Last week, we said the question, “Can We Trust the Bible?” is really two questions: The first is, “Is the Bible authentic?” In other words, do we have the words of the original authors, or something cobbled together for political reasons? That’s what we talked about last week. The second question, which we will discuss today, is: “Is the Bible true?” The late Chuck Colson once told the story of a British army officer sending a telegram to London from Dunkirk, where the Allied forces were trapped between the English Channel and the German army. They needed to be evacuated, or they would be decimated, World War II would be over and Nazism would reign supreme over Europe. The message the officer sent was only three words: “But if not.” It’s a quote from the King James Version of Daniel 3:18. The context is that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were ordered to bow before an idol, on threat of certain death. They told the King of Babylon that their God was able to save them from his hand, But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up. In other words, even if we have to die, we will not bow. The officer took it for granted that British citizens in 1940 had heard those words often enough, they would get the message: “Even if you don’t rescue us, we will not surrender.” Those inspiring words galvanized ordinary Brits to cross the English channel in sailboats, tugboats and fishing boats, braving the strafing of enemy fighters, to accomplish the most amazing evacuation in history and—in a very real sense—save Western civilization.
It goes without saying that most Western people would not recognize those words today, seventy years later. But even more so, most of us don’t recognize their authority. It’s common now when Christians discuss our beliefs with others, to hear them respond, “I can’t believe you still base your life on that book.” It certainly changes the way we interact with unbelievers; people my age and older were taught to lead people through the Roman Road of salvation, or other methods of showing people what the Bible says about how to be saved and have eternal life. Today, many of our neighbors would wonder why we’re quoting to them passages out of a book they don’t accept as true. It shakes our faith as well; could they be right? Are we basing our lives on a book whose teachings are out of date? Let’s consider three questions: Should we take the Bible literally? Isn’t the Bible outdated? And how should we respond to people who reject the Bible’s authority?
Should we take the Bible literally? One pastor says when people ask him, “Do you take the Bible literally?” He says no. He can see them relax, as if they’re thinking, “Good, so you’re not one of THOSE nutjobs.” He then says, “But I believe every word in it is true.” What does he mean? The Bible is not meant to be taken strictly literally. First of all, there are figures of speech: When Jesus tells us we must eat His flesh and drink His blood in John 6, He is not advocating cannibalism or telling us to become vampires. There is hyperbole: When Mark 1 says all the land of Judea was being baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan, it doesn’t mean literally every Jew in Southern Israel was baptized. It’s meant to show how popular John’s ministry had become. And there are different ways of reading different genres in the Bible. For instance, when Revelation 5 describes Christ as a lamb who looked like He had been slain, we’re not supposed to believe that Jesus morphed into a baby sheep with blood oozing from its neck. Because Revelation is written in an apocalyptic style, we know that images are supposed to convey a larger meaning. Whereas, when we read in Matthew 8 that Jesus stilled a storm, we know that Matthew wants us to believe that actually happened, since he is writing a historical account.
Here’s another example: Skeptics will sometimes point out that Deuteronomy teaches that a rebellious child should be stoned to death. They’ll say, “You don’t obey that command. So why do you pick and choose the stuff you want to believe now?” For many, this is a convincing argument that the Bible can be disregarded. But the answer is simple: Deuteronomy is part of the Law of Moses. Both Jesus and Paul said clearly that we are no longer under that Law. In a couple weeks, we’ll delve more closely into what the Law of Moses was and why we no longer follow it. But for now, just know that the Bible has an internal logic. You can’t just read every part of it the same. 2 Timothy 2:15 tells us we should be people who rightly handle the Word of truth. In other words, we have to do the hard work of asking, “What did this mean to the people who first read it,” and “How does God want me to apply this truth to my life today?”
If you’re a Christian, please don’t let that last sentence discourage you into thinking, “I guess I’d better just leave Bible study to the professionals.” Hogwash. My Grandpa was a dairy farmer with a high school education. Aside from a brief stint in the Navy, he never lived anywhere but the little unincorporated community where his family had been for generations. Yet he knew the Bible as well as anyone I’ve ever known, and it transformed him into a person I long to emulate. If you can read, you can read the Bible. Even if you’re illiterate, someone can read it to you. Just make sure you read it in these four ways:
In confidence: There are so many concepts in Scripture that are difficult to understand. But the most important ideas in it are simple enough that a child can grasp them. Every time you read the Word, your understanding grows. But you will never come to the point where you have wrapped your mind around it all. Someone has said the Bible is like a pool which, at one end, is deep enough for elephants to swim, and at the other end, is shallow enough for children to wade.
In context: In Philippians 4:13, Paul writes, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. If you saw that quote ripped out of context, you might think it’s a promise that God gives us power to do whatever we want. Is that what Scripture teaches? Should I be able to ace my math test without studying because Christ gives me strength? No. Read Philippians 4, and you find that Paul is talking about contentment, specifically his ability to be happy and joyful even though he is locked in prison. Don’t settle for short quotes from devotional books. Read the Word in its context.
