Sermon for Sunday, March 1, 2009
Dr. Dan Doriani
HOW GOD SPEAKS
2 Timothy 3:14-17, Luke 24:44-47, I Peter 1:10-11
I. Why is the Bible important – to outsiders?
If you ask a secular person what they dislike about Christianity, they will probably begin politely. They may say they don't oppose Christianity. They have Christian friends, relatives, or neighbors whom they admire. They may love the Bible's stories, the social benefits or its moral system and the good work the church performs – schools, literacy, and relief of hunger. But a secular person, an outside observer, does have objections.
1. Christians are hypocritical. We say one thing and do another. We claim high standards, but we don't live up to them. We act or sound as if the church is for the virtuous and the pure, but we aren't and that disqualifies us.
2. We are judgmental. We're against gays and divorced people. We use the Bible to beat people over the head. Christians say, "Hate the sin, love the sinner" – they know we say that. But it often seems that we hate the sin and the sinner.
3. We are over-confident. How can we be so sure we have the truth? We're too intent on making converts. How can we say other religions, other perspectives, including evolution and naturalism, are wrong? How can we say that Jesus is the only way to God? The audacity of it!
These objections aren't shallow; they have some validity. Are we hypocrites? Christians have high moral standards and we do fail to meet them.
Judgmental? We make moral judgments and label certain things "immoral." We are confident about the truth of our faith, so we do try to make converts. These are real issues and they merit exploration.
Consistency, judgment and confidence aren't side issues, but they aren't quite the main issue either. Each derives from basic Christian convictions.
Hypocrisy? We believe we are responsible moral agents and we strive for virtue. But we confess that we fail. By definition, every Christian confesses that he aims high and fails. Is hypocrisy the right label for that failure?
Judgmental? We believe we live in a created, designed universe and that things works best when people obey God's law. We believe that humans can be cruel and unjust and that evil should be opposed. Does that make us judgmental?
Confidence? We believe that a personal God cares about this broken world; that he intervened to heal our broken world and that he left us an authoritative record of his work, the Bible, which does teach us the basic truths of life.
These are strong claims. And each can be perverted. When we aim high and fail, we sometimes pretend we are better than we really are. That is hypocrisy. And we can use the Bible to condemn others and that is certainly obnoxious. In short, the trio of hypocrisy, judgmentalism and overconfidence are the result of a perversion of important Christian ideas that have positive value.
Surely it is very good news if the creator God has acted in this world and spoken to us. If we know what He did and what He said, it would be good to know. It would inspire confidence – both to know what He said and to know He forgives when we fail.
Some people resist the idea of an outside authority, telling them what to believe, how to act. They want freedom to chart a course, to make their own destiny.
But one part of us longs to be under wise and loving authority. We know we are ignorant so we want mentors, advisors. We wish someone would tell us the truth, tell us what to do. God offers that to us in Scripture.
Scripture doesn't tell us everything. But it does reveal the big, foundational truths. We don't have a rule for every life situation, but we have leading principles – and God trusts us to take it from there. This is the claim. Is it true? Yes. Let's approach it two ways – from a theological perspective and a human perspective.
II. How the Bible comes to us – a theological perspective
In 2 Timothy 3, a classic passage, Paul said, "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work."
"Scripture" is a collective term for the whole Old Testament and New Testament (Matthew 26:54-56, Luke 24:27-45; John 5:39, Acts 17:2,11; Romans 1:2, 15:4; Corinthians 15:3-4). All Scripture teaches, refutes, corrects and trains us. The history, prophecy, doctrine and ethic of Scripture is all God-breathed, his very word. We need Scripture for it teaches the truth, corrects our mistakes and trains us in obedience. 1
2 Peter 1:21 says, "For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit." So the Father produced Scripture as the Spirit moved the writers along. But that doesn't mean the prophets and apostles merely took dictation as God spoke.
Peter says the prophets who delivered God's grace "searched intently, with the greatest care." They were "trying to find out about… the times and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow" (1 Peter 1:10-11). Note that they "searched;" they longed to discover, to know. They were active agents in writing Scripture, which reveals the basics for faith and life.
If God speaks the Bible, then it is "inspired." Since God knows the truth and is true, His word is true. It contains no errors – it's inerrant. God stands behind it, so it never fails - it's infallible. It is inspired, inerrant, infallible – the basic claims.
But the Bible doesn't ask us to exercise blind faith in this. It does not demand fideism. There is evidence that verifies the Bible's claims, such as the works of other writers, inscriptions on stones, and archaeological remains.
