Thursday, October 1, 2009

Why Study the Bible?

This is the manuscript of a talk I gave about two weeks ago to the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship group at SUNY Binghamton. There were about 120 college students there. It was the second meeting of the year so the crowd was made up of both believers and non-believers. I was tasked to make the case for studying scripture--not so much a defense or apology of scripture as an explanation of the importance of scripture in relating to God. Before I spoke, the Intervarsity staff worker who is also a parishioner at Good Shepherd played the baby Jesus prayer clip from Talladega Nights--I make reference to it further down in the talk so I thought I would explain the context. I expanded and explained at some points especially near the end so the manuscript is not a complete representation of the entire talk but its complete enough

Have you ever wondered what quality sets human beings apart from other animals? It seems like the answer would be obvious but philosophers have wrestled with the question for ages. Some have said it's our ability to reason. Others, that we are self-conscious. Still others, the sense of our own mortality, the knowledge that we're going to die.

The bible offers a unique answer. What sets humans apart from other animals is our innate compulsion to worship. Worship, as the bible understands it, is not only to pray, sing songs and offer sacrifices, it is to in some sense become a sacrifice, to give the self over to something. Every human being inevitably worships or gives himself or herself over, heart, mind and strength to some kind of god.

There is evidence outside the bible to back up this claim. Religion is universal. There is no culture or people that does not worship some kind of God. Some people claim to be atheists or agnostic, but those who make such claims generally make then from within cultures and societies that have made the effort to become secular. It takes effort—people have to be educated into unbelief. That's why you mostly find it in societies with western-style universities.

But by the biblical definition of worship even the atheist worships...even the atheist gives himself or herself over, sacrifices, to something. The atheist who wants to be successful at school, for example, and neglects all his relationships, family, friends, and devotes all of his time to study--has a god, “academic success,” and sacrifices everything to it. Your god is whatever you live for and sacrifice too.

The impulse to worship sets humans apart but the bible claims that it also lies at the heart of the human problem.

In chapter 1 of Romans Paul describes the problem this way:

21 ...although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

Paul makes at least three claims here 1. They, us, we all know that there is a God because God has made it plain to us to the point that no one can plead ignorance of his existence and nature. There are no real atheist. 2. We know that this God deserves our worship. 3. Rather than worshiping the Creator we give ourselves over to the things he created.

There are two ways we do this. The first is most familiar. We literally make gods out of the stuff of the cosmos. In some parts of the world people cut down trees, or carve pieces of stone, fashion gods out of them and worship them.

Few of us do that...but most of us do, or have in the past, worshiped gods we've fashioned out of the stuff of the world. We give ourselves over to alcohol, drugs, pornography, sex, career, an education...we make gods of these things and give ourselves to them. All of these fall under this first type of idolatry.

The second way we give ourselves over to created things rather than the Creator is a lot more common and much more difficult to recognize. There is a story in the bible that captures this 2nd type of idolatry perfectly.

Through Moses, God delivered his people from slavery in Egypt. After 400 years in a foreign land, the people no longer knew God. They knew of him, vaguely, they did not know him, personally. So after setting them free God led the people to a mountain called Sinai and then called Moses to meet with him on the mountain.

What happened while Moses was on the mountain?

Aaron, Moses' brother, collected gold jewelry from the people, melted it down, and fashioned an idol in the form of a calf. That sounds like a lot like the first form of idolatry...fashioning a separate "god out of the stuff of this world. But when you read the text you find something different. Listen to what Aaron said: "And Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the LORD.” 6 And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings.”

The word “LORD” is in all capitals which means that in the Hebrew the word is YHWH. Aaron and the people did not believe they were making another god. They thought they were worshiping YHWY.

That is the second way that human beings worship created things rather than the Creator. We don't set out to make other gods. We give ourselves over to fabrications that we identify as the true God.

How do you know who God is? How do you know what God is like?

There are lots of ways people answer this question. “I know God through nature, the stars, the clouds and trees, mountains and hills.” “I know God in the quiet of a forest.” I look inside myself and I experience God.” “I know God when I feel love and the love of those around me.” Those are all common answers. And they're not all bad answers—God certainly reveals himself through the things that he has made.

Those who identify as Christians often say much the same thing.

“I know God through prayer. Prayer deepens my knowledge of him.” “I sense God's presence most when I worship—that's how I know him, its that sense of his presence I get during a hymn or at Communion.” “I know God through the people I love and who love me at church.” “I can't explain how I know him, I just know him.” These too are good and true answers about a personal, experienced knowledge of God

But it's important to notice that often one person's experience of God is very different than another person's. This is to be expected. Everyone experiences God personally, individually, and because we're all different, our experiences of God are different and that's true and that's good and fine and right.

Sometimes...well, if the bible is to be believed and I think it is, often, people, take these experiences, these feelings and draw definitive conclusions about who God is and hold these conclusions to be sacrosanct. Those who do this sort of thing often say things like: "My God is a God of ____ so I just can't believe in_____". A person's personal experience of God or at least what he or she perceives as a personal experience of God determines, measures, and shapes God's identity.

An example of this sort of thing that I ran into a lot as youth minister is the common line... "I know that somewhere in the bible it says I shouldn't have sex with my girlfriend until we're married, but we prayed about it and God told us that since we are in love its okay..." Really? God really told you that? What an amazing god you have...perfectly aligned with your libido.

There are so many people with so many different and definitive conclusions about "their god".

