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People of the Book: The Bible as Good Medicine

January 29, 2012


Sermon:  People of the Book:  The Bible as Good Medicine
Text:  Hebrews 4:12-13

Today you are getting two sermons for the price of one.  I have somewhat scrunched two ideas together and want to tell you a little bit about why you are getting a double dose here.

Last week I announced to the staff the topic “The Bible as Good Medicine” and the Scripture for today’s message.  Early in the week, though, a church member raised a question that made me think, If one person has that question, perhaps others have it as well.  The person asked why we do not use the particular translation known as the King James Version in our worship services.  I am combining that question about the Bible with my original topic.

I led a marriage enrichment retreat at a beautiful mountain site in Banner Elk, North Carolina, some years ago.  Since we had Saturday afternoon free, I wanted to go trout fishing because I knew that plenty of streams flowed near that retreat location.  I drove to a little country store that was nearby and asked the proprietor, “Do you know of a place where I can go trout fishing?  I don’t have a North Carolina license, so I need to fish on private property.”

He answered, “Listen, go down this road, take a right, and follow a gravel road, which turns into a dirt road.  Drive over a high mountain and come down the other side.  You’ll see a wide place in the road.  Just stop and wait.  You’ll be able to go trout fishing there.”

I was a little leery of these instructions, but I followed them to a “T.”  I drove down the road and took a right at the gravel road, which soon became a dirt road.  I continued up over and down a mountain and stopped at a flat place in the road that was somewhat wide.  I could tell other vehicles had parked there.  In a few minutes, an old fellow wearing overalls and a straw hat walked out of the woods and over to my car.

I explained, “I was told that if I came here I might go trout fishing.”

He leaned into my window and asked, “You’re a preacher, ain’t you?”

I do not know how he knew that information.  Maybe he saw my Bible on the front seat.  I answered, “Yes, I am a preacher.”

“Do you preach the old Bible?”

I knew the right answer was yes if I wanted to go trout fishing.

I said, “Yes, I believe the old Bible.”

“Do you believe the earth is round or square?”

“Well, the old Bible says that the Lord put an angel on the four corners of the earth.”

He agreed, “You got that right!  Ain’t nothin’ got four corners that’s round.”

I then asked him, “Do you believe that the earth is flat?”

He looked at those high North Carolina mountains surrounding us and exclaimed, “Not around here, it ain’t!  Come on.  Let’s go trout fishing.”

I followed the man down a path through the woods to a beautiful mountain stream on his property.  As soon as I got settled in and began pulling out my fishing gear, he said, “You ain’t goin’ to catch no trout.”

“Why is that?”

“Because of the blue line on that reel.  The trout will be afraid of that line.”

I attached a little spinner on my line and cast it out into the stream.  As I reeled it in, I saw something swirl.  I cast again, counted a few seconds as the line and spinner sank, and hooked a trout.

After I reeled the fish in, he asked, “You goin’ t’ keep it?”

“Not unless you want it.”

“I’ll eat him for supper.”

The old mountain put the trout on a stringer and continued to fish again.  I soon reeled in a second trout, this one somewhat bigger.  After adding that one to his stringer, he asked, “Where’d you get that blue line?”

I explained, “Let me tell you about that line.  It disappears under the water, and trout can’t see it.”

“Is that a fact?”

The two of us continued to fish and chat for a while before heading back to my car.   I had about half of a roll of blue line in my car that I gave to him.  He held it and the trout I had caught as he leaned in the window and proposed, “Preacher, you keep preaching that old Bible!”

How would a copy of the “old Bible” look?  Would it be the King James Version?  No, it would be a Hebrew Old Testament and a Greek New Testament.

While in seminary, I took courses in both of those languages.  As part of my course work, I translated a portion of the Bible – the book of Jonah – from Hebrew to English.  I also translated the book of Philippians from Greek to English.  I can tell you that you do not want the “old Bible.”  You do not want to go through the veil of tears that it takes to translate those ancient languages.  You want someone else to take on that task.  The truth is that someone has already accomplished that undertaking.

