Monday, March 14, 2011

Receiving God's Word: Nehemiah 8:1-12


This year, 2011, marks the 400th Anniversary of a significant event in Christian History and indeed the history of the world. To fully understand the significance of it, let me ask you some questions:

1) How many of you brought your own copy of the Bible to church today?
2) How many of you own multiple copies of the Bible?
3) How many of you own multiple English versions (KJV, NIV, NASB, ESV, etc.) of the Bible?

Do you understand that 400 years ago, you would have not likely been able to say “yes” to those questions? Do you understand that it took brothers and sisters in the Christian family dying so that you could have what you have today? Do you understand that many people in other parts of the world still do not have in their language what you have in your language today? And you have it, in large part because of what happened 400 years ago. So I want to pursue two questions today: (1) How did you receive the Word? (2) How do you receive the Word? Those are two different questions. The first one deals with historical events that led to you possessing a copy of the Word of God in your own language and being able to hear it taught and preached in your own language. The second deals with what you do when you read it, hear it, or study it. The first, how DID you receive the Word, is historical; the second, how DO you receive the Word, is deeply personal.

The book of Acts describes how Christianity spread from Jerusalem to Rome. While this was going on, the Roman Empire was expanding ever-outward, and by the end of the first century, nearly all of the British Isles were under the control of Rome. In time, Christianity became the dominant religion of the Empire, and as such it began to spread to the far reaches of Roman control. By the middle of the 600s Christianity was becoming established in the British Isles and it is widely believed that Caedmon, a herdsman, monk, and poet, was the first to render any portion of God’s Word into the Anglo-Saxon tongue we now call “Old English.” His work was more paraphrase than translation, but he cracked open a door that would take nearly 1,000 years to open wide – that of translating the Word of God into English.

Over the next few centuries, leading up to the 900s, several others would translate and paraphrase portions of the Bible, including all four Gospels, the entire Pentateuch, Joshua, Judges, Esther, and a few other portions, into Old English. But all of these attempts to put God’s Word into the language of the Anglo-Saxon peoples had been based upon the Latin Bible, the Vulgate, which was the official Bible of the Catholic Church. That means it was a translation of a translation. There had been no attempt to translate the original Greek and Hebrew Scriptures into the common tongue of Britain to this point. To complicate matters even more, within a short time all of these versions became virtually obsolete as English evolved from “Old English” into “Middle English” following the Norman Invasion of 1066.

The Middle English period saw far fewer attempts to put the Word of God into the language of the English-speaking people. Most notably, Ormin paraphrased the Gospels and Acts around 1200. In the 1300s the Psalms would be translated from Latin into a few regional English dialects. But other attempts were few and less notable. The Catholic Church certainly did nothing to encourage translation efforts. They had a twofold reason for keeping the Bible in Latin. They claimed that they desired to prevent laypeople from misinterpreting the Bible, and thus they sought to protect the church from doctrinal error. But the greater factor was that by keeping the reading and interpreting of the Bible reserved only for the learned, they could maintain control over the people. In that day, clergy were among the most well educated people of society. If a person wanted to know what the Bible said, they had to ask the priest. Most of a person’s Bible knowledge came only from what they learned in church services, and even then biblical exposition as we know it today was rare. Since the printing press had not yet been invented, copies of the Bible, even in Latin, were rare and expensive, being handwritten manuscripts often illuminated with extravagant artwork in the margins. You would not have owned a single private copy of the Bible unless you were extraordinarily wealthy, and to own multiple copies would have been unthinkable. If you had access to a Bible at all, it would have been in Latin. There were no complete English Bibles at this time. But all of this would soon change with the rising of a new star on the horizon.

John Wycliffe was born in 1320, nearly 200 years before Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the Wittenburg Church door. Wycliffe came to be known as “The Morning Star of the Reformation” because he spoke out boldly against the moral degradation, political abuses, and theological errors of the Catholic Church from the parish priest all the way to the top – the Pope himself. This put Wycliffe at enmity with the Catholic Church, and led to the issuing of five papal bulls, official documents of public rebuke, against him. Wycliffe surrounded himself with men known as The Lollards, a group of travelling preachers who went throughout the English countryside preaching the truth of the Bible in the common language of the people. Wycliffe translated the New Testament from the Latin Vulgate into English in 1380 and oversaw the completion of the Old Testament prior to his death in 1384.