One person's god is a condemning lawgiver and judge. Another persons god smiles on every desire and affirms every behavior. One person's god says never to have sex outside of marriage. Another person's god says sex is okay as long as you are committed and in love. One person's god is at one with Jesus, the Buddha, Shiva and all other gods and spiritual paths says that all are equally valid vehicles to the divine. Another person's god is the only one and he has only one name.

If you go to church you probably see the same sort of thing with Jesus..

One person's Jesus is meek and mild another person's Jesus is Almighty and King and Lord. One person's Jesus is all about non-violence and another's is making whips out of cords. One person's Jesus says that its okay never to go to church because worship takes place in the heart another person's Jesus says go to church every Sunday. There is the emergent Jesus, the inclusive Jesus, the social revolutionary Jesus, the peace and justice Jesus, the green Jesus, the gay Jesus, the straight Jesus the Republican Jesus the Democrat Jesus, the baby your politics, name your movement, name your preferences, name your passions and there is a Jesus for you.

And in the middle of it all you have to ask yourself: do I know who the real God is? Is my concept of God a true one? Because if God is real, if he has an identity, if he truly is, then he can't just be what each one of us wants him to be.

In fact his name in Hebrew, the name by which he identified himself to Moses, is YHWH, which means I AM who I AM. You do not define me. You do not measure me. You do not image or shape or form me. You cannot know me beyond what I reveal. I AM.

The problem is that our experiences, including our spiritual experiences are colored by and shaped by our personalities, desires and preferences. Our personalities, desires and preferences are not all bad.

They can be very good. They can be very much like the gold that the people took with them out of Egypt. Why did they take it? Who told them to take it? God did. Was it bad, was it evil stuff? Absolutely not. It was very good stuff. But when they took that very good gold and used to fabricate an image of god, they were in fact, giving themselves over to a self-constructed counterfeit. In seeking to image or re-image YHWH they merely projected an image of their own understandings--their own personalities, preferences and desires. And so in the end they did not worship the one true God but they worshiped a molded image of themselves.

In the same way, if the God we worship, if the God we know, is the God who emerges out of our personalities, desires and preferences—if our God is made up entirely of the stuff of our personal experience of him, then it's not only possible, but it is necessarily true, the we're not giving ourselves over to the real God

We all do this. As Paul says, its bound up in who we are as human beings.

But thanks be to God he has not left us to ourselves. He loves us and he wants us to know him.

Where was Moses while the people were casting the golden calf? Moses received the Ten Commandments which were inscribed by God on tablets of stone along with over 600 other laws.

These were not arbitrary rules. Among and along with the law came the command to "Be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy." (Lev 19:2). The law God gave to Moses, the first written word of God, revealed God's own self. This is who I am. I reveal myself in these commandments. I show myself to be holy and you must reflect me, in your thoughts and your words and your deeds.

There was no need afterward to melt down gold and make a calf, no need to imagine what God was like or to wonder about his nature and character. He identified himself, he disclosed his identity, he revealed his character in the word he gave to Moses and then to the Prophets, and then through Jesus and his apostles in the New Testament.

Paul says this to Timothy, "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work." (2 Tim 3:16-17)

I'm sure every Christian in this room has heard that text before, but don't let it pass over you in a foggy haze, its a stunning claim: "All Scripture" not part of it, not just the New Testament, not just the parts that quote Jesus, not just the parts that are easy to understand, not just the parts that tell of God's love. All of it. All scripture is breathed out--every word originates with God. Scripture is like the exhilation of God's breath. Leviticus, conquest of Palestine in Joshua, those really boring lists of sacrificial offerings by the 12 tribes in Numbers, that weird story about the sacrifice of Jephthah's daughter in Judges, from the creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2 all the way to the coming of the New Jerusalem in Revelation. All of it is God breathed--all of it

Peter backs up Paul in his second letter chapter 1: 19-21. He's just finished explaining his amazing experience during the transfiguration where he saw Jesus' appearance changed, where he saw with his own eyes, the glory of Christ but he says that his faith, his knowledge of Christ does not rest on even his eyewitness in-person experience. He says rather, "we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, 20 knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation. 21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit."

The prophetic word, writes Peter, the scriptures, are a more certain way of knowing the truth about God than what I saw with my own eyes, what I felt in my heart, what I touched with my hands. Why? How can the bible be more sure than even Peter's own hands on experience? Because Peter's experience, as wonderful as it was, was filtered through Peter.

God's word, on the other hand, is written by the prophets and the apostles—by Peter himself—but it is more certain because “No word of prophesy was ever produced by the will of man....but men spoke from God” and, says Peter, they did so as they were “carried along” by the Holy Spirit so that what they wrote, while "fully human", marked by their personalities and by their experiences and historical settings, would truly be God's own true word.

I asked a moment ago how you can know whether or not your experience of God is true; how you might wade through the mass of opinions about God and know the truth. Finding the truth about God is the most important thing you will ever do.

But you don't have to stumble around and wonder, guess, speculate about who God is and what he is like. He speaks. He speaks to you and to everyone else directly and clearly. God has answered that question. When you read scripture, when you come face to face with God's own self-revelation, then you know who God is.

So read it. study it. Feed on it. Wherever you are—whatever you believe or think about God the most important thing you will do in your life is study God's own word about himself.

Application points:

Full—the whole bible
Systematic—not randomly
Corporate—in community
Careful—look for what scripture says not what you feel about it.
Prayerful—ask God to apply it to your life

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