II Timothy 3:14-4:5
I get asked a lot of questions that I can’t answer. Why does this or that happen? What is heaven like? How does God relate to people who have never heard about Jesus? Is it wrong to kill in self-defense? At what point does flirting become adultery? Does buying insurance indicate a lack of faith? How far do you obey a government that may be unjust?
I like it when someone asks me a direct question that I can answer easily. That happened not too long ago. Someone made a remark that I don’t remember verbatim but basically amounted to “What good is the Bible?” At the time I gave an answer that said something along the lines that it provides us a dependable record of the interaction of God and people that gives us guidance on how to lead our lives. I said something about how even though our circumstances change, neither human nature nor God change, so we have reliable patterns even in confusing times. I would stand by those statements. The thing is that the Bible itself addresses the question.
The second letter to Timothy was written as (obviously) a letter. When it was written it was not done with the notion that it would become part of what the letter itself calls “the sacred writings” [3:15]. To those who wrote the letter, who received the letter, and who preserved it for later reference, the term “scripture” [3:16] referred to the Hebrew scriptures that we generally now call the Old Testament. So when II Timothy speaks about “sacred writings” and “scripture” it is not patting itself on the back or making claims for itself. The business of assigning authority to this letter came later, from others.
Later on, over a period of centuries, the Church sorted through a lot of writings. There were some that we decided were not worth hanging onto. Every so often somebody thinks they are the first to discover one of these says, “Oh! Look! The ‘Gospel of Thomas’! or ‘Eugnostos the Blessed’!” as if their existence were some great secret and we have to say, “Yeah, we decided seventeen hundred years ago that they didn’t make the cut.”
Then there were writings where we saw something special and worthwhile: writings like the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John or the letters of people like Paul and John and James. People read them over and over and found that somehow in the process, the voice of God spoke to their hearts.
They also used their heads, and their best judgment. Among the tests of what would be worth keeping has been whether such writings would make a difference in the believers’ lives. To that end, we can and do ask that they fit the criteria found in II Timothy, where the question, “What good is the Bible?” is actually asked and answered.
So here we go.
“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” [II Timothy 3:16-17]
That’s a favorite verse of fundamentalists who believe that every word of the Bible was dictated directly to the writers by the Holy Spirit. Those who hold to that kind of understanding of inspiration necessarily get into trouble at some point where the world of the Bible differs sharply from our own. Fundamentalism digs its heels in to oppose the teaching of evolution for that reason, and some very intelligent people will go to great lengths to try to explain away what the vast majority of scientists and reasonable people will see as evidence that it took a whole lot longer than six days for the world to take its present form and for life to arise.
Ironically, the same mistake is made by people who would dismiss the Bible. People who think of themselves as so much more sophisticated and wise than the Bible’s authors will scorn the scriptures as no more than a bunch of quaint stories and legends and the record of ancient civilizations that we have far surpassed.
Inspiration, however, is not the same as dictation. I may be inspired by the sunrise. When I see it, I may first react simply to its beauty. Perhaps it stops there. Or maybe I gain an awareness of beginnings in general, or a sense that that particular day holds a chance at a fresh start. I may take encouragement. In time I may see one special sunrise and suddenly believe that God is making a point.
“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning.” [Lamentations 3:23]
Someone else might see the sunrise and see that the earth is spinning on its axis from west to east on a regular schedule. While that is true, if it’s all that you see, in my view, you are missing the point. Inspiration is what comes from God breathing into a human being. (No, I don’t mean that literally, either.) But the Bible says in Genesis that human life begins with God’s breath (which can also mean “spirit”) finding its way into what would otherwise be a lump of dirt.
Likewise, the inspiration of the scriptures comes along multiple times, like breathing. It arises the first time when someone has become aware of God acting in the world in some particular way. Someone saw God at work in the lives of Abraham and Sarah and their family, or in the politics of the kingdom of Israel, or in courtship and marriage. They set them down in what became Genesis, or I and II Chronicles, or the Song of Solomon. The inspiration is there, and it arose in the creative meeting between the stuff of earth and the breath of God.
But it does not end when the experience is recorded. Sure, if you read the written words and that is all they are to you, or perhaps fine literature at best, you have something that is akin to the many other wonderful books in the world. When you read it or hear it, though, with expectation and awareness of God, the confidence that God speaks through these words, there is room for another moment of inspiration that says something directly to you.
The example I like to give goes back eighteen years at this point, to a Tuesday morning in September. It was September 11, to be exact. I don’t need to tell you what that day was like. But that evening I opened my Bible wondering what to say from the pulpit the next Sunday, and I started with what was the regular, appointed Old Testament selection. It was Jeremiah 4:19-20.
“My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain!
Oh, the walls of my heart!
My heart is beating wildly;
I cannot keep silent;
for I hear the sound of the trumpet,
the alarm of war.
Disaster overtakes disaster,
the whole land is laid waste.
Suddenly my tents are destroyed,
my curtains in a moment.”
How often, at the hardest times or at the happiest, are we given words for what lies unspeakable within our hearts.
What good is the Bible? Alone, it is just another book. In the hands of faith, or even of those seeking faith, it comes alive with the breath of God. And then God can mold us and shape us, using it as a tool to teach us how to be more human and how to be more holy. It becomes
“useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness”. [II Timothy 3:16]
It doesn’t just give us word-for-word instructions, but it teaches us the ways of life that go with faith. It tells us of Jesus, the Messiah, God-with-us. It puts forth how he used the scriptures to defeat temptation, even when the devil tried to misuse scripture to ensnare him. It tells how he taught us to look beyond the letter of the law to keep its spirit. It tells how he used the words of scripture to pray, even speaking a verse of the Psalms on the cross.
What good is the Bible? It gives us what we need to build one another up, and together to build the kingdom of God. It gives us a whole set of tools to use for different tasks, and it does that
“so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” [II Timothy 3:17]
That’s what good it is. You won’t find anything better.