I was recently a special guest on the White Horse Inn podcast for a four-week series, God’s Hospitality. We explored the them of feasting from Genesis to Revelation. After eating the forbidden fruit, humanity was cast into sin and death. As Scripture unfolds, we discover God’s gracious plan of redemption that culminates in the great feast at the end of the ages. We who were strangers and enemies of God are welcomed to the wedding feast of the Lamb.
I had the privilege of teaching for the Key Life radio broadcast. The series is “God, Grace, and Suffering” and we look at three psalms: Ps. 18, Ps. 22, and Ps. 55.
- You save me from violence (Psalm 18)
- My friends betray me and it hurts (Psalm 55)
Many contemporary Christians feel disconnected from the vibrant, Spirit-filled ministries of the prophets and apostles described in the Bible. In the Old Testament, God seemingly took the people of Israel through miraculous event after miraculous event. In the New Testament, those who watched the ministry of Jesus were seized with amazement (cf. Luke 5:25) at the miracles he performed, and the apostles in the early church regularly performed signs and wonders among the people (Acts 5:12).
Yet today, such miraculous events seem rare and, when we do hear reports of miracles, many Christians are skeptical. At the very least, Christians feel that there is something different about the way God worked in the Old and New Testament periods and the way he works today. This raises a valid question: Why don’t we experience today the miracles we read about in the New Testament?
To answer that question, we need to understand not only how God works through providence and common grace [link to previous standalone post on miracles and providence], but we must also understand the purpose of miracles in the Bible.
The Purpose of Miracles in Scripture
Miracles in Scripture are acts of God that proclaim his sovereign power over creation as well as his commitment to the good of his people. Miracles are often significant because they serve a larger purpose in God’s redemptive plan, giving evidence of the authenticity of God’s messengers who bring his revelation to humanity. This is one of the primary functions of miracles in the Scriptural narratives: “When miracles occur, they give evidence that God is truly at work and so serve to advance the gospel.” Miracles serve as an authentication of God’s message and his messengers.
In the Old Testament, Moses did miracles to attest to his authority as God’s spokesman (Exod. 4:1–9). Similarly, the prophets were given words to speak from God, and in order to verify their authority God granted them the ability to perform miracles (1 Kings 17:17–24, 18:36–39, 2 Kings 1:10).
Whereas “the miracles of the Old Testament age authenticated Moses and the prophets as men of God…the miracles of the New Testament age authenticated in turn Christ and his apostles.” Nicodemus, for example, recognized that God was with Jesus because of the miracles he did (John 3:2). Luke records approximately 20 of Jesus’ miracles and four—all healings—are unique to only Luke. Jesus’ miracles authenticate his authoritative role in the divine plan that brings salvation (Luke 7:22). In fact, the scope of Jesus’ healings shows the breadth of his authority. He heals the sick, casts out evil spirits, and cures a variety of specific conditions: a flow of blood, a withered hand, blindness, deafness, paralysis, epilepsy, leprosy, dropsy, and fever. He resuscitates the dead and exercises power over nature.
Miracles also point to God’s kingdom and the restoration of creation. John calls the miracles of Jesus “signs” (John 4:54, 6:15), and Jesus suggests that his miraculous works verify that the kingdom of God has come (Luke 11:14-23). Jesus performed healings, exorcisms, and “nature” miracles (such as turning water into wine and multiplying food) as a sign that the kingdom of God had come to earth. As Grudem puts it, the one of the purposes of miracles was “to bear witness to the fact that the kingdom of God has come and has begun to expand its beneficial results into people’s lives.” This is exactly the point of what Jesus says in Matthew 12:28: “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” Because of Jesus’ miraculous works, those who saw him knew that the God of Israel was once again acting in their midst.
Tim Keller points out that miracles
“lead not simply to cognitive belief, but to worship, to awe and wonder. Jesus’s miracles in particular were never magic tricks, designed only to impress and coerce…Instead, he used miraculous power to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and raise the dead. Why? We modern people think of miracles as the suspension of the natural order, but Jesus meant them to be the restoration of the natural order.”
