James Nisbet Commentary - John 5:39 - 5:39

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James Nisbet Commentary - John 5:39 - 5:39

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This Chapter Verse Commentaries:


‘Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of Me.’


There are four great fundamental principles which lie at the foundation of this great subject.

I. We receive the Bible as the Word of God, as a Divinely inspired communication from God to man.

II. We believe it to contain a vast store of most precious treasure far beyond the capacities of man, so that the most advanced and successful student has always much to learn. After years of study we are not unlike children by the seashore, delighting in the waves that are playing on the surface, but unconscious of all the wonders of its hidden depths.

III. It is God’s purpose that these wonders shall be gathered and made our own, by diligent investigation. They do not lie on the surface, but must be searched for as hidden treasure.

IV. We shall make no progress in this search without the personal teaching of the Holy Ghost.—It is His sacred office to guide us into all truth, so that without His guidance we shall not through mere intellectual efforts gain any real insight into the things of God. It is well, therefore, whenever we study Scripture, to begin with the prayer that God would throw His own light on the written Word that it may be clear to our view; and also on our own understandings, that they may be enlightened to behold its truth.

Rev. Canon Edward Hoare.



A few thoughts on the study of Holy Scripture.

I. Study critically.—We are all possessed of judgment and reason, if not of knowledge of Greek and Hebrew.

II. Consecutive reading is good.—We do not do the Bible justice if we only read a scrap here and there.

III. Occasional reading.—Carry about a Bible with you.

IV. Didactic reading, or topical study reading, with a view to instructing yourself in some particular subject.

V. Experimental reading.—It is a great thing to read with a view to practice.

VI. Devotional reading.—We may have very many happy hours alone with God and our open Bible.

Rev. Canon Aitken.


‘Whatever be the particular character of our study at any given time, let us never forget the sacred character of that marvellous Book. Whether it be for practical wisdom, for devotional help, for doctrinal instruction, or for expository acquaintance with its truth, let us never forget that it is the Book of God, or lose sight of the words spoken to Moses, “Take off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.” It is the Book of God, and therefore must not be handled like any work of man. It is the Divine revelation of the salvation of God; and therefore must be approached with the holy earnestness of those who really desire to be saved. It is the inspired exhibition of the Son of God, and whatever be the particular department of our study, our one prevailing object must be, under the teaching of the Holy Ghost, to learn all that God has been pleased to reveal of His Person, His work, and His most gracious covenant of life.’


‘They are they which testify of Me.’


By the devotional study of Scripture I understand such a study, or rather, I may say, such ‘a use’ of God’s Word as shall help us in the secrets of our intercourse with God, and raise us in faith and hope above the world. The practical study guides us in the world, the devotional lifts us above it. The practical shows us how we ought to act, the devotional helps us to pray. Now the Scriptures are full of passages which may be termed the stepping-stones of prayer; and in considering how they ought to be studied or used, we must not forget the true character of a devotional spirit. Devotion does not argue; prayer does not define.

I. A great deal of Scripture may be made by God’s great grace of much value to us for devotional purposes, even though it is not correctly, or theologically, understood. Of course it is an immense advantage to us when it is thus accurately understood; but still, as a matter of fact, I believe that many devoted persons are greatly helped by an application of Scripture which cannot bear the test of criticism. This applies to multitudes of the texts, and portions of texts, that abound in almanacs and daily text-books. As far as the real acquaintance with Scripture is concerned, nothing can be more unsatisfactory than the system of detaching a few words from all their surroundings, so that no one can know what the context has to do with them, or they with the context. That is not the way to learn the real teaching of God in His own inspired Word, and such a mode of treating Scripture opens the way for every conceivable heresy. But still we must admit the fact, that these detached sentences are sometimes a real help for devotional purposes. The impression produced by them is in harmony with Scripture, and that impression may be valuable, though we cannot be satisfied with the manner in which it is produced. The great object in devotion is to pray rather than to examine, to trust rather than to investigate.

