(Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the ESV).
People don’t typically write books for no reason. Whether they explicitly state it or not, authors have a purpose behind every publication. Cookbooks are intended to help people learn to cook new recipes. Textbooks are made to help students learn more about a particular subject. And so on.
The same goes for the Bible. It, too, is a book (a collection of books, technically, but we Christians treat them as a singular canon). So what exactly was the divine Author’s intention for it? Does the Bible have a thesis statement that explains why it exists?
In a way, yes. Actually it contains several statements of its own intended purpose. And if we examine each of those statements side-by-side, we can see how they complement one another and help us form a more full-orbed idea of what the Bible is for.
Purpose #1: To Make Us Wise for Salvation in Christ Jesus
One of the clearest and most important self-descriptions of the Bible is in 2 Timothy 3:15-17: “…you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
So, in one sense you could say that the Bible is a “How-To” book. It’s about how to experience eternal salvation through Jesus. That’s the key subject about which the Bible wants to give instruction; everything else revolves around that central purpose.
Jesus himself makes the same point when he makes this explicit statement about the Scriptures’ role: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39-40).
Notice Jesus’s point here. He doesn’t deny that the Scriptures are valuable, but he does qualify them. They are a means to an end; not an end in themselves. The Bible is meant to lead its readers into a saving, personal knowledge of Jesus Christ.
God’s word (lower-case, the written word) points us to God’s Word (upper-case, the living Word, Jesus). Christians were never meant to worship a book, but to worship the Christ who is revealed by the book. The Scriptures are a witness to him.
That goes for all of the Scriptures. It all leads (in some way) toward Jesus. Both of the verses listed above are originally referring to what we consider the Old Testament when they refer to “the Scriptures.” (The New Testament books were gradually included later, since the church considered them to have been written under divine inspiration through Christ’s apostles and their close associates — see 2 Peter 3:15-16, where Paul’s letters are included with “the other Scriptures”).
Christians historically have always seen the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) as a record of God’s promises and preparations for bringing the way of salvation into the world through his Messiah, Jesus. It is the foundational story that sets the stage for everything in the New Testament. (Which is why one of the worst heresies in the history of the church was Marcionism, the attempt to remove the Old Testament and everything Jewish from Christianity). As St. Augustine famously quipped, “In the Old Testament the New is concealed, in the New the Old is revealed” (Quaest. in Hept. 2, 73).
The purpose statement used by the author of the Gospel of John thus applies quite fittingly to the Bible as a whole: “these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).
Purpose #2: To Instruct Us in Righteousness
Second Timothy 3:15 says the Scriptures were written so we could have knowledge of the way of salvation. But it goes on in verses 16-17 to say that they are also intended to instruct us in righteous living: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
God doesn’t just intend for people to know how to get to heaven (it’d be nice if he just whisked us up there as soon as we were baptized, wouldn’t it?). Rather, he also intends to shape a community in his image now, here, on earth, to be co-laborers in his kingdom mission (see Matthew 28:18-20; Philippians 2:14-16; 1 Peter 2:9-12).
Notice what the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:11 about the stories from the Old Testament: “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.” We are to learn from the figures, stories, and reflections in the Bible about what it looks like to walk in a right relationship with God (through faith in Christ) and how to live as his people.
We need to keep in mind what 2 Timothy 3:17 says the Scriptures equip us for: “every good work.” The Bible isn’t just a book of cool historical trivia, nor is it a guide to every modern question we might want it to answer. It won’t tell you where to live, who to marry, what kind of car to buy, what stock to invest in, or what secret code you need to know to predict the end of the world (no matter what some so-called “Bible prophecy experts” might be peddling on a given week).
But it will instruct you on how to be the kind of person who makes wise, ethical decisions and builds relationships of integrity and purpose. It will instruct you in what justice and equity look like, according to the Creator. It will call you to selflessness and a life of humble service. And it will nourish your connection to Christ who is the source of our righteousness (1 Corinthians 1:30).
Purpose #3: To Give Us Hope
Once again Paul offers us the most clear statements on the purpose of Scripture. He writes in Romans 15:4, “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”
Not only does Scripture instruct us on how to live righteously; it also instructs us about the faithfulness of God to carry out his promises. Ultimately it is this — the faithful character of God — that allows believers to have hope to persevere no matter their circumstances. We read the Bible to gain insight into God’s plan and purposes for the world, letting us know why we don’t need to panic even when circumstances seem dire.
As we read Scripture, we see example after example of God keeping his word, assuring us that he will continue to do so. Thus we can consider our trials for what they are — opportunities to exercise faith and grow in endurance (James 1:2-4; 1 Peter 1:3-9). We can look to the examples of our ancestors in the faith who persevered in spite of suffering and gain encouragement to go on (see Hebrews 11:1-12:2). We can also learn — from the biblical examples of people like Hannah, David, Job, and Jeremiah — to express our sorrows and laments to God, trusting that he hears us and will not rebuke our complaints, for “he is near to the brokenhearted” (Psalm 34:18).
Purpose #4: To Make Us More Loving
A brave lawyer once asked Jesus what he thought was the most important command in all the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus’s answer? “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40).
Elsewhere Jesus says that the one thing that will identify who truly are his disciples is their love (John 13:35). And this is not to be a watered-down, affirm-everything kind of love — it’s to be the sacrificial love Jesus himself demonstrated; a love reflective of the character of God (John 13:34; 1 John 3:10; 4:7-21).
We learn from the whole story of Scripture just what it means to love God with all our heart and love our neighbor as ourselves in the way he desires. And if we aren’t coming away from our Bible reading with greater levels of love for fellow sinners like ourselves, then our reading has not been adequate.
Again, reading the Bible is a means to the end of being more loving and Christlike. It should never be merely about knowledge, for “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1 NET).
Putting It All Together
The Bible was written to build our faith in Jesus and teach us how to live righteously for him. It was written to give us hope and encourage us with God’s promises. And it was written to make us more loving.
You might even say it was written to instill in us “faith, hope, and love — and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13 NLT).
This means that if your reading (or preaching!) of the Bible is not resulting in people becoming more faithful, more hopeful, and above all, more loving, then you’re reading it wrong.
So, to summarize my three reflections on what the Bible is and what it’s for, we might reasonably say that the Bible is God’s story given to God’s people to shape them in God’s image. And we would need to add that that image looks like greater degrees of wisdom, righteousness, faith, hope, and love.
Since it is the book of God’s people (our canon), it is through the study and preaching and public reading of Scripture that the people of God are equipped to know God, experience salvation, and live lives of faith, hope, and love. It transforms us by renewing our minds (Romans 12:2), disciplines us by exposing our sin (Psalm 119:11; Hebrews 4:12), and encourages us for the work of God’s kingdom (Colossians 3:16).
And above all these things, it constantly draws us closer to the living Word of God to whom it bears witness — Jesus Christ our Lord — so that we may know and abide in him.
That (according to the Bible itself) is what the Bible is for.
Much of the material in these last three posts has been influenced by two important books which I highly recommend to anyone wanting to deepen their understanding of the nature and purpose of Scripture: N. T. Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God (HarperOne, 2011) and Michael Bird’s Seven Things I Wish Christians Knew about the Bible (Zondervan, 2021).
Categories: Bible study, biblical interpretation, General
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