April 11, 2018 — Letters from Home

Voltaire, the 18th-century Enlightenment philosopher, had a profound aversion to Christianity. At his townhouse in Paris, he frequently hosted evenings of conversations with groups of intellectual elites. Voltaire enjoyed making shocking statements. One night he was quoted as saying: “In 100 years, the Bible will be absolutely obsolete and irrelevant.” (Today that same townhouse where Voltaire once lived and made that declaration is now the headquarters and warehouse for the French Bible Society.)

Prior to becoming a Christ follower, I found the Bible obscure, boring and confusing. Once I came to know the Author, God Himself, it came alive for me and it has touched my life and been a delight to me ever since I came to faith. Augustine of Hippo wrote, “The Holy Scriptures are our letters from home.” I found and continue to find this to be the case. 

The ideas found in the Bible about goodness, holiness, justice and life have shaped world history more than any other piece of religious writing. English Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin once said: “The Bible is a high explosive. But it works in strange ways and no living man can tell or know how that book, in its journey through the world, has startled the individual soul in ten thousand different places into a new life, a new world, a new belief, a new conception, a new faith.” After 9/11, publishers of Bibles could not keep up with orders. Millions were sold instantly. Not just because people wanted comfort…they sensed it possesses wisdom and guidance for current life.

It is estimated that over 5 billion copies of the Bible have been sold. The Bible remains the best-selling book of all time. It sells approximately 100 million copies annually. As of October 2017, the full Bible has been translated into 670 languages, the New Testament alone into 1521 languages, and Bible portions or stories into 1121 languages. And yet, tens of thousands of people who buy the Bible never read it.

Why read the Bible? What difference would it make in our daily lives?

The Bible is the supreme authority for what we believe as Christians. Submission to the authority of God, as it is mediated to us through Scripture, has always been and remains a major hallmark of Christian orthodoxy for the Church. We believe its instruction. We embrace its promises. We seek to obey its commands. Why? Because we believe the Bible is the Word of God, but also, because He speaks to us through it with a living voice.

Without revelation, without Divine instruction and direction, we may feel ourselves to be like a boat drifting rudderless on the high seas. How can we find our way? More importantly, how can we find God’s way without His direction? John Stott pointed out that Plato “speaks in the Phaedo about our having to sail the seas of darkness and doubt on the little ‘raft’ of our own understanding, is ‘not without risk,’ he adds, ‘as I admit, if a man cannot find some word of God which will more surely and safely carry him.’”

The impossibility of human beings discovering God by their own unaided intellect is very plainly asserted in Isaiah 55:8-9: “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.”

In other words, there is a great gulf fixed between God’s mind and human minds. There is simply no way to reach or to fathom God on our own. God must take the initiative.

The most direct way in which God has made Himself known to us is through His words. As the heavens are higher than the earth, but the rain comes down from heaven to water the earth, so God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts, but they come down to us because His word goes forth from His mouth and conveys His thoughts to us. As the prophet Isaiah said “The mouth of the LORD has spoken” (Isaiah 40:5). Or, as Paul wrote to Timothy, “All scripture is God-breathed…” (2 Timothy 3:16). That is, Scripture is God’s Word, issuing from God’s mouth.

When God spoke, however, He didn't shout audibly out of the sky! He spoke through prophets in the Old Testament and through apostles in the New Testament. These human agents of the revelation of God were real people. This should not make us nervous or mistrustful of the Bible.

Divine inspiration was not a mechanical process which reduced the human authors of the Bible to mere dictating machines. Divine inspiration was a personal process in which the human authors of the Bible were in full possession of their faculties. Of this, John Stott wrote, “God spoke, deciding Himself what He intended to say, yet not in such a way as to distort the personality of the human authors. On the other hand, the Bible is the word of men. Men spoke, using their faculties freely, yet not in such a way as to distort the truth of the divine message.”

Why did God speak? The answer is not just to teach us, but to save us: “…and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” (2 Timothy 3:15).

We sometimes find an almost superstitious attitude toward Bible reading, as if it had some magical efficacy. But there is no “magic” in the mechanical or dutiful (“I should do this”) reading of the Bible. The written Word points to the Living Word and says to us, “Go to Jesus.” If we do not go to the Messiah to whom it points, we miss the whole purpose of Bible reading. Jesus, speaking to his Jewish contemporaries, said, “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to Me; yet you refuse to come to Me that you may have life.” (John 5:39-40).  The Scriptures point to Jesus as the life-giver and urge the reader to go to Him for life.

The Bible is God’s picture of Jesus. It bears witness to Him. So, whenever we are reading the Bible, we must look for Jesus. The Old Testament sacrifices foreshadow that perfect sacrifice for sin made once and for all upon the Cross. The teaching of the Old Testament prophets foretell the coming of the Messiah, the “suffering servant of the Lord” who will die for the sins of His people. All this rich imagery and more from the Old Testament bears witness to Jesus. When we move into the New Testament, Jesus Christ comes yet more clearly into focus.

John Stott wrote, “Whenever you read the Bible, I want to beg you to remember its major purpose. Scripture is the Father’s testimony to the Son. It points to Him. It says to us, ‘Go to Him in order to find life — abundant life — in Him.’ … Scripture (as [Martin] Luther used to say) is the manger or ‘cradle’ in which the infant Jesus lies. Don’t let us inspect the cradle and forget to worship the Baby.”

Dr. Christopher Chavasse, formerly Bishop of Rochester, would have us approach the Bible as if studying and admiring a great painting:

     “The Bible is the portrait of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Gospels are the figure itself in the portrait. The Old Testament is the background leading up to the divine figure, pointing towards it and absolutely necessary to the composition as a whole. The Epistles serve as the dress and accoutrements of the figure, explaining and describing it. Then, while by our Bible reading we study the portrait as a great whole, the miracle happens, the figure comes to life and stepping down from the canvas of the written word, the everlasting Christ of the Emmaus story becomes himself our Bible teacher, to interpret to us in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”

The Bible was not given for our information but for our transformation and it will always be the case that a word from Jesus changes everything. John Stott is at pains to remind us, “It is not enough to possess a Bible, to read the Bible, love the Bible, study the Bible, know the Bible. We need to ask ourselves: Is the Christ of the Bible the center of our lives? If not, all our Bible reading has been futile, for this is the great purpose of the Bible.” 

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