II. In this somewhat free use of Scripture for devotional purposes, we have the warrant of Scripture itself.—The accurate student of Scripture would be perfectly right in saying that the words spoken to Joshua (Jos_1:5), ‘I will not fail thee nor forsake thee,’ applied to him as the successor of Moses and leader of Israel, and to him alone. But yet in Heb_13:5 they are employed to teach us contentment, ‘Be content with such things as ye have; for He hath said, I will never leave thee nor forsake thee. So that we may boldly say, The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me.’ The fact is, that devotion is the action of the heart rather than of the intellect, and a holy impression may be produced even when there is not an accurate exposition. We may therefore accept the impression with thankfulness, provided it is in harmony with other Scripture, without stopping to investigate with an accurate examination the real bearing of the words producing it. There are persons who are very poor expositors, but still are walking very closely with God.


‘For example, I remember the case of a father in great anxiety about the want of stability in his son, when these words, “God is able to make him stand,” were brought home to his heart like a message from God, and he was enabled with a thankful spirit to kneel down and pray in faith. The words suggested a true principle which might have been easily proved elsewhere in Scripture, and that principle was employed to strengthen his faith. It would have been a cruel thing to go to that man and say, “Refer to the context, and you will find that you have mistaken the true meaning of the text.” For devotional purposes the text, though not strictly applied, was to him a message from God.’



In the doctrinal study of Scripture, there are three things necessary—

I. We must be accurate.—We must not be guided by mere sound, nor must we raise a fabric on accommodated texts; but we must endeavour by the Holy Spirit’s teaching carefully to ascertain what it is that He intended to teach us in the inspired Word. We must not be guided by impression or emotion, but by intelligent conviction. If once we admit inaccuracy in what I may term our proof texts, our whole structure will be without foundation.

II. We must be comprehensive.—Our object is to learn the whole counsel of God, and, in order to do so, we must study the whole Word of God. I observe, that, as a general rule, the teachers of error are very limited in the range of their studies. They fasten on one or two detached sentences, and are continually appealing to them without any reference either to the proportions or the harmony of truth. For example, the text, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me,” has been quoted over and over again to prove the believer’s uniform victory over sin, though in the context it has nothing to do with the subject, without any reference to the whole catena of passages which prove the perpetuity of conflict in the child of God. But it must not be so with the witness for truth. He must seek for the whole testimony of the Word of God. He must not pick out a few detached expressions, and cut them out from their context; but, comparing Scripture with Scripture, yield his mind to the teaching of the whole. For example, if we want to study the doctrine of justification by faith, it is not sufficient that we pick out a few texts, however clear these texts may be. We should rather get up the whole of the Epistles to the Romans and Galatians, study the arguments as well as the words, and so learn the mind of the Spirit as systematically taught in those great Epistles, especially inspired for the purpose. But we must take a wider range than even whole Epistles. I believe there is no mode of learning the teaching of Scripture on any doctrine so effective as to go rapidly through the whole of the New Testament with that one doctrine in view, carefully noting every passage that bears upon it. By this means you not only learn the doctrine itself, but you learn also its proportionate place in the Word of God and its Scriptural connection with other truths.

III. We must give attendance to reading.—How is it to be explained that many of those persons who are most eager to hear and to teach seem to regard it as a matter of principle not to read? They will flock by the hundred to hear any strange teacher, but if you give them a book of good old solid divinity, they tell you they read nothing but their Bibles. But what can be more unwise, or less likely to lead to the knowledge of the truth? How are we to investigate the testimony of Scripture respecting any doctrine if we do not choose to learn by careful reading what that doctrine is? How, e.g., are you to investigate from Scripture the doctrine of indwelling sin in the regenerate, if you do not know either what is taught, or what is denied? And how are you to know it if you will not read? But, more than that, can anything be more unwise than that we should ignore the labours of those who have gone before us? These doctrines are the result of the careful study, and matured experience, of a long line of the most devoted students of Scripture, and it is really too absurd that each young person when first awakened should set out, without knowledge of either truth or error, to investigate everything without assistance, as if he was the first to discover the narrow way. The wise man will thankfully accept and avail himself of the experience of the wise and the holy who have trod the same path before him. He will not despise their warnings when they caution him against the starting-points of error, nor will he undervalue their help when they supply him with well-considered definitions of truth.

