Monday, May 23, 2016

The Nature of the Bible (John 21:24-25)

I recently had the opportunity to give Bibles to a group of people who had never had one before. These individuals come from a religious background in which written scripture is regarded very highly. According to their customs, a copy of their scriptures can never touch the ground. It would be highly offensive to their god for them to read their scriptures in certain situations – for example, in the bathroom. No one would ever dare to write in or fold down the corner of a page of these scriptures. They also have a belief that their scriptures should not be left sitting open, for fear that evil spirits will come along and corrupt them or read them and know what they say, and therefore be able to distort them in the minds of the people. In that culture, scripture is only scripture if it is written in one particular language – a language that many adherents of their religion do not know how to read. These beliefs and practices result in a superstitious regard for the object of their written copies of scripture that outweighs their regard for the actual content of those scriptures. So, as I handed them their very first copies of the Bible, I told them that they needed to understand something about how Christians view the Bible. First of all, they need to understand that we believe that the Bible is God’s Word. It was written down by human beings, but the words were inspired by God Himself. Second, they need to understand that the contents of the Bible are what we hold sacred, not the physical object of the Bible. That means that if we set our Bibles on the ground, or read them in the bathroom, or underline words in them, or make notes in them, God is not offended. It is not a sin to misplace or lose one’s Bible, because we can get another copy of it if necessary. What is most important is not how carefully we protect our Bibles, but how thoroughly we read and understand them.

As I thought about my interaction with those people afterward, I couldn’t help thinking that many Christians are just as confused about the nature of Scripture as those of this other faith. There is a superstitious – almost idolatrous – regard for the physical object of the Bible that surpasses the regard for the verbal content of the Bible. The Bible is viewed as something of an amulet or good luck charm by many who will go to great lengths to protect their Bibles – including not reading or studying them. And this is the greatest disservice we can do to the Word of God: to set it in a place of prominence and security and otherwise disregard the truth that it contains. That Bible will never change anyone’s life. It is only as it is handled, read, studied, and interacted with that it becomes transformative within us.

In the closing words of his magnificent account of the words and works of Jesus, the Apostle John makes a few remarks concerning what he has written. These words are his personal testimony and commendation of this Gospel. Moreover, according to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, these words become for us a lesson in understanding the nature of all Scripture – the entire Bible from Genesis to Revelation. As we study John’s words here, we find several characteristics of what he has written, and by extension of the whole Bible as well.

I. The Source of Scripture (v24) 
I suppose everyone enjoys a good Christmas gathering, until someone has the audacity to bring up Jesus. I mean, what does Jesus have to do with Christmas anyway? I can remember one Christmas gathering when the subject of the Bible came up, and one family member said to me, “You don’t believe everything in the Bible do you?” When I responded that I did, the look on the other person’s face was one of utter dismay! The reply came back quickly, “But people wrote the Bible, not God!” I suppose that is how many people view the Bible – the product only of human composition. So, was the Bible written by men or by God? The answer is, “Yes!” It was written by men who were inspired by God to write the words that they wrote.

Notice in verse 24 how John makes this point. He says, “This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things.” Now, who is this disciple? This is the disciple who is referred to in the preceding verses as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” In verse 20, he is referred to as the one who also had leaned back on Jesus’ bosom at the supper. He is the one who had asked, “Lord, who is the one who betrays You?” He is the one whom Peter observed during his conversation with Jesus recorded in verses 18-23. He is the one of whom Jesus said to Peter, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you.” And he is the one who became the subject of a rumor saying the he would not die. From these things, we can infer that this disciple was an eyewitness of the life and ministry of Jesus, including His resurrection appearances. We can also infer that this disciple must have lived a very long time – long enough to give credence to the rumor that he would not die. We know from church history that John outlived all the other apostles, dying of natural causes at a very old age near the end of the first century AD. We also know from careful study that this Gospel is the only one of our four which does not mention the Apostle John by name, which is odd considering the major role he plays in the other Gospels. It is also the only Gospel which speaks of “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Therefore, it is conclusive that “the disciple whom Jesus loved” is how this Gospel refers to the Apostle John. It is not a boastful statement, as though to say “I’m the one Jesus loved more than, or instead of, the others.” Rather it is a humble confession of the intimacy of his personal relationship with the Lord Jesus. John anchors his identity in that relationship alone, as all followers of Jesus should! And this is the disciple who has written these words.

