You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, ⁴⁰yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. —John 5:39-40
In this passage, Jesus was talking to the Jewish leaders, leaders who thought they had eternal life because they read and studied the Scriptures. They thought their ritual reading of the sacred writings would merit eternal life. They read and re-read, likely memorizing large chunks of the text. They knew what the Scriptures said, but they missed the meaning.
For all their searching, Jesus said they refused to come to Him. The One they thought they were looking for was standing in front of them telling them the truth. But they didn't recognize Him. They didn't know Him. They didn't believe Him. Even when He told them who He was. That enraged them to the point that they wanted to kill Him (John 5:18). It was not the first time this had happened.
When Herod caught wind of a baby “born king of the Jews,” he called together the chief priests and scribes and asked them “where the Christ was to be born” (Matthew 2:2-4). Herod looked to the learned group who had spent their lives searching the Scriptures in order to get intel on the arrival of the Messiah. And they knew the answer: “In Bethlehem of Judea,” they told him. “[F]or so it is written by the prophet: ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel’” (Matthew 2:6; Micah 5:2-4).
Even living under the iron fist of the pretender King Herod—a king well-known for his paranoia and cruelty—the religious leaders were unmoved by a prophecy about a ruler who would shepherd God’s people. The very chief priests and scribes who should have been longing for that loving ruler did not seem interested in the prophecy beyond giving the information to Herod as if it were an entry in an encyclopedia.
For all their study of the Scriptures, the religious leaders were blind and deaf, just like Jeremiah prophesied (Jeremiah 5:21). They had the Scriptures that told about Jesus and they did not believe. They had the Son of God standing in front of them—the subject and object of the Scriptures—and they did not believe. This is a warning to all who read the Bible.
In verse 24 of our chapter, Jesus told the Jews who wanted to kill Him what is the path to eternal life: “whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life…” He is telling us too. Read and believe. Set your hope in God. Like the chief priests and scribes, Timothy searched the Scriptures, but to very different effect. They made him wise for salvation (2 Timothy 3:15). Those same Scriptures did not give the Pharisees what they were looking for because they were not looking for Jesus.
The religious leaders were readers not responders, hearers not doers. Like chemists analyzing a gourmet meal for caloric content and nutrient breakdown—they measured, dissected, and weighed every morsel but never actually tasted anything. They never experienced the feast. They knew all about it—more even than those attending the banquet, but they never entered into the enjoyment or nourishment of it.
A cookbook will not satisfy your hunger. Only making a recipe and eating the food will do that. So also, the Bible. A year of reading daily—checking all 365 boxes —will not save you. Eating God’s words by taking them into your mind and heart and putting your hope and trust in the One they testify of, that saves. The Book cannot save you. The One about whom the Book speaks, He is the One who saves.
Do you find yourself arriving at the end of a long passage of Scripture, unable to recall what you just read?
When you read passages about sin, do you find yourself thinking about other people who need that conviction?
Ask God to enliven His Word and apply it to your heart through faith in Christ. Look each morning for a verse or line of Scripture to meditate on and pray throughout the day.
Candice Watters is a wife, mom, author, and editor of the Fighter Verses blog. She and her husband Steve are the co-authors of Start Your Family: Inspiration for Having Babies. The Watterses have four children. They live in Louisville, KY.