Jesus’ miracles reveal his divine identity—an identity that calls for worship. This is the response of the disciples after Jesus walks on the water: “Truly you are the Son of God” (Matt. 14:33). When asked whether he was the “one who is to come” (Luke 7:19) Jesus, instead of answering with a word testifying that he is the Messiah, points to his miracles. Luke’s portrayal of Jesus is focused on his authority and the promise he brings. Jesus’ saving work inaugurates the kingdom of God, delivers sinners, secures forgiveness of sin, and provides the Spirit.
Grudem’s description of miracles in the Old and New Testaments is worth quoting:
“It seems to be a characteristic of the New Testament church that miracles occur. In the Old Testament, miracles seemed to occur primarily in connection with one prominent leader at a time, such as Moses or Elijah or Elisha. In the New Testament, there is a sudden and unprecedented increase in the miracles when Jesus begins his ministry (Luke 4:36–37, 40–41). However, contrary to the pattern of the Old Testament, the authority to work miracles and to cast out demons was not confined to Jesus himself, nor did miracles die out when Jesus returned to heaven. Even during his ministry, Jesus gave authority to heal the sick and to cast out demons not only to the Twelve, but also to seventy of his disciples (Luke 10:1, 9, 17–19; cf. Matt. 10:8; Luke 9:49–50).”
The miracles of the early church, then, served an immediately relevant purpose in redemptive history: verifying the authenticity of God’s revelation and signaling the coming of the new eschatological age among God’s people.
Consider the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. One of the largest disputes in the early church concerned whether or not Gentile converts to Christianity had to keep the Old Testament Law and be circumcised. It became such an issue of dispute that Paul, Peter, and Barnabas met with the leaders of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem to debate the issue. What is interesting is that, as Acts 15:12 says, “all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.” Here the miraculous works of God served as evidence to the Jewish Christians that God was in fact working in a new and unique way among the Gentiles as well.
How should Christians think about miracles today? First, we must realize that the sheer volume and close proximity of the countless miracles in the Old and New Testaments served significant purposes in God’s redemptive plan at the time. However, this does not mean that God does not still do miracles today. Indeed, as Wayne Grudem notes, “There is nothing inappropriate in seeking miracles for the proper purposes for which they are given by God: to confirm the truthfulness of the gospel message, to bring help to those in need, to remove hindrances to people’s ministries, and to bring glory to God.” Miracles still happen, and Christians should avoid the two extremes of seeing everything as a miracle and seeing nothing as a miracle.
Second, Christians need to expand their understanding of God’s action to include both his providential sustaining in daily affairs and his miraculous works of redemption in the church. For example, in John 14:12, Jesus says “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.” But it is not immediately clear what Jesus means when he says that those coming after him will do “greater works.” Some may think that these “greater works” refer to more miracles and other such events. However, D. A. Carson’s insights here are helpful:
“Greater works…cannot simply mean more works—i.e. the church will do more things than Jesus did, since it embraces so many people over such a long period of time—since there are perfectly good Greek ways of saying ‘more,’ and since in any case the meaning would then be unbearably trite. Nor can greater works mean ‘more spectacular’ or ‘more supernatural’ works: it is hard to imagine works that are more spectacular or supernatural than the raising of Lazarus from the dead, the multiplication of bread and the turning of water into wine.”
Instead, Carson says that the “greater works” done by those coming after Jesus point primarily to the new eschatological order established by Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension.
The ‘signs’ and ‘works’ Jesus performed during his ministry could not fully accomplish their true end until after Jesus had risen from the dead and been exalted. Only at that point could they be seen for what they were. By contrast, the works believers are given to do through the power of the eschatological Spirit, after Jesus’ glorification, will be set in the framework of Jesus’ death and triumph, and will therefore more immediately and truly reveal the Son. Thus greater things is constrained by salvation-historical realities.
