by Perry Hall
Horror of horrors, I faced a gut-wrenching decision: “Should I, or shouldn’t I” Often I choose wrongly. Occasionally I make the right decision; but then grow restless. Disquieting energy pulsates through my body. I’m accomplishing the goal, but not quickly enough…ahh the temptation of “now.” Impatiently I irrationally act; and then aggravatingly fail. Other times I too quickly jump into the fray, right into the middle of my ignorance. Pride is the culprit. Humility, or should I say humiliation, grips me. I give in to the previously known, but neglected, decision. Unhappy, my submission leads to impatience. Today, again it is decision time. Wise advice penetrates my thoughts… “When all else fails, read the instructions.” Yes, this entire time I have been discussing reading instructions.
Is The Bible An Instruction Manual?
Elohim is our maker (Genesis 1:1). All fail to glorify God (Romans 3:23). Jesus is our sacrifice, instructor, and example (John 14:6). The Holy Spirit led into all truth (John 16:13). Today we walk by that Spirit (Galatians 5:25). Scripture is filled, as is our lives, with needing, living and failing those instructions.
Preparing for His exodus, Jesus said, “You call Me Teacher and Lord. This is well said, for I am” (John 13:13). Christianity is a taught religion, starting with the Old Testament (2 Timothy 3:16); continuing with the incarnated Word (John 1:1); and finishing with the faith once for all delivered (Jude 1:3). This divine word is somehow more than words (Hebrews 4:12). So if the Bible is an instruction manual, it is unlike any. Then again, human beings are unlike any creation. Then again, Christianity – that the Creator would die for the created, to make the created like the Creator – is unlike anything humanly imagined. This is the purpose of divine instruction; fellowship with God by remaking us to His glory.
In the beginning, God created humans with emotions, thoughts, and physical experiences. New creatures (2 Corinthians 5:17 NASB) are to have controlled emotions, higher thoughts, while channeling our physical experiences to God. These traits need explaining and direction. “We” need explaining. God is our authority. Notice the prefix “author” in authority. God wrote our DNA. Starting with Adam, “at different times and in different ways” (Hebrews 1:1), God has communicated to His creation. Quaintly someone said B.I.B.L.E. stands for, “Basic Instruction Before Leaving Earth.” Basic instruction means nothing if not learned. So, “Be Informed Before Leaving Earth.”
So is the Bible an instruction manual? Read John 20:31; Romans 10:17; 1 Corinthians 2:10; 2 Corinthians 1:13; Ephesians 3:4; 1 Timothy 1:5; 2 Timothy 1:13, 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:3; plus a host of others. After reading, it doesn’t matter whether we call the Bible an instruction manual or not, as long as we are willing to be instructed.
- Why Does the Bible Instruct?
What are the goals of divine declarations? We could start with one of the first commands given, “You must not…or you will die” (Genesis2:17). Lovingly protecting life, both spiritual and physical, is one goal. Echoing God, Paul wrote, “Honor your father and mother, which is the first commandment with a promise, so that it may go well with you and that you may have a long life in the land” (Ephesians6:2-3). Consider the instructions for a Rowenta iron: “Do not iron clothes on body.” Apparently someone learned that too late. How much of the Bible is ignored common sense that leads to suffering and death? What are God’ goals? Let’s focus on two: 1) We are instructed because we are not like God; 2) We are instructed to be like God. Another way of saying this is we are dead, and God wants us to live.
We Are Not Like God
Much is learned in Genesis 1-3. First, God defines sin; whether obvious or not, recognized or not, pleasing or not. Deity decides what is good and bad, right and wrong, wise and foolish (Jeremiah 10:23). So God-dependent are His creatures, we don’t and can’t know good and evil without help (Romans 7:7). Amazingly, He gifted humanity with some inborn insight, a law within ourselves (Romans 2:14); but such is God derived, matching His revealed word. Second, although in God’s image, Humans were unequal to God while enjoying His fellowship. Eve had this innate desire to be more God-like. Such sounds proper, but she wanted the knowledge of good and evil on her own terms, “right now.” Self-desire became the first idol in the form of knowledge. Selfishness is a distinct way we differ from God. Third, since God defines sin, and humans defy God, we rebel breaking fellowship. Our only hope is our Creator remaking us back into His image through salvation and sanctification replacing the garden with a cross (Colossians 3:10).
