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In the weeks leading up to Easter, we’re looking at the big questions, the big objections and obstacles, that people to have to faith in God, and especially faith in Jesus and Christianity. One of the big questions that comes up when you start talking about Jesus in particular is the question of the Bible. Can you trust it? Is it a reliable source of information?
Many people today would say, “No, it’s not reliable.” They would say, “The Bible was written so many years after Jesus lived, and has been translated and re-translated so many times, that there’s no way any of us can know who Jesus really was, or what he really said and did.”
You can see how important this question is. Because the Bible is the foundation for Christian belief and practice. If it’s true and reliable, then we have a trustworthy guide. But if it’s not, if it’s just a bunch of myths and legends, then there’s no way to know the truth about Jesus.
If you’re here this morning, and you’re exploring faith in Jesus, this is one of the most important questions for you to get answers to. And if you are already a Christian, it’s still important. Because what do you say when someone tells you your faith is based on a bunch of myths?
But for all of us this morning, I want you to be encouraged. The Bible is trustworthy. You can have access to the real Jesus. What you do with that information is another question. But I want to show you this morning that the Bible is trustworthy. Tim Keller, the great teacher and pastor in NYC, says you can trust the Bible in three ways. I can’t improve on his outline. So let’s look at these three ways. You can trust the Bible historically, culturally, and personally.
Historically. One of the most common things people say about the Bible is that it was written many years after the time of Jesus, and it’s been translated and re-translated so many times, that it’s impossible to know what the original documents said. People often compare it to the game of telephone. You stand in a circle and whisper something into the ear of the person next to you. Then they repeat it in the next person’s ear. By the time it gets back around to you, the message is completely different. People say that happened to the Bible.
So what do we say? Well, let me ask you a question. Do you think it would be fair to take the standards that historians and scholars use to test the reliability of other ancient documents, do you think it would be fair to take those standards and apply them to the Bible? Let’s just try it out and see what happens.
Two of the biggest standards historians use are these. First, “How many copies of the book do we have?” Second, “How long after the person wrote is our earliest copy?”
For instance, let’s take Thucydides. He was an ancient Greek historian who lived and wrote about 450 years before the time of Jesus. Most scholars and historians trust what he wrote as being historically accurate. No one is losing sleep at night wondering if we can actually trust what Thucydides wrote. Do you know how many copies we have? 8 copies. And those copies were made 1,300 years after Thucydides lived.
This is very common for ancient manuscripts. Let me give you some others. They have 5 copies of Aristotle’s Poetics, dated 1,400 years after he wrote. There are 2 copies of Alexander the Great’s biography. One of those copies was written 400 years after Alexander lived. The real rock star of the ancient world is Homer, because they actually have 1800 copies or fragments of The Iliad, which is a famous epic poem. And yet, the earliest copy they have of that is still 400 years after Homer wrote.
Those are the standards historians use. How many copies do we have? How close are they to the time of original writing? How does the Bible stack up when we apply these standards? The New Testament was originally written in Greek. At last count, there are over 5,800 copies of the Greek New Testament. The earliest fragment they have is from the gospel of John. And it has been dated to within 50 years of when John wrote.
In addition to the 5800 Greek manuscripts, there are over 10,000 Latin, Coptic, and Syriac translations of the New Testament, many of those dating back to within a few hundred years of Jesus. But that’s not all. Even if all of those manuscripts and translations were lost, there was a group of writers known as the Church Fathers. They wrote within the first 150 years of the church. Get this. There are over 30,000 quotations of the New Testament in their writings. You could reconstruct almost the entire New Testament just from their quotations alone.
So what do we have? Thousands upon thousands of copies, dating back to within 50 years of when the originals were written. There is no other ancient document that comes even close to that. When you apply the standards of history, the Bible is head and shoulders above everything else.
So is the Bible really like a game of telephone? This is where our abundance of manuscripts helps us. There are minor errors in many of the manuscripts. Some words are omitted, or added, or misspelled. But when they compare these thousands of manuscripts with each other, they’re able to see very easily what the original was.
In fact, the text we have of the New Testament is considered 99.75% accurate. In other words, we do know what the original said, because we have thousands of very early copies to confirm it. And the .25% that is questionable has nothing to do with any doctrines or theological issues. Even the most skeptical critics acknowledge this. Bart Ehrman is a very famous Biblical scholar. He’s not a Christian. He’s very critical of the Bible in many ways. But even he said: “Most of the changes found in early Christian manuscripts have nothing to do with theology.”
