In this second part of our series, Reason to Believe, we take some time to examine the primary source for our knowledge of the truth: The Scriptures. The Bible is a tough book made even tougher by the things it says. Yet, making a full and comprehensive case for its reliability and trustworthiness is well beyond the scope of a single sermon. In what follows we examine the problem together, talk about what we do believe as followers of Jesus, and build a small case for the reliability of the Gospels. If we can prove those are trustworthy, making the case for the rest of it becomes all the easier. Keep reading for more and stay tuned for next week as we wrestle with the challenge present by the doctrine of Hell.
How We Know It
How many of you spiritual souls would count the Bible as your favorite book? I have a lot of different favorite books depending on the genre. For example, my favorite kids’ book (and author) is The BFG by Roald Dhal. I once considered stealing the library’s copy because I read it so many times. When it comes to history, Larry Schweikart’s A Patriot’s History of the United States is top of my list. In the world of fantasy, I greatly enjoyed Robert Jordan’s immense series, The Wheel of Time. If you want to talk fiction more generally, I would probably rank C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce at least near the top of my list. I would count each of these books as my favorites because of the impact they had on me when reading them. I could read them over and over—okay, that’s not entirely true; Schweikart’s history was a pretty intense time commitment, but you know what I mean—and enjoy them every time. There was no part of them that I didn’t like. I suspect most folks who can identify one or two books as their favorite would use similar guidelines for their choices.
This brings us back to the Bible. I love this collection of writings. It’s true. I make it a priority to read at least a small portion of it every single day. I study it often to make sure I understand it properly. I’ve devoted at least this season of my professional career to helping other people understand it. But, to say it’s my favorite book based on the criteria I just mentioned? That’s another matter. I mean, have you read what it says? Have you read some of the stories it tells? Some of the demands it makes on the lives of those who—like many of us—would recognize it as authoritative? I heard a spoof ad one time for the Erasable Bible—it was printed entirely in number 2 pencil so people could just erase the parts of it which were deemed too difficult to be kept. That’s basically what Thomas Jefferson did when he made his famous deistic translation of it. Now, the point, of course, was that we shouldn’t do this, but can any of you honestly say you’ve never wished even once that you could? For example: Have you ever read through the book of Leviticus? Wow is there a lot in there that at first read seems like it could have been left out and not hurt anything at all. Or perhaps if we could cut out some of the really judgmental sounding things Jesus said we could focus more easily on the love parts. If you think about it very long, it’s not so hard to see why people hate this collection of manuscripts; why they look for ways, including some really creative ones, to put it in the category of “not-entirely-harmless fiction.”
Well, this morning finds us in the second week of our series, Reasons to Believe. Throughout this series we are taking a look at some common objections to the Christian faith to see if perhaps they might lend themselves in actuality to offer reasons in favor of belief, not arguments against it. Last week as we began this little journey, we looked at the objection that Christians are arrogant to claim to know the truth. We found that in spite of objections to the contrary, truth is not relative. It can not only be known, but can be known with assurance. The reason for this is that truth is not some random set of ideas that are open to various interpretations depending on one’s cultural perspective. Truth is a person. It is the person of Jesus Christ. Arguments that Christians can’t possibly know the whole truth (or at least more of the truth than everybody else) and are arrogant for making such a claim in the first place can only be made by folks who think that they in fact know the whole truth or at least more truth than Christians do which is a self-defeating argument. Furthermore, the notion that faith is merely a private affair is equally false in structure because faith involves a worldview commitment and the way we believe in the deepest parts of our being that the world works is never merely a private affair but an intensely public set of guiding beliefs. Of course we are going to live out our faith publicly. There’s no other way to do it with any legitimacy.
That’s all to say that we can know the truth and live by it with confidence. This morning, though, I want to take the next logical step with you: how can we know Him? The simple, though unpopular, reality is that anything we know about Jesus with any degree of historical confidence we know through the Bible. And yet, if, as so many people believe, the Bible can’t really be trusted as reliable in much of what it says, how can we know anything about Jesus with any kind of certainty? How can we say we know Him well enough to give Him our lives? Do we know Him at all? I mean, what if the actual Jesus of history was totally different than the guy presented to us in the Gospels? Does that even matter? What if there was not actually a Jesus of history at all? If we can’t trust the Bible on this most central point, how can we trust it in anything else it affirms? What if the Bible really was written specifically for a long since vanished people and that other than giving us some colorful examples of why it’s a pretty good idea to be nice to each other it really shouldn’t have any sway on how we live our lives? Affirming that we can in fact know the truth sounds good, but if our number one source for knowing the truth isn’t true, maybe we can’t know the truth after all. Are you with me?
