Duality (Week 2)
Scripture (2 Timothy 3:15-17)
What is the Bible? If you met someone who had never heard of the Bible and never had any experience at all with Christianity and they asked you that question, what would you say?
What is the Bible? Some people like to say that “Bible” is an acronym that stands for Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. I’m not sure if those people actually believe the word “Bible” is a literal acronym or if that’s just supposed to be a cute way to describe what the Bible is all about. Others might say that the Bible is God’s owners manual or recipe book. People who are more antagonistic towards the Bible would probably say it’s just an outdated book of fairy-tales, superstitions and barbaric rules. Some of us might say that it’s God’s word or that it’s divinely inspired. But what does that mean exactly?
A few weeks ago, when we were wrapping up our Acts series, we took a look at Acts 15 and the Council of Jerusalem. In that sermon, I made the claim that we don’t follow the Bible. Rather that we follow Jesus and the Bible is our guide. This morning I want to flesh that out a little bit more. We’re going to look at some different passages from the Bible and see if we can get a sense of how this whole thing works.
Now, before we start, I want to recognize that some of the stuff we’re going to talk about might make some of us uncomfortable or nervous. That’s okay. All I ask is that you stick with us until the end. Don’t leave halfway through or tune out or anything. Now, in order to help us with that, before we pray I want to provide us with a bit of an anchor passage. If you get worried or scared or whatever, I want you to remember this passage. We’ll come back to it at the end as well. Here’s the passage.
2 Timothy 3:15-17 which says, “From infancy, you [Timothy] have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful…” As we examine what the Bible is, keep in mind that Paul, the apostle who wrote these words, was very familiar with everything we’re going to discuss. As a Rabbi he more than likely had the Old Testament memorized. And he says all Scripture is God-breathed, it’s inspired, and it’s useful. Okay, with that said, let’s open with prayer and jump into it.
So what is the Bible? How does the Bible work? Well, in order to understand this we need to examine a couple different passages.
We’ll start in Psalm 104:2-5 which says, “The Lord wraps himself in light as with a garment; he stretches out the heavens like a tent and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters. He makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the wings of the wind. He makes winds his messengers, flames of fire his servants. He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.”
In verse 2-3 the Psalmist says the God stretches out the heavens like a tent and lays the beams of his upper chamber on their waters. Then down in verse 5, he says that God has set the earth on its foundations and that it can never be moved. What is he talking about?
This Psalm reflects an ancient understanding of cosmology. We should have a graphic here.
Ancient civilizations didn’t have the same understanding of the universe that we do. They believed that the world was flat, built on pillars, which was its foundation. They also believe that the sky was a dome. On the other side of the dome was water. Rain was simply the doors in the dome opening up to let the water come down. And in this Psalm, the Psalmist is praising God for how he created the world. But his praise stems from this ancient cosmology.
We see this same cosmology in the creation narrative in Genesis chapter 1. In verses 6 through 8 the author says, “And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. God called the vault “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.
They believed that in the beginning, everything was water. Everywhere was water. And slowly God started to separate the waters. He separated the waters above from the waters below and called that expanse sky.
So, what is the Bible? The first thing we can say about it is that it is an ancient book that reflected the times and ideas of the cultures it was written in. We also see this in another story in Genesis.
In Genesis 22 we read, “Sometime later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”
Now the interesting thing about this story is that Abraham immediately gets up and heads for Moriah. He doesn’t ask God how he’s supposed to sacrifice and he doesn’t question God. He doesn’t say “Really God? That doesn’t seem very loving.” Why not? Because that’s what ancient cultures did. Unfortunately, child sacrifice was very common in the ancient world. So when Abraham hears God ask for Isaac to be sacrificed, well… that’s what the gods do. The Bible is an ancient collection of writings that reflect their cultural surroundings. Here’s where things get dicey though.
In Jeremiah 7:30-31 we’re told, “The people of Judah have done evil in my eyes, declares the Lord. They have set up their detestable idols in the house that bears my Name and have defiled it. They have built the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire—something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind.”
Wait… so has God called for child sacrifices before or is that something that has never even entered his mind? Well, maybe we could say that God wasn’t really intending for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. That was just a test. So God has never asked for child sacrifices. Okay. But let’s look at some other passages.
In 2 Samuel 24, we’re told, “Again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, ‘Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.’”
