Why would an American university student read writings collected by Israelite tribes 2,000 to 4,000 years ago? Not only are they old, they were written in ancient foreign languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek)! Why would such a student read these documents and use them for governing their way of life?
The Apostle Peter provides a clue about an answer to that question. “We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it” (2 Peter 1:19). As we read or listen to both letters written by Peter, it is clear that the prophetic message the apostle had in mind comes to us from the Scriptures of Israel. The Bible claims to be a prophetic message, the Word of God given through human messengers to the nation of Israel.
In these Scriptures, we notice a variety of writing, including history, poetry, law, and proverbs, but we also notice that the Bible makes some interesting claims. As we read the entirety of the Bible, common themes appear to run through the various forms of writing. The laws, history, and poetry are really about God, making claims about his divine plan, about the world, and about people. We will consider the matter of the reliability of these Scriptures then the matter of their truth.
The Reliability of Scripture
First, let’s consider the external copies of the Scriptures. We have more than 5,700 full and partial copies of the various books that make up the Bible. Craig Blomberg provides a thorough discussion of these manuscript copies in Can We Still Believe the Bible? These copies make it possible to identify and correct any mistakes made by copyists. Since we have so many copies of the Bible over a long period of time and over a wide geographic area, we are confident in the reliability of the Bibles we read today.
Second, we have copies inside the Bible. There are overlapping testimonies to God’s character, instructions, and purpose within the law, the history, and the prophetic collections. In the Old Testament, Deuteronomy provides a companion account to what we read in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. There are also multiple testimonies in the historical and prophetic books. A consistent picture of God emerges as we read the full witness which we have in the Bible.
We have a similar situation in the New Testament with the fourfold witness of the Gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John provide four portraits of the one gospel in the person of Jesus. Each gospel author provides a similar account of Jesus’ life, teaching, and mission, but they also accent their account with variations on the theme. We have a fuller, richer understanding of Jesus’ teaching because of the four gospels. It would be easier for humans to have tampered with the story if we only had one account. God knew what he was doing when he moved four authors to write about Jesus.
Concerning the first element of our question about the Bible, its reliability, we have strong reasons for confidence in the Scriptures. Regarding the matter of truth or truthfulness, the theological focus of the Bible is crucial for confidence in the Bible. Christians should read the Bible and find truth for their lives for the following reasons.
Meeting Jesus in Scripture
First, we read the Bible because we meet Jesus there. In the New Testament, we learn of his teaching and his miracles. From his words and his works of power, we are confronted with the question of Jesus’ identity. Who is this man who forgives sin and calms storms?
The story of Jesus includes followers and opponents. The opposition grows, leading to the suffering and death of Jesus. The New Testament culminates with the vindication of Jesus by God’s power as he is raised from the dead. The grave is empty. He is seen by his disciples. The New Testament brings us to the question of what we think of Jesus and the claim that he has died for our sins, bringing the kingdom of God to humanity.
Christians have believed that Jesus is the Son of God since that day 2,000 years ago. Jesus the risen Lord confirms the truth of the Bible. The Bible claims that the Spirit of God gives life through faith in Jesus, empowering human authors and readers of the Bible to communicate and receive truth about themselves and God.
As the risen Lord, Jesus teaches us how to read the Scriptures. The Sermon on the Mount, recorded in Matthew 5–7, is a good example. When Jesus taught about murder and anger in Matthew 5:21-26, he began with a reference to Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17. He then extended and deepened the teaching for his followers, demonstrating his teaching authority. We read the words of Jesus because he is a faithful guide for reading the Holy Scriptures and finding truth there.
Finding Truth in Scripture
Second, we read the Bible because it tells the truth about us. In Genesis 1–3, we read the inspiring truth that we are made in the image of God and his commission for humanity to govern all creation. We also read the tragic truth of human rebellion against God and the root of our sin. On the one hand, we are capable of great creativity and innovation. On the other hand, we commit terrible atrocities against our fellow human beings and our Creator.
We learn an important truth about ourselves from the Bible, that we don’t understand the nature and impact of our sin. “But who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults” (Psalm 19:12). The Bible does not sugarcoat the reality about mankind. Abraham betrayed Sarah and subverted God’s promise. David murdered his general and committed adultery with Bathsheba. The disciples of Jesus abandoned him in his suffering, leaving him alone on the cross with the sin of the world. The Bible speaks the truth about me, my neighbor, and our need for God.
Hearing God in Scripture
Third, we read the Bible because God speaks to us there. We started this reflection with the words of Peter, reminding us to pay attention to the prophetic message. In 2 Peter 1:16-21, Peter also reminds us that he and the disciples had heard the voice of God on the mountain: “This is my son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (v. 17). The prophets spoke and wrote because they had received the word of God, passing it on to God’s people. We read the Bible and find truth there because in the Bible we hear the word of God.
I encourage university students to read the Bible because they, like all of us, are blind to the spiritual truth about themselves and God. The only way to cut through this fog of spiritual blindness is the word of God in human words. The truth that we need to hear cannot come from within ourselves. We need to hear God speak the truth. The Bible does that for us, providing wisdom for our choices and salvation from our sin.
Mark Pike is the Campus Minister with the Christian Student Foundation in Muncie, Indiana.