Last week, I mentioned that Sister Margaret and I had had some conversations about me providing some basic outlines that the members here could use to study with others. I thought that was a wonderful idea, so I solicited outline topics from y’all.
I got several suggestions, and I had a few ideas of my own. This morning, I’m going to be presenting the first of those outlines. My hope for this sermon, and for all others in this series, is that it will equip you to lead a short, half-hour study with somebody on this topic.
Logically speaking, the study I’m about to present has to come at the very beginning. I can teach somebody any number of things from the Bible, but before that, we have to agree on what the Bible is and the significance of what it says. Without that, what makes the Bible any different than some self-help book I pull off the shelf at Barnes & Noble? For that matter, what makes the words of the Bible different than the words of some random priest or pastor? These are important questions, and we need to answer them by understanding what the Scripture says about understanding God’s will.
The first issue that we must settle from the word is HOW GOD SPEAKS TO US. Consider here Paul’s words in Ephesians 3:4-5. Notice that this passage describes a process. This begins with the mystery of Christ. Here, I don’t think that Paul means that Christ Himself is mysterious. Instead, I think the point is that Christ had a mystery, some unrevealed thing. The Holy Spirit took that mystery of Christ and revealed it to God’s apostles and prophets, of which Paul was one. Paul wrote that revelation down in the book of Ephesians. The church in Ephesus then could read what Paul had written and perceive his insight into the mystery of Christ. This is how God reveals His will to His people.
This is extremely important for a number of different reasons. First, there are plenty of people out there who think that God speaks to them directly. A question to ask them from this text is “Do you think you’re an apostle or a prophet?” If they do, well, a little later, we’re going to be doing a study on spiritual gifts, and that would be a good thing to study with them! If they don’t, then they are not the recipients of revelation. Only apostles and prophets are inspired.
Second, we need to pay particular attention to what Paul says in Ephesians 3:4. Speaking to the ordinary Christians of the Ephesian church, he tells them that they could read his letter and understand his insight into Christ’s mystery. By extension, when we read the Scriptures today, we can understand Christ’s mystery too.
It’s almost impossible to overstate how important and empowering this is. There are whole denominations out there that are founded on the notion that ordinary Christians can’t understand the will of God for themselves. Well, the apostle Paul tells us that we can understand it!
This is not to say that figuring out God’s will from His word will always be easy for us. Nor is it to say that we can’t make mistakes, or that we won’t grow in our understanding. Figuring out God’s will takes work and skill.
However, it is possible. It’s possible for me, it’s possible for you, and it’s possible for everyone who is spiritually accountable. God has given us the power to learn the truth for ourselves, and that is a beautiful thing!
Next, we have to see what the Bible says about THE RELIABILITY OF SCRIPTURE. Consider the words of Peter, another one of those inspired apostles, in 2 Peter 1:19-21. Once again, there are many things to note in this passage. First, though we might think of prophecy as only foretelling the future, in this passage, the word has a broader meaning. It’s not only about foretelling. It’s about forthtelling. It’s about revealing the will of God.
Second, Peter says that these foretellings and forthtellings are fully confirmed. Particularly important here is the Bible’s record of fulfilled prophecy. If the Bible isn’t the word of God, how come David could predict in Psalm 22, a thousand years beforehand, that Jesus’ enemies would pierce His hands and His feet and gamble for His clothes? There are many other such fulfilled prophecies. They reveal that the Bible is the product of supernatural wisdom.
Third, Peter tells us that none of the prophecies of Scripture originate from human will. Instead, every one of them comes from God and the Holy Spirit. Everything in this book is inspired! The same God who can foretell the future can protect His revelation from people who want to tamper with it.
We can have confidence, then, that the books of the Old and New Testaments that we have are the books that God wants us to have. None of them are the work of human authors and ended up here by mistake. If God permits mistakes in such things, 2 Peter 1:20-21 is not true.
Additionally, God has safeguarded the contents of His revelation. Biblical skeptics like to raise a fuss over the fact that we have manuscripts of the Bible containing 100,000 variations. However, 99.99 percent of those variations are utterly insignificant, and even the more significant textual disputes do nothing to change our understanding of God’s will one way or another. In short, we can be completely certain that we can rely on the Bible as the inspired word of God.
Finally, let’s learn about THE SUFFICIENCY OF SCRIPTURE. Here, look at 2 Timothy 3:16-17. There’s a lot of meat to pull off this bone too. First, this is another passage that confirms the inspiration of the Scripture. It claims that all of it comes from God, and as we have seen before, we have good reason to believe that claim.
