The Second Sunday in Advent
December 9, 2007
“The Comfort the Bible Gives”
“For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we though the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.” Romans 15:4
As we prepare to celebrate Christmas we are brought back to the foundation of our Christian faith. We call ourselves Christians because we believe that Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary, is the promised Christ of the Holy Scriptures. This Jesus Christ is also the Lord God. This is why the church rightly calls Mary the mother of God. The baby she bore was not just a baby. He was and is the eternal Son of God. As we sing in Luther’s great Christmas Hymn:
He whom the world cannot enclose
In Mary’s bosom doth repose;
To be a little Child He deigns
Who all things by Himself sustains. Alleluia!
How do we know what we know about Jesus? That’s an important question. If we want to know the truth we need to know where to find the truth. Where do we find the truth about Jesus?
The Church has always confessed truth about Jesus. Jesus promised to His apostles that the Holy Spirit would guide them into all truth. He said,
However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:13-14)
That’s a wonderful promise because when Jesus kept that promise He guaranteed that His Church would always know the truth about Him. We know the truth about Jesus because Jesus promised to send the Spirit of truth to the apostles and He kept that promise. The Holy Spirit inspired the writings of the apostles and those writings are known today as the New Testament. Therefore the New Testament, written by Christ’s apostles, is the word of God just as the Old Testament, written by the prophets, is the word of God.
When St. Paul, in the words of our text, talks about the Scriptures he is talking primarily about the Old Testament for the simple reason that the New Testament had not yet been completed. But his words apply equally to the New Testament because the New Testament is just as much the word of God as is the Old Testament. The whole Bible is God’s word. The whole Bible was written to teach us. As our text puts it, the Bible was written “for our learning.” God has things He wants us to learn.
What God wants us to learn is not always what we want to learn. Consider the three things mentioned by the apostle in our text: patience, comfort, and hope. Who can argue against learning patience? But consider how patience must be learned. It’s not always a pleasant thing. We learn patience by receiving instruction about how to bear up under burdens we’d rather avoid altogether. And comfort isn’t as welcome as it sounds. Before we can be comforted, we must mourn some kind of loss. If there’s no sadness there can be no comfort. The comfort of the Bible is directed most often to those who mourn their own sins and failures. Do we want to mourn our sins? Or are we more likely to blame others for them? And while hope cannot but be a good thing, it also suggests that it is the answer to something bad. Why do we need hope given to us unless there is something hopeless in ourselves from which we cannot release ourselves? Simply put, the biblical instruction on patience, comfort, and hope may not be a lesson we will welcome.
We learn patience by means of putting up with annoying, disagreeable, and judgmental people. Reading our text in its context in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans shows us how human nature hasn’t changed in the past two thousand years. The members of the congregation in Rome were bickering with each other and passing judgment against each other on unimportant matters. People love to quarrel about who has the best rules for others to follow. Religious folks are incurably legalistic. St. Paul told them to forget about their foolish man-made rules and consider how everyone could please his neighbor instead of himself. Then he wrote in the verse just before our text:
For even Christ did not please Himself; but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached You fell on Me.” (Romans 15:3)
There is no way to learn patience without suffering. The Bible is not a religious textbook whose lessons are to be learned like a book on grammar, history, or English. The Bible is God’s word to us. The purpose of the Bible is not knowledge for knowledge’s sake. It is to direct us sinners to our Savior. The patience we learn from the Bible is a willingness to bear up under the sins of others, looking the other way, covering up their wrongs with kindness and a non-judgmental spirit. This is why the Apostle points specifically to how Jesus bore the reproaches of men. He put up with human weakness. He did not do so in order to condone sin, but in order to save sinners. Similarly, when we bear with people who are unbearable we aren’t condoning their sins. We’re treating them as Christ has treated us. When we patiently bear with people who anger us we are offering sincere worship of our Lord Jesus who not only bore with sinners, but also bore their sins on the cross to wash them away by His blood.
When Paul here talks of the Bible giving us comfort, he uses the same word for comfort that Jesus uses when He calls the Holy Spirit the Comforter. The Bible is not just a book. It is God’s book. It isn’t just words. It is God’s words. God’s book and God’s words bring us comfort. They console us. They console us in our sins, our weaknesses, and in the hour of our death.
