The Durability of Scripture

“The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.” (Isaiah 40:8 NIV)

One of the world’s leading sellers of fine jewelry is well known for their slogan, “A Diamond is Forever”. But long before De Beers coined that phrase, God assured us through the prophet Isaiah that the same is true for God’s Word.

This week I read an article in The Guardian online about the oldest surviving complete Latin Bible, the Codex Amiatinus, which was produced by monks in Northumbria in 716 A.D. and taken to Italy as a gift for Pope Gregory II. It is being returned on loan to the British Library in 2018 for an exhibition on the history, art, literature, and culture of Anglo-Saxon England.

This Bible is almost 18” thick and weighs more than 75 pounds. It is reported that over a thousand animal skins were needed to make its parchment. I can only imagine the number of hours those monks spent producing that single volume of the Holy Scriptures.

When Johannes Gutenberg produced the first book on a printing press around 1439 (a Latin Bible), there were only 30,000 books of any kind in all of Europe. This works out to about one book for every 2,500 people.

Nearly eighty years later, when Martin Luther launched the Reformation in 1517, twenty million books had been printed. More of those books were Bibles than anything else. Obviously, there was a great hunger for personal access to God’s written word.

We are blessed to live in a time when the Holy Scriptures are more widely accessible than ever before in the history of mankind. Here in my small office, there are seven Bibles, not counting four digital versions that are downloaded on my iPad.

Unfortunately, man’s hunger for God’s Word has not seemed to keep pace with increased access. I wonder sometimes if the Lord was speaking of the days in which we live when he moved the prophet Amos to write, “The days are coming, declares the Sovereign LORD, when I will send a famine through the land — not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the LORD.” (Amos 8:11 NIV)

Never take for granted the privilege of owning your own personal copy of the Word of God, translated into language you can easily understand and apply in your life. Never read it nonchalantly – you are hearing the words of the Lord.

Take the advice of the psalmist and begin each day with it. “I rise before dawn and cry for help; I have put my hope in your word.” (Psalm 119:147 NIV) Reflect on its promises as you prepare for bed. “My eyes stay open through the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promises.” (Psalm 119:148 NIV)

More than all the worldly distractions clamoring for your attention each day, it has the power to transform your life. And it will endure forever as a lamp to your feet and a light for your path. (Psalm 119:105)

“The soul can do without everything except the word of God, without which none at all of its wants are provided for.” – Martin Luther

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The Centrality of Scripture

“All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work. … Preach the word of God. Be prepared, whether the time is favorable or not. Patiently correct, rebuke, and encourage your people with good teaching.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17, 4:2 NLT)

The most disappointing words I’ve ever heard spoken from a pulpit still resound with me today. I was sitting with my mother listening to her pastor’s Mother’s Day message.

With my Bible open and ready to turn to the focal passage of the sermon, I listened as the pastor went on and on about the role and influence of a Godly mother.

I’m sure it all was very interesting and eloquent. But the only thing I remember from his message that day are the words he spoke at the end. Realizing that he had failed to cite any passages of Scripture, he declared, “Oh well. That message was good enough that it didn’t need any Scripture.” I almost fell out of my pew!

In contrast, sitting with my wife years later, the most memorable Mother’s Day message I’ve ever heard was delivered by our oldest son. It was titled “I Hate My Mother”. Now that will make a mother sit up and take notice when her son is preaching! While the title made it memorable, it was the multiple Scriptures he cited that made it effective.

It began with “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26 KJV) He then proceeded to lead us on a Scriptural journey to impress the point that, as much as we all might love our mothers, our devotion to Christ must be paramount.

Two very different messages. One tickled the ears of many who were listening that day but lacked Scriptural authority and was soon forgotten. The other might easily have offended some mothers in the congregation, but it was rooted in the truths of God’s Word and likely remembered still today by all who heard it.

This weekend, Protestant churches all across the world will be remembering the Reformation, commemorating the 500th anniversary of the publishing of Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses, which condemned the Catholic practices of indulgences. But the Reformation was about so much more than that.