I want to give you a brief synopsis of the history of our English Bible.  Let’s go back to the year 1395.  Englishman John Wycliffe, sometimes called the Morning Star of the Protestant Reformation, gave us the first English translation.  Wycliffe believed that people should be able to read the God’s Word in their own language, so he used the Latin Vulgate as his source.

Wycliffe was declared a heretic, but he died before the court could bring him to trial.  After his death, the Catholic Church ordered that his body be exhumed and burned to show the people that what he had done was not permissible.

More than 100 years later, in 1525, William Tyndale became the first to use the original languages to bring the Bible into English.  He used the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament as sources for his translation.  Tyndale, too, was punished severely, being choked, impaled, and burned at the stake.

Do not take your Bible for granted.  Remember that some people have made some remarkable sacrifices for this Book.

Myles Coverdale’s English translation came at a time after the invention of the printing press.  The king of England at the time, Henry VIII, ordered that Coverdale’s Bible be placed in every church throughout his kingdom.  He wanted people to have the opportunity to read the Bible in their own language.  The Bibles were chained to stands so that no one could remove them.  This first official version of the Bible, translated and published in 1540, was called the Great Bible because it was so large.  A second official translation, printed in 1568, was called the Bishop’s Bible.

The reign of the Roman Catholic Queen Mary brought with it the persecution of Protestants.  A number of Protestant scholars left England and found refuge with John Calvin in Geneva, Switzerland.  There these scholars created a new English translation, using the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts.  This remarkable translation, called the Geneva Bible, was the Bible of William Shakespeare, John Dunne, John Milton, Oliver Cromwell, John Knox, and John Bunyan.  It is interesting to note that this Bible journeyed to America on the Mayflower.  Some have called the Geneva Bible the first study Bible because it contained maps, cross-references, and footnotes in addition to the text.

When James VI of Scotland became James I of England, he immediately ordered a third official translation of the Bible. In 1604, he organized a team of fifty-four scholars.  We know that at least forty-seven of those men worked on this magnificent translation.  This seventh English Bible, which became known as the King James Version, is still considered to be a masterpiece by committee.  You understand that the King James Version, dated 1611, was neither the first nor the last of the English translations.

Numerous other translations of the Bible were printed in the following years.  In Cambridge, a translation became available in 1629.  Following in 1638, two of the original translators of the King James Version published another.  1762 and 1769 brought additional versions.

Twenty years after the King James Version, the royal printers published fifteen hundred copies of yet another translation.  It became known as the Wicked Bible because it contained a horrible printing mistake.  Instead of the eighth Commandment reading, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” it read, “Thou shalt commit adultery.”  When the mistake was discovered, an order was sent out to gather and burn all copies.  Many were collected, but not all of them.  You can still see that version in a museum located in Branson, Missouri.  The University of Houston and Oxford University each have a copy.  The royal printers were punished with an enormous fine and stripped of their license to print.  The two proprietors died as paupers.

When you think of Jesus’ use of Scriptures, you must understand that although Jesus knew Hebrew, he did not speak that language in ordinary life.  He certainly did not speak Greek.  Jesus spoke Aramaic.  Even with the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts, we have, in essence, a translation.  The Greek New Testament, which gives us the words of Jesus, contains very few examples of Aramaic.  We see the word Ephphatha in the case of Jesus healing a deaf man when he told the man’s ears to be opened.  Jesus used the Aramaic words talitha cumi when he calls a young girl back from the dead.  The word Maranatha, which means “Come, Lord Jesus,” appears in I Corinthians, and Jesus began the Lord’s Prayer with the Aramaic word Abba.  The final words of Jesus, spoken in Aramaic from the cross are, “Eloi, Eloi lama sabachthani,” which mean “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

When we tout the King James Version as the only Bible, we are making a sad mistake.  Though it is a wonderful translation, its language was spoken 400 years ago.  It was not written in the language that most of us speak now.

When I was three, a group of scholars decided to create a newer, modern translation, which became known as the Revised Standard Version.  The entire translation was completed in 1962, the year I was graduated from high school and went to Furman University.  Religion professors at Furman used that particular version, which retained much of the poetry of the King James Version but also utilized contemporary language.  I appreciate that version, but I still love the King James Version.  I memorized Scripture from that translation as a child, and I still quote that version on occasion.