Wycliffe’s influence so outraged the Catholic Church that in 1401, some 17 years after his death, an official persecution was launched by the church against all of Wycliffe’s followers. In 1408, the “Constitutions of Oxford” were published, which banned Wycliffe’s writings and made the translation of the Bible into English a crime punishable by the charge of heresy. In 1415 Wycliffe was officially declared by the church to be a “stiff-necked heretic.” His books were ordered to be burned, and in 1428, Pope Martin V ordered that his remains be exhumed from the grave and burned. But Wycliffe’s writings and influence continued to spread, and all the more as new innovations over the coming century fueled the fires of reformation.

Gutenberg’s printing press came into being around 1450, during the height of the Renaissance. Soon the world was filled with books, and many ancient classics became easily accessible. New emphasis was placed on the study of classical sources of information. As a result of these developments, Hebrew and Greek manuscripts which predated the Latin Vulgate became available to the scholarly world. An Englishman named William Tyndale had been classically educated at Oxford and Cambridge during this period, and his knowledge of Greek and Hebrew enabled him to begin the first translation of the Bible into English directly from the ancient original languages. When news of his efforts became known, controversy began to swirl and threatened to bring the project to a halt. But Wycliffe was resilient. He vowed that he would continue so that one day a common boy driving a plow would be more knowledgeable of the Scriptures than the scholars of the Catholic Church. Wycliffe fled from England to the European continent and continued his work, completing the New Testament in 1526, and working gradually on the Old Testament. Before it was finished, Tyndale was condemned as a heretic, kidnapped and imprisoned. In 1536, he was strangled and tied to a stake where he was burned to death. It is said that as he was engulfed in flames, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes!”

Tyndale’s imprisonment and subsequent death fanned the flames of public demand for an English Bible. In 1534, before Tyndale died and in the same year of the finalization of England’s break from the Roman Catholic Church, English church leaders gathered at Canterbury to demand King Henry VIII to authorize an English translation of the Bible for his newfound Church of England. The following year, Henry allowed the publication of the Coverdale Bible, the first complete Bible in English. Miles Coverdale had been Tyndale’s assistant, and his Bible was for the most part a slight revision of Tyndale’s. Coverdale had omitted many of the critical marginal notes that Tyndale had included in his Bible, making it more acceptable to the church’s officials. Coverdale’s Bible became a favorite of Queen Anne Boleyn, which may have also had something to do with its fast fall into disfavor soon after her execution in 1536.

Another of Tyndale’s assistants, John Rogers, also sought to publish an English Bible around the same time. Out of fear of persecution, he used the pseudonym Thomas Matthew and published with the King’s permission a revision of Tyndale’s and Coverdale’s Bibles in 1537. Though a better translation than Coverdale’s, “Matthew’s Bible” as it had come to be known, was not popular because of its close association with Tyndale and its many marginal notes which some deemed to be inflammatory against the established Church. Just a year after it was published, a royal injunction was passed that forbade the importing of or printing of English Bibles with any notes or prologues that were not explicitly authorized by the King. When the Catholic Queen Mary came to the throne in 1553, Parliament reinstituted many of the old restrictions that had had been in place in Wycliffe’s day, and as a result, Rogers became the first of Bloody Mary’s many Protestant martyrs. But even before his death, his Bible had been eclipsed by another revision overseen by Coverdale. This Bible was known as the Great Bible and it was the first English Bible to bear the Archbishop of Canterbury’s endorsement for use in all of the churches of England.

During Bloody Mary’s reign, many English Protestants, including Miles Coverdale, fled to continental Europe to escape persecution and martyrdom. A favorite city of refuge for many of them was Geneva, where John Calvin was pastoring, preaching, teaching, and reforming a city and a culture to the glory of God. Here John Knox and other exiles from the British Isles were being equipped to carry the Reformation back home to England, Ireland, and Scotland. Several of these exiles in Geneva were preparing an English Bible based strongly on Tyndale’s work. The most notable feature of the Geneva Bible was the ample supply of footnotes, which were strongly flavored by the teachings of John Calvin. The Geneva Bible became the preferred version for the Puritans, and found its way even into the writings of Shakespeare. The Geneva Bible was the Bible brought to America by the Pilgrims, but because of its strongly reformed annotations, it was not viewed highly by Queen Elizabeth.