So, this portion of Scripture, like all of the Bible, comes from a human writer. John says here that it is his “testimony.” This is his personal account of the things which he saw Jesus do and heard Jesus say. He writes with eyewitness detail and reliability. But then John says something rather strange at first glance. He says, “and we know that his testimony is true.” This raises two questions. The first one is “Who are we?” This is something of a custom for John in his writings, to speak from what is known in literature as an “editorial ‘we’.” He uses this quite frequently in his epistles (1, 2, and 3 John), and even elsewhere in this Gospel. For example, in 1:14, he says concerning Jesus, “we saw His glory.” In First John 1:1-2, he speaks of Jesus, saying, “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands … we have seen and testify and proclaim to you.” So, for John, to say “we” implies that the words he speaks are in unison with those of all the Apostles of the Lord Jesus. As writings began to circulate through the early church, one of the first tests of whether or not it was credible and authoritative was the test of apostolicity. Does it come from an apostle or someone who is a known close associate of an apostle? If so, then it was accepted as genuine Scripture.

But, why is this apostolicity a guarantee of a writing’s trustworthiness? That is related to the second question that John’s statement in verse 24 raises. John says, “we know that his testimony is true.” That seems a bit self-serving, does it not? If we were to say, “John, why should we believe what you have written?”, he responds, “Because I am the one who has written it.” Under most ordinary circumstances, this would be a preposterous claim. But when an Apostle of Jesus Christ makes this claim it is not preposterous. Why is that? Because these are men to whom Jesus made some very specific promises, which are recorded for us in Chapters 14 and 16 of this Gospel. To His Apostles, Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit, whom the Father would send in His name, would teach them all things and bring to their remembrance all that He said to them (14:26). He said that the Spirit would guide them into all truth, and disclose to them what is to come (16:13). So, when these men wrote, they were being led by the Spirit of God to write true and trustworthy words. They were, in the words of Peter, “men moved by the Holy Spirit” who “spoke from God” (2 Pet 1:21). Therefore it can be said of their writings that they are actually the divinely inspired Word of God. Did men write it? Sure. Did God write it? Yes. God wrote these words through the process of inspiration, as the people of His choosing wrote the exact words of His choosing. As 2 Timothy 3:16 says, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.” Therefore, we can say not only of John’s Gospel but of all Scripture, “We know that his testimony is true.”

Now, having considered the source of Scripture, we move on to consider next …

II. The Selectivity of Scripture (v25)

There’s a hymn that is not sung much anymore that talks about heaven and says essentially that of all that has been written about heaven, “not half of that city’s bright glory to mortals has ever been told.” In the final stanza, the hymnwriter turns his attention to the Lord Jesus and says,

I have read of a Christ so forgiving, that vile sinners may ask and receive
Peace and pardon for every transgression, if when asking they only believe.
I have read how He’ll guide and protect us, if for safety we enter His fold;
But not half of His goodness and mercy to mortals has ever been told.

This is exactly what John is saying here in the final verse of his Gospel. Of all that has been told about the Lord Jesus, not the half has ever been told. He says, “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written.” Now, people often ask me if I interpret the Bible literally, and I say, “I interpret the Bible literally unless the Bible tells me not to interpret it literally.” In other words, we interpret the Bible using the same sort of “ground rules” that we use instinctively as we read any other kind of literature. Now, when I read this verse, I have to understand that John does not have exhaustive knowledge of how many square inches of space there is in the world, or how high books can be stacked before they escape the earth’s atmosphere. I understand instinctively that John is using a literary device known as hyperbole, in which a statement is creatively exaggerated for emphasis. It is not that facts are being misrepresented. Hyperbole is when a statement is made that is obviously an exaggeration in order to express something in a figurative way. So, in daily conversation, we might say, “I have tons of work to do.” Well, unless our job is measured in pounds, it is not likely that tons are an accurate measurement of the amount of work we have to do, and we understand that as we read it. A man may say, “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.” We do not expect that man to walk out into a pasture and try it. And just as we instinctively get that in every day conversation and as we read other literature, so we should instinctively get it when the Bible uses hyperbole.

