The last time I took the pulpit here, I preached on how to step up in our Bible reading. Much to my surprise, the part of it that attracted the most discussion afterwards was a brief comment about the translations I recommended for reading. Lauren said there were a bunch of folks furiously scribbling down acronyms, and I had several conversations afterward about it. One of those conversations was with Dr. Clifford, who encouraged me to preach on translations, so here I am!
Even though this sermon is not going to be about any particular Biblical text, it’s still going to be about the Bible. After all, our faith is founded on the premise that we can read and understand the word of God for ourselves. However, few if any of us can read the Scriptures in the original languages, so we have to rely on translations for spiritual understanding.. How reliable are they? This evening, then, let’s see what we need to know about understanding Bible translations.
First, let’s ask WHAT A TRANSLATION IS. This might surprise some, but I’ve seen a lot of confusion in this area from brethren, and it begins with the difference between a translation and a paraphrase. A translation is taken from the original languages, but a paraphrase begins with an English Bible.
Also, translation or paraphrase has nothing to do with perceived faithfulness to the text. Let me give you an example. Some years ago, I preached a sermon out of the NIV, and after the sermon, one of the elders of the congregation came up to me and commented on my use of a paraphrase in the pulpit. I told him, “That’s not true. The NIV is a translation,” which it is. However, he still didn’t take the point.
This is important because even though there are paraphrases on the market—things like The Living Bible and the Message—most of the options we’re presented with are translations. With the exception of a few that were translated by people with an agenda, they are good-faith efforts to make the word of God available to people who only read English. We don’t have any perfect translations of the Bible, and some translations are better than others, but just about all of them can teach us the truth.
Despite this, there are people who try to stir up strife about translations, and most of them are people who believe that only the King James Version is the word of God. They’re very active on social media, and they use memes like this one to cast doubt on other translations. The NIV leaves out verses??? That must be pretty bad, right?
Actually, no. This isn’t evidence of some subversive plot by atheists. Instead, it’s about the manuscript evidence on which translation is based. There weren’t as many good manuscripts available when the KJV was translated, so the translators concluded from limited evidence that those passages belonged in the Bible. However, by the time the NIV was translated, many more manuscripts had been discovered, and its translators decided from better evidence that those passages should be excluded. In my opinion, the NIV is right to leave those verses out!
This takes us to a discussion of TRANSLATION PHILOSOPHY. I think if you asked most Christians what they want in a Bible translation, they would say something like, “I want a Bible that says what the original manuscripts say.” The problem is that it’s not that easy. Translation isn’t like solving a mathematical equation. There is not a single right answer in every instance.
The first way that translators have tackled the problem of saying what the text says is with word-for-word translation. If there’s a word in Greek, the translator chooses the best English word available to represent it. This approach tends to appeal to brethren, but there’s a problem. The languages of the Bible, like all languages, are idiomatic. They use figures of speech. Most of the time, if you translate an idiom literally, the result is confusion rather than enlightenment.
Let me give you an example. In 1 Thessalonians 4:4, Paul talks about knowing “how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor”. I realize that I’m speaking to an audience of hardcore Bible students. Many of you probably recall studying this text and drawing your own conclusion about the meaning of “vessel”.
However, imagine that you’re coming to the text for the first time. Possessing one’s own vessel is a Greek idiom, but it isn’t an English one. I would guess that if you grabbed somebody off the street and asked them to interpret 1 Thessalonians 4:4, they would probably think you were talking about a jar!
As a result, all Bible translations will, to varying degrees, also use a thought-for-thought approach. They will tell you what they think the text means rather than what it says. For instance, in 1 Thessalonians 4:4, the ESV takes a thought-for-thought approach and says “control his own body”, which makes a whole lot more sense to the average English speaker. The danger, of course, is that the translators will be wrong about the meaning of the text, and the more this approach is employed, the more likely they are to be wrong.
With this in mind, let’s consider some DIFFERENT TRANSLATIONS. When it comes to translations with which brethren are most familiar, the KJV, NKJV, NASB, and ESV are more toward the word-for-word part of the spectrum, the NLT is over toward the thought-for-thought side, and the CSB and the NIV are tweeners.
