Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Russell Muilenburg on Scripture

2 Timothy 3:16-17
How to Listen to a Sermon: The Usefulness of Scripture
Guest Blogger: Pastor Russell Muilenburg

The Bet

Anton Chekov was one of the great Russian writers of the 19th Century and he wrote a wonderful short story called "The Bet." The story concerns a rather wealthy Russian landowner who held a dinner party at which a young good-for-nothing was in attendance.

One way or another, the conversation swung around to man's ability to live in complete isolation from all other human contact. Most there felt that no one could last a year without becoming completely mad. The young good-for-nothing, however, felt it could be done and rather brashly asserted that he himself could do it.

And so, a bet was made. The landowner had a hunting cabin which would be completely sealed with the young man inside of it. He would be brought food through a slot, but would not be spoken to. His one contact with the outside world would be that he would be given access to all the books he could want or request. A ribbon was placed on the door, which, if broken would prove that the young man had left the cabin. If, however, he managed to stay for an entire year without becoming mad, the landowner would give him an extraordinary amount of money: something like $10 million in today's world.

The young man entered the cabin. At first he spent his time reading the great philosophers: Plato and Aristotle. Then he began to read the great humanists of the Renaissance. From there he moved into the great Russian authors.

Eventually he became tired of reading though, and slowly began to feel himself slipping into despair and madness.

As the days dragged by he began to seriously consider walking out the door. And then, one day about 2 months before his deadline, he picked up the Bible. Soon he stopped reading anything else and his spirit again soared.

Over the next two months he read the Bible over and over again, until, finally, it was only 1 day until he would win the bet. The landowner, by this time, was distraught, for it was evident to him that he was about to lose a fortune.

But then something remarkable happened, the young man took his Bible and left the cabin. He had become so convicted by what he had read in Scripture that he decided to forsake the money and become a follower of Jesus.

That is the extraordinary power of God's Word to change a life. It is just a fictional story, but it illustrates the unique property that this book has. More than a collection of ink and paper and binding glue, the Bible is how God communicates with humanity.

How To Listen…

Last week I started a new sermon series called “How to Listen to a Sermon.” I’m trying to give you some insight into the things that I’m passionate about, and preaching is one of them. But we don’t always spend a lot of time thinking about why we gather week after week to listen to one person doing all the talking. So last week, we looked at Amos 8 and saw what happens if there is a famine of hearing God’s Word. We saw that regular preaching provides us with direction, gives us life, and calls us out of darkness.

Now, this week, I want to think about the source of our preaching. I want to talk about the Bible.
Because preaching doesn’t get its value from the person who is up front doing the talking, or from the church, or from the audience; preaching gets its value because preaching comes from the Bible. Sermons are important because they are based on this book that has this extraordinary power to change lives.

In fact, that’s the main point of my message today: Because the Bible is God’s Word, it has the power to change us. That’s what I hope you’ll be able to remember from our time together today: because the Bible is God’s Word, it has the power to change us.

And the passage of scripture that teaches us this truth is 2 Timothy 3:16-17. I invite you to turn in your Bibles to 2 Timothy 3:16-17.
16All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
2 Timothy 3:16-17 is THE great Bible passage for helping us to understand the nature of our Bibles. If this passage didn’t exist, we’d still be able to learn that the Bible is God’s Word, but no other passage says it as clearly as this one.

So the message, again, is this: Because the Bible is God’s Word, it has the power to change us. There are two main ideas in that statement, and we’ll consider them both in turn. First, the Bible is God’s Word. And, second, the Bible has the power to change us.


First, the Bible is God’s Word. This is the point of the first part of verse 16. “All Scripture is God-breathed.”

Now, I’m not the kind of preacher who likes to use Greek words a whole lot, but in this case I think it might be helpful. The New Testament was originally written in Greek, which was like the international language of the time. What we have in English, of course, are translations of the original Greek. Translations which have been scholarly researched and checked and rechecked by thousands of experts. So we can trust what our English versions say, but sometimes going back to the original Greek word can give us a little more sense of the meaning.

In this case, the word that is translated “God-breathed” is a compound Greek word theo-pneustos. We can see the meaning of the word by breaking it into its component parts.

You probably already know that theos is Greek for God. It is the root of our word "theology", which is the study of God. And pneuma is Greek for "breath." Thus our words "pneumonia" and "pneumatic." So the word means "God breath".

And the thing for us to notice is that the words are arranged in such a way as to indicate that the scriptures have been breathed out by God. It doesn’t say that the Scriptures breathe God to us, but that the scriptures are the product of God's breathing. In other words, the scriptures are God’s Words.

