Bible Study is Not EnoughAvoiding the ditch of Bibliolatry* – John 5:39-40 •

Dr. Dan Hayden •

When driving, avoiding the ditch is the name of the game. The challenge, though, is that there is a ditch on both sides of the road. Overcompensating from either side will land you in the ditch on the other side—and that’s not where you want to be.

The back end of the car was fishtailing. There was new snow on the winding country road, and I was navigating the curve a little too fast. Quickly I steered in the opposite direction to keep the nose of the car straight on the road. The back wheels swung around as I had hoped—but too far. Back and forth I went, like I couldn’t make up my mind which way to go. And then it happened as I had hoped it wouldn’t. I plowed through a bank of snow and began to tilt into the slope. The car teetered from a moment on the two outside wheels and then flopped on its side. I was in the ditch and off balance.

I looked at my kids, and their eyes were as big as saucers. “Dad,” they exclaimed, “What are we gonna do?” We were in the left ditch and the kids were now lying on top of me (that was before seat belts were mandatory). “Is everyone okay?” I asked. “I think so,” they responded with frightened voices. We maneuvered ourselves to open the right front door, which was now on top of the car. Climbing out like soldiers exiting the hatch of a tank, we went in search of help. It took two Belgian draft horses with block and tackle anchored to the trees to pull the car out of the ditch. To this day, that curve in the road is known as “Dan’s Ditch.”

Over the years I have observed the Christian community reacting to issues like a driver fishtailing on the road. The usual tendency has been to overcompensate and land in the ditch of one extreme or another. Some land in the left ditch and others land in the right ditch. It doesn’t seem to matter—each is still in the ditch and off balance. Even a set of Belgian draft horses with block and tackle can’t dislodge them. Somehow they have gotten the idea that the ditch is where they ought to be. They simply stand on the road and try to get others to join them in their extreme.

In the days of my seminary experience, Dr. Charles Ryrie was my professor of Theology. To this day I can still hear him repeating the phrase that became the watchword of our studies—“Gentlemen, strive for balance.” Whatever the issue, and in every theological debate, he was concerned that we keep our sense of balance. An extreme reaction is generally not the answer. A balanced response is. Throughout the years of my ministry, I have greatly appreciated Dr. Ryrie’s words of wisdom.



“You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life…”
The Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day had a great respect for the Scriptures, but they were in the ditch. In spite of their diligent and serious studies in the Word of God, they had become avid advocates of the letter of the Law and were totally oblivious to its spirit. They had a fixation on letters and words, which blinded them to the bigger picture of Divine intent and meaning. They knew the text, but they didn’t know God.

This was Jesus’ assessment of their situation, and John records the encounter in the fifth chapter of his Gospel. Jesus had just healed a crippled man on the Sabbath, and the Jews were angry at what He had done. From their perspective, healing on the Sabbath was a desecration of the Law of God, and was deserving of the penalty of death. John summarized their reaction by saying, “And therefore did the Jews persecute Jesus, and sought to slay him, because he had done these things on the sabbath day” (John 5:16—KJV).

Jesus responded to the Jews by giving a defense of who He was, and by what authority He had healed the man. In essence He told them that they were mistaken in their evaluation of what had happened because they didn’t know God and they didn’t know the Scriptures. It was a surprising accusation. These were the teachers of Israel, and Jesus was saying that they were ignorant in the very area in which they prided themselves as having expertise. They were Bible scholars—but they didn’t know the Bible. In the conclusion of His indictment against the Jews, Jesus challenged them to go back to the Scriptures and observe what they had missed. He said, “You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that bear witness of Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me, that you may have life” (John 5:39-40).

Jesus was saying that Bible study is not enough. In other words, there is no value in Bible study if the purpose for which God gave the Bible is neglected. In these verses John records Jesus as saying that the purpose of the Scriptures is to testify of Christ and to lead people to come to Him for life. Therefore, people who seek a relationship with Jesus through the study of God’s Word are on the road of God’s purpose. Those who study the Bible without a living relationship with Christ, on the other hand, are in the ditch. Furthermore, those individuals who try to have a relationship with Christ without a careful study of the Scriptures have gotten off the road and are in the other ditch.