Once again, there are no wrong answers here, but of those translations, I prefer three of them: the NKJV, the ESV, and the CSB. Much of this has to do with publisher support. I trust Crossway, which publishes the ESV, and Holman, which publishes the NKJV and CSB, to put out a quality product.
However, there are also things that I like about each translation too. Let’s start with the oddball, the CSB. Because of its translation philosophy, it reads much differently than what we’re used to. For instance, look at the way the CSB renders Romans 8:6. I really like this. Rather than forcing a Greek idiom into English, it uses an English idiom to explain the Greek. However, I decided not to adopt the CSB because it’s too different. If I used it from the pulpit, everyone following along in their NASB’s, KJV’s, and NKJV’s would constantly be doing doubletakes.
At the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got the NKJV, which is, unsurprisingly, a lot like the old KJV. Here’s the NKJV rendering of Romans 8:6 by way of comparison. I like the NKJV, and I’ve used it as a preaching Bible before. However, it has the same limited textual basis as the old KJV and, like the old KJV, it includes a number of verses that I don’t think should be in the Bible. That’s not a huge deal; it doesn’t materially affect the meaning. However, it’s enough to lead me to look elsewhere.
That leads me to my weapon of choice, the ESV. Here is the ESV take on Romans 8:6. I use the ESV because it’s such a good all-rounder. Its translators used all the best manuscripts, it reads more smoothly than the NASB, and it’s better for precise study than the NIV. Like every translation, it has renderings that I don’t like, but all in all, I think it’s a strong contender for a Christian’s go-to Bible.
Nearly every gospel preacher on the planet, including both Shawn and me, will advocate reading the Bible on a regular, ideally daily, basis. Most Christians will agree that, yes, it would be good for them spiritually if they were to carry a Bible-reading program to its conclusion. However, I suspect that most Christians never have managed to read the Bible cover-to-cover despite those good intentions.
If that’s you, don’t feel bad about that, so long as you intend to do better this year. Though it seems simple, sticking with a Bible-reading program is quite difficult. I myself didn’t manage it until 2013, despite having preached the gospel for nearly 10 years by then. In the years since, though, I’ve read through the Bible at least one time every year, and I’ve learned a few things about reading along the way. This morning, I’d like to share them with you so that all of us can step up in Bible reading.
First, I’d like to discuss the importance of CHOOSING THE RIGHT BIBLE. I don’t think this is something that most Christians think about, but the Bible we select to do our reading has everything to do with how successful we will be. For instance, at home, I’ve got this awful purple fake-leather KJV Bible that’s printed on what feels like copier paper in 7-point type. Yes, it’s the Bible. It contains all 66 books from Genesis to Revelation. However, if you wanted to read that thing cover-to-cover, you’d have to have the patience of Job!
The Bible we use to read matters a lot, and my guess is that a lot of Christians fail in their Bible-reading resolutions because they aren’t reading out of a Bible that’s right for them. My suggestion, then, if you want to get serious about it, is to buy a Bible specifically for reading. Don’t try to cheap out. Don’t try to do your reading on your phone. I suspect that most people who start out doing daily Bible readings on their phones end up doing a daily Facebook reading! It’s too tempting.
Instead, go to the nearest big Lifeway or other Bible bookstore and spend some solid time looking for a Bible that’s right for you. I recommend paying particular attention to Bibles in the ESV, NKJV, and CSB translations. Those are all translations that are good for reading, and they are well supported by publishers that turn out a quality product.
When you’re out Bible-shopping, don’t judge the book by its box. Actually take those Bibles out there in the store and spend a few minutes reading a page or two in each one. Pay attention to whether the print is comfortable for your eyes. Ask yourself if the Bible feels right in your hand. I myself read out of a genuine-leather Bible rather than a polyurethane Bible because I like the way it feels. Does it have a whole bunch of references that you find distracting? Go through this process with a couple dozen Bibles, pick the one you love, and buy it. Whatever it costs you, successfully completing a reading program will be worth far more.
Second, if we want to succeed in our Bible-reading, we have to UNDERSTAND THE PURPOSE OF READING. To illustrate what I mean by this, I’d like to look at two different passages from the book of Acts: Acts 8:27-31 and Acts 17:11. Both of these texts involve the Bible, but they are not about the same activity.
