Is the Bible reliable?
Passage: Luke 24:36–39
Jesus alive is the best reason for the New Testament's existence.
Have you ever had someone in your life who you trusted but then who did something that completely shattered your trust in them? Maybe you trusted that they had your back then you discovered they were talking behind your back. Maybe you trusted information they gave you then you found out that they weren’t telling the truth. Maybe you trusted them to do something that was really important to you then they forgot about it or just decided not to do it. There was a time when you trusted that what they said was the truth, that when they said they’d do something they would do it, and that no matter what they were reliable. You could stand on their word, but then something happened that made it all feel shaky and unreliable.
Much like a friend can be reliable, we can wonder whether the Bible is reliable. Growing up, I never questioned the Bible. I saw it as reliable. Whatever it said was the truth. I could build my life on it. “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.” For my first four and a half years of college - yes I was on the five year plan - I continued to see the Bible as reliable. But in the spring semester of my final year, I took a class called “New Testament and Early Christianity.” The textbook we used in this class was written by a scholar named Bart Ehrman who questions the reliability of the Bible.
According to Ehrman, there are many reasons we can’t trust the Bible. To name just a few:
- By the time people started writing down the stories of Jesus, the stories had been retold so many times that they don’t give an accurate picture.
- What they wrote down is full of contradictions.
- What they wrote down was changed over time.
- The early church chose which documents they wanted to be included in the Bible and changed what was written to say what they wanted.
I had never heard anything like this in my life and my faith was rattled. I had been going through life confident in Jesus, God, and the Bible and now this class was drilling holes in the bottom of the boat and I felt like I was sinking.
For 22 years of my life, I saw the Bible as reliable. I was involved in a college ministry where I was convincing other people to stop believing what they believe and start believing in Jesus. I had gone to Brazil to convince people to believe in Jesus. While in this class, I had already been accepted to work full time in a college ministry, telling people about Jesus and helping people follow Jesus. But now I was asking: is any of this true? Is this all a lie? Is Jesus even who I thought he was? How can I tell people to give their lives to him if I’m not even sure about who he is? If the Bible isn’t reliable, then everything I believe about God and Jesus isn’t reliable. If the Bible isn’t reliable, then my faith rests on a crumbly foundation.
Perhaps you have had a similar experience. Maybe you watched a PBS or History channel special on “who Jesus really was”. Or while you were in the checkout line, you looked at the magazine rack and saw an issue of TIME magazine dedicated to the origin of the Bible or the origin of Jesus or the origin of Christianity. Maybe you had a teacher in high school or in college who, instead of talking about Jesus like he is real and the Bible is reliable, treated Jesus like a myth and the Bible as a fairy tale. Or maybe you were talking to a friend or a stranger and they made a statement about the Bible or asked a question about the Bible that you just couldn’t answer and you started wondering: can I trust the Bible? Is the Bible reliable?
Here are some questions people commonly ask:
- Isn’t the Bible like a game of telephone and the message changed over time?
- Aren’t we just reading copies of copies and translations of translations?
- How can we trust a book that condones so many immoral and horrible things?
- Didn’t people change the Bible to say what they wanted it to say?
- Weren’t the people who compiled the Bible just making a political power play?
- Weren’t the people in Jesus’ day gullible? They believed all sorts of things we don’t believe today, why should we believe what they say about Jesus?
- Wasn’t the picture of Jesus just exaggerated over time and he’s only a legend?
- How can the Bible be accurate when there are so many contradictions?
- Weren’t the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life written way after the events?
- Other religions have sacred texts, why should we trust the Bible over those?
- How can we believe a book that talks about miracles?
- Were the writers of the Bible even interested in historical accuracy?
Have you heard any of these? Which ones?
Maybe those questions have caused your faith to feel weak and shaky. Or maybe the questions don’t affect your faith, but you aren’t sure how to answer them.
The bottom line is: When the Bible says something about God, can we trust that what it says is true? When it tells us promises from God, can we trust they will come about? When the Bible tells us truths about how to have a relationship with God and be forgiven or be saved, can we trust it?
This evening we are continuing to Explore God by tackling the question “Is the Bible reliable?” There is no way we can directly address every question about the Bible in the time that we have. But there is one truth that can give you confidence in the Bible no matter what question is asked.