So what does all of this mean? It means that by any historical standard, the Bible is far and away the single most reliable ancient document in the world. But what about that first charge? That it was written so many years after the time of Jesus that we can’t trust it as a reliable source of information about him?
For instance, Karen Armstrong is a Biblical scholar who wrote a book called A History Of God. Here’s how she puts it: “We know very little about Jesus. The first full-length account of his life was St. Mark’s gospel, which was not written until about the year 70 AD, some forty years after his death. By that time, historical facts had been overlaid with mythical elements which expressed the meaning Jesus had acquired for his followers rather than a reliable straightforward portrayal.”
In other words, we may know what the original said, but how do we know it’s true? How do we know it’s not all made up stuff about Jesus? Here’s how.
First of all, Karen Armstrong says the gospel of Mark was written 40 years after the death of Jesus. That’s pretty common. Most scholars say all 4 gospels were written between 30-50 years after the life Jesus. In addition, many of Paul’s letters were written 15-20 years after the life of Jesus. Why is that important?
Because that means the New Testament was written during the lifetimes of eyewitnesses. Look at our Scripture passage this morning. In the very beginning, Luke says, “I wrote this gospel on the basis of many eyewitness reports that I gathered over the course of a very carful investigation.” Let’s say 40 years after the events happened. Far from being a case against the reliability of the gospels, this is one of the strongest arguments for it. Because it means the gospels and all the other New Testament documents were written during the lifetimes of people who could have said, “No, that’s not the way it happened.”
Think about this with me. Go back 75 years. Some people deny the Holocaust ever happened. But there are still people alive who were there and can say, “No, it did happen. I’m an eyewitness.” Go back 50 years, or 40 years. You can’t just way whatever you want about the Civil Rights Movement or Watergate, because there are still lots of people around who were alive when those things happened to make sure the truth gets told.
Even today, you can’t just get away with Fake News. There are too many people around to call you out on it. If the New Testament writers were making stuff up about Jesus, if they were inserting myths and legends into their writings, we would know they were wrong for the same reason we know Holocaust deniers are wrong.
But not only was the New Testament written too early to be a legend. It’s also too full of counter-productive material to be a legend. People often say the early church leaders wrote the Bible because they wanted to consolidate their power and protect the growing movement. Oh, yeah?
Then why would they put things in there that make the leaders look so bad? Peter denied Jesus. All the other disciples were constantly doubting him and running away when things got scary. Or look at our passage. The disciples here meet the risen Jesus, but they don’t recognize him. They don’t get it when he explains the Scriptures to them. He says in verse 25, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe!” How do you consolidate power and build a movement when you’re constantly undermining the credibility of your leaders in your foundational documents!
Or, in verses 22-24, it talks about how the first witnesses to the resurrection were women. In that culture, women’s testimony was not admissible in court. Nobody listened to women. They were marginalized. And yet all of the gospels make a point of saying the first eyewitnesses were women. This hurt the case for Christianity in the first century. Why would it be there unless it was true?
Friends, we’re just scratching the surface. The more you dig into this, the more you find out just how reliable, and accurate, and credible the Bible really is. You can trust it historically.
Culturally. Another huge objection to the Bible is that people say, “Not only is it historically unreliable, it’s culturally offensive. The Bible condones and supports things that we modern, enlightened, and humane people must obviously reject.”
So, for example, people often say, “Hey, the Bible supports polygamy. Multiple wives. The Bible supports oppressive, abusive treatment of women. Look at Abraham, Jacob, and David. Look at the way they treat women. These are supposed to be heroes? Why should I pay any attention the “Biblical sexual ethic” when it obviously supports these horrible, patriarchal, misogynistic cultural practices?” What do we say to that?
Tim Keller offers two very helpful suggestions for how to approach things in the Bible you find culturally offensive. First, please consider the possibility that the Bible may not be teaching what you think it’s teaching. Look at our passage. These disciples are very upset. But Jesus says to them, basically, “Hey, I get that you’re upset. But the reason you’re upset is because you think the Bible teaches one thing, when it really teaches something else. Here, let me help you understand it better.”
