WHAT DOES THE BIBLE SAY ABOUT HOMOSEXUALITY?

 To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Homosexuality & the Bible Part 2

Homosexuality and the Bible #2: What does the Bible say?

Even if you normally read these notes, you may want to listen to the podcast. Particularly with a sensitive issue, it may help if you can hear tone of voice and expression.

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Last time we considered some ground rules for our topic. I want to reiterate: there is no room for hate, violence, slander or anything like that in this Christian discussion. It is also worth remembering that not everything that hurts was necessarily said with hateful intent; and the fact that someone disagrees with you does not mean they hate you. In addition, a person can love you without endorsing every activity you engage in. I have many friends and family who feel differently than me about homosexual behavior, and I truly do love them, and wish for the best for them. I have no desire to see them come to harm in any way, and though I wish they might choose differently, I have no desire to take away their right to choose the life they want.

If you are reading this, and you have not yet read the first message in this series, I plead with you to go back and read it. I do not think you can fully understand all that I am saying on this subject until you have read this entire series. We are not operating in “sound-bytes” or catchy phrases here.

I apologize to parents, but there will be some “plain talk” in this message. If you aren’t ready to talk with your children about sexuality, you might not want them to listen to this sermon. On the other hand, I think kids need to learn about this subject sometime. They will hear it from their friends, probably sooner than you might think. In many places, they’ll even hear about it in school. I think the ideal way for children to learn about sexuality, and God’s plan for it, is by talking with their parents and considering what the bible says. Obviously, however, you as the parent need to make the call as to where and when that might happen.

This week I want to look at what the Bible actually says about homosexual behavior. My goal is to treat the relevant verses same way I treat the rest of the bible, and to use the common sense approach to biblical interpretation that I have been using for years in my teaching. In other words, this subject is no different than other subject I have taught about – it just happens to be politically charged at the moment, but I will not let politics change the way I teach on the bible.

I want to make one more note before I start. I am the messenger, not the message. The verses I am going to quote are really in the bible. We will find that the bible has no ambiguity about the subject of homosexual sex. The message is easy to see, and it is clear. In addition, where I share interpretations or add comments, those interpretations and comments are consistent with what Christians have taught for two-thousand years. They are not unusual or different. They are not popular at the moment, but this isn’t my message – it is the testimony of the bible and the church has affirmed it for millennia. It was not even controversial until the past few years.

Again, I share all this because it is my responsibility before God to teach sound biblical doctrine, and because for me, the true teaching of the bible is an act of love. It brings people closer to the truth, love and forgiveness that are found in Jesus Christ.

The bible always distinguishes between sins, and the people who commit them. God hates sin. But he loves sinners. Also, having homosexual feelings is different than having homosexual sex. No one is condemned for how they feel, or the temptations they struggle with. What the bible condemns is not homosexual people, but homosexual behavior. We can, and we should, accept and love people who identify themselves as homosexuals. In the church, this should be exactly like loving and accepting alcoholics, or convicts or single mothers, or me, a “normal sinner,” for that matter.

But acceptance and love are not the same as endorsement. Jesus and accepted and loved at least one prostitute. He accepted and loved a woman caught in adultery. Does that mean he endorsed prostitution and adultery? Of course not. He accepted and loved the people. But he told the woman who was caught in adultery, “Go, and sin no more.” He gave the prostitute a new life that did not involve prostitution any more. He said very clearly, in several places that “sexual immorality” is sinful – and that includes adultery and prostitution.

There is a distinction between the behavior, and the person. This is true, even though homosexuals themselves often refuse to make this distinction. “Being gay,” is not a behavior. Most gay people feel it is integral to who they are as people. We need to be clear that this – being gay, identifying yourself as homosexual – is not a sin. We do not reject people for who they are.

Now, let’s get to what the bible says.

Genesis chapter 19 tells about a city named Sodom. The male residents of Sodom wanted to have sex with some male travelers who had come into town. Shortly after this, the city was destroyed in judgment. Other bible passages tell us that the people of the town were guilty of many sins, but among them was sexual perversion – meaning, in this case, homosexual behavior. (Jude 7).

In the same way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them committed sexual immorality and practiced perversions, just as angels did, and serve as an example by undergoing the punishment of eternal fire. (Jude 1:7, HCSB)

The only type of sexual immorality that we know for sure was in Sodom, was homosexual sex.

Leviticus chapter 18:22 says:

You are not to sleep with a man as with a woman; it is detestable.”

Leviticus 20:13 says,

“If a man sleeps with a man as with a woman, they have both committed a detestable thing. They must be put to death; their blood is on their own hands.”

These verses are pretty clear, but pause here for a moment. Why do Christians think today that homosexual behavior is wrong, but we don’t think people should be put to death for it?

The punishments listed in the first part of the Old Testament were specifically given for life in ancient Israel. They were, in effect, the civil and criminal laws of the land. We don’t live in ancient Israel anymore. The moral law (the act that is called sinful) remains in effect, but we don’t live under the same civil or criminal laws.

The same section of scripture (the latter part of Leviticus) also says that adultery is wrong, and those who do it should be put to death. In Jesus’ day, under the Roman law, Jews were not allowed to execute someone for committing adultery, and in fact, the practice had fallen into disuse even before that. However, in spite of a change in the punishment, there continued to be a clear understanding that adultery was wrong. In fact, in John chapter eight, Jesus condemned adulterous behavior, but refused to let people kill the adulterer. Likewise today, any serious Biblical ethicist must condemn the act of adultery as morally wrong – even Jesus did! (Matthew 5:27-30). Most people, in fact, still believe adultery is wrong. But virtually no one thinks we should have a law by which adulterers are punished by death. In the same way, we may certainly maintain a Biblical morality, while adapting the legal consequences to the society we live in today.

The New Testament also talks about homosexual behavior. Romans 1:29:

24 Therefore God delivered them over in the cravings of their hearts to sexual impurity, so that their bodies were degraded among themselves. 25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served something created instead of the Creator, who is praised forever. Amen. 26 This is why God delivered them over to degrading passions. For even their females exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 The males in the same way also left natural relations with females and were inflamed in their lust for one another. Males committed shameless acts with males and received in their own persons the appropriate penalty of their error. (Rom 1:24-27, HCSB)

This is pretty clear. Homosexual behavior is called sexual impurity and a perversion. In other words, it is regarded as a sin.

I have already mentioned the Jude passage in the explanation of Genesis 19:

In the same way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them committed sexual immorality and practiced perversions, just as angels did, and serve as an example by undergoing the punishment of eternal fire. (Jude 1:7, HCSB)

I mention it again here because the verse is in the New Testament, and also because it tells us something very important about a particular Greek word. The root word is “porneia” and is used in various forms dozens of times throughout the New Testament. Most often it is translated as “sexual immorality.” Jude (who, incidentally, was the half-brother of Jesus) is using this word to refer specifically to homosexual sex (the only sexual sin recorded in Sodom was homosexual in nature). In Matthew 5:32 and 19:9, Jesus uses a form of the word when he is clearly talking about adultery. So, although there are specific terms for adultery, homosexual sex and other sexual sins, “sexual immorality” includes them all. In other words, “sexual immorality” means: “any sexual activity except that between a married man and woman.” Therefore, whenever the New Testament says “sexual immorality,” homosexual sex is included in that phrase, along with any other sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage. The New Testament is relentlessly consistent in calling sexual immorality of any sort a sin. Verses which do that include (but are not limited to): Ephesians 5:1-5; Galatians 5:19-21; Colossians 3:5-7; 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8.

But just so we are absolutely sure, let’s consider a few more verses:

We know that the law is not meant for a righteous person, but for the lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinful, for the unholy and irreverent, for those who kill their fathers and mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral and homosexuals, for kidnappers, liars, perjurers, and for whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching (1Tim 1:9-10, HCSB)

I want us to note two things: first that homosexual behavior is specifically mentioned, and second, that it is not singled out as any worse or better than thirteen other sins. All these things are “contrary to sound teaching.”

In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul breaks mentions several types of sins, specifically naming homosexual sex among them.

Don’t you know that the unrighteous will not inherit God’s kingdom? Do not be deceived: No sexually immoral people, idolaters, adulterers, or anyone practicing homosexuality, no thieves, greedy people, drunkards, verbally abusive people, or swindlers will inherit God’s kingdom. And some of you used to be like this. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1Cor 6:9-11, HCSB)

Many English translations don’t show it, but Paul actually lists homosexual behavior twice in this list. He uses a Greek slang word which should be literally translated as “soft” (malakoi). This is probably equivalent to our English use of “gay.” Paul also uses a more specific technical word that means “homosexual.” I think most translators simply use one word to avoid redundancy, but a properly nuanced translation of this might read: “…neither gay, nor any kind practicing homosexual…”

We’ve already seen several clear passages. It’s hard to be more clear than right here in 1 Corinthians 6:9.

Again, in 1 Corinthians 6:9 homosexual behavior is called sinful along with eight other behaviors: sex between unmarried people, adultery, idolatry, theft, greed, drunkenness, slander and swindling. Let’s get this straight. Greed is as sinful as homosexual behavior. So is petty theft (the Greek word for “thieves” is the same root where we get “kleptomaniac”). Habitual drunkenness is as sinful as homosexual behavior, and so is adultery, and promiscuity and telling lies about others. So it would be wrong to suggest that homosexual behavior is particularly singled out as something more evil than other sins. But it would also be wrong to suggest that the Bible approves of “committed homosexual relationships.” It is a sin. There is no ambiguity. But it is not a special sin.

I have talked with gay people who told me that they’ve heard Christians say that homosexuals automatically go to hell. I’ve never actually heard a real Christian say that, though I’m sure that some people, somewhere, do. However, that would be a misunderstanding of this passage. If that were true, then it would also be true of alcoholics, petty thieves, any greedy person, and all those who have had a sexual relationship at any time in their lives with anyone other than their spouse. The real and main point of this passage is what Paul says in verse 11:

And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

In other words, whatever our particular sinful struggle, Jesus can put an end to it, and he has done so for billions of people around the world throughout history. So obviously, people who struggle with homosexual feelings can be saved and go to heaven – some of the Corinthians had those very struggles before they came to Jesus. People who struggle with drunkenness can be saved. So can thieves and those who are greedy. It all comes back to putting our faith in Jesus. Usually people who struggle with sins like homosexual behavior and addictions need help, support and understanding from fellow Christians as they open their lives to the Holy Spirit, but the Lord can change them. I have personally known several people who used to call themselves homosexuals, who even lived the gay lifestyle, who are now happily married (to the opposite gender) and call themselves heterosexual. Their testimony was that the Power of the Holy Spirit changed them. One them is the wife of a seminary classmate of mine. It can happen. It does happen.

