You can Trust the Bible by John R.W. Stott 1991
THE TOPIC “GOD AND THE BIBLE” introduces us to the subject of revelation. In Isaiah 55:8-11, we hear God himself speaking:
My thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and return not thither but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.
From this great text there are at least three important lessons to learn.
The Reasonableness of Revelation
Some people find the very concept of revelation difficult. The idea that God should disclose himself to mankind strains their credulity. “Why should he?” they ask, “and how could he?” My response is that the evident necessity of divine revelation makes the notion eminently reasonable. Most people in every age have felt baffled by the mysteries of human life and human experience. So most people have admitted that they need wisdom from outside themselves if they are ever to fathom the meaning of their own being, let alone the meaning of the being of God, if indeed there is a God. Let me go right back to Plato. He speaks in the Phaedo about our having to sail the seas of darkness and doubt on the little raft of our own understanding, “not without risk,” he adds, “as I admit, if a man cannot find some word of God which will more surely and safely carry him.”
Without revelation, without divine instruction and direction, we human beings feel ourselves to be like a boat drifting rudderless on the high seas, like a leaf that is being tossed helplessly by the wind, like a blind
person groping in the darkness. How can we find our way? More important, how can we find God’s way without his direction? The impossibility of human beings’ discovering God by their own unaided intellect is very plainly asserted in Isaiah 55:8-9. “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” In other words, there is a great gulf fixed between God’s mind and human minds. The text expresses a contrast between the ways and the thoughts of God on the one hand, and the ways and the thoughts of human beings on the other. That is, between what we think and do, and what God thinks and does, there is this great chasm. The thoughts and ways of God are as much higher than the thoughts and ways of man as the heavens are higher than the earth: that means infinity.
Consider God’s thoughts. How can we discover his thoughts or read his mind? Why, we can’t even read each other’s thoughts. We try to. We look into each other’s faces to see if they are smiling or frowning. We peer into each other’s eyes to see whether they are flashing or twinkling or somber or bright. But it is a risky business. If I were to stand in the pulpit silent and maintain a poker face, you would not have the foggiest notion what I was thinking about. Let’s try it. Let me stop talking for a few moments …. Could you tell what was going on in my mind? Could you guess? No. I was mentally scaling the steeple
of All Souls Church, trying to reach the top. But no one knew. No one could possibly have the faintest notion what I was thinking or imagining. No one can read my mind. If we are silent, it is impossible to read one another’s minds.
How much less possible is it (if indeed there are degrees of impossibility) for us to penetrate into the thoughts of Almighty God? His mind is infinite. His thoughts tower above our thoughts as the heavens tower above the earth. It is ludicrous to suppose that we could ever penetrate into the mind of God. There is no ladder by which our little minds can climb to his infinite mind. There is no bridge that we can throw across the chasm of infinity. There is no way to reach or to fathom God.
It is only reasonable to say, therefore, that unless God takes the initiative to disclose what is in his mind, we shall never be able to find out. Unless God makes himself known to us, we can never know him, and all the world’s altars — like the one Paul saw in Athens — will bear the tragic inscription “To an unknown god” (Acts 17:23).
This is the place to begin our study. It is the place of humility before the infinite God. It is also the place of wisdom, as we perceive the reasonableness of the idea of revelation.
The Way of Revelation
Granted that it is reasonable for God to reveal himself, how has he done so? He has revealed himself, in principle,
in the same way that we reveal or disclose ourselves to one another, that is, by both works and words, by things we do and say.
Creative art has always been one of the chief means of human self-expression. We are conscious that there is something inside us which has to come out, and we struggle to bring it to birth. For some people the appropriate medium is music or poetry; for others it is one of the visual arts — drawing, painting or photography, pottery, sculpture, carving or architecture, dance or drama. It is interesting that of these artistic media, pottery is the one most frequently used of God in Scripture, presumably because the potter was a well-known figure in the villages of Palestine. So God is said to have “formed” or “fashioned” the earth, and mankind to dwell upon it (Genesis 2:7; Psalm 8:3; Jeremiah 32:17). Moreover, he himself is seen in his works. “The heavens are telling the glory of God,” and “the whole earth is full of his glory” (Psalm 19:1; Isaiah 6:3). Or, as Paul writes near the beginning of Romans, “What can be known about God is plain to them [the Gentile world], because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:19-20).
