“You pore over the Scriptures because you think you have eternal life in them, and yet they testify about me.” — John 5:39, CSB
I remember the day I missed meeting my hero.
As a 10-year old, I had posters and baseball cards of the greatest player of my childhood. The name Mark McGwire was spoken in reverential terms, hallowed among the Little League dugouts I live d in during hot, humid southern Missouri summers. Alongside his equally powerful "Bash Brother," Jose Canseco, we would imagine hitting home runs with the same power and distance. I was sure whenever the opportunity came for me to meet Mark McGwire and get his autograph, I would be ready.
Surprisingly, the meeting did occur. I literally ran into Mark McGwire. To my dismay, even some 30 years later, I did not recognize him. I was not ready with his rookie card in my back pocket and a Sharpie for him to sign it. I did not get to tell him how great his swing was or how I really wanted to be in the Oakland A’s dugout. Instead, I was distracted, focused on other things, not paying attention to where I was going as I walked through Disneyland with my family that fateful July 1989 evening.
The Major League Baseball All-Star game was in Anaheim that year, and the players were guests of honor at the evening Main Street Electrical Parade. Too overcome by all the magic and fun of a day at Disneyland, I was barely tuned into a scene where my favorite ballplayers were in the same location that I was.
As the spectacle concluded we wandered through the park wrapping up a day full of fun at the “happiest place on Earth." I don’t have a vivid memory of where in the park we were, except that it was dark, I was tired, and we were walking looking for one final, magical Mickey fix.
Distracted by all the activity around me, I plowed right into a rock-wall of a human being. I remember a chuckle, my embarrassment as I said "Excuse me," and walking along as if I had just run into an actual wall. As we moved on my dad pointed out that I had just walked into Mark McGwire. And yet, I had missed him.
Missing Great Glory for Just Good Enough
It may seem unfortunate that this happened to a wide-eyed 10-year-old , but the same thing happens to us often as we engage the Bible. We miss the greatest glory of the Scripture for side issues and lesser beauties. We miss the center of Scripture for the outlying artifacts that all point to the center itself. We miss the hero and focus on the attractions and events. We miss Jesus.
The religious leaders and thinkers of Jesus’ day were the chief violators of this reality. Day after day they would pore over the Scriptures. Bible study was their constant habit. They were masters of the Hebrew Bible, well versed in the story, law, poetry, and prophets. They won all the "sword drills," accumulated every Citation Award, and could recited every “Fighter Verse” written to date verbatim.
This pursuit of Bible excellence was commended. D.A. Carson points out, “Hillel affirms that the more study of the law, the more life, and that if a man gains for himself words of the law he has gained for himself life in the world to come.”1
Their Biblical mastery was superior, and from that superior position, it was assumed they possessed true life. In a way, they lived thinking he who memorizes the most verses wins.
Jesus, however, gave no satisfaction to this pursuit but rather condemned them for missing the point. Instead of seeing that the Scriptures were pointing clearly and explicitly to him as the Messiah, the religious leaders were unwilling to follow the signposts to Christ. Like a starving person focused more on place settings and silverware than the actual food that will save his life, these people cared little for the life offered to them in Jesus but rather wanted to parse, debate, and hyper-analyze the practices of keeping the religious law.
The problem wasn’t just one of Jesus’ day. Modern expressions of this kind of missing the point are commonplace within the church. Often I hear the Bible is talked about as an “instruction manual for life.” As if, by following the rules of the Bible we would be able to assemble the good life, much like following the instructions for IKEA furniture would lead to a completed Swedish apartment. This makes the Bible a moral sourcebook that misses the point of the greatness and glory of Jesus.
Another perspective is that the Bible is a "love letter from God." While it is true that the Bible shows us the love of God in Christ, the Bible's purpose is not to exist as a therapeutic resource to help lift our self-esteem. The purpose of God’s Word isn’t to wrap us in a warm, cuddly expression of how great and wonderful and loved we are because God finds us so valuable and worthwhile.
Yes, the Bible does include moral code and expressions of God’s affection for us. But life is not found in keeping the Law or in feeling affirmed and valued. When we use the Bible as a means to those ends, we miss the entire point, and we miss life itself!
If we look to the Bible to gain theological knowledge, validate our behavioral patterns, or affirm our bruised psyche, we exchange great glory for just good enough. And “good enough” won’t get us anywhere.
Don’t Miss Jesus!
For the reformers of the 16th-century church, the doctrine of sola scriptura wasn’t just about putting the Bible above the hierarchical structures of a corrupt, gospel-less church. Sola scriptura was about highlighting the source of life in the Scriptures, Jesus Christ.
For Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and other reformers, declaring that Scripture was the chief source of authority for the church was to declare that Christ is the center of the Scriptures and the source of life.
To that end, we must labor to see Jesus in all of Scripture and see his life, death, and resurrection as the source of life for us today. Let me suggest three questions we can ask when reading the Scriptures to keep Jesus central and avoid missing his great glory.
#1 – How does this passage point out my need for Jesus?
Often passages will expose our sin and brokenness. Especially, in reading the Law portions of the Old Testament, we find how deep our shortcomings really are. Yet even in the New Testament, we find over and over again we have “all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
Bryan Chapell calls this the “Fallen Condition Focus” of every passage. Scripture shows us where we come up short, and in doing so, it shows us our need for life.
#2 – How does this passage show me the way of God’s grace in Jesus?
As each passage reveals our brokenness and sin, so also the Scriptures show us the remedy through Christ. The Old Testament points forward to Christ coming by giving us God’s promises to receive by faith. Scripture teaches how Christ actively won righteousness for us in his perfect life of obedience.
The Bible magnifies salvation through the suffering of the Messiah which we receive by faith. Grace abounds through the Scriptures and, when we look at how the Bible points us to God’s ways of grace, we see all Jesus has accomplished for us.
#3 – How does this passage lead me to love Jesus more and more?
Not only is the Bible a means for us to see Jesus, but it is a means for us to grow in love for Jesus. It shows us our need; it shows us Christ's redemption; it shows us his great grace!
A final question we can ask of the passage we are reading is: How can this text influence my life so that my love for Jesus grows? This is where our steps of faith-filled obedience are taken. We move forward in obedience to the call of Christ as we follow him out of the love he has poured out for us.
The Bible Bring us To Life, It Is Not Life
Much like missing my chance to get an autograph from Mark McGwire, we run through the Scriptures and fail to encounter Jesus as the source of life. We can stack up books about the Bible, memorize verses, develop or adhere to a theological system, and all the while miss the source of life that the Bible points to, Christ.
Instead of believing that Bible knowledge will save us, we should remember the gospel. We are justified by faith alone, in Christ alone, which we see in Scripture alone. The Bible, rightly engaged, brings us to Jesus. Don’t mistake the map for the source.
1. D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991), 263.
Jeremy Writebol is the Executive Director of GCD. He is the husband of Stephanie and father of Allison and Ethan. He serves as the lead campus pastor of Woodside Bible Church in Plymouth, MI. He is also an author and contributor to several GCD Books including everPresent and Make, Mature, Multiply. He writes personally at jwritebol.net.
You can read all of Jeremy’s articles here.