And while these works certainly included the signs and wonders done by the early church in the Spirit’s power, they are not limited to those miraculous deeds. Instead, they also included the “mystery” of Gentiles being included into the one new people of God, to which Paul referred in Ephesians and Colossians. God’s miraculous works in the church include the forgiveness of sins and the inclusion of those who were formerly far off into God’s one new people. Healings, signs, and wonders are extraordinary, but no more extraordinary than the redemption accomplished by Christ.
What this means, ultimately, is that just because we do not frequently see any extraordinary miraculous events happening around us, it does not mean that God is inactive. Rather, we should recognize (a) that God is active in the regular (natural) processes we see every day; (b) that God is miraculously calling people to himself as his church grows and expands; and (c) that people are experiencing God work in miraculous supernatural ways in their lives in other parts of the country or world. To miss this is to miss the scope and significance of God’s action described in Scripture.
Whether or not we are privileged to witness obviously miraculous, supernatural events, Christians can be confident that God is actively at work in the world, bringing people to himself, bringing glory to Jesus, and building his church (Matt. 16:18).
 Grudem, Systematic Theology, 360.
 Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 2nd ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 412.
 Grudem, Systematic Theology, 360.
 Timothy Keller, The Reason for God, 95–96.
 Grudem, Systematic Theology, 359.
 Grudem, 371.
 D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 495.
 Carson, John, 496.
Critics who doubt the reliability and trustworthiness of the biblical accounts of Jesus’ life have issued a make-or-break challenge to the church. They ask us: “How can we be sure the Bible can be trusted as accurate?”
It’s common to see the argument that the Scriptures we have today aren’t the same as what was written by the apostles in the first century. Such arguments attempt to portray the Bible as unreliable and therefore irrelevant. As we will see, however, these challenges do not stand up to scrutiny.
What About Textual Variants?
The Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—were probably written during the second half of the first century. We don’t actually have any of the original documents (called autographs) in our possession today. Instead, we have copies, often handwritten by scribes to preserve and circulate the words of the apostles so they could be passed around and used in worship services. The fact the original manuscripts were copied shows how important these writings were to local congregations. However, in the process of copying the manuscripts, scribes often made small changes, some of them unintentional and others intentional.
For example, early copies of the Greek New Testament were composed in an ancient style in which words were written in all capital letters with no spaces, punctuation, or paragraph divisions. A classic illustration of this style is the phrase “GODISNOWHERE.” A copyist would have to decide whether the phrase meant “God is now here” or “God is nowhere.” Context would determine the meaning of the phrase, so it’s not surprising a scribe could occasionally get things wrong. Furthermore, scribes sometimes misspelled words, wrote the same word twice when it should have been written once, or skipped over sections of text because the same words occurred later down the page. These are all examples of unintentional changes.
Other times, however, scribes changed the texts they were copying on purpose. This happened for a variety of reasons. They might make grammatical improvements or liturgical changes (such as adding a doxology), or they might eliminate apparent discrepancies, harmonize passages, or make doctrinal changes. However, even Bart Ehrman, a New Testament scholar who argues against the reliability of the Bible, recognizes, “Most of the changes found in our early Christian manuscripts have nothing to do with theology or ideology. Far and away the most changes are the result of mistakes, pure and simple—slips of the pen, accidental omissions, inadvertent additions, misspelled words, blunders of one sort or another.”
Because of the large number of variations in New Testament manuscripts, some argue the words of the New Testament are unreliable. But in fact, the vast number of New Testament manuscripts actually enables us to figure out what the originals said with a great deal of certainty. As Mark Roberts puts it, “Having many manuscripts actually increases the likelihood of our getting back to the original text.” Scholars can compare the various manuscripts containing the same passages of Scripture and determine, on the basis of internal and external evidence, which of the manuscripts most likely get the original wording right.
How Does the New Testament Compare to Other Ancient Documents?
The earliest manuscripts of the works of first-century historians such as Josephus, Tacitus, and Suetonius are dated from the 9th to 11th centuries—more than 800 years after the originals were written. In terms of the number of surviving manuscripts, there are 200 for Suetonius, 133 for Josephus, and 75 for Herodotus.
