[Note: I’ve broken my sermon into two parts for navigating convenience. This is the first part on What is the Bible?, and I’ve linked to the second post which was the second half of the sermon on the Gospel According to the Trees.]
This week we kick off our Advent/Christmas series entitled: Looking for Jesus: Learning to Read the Bible & the World Through New Eyes. For the next 7 weeks, we will be looking at why the Bible is important for Christians and each week, we will do a short Bible study together on a particular topic as a sort of case study. Each week we will answer one question about the Bible, and then walk through the Bible using a particular theme or symbol and show how that works.
Questions we will ask: What is the Bible? Why should we read the Bible? How should we read the Bible? What should we expect to find in the Bible? What does the Bible do? What does the Bible say about the world? What should reading the Bible be like?
How does this fit with Advent?
Advent is a season of waiting, expectation. One of the fruits of the Spirit is patience, and these four weeks, the Church has set aside to meditate on and grow in this virtue. We remember how the saints in the Old Testament waited to be delivered from their sins, from death, from slavery. We remember how they waited for the Messiah. And Peter says that the prophets of old were searching the Scriptures in particular trying to understand when and how the Messiah would come, how He would suffer, and how the glory of God would break out in this world. The Old Covenant saints were Looking for Jesus, and He has now been revealed to us.
In one sense, we are not looking for Jesus in the same way the Old Testament saints were. He has been revealed in a big way in the gospel. But the problem with this world is deeper than facts and events. The darkness in this world goes down into human hearts and souls. It’s not enough to have the record of a man who was also God born of a virgin, suffered unjustly for the sins of His people, and raised to indestructible life on the third day. That information sitting on a shelf is not enough. Of course in one sense, the fact of that event, the fact of the death and resurrection of Jesus has secured the entire story. It has accomplished the victory of God over sin, death, the devil, and all evil and suffering. When Jesus cried, “It is finished!” It’s true: His death has paid for and determined the reconciliation of all things in His blood. It is inevitable.
But God has determined that this inevitable success will be accomplished by a further step, a second step. We know this because Jesus left. Jesus ascended into heaven as the rightful King of the whole world and sent His Holy Spirit to finish the job. In other words, God has determined that the power and efficacy of Christ’s work will be accomplished by the Holy Spirit. It has pleased God to make the Holy Spirit the explosion of grace and glory that was detonated in the death and resurrection of Jesus. First comes the Word in flesh, then comes the Word in the power of the Spirit. First comes the grace of God in the flesh of Jesus, then comes the grace of God by the powerful working of the Spirit. First God comes into the world, then the Spirit opens our eyes to see Him, opens our ears to hear Him, renews our minds to understand Him, gives us new hearts to love Him. Something like this seems to be intimated by our gospel reading, first Jesus spits on the blind man’s eyes and puts his hands on him, and the man looks up and sees men like trees, walking. Then Jesus lays his hands upon the man again and tells him to look up, and then his sight is full restored and he sees all things clearly. First Jesus comes, then the Spirit opens eyes to see Him.
So in this sense, even though we (and the whole world) are in a better place than the Old Testament saints because Jesus has already come, we find ourselves in a similar situation, an analogous situation to the Old Testament saints in at least two ways:
First, we are looking for Jesus because we have a blindness problem and we often fail to see Jesus in His word to us in the Bible. Sometimes this is simply because people don’t know God. Jesus told the Pharisees in John 8 that the reason they didn’t understand His words was because their father was the devil. Like Israel of old, we know that it’s possible to search the Scriptures and not recognize Jesus. It’s possible to memorize enormous portions of the Bible and have never heard God speak (Jn. 5:27). It’s possible to have a veil over your heart so that when the Bible is read, you remain in the dark, your mind is still blind (2 Cor. 3:14). And sadly, there are many churches in North America and Europe where the Bible is read, and there is only darkness. There are many churches where the Bible is read and yet people do not know God, they have not met Jesus. They are still looking for Jesus. And you need to know that this is possible in CREC churches. It’s possible to go to conservative Bible, believing church like this one and go through the motions and the words of the Bible bounce off your forehead like so many ping-pong balls every Sunday. It’s like a different language, like an obscure data manual. And if that’s you, you don’t know Jesus. You’re in the dark, and you need to call out to Him to show Himself to you. You need to look for Jesus.
But sometimes true Christians are like Peter who can one minute confess that Jesus is the Christ, and then the next minute turn around and object to the plan of death and resurrection. This is why Paul prays that the Christians in Ephesus who have believed in Jesus would have the eyes of their understanding enlightened, that they may know the hope of his calling, the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints (Eph. 1:18). All Christians still have room to grow, still have room to learn, to pray that God would give them eyes to see more of Jesus in His Word, to see Him even more clearly.
Second, we are looking for Jesus because we have a blindness problem that frequently doesn’t allow us to see what He is up to in the world around us and in our stories. Again, we’re like Peter: we like the idea of Jesus as the Christ, but then we get cancer, then a child rebels, then there’s a financial crisis, and we object.
Our fundamental problem isn’t that Jesus isn’t there. Our fundamental problem isn’t that Jesus isn’t here. Our fundamental problem is that we just can’t see. Our fundamental problem is that we are blind. We need new eyes. We need eyes that can see Him. We’re Looking for Jesus like a legally blind man looks for his car keys. This Advent and Christmas we are asking God to come to us and open our eyes. We are asking God to heal our blindness so that we can see His glory first in His Word and second in the world around us. And this is the heart of evangelism and missions. We need to see so that we can lead others to the light. Otherwise we’re just the blind leading the blind.
So today we begin by asking: What is the Bible?
