Why Believe the Bible?
22/10/2006 at 6.30pm
Jesmond Parish Church
A sermon preached by David Holloway
What is your goal in life? The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah was crystal clear what God says it should be. Listen to his words:
"This is what the LORD says: 'Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me.'"(Jeremiah 9.23-24).God's great goal for your life is that you should understand and know him. And knowing the true God, says Jesus, is the essence of eternal life:
""This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3))This is hugely important for all of us, but especially for when we are making plans which may make or break us for years to come. Take students: many are like "the wise man [who] boasts of his wisdom". They have as their main goal to do well academically - to work hard and get the best degree they can. Others are like the "strong man [or woman who] boasts of his strength [or her body]". They have as their main goal to excel in sport and for some women to outshine others in how they look. Then there are those like "the rich man [who] boasts of his riches". Their main goal is to make a fortune. Yes, it is good when Christians can out-think others who reject God and excel at sport but with integrity and for women, without immodesty, to look attractive and for Christians who can, to make fortunes honestly - not to spend on themselves but for God's kingdom. Their main or chief goal, however, must be to know God. These other things are legitimate when they are not the main but subordinate goals.
But how actually do you "know God"? The Bible says it is through God's self-revelation. For by ourselves we cannot hope to know God. God is the "almighty, the maker of heaven and earth of all that is, seen and unseen", as we will be saying in the Nicene Creed. We can never, with our finite minds, understand or know him. He first needs to communicate with us. Isaiah, speaking for God, puts it like this:
"'My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,' declares the Lord. 'As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.'" (Isaiah 55:8-9)That is why you must rely on what God himself tells you. And Christians are convinced that you have God's words in the Bible. In our evening series of sermons entitled BASIC QUESTIONS, tonight's question is Why Believe the Bible? The basic Christian answer to that basic question, therefore, is not simply that the Bible is true in what it teaches, but rather that through reading the Bible (or knowing its message), and only through that message, can you truly know the true God. Well, so much by way of introduction. For the rest of our time tonight I want us to look at Deuteronomy 29 verse 29. That says:
"The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law."And my headings are the three clauses of that verse, first, THE SECRET THINGS BELONG TO THE LORD OUR GOD; secondly, THE THINGS REVEALED BELONG TO US AND TO OUR CHILDREN FOREVER; and, thirdly, THAT WE MAY FOLLOW ALL THE WORDS OF THIS LAW.
First, THE SECRET THINGS BELONG TO THE LORD OUR GOD
A number of people say they can't believe the Bible because there are too many things it teaches or implies that they can't understand. I wonder who here tonight is like that. A first lesson in understanding the Bible is to realize that it doesn't claim to deal with all problems and answer all questions. Our verse says, some things are "secret" (so you will not understand them) because they "belong to the Lord our God". God does not reveal all you want. He does, however, reveal all you need. Let me give you some examples of these "secret things" that we cannot fully understand.
First, there is the beginning of all things. The Bible teaches that this universe of space and time is not self-existent. Hebrews 11.3 says "it was formed at God's command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible." But how God acted in cosmic fashion at the beginning of time, we will never know this side of heaven. In the book of Job you can read how Job had to learn that he could not understand all God's ways, including his ways in the creation of this marvellous universe. God says to Job, expecting the answer, "No!" (38.4) "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand." Yes, you can understand "that the universe was formed at God's command." There was a "beginning". But beyond that a certain agnosticism is important as to what you would have seen if you had been present.
Secondly, the Bible does not tell you fully about the end of time, when this world's history comes to a climax with Christ's return. The Bible uses graphic images to suggest what that will be like. It will be like a triumphal visit of the Roman Emperor, but on a cosmic scale - with shouting and trumpets blowing and crowds. That is to stir your imagination. When it happens you will see how it all fits. But with regard to timing, Jesus himself tells us we have no idea when this will happen. That is secret to God: (Mark 13:32) "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." What we do know is that his coming will be like a thief in the night. It will happen when we are not expecting it. So, says Jesus: (Mark 13.33) "Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come."
