Chapter 1

What Scripture is: A Word From Heaven for Citizens of Heaven

“And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” (1 thessalonians 2:13)

To read the Bible well, we have to appreciate what it is. Put simply, it is God doing things with human words: laying down the law; giving directions for a flourishing life; revealing his intentions; expressing his love; explaining what he is doing in Jesus Christ. Although the Scriptures were originally written to the ancient Israelites and the early Christians, they are also written down “for our instruction” (1 corinthians 10:11). For example, the church today is to learn from Israel’s example to respond in faith rather than unbelief. “Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion’” (hebrews 3:7–8).

Think about it. Unless God speaks, we would have few ideas about what God was like. The purposes of a silent God would remain forever inscrutable. But God has spoken. The phrase, “Thus says the Lord,” occurs more than four hundred times in the Old Testament. The Bible depicts God making promises, issuing commands, teaching wisdom, and giving comfort. “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets” (hebrews 1:1). The God of the Bible speaks through commissioned witnesses—the prophets and apostles.

Scripture recounts where we came from, why we’re here, and where we’re going. The Bible is the story of who God is, and who we are, and who we are to each other (God to humans and humans to humans). The Bible does not tell us everything there is to know. It tells us something better.

The Bible does not tell us everything there is to know. It tells us something better.

It tells us how to know God truly and glorify him fully. It is a message from heaven intended to reveal God, call people to himself, and teach them what they need to know in order to live out their heavenly citizenship here on earth.

What God is ultimately doing in speaking, promising, commanding and so forth is covenanting. The Bible is the story of God’s covenantal dealings, first with Israel (through Abraham, Moses, and David) then with the church, thanks to the new covenant mediated by Jesus (hebrews 12:24). In each case, God reaches out to bless those who trust and follow him. The covenant blessing is communion with God: dwelling as God’s covenant partner, as God’s spouse. Covenant partners share in God’s own life—in everything he is and has, just as in a marriage. This is why the Old Testament frequently describes God as “jealous”—to underline the importance of Israel’s faithfulness. Monotheism—belief in the one true God—is necessarily monogamous!

Because the Bible is God’s covenantal marriage proposal, it marks out people to be distinctly his. It is the founding document of a specific group of people. So it is also like a Constitution, but not entirely. It’s like a Constitution inasmuch as it is the founding document of a nation (Israel). It’s unlike a Constitution because its authority comes not from “We the people” but from “the Lord your God” (exodus 6:7). God constitutes Israel a holy nation by speaking human words: “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples” (exodus 19:5).

The Bible is the “collected works” of their divine author. Just these sixty-six books have been set apart by God to serve as the rule of his people’s life and thought. The canon, which means “measuring rod” or standard, is closed. God has said everything that needs to be said about his covenant. The Bible alone is God’s final say-so about himself, humanity, and Jesus Christ, the God-man.

The biblical authors themselves recognized this finality. Moses explained to Israel that God’s law was fixed. “Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it” (deuteronomy 12:32). Likewise, Peter explained to the first Christians that Jesus was God’s final answer to the problem of sin: “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (acts 4:12). Paul insists that there is no other gospel than the one in the apostolic writings (galatians 1:6–9).

The Bible is both a collection of diverse kinds of books, written by many (human) authors over several centuries, and a unified work with a single (divine) author. All the short stories in the Bible—including favorites like Jonah and the giant fish, or David and Goliath—are part of one long story. It’s the true story of the real world: from creation and fall to redemption and future consummation.

Christians believe that the Bible, God’s word written, is (1) trustworthy and true; (2) sufficient for helping Christians to live out their citizenship in heaven on earth, anytime and anywhere. Let’s examine these points.

1. The whole Bible is trustworthy because it is the word of a trustworthy God: “God is not man, that he should lie” (numbers 23:19). The true God speaks and acts; the God who speaks and shows himself in Jesus Christ is the true God.

God’s word is true because it, more than anything else, can be relied on, come what may. Jesus put it like this: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (matthew 24:35). Human wisdom has limits; even the best scientists make mistakes. Christians trust the testimony of the apostles not because they were geniuses, but because they were witnesses commissioned by Christ and guided by his Spirit. The risen Lord himself declares of this apostolic testimony: “These words are trustworthy and precepts are trustworthy” (Psa 111:7). The apostle Paul, centuries later, agrees: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim 1:15).”]true” (revelation 22:6).

2. Everything in the Bible is true, yes, but that’s not to say that the Bible contains all the truth there is. The Bible is not a magic 8-Ball that answers every question put to it. If we look to Scripture for specific teaching about where to invest our stocks, whom to marry, how to cure cancer, or which presidential candidate to vote for, we’ll come away disappointed. God says “my word . . . shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (isaiah 55:11). Christians affirm the sufficiency of Scripture, yes, but sufficiency for what, exactly?

Everything depends on our understanding why God has spoken and what his word is for. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching . . . that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 timothy 3:16–17). The Bible gives us everything we need to know for our salvation and for our mission of becoming citizens of the gospel—living out God’s story. Its truth and authority pertain first and foremost to God and the gospel. The Bible contains everything we need to know about Jesus Christ.

Reading the Bible is like wearing glasses that enable us for the first time to see the world as it really is. Reading with the “eyeglasses of faith” enables us to see God as he is and ourselves as we are.