ABSTRACT: Faithful discipleship means following Jesus and submitting to his authority in every area of life, including how we treat the Bible. Jesus appealed to the authority of Scripture in the face of temptation and opposition. He used it in teaching his disciples. And importantly, he looked to Scripture to explain who he was, the message he preached, and the works he accomplished. Faithful reading of Scripture follows in Jesus’s steps by submitting to the authority of the Bible that both anticipates and explains him.
What does it mean to be a Christian disciple? Putting it as simply as possible, being a disciple means following Jesus Christ. Christian disciples want to follow their Lord in everything, to be shaped by his teaching and his example in the way they think, feel, and behave. We want him at the center of our perspective on the world, his mission as the priority of our life, his glory our chief concern in every endeavor. That is as true for the Christian theologian as for any other disciple.
Christian theology can helpfully start at any number of places. Its fundamental ground lies in the triune God himself. Theology has long been defined as “words about God and all things in relation to God.” Yet because what we know about God is made known by God — spoken through the prophets and apostles, and given to us in the more permanent form of Scripture — all true theology arises from and is tested by the Bible. So, we could start the discussion of any theological topic with a reflection upon the person of the triune God or upon what the Bible tells us about that specific topic.
But what makes theology specifically Christian theology is the critical place accorded to Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God and Savior of the world. He is the one in whom the revelation of the triune God finds its proper focus (John 1:18; Hebrews 1:1–3; 2 Corinthians 1:20), he is the one who enables us to come before the God who made us without fear (Ephesians 3:11–12), and he is the one who both endorsed the Old Testament (Luke 24:44) and commissioned the apostolic program that produced the New Testament (Matthew 28:19–20). Prior attention to what Jesus taught is how the Christian theologian demonstrates faithful discipleship.
Jesus’s View of Scripture
With that understanding of theology in mind, when we think about the nature and function of the Bible — “the enduring authority of the Christian Scriptures” (as one impressive tome puts it) — keeping Jesus at the center of our thinking is not optional.1
The record we have of his life and teaching in the Gospels comes from eyewitnesses, either directly in the case of Matthew and John or indirectly in the case of Mark (who, early testimony confirms, recorded the recollections of Peter) and Luke (the companion of Paul who collected statements from a vast number of eyewitnesses and wove them into a coherent narrative). Studies of the phenomenon of eyewitness testimony point out not only that the Gospels were “written within the living memory of the events they recount,” but that even the differences of perspective and detail confirm rather than undermine their veracity.2 The Gospels are the recollections of multiple eyewitnesses of what Jesus said and did, and thus they reveal what Jesus thought about the authority of Scripture.3
What, then, are we told about Jesus’s attitude toward the Scriptures he inherited (our Old Testament) and those by means of which his apostles would fulfill his commission to take the gospel to the ends of the earth until the end of the age (the New Testament)?
Authority of the Old Testament
Most basically, Jesus understood the words of the Old Testament to bear the authority of God, an authority that surpasses that of any other person, institution, or body of writing. This is clear from his appeal to Old Testament texts when tempted by the devil in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1–11), when challenged by the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 19:1–9; 22:15–46), and when teaching his disciples (Mark 9:13; 14:21, 27). At each point, the Scriptures he quotes are enough to settle the matter. They are definitive in the sense that they are what God has to say on the matter.
The temptation in the wilderness is an interesting case in point. There are clear parallels here to the temptation faced by Adam and Eve in the garden (Genesis 3:1–6). The tactic employed by Satan in the garden of Eden is one he has continued to employ throughout human history. He casts doubt first on the clarity of God’s word (“Did God actually say . . . ?”), then on the truthfulness of God’s word (“You will not surely die”), and then finally on the character of God and the motives behind his word (“God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God”).
Jesus enters the wilderness to be tempted immediately after his baptism by John in the Jordan. There he had heard the voice from heaven say, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).
It should be no surprise, then, that the first temptation Jesus encounters is to doubt the word of God and seek to prove his identity on some other terms: “If you are the Son of God . . .” (Matthew 4:6). Jesus responds by appealing to Deuteronomy 8:3: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).
With the second temptation, Satan assaults the truthfulness of God’s promise in Psalm 91, to which Jesus answers with Deuteronomy 6:16: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (Matthew 4:7).
The third temptation, to fall down and worship the devil, is an assault upon God himself and is met with Deuteronomy 6:13: “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” (Matthew 4:10). At each point, Jesus’s confidence in the word of God and its authority is on display.