Beyond that, the authors of Scripture tell us they worked at writing Scripture. That's the human perspective. Example: Luke knows there are many accounts of Jesus' life; he researched the truth and passed it on. The story of Jesus was "handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus." Luke 1:1-4.
Paul studied for fourteen years in Arabia before he became the apostle to the Gentiles. John says Jesus said and did many things that he chose not to record. But he wrote to supply evidence "that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name" (John 21:25, 20:30-31). Is there reason – even humanly speaking - to believe that Luke, John, and Paul accurately recorded events of New Testament? Yes – there are seven reasons:
1. Memorization was essential to ancient education. People developed skill in memorization. Jewish rabbis were expected to memorize every word of their teachers. Teachers repeated their main ideas again and again until students memorized them. So the ancients had skills that exceed ours.
Jesus chose and called the twelve to be his witnesses. As they followed Jesus, they heard his teachings many times. They treasured his words. Beyond that, Israelite students took notes on the words of their rabbis. 2
2. The ancients had standards for historiography. Herodotus, called the father of history, was roundly criticized five hundred years before the New Testament for putting unsubstantiated fables, morality tales, into his accounts. One critic, Thucydides (400 B.C.) said he confined himself to factual reports of contemporary political and military events based on first-hand, eye-witness accounts. Yet he admits that he sometimes summarized the main points of a speech as best he could.
Both secular people and believers knew the difference between history and fabrication. An elder was deprived of his office for embellishing the history of Peter – even though the embellishment was "edifying.”
In the ancient church, most people spoke Greek. The New Testament is in Greek so there was no need for a translation – everyone worked from the original.
One day a preacher spoke on Mark 2, the account of a lame man lowered through a roof on a stretcher and so placed before Jesus. The word used for this stretcher in Mark 2 is a common one – krabbatos. The preacher substituted a more literary or elegant Greek work – skimpeus - for the original.
Immediately someone called out, "Are you superior to the one who said krabbatos?" So the church had great interest in accuracy, getting the story right. 3
3. Some events are unforgettable. Memorable events emblazon themselves on the minds of witnesses. I will never forget walking my daughters down the aisle for their weddings. I remember the look on Debbie's face at our wedding, the birth of each child. I remember a Little League game. I was ten, the new kid in town, at bat hoping to prove myself. The bases were loaded, two outs in the final inning. We trailed 2-1. I hit the ball, we won and I still remember my team jumping on me in celebration.
Think, then, of the disciples when Jesus calmed the storm at sea. Think of Lazarus rising four days after his death. The Lord calls out with thunder and command. Lazarus bursts from his tomb, still wrapped in grave cloths. These events burned themselves into the disciples' memory. Besides, if one disciple forgot something, they could easily correct or remind each other.
4. The Bible locates events in space and time. It cites specific names and places. In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar — when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis… during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John" the Baptist and New Testament history began. Luke practically shouts: "This is real history. You can investigate." Many others do the same.
5. Living witnesses had a role. The New Testament doesn't just name governors, it names people, by name, living in towns by name.
Jesus healed blind Bartimaeus who used to beg outside Jericho on the road to Jerusalem (Mark 10). e raised Lazarus, a well known resident of Bethany, four days after death (John 11).
When Jesus stumbled under the cross, Simon of Cyrene, father of Alexander and Rufus, carried it for him (Mark 15).
These are real people, known to the church, known in their towns. The gospels would have been instantly discredited if the stories reached Jericho and Bethany and they weren't true. Imagine if Mark reached Jericho and everyone said, "We don't remember any blind beggar named Bartimaeus." Or if the people of Bethany said, "We remember Lazarus – he died fourteen years ago – and stayed dead."
If the stories were fabricated, the gospels would have died at once. But they didn't die. The gospels were received as Scripture everywhere they traveled.
6. The witnesses sealed their testimony with their lives. The disciples staked their lives to Jesus and his words. The apostles never moved on to a second career. They staked their lives on their testimony to Jesus. They lived for the story. They preached it and they died for it because they knew it was true.
7. The manuscripts and translations of the Bible are reliable. For most ancient texts, we have a few hand-written copies, less than ten. We have hundreds for the New Testament. Translation is done by teams of Ph.D.s that excel in the field. Whatever their personal views, the experts know and agree on the way to do it.
I hope you believe the Bible is God's word, the sure guide to faith and life. But even if you don't, there is at least reason to believe it is reasonably reliable – accurate in the original and in the translations. But what do we do with it? It can be hard to understand, opaque. How can we get something from it?
III. How should we read the Bible – Seriously, Holistically? (Christ)
I want to sketch the leading principles for reading the Bible and hearing what the author wants us to hear.