Publication of the Revised Standard Version caused a great outcry.  One preacher in Florida tried to ignite a copy in the pulpit with a blow torch.  When the Bible did not easily burn, he claimed that was proof that it was of the devil.

My first cousin Curtis Hudson was the editor of a very conservative newspaper entitled Sword of the Lord.  He gave me a subscription to that periodical.  He was sure that I was going to hell and taking all of you with me because I used the New International Version.  That is not my intention at all.

Some of you will remember that when I came to Morningside, the pew Bible was the King James Version.  Soon afterwards, I asked the deacons if we could switch to the New International Version (NIV), which appeared in 1984.  That translation, created by a group of wonderful scholars, many of whom were evangelical, is very conservative.  I continue to use the NIV on a daily basis and from this pulpit Sunday after Sunday.

The name of Hudson’s paper, Sword of the Lord, raises the question, Should we ever refer to the Bible as a sword?  The word sword actually appears more than 400 times in the entire Bible, but it relates to the Word of God only three times.  Paul, in Ephesians 6, referred to a sword in his description of what he calls “the whole armor of God.”  Paul described how a Christian is to be equipped to ward off the fiery darts of the evil one.  His very last statement makes the point that we are to carry the sword, which is of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.  A second reference appears in the book of Revelation where John describes the living Christ, the resurrected Christ, as having a sword coming from his mouth.  The implication is that the Word of Christ is a sword.  Both Ephesians and Revelations make the inference that we are in combat with our enemy, the evil one, the force of darkness.  The Bible becomes a sword when we become engaged in spiritual warfare.

Notice that the sword is never to be used as a weapon against other Christians.  We do not need to clobber people over the head with the Bible.  The Bible has a better purpose.

The third reference to the Bible as a sword appears in our Scripture for today:  Hebrews 4:12-13.  Let me read for your hearing these two verses from the New International Version.

For the Word of God is alive and active.  Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to divide soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.  Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight.  Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of Him to whom we must give an account.

Notice that the two verses do not say that the Word of God is a sword.  It says the Word of God is sharper than a sword.  What is sharper than a sword?  Let me submit to you a scalpel, as in a surgical scalpel.  I want to read the passage a second time, using the word scalpel as a substitution for sword.  “The Word of God is alive and active, as sharp as a scalpel.”  Here we see the Great Physician’s healing work.  He opens us up to His healing power with His Word, which is sharper than a scalpel.  He lays us bare so that everything within us, everything that is diseased, can be exposed.

Can Scripture, can the Bible, be a source of healing?

When I was working in Louisville, Kentucky, I became aware of a woman there who had some type of surgery every year.  Her surgeon, who realized her systematic requests, referred her to a psychiatrist.  After talking with her, he, too, realized that something was wrong, wrong in her understanding of religion.  He asked a chaplain, a pastoral counselor, to work with her.  Not getting very far at all, he asked her one day, “Is any one passage of Scripture more important to you than another?”

Her response was, “Yes, a passage in Hebrews Chapter 9:  ‘Without the shedding of blood, there can be no remission of sin.’”

When asked, “Whose blood are we talking about here?” the woman answered, “Mine.”

This woman, in her twisted psychosomatic thinking, felt she had to atone for her own sins.  Once that notion was uncovered, the counselor could then treat and help her. The Bible had been a diagnostic tool.

I talked with a woman one time who was very depressed.  I could not determine the cause of her depression, but as we talked, I asked, “Do you have a favorite Bible character?  Do you identify with anyone in the Bible?”

The woman answered, “Yes, Leah, who was married to Jacob.  Leah loved Jacob, and she had children with him.  But Jacob loved her sister more.  He thought she was prettier.  Jacob loved Rachel more.”

When I asked why she had chosen Leah, she explained, “Because my husband left me for my sister.”

Can the Bible be a source of healing?  Yes, the Bible has a way of laying us open and getting right to the heart of the matter.

