Read any good books lately?
by Jack Wald | June 12th, 2011

Acts 17:10-15

What are the top five best-selling books of all time? According to Wikipedia, in order of sales, the top selling book of all time is A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens written in 1859. Second comes The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien written in 1954–1955. Third comes The Hobbit, also by J. R. R. Tolkien, written in 1937. Fourth comes a Chinese novel,  Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin written between 1759-1791. And fifth comes And Then There Were None, a mystery by Agatha Christie written in 1939. These five books have sold more than 100 million copies each.

This list does not include religious books like the Koran or the Bible. Many of these are printed and given away. But if we include Bibles that are sold, not given away, where does it stand in this list of the top five books sold?

In an article in the December 18, 2006 New Yorker there appeared an article titled, The Good Book Business. This is an excerpt from that article:
The familiar observation that the Bible is the best-selling book of all time obscures a more startling fact: the Bible is the best-selling book of the year, every year. Calculating how many Bibles are sold in the United States is a virtually impossible task, but a conservative estimate is that in 2005 Americans purchased some twenty-five million Bibles—twice as many as the most recent Harry Potter book. The amount spent annually on Bibles has been put at more than half a billion dollars.

In some ways, this should not be surprising. According to the Barna Group, an evangelical polling firm, forty-seven per cent of Americans read the Bible every week. But other research has found that ninety-one per cent of American households own at least one Bible—the average household owns four—which means that Bible publishers manage to sell twenty-five million copies a year of a book that almost everybody already has.

The Bible continues to be the most translated book in the world with ten times more translations than its closest rival and over 100 translations just in English. The Bible is available in whole or in part to some 98 percent of the world’s population in a language in which they are fluent. Christians are hard at work to translate the Bible into the remaining 2,251 languages, representing 193 million people, that lack a Bible translation.

The Bible has entered into the culture so that even those who have no interest in the pursuit of God need to study it to understand the many references to Biblical stories and themes in Western literature. To the consternation of those who think we should have moved beyond primitive regard for God, there is a continual thirst in each generation for the truth contained in the Bible.

What would our faith be like if we did not have the Bible? Assume that everything we read about in the Bible happened. God revealed himself to Abraham. God rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt and brought them to the Promised Land. Jesus was born, lived and died. Jesus was resurrected and promised he would return. Assume all this happened, but we had no record of it happening. All that we know would have been passed down from generation to generation. What would our faith be like?

This happened in Japan. In 1549 Portuguese Catholics arrived with the intention of starting a church in the Nagasaki area. Jesuits, Franciscans and Dominicans followed and an estimated 300,000 Japanese embraced Christian faith. But then at the end of the 1500s and into the 1600s there were waves of persecutions against the foreign priests and the Japanese who had converted to Christian faith.

The Shoguns, who were the military leaders of Japan, viewed the priests as foreign intruders upsetting the social order of Japan and clamped down ruthlessly. The Japanese rulers used fumi-e, which means stepping on picture, as a means of finding out who was a Christian. If you stepped on a picture of Mary or Jesus, you were set free. If you were unwilling to do that, you were tortured until you were willing to step on the picture. If you did not respond to the torture, you were killed. There is a thought-provoking book titled, Silence, written by Shusaku Endo that asks why God was silent in this horrible persecution.

By the 1630s with all the waves of intense persecution, Christian faith had disappeared in Japan.

220 years later, in 1853, Japan opened its doors to foreigners – and Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Christians entered the country. Proselytism was still illegal but then freedom of religion was extended in 1871. To the amazement of these Christians (and in what Pope Pius IX called a miracle) there were still underground Christian churches. The hidden Christians, as they were called, wanted to see the statue of St. Mary with their own eyes and to confirm that the priest was single and truly came from the pope in Rome.

Because of a fear of being found with a Bible, the Japanese translation that was completed in 1613 disappeared and no copies remain today. So for more than 200 years these Japanese had maintained worship without a Bible. Father passed down to son the rituals and prayers and this continued until Christians entered Japan in the mid 1800s.

What did the Christianity of these hidden Christians in Japan look like after 200 plus years without a Bible? As time went on, the figures of the saints and the Virgin Mary were transformed into figurines that looked like the traditional statues of the Buddha and other Buddhist figures. The prayers were adapted to sound like Buddhist chants but kept many Latin, Portuguese and Spanish words that were not translated. So the mass that was celebrated each week was a strange combination of Japanese and these languages.

