This morning I am continuing a short series of sermons on The Word of God. In the Bible, the Word of God appears in three forms: The Word of God Spoken, the Word of God Written, and the Word of God Incarnate or made Flesh in Jesus Christ.
1. In week one we talked about the Word of God spoken.
The word of God spoken is always a contemporary word spoken to a particular person or a particular people in a particular time in a particular place. In 1st Kings 18 when Ahab saw Elijah, the wicked king said to the prophet, “Is that you, you troubler of Israel?” And Elijah answered, “I have not troubled Israel; but you have, and your father’s house, because you have forsaken the commandments of the LORD and (worshiped idols).” When any prophet speaks, God makes himself heard. Thus God spoke to the prophet Jeremiah saying, “If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall be as my mouth.” (Jeremiah 15:9)
Of course, then as now there were false prophets, and true prophets. The false prophet cries “Peace, peace, when there is no peace.” The true prophet announces that God is doing some new thing and it comes to pass. Jesus was called “the prophet of Nazareth.” In Mark 13 the disciples were admiring the temple. Jesus told them that the time was coming, when the temple would be destroyed, and one stone would not be left upon another. In A.D. 70, on August 30th, the future Emperor of Rome, Titus, entered the city of Jerusalem, burned the city and razed the temple, just as Jesus predicted almost 40 years before. In John 2:19 Jesus made a prophecy about the temple of his body saying, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” Anyone with an army large enough can raze (r-a-z-e) a city or a temple; but only God can raise (r-a-i-s-e) the dead; and only the Son of God had the power to lay down his life and the power to take it up again.
In the book of Acts, the phrase “the Word of God” is used 13 times. It does not refer to the Hebrew Bible. Nor does not simply predict the future. It is a word about the Life, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It invariably finishes with an appeal. Thus in Acts 2:38-39 St. Peter concludes his first sermon about the Risen Christ saying:
“Repent, and be baptized every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him.”
God still speaks through his prophets, and through preachers, too. The great 20th Century theologian, Karl Barth, said that when the Word of God is faithfully preached, God will make himself heard.
St. Paul faithfully preached the Word of God. Thus he wrote to the church in Corinth saying:
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 1st Corinthians 2:1-2
Notice, Paul does not preach “Jesus crucified,” but “Jesus Christ and him crucified.” The cross is not the bad end of a good man (Jesus). It is a road traveled once for all by our now Risen and victorious Savior (Jesus the Christ, Messiah, King!).
The Moravian Church took its cue from St. Paul. The Ground of the Unity is less than five pages long. It is our only official statement of doctrine. It declares:
…(we) recognize the Word of the Cross as the center of Holy Scripture and of all preaching of the Gospel, and see our primary mission, and reason for being, to consist in bearing witness to this joyful message.
About forty years ago I was in the library at a well known Bible College. One of their professors found out I was a Moravian. He said, “What is your goal in preaching?” I said, “I would like to lift up Jesus.” He said, that is good, you can’t do better. He then quoted from John 13 wherein Jesus said, “I, if I be lifted up, will draw all (people) to myself.”
2. Last week we talked about the Word of God written.
In the book of Exodus we read that God called his prophet Moses up Mt. Sinai, and gave him the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone. After some adventure, he gave them to the people. Then, at God’s command, Moses wrote down more than 600 additional laws covering everything from sexual morality to the prevention of animal cruelty. The Law told Israel how to eat, how to dress, who to sleep with, who not to sleep with, and how to treat their neighbors. In Deuteronomy 31 we read that, when Moses had finished writing down all the words of the law that God had given him, he had the Levites put a copy in the Ark of the Covenant.
This written Law is the foundation of the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament. Of course, Moses was not the last of God’s prophets. The Hebrew Bible that Jesus read contained not just the Five Books of the Law associated with Moses, but books of Prophecy, Wisdom, and History. It contained a book of 150 Psalms that Israel used in worship. It contained a book called “The Song of Songs,” that is about love, spiritual and physical. If the Song of Songs was a movie, it would be Rated “R.” In Jesus day the Hebrew Bible was often called “the Law and the Prophets.” Jesus put his stamp of approval on Hebrew Bible of his day when he said:
Matt. 5:17 “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not (the smallest letter) will pass from the law until all is accomplished.
This word by Jesus is a clear reference to Isaiah 55:10-11
…my word …that goes forth from my mouth… shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.
