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PLANO EAST: Can We Trust What the Bible Teaches? - by John Yates

Can We Trust What the Bible Teaches?

By John Yates

The following sermon was delivered before several thousand orthodox Episcopalians at the recent Plano East gathering in Virginia.

January 10, 2004

At the very heart of the conflict within the Episcopal Church is a single, simple question that all who believe in Jesus Christ must answer for themselves.

Are the Scriptures true?

Can we be assured that what we read in the Bible is true?

When the original authors wrote the various portions of Scripture, did they write the truth?

Are the Scriptures we read today the same as the original?

Episcopalians say that we believe in the authority of the Scriptures but what does that mean?

The best-selling novel, The DaVinci Code, of which there are over 4 million copies now in print, is written on the premise that our New Testament is false, that other documents prove that Jesus was, in fact, a married man and that Mary Magdalene was his wife. This is clearly not true, according to our four

Gospels, but millions believe it anyway.

Is the Bible true or not?

I want to lay out for you two principles which help us have confidence in the trustworthiness of the Bible. The first has to do with the words the text of the Bible. The second has to do with our Lord Jesus own attitude toward the Scriptures.

First, the text of the Bible. Each of us has available for our use several fine translations. This is the most studied, translated book of all time.

But behind all these translations is the text of the New Testament in Greek, and the Old Testament mostly in Hebrew. We do not, of course, have the original documents, the autographs, but we do know that the text of the New Testament from which scholars work today is essentially exactly the same as when the words were first penned by Paul, John and the others.

How do we know this? There are thousands of ancient Greek and Latin portions of the New Testament, which have been preserved since the 1st century all across the world, first in churches and monasteries and then later in libraries. We have portions, for instance, of John Gospel, that we believe go back to the very generation in which it was originally penned. The originals were written down, disseminated and copied with utmost care, and gradually spread throughout the early Church, until eventually there were hundreds and thousands of copies. While, of course, many were lost we still have an unbelievable treasure trove of early New Testament manuscripts, all of which have been studied repeatedly, compared, contrasted by textual and literary critics from all around the world. This is an exacting science. And the conclusion of their research is that the standard Greek text we now use for New Testament studies upon which our modern translations are based, is as close as it could possibly be to the original without being the original.

Why is this important? It means that when we read the New Testament we are reading 99.9% exactly the same thing as first century Christians read. The words of Jesus, the words of Paul, that we read, these are the very words read by Christians in Corinth, Rome and Palestine.

We hear nowadays about some New Testament scholars sitting around casting colored marbles, to decide if this or that portion of the New Testament is genuine. But friends, these are the extreme fringe of so-called biblical scholars. The great mass do not question the authenticity of the text. Oh, there are variations in the early manuscripts but no essential doctrines are impacted by these.

When we turn to the Old Testament, we do not, of course, have a bulk of manuscripts coming from the centuries before Christ. In fact, until the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered in a cave overlooking the Dead Sea in 1947, the earliest Old Testament manuscripts we had came from the 9th or 10th century A.D.

The discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls, however, showed us that our modern Hebrew Bible, passed down, copied from generation to generation, is similarly, astoundingly close to the Old Testament, which Jesus himself read. The Dead Sea scrolls contained portions of the Old Testament, from the very time of Jesus himself, and the startling sameness between them and the later manuscripts with which scholars worked until we found the Dead Sea scrolls, which were a thousand years newer, is just astonishing. They were copied and transmitted reverently with painstaking care by hand over a thousand years with virtually no changes. We can only conclude that God has wanted and willed that 21st century students be able to read what was originally penned by the biblical writers.

So, when we read our Old Testament we have good reason to believe it is virtually the same as the Old Testament that Jesus himself read and taught, and when we read our New Testament, it, too, is essentially exactly the same as the original autographs. That is important.

Because the text is authentic, when we read the New Testament we see what the first century followers of Christ believed and what they understood Jesus to have said and done. We see Jesus as they saw him, the unique, wonderful, powerful Son of God.

