What Christians Think About the Bible
by Timothy Peck
2 Peter|2 Timothy 1|3:20|16-1|3:21|16
If you take away the Bible, and you’ve taken away the entire Christian message. Yet lot of confusion exists today about the Bible. According to a 1996 Barna survey, 42% of Americans say they believe that the Bible is the literal word of God. Yet almost half of Americans believe that the Bible is too hard for them to understand, so on given week very few people actually read the book they claim to embrace as God’s literal word. Clearly there’s a discrepancy between what we say we believe and our true beliefs as demonstrated by our actions.
This series is designed to help people understand the basics of the Christian faith–to tell the world –in a way that people can understand and make sense of. This sermon explores what Christians believe about the Bible.
1. What Is the Bible?
Before we actually start, I need to clarify what I mean by the word “Bible.” There are lots of books out there with the word “Bible” in the title that have nothing to do with what we’re talking about. There’s “The Beauty Bible,” “the Freshwater Fisherman’s Bible,” “The Golfer’s Bible,” even “The Cooking Bible.” These books are not what I’m talking about.
So let’s go back to real basics: What is the Bible? The word “Bible” means a book or collection of books regarded as authoritative on a topic. Books like The Beauty Bible and The Fishermen’s Bible use the word Bible in the title to claim that they’re the standard authority on that particular topic. I recently heard a local newspaper claim, “If your religion is sports, then our newspaper is your Bible.”
No other book is more authoritative on the topic of the Christian faith than the Christian Bible. The Christian Bible is a collection of 66 different books divided into two sections (Old and New Testaments) written by over 40 different authors over a span of 1,500 years in three different languages, yet it presents a unified message of God’s plan and purpose for humanity. Thirty-nine books make up the Old Testament, which was written between around 1,500 BC and 400 BC, starting with the book of Genesis and ending with the Malachi. The Christian Old Testament and the Jewish Bible contain the same 39 books, though they’re listed in different order.
(The Roman Catholic church also includes 15 other writings in their Old Testament called the Apocrypha which means “hidden books.” The Roman Catholic church added these books in their Old Testament about 500 years ago at the Council of Trent, but for the first fifteen hundred years the Apocrypha was considered good devotional literature, but not part of the Bible).
The 27 books that make up the New Testament were written over a 50 year span, and they deal with Jesus Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection, the beginning of the Christian church, and instruction about how to live as a follower of Jesus Christ. The Old Testament is written primarily in Hebrew, with a little Aramaic, and the New Testament is written exclusively in Greek. Yet these diverse authors each in their own way present a unified portrait of God’s plans and purposes in our world.
As to different kinds of literature, the Bible contains history, poetry, humor, prophecy, romance, letters, biographies, songs, journals, advise, laws and stories. So the Bible is an entire library of different kinds of literature. The Bible was also the first book every printed on the printing press, it’s the best selling book of all time, and portions have been translated into over 1,946 different languages.
So when I say “Bible” this is what I’m talking about, these 66 books that have been the foundation for the Christian faith since it’s very beginnings.
Now as modern Americans, we’re Bible rich. We have over 30 different English translations of the Bible available to us. I use the New International Version of the Bible, though there’s also the King James Version, the New American Standard Bible, and so on. Twenty-four percent of Americans own at least five Bibles.
Now this brings us to our original question: What Do Christians Believe About the Bible? We’re going to look at four key concepts on this topic starting in 2 Timothy 3:16.
2. The Relevance of the Bible (2 Timothy 3:16)
Let’s look at what the Bible says about itself.
“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 Timothy 3:16-17 NIV).
Here here we’re introduced to another word that describes the Bible, the word “scripture.” This word “scripture” means “sacred writings.” Other religions have their own sacred writings, for instance Islam has the Koran, Mormonism has The Book of Mormon, and Hinduism has the Bhagavad-Gita. The Bible is the Christian faith’s sacred writings–or Scripture.
