“But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26; all Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated).
The Holy Spirit will speak to us as a reflection of His nature. He is the Spirit of Truth (John 14:16–17; 16:13). This is who He is. His very essence is truth. God’s Word is true because the Spirit of Truth inspired it and illuminates it to us.
As the Spirit of Truth, He dwells within us and guides us as our helper or counselor. In John 14:26, Jesus calls Him the “parakletos,” a Greek word meaning “the one called alongside to help.” It has a broad meaning, which no single English word translates adequately. The ESV translates it as “helper.” Other translations say “counselor” or “advocate,” all of which seem to emphasize one part of the Holy Spirit’s work. He helps us. He counsels us, guides us, and gives us wisdom and insight. He serves as an advocate for us. Some will say He does this by defending us before God the Father, like an attorney defends a suspected criminal before the court. Perhaps, more importantly, He defends us against the lies of Satan. When the accuser of the brethren seeks to condemn us by reminding us of our sins, the Holy Spirit will remind us that there is no condemnation for us, since we are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1).
Holy Spirit also speaks to us out of His relationship to us and to
the rest of the Trinity. He dwells within us, perfecting our
relationship with Christ:
“In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (John 14:20).
Holy Spirit takes the things of God—the blessings available to us
in Christ Jesus—and bestows them to us. He imparts the life of
Christ to us by living within us. John 14:20 suggests that the
Christian’s union with Christ is somehow connected with Christ’s
union with the Father. While we may not be exactly like Jesus in this
life, the Holy Spirit is imparting that life to us. As He lives
within us, He gives us the wisdom of Jesus. We do not have to accept
second-rate Christianity. We can receive the fullness of God’s
blessings to us through the Holy Spirit.
God is always speaking, always revealing His love and life to us. His Word offers us great promises of life and hope. The Holy Spirit within us is holding these blessings out to us. As we read God’s Word, let us hear the voice of God empowering those words to bring spirit and life to our souls.
“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:14–17; all Scripture quotations from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated).
Keep in mind that God’s Word leaves out many details. We may be curious and want extra facts. But, God is silent about some things. The late Roman Catholic broadcaster Mother Angelica once said that 91% of Jesus’ life is “hidden.” Think about it: Jesus is God’s ultimate self-revelation. Yet, the book that preserves His revelation presents only a small fraction of His life. We read a little about the first couple years of His life. Then, we read about one family trip to Jerusalem when He was 12 years old (Luke 2:41–52). After that, God says nothing about Jesus’ life until He is about 30 years old. We read nothing about His carpentry career. We do not know what happened to His stepfather, Joseph; most Christians believe he died before Jesus’ ministry began, but we do not know when. God tells us what we need to know for salvation, not what we want to know to satisfy our curiosity.
Likewise, I recently had an online discussion with a seminary friend and his wife about Noah and Methuselah. Methuselah was the oldest man in the Old Testament, dying at the age of 969 years, and Noah was his grandson (Genesis 4:25–27). Genesis 4:25–32 and 7:11 show that he died in the same year as the flood. That raises a few questions: Did Methuselah die several months before the flood or just before the rains came? Did he drown in the flood? If so, why? Did Noah invite Methuselah on the ark, but he refused to come? Or, did God prohibit Noah from inviting Methuselah on the ark? We do not have the answers to these questions. God did not think Methuselah’s fate was important for us to know.
The story of Noah raises other questions, as my friend pointed out: How did only four men, with possibly some help from their wives, build such a huge ship long before the development of advanced shipbuilding technology? Did their neighbors help them? If so, how did they tell them, “No, you cannot come on our boat.” Once again, the Bible is silent.
We read with many questions that will never be answered this side of heaven. While the Holy Spirit did not provide all the details, He did reveal what we need to know for salvation. In 2 Timothy 3:15, Paul wrote that the Scriptures make us “wise to salvation.” They show us what we need to know about everlasting life. The Word of God shows us that it is only through faith in Jesus that we are saved:
“Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’” (John 14:6).
“This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved’” (Acts 4:11–12).
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8–9).
Human wisdom has limitations. We need special revelation from God. He gives it in His Word. It shows us why we need to believe in Jesus and what God wants us to know and believe about Him.
Paul concluded 2
Timothy 3 with the following statement about the inspiration of
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16–17).
