November 7, 2012

Barriers to Faith: Doubting God's Word


When I was younger, I spent a lot of time at my grandmother’s house. I wanted to spend the night at her house, but it was very difficult to figure out which night that would be. I didn’t like to spend Friday night there because she didn’t have a television and Saturday morning was reserved for cartoons! There was a day when cartoons only came on one day a week...not on 24 hour cartoon channels.

I didn’t like to spend Saturday night because that meant I had to get dressed up and go to church. They didn’t have children’s church or anything fun like that. We were expected to sit through the Sunday morning service with the adults and remain quiet for the entire time...which I am not capable of doing still to this day.

But one thing I remember about my Grandmother’s house is waking up in the morning...the house would be quiet and dark except for the kitchen light...I would sneak in, trying not to make any noise, because my grandmother was usually at the kitchen table with her cup of coffee reading her Bible and praying. Every morning I can remember has that memory.

There was something about what was happening that I knew, even at my young age, was important and special and holy. She found strength and guidance in those pages. She believed she was reading words written for her and inspired by God.

A recent Pew Forum survey says 37% of Americans say they read the Bible at least once a week. That is a fairly impressive number I think. Almost 40% of people say they read the Bible once a week. For many of those reading the Bible it is the same source of spiritual strength and guidance as it is for my grandmother.

But these statistics also tell us that over 60% or people in America do not read the Bible at all. For them the Bible is a collection of stories with a moral lesson to be learned; much like an Aesop’s Fable or some other uplifting story. For some the Bible is so flawed it cannot be trusted and should not be read. For others the Bible is an outdated book with outdated ideas and standards.

Even Christian can have their doubts. There are some pretty intense things in the Bible...violence...bigamy...rape...slavery...these things can cause us to resist or doubt the Bible’s message. The Barna research group found that “just half of all self-identified Christians firmly believe that the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles (not the facts, just the principles) that it teaches. They also found that “most self-identified Christians are comfortable with the idea that the Bible and the sacred books from non-Christian religions all teach the same truths and principles.”

We are currently in a series called Barriers to Faith, and we have been looking at some of the barriers that keep us from getting where we want or need to go in our spiritual journeys. This morning we are looking what happens when we doubt Scripture because our approach to Scripture dramatically affects our spiritual growth. It can be either a hindrance or help.

Everyone eventually asks questions about the Bible. We have to wrestle with whether or not this collection of books holds the ultimate Truth for which we are searching and whether it should have any authority over our lives and practices.

Those outside the faith have a lot of questions and there are a wide variety of opinions about the truth of the Bible. The questions about the Bible seem to revolve around a few main issues: What about all of the contradictions and inaccuracies in the Bible? Aren’t these just words man wrote down? With so many translations and interpretations, hasn’t the Bible been changed?

Ultimately, what we are asking is Does this book have any authority over my life? If it is a book written by a man...then it is just personal opinion and I can take or leave the parts I don’t like. But if this is a book given to us by God that carries a lot more weight.

There are responses to each objection and question presented. If we take just the question of changes due to translations and interpretations...we see that when it comes to original manuscript support, the Bible has more than any other ancient document. There are more than 24,000 manuscript copies of the Bible, and a significant number of those copies come from within a generation of Jesus life. In fact, there are 5,600 manuscripts of the New Testament from within 100 years of Jesus’ life. Homer’s Illiad only has 653 manuscripts available, and the oldest copy available is over 500 years after Homer’s lifetime.

It can be demonstrated that the Bible has not been significantly altered over the past 2,000 years, and when there have been changes it is only in wording for clarity with no impact on the main tenets and beliefs of our faith. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, the idea of tampering and altering persists.

We shouldn’t be surprised when Americans don’t read the Bible, or want to live under its authority. Why would anyone outside of the Christian faith read it? I don’t often sit down and read the Muslim Quran or the Hindu Bhagavad Gita. I don’t consider them Truth so there is no expectation for me to read them.

What I do find surprising is how much of a barrier the Bible is for us as Jesus’ followers simply because we don’t read it.
It is easy for the busyness of life to crowd out our Bible reading. We are busy with school and children and jobs and everyday things that living life requires.

According to a recent survey less than 20% of Christians read their Bibles daily. Most only read it once a week; during the service on Sunday, and 35% of Christians do not read the Bible at all. Of those who read it regularly, most only read short snippets, out of context, and without fully understanding what the passage says only what they “feel” it means.

That same survey found a strong connection between someone’s time in Scripture and their spiritual growth.