The communities tended to drift away from Christian teachings. They lost the meaning of the prayers and their religion became a version of the cult of ancestors in which the ancestors were the Christian martyrs of the early 1600s.

Without the Bible their faith drifted and became increasingly superstitious.

Our faith is not dependant on the Bible. We are not saved by the Bible. Our faith rests on Jesus and the work he accomplished for us. We are saved through faith in Jesus, but the Bible testifies to the work of Jesus and to God’s work in the world. We need the Bible to keep us on the path that leads us to our heavenly home. Without the Bible we will drift away from the truth it contains.

In today’s text from Acts 17, the Bereans are praised for their attachment to the Scriptures.

You may remember from last Sunday that when Paul went to Thessalonica, he preached for three successive Sabbaths in the synagogue and a number of people in the synagogue became persuaded by Paul’s gospel and began to follow Jesus. The rulers of the synagogue did not seem as interested in what Paul was teaching and preaching as they were in the fact that they were losing influence and so they opposed Paul. They gathered some local ruffians and stirred up the general population against Paul and he had to leave.

He traveled the 70 kilometers to Berea and once again headed to the synagogue. But this time he had the pleasant experience of a positive reception.
The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. 11 Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. 12 Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men.

Before I get to the comments about the Scriptures, let me say that I am so impressed with Paul. He did not let the rejection, the physical and emotional abuse he received, deter him. Even in Lystra when he was stoned and left for dead, he got up and went to the next town to preach. Time and time again Paul was resisted and suffered physical abuse, but he never stopped preaching Jesus. He picked himself up, sometimes with the help of his friends, and continued preaching the gospel of Jesus.

Are we like that? Am I like that? When we face rejection, do we get up and persevere or do we pull over into a corner and feel sorry for ourselves? I pray for us that we will have Paul’s determination and the power of the Holy Spirit Paul had that will help us persevere in all circumstances.

Paul was rejected at the synagogue in Thessalonica, traveled to Berea and began preaching in the synagogue. When he did, there was a similar reaction as in Thessalonica. Many believed his message and influential women and men of high standing in Berea believed his message. But the synagogue rulers in Berea did not become jealous of Paul’s influence. They did not worry they would lose wealth.
they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.

From the first time I read the book of Acts until today I have loved this verse and I think what has resonated with me is that first of all they had an eagerness to learn truth and secondly they held onto the anchor of the Bible so they would not be led astray. This is actually quite difficult to do. If you use hand gestures, holding on is having a closed fist while being open is having an open hand. How can you have a closed fist and an open hand at the same time? How do you hold on to something and yet be open to new understandings?

Let me talk first of all about an eagerness for the truth.

Are you searching for the truth? Are you eager for the truth? It is not as simple a question as you might think. We come from many different Christian backgrounds and sometimes the denominations from which we come teach conflicting truths. The most obvious example, of course, is our view of spiritual gifts. Some of us come from churches that teach that speaking in tongues and gifts of healing and miracles ceased after the apostles and the modern day expressions of those gifts come from the devil. Others of us come from churches that teach that speaking in tongues is the sign of being filled with the Holy Spirit. Others of us are somewhere in between these two views.

Some of us come from churches that teach that women should be silent in church, cannot teach or preach and certainly cannot lead a church. Others of us come from churches that encourage women to use the gifts of leadership, preaching and teaching they believe the Holy Spirit has given them.

So what is true? Are we eager to know the truth? Or do we simply want to defend the doctrine our church has taught us? If you approach a discussion of the gifts of the Holy Spirit or women’s leadership in the church or whether we interpret the opening chapters of Genesis literally or poetically with your arms crossed and your mind locked, then you really do not want to search for truth; you want only to defend what you already believe.

The problem with such an attitude is that all of us have an inadequate knowledge of the Bible. Every one of us is mistaken in some part of what we believe the Bible says. Think about this. When you study church history, the professor will show how Augustine was mistaken in one part of what he believed and how Origen was mistaken in another part. Calvin was mistaken here and Luther there. I remember sitting during a church history lecture and thinking that all these men were far smarter than I am and yet they were mistaken at one point or another. And, I thought, how could it be that I am the first person in church history to have it all right.

