How do we know any of it is true? Why bother reading the Bible? In our church family we are encouraging the reading of the Gospels over the season of Lent. We will be reading all of the Gospel of Mark, all of the Gospel of John, and parts of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. (A reading schedule is available at calvarybaptistcobourg.com). Why bother committing to such reading? How do we know the stories about Jesus and his teachings in these Gospels are not just fairy tales made up by the disciples?
So how do we know? Consider John 15:26,27:
26 “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. 27 And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning. (John 15:26-27 ESV)
These two verses point us to two answers.
First, we have the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit. In verse 26 Jesus says that “the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.” This inner testimony from the Holy Spirit can come rather like an intuition but it can also come along as strong feelings, like sorrow and regret or of joy and belonging. This is not just testimony that indeed there is a God, this is testimony that the God Who is wants to have a relationship with us:
14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God. (Romans 8:14-16)
This testimony of the Holy Spirit is to the reality and love of Jesus, but also to the truth of the scriptures.
Jesus was real to me long before I knew there was any evidence for the truth of Christianity which brings us to the second way we know the Gospels are true. We have the historical record, we have the testimony of eyewitnesses: “you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning.” (v.27) Keep in mind that here Jesus is speaking specifically to the disciples, that they are to become eyewitnesses of the facts about who Jesus is, what he said, what he did, how he died, and how he was raised to life again. Because of the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit we do not need evidence to believe, but when something is true we can and should expect the evidence to point in that same direction. We have this evidence through the disciples who were eyewitnesses. We have their genuine testimony preserved for us in the Gospels.
2 Timothy 3:16 points out an interesting fact about the works that make up the Bible:
16 All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
Saying that scripture is inspired by God is different than saying scripture is written by God. God is to scripture what the flute player is to music. The music that comes from the flute will be according to the desires of the flutist, but the flutist very much wants to use the flute. There is no scripture without God, and it is exactly as he has planned it to be. Yet there is no scripture without some very genuine flesh-and-blood people involved also. While the testimony of the Holy Spirit may convince us of the truths of scripture as we read, the fact that flesh and blood humans were involved as eyewitnesses points us to some evidence quite outside ourselves.
There are a few things for us to note:
- The Gospels were written by eyewitnesses or people intimately connected with the eyewitnesses of Jesus. It is interesting and instructive that we do not have just one Gospel written by one person, or even one written by Jesus. Instead we have multiple witnesses. This is not one person attempting to get a new religion going as we often see in cults. Instead the early Christian movement is many people responding to what they saw in and through Jesus. Experiencing the risen Jesus caused many people to recognize the gravity of all the facts around Him. The Gospels were written to get those facts down. This makes better sense than the theory that someone or a group of people tried to turn Jesus into something greater than he actually was.
- The Gospels preserve the eyewitness accounts of genuine eyewitnesses. Slight discrepancies between the Gospels on minor matters can be a source of stress for those who see the inerrancy of scripture as meaning that God should inspire out and iron out every such thing. However, these slight discrepancies do point to the genuine nature of the Gospels as coming from eyewitnesses to genuine events. The inerrancy of scripture means that the Bible is exactly the way it needs to be do reveal to us exactly what God wants to reveal. That there might be differences, take for example the manner in which the death of Judas occurred, makes no difference to God’s revelation of fundamental truths. That the accounts are not exactly the same demonstrate that the accounts are genuine for it is human nature to remember the important bits of what we experience with greater clarity than the details.
- The Gospels were written quite closely to the events they desrcibe as a means to preserve the eyewitness accounts. If the Gospels were written even one hundred years following the events they describe and there was not already a coherent Christian movement you might be able to make a case for them being written in an effort to help create yet another new man-made religion. But they are dated much earlier to the events they describe, some scholars putting them as close as within thirty to forty years after. This would put them at about the time people realized they had better start writing things down before the eyewitnesses all passed away. They were written at a time all the facts could still be checked. And they were written after the movement had already gained steam. They were written to preserve, not fabricate.
As we consider the truth of the Gospels, we should not be surprised by efforts to discredit the Gospels and the eyewitnesses that stand behind them. If it is true that Jesus rose from the dead, then it is also true that he died that our sins might be forgiven. And if it is true that he died that our sins can be forgiven, then it is also true that we have a sin problem in the first place. Therein lies the problem for many people. It is not just about confessing interesting facts from history. It is rather confessing a fact about ourselves; we have a sin-against-our-Creator problem and we need help.
Some people are interested in Jesus the way an hobbyist might be interested in airplanes or cars. I can tell you many interesting (to me) facts about airplanes and motorcycles, but they do not change my life one bit. Facts about Jesus, however, are life changing. I remember not wanting to wear glasses and so I refused to admit that I needed them. In grade six I needed to squint to see what was written on the blackboard. By grade eight it seemed I needed to squint to be able to see that there was a blackboard. When I first wore my glasses I felt embarrassed and worried about the names I might be called. But I also saw clearly for the first time in years and wondered why I had waited so long. Those who may be embarrassed at the thought of becoming a Christian, once they do so will wonder they didn’t do so earlier. That I need glasses is a life-changing fact, and the glasses themselves have been life changing. Sin is a life changing fact and Jesus Himself is life-changing.
So as we read the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, how do we know they are true? And how do we know that the Good News, the Gospel itself is true? We know it by the testimony of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and minds, and by the compelling testimony of credible witnesses in history. And how can I know I am loved and forgiven by God? The evidence of God’s love is in Jesus, His death and resurrection. The Holy Spirit and the eyewitness accounts stand as witnesses to that love.
Next week we will be looking more closely at the Gospel of Mark.
For a much better discussion of the eyewitness testimony to Jesus, please see this book.
(All scripture references are taken from the NRSV unless noted otherwise.)