The Reformation did not happen because of the passion of Martin Luther or his actions on October 31, 1517. It happened because of the power of God’s written Word. It became inevitable when people like John Wycliffe and William Tyndale devoted their lives to ensuring that each of us has access to a Bible we can read for ourselves, absorb into our minds, and apply in our lives.

Martin Luther said,

“From the beginning of my Reformation I have asked God to send me neither dreams, nor visions, nor angels, but to give me the right understanding of His Word, the Holy Scriptures; for as long as I have God’s Word, I know that I am walking in His way and that I shall not fall into any error or delusion.”

The Reformation did not begin or end with Luther. It continues today as Christian speakers, teachers, and writers build their messages around the Scriptures, rather than using the Scriptures to supplement human wisdom. As Luther himself said, “The authority of Scripture is greater than the comprehension of the whole of man’s reason.”

It continues as those of us who follow Christ recognize the blessing and privilege of unfettered access to God’s Word and make individual Bible study a daily priority. It advances as we live out Biblical principles in our lives and hold those tasked with the responsibility of preaching and teaching accountable for remaining true to the Scriptures.

We have no greater model for that than the Bereans Paul encountered in Acts 17:11. May we take their actions to heart and follow in their footsteps.

“Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” (Acts 17:11 NIV)

Pepper Patch Mercy

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16 ESV)

In a series of posts last summer titled Lessons From the Cotton Field, I reflected upon a number of Biblical principles I learned firsthand in the cotton fields of my youth in rural Georgia. A recent segment on the local news featuring students picking bell pepper at a nearby farm surfaced memories of another episode from those days.

While cotton was our primary cash crop growing up, my father would occasionally experiment with other crops as well, such as watermelons, butterbeans, peas, and corn – all of which we would peddle locally and at the Farmer’s Market south of Atlanta. (I much preferred the peddling over the picking!)

One year he decided to plant bell pepper to sell at a local processing plant in Jackson. Like many memories from those years, my memories of that crop are a bit hazy. But one incident stands out vividly. It was the day I decided to conduct my own one-man work strike against my father.

When it came time to harvest, I soon realized that the cotton-picking sacks we were using were not suitably designed for gathering pepper. The sacks quickly became uncomfortably heavy.

Daddy didn’t seem nearly as concerned about that design flaw as I was. So to make my point more emphatically, when the weight of my sack became unbearable on my ten-year old shoulders and neck one day, I declared for all to hear, “This pepper sack is choking my guts out!!!”.

In the face of the laughter that serious declaration generated from my father and my siblings, I dragged that sack of peppers to the end of the row and dropped it. Ignoring Daddy’s threatening commands to return and disregarding whatever consequences might ensue, I defiantly walked off the job.

But instead of taking the most direct route home, I decided to take the longer way – the one that happened to pass by my Granny Wells’ house. There I found a sympathetic ear to my complaints. I can still hear her soothing and comforting words, “Well bless your heart, let me fix you something to eat.”

After an appropriate time of grandmotherly coddling, I made my way home to receive whatever punishment I had coming. Bracing myself in my room as I heard Daddy coming through the back door, I waited for that call every child dreads in such situations. And waited. And waited. And waited …..

Finally, I heard Mama calling the family to the supper table. (Yes, we called it supper in the South. Dinner was the noon meal.) With my head hung low like Ralphie in The Christmas Story after he lost his glasses fighting Farkus the bully, I made my way to the kitchen table to face my fate.

Daddy’s first words to me were “So I hear you visited Granny Wells this afternoon.” “How did you know that?” I replied. “A little birdie told me,” he answered.

And that was it!  No further discussion and, most surprising of all, no punishment. (Of course, I would never live down that “choking my guts out” declaration!)

At Granny Wells’ house that day, I experienced grace – undeserved favor. And I suspect it was due primarily to her intercession on my behalf that I received mercy from Daddy that evening – not getting the punishment I clearly deserved. (Perhaps Granny Wells had reminded him of similar acts of rebellion from his own childhood.)

Little did I know at the time that I was getting an early glimpse into the ways of my Heavenly Father.