Thirdly, we do not know why God sometimes allows suffering. That was Job's problem. He was an "innocent" sufferer. Nor was the problem for Job ever resolved theoretically. It is one of those mysteries or "secrets that belong to God". But it was resolved practically by having that vision of God as the great and good creator of the universe. His problems then took backstage as he realized that God was still in total control. So even in those dark times, he could trust him. For God is good.
Fourthly, there are philosophical questions such as, if God is absolutely sovereign and all events are under his control, how at the same time can we be free and responsible ourselves. The Bible makes it clear that both are true - God is sovereign and we are free agents. Prayer is a clear example where both are presupposed. Prayer presupposes that God can override the wills of others - as when we pray for someone to be converted. It also presupposes that our praying makes a difference. How, amazingly, this is possible is "a secret that [at present must] belong to God."
Fifthly, there are those theological vital questions relating to God's divine nature - the fact of the holy Trinity - one God in three persons; and the fact of the person of Jesus Christ, the divine Son and how he can be both fully God and fully man. These are all clear facts in the New Testament. But how they are realities is secret to God.
Sixthly, and relevant to our question tonight is this. The Bible is a remarkable collection of books, 66 in all - 39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New. But they are all different. Some are history, others poetry, others prophecy, others more philosophical, and in the New Testament there are letters the apostles wrote. But together this varied collection forms one whole. Apostolic teaching and the mainstream of the Christian church claims this is the providential work of the Holy Spirit of God. Yes, the books are clearly the work of human authors and need to be read as such. The Holy Spirit, however, is the primary author and so the books need also to be read as the words of God himself. There is a dual authorship. But how can at one and the same time the Bible be, as the Church of England's Article XX puts it, "God's word written", yet also be the work of human beings? It is a mystery. But necessarily there are "secret things that belong to God" and this is one of them. Nor should you be surprised that you can't understand everything. The apostle Paul said: (1 Cor 13:9-10) "We know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears." It is wise, therefore, for Christians to affirm what is revealed but to be reticent about those "secret things that belong to God" and the nature of the Bible is one of them. Let's move on ...
Secondly, to THE THINGS REVEALED BELONG TO US AND TO OUR CHILDREN FOREVER
Of course, the problem about knowing about our almighty God is not just our finite understanding. It also is that God created the human race to be in a relationship with him. But the human race has turned its back on God. So it is basically anti-God - as revealed in the Bible. That is now human nature and why Genesis 3 is so true to human experience. Genesis 3 says that the first human beings turned their back on God. And as a result, it is natural for everyone to do over and over again what Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden. God's revelation to us, therefore, has to do more than inform our minds. It has to work on our perverted wills and hearts.
But to be more specific, what are the things God has revealed? On the one hand there is God's "general revelation" in the created order. The Psalmist writes in Psalm 19.1: "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands." And Paul writes to the Romans 1.20:
"Since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse."And there is a moral consciousness about what is right and wrong in the human conscience. Paul writes about that in Romans 2.14-15:
"When Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts."So through God's creation and the creation of the human conscience, men and women can know the greatness and the righteousness of God.
But even that knowledge can get perverted into false religions, superstition and idolatry and the reversal of right and wrong. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1.21: "Since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe." Paul is not denying that the world has wisdom, but that it is not enough. General revelation reveals God's glory and holiness but it does not empower people to see and know God in the fullest sense. So out of his grace God revealed in a special way his goodness and love. This "special revelation" involved God's words and works in and through history.
First, God chose Abraham and explained that through his descendants there would be a change for good in all the world. Then under Moses God acted to save the Israelites, Abraham's descendants, from slavery in Egypt. Then in the Sinai Desert (and now a nation) God revealed to them more fully his moral law, in the Ten Commandments. After that he taught them further lessons through history - especially that if the nation trusted and obeyed God on average things would go well; but if they did not trust and obey, things on average would go badly. Sometimes they went very badly indeed - as happened at the sack of Jerusalem and the subsequent exile.
In the end God revealed that his saving action finally came with Jesus. Jesus Christ, the divine Son, who entered this world born of a woman - the virgin Mary - and who lived, taught, died and rose again so that men and women could be forgiven their sins and live a new life in God's new kingdom in the power of the Holy Spirit. These were the highlights of God's actions and teaching in and through history. But - and this is an obvious "but" - all this needed to be, and was, recorded for us in the Bible - a book God inspired by his Holy Spirit. That is why the Bible is so important. It is the record of God's revelation and, in so being, it is revelation itself. And that simply is why this is the supreme means by which we know God. Without the Bible, or the Bible's teaching, we cannot know God.