The comfort that God gives us in the Bible is closely connected to the patience that precedes it and the hope that follows it. The patience with which one Christian bears up under the faults of another Christian is unlike the patience of those who don’t know Christ. Only Christians know that God has forgiven them all their sins for Christ’s sake. In fact, this knowledge is the very heart of all Christian knowledge. Only those who know they’ve received God’s forgiveness purely on account of Christ’ obedience and suffering in their stead and not because of anything good they’ve done are able to forgive others freely. We can forgive one another because God has forgiven us. This is what it means to know Christ. It means we know that in Christ we have God’s forgiveness, peace, goodwill, grace, and life.
The Bible, therefore, is a book to be read only by sinners. Those who don’t see their need for forgiveness will not understand a word of the Bible. Until the law of God convicts their conscience and shows them to be without hope, the gospel that permeates the Holy Scriptures will say nothing to them. Since the self-righteous care nothing for the forgiveness that God gives in the gospel, they can hear the gospel again and again and never really hear it at all. They look to the Bible for comfort and they find no comfort so they assume the Bible is useless. Well, they aren’t looking for the comfort that a convicted sinner needs. They are looking for the Bible to fit in with their own notions of what is useful and valuable. Perhaps they are looking for comfort after suffering a ruined relationship. Maybe they’ve lost money or status or friends or a spouse. They’re filled with sorrow over their loss but they have no sorrow over their own sin. They see themselves as victims of life, not as sinners who are guilty and accountable before God for what they’ve done wrong. The comfort of the Bible gives them no comfort because they refuse to see themselves as lost, hopeless, and helpless sinners.
The hope the Bible gives us is the hope of heaven offered to those who have no hope in themselves. It is hope given only to the hopeless. It is hope that is without any doubt true. Hope is faith directed toward the future. Faith trusts in the present promises of God that are written in the Bible, preached from the pulpit, and joined to the signs of the Holy Sacraments. These present promises are that the Child of Bethlehem has come to us and has replaced our sins with His righteousness. He has replaced God’s anger with his peace. Eternal damnation has given way to eternal life in heaven where there will be no sin, no sorrow, no pain, and no death. This is our Christian hope.
We are not saved through faith in the Bible as God’s word. We are saved through faith in Jesus Christ as the Word made flesh full of grace and truth to save us by His holy living and sacrificial dying. There are those who believe the Bible to be God’s word and yet reject Jesus Christ. The Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that the Bible is God’s word. They reject evolution and defend the Genesis account of creation. They correctly teach that the Bible is without error. Yet they remain an unchristian sect because they deny the Holy Trinity and the deity of Christ. Believing the Bible to be true doesn’t necessarily mean that one actually believes what the Bible says. And you can believe in Jesus without even being able to read, as with little children and others.
On the other hand, when we believe in Jesus we also believe in the Book that God wrote about Him. It is not possible for the Bible to mislead us or teach us anything that is not so. God wrote this Book to give us the patience, comfort, and hope that are in Christ alone. Even as Christ is true man and yet was preserved from all sins because of His true deity, likewise the Bible is written by human beings yet is preserved from all errors because God is its true Author.
It is vitally important for the church today to confess that the Bible is entirely true and free from all errors. Our Lord Jesus said, “Scripture cannot be broken.” (John 10:35) He identified the Holy Spirit as the “Spirit of truth” and this is the same Holy Spirit who led the apostles to write what they wrote. He prayed to His Father in His high priestly prayer, “Thy word is truth.”
The Church has always confessed that the Bible is entire true and free from error. St. Augustine wrote, “If one lie were to be found in the Bible, the entire Scripture would be rendered suspicious and nullified, for God cannot lie.” Martin Luther wrote, “The Scriptures cannot err.” “The Scriptures have never erred.” “It is impossible that Scripture should contradict itself; it only appears so to senseless and obstinate hypocrites.”
Does your Christian faith suffer from doubts? Read your Bible. Do you need patience to bear up under the trials of life? Read your Bible. Do you need God’s comfort in your weakness and your sinful failures? Read your Bible. Does your confidence that God has prepared a place for you in heaven need to be strengthened? Read your Bible. In reading your Bible you will learn of Jesus. To know Jesus is to know God the Father and it is to have eternal life. Amen.
Rolf D. Preus