Jesmond Parish Church was founded 154 years ago to "form a central point for the maintenance and promulgation of sound, scriptural, and evangelical truth in a large and populous town [now a city]". Our mission, therefore, behind our mission of Godly Living, Church Growth and Changing Britain is "maintaining and promulgating truth". And "truth" is so essential but so difficult for many today not least with regard to life's fundamental questions - what is its meaning? what happens when I die? and what is ultimate - a he (or she) or an it?
But Articles 6 and 7 of the Thirty-nine that I have just read, point the way to how you can answer those questions. They say, in effect, you need Divine Revelation. So that is my subject for this morning – God's revelation of himself to us.
It is to be something of an introduction to the new series entitled Knowing the Truth starting in February on the Articles. But this morning I want to be very basic. For why are we going multi-site with a renewed St Joseph's church? Why are we praying for JPC to grow to 2000? Why did I come here in 1973? The answer to all these questions is "because of the truth". I do believe, on rational grounds, as all in the Church of England should believe, that ultimate truth requires God's revelation of himself. And you only have that in Jesus Christ and God's progressive revelation leading up to Christ as recorded in the Bible.
So much by way of introduction. Now for my headings this morning - they are first, THE GOD WHO IS THERE, secondly, THE GOD WHO ACTS AND SPEAKS, and, thirdly, GOD WANTS US TO SPEAK AND ACT.
So, first , THE GOD WHO IS THERE,
And I want to start with Isaiah 55 verses 8-9:
"For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares 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. (Isaiah 55.8-9)
The real issue is this.
Everyone practically acts on some assumptions regarding those fundamental life questions. Because of our current education and the media, in the West the default position is becoming, sadly, that of secularism. So people believe in effect, that inanimate nature is ultimate. As the atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell famously put it, "when I die, I rot". That is to say, the unique human being that I am, is ultimately no more than the chemicals that make up my body.
But you don't need Ps 14 verse 1 (and without mincing words) to tell you this is pretty foolish. It says: "the fool says in his heart there is no God". So as one biologist's famously put it (and it is worth repeating): "the probability of life originating from an accident is comparable to the probability of the unabridged dictionary resulting from an explosion in a printing factory."
It is simply more plausible to say that what is ultimate is alive and personal rather than inert and impersonal. We may guess that is why global statistics show atheism and agnosticism in significant decline (except in Europe). However, to believe in a transcendent intelligent being can have worse consequences if what you believe is false as distinct from true, as Parisians tragically learnt this past week.
But the good news is that there are many true words of the God who is there, as Articles 6 and 7 imply and as God, through the prophet Isaiah, is claiming. As God says in verse 3 of chapter 55: "hear that your soul may live." For God's truth is the way to genuine human flourishing both for time and eternity. And such divine truth is absolutely necessary, if the God who is there is one whose "thoughts and ways" (what he thinks and does) are so superior to our thoughts and ways, as is claimed in verses 8 and 9. In fact they are, by comparison with our thoughts and ways, "as the heavens are higher than the earth". They are infinitely beyond us.
But if God is personal – as is the claim – how can we expect to relate to him and discover these thoughts and ways? Answer: by God expressing these thoughts to us in words we can understand. And the claim is that God has taken such initiative and given us such divine words. So in the New Testament, Hebrews 1.1 says:
"Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world." (Hebrews 1.1)
But you say, how can you really know that what was said originally and what you read about those prophets and about Jesus, in the Bible, is true? And why should I believe that what Article 6 says, namely that the 39 books of the Old Testament and the 27 books of the New are authoritative and that there "was never any doubt in the Church" about them? So what is the evidence? Well, there are two considerations to bear in mind about the claim that the books listed in Article 6 form the divinely inspired authoritative record of God's self-revelation for humankind; and that that self-revelation has Jesus Christ at its centre.
First, and foremost, these writings are not authoritative (and as Article 6 calls them "canonical") because they are included in these lists. Rather, they were included in a list because they were already authoritative. It happened like this.