Olive Lawton, a missionary to China, was asked on her eightieth birthday, “What keeps you going?  Where do you get your vim and vigor for life?”

She explained, “Every morning, I take a big dose of Psalm 103.”

Bless the Lord, O my soul: and all that is within me, bless his holy name. 
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits:
Who forgives all your iniquities; who heals all your diseases;
Who redeems your life from destruction…so that your youth is renewed like an eagle’s.

A dose of Psalm 103 can keep us going.  For Olive Lawton, Psalm 103 became a prescription.

I have had two experiences in my own life when the Bible became a prescription.  I broke my neck in 1978 while trying to teach my sons how to “skin the cat.”  I was hanging upside down on a bar, flipping my legs through my arms forwards and backwards when the bar broke.  I fell right on top of my head and fractured the sixth cervical vertebra in my neck.  I actually did not believe I was hurt and tried my best to continue my normal routine for the day.  When I finally saw an orthopedic surgeon, he said with amazement, “Kirk, you broke your fool neck!”

When I learned that I would be in traction from April to August, I thought I would go slam crazy.  The very thought of holding still for that long was beyond my imagination.  Those months of lying in traction were very trying until a passage of Scripture from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians finally came to me:

I was given a painful thorn in my flesh…to torment me.  Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.  But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness…for when I am weak, then I am strong.

Those verses provided me with a sense of peace, a feeling of calmness.  It was as if the Lord were saying, “Kirk, you have to learn to hold still.”  Sometimes God makes us lie down so that He can restore our soul.  I am not saying that God broke my neck, but He sure used that accident to make me really learn how to pray.  I had prayed often before the accident, but never for an hour.  I did not know what “sweet hour of prayer” meant until that accident.  Only then did I learn how to pray.

A couple walked into my office.  The woman lamented, “I can’t have this baby.  We already have two children, and I have a career.  We don’t want to have this baby.  I am getting an abortion.”

I asked, “Why did you come to see me?”

The woman replied, “We want to know what you have to say about this decision.”

I answered, “The fact that you came to see me reveals that you have some reservations about having an abortion.”  I read a verse of Scripture to them, one that I have used many times with people who are thinking of suicide as a way out of their problems.  Deuteronomy 30:19 reads, “This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and cursings.  Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.”

Both the woman and her husband were furious with me and stormed out of my office.

Sometimes you do not know whether Scripture makes any impact.

I visited with a patient in the hospital who was eaten up with ulcers.  This hard-driving man with a Type-A personality had been very competitive throughout his life.  Quite angry about being ill and in the hospital, he complained, “What do you have to say to me?”

I said, “I want to share a question that Jesus asked.  ‘What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world’ and loses his wife and family, his stomach lining, and ‘even his own soul?’”

That patient told me later that he had taken that verse of Scripture to heart.

Our son Erik died in the year 2000.  When Clare and I learned of his death, my Methodist wife, who has not memorized much Scripture at all, leaned over, put her hand on my arm, and said, “Kirk, I do not know where this Scripture is, but it is for us.”  She quoted Deuteronomy 33:27:  “The eternal God is your resting place, and underneath are the everlasting arms.”

The Bible is good medicine.  It can bring healing to your soul.

The couple determined to get an abortion returned to my office about a year later, this time carrying a baby girl.  They explained, “We went home and read that verse of Scripture together.  We prayed and decided to have this baby.  We would like you to dedicate our daughter to the Lord.”

The Bible, “alive and active, and sharper than a scalpel,” can absolutely be an instrument of healing in the hands of the Great Physician.  Do you have a broken heart?  Do you need that healing?  Do you suffer some pain in silence, in secrecy?  Do you live a life of quiet desperation?  This healing by the Great Physician can be found in the Word of God.  The Bible is not a weapon, not a weapon to be used to make a point or to clobber people over the head.  It is an instrument of healing that will bring blessed relief to one’s soul and spirit.

Do you know Christ Jesus as your Savior?  Have you acknowledged him as the Lord of your life?  Could I invite you to make that decision, simply to accept him?  You know what the Lord has laid on your heart.  You respond.

Kirk H. Neely
© January 2012
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