While serving in full-time ministry at Kansas University, a student to whom I was ministering saw me making notes in the pages of my Bible, and reacted with great intensity, as though my doing so was evil played out before his eyes. For the record, I write all over the pages of my Bible. I have decades of notes, underlines, circles, and highlights.
I can understand, and even appreciate one wanting to reverence the message contained in the book, but we need to understand that it is a book, and as such, I grant it the same care I render every other book I own.
I won’t drop my Bible in a bathtub. I won’t crack its spine, or violently fling it across the room. But neither will I object to stacking my Bible with other books, underneath or atop other books, and I may even lay a DVD or a pair of scissors on it, and have been known to stand my water bottle atop it as it lay on the table or counter-top.
In short, I will not worship my Bible any more than I worship my Webster’s Dictionary. I value it more than the dictionary, but that is only because of what it contains, not because of what it is. It is a book – a bound collection of printed pages.
And at the risk of sounding self-contradictory, that’s all it is, and yet it is so much more!
The English word Bible is simply a transliteration (phonetic draw of a word from one language to another) of the word βιβλιον (biblion). It is not a holy, or religious word. It refers to a written document, a certificate, a written notice, a scroll. Our closest translation of biblion would probably be “book,” though at the time of the word’s inception, books in the sense that we think of them did not exist.
The Bible is not a book of formulas or incantations that, spoken in the right order or with the proper emphasis, can cause specific desired outcomes. It is not a magical object that we can hold out in front of us to displace evil from the path we are walking. No magical energy will transfer from the book to me by me sleeping with it under my pillow, or by grasping it tightly to my chest.
Proclamations of biblio-idolatry are faddish in certain circles today, and I have no wish to add my voice to that choir of shouting combatants. Instead, my intent is to help us grasp the Bible for what it is so we can glean the most benefit from it in our walk with Jesus.
Assuming we agree that the Bible is a bound collection of printed pages, just as is the Linux System Administrator’s Guide on the shelf next to me, what is it that makes the Bible special? The beauty is found in the message it contains, and the truth of that message.
The System Administrator’s guide contains truth, and it will teach me everything I need to know to set up a Linux operating system on a computer, and that has value. My Bible, however, teaches me everything I need to know for life, for holy living, and I cannot place a value on that!
Another popular, albeit misguided, belief is that we derive some mystical gain from the quoting of scripture. Support for this practice is drawn, primarily, from Jesus’ experience in the desert temptations. Proponents believe that Jesus overcame Satan by quoting scripture at him, and a cursory reading of the temptation account in the gospel could lead one to that conclusion. Satan did throw temptations in front of Jesus, and Jesus did quote scripture to Satan.
The theory is that I can fend off spiritual attacks by quoting scripture “at” the attacks, and by my doing so, the attackers will flee, or die the same way the Wicked Witch of the West shriveled up when Dorothy threw a bucket of water on her. The witch could not endure contact with water, and supposedly, demons cannot endure hearing scripture. This suggests that there is some disempowering, enchanted ring to the sound of the words.
The quoting of scripture is not what made Jesus victorious over Satan. What made him victorious is that Jesus lived the truth of scripture. He embodied scripture’s truths. It is the living of scripture that empowers me to overcome, not the quoting of it.
We know that Satan has no aversion either to hearing scripture, or to speaking it. The very passage used to push the idea proves it false. Satan quoted scripture to Jesus as a part of his temptation.
Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you,”
“On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.”‘ – Matthew 4:5-6, ESV
When I went through seminary, we had an instructor who could accurately quote almost the entire Bible from about six or seven different translations. He could do this because he read through the New Testament once a week and the Old Testament once a month. But his scripture memory was not what made him so powerful. The man’s impact was fueled by the way his life lined up with what his mind held on to.
Similarly, I once witnessed a man preach a sermon who didn’t really preach it. It took a moment before I realized, and thought to myself, He’s quoting Colossians.
The opening of his sermon was a memorized recitation of the entire book of Colossians. It was powerful, not because he had memorized it, but because it was so much a part of him that he strolled around the stage and spoke to us as naturally as if we were sitting down to morning tea.
I have witnessed men and women quote scripture in such a way that it shows a deliberate effort. In some cases, they even strike a pose to do it, as if I’m talking now as myself, but in a moment I’m going to strike my ‘scripture stance’ to quote the passage.
I don’t want to come off as saying memorizing scripture is not of value. That’s not what I’m saying at all. Where memorization of scripture becomes of tremendous value is when it becomes so much a part of who we are that it flows from us as a natural element of our entirety. It is woven into our conversation with such fluidity that those with whom we are conversing might even miss the fact that we just quoted scripture as easily and naturally as we discussed last Saturday’s soccer game.
I once knew a man who prayed in that way. We would be walking together, talking about any given issue, and in the next sentence he would be talking to God, and then to me again, and then to God. The fact that there were three of us on that walk, me, him, and God, was an active reality for this man. Memorized scripture should flow from us as naturally as my friend’s prayers.
The Summation of It All
What makes the Bible so special is not that it says “Holy Bible” on the spine, or that I can read or quote relevant passages at specific contexts, or that I have memorized great quantities of scripture. What makes the Bible special is the way all of that combines to impact my life and make me the man that I am.
Yes! The Bible is a holy writing, and as such, it alters me from the inside out. The thing that makes my memorization and quoting of scripture so powerful is not the act in and of itself, but rather that I am living a life that is in agreement with, or consistent with what my mouth is speaking.
Read your Bible. Devour it. Cherish those things you read. But do those things with a view toward allowing the God those words reveal to you to transform your inner man, your inner woman. Otherwise, you may as well be reading the Linux System Administrator’s Guide.
The Bible is not God, but its pages can reveal God to you. The Bible is not grace, but it can show you the pathway to grace. The Bible is not salvation, but it can explain to you God’s plan for salvation. The Bible is a tool, and it is one of the most valuable tools in your tool chest.