So, what were the Jews doing? They were studying the Word of God as though the adoration of Scripture was an end in itself. Jesus said to them, “You search the Scripture, because you think that in them you have eternal life…” The Jews’ idea was that if they gave themselves arduously and devotedly to the Scriptures, they would be the recipients of eternal life. That’s what they thought—the Scripture, in and of itself, was the key to life.

Leon Morris, in his commentary on John, quotes Hillel, the celebrated Jewish teacher of Jesus’ day, as saying, “the more study of the Law, the more life… if he has gained for himself words of the Law he has gained for himself life in the world to come.”1 The Jews were, in fact, so committed to reverencing the very letters of Scripture that they took it to an extreme. Again Leon Morris quotes the great archaeologist, Frederic Kenyon as saying that the Scribes “numbered the verses, words, and letters of every book. They calculated the middle word and the middle letter of each. They enumerated verses which contained all the letters of the alphabet, or a certain number of them.”2 It was adoration taken to the extreme of veneration. They had turned Bible study into Bible worship, and they were guilty of bibliolatry.

Of course we can be guilty of the same extreme. Bible study can become a substitute for the true worship of God in Christ. A perfunctory approach to devotions, Scripture memory, discipleship, services of worship and Sunday sermons can desensitize us to the importance of a living daily relationship with Christ. We can feel sanctimonious about having put in our time with God, without ever grasping the joy of truly communing with Christ. As John Peter Lange put it, we can “[idolize] the written book” while at the same time resisting “the living word contained therein.”3

At Sola Scriptura, we are seeking to be sensitive to this balance. The Reformation of the sixteenth century was significant for more than just Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone). It was equally concerned about the importance of Solus Christus (Christ alone), as well as Sola Fide (faith alone), Sola Gratia (grace alone) and Soli Deo Gloria (glory to God alone). To emphasize the importance of Scripture as the source of all truth without also stressing the essential aspect of Christ as the source of all life, is to fall into the ditch. It is to be off balance and to be guilty of bibliolatry.



“…and it is these that bear witness of Me…”
The year my wife and I were engaged, we were living eight hundred miles apart. She was in her last year of nursing school in Chicago, and I was working in New York. It was a difficult year emotionally, but we survived the separation by writing a lot of letters. Those letters were very meaningful to me and I read them over and over with great interest. I even memorized the good parts. Nothing meant more to me than those letters because they were from the girl I loved. Yet my adoration was not focused on the letters, but on my fiancée who had sent them. I was in love with her, not the letters. I pondered every word and I could see her wonderful personality in the way she wrote. As I read the letters my thoughts were of her, however, and I revered the letters only because they spoke of her. The letters were truly precious to me, but only because they were letters from her.

That is essentially what Jesus was saying to the Jewish leaders concerning the nature of Scripture. “You search the Scriptures,” He said, “…and it is these that bear witness of Me” (v. 39). He was not saying that the Scriptures were unimportant or that the Jews were wrong in revering them. The point He was making is that they were missing the point. They had failed to see the Person behind the letter. It was not that Jesus was unrecognizable as the One of whom the Scriptures spoke.

Moses had written of the ultimate Prophet to come, who would be like him (Deuteronomy 18:15-19), and Philip had recognized that Jesus was that Prophet (John 1:45). Others also saw through His humble peasant garb and infamous Nazareth roots to worship Him as the long awaited Messiah, the Son of God. It’s just that the Jewish leaders had become blinded to who Jesus was, by their diversion into an obsession with the letter of the Law. They had substituted form for substance, and had lost any sense of spiritual meaning. Jesus stood before them as the clear fulfillment of Scripture, and they simply continued to count letters and words.