If you grew up in the south of the United States in the first half of the 1800s, when you went to church you would have heard the preacher teach that Ham saw the nakedness of his father, Noah, and so was cursed. The preacher would tell you that black Africans are descended from Ham and therefore the enslavement of black Africans was biblically justified. Is this true? Not at all. But this is what was taught and this is what was believed to be true by white Christians who loved Jesus and wanted to serve him.

It is possible that we misunderstand the role of women in the church. It is possible that we misunderstand the proper way to interpret the opening chapters of Genesis and that perhaps evolution is consistent with the teaching of the Bible. It is possible that we misunderstand what the Bible teaches and so we need to be like the Bereans, open to new teaching that will lead us into truth.

The Bereans thought, like other Jews, that the Messiah would come as a triumphant king. Paul led them to understand that the Messiah would first suffer as a servant and then return as a triumphant king. The Bereans were more noble, more open-minded than the Thessalonians because they received what Paul said with eagerness and then checked with the Scriptures to see if it was true.

When you close yourself to new understandings, when you refuse to listen to a new argument, you close yourself to truth.

Now I can imagine that many of you are saying “but”. But isn’t that dangerous? Won’t that lead us astray?

This is the importance of the Bible. The Bible is an anchor that keeps us drifting away from truth. I was flipping through some television channels and found a preacher in the Philippines teaching that when we give our lives to Jesus our spirit is raptured and rests in heaven. It is only our bodies that remain on earth and when we die, our bodies and spirit will be reunited. Is that true?

There was a group in Morocco that were teaching that we should be baptized only in the name of Jesus, not in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. How do we know if that teaching is true or not true?

The prosperity gospel that developed in the United States was exported to Africa and found fertile soil. This gospel teaches that if we have sufficient faith, we will be healthy and wealthy. If we are sick, it is because our faith is deficient. If we have financial problems, it is an indication that we do not have enough faith. God’s blessing is viewed in earthly, physical terms.

I would ask the pastor in the Philippines where in the Bible he finds evidence for this teaching. I can’t find the evidence. He has a new argument, I would ask him to prove it through the Bible.

I would point the Jesus Only people to the Great Commission Jesus gave to his disciples before he ascended into heaven. (Matthew 28:19–20)
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

I would take the prosperity gospel advocates to the texts they themselves use and show that the true understanding of the text does not support in any way the argument they are making. For example, one key text that is cited is 3 John 2 which in the King James Version reads:
Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.

Kenneth Copeland, a leader of the prosperity gospel movement, says about this verse, “John writes that we should prosper and be in health.” But this is not what the text says at all. The Greek word translated in the King James as prosper means “to go well with someone” just as someone might write in an email to you, “I hope this finds you well.” This is how the Greek is translated in more modern translations. This was the standard form of greeting and neither John who wrote this letter nor Gaius who received it would have understood it in the sense Copeland does.

The Bible is the anchor that keeps us from drifting and it is the Bible that has brought us back to the truth over and over again in the history of the church. Augustine discovered the book of Romans and arrested the drifting of the church. Luther discovered the book of Romans and spoke out against the abuses of the church. In the reformation that followed, both the fledgling Protestant church and the Catholic church were renewed. The book of Romans is at the center of our understanding of all Jesus did on our behalf and that letter Paul wrote has served as the center of the anchor that has kept us attached to the truth of Jesus. When new teachings emerge, the Bible affirms or denies the teaching and the church is held to the truth.

The problem is that the Bible is not easy to understand. Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is not always easy to understand. The apostle Peter thought this about Paul’s letters. (2 Peter 3:15–16)
And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, 16 as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.

The Bible was written by men and perhaps some women who wrote for a particular purpose in a particular circumstance. In order to understand what the text is saying, we have to understand the culture at the time and what the particular circumstance was that led to the book of the Bible being written.

We are not able to do this for ourselves so we have to rely on others who will help lead us to the truth about the text. We have to trust those who teach and preach that they will lead us into truth and not into error. Kenneth Copeland teaches about 3 John 2 that we should be wealthy and healthy. How are we to know that he is incorrect in his interpretation of that verse? How do we know that Gordon Fee has a much truer understanding of the meaning of that text?