Another way of saying this is to say that the Scriptures are inspired. That’s the word theologians use. Inspiration is the doctrine that says that God is the ultimate Author of the Bible.

Now, that doesn’t mean we believe that the Bible dropped out of heaven on golden tablets (like the Mormons believe about the book of Mormon), or that God grabbed hold of somebody and dictated exactly what He wanted written down (like the Muslims believe about the Koran).

We recognize that the Bible is a collection of works by several different authors, written over a period of some 4000 years. As you read the different parts of the Bible, you can see the individual personalities, styles and talents of the human authors emerge—the poetry of David, for example, or the logic of Paul. And yet, God chose to progressively reveal Himself to a number of human agents, breathing out His scripture in such a way that even as they wrote, He supervised the process to get exactly what He wanted to communicate to us. If Moses and Luke are authors of the Bible with a little “a”; then God is the Author of the Bible with a capital “A”.

And so, when we are reading from our Bibles, we can say with extreme confidence that we are reading God’s Word.

This has implications, of course, for how we respond to what is written in the Bible. It doesn’t work, for example, for us to say: “Well, God hasn’t come to speak with me personally, so I can’t really be sure what He wants me to do.” He has told us, it’s in the Bible.

Think of the analogy of parents who leave a note instructing their teenage son to take out the garbage and clean the house when he gets home from school. It doesn’t work for him to say that they weren’t there to tell him directly. The note carries their authority. Similarly, the Bible carries the authority of God--He wrote it.

His words carry the same weight whether they are read in the pages of His Holy book or if He would come and physically stand before us and speak. To disobey or disbelieve anything written in the Bible is to disobey and disbelieve God.

The Bible is God’s Word.


Now let’s think about the other half of our main idea. Because the Bible is God’s Word, it has the power to change us. Verse 16 goes on to tell us that Scripture is “useful”. Other English translations use the word “profitable.” In other words, great benefits come to those who listen to God’s Word.

As another example of God’s grace, He has given us the Bible to make us into the people He wants us to be. Like the story of the Bet, God’s Word has the power to change us.

And as I look at this passage, I see a list of six ways Scripture has the power to change us. Six ways the Bible is useful for us.

1. First, scripture is useful for teaching. Teaching. The Bible is where we learn facts about God. It teaches us that He exists, that He is the creator, that He is the ruler and judge of the universe. We need Scripture to get our doctrine right. It is through Scripture that we learn God’s will for us.

2. Second, scripture is useful for rebuking. Rebuking. This is a word that has to do with the conviction of a sinner. Not only does the Bible tell us the truth about God, it also tells us the truth about ourselves. Like a light shining into a dark place, the Bible shines into the hidden parts of our lives and points out our shortfalls. It convicts us of our sins. And shows us our need of a Savior.

But the Bible doesn’t just show us our sins and then leave us to feel guilty about them. It wouldn’t be a very appealing book if all it ever did was tell us how bad we are. It also teaches us how to turn around and do the right thing.

3. That’s the third way scripture has power to change us. Correcting. Scripture is useful for correcting. The word here means “to restore to an upright position”, kind of like the stewardess tells you to do with your seat back before the airplane lands. The idea is that once we see our sin, the Bible is also helpful for helping us to turn away from it, to replace sin with good, to get back to God’s original design for us.

4. So the Bible has power to change us by teaching us, rebuking us, correcting us, and then, fourth, by training us in righteousness. Scripture is useful for training in righteousness.

The idea here is also one of education. But where the word “teaching” has to do with passing on facts, the word “training” has more to do with character development. This is the maturation of a Christian into the habits and lifestyles of righteousness. The process of becoming more and more like Jesus.

5. Then, fifth, Scripture is useful for equipping us for good works. This is the point of verse 17. The Bible equips us. God’s goal is not just to teach and rebuke and correct and train us so that we can be super spiritual hermits out on a holy hill somewhere. He has a purpose. He’s designed us to do good works. To love our neighbors as ourselves. To look out for the widow and the orphan. To have compassion on the prisoner and the poor. And it is the Bible that equips us for all that. It is the Bible that sends us out to be salt and light in the world.

So you can see the progression here. It’s almost like Paul is describing a step by step process by which God uses the Bible to change us into the people He wants us to be.

But there’s one more way in which the Bible is useful to us, and it is the most important of all. You might even say it summarizes all five of these other ones. And it is mentioned in the verse right before our text, 2 Timothy 3:15:
15From infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.
6. The sixth, and most important, way Scripture is useful to us is by making us wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. It’s in the Bible that we here the old, old story of Jesus and His love. It’s in the Bible that we are called to put our faith and trust in Him and Him alone. It’s in the Bible that we discover God’s amazing grace at the cross and the new life of the empty tomb.