The point here is that while this may be your favorite book, it’s not without its challenges. There are lots and lots of people out there—and perhaps in here—who have lots and lots of problems with the Bible and the things it says. Put in simple terms, the objection is this: The Bible is such an old and culturally-conditioned book that we can’t possibly take what it says literally. Now, some of the reasoning behind this objection isn’t very good—critics simply don’t like what it says—but a lot of it takes a bit more thought to dispatch.
For example, I mentioned Leviticus a bit ago. There’s this really thorny story in Leviticus 10 where Aaron and his sons have just been ordained as the priests of Israel. After one of the purification rites, two of his sons grab a censer of fire and start swinging it around as if making some kind of an offering to God. They were ostensibly trying to lead the people in worship which is what they had just been ordained to do. Rather than accepting their ritual, though, God strikes them both dead on the spot and in a rather gruesome fashion because they offered “strange fire,” whatever that means. Is the seemingly capricious and murderous deity found here the same one who Paul said sent His Son at just the right time in order to save all of humanity from their sins? Or perhaps to hint at an issue we’re going to address more thoroughly in a later part of this series, at the end of Revelation, when God is handing out final judgments, the folks who don’t pass are destined to spend eternity in what is symbolically described as a lake of fire. How is this the same God who is earlier described as desiring mercy more than sacrifice? And don’t even get me started on all the miracle stories for which modern science has no good explanations, let alone externally corroborated proof, the chief of which is this insane notion that a man who had been killed by Roman executioners—who were very, very good at their job, by the way—got up out of his tomb, walked around for forty days, and then rode an invisible elevator up into the clouds.
When you add to this stories of giant, man-swallowing fish, floating ax heads, physics-defying, self-replicating bread, and the like, it’s no wonder that people have such a hard time with the Bible. Those are the kinds of stories you find in books sitting in the fantasy section of modern bookstores. A book that says stuff like this can’t possibly have any meaningful authority in the lives of modern people. People struggle with accepting the authority of Scripture from both outside and inside the church. The simple reality is that the Bible says a whole lot of hard things, and when challenged on these, simply affirming something like, “Well, I just take it on faith that it’s true,” doesn’t help anyone.
What should we do with all of this information? Well, let me tell you what we can’t do. There is not time now to defend the orthodox position on every hard place in the Bible this morning. Never mind the fact that there isn’t a single orthodox position on every hard place. I have a 784-page book purporting to do this in my office, and it doesn’t cover all of them. We don’t stand a chance. Also, that’s not really something that should be done in the context of a sermon. What I want to do this morning is to get our focus down to the very narrow. If we can engage with the objection to the Bible being taken at face value on a single issue, perhaps we can lay a foundation for dealing with the rest. And so, what issue or part of the Bible seems to make the most sense to give the bulk of our attention? How about the section that contains its central affirmation? And what section would this be? Why the Gospels, of course. If we have the ability to defend the historical and literary legitimacy of the Gospels, this goes a long way toward helping us to defend the legitimacy of the rest.
With this said, let’s get started. And this morning I want to start kind of like we did last week. We need to know our foundation before we can know how to defend it. So then, what do we actually believe? Well, perhaps the preeminent statement on the place and authority of the Scriptures in the lives of professed followers of Christ comes from Paul’s second letter to his young protégé, Timothy. In 2 Timothy 3:16 Paul offers the powerful observation that “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”
Now, critics at this point will argue that for Paul “Scripture” would have been the Old Testament. There are two problems with this. First, in 2 Peter 3 the apostle refers to Paul’s writings as Scripture indicating that there was a sense among the writers of the New Testament that they were writing Scripture as valid as what they had from the prophets. Second, critics like this will usually place even less faith in the Old Testament than the New so arguing that Paul was speaking specifically about the Old Testament being absolutely trustworthy (which it has to have been if it came from God’s mouth) doesn’t really help them much. At the heart of this verse is the notion that God inspired—and how He did it is a subject for another time—all of the words of Scripture in order that they may be useful for revealing Himself to us, keeping us on the path of life, and helping to shape us into the individuals He created us to be. What this means is that if we have accepted the mantle of “Christian,” then these words have authority in our lives. We’re supposed to do what they say. For folks who haven’t accepted Christ, by the way, while these words do represent an announcement of eventually coming judgment, they are not bound to them as we are and neither is it our job to hold them so. This is what we believe as Christians: The Bible is the trustworthy revealer of God.
