspired by God. The subject of biblical inspiration I must leave to a later chapter; in this chapter I want to investigate the nature of the Bible's usefulness. For this I will take up three words which Paul used "salvation," "Christ" and "faith."

A Book of Salvation

Perhaps no biblical word has suffered more from misuse and misunderstanding than the word "salvation." Some of us Christians are to blame for the caricature of it which we have presented to the world. As a result, the word "salvation" has become for many a source of embarrassment, even an object of ridicule. We need to rescue it from the narrow concept to which we have often debased it. For "salvation" is a big and noble word, as I shall soon elaborate. Salvation is freedom. Yes, and renewal too; ultimately the renewal of the whole cosmos.

Now the supreme purpose of the Bible, Paul writes to Timothy, is to instruct its readers "for salvation." This immediately indicates that Scripture has a practical purpose, and that this purpose is moral rather than intellectual. Or rather its intellectual instruction (its "wisdom," as the Greek word implies) is given with a view to the moral experience called "salvation."

In order to grasp more firmly this positive purpose of Scripture, it may be helpful to contrast it with some purposes it does not have.

First, the purpose of the Bible is not scientific. This is not to say that the teaching of Scripture and of science are in conflict with one another for, when we keep each to its proper sphere and discern what each is affirming, they are not. Indeed, if the God of truth is the author of both, they could not be. Nor is it to say that the two spheres never overlap and that nothing in the Bible has any scientific relevance, for the Bible does contain statements of fact which can be (and in many cases have been) scientifically verified. For example, a number of historical facts are recorded, such as that Nebuchadnezzar King of Babylon besieged, took and virtually destroyed Jerusalem, and that Jesus of Nazareth was born when Augustus was Emperor of Rome. What I am asserting rather is that, though the Bible may contain some science, the purpose of the Bible is not scientific.

Science (or at least natural science) is a body of knowledge painstakingly acquired by observation, experiment and induction. The purpose of God through Scripture, however, has been to disclose truths which could not be discovered by this method (called by scientists the "empirical" method), but would have remained unknown and undiscovered if he had not revealed them. For instance, science may be able to tell us something about man's physical origins (even this is an open question); only the Bible reveals man's nature, both his unique nobility as a creature made in the Creator's image and his degradation as a self-centered sinner in revolt against his Creator.

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