As we saw in a previous post, these verses—particularly the phrase “breathed out”—provide the term “inspiration” of Scripture. They also list four functions of Scripture: teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness. Interested readers can study these four terms in this blog’s most-frequently read article, published in 2012. To summarize the distinctions between them, we can observe that they are complementary. They address both belief and practice. Teaching instructs the reader about what he needs to know; correction addresses errors and false beliefs. Reproof points out when one is doing something wrong; training in righteousness shows someone how to do the will of God. The mature Christian must have the right beliefs and act based on those beliefs. When learning what is right, we have to unlearn the things we have thought or done that are wrong.
Let us keep God’s purposes in mind when we study the Bible. We do not read His Word only because it is a good story. We read it grow in our knowledge of Him. He will tell us what we need to know for salvation if we read with the proper mindset.
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…” (2 Timothy 3:16; all Scripture quotations from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated).
Last week’s post began with the title, “The Authority of Scripture,” yet also touched strongly on the role of church tradition. This can be a complicated discussion. It is so complicated that I think many Christians simply avoid it by seeking simple answers. For many, that simple answer is to simply call oneself a “Bible-believing Christian” and reject tradition entirely. The other simple answer is to accept the teachings of one’s church without examining the Scriptures to see if these things are so (Acts 17:11). I think a more moderate stance—accepting the truth of God’s Word, but looking to see how the Holy Spirit has spoken through it in previous eras—is a wiser choice. It may not be feasible to address all that this entails in a simple blog post, but I will do my best in the following paragraphs. (I realize I am treading some controversial waters here: please read this entire post and the previous one before jumping to conclusions.)
There are many conflicting beliefs about the proper interpretation of Scripture. Who do I trust? Do I follow Joel Osteen, Charles Stanley, or some other prominent modern preacher or best-selling Christian author? Do I accept the wisdom of a reputable contemporary theologian like J. I. Packer, or a respected Bible scholar or preacher from previous decades? What about the Reformers like Martin Luther or John Calvin, or later founders of Christian movements like John Wesley? In each of these cases, I am looking to the interpretation or opinion of somebody who lived over 1400 years after Jesus and His disciples. Some of these people had political or other ideological agendas mixed with their theology.
So, if I am going to allow a man of God to guide my interpretation of Scripture, is it better to look to one of these people, or to trust the opinion of Irenaeus or Polycarp? Who is this, you ask? Is Polycarp Greek for “a lot of fish” or is it actually a person’s name? Polycarp was an early Christian leader, ordained by none other than St. John, the apostle. He learned the Christian faith from John. He, in turn, taught Irenaeus. Thus, in the writings of these two men, we learn from people who were only one or two steps removed from Jesus Himself! Polycarp did not merely know the Gospel of John; he knew its author. He knew things St. John taught both in spoken and written Word!
Furthermore, the canon—the list of books accepted by the Church as the Word of God—is itself a product of tradition. Why do we read the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, while ignoring the Gospel of Thomas? Jesus is quoted saying some great things in Thomas, but we ignore it. While many say, “Thomas was not really written by the disciple” (I agree with that statement), many scholars question whether the four Gospels we read were actually written by those authors (Matthew’s Gospel gives no direct clues who its author is). We simply accept by faith that those first four Gospels are the Word of God, and the Gospel according to Thomas and similar non-biblical “gospels&rdquo are the words of men. Likewise, we accept Revelation as the Word of God, but have never read the Shepherd of Hermas (although many early Christians preferred that book). Finally, Martin Luther wished he could take the letter of James out of the New Testament. However, the historic early church has spoken: We recognize these books as the Word of God. Other books may be great devotional literature or completely heretical. We accept the early church’s witness without really thinking about it.
Yes, errors have emerged at times in Church history. However, errors and heresies continue to pop up today. Many are merely repackaged versions of false teachings we think we have rejected (the similarities between medieval Catholicism’s sale of indulgences and the modern charismatic teaching about “seed-faith offerings to claim a blessing” are really two heads of the same monster). We can benefit by seeing how the Holy Spirit has guided the Church throughout the ages, rather than jumping on new revelations or radical reinterpretations of the Bible. We have no authority to reshape the meaning of Scripture! Yes, we can reapply its principles to new situations; over the last 20 years or so, Christians have had to learn how to apply biblical principles to social media, blogging, and other aspects of the Internet, even though none of these are mentioned in Scripture. Modern Christians have to learn how to live biblical truth—written in societies usually governed by kings, emperors, and tyrants—in democratic and republican societies. However, the meaning of Scripture has not changed—what has changed is the culture in which we have to apply it.