Okay, so God was angry and incited or tempted David to take a census. But if we compare this passage to 1 Chronicles 21, another passage which tells this same story we read, “Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel. So David said to Joab and the commanders of the troops, ‘Go and count the Israelites from Beersheba to Dan. Then report back to me so that I may know how many there are.’”
These two passages are discussing the exact same event, but in 2 Samuel we’re told God incited David to take the census and in 1 Chronicles we’re told Satan incited David to take the census. So who tempted David?
If we want to feel even more confused, in the New Testament, James chapter 1 says, “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed.”
So according to 2 Samuel, God tempted David. According to 1 Chronicles, it wasn’t God but actually Satan who tempted David and then in the New Testament God isn’t even capable of tempting anyone. What’s going on? Not only is the Bible an ancient book which reflected ancient understandings of God, it’s also a diverse collection of writings that show us an evolving understanding of who God is.
We also see this when we compare Exodus 33 to the writings of the apostle John. Exodus 33 says, “The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” But John chapter 1 says, “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” So Exodus tells us that Moses saw God face to face only for John to turn around and say “Oh, no one has seen God.”
Are we confused yet? Let’s remember, in the midst of all of this, “All Scripture is God-breathed…” The Bible is an ancient, diverse collection of writings that reflect an ongoing evolving understanding of God. But this diversity isn’t just among different authors. Sometimes individual authors will do this within their own writings. The best example of this comes from Proverbs 26, verses 4-5.
Verse 4, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him.” Cool. But then we have verse 5, literally the very next verse. “Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.” Okay, well now you’re just trying to mess with us. So are we supposed to answer a fool according to his folly or not? This kind of stuff is just ruining that whole “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth” idea. This doesn’t seem very straightforward, but rather kind of ambiguous. Sometimes we should answer a fool in his folly but other times we shouldn’t.
So the Bible is an ancient, diverse and sometimes ambiguous collection of writings that reflect on ongoing understand of who God is. Is there anything else? Yeah, it’s also downright bizarre at times.
In Exodus 17, when the Israelites first set out into the desert they realized the didn’t have any water and they started to grumble against Moses. So God told Moses to take his staff and strike a rock nearby and that water would come out. Then after years of wandering in the desert, we’re told in Numbers 20 when they come to Kadesh that Moses once again struck a rock and water came out. Now, this is all fine and good. Two different stories about the beginning and end of their journey in the desert, each time Moses provides water from a rock. What’s the problem?
Well, ancient scholars realized that they were in the desert for 40 years. What did they do about water the rest of the time? Did they go 40 years without water? So they came up with this idea. Maybe the rock followed them around in the desert. Not that the Israelites carried the rock, but the rock itself following them through the desert for 40 years. Now that’s crazy right? That’s not in the Bible anywhere. Who would be crazy enough to believe such a story?
Oh, it turns out the Apostle Paul. In 1 Corinthians 10, he says, “For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.” Not only did the rock apparently follow them through the desert, but it turns out that Rock was Jesus? That’s bizarre. And Paul just rolls with it.
So to recap, the Bible is an ancient, diverse, sometimes ambiguous, definitely bizarre collection of writings that reflect on ongoing understanding of who God is and what he’s doing in the world. Some passages talk about how God is essentially like the chairman of some kind of divine council while others insist that there is only one God and all others are false gods. Some passages tell us that if we do what is right good things will happen and if we do what’s wrong bad things will happen. Then other passages seem to yell and call God to account because that doesn’t seem to be the way the world works. This book, this collection of sacred writings is broad and diverse and multi-faceted. It has human fingerprints all over it.
And yet, in spite of all that, Paul can write to Timothy and say that all Scripture is God-breathed. Peter can write in 2 Peter chapter 1, “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” Scripture is messy and full of humanity and yet at the same time, Paul asserts that Scripture is God-breathed; that it’s inspired by God. Peter reminds us that the prophets spoke from God. They were inspired by the Holy Spirit.
How does this work? The solution is to look back at Jesus. Last week we talked about how Jesus was fully divine and yet fully human. He wasn’t God pretending to be human he was masquerading as a human. He was fully and completely human and that included limited knowledge. The Bible works the same way. We shouldn’t expect the Bible to be something more than what Jesus is.
And so in the same way that we can recognize that Jesus is human and that humanity shouldn’t scare us off or make us doubt his divinity, we can recognize that Scripture is fully human and yet at the same time God-breathed. Inspired by the Holy Spirit. It’s a paradox that we’re not meant to resolve. But in that case, we might ask the question, “What is the Bible trying to do?”
