Wednesday, January 01, 2014

What Is The Bible? Is It God's Word?

Can I have a show of hands? How many of you here have read the entire Bible at least once? 

No matter what your view on Bible is, whether you have confidence and trust in it as being from God in any special way or not, I would like to encourage you to pick up a Bible and read through it with an open mind, with a critical mind at least once in your life. Even if you are Christian or not, the Bible has such a profound impact on the English language as literature (it’s the number one best seller of all time) and on human culture and civilization that some Bible knowledge is essential just to make your educational development more complete. If you do not have a copy, just google BibleGateway.com and you are ready to go.

Now, what is the Bible anyway? Is it historically reliable? Is it relevant for our lives today? These are the three questions I like to address today.
What’s the Bible?  
Here’s a trick question: How many books am I holding in my hand now? The answer is not one. Actually, the Bible is a collection of 66 books written by about various authors (kings, prophets, fishermen, poets, wise men, song writers, even a doctor named Luke), in three different languages (Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic). They were written over a period of approximately 1600 years (1500 BC until 100 AD). It has been translated into more than 2000 languages around the world in either complete or partial form. And the Bible contains many different styles of writing such as poetry, songs, stories, history, law, letters, proverbs and prophecy. To understand what they say, we need to read them in context of those styles.
Even though everything seems so different, the amazing thing is that the entire Bible tells one Big Story. In spite of all that diversity and complexity, there is an overarching unity of theme. Now some people think the Bible is a book of moral rules, to tell you what you should or shouldn’t do. Well, there are some rules in it. They show you how life works best. But the Bible isn’t mainly about you and what you should do. It’s about God and what He has done for you.
Other people think the Bible is a book about heroes of faith, showing good examples you should follow. There’s truth in that but people have been quite shocked when they find that these heroes in the Bible like Moses, Abraham, King David, Samson, Solomon, Peter and Paul are often not very good role models after all. All of them made some pretty horrible mistakes, sometimes on purpose. The fact is: they are all broken people (sinners) just like us and they are all signposts that point us beyond themselves, they show us the only one true Hero in this Story: His name is Jesus the Christ. By the way, Christ is not his last name. It’s His title – the King, the Anointed One, the Chosen One.
That’s why the Bible is divided into two parts: Old Testament written before the coming of Jesus and New Testament written after His life, death and resurrection. The Old Testament prepares and promises the coming of this perfect King. It gives people clues, hints and symbols about who He is, where and how He will come, what He will do and so on. The New Testament records eyewitness accounts, it reveals and explains to us what Jesus has taught and done in history about 2000 years ago. So Christ is prophesied in the Old Testament and fulfilled in the New Testament. He is the main character in the story.  
For Christians, this unity in such diverse writings and fulfilled prophecies are not by random accident. The Bible itself claims to be inspired by God: “For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” Jesus Himself says: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” God is the Author behind all the human authors.
Now, what is this Big Story that runs through the whole Bible? What’s the message?
Well, to summarize it briefly: you can think of it as a love story with 4 chapters. A story of how God loves His children and comes to rescue them… Right at the beginning (in the first book called Genesis), we are told that God made the whole universe and everything in it – the oceans and mountains, whales and lions, planets, quasars, atoms and human beings – the wonderful design of our bodies, nervous system and encoded DNA in every cell. We are created in God’s likeness with great worth and dignity – with special ability to think, feel and we can have a special relationship with God and with one another. Life is full of purpose, beauty and harmony when it works according to His original design.
Until the day when everything went terribly wrong. In Chapter 2: We decided to run our lives and seek happiness apart from God. We became self-centered, our desires turned inward. As a result, we seek our own good above others' and exploit the world out of greed and violence. But there is no happiness apart from God. Death, sorrow and sickness entered the world. The wonderful relationship with God, with each other and with nature itself was broken. Evil has corrupted our hearts.
But God loved the world too much to leave it that way so he came to our rescue. Chapter 3: At the heart of this Story is God coming to earth in the form of a human person – Jesus. Not because of how good, humble or smart we are. Jesus lived the perfect life that we should have lived. He died the sacrificial death that we should have died for our sins. He died an innocent death on the cross and came back to life again so that our relationship with God can be restored. Last chapter: Jesus will return one day and His kingdom will turn back all that is evil and heal all who suffer in the world. Every tear of sorrow will be wiped away from our eyes. Death shall be no more. In the meantime, Jesus invites all who follow Him to live in the way of His love, justice and grace.

 So that in a nutshell is the big Story in the Bible.

You see, the best thing about this Story is – it’s true. If the Bible is just about moral rules, it doesn’t matter if all this is just a fairy tale. Even myths can tell you to do good without being historically true. But the gospel or good news is not about what you do but what God has done. So it’s important that Jesus lived and died and rose again 2000 years ago.   

Which brings us to the next question: Is the Bible historically reliable? Did it really happen?

More than any other book, the Bible has been analyzed, criticized, dissected and defended by scholars, scientists, philosophers and historians for hundreds of years. So you can easily find arguments on both sides disproving and proving the Bible on Google and Youtube. And this will go on forever.

So first, let me just say something about the discipline of archaeology and history. We need to know that only a small part of ancient artifacts or documents survived the ravages of time, war and humid weather. And only a fraction of ancient sites were found and dug up for research. Some of them were never found. So the evidence that we now have are fragmentary, limited and partial in nature. They cannot finally prove or disprove the Bible because new findings may come.