Last week, we saw that, more than 100 years before the birth of Jesus, the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek. The Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, also known as “The Septuagint,” was the Bible of the Jews outside their homeland, and it became the Bible of the Early church. Paul quotes from the Septuagint multiple times, and it was undoubtedly the books of the Septuagint (and thereby the Hebrew Bible) that the author of 2nd Timothy 3:16-17 had in mind when he wrote:
All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the (people) of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
If these words were written by St. Paul, then they were written a number of years before the four gospels and many of the later epistles were written down. However, it was not long before the Early church came to regard the epistles and gospels of the New Testament as Scripture. By the time of 2nd Peter the epistles of Paul are regarded as scripture, at least by some. By the middle of the 2nd century at least 22 of the 27 books in our New Testament were in wide circulation. By the early 3rd century, Origen appears to have been using the same 27 books that we have in our New Testament, though some of his contemporaries still disputed Hebrews, James, 2nd Peter, 2nd and 3rd John, Jude, and Revelation. In his Easter letter in 367 A.D., Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria listed all 27 books of our New Testament, and regarded them as Scripture. This same 27 book Canon of the New Testament was made was made official by the Synod of Hippo in North Africa in 393 A.D. The process goes on and on.
I love this kind of history, and I think all Christians should be familiar with it. That said, I have never spent a great deal of time worrying about or defending the Bible. Like Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the 19th century baptist, once called “the Prince of preachers,” I would rather defend a raging lion than defend the scripture, for I believe that the Scripture authenticates itself.
I know this from personal experience, for the Scripture the Scripture was the instrument of my conversion. In l972, Elayne and I were on our way from Camp LeJune, North Carolina, to San Diego, California, where I had temporary duty at the Recruit Training Depot. We stopped off to see my parents in their new home in Hope, Indiana. My mother took the opportunity to return to me my Bible, which had been gathering dust on her shelves for several years. One night after my arrival in California, I just let it fall open, and I put my finger on a text. I noted it was from the Book of James. Martin Luther did not think much of James. He called it an Epistle of Straw, because it seemed to push works not faith. James may have hit Luther like a straw, but it hit me where I was living, in a new city, and it hit me like a hammer, It read:
A wise man does not say, “I will go into such and such a city to buy and sell and get gain,” but rather, “If God wills, I will go into such and such a city to buy and sell and get gain.”
The phrase that knocked me off my feet and on to my knees was the phrase, “if God wills.” I realized for the first time that I was living my life without regard to the will of God, and I knew that had to be corrected. The verse in James did not mention Jesus Christ; but it was there he met me. I knew from sermons I had heard my father preach that one could not come into line with the will of God without first settling accounts with him. So, after a few agonizing days wrestling with myself before God, I knelt down in the kitchen of my apartment, and said, “Okay, God, I will do it your way. I will put my faith in your Son Jesus Christ.” It was the right thing to do; my life has never been the same. As Jesus says in John 6:29, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
3. If you are happy in your unbelief, stay away from the Bible, for, as we saw last week, when we go to the Bible, the Word of God that is Incarnate in Jesus emerges from the words of Scripture, “the Word from the words.”
Once we have started looking for him, we see him everywhere, or, once he has laid hold of us, we see him everywhere therein. We see him in the gospels, and in the epistles, and in the Psalms, and in the book of the prophet Isaiah. We read the parable of the Good Shepherd and we know he is speaking of himself, as he leaves the 99 safely in the fold to search for those who are still lost and alone. We see him in the days of his flesh, as he walks the dusty roads of Galilee, hungry and tired, with no place to lay his head. And we see as he will be when he comes on the clouds of heaven in all his glory to take up his power and reign.
What part of the Bible speaks to you of Jesus? Dr. Frank Crouch, the Dean of Moravian Theological Seminary, says that we all have a personal canon, and the books and texts in our canon speak to us in ways that other texts do not. Along these same lines I think it is interesting that the Bible has four gospels, and each of then fits one of the four basic personality types identified by Carl Jung. Matthew is for the traditionalists, for it is rooted in the tradition of the Old Testament. Mark is for the action oriented, because it is short on words and long on doing. Luke is for those who feel deeply, for it is the most beautiful book ever written. John is for the great thinker. It’s symbol is the eagle because John’s thoughts fly higher than the other gospels. I like the Gospel of Mark because in it, Jesus does everything “immediately,” and I much prefer fast action to long speeches. By Contrast, my friend and Bishop, D. Wayne Burkett loves the gospel of John for its identification of Jesus as the ultimate Word of God. John is not alone in calling attention to Jesus as the supreme revelation of God. The author of Hebrews tells us how, in many and various ways, God spoke of old, to our ancestors, by the prophets, but in these last days, he has spoken to us by a son. And the author of Colossians tells us that Jesus is “the image of the invisible God.” But it is St. John who gives us an indelible picture of Jesus, not only as the revelation of God, but as the Eternal, living, and abiding Word of God. In chapter one we we read:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father…And from his fulness have we all received, wave after wave of grace. For the law was given through Moses…but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.
Jesus Christ still makes God known. Isaiah once asked God to tear open the sky and come down. God did just that when Jesus stepped down out of the frame of the Universe to show us the Father. Now Jesus steps out from the pages of the Holy Scripture, and steps in where ever the Word of God is proclaimed in word or deed, to stretch out to each of us the arms he once stretched out upon the cross to receive us all. God’s ultimate word to us is the Word Made Flesh in Jesus Christ. As we read in Hebrews 4:12, He is the living and active, Word of God, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart, and it is with him that we have to do.
Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min