This is an important question to ask and answer because how you answer that question will determine a great deal about how you read it. If you believe the Bible is a collection of ancient proverbs and parables that are helpful for life, then you’ll read it for that. If you believe the Bible is the Word of God, living and powerful meant not only to tell the truth about God, the world, sin, salvation, the future, but also one of the central ways God’s Spirit breaks into your heart and mind and soul and remakes you, then you’ll read it for that.
Conversely, how you read the Bible is also a statement about what you believe the Bible is. If you occasionally pull the Bible down off the shelf and read a few verses before getting distracted by a new Youtube video going viral on facebook, well then you’re making a statement about the relative value of the Bible. If you only read it for school assignments or only during the sermon on Sundays, you’re likewise making a certain kind of statement about what you believe the Bible is. It’s a religious book or an educational book.
In other words, ask yourself: does your practice match your profession? Does what you profess to believe about the Bible match your practice?
Sometimes what we need most is to remember. We need to remember what the Bible is. As reformed and evangelical Christians, we confess that the entire Bible from Genesis to Revelation is the very Word of God. The Bible is the word of the God the Father perfectly and authoritatively communicated by the God the Holy Spirit proclaiming God, Eternal Son, the Eternal Word, our Savior Jesus Christ.
Why do we believe that the Bible is the Word of the Triune God?
1. Because the Bible says it is and assumes it. “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God…” (2 Tim. 2:16) “For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” (2 Pet. 1:21) When Zacharias’ tongue was loosed, he burst out in song, filled with the Holy Spirit and said “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited and redeemed his people… as he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets, which have been since the world began…” (Lk. 1:70). Paul says that he and the other apostles were not speaking the mere words of men, and people who despised or rejected their words were not quibbling with human opinions, but rather rebelling against the Holy Spirit who spoke through them (1 Cor. 2:13, 1 Thess. 4:8). Even Peter spoke of Paul’s letters as Scripture in one place (2 Pet. 3:16). The Bible says it is the Word of God.
2. Because of the majesty of the Bible: The Scriptures present us with visions of God in His glory and majesty, high and lifted up. They describe mysteries like the Trinity and the Incarnation, creation from nothing, the fall into sin, the atonement for sins on the cross, grace, our union with God in Christ by the Holy Spirit, the resurrection, mysteries far beyond human invention, and certainly not the invention of Galilean fishermen. The Scriptures also contain commands that only God has the prerogative to give. Judgments and penalties are promised for sin and evil that only God has the authority to pronounce. Forgiveness and grace is offered which only God has the power to announce. The Bible is the Word of God because only God Himself would have the ability or right to speak of and describe and authorize the things found in the Bible.
3. Because of the way the Bible is written. The Bible was written by over 40 different people over the course of at least 1500 years. And if you suspect, as I do, that some parts of Genesis were written much earlier than Moses then that number stretches back a couple more thousand years. The Bible has 1189 verses, containing 783, 137 words, made up of 3,566,480 letters. And yet this book is a masterpiece, an epic poem, a symphony of stories, poems, historical records, prophecies, visions, law codes, genealogies, and letters that do not contradict themselves but rather repeatedly, amazingly reinforce, elaborate, highlight, echo, and fulfill one another in glorious ways. For all the human involvement in the writing process, the fact that the entire book harmonizes so wonderfully insists that this was not a human concoction. It is the cumulative song of the Spirit of God.
4. Because of the power and efficacy of the Bible. “The Word of God is quick and powerful, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” (Heb. 4:12) People are converted by hearing and reading the Bible: David sings: “The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul…” Paul says, “So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” (Rom. 10:17) Jesus Himself says, “He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but passed from death unto life. Verily, verily, I say unto you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God; and they that hear shall live.” (Jn. 5:24-25) The Bible is the Word of God because it has the power to raise the dead. It cuts into the souls of men and women and children in a way that no ordinary human book can do. In some sense, every believer is a living witness to the fact that the Bible is the Word of God.
5. We believe that the Bible is the Word of God because of the miracles and signs that accompanied it and the blood of the martyrs that sealed it and the testimony of the entire Church. Jesus Himself healed the sick, raised the dead, gave sight to the blind, loosed the tongues of the dumb, opened the ears of the deaf, walked on water, cast demons out, fed the multitudes with a boy’s sack lunch, told a plant to whither and it obeyed, spoke to storms and they submitted, turned water into wine, told the lame to walk, and finally foretold His own death and resurrection and everything happened exactly as He said. The Bible is the Word of God because it comes to us attested by theses signs and many other signs that accompanied the apostles and prophets who wrote it. The authority of their words was confirmed by signs and miracles that no ordinary human may perform. Only those possessed by the Spirit of the Living, Sovereign and Creator God may do such things and therefore be enabled to speak and write on His behalf. We also point to the apostles and prophets who wrote Scripture as well as the millions of Christians since who have sealed their testimonies in blood: men, women, and children who suffered, bled, and died for the sake of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ whom they met in His Word, the Bible. Related to this is the ancient testimony of the entire church, the whole body of Christ throughout the world, throughout history that has testified to the truth and authority of the Bible as the Word of God.
6. Finally, because the Holy Spirit testifies in our hearts that it is the Word of God. John writes, “But ye have an unction from the Holy One, and ye know all things. I have not written unto you because ye know not the truth, but because ye know it, and that no lie is of the truth…” And a little bit later, he says, “But the anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you: but as the same anointing teacheth you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it hath taught you, ye shall abide in him.” (1 Jn. 2:20-21, 27) The Westminster Confession says it this way: “our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth, and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the word in our hearts.” In other words, we are able to see and hear and understand and love the Bible as the Word of God as the very truth of God because the same Holy Spirit that wrote it lives in us.
Our theme for today’s study is trees, and so part of what I want you to see and experience today is how the Bible displays its authenticity, its glory, and proclaims the Triune God, proclaims Jesus, the Savior, through something like trees.