A Prayer of Thanksgiving for Truth

I came across this prayer in this morning’s devotional reading, and loved it, as I love many of William Barclay’s prayers.  Be edified.

O God, we thank you for all those in whose words and in whose writings your truth has come to us. For the historians, the psalmists and the prophets, who wrote the Old Testament; for all those who in every generation have taught and explained and expounded and preached the word of Scripture: we thank you, O God.

Grant, O God, that no false teaching may ever have any power to deceive us or to seduce us from the truth. Grant, O God, that we may never listen to any teaching which would encourage us to think sin less serious, vice more attractive, or virtue less important; grant, O God, that we may never listen to any teaching which would dethrone Jesus Christ from the topmost place; grant, O God, that we may never listen to any teaching which for its own purposes perverts the truth.

God, our Father, establish us immovably in the truth. Give us minds which can see at once the difference between the true and the false; make us able to test everything, and to hold fast to that which is good; give us such a love of truth, that no false thing may ever be able to lure us from it. So grant that all our lives we may know, and love, and live the truth, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

From: William Barclay, Prayers for the Christian Year (New York: Harper, 1965)

Did Jesus Really Walk on Water?

When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea (Matthew 14:23-25).

When I was a boy we used to visit my grandmother’s home in Blowing Rock, North Carolina.  She lived in a house on a hill with a big front porch and a breathtaking view of GrandfatherMountain.  At the bottom of the hill was a clear, mountain stream that rushed over smooth, round rocks, and it was there, in one of the still pools at the side of the stream, that I first saw something walk on water.  It was a bug, a “water strider” to be exact, but as I watched it make its way across the pool my eyes grew wide with wonder.  How did it do that?

My brother Scott explained:  “Surface tension,” he said.  Something about the way the water molecules held together.  If you were small enough and light enough, like that bug, the surface of the water would behave like a sheet of Saran Wrap; you could just walk from one side to the other.  I was fascinated.  I filed that information away in my brain so that someday, when someone asked me how bugs could walk on water, I could lift my chin just the way Scott had, put on one of my most knowledgeable looks, and say “surface tension.”

On the surface, there is some tension between what we read in this passage from Matthew 14 and what we see in the world around us.  Matthew says that Jesus walked on water, and that—for a little while at least—Peter did too.  I don’t know about you, but I have never seen a man walk on water.  I saw my cousin water-ski barefoot once, but that’s not the same thing.  That’s called hydroplaning, when something is moving so fast that it skims across the surface of the water.  It seems to defy gravity in the same way an airplane lifts off the runway and into the sky by skimming on a cushion of air.  But if that airplane came to a sudden stop it would drop from the sky, and if that boat had come to a sudden stop my cousin would have sunk like a stone.

This is what observation has taught us, this is what experience has taught us, but this story from Matthew 14 wants to teach us something else, and on the surface at least is seems to want to teach us that once upon a time a man did walk on water.  For some people that’s a problem.  Although they won’t usually admit it (especially not in church) there are some sincere Christians who have a hard time believing that things really happened the way Matthew says they did.  Luke may have been one of them.  Although you find versions of this story in Mark and John you do not find it in the Gospel of Luke.  Is it because Luke, the beloved physician, the thoughtful scientist, just couldn’t believe it?  There’s really no way to know that, but we do know this: that, for whatever reason, he left this story out of the gospel he was writing in the same way some people leave it out of the gospel they are reading.  They turn the page and skip over it; their rational minds just can’t accept it.

They gag on a story too big to swallow.

