People of the Book: Bread for the Journey
Almost every Sunday morning during worship service, a couple who lives in Tryon, North Carolina, drives past a number of other Baptist churches to get here. The husband, a retired Baptist pastor, uses the motto, “It is not the nearest; it is the dearest.” It is quite a compliment to me that a retired Baptist minister and his wife come to Morningside to worship and hear my preaching.
When I began this series of messages on the Bible entitled People of the Book, this couple sent me a letter that reminded me of a sermon Dr. J.D. Gregg preached on June 8, 1969 at the First Baptist Church of New Orleans. On that day before the opening of the Southern Baptist Convention in New Orleans, Dr. Gray, the pastor, exhorted the congregation to be a Bible-loving, Bible-believing, Bible-obeying people. He reminded the congregation that Harry Rimmer, a Presbyterian evangelist who had preached a revival in their church, had said, “I love and admire you Baptists. Baptists believe the Bible. Baptists are devoted to the Bible. Why, Baptists will even die for the Bible. Baptists will do anything except read the Bible.”
The purpose of this series of sermons has been to encourage the reading of the Bible. It is a very important part of our spiritual walk and Christian experience. I know that over the course of this series, some of you have told me that you have picked up again the wonderful discipline of reading the Bible, of making time to be alone with the Lord every day.
Throughout this series, we have talked about the Bible and spiritual renewal. We have revisited the story of Josiah and the reform that occurred after the discovery of the Book of the Covenant in the temple. We have identified the Bible as both the map and compass to guide us in our spiritual journey, as the history of salvation, as God’s story, and as the record of God’s will and nature throughout history. We have considered the Bible as the instruction book for our lives and the Bible as good medicine, as an instrument of healing. In addition, we have differentiated between the Bible as a sword and the Bible as a scalpel. Last week, we examined the Bible as God’s love letter to all of His people. Today, as we come to the final sermon in the series, we will consider the Bible as a source of spiritual nourishment, as bread for our journey.
We are going to look at several passages of Scripture from God’s Word as we recall an event that occurred in the wilderness journey of the people of Israel. We begin in Exodus 16:4: “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day.’” God clearly told His people that they were to gather bread on a daily basis. They could store the bread only on Fridays, allowing them to have enough food to last through the Sabbath day. Verse 31 offers more detail about God’s provision: “The people of Israel called the bread manna. It was white like coriander seed and tasted like wafers made with honey.” A footnote in the New International Version defines the word manna as, “What is it?” Scientists have now determined that this manna was a very sweet and nutritious substance secreted during the night by a very small insect that lives on the tamarisk tree. By morning, the dried manna could be flaked off like a wafer and eaten. That manna does not sound very appetizing to us, but it sustained the people of Israel in their long journey through the wilderness.
Deuteronomy 8:2-3 recounts a situation in which Moses, preaching a sermon at the end of the wilderness wanderings, reminded the people about this gift from God:
2 Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. 3 He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.
God provided not only physical sustenance to His people, but He also provided spiritual sustenance. We survive not only on what we eat but also on God’s words to us. Moses connected the two types of nourishment in this passage from Deuteronomy.
Amos and Ezekiel, two Major Prophets of Israel who lived during the eighth century, also addressed this connection. Amos warned of a famine, not a famine of bread but a famine of hearing the words of God. Not having an opportunity to read the Bible is a terrible deprivation. Ezekiel told of a strange occurrence in his life as recorded in Ezekiel 3:1-3:
God said to me, “Son of Man, eat what is before you. Eat this scroll. Then go and speak to the house of Israel.” So I opened my mouth and he gave me the scroll to eat. Then he said to me, “Son of Man, eat this scroll I am giving you and fill your stomach with it.” So I ate it and it tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth.
By almost anyone’s reckoning, Ezekiel himself might have been a little odd. Eugene Peterson, who translated the very popular paraphrase of the Bible The Message, writes about this occurrence in his book entitled Eat This Book. This passage possibly means that before Ezekiel could speak on behalf of God, before he could accurately speak to the house of Israel on God’s behalf, he had to consume the Word of God. Reading the Bible must be an integral part of his life, an essential element of his nourishment.
