Understanding John 5:39,40

Pastor John,40. The Pharisees loved the Bible but were not even saved. Don’t become like them.” I still believe I should study the Bible but his words ring in my ears as a constant dampener on the joy I feel when I look into God’s word. Is he right?

“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” – John 5:39, 40

Many thanks for writing and sharing. I have heard similar things myself spoken by people who have a very surface level understanding of Scripture.

It does not require much indepth study of the Scripture to find out what our attitude should be towards it. Jesus made it clear that when we read Scripture, we were reading what was spoken to us by God (Matt. 22:31). Paul told Timothy that “all Scripture is God breathed” (2 Tim 3:16) and this alone reveals, by its very nature, its supreme authority as the sole infallible rule of faith for the Church as well as our individual consciences.

Job said he loved God’s law more than his necessary food (23:12). In other words, he would rather starve than neglect the rightful place of the word of God in his life.

Psalm 119 is the lengthiest chapter in the Bible and is entirely devoted to show us what our attitude should be to the word of God. Just reading and applying that chapter alone would mean that your friend’s argument is totally undermined.

But what of the Scripture he quotes? Well, it is fairly easy to see how he has misunderstood the text.

In John 5:39, 40 Jesus says, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me [literally, “you do not want to come to me,” Greek ou thelete elthein pros me] that you may have life.”

“The Scriptures” is a reference to what we would call the Old Testament (as the New Testament was not yet written). So here Jesus is saying to the Pharisees, that they search (read/study) the Old Testament, which points everywhere to Himself as the fulfillment, but they don’t see this at all, because they don’t want to.

Jesus was in no way condeming them for studying the Scriptures. That needs to be sounded loud and clear. Jesus was saying that they searched out the Scriptures and in doing this, the truth about Him was staring them clearly in the face but they refused to see it.

It is possible to read the Bible with a closed heart, refusing to acknowledge what is obvious. Jesus is saying that the Scripture is a revelation of Himself. He is not hidden in the pages of the Bible; He is clearly revealed. To read it and not see Him there in the Scripture is the evidence of a closed heart towards God. It shows a willful blindness.

I am sure you remember that Jesus, after His resurrection, walked with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, who were very sad and downcast. Jesus said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:25-27) Later on, the disciples remarked to each other, “”Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?”

Jesus did much more for them than give them a supernatural experience. He could have just said “Hey guys, I am Jesus and I am raised from the dead.” That would have been amazing and He would later open their hearts to recognize that He was present with them. But Jesus did not do that FIRST. He did something even more valuable. He rooted and grounded their joy about seeing Him raised from the dead in the revelation of Himself found in the Scriptures. He showed them Himself in the familar pages of the Old Testament.

Later, in appearing to His disciples, we are told, “Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures…” Luke 24:44,45

Your friend has given you some very unhelpful and may I say, unscriptural counsel. The Holy Spirit, the author of Scripture, gives His people the desire to study it, and to help us interpret it correctly. When I see someone who has no desire to study the Bible, it causes me concern as to their true heart condition before God. Peter tells us “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good” – the milk being a reference to God’s word (1 Peter 2:2,3). In other words, whatever our stage of growth as Christians we are to mimic newborn babies in terms of our desire for the word of God. That’s plain isn’t it?

There is never anything wrong with searching out and studying the Scriptures. What is wrong is refusing to see Christ as we do so.

As we open up the pages of the Bible to read, study and meditate, we should pray, “Oh God, open up to me the treasures of Your word; and by Your Holy Spirit, show me more of Jesus.”

Its a prayer God loves to answer.

4 thoughts on “Understanding John 5:39,40

  1. Yip, scripture is primarily for transformation, not information… but of course we need to get to the information first… but then it needs to be received as transformational truth in receptive hearts. The Sower sows the seed…

    In all our studying of the Word we need to engage with the Holy Spirit as he studies us. The Bible, the only book that reads you!

    Love your blog John

  2. There is a possibility that in our enthusiasm to study the Bible we end up withdrawing from ‘real life’ – ie. we spend so much time in our room reading the Bible that we neglect family, friends, and ministry and evangelism. If we are diligently studying the Scriptures in order to see Jesus in them, we will also hear His commands and the transforming grace of the Gospel, and that will then propel us out into the world to hold out the word of life that we have been studying.

  3. Hi James, I guess that is a possibility but I yet to meet anyone in life who fits that category (other than monks or nuns in a monastic kind of lifestyle) and certainly that is not a concern borne out by the John 5:39, 40 text.

  4. Excellent answer to the question, John!

    I would point to other verses.

    1Pe 2:1 So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander.
    1Pe 2:2 Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation–
    1Pe 2:3 if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.

    Seems to me very clear from Peter the “order” he writes about when one goes about studying the Scriptures. There’s a tasting first (the sanctification work of the Holy Spirit) and then a full blown hungering and thirsting, eating and drinking it up that we may grow up into salvation!

    Now that my sons are over 18 they have free reign in the kitchen and cupboards. Initially though, mommy and daddy fed them being educated as to what amounts of what we should feed them; what should be partaken of from zero up to around 3 or 4 years old. Afterwards, they started requesting certain things they wanted to eat and drink.

    They got their way occasionally.

    Mostly my wife determined what we would eat and drink during feeding times.

    My weight proves I enjoyed the reward times rewarding my sons for things they did by going out for ice cream at the local parlor where they made fresh daily a variety of sweet treats! 🙂

    I suppose as parents if we fail to catechize our children’s Scriptural dietary habits we are somewhat to blame if after they are of age they start eating and drinking things they ought not to eat and drink?

    Psalm 78 has been a bright light with for me in teaching my family all these years. I commend it knowing Jesus certainly was referring to it as well when opening the Scriptures to those two walking on the road to Emmaus:

    Psa 78:1 A Maskil of Asaph. Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth!
    Psa 78:2 I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old,
    Psa 78:3 things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us.
    Psa 78:4 We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the LORD, and his might, and the wonders that he has done.
    Psa 78:5 He established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers to teach to their children,
    Psa 78:6 that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children,
    Psa 78:7 so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments;
    Psa 78:8 and that they should not be like their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God.

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