OK, class, repeat after me…

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Book. Whoever believes in that Book shall not perish but have eternal life.

What? You say you’ve memorized another version? All right, recite that one if you please…

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.

Yes, I like the poetic cadence of the King James Version of 1611, too, but don’t you think its rendering of this verse is rather outdated? I mean it’s so…pre-modern!

Ever since the Enlightenment (which was just beginning to dawn in 1611), Western civilization has placed its faith in books. We have believed that if you read, studied, and assimilated the facts of the greatest book on any subject, you could master that subject. Do you want to become a skillful diesel mechanic? Hit the diesel books. A French chef? Julia Child wrote the book.  A brilliant nuclear physicist? Hie yourself to yon physics research library.

Of course, the greatest of all great books is the Bible, so we modern Christians have assumed that the same principle holds: Read the Book; memorize the Book; comprehend the Book; master the Book and you will master the subject. Hence our Revised Modernist Version of John 3:16 — “God so loved the world that he gave his only Book…”

One problem with that: The subject of this Book is God.

Even if we comprehend this Book, we do not comprehend God. Even if we master this Book, we have not mastered God. Even if we follow all the personal examples in this Book, our skillful imitation does not make us followers of God. God is a Person, and learning everything ever written about that Person would be no substitute for knowing the Person himself.

This is not a plea to dispense with Bible study because, as the apostle Paul advised young Timothy, all Scripture is “profitable” for understanding the ways of God. But it is not sufficient. To trust God and let Him become part of your own life story, you have to know Him personally.

Muslims traditionally call Jews and Christians “people of the Book,” because we cherish and study many of the ancient Scriptures they cherish. But if we suppose that phrase really describes what we’re about, we’re just as mistaken about the essence of Christianity as the Muslims are.

We are not just people of the Book. We are people of the God who became incarnate in human flesh, who lived among us, and now lives within us. As the writer of John’s Gospel said, all the books in the world cannot contain that story.