Clever Stories or Eyewitness Accounts? (2 Peter 1:16-21)

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In our home we have a few bookshelves which are overflowing of books. On one particular set of shelves I have a variety of different kinds of book. Of course, being a pastor, there are theology books, but I also have books on philosophy, history, some graphic novels as well as classical and more contemporary novels.

There are many people I know who would place the Bible in the fictional literature part of my bookshelves. The popular perception of the Bible among many people in our time and place is that it is more like a novel than a record of actual historical events. That might be because many of the stories in the Bible don’t seem to connect with people’s experiences today. Maybe it’s because we are so used to books about superheroes, wizards or other mythical characters that the stories in the Bible seem to be more like fantasy than reality. People might possibly see the Bible as a fictional piece of writing because the promises it communicates seem too good to be true.

There are some significant differences between the Bible and other books on my shelves. For example, the Bible wasn’t written by just one person, but by many people over thousands of years. The Bible doesn’t just tell a nice story but contains different genres of literature such as historical stories, poems, legal writings, and personal letters. I can read a novel a couple of times and still enjoy it, but I’ve been reading the Bible my entire adult life and I still find something new and helpful in it for my life. Most of the authors of the books on my shelf made money from their work, but a lot of the authors of the books in the Bible paid for what they wrote with their lives.

From what we read in 2 Peter 1:16-21 it seems like there were people in the earliest days of the Christian movement who were questioning whether the stories Jesus’ followers were telling could be trusted. In their day, too, these stories seemed to some people to be made-up works of fiction. However, in these verses Peter stated that what he was sharing with the believers weren’t ‘clever stories’ (v16 NLT) like a fictional novel. Instead, Peter had witnessed the ‘powerful coming’ of Jesus and ‘saw his majestic splendour’ with their own eyes.

We have an example of what Peter witnessed in the story of Jesus’ transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-9). When Jesus went up the mountain with Peter, James and John, he gave them a glimpse of his heavenly glory as the Son of God while he talked with Moses and Elijah, two of the most important Old Testament prophets. The story sounds like it belongs in a fantasy novel. We don’t normally see people’s faces shine like the sun and their clothes become as white as light while they talk with people who had lived more than a thousand years ago (Matthew 17:2). So when the disciples started telling people about what they saw, I can understand why their audience would be skeptical about what they were being told and question its truth.

That’s why this verse is so important for us, not only in verifying the story of Jesus’ transfiguration but validating the whole Bible. These are not stories people made up for fun. They didn’t make any money out of what they wrote like a modern novelist. Instead, the authors of the biblical books were so convinced about what they saw that they put their lives on the line for it. They were so convinced about the truth of what they had seen and the difference it can make in people’s lives that they would rather die than retract what they had written. That’s what is different about the Bible – it was written by people who had seen the events they had written about, or had talked with people who had witnessed them first-hand, and they were willing to die for the truth of what they had written. Can you imagine any author of a modern best-selling novel being willing to do that?

Not only were the writers of the Bible convinced of the historical truth of what they had written, they also witnessed the differences it made in people’s lives. Peter urges his readers to ‘pay close attention’ to what the prophets had written ‘for their words are like a lamp shining in a dark place’ (v19 NLT). He seems to be referring specifically to the message of the prophets of the Old Testament, Moses and Elijah among them, who pointed forward to the coming Messiah who would bring God’s redemption, justice, peace and glory to the world. There are a range of ways we can understand the idea of ‘prophetic messages’ but here Peter is pointing us towards those messages in the Bible that direct us towards Jesus. He is the light of the world who brings life to all who trust in him, so when we hear the words the prophets wrote which the Holy Spirit inspired, the Holy Spirit uses those words to create faith in Jesus and to bring the light of his salvation to our hearts.

That is why it is so vitally important for us to remain in God’s word and to be listening to what God is saying through it. These aren’t just some nice stories to tell our kids. They’re not even stories that just teach us to live in good ways or to make good choices. These stories are eyewitness accounts of the glory of God which is revealed in Jesus. When we connect with these stories, the Holy Spirit fills us with the glory of God which Jesus revels to us and drives out the darkness in our hearts and minds. We can then bring the glory of God which we encounter in Jesus – his love, mercy, grace and all the goodness of God – into the lives of other people and into what can often be a very dark world. As the glory of God shines in us through the presence of Jesus by his Spirit, we can bring his glory into all the circumstances of life and all the situations we might find ourselves in.

I can’t prove to anyone that the stories we read in the Bible are true. What Peter does, though, is give us two good reasons why we can believe they are true. Firstly, he was there, on that mountain, and he saw with his own eyes the glory of God revealed in Jesus. Secondly, he saw the difference the message of Jesus made in people’s lives as it drove the darkness from them and the Holy Spirit filled their hearts and minds with the light of God’s joy, peace, hope and love. Why would he make these stories up when he had nothing to gain and they cost him his life?

