Summary: What is the Bible? And what to do with it? This sermon dives into the question of divine inspiration and the dual divine-human character of the Holy Scripture. God's word is alive and active, and it continues to speak to us personally whenever we open the Bible and our hearts.
[This sermon was preached on 1 July 2018, Apostles' Sunday / 3rd yea, ELCF Lectionary]
What is the Bible? And what to do with it? These are the two questions that the Apostle Paul is trying to answer in 2 Timothy 3:14–17. These were very relevant and very critical questions in the church that Timothy was pastoring. There were influential people in the church spreading wrong and harmful teaching about God and about Jesus. And as part of that teaching they also seduced Christians to live an unethical lifestyle.
Today, these questions are still very relevant, partly for the same reasons. But we should not only seek answers on a general level: What is the Bible, and what to do with it. We should also take those questions personally: What does the Bible mean to me? What do I do with it?
I remember a time when many people would come to church carrying their own Bibles. When the Bible was read from the pulpit, they would follow it from the Bible in front of them. Sometimes they would underline a word or a passage. Sometimes during the sermon, they would make notes in the margin. Many were carrying a Bible that was almost falling apart. Charles Spurgeon used to say:
“A Bible that's falling apart usually belongs to someone who isn't.”
But times have changed. Today, people don’t come to church with their Bibles. I know, for some people, the Bible is no longer 1,000 pages of printed paper in leather covers. Many of us carry the Bible with us as an app on our smartphone. But still, that Bible, or Bible app, often remains untouched during the service. It is not our priority to open the Scripture as we hear the Word preached. It is not our passion.
Let’s start with the question what the Bible is and what it is not.
Wikipedia defines the Bible as follows:
The Bible is a collection of sacred texts or scriptures that Jews and Christians consider to be a product of divine inspiration and a record of the relationship between God and humans.
Not bad! In 2 Timothy, Paul calls it “the Holy Scriptures” or simply “Scripture”. Elsewhere in the Bible it is referred to as “the word of God”.
When preachers quote a verse from the Bible, they may say: “King David wrote in the Psalms…” or “the apostle Paul writes to Timothy…”. But often they may simply say: “The Bible says…” or perhaps: “God says in the Bible…” That shows the unique character of the Bible. It has a profound position in the life of the church. And it has the capacity to speak to us, 21st century people—even almost 2,000 years after the last pages of the Bible were written. How come?
Paul, in his letter to Timothy, explains it this way:
All Scripture is God-breathed—breathed by God.
The Bible was written by over forty authors over a period of more than a thousand years. Some of them were prophets or kings, others were shepherds, farmers or fishermen, and still others were medical doctors, tax officers or civil servants. When reading their writings, you can easily recognize their personality, with their strengths and weaknesses, and with their all too human emotions. You could say that the Bible is a collection or library of through-and-through human writings. So how can we call it the Word of God? What does Paul try to tell us when he speaks about the Scripture as “God-breathed”?
The apostle Peter explains this in his own words when he speaks about Old Testament prophecies. He writes in his second letter:
Prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
They spoke from God. in other words, what they spoke or wrote was not their own original invention. Their criticism towards society and its political and economic leaders was not motivated by their own unhappiness or their hunger for justice. Ultimately, what they spoke and wrote came from God. They were his thoughts and his words. And how did they receive those words from God? Peter says, “They were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
Christians throughout the ages have tortured their little grey cells trying to make sense out of that. When you visit an old church, you may see representations of the four Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John carved in the pulpit or set in stained glass. Particularly Matthew is often portrayed with an empty page in front of him, a feather pen in his hand, and an angel hovering above him or sitting on his shoulder. The angel dictates word for word what Matthew must write down. That is not divine inspiration, but divine intervention.
But when we look at what is said in different books of the Bible about how the word of God came to prophets and others, we discover that that there is no fixed pattern. The word of God was transmitted to the authors in many different ways.