Ray C. Stedman, says it this way,
“Here, then, is the divinely designed instrument of growth, the Word of God. It is absolutely impossible to grow up as a Christian or as a real man or woman, unless the Word of God abides in you. This is why the devil fights the whole matter of Bible study, the building of your life around the centrality and the authority of the Scriptures. Though the devil cannot stop us from being Christians, he can certainly keep us from becoming strong Christians.”
And yet, we are all guilty of not reading as much as we should.

This morning I want to take a few moments to remind us of the importance of reading Scripture, and give us some ways to combat some doubts that can creep in from time to time.

Today’s text is 2 Timothy 3:14-17
14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God[a] may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

The Apostle Paul had taken young Timothy under his wing and mentored him toward being a pastor. Eventually Timothy would take over the church Paul started in the city of Ephesus. But from time to time Timothy still needed advice and guidance. So Paul writes two letters to Timothy, 1 and 2 Timothy as we know them, to continue his encouragement training.

This passage we are looking at comes near the end of the second letter, and encourages Timothy to keep rooted in the Scriptures. He is talking about the Old Testament as the New Testament is only just then coming into existence. So Paul gives Timothy some sound principles and advice that will help us as we look at Scripture.

In order for the Bible to be of value and to overcome some of the doubts...

We must understand its purpose.
“... you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”

Over the past few decades issues of science and history as related to the Bible have come to the forefront of many discussions. And it is easy to get caught up in those discussions and forget the Bible’s main purpose...to lead us closer to God. The Bible is first and foremost a book about God revealing himself and His will to human beings and working to bring us salvation through Jesus Christ.

The Bible certainly has historical and scientific observations in it, but it just is not a book of history and science. So questions about the Bible’s relationship to science and history must be addressed, but they are not the central focus of the Bible. If we are not careful these issues get in the way of hearing what God wants to say to us through Scripture.

It is like trying to gain an understanding of the scientific realm from a poem. If we attempt to understand science through a poet’s writing we up with a skewed view of science and destroy the beauty and artistry of the poem. Many wonderful and valuable parts of Scripture like Genesis 1 and 2 have been turned into nothing more than a scientific discussion, and so much of what God really wants to teach us through those passages is lost or overlooked or ignored.

The problem isn’t just science and history. We can undermine Scripture when we expect to hear nothing more than a good moral story that uplifts or inspires us. We undermine it when are looking to find that right verse that justifies something we believe or gives us ammunition in a biblical/theological discussion. We rob it of its power when we use it as a 5 easy step instruction manual for every area of our lives.

Frederick Buechner said, “When a minister reads out of the Bible, I am sure that at least nine times out of ten the people who happen to be listening at all hear not what is really being said but only what they expect to hear read...most people expect to hear read from the Bible is an edifying story, an uplifting thought, a moral lesson—something elevating, obvious, and boring. So that is exactly what very often they do hear.”

Scripture is meant to make us wise...to give us understanding and guidance...to grow our character...in such a way that we receive salvation through our faith in Jesus Christ. We will talk little more about this in just a minute. But first

We must understand its origin.
“All Scripture is God-breathed...”

One of the common criticisms of the Bible is that it is simply a collection of books written  and assembled by men. Men who may have had the best of intentions. They may have wanted to inspire and lead and help people become morally better, but this isn’t a document from God...it is a document written by men who, ultimately, like the power they received from writing such a document.

According to 2 Timothy, the Scriptures is “God-breathed.” I like that word. God-breathed. Both Hebrew and Greek us the same word for breath as they do for Spirit, breath, and wind. What is happening here is the same mental picture we receive from Genesis 1 when God knelt down, formed human beings from the dust of the ground, and then breathed life into him. God is breathing life into the words of a human writer, through the Holy Spirit, in such a way that we are reading God’s words.

Things get muddied, though, when we start looking at all the ways people have attempted to explain what this process actually looks like. Scholars and teachers use words like infallible, inerrant, plenary, inspired...which are all words and concepts we should be familiar with in the long run.

Here is what I know: God has been working in the processes of the Bible to give us what we need from the beginning until now. He started with the writers. He has been guiding those who have copied and worked with the manuscripts. He is present with the translators. He has guided Christian leaders, teachers, and scholars as they have attempt to explain and understand what is being said.

But just as important is His promise to meet each one of us...to lead us and guide us through the Scriptures...when we sit down to read it and try understand by seeking His guidance. John 16:13 says, “When he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” When you and I pick up the Scriptures we have exactly what God wants needs us to have in order to fulfill the purpose he has for it...which is to make us wise and bring us to salvation.