Stories like the Transfiguration made a profound difference in Pete’s life as he witnessed the glory of God revealed in the grace, love, peace and hope Jesus brings. They can still do the same for us…

By Faith (Hebrews 11:1-3,8-16)

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One of the toys our kids are currently collecting are small plastic pencil-top figures called Ooshies. There are two main ways to buy Ooshies. One way is in a multi-pack where you can see what characters you’re buying, except for a mystery Ooshie which is included. You can also buy single packs called ‘blind bags’ where you don’t know what you’re getting. In either case, buying Ooshies can be thought of as an act of faith because we are hoping for something good even though we can’t see exactly what we’re getting.

In some ways, this is the kind of faith the Letter to the Hebrews talks about in chapter 11. The author looks back at Old Testament heroes and shows how their faith meant that they lived their whole lives trusting in God’s promises to them even though they couldn’t see what they were hoping for.

Hebrews 11 teaches us some important things about the nature of Christian faith:

1. Faith is grounded and grows in God’s promises
The faith of the Old Testament people in Hebrews 11 was directed towards God’s promises to them. For example, God promised Abraham a land that his descendants would inherit. To Sarah, God promised a child. As Hebrews 11 looks back at the other Old Testament heroes, in every case their faith was connected a promise God gave them. It’s the same with us. Saving faith is always grounded in and grows from God’s promises to us in Jesus. As Paul writes in Romans 10:17, ‘faith comes from hearing … the Good News about Christ’ (NLT). For us and for our faith, then, hearing God’s promises in the Bible becomes vital to a living, active and saving faith.

2. Faith makes a difference to our lives
In every example that Hebrews gives, people’s lives were changed because of their faith in God’s promises. For Abraham the change was leaving his home and living in tents in the land God had promised him. The difference to Sarah’s life was having a child and becoming a mother at the age of 99. For the rest of the people in Hebrews 11, faith in God’s promises led to some sort of action. This is very different from an understanding of faith I come across sometimes which is more about intellectually agreeing with a church’s teachings or doctrines. Good teaching and doctrine are important in a church, but their purpose is always to point us to faith in God’s promises in the gospel which changes our lives.

3. Faith generates hope
The big difference faith in God’s promises made to all the people mentioned in Hebrews was that it gave them hope. Using the examples of Abraham and Sarah, both of them found hope when they believed what God had promised them. For Abraham, the hope was that his descendants would have a homeland. Sarah’s hope was that her shame would be removed through the birth of a child. For us, too, faith creates and sustains hope in our lives. When so many people in our society are struggling for something to hope in, when we trust in God’s promises and bring that good news to others, faith in those promises will lead to a greater hope in our lives and in the lives of the people around us.

4. Faith means trusting in what we can’t see
None of the people of faith in Hebrews 11 actually received what God had promised them. In verse 13 we read, ‘they did not receive what was promised,’ and again verse 39 states, ‘none of them received all that God had promised’ (NLT). This is the most difficult thing about faith – it’s trusting that something is real and living like it’s true even though we can’t see it and don’t fully experience it. This is especially hard in a culture which teaches that ‘seeing is believing’ and that if you can’t prove or have empirical evidence of something, then it doesn’t really exist. The very nature of Christian faith is that we hope for something and live like it’s true even though we can’t see it or prove it. The best we can do is look back at the ways in which God has kept his promises in the past. Based on that evidence, we can continue to hope that God will keep his promises to us in the same way that God kept his promises to all the people of the Old Testament. This is the purpose of Hebrews 11, and in fact all of the stories in the Bible: to encourage us in our faith. As we hear how God kept his promises to the people of the past, we can trust that God will keep his promises to us in the same way.

I have known people who say that living in the way of faith is easy because there are no absolute moral standards to reach and no rules that we have to follow. I disagree. Living by faith is much harder than a rule-based or self-help life because it asks us to trust God’s promises and live like they’re true, even though our experiences in life might indicate something different. Faith means hoping for what God promises, even though we can’t see it.

When I buy an Ooshie for my kids it’s an act of faith. We are hoping for something good, even though we can’t see what we’re getting. God makes us amazing, life-giving promises in Jesus. He asks us to trust him enough to live like what he promises is true, even though we might not be able to see what he promises us. As we read Hebrews 11 and look back at the heroes of faith from the Old Testament, God is showing us that he can be trusted so our faith can grow and we can bring the hope he gives to the people of the world, even when we can’t see it.

More to think about:

  • I’ve heard it said that everyone has faith – what’s important is in what you have faith. Would you agree with that statement? Why or why not?
  • What do you have faith in? Why do you have faith in it? What does it promise you? Can it actually deliver what it promises?
  • As you read Hebrews 11, which is your favourite Old Testament character? Why is that person your favourite?
  • I’m suggesting there are four things we can learn about faith from Hebrews 11. What was the promise your favourite character received from God? What difference did it make to his/her life? How did s/he find hope through faith in the promise? Why did s/he never see what was promised?
  • What are some promises God makes you in Jesus?
  • What difference might having faith in those promises make in your life?
  • How might those promises give you a greater sense of hope?
  • How might you be able to live like those promises are true, even if you can’t see them?
  • Who is someone you know whose life might change for the better through faith in God’s promises to them? How might you be able to share a promise form God with them this week?