Unfortunately, some Christians try to modify the Bible’s meaning to adapt it to a changed society. About 15 or 20 years ago, while teaching a Bible study at my church, I said that within a few years even so-called Bible-believing Christians would find themselves considering homosexual marriage “normal.” Most in the congregation doubted at that time, but look what has happened since then. It was legalized in Massachusetts; then in a few other states; and now, by Supreme Court ruling, it is legal in all 50 states. In response, some evangelical Christians have tried to redefine the meaning of biblical words about homosexuality, in an attempt to force the Bible into meaning what they want it to mean. Sorry, folks, you can convince yourself that your sophistry and rhetoric works, but God Himself is not moved: When Scripture lists “homosexuality” as a sin in 1 Corinthians 6:9, the Greek term is a compound word which literally means “a man who goes to bed with another man”; it simply does not and cannot mean “pedophile” or “child molester.”
Christians have become afraid to call sin by its biblical name, so many of us try to find ways to reinterpret Scripture to accept lifestyles that the Old Testament calls “abominations,” or to remove the Bible’s clear teaching about hell. I can only wonder how long it is until so-called Bible-believing churches accept transgenderism or polygamy. When we reject the wisdom of past decades of Spirit-led men of God and trust in our own understanding, anything goes. So, if a preacher is bringing a “new revelation” or “deeper truth” that was not taught in previous generations, be suspicious. Every time we ignore the Holy Spirit’s guidance of previous generations and assume He is correcting Himself, we are one step closer to apostasy.
Traditions have failed the Church in the past, but they still serve a valuable purpose. They give us a foundation upon which to interpret the hard questions of Scripture. They keep us connected with the universal Body of Christ throughout the ages. They keep a check on our pride and egotism, which may seek to distort Scripture to suit our own desires.
In my next post, we will take a look at how this relates to the purpose of Scripture and how God can use it to speak to us.
The writers of
Scripture were not passive in their writing. I think many Christians
treat the Bible as if its writers operated like robots, merely
scribbling down thoughts that the Holy Spirit threw into their brains
while they did not think. Yet, this is not the case. Especially in
the New Testament, the writers of Scripture wrote as they shared
their own encounters with Jesus.
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete” (I John 1:1–4; all Scripture quotations from the English Standard Version, unless otherwise indicated).
John was not
mindlessly scribbling random thoughts that popped into his head. He
wrote what he knew. He had sat by Jesus’ side at the Last Supper.
Jesus had entrusted the care of His mother to John. Throughout his
Gospel, John referred to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus
loved.” He must have thought of himself as Jesus’ best friend.
When he wrote his Gospel and his three letters, he wrote as one
remembering some unforgettable moments that he had shared with a real
Person, and he wanted his readers to know that Person as well as he
Peter likewise wrote
his letters based on that experience:
“For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (II Peter 1:16).
Why would Peter
write the bold statements in his letters? Because he, along with John
and James, had seen Jesus’ glory on the Mount of Transfiguration.
He had denied Jesus, but then he knew Jesus’ forgiveness
intimately. He had walked on water with Jesus. “I am not writing
cleverly devised myths or clever stories I made up. I saw Jesus’
glory. I saw Him. I know Him! I am just telling you Who and what I
experienced and know!”
It is true that some of the biblical authors did not personally know Jesus during His earthly ministry. We do not know if Paul ever met Christ. Perhaps he was one of the Pharisees who challenged or argued with Him in the Gospels. He could have been part of the crowd demanding Christ’s crucifixion. However, we know he did not become a disciple of Jesus until some time after His ascension. Likewise, Luke most likely never met Jesus. While his knowledge about Jesus was more second-hand, it was still thorough and was still guided by the Holy Spirit. Actually, Luke’s approach to writing his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles will sound very similar to the work many authors perform when writing about events we did not personally witness:
“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:1–4).