Let’s start with the Bereans. Notice that Luke doesn’t say they’re reading the Scriptures. He says they’re examining the Scriptures. In other words, this is a text about Bible study rather than Bible reading, and study and reading are not the same thing. The Bereans are trying to answer a particular question, and they’re devoting a lot of effort to their search. These things, focus and intensity, are characteristic of study.
Reading, by contrast, isn’t like that. Look at the eunuch back in Acts 8. He doesn’t have the word open for any particular reason. He’s just killing time on his way back to Ethiopia. Similarly, his consideration of the word isn’t that intense. He doesn’t understand what he’s reading, but he’s OK with not understanding, and if Philip hadn’t shown up, he would have gone on not understanding.
In the church, I think we have a firm handle on Bible study, but I don’t think we understand Bible reading. As a result, brethren approach Bible reading in the same way that they do Bible study. They’re very intense with the text. They try to figure out every little nuance. They may even have a system of marking up the text with colored pencils as they go.
Now, that’s all well and good, but the problem is that it’s exhausting! Christians who start this way will often end up with a Bible that’s 10 percent marked up and 90 percent unread. Their intensity defeats their purpose.
Instead, I find that for me, Bible reading is a lot more passive. I’m not trying to outline the text or figure out everything; instead, I’m simply listening to what God has to say to me. Whatever I get out of it is what I get out of it. If I come to something I don’t understand, I make a mental note of it and move on.
If you want to get through our reading program this year, then, don’t try to study your way through it. Read your way through it. It’s a lot less demanding, and I think you’ll find that it’s much easier to maintain.
Finally, we will be much more likely to succeed in our Bible-reading plans if we READ REGULARLY. Consider the psalmist’s attitude toward the word in Psalm 119:20. He doesn’t want to encounter God’s law yearly or monthly. He wants it to be a constant part of his life.
I think all of us want that too. Well, if we don’t, we have spiritual problems that are beyond the scope of what this sermon can fix! We want to be in the word daily, but then life intervenes. We get really busy at work, one of the kids gets sick, or we just plain lose focus, and the next time we look up, we’re two months behind. “Oh, well,” we say to ourselves. “Guess I might as well wait till 2020 to take another crack at it.” What we want doesn’t end up being what we do.
However, with a little bit of thought, we can make what we want into what we do. Some of this starts with timing. For all of us, there is an optimal time to read: maybe in the morning, maybe on our lunch break, maybe right before bed. For me, since I’m a morning person, first thing in the morning is my ideal time. Whatever it is, we need to figure it out and read then. If we do that long enough, the habit will become ingrained.
Second, we need reminders. I started off by getting a daily email notification. Now, I’ve printed off reading plans for both of my Bible reading schedules and check off readings as I do them. If that doesn’t work, maybe we need stronger behavioral cues. For instance, it might help if every night, you sat your Bible down on top of your TV remote or your phone. Want to check your messages? Want to watch something? You have to read first! Things like this sound silly, but in reality, they can help us tremendously in reaching our spiritual goals.
American society has many quirks, but one of the strangest of them all is our cultural denial of old age and death. Everybody tries to keep the same youthful body type they had when they were 18. We have Rogaine and Botox to conceal the effects of our advancing years. We hide our elderly away in nursing homes where nobody has to look at them, and many funeral homes these days are in financial trouble because nobody goes to funerals anymore. Basically, Americans want to pretend that we’re all a bunch of perpetual teenagers who will continue to live on this earth forever.
However, all of us are here tonight because we know better. Our earthly lives are not limitless. Indeed, the opposite is true, and every day, each one of us moves one day closer to the end.
This is a sobering thought, but it doesn’t have to be a hopeless one. In Christ, every one of us can have the hope of a life that is limitless, though it is not here. However, if we want that hope, we have to be faithful to Him until the end. With this in mind, let’s consider the apostle Paul’s thoughts about finishing the race.
In the first of these final reflections, Paul encourages Timothy to PREACH THE WORD. Here, let’s read from 2 Timothy 4:1-5. There are two things in this text that we need to attend to, and the first has to do with our work. Not all of us are preachers, but all of us have a ministry to fulfill. All of us have some work that God has given us to do in His kingdom, and we are responsible for carrying out that work in the same way that Timothy was. We have to do what we know is right, and we have to continue doing it, regardless of what anybody else says or does.