In the interest of honesty, I will say that another one of my gay friends is completely committed to Jesus, and to healing and wholeness, but he has not lost his attraction to men, and at this point, he believes he never will. Even so, he is committed to a life of celibacy, and is trusting Jesus for all of emotional needs.

We need to remember: Jesus is a game-changer.

Speaking of that, what about Jesus? What did he say about gay sex? If you have spent any time on social media sites, you have probably seen claims that Jesus said nothing at all about it. In a narrow, technical sense, that is true. But we should also note that in a narrow technical sense, Jesus said nothing about incest, child-abuse, the oppression of women, slavery, or drugs. In a narrow, technical sense, Jesus never condemned war or racism or human trafficking.

Let us remember that all that we know about Jesus was handed down to us by the apostles, who are also the writers of the New Testament. In other words, we only know what Jesus taught because the apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote it down. These apostles, and others, also expounded upon the teachings of Jesus in the other books of the New Testament. If you believe that the apostles correctly preserved the words of Jesus, you must also believe that their other teachings reflected the true teachings of Jesus. There is simply no reason to believe one and not the other.

In other words, if you think that apostles were correct to recall Jesus saying that we should love our neighbor, you should also think that they were correct to say that following Jesus means we should forsake our sins, including the sins of homosexual sex. If they were wrong about the latter they were also wrong about the former.

In addition, Jesus did frequently talk about marriage and sex in general. He clearly taught that sex is good when shared in heterosexual marriage, and sinful in any form outside of that. He very specifically said that sexual immorality (which we know includes homosexual sex, among other things) is evil (Mark 7:21 Matthew 15:19).

Homosexuals are not the worst sinners imaginable. In fact, I don’t see any evidence that simply being homosexual (that is, having homosexual feelings or attractions) is a sin at all. However, the bible does call it a sin to act on those feelings, in the same way that it is a sin to act on heterosexual feelings outside of marriage.

Sin does not disqualify you from the kingdom of heaven, because Jesus died to forgive us and free us from all sins. ALL sins. A gay person has never done any worse sin than I myself have done. In terms of biblical morality and righteousness, there is no room for any person to think of himself or herself as better than any other person. I think the failure of the church to make this crystal-clear is part of the reason that today there is so much confusion about homosexuality.

The message of Christianity has always been that the only answer to sin is Jesus. People who engage in sex outside of marriage are forgiven the same way as people who engage in homosexual sex: by admitting their sin, admitting their need for Jesus, and putting their trust in Him to forgive them and change them.

There is much more to discuss. Next time we will look at some common objections to the verses and interpretations I have shared here.

Thanks again for making use of Clear Bible.

I want to remind you again that we are a listener-supported ministry, and that means, first and foremost, that we are supported by your prayers. We need and value your prayers for us.

Please pray that this ministry will continue to be a blessing to those who hear it. Ask God, if it is his will, to touch even more lives with these messages. Ask him to use this ministry in making disciples of Jesus Christ.

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917 Canyon Creek Drive

Lebanon, TN 37087

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Thank for your prayers, and your support!

COMING DOWN THE MOUNTAIN

down-the-mountain

There was still beheading ahead of James, a life of proclaiming Jesus ahead of Peter and John, a crucifixion for Peter and a long imprisonment for John. Quite literally, they had to leave the mountain and return to the valley. But don’t miss the good news: Jesus came down the mountain with them. He hid his full glory once more, but he did not abandon them. His presence was still with them, even if it was diminished from their previous experience.

 

 

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Matthew Part 58

 

 

Matthew #58 . Matthew 17:1-13

Jesus ends his discussion about taking up the cross by promising this:

I assure you: There are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.” (Matt 16:28, HCSB)

I personally believe that Matthew 17:1-13 records the fulfillment of this promise. In short, about six days after Jesus finished talking about taking up the cross, and receiving rewards, he allowed Peter, James and John to catch a glimpse of him in his glory.

The appearance of Jesus was changed. Matthew records that his face began to shine with an intense brightness, and his clothes became bright also with a white light. The description given here is similar to the visions of some of the prophets of the Old Testament.

There was a form with the appearance of a human on the throne high above. From what seemed to be His waist up, I saw a gleam like amber, with what looked like fire enclosing it all around. From what seemed to be His waist down, I also saw what looked like fire. There was a brilliant light all around Him. The appearance of the brilliant light all around was like that of a rainbow in a cloud on a rainy day. This was the appearance of the form of the LORD’s glory. When I saw it, I fell facedown and heard a voice speaking. (Ezek 1:26-28, HCSB)

“As I kept watching, thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took His seat. His clothing was white like snow, and the hair of His head like whitest wool. His throne was flaming fire; its wheels were blazing fire. (Dan 7:9, HCSB)

His body was like topaz, his face like the brilliance of lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and feet like the gleam of polished bronze, and the sound of his words like the sound of a multitude. (Dan 10:6, HCSB)

This business of light appears to be significant. Both the old and new Testaments describe a God who is “filled with light.”

Now this is the message we have heard from Him and declare to you: God is light, and there is absolutely no darkness in Him. (1John 1:5, HCSB)

He wraps Himself in light as if it were a robe, spreading out the sky like a canopy, (Ps 104:2, HCSB)

So the revelation not only shows Jesus in glory, but also shows him as Divine in nature.

In a very special way, Peter, James and John were witnesses to the hidden glory of Jesus. The law of Moses require that all facts must be established by two or three witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15). Paul quotes this in a number of places, as does Jesus and the apostle John. This was an important part of Jewish culture by the time of Jesus. And so Jesus here has three witnesses to the unveiling of his glory. John does not describe this event specifically but I think he is referring to it when he writes this:

The Word became flesh and took up residence among us. We observed His glory, the glory as the One and Only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14, HCSB)

The glory that John saw was never more fully revealed on earth than on that mountaintop. Peter refers to this event also, considering it extremely important:

For we did not follow cleverly contrived myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ; instead, we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, a voice came to Him from the Majestic Glory: This is My beloved Son. I take delight in Him! And we heard this voice when it came from heaven while we were with Him on the holy mountain. So we have the prophetic word strongly confirmed. You will do well to pay attention to it, as to a lamp shining in a dismal place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. (2Pet 1:16-19, HCSB)

I am quite sure that Peter was thinking of this incredible transformation when he wrote that. And I think this is the first reason why Jesus did this. Some people complain that it would have been a lot simpler if Jesus simply let people truly see who he was as God-the-Son. Of course, if Jesus had done that, people would not be truly free to either choose or reject him – his glory was too overwhelming to deny. I’ve talked about this in past messages. The Lord wants our love for him to be real, and that means we have to be able to reject him if we choose. He says, “Blessed are those who do not see and yet believe,” (John 20:29). But at this point, Peter had already made his confession about Jesus, and James and John, along with Peter, appeared to be the disciples with the most complete faith in him. In other words, they had already freely made their choice of faith, and so it was “safe” to let them catch a glimpse of his glory – it would not force them to love Jesus, since they had already chosen Him.

We see this idea of special witnesses throughout Scripture. God does not usually show himself to the whole world at the same time, or even often a large number of people at once. Instead, he chooses people who will be witnesses to his glory and to his truth, and who will speak his word. So he chose one nation, Israel to be a witness to his reality and truth. He chose 12 apostles. And in this case he chose just three of the 12 to witness the incredible reality of his true nature, even before his resurrection. So, although he did not show himself this way to everyone, the fact was established “by two or three witnesses.”

So this is the revelation of who Jesus truly is. For a brief moment the curtain between this world and God’s eternal presence was pulled back, and Peter, James and John got to see a reality that is deeper and more true than our own.

Actually, there were two additional witnesses to the glory and divine nature of Jesus: Moses and Elijah. The appearance of these two is fascinating in many respects, and I have often use this incident to speculate about life after death in the period before the new heavens and new earth are created. However, you have to read one of my other sermons for that. Instead, here I want to talk about the significance of these two individuals appearing with Jesus as he is transformed.

Moses, of course, is responsible for the first five books of the Bible which are known collectively as the Law, or the Torah. The rest of the Old Testament is usually referred to by the Jews as “the Prophets.” So, “the Law and the Prophets” refers to the entire Old Testament. Moses, standing here with Jesus revealed in his full glory, shows us that the Law (the Torah) is a witness to the true and divine identity of Jesus. Elijah of course, was one of the prophets. He stands as a witness for the “Prophets” part of the Old Testament. In other words, Peter, James and John would get the message that not only are they witnesses to the glory of Jesus, but also the entire Old Testament (Moses and the Prophets) is a witness to Jesus. Now back up a little bit further. Peter, James and John are representatives of the apostles. Today, we have the New Testament which is made up of the writings of the apostles. So then, we have the Law, the Prophets and the Apostles as our “two or three” reliable witnesses of the identity of Jesus. Under Jewish law, this makes his identity as the glorious son of God an established fact.

If that was all a little complex for you, let me make it very simple: the entire Bible establishes that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, Savior of the world, the only way to be reconciled to God, the only path to eternal life. He is worthy of our praise, honor and worship.

Quite naturally, Peter and the others were thrilled and awed to be in the presence of the full glory of Jesus. Peter’s suggestion that he make tents for Jesus, Moses and Elijah might have been motivated by a desire to prolong the experience, to stay there in glory. Unfortunately for them, the revelation and experience of glory was temporary. Regretfully, that is always true on this earth. This world is not our home and so eternal joy will not be ours until we are done with it. C.S. Lewis once made a brilliant observation about this:

“The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and pose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.”

— CS Lewis, the Problem of Pain

In the case of Peter, James and John, there was still the cross ahead of them. There was still beheading ahead of James, a life of proclaiming Jesus ahead of Peter and John, a crucifixion for Peter and a long imprisonment for John. In a very short time, it was time for them to come down from the mountain again. Quite literally, they had to leave the mountain and return to the valley. But don’t miss the good news: Jesus came down the mountain with them. He hid his full glory once more, but he did not abandon them. His presence was still with them, even if it was diminished from their previous experience.