The God of the Bible is a God who speaks. Genesis shows that his creative act somehow involved speech. The apostle John begins his great gospel like this: "In the beginning was the Word". So at the heart of the Godhead, is the "word" - here in John's Gospel, a description of the divine Son - Jesus Christ. Of course, there is a mystery here as we have just been thinking. But at least what is revealed is that somehow our God is a speaking God. And writing is a simple way of ensuring you remember what was spoken. The Bible is simply, but wonderfully, God's provision for us to remember what he has said.
But, and this is an absolute essential, you have to take on board the message of the Bible for yourself. The Holy Spirit needs to open your spiritually blind eyes to see God's truth in the Bible. And the Holy Spirit seems to use the preaching and teaching of the Bible to open blind eyes and to bring people to faith. As we heard in our Epistle reading (Rom 10.17):
"faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ."So "the secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law." Well, finally, and ...
Thirdly, THAT WE MAY FOLLOW ALL THE WORDS OF THIS LAW
This principle that the purpose of God's revelation is not for us to argue about but to trust and then act upon and live by is not just for Moses' day. It was reasserted in the New Testament. Listen to Paul writing to Timothy:
"All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man [or woman] of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Tim 3.16-17)
I haven't time to deal with some of the "truth" questions people have with the Bible - such as over violence in the Old Testament and miracles in the New.
But let me just say this on violence in the Old Testament. In Old Testament times God particularly had to underline that he was moral and righteous and hates evil and so punishes those who sin. In New Testament times, however, Jesus came, yes, to underline that truth but also and fundamentally to underline and expand the good news that our God is all loving as well as all holy. He taught that he so loved the world that he sent Jesus Christ, the Divine Son, to bear that punishment the Old Testament underlined, in our place for we all have sinned. Jesus never spread his message by violence. Rather he himself was killed. Here is the great difference between Christianity and Islam. Mohammed rode into Mecca to conquer. Jesus rode into Jerusalem to die. All this means that on this side of Calvary, you and I must pray positively for those who oppose us and urge them to repent and receive the forgiveness that Christ offers. But God will not withhold his punishment ever. One day Christ will return and for judgment as well as finally to establish God's kingdom for ever and ever. There is heaven, but there is hell also.
Who needs to receive that forgiveness tonight from Christ? Perhaps you have been challenged by the Holy Spirit. And remember no one is too bad to be saved and no one is too good to need saving. And if you genuinely confess, God will always forgive. That is the good news. And he will give you the Holy Spirit to help you start to live a new life.
With regard to the New Testament and miracles, here is one of the most distinguished of New Testament scholars, George Caird of Oxford - and he was theologically liberal in a number of areas: "Sober criticism cannot get behind the gospel record to a plain, commonplace tale, devoid of the miraculous and the supernatural. The early Christians believed that, in Christ, God had been at work in new and astonishing ways and they had the evidence of their own eyes to support their faith."
But it is not arguments like these that will really convince anyone who doesn't want to be convinced. The Pharisees were always asking for evidence but never open to conviction. To reach real conviction you have to start to obey the Bible. To do that you must first trust what it says. Jesus said (John 7:17):
"If anyone chooses to do God's will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own."That is to say, start to take God's words and so the Bible seriously, trust it and live by it. That is the way to discover whether it is true or false. It is a bit like committing yourself to a train at Kings Cross. After all the evidence points to the fact that it is the Newcastle train, common sense says, "Get on the train!" You can't for ever be 'making absolutely sure', otherwise you will miss the train. Of course, when you are going through York you are absolutely certain you are on the Newcastle train and not the Leeds one by mistake. It is like that in the Christian life.
I must conclude. And I do so by giving you Jesus' very simple answer to our question, Why Believe the Bible? It was there in our Gospel reading - Matthew 4.4. Jesus said, quoting the Old Testament:
"'Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'"
Jesus is saying living by God's word - for us God's word written - the Bible - is a matter of life or death.
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