I once heard someone say that Baptists are people who get together to argue about who believes the Bible more.  If that’s true, then this would be one of those stories they would argue about.  Someone would jab his finger into someone else’s chest and ask, “Do you believe the Bible is true?” Yes.  “All of it?”  Yes.  “Even that part about Jesus walking on water?”  Yes.  “Do you believe that he did it physically, literally?”  Um…maybe.  “Aha!  An unbeliever!”  Do you see how quickly we might divide ourselves into those who are able to believe everything in the Bible is literally true and those who have some doubts?  “Here,” we would say: “if you believe the sun stood still as it says in Joshua 10:13 sit on this side of the church.  If you’re not sure, sit over there.  If you believe a fish swallowed a man as it says in Jonah 1:17 sit up front, and if you don’t then sit at the back.  If you believe Jesus walked on water as it says in Matthew 14:25 then sit in the balcony, a little closer to heaven, and if you don’t then sit down here, a little closer to the other place.”

We could do that.  In fact some Baptists have done that—made belief in the literal truth of Scripture a test of fellowship.  But let me ask you: what purpose does it serve other than making some people feel superior and others feel inferior—second-class citizens because, for whatever reason, they are unable to suspend their disbelief?  I don’t mean that they are unwilling to believe, I mean that they are unable!  Suppose we asked everyone who could lift a hundred pounds over their heads to sit on one side of the room and everyone who couldn’t to sit on the other.  What would it prove except that some people are physically stronger than others?  Why do we try to separate ourselves on the basis of whose faith is the strongest?  And for that matter is an ability to believe the unbelievable the same thing as faith?  I know people who believe that Elvis is still alive.  Does that mean their faith is strong?  Or does it only mean that some people will believe anything?

Rather than arguing about who believes the Bible more or dividing ourselves into the weak and the strong let me suggest another way.  When I talk about the Bible I like to say that it is the Word of God for the people of God, and that it is authoritative in all matters of faith and practice.  To put it simply, the Bible tells us what to believe and how to behave.  But even before that the Bible is the Word of God.  It is how God talks to us.  Therefore the appropriate question to ask when looking at a passage like this is not,

Did it actually happen this way? but,

What on earth is God trying to say? 

What does it mean to say something like Jesus walked on water, and in this story what does it mean to say that Peter did, too?  Let’s take a closer look…

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This is just one of the things we discussed at Preacher Camp: the whole question of biblical authority and what to do with difficult passages of Scripture.  If you’d like to read the sermon in its entirety (“Surface Tension,” preached at First Baptist, Richmond, on August 10, 2008), you can just click HERE.

Ripping Pages Right Out of the Bible

Back in the days when the Southern Baptist Convention controversy was raging I was told that it was a “battle for the Bible.”  There were rumors that “liberal” seminary professors were ripping pages right out of the Bible, and otherwise dismissing or ignoring the parts they didn’t care for. 

I was a student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in those days, a school that was once described to me as “a bastion of liberalism,” but I never saw a professor rip a page from the Bible.  In fact, my experience was just the opposite.  I had never met people who treated the Bible with such reverence, who helped us dig down into its truth as if it really mattered, as if it really could change the world.  Their prayers before each class were humble and holy, thanking God for the high privilege of studying his Word.

But that’s not what Southern Baptists were hearing.  In their imaginations, at least, they were hearing the sound of pages being ripped from the Bible.  And so they came to those annual conventions (by the busloads!) and voted for the conservative candidate for president, who appointed the Committee on Committees, who made sure that the “conservative resurgence” spread to every part of the Southern Baptist Convention.  By 1990 their work was completed—the “Battle for the Bible” had been won.

You might assume, then, that the boards and agencies of the Southern Baptist Convention would be especially careful to honor the clear teaching of Scripture, and to ensure that their policies are consistent with what the Bible says.  But not long ago I learned that one of the guidelines for hiring at the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention has to do with “glossolalia.” 