And there is another sense of promise here, too. Moses spent forty years in the wilderness alone, and then another forty as shepherd to the recalcitrant sheep of Israel. He struggled and sometimes failed. Elijah had his victories, but also his great defeats, and one of the significant events of his life was a deep depression. But their struggles ended long before, and two-thousand years ago there they were, with all that behind them, sharing in the glory of Jesus. The struggles of Peter, James and John eventually ended also. Now they too are permanently living in the joy and glory of Jesus and the full power of his presence.

We may experience moments of great joy, and even moments of great closeness to the Lord. We may also have struggles ahead of us yet. However, if we are in Jesus, one day, we too will share in that never-ending experience of glory and joy with Him. In the meantime, it should help us to remember that Jesus goes with us. We don’t experience the full glory and power of his presence, yet he is here with us through the Holy Spirit, and he does not abandon us.

Let the Holy spirit speak to you today about the glory of Jesus, about the reliability of those who witnessed it, and about the continuing grace and presence of Jesus when we walk through the valleys of this world.

Thanks again for making use of Clear Bible.

I want to remind you again that we are a listener-supported ministry, and that means, first and foremost, that we are supported by your prayers. We need and value your prayers for us.

Please pray that this ministry will continue to be a blessing to those who hear it. Ask God, if it is his will, to touch even more lives with these messages. Ask him to use this ministry in making disciples of Jesus Christ.

Please also pray for our finances. Pray for us to receive what we need. Please pray for us in this way before you give anything. And then, as you pray, if the Lord leads you to give us a gift, please go ahead and do that. But if he doesn’t want you to give to us, that is absolutely fine. We don’t want you to feel bad about it. We want you to follow Jesus in this matter. But do continue to pray for our finances.

If the Lord does lead you to give, just use the Paypal Donate button on the right hand side of the page. You don’t have to have a Paypal account – you can use a credit card, if you prefer. You can also set up a recurring donation through Paypal. We can make this tax-deductible if you just mention that it want it to be so in the “note” part of the transaction.

You could also send a check to:

New Joy Fellowship

917 Canyon Creek Drive

Lebanon, TN 37087

Just put “Clear Bible” in the memo. Your check will be tax-deductible.

Thank for your prayers, and your support!

PRACTICAL BIBLE STUDY TOOLS

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Here are some practical resources and tools for understanding the bible better.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Understanding the Bible Part 10

Understanding the Bible #10.

To close out our series on understanding the bible, I want to offer you some practical things that will help you understand and study the bible for yourself.

First, to really get a grasp on things, you need the right tools. Though a lot of the bible is easy to understand, bible scholarship is, in fact an ancient and scholarly discipline. You don’t need an advanced degree to get a lot out of the bible, but it really is worth a little time and effort on your part to understand it better. In other words, if you are going to look at the bible as a primary source of wisdom and guidance for your life (and I highly recommend that you do; not only that, the first message in this series explains why you should consider doing so) you should take it seriously.

Start with a high-quality, understandable modern-English translation. I know about the King-James-Version-only people out there. I’m not trying to make anyone angry, but frankly the arguments for using the King James translation are short-sighted, ignorant, and mostly just plain wrong. The most “intellectual” sounding argument for the KJV is that it is based on a certain set of Greek Texts known as the Textus Receptus. The KJV-only crowd maintains that the other Greek Texts are corrupted by false-doctrine. I’ve already explained to you about the huge number of ancient copies of the New Testament in Greek (in part 3 of this series). The textual variants (also spoken of in part 3) are stunningly insignificant. In other words, there is not actually much difference between the textus recptus and what we call the “majority text” (which is the basis for most other bible translations). From time to time, when I’m studying the bible, I compare the two. This isn’t a comprehensive study, but I’ve found only two “significant” differences, and in both cases, it was proven long ago that the textus receptus was altered. Even so, those differences do not change any major doctrine.

Of course, all that is for the New Testament. The source-documents of the Old Testament is the same for virtually all bibles.

If the majority text was so different from the textus receptus, then long ago, two branches of Christianity would have developed, based upon the two different textual traditions. That hasn’t happened, because the only major difference between the King James Version (KJV) and modern English translations, is that the KJV has to be translated not only from Greek to English, but also from early 17th century English into modern English. In other words, the main difference is that the KJV isn’t very understandable to modern English speakers.

Sorry for the rant. To continue, I highly recommend the English Standard Version (ESV) and also the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB). Both of them are highly accurate compared with the original Greek and Hebrew. The ESV renders the Greek and Hebrew a little more literally – as much like “word for word” as possible. The HCSB is also very accurate, but is willing to “bend” a little to make it more readable.

You can buy both of these bible versions online, or at many local bookstores or bookstore chains. You can also get them free with various bible apps or software programs. I highly recommend getting a study bible version of one of these translations. A study bible is a bible that has notes (usually on the lower half of the page) giving background and explanation about the verses you are reading. Study bibles are a very helpful tool when you are just getting started, and even as you learn more. I’ve placed a “Bible Study Resources” page into my Amazon a-store. Most of the resources I mention here are available for sale there, including the ESV Study Bible, the HSCB Apologetics Study Bible, and my standard from about 1986-2007, the Concordia Self-Study Bible. If you click through from here, the price will be the same as directly from Amazon, but I’ll get a few nickels for commission.

I have an inexpensive Android tablet, and on it, I use the free Olive Tree Bible Study app (I don’t get a commission for anything but the resources on my Amazon a-store. I’m just sharing resources that I think are good). Look it up in Google Play, or from your apple device. The link here will take you to their free Bible translations page, which includes my two favorite translations, the ESV and the HCSB. I paid extra to get the ESV Study Bible notes, to attach to whatever translation I’m reading in the app.

I also found a great web-based study bible, built on the HCSB, at https://www.mystudybible.com/

Many of you have asked about how to learn the cultural and historical background that is so important for understanding the bible. Certainly, blogs like this one, and reliable, solid preachers and teachers are a good place to start. I also recently found Fred Wright’s Manners and Customs of Bible Times as a free PDF download. You can right-click the link in the previous sentence, and download it. It’s a great historical/cultural resource. It was written in 1953, but all bible-times were before that, so it’s still accurate!

I also highly recommend Eerdmans’ Handbook to the Bible, which is easy to find in my a-store. I own the British version of this, which was given to me by my parents when I was thirteen years old. The information I learned from it is still helpful to me today, and I still occasionally use it as a reference. Zondervan’s Handbook to the Bible is the latest version of that, but I have not personally looked at it to see what they might have changed.

Another very helpful Bible Study tool in this day and age is a good computer program for Bible Study. Over the years, I have paid hundreds of dollars for various versions of three different programs (QuickVerse, PC Study Bible and Logos). However, three years ago I settled on a fourth, free program that is truly excellent: The Word. If you do end up using and appreciating The Word, I encourage you to donate something to the program’s creator Konstantinos Stergiou – I did (and I get nothing from this – I just think the guy deserves to be blessed for his amazing work, offered for free). The program may take a little while to learn, but it’s worth it. There are hundreds of free add-on resources you can use with The Word to enhance your Bible Study, and there are paid modules as well, if you are interested.

If you are staying “old school” and prefer physical books, I do recommend that you get a bible that includes both cross references, and a concordance in the back. A cross reference is like a footnote – it is a suggestion of other bible verses that talk about the same topic as the verse that is noted. You can learn a lot by following the cross references to other parts of the bible. This helps the bible to “explain itself,” so to speak. A concordance is a list of words that appear in the bible, and where. There are some stand-alone exhaustive concordances, but most study bibles have decent partial-concordances in the back. They are helpful for finding verses if you only remember a key word, or for helping you understand how certain words are used throughout scripture.

Come back to this sermon series from time to time – we’ve covered a lot of ground that should help you understand the bible better as you encounter parts of it that seem difficult.

All right, let’s say you have assembled your tools. You have a book on the historical and cultural background of the bible. You have a study bible, or bible app, with the ability to find cross references and search for specific words. Maybe you have a computer program, or a web-based bible-software program. Now what?

Let me give you simple way to get more out of your bible.

Remember, as you read, read it in context. Learn about the history and culture, as necessary. Pay attention to the genre. Check cross references. Remember to use the clear parts of the bible to help you understand what is not clear. Look up key words in a dictionary and concordance. And then do this: SPECK.

Look at the passage you want to study, and go through SPECK, one letter at time.

S – read the verses and see if there is a sin identified here. Is the Lord calling you to repent of it? Is he warning you to stay away from it?

P – read the verses again, this time looking for promises. Is the Lord speaking to you through a promise here? If you are ambitious, you can also look for prophecies (which also begin with “p”).

E – read the verses yet again, now looking for encouragement and exhortation. How does the Lord want to cheer you on through these verses? How is he calling you to keep going?

C – now read through your passage and see if there any commands to consider. Is the Lord asking you to respond to him in a certain way through these verses?

K – read a fifth time. Is there any information or knowledge that you have gained from these verses?

After you SPECK, I encourage you to write a short note/prayer to the Lord. Something simple like this:

Lord, as I read John 3:16-18, I see that sometimes I sin by not trusting you. But I also hear your promise that as I trust you, you save me. You don’t condemn me. Thank you for your mercy and grace! Increase my trust in you! Help me to trust you in these things that are going on in my life right now, as well as for eternal life. AMEN

Writing down your thoughts or prayers help to solidify God’s word to you in your mind and heart. If you do it regularly over time, later it becomes a source of encouragement and hope to go back and see how God has spoken to you throughout the years.

I hope this series has been of help you to you understanding where the bible came from, why we can trust it, and how to understand it. I’d love to hear your comments and questions.

~

I want to briefly make you aware of our situation. This ministry (Clear Bible) until recently was supported by our local church. However, we have had some changes there, and we are now a house church. Today, we have about 8 families. Our church cannot fully support me financially any longer.

 In contrast, about 430 people subscribe to this blog, and an additional 300 or so each week come and visit the site. In other words, by far, most of the people who benefit from this ministry are not part of our little church.