When we compare these ancient texts to the New Testament, the difference astonishes. For instance, the earliest New Testament manuscript is from around AD 125, while significant portions of the Gospels are represented in manuscripts from the late 2nd to early 3rd century. Whereas the best ancient historical works have 500 to 800 years between the actual date the work was written and the date of the earliest surviving manuscript, there is less than a 100-year gap between the writing of the Gospels and the manuscripts we possess. This difference cannot be overstated.
In addition, the sheer number of Gospel manuscripts we’ve found is staggering in comparison to other ancient works. As Mark Roberts notes, “The number of Gospel manuscripts in existence is about 20 times larger than the average number of extant manuscripts of comparable writings.” This figure doesn’t even represent the hundreds of thousands of quotes from the Gospels in the writings of the early church fathers. With nearly 2,000 manuscripts of the Gospels in hand, it becomes clear that to doubt the reliability of the Gospels is to doubt the reliability of nearly every ancient text ever found.
Scripture Is Trustworthy and Reliable
Because of who God is, and because of what God has done to preserve his Word, we have confidence the events described in Scripture are accurate and historical. This is important because Christianity, unique among world religions, depends on historical events: particularly Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. As J. Gresham Machen writes, “Christianity is based upon an account of something that happened, and the Christian worker is primarily a witness.” Scripture tell us this account, revealing Christianity’s climax—its central, historical, and verifiable event: God’s gracious act of bringing salvation through the cross of Jesus Christ.
Though it does not focus on leadership development methods or offer lists of strategies for being a great leader, the Bible is filled with numerous examples of leaders, both good and bad. There is a lot to be learned simply by examining the various leaders in Scripture.
1. The Prototype
Moses stands as the prototype of a leader in the Old Testament. He served the people of Israel as a prophet, a judge, a king, and a priest. He brought the word of the Lord both to Israel and to Pharaoh (Exod. 3–11), he heard Israel’s complaints (Num. 27:1–4), he led the nation out of Egypt (Exod. 12:31–15:21) and ran military campaigns (Exod. 17:8–16), and he officiated the first Passover (Exod. 12).
Moses can easily be viewed as an example of good leadership. In fact, the stark contrast between a good and a bad leader is clear in the difference between Moses and his brother, Aaron, who gives in to the people’s demands for a golden calf (Exod. 32:4) and shifts the blame to the people and away from himself (Exod. 32:22).
Yet even Moses, the prototypical leader, experienced failure. When Israel complained to him concerning their lack of water in the wilderness, Moses went before the Lord, who told him to speak to a rock from which God would pour forth a stream of water (Num. 20:1–8). However, Moses, in his frustration, struck the rock and was prohibited from entering the promised land because of his disobedience (Num. 20:9–12).
Prophets functioned in Scripture as God’s mouthpiece: they spoke judgment (Ezek. 13), encouragement (Mic. 4:1–5), exhortation (Mal. 2:1–9), and hope of restoration (Isa. 40–66). God’s word was spoken with integrity by prophets such as Huldah (2 Kings 22:14) and Jeremiah (Jer. 36). In the New Testament, John the Baptizer functioned as a prophet, leading Israel to repentance and telling Israel of deliverance in the person of Jesus (cf. Matt. 3:1–12; Mark 1:1–8).
Priests, also serving as leaders, were responsible for teaching the law (cf. Ezra in Neh. 8–9; 2 Chron. 17:8, 9). They led in sacrifice (Lev. 1–7), atonement (Lev. 16:29–34), cleansing (Lev. 13), and feasts (Lev. 23). However, priests often failed by setting up idols (Jer. 2:8), leading people astray (Ezek. 7:26), loving money (Jer. 6:13), and embracing corruption (Jer. 18:18). Jesus goes so far as to tell a parable against the priests (Matt. 21:33–46), and Paul says that the wrath of God came upon the Jewish leadership because they killed Jesus (1 Thess. 2:14–16).
