A sermon by Richard Keith on Mark 7:1-13 and 2 Timothy 3:10-4:5 on 15 March 2018. For the first sermon in this series on “Christ Alone”, click on this link.
If I stood in the middle of a field and planted a tall flag where I stood and then walked 50 paces west and dropped a red witches hat where I finished and then walked 50 paces west again and again dropping another witches hat every time I stopped after 50 paces and did that 10 times all up going west each time as best as I could so that 10 times I walked 50 paces and a line of 10 witches hats lies between me and the flag where I started. If I did all that, I would be certain of three things. Firstly, I would not be directly west from the starting flag but a little bit off. Maybe a little bit north or a little bit south. Secondly, the witches hats would not be in a straight line but would zig zag right and left. And thirdly, I would not be 400 paces from the flag because despite every good intention I would have zig-zagged 400 steps across the field and ended up something like 380 paces from the flag.
That’s what it’s like to follow tradition in the church. Because the Lord Jesus said, “Come, follow me.” And if life is like a journey, then it has a certain path and a certain destination. Jesus Christ is the beginning and end of the life of faith and by the Spirit we walk in his footsteps after him. Each generation of the church means well and does its best to trust in Christ and to follow him and to lead the next generation to do the same. But if each generation of the church just gets its bearings from the last generation, copying their mistakes before making their own, then the church will end up like the person doing his best to walk 50 paces west at a time. The church will end up zig-zagging through history, rather than following the narrow way of Christ.
But the Bible is our flag and our compass, because in it we find our journey’s starting point and our bearing. Jesus Christ is the Word of God. Our creator speaks to us through his life and death and resurrection. Our life begins in Christ and through him God calls us to himself. The gospel is our bearing, our heading. We live by the truth of Christ’s words and deeds and they give our life direction. And this Word of Christ is recorded in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. The words of the prophets point forward to Christ and the words of the apostles point both back to what he has done and forward to what he will do. In the Bible we hear the voice of God calling us out of darkness and into his light. Each generation tries its best and lays down its witches hats, its confessions and creeds. But ultimately we must take our bearings not from the witches hats, but from the flag, and from the compass not just our best guess. For God calls us not to repeat the mistakes of the last generation before ours, but to take our bearing from the gospel.
This is what it means to say Scripture alone. The Bible isn’t the only voice we listen to. You are listening to my voice right now. You are also listening to your own thoughts trying to make sense of what the Bible is saying and what I am saying. And you remember the voice of your father or mother or minister or Sunday school teacher, that special someone who helped you learn and grow in your love for God. But the Bible must be the loudest and clearest voice in the church and it must be the place we go to to settle all arguments and disputes.
Mark chapter 7 reinforces the danger of tradition. Jesus said to the Pharisees,
“You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, “Honour your father and your mother,” but you say that if a man says to his father or mothers: “Whatever help you might have receive from me is a gift devoted to God, then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother.”
The Pharisees were letting people show more love for the temple institutions than for their own parents. When people’s responsibilities to their mother and father were enshrined in the ten commandments of all places, but such offerings to the temple were only voluntary and were often made only to impress one’s neighbours. No wonder Jesus said,
“These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by people.”
Much of Jesus’ conflict with the religious authorities was over the interpretation of the Bible. But he wasn’t just advocating a dead literalism, as if it was a Sunday School quiz quoting chapter and verse, there you go, I win. Like a duel with Bibles at 10 paces. Instead, more than anything Jesus pointed to the true heart of the Bible, Israel’s mission to be a blessing to the world, God’s call to holiness and justice and love, God’s promise of salvation and of the righting of all wrongs, and the Messiah’s special place in God’s plan and its fulfilment in his life. The slogan Scripture alone doesn’t commit us to a dead literalism. We don’t read the Bible, because we worship the Bible. We read the Bible in order to find for ourselves the God we worship. Jesus Christ is God’s Word to the world, but the only Jesus we know is found in the pages of the Bible. Any other Jesus is just wishful thinking and lies. And so we read the Bible, not just to memorise its words to win arguments, but to understand the heart of its message which reveals the heart of God.
2 Timothy chapter 3 clarifies further the relationship between Scripture and tradition. Timothy was a young man, a young student of Paul and part of Paul’s missionary team. Paul had left Timothy in charge of the church at Ephesus as their pastor, and in his two letters to Timothy that we find in the Bible, Paul helps Timothy understand how he should fulfil his ministry.