 I’m asking you internet readers/listeners to pray for us. Seriously, before you give any financial support, please give us some prayer support. I value that more than anything else. Pray for this ministry to touch lives. Pray also for financial provision for my family and me.

But then, as you pray, do ask the Lord if he wants you to give financially as well. Be assured, after a small fee to Paypal, 100% of your donations will go to help support my family and me in ministry. In turn, supporting this blog means that you are helping to bless more than 15,000 people each year who visit this blog.

 

Some of you may have noticed that I am also a novelist. Often, people have misconceptions about authors. Most of us, including me, make a part-time income through writing, and no more. In other words, we aren’t “raking it in” somewhere else. Now, we trust the Lord to provide, and I don’t want you to give out of guilt or fear. I just don’t want you to get the idea that your donations will only be an “extra” for us somehow.

 If most of our subscribers gave just five or ten dollars each month, (or even less, if everyone pitched in) we would be in good shape. It’s easy to set up a recurring donation when you click the Paypal donate button that is located on the right hand side of this page, down just a little ways.

 You could also send a check to:

New Joy Fellowship

625 Spring Creek Road

Lebanon, TN 37087

 Your check will be tax-deductible. Unfortunately, we cannot do the tax deductible option with the paypal donate button, however the money does go directly to support my family and me.

 Thank for your prayers, and your support!

Taking the Bible Literally

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We need to understand not only the context of the verses, and the history and the culture; we must also understand that not everything in the bible was meant to be taken directly. We need to pay attention to the genre of each part of the bible.

 

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Understanding the Bible Part 6

Understanding the Bible #6

We’ve considered the origins of the bible. We’ve established it’s historicity and reliability. Last time we began to learn a few simple rules for reading the bible and understanding it properly. The first rule was to read the bible in context. It is rarely helpful to read a verse or two, without understanding what came before it. What comes after all increases our understanding. We also need to read the bible in its historical and cultural context. In other words, we ought to understand what it really meant to the people who first heard it or read it, in their culture, before we will be able to properly apply it to our own lives.

Today, I want to look at another important principle of reading the bible: Pay attention to Genre. Another way to look at this rule is this: What kind of writing are you reading? There are many different kinds of literature (writing) in the bible. We need to be aware of them, and consider the writing style before we try to apply the bible directly to our lives. We have already learned that the bible is actually sixty-six different books, written by dozens of different people from dozens of different walks of life. Some parts of the bible are laws. Others are records of family history. There is also great deal of official “court” or government history. There are genealogies – lists and records of family names. Some of the bible is prophecy, and there are at least two different kinds of prophecy. There is a great deal of poetry and song in the bible. The book of Proverbs is mostly made up of, well, proverbs – wise sayings. There are four accounts of the ministry and teachings of Jesus (we call them “gospels.”) Within Jesus’ teachings are a unique kind of literature called parables. There are a number of letters written by Jesus’ apostles to anyone who wants to follow Him.

I have just listed ten major genres, or types of writing, found in the bible. We need to pay attention to these when we read the bible. We will need to read poetry with a very different approach than we use when we read one of Paul’s letters to Jesus-followers. When we read a historical section, we ought to treat it differently than we treat a prophecy.

I will deal with laws in a sermon all by itself. Today, let’s consider briefly how we might approach the other different genres in the bible.

History: This includes both family history and court/government history. Historical narrative is the record or “story” of real people and real events. As we learned previously, there is no reason to doubt the bible when it gives us historical narrative, and plenty of reasons to believe it. So we read it as a record of something that actually happened. We can get spiritual lessons from historical sections of the bible, but we ought to keep in mind that history isn’t primarily a parable, or an allegory – it is a record of what happened. Because of that, history isn’t always ideal. David committed adultery and murder. The record of those sinful actions is not a teaching telling us that it is okay for leaders to do such things. It is simply telling us what David actually did, not what we ought to do, or even what he ought to have done. In the historical situations, we look at how God dealt with people and nations in the events of their lives, and learn how God may deal with us at times. We look at mistakes and failures, and learn lessons concerning what we ought to avoid. We look at victories, and learn how to trust God to work through us. We see God’s faithful love at work in the past, and take encouragement from it.

Genealogies. I admit, this is the hardest genre for me. Lists of families and names just don’t seem to bring me a lot of spiritual benefit. But every so often, God blesses me through one of the genealogical lists in the bible. For instance, when we start to look at the genealogy of Jesus, listed in Matthew 1:1-17, and investigate what the bible says about some of the ancestors of Jesus, it is a blessing. Many of the physical ancestors of Joseph (in other words, Jesus’ earthly family) and even of Mary (she was related to Joseph) were scoundrels. Two of the women were prostitutes! Yet we see that God gave them grace, and used them anyway. He removed their shame and through them, brought the Messiah into the world. I have found similar lessons in other genealogies. The trick is to look up the people listed, and see what you can learn about them.

Prophecy: I’ve mentioned before that reading biblical prophecy is like looking at a range of distant mountains. From a distance, the mountains look like they are all right next to each other, but when you get closer, you find they are a series of ridges and peaks that go on for some time. The mountains aren’t all lined up side by side, as it looks from a long ways away. From the prophet’s perspective (which is how it is written down in the bible) it looks like all of the future will happen at one time. In reality, as you get closer, some things are fulfilled centuries before other things. So Isaiah talks about the destruction of Jerusalem (which happened 200 years after he prophesied), the return of the exiles from Babylon (which happened 70 years after the destruction of Jerusalem) the coming of the Messiah (which happened about 700 years after he prophesied) and the end of the world (which, as far as I know, hasn’t happened yet). These prophesies about various times are jumbled in amongst each other.

Prophecy also has a message to us in the present, regardless of the predictive element of it. Most of the prophets spoke to people about how to relate to God, and how God loves us, and longs to forgive and care for us. These words are still relevant today. So the comfort spoken to the exiles who would return to Jerusalem is also spoken to us, who seek peace and comfort in the Lord today.

Prophecies are not direct teachings however. We need to understand them in their historical context (as we spoke about last time) and be careful with directly and literally importing everything a prophet says to our own time.

Apocalyptic Prophecy: Parts of Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, and Revelation contain a specialized form of prophecy called “Apocalyptic Prophecy.” This genre features vivid imagery, key numbers and tends to be extremely confusing. Apocalyptic often reads like someone’s strange dream. Almost nothing in apocalyptic prophecy should be taken at face value. The images and numbers are usually symbolic. For instance in Revelation, the number twelve is very significant. There were twelve tribes in ancient Israel. There were twelve apostles. Therefore, the number twelve is a symbol for “the people of God.” It’s like a code. In Revelation chapter 7, it talks about 144,000 people who were sealed. This just means “the entire amount of God’s people from both Israel and the Church.” 12 tribes of Israel (representing God’s people before the time of Jesus) times 12 Apostles (representing the church, God’s people since the time of Jesus). 12 x 12 = 144. Get it? You will need help to understand what the images and numbers in apocalyptic prophecy mean. And to be honest, there are still things in apocalyptic literature that no one really understands for sure. A study bible will help, but more than anything, let the clear portions of the bible lead you in understanding what is not clear.

Gospels. There are four books that give us historical records of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. We read these as we would read history, with two exceptions:

1. When the gospels record the teaching of Jesus, we understand it as teaching. In other words, it isn’t just history. It is also the teaching which Jesus Christ intends us to learn, understand and follow. We must learn it context, like everything else. But it isn’t just a historical curiosity. We are meant to learn it and follow it.

2. Jesus used parables extensively. Almost always, a parable is a story that is not supposed to be taken literally, and it makes just one (at most two) main points. Don’t follow rabbit trails when you deal with a parable. Stick to the main one or two points. So, consider the parable of the good Samaritan. The main point of the story is that the Lord wants us to look after anyone in need – even our natural enemies. He wants us to treat all the people we encounter as “neighbors.” The parable is not there to teach us that priests are all naturally bad people, or that we should regularly travel from Jerusalem to Jericho, or that we should pay for homeless people to stay in hotels. Stick to the main point.

Letters. Much of the New Testament is made up of letters written by the apostles to Christians. These letters generally contain teaching, exhortation and encouragement. We are meant to receive them as teaching and instruction. Generally, once we understand the historical and textual context, we take these things basically literally.

Poetry and Song. Poetic language is often not supposed to be taken literally. For our scripture this week, let’s look at Psalm 19.

1 The heavens declare the glory of God,

and the sky1 proclaims the work of His hands.

2 Day after day they pour out speech;

night after night they communicate knowledge.2

3 There is no speech; there are no words;

their voice is not heard.

4 Their message3 has gone out to all the earth,

and their words to the ends of the world.

In the heavens4 He has pitched a tent for the sun.

5 It is like a groom coming from the5 bridal chamber;

it rejoices like an athlete running a course.

6 It rises from one end of the heavens

and circles6 to their other end;

nothing is hidden from its heat.

First, notice that this is laid out like a poem or song. In fact, in the heading of Psalm 19, there is the note: “For the Choir Director.” Most modern bible translations will lay out poetic language in this way, even though we have no music for it, and it does not rhyme in English. This layout is the translators’ way of showing us it is a song, poem or poetic prophesy. Much of Isaiah and Jeremiah and Job is laid out in this way. This lay-out is our first cue for how we should interpret the passage.

Now, in the case of Psalm 19, the writer (David) even tells us the language is poetic. In verse one, he says the heavens declare God’s glory, and pour forth speech. In verse two, he clarifies that we aren’t supposed to take that literally – it’s a word-picture, a metaphor. The sky doesn’t actually talk.

In verses 3-6 David describes the sun. Now, think for a moment. Does this mean that the Bible teaches us that the sky is an actual covering like a tent? Do these verses teach us that the sun actually rejoices? Does it mean that no place on earth can be cold when the sun is out?

The answer to all of those questions, is, of course, no. The language is poetic. We aren’t supposed to take it literally. The point is that God created the sky and all we observe in it, and by the things he set in motion in the sky, we can learn about God. This isn’t a straightforward teaching. It is a song, with metaphors and similes and creative ways of expressing things. We can learn things from it (that God sends messages to us through his creation) but we get that message differently than we do when Paul says the same thing in Acts 14:15-17 and Romans 1:19-20

What can be known about God is evident among them, because God has shown it to them. For His invisible attributes, that is, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen since the creation of the world, being understood through what He has made. As a result, people are without excuse. (Rom 1:19-20, HCSB)

This verse from Romans says basically the same thing as Psalm 19, but in a very different style. That is why genre is important for understanding. Many people make grave mistakes about the bible when they don’t consider the genre. We don’t have to. It is mostly common sense, but we simply have to remember to pay attention.