When we consider the risks taken by the Apostles to proclaim these New Testament truths, we are hard-pressed to conclude anything other than this they were utterly convinced of what they taught. What they wrote, they died for, and what we read, is what they were utterly convinced of. The Jesus they present to us is the historical Jesus they knew. The only way we know Christ is through what they wrote in the New Testament. We believe that what they wrote is true this brings us to the second point.

How did Jesus view the Scriptures?

We look at Jesus own attitude toward the Scriptures as described in the New Testament by those who knew him best, in order to understand the authority o f Scriptures for ourselves. And here is what we see first in regards to the Old Testament: Jesus was completely committed to the authority of the Old Testament, and he submitted to the Old Testament in his own personal conduct, he submitted to the Old Testament in regard to his own sense of mission and purpose, and he submitted to the Old Testament in his controversies and debates.

For instance, he met each of the temptations of the devil by reminding himself o f the appropriate biblical response, which addressed Satan temptations. He also seems to have come to an understanding of his own life purpose and role as Messiah from a careful study of Old Testament Scripture. He knew from his unique relationship with God and from his study that he himself was the fulfillment of both Isaiah Suffering-Servant prophesies and Daniel Son of Man statements.

This, of course, enabled him to accept that he could only achieve his life purpose through the path of suffering and death, and it explains why repeatedly he made statements such as, Mark 8:31, in which he said, The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected. He must be killed and after three days rise again. He was convinced of this because Scripture said so, and he put himself under its authority. Even after the resurrection he was still of the same opinion, he said to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, did not the Christ have to suffer these things, and then enter his glory? This is what I told you while I was still with you. Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets and the Psalms (Luke 24:2 6, 44).

Whenever Jesus entered into controversy or debate, he continually submitted to the Old Testament as his authority. What is written in the law? he would ask. How do you read it? (Luke 10:26) Or from Mark 12: Haven't you read the Scriptures? Over and over again he criticized the religious leaders for their disrespect for Scripture. The Pharisees added to Scripture additional rules and regulations, while the Sadducees subtracted from it. Over and over again he affirmed scripture cannot be broken. In the Sermon on the Mount he said, I tell you the truth, until Heaven and Earth disappear, not the smallest letter nor the least stroke of a pen will by any means disappear from the la w until everything is accomplished.

You will not find an example of Christ ever contradicting the divine origin of Old Testament Scripture. All the evidence available affirms that Jesus Christ both assented intellectually and submitted volitionally to the authority of the Old Testament, and it is hard to believe that we, his followers, should have a lower view of it than he did. He trusted the Old Testament. He certainly believed what Paul, his apostle, taught, that, all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproach, for correction, and for training in righteousness that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.

Now, of course, our Lord way of endorsing the New Testament was quite different, for none of the New Testament books had yet been written during his lifetime. Clearly the Old Testament was not the final revelation of God. Some of the Old Testament law and ceremony came to an end in Jesus because he was the fulfillment of it. Much of the Old Testament teaching was incomplete and he gave us the complete meaning. He himself, Christ, was the final revelation o f God, and his message and the meaning of who he is had to be communicated to future generations. There had to be an authoritative record and interpretation of who he was and what he revealed, so Jesus made provision for this very thing. How? All the records agree that, after careful thought and lengthy prayer, h e chose and appointed and then went on to train and authorize the 12 Apostles to be his representatives, just as God had chosen the prophets in the Old Testament. The Apostles of Christ were, of course, a small, restricted circle, made up of the original 12, and then Matthias (who replaced Judas), Paul, James, the Lord brother, and perhaps one or two more. It important to understand the meaning of the word, apostle. It means one sent by a person who is as the person himself, a person who speaks with the authority of the person who had commissioned him.

Not too long ago the Washington Post had a headline that said, Bush
Vows Action. However, when you read the article, you saw that President Bush had not yet actually commented publicly on the situation, but that actually it was Scott McClellan, Bush Press Secretary, who made the statement. It is interesting that McClellan words are equated with those of the President himself. This is similar to the sense of the word apostle. Jesus chose these apostles, deliberately gave them this title, and they were to be his personal representatives endowed with his authority to speak in his name. And when he
sent them out he said to them, He who receives you, receives me. These men knew the Lord personally. They had a personal call and authorization by him. They had unequaled opportunities to hear his words, to talk with him, and to see his deeds, so that they might later on bear witness to what they had seen and heard. He said to them in John 15: 27: You must testify for you have been wit h me from the beginning.