1. We read the Bible seriously. Some like to ask: Do you take the Bible literally or not? Wrong question. Rather: Are you willing to read the Bible the way it teaches you to read it?
Most of the time we read it literally. If the Bible says Jesus commanded a storm to be still and it stopped at once, it means just that. Not: it stopped "really fast." Rather, at once. A miracle, demonstrating his lordship over nature.
If it says he raised up a young girl who had died, it does not mean she was very sick or in a coma. It means he restored her to life by his power and grace.
The Bible also uses metaphors. Chronicles says, "The eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth." Must we think that he has eyes, that those eyes have long, strong legs attached so they can roam the earth without growing weary?
Jesus used exaggeration and hyperbole. "If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away." We see no battalions of one-handed Christians. But we do take our sins seriously and take action to remove it from our lives.
2. We read holistically. To read holistically means we don't snatch isolated statements from the Bible and find meaning that the authors never intended. We let the Bible's themes guide us. After his resurrection, Jesus declared that his person and work is the Bible's greatest theme:
“Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms… This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem" (Luke 24:44-47).
I will need to develop this later, but let me hint. The promises of the Old Testament point us to Jesus. God told Abraham, "I will bless you; I will make your name great and you will be a blessing. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you." How? Because Jesus came from Abraham's line, and offered knowledge of God to all.
"Let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight, declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 9:24). The knowledge of God comes through Jesus.
The promises and the law also point us to Jesus: When we read the law, we come away with two big ideas: 1) The law is good and 2) I don't keep it. God's standards are good, fair and deep and I fail to follow the standard. Therefore the Bible leads us to Jesus, the one man perfect man. He kept the law for us so we would be righteous in God's sight if united to him by faith - perfectly.
The history of Israel leads us to Christ. He is the great prophet revealing God to the world the great high priest offering the final sacrifice. He is the great king, protecting his people. The history of Israel is full of tragedy and betrayal. Every one leads us to cry, "Is there even one who is faithful?" There is one - Jesus. By union with him, the redeemer, we can know God truly and at least begin to taste faithfulness.
3. We read seriously, holistically and personally. That is, we take the Bible to heart. We shouldn't read judgmentally applying what we read to others. As in, after the sermon: “Wonderful message, pastor. I just wish my friend, neighbor, relative had come to hear it.” Yes – but did you hear it?
We have a marriage conference in ten weeks. You know the capacity for mischief. Husband and wife go separately, take notes and report: "The conference was wonderful! There was a talk on marriage; the speaker had three suggestions for me; he had twenty one for you. Let me share the first ten.”
Jesus says we must not use his truth to club or judge others. Don't use it take the speck out of your brother's eye. Take the log from your own eye. That is, your sins should seem big, highly visible and urgent to you. Apply my words to yourself, Jesus says. Admit, confess and repent of your failings.
So we should read the Bible personally, and study and meditate on it. Teachers, sermons, radio and podcasts can help with this, but at some point, if you want to become a Christian, or grow as a Christian, you need to become an active learner. Read, meditate and explore ideas on your own.
Let's admit we are tempted to hear the Bible in mistaken ways. Conservatives can read it for a roll call of do's and don'ts - cigarettes, drugs, tobacco, cursing. Legalism. One person called it "a painless way to be pious." Just follow these social rules, avoid these evils. But there is a problem.
Some of the finest people we will ever know break some of the rules about piety. I know a Christian man who cusses – but how he loves people! How he prays for them. I was taught to recoil at cursing, tobacco, liquor. But we should recoil more at hatred. Justice, mercy and love are the things that most please God.
Some read the Bible with selfish spiritual goals, to capture spiritual feelings, and to be viewed as a noble person.
No. Read for Jesus. Read for Jesus. Read for the real history of God breaking into history, Jesus touching lepers, raising the dead, all after two thousand years' preparation.
When we receive Scripture as it is and read meditatively, God's Spirit can do amazing things. Preaching and teaching have their place. But it is a grand thing to open God's word and start reading God's words to you. Things come together.
Paul says, "Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
Notice the two categories, creed and conduct - belief and behavior. Scripture teaches the truth and refutes errors. We overcome false and destructive ideas. But it also reforms our conduct: It corrects wrongdoing and trains us in righteousness.
We should not seek a dead orthodoxy that judges others nor an activism that so burns for the right acts that we can hardly admit our own sins – hypocrisy. Rather by reading for true stories and sound doctrine, so we come to the person of Christ.
1Warfield, Inspiration and Authority of Scripture, pgs. 234-39, 299.
2 Ellis, Prophecy Hermeneutic, pages 242-247
3 Eta Linnemann, Is There a Synoptic Problem?