Okay, fine, we get that, but what does it mean to take the Bible literally? Isn’t that what this debate is all about? Does it mean that when Jesus told us to amputate whatever part of our body causes us to sin we are all living in disobedience of some fashion? Does it mean that creation was completed in seven 24-hour days, that the world really is only about 6,000 years old, and that modern science can go jump off a cliff? Well, while there’s some healthy orthodox debate on that last point, I’m comfortable saying no to each of these questions. The word “literal” is actually tricky when applied to the Bible. Critics will often use it in such a way as to make it seem that Christians believe things which are patently absurd like the world being flat. Somewhat ironically, critics of the faith often call for a much more stringent definition of “literal” than most Christians I know would. If someone were to ask me if I take all of the Bible literally, I would have to answer, “No.” There are parts of the Bible I take figuratively because they were written with figurative language. If you don’t understand the type of literature you’re dealing with when you’re reading the Bible, then of course you’re going to get it wrong. A much better word to use here is the word “inerrant.” This basically means that when properly understood the Bible is without error in everything it affirms. Properly understanding the Bible, though, involves knowing the background, the context, the kind of literature, the original language, and is sometimes trickier than we’d like it to be. This doesn’t mean that it can’t be done. It simply means that at times we have our work cut out for us. The key affirmation, though, is that the Bible is the trustworthy revealer of God. It takes us from the general knowledge that there is a God and He is good, to the specific knowledge that He loves us and has provided a pathway to salvation for us through His Son.
With all of this in place, let’s turn out attention to the Gospels themselves. How can we trust that what the Gospels say is historically accurate? The fact is that people have been attempting to pick apart the pieces of the Gospel which are easiest to swallow and discard the rest for a very long time. They have devised a variety of methods by which to make this determination. So how do we counter this criticism and offer in its place a reason to believe? Let me give you very quickly three answers for the times when you will meet someone who doesn’t really take the Gospels seriously. These will help make the case both that we can trust that what we read when we open our Bible really is what the authors wrote, and that the authors weren’t just making up nonsense to start a new religion.
First, apart from the New Testament, the ancient work that is considered the most reliably faithful to the original manuscript (which we don’t have) in its present form is Homer’s The Iliad. This is the story of the war between Greece and Troy. If you’ve ever heard the phrase “Trojan horse,” you can thank Homer. There are an impressive 643 ancient copies of The Iliad in existence today. By comparing all of these copies and confirming that they all say about the same thing, scholars are confident that what we have really is what Homer wrote. The earliest of these copies, though, dates to 500 years after the original was written. Thankfully, because of copying methods used at the time, that doesn’t present us with too much of a challenge in trusting it, but 500 years is still a pretty long time. That’s quite a bit of time for mistakes to creep in without us knowing about it. Yet with a single exception no other ancient work comes anywhere close to this level of confidence. This doesn’t present too much of a problem, though. Consider: when you read a collection of Plato’s writings, scholars are pretty certain that’s what Plato actually wrote. The evidence? We have 7 manuscripts, the earliest of which was copied down over 1,000 years after Plato died. That really is a lot of time for the text to get corrupted.
Then you move over to the New Testament. Now, as with these other ancient works, we don’t have the original documents. As with the other works, though, if we can trust the copies, we can be sure we have what was written. So let’s deal with those. Looking at only the copies we have of the New Testament in its original language of Greek we have…wait for it…over 5,000 copies. That’s over 8 times as many copies as we have of Homer. And when you add copies in other ancient languages, that number goes up to over 24,000. But surely they come many years after the originals were written for critics to speak with such uncertainty regarding what they say in light of the confidence we have about The Iliad and Plato’s works. Well, if you count 50 years a lot, sure, but compared with 500 or even over 1,300 I think we’re doing pretty good. Inside of 50 years there were probably still people around who had seen the originals and could offer corrections to any mistakes that were made. The truth on the matter is that by any reasonable standards the New Testament is the single best attested ancient document in existence today. We have more confidence that the words you’ll find from Matthew to Revelation, but particularly from Matthew to John, are what the authors originally wrote than any other ancient document. There’s simply no contest. Now, you may not like or agree with or believe what they wrote, but there’s really no doubt that we do in fact know what they wrote. The Bible is the trustworthy revealer of God.