Second, this text describes the operation of the Scriptures in our lives. I read this as having a main heading—teaching—and three subheadings or kinds of teaching—reproof, correction, and training in righteousness. Basically, what Paul is describing here is a spiritual U-Turn. Reproof is a fancy word, but all it means is telling somebody that they’re doing wrong. In other words, “Stop going this way.” Correction is turning somebody around, “Not that way, but this way.” Then, training in righteousness is helping somebody to keep doing the right thing. “Keep going this way.”
Last, we come to Paul’s inspired views about what the Scripture can accomplish. He tells us that through them, the man of God—or woman of God, for that matter—can become complete and equipped for every good work. This is an extremely strong claim, brethren. Paul does not say mostly complete or equipped for some good works. He says complete, period, and equipped for every good work.
In other words, if we need something to make us spiritually complete, it’s in the Bible. If there’s a good work that we’re supposed to do, the Bible equips us to do it. As a result, we can conclude that the Scriptures are sufficient. We don’t need anything other than the Bible in order to please God. Everything else that anybody might say is at best unnecessary and at worst harmful.
Psalm 21 is about the relationship between God and a godly king. Vs. 1-7 are addressed to God. They praise Him for the way He blesses and establishes the king. By contrast, vs. 8-12 are addressed to the king. They predict that the king will find success in fighting and defeating his enemies because of God’s help. The psalm includes with more praise directed toward God in v. 13. Though the psalm is not quoted nor alluded to in the New Testament, all these sentiments certainly apply to our King today, Jesus.
Psalm 22 is arguably the most prominent prophetic psalm in the entire book. Even though it is David’s lamentation over his own sufferings, its words prefigure the suffering of Christ. The first half of the psalm (vs. 1-21) is made up of alternating sections of complaint and praise. David complains about his predicament and God’s apparent failure to help him, but he always returns to his faith that God will come to his aid. In this section are some of the most specific prophecies in existence about the crucifixion: that Jesus’ enemies would mock Him (vs. 6-7), pierce His hands and His feet (v. 16), and cast lots for His clothing (v. 18).
By contrast, the tone of the second half of the psalm is much more optimistic. David explores the good results that will come when God saves him, including a worldwide turning to God (v. 27). These things were fulfilled as a result of Jesus’ resurrection.
Psalm 23 is the most well-known psalm. It is widely memorized, and our hymn “The Lord’s My Shepherd” is a paraphrase of it. It compares God to a shepherd and David (and all the rest of us!) to a sheep. Like a good shepherd, God provides for us (vs. 1-3) and protects us from our enemies (vs. 4-5). V. 6 sets out the result: we will enjoy lifelong blessing and dwell with God forever.
Psalm 24 was probably used in religious processions. It has three main parts. The first (vs. 1-2) asserts God’s ownership of the world because He created it. The second asks who can ascend the hill of the Lord (probably the literal Mt. Zion) and enter His holy place. Such people have good behavior and honest hearts, and they can expect God to bless them. The final portion of the psalm is addressed to the gates of Jerusalem, urging them to open before God, who is the King of glory.
Psalm 25 is another appeal for God’s help in time of trouble. Vs. 1, 2, and 7 are quoted in our praise song “Unto Thee, O Lord”. In this particular case, David asks for God’s protection from his enemies even though he is conscious of his own imperfections. He relies on God’s response to his faith, even though he knows he has sinned (v. 7) and needs further instruction (vs. 4-5). According to vs. 8-10, his hope is founded in God’s steadfast love. Vs. 11-15 describe the benefits that come to those who fear God: forgiveness, instruction, stability, friendship, and protection. The psalm concludes with a final plea for God’s presence and redemption.
I maintain that Leviticus is the Rodney Dangerfield of the Pentateuch. It gets no respect. Despite its reputation as the mostest boringest book in the Bible, I find that every year, I come away with something new from reading through it.
Today, for instance, I was struck by Leviticus 19:14, which reads, “You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.” On its face, this appears to be an instruction not to engage in boorish frat-boy behavior with disabled people: “Look! I can cuss him out, and he can’t hear me! Hur hur hur!”
It is certainly that, but I think there’s a lot more under the surface. Fundamentally, this is a passage about taking advantage of others. You curse the deaf because you can do it and get away with it. You put a stumbling block before the blind because you can do it and get away with it. You’re in a privileged position, and you’re using your privilege to exploit others for your own satisfaction. You do something to somebody because you can, not because you should.
That has a distinctly modern ring to it, doesn’t it? Isn’t this, after all, what the #MeToo scandals are about? You’ve got somebody, usually a man, who is in a position of power and oppresses others for his sexual enjoyment. From Harvey Weinstein to Larry Nassar to legions of predatory clergy, you’ve got evil men who are putting a particular kind of stumbling block before a particular kind of blind person.
Why not abuse the weak and vulnerable? Who’s going to stop you? Them?