HOW CAN WE UNDERSTAND THE BIBLE?

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The bible has been proved historically reliable many times, but it does get misused an awful lot. Sometimes, people don’t want to believe it because they don’t really understand it. Too many people read the bible to use it in arguments, instead of reading it to get to know Jesus better.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:


To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download Understanding the Bible Part
Understanding the Bible #5

We’ve learned where the Old and New Testaments came from. We know by objective, scientific criteria that the documents we have today are accurately preserved copies of what was first written or spoken. We understand from archaeology that both the Old and New Testaments are historically reliable. These things are facts, not religious opinion. Most of these facts were discovered by people who were trying to prove the opposite.

Though the bible is completely reliable in the history that it records, it isn’t simply a book of history. It tells us other things that we cannot verify with science; things about God, human nature, human relationships and human-God interactions. It even talks about things that we rarely see (if at all) in our lifetimes: the parting of the Red Sea, the feeding of the five thousand, healings and exorcisms. I think this is one of the main reasons people ignore the bible. These aren’t every day events. It’s hard to believe that stuff like that ever happened. Maybe you have struggled with the same thing.

Let me address that briefly. Consider a person whom you think is entirely reliable. If she tells you that chicken is only $0.99/pound at Kroger on Wednesday, you know that you can go to Kroger and find chicken for exactly that price. If she tells you that she once met the mayor of New York City, it does not surprise you at all when she produces a picture of her with the Mayor, and a signed note from him to her. If you ask her to give you the square root of 361, you can bet your next paycheck that she’ll say 19.

Now, suppose, one day, your friend tells you that she just found out she has cancer. You know she wouldn’t lie to you. You know she wouldn’t be mistaken. You absolutely believe she has cancer. A few weeks later, she tells you that she went to a prayer meeting, and people prayed for her healing. A few days after that, she went to the doctor, and found out she is now entirely cancer-free. She claims she has been miraculously healed. Would you believe her?

You would believe your friend about the price of chicken, the mayor of New York and square root of 361. You would believe her when she told you she had cancer. So why wouldn’t you believe her when she says she was miraculously healed?

If you would not believe in the miracle, I suggest to you that there is only one reason: you have a pre-existing bias against miracles. Your friend has proven many times to be reliable about things you believe in. The only reason to disbelieve her now is because she is saying something that you have already decided you will not believe.

Your friend is just like the bible. The bible has proven many times to be entirely reliable about things like the culture of the ancient middle east, the existence of specific cities and specific people. It has shown again and again to be a reliable record of battles, and kings and wars. We know it records the truth of those kinds of things. The only reason to doubt what it says about God, human nature and miracles is because we have already decided that we do not want to believe those things. This is a silly, irrational, illogical position to take.

I mean it: logic is on the side of miracles.

Having said all that, the bible does get misused an awful lot. Sometimes, people don’t want to believe it because they don’t really understand it. We began the last few weeks, to talk about how we actually understand the bible. The first step is understanding that the purpose of the entire bible is to reveal Jesus to us. We read it so we can know him, and know him better, and follow him more fully.

One thing that happens with the bible is that a lot of people do strange things with it. Mostly, it is pretty straightforward and easy to understand. However, there are some parts of the bible that are more difficult to comprehend. It doesn’t help that because it is a religious book, people seem to forget common sense rules of reading books. I want us to learn how to understand the bible properly. So, for the next few weeks, we will consider some common sense practices that we ought to use when we read the bible.

READ THE BIBLE IN CONTEXT

Read it in Context with the Surrounding Verses

Imagine that you are reading a book about penguins, written by one person, a penguin expert who spent years studying the birds in Antarctica. The book was written in 1965. Suppose in one section of the book, she writes “Penguins are large, flightless birds.”

Later in the book, she describes her feeling of joy and awe as she watches the birds “spreading their wings as they dive and soar through the open blue.”

How do you handle this apparent contradiction? Do penguins fly, or don’t they?

Too many people, if they treated this book like the bible, would say, “This book is full of contradictions. I don’t believe anything it says about penguins.”

Others might really want to believe that penguins can fly. They would say: “Penguins are birds – the book says so. Birds fly. Penguins have wings – the book even says that. Wings are for flying. To top it off, she writes about them soaring through the open blue. This book teaches us that penguins fly.”

What about the bit about them being flightless birds? “Maybe that was an error. Or maybe she just didn’t understand penguins as well as we do, nowadays. Science has come a long ways since 1965.”

Of course the whole idea of someone with those attitudes is silly. Most people, reading the book as they read most books, won’t even notice the contradiction, because they will read the book in context. In other words, they won’t just take a few sentences of it here and there from different chapters, and use those to make broad declarations about penguins, or broad declarations about the book contradicting itself. So, instead of reading an isolated sentence about penguins soaring through the open blue, they will read the entire chapter in which the author describes SCUBA diving while she watches the penguins swim around her in the clear, blue sea. In context, “soaring through the open blue” is clearly about swimming, not flying.

The problem is, too many people read the bible to use it in arguments, instead of reading it to get to know Jesus better. So, instead of reading it in context, they go searching for a verse or a few verses that seem to say what they want the bible to say. Others want to discredit the bible altogether, because they don’t like what it says, so they go searching for isolated verses which sound like they contradict each other. But to someone who knows the bible, it usually sounds as silly as someone trying to use a well-researched book about penguins to prove that penguins fly.

This is one reason I so strongly recommend that you work your way around the bible by reading in one book (say, Matthew) until you’ve read that whole book, and then pick another book and do the same. Maybe you only have time to read a chapter, or just a few verses each day. That’s fine. But read (however slowly) through one book at time, moving from the beginning to the end of the book (I don’t mean the whole bible – I mean a book within the bible). If you don’t, you will have great difficulty understanding what you read, because it won’t be in context.

If everyone in the world who quotes the bible did this, my blood pressure would be significantly lower. Honestly, I’d like to say that “Read the Bible in Context” is the first, second and third rule of common sense bible understanding.

Let me give you an example of context. Suppose a friend of mine claims to be a Christian, but he watches pornographic movies and visits nude-bars. He sees nothing wrong with doing these things. I might say to him, “You claim to follow Jesus. But the lust in your heart is something wrong, Jesus died to make it right. You shouldn’t continue to feed your lust that way. Jesus is calling you to repent.”

Suppose he replies to me (quoting the bible) “Jesus said, ‘Don’t judge others!’”

Do you know the context for those words of Jesus? He said it in Matthew 7:1, during the famous “Sermon on the Mount.” Do you know what else he said in that very same sermon? He said he had not come to abolish the law, and anyone who relaxed the standards of the law was in trouble (Matthew 5:17-20). He also said lust was wrong (Matthew 5:27-30).

In fact, let’s look at the entire section where Jesus supposedly told us not to judge.

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.

The context of “do not judge” is the whole sermon on the mount, as I mentioned. In that context, there is simply no way that my friend can defend his activities as righteous and OK. “Judge not” does not make him free to do whatever he wants. But it doesn’t even have to silence me. Even in this smaller context, we can see that it is not as simple as “don’t judge.” Jesus actually says we should examine ourselves first, and then we will be able to help someone else who has a problem. He says we should recognize that the same standards apply to us, as well as the other person. In other words, we need to be humble, and recognize our own faults before we approach someone else to help them with their problem. But Jesus’ words here (in context) assume that we should still approach the person, once we are appropriately humble.

The last sentence gives us some additional information. Jesus seems to be saying that it is pointless to “judge” where the person is not interested in receiving it. It’s like giving jewelry to pigs – you are wasting your time. Such people will not appreciate the precious words of God, and instead will get angry at you. In context then, “Do not judge,” means:

· Be humble, and willing to acknowledge your own faults before you talk to someone else about his. You should still talk to the other person, once you are appropriately humble.

· Do not bother to judge those who are proud, unwilling to admit to their faults, or uninterested in what the bible has to say. One thing I take away from this, is that is pointless to try to get people who do not want to be Christian, to stop sinning.

There is more to be said about this passage, and more we can learn from other bible-reading techniques, but merely reading the context makes this often-misused quote much more clear and understandable.

Read the Bible in Cultural/Historical Context

The most important thing, is to read the context in the bible itself, as described above. However, the historical situation and the cultural context often shed a tremendous amount of light on a given passage. Therefore, we should also read the bible in historical and cultural context.

For instance, let’s talk for a minute about when Jesus said, “Do not judge.” Would it make a difference whether the people he was speaking to were inclined to be judgmental? Would it matter what they were inclined to make their judgments on? Of course.

If we know something about 1st Century Judaism, we would realize that the Jews Jesus was speaking to were generally very religious and legalistic about silly little rules. In fact, we would find out that often times, they condemned others for not following man-made rules, rules that had nothing to do with what God actually said. For instance, Exodus 20:8-11 says to remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy. By the time of Jesus, the Jews had made up an extensive list of rules which detailed exactly how they were supposed to keep the Sabbath holy. The problem was, those rules did not come from God, or the bible. The Jewish rules were made up by human beings, and added to the inspired word of God. So, the Jews said, you can only walk a certain number of steps on the Sabbath. You can do this, but not that. The Jews judged others based on how well they followed these kinds of rules. But those rules didn’t even come from God in the first place. It is to people like this that Jesus says “do not make judgments.” This is why Jesus talks about logs and splinters in the eye. The Jews were concerned about how well others followed man-made rules, while they ignored what the bible said about the Messiah, and faith, and real sin, forgiveness and relationship with God.

So, the “log in your own eye” that Jesus refers to is the tendency to completely ignore Jesus himself, while focusing on petty little things that aren’t even in the bible.

Knowing the cultural/historical context, we now understand that Jesus isn’t saying that we should not tell a fellow Christian that lust is sinful. He is saying that we should keep our priorities straight, and not judge others for meaningless things. Some Christians have made up rules – you must dress a certain way, or avoid certain kinds of movies, or avoid drinking even one glass of wine with dinner, or listen only to certain kinds of music. These are specks that some people try to pick out of the eyes of others. But the log in the eye is this: how do you respond to Jesus? How do you respond to his message of sin and redemption?