Luke wanted his reader, Theophilus (Greek for “friend of God”; we are not sure if it was an actual person or just a reference to any friend of God or follower of Christ who may read it), to know for certain about the things he had been taught. Luke wrote 30 or 40 years after Jesus ascended to heaven. Some of the eyewitnesses to the life and death of Jesus were already deceased. Time and distance separated many Christians from the life of Christ. How could they know for certain the truth about Him? How could the faith survive? Luke wanted to make certain that the testimony of those eyewitnesses, apostles, and other ministers of the Word would be preserved so that “friends of God” could remember them later. Like most writers, Luke did his research. He checked the original sources. He tried to assemble his facts so that he could present an orderly account. A lot of human work went into it so that he could accomplish a goal that lay on his heart. It was a very human process, even if it was inspired by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit may have placed the desire in Luke’s heart and guided his research and writing, but I would not be surprised if Luke felt very much like this was his project while he was doing it. Luke’s Gospel did not merely fall from the sky. It bore his sweat and effort as he achieved his goal.
While Luke wanted his readers to be certain of the truth about Jesus, John spelled out his purpose in writing. He had a lot to choose from: As mentioned previously, he was a witness to the life of Christ; he knew everything first-hand, and he had a lot to choose from (in John 21:24–25, he wrote that the entire world could not contain the books if everything Jesus did was recorded). John was consciously selective about what he shared in his Gospel:
“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30–31).
The certainty Luke
offered served the same purpose. We should seek to be certain about
the truth of Jesus so that we can have life in His name. The
Scriptures are intended to make us wise to salvation (2 Timothy
3:16). As we read the Bible, we should seek to look beyond the
written word to know the Living Word who spoke to us.
The Bible is a book like no other. It is living and active because it is a divinely-inspired record of God’s revelation of Himself to mankind. Let us read and study that Word not so much to gain intellectual knowledge, but to come to know the Author and Source of all Truth.
Recently, I shared
some observations about how God reveals Himself through nature. We
saw that the created world actually points us to the existence of a
Yet, some will point out that there is a problem. Many people come to believe that there is a Higher Power or Supreme Being by looking at the world, yet draw very different conclusions about what this entity is like. Is God a brilliant mathematician, as proposed by physicist Michio Kaku? Is His greatest attribute love? Does He delight in chaos and violence to achieve His ends? Is there only one God, or are there multiple equally-powerful Higher Beings battling each other in the cosmos? The questions are numerous, and these are only a few of the notions about the nature of deity that have been proposed throughout the ages.
The Christian faith offers an answer, which we will examine over the next few weeks. We are not left to our own devices. Yes, many begin by “groping for God” hoping to find Him. Speaking to the people of philosophy-frenzied Athens, St. Paul said:
“And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring’” (Acts 17:26–28; all Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version unless indicated otherwise).
God does not leave us alone, groping in the dark. He revealed Himself throughout the ages to different people at different times, and this self-revelation is recorded for us in His Word, the Bible. The Bible is not primarily a theology textbook, science text, philosophical treatise, or rule book. At its foundation, it is God’s inspired written record of His testimony to mankind. He calls us to encounter Him through His Son Jesus Christ, whom the Written Word of God reveals as the Living Word of God. This is the nature and focus of divine revelation.
A recent post headlined Psalm 19, which describes how God reveals Himself in the created order. That psalm proceeds to describe God’s self-revelation through His Law (which, at the time of the psalmist, was pretty much the only group of books recognized as “the written Word of God” or Bible):
“The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward. Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults. Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me! Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (Psalms 19:7–14)
God’s power and glory can be seen in creation, including the apparent motion of the sun across the sky. Other Old Testament authors would see God’s power and glory in other parts of nature: the wonders of the night sky; the awesome power of a turbulent storm; the gentle rain that allows life to spring forth upon the earth; the diversity of animals and plants that inhabited the land; and so on. Yet, Psalm 19 reminds us to move on. God has spoken. He has given us His Law. He has shown us how to live. His words and wisdom revive the soul, give wisdom, rejoice the heart, and enlighten the eyes. His Word abides forever. It is priceless. It protects us from the consequences of folly. He has given us His Word to preserve and direct us and to draw us to Himself.
A Bible teacher, writer, editor, and former pastor, with a B.A. in Psychology and Journalism from Syracuse University (1987) and an M.Div. in Pastoral Counseling from the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary (1991).