What is the Bible, and can it be trusted? Your answer to that may lie somewhere between two extremes.
At one extreme, as I once heard it described, the Bible was dropped into our laps by God one day, already leather bound and including maps and a ribbon. The Bible is purely the work of God, people need not be involved. Therefore, of course it is to be trusted. Don’t question it!
At the other extreme, the Bible is a library of works written by men long after the events they speak about or purely based on their own religious speculations. The Bible is merely the work of humans, no God need be involved. Therefore, of course the Bible is not to be trusted. Don’t question your doubt!
Because we are beginning a series in 1st John, and because thinking of the whole Bible would make for a very long post, we are going to focus in on 1st John; what is it, and can it be trusted as a source of truth? Did God drop 1st John into our laps, or was it written by a mere man? The first four verses will help us sort this out:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched —this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete.1 John 1:1-4 (NIV)
We might notice that the words “we” and “our” come up a lot. Who is represented in this “we”? Specifically, this letter is traditionally thought to be written by John, a disciple Jesus called to follow him very early on in his public ministry. By saying “we,” John is including all the disciples who were with Jesus during the events related to us in the Gospels.
Having been followers of Jesus from the beginning, having seen him, heard him, been with him, and having seen him risen from the dead, the disciples were sent out by Jesus to teach people about him, all that he taught, and that he died and rose again, and what that all meant. The disciples, meaning ‘students’, became ‘apostles,’ meaning ‘sent-ones’. They were sent out to tell people what they knew to be true according to all they had witnessed. They were eyewitnesses. They were called to tell people what they had seen:
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”Acts 1:8 (NIV)
We might think of the disciples receiving a call to be “witnesses” in a religious sense, just as I am a Christian “witness” today. But really the were called by Jesus to be eyewitnesses, like in a court of law.
It was important that these apostles were eyewitnesses, able to speak from personal experience. We can consider the qualifications Peter set out in replacing Judas:
So now we must choose a replacement for Judas from among the men who were with us the entire time we were traveling with the Lord Jesus—from the time he was baptized by John until the day he was taken from us. Whoever is chosen will join us as a witness of Jesus’ resurrection.”Acts 1:21,22 (NLT)
So what is 1st John? It is a letter written by an eyewitness, John, who was a follower of Jesus based on his personal experience of Jesus, sent to Christians in various communities to encourage them.
As we read 1st John, we can be aware that John, as an eyewitness, was not making stuff up, but living life out of what he had seen and experienced. This is a real letter from a real person speaking from real experience. Therefore, before we even start talking about the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in John’s writing, there is already good reason to consider that John knows what he is talking about.
We often think of people like John as being primarily religious leaders, people who just loved to think of philosophy and religion. Let us keep in mind that John was a fisherman, and not someone who was seeking a career in spiritual leadership. He was a fisherman whose life was changed by Jesus. If John were still alive today, he may feel more at home in a witness stand in a court of law, than in a pulpit of a Baptist church.
The apostles were not sharing religious ideas they cooked up, in fact they would not have come up with this stuff anyway. Rather they were simply sharing what they had seen and experienced. Let us again consider the opening words of John, being sure to think of “we,” not as “we representing all humanity,” but as “we who were there with Jesus, who know what we are talking about”:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched —this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. 2 The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. 3 We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us.1 John 1:1-3 (NIV emphasis added)
Someone may object, how can we trust John to tell the truth when John is obviously a Christian and therefore biased in what he says. That is like asking if you can admit as evidence in a court of law, the testimony of someone who has seen someone commit a crime. You can accuse a witness of being biased to thinking that a criminal is guilty. But if they saw the criminal commit the crime, you want to hear their testimony and weigh it along with all the other evidence. So of course John is biased. He is a Christian precisely because of what he has seen, heard, and experienced. Of course John is biased, he has spent time with Jesus, before his death and after his resurrection. It would be odd if he were not a follower of Jesus!
Let us recognise that in his letter, John does not just simply report on the fact that Jesus is risen. He unpacks what that means and how it applies to life and faith. We will be looking at that in the weeks ahead, but even in the first four verses we can see how John can speak of the identity of Jesus, as being from God in a significant way, being the source of eternal life, and being the Messiah, the rightful King of the Kingdom of God. In other words, John doesn’t just want to share that Jesus is risen, but that the resurrection of Jesus has meaning, it confirms Who He really is.
We have not yet spoken of the inspiration of Scripture. In what way can we speak of this letter of John as being “God-breathed” or “inspired”? Let us be reminded of what God is like:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal lifeJohn 3:16 (NIV)
If God so loved the world that He sent His son to die for it, then it is reasonable that He will make sure the record of that loving act is trustworthy. If God has gone to such extraordinary lengths for us through Jesus, we should expect him to go to extraordinary lengths to ensure we have a valid record of what He has done, and what it means.
When we speak of the inspiration of Scripture we can recognise that God would want to be involved, not just in the writing of Scripture, but any editing that has happened, and also the collecting together of the Scriptures into what we now call the Old and New Testaments. With regard to the New Testament, the early Christians were very intentional in limiting the writings they revered as Scripture to ones they knew were connected with the apostles, the eyewitnesses. Therefore John’s three letters are included.
The events of the Bible cover a long span of history because God had been relating to us in a special way for a long time before Jesus came. It took a long time, and a lot of people involved, to get to the point of being able to say we have “a Bible”. The Bible was not a book dropped in our laps by God. Rather it is a library of writings written by many different people for many different reasons at many different times. They are each a response to God’s real work in our world and in the lives of real people. This makes the Bible a very exciting read!
The Bible was neither dropped into our laps by God, nor written up by religious types who wanted to fool us. The Bible is a collection of writings by real people experiencing God in a real way. They are a real response of real people to God’s very real presence. God showed up. People wrote about it. God was involved in the shaping of the those writings then, so that He can show up in the shaping of our lives today.