The teachings of the prophets, for example, Amos and Isaiah, were recognized as having authority when they were first uttered. So they were believed and acted on by the faithful unlike the treatment the faithful gave to the utterances of false prophets. They responded as they did because the predictions of the true prophets actually happened and their teaching helped people trust and obey God. Then later somehow they were transcribed after they were spoken and then centuries later they were included in the list (or authoritative canon) of prophetic writings.
It was the same with the New Testament. The epistles of the Apostles, like Peter, John and Paul, were reckoned authoritative when first received. For these first Apostles were commissioned by Christ to teach about Christ – about his life, death, resurrection, ascension, heavenly reign and his return. And they were conscious of their teaching being authoritative. So Paul could write to the Corinthians (1 Cor 14.37): "the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord." And in the end at Corinth they were treated as such. But it was only later and because of the authority which these epistles already possessed that they were included in the list of authoritative books that make up our Bible.
Of course, the record of Jesus' words and deeds by the Gospel writers was supremely authoritative. And the check for early Church leaders on any writing being true was that the material came directly from an Apostle or a close associate of an Apostle. For these Apostles had been eyewitnesses of Jesus and especially of his resurrection. And confirmation of that divine authority came, and still comes, from the fruitfulness and life enhancing quality of God's word – in the Old and New Testaments. So Isaiah 55.10-11 says:
"For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there 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 out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it." (Isaiah 55.10-11)
There was personal experience that was sufficient evidence for believers. So books become scripture not because Jewish authorities or Church leaders decided so. No! These authorities just recognized what almost universally was already considered among Jews and early Christians authoritative Divine Revelation.
Secondly, great care was taken over this process of recognition. This happened both with the Old and New Testaments. For all the books that make up our Old Testament only got into that list after careful scrutiny. There were a number of books that were not admitted. Including among these were, what Article 6 calls, "the other Books (as Jerome saith) [that] the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth not apply them to establish any doctrine." It then lists some of these that today we call "the apocrypha". Similarly there were many such New Testament apocryphal writings that the mainstream of the church knew well, but did now accept and were judged fictional or in error.
So that brings us to my second heading and THE GOD WHO ACTS AND SPEAKS.
God did not, and does not, only reveal himself through words. He also revealed and reveals himself through his works and actions. There are three things to say about this.
First is what Psalm 19 verse 1 teaches:
"The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork." (Psalm 19.1)
That is echoed in Romans 1.19-20:
"For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made." (Romans 1.19-20)
Just as human artists reveal something of themselves in their work, so God, says the Psalmist, reveals something of his goodness in the wonder of the natural world. That means when you see those remarkable TV programs by David Attenborough you don't just say, as many do, how wonderful nature is, but how wonderful God is – nature's creator.
And the created world, says Paul in Romans, also reveals God's infinite greatness – his eternal power. And that evokes the belief that nature is not all there is and so is not ultimate. For there is a divine nature behind and over it – the God of the created order, whose agent for creation was Jesus Christ (as Hebrews 1 verse 1 said). And this, of course, means the God who was revealed as Yahweh (or Jehovah) in the Old Testament is none other than the God whose real name is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So, remember, God the Son is there throughout the Old Testament, as Jesus explained to his disciples after his Resurrection (Luke 24.27).
And because this revelation through nature is open to all, we call it God's "general revelation".
But, secondly, God's action is not only in creation. He also acts in history for the salvation of his people. This is the great good news that you read about in the Old Testament. And it involved God acting positively for his people but also negatively in discipline when his people didn't obey him. So, positively, God brought his people out of slavery in Egypt.
But, then, when later they rejected him and started worshipping nature in the form of Baal worship (with its sexual fertility rites and child sacrifice), first God allowed the Assyrians to conquer and exile his people in the North of Palestine. Then later the Babylonians did the same in the South to Judah. At that time many went into exile in Babylon. But, of course, God's supreme action in history for salvation is recorded in the New Testament and was the incarnation. That was when God himself in the person of Jesus entered history, to live, die and rise again as we have just been celebrating over Christmas. So God acts for our salvation.
But, thirdly, actions without words are often meaningless or can give the wrong impression. That is why God commissioned prophets in Old Testament times through whom he could explain what was going on. And the divine action in the incarnation was, of course, explained by Jesus himself in so many ways, and then by his Apostles after his Resurrection. As we have said, they were so essential for witnessing to the truth of his Resurrection as eyewitnesses.