In order to keep the Geneva Bible out of the Churches of England, a new revision of the Great Bible was produced in 1568 called The Bishops’ Bible. By all accounts it was not as good of a translation as the Geneva Bible (which was banned and had to be smuggled into the country), and so in spite of it being mandated for use in the churches, it did not find a wide audience with the people of England. A growing divide between the Anglican Church and its Puritans threatened national security and stability, and the issue of Bible translation was a contributing factor in the divide. The newly crowned successor to Elizabeth, King James I was determined to have a unified church. He summoned church leaders in 1604 for the Hampton Court Conference to discuss a petition that had been presented to him with 1,000 Puritan signatures calling for reform in the Anglican Church. At this conference, the Puritan John Reynolds suggested that a new English Bible, authorized by the king and translated without a bias or hidden agenda, could bring unity to the Church. Though the King was not sympathetic to Puritans, he wasted no time in appointing a team of 47 scholars to begin work on a new authorized English version of the Bible. Their task was not to create something new, but to build on what had been done before, and to standardize the Bible for all English speaking people. The final product, which we call the King James Version of the Bible, was published in 1611, 400 years ago this year.

As is now evident to all English speaking people everywhere, the King James Bible accomplished the goals that it set out to meet. Within a relatively short time, it surpassed all previous versions in popularity and acceptance. It became THE BIBLE of the English speaking world, virtually without rival for nearly 300 years. Today the King James Version remains immensely popular because of its beautiful language and familiar wordings. Even among those who, like myself, prefer newer English versions, passages are often memorized from the King James, and its influence and importance for the English speaking Church is never undervalued. It is widely recognized as a high-water mark in the history of English literature, yet literary beauty was never the aim of its translators. In their very lengthy preface to the original edition, they make it abundantly clear that their primary goal was to produce a faithful and accurate translation of the Scriptures, based on the best Greek and Hebrew texts available to them at the time, which would be understandable to the most common reader, in their words, “understood even of the very vulgar.” This goal won the King James Version a wide audience, which in turn led to a standardization of the English language as the Bible became the measuring rod of spelling, grammar, and style. The widespread influence of the King James Version also brought the English language into its own among the languages of the world. No longer a secondary language of vulgar and unlearned people, English was now felt to be good enough to communicate the Word of God to the masses, and therefore credible enough to stand on its own two feet in other realms of society as well.

Today, there are many who insist that the King James is still the best choice of Bible for English speaking people to read. However, I cannot go along with those who insist that it is superior to all other English versions available in our day for a number of reasons. First, and most importantly, is the issue of accuracy. Make no mistake, the scholars behind the King James Version made a very accurate translation of the best Hebrew and Greek manuscripts that they had access to 400 years ago. But today, we have access to manuscripts that are far older and far more reliable than the ones that those scholars had. Additionally, the study of these ancient languages has progressed by exponential leaps and bounds over the last 400 years. Therefore, when a team of translators makes use of the tools available to them today, they are able to produce a more accurate English translation in 2011 than was possible in 1611.

Of second importance is the issue of clarity. The fact remains that we simply do not speak the same kind of English that was spoken 400 years ago. This is not simply because we are more ignorant of great literature in our day. We must keep in mind that the King James translators were not aiming for literary greatness. They were aiming for accuracy and clarity, such that the Word of God could be understood by the most common man in the English speaking world. Frankly, the most common man in the English speaking world has not spoken the language of the King James Bible for a couple or three centuries. Consider, for example, Proverbs 11:15, which reads in the King James text: He that is surety for a stranger shall smart for it; and he that hateth suretyship is sure. I would imagine that there aren’t many of us here today who would readily recognize that this verse is a warning against co-signing for loans. And so, as Alister McGrath has written, “When a translation itself requires translation, it has ceased to serve its original purpose.” There are a handful of newer translations that are faithful to the original text while being simultaneously understandable to the modern English speaker. And these two hallmarks must be our standard for choosing a translation of the Bible today. It must accurately reflect the wording of the best available Hebrew and Greek manuscripts, and it must be understandable to the average person. I have used for many years the New American Standard Bible because it places a high premium on both. There are others that also aim to meet both of these standards. Some modern versions will emphasize clarity at the expense of accuracy, while others are driven by financial or other less than noble aims. We must acquaint ourselves with the foundational principles behind the various English versions that are available and make wise choices based on these twin priorities of accuracy and clarity. We must also recognize that the English language is constantly evolving, and we must never make the mistake that so many have made with the King James – to canonize one particular translation as the all-time standard. Additionally, we must ask ourselves, is there a need today for yet another English version of the Bible when so many of the world’s unreached peoples do not have a single copy of the most minute portion of God’s Word in their own language? According to the SIL Ethnologue, some 4,400 of the world’s 6,900 languages have no portion of Scripture available. In 2,500 of these languages, the work of Bible translation has not even begun. The Church of the English speaking world needs to say to the publishing industry, “Please do not give us another English Bible until the ones we have no longer serve their purpose. Please focus your efforts and resources on bringing God’s word to those who are today like we once were – those with no portion of the Bible in their heart language!”