For tonight’s purposes, we are going to come at this from a historical perspective. One of the unique aspects of Christianity is that it is rooted in history. The Bible didn’t float down from heaven to someone and now we just have to take their word for it that it came from God. No, the Bible can be fact checked. It records historical events, people, and places and that means it can be fact checked by archaeology and other historical documents. The Bible is not one book. There is one divine Author, but the Bible is really a library of 66 different books written by 40 different human authors across a 1500 year time period. Across that 1500 year period, these authors claim to be writing the history of how God is acting in the world through real events in real places with real people.
There is one historical event in the Bible that is especially significant. If this event happened, then we can trust every book and every word of the Bible. If this event happened, then the Bible is completely reliable. This event is the resurrection of Jesus. Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Three days after he was crucified, died, and was buried, did God raise him from the dead? If so, then we can completely trust the entire Bible.
Here’s why: If Jesus is alive, then he is who he said he was. Jesus claimed to be one with God, to be the Son of God, to be God in the flesh. He predicted his death and claimed that his death would pay for our sins so we can be forgiven. But it’s pretty easy to predict your death. Everyone dies. And claiming to be the Savior of the world who is dying for everyone else’s sins just sounds like the words of a liar or a lunatic, unless his other prediction also happened. Jesus predicted his resurrection too. It’s only if he was raised from the dead that we should believe everything he said about who he was and what his death would do. His resurrection would prove he was telling the truth about all the rest.
If he is who he said he was, then we can trust the whole Bible. Why? Because Jesus trusted the Old Testament. Jesus relied upon the Old Testament and if he is God in the flesh, that makes him a good authority to determine whether the Old Testament is from God. What about the New Testament? Jesus told his original followers, the apostles, that their job was to tell the world what they saw and he said that he would lead them to remember all that he said. Jesus gave them authority to tell the story about him and he said he would help them do it. And if he is alive as the Son of God, then he can do that and we can trust what they wrote. If we trust Jesus, we can trust the Bible.
But this all hinges on whether Jesus was really raised from the dead and whether he is really alive. What reason do we have to believe that Jesus is alive and not rotting in the tomb where he was buried? We aren’t hearing reports of people being raised from the dead on the nightly news, so why should we believe reports from 2,000 years ago that Jesus was raised from the dead?
Here is our big idea for this evening: Jesus alive is the best reason for the New Testament’s existence. Jesus alive is the best reason for the New Testament’s existence.
In other words, we would not be reading Mathew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, or Romans or 1 and 2 Timothy or Revelation or any of the other books in the New Testament if Jesus was still dead. The only reason we know about Jesus today is because he is alive. If he wasn’t alive, we wouldn’t have the New Testament.
To explore this big idea, we are going to look at Luke chapter 24, verses 36 through 49 on page 885. In this passage, we get front row seats to Jesus’ disciples seeing him alive again for the first time.
We need to get into their mindset. These men and women thought that Jesus was their Messiah, the Christ. To them, that meant Jesus was going to lead them to military victory over the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire had taken their land and disrespected their way of life. Their hope was in God’s promise to send a king who would liberate them from foreign oppression just like he had done in the past. This is what they understood from the Old Testament.
Then what happened? Jesus marched them into the capital during one of the busiest festivals of the year. He confronted the corruption of the religious leaders in the temple, just like the prophecies said the Messiah would do. But as the week went on, things went downhill. Jesus told them he was going to be betrayed, handed over to the religious leaders who would then hand him over to the Romans who would then kill him. Wait, what? How is he going to liberate them from the Romans if the Romans are going to kill him? The Messiah isn’t supposed to be killed by the Romans. He is supposed to defeat them! But everything happened as Jesus said. He was betrayed, handed over, crucified, died, and was buried. They thought Jesus might be the one to fulfill the prophecies. But he died just like others who tried to free them.
We join them now huddled up in a room in Jerusalem. Their leader is dead. Their hope is dead. They are grieving and confused. They are scared to be killed just like their leader was. Some women have reported to them that they found Jesus’ tomb with an angel telling them that he is alive, but it sounded like nonsense to them. Wouldn’t it sound like nonsense to you?