In community: The Bible was meant to be read alongside other believers. If the way you interpret the text is different from your entire Life Group, that should make you reconsider your interpretation. If it’s different from scholars and theologians throughout the history of the church, you’d better really reconsider. As we discuss the Bible with other believers, we will often disagree. That’s actually a healthy thing. It’s how we grow. But only if we follow this last step…
In humility: Once I was listening to a famous preacher’s radio show. His co-host was gushing over him, “Dr. Preacherman, one of the things I admire about you is that as I listen to tapes of your sermons from thirty years ago, you’re still saying the exact same things now that you said then.” And he responded, “Well, Chuck, that’s what happens when you do your homework before you preach.” My thought was, “So you haven’t learned anything new about the Bible in thirty years?” Don’t get me wrong: The foundational truths of the faith, the things that the Bible is clear about, are non-negotiable. Every believer, much less every preacher, should stay consistent on those. But I believe we understand Scripture best when we listen to other believers’ perspectives, checking to see if perhaps they have understood a particular passage or teaching better than we have. And we must always be willing to admit there are some parts of the Bible we just don’t understand fully yet.
Isn’t the Bible outdated? Tim Keller pastored a church in Manhattan for years. He would often meet people who had visited his church and were surprised at how seriously he took the Bible. He said when he first planted the church, in the 1980s, they rejected the Bible because they thought it was unscientific or historically unreliable. We’ve already considered those questions earlier in this series. In more recent years, their objections changed. Now, they didn’t like the teachings of Scripture. “The Bible is culturally regressive. It is pro-slavery, anti-woman, and homophobic. If we don’t leave these old concepts behind, we’ll never advance as a society.” To their way of thinking, the Bible has some good lessons, but we need to pick those out and reject the stuff that our modern understanding had exposed as outdated. Keller responded to these statements with two arguments.
First, a lot of these ideas are based on a misunderstanding of Scripture. For instance, the Bible is not pro-slavery. Slavery in the New Testament world was very different than slavery in this country. It wasn’t racially based, it wasn’t for life, and slaves could buy their way to freedom. Slaves in the First Century lived pretty much like most free people. So for Paul to tell slaves to submit to their masters was like a pastor today telling his church members, “If you work for someone else, be the best employee they have. Make their job as your supervisor easier.” The same thing is true of gender roles. Ephesians 5 says that a man is the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the Church. That doesn’t mean that the man is the King of his house, and his wife must do his bidding (although admittedly, some Christian men act like that’s what it means). Paul says Christ died for His Church, and so men must lay down their lives for their wives. In other words, biblical headship is not a privileged position, it’s a responsibility. A Christian man will give an accounting to his God if his wife is not flourishing, if his kids aren’t well-cared for. He will consistently put his wife ahead of himself. In order to lead his family well, he will respect her skills and wisdom enough to defer to her on decisions where she knows best. Marriage won’t be a competition, but a partnership that is founded on love; that starts when a husband chooses to identify with Jesus in His marriage.
Second, he says that just because you disagree with something God says, it doesn’t make it untrue. He would point out that every generation has a kind of cultural arrogance. We look back at people in the past and think, “How could they have thought that way?” We pretend that the way we think is “progressive, enlightened,” and the way others thought is primitive. We act as though we have perfect clarity, and no blind spots at all. But our great grandchildren will look back on us and ask the same questions. That’s a humbling thought, no? He points out that if you took a person who lived a thousand years ago and taught them the Scriptures, they would be in full agreement with the idea of God’s Judgement of all sinners. But the idea of forgiving one’s enemies would be hard for them to accept. If you take an average modern person, they would respond to those two concepts exactly opposite: Love and forgiveness would sound enlightened, while judgement would be offensive. Who is right? Actually, we both are. Whoever you are, whatever time period you live in, some part of the Bible will always punch you in the mouth. As Keller says, if you aren’t willing to let someone disagree with you, then you don’t have a real relationship. That’s true in marriage or friendship. How much more true is it with an eternal, all-knowing God? So if the Bible says things you find hard to accept, that doesn’t mean it’s untrue; it means God knows more than you do. I don’t know about you, but I’m glad He does!
How should we respond to people who reject the Bible’s authority? Peter wrote in 1 Peter 3:15, Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. The word “answer” is apologia, from which we get our word, “apologetics.” It means “defending the faith.” When we meet someone who rejects the Bible’s authority, we often feel we need to defend our faith. That is a worthy motive, but notice that Peter says we should do it “with gentleness and respect.” Paul wrote something similar to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:24-25, And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth. There’s that word, “gentleness,” again. When we meet people who think differently than we do, it tends to make us angry. When we get angry, we want to argue with them. We project motives and thought patterns onto them that may not be true: “He doesn’t want to believe the Bible, because he wants to be able to follow his own sinful desires.” We use straw-man arguments: “So you think you’re smarter than God? How arrogant is that?” Speaking to them with gentleness and respect means considering their feelings. It means listening to them, finding out the specific reasons why they don’t believe in the Bible, and answering them in a congenial way.
Note also that according to Paul’s words to Timothy, our motive, our hope, is that their lives would be changed, and they would become believers. I have never met anyone who was argued into belief in Christ. But I have met many people who once thought faith in Jesus was foolishness, and now can’t imagine living without Him. It didn’t happen because some Christian got angry and insulted them. It didn’t even happen because they met a Christian who was smarter and more articulate than they were. It happened because they met Jesus-followers who responded to their ridicule and slander with gentleness and respect. We all have countless neighbors who are asking the question: Why should we believe the Bible? Let’s live in such a way that we are the answer.