These sacred writings are said to be “God breathed.” Now some English translations render this word “inspired by God,” but that’s not totally accurate because the word “inspired” means breathed into, as if God looked at all the different religious books in the world and then chose to “breath into” the Bible. But this word means to breath out rather than in, and that makes the focus of this word on God’s breath being the source or origin of the Bible. What Paul is saying here is that the fundamental characteristic of scripture–what makes these writings sacred writings–is the fact that God breathed them out, that they have their ultimate origin with God himself.
Now this fundamental characteristic of being God-breathed makes the Bible is “useful.” This word means “practical,” and “beneficial.” I think the word “relevant” captures the meaning here, that because of the Bible’s source, it has vital practical relevance for our lives.
This relevance is seen in four areas: Teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness. Teaching focuses on the Bible as giving us instruction to live life. Now this assumes that we come to the Bible as learners, because only learners can be taught. This instruction or teaching isn’t just about heavenly things, but it’s about practical things like being a good spouse, being a good parent, loaning out money, starting a business, and so forth. Rebuking sounds kind of harsh, but really it just means confronting our wrong ideas about life. This assumes that all of us carry around misconceptions and distortions about God, about ourselves, and about life that need to be changed. For instance if I measure success in life by how much money a person has, but the Bible measures success by a person’s faithfulness to God, then my criteria for success has been rebuked, and I need to change my definition to conform to God’s definition. Correction is similar to rebuking, but it focuses in on behavior instead of beliefs. This assumes that all of us lose our way in life sometimes, that we can easily wander off the course God has for us and end up roaming around in circles. The Bible corrects us when it gets us back on track in life, when it shows us where we are and how to get back on course with where God wants us to go. Finally, training in righteousness focuses on the Bible’s role in helping us live the kind of lives that please God. This assumes that a life of integrity doesn’t come naturally to us, that we need help to live the kind of life of integrity we want to live. The Bible trains us to do that which we could not do on our own when it comes to a life of integrity.
All of this results in being thoroughly equipped to life for a spiritually vital life with God. The Bible provides us with the equipment we need. It’s been said that when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Well the Bible provides us with a complete spiritual toolbox to live a full and rich spiritual life of devotion to Jesus Christ.
This brings us to our first key concept. SINCE GOD GAVE US THE ENTIRE BIBLE, ALL OF ITS TEACHINGS ARE RELEVANT FOR OUR LIVES.
Once my wife Chris and I stayed at a Bed and Breakfast Inn in Santa Barbara, and in the sitting room there was a library of out of old books. One of the books caught my eye, so I took it out to look at it. The book was obviously old and worn. Yet as I tried to open it I found that the pages hadn’t been cut properly and it couldn’t be opened. Here this book that looked old and worn had never been opened.
Many Bibles are like that: they’re used as decorations, family heirlooms, or as a kind of good luck charm. Yet the Bible was meant to be an open book, a book with incredible relevance to the ordinary details of our daily lives.
Pastors have sometimes been guilty of taking book and making it boring to people. I think it’s a sin to bore people with the Bible. You see, we don’t have to make the Bible relevant, it already is relevant, we just need to get out of the way and allow it to speak to our life situation.
3. The Bible Communicates God’s Voice (2 Peter 1:20-21)
Now at this point many people are skeptical, and they protest, “But everyone has their own interpretation of the Bible.” This is true if we treat the Bible as an encyclopedia of disconnected thoughts and ideas. It’s easy to take one or two verses and make them say anything you want them to say. The classic example of this is the guy who wanted to know God’s will for his life, so he opened the Bible randomly and read the verse that says, “Judas went and hanged himself.” Then he closed the Bible, and repeated the same procedure, and this time the Bible opened to a verse that said, “Now go and do likewise.” If that’s the way we treat the Bible, then everyone does have their own interpretation of what it says.
This is where 2 Peter 1:20-21 comes in: “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” (NIV).