All of us appreciate receiving love, mercy, forgiveness, and grace. But the appreciation I felt at the supper table that night pales in comparison to the gratitude I feel when I consider that when Christ interceded for me at Calvary, he wasn’t pleading my case – he was bearing my punishment.

While I was yet a sinner, Christ died for me!  (See Romans 5:8)

“He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him: as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103: 10-12 NIV)

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Stargazing

“To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name.” (Isaiah 40:25-26 NIV)

Encountering this verse in a recent morning devotion, my mind took me back to a vividly memorable night from my childhood. As the third of five children, there were times when I felt invisible to my parents.

Deciding to test if they would even miss me, one evening I wandered out to the large field behind our house intending to see how long it would take before anyone would even notice I was gone and call out for me.

As I lay down on that hard Georgia soil and gazed up, I was awestruck by one of the most breathtaking scenes I had ever witnessed. In all my years, I cannot remember a more resplendent night sky.

Those feelings of invisibility were immediately swallowed up in the celestial spectacle above me. This experience was perhaps my first conscious realization of an invisible and awesome Creator who had just made himself visible to me.

How quickly my problems seemed so small compared to the vastness of the universe on display. Little did I know at the time just how vast that universe is. The countless stars I could see that night are only a fraction of the 400 billion stars inhabiting our galaxy. Not only that, but we now know that ours is only one of 100 billion other galaxies God created, each of which swarms with hundreds of billions of celestial bodies.

As I reflect on that experience today, I’m reminded of these words penned by David:

“When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him.” (Psalm 8:3-4 NIV)

No matter how mindful my parents were of me that night, God certainly was, revealing just a glimpse of his glory. But it would still be years before I realized that this unfathomable Creator desired a personal relationship with me.

So the next time you begin to feel overwhelmed by life or powerless, invisible, and insignificant in the midst of it all, step outside on a clear night and look up. Gaze at the stars and consider that the One who hung each one and calls them each by name is mindful of you. He even sent his Son to die that he might have a relationship with you for all eternity.

Immerse yourself in that truth and those feelings of insignificance should quickly fade as they did for me that memorable Georgia night over fifty years ago.

A sense of the universe, a sense of the all, the nostalgia which seizes us when confronted by nature, beauty, music – these seem to be an expectation and awareness of a Great Presence.” – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

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Why I Write

“The Sovereign Lord has given me an instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being taught.” (Isaiah 50:4 NIV)

These words from Isaiah hit me like a resounding gong earlier this week. They reminded me why I began Ridgetop Reflections over two years ago – to comfort, encourage, and edify those who take the time to read my posts.

And yet it has been six months since my last post. Somewhere along my writing journey I lost sight of that original purpose. Several factors have contributed to that silence, including a lack of focus and self-discipline.

But being honest with myself and with you, I must confess that the diminishing size of my readership made me lose confidence in my abilities as a writer, leading to a serious case of writer’s block.

As I wrestled with those issues, I realized that my motivations for writing had become corrupted. Falling victim to a common trap of social media, I became too focused on numbers – how many people visited Ridgetop Reflections, how many hits each post received, and how many likes, shares, and comments were recorded on Facebook and Twitter.  So I stopped writing until I could sort all that out and honestly address the question, “Why do I write?”.

This passage from Isaiah began to reveal the answer. Like Isaiah, it is usually in the mornings that the Holy Spirit “wakens my ear to listen like one being taught”. Psalm 96:2-3 (NLT) says “Each day proclaim the good news that he saves. Publish his glorious deeds among the nations. Tell everyone about the amazing things he does.” 

That is why I write – to comfort the weary, to steer the seeking, to encourage the discouraged, to strengthen the doubting, to edify the faithful, and most importantly, to glorify the One who “came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10 NIV)

Recently I was reminded that the apostle Paul never boasted about the size of his ministry or the reach of his impact. In fact, while Paul planted many churches, he could not possibly have known that his letters to those churches would continue to comfort, encourage, and instruct believers for thousands of years to come. He only knew that Christ’s love compelled him to do what he did and he left the rest in the Lord’s hands.

Going forward, may that be my motivation as well.

“For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.” (2 Corinthians 5:14-15 NIV)