But then something happened that none of them expected. Jesus himself stood among them. Jesus whom they saw crucified. Jesus whom they saw die. Jesus whom they saw wrapped for burial. Jesus whom they saw laid in a tomb. Jesus who was dead. Dead. Not breathing. No heartbeat. No brain waves. Flatlined on the EKG. Corpse. Buried. Rotting. Decomposing. Gone. Dead. THAT Jesus - dead, gone, buried, Jesus - stood among them. And that fact forever changed them. It forever changed not only their lives, but also their beliefs. But it took some convincing for them to believe it.
It’s very easy for us to think of these first followers of Jesus as gullible and ready to believe anything but it takes a lot to convince them. Hearing about the empty tomb doesn’t convince them that Jesus is alive. There are other ways to explain an empty tomb: the women went to the wrong one, grave robbers, whatever. Hearing about an angel at the tomb telling the women Jesus is alive doesn’t convince them. There are other ways to explain that: the women were mistaken or confused or so stricken with grief that they thought they saw or heard something that they really didn’t. In fact, the disciples think all of this sounds like nonsense. Dead people don’t come back to life. Upon hearing these reports, they don’t conclude, “Oh! The tomb is empty? Jesus must be alive!”
Yes, they believed God would raise people from the dead. But they believed it would happen at the end of history and it would happen to everyone. They didn’t believe it would happen in the middle of history to one person. Now here is dead Jesus saying “hi” to them. But that doesn’t convince them either. They have categories for seeing people after they die; they are called spirits. That’s what verse 37 says:
37 But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit. (Luke 24:37)
So Jesus says in verse 39:
39 See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41 And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate before them. (Luke 24:39-43)
Spirits can’t be touched. Spirits can’t be fed lunch. Jesus proves he isn’t a spirit. Then Jesus explains how all of this was to fulfill what God said in the Old Testament. Here Jesus is affirming that the Old Testament is reliable. Then verse 45 says:
45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. (Luke 24:45-48)
They are sent as eyewitnesses to tell others about what they have seen. The New Testament is a written record of their eyewitness testimony. If this event didn’t happen, they would have all gone back to their day jobs. This moment radically changed their lives. This moment radically changed their beliefs.
It’s very hard to change someone’s beliefs. Just think about one of the 4Gs: God is great, so I don’t have to be in control. We all affirm that God is great, that he is in control, that we shouldn’t be anxious, that we shouldn’t worry. Jesus even said so. How hard is it to change the belief that we need to be in control?
That belief change should be easy because we already believe God is in control. But then think about friends or family that you have talked to about God or Jesus. You may have talked to them many, many times and they still have not changed their beliefs. And these are people living in a country where there is already Christian influence in their lives. Now imagine trying to convince a Hindu who has never heard of the Bible or Jesus to change their beliefs. Missionaries in other countries sometimes work tirelessly for years before someone gets it.
It is difficult to change someone’s beliefs. But these men and women change their beliefs overnight. Here are four ways their beliefs and lives were radically changed:
First, they had a new belief about resurrection. Many Jewish people believed resurrection would happen at the end of history and it would happen to everyone. But now these disciples were telling people that one person has already been resurrected in the middle of history. And they were making it central to their beliefs whereas resurrection was not a central Jewish belief before.
That’s speaking for Jewish people who actually believed in resurrection. But non-Jewish people - Gentiles - didn’t believe in resurrection at all. But as they hear this message from Jewish people about a dead Jewish Messiah who was raised from the dead, they are changing their beliefs about resurrection.
Second, they had a new belief about God. Jewish people believed there is one God and he isn’t a man. Now this band of Jesus’ disciples are claiming Jesus is God in the flesh and are giving him the trust, worship, and titles reserved for God alone. What would it take to convince you that a man that you had seen do all the normal things that men do like go to the bathroom and snore was actually the God you’ve worshiped your whole life?
For non-Jewish people, they believed in a whole pantheon of gods. But as they hear this message about Jesus, they are turning to believe in just one God. Both Jews and non-Jews changed their beliefs about God.
Third, they had a new belief about the Messiah. As I said earlier, Jews believed the Messiah would come in glory and power to defeat their human oppressors. Instead, they now believe in a suffering Messiah who died for their sins. They had to go back and read the Old Testament in a new way that they hadn’t before.
Lastly, both Jews and non-Jews risked their lives by calling Jesus “Lord”, “Son of God”, and “Savior”. In the Roman Empire, there was already somebody who carried those titles: Caesar, the Emperor of Rome. These were titles to boast of his power and might. Calling someone else Lord, Son of God, and Savior of the world was asking for death. It was treason. You were saying that someone else is King and you give your allegiance to them first and foremost instead of Caesar. Everyone knew what Rome did to rebels: they crucified them.