In other words, just as human artists reveal themselves in their painting, sculpture or music, so the divine Artist has revealed himself in the beauty, balance, intricacy and order of his creation. From it we learn, therefore, something of his wisdom, power and
faithfulness. This is usually referred to as natural revelation because it has been given in and through nature.
It is not to this that the Isaiah text refers, however, but rather to the second and more direct way in which we make ourselves known to one another and God has made himself known to us, namely, through words. Speech is the fullest and most flexible means of communication between two human beings. When I remained silent and straight-faced in the pulpit, I was inscrutable to you. No one could discover what was going on in my mind. But now the situation has changed. I am speaking again. You know what I am thinking because I am no longer silent. I am clothing the thoughts of my mind in the words of my mouth. My words are conveying to you the thoughts and images of my mind.
Speech, then, is the best means of communication, and speech is the main model used in the Bible to illustrate God’s self-revelation. Notice our text, (Isaiah 55) verses 10 and 11: “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and … water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be.” Notice the second reference to heaven and earth: it is because the heavens are higher than the earth that the rain comes down from heaven to water the earth. Notice also that the writer goes straight from the thoughts in the mind of God to the words in the mouth of God: “So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall … accomplish
that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.” The parallel is plain. As the heavens are higher than the earth, but the rain comes down from heaven to water the earth, so God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts, but they come down to us because his word goes forth from his mouth and thus conveys his thoughts to us. As the prophet had said earlier, “The mouth of the LORD has spoken” (Isaiah 40:5). He was referring to one of his own oracles, but he described it as a message coming out of the mouth of God. Or, as Paul wrote to Timothy, “All scripture is God-breathed [the literal translation of theopneustos]” (2 Timothy 3:16). That is, Scripture is God’s Word, issuing from God’s mouth.
Having made the affirmation which our text expresses, I want now to add a couple of qualifications in order to clarify our understanding of how God spoke his Word.
First, God’s Word (now recorded in Scripture) was closely related to his activity. Put differently, he spoke to his people by deeds as well as words. He made himself known to Israel in their history, and so directed its development as to bring to the Israelites now his salvation, now his judgment. Thus, he rescued the people from their slavery in Egypt; he brought them safely across the desert and settled them in the promised land; he preserved their national identity through the period of the judges; he gave them kings to rule over them, despite the fact that their demand for a human king was in part a repudiation of his own king-ship;
his judgment fell upon them for their persistent disobedience when they were deported into Babylonian exile; and then he restored them to their own land and enabled them to rebuild their nation and their temple. Above all, for us sinners and for our salvation, he sent his eternal Son, Jesus Christ, to be born, to live and work, to suffer and die, to rise and to pour out the Holy Spirit. Through these deeds, first in the Old Testament story but supremely in Jesus Christ, God was actively and personally revealing himself.
For this reason it has been fashionable for some theologians to distinguish sharply between personal revelation (through God’s deeds) and propositional revelation (through his words), and then to reject the latter in favor of the former. This polarization, however, is as unfortunate as it is unnecessary. There is no need for us to choose between these two media of revelation. God used them both. Moreover, they were closely related to one another. For God’s words interpreted his deeds. He raised up the prophets to explain what he was doing through Christ. It is true that the process of divine self-revelation culminated in the person of Jesus. He was God’s Word made flesh. He showed forth the glory of God. To have seen him was to have seen the Father (John 1:14, 18; 14:9). Nevertheless, this historical and personal revelation would not have benefited us unless, along with it, God had unfolded for us the significance of the person and work of his Son.
We must, then, avoid the trap of setting personal and propositional revelation over against each other as alternatives. It is more accurate to say that God has revealed himself in Christ and in the biblical witness to Christ. Neither is complete without the other.
Second, God’s Word has come to us through human words. When God spoke, he didn’t shout audibly out of a clear blue sky. No, he spoke through prophets in the Old Testament and through apostles in the New Testament. Moreover, these human agents of the revelation of God were real people. Divine inspiration was not a mechanical process which reduced the human authors of the Bible to machines, whether dictating machines or tape recorders. Divine inspiration was a personal process, in which the human authors of the Bible were usually in full possession of their faculties. We have only to read the Bible in order to see that this is so. The writers of narrative (and there is a great deal of historical narrative in the Bible, Old and New Testament alike) used historical records. Some are quoted in the Old Testament. Luke tells us at the beginning of his Gospel of his own painstaking historical researches. Hence the rich diversity of Scripture. Nevertheless, through their varied approaches God himself was speaking.
