John 20:19-31 (esp. 30-31)
“What is the Purpose of Scripture?”
“These things are written”, the Apostle John writes, “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.”
What is the purpose of Holy Scripture? To teach us about God? To show us how to live our lives? Morality? Basic instructions before leaving Earth? Is the Bible a rule-book to thump over people's heads? Is it a decoder-ring with all the answers of life, if you just read it the right way? Or is it just a collection of different writings with no purpose, or at least no central purpose at all?
Setting aside the questions of “is it true?” “did it really happen?” or “is it truly God's word?”, (To all of which we say, “yes”, of course). What I'm asking is – what is the Bible FOR? What is the purpose? What's it supposed to DO, if anything?
If it's simply a rulebook, then it's not a very appealing one. The God of the Bible, when he gives his law, is not looking for simply “good enough”. He wants holiness. And Who can live up to the standards of this law? No one. If all Scripture has to offer is morality and virtue, that leaves us in a predicament of despair, with no Savior. And it certainly does nothing for us when it comes to death, the true wages of our sin.
What is the purpose of the Bible?
The answer is very simple. John gives it here, at the end of his Gospel. These things are written with a two-fold purpose: One, that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. And two, that believing, you may have life in his name. The purpose of this writing is that you One: believe, and Two: have life. We could say that the first is the content of the faith, and the second is the effect of that faith.
Now, one might say that John is on one level here really only talking about his own Gospel. But Paul teaches that, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” So it's not that the ONLY possible use or purpose of Scripture is 1. Believe and 2. Have Life. But these aren't really antithetical. For the one who believes is trained in righteousness. After all the righteous shall live by faith. It's really all the same thing.
Jesus really clears it up, when he says, in John 5, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.” If all the Scriptures testify to Christ, and if they are the Word of the same God, then it bears out that we can expect a consistency of its message, and a continuity of purpose throughout.
Yes, the first point of purpose of John's Gospel, and really of all of Holy Scripture, is that you and I would believe in Jesus. Scripture is all about Jesus. The Old Testament is about Jesus. The New Testament is about Jesus. It's really “All Jesus, all the time!” And that's ok with us!
For Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. This is what we Christians believe. And packed in that little tiny confession is a whole lot more.
That he is the Christ – the anointed one – carries a freight of its own meaning. He's the one, the special and holy one, set aside from the very foundation of the world – to be the one and only Savior from sin. That's what it means that he is the Christ. And so, to confess Jesus as Christ is to implicitly confess sin. And to confess him as Your savior, Your Christ, is to confess on some level that you have sins and you need saving. Of course we don't simply stop at confessing this implicitly. We say it quite clearly and plainly.
So the purpose of John's Gospel, the purpose of all the Gospels, the purpose of all Holy Scripture, is to show your sin and who the savior from that sin is – Jesus the Christ, the Son of God. The one conceived and born for you, who suffered and was crucified for you. Who lives and reigns for you, and will come again at the resurrection to judge the living and the dead.
Oh yes, he's the Son of God, too... the only one obedient enough, faithful enough, holy and blameless enough to do the dirty work of saving. The only one strong enough to make his power perfect in the weakness of the cross, and then tear death's foul chains to smithereens. The Gospels, the Scriptures, they teach us to believe in him, and they unfold for us in so many ways just what “believing in him” entails.
But Jesus doesn't just want you to believe in him for the sake of belief. There's a benefit attached to this faith. And that benefit, that purpose, John writes is this, “that believing, you may have life in his name”.
1. Believe 2. Have life. They go hand in hand. For those who believe in Jesus have life. He offers it freely. He gives it by grace.
The life he gives is the fullest, broadest, best sense of life we can imagine or describe. It's not just life after death, it's life forever. It's not just life floating around as a spirit or an angelic ghost of sorts. It's life as he intended it for us humans – body and soul, united and united with him forever. This is what we Christians confession in the Creed, “I believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting”.
And this brings us back to Easter. Jesus can give life so freely because he has conquered death. He can bring us with him through the grave and then to life on the other side because that was his course. He paved the way. And he can give that life because he has paid the price of sin, so that death has no more hold on is. It's wages were paid to him instead.
Which is why, when Jesus appears to his disciples on that first Easter, he doesn't waste time with chit-chat. He doesn't excoriate them for scattering like roaches when he was arrested. He doesn't thump them for being fraidy-cats and hiding from the Jews. He says “Peace be with you”. He breathes the Holy Spirit on them. And then he gives them the authority to forgive sins. Wait... what?
Jesus is the Christ, who delivers from sin and death. He does so by forgiving our sins. For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation. Where there is forgiveness of sins, death holds no sting, no condemnation for us. Where there is forgiveness of sins, nothing can harm us, destroy us, or bring us to despair. For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is Jesus the Christ, giving life!
That he gives that authority to mere men, first to the apostles, to the church as a whole, and to pastors in all places... is how he gives faith and life. For they, we, speak his word. We point you to him. We want what Jesus wants, what John wants, what the Scriptures want – for you to believe and have life in Jesus' name.
The purpose of Scripture is not for you to learn head-knowledge of God, though from it you may.
The purpose of Scripture is not that you follow its laws and rules, though you should. The purpose of Scripture is not to bring glory to God, though it does. The purpose of Scripture is not to tell us the history of God's people, though it does that too. The purpose of Scripture is not to be a how-to-book for getting yourself to heaven.
These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing, you may have life in his name.
And then John also makes this strange offhand remark. “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book” And the imagination, at least mine, goes wild at that sort of thing, wondering what signs and wonders Jesus showed them. All we can do is speculate.
But what we do know, however, is that what is written is enough. The words of Scripture are sufficient for our salvation. We don't need miracles and signs and wonders in order to believe.
God doesn't need to “prove” all this to us, like Jesus did to Thomas. Blessed are we, even more, who have not seen and believed. Who have heard the words that are written and proclaimed, the words that tell of Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God.
It is through THESE words that the Spirit who was breathed on the disciples is also breathed on us. It is through these words that the peace Jesus brought on Easter is upon us. And it is through the sweet words of absolution, forgiveness, from the pastor – that we both believe and have life in his name. The word and the water of baptism. The word that consecrates bread and wine as his body and blood. It all goes together. Scripture, Spirit, Forgiveness, Sacraments, Faith, Life. It's all about Jesus, crucified and risen and forgiving and giving life to you, forever.
Thanks be to God, in Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.