Unexpectedly, although dead, we are saved through death; Jesus and ours. Death is associated with baptism in our burial in Christ. But are believing, repenting, and confessing – leading to our baptism – also acts of dying and crucifying self? Believing, we trust Jesus; dying to self as trustworthy. Repenting, we change our way of thinking; dying to our own methods and thought patterns. Confessing, we admit Jesus is God’s Son and our Lord; dying to self being enthroned. All these lead to our baptismal burial, having crucified ourselves. Can we see how the first humans contradicted this?
The “most important” instruction received Biblically is the gospel (1 Corinthians 15:3): “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). David Wenham writes,
“His highlighting of what might seem to be a relatively unimportant event (as compared to the death and resurrection) may simply be a lead into his following discussion of resurrection. But it quite probably also reflects the fact that the burial featured prominently in the passion traditions that Paul knew, as it does in the gospel narratives” (Paul, Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity, p.365).
Considering the inspired emphasis in these accounts, practicing “baptism” without immersion disparages or ignores the burial. If the Holy Spirit did not consider it “relatively unimportant” instruction, should we?
Finally, on being unlike God, and needing saving, returning to Paul’s description of the gospel (1 Corinthians 15:1-4), we can ask why God’s manual commands us to believe, repent, confess and be baptized. These are the gospel in action. When the gospel is preached, what do we hear? The gospel! That Jesus Christ, the Son of God came down from Heaven to die on the cross for our sins, was buried, and then resurrected three days later. What do we believe? The gospel! That Jesus Christ, the Son of God came down from Heaven to die on the cross for our sins, was buried, and then resurrected three days later. Why do we repent? Because we believe the gospel! That Jesus Christ, the Son of God came down from Heaven TO DIE ON THE CROSS FOR OUR SINS, was buried, and then resurrected three days later. Why do we confess? Because we believe the gospel! That JESUS CHRIST, THE SON OF GOD CAME DOWN FROM HEAVEN to die on the cross for our sins, was buried, and then resurrected three days later. Why are we baptized? Because we believe the gospel! That Jesus Christ, the Son of God came down from Heaven to die on the cross for our sins, WAS BURIED, AND THEN RESURRECTED THREE DAYS LATER.
There’s only one way to know we are not like God, and need God. God tells us. Recognizing we are ungodly and wanting to reform on His terms is just the beginning.
We Are Instructed to be Like God
Too many end at the beginning, trying to live sans divine directives. How’s our prayer life? The disciples humbly seek answers (Luke 11:1). How are our parenting skills? Search Proverbs. Looking at narratives, Eli shows how not to parent (1 Samuel 1-4). How are we at being a son or daughter? For one particular situation, we had one child hand copy Proverbs. Grace was given for timeliness limiting the number of chapters copied. Similarly, Israel’s king was required to hand-write the law (Deuteronomy 17:18). How is our marriage? Song of Solomon is not a set of instructions, but it instructs. Problems overcoming temptations? 1 John teaches we overcome the world through loving servanthood. All these require reading God’s instructions. All these, and life, are about learning to live like God because God’s love is learned. God wants us to be “complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16); so that “if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they will keep you from being useless or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:8).