Do you see how the historical context can help you understand a passage more fully?

People often ask me, “Tom, where do we find out historical and cultural information like that?” The bad news is, there isn’t just one easy source for it. But the good news is, I was once asking the same question, and I over the years, I have learned a lot.

If I was starting out, the first thing I would do is get a good, high quality study bible. I highly recommend The ESV Study Bible. There are helpful notes and commentary at the bottom of each page. Not all of the commentary is about the cultural background, of course, but often there are helpful things about the culture there.

You might also google “Manners and Customs of Bible Times” there are several good resources that will show up. Unfortunately, some people create these resources with a theological axe to grind, so to speak. For example, I was personally disappointed by the Inter-Varsity Press Bible Background Commentary. Generally, the older the publishing date, the less biased one way or the other it is likely to be. “Manners and Customs of Bible Times” by Fred Wright is available online for free. I’ve used that from time to time. Eerdman’s Handbook to the Bible is another good general resource, as is Halley’s Bible Handbook.

It will take time to work your way through these resources. That’s OK, you have your whole life to study the bible. It is also helpful to listen to sermons. Many pastors, like me, have spent a great deal of time learning this stuff. Pay attention to the preachers that explain the historical and cultural context, because, as I’ve been saying, it’s important. If you think you might forget it, make notes of the things you think are significant. Over time, you will build up your own body of knowledge about bible history and culture.

Remember, read the bible in context. Understand that each book within the bible was written as a whole, and read it the same way. Also, read the bible in historical and cultural context. When we do these things, the verses that people use to prove contradictions look as silly as the claim that penguins can fly.

WHERE DOES THE OLD TESTAMENT COME FROM?

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This is fact: the bible is, without question, the best documentary record of life and history in the ancient middle east.

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Understanding the Bible #2 . How We Got the Bible & Can we trust it? (Old Testament)

Psalm 119

Last week we considered the Bible from a non-spiritual standpoint, evaluating it as if it were merely a system that was developed to guide human behavior (that is, a “moral” system). We found that objectively, the Bible offers a superior guide to human behavior than other “holy books” and one that is much superior to any “individual morality” that individuals choose for themselves. The next few weeks I want to dig more deeply into the origins of the Bible. This will help us to evaluate spurious claims like those of the “DaVinci Code” and the “Judas gospels” and other part-truth/mostly lies stories that have been floated about the bible for years. For now, we’ll just consider the Old Testament. We will tackle the New Testament later in the series.

Several early portions of the Old Testament were originally recited orally and passed down from generation to generation through memorization and repetition. Most of Genesis, as well as probably Ruth and Judges were all originally spoken, rather than written. How do we know this? Well, the first portions of Genesis, if accurate at all, took place before reading and writing was widespread. But even more than that, examining the Bible texts in Hebrew (which was the original language) shows several easily recognized mnemonic devices (that is, verbal cues used to help people memorize a recitation). One way to picture it this: those texts which were originally recited orally, look (at least in Hebrew) more like a play than a novel. Usually, these little memory points are lost in translation to English, but one passage in which the NIV has preserved them fairly well is Genesis 5:1-31. There are seven small sections in these verses. Each section begins with “When [somebody’s name] had lived [a number] of years…” and then some details about that person and his descendants. The section closes with “and then he died.”

If this is the first time you have heard of that, this may make you a bit uncertain about how reliable those portions of scripture could be. This is because our culture has mostly lost the art and practice of memorization. But the fact is, there used to be professional oral historians. These were people who were responsible to memorize the oral histories, word for word and teach them to the next generation. Not only that, but in the case of the Hebrew people and the Old Testament, every father had a duty to teach the spiritual history to his children. People are capable of remembering a great deal. The philosopher Socrates, who lived almost a thousand years after the time of Moses, lamented the fact that during his lifetime the Greeks started writing things down in books. He felt that if books came into widespread use, people would stop remembering things, because they would be able to simply look them up in a book. He felt memorization was a much superior way to preserve knowledge for future generations.

Even in the twentieth century, Michail Gorbachev memorized the entire text of all four gospels when he was a child. We remember more, and better, than we realize. If you have seen the movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” I bet you can fill in this blank. Patsy, the trusty squire is shot by an arrow. He says: “I’m not quite ______ yet.” If you have seen the movie “The Princess Bride” I bet you know the word that the Sicilian kidnapper, Vicini, says all the time. These are things we memorize – word for word – without even trying. How much more are people capable of in a culture where oral history is valued and practiced!

Aside from the oral histories, other parts of the Old Testament were written down, more or less at the time the events occurred or the words were spoken. The first five books of the Old Testament are called the Pentateuch; they are also known by Jews as the “Torah,” or “Law.” Over time the Torah, and the writings of the scribes and prophets were compiled into what today we call the Old Testament. We don’t know the exact date at which the Old Testament was considered to be “closed,” but it is probably around 250 B.C., which is the approximate date most scholars agree that the Old Testament was first translated into Greek (the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament is called the Septuagint). We don’t have any original copies of the Old Testament. Professional scribes carefully copied the originals when they became worn, and then destroyed the originals. When the copies became worn, new copies were made and the older copies destroyed. For many years, the oldest copy that had been found was made in the 800s A.D. — much newer, in fact, than many New Testament manuscripts. Because of this, many scholars assumed that if the Old Testament manuscript copies were compared to the originals, there would be many errors. However, it should be noted that later manuscripts agree very closely with these earliest texts, which shows that the scribes took great care when making copies. In 1947, the “Dead Sea Scrolls” were discovered. These are not all Biblical writings, but among them are parts of the Old Testament. The Dead Sea Scrolls date back to 1000 years before those previous Old Testament manuscripts. As it turns out, at least in the texts that are available for comparison, during those thousand years very few copying errors were made, and none were significant. Again it is an example of how carefully the Old Testament was preserved by the scribes. I have personally seen a scroll of Isaiah that was made in about 1400 AD and used in a synagogue in Germany for 400 years — until the mid-1800s, when it was taken out of use because it was “worn.” It looked cleaner, clearer and more pristine than these sermon notes. In other words, new copies were long before manuscripts became difficult to read. Taken all in all, it has been demonstrated thoroughly that the contents of the Old Testament have been preserved, largely unchanged, from when they originated.

Now, in spite of these well-preserved texts, there is a prevalent and long-standing tendency to discount the Old Testament as “religious writing” and therefore inaccurate. For many decades the trendy thing was to doubt everything the Bible said – even the “normal, historical” parts of it – unless it could be confirmed by some sort of archaeological discovery. For instance, until very recently, Skeptical scholars claimed that king David of Israel was a mythical figure who had been made up by the writers of the Bible. Unfortunately for them, archaeologists discovered a reference to David in the writings of another culture in the middle east. The reference to David matched the approximate time period that the Bible puts him in. Since that time, architecture with inscriptions referring to David has also been found.

In the Old Testament, Isaiah writes about the invasion of the Assyrian army. He describes how they laid siege to the town of Lacish, and then how they came and surrounded Jerusalem. He mentioned Sennacherib, the Assyrian emperor at the time. Over where Assyria used to be, they have uncovered some of the records and court-commissioned art from the time of Sennacherib. We shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the Assyrians recorded some of the same events, and even mentioned the name of Hezekiah, King of Judah at the time, according to the Bible.

According to the Old Testament, the Israelites destroyed the town of Jericho in about 1400 BC. According to archaeologists, Jericho was indeed destroyed about 1400 BC. There is not enough time and space to describe all of the archaeological discoveries which have, over and over, proven that the Bible is a reliable historical source. The people it talks about were real people; the situations it describes were real. The history it records really happened. The texts were truly written or memorized when the events they record were actually happening.

Millar Burrows, a PhD graduate of Yale University, and one of the leading authorities on the Dead Sea Scrolls, said this:

The Bible is supported by archaeological evidence again and again. On the whole, there can be no question that the results of excavation have increased the respect of scholars for the Bible as a collection of historical documents. The confirmation is both general and specific. The fact that the record can be soften explained or illustrated by archaeological data shows that it fits into the framework of history as only a genuine product of ancient life could do. In addition to this general authentication, however, we find the record verified repeatedly as specific points. Name of places and persons turn up at the right places and in the right periods.

What is strange is that some people persist in doubting the Bible until is proven by some non-Biblical source. The truth is, there is no non-biblical source that has been so thoroughly verified as the Bible itself. It is, without question, the best documentary record of life and history in the ancient middle east.

But the bible isn’t just a history book. There are many kinds of literature in the bible: family histories, genealogies, laws, national histories, biographies, poetry, prophecy, letters and songs. All those different books, written in different times and places by people in widely varied life situations, carry message. The message is easier to understand in some places; in other parts, it takes time and patience to hear it. But it is there throughout the entire bible.

Imagine the song “Silent Night.” Like many Christmas songs it has been arranged in many different ways, and played by many different groups and performing artists. Think of it being played instrumentally, by an orchestra. You’ve probably heard it that way. Now, imagine how it sounds sung by a full choir, with no instruments at all. It’s the same song. The same music is being conveyed, and yet, it sounds very different. Now, picture Willie Nelson (a country-western singer) singing Silent Night. Now, try to imagine Barbara Streisand singing the same song. Picture it done to swing-rhythm, crooned by Harry Connick Jr. Now imagine it as “muzak” or “elevator music,” played at the mall. Think of a rendition of the song by Frank Sinatra. Hear it done by Reggae artists.

All of these are the same song, conveying the same “musical message.” And yet each style and performance conveys that same “musical message” in a very different way. We can appreciate some of those ways better than others, but it all goes back to the same composer, the same basic set of notes, the same lyrics.

This is kind of how the bible is. Sometimes, God conveyed his message through the life of an old man, or a young princess. Sometimes, he sent it through laws that helped people at that time understand him better. At other times, God’s message came through prophets, or teachers, or letter writers, kings or musicians. Sometimes, it is hard to recognize as the same message, because three-thousand year-old laws require more work to understand than clearly written letters from more than a thousand years later. But the messages about God, human beings and relationships are consistent throughout the bible. Like with Silent Night, though the “performances” are widely varied, the basic underlying message is the same. Different musicians may play the music, different instruments may create it, but at the same time, the music is, and always was, the product of the original composer.

