Sermon: “All Scripture is Inspired by God” (October 16, 2016)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“All Scripture is Inspired by God” (2 Timothy 3:14-17)
October 16, 2016
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

If you knew your death was imminent, and you had the chance to write just one more letter, to whom would you write, and what would you tell them?  Today’s epistle lesson is from the last of the thirteen New Testament letters written by the Apostle Paul.  Rather than writing his final letter to all the churches he had planted during his missionary career, he wrote it to his protégé Timothy, who was serving as bishop at Ephesus.  One of the recurring themes in Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy is the authority of scripture, as found in today’s reading:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.  All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:14-17).

In seminary biblical studies often include viewing the Bible through various critical lenses, each of which are to help one analyze scripture as a literary document rather than how Paul describes it as the inspired word of God.  These critical lenses include historical criticism (interpreting scripture according to the historical context in which it was written), textural criticism (establishing the most authoritative version of a specific text), literary criticism (focusing on the literary genres within a text), form criticism (classifying a text as some type of pre-literary form)—on and on it goes.

These lenses can be helpful in some ways in understanding and appreciating the Bible, but they can also be a distraction from the fundamental intent of scripture which is to point you to salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.  In other words, when it comes to your actual life, both your earthly and eternal life, it is better to approach scripture with an open heart than with a scalpel.

There are two extremes on the continuum of perspectives of the Bible.  On one end is that it is not inspired by God at all but is rather a collection of religious documents produced by people trying to reconcile a belief in God with the reality of the human condition, a view of scripture that can lead to cynicism.  The other extreme is that the words of the Bible were literally spoken by God to the writers who recorded these words verbatim and without any error or inconsistency whatsoever, a view of scripture that can lead to Bibliolatry, worshipping scripture itself instead of the God who inspired it.

Or sometimes scripture is relegated to being simply another self-help book with tips for various ways to help you become a better you, be a better spouse or parent, be a more effective manager or leader, or maximize your potential (whatever that means).  Verses of scripture may be pulled out of context and presented as a daily pick-me up akin to “Points to Ponder” or “Quotable Quotes” in Reader’s Digest.

For the record, I have a very high view of scripture and I believe it is indeed inspired by God with the intent of pointing us to salvation through faith in Jesus Christ—as Paul put it to Timothy, “all scripture is inspired by God” and “able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”  In other words, according to scripture itself, it is most fruitful to read it through the lens of how it points you to salvation in Jesus Christ.

This is not only what the Apostle Paul does in today’s passage, it is also what Jesus did.  After healing a paralyzed man near the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem, Jesus proclaimed to the crowds: “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf.  Yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39-40).  Luke records what the Risen Jesus did in his conversation with two disciples while walking along the road to Emmaus: “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, (Jesus) interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (Luke 24:27).  Moreover, near the end of his account of the gospel John reveals why it was written:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples which are not written in this book.  But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name (John 20:30-31).

Scripture was inspired by God to point you to salvation in Jesus Christ.  Article VI of the Thirty-nine Articles in the back of The Book of Common Prayer echoes this:

Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation (BCP 868).

One of my heroes is Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), the Archbishop of Canterbury and the leading figure of the English Reformation.  Prior to producing the first two English books of common prayer in 1549 and 1552, Cranmer compiled the First Book of Homilies in 1547, a collection of sermons mandated to be read throughout the Church of England.  Cranmer himself wrote the first sermon included, a sermon entitled “A Fruitful Exhortation to the Reading and Knowledge of Holy Scripture.”  Cranmer cites the Early Church Father John Chrysostom (349-407) as he emphasizes the intent of scripture:

There is no truth nor doctrine necessary for our justification and everlasting salvation but that is or may be drawn out of that fountain and well of truth…In these books we may learn to know ourselves, how vile and miserable we be; and also to know God, how good he is of himself, and how he maketh us and all creatures partakers of his goodness…And as the great clerk and godly preacher St. John Chrysostom saith, “whatsoever is required to salvation of man is fully contained in the Scripture of God” (Book of Homilies 3-4, 8).

Moreover, in light of that, Cranmer also encourages us how to read scripture: “Read it humbly with a meek and a lowly heart; to the intent you may glorify God, and not yourself, with the knowledge of it; and read it not without daily praying to God, that he would direct your reading to good effect” (Book of Homilies 12).

Scripture is inspired by God to point you to salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, and that is why it is important to read the Bible regularly, daily.  In fact, that was one of the intentions of the first English prayer book of 1549, to call Christians in England to return to the regular, daily reading of scripture—as Cranmer put it in his preface of the 1549 prayer book: “that the people (by daily hearing of holy Scripture read in the Church) should continually profit more and more in the knowledge of God, and be the more inflamed with the love of his true religion” (BCP 866).  I once heard a longtime Episcopalian observe, “You know, there’s an awful lot of The Book of Common Prayer in the Bible.”  True—but of course it is actually the other way around.

In the same way God provided manna every day in the wilderness for the children of Israel in their journey through the wilderness, God provided the scripture to feed your soul every day of the journey of your life, especially when you too may feel like you are journeying through the wilderness—because as Jesus put it in the midst of his temptation in the wilderness, quoting from the Old Testament book Deuteronomy, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4; Deuteronomy 8:3).  Daily reading or hearing the scripture, the inspired word of God, is vital for your life because it will daily point you to and remind you of your salvation through Jesus Christ.

Recently the iconic singer-songwriter Bob Dylan was named the winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, the first singer-songwriter so honored, sparking positive reactions from fans and negative reactions from detractors.  I have appreciated Dylan’s remarkable lyrics for many years, including these lyrics from an often over-looked gem of a song entitled “Saving Grace” from his 1980 album Saved:

By this time I’d-a thought I would be sleeping
In a pine box for all eternity
My faith keeps me alive, but I still be weeping
For the saving grace that’s over me

Well, the death of life, then come the resurrection,
Wherever I am welcome is where I’ll be
I put all my confidence in Him, my sole protection
Is the saving grace that’s over me…

The wicked know no peace and you just can’t fake it
There’s only one road and it leads to Calvary
It gets discouraging at times, but I know I’ll make it
By the saving grace that’s over me

The same “saving grace” that’s over Bob Dylan is over you, the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ—and that saving grace is the focus of the Bible, the focus of the scripture inspired by God.  This means the best lens through which to read scripture is the one that asks, “How does this passage point to salvation through Jesus Christ?”

Back to Thomas Cranmer for a moment…on March 21, 1556 Cranmer, at age sixty-six, Cranmer was pulled from the pulpit of University Church in Oxford and roughly escorted to an iron stake on Broad Street.  If you go to Oxford you can stand on that very spot, which for me was a very moving experience.  The classic 1563 book, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs records what happened next:

Then was an iron chain tied about Cranmer.  When they perceived him to be more steadfast than that he could be moved from his sentence, they commanded the fire to be set unto him…His body did abide the burning with such steadfastness that he seemed to move no more than the stake to which was bound; his eyes were lifted up into heaven…and using often the words of Stephen, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,’ in the greatness of the flame, he gave up the ghost (Foxe’s Book of Martyrs 386-387).

Afterwards, as scholar Diarmaid MacCulloch notes in his definitive biography of Cranmer, “It was said that in the ashes of the fire his heart was found unburnt” (Thomas Cranmer 604).

Scripture is inspired by God to point you to the good news of the gospel, your salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, to remind you of the saving grace that’s over you.  And you will find that daily reading of the scripture with an open heart will fortify your soul as you continue your journey through life.  Along these lines, I will close with this especially appropriate collect written by Thomas Cranmer:

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever (BCP 236).

Amen.