A Christ-centered study of Scripture is fundamental to a correct understanding of the Bible. Consider the comment of John Calvin on this text. He said, …We ought to believe that Christ cannot be properly known in any other way than from the Scriptures; and if it be so, it follows that we ought to read the Scriptures with the express design of finding Christ in them. Whoever shall turn aside from this object, though he may weary himself throughout his whole life in learning, will never attain the knowledge of the truth;…4

Any biblical hermeneutic (principles of interpreting the Bible) that does not have at its core a Christocentric focus is merely a mechanical approach to Scripture. The Word of God is “living and powerful” (Hebrews 4:12) because it throbs with the life of Christ. He is the essence of Scripture, and the grand purpose of Scripture is to testify of Him.

When Jesus had a Bible study with two Emmaus disciples after His crucifixion and resurrection, Luke records the event by telling us, “And beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27, emphasis mine). Later that evening in Jerusalem, Jesus had another Bible study with most of the disciples and a few other believers who were gathered in a private room. Luke again tells us what He said: Now He said to them, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. (Luke 24:44-45) The point here is that even the disciples of Jesus did not understand their Old Testament Scriptures until they saw them in a Christocentric light. Neither can we understand our Bible until we see Jesus as the focus and fulfillment of Bible study. To study the Bible without communing with Jesus in the process, is to miss the point of Bible study.



“…and you are unwilling to come to Me, that you may have life.”
The Jews were serious about their study of the Scriptures. They had a zeal for God which was nothing less than fanatical. Over the years they had gotten the idea that the blessings of the Lord were a reward for diligence in the observance of the externals of their religion. The more devoted they were to the laws and rituals of Judaism, the more honor they thought they would receive from God. Consequently, every letter of the Sacred Text became an object of devotion. They had a near-sighted obsession with minutiae. For them, it was the way to God.

This was the background of Jesus’ remark when He said to them, “…you think that in them you have eternal life” (v. 39). That is exactly what they thought. But they were mistaken. There is no life in the Scriptures by themselves. Jesus went on to say, “…and it is these that bear witness of Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me, that you may have life” (vv. 39-40). Jesus was standing before them as God, but they were willfully refusing to acknowledge Him. What they needed to understand was that they were not only rejecting Him, they were turning their backs on life.

Life comes from God, not from words in a book. Even God’s words are only vehicles of communication. The words live because they come from God, who is life. That is the point. Life is in the God of the Word, not in the Word of God. This is not a subtle distinction—it is a basic observation of how things are. When John wrote his first Epistle, he was careful to conclude with a strong statement of this very truth. As if using an exclamation point, he said, And the witness is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life. (1 John 5:11-12)

This, then, is what Jesus was saying to the Jewish leaders. Scriptures are clear about the fact that life is from God and that eternal life is in the hands of the Son of God. Yet, the Jews had failed to grasp this significant truth. They were ignorant of the Scriptures, and blinded to the fact that the giver of eternal life was in their very midst! Therefore, they failed to come to Him that they might have life.

Is it possible that we could also be off balance in this regard? Our theology of eternal life may be correct—that salvation is only to be found in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Yet, our daily relationship with Christ as the source of all life may be skewed. We can correctly see Him as our ultimate hope and still miss the fact that He is our present joy. We can get caught up in the religion of Christianity and at the same time not have fellowship with Jesus. We can pride ourselves in Bible study and be oblivious to the fact that Jesus is in our midst. We too, can find ourselves in the ditch and off balance.

So, with a commitment to Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), how do we avoid the ditch of bibliolatry (worship of the Bible)? The answer is to recognize the equally important truth of Solus Christus (Christ alone). In our reading and study of the Bible, we need to worship Jesus and commune with Him. Scripture memory and discipleship studies must be rooted in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Sunday morning sermons need to be listened to with an ear for the voice of Christ that overwhelms the voice of the preacher. We must be equally devoted to both Sola Scriptura and Solus Christus. We find truth in the Scriptures, but we find life in Christ. Balance is the key.

*idolizing the Bible, Bible worship

1. Leon Morris, The New International Commentary on the New Testament—The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 1971), p. 330.
2. Leon Morris, Op. Cit., p. 331
3. John Peter Lange, Commentary on the Holy Scriptures (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing Company), p. 195.
4. John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. XVII (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House Company, reprint 1996), p. 218. ■