Introduction to the 3.16’s of the Bible

When I was in seminary, my favorite professor, Dr. Stewart Custer, taught a class called Methods of Bible Exposition. This class, perhaps more than any other, taught me the most about expository preaching. In each class, Dr. Custer relied upon his decades of experience to teach us how to preach.

Being an avid reader (he read a book a day for most of his life), Dr. Custer would give us suggestions for reading as well as sermon topics, sermon ideas, sermon series ideas, and other helpful information regarding preaching. One of the sermon series ideas he presented was a study of the 3.16’s of the Bible from a book he had read by the title 3:16 Bible Texts Illuminated.

I was intrigued with the idea, so I kept it in the back of my mind. I was not able to pursue the series until ten years later when I finally became a pastor. I purchased the recommended book, the only one on the topic, written by one of the world’s leading computer scientists, Donald Knuth, and I began to study. What I learned were wonderful truths that have great impact upon our lives.

Why is a study of the 3.16’s helpful? First, we do know that a handful of 3.16’s in the Bible hold significant doctrinal material. Studying the 3.16’s is simple mainly because of the most famous 3.16 found in John’s Gospel. Other notable passages include Colossians 3:16, which teaches the sufficiency of the Scriptures; 2 Timothy 3:16, which teaches the inspiration of the Scriptures; and 1 John 3:16, which teaches the practical application of the substitutionary death of Christ.

Second, studying the 3.16’s of the Bible is a simple and memorable way to study. When you finish studying one text, you know exactly which will be your next passage to study.

Third, the study is systematic. Although a certain randomness does exist, the study takes you through the vast majority of the books of the Bible. Since the verses are near the beginning in most cases, the verses give just a glimpse into the theme of its book. In doing so, one gets one aspect of a bird’s eye view of the Bible.

The weakness of the 3.16 approach is found in its strengths. First, not every 3.16 contains a key doctrine of the Bible. For example, 1 Chronicles 3.16 says, “The sons of Jehoiakim were Jeconiah his son, Zedekiah his son.” Genealogies contain very little practical information regarding the Christian life. Another example of the lack of significant doctrine is found in 2 Chronicles 3.16, which says, “He made chains in the inner sanctuary and placed them on the tops of the pillars; and he made one hundred pomegranates and placed them on the chains.” The history of the construction of the Temple is good for its historical context, but we dare not base any doctrine solely upon such historical narratives.

Second, although the study is simple, it points to one verse and one verse only. The danger exists when one takes a verse by itself. If the verse is studied outside of its context, the consequences can lead to dangerous doctrinal error. So, the 3.16’s must be studied in their proper context rather than individually.

Another weakness regarding the randomness of the study may be included at this point. In his book, Mr. Knuth makes an important observation regarding the chapter and verse divisions of the Bible. The divisions are not divinely inspired, nor do they hold special, theological significance in an of themselves. The Old Testament divisions were made sometime in the thirteenth century A.D., and the New Testament divisions were made in 1551.

Fourth, the study focuses upon just one verse. In a sense, we are looking at just one tree in the entire forest. Just as you cannot reach a balanced conclusion about a forest based upon just one of its life forms, we cannot make dogmatic assertions about a particular book of the Bible based on one verse. The verse may give an overall view of the book, but we cannot draw conclusions about the entire book of the Bible until we have studied the entire book.

Two other observations may be made at this point regarding Mr. Knuth’s book. First, Mr. Knuth writes from a progressive theological background which profoundly influences his interpretations of the Scriptures. For instance, Mr. Knuth refers to the JEDP theory in his chapter on Genesis 3.16. The theory states that the Pentateuch was derived from four different sources, a theory held by some liberal theologians. Conservative Bible scholars believe that Moses penned almost all of the material, with the exception, of course, of portion recording his own death. The basis for this belief comes from consistent declarations, especially on the part of Jesus Christ, that Moses wrote the books. Other instances of progressive interpretations may be found in the book, but citing each instance is beyond the scope of our study. Suffice it to say that one must read the book with discernment.

Second, Mr. Knuth uses the approach that when a three sixteen does not exist, he goes to the sixteenth verse after the start of the third chapter. For example, the third chapter of Ezra does not contain sixteen verses. So, Mr. Knuth goes to Ezra 4.3, the equivalent of the sixteenth verse from the beginning of chapter three. I have no particular objection to this aspect of Mr. Knuth’s study. I simply say this to note the differences in between the two studies.

Why, then, would we endeavor to study the 3.16’s of the Bible? I submit the following reasons to you. First, 2 Timothy 3.16 tells us that all of the Scripture is profitable. This includes the 3.16’s by themselves as well as in their contexts. Moses, David, John, and Paul did not know which verse would be a three sixteen. Nor did the men who devised the chapter and verse divisions attempt consistently to identify a key verse as the sixteenth verse of the third chapter. That being said, just because a 3.16 seems not to have an obvious practical application does not mean that there is not a word of truth for us today. Thus study of the 3.16’s becomes just one among a host of systematic methods to study God’s Word.

Second, I personally find the study interesting. This has two benefits. I particularly enjoy my study of the Word, and when I convey my enjoyment in my teaching, my audience soon catches my enthusiasm.

Third, it is a unique method of Bible study. There is just something about the 3.16’s that are special. You can’t seem to find any other chapter and verse combination in the Bible that contain the same specialness.

How can you use this book? The reader may choose not to read from cover to cover; he or she may read any random chapter without losing the continuity of the book. The book may also be used for personal devotions or a basic Bible study for one’s spiritual benefit and growth. The applications in each chapter have been written to address relevant needs and issues. The book could be used for discipleship or for a Sunday School curriculum. The book could also be used for a small group discussion. A pastor or Bible teacher may even use the book as a resource to develop his or her own study on the topic. At the very least, this book may be read for the sheer uniqueness of the topic. To the best of my knowledge, there is only one other book written on this subject, and I have not encountered any studies like it on the internet.

May the Lord take the truths in this book and multiply it in your life as He did the five loaves and two fishes!

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