Scripture: John 4; 2 Timothy 3:16-17
Leading Question: Why is the Word of God as found in Scripture more powerful than our own words?
Over 100 years ago, a popular American preacher, P. T. Forsyth, wrote some intriguing words about the Bible.
“I do not believe in verbal inspiration. I am with the critics in principle. But the true minister ought to find the words and phrases of the Bible so full of spiritual food and felicity that he has some difficulty in not believing in verbal inspiration.” – P. T. Forsyth, Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind (1907), 38; Eerdmans reprint, 26.
The author of our official study guide put a particular emphasis on Scripture in the title for this week’s lesson, italicizing the word “the” before Word, suggesting that Scripture is in fact more powerful than our own ordinary words. We’ll want to explore why that is the case. The friends of the Samaritan woman who went rushing out to meet Jesus after hearing the testimony of the woman are worth pondering:
John 4:39-42 (NRSV): “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’ 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41 And many more believed because of his word. 42 They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.’”
The example is imperfect because the one whose witness really touched their heart was that of Jesus, the WORD made flesh. But what makes the difference between the words of a person and the words of Scripture? Can the testimony of an ordinary person be more powerful that simply the words of Scripture, spoken, perhaps, without emphasis or color?
We once had a Congregational pastor living in our valley by the name of Roger Robbennolt. He was a gifted dramatist and also had a remarkable conversion story to tell. He told how he had once given a dramatic presentation of Hosea 11 at a time when he was not a believer. A woman came up to him afterwards and said, “You must really believe in God to be able to tell the story of Hosea 11 like that.”
“Not really,” Robbennolt replied. “I actually don’t believe in God.”
The woman paused for a moment, then said, “But you helped me believe in God by the way you spoke those words.”
Could we perhaps say that our own experience with the written Word may enable the Word to be more effective than it could otherwise be?
God’s Word as magic? While the Word of God can be very powerful, it is possible to see in more like magic than a message that moves our hearts by speaking to our reason. I once had an experience with a student who was troubled by the way I was dealing with Scripture. The discussion was about modern translations, and I was wanting my students to be aware of why certain parts of our Bibles go missing in modern translations. In particular, I was focusing on the three most significant New Testament passages in this respect: the final lines of the Lord’s prayer in Matthew 6, the story of the adulterous woman in John 8; and the trinity proof text of 1 John 5:7-8. This is what she said in a written response:
I guess I really don’t understand. If we teach our children the doxology part, wouldn’t we want it in our Bible, too? The story of the adulteress – if it is not in the old manuscripts then how do we know that it is true? I guess that maybe I am one of those people that you talk about that have a hard time with the fact that you are raising up questions about the word of God.
It is really starting to upset me the way you are making the Bible seem like it all might not be true. See, when I was a kid a lot of people turned out to be not true. They let me down and now I don’t trust them. Well, you are making the Bible feel like I can’t trust it. How do I know what really happened and what did not happen? I have always been able to feel security in the Bible. When I was scared or frightened as a kid I would sleep with it. I always felt safe then. But your class is bringing up questions that I don’t like and can’t deal with. Please help gain back the trust I am losing. Thanks.
I gave her some special care and attention and believe we were able to turn the corner in terms of her life of faith. But her experience has highlighted for me the fine line between the legitimate power of the Word, and the magical aura that can sometimes intrude into our piety.
Metaphors for God’s Word. The official study guide for this week’s lesson provides a rich list of metaphors, rooted in different passages of Scripture, that describe the effect of the Word when it finds root in our lives:
Lamp and a Light (Ps. 119:105)
Fire and a Hammer (Jer. 23:29)
Seed – in good soil (Luke 8:4-15
Bread of Life (John 6:35) – this metaphor triggered a great deal of discussion (see John 6:35-59)
Metaphors aside, the real value of studying the Word is outlined in 2 Tim. 3:16-17: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (NRSV). One does not have to be a wordsmith to know that Scripture is a source of power.