Great Themes of the Bible (#4-Holy Scripture)

"Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path. . . . Your statutes are wonderful; therefore I obey them. The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple. I open my mouth and pant, longing for your commands."

Millions and millions of dollars have been spent on the SETI (Search for Extra- Terrestrial Intelligence) Project that was featured in the 1997 Jodi Foster movie Contact. Huge dishes scan the skies for any sort of signal that might be coming from intelligent life somewhere in the recesses of the cosmos. The only reliable information we have on intelligent life attempting to contact Planet Earth is in the Bible. The God of the Universe has spoken for centuries past through prophets and has finally spoken to us through Jesus (Cf. Heb. 1:1-3). A few dollars would get any one of us a copy of the communique, but we seem determined to ignore it.

"All 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" (2 Tim. 3:16-17). "Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation. 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" (2 Pet. 1:20-21).

Why We Need the Bible

The spirit of our time is more receptive to conversations about and more open to actively searching for spirituality than any generation in a while. There is very little of the I'll-believe-only-what-I-can-see-and-touch sentiment of the materialistic worldview surviving into the twenty-first century. If anything, in fact, there is an overt craving for anything that can loosely be termed "spiritual" nowadays. There is even a movement in the direction of gullibility that frightens me.

I have had versions of the following conversation with countless people: "Preacher, I've got no doubt at all of the existence of God. I've felt his presence, watched him work out difficult things in my life, and know he exists. But that's why I'm not interested in church or religion or the Bible. To anybody who has met God in the grandeur of nature or in the agonies of real life, all that stuff seems pretty tame and small."

With my profound appreciation for Alcoholics Anonymous, other twelve-step groups, and the general phenomenon of connecting via small groups, I confess to a bit of fear about the direction some of these groups have gone. They have defined their "higher power" in such vague, subjective, and self-magnifying terms that they have simply found a way to legitimize unbelief in the name of spirituality. The only "higher power" that can rescue and redeem a life for eternity has a name and an address, Jesus of Nazareth.

Yes, you can know God's existence without the Bible. Yes, you can experience the presence of God through people made in his image who truly care about you. And, yes, you can make a distinction between the trappings and poppycock of "religion" over against the healing power of "spirituality" that is legitimate.

But you cannot know the will of God unless it is revealed to you. You cannot know about salvation and eternal life apart from Scripture. You cannot be sure you have a relationship with God that will see you through time and eternity except through the Bible.

The apostle Paul quoted from Isaiah and added his own comments on those Old Testament lines when he wrote:
As it is written:
"No eye has seen,
no ear has heard,
no mind has conceived
what God has prepared for those who love him" —

but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit. . . . For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man's spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 2:9-10, 12).

When you are planning to make a trip, the smart thing for you to do is to get out a good road atlas. Find where you are, identify where you want to go, and mark out the best route from your present location to your destination. Pay attention to interesting sites along the way. Be realistic about how far you can travel in a day or with the baggage you have to carry. Realize that it will cost you something to make the trip, and be ready to pay the tolls and expenses that are involved. Then, when you finally get on the road, keep the road atlas close at hand and check your journey against it frequently.

Isn't that something of the role Holy Scripture plays in the life of a believer? Unless I "turn the tables" of creation and make God in my own image, I need the Bible to guide my spiritual journey. I have to be honest about where I am right now, fix it in my heart that I really do want to go to heaven, and find the way that connects where I am to where I want to be. So I turn to the Bible and find Jesus saying, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6).

Thus I go deeper into the four Gospels to learn about Jesus. I find out everything I can about him and watch other people as they react to and attempt to follow him. I find people who remind me of myself, learn from their experiences, and see how gentle and patient Jesus is with them. From studying Jesus and his earliest disciples, I get a glimpse of the road my life must take to be his follower. So I begin walking by faith — not by sight, not by feelings, not by subjective guesses — and know I am making progress as my actions become more consistent with my beliefs about Jesus.

Oh, there are lots of interesting places along my route. Some of them are downright treacherous roads that circle back and take me off the highway to the destination I want. So I have to keep checking the map often. I can't travel far in a given day. There is baggage that makes my trip slow and consumes a lot of energy. And there are toll places all along my route marked with the word "repentance." But the Bible is absolutely indispensable to the journey! I can't travel with confidence without it!

The Problem With the Bible

People who don't know better sometimes hesitate to take the Bible too seriously as an atlas or road map for negotiating life. "It was written so long ago," says one. "It describes a world so different from mine," says another. " And I've heard we don't even know what was in the original Bible," objects somebody else. "This one has been handed down over centuries and has gone through so many hands that we can't be sure what we are reading is what those prophets and apostles originally gave us as the Word of God."

No single science has done as much as archaeology to confirm the reliability of the Bible. Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, the oldest manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible available to scholars were from about A.D. 900. In startling agreement with the text already known to us, the Dead Sea Scrolls pushed our knowledge of the biblical text back to about 100 B.C. In that thousand-year interval, what was so remarkable was not the changes, omissions, or revisions of the text but the inviolability of it. We know that the people who received these books as Spirit-given Scripture took elaborate care to protect them from tampering.

Indeed, we do have a reliable text of the Bible as originally given. When I study the marvelous dialogues of Plato with my students in university classes, I seldom bother to remind them that we know his writings through only seven extant manuscripts — none of which is closer than 1,200 years to the time of their writing. By contrast, we have well over 5,000 copies of the New Testament in separate units from as early as 50 years from the time of writing (i.e., Gospel of John) and the complete corpus from within 300 years of its composition.

