What is the Bible and Can it Be Trusted? (What is First John and Can it Be Trusted?)

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 life

John 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.

(The full sermon can be seen as part of this “online worship expression”)

Is the Bible Still Relevant Today?

I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I may be cheered by news of you. . . .

Still, I think it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus—my brother and co-worker and fellow soldier, your messenger and minister to my need; . . .

Philippians 2:19,25 (NRSV)

Have you ever read verses like these and wondered just what it has to do with us? Um, we should not expect Timothy to show up anytime soon, nor is Epaphroditus on his way. So what does it have to do with us then? Is the Bible stuck in a specific time and place? From verses like these, it sure looks like it is speaking to a time and place far from us! Does this mean the Bible is irrelevant to us? How does the Bible work anyway?

Through verses like these we learn what the Bible is not. Many Christians assume that what we have in the Bible is God speaking directly to the writers saying “write this” and they do so obediently. It is as if we expect God just took control of the hands of the writers to jot down what we all need to know without the writer’s mind being involved in the process. That is not what the Bible is. Nor is it what the Bible says about itself:

. . . you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

2 Timothy 3:15-17 (NIV emphasis added)

The Bible itself confirms what the Bible is not. It is not God dictated. It is, however, God-breathed.

From verses like those that mention Timothy and Epaphroditus we learn what the Bible is. It is evidence of people responding to real events. It is the evidence of God’s relationship with humanity, and how it works out in the lives of real people. It is evidence of the reality of that relationship. It includes all the twists and turns in that relationship. It includes all the joyful moments, and tragic moments in that relationship. It includes all the drama you will find in any relationship.

The clue is in the words “testament,” as in Old Testament, and New Testament. The Bible is the testament, the testimony as to what our relationship with God has looked like over many centuries. It is the testament of how God related to a specific people he called in order to bless all peoples. It is the testament of how God revealed himself supremely through Jesus and how that revelation of himself played out in the lives of real people.

A key part of that testimony is that God created humanity for a love relationship, a relationship he was committed to despite our rebellion. This was all done out of love. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son” (John 3:16 NIV). Because God so loved the world that he would come to it in Jesus, it is reasonable to expect that he also so loves the world that he is not going to let the record of his love be false or lost.

Therefore it makes sense that the Scriptures are “God-breathed.” They were written by people responding to various and specific events and circumstances, but God is in it, ensuring the testimony not be wrong. What is written passes through the minds of the writers, yes, but it also comes from the heart of God.

This means that we can trust that God was involved in the creation of the Bible, from the situations that inspired the various writers, to the actual writing, to the editing that may have happened in some of the writings, to the collecting together of some writings together in volumes (like the Book of Psalms), to the collecting together of all the Scriptures into one collection known as the Bible. This all took a very long time. We can expect that God was in it for the long haul.

To summarise, the Scriptures were not written to us, but they were written, collected and kept for us. The Bible is an accurate testament to God’s relationship with us over many centuries, a relationship that continues on to this day.

Knowing what the Bible isn’t and what it is, how do we read it today?

  • We read the Bible as deep and deepening people. We read it prayerfully and expectantly. We read with a desire to grow deeper in our relationship with God. We read with a desire that the Holy Spirit would be as involved in our reading, as the Holy Spirit was involved in the writing.
  • We read the Bible with a thoughtful reading, with a deep dive. There are things that we instinctively know as we read. For example, as we read the verses from Philippians quoted above, we don’t expect Timothy and Epaphroditus to show up. There are things, however, that we don’t instinctively know. For example, we may not know how slavery worked in ancient times. Indeed some have used the Bible in an awful promotion of slavery because they have not read deeply and understood the context. We also may not know how apocalyptic literature worked in New Testament times, and I could go on.
  • We read the Bible with humility. Because we don’t always have the background knowledge of specific situations, customs, and ways of thinking of the ancient peoples, we may not have the best interpretation of what we read. There are words used in the original languages of Hebrew and Greek that even scholars are unsure of what they mean. It is perfectly normal and appropriate for us to sometimes say “I may not be understanding this correctly.”
  • We read the Bible with confidence. Looking at the Bible from a “secular” perspective, we have the testimony of many people over many years, in various times and places, which all comes together in a remarkably unified testimony to the reality of God. From the perspective of faith, when we trust that God loves us, we can trust that the Scriptures are worthy of our trust. God would not go to great lengths in loving us, namely though Jesus and the cross, and then allow the testimony to be full of error.
  • We read the Bible with an eye open for “training in righteousness” (1st Timothy 3:16 NIV). Since we are in a series on Philippians, I could have preached a sermon on how there are people, like Timothy and Epaphroditus, who are good examples of those who have the mind of Christ. Though there are many lessons to learn we don’t want to always be looking in the Bible only for the “moral of the story,” for lessons on how to live. The Bible is much bigger than that, so . . .
  • We read the Bible with both eyes on the full story, the true story, the love story between God and humanity, the love story which we are invited to live into and become part of.

That Paul intended to send Epaphroditus, and later Timothy, to Philippi might not seem that relevant to us right now. That is a very specific situation that already happened nearly two thousand years ago. The fact, however, that people are separated from God through sin has not changed. The fact that Jesus is Lord and Saviour has not changed. The fact that we are invited into relationship with the Creator of the universe has not changed. The Scriptures are “able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2nd Timothy 3:15 NIV). That also has not changed. Therefore the Bible could not be more relevant to us today!

When we come across very specific and personal details in the Bible, we are reminded that the writings that make up the Bible were not written to us. But they were written for us. They couldn’t be more relevant to us in our day!

(The full reflection can be seen as part of our “online worship expression” from October 4th.)