As a teacher, I appreciate when students put extra effort into their assignments. If a paper is carefully thought out and well composed, I’ll write an encouraging message next to the grade: “Outstanding!” or “Really well done!” or “There’s no way you wrote this–see me after class!”–all statements recognizing especially good work.
I’ve read some truly brilliant papers (and plagiarisms). Never, though, have I ever thought about writing atop one of them: “This is the breath of God.” I don’t care how spectacular the work, or how much the student offered to pay; I could never sincerely give that kind of praise to merely human words. It would be a ridiculously high compliment to the author, and (you would think) an outright insult to God. Yet the apostle Paul uses that exact expression to describe a particular collection of human compositions. He writes, “All Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Timothy 3:16).
Scripture Is God’s Word to Us
In Paul’s day, “Scripture” was what we now call the Old Testament. Each Old Testament book was written by one or more flesh-and-blood, fallible human beings. But Paul had no problem calling these human compositions “God-breathed.” Did Paul have a low view of God, then? Hardly. Paul praised God as the being “who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6:16).
In his limitless reverence for God, Paul joined a long line of prophets before him. In their bones and in the depths of their souls, they felt something of God’s universe-filling immensity, his boundless, unsettling majesty. Their hearts trembled at God’s holiness, a word that mainly means otherness. They knew that God’s ways were higher than their ways, his thoughts higher than their thoughts. Yet still, Paul called the Old Testament–words written by humans–“God-breathed.” This description of Scripture applies to the New Testament as well (2 Peter 3:15-16).
By “God-breathed,” you’d think Paul was referring to spoken words. Paul believed the written word of God to be every bit as much God’s word as what God had spoken through the prophets of the past. Jesus also considered that humanly-authored text to be God’s own voice (Matthew 22:31). Now think of what this means for you! If you’ve read Scripture, then God has personally spoken to you.
Scripture Is God’s Revelation of Jesus
Even though God’s words come to us in ordinary human language, sometimes it’s hard to understand what God is saying because we’re not sure why he’s saying it. Here’s how we can think of the Bible on its own terms: God the Father authorized a biography of his Son, and he commissioned the Holy Spirit to write it (2 Peter 1:16-21). This is how Jesus viewed the Old Testament (Matthew 5:17-18), and the New Testament continues and completes Scripture’s essential Christ-centeredness (John 20:30-31). Understanding the purpose of all Scripture puts us in position to see how each portion points us to Jesus. And that’s when God’s Word gets really, wonderfully personal.
If we’re trusting in Jesus as the Scriptures present him (1 Corinthians 15:3-11), the Bible is like a family album centering on our eldest brother and telling us all about ourselves in relation to him (Hebrews 11). Paul says that our heavenly Father’s risen Son is our very life (Colossians 3:4).
Maybe your experience with Scripture has been personal but painful. God’s words are so powerful that their abuse, often doled out in Jesus’s name, is devastating. As I was writing this chapter in a coffee shop, an elderly woman asked what I was doing. I told her I was writing a book about the Bible, largely for people who’ve had very little, or a very bad, experience with it. She responded immediately, “Count me in that second category.” She’d spent her childhood in a repressive, psychologically-abusive “Christian” environment. We had a heartbreaking conversation. At one point I asked her, “Can you disassociate the things done to you in the name of Jesus and the Bible from Jesus and the Bible themselves?” She said, with sadness and resolution, “No.”
For many, trusting any book calling itself God’s Word, let alone anyone who gains power over others by teaching it, is a non-starter. Especially when “the good book” is put to evil use, and when counterfeit Christs provide cover for abusers, one of the best services Christians can render to all people is to recover not only the Scripture’s view of Jesus, but Jesus’s view of the Scriptures. The best reason to trust these divine words written by humans is because Jesus, the God-man, did too. Jesus calls us to live as he did, by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Matthew 4:4)–as Paul put it, by every word that God breathed.
This article is adapted by the author from God Breathed: Connecting through Scripture to God, Others, the Natural World, and Yourself by Rut Etheridge III ©2019, Crown & Covenant Publications. Used by permission.