One of the outstanding qualities of the apostle Paul was his desire to mentor others, encouraging them to follow his example, and boldly testify to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Among those greatly influenced by Paul was a younger man named Timothy. A close bond existed between them; they were like father and son. We see something of this in the letters that Paul wrote to Timothy, two of which are now part of the New Testament.
In the second of these letters Paul reveals that Timothy’s path to faith in Jesus Christ was heavily shaped by his grandmother, Lois, and his mother, Eunice (2nd Timothy 1:5). From early in Timothy’s life, they profoundly influenced him as they led him to understand the teaching of Holy Scripture. For Paul, Timothy’s faith is a testimony to the biblical literacy of his mother and grandmother. There is an important lesson here for mothers everywhere.
In the light of Timothy’s upbringing, Paul writes encouraging words of instruction to him:
“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2nd Timothy 3:14-17, NIV).
In reading this passage, we should not overlook the fact that when Paul refers here to the Holy Scriptures he is speaking only of the Old Testament. At the time of writing, the New Testament as we know it had yet to be created.
Paul’s remarks highlight two vitally important reasons for studying the Bible. Firstly, and of primarily importance, the Holy Scriptures make us wise “for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” Put simply, reading the Bible enables us to come to a living knowledge of Jesus Christ. And as we grow in our appreciation of who He truly is, we discover that in Him are found all the riches of God’s grace. He is the one in whom we trust for salvation. Through Him we experience God’s grace. As Paul reminds Timothy, “This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2nd Timothy 1:9-10, NIV). Through Christ we move from death to life.
From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible provides an important testimony to Jesus Christ. Most obviously, the four Gospels give complementary portraits of Him, emphasizing His royal nature as the son of David (Matthew), His divine nature as the Son of God (Mark), His compassion as the Savior of the world (Luke), and His life-giving role as the Lamb of God (John). In different ways these portrayals of Jesus Christ draw on expectations that are central to the message of the Old Testament.
Take Matthew’s Gospel, for example. In the opening chapters of Genesis, God announces that one of Eve’s descendants will reverse the tragic consequences of the first couple’s betrayal of God (Genesis 3:15). The rest of Genesis traces a unique family line that eventually leads to Jesus Christ. God’s initial pronouncement regarding the defeat of the serpent, later revealed to be the devil/Satan (Revelation 12:9; 20:2), is reinforced and expanded by subsequent promises that are given to those who form part of the chain of ancestors leading to Jesus Christ. Near the start of this chain comes Abraham, through whom God promises to bless all the families of the Earth (Genesis 12:3). This promise is later guaranteed by an eternal covenant that centers on Abraham being the father of many nations (Genesis 17:4-6).
What begins with Abraham is later linked to King David and his dynasty, creating the hope that one of David’s descendants will establish God’s kingdom on earth (cf. Psalm 72). With this reading of the Old Testament in view, Matthew deliberately begins his Gospel by describing Jesus Christ as “the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1). In like manner, the Apostle Paul proclaims that the divine promises given to Abraham find their fulfilment in Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:8-9, 16). The Old Testament story informs our understanding of who Jesus Christ is.
While we should never lose sight of how the whole of Scripture provides a vital testimony to Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul moves beyond this to highlight a second reason for studying the Bible. Paul notes that God deliberately inspired the writing of the Bible, in order that its contents might transform the way in which we live. He observes that “all Scripture” is useful for equipping “the servant of God…for every good work” (2nd Timothy 3:16-17).
In a rich variety of ways, the Bible impacts how we see the world around us and our place within it. Its overarching meta-narrative explains why we exist and gives guidance as to how we should live. In addition, through stories that exemplify both good and bad behavior, we are taught God’s moral values. Through proverbial sayings we are exhorted to choose the way of wisdom rather than the way of folly. Through prophetic oracles we are challenged to adopt lifestyles that reflect the character of God, especially His concern for the weaker and marginalized members of society. Through the teaching of Jesus Christ, we are encouraged to love our neighbors as ourselves, not forgetting also to love our enemies. Through Paul’s pastoral advice to fledgling Christian communities and individual believers we are instructed to nurture the wholesome fruit of the Spirit in our lives. Scripture abounds in moral instructions that equip us for good works as disciples of Jesus Christ.
The Apostle Paul brings together in his instructions to Timothy the inseparable themes of salvation and discipleship. The whole of Scripture is designed to teach us regarding these central themes. In writing to the believers in Ephesus, Paul highlights the close connection that exists between salvation and good works. Importantly, however, he emphasizes that we are not saved by good works, but saved for good works. He writes:
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith —and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:8-10 NIV).
If the first reason for studying the Bible is to discover the salvation that comes to us freely through Jesus Christ, the second reason is to learn the meaning of total submission to Jesus Christ as Lord.
With good reason the German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, warned against the danger of “cheap grace”, for some believers are very willing to focus on Jesus Christ as the source of salvation, but are exceptionally reluctant to undertake the inescapable demands of discipleship. As we study the Bible, we should be constantly asking how both Testaments point us to Jesus Christ as the source of our salvation and how they instruct us to obey Him in order to do good to others. The more we marinate ourselves in the whole of Scripture, the more we will appreciate what it means for Jesus Christ to be both our Lord and our Savior.
T. Desmond Alexander (PhD, The Queen’s University of Belfast) is senior lecturer in biblical studies and director of postgraduate studies at Union Theological College in Belfast. Alexander is the chairman of the Tyndale Fellowship for Biblical and Theological Research, served as coeditor of The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, and has written many volumes in the area of biblical theology. T. D. is married to Anne, and they have two adult children.