For, vitally, the Resurrection of Jesus is the evidence for the truth of Jesus himself, but then also for the truth, not only of the New Testament, but also of the Old Testament. Remember, Jesus had only the Old Testament as we know it. But he endorsed it as God's word in so many ways. And remember, it was when quoting the Old Testament he said: "man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God" (Matthew 4.4).
And that brings me to my final and third heading, GOD WANTS US TO SPEAK AND ACT.
Look now if you will at 2 Timothy 3.15-16. Paul is saying that because there is going to be a lot of deception around, Timothy is to keep true to "the sacred writings". Why? Because they (verse 15) ….
"… are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work." (2 Timothy 3.15-17)
That is so important. And, once again, remember Paul is referring to the Old Testament. Yes, the early Christians knew the arguments against the Old Testament from Marcion, an early heretic. But they rejected Marcion's arguments. They knew that so many lessons were to be learnt from the Old Testament. They knew that God's revelation was both cumulative and progressive. They knew that the necessary judgments of God recorded in the Old Testament (revealing his holiness and justice) had given way, with Christ, to a new age of saving grace. Yes, judgment will still take place. But that will now be at the end of history when Christ will return for judgment. Now is the time for salvation, with the forgiveness of sins through Christ's Cross and new life through the power of the Holy Spirit. So Article 7 says:
"the Old Testament is not contrary to the New; for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to Mankind [not by the books but] by Christ who is the only Mediator between God and Man, being both God and man."
But the books (that make up the bible) are essential for our knowledge of Christ.
Note four things that are said in 2 Timothy 3.
One, every part of the bible is essential because (verse 16) "all [not some] Scripture is breathed out by God." You can't pick and choose and have a "canon" within the "canon" of your favourite passages!
Two, it is "breathed out by God", not dictated by God. For God worked through human writers with their own personalities and different emphases. So, for example, Amos was the prophet of God's justice, Hosea of God's love, Isaiah of God's Sovereignty, while Paul was the Apostle of grace and faith, James of works, John of love and Peter of hope.
Three, while the Bible contains so much different material, from laws, to histories, to proverbs, to prophecies, to love poetry, to epistles, to a final apocalypse and to the amazing four Gospels, together these 39 and 27 books form one unity.
And somehow, by God's providence, what Scripture says, God says – such was Jesus teaching. A later article, therefore, says (Article 20), this collection of books is "God's word written". And, because it is a unity, it goes on to say, you may not "so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another."
Four, the Bible is absolutely practical. 2 Timothy 3 makes it clear that God wants his people to teach from the Bible, one, about "salvation through faith in Christ Jesus" (verse 15); then, two, both about what is bad and good (verse 16) "for reproof, for correction and training in righteousness". However, three, teaching is to be with the goal of human action for good. Verse 17 says the goal is "17 that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work." The goal is good works of every sort, that means in the church and in the world, both on Sunday and Monday to Saturday:
I must conclude.
So, the God who is there both acts and speaks.
In creation he reveals himself generally, but in history and then through the Bible is his "special revelation" for salvation. However, just knowing that does not mean saving faith. For "salvation" goes with humility.
Both Peter and James quote the Old Testament truth that "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble" (Jas 4.6; 1 Pet 5.5). So the question is this: "are you willing to submit to the God of the Bible and his word when today it seems counter-cultural, or do you think you know better?"
However, it has always seemed counter-cultural – in Richard Clayton's time and in the time of an older Anglican evangelical, Charles Simeon who undoubtedly influenced Clayton. But in his day Simeon said this (I quote):
"He [Charles Simeon] is content to sit as a learner at the feet of the Holy Apostles and he had no ambition to teach them how they ought to have spoken."
So, as we face a multisite future, may we all be like Charles Simeon.
And as you trust and obey God's word, however difficult, because it is true, you will understand how wise and good it is. That has been the testimony of millions of Christians; and that was why centuries ago St Anselm of Canterbury's motto was credo ut intelligam - "I believe so that I may understand."