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"The BIG Questions”
Part 4:
“How Can We Take the Bible Literally?”
Based on 2 Timothy 3:16 and Selected Texts
Delivered on March 13 & 14, 2010
by David J. Claassen
Copyright 2010 by David J. Claassen

The best-selling book of all time, as you probably know, is the Bible. No book is quoted more than the Bible. Yet once you move beyond the walls of a church or connect with people beyond a circle of Christian friends, you'll find that the Bible isn’t always held in the highest regard — high regard, yes, but not always the highest regard.

People ask, “How do you know the Bible's true?” or “How can you take the Bible literally?” The insinuation of such questions is that the Bible is great literature — maybe even a great religious book — but you can take it too seriously! In the final analysis such people argue that it's a great book, but not a perfect one.

Some well-meaning Christians try to argue the point by saying, “I believe that the Bible is the Word of God because it says it is.” Of course this doesn’t ring true to a skeptic — and frankly, it shouldn't ring true to any thinking person, including a Christian. It's a circular argument: “I know the Bible's true.” “How?” “Because it says it is.”

How would I respond to a person who says, “How do you know the Bible's true? It was written by men. There's stuff in the Bible about stoning people who worship a different god. And why do you follow the Ten Commandments in the Old Testament but not the laws that forbid eating pork or fish without scales?” What follows is some of what I would say to such a person.

The Reliability of the Bible

I'd begin by asking whether the person believed that Jesus was a good teacher. Usually people believe that He was. A friend of mine who’s a Muslim and a retired doctor believes that; he told me so. Jesus' teachings, His travels, and some of the things He did are recorded in four documents that are included in the Bible. They're called gospels. I'd respect a person's opinion that they aren’t perfect and without error (which I've come to believe); I wouldn't expect him to believe that. What I would argue, however, is that they’re reliable documents. No one has proven them wrong — any of them — in any way.

All four were written within a lifetime of Jesus' life here on Earth. Most scholars believe that the gospel of John was the last gospel to be written — probably around 90 AD, 60 years after the events it records. In fact, a fragment of the gospel of John containing portions of John 18:31-33 and 37-38 has been found in Egypt. Experts date this fragment at 130 AD; that's only a hundred years after the events it records. It's old enough to be a copy of the original!

We have many people in our church around 80 years of age; they remember events 60 years ago, including World War 2, having participated in them. Contrary to popular belief, the gospels were not written centuries later. They were written by contemporaries of Jesus, and two of the four writers (Matthew and John) were two of His original twelve disciples.

Note the gospel writer Luke's intention for writing his account of Jesus. It was really a document originally intended for one person: a Greek named Theophilus. “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” (Luke 1:1-4)

The gospel writer John concluded his account of Jesus' teachings and life in much the same manner that Luke began his gospel. John wrote, “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written 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) A little later John wrote about himself, “This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.” (John 21:24)

The gospel writers intended their accounts of Jesus' teachings and life to be accurate. No one has ever come up with a reason to question the reliability of what they recorded. What did they say about how Jesus viewed the “Bible” of His day, which we know as the Old Testament?

Jesus taught, “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:18) Jesus saw the Holy Scriptures as being God's perfect word, right down to each letter of each sentence. Jesus Himself quoted Old Testament Scripture when He was tempted in the wilderness for forty days. He faced three major temptations, and each time He faced it by saying, “It is written: . . .” and then quoting a passage (Matthew 4:4,7,10). He saw it as completely authoritative.

At His arrest Jesus indicated that it had to happen the way it was happening because Scripture had prophesied it. “But this has all taken place that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled.” (Matthew 26:56)

On another occasion Jesus stated, “. . . the Scripture cannot be broken — . . .” (John 10:35) Jesus saw the Holy Scriptures of His day, which we know as our Old Testament, as the inspired, completely trustworthy, and authoritative Word of God.

What about the New Testament? Obviously it wasn't yet written when Jesus was here on Earth. The role of a disciple was to listen, learn, and commit to memory, the teachings of the one they followed. It's clear by the teachings Jesus gave His disciples that He intended them to pass them on; they weren't just for them.