Paul puts it this way:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2Tim 3:16-17, ESV2011)

The bible comes to us through various human writers and poets and kings. But it is all the work of the Holy Spirit. Another way to look at it, is like an amazing building, say a cathedral. One architect designs the cathedral. He plans it. Many builders of different types are involved in actually building the cathedral, but it all comes together under the plan and direction of the one architect. If someone asks, “who built this cathedral?” we would probably say the name of the architect, not the many and various laborers who put it together. So, many people contributed to the bible, but it was God who planned it and put it together.

The best way that I know to start understanding the bible is to start reading it. It is very difficult to understand in little bits and pieces, especially if you get those bits and pieces from other people, or the internet. I would recommend, if you have never done this, to start reading one of the books of the New Testament, say, Matthew. Read a chapter a day (or more, if you are so inclined), until you’ve read the whole book of Matthew. Then find another New Testament book (any one of them, except Revelation. Leave that until you have more understanding), and read it the same way. After you’ve read the New Testament, go back, and pick an Old Testament book, and try a few of those. I would return and read a book in the New Testament after every second or third Old Testament book. Some people, in addition to this kind of reading, also read one of the psalms every day. That’s a great reading plan. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!

Psalm 119 talks about “the law.” It really means “the scripture” in general. Verses 97-103 says this:

97 Oh, how I love your law!

I meditate on it all day long.

98 Your commands make me wiser than my enemies,

for they are ever with me.

99 I have more insight than all my teachers,

for I meditate on your statutes.

100 I have more understanding than the elders,

for I obey your precepts.

101 I have kept my feet from every evil path

so that I might obey your word.

102 I have not departed from your laws,

for you yourself have taught me.

103 How sweet are your words to my taste,

sweeter than honey to my mouth!

Have you tasted the “sweetness” of God’s message to you through the Bible? I encourage you to start reading it, and experience that for yourself!

~

I want to briefly make you aware of our situation. This ministry (Clear Bible) until recently was supported by our local church. However, we have had some changes there, and we are now a house church. Today, we have about 8 families. Our church cannot fully support me financially any longer.

 In contrast, about 430 people subscribe to this blog, and an additional 300 or so each week come and visit the site. In other words, by far, most of the people who benefit from this ministry are not part of our little church.

 I’m asking you internet readers/listeners to pray for us. Seriously, before you give any financial support, please give us some prayer support. I value that more than anything else. Pray for this ministry to touch lives. Pray also for financial provision for my family and me.

But then, as you pray, do ask the Lord if he wants you to give financially as well. Be assured, after a small fee to Paypal, 100% of your donations will go to help support my family and me in ministry. In turn, supporting this blog means that you are helping to bless more than 15,000 people each year who visit this blog.

 Some of you may have noticed that I am also a novelist. Often, people have misconceptions about authors. Most of us, including me, make a part-time income through writing, and no more. In other words, we aren’t “raking it in” somewhere else. Now, we trust the Lord to provide, and I don’t want you to give out of guilt or fear. I just don’t want you to get the idea that your donations will only be an “extra” for us somehow.

 If most of our subscribers gave just five or ten dollars each month, (or even less, if everyone pitched in) we would be in good shape. It’s easy to set up a recurring donation when you click the Paypal donate button that is located on the right hand side of this page, down just a little ways.

 You could also send a check to:

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 Thank for your prayers, and your support!

FOUR CHARACTERISTICS OF THE EARLY CHURCH

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Fellowship (love in action) does not always come easily to the church, and perhaps it did not come easily even for the very first group of believers. Even so, this was something they persisted in and stuck with, in spite of difficulty at times.

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Experiencing Life Together #3

FOUR THINGS TO WHICH THE EARLY CHURCH WAS DEVOTED. Acts 2:42

As we come together to experience the Power, Presence and Purpose of Jesus, it may be useful to consider any Biblical patterns that exist for the Church. Biblically speaking, a lot of freedom is given to believers in how they structure local congregations. However there is a pretty clear Biblical pattern for the values that ought to drive local churches, and the practical results that those values ought to show. Perhaps one of the most useful and descriptive passages in discovering God’s pattern for the church is found in acts Chapter 2:42-47. This is a descriptive passage, not a prescriptive one; even so, we can learn from the example presented here and it seems wise to consider carefully the characteristics of that first growing Christian congregation.

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

In this passage, we find four things that the early church was devoted to and three things that resulted from such devotion. We will examine each of the seven characteristics one by one . This week, we will consider the four things the church was devoted to. Next week, we will focus especially on one of those four things — prayer. And after that, we will consider the three things their resulted from their devotion.

First, I want to mention this word, “devoted.” The idea behind the Greek term, is a that a group of people are together earnest, persevering, diligent and devoted to something. In other words, they didn’t just “say a prayer.” They were earnest and diligent about praying; they persisted and persevered in their prayers, even when they did not receive immediate answers. They didn’t just “listen to a sermon.” They diligently persevered in learning what Jesus said and did, and what it meant. They persisted in applying it to their lives, even when at first it didn’t feel like it made anything better.

I think this idea is very important. What we really believe as Christians is that spiritual reality is more real and important than what we call “physical” reality. I don’t mean the physical isn’t real, or that it doesn’t matter; but Christians believe the spiritual is the more powerful of the two. That means we persist in our devotion to these things, even when the physical reality is whispering to us that we are stupid and silly to do so. We persist in them because they make a difference in spiritual reality Eventually, that difference will also affect the physical realm, but even if it does not do so during our lifetimes, we trust in what we don’t see. That is what faith is: “the reality of what is hoped for; the certainty of what is not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)

1. They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching. The early church was founded on the testimony of the apostles. They listened as Peter, James and John and others repeated to them the teachings of Jesus. They heard these great leaders expounding upon those teachings and explaining the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The apostles also taught the early church the meaning of the Old Testament and how Jesus fulfilled its promises and prophecies. Unfortunately, today we no longer have the apostles. But we do still have their teachings — they are found in the New Testament. The New Testament is in fact the written form of the teaching of the apostles. It is not much of a leap to say that when we see that the first characteristic of the early church was that they were devoted to the apostles teaching, the parallel characteristic for the present-day church should be that we are devoted to the Bible. How can we do this practically in our church, and specifically in the house-church?

a. We ought to commit to the authority of the scriptures. The church was founded on the teaching of the Bible, and so also should our lives be founded on the teachings of the Bible. The Bible is the final authority in all things for all believers. Practically speaking, the house-church should have an understanding that scripture is the basis for everything we do and say in our group. This doesn’t mean we never talk about football scores, but it does mean that as we encourage one another and share with one another, we do so with a sense that we are all together under the authority of scripture.

b. We study scripture. To some of you, “study” may sound like a dirty word. It doesn’t have to be that way however. Try setting aside a special time each week (like Sunday nights) to study the Bible. As a starting point, read the scripture passage that goes with that week’s sermon notes, think about it, and then read the sermon notes over. The “Word” time during the house-church meeting is supposed to be mainly for application, rather than study. If you come to house-church and you haven’t read the sermon notes or the passage, you will probably not get much out of the word time, and the other people in the house-church will miss out on the insight and thoughts you might have had for them, if you had taken just a bit of time to read. I don’t think reading them on the way to house-church gives God’s Word the respect such a remarkable book deserves.

c. Apply the scripture to your life. After you have studied scripture, you should ask “what does it mean to me? How should I live differently or what comfort should I take from this?” Although God’s word is supposed to inform our thinking, the great value of it is that it not only transforms our minds, but our very lives as well. God’s word illuminates our path – what we are to do, how we are to live.

2. The second characteristic of the early church is that they were devoted to fellowship. The Greek word used in Acts 2:42 for “fellowship” is Koinonia. A helpful way to translate this word might be “community.” Now it is obvious from the context that the word does not mean “town” or “locality” so we might clarify things by saying it means Christian community. In other words, these first Christians devoted themselves to each other. In fact, this was their way of living out in a practically what Jesus said in John 13:24-25:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

Fellowship is just Christian love in action. It is the “nuts and bolts” of people in the body of Christ (the church) loving each other. In this context, It is helpful to remember that when they devoted themselves to the fellowship, the word “devoted” implies that this was something they worked on and stuck with, “in spite of resistance or struggle.” Fellowship (love in action) does not always come easily to the church, and perhaps it did not come easily even for the very first group of believers. Even so, this was something they persisted in and stuck with, in spite of difficulty at times.

3. The third characteristic of the early church is that they were devoted to the “breaking of bread.” This phrase (“the breaking of the bread”) refers to the Celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Paul uses it in 1 Corinthians to describe Holy Communion, and the language parallels that of the gospels as well. It took some years before it was called anything but “the breaking of the bread.” How can this be made a practical characteristic of house-church life? First, I believe it meant that the message of human sin and God’s sacrifice to forgive that sin, was central to their lives. The Lord’s Supper tells this basic message of Christianity every time it is celebrated. Second, I believe their devotion to the Lord’s Supper was evidence of an ongoing hunger and thirst for more of God in their lives. The central meaning of the Lord’s Supper is the Presence of Jesus. So in house-church, we can be intentional about the core Christian message of man’s sin and God’s loving forgiveness, and we can be intentional about nurturing a hunger for Jesus.

4. The fourth thing that the early church was devoted to is prayer. Prayer, both together and alone, was central to their experience of church. Because prayer is so important to the life of any house-church, we will devote a week entirely to that subject (next week).

As you consider this passage of scripture, allow yourself to dream. What would your house-church look like if you were devoted to the Bible, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer? Does this vision excite you at all? How would your life be different if you are a part of such a dynamic group? And, how will you be a part of making this happen?

HOW DO WE KNOW THE BIBLE IS TRUE?

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If you are a Christian for any length of time, sooner or later you’ll probably have a thought like this: “What if this is all made up? What if none of it is real?”

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Galatians #3 . Chapter 1:11-12

Now I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel preached by me is not based on human thought. For I did not receive it from a human source and I was not taught it, but it came by a revelation from Jesus Christ. (Gal 1:11-12, HCSB)

Apparently, the people who were misleading the Galatians said something like this: “Look, Paul is just a human being. We are teaching you based upon the authority of many wise rabbis who have gone before us. But here he is, coming along making up new stuff. He got what he learned from the apostles in Jerusalem, and put his own spin on it. He isn’t even a real apostle.”

