The Transformational Power of God's Word
There was a popular newspaper comic called “The Far Side” back when newspapers were still a thing. It was a single panel with a man standing outside the gates of heaven with an angel giving him a complex math problem. “Listen up,” the angel said, “Nobody gets in here without answering the following question,” and then the angel proceeded with a question about trains leaving different cities at different times and speeds. The caption underneath the panel said “Math phobic’s nightmare.” I remember seeing a similar comic when I was young; probably someone Xeroxed the original comic and replaced the words of the angel. Instead of asking a complex math problem, the angel instead asked the person to quote an obscure passage in 2 Chronicles, and the caption underneath said something about the importance of memory verses.
I bring that all up to say this: Even though the comics in question are not accurate depictions of how God judges who gets into heaven, they represent a fear that dwells inside many people, including Christians who should know better. We may fear that we don’t know enough to get into heaven, and we presume that what God wants from us is primarily informational. So this can be reflected in how we study our Bibles; we often study our Bibles like we studied subjects in school. We read in order to get the information in order to answer the questions on the test.
But if God is not preparing us for a pop quiz at the Judgment, then what is the purpose of the Bible? The questions we should be asking ourselves are: What is the purpose of God communicating his word to us through the Bible? Why did God give us a book that is mostly history and poetry? What is the point of it? Does God simply want us to recite poetry and be able to accurately place all of Israel’s kings on a timeline? I’m not saying that those are bad things, in fact they can be helpful to understanding the texts better. The point, though, is that simple facts are not and cannot be the primary purpose of the Bible.
The stories and poetry and laws presented in the Bible are not meant to be primarily informational. They are instead meant to be transformational. Information is not enough. James says “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” (James 2:19) The point being that simply knowing information, and even believing information is not enough. It is good to know that God is one, but it is not enough to just know it. There is something that needs to be done with that information. James goes on to say of Abraham, “You see his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete.” (James 2:22)
Paul wrote in Romans 15:4 “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.” Paul doesn’t tell us that the primary purpose of the Scriptures is to explain where things came from, or to give us the answers to the pop quiz to get into heaven. Instead they are meant to teach us endurance and give us encouragement. Those are fundamentally transformative. We are meant to find things in the Scriptures that will change us and transform us into the people God wants.
Earlier in the book of Romans, after reciting a good amount of Israel’s history in wandering in the wilderness and the captivity, Paul then says at the beginning of chapter 12: “Therefore… in view of God’s mercy, offer your bodies as a living sacrifice… Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Notice that God’s desire is for us to perceive God’s work in the world, and then to change our minds and change our habits (offering our bodies) to be in line with who God has revealed himself to be.
Throughout the New Testament, the Old Testament is quoted, not as a bunch of facts, but as things revealed which in turn ought to change us. A few examples: Paul quotes from the Levitical law in 1 Corinthians 9:9-10 “For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not certainly speak for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop.” Paul is saying that this passage about oxen is not primarily about oxen, but about us.
In the book of Hebrews after going through several stories from the Old Testament in chapter 11, the author then concludes his thoughts in 12:1 “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” The purpose of those stories isn’t just to know that they happened, but to use them as examples and as encouragement to run our own race of faith. These stories are meant more for our transformation than anything else.
I write all of this to encourage you to not stop at knowing what is in the Bible. That is only the first step in studying. It is good to know what is in the Bible, but it is of far more value to be transformed by the word of God. I encourage you as you study your Bible to go deeper than the surface. To help you consider these questions next time you read a passage in the Bible, and try to answer them: What does God expect me to learn and take away from this passage? What do I learn about God or about myself in reading this passage? How does my life need to change in light of this passage?