Understandably, the kings in Israel’s history were leaders, for better or for worse. In fact, if anything becomes clear in the narrative of Israel’s history, it is that the kings were dispensable and fleeting: they can be conquered (2 Kings 25:7), become mentally ill (Dan. 4:33), randomly get shot by an arrow (2 Chron. 18:33), or be silently assassinated (1 Kings 16:16). As Proverbs 21:1 puts it, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases.” God appoints leaders when and where he will, and their destinies are in his hands.
God raised up judges (better translated as “leaders” or “governors”) in Israel’s midst when things had become disorganized and needed fixing. As Judges 3:9 says, “When the people of Israel cried out to the Lord, the Lord raised up a deliverer for the people of Israel, who saved them.” This deliverer was a judge, a leader. What is interesting about the judges is that quite frequently they have no previous experience and were looked upon by outsiders as unfit for the job (such as Samson).
6. The Wise Man
The wise man is another type of leader in Scripture, and Solomon is a good example. He asks God for the ability to govern and lead his people wisely, and God grants his request, as seen in Solomon’s discernment in judging wisely between the two women who contended for a child (1 Kings 3:16–28).
Within the church, God has ordained several different categories of leaders who are to guide and lead his church in the way of truth. Apostles are those who spent time with Jesus (Mark 3:14; 1 Cor. 9:1) and witnessed his resurrection (Acts 1:22; 2:32; 3:15; 13:31) so that they could pass on their knowledge and lead the church in its initial development. Apostles were directly commissioned by Jesus (Mark 3:14; Acts 10:39–42; John 20:21–23), assisted by the Holy Spirit (John 14:25–26; 15:26; 16:13), wrote about their own and others’ letters (2 Thess. 2:15; 2 Pet. 3:15–16), wrote as continuation of their preaching (Luke 1:1–4), and intended that their letters be read in church (Col. 4:16). For a teaching to be an apostolic, one in the early church meant that it could be traced directly back to Jesus’s own teaching and carried by those who learned from him.
While an “elder” in general terms is an aged person with enough life experiences to lead a group of people wisely (cf. the body of elders in Deut. 19:12, 21:2, and 22:15 and the “elders of Israel” in 1 Sam. 8:4; Exod. 3:16), elders in Scripture are the specially equipped leaders of the church. The disciples called themselves elders (1 Pet. 5:1; 2 John 1; 3 John 1), and their primary responsibility was to pass on the teaching they received to others (1 Cor. 11:21; 15:1, 3; 2 Thess. 2:15; 3:6; 2 Tim. 2:2). Elders in the church are expected to teach (1 Tim. 5:17; Titus 1:9) and act as judges (Acts 15:2, 6, 22–29); leading not politically, but pastorally (Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Tim. 5:17; James 5:14; 1 Pet. 5:1–4; Eph. 4:11).
Elders are required to have wisdom in leading the church well, for they are responsible for determining sound from false doctrine. To determine whether they are capable of leadership, elders have a special set of guidelines by which their abilities are to be judged. The office of elder is a noble one (1 Tim. 3:1), and the one who aspires to it must be “above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert . . . he must be well thought of by outsiders” (1 Tim. 3:2–7). Leadership in the church requires that one be a good example.
So that elders can devote their time and energy to shepherding and leading God’s people, God instituted another category of leader: the office of deacon. The word deacon means “servant,” and while the whole church is supposed to be servants of God, there are certain qualifications for the technical office of deacon (Rom. 12:7; 1 Pet. 4:11). Deacons are to be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to wine, not greedy, faithful (both to the gospel and their spouses), not slanderers, sober-minded, and tested (1 Tim. 3:8–11). Originally, deacons were appointed by the 12 disciples to distribute food to the widows in need (Acts 6), and they now serve the church in leading others as servants in a variety of tasks.
Leaders Depend on Grace
God used and continues to use a diverse group of people to lead his own people. However, the successful leaders in Scripture depended on God, while those who failed tried to stand on their own. If one thread holds together the theology of leadership throughout the pages of Scripture, it is the fact that even good leaders fail and stand in need of God’s grace.