We also must pay attention to the kind of hearer of the word that we are. As Paul observes, some Christians will have itching ears. They are more concerned with hearing things that please them than hearing sound teaching from the word of God. Indeed, they are offended by sound teaching.
At this thought, all of us will say, “Oh, no! That’s not me!” However, we need to pay attention to ourselves to make sure it isn’t us. Let me ask you this. The last time you heard a preacher say something you didn’t like, how did you react? Did you check his teaching against the Scriptures and show him his error from the Scriptures if he was in error? Or instead, did you get mad about it and complain about it to him or others? Brethren, hearing the truth and not honoring it is a sign of having itching ears. We all must make sure that we endure sound teaching, especially when we don’t like it.
After this injunction, Paul contemplates HIS DEPARTURE. Look at 2 Timothy 4:6-8. Even though Paul speaks euphemistically, it is clear that he is about to die. We might expect to die at home, or perhaps in a hospital bed someplace. Paul knew that wouldn’t be his fate. If tradition is accurate, and we have no reason to doubt it, he met his end by the sword of a Roman executioner.
However, Paul’s faith is such that he contemplates his imminent and violent death with joy. He says with confidence that he has done what God expected him to do, and because of that, he knows that he will receive the crown of righteousness.
From this, we must learn that it is possible for a Christian to die with assurance. We don’t see Paul being all wishy-washy here: “Oh, I hope I’ll go to heaven!” Instead, he knows he’s going, and he’s left his confidence on record for 2000 years.
He doesn’t have this confidence because he thinks he’s so perfect. After all, in 1 Timothy 1, he calls himself the foremost of sinners. Instead, his hope is founded on Jesus and His word. If we will set our hope in the same place, then every one of us can die with confidence too.
From here, Paul turns his attention to INCONSTANT BRETHREN. We see his description of recent events in 2 Timothy 4:9-15. Basically, he wants Timothy to come to Rome to see him because pretty much all of his other companions have gone elsewhere. Some of them are off working, one has left the Lord, and one has even started actively opposing Paul!
From this, we should learn to put our trust in the Lord rather than in other Christians. We tend to think of ourselves and others as relatively stable, but the reality is that all of us change and sometimes change dramatically. Sometimes the change is good. Mark is the same guy who left Paul in the lurch during his first missionary journey, but now he’s useful for service. At other times, though, the change is for the worse, and if somebody we depend on is headed in the wrong direction, we’re in a world of hurt!
In my experience, one of the most common reasons that Christians give for falling away is that the other people at church weren’t treating them right. I’m not going to get into what I’ve seen of the validity of those accusations, but I will say this: if the bad behavior of Christians can damage your faith in Christ, your faith was never in Christ to begin with. People change. People let us down. The Lord doesn’t and won’t.
In fact, Paul’s closing thoughts are about THE LORD’S RESCUE. Let’s wrap things up by reading 2 Timothy 4:16-18. Paul reveals that this isn’t the first time that Christians let him down. During his first trial before Caesar, everybody abandoned him for fear of their own lives! However, the Lord was with him through the whole process, start to finish. Jesus got him through it.
Paul expects this to be the invariable outcome. He says that Jesus will rescue him from every evil deed and deliver him safely to heaven. In light of what we just read a few minutes ago, this sounds like Paul has lost his mind. He’s expecting to get beheaded, and yet he says that the Lord is going to keep him safe???
The truth is that the safety that concerns Paul isn’t the safety of the body, nor should the safety of the body be the primary concern of any Christian. Ever since Genesis 3, it’s been true for all of us that if the earth continues, sooner or later we won’t.
Instead, Paul is concerned with the safety of his soul, a soul that has a much more fearsome enemy than any Roman emperor. He knows that only Jesus can keep his soul safe from the evil one, and he knows that Jesus will do it. For that, he anticipates praising Jesus forever and ever. We should too.
Even though I still have to think to make sure that I don’t write “2018” at the top of my sermon notes, 2019 is officially upon us. There’s really nothing that makes January 1, 2019 any different from December 31, 2018, it’s still a time that many of us use to take stock and consider the year ahead.
Of course, pondering the future is an activity as old as mankind, and we certainly see it in the Scriptures. For instance, in 2 Timothy 3, Paul tells Timothy what the future will hold for him and what he should do about it. Because the wisdom of God is timeless, these same things apply to us today. Let’s consider Paul’s words, then, to learn how we can find God in the new year.