That said, let’s allow the hyperbole to have its full effect here. John isn’t saying, “If we wrote it all down, we’d have written two or three more books.” John is saying, “It would be impossible to write down everything that Jesus has done.” And that is something that we can interpret quite literally! It would be impossible! For every miracle that is recorded from Jesus’ earthly life and ministry, there are many more that are not recorded. In some cases, we find miracles of healing recorded in great detail; in other cases, we are told something like, “They brought to Him all who were ill, those suffering with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, paralytics; and He healed them” (Mt 4:24). Each of those stories would be just as fascinating as the ones we have in detail, but their stories are not told for whatever reason, nor could they all be told! And then we also have to remember what John says about this Jesus. In the first verse, he asserts that Jesus, the Word of God which has been made flesh, existed in the beginning – that is, He has existed from eternity past. And John says in those opening verses that Jesus, the Word of God, created everything that exists. So, would it ever be possible for anyone to write an exhaustive record of everything that Jesus has done? No! He was at work long before mankind came onto the scene of history, and He is always at work, doing things that no human eye can behold or human mind can fathom. If it all could be written (and it can’t), then it is very likely that the whole world indeed could not contain the books.

This brings us back to John’s statement, and what it teaches us about the nature of Scripture. All Scripture, by necessity, is somewhat selective in what it records. It has to be. Even if you were to journal every day, you would pick and choose what details to include and what to omit, would you not? But you would make sure you included the things that were most important. And that is what the biblical writers have done. Unable to tell the whole story, they told the most important elements of the story to make the points that they set out to make. John tells us what that point is for him as he writes this Gospel. In John 20:30-31, “Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” So John admits rather candidly, “Listen, I didn’t and cannot tell you everything I saw, but I am going to tell you what you need to know to make an informed decision on who Jesus is, and whether or not He is the Christ, the Son of God, so that you may believe in Him and have life in His name.”

Every writer of Scripture does the exact same thing. So, Scripture is selective by necessity. Does it tell us everything there is to tell or everything we may want to know? No, and it cannot. But does it tell us enough? Yes it does, and that brings us to final characteristic of the nature of Scripture.

III. The Sufficiency of Scripture

I believe that a thorough knowledge of the Bible is essential for any and every pursuit in life. All wisdom is rooted in the truth of Scripture, and I honestly do not know how I ever made it through a day of life without leaning on the firm foundation of God’s Word. I think that a thorough knowledge of Scripture would help one succeed in anything he or she sets out to do. No set of information is complete without the illumination of what the Bible says about those things setting the right framework and context for it all. That said, we must be honest about what the Bible is not. Take, for example, the field of science. The Bible makes reference to scientific things, and where it does, it is true and trustworthy. But this does not make the Bible a science book. If one wants to be a chemist and shows up to apply for a job in the laboratory, he or she might be asked, “What qualifications do you have for the job?” He or she may say, “Well, I’ve read the Bible.” Commendable as that may be, the Bible is not sufficient by itself to make one a credible scientist. The Bible can provide a framework for doing scientific work, but if one wants to be a chemist, one must study more than just the Bible. This is but one example of a realm in which the Bible does not tell us all we want to know or need to know. There are other realms, however, in which the Bible may not tell us all we want to know, but it definitely tells us all we need to know. It is sufficient in what it reveals in order for us to know God, to have a relationship with Him that is eternal beyond this life in this world, and for us to live with and for Him here and now. And since these are the things which are of surpassing importance to all others, the Christian can hold his or her Bible close to heart and say of it, “It is enough.”

Wayne Grudem writes, “The sufficiency of Scripture means that Scripture contained all the words of God he intended His people to have each stage of redemptive history, and that it now contains all the words of God we need for salvation, for trusting Him perfectly, and for obeying Him perfectly.”[1] We are born in sin, separated from God. That separation from God will be eternal if we are not reconciled to Him at some point during our lives. So, how are we to know the way of being reconciled to Him? He must reveal it to us, and He has done so in the Bible. As John says in the previous chapter, “these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” In other words, “What I have written is enough for you to believe upon Christ, and by believing in Him, you will have life.” This is affirmed elsewhere in Scripture as well. Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:15, “the sacred writings … are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Jesus Christ.” James 1:18 says that God has “brought us forth by the word of truth.” 1 Peter 1:23 says that “we have been born again … through the living and enduring word of God.”