There have been many challenges brought by critics who doubt the reliability and trustworthiness of the accounts of Jesus’ life in the Bible. How can we be sure that the Bible we read can be trusted as accurate?
It is common to see the argument that the Scriptures we have today are not the same as what was written by the apostles in the first century. Arguments like this attempt to portray the Bible as unreliable and therefore irrelevant. As we will see, however, these challenges do not stand up to scrutiny.
What About All The New Testament Textual Variants?
The Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—were probably written during the second half of the first century. Unfortunately, we do not actually have any of the original documents (called autographs) in our possession today. Instead, what we have are copies, often hand-written by scribes to preserve and circulate the words of the apostles so they could be passed around and used in worship services. The fact that the original manuscripts were copied shows how important these writings were to local church congregations. However, in the process of copying the manuscripts, the scribes often made small changes, some of them unintentional and others intentional.
For example, early copies of the Greek New Testament were written in an ancient style in which words were written in all capital letters with no spaces, punctuation, or paragraph divisions. A classic illustration of this style is the phrase “GODISNOWHERE.” A copyist would have to decide whether the phrase meant “God is now here” or “God is nowhere.” Context would have to determine the meaning of the phrase, so it is not unsurprising that a scribe could occasionally get things wrong. Furthermore, scribes sometimes wrote the same word twice when it should have been written once (or once when it should have been written twice), skipped over sections of text because the same words occurred later down the page, or misspelled words. These are all examples of unintentional changes.
Other times, however, the scribes changed the texts they were copying on purpose, for a variety of reasons. They might make grammatical improvements or liturgical changes (such as adding a doxology), or they might eliminate apparent discrepancies, harmonize passages, or even make doctrinal changes. However, even Bart Ehrman, a New Testament scholar who argues that the Bible is not reliable, recognizes that “most of the changes found in our early Christian manuscripts have nothing to do with theology or ideology. Far and away the most changes are the result of mistakes, pure and simple—slips of the pen, accidental omissions, inadvertent additions, misspelled words, blunders of one sort or another.”
Because there are a large number of variations in the New Testament manuscripts, some argue that the words of the New Testament are unreliable. But the vast number of New Testament manuscripts actually enables us to figure out what the originals said with a great deal of certainty. As Mark Roberts puts it, “having many manuscripts actually increases the likelihood of our getting back to the original text.” Scholars are able to compare the various manuscripts containing the same passages of Scripture and determine, on the basis of internal and external evidence, which of the manuscripts most likely gets the original wording right.
How Do New Testament Manuscripts Compare To Other Ancient Documents?
The earliest manuscripts of the works of first-century historians such as Josephus, Tacitus, and Suetonius are dated from the 9th–11th centuries, which is over 800 years after the originals were written. In terms of the number of manuscripts that have survived, there are 200 manuscripts of Suetonius, 133 of Josephus, and 75 of Herodotus.
By comparison, when we compare these ancient works to the New Testament, the difference is astonishing. For instance, the earliest New Testament manuscript is from around 125 A.D., while significant portions of the Gospels are represented in manuscripts from the late second- and early third centuries. So, whereas the best ancient historical works have a period of 500–800 years between the actual date the work was written and the date of the earliest surviving manuscript, there is less than a 100-year gap between the writing of the Gospels and the manuscripts we possess.
In addition, the number of manuscripts of the Gospels is staggering in comparison to other ancient works. As Roberts notes, “The number of Gospel manuscripts in existence is about 20 times larger than the average number of extant manuscripts of comparable writings.” This figure does not even represent the hundreds of thousands of quotes from the Gospels in the writings of the early church fathers. We have nearly 2,000 manuscripts of the Gospels alone. This means that to doubt the reliability of the Gospels is to doubt the reliability of nearly every ancient text that we have.