In 2 Timothy chapter 3 Paul warns Timothy about the terrible times there will be in these last days between the death and resurrection of Jesus and his coming again. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, ungrateful, unholy. They worm their way into homes and gain control over people who are weighed down with sins. But Timothy is to be a different kind of person, pursuing a different kind of ministry. Paul urges him to remember the example that Paul had set him. His teaching, his way of life, his purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions and sufferings. There is no getting around the fact that this is a kind of tradition. It’s an apostolic tradition handed over from the apostle Paul to people like Timothy. “Follow my example,” says Paul in 1 Corinthians chapter 11, “as I follow the example of Christ.” It’s an apostolic tradition handed down from the first followers of Christ. But still a tradition. We have the same responsibility to teach and to show the next generation how to trust and follow Jesus. We leave our witches hat on the ground. We do our best and we show a way. But it is not the way, and it is not the flag that marks the place from which the journey began.
So Paul entrusts to Timothy something better than just his own example. Paul commits him to the holy Scriptures.
“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the person of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
The Scriptures of the Bible trump even the example of an apostle like Paul because they are able to make us wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. What we find in the Bible is firstly our starting point, our flag, the heart and centre of our faith, and secondly our bearing, our direction, our goal and destination. Jesus Christ, Christ Alone, is the heart and soul of our faith and hope and love. He is the Word of God through whom the Father made us. He is the Redeemer through whom the Father saved us. Jesus Christ came as the true image of God, living our life, bearing our sin, taking responsibility for our actions and suffering in our place. And he was raised to life as the defeater of death and the giver of life. In the Bible we find a God worth living for and a Saviour worth dying for, a message to live by and a message to share with others. Because the Bible is able to make us wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. The Bible is our flag and our compass because the Jesus we find in the pages of the Bible is our starting point and bearing for our journey from God to God.
The Bible does this, as Paul says in verse 16, because it is God-breathed. Not just inspired, as if God filled the minds of people with good and wise thoughts and they translated those ideas as best as they could into words and sentences that we can understand. God did not just breathe into the Scriptures his wisdom and truth. But the Scriptures themselves are breathed out by God as the Spirit himself guided and supervised the words and sentences of the Bible. It is his Word, uttered by him. So when we read the Bible, we don’t just hear the thoughts and opinions of wise and holy men and women. We hear the voice of God speaking to us his promises and commands, revealing to us the purpose he achieved in sending his Son.
Like Jesus himself, the Bible is truly human, written in human words and ideas, but also truly divine, bearing the signature of our creator on every page. And it is the divine nature and source of the Bible that makes it so useful. Useful like nothing else is. As Paul says, useful for teaching, pointing out the way, for rebuking, pointing out when we’ve left the way, for correcting, helping us to return to the way, for training in righteousness, helping us to stay on the way. The Bible is not just our syllabus, it’s not just our map, it’s our sat nav, our guide, our inspiration and motivator, so that the man and woman of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
Without a daily diet of the Scriptures, without a weekly habit of gathering together to learn more from the Scriptures, we are completely unprepared for any good work that God has called us to. The Bible helps us to answer that awkward question that our friend asks us about God. The Bible helps us to make that decision when we are torn between two choices. The Bible helps us to maintain our hope when we are confronted by pain and suffering. Not just because we can pick up the Bible and flick through its pages to find the right word for the situation. But because we have fed ourselves a steady diet of the Scriptures. An athlete isn’t suddenly thoroughly equipped to run a marathon because he eats one banana before the race, but because he has maintained a healthy diet over months. Without a regular diet of the Scriptures we are easily confused by life’s sudden challenges. Without a regular diet of the Scriptures we are lost for words at the crucial moment. Without the Scriptures we zig zag through life like a sailboat that has lost its rudder, driven by the prevailing winds of fashion and opinion.
This is why the Bible stands at the heart of the church’s worship. And this is why the Bible stands at the heart of the church’s ministry. Paul said to Timothy in 2 Timothy chapter 4,
“In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season, correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teacher to say what their itching ears want to hear. But you, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.”
This is what it means to be a minister. Minister is just a fancy word for servant. And a servant of God’s people serves them with God’s Word. He isn’t called to hold your hand and to tell you what you want to hear. He isn’t called to confirm your opinions and your worst fears. Instead he is called to preach the Word, to so immerse himself in the Scriptures, that all he does and says is guided by the Scriptures, so that he can feed God’s sheep with God’s Word.
Only the Bible is the antidote to the poison of false teaching. Only the Bible is the correction to the folly of blindly following tradition. Only the Bible has the words of Jesus that shines the light of the truth of his grace into the darkness of sin and despair. Thank God for the Bible! Thank God for those who teach the Bible!
Scripture alone. It doesn’t mean the Bible is the only book we read. It doesn’t mean that we just read the Bible in church and then go home. No. We respect the creeds and confessions of the past and we honour the example of those who brought us to faith and showed us a way. But it does mean that the Bible is our starting flag and our compass, because only in the Bible do we find Jesus, who is not only the truth, but the life and the way, the starting point and the bearing for our journey through life to life.