So let’s go back to the example of polygamy. We actually looked at this when we were going through the book of Genesis. If you think the Bible is supporting polygamy, read again. There’s a great Biblical scholar, he’s an expert in Hebrew narrative named Robert Alter. He points out that every time you see polygamy in the Bible, it’s an absolute disaster for everyone involved, especially the women. And that’s the point. The point is to show us how destructive and harmful this really is. The point is to show us how it tears everything apart. It tears women apart. It tears families apart. It tears societies apart. It tears you apart.
The point is not to support polygamy, but to undermine it and show just how destructive it really is. When you learn to read the Bible this way, you realize that thousands of years before the #metoo movement, the Bible was already there.
So first, please consider the possibility that the Bible may not be teaching what you think it’s teaching. Second, Keller says please consider the possibility that you’re getting offended by something because you have an unexamined assumption about the superiority of your cultural moment. We get offended because we think that our cultural way of looking at things is the only way of looking at things.
For instance, let’s go back to what the Bible says about sex. When we modern, Western, individualistic people read what the Bible says about sex - that it should only happen in the context of marriage - we read that, and we say, “How offensive. How regressive. I’ve really got a problem with this.”
Now think about this with me. In the West, we hate what the Bible says about sex. But we love what it says about forgiveness. “Turn the other cheek. Don’t judge.” We love that. Why? Well, think about our cultural narratives. Every culture has certain narratives that say, “This is what a good life looks like. This is what a virtuous society looks like.”
What narrative reigns supreme in our culture? It’s the freedom narrative. We say, “Every person should have maximum freedom to live however they want as long as they don’t harm someone else. Live and let live.” Now along with that comes what we might call our tolerance narrative. The tolerance narrative says, “If you see someone living in a way you don’t like, they should be free to do that. So we should have a society that practices things like tolerance, grace, and forgiveness.” So in addition to “Live and let live,” we also say, “You do you.”
Now when we bring those narratives to the Bible, what happens? We hate what the Bible says about sex because it violates our freedom narrative. It says, “No, you can’t just live however you want.” But we love what the Bible says about forgiveness because it affirms our tolerance narrative. It says, “Hey, don’t judge other people.”
Now let’s take this one step further. What happens when people in traditional Eastern culture read the Bible? They have different cultural narratives, so they’re going to get offended or affirmed in different ways. They love what the Bible says about sex, because it affirms their cultural narrative of duty, and sacrificing your individual desires for the sake of society. But they hate what the Bible says about forgiveness, because it offends their cultural narrative of honor.
Every culture is going to be offended by the Bible, but in different ways. Because every culture has different narratives that take good things and turn them into idols. The Bible acts as a corrective on distorted cultural narratives.
To people in the East, it says, “Look, honor is a good thing. But don’t turn it into an idol that prevents you from being able to forgive others.” To us here in the West, it says, “Hey, freedom is good. You should affirm the individual. Be careful not to enthrone the individual. Don’t turn freedom into an idol.”
Notice what happens when you put these two principles together. The first principle is: Maybe the Bible’s not teaching what you think. When we apply that principle to polygamy, we find out the Bible is actually telling us that polygamy is destructive. Multiple spouses is harmful because it tears people apart.
All of a sudden, we’re now freed to pay closer attention to what the Bible tells us about sex in general. So then we take that second principle: Maybe you’re being offended because you have unexamined cultural assumptions. When we apply that principle to what the Bible says about sex, it challenges us to start thinking differently. To start saying to ourselves, “Ok, I think that multiple spouses is destructive. The Bible is affirming me on that. Why, then, would I assume that multiple partners is ok? The Bible is challenging me on that.”
Friends, the fact that the Bible can both challenge and affirm different cultures in different ways is not a proof against its trustworthiness, but a reason for it. If the Bible isn’t the product of any one particular culture but instead it comes from God, then we would expect it to offend and affirm different cultures in different ways. And that’s exactly what it does.
Personally. Another thing that people really struggle with about the Bible is the idea that there are all these rules and commandments, and that we have to obey these things perfectly in order to achieve salvation. Then they see the Bible telling us not to eat shellfish or wear a garment woven from two materials, and it just sounds so ridiculous.
So for instance, I haven’t read it, but there’s a book called The Year of Living Biblically (I think it also just became a TV show). It’s all about a guy who tries to follow every single law in the Bible as literally as possible. At one point, I think he even tries to stone an adulterer and offer an animal sacrifice. Now, I don’t know the point of the book. But very frequently, people bring up these kinds of things to show how primitive, ridiculous, and outdated the Bible is. And therefore we are justified in rejecting it as having any authority whatsoever over our lives.