He promised to them an extraordinary inspiration by the Holy Spirit for their tasks. We see this in the conversation recorded by St. John, in which Jesus said to the 12, All this I have spoken while still with you, but the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things, and will remind you of everything I have said to you. I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. When he, the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you in all truth. (John 14) Now, the primary application of these verses is to the Apostles who were gathered around Jesus in the upper room. Only to them could he say, All this I have spoken to you while still with you, and I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. What he promised to the 12 was this: that the Holy Spirit would remind them of the teachings he had given them, and also that he would supplement this, leading them into all the truth which they could not yet understand. The major fulfillment of these promises, of course, was in the writing of the Gospels and the Epistles in the New Testament.

Now, you will point out that Paul, for instance, was not one of the original 12. He was, however, a witness of the resurrected Christ in his encounter with Christ on the Damascus road, and it seems clear that from his time spent with the Apostles and the three years he spent in Arabia, he was also guided, as he said, by revelations from Jesus Christ, which were intended to compensate him for not being with Christ during his years of public ministry. Indeed, in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul writes, I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you. The other Apostles certainly recognized this as true.

God demonstrated the unique calling of these Apostles through miracles that accompanied their work, and we see it by their own self-conscious awareness of apostolic authority. The apostle John, for instance, in dealing with the threat of many false teachers, used the plural of apostolic authority, saying, We are from God and whoever knows God listens to us, but whoever is not from Go d does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of Truth and the spirit of falsehood. (I John 4:6) In other words, John readers could discern between truth and error by examining the teaching to see if it was in accordance with John himself teaching. False teachers would reveal their own error if they were not in agreement with John, while the true Christian would demonstrate his authenticity by submitting to the Apostles authority. What John taught was what Jesus had taught.

The Apostles humbly recognized one another letters as inspired by the Holy Spirit. There is even the very famous passage in which the Apostle Peter refers to the letters of Paul (II Peter 3), in which he describes d ear brother Paul , commenting on the wisdom given to him by God and fully equates Paul letters with Scripture itself.

The early Church recognized the unique authority of the Apostles. For example, around 110 A.D., soon after the last Apostle St. John had died, Bishop Ignatius of Antioch sent letters to several of the churches in Europe and Asia Minor, and in his epistle to the Romans, Chapter 4, he wrote, I do not, as Peter and Paul, issue commandments unto you. They were apostles. I am but a condemned man. The apostolic writings were accepted as authoritative, right alongside the Old Testament. They emanated the authority of Christ and the Christians recognized them as truth.

Later in the fourth century, when the Church came finally to settle which books should be included in the New Testament Canon, the test they applied w as whether a book came from the Apostles, whether it was written by an Apostle or, if it was not written by an Apostle, whether it came from the circle of the Apostles and had the endorsement of their authority. This would have been true, for instance, of Luke or Mark or James. The Church in the fourth century was not conferring authority on the canonical books. It was rather simply recognizing the authority that they already possessed. The false Gospels such as the so-called Gospel of Thomas, were rejected not because the church was trying to control what people believed as it implied in The DaVinci Code, but because they were obviously spurious had never been recognized as true.

So according to the Apostles, Christ endorsed the authority of the Old Testament, and he made provision for the New Testament by authorizing the Apostles to teach in His name. If it is our claim to submit to the authority of Chris t, we must submit to the Scriptures authority as well, and because of Jesus Christ, we submit to both the Old and the New Testaments. The ultimate issue of authority in the Church hinges on the Lordship of Christ. If He is our teacher and Lord, we are under His authority. We have no freedom to disagree with Hi m or disobey Him. We bow to Scripture because we bow to Him.

This is not always easy. There are passages that are difficult we are not always completely certain as to what is to be taken literally or figuratively. We must read the poetry and the allegorical sections as just that. Some passages almost offend us some seem to be in contradiction with others.