In his exchanges with the Pharisees, Jesus often cites Scripture with the words “it is written” (Mark 7:6; John 6:45; 8:17) or “have you not read?” (Matthew 12:3, 5; 19:4; 22:31; Mark 12:10). Jesus expects the words that God had given his people through the prophets to be sufficient to settle the matter. He tells the parable of the rich man and Lazarus to make precisely that point (Luke 16:19–31). It is of no use to search for confirmations in the miraculous, as hard hearts will always find ways to explain the evidence away, as they did when the tomb was empty after Jesus’s resurrection (Matthew 28:13). “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (Luke 16:31).
The “have you not read” question has an edge to it. Jesus expects them not only to have read but to have understood, believed, and obeyed what they read. This question carries with it the assumption that the meaning of Scripture is accessible. In the words of the Protestant Reformers, Scripture is clear. Of course, that doesn’t mean that every single part of the Old Testament is simple or easy. It doesn’t mean that any individual text can be plucked out of its context and, without reference to the rest of the Old Testament, immediately make sense. Nevertheless, it is accessible. Comparing one part of Scripture with another, the harder parts with the easier, sheds light over time.
Seeing Jesus’s life and ministry as the fulfillment of the promises made in the Old Testament puts the last and most important piece in place (which is what the Ethiopian eunuch found in Acts 8:26–38). But the point that Jesus is making is that what we have been given is enough — enough for the Israelites who had only the words from Sinai (Deuteronomy 29:29); enough for those who only had the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings (our Old Testament, Luke 24:44); and enough for those who have all that and its fulfillment in the gospel and in the ministry of Jesus’s specially commissioned messengers, the apostles (2 Timothy 3:16–17).
Jesus as Old Testament Fulfillment
It is especially important that Jesus locates himself, his identity, and his mission against the backdrop of the history and promises of the Old Testament. At the very beginning of his ministry, when he attends the synagogue at Nazareth, he reads Isaiah’s prophecy of the one anointed by God in Isaiah 61 and then says, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).
His favorite form of self-description, “the Son of Man,” evokes the scene in Daniel 7 where “one like a son of man” is given the authority to execute the judgments of God. Though he does not use the title “Son of David” for himself, he responds positively to those who do, and he himself makes use of Psalm 110, which refers to the Davidic King (Matthew 22:42–45). When he is identified as the promised King coming to Jerusalem, and the Pharisees insist he rebuke those who do so, he answers, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out” (Luke 19:40).
He contrasts the hard-heartedness of the religious leaders with the responses to the wisdom of Solomon (Matthew 12:42) and the preaching of Jonah (Matthew 12:41), and he says, “Something greater than Jonah is here. . . . Something greater than Solomon is here.”
As the time of his crucifixion approaches, he speaks more frequently of the prophecies concerning the suffering of the Messiah (Luke 9:22; 17:25; cf. 24:26–27), and at the Last Supper he uses the language of the “blood of the covenant” (Matthew 26:28; Exodus 24:8), and the “new covenant” (Luke 22:20; Jeremiah 31:31), to describe what is unfolding on the night of his arrest. He knows that, as the suffering servant, he will be “numbered with the transgressors” (Luke 22:37; Isaiah 53:12).
In sum, Jesus clearly understood himself in Old Testament categories and as the fulfillment of various strands of prophetic promise in the Old Testament.
Jesus’s Exegetical Method
Jesus understood the deep structures of the Old Testament: its covenant framework (Luke 22:20), its dynamic of promise and fulfillment (Matthew 26:54, 56), and its focus on the descendants of Abraham in a way that includes outsiders like the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian (Luke 4:25–27). In the Sermon on the Mount, he exposes the real intent of the Law: not mere outward observance, but a changed heart and a deep personal faithfulness that demonstrates a righteousness exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:17–48).
Intriguingly, in a debate with the Sadducees over the resurrection, Jesus appeals to the account of Moses’s encounter with God at the bush that did not burn up. There God told the great prophet of the Old Testament, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:6, 15). At first glance, Exodus 3 says nothing about the resurrection of the dead (and, to be fair, Jesus doesn’t say it does). Yet if you believe what God says in Exodus 3, then you cannot avoid the conclusion that life continues beyond the grave, and the dead are indeed raised. The Sadducees’ denial of the resurrection is entirely wrong if you take those words of Scripture seriously. Jesus here identifies what later theologians would describe as a “good and necessary consequence” of the teaching of Exodus 3. He demonstrates the same principle by his reflection on Psalm 110 in Mark 12: “David himself calls him Lord. So how is he his son?” (Mark 12:37).
