Rev’d Jonathan Gale
This is the first in our series about the Scriptures.
I am excited about that! If you are not excited by the Scriptures, I hope that by the end of this month, you most certainly will be.One of our admirable Anglican traditions is the reading of Scripture in our services of worship and I’m so glad that is the case. Anglicans are a people centred in story. We have always recognised what theologians are now emphasising – the power and relevance of story as a means of conveying truth and changing lives.
Let’s step back a bit. If you were God and you were busy wooing humankind back to yourself, you’d want them to remember the encounters they had with you.
One way of doing this would be to wrap around the thing you wanted people to remember, some sort of ritualistic action that they were required to repeat on specific occasions. For example when God wanted the Hebrews to remember the covenant he made with Abraham, he instructed them that each male born into the tribe was to be circumcised on the eighth day of his life. So each time a boy was born, the people remembered the promises of that covenant and affirmed their identity as God’s people.
Another very obvious ritual was the Passover meal which reminded the Israelites (as they were now called) of how God rescued them from slavery in Egypt. Aside from the need to be freed from the miseries of enslavement, they needed to get out of Egypt as their being there was a deviation from God’s plan, which included their living in the land of Canaan.
That’s all very well, and as a people with an oral tradition they were good at handing things down verbally from one generation to another.
However, when things got more detailed and sophisticated (think of the Law of Moses which housed the terms of the Covenant God make with the people of Israel at Mt Sinai) they needed a written record.
The following three things are no co-incidence:
- The land of Canaan (the land promised to Abraham and his descendants – in extent somewhat larger than modern day Israel) was situated on the trade route between two ancient civilisations that both developed their own form of writing. In Egypt it was hieroglyphics, believed to be from about 3300 or 3200 BC. In Mesopotamia it was cuneiform, developed by the ancient Sumerians in c. 3500-3000 BC. Because of the extent of the Arabian Desert travellers were forced to travel round the top of the Fertile Crescent and through Canaan, hence the people who lived there learnt to write. No coincidence.
- Secondly, most writing was done on calf skin (called vellum). In a wet climate it was subject to mildew and did not last long, but in a dry climate manuscripts lasted years before having to be recopied. No coincidence. Even when they were copied, there was such respect accorded the Scriptures, such extensive mechanisms in place to ensure that errors did not creep in, that it was virtually impossible for significant mistakes to occur.
- Thirdly, unlike the pagan nations, whose kings almost always claimed to be divine and who tended to distort history in an attempt to leave a legacy that proved that, the Israelites knew only too well that God was God and people were people. Their writings told the story, warts and all, as Oliver Cromwell put it. Think of David, the greatest king of Israel, whose adultery with Bathsheba, his despicable murder of her faithful husband Uriah, and his rebuke by the prophet Nathan; are faithfully recorded. Their history was accurately recorded. No co-incidence.
This means that God’s communication – his word – was able to be recorded, within a culture that valued objective truth, and was able to be preserved. That Word, precisely because it was God’s communication, became extremely important both to God and the people of Israel.
Now let’s think a bit about the nature of Scripture.There are 66 different books in the Scriptures, written in different times, in different genres, in different languages and in different contexts for different reasons by different people. To understand the Scriptures we need to be aware of those factors.
Those books were very carefully selected over a very long period of intense scrutiny and use – the Old Testament canon was not verified until the Council of Jamnia in 90 AD – although some scholars dispute that and claim it was earlier.
The 27 books of the New Testament were only confirmed at the Synod of Carthage in 397 AD. There were around 43 gospels written, but the criteria for inclusion in the canon of the New Testament were so strict, only the 4 Gospels we know made the grade.
That should tell us that the Scriptures were not written by God with a divine pen. They were written by men and were deemed as accurate by men who affirmed their inclusion in the canon of Scripture.
However, taken as a whole, God is behind the Scriptures. While they are the best attempt of fallible human beings to interpret their interactions with and understanding of, God, they are more than that too. God had his hand on their formation, not in a robotic sense, but in the same sense that any person close to God would hear God’s voice: sometimes accurately and sometimes – well – one wonders.
So because God’s purpose runs through them, the Scriptures are a meta-narrative, an overarching tale of the doings of God with humankind from the beginning to the end.
The Scriptures are a tale into which we ‘enter’ as it were. They form our thinking – and both thinking and prayer are integral to an appreciation of Scripture.
They are not an error-free account of history as some fundamentalists assert. They are not a compilation of lucky charms into which we dip occasionally when we want some encouragement in our wilful ways. Neither, primarily, are they a set of rules by which we are to regulate our lives. At best they lay down principles for living, principles we can draw from the stories in their context.
The Scriptures, supremely, reveal Christ. As Luke tells us of Jesus and the disciples on the road to Emmaus, 25 He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. (Luke 24: 25 – 27)
Scripture is the life-giving element of our faith. I should imagine that if the Holy Spirit has a supreme skill it is the revelation of God to our hungry hearts as we are enlightened by the Scriptures.
We make two errors with the Scriptures:
- one is we give them a magic quality that they don’t have – one small step from superstition and seeing them to be almost as important as God is. Martin Luther (the iconic figure of the Reformation) said that the Scriptures are not the word of God, they contain the word of God. There is a difference. When the Reformers used the term sola scriptura (by Scripture alone) they meant that God was revealed first and foremost in the Scriptures as opposed to in the decrees of the church.
- The other is we think that they are simply a set of old documents written for all sorts of purposes by some ancient people. What this ignores is that God was at work in the Scriptures as a means of communicating to his people and that God is at work in Scripture now as a means of revealing himself to his people.
I would urge us all to make the reading of Scripture, with careful thought and prayer, part and parcel of our daily lives. It may be old and beautiful, but like the steadfast love of the Lord, it is new every morning, and a major way God reveals himself to us.So when you open the pages of your bible, remember who it is looking back at you. It is not simply a gathering of men and women from long ago. It is God’s Holy Spirit, life-giving, loving, sometimes rebuking, but most of all saving, encouraging, healing and directing.Thank God for his Word!
In conclusion: Our Sentence this morning is a quote from what is known as Jesus’ High-Priestly prayer for his disciples. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. (John 17: 17)
Sanctify means to set apart for specific use, in this context, to equip. When Jesus prays to the Father (for us, his disciples) and asks him to equip us in the truth; and he then defines the truth as God’s word to us, we can see why:
- he said, through Moses: You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. (Deuteronomy 11: 18 – 28)
- We can see why Paul tells the Colossians: Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. (Colossians 3: 12 – 17)
Yes, Scripture informs and fascinates. Yes, it reveals Christ; but supremely it equips us, and if it equips us that means we have something to do. It means each of us is called to ministry in one form or another. And may we remember this: the work is God’s. We are called to work with God and if we are to be effective in that, we need to be equipped. And that means allowing God to change us through his word.