Now, I hope that it has not escaped your notice that I have not spent any time at all unpacking the text which I began by reading. I have attempted to answer the question, “How did we receive the Word of God in our language?” I would like to close by returning to Nehemiah 8 and answering the question, albeit briefly, “How do we receive the Word of God?” Meaning, since I have a copy of the Scriptures in my own language which is accurate and clear, what should my response to this Word be?

You must understand that the people of Israel in Nehemiah’s day were very much like the English speakers leading up to 1611. They simply did not speak the language that the Bible was written in. Their Scriptures were written in Hebrew, but they had not been speaking that language for some time. Most of their knowledge of Scripture came from the teachings of the rabbis, and some of that was only loosely based on Scripture. As the exiles who had returned to Jerusalem from Babylon to rebuild the city and its temple were called into a sacred assembly by Nehemiah and Ezra, we see that they “asked Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses which the Lord had given to Israel.” In other words, they desired to hear God’s Word. This, then, suggests to us the first response that we should have to the Word: we should desire it. The people of Israel understood that now, for the first time in most of their lives, they could hear openly and directly the very words that God had spoken to them, and they longed for it. Friends, is there a hunger in your life to hear from God? Do you awake with a yearning to know the truth that God has spoken? Do you come to church hungry with an appetite that can only be satisfied by hearing this divine truth? This desire should issue forth in a demand to whoever stands in this pulpit, “Bring the Book!” We have not gathered to hear a man’s opinion. We have no lack of that. What we need is to hear from God, and this book is the only sure revelation that can declare His words to us. So, first of all, since we have the Word in a language we can understand, we should desire it.

Secondly, we see in the passage that we should give attention to the Word. In vv 2-3, we see that the crowd consisted of all the men, women, and children who were able to understand the Word, and that as it was read aloud, “all the people were attentive to the book of the Law.” What has your attention this morning? Are you worried about the traffic you may face as you exit or to the events that will transpire across the street over the next few hours today? Are you concerned about what you will be served for lunch? Are you preoccupied with your work schedule for the week ahead? Are you attentive to the whispers and notes of your neighbor in the pew? Or does the Word of God hold an unrivaled priority in your attention? And this goes not only for the hour you spend in the sanctuary on Sunday. Where is your attention during the remaining 23 hours of this day, and the remaining days of the week? The Psalmist says that the righteous man delights Himself in the Word of God and meditates upon it day and night. It is necessary for us to give attention to many matters as we go through life, but our foremost attention must always be anchored to the truth of God found in this book. It becomes not only our primary focus, but also the lens through which we see all else in the world. Only by giving God’s Word the attention that it demands can we rightly give attention to anything else in life.

Third, we find that there is a reverent appreciation for the Word. In verse 4 we see that there was a wooden podium constructed for the very purpose of delivering the Word of God to the people, and as Ezra opened the Word, everyone stood up. Now, it would be a mistake for us to obey the letter of this word and neglect the spirit of it. This passage does not intend to teach that we must always have a large pulpit for preaching, or that we must always stand when the Word is read. I know of churches where that is the practice, and I have no objection to it, but I think that misses the point. The point is, when the book is opened, do I realize in my heart that something of eternal significance is about to happen? Am I aware that I am about to encounter the very truth of God? My posture is far less important than my perspective. The issue is not whether I am standing, but whether I am giving reverent attention to the Bible as it is being read and proclaimed, and whether or not I appreciate the opportunity I have to hear it. The same goes for when I open it to read privately. Do I approach it no differently than the sports page of the daily paper or the latest piece of fiction on the bestseller list? Or is my heart called to attention by the reality that this is God’s Word, and do I appreciate the awesome privilege I have to encounter His truth for myself in my own language?

