The Bible is an open book. The Holy Spirit gave us God’s own words in languages people spoke and understood at the time – Hebrew and Greek – which we, who don’t speak Hebrew and Greek, translate into the languages we speak and understand.
The Bible is an open book. You don’t need an anointed, ordained priest to open it to you. You don’t need elite academics to parse out each phrase. You don’t need a codebook to figure out if “black” means “white.” The Bible is, as an old saying goes, like the ocean. It is so shallow that any child can walk into it.
Yet there is a second half to that saying: it is so deep that an elephant can drown. The Bible is an open book, written in human language and thought patterns, written for us to read and understand, and yet that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t say hard things. We wade easily into passages like “Do not murder,” or “God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son.” We grasp these quickly. We flail a bit when our Lord says, “I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment….Anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” Or when Jesus says that you commit adultery already when your eye wanders and your heart fills with lustful thoughts. Or that you should be on the lookout for when you’ve wronged someone and run to reconcile things with them, rather than making sure everyone else knows when you’ve been wronged. Or when Jesus says, “Turn the other cheek….let him have your cloak as well….go with him two miles….love your enemies.”
The Bible is an open book; yet Paul tells the Corinthians about “God’s secret wisdom” and quotes Isaiah: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.” As proof, Paul points to Jesus’ murder: “None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”
If the Bible is an open book, why is that the case? In the verse immediately following the end of our reading from Corinthians Paul tells us: “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.” That makes it sound like the Bible is closed. Only a select few can read it with profit. Not true. It tells us about the depth of our sin. All can read the Scriptures. The words are, in our case, English words strung together into English phrases, clauses, sentences, and paragraphs. Whether we read them or hear them, we can, literally, understand them. Paul contrasts that hearing and understanding with faith, understanding that believes, understanding that submits to these words as God’s Words. That we can’t do without help. So Paul says, “God has revealed it to us by His Spirit,” and he calls them “words taught by the Spirit.” He says this not to boast of his faith. Rather, as we heard last week from 1 Corinthians 2, he says this to humble himself: “I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified…, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom but on God’s power.”
Thus too, years before Paul put these words on paper, Peter speaks our verse of the day, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” We find these words in John 6, an important chapter in Holy Scripture.
Jesus just one day earlier miraculously fed the 5,000. Because they hoped to crown Him king, He sneaks away. The crowd follows and finds Him. He rebukes them because they follow their stomachs and don’t seek eternal food. When they ask for this eternal food, Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.” Of course, they misunderstand. First, they look at the one speaking and say, “Who is Jesus, whose parents and family we know, who is Jesus to tell us stuff like this?” And then, when He speaks more strongly and says, “If you eat this bread that I am offering you, if you eat my flesh, you will live forever!” they accuse Him of promoting cannibalism.
He clears up the cannibalism charge by saying that eating equals believing in Him. “Believe in me, believe in the promises I speak, believe that I am real food and drink, what really nourishes you, and you will live. I am the bread that came down from heaven, better than any manna – you will live, even though you die.” To which they say not, “We don’t understand,” but rather, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” Notice, they don’t call it incomprehensible. “We don’t understand the words coming out of your mouth.” They don’t say, “Habla ingles?” or “Sprechen sie Deutsch?” They say, “This is harsh, violent, demanding, difficult, stiff, unyielding, severe.” In other words, they understood Jesus’ words, but they rejected them. John says so: “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.”
Then Jesus turns to His chosen inner circle, the Twelve and says, “What about you guys? Will you stay or will you go?” And Peter answers, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” What’s the difference between Peter and the crowds? Jesus told us, just as Paul did. Throughout John 6 Jesus sprinkled little reminders: “No one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him.” “The Spirit gives life.” “They will all be taught by God.” To which our world, and maybe you cry out: “Unfair!” God picks winners and damns losers. What a bully!
But think about what Peter said: “Lord, you have the words.” Peter uses a word for “words” that talks about concrete things. Peter doesn’t refer to theories or philosophies or ethereal concepts. He talks about Jesus speaking, words He utters, letters strung together to make words, words that make phrases, phrases that make paragraphs. Jesus pointed this out to some opponents, using a different word for things written down on paper: “These are the Scriptures that testify about me.” John wrote in his powerful near-conclusion to his Gospel: “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ.”
God doesn’t operate through osmosis. He doesn’t enable and give life randomly or by chance. He works through words written on a page, syllables uttered by human vocal cords (and occasionally divine or angelic ones), because God knows us. He knows how we work. So He uses human things to get to us, to talk to us, to call us humans.
Consider the premium we put on words. We elect politicians based on words: what they say, what gets said about them. Words bring men down. Ask the first President Bush, “Read my lips, no new taxes.” Words lift up a country. “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” We make marriages based on words: “I do.” Words spoken by witnesses jail or free people. Jesus talks word power, “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes,’ and your ‘no,’ ‘no.’” Or back to those fifth commandment words: “You fool!” can send someone to hell.
And yet Jesus’ words, God’s Words are even greater. They cause Peter to say, “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life!” God’s Words, whether from the lips of Jesus in the flesh, recorded on the page of Scripture, or heard from the lips of one of God’s instruments aren’t simply good advice words or self-help motivation. They aren’t suggestions. They are God’s words, eternal life words, which means we have nowhere else to go, really. Though we try, as those who abandoned Jesus did. We do our best to run to as many other places first if possible: to reason, to experience, to tradition, to feelings. As the crowds did. They didn’t want to hear Jesus’ words. They didn’t want to act on what He said. Neither does our sinful flesh. We don’t want to limit ourselves to the food that is Jesus Christ, to the words, thoughts, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that come from God Himself.
But we should. Consider the poetry of Martin Franzmann that you’ll sing as we receive the life-giving flesh and blood of Jesus today: “Thy strong word did cleave the darkness; at thy speaking it was done.” This is what the words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs of God can do. No politician or activist could achieve that: to bring light into darkness without a sun, moon, or stars. As weak as those words look on the page of your Bible, that’s how powerful they are. Though God wraps His power in jars of clay, printed pages, plain water, alcoholic wine, unleavened bread, still, because God’s Spirit gives life to them, they do something incredible, as Franzmann goes on to have us sing: “Thy strong Word bespeaks us righteous.”
As you sing those words, note that Franzmann capitalized the “w” in “Word,” making it refer to Jesus, the Word made flesh. He bespeaks us righteous, though we are not. Neither you nor I can argue that we are sinful sinners, but God’s Word speaks a different truth. God’s Word says that Jesus loved His enemies and became the enemy of God, forsaken by God, even though He remained pure and holy and innocent, and the blood He shed was pure and holy and innocent, yet He became sin for us, causing God to speak a powerful word: “Forgiven.”
In John, Jesus compared Himself to the manna Israel ate with Moses: “Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a many may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” There is no comparison. We crumble before this. Our stomachs betray us, but God does not. He says, “Eat and you will live.” He bespeaks us righteous. He declares it; and He sealed it with the empty tomb. H raised Jesus to life because of our justification after putting Him to death because of our sins.
To whom shall we go? We have nowhere to go except to Jesus. The Danish Lutheran Thomas Kingo gets the last word today in one of my favorite hymns: “Oh turn my thoughts forever from worldly wisdom’s lore. If I but learn to know you, I shall not want for more.” With Jesus, we want for nothing, because He gives you everything. Amen.