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Every day during this season of Lent we’re looking at one of the “3:16” verses of the Bible, spotlighting some of the significant theological statements that happen to fall on the 16th verse of the third chapter of a number of Old and New Testament books.
“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).
A young man announced to his father that he was enrolling in theological studies at a particular seminary.
The father bristled. He had doubts about this school. He suspected it had the kind of academic environment that would debunk the Bible’s accounts of miraculous events. He said to his son, “I just hope that when you get back, the story of God parting the waters of the Red Sea for Moses and the Israelites is still in your Bible.”
Three years later, when the son had completed his studies, that’s the very question his father asked him. “So, is the crossing of the Red Sea still in your Bible?”
“Gosh, Dad, why do you ask that? That story isn’t even in your Bible.” “Of course it is!” retorted the father. “Then show me,” replied his son.
For several minutes the father frantically scoured his Old Testament searching for the account of the Israelites escaping the Egyptians.
“It’s not there,” said his son. “The day I left for seminary I took your Bible and cut out the whole middle section of the book of Exodus. So, tell me, Dad: What’s the difference between not believing that it’s true, and paying so little attention to it that you don’t even know it’s gone?”
It matters what’s inside the Bible. What matters even more is whether the Bible ever ends up inside us.
That’s a crucial consideration as we arrive at 2 Timothy 3:16, which is hands-down the most frequently quoted verse regarding the nature of the Bible. When Paul mentions “all Scripture,” he’s talking about the traditional Jewish Scriptures – what Christians have come to call the Old Testament. Scholars generally agree that at the time this letter was written, the New Testament was still decades, or maybe even a century, away from being treated as a 27-book collection endowed with scriptural authority.
It’s worth pausing here to note another of the “3:16” verses – the one we find in 2 Peter.
That author tells us, concerning the apostle Paul, “He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:16). Suggesting that Paul’s correspondences are on the same level as “the other Scriptures” indicates that the notion of a “new testament” was already underway.
Paul writes, “All Scripture is theopneustos…”
This term is a hapax legomenon – literally, “once-spoken” – a word that appears only once in the original Greek text of the New Testament. For that matter, it’s never been found in any other Greek documents of the period – a strong hint that Paul coined this word in order to communicate precisely what he wanted to say.
Theopneustos means “God-breathed.”
Scripture is somehow associated with respiration. People traditionally say they believe in “the inspired Word of God.” And others point out that the Bible is a truly “inspiring” book. But that’s not what Paul is saying. Theopneustos is not a description of the Bible’s effect on its readers. It’s an assertion concerning Scripture’s origin and nature.
While a variety of human authors (at least 40 of them) put pen to paper in order to create the Bible – and their particular personalities definitely shine through – Paul asserts that God is ultimately responsible for the Bible’s contents. God breathed his Word into existence, and then breathed life into every page.
The “breath of God” is an important theme in the Old Testament. Genesis tells us that God breathed the breath of life into the first human being. Ezekiel reports that God breathed life into the dry bones of the people of Israel. Every time we hold a Bible in our hands, we’re clutching something that was breathed out from the heart and mind of God.
2 Timothy 3:16 goes on say that all Scripture is “useful.” Other translations say it is “beneficial” or “profitable.”
Useful for what?
Here we find an interplay of things that are true and things that are wrong. Scripture is useful for teaching (that is, revealing what is true), useful for rebuking (reminding us what is wrong), useful for correcting (showing us how wrongs can be made right), and useful for training (demonstrating how truth can be applied to our lives). Truth – Wrong – Wrong – Truth. The Bible, in other words, is a comprehensive guide for living.
But its power to impact our lives becomes operative only if we keep on reading to the next verse. 2 Timothy 3:16 isn’t a complete sentence. Verse 17 says, “…so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
Those two words – “so that” – mean more than we can know.
It’s fun to learn things about the Bible. It’s cool to get insights into a smattering of Greek and Hebrew words, and to take deep dives into ancient Near Eastern and Hellenistic culture.
But Bible study has to lead somewhere. There has to be a so that.
We don’t achieve an intellectual appreciation of Scripture for its own sake, but so that we might be God’s servants – women and men who are equipped by the Word to step into the kind of lives to which God has called us.
Sure, it’s a good thing to know where to find the story of the crossing of the Red Sea.
But it’s better by far to come before that text, and all texts, with a spirit that says, “Lord, open my heart to this part of your Word – so that my eyes might be opened more fully to who you are.”
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