By analogy, Christians are sheep. One of the most obvious characteristics of sheep is, well, let’s be honest, they are stupid. They need a shepherd’s guidance. By synonym, Christians are disciples. By definition, disciples are students. Jesus’ most common name for His followers in the gospels is disciple, found almost 250 times. The term Christ chose describing His followers had a long history, back as far as Herodotus (5th century B.C.). Kittel, surveying pre-New Testament usage of mathetes, discusses two competing notions of the disciple/teacher relationship among the Greeks (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol.iv, pp.416ff):
– One Who Lives Like His Teacher – The predominant idea pictures a disciple imitating his teacher, focusing on their personal relationship.
– One Who Learns From His Teacher – The Sophists saw their disciples’ roles educationally and economically, receiving the teacher’s information and paying for it.
Balancing learning and living is always challenging. Some sincerely say: “Stop trying to learn so much doctrine; just live like Jesus.” To others, doctrine is everything. They may not live what they know, but they are not ignorant. Jesus expected more than the accumulation of information. God’s instruction necessitates change resulting from imitation. Therefore in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Jesus’ sermon on fulfilling the law and prophets is about fulfilling God’s instruction leading to imitating God. Our goal is not keeping a law, but being like the law giver which leads to keeping His law. In the end, following rules failed Israel, and would fail us too. That’s why the Bible is more than a manual. Jesus teaching and living the Mountain Sermon shows how He fulfilled commands of God in His life by applying heart, mind, soul and body.
Instructed so that we may do and become is essential. But the instruction also comes in the form of what the new covenant is as opposed to the old; altering the focus from what we do or become, to what God does to us:
2 Corinthians 3:18 We all, with unveiled faces, are looking as in a mirror at the glory of the Lord and are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory; this is from the Lord who is the Spirit.
- How Does the Bible Instruct?
Jesus asked, “How does it read to you?” (Luke10:26). His disciples asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” (Acts 8:30). These are important questions on being instructed from God. Understanding reading is just the beginning. “How does it read to you?” is not asking, “How does it read TO YOU?” but, “How does IT READ to you?” The first is subjective, the second objective. The first focuses on what God says, not on what I want God to say.
Despite the O.T. with its 613 laws (according to the rabbis), this “how-to” book is not a set of directions written in “manualese.” There is no “put part A into slot B” guaranteeing success. Only if life were that simple; then again, how boring and confusing are manuals making them ignored? Of course, people – mostly men – ignore instructions thinking they can figure it out on their own. It’s ego: “I did it and I didn’t even read the instructions! (Please ignore left over parts.)” But isn’t that exactly how people treat the Bible? We think we can figure it out on our own. Beware, essential leftover parts.
Wanting simple instructions and fast solutions, shortcuts are taken, often titled, “What To Read When….” Pick a problem, and the Bible has a solution. There is a place for topical studies and lists (i.e., Proverbs); but often we can gain more studying people, seeing the whole story. Joseph teaches more about forgiveness than anyone except Jesus. Read the lives God preserved through inspiration; after all, their lives are as real as ours and we don’t live bullet-point lives. Complicated life is why Paul said, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.” Examples are powerful tools. Living the example, we learn. Ultimately, we live and learn by dying. Think about it. Jesus came to live and die so that we can die and live. There is no Christianity without crucifixion. That’s what Christ instructs us to do.
Holy writ instructs with ordinances, prophecies, narratives, poetry, parables, visual aids, lists, plus more. This is just like every-day life. Reading God’s instructions take loving God with our heart, soul, mind and body (Deuteronomy 6:5-9; Matthew 22:37). God wants all of us, and it takes all our being to learn. It is not just a “mind thing.” Instruction is a “love thing” and love is lived.
Pseudo-Christianity makes God man-centered where He is only concerned with us being happy instead of us becoming like Him. Worship becomes about good feelings, what we want, like and enjoy. Remember Eve? Wrongly, people search to find happiness instead of finding God which leads to happiness. Instead of making God into an idol, modern man has done worse. God is our puppet and we pull His strings.
