By Catherine A. Deddo
"You Search the Scriptures" (John 5:37-39)
Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees, the religious leaders of his day. The Pharisees cared deeply about the law of God and following that law. To follow the law precisely was, to them, what it meant to be righteous, and to gain God’s favor. The common people held them in high regard for their devoted study of the scriptures. They were so concerned about following the law meticulously that they added the interpretations given by teachers down through the generations on how to follow each law. These interpretations, known as the oral law, were considered as binding as the written law. By the time that Jesus was here on earth, there were over 600 laws on how to observe the Sabbath!
The Pharisees studied the scriptures to know how to live, how to behave, so that God would be pleased and they would receive eternal life or whatever blessings God would give. Far from rejecting God or taking Him lightly, they would have told you that they took God very seriously and their devotion to the law demonstrated it.
And yet they had lost something very crucial in this approach to their study of scripture. In focusing all of their attention on the law, on how to obey the law, they no longer knew who the lawgiver was!
At the time that Jesus was speaking to them here, they had already become hostile to Him. In fact, they were seeking to kill Him. Jesus wants them to see the connection between their study of scriptures and their hostility towards Him. About their approach to the scriptures, Jesus now tells them, “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.”
Jesus is telling them that their approach to scripture is taking them not towards God, but away from Him! They do not know the God who gave them the scriptures they spend so much time pouring over. In fact, just before Jesus says the above, He delivers this devastating assessment of the Pharisees, “And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness to me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen; and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe him whom he has sent.”
How could He say this to them? They have never heard God’s voice? And how is it possible that they don’t have His word abiding in them? Isn’t that exactly what they have? After all, haven’t they spent their lives seeking to obey God’s word? Don’t they show their reverence for His word by their devoted attempts to follow the law?
What does Jesus give as evidence for His charges against the Pharisees? In both statements, the reason He gives is their treatment of Him. Although He was sent by the God whose law they observe, they don’t trust Him. Clearly the premise is, that if they had known God the Father, they would have recognized Him in God the Son.
This is truly amazing. How can it be they these Pharisees were such students of scripture and yet did not know Who God is? How could they get it so wrong?
It seems that their approach to scripture is what led them away from knowing the living God. They studied to know the commands of God and not the character and the heart of God. Is knowing commands the same as knowing the one who commands? Apparently not. In fact, only knowing the commands can lead you to have a completely wrong understanding of the command-giver and likely of the commands themselves.
Jesus tells them that they are searching the scriptures to find eternal life in them. But the scriptures are pointing to Jesus, to the living God Himself. The purpose of God’s written word is to lead us to the living Word.
When we study the Bible, do we look at it primarily as a rule book? Do we read it to find out how we are to behave, or what actions we are supposed to take? Do we think that this is the main thing God wants us to get from our study of scripture? Or are we primarily to study the Bible to continually grow in our knowledge of and so our trust in, the living triune God? And then as a fruit of this will arise our actions and reactions.
I have noticed that often in Bible study material, the application questions at the end of the study are all in the form of “what” or “how” questions. How can I put this into practice? How should I spend my time? What should I do to witness to my neighbors? But maybe the primary application that we always need to be asking is “Who is God”—what is He like? What does this passage or verse reveal about His heart? What can I trust God for now that I see more deeply who he really is?
I think the problem is that usually we think we already know who God is. He is omnipotent, omniscient, holy, etc. We have the list of His attributes. So, let’s go on to the important stuff—what we are to do. It is almost as if we have come to equate knowing God with knowing the doctrines about God and leave it there.
What we often don’t realize is that we can’t really know the commands, the things to do, apart from knowing the God who gives them. How we obey, and to what end, is intrinsically connected to our relationship with God. That is why the epistles all begin reminding their readers of the wonderful character and purposes of the triune God. The imperatives, the commands, must come from knowing our gracious God, from our theology.
How we live the Christian life, how we “obey” says a great deal about Who we think God is. Do we obey out of anxiety? A sense of guilt? Do we think obedience is our way to earn God’s favor, or to appease Him? Just who is the God we are serving?
The Pharisees didn’t know. They did not know God or have any real relationship with Him. These men, who spent their lives devoting themselves to the study of the scriptures and to following the law, these are the ones Jesus says have never known God!
It might be helpful to think of Bible study as looking at a sunset. By facing and being drawn into the sunset a glorious response is drawn out of us. We study the words of Scripture in order to be led by the Spirit to see more deeply into God Himself and to respond in repentance and faith more and more to who He really is. Praise, thanksgiving and adoration are the responses drawn out of us. And then, by seeing Him more clearly, and responding more and more fully to who he is, we are able to know truly how to live and are actually moved to live in a way that mirrors God’s own character and ways. God first wants us to know Him, and provides His scripture to point us to Him in his self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Only then will a faithful obedience follow that arises out of faith and trust in who God is, and so bring glory to the God whom we freely and joyfully obey.