We must understand its use.
“All Scripture...is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness...”

This is highly connected to our first point. The purpose of Scripture is “to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” But what does it look like to make someone wise? How does that play out in our lives?

Soren Kierkegaard says, “When you read [Scripture], you must constantly be saying to yourself, ‘It is talking to me, and about me.’”

Scripture is useful for teaching us, rebuking us, correcting wrong behavior, and training us to do what is right. If you want to know what God is like or what the goal of our faith is Scripture will teach you. If you want to know if something is sinful and contrary to God’s will, the Scriptures can give you guidance. If you think you have something figured out, Scripture can correct your course and put you on the right track. If you want to know what you should be doing it can lead you. It’s purpose is to make us wise. But wisdom doesn’t happen overnight.

What often happens is we want to know God’s will or we to change a behavior and we want it to happen right now! I want to know God’s will for my life. I have a big decision to make in the next few weeks or few days...so I start praying and reading and trying, but God just seems to be silent. And when we don’t hear anything we eventually just go with it and make the best possible choice!

Scripture does not give us 5 easy steps to know God’s Will for our lives. Scripture tells us the kind of person who knows God’s will...and that something very different. Scripture tells us about the character, the habits, the lifestyle of a person who is able to discern God’s will...and that takes way more time than some are willing to give.

Spiritual transformation is less like a fast food drive thru and more like an all day gourmet dinner. The work is more intense and takes longer, but the results are way more satisfying. Eugene Peterson, who translated The Message, calls it a “Long obedience in the same direction.”

Hebrews 4:12-13, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”

When we spend time allowing Scripture to teach, rebuke, correct, and train us over the long haul...we will discover that understanding God’s will for our lives becomes a lot easier to see.

We must understand its result.
“...so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

The end result of making us wise...of the teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in our lives is to thoroughly equip us for every good work. Scripture’s ultimate result should be to turn us outward...to push us into ministry to others...to push us into loving others more deeply.

James 1:22-24 says, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.”

As Christians understanding of our mission in this world is deeply rooted in our understanding of Scripture. If our reading of Scripture doesn’t push us out the door and into a hurting world to minister...we are not reading Scripture properly. God is looking to fill us to overflowing so we can give away what we have been freely given.

It does us no good to just just passively listen to what is being said and then hold on to it...or not allow it to change our actions, attitudes...our character. The more we study the Scripture...the more we should be compelled to serve and love. Through Scripture we are thoroughly equipped for every good work God calls us to do.

Ultimately, We must understand that Jesus is God's final Word.

Hebrews 1:1-3,
“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 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. 3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.
John 1:1, 14 says,
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
The Church faces two great temptations when it comes to Scripture. The first is thinking too little of Scripture. It is our guide and the foundation of our faith. The second is to think too highly of Scripture and elevate it to the level of an idol. There are some who completely disregard Scripture either with their words by rejecting it or through their actions by not reading it. And there are some who lift it to almost a god-like status.

And it may seem a bit oxymoronic to say...but Jesus is the ultimate revelation of who God is and what God is like and what God desires of those who follow Him. It is ironic that our only real way to learn about Jesus is through the written word of Scripture, but a distinction must still be made. Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God. When we struggle to understand God as found in the Old Testament...we look through the lens of Jesus Christ. When we struggle to understand how to treat others...what life does God bless...how should we respond to struggle and oppression and persecution...when we have questions about what it means to be a Christian...we look to Jesus.

Conclusion
We might hear a message like this and be tempted to beat ourselves up because we don’t read the Bible more. But that would be putting the cart before the horse.

When Lori and I started dating we only saw each other 2-3 times a week at church. The rest of the time we talked on the phone, went on occasional dates, and wrote letters back and forth (there wasn’t email or texting!). When I got one of those letters I didn’t have to be guilted into reading those letters. I didn’t read them begrudgingly. I couldn’t wait to read them. I read them several times. I still have them in a box at my house. Every one of them! Because I love her it was easy to read them.

If we beat ourselves up over not reading the Bible...we are focused on the wrong thing. My prayer for us is that we fall so in love with Jesus we can’t wait to read His Word. Don’t let me replace reading God’s word with that good book by that author I love. Don’t let me replace it with a sentence or two read in passing. Don’t let me replace it with that worship CD with that great song on it. Let us spend time in the words God gave us because we love Him and desire to know Him more.

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