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 have greatly enjoyed Robert Jordan's immense and finally complete series The Wheel of Time; I'm not sure if I could put my finger on just one as my favorite, but I've just started reading the final installment and it's pretty awesome so far. If you want to talk fiction more generally, I would 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 again and again—OK, that's not entirely true. Schweikart's history was a pretty intense time commitment, but you know what I mean—and I would enjoy them every time. There was no part of them I didn't like. I suspect most folks who can identify one or two books as their favorites 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 reading at least a small portion of it every single day one of my highest priorities. 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. However, to say it's my favorite book based on the criteria I just mentioned is another matter. I mean, have you read what it says? Have you read some of the stories here? 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—printed entirely in No. 2 pencil so people could just erase the parts of it they deemed too difficult to keep. The point, of course, was that we shouldn't do this. Still, can any of you honestly say you've never wished once that you could erase the parts that are difficult? For example, I've been reading through Leviticus in my devotional time for the last couple of months. Wow is there a lot in there that at first read that seems as if it could have been left out and not hurt anything at all. 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.
Throughout our series Reasons to Believe, 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. As we began this 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 not only can 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, 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 only can be made by folks who think 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 publically. There's no other way to do it with any legitimacy.
That's all to say we can know the truth and live by it with confidence. Here, 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. Yet, if, as so many people believe, the Bible can't be trusted as reliable in much of what it says, how can we know anything about Jesus with any 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 gospel? Does it matter? 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 an ancient and now vanished people, and other than giving us some colorful examples of why it's a pretty good idea to be kind to each other, it really shouldn't have any sway on how we live our lives? Affirming that we can know the truth sounds good, but if our primary source for knowing truth isn't true, maybe we can't really know the truth. Are you with me?
The point here is that while this may be your favorite book, it's not without its problems. There are lots and lots of people 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. 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, there's this really thorny story in
When you add to this stories of giant, man-swallowing fish, floating ax heads, physics-defying, self-replicating bread, etc., it's no wonder people have such a hard time with the Bible. A book that says stuff such as this can't possibly have any meaningful authority in the lives of modern people. People struggle with accepting the authority of Scripture inside and outside the church. The simple reality is the Bible says a lot of hard things; and when challenged on these, simply affirming something such as, "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. Never mind the fact there isn't a single orthodox position on every hard place. I have a 784-page book purporting to do this, 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 here is develop a narrow focus. 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. 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? What section would this be? 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 defend the legitimacy of the rest.
OK, what do we actually believe? We need to know our foundation before we can know how to defend it. Perhaps the preeminent statement on the place and authority of the Bible in the lives of professed followers of Christ comes from Paul's second letter to his young protégé, Timothy. In
Second, such critics usually place less faith in the Old Testament than the New, so arguing that Paul was speaking specifically about the Old Testament being absolutely trustworthy (which is had 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 the words of Scripture in order for them to be useful in revealing Him to us, keeping us on the path of life, and helping shape us into the individuals He created us to be. What this means is that if we have accepted the Christian mantle, these words have authority in our lives. We're supposed to do what they say. For folks who haven't accepted Christ, these words represent an announcement of eventual judgment, but they are not bound to them as we are. This is what we believe as Christians: The Bible is the trustworthy revealer of God.
OK, we get that; but what does it mean to take the Bible literally? Isn't that what the debate is 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 creation was completed in six 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 the final point, I'm comfortable saying no to each of these questions. The word literal is actually tricky when applied to the Bible. Critics often use it in such a way as to make it seem as if Christians believe things which are patently absurd such as the world being flat. Somewhat ironically, critics of the faith often call for a much more stringent definition of literal than most Christians would. If someone were to ask me if I take all of the Bible literally, I would have to say no. There are parts of the Bible I take figuratively because they were written in figurative language. A much better word to use (although one still not without its own baggage) is 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, context, type of literature, the original language, and is sometimes trickier than we'd like it to be. This doesn't mean it can't be done. It simply means that at times we have our work cut out for us. The key affirmation, though, is the Bible is the trustworthy revealer of God. It takes us from the general knowledge that there is a God who 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 what the gospels say as historically accurate? The fact is 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. How do we counter this criticism and offer in its place a reason to believe? Let me give you three answers for the times when you will meet someone who doesn't take the gospels seriously. These will help make the case 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 these copies and confirming they all say about the same thing, scholars are confident we have what Homer wrote. The earliest of these copies, though, dates to 400 years after the original was written. 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 that when you read a collection of Plato's writings, scholars are pretty certain that's what Plato actually wrote. The evidence? We have 10 manuscripts, the earliest of which was copied more than 1,000 years after Plato died—plenty of time for the text to become corrupted.
Moving to the New Testament, 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…more than 5,000 copies. That's more than eight times as many copies as we have of Homer. Surely they come many years after the originals were written for critics to speak with such uncertainty regarding what they say. If you count 50 years a lot, sure; but compared with 400 or 1,300, I think we're doing pretty well. Within 50 years, there probably still were 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 regarding 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. 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 first have to get past the lifetimes of all the people who know the person directly. Then you have to get past the next couple of generations that probably had pretty detailed and accurate accounts passed down to its members. Put all this together and you really need a couple 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 similarly was an eye-witness to much of what he described; Luke and Mark were not eye-witnesses, but in Luke's prologue, he spoke of interviewing eye-witnesses. 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 wrong, including whether He came back from the dead. There are many other minute details in the gospels that easily could 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 never would have 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. 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 make themselves look foolish. 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 an issue to settle at least one debate? One more for fun: Jesus was crucified as a criminal. Nobody in the ancient world willingly would have 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 weren't making things up. 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 here. There are still all kinds of thorny issues in the Bible in other places that need working out, but what we've done is 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? Yes, there are places in the Bible that 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 the Bible says something other than what it 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 that 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 Jesus wasn't raised from the dead? The Bible's a challenging book. The character of our God is multi-layered and hard for us to wrap our minds around, but would you really want it any other way? I mean, yes, sometimes we'd like to think it would be much better if we had a God we fully understood and to whom we could relate fully all the time. However, 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. When we give our lives to this, we'll find the truth of the second part of what Paul said to Timothy. It will equip us for all the good works God has in store for us to do. It 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.