Then we notice in verse 6 that as the Word is proclaimed, Ezra “blessed the Lord the great God. And all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen!’ while lifting up their hands; then they bowed low and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.” Essentially, what we are seeing here is that the people are drawn into the worship of God by His truth. The exercise of hearing the Word is not merely academic. They are not merely listening to the words of a book or an educational lecture. They are encountering the Lord, the great God, who is worthy of our devotion, our worship, and our praise! This is about more than just information, it is about a transaction. You have not come to this place, I trust, to hear words. You can go anywhere and hear words. You have come to this place, at this time on this day to meet God. And when you open your Bible at home, it is not just because you can’t reach any other book on the shelf. It is because you know that through the words of this book you are transported into the presence of God Himself, who both desires and deserves our worship. So the issue is not “what you got out of it,” but what you gave to God in it. Do the truths of God’s Word bring you face to face with Him, where you can worship Him in hearty agreement with what He has spoken, saying “Amen, Amen!”, which means, “I agree! I agree!”, as you bow before Him?

Then notice in verses 7 and 8 the emphasis on understanding. The leaders explained the law to the people while the people remained in their place. They read it, they translated it, they gave the sense of it, with the outcome being that the people understood it. I don’t know of a better definition of expository preaching in all the Bible. Preaching that pleases the Lord is this kind of preaching: it includes the reading of the Word, the translating of the Word, the explanation of the Word, and the giving of the sense of the Word. But you notice that the process of preaching does not stop with the preacher. It entails a responsibility on the part of the hearer, who must apply himself or herself diligently to understand the Word. And they stayed put until they understood it. They were not watching the clock. There is no hint of that at all anywhere in this text. They were not going to leave until they understood what God had to say to them. And so, on a Sunday morning in church, or a Tuesday evening at home, whenever I am brought into contact with God through His word, the task is not complete until I have understood what it is that God is saying in this text, and how it applies to my life. Nothing else on my agenda today or any other day is more important than that I understand what God has spoken to me from His word.

Then finally, notice that there is a response of the will to the Word of God. Verse 9 says that the people were weeping when they heard the words of the Law. Have you wept before the Word of God? When we hear the truth of God’s word it cuts us. It points out to us in one fell swoop both the inestimable holiness of God and the utter depravity of my personal condition. I am left in ruin by what I see and hear in this Word, for I am brought face to face with the inescapable reality that I am a helpless sinner who is utterly deserving of condemnation by the holy and righteous God who made me and before whom I will stand in judgment. But though the Word of God brings us to ruin, it does not leave us there. The leaders spoke to the people in verse 9 and said, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” In verse 10 they say, “Go, eat and drink, and share with others … do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” This same word that cuts us with conviction of our sin also announces to us the grace of God that is our hope and joy. Yes we are sinners who are separated from God. But rejoice in that God has spoken to us to call us back to Himself through repentance and faith. He has not left us to perish in sin! He has spoken words of grace to us! He has proclaimed to us that there is salvation for sinners; there is good news because of His mercy. And subsequent generations of God’s people would come to understand that this good news is found only through the Lord Jesus Christ. He has come to bear our sins for us, and to die the death that we deserve so that we might have life in Him. Weep for your sins! Indeed, mourn over them. But do not stop there. Cast your sins upon Christ and His cross, and know the joy of His saving grace. Yes, rejoice in that God has spoken to rescue us from perishing! The day in which we hear this great news is a holy day, and a day of celebration.

And that brings us to the final response: joy. Rejoice and be glad for you have understood the words which have been made known to you. Verse 12 says that the people went away celebrating that God has spoken to them, and they have understood Him. John Wycliffe’s corpse was burned to powder after his death; William Tyndale was tied to a stake and burned alive; John Rogers was killed; Miles Coverdale and countless others were forced into hiding and paid a costly price. Why? So that today you could open a book and hear God speak in your native language. Because of the sacrifices of these dear brothers and many more, you can hear, and understand, and know that a greater sacrifice than all of theirs combined has been offered to save you from sin. They did what they did so you could know what Jesus did, so that you could read it and hear it for yourself, and understand it and believe it. Rejoice and be glad that you understand this! Give yourself fully to Christ! Trust Him to save you from sin and follow Him in new life through His grace! And devote the rest of your days to doing what Ezra and Nehemiah did, what Wycliffe and Tyndale, Rogers and Coverdale did – live to make known to others this truth that you now understand! And if God should so will it, die for that cause as well.

I once heard Howard Hendricks say something that changed the trajectory of my life and ministry. He said that there are only two things on this planet today that will last forever: the Word of God and the souls of men. Why on earth would you want to invest another minute of your time in things that will not matter for one second beyond your lifetime? Live and die for the things that will matter for eternity – get this Word into the soul of another person. Nothing else is really worth living, or dying, for.

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