In this text, Paul first warns against WORLDLINESS IN THE CHURCH. Look here at 2 Timothy 3:1-5. Much of this text is taken up with a horrendous catalogue of sins, but of it all, the part that most concerns me is v. 5. There, Paul notes that the people who will practice these things have the appearance of godliness but have forsaken its power. In other words, all of these awful sins will be committed by people who outwardly look like Christians!
Brethren, this is the future that the devil wants for every one of us, and we can rest assured that he will spend 2019 working as hard as he can to make sure that this is where we end up. He wants us to be people who show up for church on Sunday morning but have lives that are every bit as rotten and corrupt as the people around us. One Christian like that does more harm to the cause of Christ than a hundred atheists!
This year, before we gossip, before we look at porn, before we nurture hatred in our hearts, let’s remember the devil’s goal. Let’s resolve that whatever else happens, we’re not going to let him put us in this category. We can’t control the choices that the world makes, but we can and must control ourselves.
Next, Paul predicts WORLDLINESS IN CHURCH LEADERS. Let’s keep going in 2 Timothy 3:6-9. There are two main problems that the apostle identifies in this text, and the first has a very modern ring to it. It is the problem of leaders in the church using their position to sexually abuse and exploit others.
All of us are familiar with the child-molestation scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church for decades. However, in recent years, similar problems with the abuse of girls and women have emerged among some evangelical churches. Those things are bad enough, but it’s even worse when churches cover up sexual misconduct by their leaders.
That must never happen here. I hope and pray that this never becomes an issue, but if it does, all credible accusations of criminal sexual activity by church leaders here must be reported to the authorities. In that event, we can’t worry about the damage reporting it will do to the reputation of the church. It would be far better for this congregation to close its doors forever than to be engaged in sheltering evil.
As Paul observes, part of the problem is that those who prey on the weak and vulnerable will also end up abandoning the truth. You can’t let Satan have that much real estate in your heart and remain useful for preaching Christ or serving Christ or shepherding others in Christ. Leaders, we have a job to do. Let’s pursue godliness so we can do it.
In contrast to this, Paul urges Timothy to FOLLOW HIM. He explains what this means in 2 Timothy 3:10-13. He first of all notes that Timothy has been doing this, but that what Timothy has seen from Paul doesn’t necessarily inspire confidence. Yes, Paul’s life has shown faith, patience, love, and steadfastness, but the result of this for Paul has been persecution and suffering. Not much of a recommendation!
However, as Paul notes, this is to be expected. Persecution is for everybody who is trying to live godly in Christ Jesus. In fact, as other parts of the Scriptures observe, pushback from others is an important sign that we’re on the right track.
This certainly can be about people giving us grief because of our faith in Christ, but I think the applications are broader than that. We can’t expect doing the right thing to result in earthly blessing. Let’s say that Brother Joe Bob has a rotten marriage. He decides that he wants to make his marriage better, so he dedicates himself to loving his wife, Emma Sue, as Christ loved the church. However, his better behavior does not guarantee her better behavior. She may well continue being a hag.
Nonetheless, doing the right thing, even to the point of suffering, does guarantee that God will be with us as He was with Paul, and that’s what truly matters. The wicked can go on fooling themselves right on into destruction, but only the righteous will please their Creator.
All right. If we want a bright future, we have to continue to follow God, but how do we do that? Paul tells Timothy and us both to look to THE SACRED WRITINGS. Let’s finish up our reading with 2 Timothy 3:14-17. In this text, there are two things that we must appreciate. The first is the extent of what Paul is talking about. Notice that Paul tells Timothy that these are the sacred writings that he has known from childhood. That can’t be the New Testament. It has to be the Old Testament.
Sometimes, I’ll hear Christians grump and complain about studying the Old Testament. “Why bother with this stuff?” they grumble. “Everything we need is in the New Testament anyway!” Well, Paul tells us otherwise. Timothy needed, and we need, the Old Testament to make us wise for salvation too.
Second, let’s pay attention to Paul’s words about all Scripture, which of course includes both testaments. He tells us that the Scriptures are both inspired and adequate. They come from God, and in them, we have everything we need to know to equip us to serve Him. If it isn’t in the Bible, we don’t need it.