So archaeology is valuable to tell us more about the historical context and background information of the Bible, but not to prove the Bible. And the absence of evidence is never proof that something did not happen. For example, for a long time, people doubted if King David and Pontius Pilate the person who sentenced Jesus to death ever existed because we cannot find the evidence: Ahh… this is just a myth. But with further research, documents and inscriptions have now been found to confirm that they both existed. Sometimes, we just have to be patient and wait for more evidence.

When it comes to the life of Jesus, we are lucky that quite a few ancient documents outside of the Bible (even by enemies of the Christian faith) provide details about him. Talmud (Jewish source): “On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged.”

Lucian (2nd century, Greek writer): “The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account. . . it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws.”

Tacitus (A.D. 55 - 117, Roman historian): “Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus…”

But the earliest and most complete historical source about Jesus’ life is the Gospels and other documents in the New Testament itself. The life and death of Jesus are historically verifiable, not an imaginary fairy tale. There were eye witness accounts. Faith is not blind, “take it or leave it”. Biblical faith is based on historical facts that can be checked.

Now, how do historians check whether an ancient document is reliable or not? Well, they ask these questions:

1) How many surviving copies of that ancient document do we have to compare and test? The more manuscripts we have, the easier it is to detect differences and check for any copying errors.

2) What is the time gap between the oldest surviving copies and the writing of the original? The closer to the original, the more confidence we have in the manuscripts.

First let us look at the statistics for non-biblical texts:
Caesar's The Gallic Wars has 10 surviving manuscripts with the earliest copy dating to 1,000 years after the original writing; Herodotus' History (8 manuscripts; 1,350 years elapsed) and Tacitus' Annals (20 manuscripts; 1,000 years). The best preserved of ancient non-biblical writings is Homer’s Iliad with about 650 surviving copies (500 years elapsed).                          

In comparison, there are more than 5,000 existing Greek manuscripts that contain all or part of the New Testament! They were was written from about A.D. 50 to A.D. 100. Two major manuscripts, Codex Vaticanus (A.D. 325) and Codex Sinaiticus (A.D. 350) date within 250 years of the time of composition. Most fascinating of all, the earliest fragment of a small portion of John’s Gospel dates about A.D. 120.

If skeptics dismiss the Bible as unreliable, then they must also throw out virtually everything we learn from ancient history. 

OK, so far we have seen how the New Testament is a basically reliable historical document but is it really God’s word? A lot of ancient documents can be historical but we don’t think that they are from God. How is it relevant to my life as revelation of God?

That’s a great question and we need to start with Jesus who is at the center of the Bible’s Big Story.

You see, Buddha did not claim to be God. Moses never said that he was Yahweh. The prophet of Islam Muhammad did not claim to be Allah. Yet Jesus said: He who has seen me has seen God the Father (John 14:9). From the Bible, we also discover that Jesus claims to have authority to forgive sins (Mark 2:5–7) and equal with God (John 5:18). He claims to be the Son of Man who will judge the world, rule over the nations and receive worship from all peoples (Matthew 26:63-65).

Someone who claims to be equal with God cannot be just another human teacher. He is either mad or bad or really, He is Lord of all.  

When some religious teachers said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you. Show us a miracle to prove that you are from God,” Jesus answered, “Just as the prophet Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 28:38-40)

Three days after he was dead and buried in a grave, Jesus rose back to life and proved that His claims were true. The resurrection is a miracle, a sign that vindicates His claims to be true. All his disciples except Thomas had seen him alive. So Thomas said he would only believe if he could put his fingers on the nail wounds of Jesus’ hands and into his pierced side. So finally Jesus appeared and told him: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Put your hand into the wound in my side.” 

Thomas cried out: “My Lord and my God!” and worshipped Jesus. Jesus accepted his worship: “You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who haven’t seen me and believe anyway.” (John 20)

Jesus conquered Death to prove His claims to be true. Therefore we trust and accept His teachings that the Bible is not only historically accurate but also God’s word for our lives. Therefore we receive the answers Jesus gave to the big questions: Where do we come from? Who are we? What is purpose of life? Where do we go after death? All these questions are relevant to our personal lives.

If the Bible is a reliable record of God's word, then it is essential that we take time to read and study it. It is sad indeed that many Christians can devote hours to their hobbies or studies but often give so little time to studying His written revelation. Many Christians have never read the whole Bible even once, despite coming to faith years ago. If you are not already in the process of studying the whole Bible, let me encourage you to do so.

Not only should we read the Bible, we must also live it. 'Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.' All of us are dying and it is the message of the Bible, that alone can give us hope and salvation.

As you read the Bible, don’t take it as just moral laws or religious rituals that teach you to be a better person. The purpose is not that you may impress God and earn your ticket to heaven by good deeds. The Bible shows you God’s holy standard is so high that you will never reach it on your own. It shows you what God has done in history – Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. He doesn’t just show you the way. He is the way. You come to God through Him alone. He is your hope. If you turn away from living for yourself and trust in Jesus as the One who rescues you from your sin and as the King who now rules over your life, you can have a living relationship with God. Today.

He can cleanse you from all your guilt and sins. Then the Bible will be a joy and a fountain of wisdom to you. Because it always points you to Jesus, the God who became human and gave His life up to save you.


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