“The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God endures forever.” (Isa. 40:8 and I Peter 1:24-25)
Isaiah, the prophet, spoke to a world similar to ours. Crime was rampant; despair and fear prevailed; angst and a longing for certainty filled the hearts of the people; moral confusion blinded the political and spiritual leadership to reality. They called “evil good and good evil,” put darkness for light and light for darkness, bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter” (Isa. 5:20). They were unable to make clear moral judgments. Wars with neighboring nations were frequent and the invasion of surrounding nations finally resulted in the fall of Israel and exile.
In the midst of this crisis came God with the good news of comfort, forgiveness and restoration. God’s promises are true and enduring. Above all the change, confusion and chaos stands God’s Word. Because we have an “unchanging Word of God in a changing world.”
Through the centuries critics have chipped away at the Bible to little avail. Voltaire, atheist French philosopher who died in 1778, declared: “If we would destroy the Christian religion, we must first destroy the Bible.” He declared that the Bible would soon become obsolete and forgotten.
Since Voltaire’s dire prediction more than two hundred years ago the Bible has had an incredible career. Why does the Word of God survive?
It is God-Breathed.
Paul, the Apostle, declares that “Every Scripture (Old Testament, later applied to New Testament) God-breathed is useful for teaching, for discipline and correcting error” (2 Tim. 3:16). Some translators use the term “inspired” which is the Latin and is not the Greek (Theopneustos) “God-breathed” in Scripture. As God breathed life into humankind (Gen. 2:7) so He breathed life into Scripture by His Spirit. This concept distinguishes the Scriptures ordained by God’s authority from secular works.
As to the method of God-breathing Scripture there is much debate among theologians. According to Peter “holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” (2 Peter 1:20) This makes Scripture, the written word, unique.
The Bible endures because lives are transformed by reading its witness to Christ.
Reading just the book of Romans, some of the great persons of the church experienced the amazing and transforming grace of God. Augustine (354-430) heard a voice, “Take up and read. Take up and read.” So he took up the book of Romans, opened it and read the first chapter. He saw: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Christ, and make no provision for the flesh and its concupiscences.” Then Augustine describes his transforming experience: “instantly with the end of the sentence, as by a clear and constant light infused into my heart, the darkness of all former doubts was driven away.” (The Confessions of St. Augustine, p. 216-17.)
Other great theologians influenced by studying Romans were Martin Luther who discovered in Romans that salvation was not achieved by works but by faith. “The just shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:17), he discovered and this conviction resulted in the Reformation of the Church.
John Wesley, founder of Methodism, came to America as a missionary in 1735. Soon after reaching Savannah, Georgia Wesley met Bishop Spangenberg, leader of the Moravians in America who asked him: “Do you know Jesus Christ?” Wesley answered: “I know He is the Savior of the World.” Said Spangenberg “True, but do you know He has saved you?” As a missionary Wesley was not very successful and was in ill health. So he returned to England. At a meeting of an Anglican society in London, he heard someone read Luther’s preface to the Commentary on Romans. He recorded a transforming experience: “About a quarter before nine, while he (Luther) was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given to me, that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” (Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1926, pp. 511-13)
Karl Barth (1886-1968), Swiss theologian, read and wrote a book on Romans (Roemerbrief, 1919) which not only changed his thinking, but started a new theological movement. He became a leading theologian of the twentieth. Barth wrote numerous books, including Church Dogmatics. It is alleged that an American student asked Barth to summarize his theology. His response: “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.”
Millions of others have been transformed by the truth of the Bible. This is a factor in the endurance of Scripture through the centuries.
God’s Word survives because it is a “love letter” from God.
Kierkegaard held that one should read the Bible as a letter from a loved one, not as a newspaper. Read it in reverence and love. Linger over its words. Savor them because you are being addressed by One who loves you very much. For God is love and love “endures all things.” Faith and hope will cease in heaven, but love lasts forever (1 Cor. 13:7-13).
The miracle is that despite all the puny preaching about the Bible it survives. My professor of preaching in seminary declared he was tired of hearing “musty preaching.” He meant negative preaching such as “you must do this and you must do that.” There is a positive side also to preaching. Jesus came preaching about good news of redemption. Positive preaching requires rigorous mental discipline. It is, as Phillips Brooks described, the bringing of truth through personality. Ultimate Truth is not a program or a philosophy but a Person, Jesus Christ who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. (John 14:6) Paul was determined to preach not himself but Christ Jesus as Lord. (2 Cor. 4:8) This is positive preaching. Preaching yourself is a pretty shoddy thing to pan off on a congregation.
The Bible endures because it bears witness to Jesus the Logos, the Word of God.
In the Bible we discover the Word within the words. “Give heed to reading” Paul admonished (1 Tim. 4:13). Search the Scriptures for the living Word.
The Word of God endures. His light shines in the darkness and the darkness can never put it out (John 1:5). Critics, terrorism, communism, gnosticism, atheism, secularism and other such isms, nor the corrosion of time, can ever put out the light of the written and incarnate Word.
The Divine Word (Logos) became flesh in Jesus (John 1:1-5). Biblical witness points to Jesus the Word. Jesus was the Word in the beginning and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word was God Himself. He became the incarnate Word and dwelt among us—Emmanuel, Jesus is the Word today for He is the same yesterday, today and forever. (Hebrews 13:8)
Jesus is the living Word, the crown and criterion of revelation. (Heb. 1:1ff.) He is the Lord of Scripture: So we ask, “What would Jesus do? (“You have heard it said, but I say unto you.” Matt. 5:28, 332, 34, 39, 44). He is the hermeneutical key to our understanding of God’s will.
The Word endures because the Church bears witness to Christ.
The gates of hell will not “prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). Here the Church is on the offensive. The gates of Hell (Hades, the abode of the dead departed spirits) shall not prevail against it. The church will be indestructible and death will not hold its members. Gates are a defensive weapon, not offensive; they hold people in or out; here they hold them in. Gates of Hades cannot hold members of the Church and they will burst forth to life in the risen Christ. Your relationship to the church is the only human relations that will survive death. (William Hersey Davis on Matthew 16:18).
More than 40 years ago I saw the Czar’s Bible in the Kremlin Museum. It featured gold covers laden with precious jewels. It was preserved by the Communists for political purposes. No one reads it.
Unfortunately today the Bible is often used for political purposes, especially in America. Christians in American have several Bibles in their homes. Studies show that 95% of America’s largest Protestant denomination “believe” the Bible is the “actual” or “inspired” word of God, but they don’t study it. (H. T. 1 Custom Research of Chicago) Though the Church, the people of God, do not take Holy Scripture seriously. It endures. And Jesus has promised the Word of God will remain until its purpose has been accomplished. (Matt. 5:18)
Spelunkers, before exploring unknown caves, tie one end of a rope to an object outside. As they grope their way through the maze of passageways, they unwind the rope assured they have guidance for the return. In these days of confusion, anxiety, sense of insecurity, rapidly moving into the unknown, we need to be anchored to Jesus the enduring Word of God.
(from January-February 2004 issue of Preaching)
Henlee Barnette was Emeritus Professor of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Clinical Professor University of Louisville School of Medicine