If you are a Christian, these are all beliefs you take for granted because we have read the New Testament our entire lives. But the men who wrote the New Testament would have never written what they wrote if it wasn’t for an event that changed their beliefs and changed their lives. The only reason they wrote what they did in the New Testament is because they are convinced Jesus is alive. And they reoriented their beliefs and their lives around it. Again, Jesus alive is the best reason for the New Testament’s existence.
You can have the same experience with Jesus that the people in the Bible had because Jesus is alive. He is inviting us follow him, to know him, to walk with him, to be changed by him. He is inviting us into a better story than the one we are living now. Too often we want life to stay as it is rather than risking it for him. We squeeze Jesus in when it fits or we have time or its convenient and thus we experience a boxed up Jesus. But if Jesus is alive, he cannot fit into a comfortable, religious time slot on Sunday at 5pm.
The problem is that we often live as if Jesus is still in the tomb. The aliveness or deadness of our faith is directly connected to how alive or dead we believe Jesus to be. If you feel that your faith is lifeless, dead, and cold, then you probably believe Jesus is lifeless, dead, and cold in a tomb.
If you are like me, it is easy to think of what we read in the Bible as events that happened “a long, long time ago in a place far, far away.” It’s true that they did happen a long time ago in a place far away, but the same Jesus who did them a long time ago in a place far away is alive today, right now. That means that we can know him and experience him today, right now.
If Jesus was still in the ground, these men who wrote the New Testament would have gone back to their lives and we would have never heard about Jesus. But Jesus alive is news that changes everything. We need to live in light of that. If Jesus is alive, we cannot go back to life as normal. If Jesus is alive, we cannot simply go back to what we are doing before as if nothing is different.
Jesus taught his disciples what would keep people from living in light of this good news. Consider whether one of these is you. First, some people would be hard to the news and it wouldn’t penetrate their heart. They would simply hear it as a fairy tale or dismiss it as not true.
Second, he said some people would hear the news and start to live in light of it, but then the cares of this world would choke it out like thorns and thistles in a garden. They would get too hung up on money, success, and stuff - on having too much of it or on having too little of it. Is that you? Do the cares of this world keep you from following Jesus? We are going to care most about something. If Jesus is alive, we should care most about him.
Third, he said some would would hear the news and start to live in light of it, but then other people’s opinions would whither their belief. Isn’t it easy to let what other people think of us determine what we believe and how we act? Maybe we’d like to keep our beliefs about Jesus quiet and private and reserved for when we are doing religious things but when we are around other people we act just like them and look just like them. If Jesus is alive, his opinion of us should matter the most. We are all going to live for someone and if we are living for the opinions, approval, and respect of others, we aren’t living for Jesus.
When people asks me questions about Jesus or God, I can easily feel afraid to offend them and I desire to give the right answer. But what if I was introducing them to a real living person? It’s not really about having the right spiritual answers but about telling them about someone I know. And if I believe Jesus is alive and with me, I don’t need to be afraid of them.
Take a moment and write down which hinders you from living in light of the news that Jesus is alive. Is your heart hard to believing it’s true? Are the cares of money, success, and stuff choking it out? Or does the opinion of others cause your belief to whither?
Believing that Jesus is alive and living in light of it keeps us from playing church and going through the motions. It keeps us from being a dead church and living dead Christianity. What if when we showed up for our worship gatherings, we expected to encounter and experience the living Jesus? What if when we met in our Gospel Fluency Groups, we had an expectation that we were going to encounter Jesus during that time as we opened the Bible together and prayed together and submitted ourselves to one another? What if when we gather as a Gospel Community, we were eager to immerse ourselves in the presence of Jesus in his people? What if when we go out on mission together we believed Jesus was alive and with us and we were following him to tell the good news?
When I read about the early disciples following Jesus in the Bible, I sometimes think it sounds like such an adventure: hanging out with Jesus every day, talking to him, watching him do miracles, telling people the gospel with him, see him heal people before their eyes, witnessing people give their life to him. But if Jesus is alive, he is calling us into that same adventure today. He is calling each of us and all of us as a community to follow him together.