Here we’re introduced to another term for the Bible, the word “prophecy.” We think of prophecy as predictions about the future, but biblically prophecy refers to God revealing things that we couldn’t figure out on our own. Future events could be included in that, but the focus of prophecy is God revealing himself.
Now some Bible translations render v. 20 “private interpretation” instead of “the prophet’s interpretation” and there’s some confusion as to whether this is saying that the Bible is not a matter of the reader’s own interpretation or it’s whether not a matter of the human author’s own interpretation. Really both are saying the same thing, that we can’t make the Bible say whatever we want it to say, whether we as readers or the original authors. This verse is warning us not to read our own ideas into the Bible or to force our own interpretations it, but to take the Bible on its own terms. Why? Because the ultimate origin of the Bible is God. God initiated the process of giving us the Bible, not the human authors, and although the human authors did write the words, they spoke from God.
The word “carried along” in v. 21 is a sailing term that was used in Greek to describe the wind blowing into a sail, which “carries along” the sailboat. The human authors were consciously involved in the writing process–they weren’t robots, we can even detect their own unique writing style–but behind the process God “carried them along” to ensure that the end result would be what God wanted to say.
Here we find our second key concept. SINCE GOD HAS SPOKEN THROUGH THE BIBLE, IT IS IMPORTANT FOR US TO LISTEN TO ITS MESSAGE.
For 2000 years the Christian faith has affirmed that God has spoken through the Bible. Our role as readers then is to hear the message of the Bible, not to read into it what we think it ought to say or to use isolated parts of the Bible to justify our own ideas.
Before the civil war people who believed in slavery tried to justify their sin by quoting bits and pieces from the Bible. They used the Bible selectively, trying to rationalize their involvement in slavery. The refused to let the Bible speak for itself. Whenever we try to read our own ideas into the Bible we put ourselves in danger of missing God’s voice and hearing our own voice instead.
4. The Bible is Our Standard (John 17:17)
John chapter 17 is Jesus’ prayer before his arrest: “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17NIV).
Now what exactly is truth anyway? Truth is that whatever corresponds to the facts, something that matches the way things really are. So a truthful statement is a statement that corresponds to reality.
A key characteristic of the Bible is its truthfulness. Really, this idea of the Bible’s truthfulness must be the case if the Bible is truly “God breathed” because if God is the origin of the Bible, and if God is truthful, then the Bible must be truthful. By saying that the Bible is truthful, we’re saying that the Bible tells us the way things really are, that it accurately describes reality.
Here’s the next key concept. SINCE GOD HAS REVEALED HIS TRUTH TO US IN THE BIBLE, IT IS OUR FINAL STANDARD FOR WHAT’S TRUE.
Now not all churches today believe that God has revealed His truth to us in the Bible. Some churches reject this idea completely, and claim that although we can personally experience God in the Bible, there’s no real truth to find there. Others believe that the Bible has truth in it but that it also has mistakes in it, so it’s up to us as readers to sift the truthful statements from the mistakes, which of course makes the reader the ultimate authority instead of the Bible.
Whenever people tell me that the Bible is full of contradictions I ask them which contradiction bothers them the most. Undoubtedly there are some difficult passages in the Bible, but a careful reader can see how these passages can be harmonized, and at no place does the Bible contradict the findings of modern science or history. Our commitment to the truthfulness of the Bible–that there are no errors or mistakes–is part of what makes Life Bible Fellowship Church an evangelical church.
Now it’s important to clarify that this conviction only applies to what the Bible itself affirms to be true. The Bible is a historical book, and as the Bible tells us historical stories, some of the characters in those stories say things that aren’t true. The Bible tells us in the book of Job, for example, that Satan claimed the only reason Job served God was because God had blessed Job. Now it would be foolish to say that because that statement is in the Bible it’s true. The statement may be recorded in the Bible, but the Bible is not affirming that statement as being truthful. But wherever the Bible itself affirms something as true, that’s where Christians historically have believed God has revealed his truth.
This makes the Bible a Christian’s final standard on what’s true.