John Stott has a helpful observation in this regard:

To accept the divine origin of the Bible is not to pretend that there are not problems. To be candid, there are many problems literary, historical, theological and moral. So what shall we do with them? Is it compatible with intellectual integrity to accept the unique authority of Scripture when so m any residual problems remain? Yes, indeed it is.

We need to learn to do with the problems surrounding Scripture exactly what we do with the problems surrounding any other Christian doctrine. Every Christian doctrine has its problems. No doctrine is entirely free of them. Take as an example the doctrine of the love of God. Every Christian of every conceivable hue believes that God is love. It is a fundamental Christian doctrine. To disbelieve this would be to disqualify oneself as a Christian. But the problems surrounding the doctrine are massive. What, then, do we do when someone brings us a problem touching God love, a problem of evil or of undeserved suffering, for instance? In the first place, we shall wrestle with the problem and may be granted some fresh light on it. But we are not likely to solve it altogether. So then what? Must we abandon our belief in the love of God until we have solved all the problems? No. We shall maintain our belief in the love of God, in spite of the problems, for one reason and for one reason only, namely that Jesus Christ taught it and exhibited it. That is why we believe that God is love. And the problems do not overthrow our belief.

So with Scripture. Someone brings us a problem, or we stumble across one ourselves, maybe an apparent discrepancy or a question of literary criticism. What shall we do? To begin with, it is essential that we wrestle honestly with biblical problems. It is not Christian to bury our heads in the sand, pretending that no problems exist. Nor is it Christian to manipulate Scripture in order to achieve a forced, artificial harmonization. No, we work at the problems with intellectual integrity. During this process some problems, which at first seemed intractable, are satisfactorily solved. To others, however, we can se e no immediate solution. So then what? Must we abandon our belief in the Word of God until we have solved all the problems? No. We shall maintain our belief in God Word, just as we maintain our belief in God love, in spite of the problems, ultimately for one reason and one reason only, namely that Jesus Christ taught it and exhibited it. It is no more obscurantist to cling to the one belief than the other. Indeed, it is not obscurantist at all. To follow Christ is always sober, humble, Christian realism. (from Understanding the Bible, Zondervan Publishing, 1999)

Some passages, such as the famous section in Job where his friends give him erroneous counsel, are not intended to be taken as God wisdom.

We wrestle with scripture. We devote ourselves to understanding scripture. We look to previous generations of Christians and how they understood it.

But over and above all of this, scripture is our authority it is our deep, settled conviction that it is true. Therefore, we never assume we know better. We do not dare tamper with it. We love the Holy Scripture because through the words of men, God has spoken his true words to us and God word is Holy. Turn away from scripture and we turn away from Christ. Twist the Scripture towards our own ends and we become a heresy or a cult.

We dare not say with one of our bishops, of the scriptures, we wrote them we can rewrite them.

Or with another, what we need is a new Christianity for a new world. There is only one Christianity the Christianity of Scripture.

Every generation of believers is tempted to turn away from the uncompromising, muscular demands of Jesus, from the radical doctrine of the New Testament church and to embrace the trendy ideas of the day. They do not realize they are in danger of sawing off the very branch of faith upon which they are sitting.

The church has always through the ages sought to submit to scripture as God authoritative guide. Often we have erred and reformers have had to call us back and say, Sola Scriptura our tradition, our reasoning, and our experiences are fundamentally important, but in Christ and with Christ, we must renew our belief that in the Scriptures God has spoken and they are true. They are our infallible guide.

Over the last two generations, our denomination has tolerated leaders and teachers who have jettisoned historic doctrines of the Church many believers have left the Church in disgust. We have stayed. Now a General Convention decision has clarified starkly for all of us that the Episcopal Church has moved even further away from scripture. 92 bishops, a devastating majority refused to endorse a resolution reaffirming Holy Scripture as the foundation of authority in our church, reaffirming the historic statements of Anglicanism concerning scripture. It is clear, we have to say, enough we can go no further.

The ultimate issue is one of authority it is that of lordship of Christ. You call me teacher and Lord, he said, and rightly so. For that is what I am. We have no liberty to disobey or disagree with him. We bow to t he authority and total trustworthiness of scripture because we bow to the authority of Christ.

The Rev. John Yates is the rector of The Falls Church, Virginia

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