I would suggest that the Bible is doing three things. First, the Bible is pointing us to Jesus. Notice what Paul says in our anchor passage, “From infancy, you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” Paul doesn’t say that the Scriptures save us. He says they point to Jesus and it’s faith in Christ Jesus that saves us.
The book of Hebrews reflects this as well. It starts off by saying, “In the past, God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.” The dominant theme of the book of Hebrews is “Jesus is greater”. Jesus is greater than Moses, Jesus is greater than the angels, Jesus is a better high priest. But Hebrews starts off first by saying that in the past God spoke through prophets and that was okay but now God has revealed himself even more clearly through Jesus.
Jesus even says this himself in John 5, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” The Bible points past itself to Jesus. The Bible is merely a signpost pointing us to the real thing and that’s Jesus.
So what is the Bible good for? First of all, it’s good for pointing us to Jesus. Secondly, it’s good for teaching us wisdom. Once again we see in 2 Timothy that Paul says, “From infancy, you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation.” The Scriptures are able to make us wise people. The point is not to follow the rules hard and fast, but to learn wisdom.
Think about it this way. When you were growing up, your parents probably gave you a bedtime. maybe when you were younger it started off as 6 or 7. Then as you got older bedtime became 8, then 9. The point of that bedtime wasn’t just to force you to follow a rule but rather to help you learn good sleep habits. And the hope is that now that you’re an adult and get to make you own decisions about when to go to sleep that you have learned to be wise; you’ve learned that it’s not a smart idea to stay up until 3 in the morning every night. The rule exists in order to help you grow in wisdom.
This is exactly what Paul is talking about in Galatians chapter 3 when he says, “Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.” The word translated guardian is the Greek word “pedagogue” and it’s this idea of a tutor or a babysitter or a teacher.
Paul is saying that the Law before Jesus came, acted like a tutor helping us to develop wisdom. But now that Christ has come and we have matured in him, we’re not under the law. That doesn’t mean that we should do whatever we want. The point is to develop the wisdom to act the right way even when we’re not forced to. So Scripture points us to Jesus, it teaches us wisdom and finally it’s a useful guide in teaching us righteousness.
That’s the final part of what Paul says in 2 Timothy. He says all Scripture is God-breathed—it’s inspired—and it’s useful. Notice he doesn’t use words like inerrant, infallible, or authoritative, but useful. The Bible gets its authority from Jesus, just like a babysitter gets its authority from mom and dad. But all Scripture is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in all righteousness. It’s incredibly valuable. It helps us grow in our relationship with Jesus.
So what is the Bible? It’s an ancient, diverse, sometimes ambiguous and definitely bizarre collection of writings the reflect on ongoing understanding of who God is. These sacred writings, while clearly human, are still God-breathed. They point us to Jesus, they teach us wisdom and they guide us into righteousness.
Now, why is this important? Why is it so important for us to understand the humanity of the Bible? First, we need to understand this because sooner or later each and every one of us we be confronted with it. We can try to run or plug our ears, but eventually each of us will be confronted with a Bible that looks at acts very human.
We’ll take a biology class in university, or we’ll sit with a friend whose life is falling apart despite doing everything right. Or maybe we’ll meet some Christians who seem absolutely unChristlike while meeting some non-Christians who seem to exude the love of Jesus. And in those moments, when we are undeniably slapped in the face with the humanity of Scripture, we might be tempted to throw it all away. Because if it’s a human book, how can it possibly tell us anything true about God? And so we have to understand how this book takes on all the ancient, diverse ways people understood the world around them and yet simultaneously contain the very words of God and point us to Jesus.
Secondly, if we miss the humanity of the Scriptures, what tends to happen is that so much of it gets lost on us. When we somehow assume that the Bible was basically dropped from heaven, all the nuanced ways the writers talk about God and diverge from the world around them get lost. I wish we had time to look at some examples, it’s absolutely fascinating how Scripture does this. But the Bible has so much to teach us about God when we look through its humanity.
And finally, when we fail to see the humanity of Scripture, there is a danger that we elevate it put it on the same leave as God himself. We can tend to make an idol of Scripture and worship it rather than to use it to worship Jesus.
So instead of that, let’s recognize that the Bible is an ancient, diverse, sometimes ambiguous, definitely bizarre collection of divinely-inspired writings that reflect on ongoing understanding of God. They point us to Jesus, they teach us wisdom and the guide us to righteousness.