But Paul responds here. Remember last time, we talked about the different “false gospels” that we encounter from time to time. Now, Paul talks about the source of the true gospel.

The first apostles were considered reliable teachers of the true gospel, because they had known Jesus personally, and he had personally chosen them. Paul was a little different. He had not known Jesus when Jesus was alive. In fact, Paul was a Pharisee, considered by those in Jerusalem to be one of the rising young bright stars of Judaism. He saw the followers of Jesus as a threat to Judaism, and he persecuted the Christians, causing them to be arrested, and many times, causing them to be executed. But on a trip he was taking to arrest and kill more Christians, Jesus appeared to Paul in a vision. We have a partial record of this in Acts 9:1-18. We don’t know everything that Jesus said to Paul in that appearance, but apparently the Holy Spirit revealed the true gospel to him. Just a few days after encountering Jesus this way, this is what Paul did:

Immediately he began proclaiming Jesus in the synagogues: “He is the Son of God.” But all who heard him were astounded and said, “Isn’t this the man who, in Jerusalem, was destroying those who called on this name and then came here for the purpose of taking them as prisoners to the chief priests? ” But Saul grew more capable and kept confounding the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that this One is the Messiah. (Acts 9:20-22, HCSB)

Paul had been an anti-Christian. Just a few days after his conversion he was preaching so powerfully that the Jews in Damascus could not dispute him. Where did he learn the message of the gospel that he preached? He had only been a Christian for a few days. Paul tells us, right here in Galatians: it was revealed to him by Jesus himself. Paul, talking about the message of gospel, given by Jesus, tells the Corinthians:

Last of all, as to one abnormally born, [Jesus] also appeared to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by God’s grace I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not ineffective. However, I worked more than any of them, yet not I, but God’s grace that was with me. Therefore, whether it is I or they, so we proclaim and so you have believed. (1Cor 15:8-11, HCSB)

The point is, Paul got the message from the same place that the other apostles got it: from Jesus Christ himself. Paul then passed it along to the churches. The source for our gospel is the same as the source for the early Christians: the teaching of the apostles who knew Jesus Christ (including Paul). Today, we call that teaching “The New Testament.”

I have friends who think the New Testament was made up by people who wanted to gain power through religion. Now, I’ve covered this in the past, but I suppose it’s possible that some of you have forgotten, and also that others never did hear this. Paul felt that it was important for the Galatians to understand that the message about Jesus came from God, not from human beings. I think it is important for us to understand the same thing.

So, the gospel we believe comes from the New Testament. Where did that come from?

Historians can determine the date of ancient documents through a variety of methods. They can look at the writing materials that were used, and compare them to materials used at known dates and places. They can study the language, and compare it to various time periods to see if it is similar (or not) to other writings in various eras. They can check some historical references with other documents, and against the discoveries of archaeology.

When more than one copy of an ancient document is discovered, scholars compare the various copies. If all the copies say the same thing, scholars conclude that they have accurately preserved what was originally written. Where copies vary, scholars consider which copies are older, and how many copies say the same thing, and how many contain the variant. This way, they can reasonable determine what the original said, even when they don’t have the original to study.

A book called Gallic Wars was supposed to have been written sometime around 50 B.C., dictated by Julius Caesar to a scribe. Historians believe that this book is what it claims to be, and was written in the time of Caesar. Even so, the oldest actual manuscript they have of this book is a copy of a copy (and so on) that was actually made 1,000 years after Caesar. The idea is, the book was made, and then as it fell into disrepair, new copies were made, and as those copies got older, new copies were made of the first copies, and so on. They have discovered ten ancient copies of Gallic Wars, with the oldest one, as I said, 1,000 years later than the original. This is considered an excellent historical document for that period in history (which is very close to the New Testament).

Another ancient book is Annals by Tacitus. This too, is considered an excellent source, written around 100 AD (or CE, if you prefer). Today, twenty ancient texts of Tacitus’ writing exist. The oldest is a copy that was made in 1100 AD – 1000 years after Tacitus wrote the original. With regard to Annals, no historian seriously disputes that they were indeed written by Tacitus. Most also accept that what Tacitus wrote has been accurately preserved.

How do these excellent sources compare to the New Testament?

GreekNT3A fragment of parchment containing part of the book of John has been discovered. This piece is believed to be either part of the original written by the apostle himself, or a copy that was made within forty years. A fragment of Matthew has been discovered that most scholars believe was part of the very parchment written by Matthew himself. Other fragments, and even whole books of New Testament, date from within a hundred years of the time of the apostles. The oldest complete copy of the New Testament is about 150 years removed from the time of the apostles. This is far, far better than any other ancient document that exists.

Compared to twenty ancient copies of Tacitus, or ten of Julius Caesar, scholars have discovered roughly 5,500 very ancient copies of the New Testament in Greek (the original language), and an additional 19,000 ancient copies in other languages like Syrian, Latin and Coptic. For hundreds of years, scholars have been comparing these manuscripts to one another. If all or most of the texts show that John wrote “Jesus wept,” than we can be pretty darn sure that John did in fact write, “Jesus wept.” In addition to all these actual copies of the New Testament, we have extensive quotations of the books of the New Testament contained in letters and writings from early Christians, dating from the time of the apostles and on.

With the overwhelming number of copies and the various languages, scholars have found some variations in part of the New Testament. These variations are all very small, and none of them change the essential meaning of any New Testament passage. By the way if you have an NIV version of the bible, it will make a footnote of every major textual variation. Here’s an example of a major variation:

In Luke 23:42, Luke writes that the thief on the cross said, “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The NIV version of the bible makes a footnote there is enough evidence to note a variant manuscript reading. The variant would read like this: “Jesus remember me when you come with your kingly power.” You may say: “What’s the big deal with that? What does it change? Doesn’t it mean the same thing?” That, of course, is the point. It changes nothing significant. Nor do any of the “significant” variants. If you have an NIV Bible you can scan the bottom of the text as you flip through the pages and see all the significant variants.

Because of the great number of copies which all record the same words, and because they are so ancient, we can be quite sure that the New Testament we read today is the truly and accurately preserved teaching of the apostles of Jesus Christ.

Every year around Easter, the National Geographic society trots out a documentary or story about the “lost gospels” or the “books that should have been included in the bible.” It’s true that there are a few ancient documents about Jesus that are not included in the New Testament. But there are huge differences between them and the New Testament.

GNT2

We know historically that by around 250 AD at the latest, virtually all Christians were using the twenty-seven books that make up our present day New Testament. The New Testament was not officially defined by a conference of Churches until sometime in the mid 300’s AD, but for all intents and purposes it was well established even earlier than that.

There were several things that caused a book to be included in the New Testament.

  1. The New Testament book had to be connected to an apostle (either written by an apostle, as in the case of Paul’s letters, or written by someone who associated closely with one or more apostles, as in the case of Luke and Mark). So the ancient book, The Apocalypse of Peter, though it names an apostle in the title, was never recognized in any early writing, or by any other evidence, as having anything to do with the real historical Peter. Needless to say, it isn’t in the bible.
  2. The New Testament book had to enjoy widespread early use among churches. For example, the Gospel of John was used and recognized in churches all over the known world by a very early date; whereas the “Gospel of Judas” was never really recognized outside of Alexandria, Egypt and that at a fairly late date, by people who weren’t even Christians. Again, by at least 250 AD, virtually all churches were using a common set of apostolic writings – this set of books was later called “The New Testament.”
  3. The New Testament writings had to agree with generally accepted Christian doctrine. In the 140s AD, a man named Marcion came up with his own very twisted version of Christianity and listed various writings which he thought should be considered sacred. He and his “New Testament” were rejected by almost all churches, because they were contrary to the teachings that the churches had held since the time of the apostles.

I guess what I am saying to you today, is the same thing that Paul was trying to say to the Galatians. I want you to know brothers and sisters, that this gospel that we received and have believed does not come from human beings. It was preserved by human beings, and we can see that it was preserved accurately. But it came from Jesus Christ. But there is even more. John recorded that Jesus said this:

“I have spoken these things to you while I remain with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit — the Father will send Him in My name — will teach you all things and remind you of everything I have told you. “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Your heart must not be troubled or fearful. (John 14:25-27, HCSB)

And a little later, he said this:

When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth. For He will not speak on His own, but He will speak whatever He hears. He will also declare to you what is to come. He will glorify Me, because He will take from what is Mine and declare it to you. (John 16:13-14, HCSB)

The Holy Spirit inspired and guided those who wrote down the gospel. And the Spirit guided the process by which these writings were either preserved, or not preserved. We know that there was a third letter which Paul wrote to the Corinthians, which is lost to history. The Holy Spirit caused that happen – that letter was not part of what the Spirit wanted preserved.

All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2Tim 3:16-17, HCSB)

We have the written words of the true gospel in the form of the New Testament. And we also have the Holy Spirit, given to us through Jesus, who continues to remind us what Jesus said, and guides us to receive and understand the truth of God’s Word. It doesn’t come from human beings who made it up for their own purposes.

If you are a Christian for any length of time, sooner or later you’ll probably have a thought like this: “What if this is all made up? What if none of it is real?” Don’t feel bad about having those thoughts. Instead, remember this: It is entirely reasonable to believe that the New Testament is the unaltered teaching of those who knew Jesus, whom Jesus chose as his apostles. All the evidence says so. It is reasonable to believe that that they believed what they wrote, since most of them gave their lives for that belief (incidentally, they didn’t get power or wealth out of it). But it does require faith to believe that their writings are true, and inspired by the Holy Spirit. It requires faith to believe that Spirit continues to speak through the New Testament today. That faith means we risk being foolish. It means we risk believing something that isn’t true – that risk is the nature of faith. But when we embrace that faith, the Holy Spirit makes these words real and relevant in our lives today.

For the word of God is living and effective and sharper than any double-edged sword, penetrating as far as the separation of soul and spirit, joints and marrow. It is able to judge the ideas and thoughts of the heart. (Heb 4:12, HCSB)

The true gospel, not made by human beings, can speak directly to your heart and to your attitudes. It can convict you of sin, comfort you with grace and lead you closer to the true and living God. It can and will change your life eternally.