Second, but related to this first thing, the timing of the copies we have of the Gospels is much too early to worry about any of its material being legendary. Now, certainly legends about a person can develop within a fairly close proximity to that person’s departure from this world. But, when it comes to specific matters of history and big, important details in a person’s life, these take a little longer to develop. You have to first get past the lifetimes of all the people who knew the person directly. And then really, you have to get past the next couple of generations who probably had pretty detailed and accurate accounts passed down to them. Put all of this together and you really need a couple of hundred years before you can pronounce this or that detail as legendary with very great confidence. The last of the Gospels written was John and it was written by an eye-witness. Matthew was similarly an eye-witness to much of what He described. Now, Luke and Mark were not eye-witnesses, but in Luke’s prologue he speaks of interviewing eye-witnesses and given the stories he tells there is a very good chance that at least one of his sources was Mary, Jesus’ mother. She wasn’t likely to get very many details about her Son’s life (including whether or not He came back from the dead) wrong. There are many other minute details in the Gospels which could easily have been challenged or corrected by folks still alive who knew different and could prove it. But they didn’t. Because they were true. The Bible is the trustworthy revealer of God.
Third, when you read the Gospels with an eye for detail, the details are too embarrassing to think they were made up to create a new religion. Consider the view of women in the first century. It was terrible. If these guys were trying to pull a fast one on us on the matter of the resurrection they would have never presented women as the first and chief eye-witnesses of the resurrected Christ. Such a detail would have been a huge stumbling block for the original audiences of the Gospels. There are other stories in which Jesus’ followers all leave Him. If He were really the Messiah, people wouldn’t have abandoned Him. Speaking of Jesus’ followers, two of them wrote Gospels and they were generally the heroes of the early church. And yet, in the Gospels themselves, the disciples consistently come across as bumbling idiots. Nobody writes a non-comedic story in which they are one of the main characters and makes themselves look foolish. Or how about this: from some of Paul’s letters we know what some of the big debates in the early church were. Why wasn’t Jesus recorded as having said anything about these? I mean, we wish Jesus would have said something about our big cultural and theological debates. These guys were writing down the words of Jesus. Why not slip in a little something geared at offering a final word on this or that issue to settle some debates (namely in the direction they wanted them to go)? Or one more for fun: Jesus was crucified as a criminal. Nobody in the ancient world would have willingly followed a man who had been crucified without a surpassingly great reason to do so. Even if he did come back from the dead, the folks who were crucified were the worst of the worst. Why not have Jesus martyred in some less embarrassing fashion? The only obvious conclusion to all of these is that they true. They were presenting things as they actually happened. The Bible is the trustworthy revealer of God.
Now, we could go on like this, but these three reasons give you a good start on defending the credibility of the Bible to a skeptic. Question time: will these three reasons settle every debate? Of course not. As I said, we just focused on the Gospels this morning. There are still all kinds of thorny issues in the Bible in other places that need working out. But, what we’ve done this morning is to lay a foundation. If the Bible is inerrant on this most central point, why would it drop the ball in other, seemingly less important places? Furthermore, if by taking a closer look at the context, historical situation, and literary style of the Gospels helped confirm their trustworthiness, do you think such an approach might yield similar returns with other, equally difficult passages? And yes, there are places in the Bible which are particularly thorny given the current state of our culture. But these weren’t issues 200 years ago. In another 200 years they probably won’t be issues any longer. Let us use great caution in arguing that the Bible says something other than what it pretty clearly says because what it does say is out of sync with our culture’s current vibe. Think about the folly of arguing that because you don’t like what it says on one point, the whole thing must go; or of constructing a method of interpretation such that by making better sense out of one hard part you throw into question many other more important parts. Does being challenged in a way you don’t like in one place really mean that Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead?
The Bible’s a challenging book. The character of our God is many-layered and hard for us to wrap our minds around fully. But would you want it any other way? I mean, yes, sometimes we’d like to think that it would be much better if we had a God we fully understood and to whom we could fully relate all the time. But in what other relationship do we really want that to be the case. People we totally understand are boring. They might be friends, even good friends, but they’re not people in whom we invest much of ourselves. The Bible may say a lot of hard things, but this doesn’t mean it isn’t accurate or true. The Bible is the trustworthy revealer of God. And when we give our lives to this, we’ll find the truth of the next thing Paul said to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:17. The Scriptures will equip us for all the good works God has in store for us to do. They will lead us faithfully to become fully the people we were designed to be. The Bible is the trustworthy revealer of God. You can count on this and you can stand for it.