Of course, you don’t have to be a criminal to do similar things. How about the mortgage brokers 10 years ago (if indeed the practice has stopped) who were quoting higher rates to minority borrowers than they were to white borrowers? “They don’t know! They’re too dumb to figure it out! Ca-ching!”
How about the Christians who will happily gossip about a brother or sister in Christ? To too many brethren, building yourself up while tearing somebody else down looks like a win-win.
Similar examples abound. As the passage points out, though, such behavior can only come from those who do not fear God. After all, God is in the position of greatest power and advantage. He could use and abuse all of us for His amusement, and there’s nothing we could do about it.
However, God’s very nature is opposed to such exploitation. He seeks our good, not His pleasure. He continually exerts His power for us, not Himself. Rather than taking what we have, He gave us the most precious thing He had.
We don’t have to imagine how He feels about those who do differently. Read through this lens, the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18 is about a man who seeks mercy from great power, then uses his slight power to oppress someone else. He acted as he did because he did not fear the king. Not enough.
In our dealings with others, we always must remember that God is watching. If we have a measure of power, it is because He has given it to us. If we are in a place of advantage, it is because He has put us there.
However, He remains the God of both the hearing and the deaf, both the sighted and the blind. If we take advantage of the lowly, He will balance the scale, and we will not enjoy it. If we will not fear Him now, He will reveal why we should have been afraid.
A couple of weeks ago, I paraphrased Psalm 94. It was certainly a journey into the darker side of Psalms. If the first line of the psalm is, “O Lord, God of vengeance,” you pretty well know how the rest is going to go! Indeed, Psalm 94 is a powerful prayer to God to punish the wicked, particularly those who use the machinery of the law for wicked ends.
This is something God did 2500+ years ago, and it’s still something He does today. He brings every act to judgment, whether good or evil. Of course, the scope of the day of judgment is universal, but even before then, a high percentage of the wicked are going to suffer for their wickedness in this life. It’s true of individuals, and it’s true of nations, which is why many Christians are gravely concerned about the future of the United States.
God certainly punishes unrighteousness, but are Christians allowed to ask Him to do that? There’s certainly plenty of Scriptural evidence that says, “No.” Most notably, in Luke 6:28, Jesus says, “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” By this, Jesus does not mean praying, “O God, please turn the people who abuse me into grease spots!” We are supposed to pray for their good.
However, neither does that mean praying, “O God, please give these evil people many years of life and prosperity, so that they can continue to treat others as shamefully as they have treated me!” Continued evil isn’t good for anybody. It isn’t good for the victim, and it isn’t even good for the practitioner. What we really want is for that evil not to continue.
This should begin with prayer for God to forgive our tormentors. My favorite New-Testament example of this appears in Acts 7:60. Fascinatingly, among Stephen’s murderers was the young Saul of Tarsus. Stephen’s prayer for Saul was answered in Acts 9:18 when Saul was baptized. We should likewise want everyone who troubles us to repent so that they can be forgiven.
Sadly, many evildoers never repent. In such cases, we may well echo the cry of the martyrs under the altar in Revelation 6:10. Even though we often use it generically, the cry, “Lord, how long?” is not generic. Instead, it is specific, asking how long God will take to avenge the blood of the righteous. In Romans 12:19, God promises us, “Vengeance is Mine; I will repay.” As with all His other promises, we have the right to ask Him to keep that one.
Some might see this as inconsistent with our calling to love our enemies. However, even though it can be, I don’t think it necessarily is. After all, God’s perfect love is consistent with His judgment of the wicked. It follows, then, that our love can be consistent with an appeal for that judgment.
God doesn’t want anyone to perish. Neither should we. Prayers for the salvation of the souls of the wicked should always be our Plan A, and we should sincerely desire to see them saved. However, those who reject the mercy of God have only His justice left. If someone who has wronged us will not repent (and God knows whether they will or not), we have the right to ask Him to balance the scales, and we can leave the matter in His hands.
Hear my righteous cause, O Lord!
Give attention to my cries;
From Your presence, send my help;
Keep my plight before Your eyes.
Test me, and find nothing wrong,
For my mouth does not transgress;
Taught according to Your word,
I have walked in righteousness.
Saving God, incline Your ear;
Hear my pleading when I speak;
Wondrous in Your steadfast love,
Grant the refuge that I seek.
As the apple of Your eye,
Hide me with Your wings outspread
From the violence of the foes
Who surround my soul with dread.
Pitiless, they close their hearts,
Swift as lions to the strife;
Keep me from such men, O Lord,
Who delight in earthly life.
Wealth and children are their hope,
And You offer these with grace,
Yet I will be satisfied
Waking to behold Your face.