With the way some Christians talk, you might be forgiven for wondering why the canon includes more than four books. Sure, the Old Testament is useful in tracing the development of human reflection on the divine, and the New Testament in conveying the thoughts of some of Jesus’ earliest followers. But if you really want to know what God thinks about something, you’ll need consult the recorded thoughts of Jesus. And if you want to do that, you’ll need to stick to the “red letters.” In other words, flip to Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John (or that less traversed terrain, Revelation 2–3) and stay put.
To be sure, I understand the impulse. It’s not altogether misguided. It makes some sense in light of the differences between the sinless Son of God (on display in the Gospels) and the bona fide sinners who penned most of the rest of the New Testament (unbelieving James and Jude, denying Peter, blaspheming Paul, and so on). Dubious résumés, to say the least.
Nevertheless, Christians have always recognized the God-breathed character of their words. The miracle of inspiration means the whole Bible is the voice of God. While central and foundational, the fourfold Gospel witness is no more true or reliable or relevant or binding than the black letters that precede and follow. Indeed, when we treat the red letters more seriously than the black ones, we muzzle the Son who speaks in all of them.
The Pages in Black Fulfill the Promise in Red
It’s foolish to downplay the Bible’s black-lettered pages if for no other reason than that they’re fulfilling a red-lettered promise. Consider Jesus’ words to his apostles:
I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:12–15, emphasis added)
Now ponder the words of Paul:
For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. (Gal. 1:11-12, emphasis added)
Did you catch the parallel? Christ’s promise finds fulfillment in Paul’s teaching. The ministry of the Savior marches on in the ministry of the apostle. Jesus said that he had more to say. He promised further revelation of truth to his apostles through his Spirit. Paul is just Exhibit A. As John Murray put it:
Prior to his ascension, Christ’s teaching was directly by word of mouth. But afterward he taught by a different mode . . . by the ministry of appointed witnesses and inspired writers. The New Testament, all of which was written after Jesus’ ascension, is not one whit less the teaching of our Lord than that delivered verbally during the days of his flesh. How utterly false it is to set up a contrast between the authority of Jesus’ spoken words and the authority of the New Testament as Scripture. The latter is the teaching of Christ given in his own appointed way after his ascension. . . . The guiding of the Holy Spirit into all truth does not suspend Jesus’ own speaking. (Collected Writings, Vol. 1, 40)
The apostle Peter goes so far as to say the prophetic word of Scripture is a revelation “more sure” than even Christ himself in transfigured glory (2 Pet. 1:19). That’s a stunning claim! He then exhorts us to recall the “commandment of our Lord and Savior through [the] apostles” (2 Pet. 3:2). No wonder Paul enjoins his protégé to heed the “sound words you have heard from me” (2 Tim. 1:13) with no less urgency than the “sound words of our Lord Jesus” (1 Tim. 6:3). Or elsewhere claim his instructions are “the Lord’s command” (1 Cor. 14:37; cf. 1 Thess. 2:13; 4:15) imbued with heaven’s authority (2 Thess. 3:14).
When I write, the result is a tweet or a blog post. When Paul wrote, the result was holy Scripture (2 Pet. 3:16).
Is the church’s authorized foundation, then, Jesus (1 Cor. 3:11) or the Bible (Eph. 2:20)? Yes.
The Word of God: Jesus or Scripture?
Another related mistake is the popular tendency to imply that since Jesus is the Word of God, Scripture must be something else. But once again this is a false dilemma. The Bible tells us that Jesus is God’s Word (e.g., John 1:1–2; Heb. 1:1–2; Rev. 19:13) and that it is God’s Word (e.g., John 10:35; Acts 17:11; Heb. 4:12; 13:7). The urge to wrest an “either/or” out of a “both/and” smells more of Enlightenment rationalism than biblical Christianity. What God has joined together, let no man separate.
As Kevin DeYoung observes:
God’s gracious self-disclosure comes to us through the Word made flesh and by the inscripurated Word of God. These two modes of revelation reveal to us one God, one truth, one way, and one coherent set of promises, threats, and commands to live by. We must not seek to know the Word who is divine apart from the divine words of the Bible, and we ought not read the words of the Bible without an eye to the Word incarnate. When it comes to seeing God and his truth in Christ and in holy Scripture, one is not more reliable, more trustworthy, or more relevant than the other. Scripture, because it is the breathed-out Word of God, possesses the same authority as the God-man Jesus Christ.
Diminishing the integrity of the Word inscripturate in the name of upholding the integrity of the Word incarnate is, ironically enough, the quickest way to domesticate and diminish him.
I recently heard a remark that only in Jesus do we see God “as he is.” While this statement may sound profound and even have a ring of truth—Christ is the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15; cf. Heb. 1:3) and the point of the biblical story (Luke 24:27, 44)—it is finally misleading since it does not reveal the whole picture. The Lord’s self-disclosure was not exhausted by the Son’s earthly life. Jesus’ appearing neither nullified the revelation that came before (Matt. 5:17–18) nor rendered redundant the revelation that followed after (John 16:12–15).
On the surface, “Jesus shows us what God is really like” language appears pious and even Jesus-exalting. In reality, it betrays a tragically truncated view of the Jesus of the Bible. We see God “as he is” by gazing with the eyes of faith on the pages of his Word—all of them.
One day, our faith will vanish into sight, and we will at last behold the king in his beauty. Until then, however, we live and move and have our being in the age of the ear. “For now,” Augustine taught 1,500 years ago, “treat the Scripture of God as the face of God. Melt in its presence.”
If you love Jesus, you’ll love his voice wherever it appears—even in the black letters.