Nowhere is it spelled out more clearly than in Romans 10:9-17. There Paul begins by saying that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved (v9). He says, “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved” (v13). But then Paul raises a series of questions: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?” (v14). So, in order to call on Christ to be saved, they must believe in Him; and in order to believe in Him, they must hear of Him; and in order to hear of Him, someone must tell them. Therefore, Paul says in verse 17, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” The Word of God is the means by which the Holy Spirit moves upon the heart of an unbeliever and calls him or her forth to believe upon the Lord Jesus and be saved.

Once a person becomes a believer in Christ, the journey is not over. It is just beginning. Conversion marks the starting line of life, not the finish line. So, how is a person to walk in faith and trust in relationship with God? Again, the Word of God is sufficient for this. We cannot trust someone we do not know, and in order to know God, we must turn to the truth He has revealed about Himself. He has revealed Himself to us in the pages of His Word. It is common to hear someone say, “I like to think of God as ….” My response to that is, “Have you ever considered what God thinks of you thinking of Him that way?” When we view God as whatever we imagine Him to be, we are not relating to the God who made us in His own image, but rather we are creating a god who is made in our image, and this is idolatry and blasphemy. God has made Himself to known to us in the Bible. Do you want to know what God is like? Then turn to the Bible. Here we find the God who is there, the God with whom we have to do. Here we find Him revealed in the glory of His manifold attributes, and as we come to know Him as the God who is revealed in Scripture, we come to trust Him more and love Him more as we walk with Him.

This leads us to live in obedience to Him. We obey God because we trust Him and love Him. But how are we to know what He requires of us? What are we to obey? Again, this is spelled out for us in His Word. Again, 2 Timothy 3:16 – “All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness,” and verse 17 continues, “so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” We are trained in righteousness and equipped to live and serve God by immersing ourselves in the Bible. The Psalmist asks, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By keeping it according to Your word” (Psa 119:9). Jesus prayed that the Father would sanctify (that is, set apart as holy) the followers of Christ. He prayed, “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth” (Jn 17:17). So again we find that when it comes to obeying God, the Word has told us all we need to know.

So, what we have seen as we have considered John’s closing words is that the Scriptures come to us from men who wrote under the divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so that the Bible is true and trustworthy. The information we have in the Bible is selective by necessity, and therefore it may not tell us all that could be told about a matter, or all we may want to know. However, the Bible is sufficient – what it tells us is all we need to know in order to know God, to trust and love Him, and to walk in obedient faith with Him. Now, there are some practical applications that flow out of this for us.

1. Because the Bible is sufficient in all matters of Christian faith and practice, we should give it preeminence over all other sources of information, and not add to or take away from it by ignoring its plain teachings for other information which is not in harmony with it.
2. God does not require us to believe anything or do anything that is not revealed in the Bible. If it is not commanded, explicitly or implicitly, in Scripture, then it is not essential. Likewise, if it is not forbidden, explicitly or implicitly in Scripture, then it is not sin. As we wrestle with sin in our lives, we can expect the Holy Spirit to give us victory over those sins which hinder our faith and obedience. However, the Holy Spirit will not empower us to obey rules that are not contained in Scripture, nor will He convict us to believe anything about God that is not revealed in Scripture.
3. The “secret” to discovering and experiencing the will of God in our lives is no secret at all. It has been revealed to us clearly in Scripture. The Bible has told us how God wants us to live in relationship with Him. That means that He has given us a great deal of freedom to make decisions on matters that are not clearly spelled out in Scripture. God is not hiding Himself or His will from us. He wants us to know Him and to know His will and do it! That is why He has made it known to us in the Bible.
4. Finally, when it comes to knowing God and living for Him, we can hold our Bibles close to our hearts and give thanks to God that He has given these words to us, and that they are true and trustworthy, and that they are sufficient. We do not need more revelation. We need to grow deeper in our understanding and application of what we have, as we seek to live in faith and obedience to the Word we have as the Spirit of God empowers us.

[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 127. 

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