However, if we don’t know the word and incorporate it into our hearts and our lives, it won’t do us any good. Last week, Shawn urged us to make sure that we read our Bibles every day. Let me echo his words. Let me make you a promise.
Even though every chapter in this year’s reading is in the Old Testament, if you will dedicate yourself to doing every reading, by the end of this year, it will change your life. If it doesn’t, I will give you your money back! Seriously, though, the word of God is powerful and active. It is certain to transform us if only we will let it.
The Internet is one of the most powerful inventions in human history. If we use it to seek the Lord, it can accomplish great things for Him. Without the Internet, I certainly wouldn’t be able to blog, and I probably wouldn’t be able to write hymns. This is to say nothing, of course, of the many opportunities the online world gives us to encourage one another.
However, anything so powerful is also dangerous. Fire can warm us, but it can also consume us. So too with the Internet. Used wisely, it can be powerfully edifying. Used foolishly, it can be powerfully destructive. Let’s consider, then, the subject of spiritual wisdom and the Internet.
First, we must BE CAREFUL WHAT WE SEE. Consider our Lord’s wise words on the subject in Matthew 6:22-23. If we look at good things, they will elevate and ennoble us. On the other hand, if we look at evil things, they will degrade and corrupt us.
This starts, of course, with pornography. I’m sure all of you have heard multiple sermons about porn, and yet I’m equally sure that it continues to be a problem in this congregation and in congregations all across the country. There are so many ill effects from porn use that I hardly know where to begin. Like most sins, it tends to be addictive. The more we use it, the less we enjoy it. It enslaves us so that we seek out viler and viler things for less and less reward. Thus, passing pleasures of porn lead us to lasting misery. Porn is also destructive of our relationships, relationships with present and future spouses, but especially our relationship with God. We may think that we have concealed our habit from others, but we have not hidden it from Him.
Porn, however, is not the only thing on the Internet that is sinful and tempts us to sin. Lying is a sin, outbursts of wrath are a sin, contentiousness is a sin, divisiveness is a sin, and there are millions of websites that promote falsehood, anger, contention, and division. Sad to say, brethren are often very open about their patronage of these sites, especially in the political realm, because their prejudices blind them to the dangers. As a rule, friends, any time we read something that confirms the best that we want to believe about our political side or confirms the worst that we want to believe about the other side, the site is probably lying! If we uncritically swallow this dangerous brew of falsehood and bitterness, it will poison us. Like porn, it will corrupt us in ways that we never would have imagined. We need to be careful what we put our eyes on.
Finally, we must BE CAREFUL WHAT WE SAY. Look here at Ephesians 4:29-30. Today, our speech is not limited to what comes out of our mouths, and our keyboards, apps, and cameras have every bit as much power to corrupt. Let’s start by considering communication that is sexually provocative. Over the past couple years, one of the big movements online has been the appearance of “Stories” apps: Facebook Stories, Instagram Stories, and their predecessor, Snapchat. The big draw for all of these things is that they allow temporary posts on the Internet. 24 hours go by, and it’s gone, so that that way the dirty picture you sent your boyfriend or the video of your drunken party won’t show up when your grandmother or a prospective employer does an Internet search on you.
I have a couple of thoughts about that. First of all, I have a nasty suspicion that all that stuff won’t stay as private as its users hope. Numbers 32:23 is still true, and sooner or later, our sin will find us out. Even if that’s not true, all the dirty photos and dirty texts are still corrupting. Even if you’re sending them to your spouse, I still worry about privacy concerns, and if you’re sending them to somebody else, you’re trying to tempt them to sin. This is not a good idea!
Speech that is lying, angry, or contentious is equally corrupting. Our society idealizes self-expression, but if our best reason for putting something online is to express ourselves, that’s a sign that we’re not behaving wisely. We’re not thinking about the effect of our words on others. We’re just looking to “tell it like it is”. Friends, that’s about like throwing hand grenades while blindfolded. The results are unpredictable, but they’re likely to be bad. The next time we’re about to click share on that inflammatory meme or pound out an angry status update, let’s reconsider. If we use our online speech instead to persuade, edify, amuse, and enlighten, we’ll all be better off.