There is nothing superficial about Jesus’s appeal to Scripture, which is a constant feature of his ministry. The word of God (and he refers to it as such in Matthew 15:6) gave him his understanding of himself and his mission, and directed all that he did during his earthly ministry. He was confident in its authority and reliability, even to the smallest details. He might not have written a treatise on the doctrine of Scripture or even delivered a sermon devoted to unfolding each of its characteristics. Neither did he use the terms we so often associate with the doctrine, such as inspiration, inerrancy, perspicuity, sufficiency, efficacy, and the like. Nevertheless, the way he spoke of and used Scripture confirms he believed in all these things.
Authority of the New Testament
All of this raises the question of the New Testament. Since it did not exist during the time of Jesus’s earthly ministry, there was no New Testament text with which he might interact. However, the critical thing about the New Testament is its connection to the ministry of the apostles, those called and set apart by Jesus to be the foundational messengers of the gospel.
Jesus entrusted his words to the apostles. He commissioned them in a unique way. Revelation 21 signals their significance in the great vision of the New Jerusalem: just as the gates of the New Jerusalem are inscribed with the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel, so the twelve great foundations of the city contain “the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb” (Revelation 21:12–14).
In the upper room, on the night he is arrested, Jesus promises his disciples the Spirit of truth, who will “teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26), “guide you into all the truth,” (John 16:13), and “take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:14). Having been given all authority in heaven and on earth, Jesus commissions them to “go . . . and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19–20).
The apostolic authority of the apostles — including Paul, as “one untimely born” (1 Corinthians 15:8) — lies behind the New Testament. They were Christ’s ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20). They had a unique place in God’s purposes arising from their commissioning by the risen Jesus. While all subsequent faithful Christian ministry takes up their message and follows their example, they maintain that special role. Jesus gave them his words (John 17:14) and even prayed for those who would believe because of the words they would share (John 17:20). Thus, Jesus’s attitude toward this apostolic ministry shapes and guides ours toward the New Testament.
Seeing What Jesus Saw
The Christian faith is a personal trust in a living Lord. It means delighting in God and all that he has done in creating us and redeeming us. It means following his Son, given so that the terrifying problem of our sin might be dealt with from the inside, thoroughly and forever. There remains something deeply personal about genuine Christian discipleship. Jesus is not known from a distance.
Tragically, some have attempted to set this personal relationship of trust and love over against confident yet humble obedience to the teaching of Scripture. “We follow Jesus, not the Bible,” one man foolishly wrote.4 Yet that is a false choice that would have made no sense at all to Jesus himself. If we are going to take Jesus seriously, we must take the Bible seriously, because he did! Conversely, if we do not take the Bible seriously — expecting our thinking to be changed, shaped, and directed by its teaching — then in the end we are not taking Jesus seriously. Jesus and the Bible are not somehow competitors for the mantle of truth. The one who said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) also said to his Father, “I have given them your word. . . . Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:14, 17).
What did Jesus see in the Scriptures? He saw the written word of God given for the rich benefit of his people and the glory of his own name. He saw a word that challenges facile religiosity and invites us into the joy of faithful living in fellowship with the God who created all things with just a word. He saw a word that is worth trusting because, though what was written was originally written by human beings, it came into existence only through the work of the Holy Spirit. These are truly the words of Moses or David or Jeremiah, actively and creatively involved in their utterance — but these are finally the words of God to us.
So, Christian theologians, like all other disciples of the Lord Jesus, find in him the example that challenges and directs all that they do. Keeping Jesus at the center of our doctrine of Scripture prevents us from pitting his authority against that of the biblical text. It also keeps us from unsettling the proper balance between biblical theology and historical theology, even in the interest of a retrieval of “the great theological tradition,” as God’s words are always more important than the words of those who speak about God.
Finally, it reminds us that our engagement with Scripture is personal and relational, not merely theoretical and abstract, though it does involve the applications of our minds. We cannot rightly speak about God from a distance or (as a friend of mine used to say) “as if he has just stepped out of the room for a minute.”
In following Jesus, we find that we stand in the place indicated by the prophet Isaiah: “This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word” (Isaiah 66:2).