Now there are lots of things that are true in life that the Bible doesn’t tell us about. The Bible doesn’t tell us how to change a flat tire or how to cure the measles, it doesn’t tell us how to build a home or how to master calculus. We know these other things through experience, reasoning, science, and so forth. So there are other sources of truth in the world, and let’s face it, all truth is ultimately God’s truth. The Bible’s focus is telling us the truth we need in order to have a relationship with God and to understand God’s purposes. This is truth we could never discover through science or experience. The Bible touches on areas of science and history, and when it does speak to these issues it does so truthfully, but it wasn’t written to be a science book. It’s purpose is to reveal truth about knowing God and God’s ways.
This makes the Bible the Christian’s ultimate standard for what’s true. Just like a ruler is the standard for measuring an inch, so the Bible is the Christians ultimate standard for what’s true.
5. The Bible Changes Us (Hebrews 4:12)
Although the Bible reveals God’s truth to us, it’s primary purpose is not merely to educate us. Look at
Hebrews 4:12, “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (NIV).
Along with “scripture,” and “prophecy” we’re introduced to another description of the Bible as “the word of God” or “God’s word.” Even though our Bibles are printed with ink on pages, the author of Hebrews says that somehow God’s word is also living and active. This means that there’s a dynamic energy at work whenever a person reads the Bible, that somehow the living God is actively working in and through the words of the Bible to impact the reader’s life. This makes the Bible different from any other book.
The Bible is described as a sharp double edged sword, which focuses on it’s ability to penetrate into our lives. The Bible has no blunt edge, but every part of it is sharp enough to pierce into our lives with it’s message. Soul and spirit, joints and marrow, focuses on the Bible ability to penetrate our defenses into the very core of our personality, where our true self is. There, at the core of our personality, the Bible evaluates and discerns our inner thoughts and motives, sifting through our intentions and ideas.
Here’s the final key concept. SINCE GOD WORKS IN OUR LIVES THROUGH THE BIBLE, IT IS ESSENTIAL FOR OUR SPIRITUAL TRANSFORMATION.
Just as a caterpillar is transformed into a butterfly, God works through the Bible to transform us into fully devoted followers of Jesus who wholeheartedly love God and others.
You see, the Christian faith is not merely a set of ideas. Being a Christian is not just about spouting off doctrines or reciting creeds. Being a Christian is first and foremost about a personal love relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ. This love relationship is a life transforming one, because a person can’t encounter Jesus Christ without being radically changed. Being a Christian isn’t merely accepting certain facts about God or about the Bible, but it’s becoming a follower of Jesus Christ, a devoted disciple of Jesus in our lives, as we seek to live lives of passionate devotion to Christ. I meet many people in our community who have right ideas about God, who intellectually accept Jesus as being God’s Son, who believe that the Bible is God’s word, but who’ve never entered into a personal love relationship with Jesus through faith. All these doctrines will do them no good, because the Christian faith is about being transformed not merely about being informed. Once we enter into a relationship with God through Christ, the Bible is God’s primary means of changing us.
God certainly isn’t limited to the Bible because he also changes us in worship, through suffering, through prayer and so forth. But the Bible is essential and central to our transformation into the image of Christ, it’s a primary means God uses to penetrate past our defenses, to invade our hearts with his truth, so he can sort our our thoughts, intentions, and motives.
If you don’t want to be transformed, don’t read the Bible.
Now we’ve gone quite rapidly through these things, and frankly I spend eight weeks in a college course I teach just on what we’ve covered today. But we’ve defined what the Bible is, and that Christians believe that God gave us the Bible, that God has spoken through the Bible, that God has revealed His truth to us through the Bible, and that God works in our lives through the Bible.
For most of us, I suspect, the real struggle comes in actually living as if we believe this is true, by actually seeking the relevance of the Bible for the problems we face, by actually listening to the Bible’s message, by actually holding up the standard of truth in the Bible, and finally, by actually allowing God to transform us through our interaction with the Bible.
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