Glossolalia is a good Greek word.  Literally, it means “tongue speaking,” or “speaking in tongues.”  It comes from the 2nd chapter of Acts, where the believers who were gathered on the Day of Pentecost began to speak “with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (vs. 4, KJV).  But it wasn’t only on the Day of Pentecost that believers spoke in other tongues.  Apparently it was a regular feature in the worship of the early church.  Paul said, “I would like every one of you to speak in tongues” (1 Cor. 14:5), and names glossolalia as one of the spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:10.  But look at what the North American Mission Board says about it:

“Glossolalia:  No person who actively participates in or promotes glossolalia shall be employed by NAMB in an exempt staff position. This includes having a private prayer language. A representative of NAMB shall counsel any exempt staff member who becomes involved in glossolalia. Continued participation will result in termination” (from the “Employment Guidelines” page of the North American Mission Board web site).

I’m not trying to pick a fight with the North American Mission Board, and Paul himself would warn that speaking in tongues can lead to trouble in the church (as he explains in 1 Corinthians 14), but he ends his teaching on the subject by saying, “Do not forbid speaking in tongues” (1 Cor. 14:39), and that’s exactly what the North American Mission Board has done.  I take offense because I’ve spent some time with Pentecostals—dear brothers and sisters in Christ who cherish the spiritual gift of “tongues.”  For them it is an edifying personal prayer language, a way of talking to God without words getting in the way.  And as a boy in West Virginia I was deeply impressed by the fact that God would shower this gift on people who had almost nothing else in the world (cf. Matt. 11:25).  It made me think of him as a God who was surprisingly generous and kind, even if he did show it in a rather strange way.

So it irks me to think that some of the same people who launched the “Battle for the Bible” and denounced those “liberal seminary professors” could so easily dismiss the troublesome parts of Scripture—rip them right out of the Bible, really.  It makes me wonder what they might do with the truly troublesome parts, like the ones about loving your enemies.

Arguing About Who Believes the Bible More

Today’s sermon was all about the Bible: what it is, how to read it, and why it matters.  It began like this:

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What is the Bible?  When people ask me for a definition I usually say the Bible is “the word of God for the people of God,” and that it is “authoritative in all matters of faith and practice.”  Sometimes people want to argue with me at that point.  They want to say the Bible is inerrant rather than authoritative.  They think of inerrant as a stronger word.  But I remember that deacon at my first church who would point to the Bible on his coffee table and tell me he believed it was literally true from cover to cover, and yet I couldn’t see much evidence in his life that he had ever read it.  He would tell me sometimes, “The Lord helps those who help themselves,” and I would ask, “Where is that in the Bible?”  He would tell me sometimes, “There ain’t nothing free,” and I would say, “What about grace?”  It’s not hard to make claims for the inerrancy of God’s word.  Anybody can do that.  What’s hard is reading the Bible, listening for God’s word, and then letting it have authority over you, so that if it tells you to stop doing something—like hating your enemies—you’d better stop, and if it tells you to start doing something—like loving them—you’d better start.  You tell me: which of those two ways of thinking about the Bible is more likely to change your life?  And tell me this: isn’t changing your life the point?

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As I was shaking hands after worship someone asked, “So, are you saying the Bible isn’t inerrant?”  “I’m not saying that at all,” I countered.  “I just find you can make a lot of claims about Scripture without ever reading it, without ever letting it change your life.  I don’t think that’s what God had in mind.”  That seemed to satisfy him.  He nodded thoughtfully and moved on.

In the sermon I described the Bible as a ladder extending from earth to heaven, and said that the question to ask of such a ladder is not whether it is inerrant or authoritative, but whether its rails are straight enough, it’s rungs sturdy enough, to get us where we’re going.  In other words, is the Bible a reliable way to get to God?  The church’s answer through the centuries has been an unqualified yes.  Time after time God’s people have climbed this ladder and gotten a fresh glimpse of his glory.

At the conclusion of the service I recalled hearing someone say that Baptists like to get together and argue about who believes the Bible more, and I’ve been to those kinds of meetings.  Some of them got pretty ugly.  But I can’t imagine it pleases God to see us arguing with each other about the ladder.  I think what would please him is watching us climb the ladder, word by word, rung by rung, until we peek over the edge of heaven…

…and behold his glory.