John Stott makes the point in his commentary on Acts that there is a difference between doctrine and indoctrination. In Thessalonica Paul reasoned, he explained, he proved, he proclaimed and he persuaded. In Berea the Jews eagerly received the message and diligently examined the Scriptures. Stott says that “what is impressive is that neither speaker nor hearers used Scripture in a superficial, unintelligent or proof-texting way. On the contrary, Paul ‘argued’ out of the Scriptures and the Bearans ‘examined’ them to see if his arguments were cogent.”

Gordon Fee argues from the text with an understanding of the Greek while Kenneth Copeland comes to the Bible with his ideas and then finds texts that support what he believes. Copeland speaks his theology into the text and does not allow the text to speak to him.

Let me conclude with a few warnings.

Beware of basing your life on a superficial knowledge or understanding of the Bible. It is true that you can go from one verse here and another there and justify anything you want to. You can prove anything you want when you hop from verse to verse. This is what Copeland and so many others do. You need to understand the central argument of a book before you can properly understand what it is saying to you.

For example, in Galatians 1:12 Paul writes:
For I did not receive [the gospel] from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

So someone could teach that we should depend on revelation from Jesus and not the insights of Bible scholars who write commentaries. And if I were leading a cult, I might suggest that since I am THE representative of Christ, the gospel will come through my revelations. But Paul is arguing with those who wanted Gentiles to first be Jews, be circumcised and obey the Sabbath and dietary laws, before they could be followers of Jesus. It is in this context that he is arguing that the gospel he preaches does not come from the Judiazers in Jerusalem. This is why he emphasizes that he received a revelation directly from Jesus.

I am not saying you cannot allow a verse to speak to you out of context when you read the Bible devotionally. Many of us have had that experience and been encouraged with the sense that God is speaking to us.

Suppose that you are dating a woman named Honey. She is, of course, very sweet and you like her a lot and are wondering if you should marry her. She wants to take you to meet her parents who live in Gibralter. And then you open your Bible to Psalm 81 and read verse 16
But he would feed you with the finest of the wheat,
and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.
Should you take from that a sign that you should marry Honey who comes from the rock of Gibralter?

Now is that the context? No. But God does speak to us from time to time in that way. A verse we read seems to apply to our situation that day.

I do not want to deny this way of God speaking to us but we need to hold those lessons lightly and not base our lives on those insights. Before you propose to Honey, make sure that you have sought the wise counsel of friends. Make sure that she shares your values, especially your love for Jesus. And then take this encouragement and ask her to marry you.

Beware of those who build theologies on obscure verses. Paul warned Timothy (1 Timothy 1:3–7)
As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, 4 nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith. 5 The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. 6 Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, 7 desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.

When a preacher’s ego is on the line, it is not sufficient to preach Christ and him crucified. There has to be some distinct teaching that differentiates me from all other preachers. So the pastor in the Philippines preaches that when we give our lives to Jesus we are spiritually raptured and that makes it seem that he has special divine insight into heavenly things. This elevates him above other preachers and serves his ego and pocketbook.

When someone bases their teaching on an obscure verse in the Bible such as baptizing the dead or being caught up into the third heaven, back away. Paul wrote about these things but we do not really understand them and they are not so important. These were sideline comments of Paul but Paul did not spend his time preaching and teaching from these obscure verses. Paul preached Christ and Christ crucified, resurrected and coming again. He did not waste his time with an emphasis on trivial things.

Churches that center their teaching on predictions of end times, on the rapture and the millenium and the tribulation are wasting the gift of preaching and teaching. Churches that spend a lot of time talking about seed money and other techniques designed to manipulate people to give more money to the church should be avoided.

Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 4:5–6:
For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

The Bible is God’s gift to us. It is a remarkable book. It was written over a period of 1800 years by more than 40 people and yet it has a consistency in its presentation of God as a God of love and a God of justice. The Bible reveals to us the nature of God that pursues us and longs to bring us into relationship with Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

It is not easy to understand. It is easily misunderstood. There are many who treat it disrespectfully and use it to advance their own selfish agendas. But it continues to draw women and men, boys and girls into relationship with God.

Persevere in your study of the Bible. Hold on to the truths of the Bible while you open yourself to the new truths that God will reveal to you. As you persevere, you will have deeper and more powerful understandings and God will work to correct your misunderstandings. The Holy Spirit will use the Bible to lead you into truth.