Jesus said that His disciples would have the help of the Holy Spirit of God to expand God's truth: “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you.” (John 16:13) This includes the gospel accounts, as we've already mentioned, but it also includes the remainder of what we know as the New Testament: the historical book of Acts, all the letters (epistles), and the book of Revelation by the apostle John. In fact, in one of his letters in the New Testament the apostle Peter referred to Paul's letters as Scripture! “Bear in mind that our Lord's patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” (2 Peter 3:15-16)

Jesus taught that the Old Testament, His own words, and the words and teachings yet to be written about Him were true, authoritative words. They're Scripture from God!

Understanding the Various Types of Scripture

Part of the problem people have with respecting the Bible as God's trustworthy Word is that they fail to see that the Bible is made of various styles of literature and that the books were written in various times and places. Unless you understand the style, or genre, of a specific book of the Bible, and the context of the time and place it was written, you can't really grasp what it's saying.

The Bible contains history (Genesis through Esther), wisdom literature (Job through Song of Songs), prophets (Isaiah through Malachi), gospels (Matthew through John), history (book of Acts), letters (Romans through Jude), and the apocalyptic (book of Revelation). Each genre is different.

For instance, within the wisdom literature you have the book of Proverbs. A proverb is a generalized statement of something that’s usually true, though not necessarily in every case. For instance, we say, “Haste makes waste.” We've all experienced times when we hurried and it was a disaster, but not every time. This is good to remember when you’re reading the book of Proverbs. They're a general principle, not a promise. For instance, one proverb states, “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” (Proverbs 22:6) This is a proverb, not a promise. Sometimes a child who was raised well will rebel, may get into drugs, and might even die — but generally, it's a principle that holds true. Not realizing what a proverb is and isn't might lead someone to say, “See, it's wrong! I know a kid . . . .”

The psalms are poetry; what’s written is from the heart. The various psalmists poured out their deepest feelings, doubts, and expressions of anger. That's why a psalmist prayed to God about his enemies, “Break the teeth in their mouths, O God; . . .” (Psalm 58:6) That verse doesn't give us the right to punch someone in the mouth! That psalm isn’t teaching us how to treat our enemies; it’s teaching how to pray honestly to God!

The Old Testament laws must also be understood in context. People wonder why we obey the Ten Commandments but don't follow the law to execute someone who worships a different god, as Exodus 22:20 states: “Whoever sacrifices to any god other than the Lord must be destroyed.” It must be understood that there are different kinds of law in the Old Testament — mainly three kinds.

There are ethical or moral laws that always are true, and that we’re supposed to obey today. They reflect God's holy nature and the fact that we’re supposed to be like Him.

There are also ritual laws that applied to the people of Israel under the old covenant, but that no longer apply under the new covenant through Christ. For instance, the eating of unclean animals was prohibited then, but it isn’t now. Jesus stated, “Don't you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him 'unclean'?” The gospel writer Mark then added his editorial comment: “(In saying this, Jesus declared all foods 'clean.')” (Mark 7:18-19)

There were also civil laws. The nation of Israel was a theocracy: God was their king. Just as today a U.S. citizen can't threaten the President of the United States, under a theocracy slandering or cursing God was a capital offense.

Failing to understand the genre and context of a portion of Scripture can lead to all kinds of misunderstandings. Ironically, the very people who criticize us for taking the Bible “literally” often take it literally themselves, without considering good principles of interpretation — and then they’re confused and end up doubting its reliability and truthfulness.

It seems reasonable that the great God of the universe, who created humans in His own image, would have no trouble giving us a written account of His actions and words, His thoughts and His heart's desires. A careful study of and reflection on the Bible can easily lead to the deep conviction that God has spoken! The apostle Paul declared, “All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” (2 Timothy 3:16)

If God has spoken, we should listen and respond! I want to read and hear what He has to say to me, and with His gracious help carry out His intentions for me. You, too?

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