Some of you know that two weeks ago, I led several conferences for pastors in Eastern North Carolina. I have enough mileage now – forty-six years in the ministry – that I am not afraid to ask two questions that no one else can ask: Do you pray? Do you read the Bible?
You might think, Why ask pastors those questions? Surely pastors pray. Surely they read the Bible. I cannot tell you how many times I have looked at the pastors after asking those questions and seen many with their heads lowered. Some have said to me, “I know that I should be reading the Bible and praying, but somehow I have gotten away from doing it.”
I would like to talk with you about the difference between spiritual hunger and physical hunger. If we miss a meal or miss several meals, our stomach begins to growl and we want to eat. Some of us cannot miss too many meals before we really want to eat, present company, excluded, of course. Physical hunger creates a gnawing sensation in our stomach that can be satisfied only by eating a meal. Spiritual hunger is different. If we are accustomed to reading the Bible but skip one day or even two or three days, we will miss it. If we get away from reading the Bible for a period of three or four weeks, however, we will not miss God’s Word. We will begin to have a kind of spiritual numbness, knowing that something is not right but not being able to put our finger on the cause. Spiritual hunger depends on a daily supply of the Word of God.
Notice that in the wilderness, God did not give His people a week’s supply of food. He gave them only enough manna for one day. When Jesus teaches us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” he is talking about physical nourishment – food enough for each day – but also spiritual nourishment – Bible reading each day. He is saying, “Give us this day the nourishment that we need, not just for our bodies but also for our soul.” When we receive that daily bread, we do not want to live without it. We want it to be a part of our lives day after day after day.
The Bible contains many instances where Jesus used the word “bread.” In the Gospel of John, we are told that Jesus himself is the “bread of life” (John 6:48). Jesus talked about bread in the Gospel of Matthew, for example, when speaking about the Word of God, spiritual nourishment. Consider his experience when the Spirit led him into the wilderness. After forty days of fasting, Jesus was physically hungry. It was at that point that the tempter prompted him, “Turn these stones into bread.” If you have ever seen the Judean wilderness and the shapes of the numerous stones there, you know that imagining them as loaves of bread would not be difficult.
In a remarkable response to that temptation, Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy 8:23, “It is written, ‘Man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.’” Our Lord, though physically hungry, knew that spiritual nourishment exceeded physical nourishment.
We see this relationship reflected again in Matthew 14 when Jesus fed 5000 people on a hillside following a day of preaching, teaching, and healing. Toward the close of the day, he instructed his disciples to give the crowd something to eat. The disciples, flabbergasted, asked, “Where in the world are we going to find food?” Jesus took the little bit of physical food he had – five loaves and two fish – and blessed it. He fed everyone physically, but only after a day of feeding them spiritually. In his many teachings about food and about bread in particular, Jesus teaches us that spiritual nourishment, this bread of life, takes priority over even physical nourishment.
In 1916 the United States Department of Agriculture issued a guide for eating a healthy diet, complete with a listing of four basic food groups. That guide, which has been quite popular since 1956, lists the proteins as meats, poultry, fish, dry beans, peas, eggs, and nuts. Dairy products include milk, cheese, and yogurt. Grains, especially whole grains, comprise the third group; and the fourth group includes fruits and vegetables. You can see why the Department of Agriculture, which represents farmers, would design such a guide. More recently in 1992, the group developed a pyramid, saying that we are not to eat foods from these four groups in equal portions. The apex of the pyramid represents a diet that includes smaller portions of proteins. The base of the pyramid represents the need for larger portions of fruits and vegetables.
Since we can identify four basic food groups that satisfy our physical hunger, can we also identify an equivalent spiritual food group? I believe we can. II Timothy 3:15-16 offers what we might consider the basic spiritual nourishment groups. Paul, in writing to Timothy, tells us, “All Scripture is God-breathed (inspired) and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…” We would agree that one purpose of the Bible is for teaching. When told that other purposes include rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, you might react as I did when I was a boy. I felt as if someone would use the Bible as a club and clobber me over the head.
Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of this same passage in The Message offers a different tone and perhaps helps us understand how the Scriptures nourish us in four ways.
…you took in the sacred Scriptures with your mother’s milk! There’s nothing like the written Word of God for showing you the way to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. Every part of Scripture is God-breathed and useful one way or another—showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, training us to live God’s way. Through the Word we are put together and shaped up for the tasks God has for us.
First, Paul says that knowledge of the Scriptures give us wisdom, which leads to salvation. Being smart and being wise are quite different. Some mighty smart people have made some mighty dumb decisions. I am sure that examples come to mind quite easily. The Bible and the book of Proverbs, in particular, focus on wisdom. Proverbs does not talk so much about what is right and wrong though it does talk about paths of righteousness. The thirty-one chapters in Proverbs focus on what is wise and what is foolish. At one time in the life of our family, we read one chapter from the book each day of the month. This book is especially useful for teenagers. You might try it with your family.
How do we learn the truth, wisdom? We learn wisdom from the time we are very young. My mother and my grandmothers, who believed in an old Baptist practice called bribery, gave me money when I memorized Scripture. I got $1 for memorizing the Ten Commandments as listed in Exodus 20 of the King James Version. I got $1 for memorizing Psalm 23 and $1 for memorizing the Beatitudes. When I memorized the entire Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7, they paid me $10. Let me tell you that I was definitely underpaid. That amount was not nearly enough for memorizing the entire Sermon. If you pinned me to the wall, held a gun to my head, and ordered, “Kirk, recite the Sermon on the Mount,” I could not quote it to save my life. I could, however, tell you the content of those chapters.
Memorizing Scripture is important. Psalm 119:11 states, “Thy word have I hid in my heart.” Every single one of us, but especially children, can memorize Scripture. Children can commit those Scriptures to memory easily and remember them forever. I would commend memorizing Scripture.
Paul says that Scripture is useful for teaching the truth. Scriptures are our primary source for learning. I hope that all Sunday School teachers at Morningside base what they do on Scripture. The curriculum the used does not matter to me. What does matter is that the teachers use the Bible as their source of instruction. The Bible should be the source of the teaching in our families as well as the source of our devotion time with our marriage partner. If we are people of the Book, we need to make the Bible the core curriculum of our lives – our lives together as a family, as a church, and as individuals.
Some of you have heard the story about my mother’s being a huge advocate of memorization, but I want to tell it again because it is so good. Each year just after school was dismissed for the summer, my mother took her children individually into her bedroom and gave each one a piece of paper containing a Scripture passage, one she wanted each child to memorize. The summer before I was to go into the seventh grade, my mother asked me to memorize Romans 12:1-2. We learned our passage quickly and quoted it throughout the summer whenever Mom requested, sometimes several times a week.
The summer before the eighth grade, Mama called me into her bedroom to give me that year’s memory verse. When she handed me Romans 12:1-2, I started not to tell her. I thought, Maybe I can get away with having the same passage I learned last year. I did tell her though, and she explained, “Kirk, you learned the verses in your head, but I want you to learn them in your heart. I want you to have the Scripture written on your heart.”
The summer before the ninth grade, Mama called me in and said, “Kirk, I want you to know Romans 12:1-2.”
Frustrated, I complained, “Mama, that passage is the same one as last year and the year before that.”
She explained, “Kirk, you know these verses in your head, and you know them in your heart. Now, I want you to live by this passage.”
I learned Romans 12:1-2 from the King James Version and remember it to this day: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. 2And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”
My mother has been dead for ten years, but I still think of that passage and its meaning several times a week. The problem with a living sacrifice, though, is that it keeps crawling off the altar. Giving ourselves as a sacrifice daily is not unreasonable. The verse says it is our “reasonable service.” We are not to be conformed to the world. We are not to allow the world to squeeze us into its mold. Instead, we are to be “transformed by the renewing of our mind.” We must think differently. We must allow prayer to change us, to transform our minds. Only then can we live in a way that is pleasing to God.