In fact, the two disciples in this passage have the same problem. What was their problem? The same problem we have. We read the Bible, and we think it’s all about me and what I’m supposed to do. You know that that does? That does not lead you to a personal, intimate relationship with God. It leads you into a legalistic, anxious contract with God.
But what happened to these two disciples at the end? Notice in verse 32, they say, “Did not our hearts burn within us, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” Their hearts were burning. Their lives were changed. Their eyes were opened. They had a deep, personal, transformative encounter with the Lord. And it changed their lives. How did that happen?
They say, “While he opened to us the Scriptures.” The key for transforming their lives from a cold, legalistic adherence to hundreds of minute laws to a rich, living relationship with the living God was a transformation in their understanding of Scripture.
Notice why they were so upset. In verse 20, they say, “Jesus was crucified.” And in verse 21 they say, “But we hoped he was going to redeem Israel.” I was reading Tim Keller’s comments on this. He says it’s almost comical. Think about what they’re saying. “We thought Jesus was going to save the world. But aww snap, he got crucified.”
Jesus turns around and says, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! I had to die. That is the way I saved the world.” He’s saying, “You would understood this if you understood the Scriptures.” So then he gives them verse 27. This is the key to everything. Verse 27 is the key to understanding the whole Bible.
Verse 27: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” In other words, Jesus is saying, “Everything in the Bible is about me. All of it, ultimately, points to me.”
What does that mean? Jesus is saying, “When you read the Bible, it’s not about you and what you must do. It’s about me and what I have done.” That’s the gospel. It’s not about obeying a bunch of rules so you can avoid punishment and earn salvation. It’s about the One who obeyed everything on your behalf, took your punishment and earned your salvation.
When Jesus says, “Moses and the Prophets,” that’s a way of saying, “The whole Bible.” The whole Bible, Jesus is saying, is all about me. So for instance, just take Moses. The point of his story is not to say, “If you are faithful and obedient and brave, you will be able to face the Pharaoh’s in your life. You will be able to fight against injustice and earn your way into God’s kingdom.”
No! What’s the heart of the Moses story? What’s the Exodus about? God says to Moses, “Take a lamb and slaughter it. Take its blood and put it on the doorposts of your house. And everybody who takes shelter under the blood of the lamb will be saved. You will not have to pay for your sins when the angel of death comes through. The lamb will pay for your sins.”
Jesus is saying, “That story’s about me. I am the Lamb, the true Lamb, who takes away the sin of the world. I’m the true Moses who leads the people out of bondage. I’m the true Passover who takes the wrath of God’s judgment. I’m the true Exodus who makes a way through the waters of death.”
When you understand that Jesus is the fulfillment of everything in the Bible, it transforms your understanding of how you relate the Bible. What were all those laws about what you eat and what you wear? Those were ceremonial laws that made you pure when you went into the temple to offer your sacrifice. But because Jesus is the true and ultimate sacrifice, he has fulfilled all those laws for you. On the cross, he was treated as impure and unholy and unclean. He was clothed in your shame and sin, so that you could be clothed in his robe of righteousness. He was stricken by the rod of God’s judgment, so that you could be embraced by the arms of God’s love.
To try to keep those laws now would actually be a way of disobeying Scripture, because it would be to fail to trust in what Jesus has done for you. That does not mean that there is no place for obedience in your life. There is. Jesus was constantly upholding the moral law as an absolute necessity for his followers. But he said, “I’ve fulfilled the ceremonial laws, the sacrificial laws, the civil laws, in order to enable you finally to begin living by my law.”
You know what happens when you see that? Instead of the Bible being all about you and what you must do, you see it’s all about Jesus and what he has done. All of a sudden, your relationship with God gets personal. It goes from being a legalistic performance to a personal encounter.
You obey now, but for a whole different reason. The Bible does have authority over your life, but in a whole different way, and for a whole different reason. And listen, we’ve just scratched the surface this morning. A huge part of the Christian life is growing in our understanding of Scripture, the ways it challenges and affirms us, but especially the ways it shows us a Savior, Jesus, who is at the center of it all.
You can trust in historically, because it shows you the truth about who Jesus is and what he has done. You can trust it culturally, because it shows you a whole new way of looking at the world. And you can trust it personally, because it shows you not simply a teacher who tells you what to do, but primarily a Savior who has done it all for you. Let’s pray.