Jesus said, “If anyone wants to do His will, he will understand whether the teaching is from God or if I am speaking on My own” (John 7:17). This doesn’t mean every misunderstanding is caused by a lack of willingness; but that willingness is part of every understanding. The Bereans searched the Scriptures to see if what they heard matched what God wrote (Acts 17:11). The first question I ask in a study called “You and God,” is “If Jesus was here today as your teacher, would you listen to Him?” This forms the basis for lesson one: “Are You Willing to Listen to God?” When we are not, we are like that student with his eyes shut, asleep on his desk.
God instructs His students to pray for knowledge (Ephesians 1:17-19). “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:26); so is studying without praying. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12), by studying the One who saved through His own fear and trembling (Luke 22:42-44). Being informed takes work, application, and God working through us (Philippians 2:13). “Action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer). Everyone prays, or should be praying (Ephesians1:15-19; 6:18-20) that God will help them be led by His Spirit.
The Psalmist said, “open my eyes so that I may see wonderful things in Your law” (Psalm 119:18). I’m sure all wish we could hear verbally or see literally Heaven’s confirmation (John 1:32-34). In a way have the answer before asking the question; but the strength and wisdom to see the answer, to apply God’s knowledge must be our continual prayer. It’s harder spiritually and mentally to accomplish that than just verbally praying. Searching for God’s instruction should begin by opening up to God even before we open our Bibles. He will meet us there. Talk to God (Luke 11:9-13). My constant prayer is for God to help me see what is there, and not see what isn’t there. This is more than an interpretive prayer; it is a prayer for God to direct my will.
Pray for knowledge, but don’t expect illumination different from what’s written; pray for understanding to see clearly what God has already written. To quote Ronald Reagan, “It isn’t so much that people are ignorant. It’s just that they know so many things that aren’t so.” If the apostles could not cast out a demon without prayer, what makes us think we can cast out our false illusions and prideful knowledge while studying without prayer (Matthew 17:21; Mark 9:29)?
Study to Glorify God
We become like the Almighty though studying, imitating, and glorifying. There is a scarlet thread of redemption running from the beginning to the end of God’s revelation. It is scarlet because red is the color of blood, shed to repair our broken fellowship. Redemption’s main focus is not man’s salvation but God’s glorification (Ephesians 1:12,14; 3:16,21). If we study thinking salvation is about us, we are self-centered. If we study simply to find how we should act and make good decisions, we are short-sighted. We should not think the main point is us being saved, but rather God being glorified in saving us. Finding how to act is in reality finding how to act like God. Therefore study to find ways to glorify God by learning more about God, to better praise Him in worship and life. Search the scriptures so as to live like God by putting on Christ in name and form.
Theology is Not Theoretical
An amazing aspect of Christianity is that theology, which is the study of God, has a purpose beyond defining and describing Deity. Practical theology has to be lived out in the Christian life where we become more like God by practicing godlike truths and therefore define and describe God in reality. Paul often begins his epistles describing the gospel; and then takes on family life and other practical living topics. Philippians 2, the emptying of Christ, is simply about serving. The “Trinity” is about love and service in fellowship. The Son serves the Father, while equal. The Holy Spirit empowers and serves the Son, while equal. If love is seeking the best for others, and if God is love, then by definition “God” is a plurality within a singularity, a united one. That is the essence of Christianity, and the church.
God’s Attributes Form Our Instruction
God is love (1 John 4:8, 16) is the most common definition of God. It doesn’t take much Biblical familiarity to know the first and second great commandments. Both are about love, and all divine directives hang on love (Matthew 22:36-40.). Rules are more than rules; they are revelations of God Himself.
Cain dismissively answers God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9); not wanting to know keeping is loving. Cain is sarcastically saying he isn’t responsible for Abel; he isn’t Abel’s babysitter. Such an attitude cautions us on how we answer and treat one another. Iain Provan writes,
“By ‘love,’ I mean ‘keeping’ other persons. I am to look after them actively and to look out for their interests, as best I can and as often as the opportunity presents itself. I am to do this in line with God’s own character and actions in the world, and in the light of God’s own specific commands about what love entails, rather than making the mistake of thinking that I can myself, without God’s help, ‘know good and evil.’ I am to imitate and obey God, rather than falling for the heroic myth that we human beings ourselves, as individuals and groups, are the measure of what ‘right’ means” (Seriously Dangerous Religion, 212).