The biblical story of King David — with its adultery, murder, and political deceit set over against his extraordinary faith and courage — was considered "too fantastic" to be anything other than myth. King David must have been a made-up character. In 1993, Israeli archaeologists digging in the Golan Heights unearthed a piece of stone from an ancient monument dated in the ninth century B.C. Inscribed in Aramaic were the words "King of Israel" and "House of David." Critics of the Bible insisted the find was faked or the inscription incorrectly translated. In 1994, more fragments of the stele were found with additional references to the ancient king. Newspapers around the world quoted Seymour Gitin of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in East Jerusalem in calling it "one of the greatest finds of the twentieth century." The skeptical claim that King David never existed except as a dramatic character has been essentially dropped.

The French unbeliever Voltaire once boasted that it had taken twelve men to set up Christianity, but he would show that a single man was enough to overthrow it. He said that in a hundred years the Bible would be a forgotten book. How many books from Voltaire have you read? How many books of the Bible?

The Bible is anything but an archaic millstone around the necks of modern people. It is the rock-solid foundation on which faith is erected. It has withstood the test of time and survived the violent attacks of unbelief. It is an absolutely reliable source of information about the most important character and issue in human history — Jesus Christ and the salvation that comes through him alone.

I think our "problem" with the Bible is not the proffered issues of textual reliability, formation of the canon, or translation. The problem is that it challenges parts of our thinking and behavior that we don't want to change.

A professor stood up on the first day of his freshman Bible class at a Christian college. He looked down his student roster and called a name at random. "Mr. Gillespie," he asked, "do you have any problems with the Bible?" The student replied immediately and confidently, "No, sir."

"This semester I am going to challenge you to read your Bible very, very carefully," said the teacher. "And if you do that, you will have problems with it. I guarantee it."

I have often had occasion to recall or cite the words of Samuel Clemens. "It isn't the parts of the Bible that I don't understand that bother me," he said. "It's the parts I dounderstand that cause me problems."

Honoring the Word of God

For anyone who does believe the Bible or for someone who is simply curious to know the difference Holy Scripture can make in his or her life, I would make the following elementary suggestions.

First, worship with a Bible-believing, Bible-teaching church. It is far less important what name is on the church's sign or letterhead than to discern its attitude toward the Word of God. It matters less that its building is new, convenient to where you live, or comfortable than that it is a place where Jesus is lifted up by the preaching of the Word of God. It is faithfulness to Scripture that legitimates a church's existence.

Second, if you are really serious about knowing God, get with a few like-minded people to study the Bible regularly. Get a copy of a really good study Bible — I use The NIV Study Bible published by Zondervan Publishing House — that has maps, footnotes, and cross-references. You'll probably want to organize your regular study times around a study guide that will focus your attention on a theme or allow you to work through a section of Scripture systematically.

Third, spend one-on-one time with the Word of God every day. Don't turn this into a "school assignment" or burden. Here I'm just speaking of a disciplined time of five to fifteen minutes a day for reading the Bible — maybe the Gospel of John or the Psalms for starters. I typically give a One-Year Bible to couples I marry and ask that they read just the section from the Psalms together for the first few months of their marriage. It takes about 30 seconds. Then I encourage them to pray together over a word, phrase, or thought that comes to them from that brief reading. Do I really think anybody can get something meaningful from such a small portion of Scripture each day? Absolutely! The Word of God is that powerful.

Fourth, obey all you understand of the will of God at any given moment. Some people apparently think they need to be theologians before they can be Christians. No! The Bible is God's appeal to your mind and heart to follow him. If you yield yourself to follow him today in whatever he has shown you so far, he will show you more tomorrow. At the point where you balk at or disobey something you know to be his will, your ability to discern and live the truth diminishes.

Conclusion

At a teen gathering, a fresh-from-seminary youth minister was trying to impress his young charges with the wonderful relevance of the Word of God to their lives. He got the teens in a circle, put a chair in the middle, and handed out cards with Bible verses on them to everyone in the group. The idea was to blindfold someone in the middle chair, have them tell the group some concern he or she was experiencing, and then have someone in the group to read an appropriate Bible verse — as though God himself were answering the question through the words of Scripture.

The idea appeared to be a bust. The kids thought their new youth minister was pretty goofy. And nobody in the group was going to sit in that chair and raise a question more profound than how to get an A on Mr. Bentley's math test or how to avoid dangling participles in English composition.

Then a new girl who hadn't been in the group very long volunteered to take the "hot seat" in the middle. The giggling died down a bit as they blindfolded her, for she was new. They were sensitive enough that they didn't want to make her too uncomfortable. Then she spoke up and said, "I don't know if I want to go on living any longer. Life's too hard for me, and I just can't stand it." Now the room was deadly silent. No one knew what to say or do, and most just looked down in embarrassment. Then one boy read his Bible verse out loud: "God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it" (1 Cor. 10:13).

"But nobody cares about me," said the girl. Then another girl in the outer ring of chars read these words: "I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving-kindness" (Jer. 31:3).

"You don't understand," said the girl in the blindfold. In a desperate and tearful voice, she said, "My own mother kicked me out of the house today!" And someone read: "God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you' So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid' " (Heb. 13:5-6).

In this church, we take the Bible seriously because we believe it is the Word of God. We believe there is a true and appropriate word from God in this Holy Book that addresses every human need. We believe the counsel and instruction you need for your life is within these covers. And we believe the journey we are on as we follow The Way revealed to us in Scripture is going somewhere. We'd like you to go with us.

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