Rev. Canon E. Hoare.



You will remember that our Lord said, ‘Think not that I am come to destroy the Law and the Prophets; you that are afraid of it, be not afraid; you that are hopeful that I am going to destroy the Law and the Prophets, cease to hope it; I am not come to destroy but to fulfil.’ That is an immense statement; it involves for Himself a claim of the most lofty and far-reaching kind. What manner of man is this that claims to take in hand the mighty oracles of God and lead them to this issue of consummation, and write upon them Finis; what manner of man is this? On the other hand, while the words involve tremendous claim to personal authority, observe the stamp they put upon the Scriptures themselves. Not to destroy but to fulfil.

I. Christ fulfilled the Scriptures in that He interpreted them down to the heart, down to the core and centre of them in place of the worthless, foolish, traditional comments of the Rabbis; He opened up to its very seat and centre this great body of revealed truth, and interpreted, gave the great abiding canons by which that Law and those Prophets are to be understood. ‘I am come to fulfil.’

II. He fulfilled in Person, in His own holy life, in His perfect obedience, He gave that, He was that for which the Law and the Prophets had yearned century after century. They had been demanding righteousness, and they had never seen it; they had been asking for a perfect man, and they had never beheld him; they had said age after age, ‘Thou shalt, and Thou shalt not,’ and the world had broken both precepts, hourly, moment by moment; and at last in the Person of Jesus Christ the Law and the Prophets are fulfilled, the ideal is the actual, that which is demanded is furnished. I have fulfilled the Law and the Prophets.

III. He has fulfilled them in accomplishing that towards which they had moved, for which they had prepared, of which their earlier Scriptures had furnished the types and the hints and the approaches and the preparations. The great mediatorial office of Christ, the reconciliation of God and man in His own Person through the transcendent mystery of His Death and Resurrection, that is the central and supreme fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets. Henceforth the altars, the priests, the victims, the temples of the ancient day, they are not destroyed—let us discriminate—they are not destroyed, they are fulfilled. And we have our Priest, our Sacrifice, our Temple, our Day of Atonement, our reconciliation to God; we have it in Jesus Christ. ‘I am come to fulfil.’


(1) ‘Out of the sacrificial idea which a thousand years of Law and Prophets nourished, cherished, conserved, carried through the wilderness centuries till the hour and the Man should have arrived, we find that that sacrificial idea, interpreted and consummated in Jesus Christ, is the joy, and strength, and glory, and defence of Christendom and of Christians to-day. And we go back to our Old Testament, and we can read now without embarrassment by the altars and amongst the Levites of those early days, and instead of finding the scent of blood shock and distress us, as has been said, we are touched with awe and reverence as we see in the sin offerings and the burnt offerings, and the sprinkling of blood, and the lifting up of priestly hands, and the opening of the curtains, and the ascending clouds of incense, we see in all that not the heavenly things themselves, but the types and the shadows and symbols and preparations, “God having provided some better thing for us.” “I am come not to destroy but to fulfil.” Fulfilment is not destruction.’

(2) ‘ “They testify of Me,” says Jesus; take that key and you can open every lock, every door in the great house. That comparison will bear working out in detail. It would be a delight to show how, when approached by the key and interpretation that Jesus has furnished, these ancient Scriptures have, as it were, leaped forward to meet their Master. All that could well be shown; but meantime I say to you, whatever comes or goes in the sphere of learning, of Bible scholarship, criticism, and the rest, make yourself well acquainted with the attitude of Jesus Christ towards the Old Testament Scriptures, and be sure that for your moral and spiritual life and all its needs and interests, Christ is a Master and a Teacher Whom you may honour with an unreserved and ungrudging loyalty and trust.’