This truth of the double authorship of the Bible, namely, that it is the Word of God and the word of men, or more strictly the Word of God through the
words of men, is the Bible’s own account of itself. The Old Testament law, for example, is sometimes called “the law of Moses” and sometimes “the law of God” or “the law of the LORD.” In Hebrews 1:1 we read that God spoke to the fathers through the prophets. In 2 Peter 1:21, however, we read that men spoke from God as they were moved by the Holy Spirit. Thus God spoke and men spoke. They spoke from him, and he spoke through them. Both these affirmations are true.
Further, we must hold the two affirmations together. As in the incarnate Word (Jesus Christ), so in the written Word (the Bible), the divine and human elements combine and do not contradict one another. This analogy, which was developed quite early in the history of the church, is often criticized today. And obviously it is not exact, since Jesus was a person whereas the Bible is a book. Nevertheless, the analogy remains helpful, provided that we remember its limitations. For example, we must never affirm the deity of Jesus in such a way as to deny his humanity, nor affirm his humanity in such a way as to deny his deity. So with the Bible. On the one hand, the Bible is the Word of God. God spoke, deciding himself what he intended to say, yet not in such a way as to distort the personality of the human authors. On the other hand, the Bible is the word of men. Men spoke, using their faculties freely, yet not in such a way as to distort the truth of the divine message.
The double authorship of the Bible will affect the way in which we read it. Because it is the word of men,
we shall study it like every other book — using our minds, investigating its words and syntax, its historical origins and its literary composition. But because it is also the Word of God, we shall study it like no other book — on our knees, humbly, crying to God for illumination and for the ministry of the Holy Spirit, without whom we can never understand his Word.
The Purpose of Revelation
We have considered how God spoke: now, why did he speak? The answer is not just to teach us, but to save us; not just to instruct us, but specifically to instruct us “for salvation” (2 Timothy 3:15). The Bible has this severely practical purpose.
Returning to Isaiah 55, we see this emphasis in verses 10 and 11. The rain and the snow come down to us from heaven and do not return. They accomplish a purpose on earth. They water it. They cause it to bring forth or sprout. They make it fruitful. Just so, God’s Word, issuing from his mouth and disclosing his mind, does not return to him empty. It accomplishes a purpose. Moreover, God’s purpose in sending rain to the earth and his purpose in speaking his Word to human beings are similar. In both cases it is fruitfulness. His rain makes the earth fruitful; his Word makes human lives fruitful. It saves them, changing them into the likeness of Jesus Christ. Salvation is certainly the context. In verses 6 and 7 the prophet has spoken of God’s mercy and pardon, and in verse 12 he will go on to speak of the joy and peace of God’s redeemed people.
In fact, here lies the chief difference between God’s revelation in creation (natural because given in nature, and general because given to all mankind) and his revelation in the Bible (supernatural because given by inspiration, and special because given to and through particular people). Through the created universe God reveals his glory, power and faithfulness, but not the way of salvation. If we want to learn his gracious plan to save sinners, it is to the Bible that we must turn. For it is there that he speaks to us of Christ.
From our text in Isaiah 55 we have learned three truths. First, divine revelation is not only reasonable but indispensable. Without it we could never know God. Second, divine revelation is through words. God spoke through human words and in doing so explained his deeds. Third, divine revelation is for salvation. It points us to Christ as Savior.
My conclusion is very simple. It is a call to humility. Nothing is more hostile to spiritual growth than arrogance, and nothing is more conducive to spiritual growth than humility. We need to humble ourselves before the infinite God, acknowledging the limitations of our human mind (that we could never find him by ourselves), and acknowledging our own sinfulness (that we could never reach him by ourselves).
Jesus called this the humility of a little child. God hides himself from the wise and clever, he said, but reveals himself to “babes” (Matthew 11:25). He was not
denigrating our minds, for God has given them to us. Rather he was indicating how we are to use them. The true function of the mind is not to stand in judgment on God’s Word but to sit in humility under it, eager to hear it, grasp, apply it and obey it in the practicalities of daily living.
The humility of children is seen not only in the way they learn but also in the way they receive. Children are dependents. None of their possessions has been earned. All they have has been given to them freely. Like children, then, we are to “receive the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:15). Sinners do not deserve and cannot earn eternal life, which is the life of God’s kingdom; we have to humble ourselves to receive it as the free gift of God.