The Scriptures are useful for training us to expose our rebellion. James tells us that when we look into the mirror, we can see our physical flaws. When we look into the Scripture, we can see our spiritual flaws. Paul offers the corollary: once we see our flaws, our errors, the Scriptures can correct them. James says that if we look in the mirror and see the problems but do nothing about them, we have learned nothing. James admonishes, “You have to be doers of the Word, not hearers only” (James 1:22). When you recognize the flaws that need improvement, the Scriptures will show you how to make those changes. Being a Christian is not just a matter of doctrine, not just a belief. Being a Christian is a matter of behavior. Both Paul and James point out that Christian ethics is all about doing what is right.
You may say, “I don’t really have any quality that needs to be corrected.” That is just not true.
Call to mind someone you dislike. It might be a person on the public scene or someone you know only in private. Call to mind someone who has really hurt you or someone you absolutely cannot stand. Listen to Jesus’ words: “You have heard that was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44). If you think you need no correcting, you are mistaken. We all need correcting.
Mark Twain confessed that what bothered him most about the Bible was not the passages he could not understand but the passages he understood very well. Jesus’ commandment in Matthew 5 is easy to understand but difficult to do.
Paul goes on to say that the Scriptures train us to live God’s way. We can start with the Ten Commandments, but we are not to stop there. We must continue with the commandment that Jesus recalled from Deuteronomy 6:5, which he claimed was one of the two greatest: “Love God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength.” He adds, “And the second is like unto it: love your neighbor as you love yourself” (Matthew 22:39). The Golden Rule tells us to treat others the way we want to be treated. If we live the way God wants us to live, the Bible will be our training manual. It will train us in the way of righteousness.
We can add a sixth dimension of nourishment by recognizing the fact that the Bible provides comfort and encouragement. I had an occasion one time to invite General Norman Gaddis to speak to a group of Scout leaders. He agreed to come, pointing out that he wanted to do everything possible to encourage Scout leaders. During the time that he was a prisoner of war, volunteers, and a Scout Master in particular, helped both of his sons earn their Eagle Scout Award. A colonel at the time, Gaddis was the highest ranking officer to be shot down over Viet Nam. He spent 1000 days in solitary confinement and another three years in a small cell with three other prisoners.
Talking with him privately, I asked, “How did you survive those long years as a prisoner of war?”
He answered, “Kirk, the Scriptures. My captors did not let me have a Bible, but I grew up in a Baptist church and memorized Scripture. I had all of that in my mind while I was in solitary confinement. Once I joined the other prisoners, men who also knew some Scriptures, we would swap. Kirk, the verses I had memorized, as well as the stories I remembered, helped me through those days. Can you imagine how much the story of Daniel in the lions’ den meant to me? I knew that if God could protect Daniel, He could protect me. The Scriptures got me through those hard years.”
The Bible gives us nourishment every day, nourishment that will be absolutely essential to our survival at some time in the future.
I learned about Abraham Heschel, a Hassidic rabbi, author, and great storyteller, when I was at Harvard Divinity School. Heschel told the story about an agricultural village in Africa that harvested grain each year and stored it in a hut. One year just after the harvest, enemies came into the village and poisoned all that grain, which served as the following year’s supply of food. Though the poison was not lethal, anyone who ate it became insane.
The village gathered and decided to set apart a small group of elders who would survive on what remained of the previous year’s supply of grain. They were given the role of reminding all the others in the village who ate the poisoned grain of their insanity.
The Christian church has the same job. We live in a world where people have gone slam crazy. I do not have to point it out to you that the world consumes a lot of junk, much of which now comes to us electronically. If we, as Christians, are going to be different, if we are going to make a difference, we must live on a special diet. What is this special died? The Bible is the wholesome, life-giving bread for our journey. We must eat the Word of God and allow it to nourish us in order to be the church that Jesus Christ has called us to be.
Do you know Christ as your Savior? If you have never accepted him as the Lord of your life, I invite you to make that decision. You know what God has laid on your heart. You respond.Kirk H. Neely © February 2012