And so, I say that because the Bible is God’s Word, it has the power to change us. The God-breathed Scriptures are the communication tool God uses to reveal Himself and His message of salvation to the world.

I am told that once, when the Communist Soviet Union was still intact, a Soviet official was asked why study of the Bible was frowned upon in his country, and why those who dared to print and distribute it were severely punished. His reply, "We find that the reading of the Book changes people in a way that is dangerous to our state!" The Bible is powerful. It convicts, it challenges, it changes people.

Another story is told of a college professor who visited the Fiji Islands. He was an agnostic who didn’t have time for religion. He said to the elderly chief of the tribe he was visiting: "You're a great leader, but it's a pity you've been taken in by those foreign missionaries. They only want to get rich through you. No one believes the Bible anymore. People are tired of the threadbare story of Christ dying on a cross for the sins of mankind. They know better now. I'm sorry you've been so foolish as to accept their story."

The old chief's eyes flashed as he answered, "See that great rock over there? On it we used to smash the heads of our victims. Notice the furnace next to it? In that oven we used to roast the bodies of our enemies. If it hadn't been for those good missionaries and the love of Jesus that changed us from cannibals into Christians, you'd never leave this place alive! If it weren't for the Bible, you'd now be our supper!”

That is the power of the Bible. It has the power to make the foulest clean. To redeem the reprobate. To convict us all of our sin and to lead us to Christ. Scripture has power.

Fighting the Spartans

So what does this mean for us? It’s a nice theology lesson and all, I think it is important to know what we believe about this book that is so important to our faith; but is there any practical payoff? What’s the application of this passage to our lives? In particular, what’s the application for how to listen to a sermon?

I see two applications here. One is for me, the preacher. And the other is for all of us who listen to sermons.

First, the application for any who would stand in front of God’s people is this: preach the Word.

This is Paul’s advice to pastor Timothy in the next couple of verses:
1In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: 2Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.
The job of the Christian preacher is not to air personal opinions or to echo the conventional wisdom of the time, but to proclaim God’s eternal, authoritative Word of truth.

My goal when I preach is that everything I say not only be supported by what is written in the Bible, but is actually derived from what the Bible says. Only the Bible can legitimately claim to be God's true revelation and therefore only the Bible has any business being proclaimed from Christian pulpits. I will use science and history and personal experience to support and illustrate the Biblical concepts, but ultimately the only preaching which has any authority is that preaching which declares God's word.

There is a story I have heard of ancient Athens. The city, you may remember from your world history classes, was a longtime rival of Sparta. And once, when the Spartans were preparing to again wage war, a city wide meeting was held to prepare the Athenians for battle.

The two greatest speakers of the day were brought forward to give the pre-battle pep talk, if you will.

The first spoke with great eloquence and skill, and when he finished people said, "My, what a fine speaker."

The second, however, spoke with great passion and conviction, and when he finished the people cried, "Let us go to defeat the Spartans."

I am convinced that if I am to be considered a good preacher, it will not be because I am a polished speaker, but because I let the Scriptures speak for themselves. The point of preaching is not to impress people with the ability of the speaker, but to impress them with the power of God. To move them, not to praise the preacher, but to praise God. To send them home, if your will, prepared to fight the Spartans.

The second application, then, is for those of us who listen to sermons. And the application is this: listen for the Word. Your job is to listen for the Word of God in the sermon.
2 Timothy chapter 4 goes on to say:

3For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 4They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.
Paul is saying that, on our own, we really don’t want to hear from God. Instead, itching ears start to long for messages that don’t try to change us, but allow us to be comfortable with what we are. And there are plenty of preachers out there willing to scratch itching ears.

The caution for us is to exercise a measure of discernment when listening to a preacher. Ask yourself, "Is the power of this man's speaking coming from him or from God's Word?"

We live in a world that is impressed by the flashy and the talented. We are drawn to the great storytellers and the great comedians. There is room for both in Christian preaching, but not in place of God's Word and its power to change us.

Before you choose to listen to any man or woman’s ministry, including mine, ask yourself: "Does he preach in such a way that shows he believes God's Word is powerful or does he preach in a way that would indicate he feels the Bible is not enough?"

And as you listen be a critical listener. Last week I encouraged you to be active listeners, and part of that means thinking critically with what you are hearing, and checking to make sure it squares with the Bible passage in front of us.

Because if I come up here and just give my opinions, you can take it or leave it. But if I come up here and help you to see that this is, indeed, what the Bible says, then it is God’s Words that you are hearing. And God’s Word has the power to change your life.