Scripture Is Trustworthy And Reliable
Because of who God is, and because of what God has done to preserve his word, we can have confidence that the events described in Scripture are accurate and historical. This is important because Christianity, unique among world religions, is not primarily founded on principles but on the historical events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. As John Gresham Machen writes, “Christianity is based upon an account of something that happened, and the Christian worker is primarily a witness.” Scripture reveals the central climax of history: God’s gracious act of bringing salvation through Jesus Christ.
Is Scripture divine or human? Authoritative? Is Scripture inspired by God? How should it be used?
What is Scripture? All religious traditions that ground themselves in texts must grapple with certain questions. In worship services and public and private readings, Christians often turn to Scripture for guidance: to the stories of Abraham or Moses, to the Psalms, to the prophecies of Isaiah, to the life of Jesus, to the letters of Paul, to the vision of John. Therefore, Christians must confront their own set of questions. What is Scripture? Is it divine? Human? Both? Is Scripture authoritative? If so, how and for whom? What is the scope of its authority? Is Scripture inspired by God? How should Scripture be used? How do Scripture and tradition relate? What does it mean for a Christian to call the Bible “the Word of God”? And if Jesus is also called the Word of God, how does Jesus as the Word of God relate to the Bible as the Word of God?
The good news is that we are not the first to try to answer these questions. In fact, 2,000 years of Christian history provide us a tradition of helpful answers as numerous Christian theologians have wrestled with these questions.
Theologians at different times have focused on different questions regarding Scripture. In the patristic and medieval eras, the focus was on relating the literal meaning of the text to allegorical or spiritual interpretations; during the Reformation, the debates focused on who had the authority to define and interpret Scripture; and after the Enlightenment, theologians tried to determine how the Bible was still the Word of God in light of historical-critical methods that seemed to challenge its historicity and reliability. However, in spite of all the various approaches, Christian theologians have been unified in dealing with a central issue: how the self-disclosure of God in Jesus relates to the Scriptures as the Word of God. A central question is always the relationship between “the Word” becoming human flesh (Incarnation) and “the Word” becoming human words.
The Word and the Christian
Christians believe that the Bible is inspired by God, is without error, and does not misrepresent the facts. It is entirely trustworthy and is the final authority on everything it teaches. The Bible records the drama of redemption in the history of Israel and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As Christians we acknowledge both Jesus (John 1:1–4) and Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16–17) as the “Word of God.” Christians should not focus solely on Jesus Christ and treat Scripture just like any other “classic text.” Nor should we focus primarily on the Bible as God’s divine inerrant Word and treat Jesus as simply a character in a small part of the texts.
Jesus Is The Ultimate Word
Jesus is the central message—God participating in human life, coming near to us, bringing his good news, expressing God’s love for us, dying as our substitute, rising as the victor over death, and building his church as a community of grace. Jesus is not just the main character in one of many events in the story of God’s people. Jesus is the final revelation of God’s drama of redemption. Humanity sees God in full light in Jesus. Jesus is God’s ultimate word about human life, and the Bible is God’s word about God’s self-revelation through human life. This is what Christian theologians have been saying in various ways for 2,000 years. In answering the question “What is Scripture?” theological giants like Origen, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Karl Barth, and others have given us many categories to use, concepts to ponder, and doctrines of Scripture to consider and wrestle with. Yet in spite of their differences, they are unified in that their doctrines of Scripture are all surprisingly Christ-centered.
The Story About Grace
The deepest message of the Bible and the ministry of Jesus is the grace of God to sinners and those who are suffering. That is the story of the Bible. The problem of the human condition is that because of sin, we are guilty and we suffer. Throughout the Bible, we constantly see God taking the initiative to bring his grace to sinners and sufferers, from his gracious dealings with the people of Israel to the climactic redemptive work of Jesus Christ in his life, death, and resurrection. By taking us through the story of God bringing his grace to sinners and sufferers, Scripture reveals the heart of God and the heart of the Christian faith.
“Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.” Exodus 14:21–22
The Exodus from Egypt and the journey to the Promised Land is the great story of deliverance in Jewish history. This passage recounts the parting of the Red Sea, when God miraculously opened the way for the Israelites to escape from the pursuing Egyptian army. It reveals God showing up to rescue his people in the middle of pain, insecurity, and confusion.
For thousands of years now, Jews have remembered and celebrated how God took them from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. The Psalms celebrate this deliverance: “Come and see what God has done: he is awesome in his deeds toward the children of man. He turned the sea into dry land; they passed through the river on foot. There did we rejoice in him” (Psalm 66:5–6). At a crucial moment, on their way out of Egypt and to the Promised Land, God divided the Red Sea so the Israelites could avoid being slaughtered by the Egyptian army. If God had not provided, they would all have died.
For Christians, the Exodus foreshadows the ultimate story of deliverance. It points to the death of Jesus on a cross. We look back at the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the work of God on our behalf. The Exodus and the ministry of Jesus tell us that God is a God of those in need, that God brings life and flourishing where death and destruction try to reign. The Exodus and the cross tell us that God’s nature is to rescue us. God comes near to us—down here in the thick of our fear and suffering.
There is no work we can do in exchange for this rescue. It is undeserved and unearned. The psalmist is highlighting the mighty works of God on our behalf, and now we see this fulfilled in Christ. Jesus did the work we couldn’t do, on our behalf. We couldn’t be good enough. We couldn’t fulfill the righteousness required by the Law. So God, in the person of Jesus, did the work we couldn’t do for us. God attributed Jesus’ work as our work. God exchanged our sin for Jesus’ righteousness. The work of God on our behalf is the best news possible to those under threat of destruction. God is our rescuer.
[The priest] shall then slaughter the goat for the sin offering for the people and take its blood behind the curtain and do with it as he did with the bull’s blood: He shall sprinkle it on the atonement cover and in front of it. In this way he will make atonement for the Most Holy Place because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been. . . .
When Aaron has finished making atonement for the Most Holy Place, the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall bring forward the live goat. He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the wilderness. . . . The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place; and the man shall release it in the wilderness.
The priestly rituals described here were done on the most important day of Israel’s year: the Day of Atonement. And it is no coincidence that the word “atonement” (often translated as “propitiation”) is used throughout the New Testament for what Jesus did by dying on the cross. It is safe to say that these goats are a foreshadowing of the cross.
The scapegoat achieves purity and cleanliness for the people.
The first goat was sacrificed as a sin offering to God on behalf of the people. The second goat was presented alive before God, where the priest confessed all the sins of the people, symbolically placed them on the goat’s head, and then sent it out to the desert as a “scapegoat,” taking the sins of the people with it. The first goat deals with wrath: the slaughtered goat diverts the wrath of God from the people to the goat. The second goat deals with shame and guilt: the scapegoat achieves purity and cleanliness for the people by removing their sin far away.
Whatever Our Sins
The first sacrifice was for “whatever their sins have been.” This means everything—your dark secrets that only you know, the ones that you are too ashamed to tell anyone, the embarrassing sins, and the reoccurring sins. Four times, in the context of the second goat, the chapter refers to “all” the Israelites’ transgressions and sins—every last one of them, especially the shameful ones.
How can you know that God loves you? Not by just “feeling it.”
The Bible speaks of sins we’ve committed and sins committed against us by using words like “defiled”—which means filthy, unclean, dirty, and shameful. Many of us have a sense of defilement, and the consequence is feeling shame and judgment.
The Cross Tells Us So
So how can you know that God loves you? Not by just “feeling it” or because you’re inherently lovable. You know God loves you because Jesus was the fulfillment of the sacrificial goats. The cross tells you that God loves you and how God loves you—he willingly died for you to make you clean. The love of God is not sentimental or weak; it is effective, it redeems, it embraces, it renews. It is a courageous, restoring, transforming love. The cross expresses the love of God.
God calls you pure, clean, and without blemish.
Because of the cross, you can be fully exposed, because God no longer identifies you by what you have done or by what has been done to you. The cross is for whatever your sins may have been, what they are, and what they will be—all of them. You are forgiven. You have been made new. Now God calls you pure, clean, and without blemish.