Peter Leithart observes, “Provan believes in the goodness of God’s law, and believes that the Bible has normative force” (firstthings.com/blogs/leithart/2014/05/seriously-dangerous). Pilate’s futuristic post-modernistic, “What is truth?” cannot be answered without revelation. God’s law is the only way to know how to treat one another (1 Timothy 1:8), let alone how to treat God. Doing away with God’s law is exactly what Cain did. He dismissed Abel and God; in worship, love, and words. While justified by grace, we are judged by law. Go back to God’s question, “Where is your brother Abel?” God was concerned. Go to the new covenant to see how we are “brothers.” God is concerned. Now use God’s love and law to answer how to treat “one another.”
God is holy (1 Peter 1:16). “Be holy” is a precept. God’s commands are not burdensome and are designed for our holiness. “Holy” is not an abstract, but a principle finding expression in God’s precepts. Behind the precept and principle is the personhood of God, “for I am holy.” When we are holy, we make our lives better; but that is not the ultimate goal. Be holy for God is holy. Live to imitate God’s holiness.
God’s commands are expressions of Divine character. If we interpret the Bible in a way that contradicts His character, we have misinterpreted it. God would not instruct contrary to Who He is. Such would be a blatant contradiction.
Practical Ways to Read and Study God’s Instruction
Disciples today learn by reading. When reading we should be listening and changing. Below are practical tips on how to extrapolate so as to imitate, a how-to list on reading. Also are some charts to copy for your personal study. I hope they are self-explanatory. Remember, study because you are not like God, but want to be.
Tip #1 – Read with intent, as if speaking the words yourself. Use inflection, try to hear the tone. Emphasize power or key words. Imagine different voices for different speakers. This makes the reading come alive. Have a conversation with the text.
Tip #2 – Read with prayer, pausing over the meaning, praying with personal application. Have a conversation with God.
Tip #3 – Read with humility, challenging yourself to repent when necessary, improve where needed, to praise and thank God for recognized blessings. Have a conversation with yourself.
Tip #4 – Read with variety, check out trusted versions which can give freshness and new insights. Have a conversation with the translators.
Tip #5 – Read with a pencil (pens can’t be erased), marking, numbering, connecting thoughts, and making notes. Make your Bible “yours.” Have a conversation with the text.
Tip #6 – Read as much of one book as possible at single sittings to get a better overall contextual view, enabling you to see connecting thoughts and themes more easily. You wouldn’t read a novel one paragraph at a time. Let the author have a conversation with you.
Tip #7 – Read, understanding each story has three time periods: When it happened (i.e., Why did the people act?); When it was written (i.e., Why did the author include these facts?); When it was read (i.e., Why is this important to me?). Each tells a different but complementary story. Have a conversation with history.
Tip #8 – Use the 3 R’s to making the Bible Relevant: 1) Remember this is Real; 2) Relive the Situation; 3) Recast into today. The first focuses on their humanity as real. The second puts us in their place experiencing their emotions. The third makes application today, “What would this look like in our world?” Have a conversation intellectually, emotionally, and practically.
Tip #9 – A good investigator asks who, what, when, where, why and how. This is called the inductive study method. Such questions bring an intelligent investigation of the source. Have an inductive conversation with Scripture.
Tip #10 – While no translation is inspired, remember you have the mind of Christ in your hands; that the words were inspired, and that people throughout history gave their fortunes, reputations and lives to protect it. Have a conversation with yourself and ask, “Do I value the Bible as much as I should?”
Unless otherwise stated, all Bible quotations from the HCSB.