For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that through patience and through comfort of the scriptures we might have hope (Romans 15:4).
Why do we have the Scriptures, and what benefits can we gain by them?
These are simple questions, and yet the answers we give to them tell a lot about how we view the Scriptures and their role in our lives. To many people, the Bible is a curious relic of an earlier age, treated as mythology. Yet, for most Christians the Bible is truth, representing the revealed Word of God, providing instruction and exhortation in faith and practice (cf. 2 Timothy 3:15-17). The Bible is described variously as a “road map to eternity,” “life’s how-to manual,” and the source of answers to every question. Many then come to the Scriptures in order to find direction in life, solutions to their problems, and answers to questions. These descriptions of the Bible have some accuracy, but they are not the way that the authors of Scripture describe the purpose and value of Scripture.
As Paul concludes a discussion of how Christians are to treat one another, he quotes the Old Testament in Psalm 69:9 and speaks of how it relates to Jesus (Romans 15:3). He then takes the opportunity to explain why he would quote the psalm and apply it to Jesus, even though he has already quoted the Old Testament often in Romans: that which was written before our time was written for our learning, that through patience and through the comfort of the Scriptures we might have hope (Romans 15:4).
According to Paul, therefore, the Scriptures were written for our learning: we are to be taught and gain instruction from what they say. This instruction has an end goal: through patience and through the comfort of the Scriptures we might have hope. Paul’s understanding of Scripture has much to commend it: he gives a very holistic view of its place in life.
Scripture was written for our learning. The Greek word for “learning” is didaskalia, and it refers to learning, teaching, and instruction. From the Scriptures we can learn about God and His interaction with mankind. We can see God’s standards of holiness and how to live by them.
The reader of Scripture quickly discovers, however, that the Scriptures do not represent any sort of systematic treatise. It does not have a “FAQ” (Frequently Asked Questions) section. There is no systematic presentation of a series of true statements describing God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the church, salvation, etc. There are maps added to the Bible to assist in understanding of the locations of various places, but God did not provide a graphic laying out a road map to life. While the Scriptures provide answers for many or even all of our questions, the way in which those questions are answered are not necessarily the way in which we would choose or prefer. Instead, most of the Scriptures are narratives, telling the stories of God and the people of God from creation until the first century of our own era. In Scripture we meet people and learn about their behavior whether for good or ill. We learn about the situation of early Christians in their various local churches, the problems and questions they face, and the direction given them by the Apostles. It all ends with a vision full of fantastic imagery which seems to confuse more than it encourages.
For many of us, the Scriptures are not written in the way we would write it, and its way of communication seems foreign to those with modern, “Western” sensibilities. The Scriptures were not written in the way we wanted them to be written, but according to how God intended to communicate His purposes to mankind. God’s ways are greater than our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9), and the way Scripture communicates is masterful. We are different people: we learn in different ways, process in different ways, conceive of the world in different ways, but Scripture can speak to all of us because it speaks through narrative. We all can learn from stories. Systematic analysis is well and good and has its place, but it is also two-dimensional, cold, and leaves unaddressed far more than it could ever address. God, through Scripture, tells us about people and situations, and speaks of divine truth in terms of descriptive imagery. Despite our differences, we all understand in metaphors and communicate in metaphors. We can live at different times in different cultures but understand light versus darkness, scattering seed, and such things. We can understand character studies and learn from examples of what to do and what not to do. We can find among the personalities of the Bible people with whom we relate on account of personality or circumstance. Our learning is to involve far more than just head knowledge; it is designed to change our hearts, minds, and actions!
The end goal is to live in hope. People will live either in hope or fear: they either have reason to look to the future with hope for something better or fear of something worse. Hope is the better decision, but hope can be difficult at times. Hope demands patience: we have to wait for our hopes to be realized, and that kind of patience must be developed (cf. Romans 8:24-25). Yet the Christian has every right to live in hope because of the comfort he or she derives from the Scriptures.
The Scriptures provide comfort because they provide the justification for hope. In Scripture, above all things, we learn of God’s faithfulness to His promises. All He promised Abraham came to pass; Israel received what God had promised; in Jesus all of the things which God had promised and predicted beforehand came to pass. Therefore, when God makes promises in Christ regarding His care, protection, Jesus’ return, the resurrection, and eternity with Him, we have every reason to trust those promises. You cannot get that kind of comfort from a systematic list of truths, a road map, or a FAQ. That comfort comes from learning about people like us in many ways placing their trust in God and not being disappointed and recognizing that God will see us through this life with its problems, challenges, sufferings, and distress.
The Scriptures are written for our learning. Through patience and the comfort of Scripture we can maintain hope. Let us be thankful to God for the Scriptures, learn from them, apply their messages to our lives, and glorify God in Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry