Fact not fiction - 2 Peter 1:12-21

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the evening service on 9th May 2004.

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Let me begin by telling you the parable of the three cricket umpires. The first to arrive at the match reminds people of some of the basic rules of the game: ‘There’s no balls and there’s wides and I call them the way they are. The second umpire comes along and says ‘No!’. That is arrogant. There’s no balls and there’s wides I call them the way I see it.’ The third umpire turns up and says ‘ That’s no better. Why beat around the bush? There’s no balls and there’s wides and they are nothing until I call them.’ What you have in that little parable are three views about truth. The first is the traditional view- truth is objective , independent of the knower waiting to be discovered-the way things are. The second umpire represents the moderate relativist, truth is as each person sees it-you see truth your way and I see it my way. The third umpire is the radical relativist, we make up our own truth-nothing is true until we say so. And it has to be said that it is the latter two views which many people hold to today. So they will say, ‘Who are you Christians to claim that your way is right and others are wrong. We all see things differently, indeed, we devise our own ways of looking at the world, we make the ‘truth.’. Yours is just one way, but then there is the Buddhist way, the Muslim way, and on and on it goes.

Now you may think that this poses a real problem for Christianity. For how can we possibly commend the Christian faith to others so that they will come to believe it as objectively true? Well, for the last 200 years or so, many professing Christian scholars have decided that is not the way to go about it all. They have argued that we are not to think of Christianity as being a matter of true or false, right or wrong, but merely a matter of our own experience. It all began way back in 1799 in Germany with a theologian called Friedrich Schleiermacher who published a book with the rip roaring title ‘ On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers.’ You see, like today Christianity was under attack. Intellectuals were claiming that it was not rational to believe in miracles for example. So Schleiermacher in effect said, ‘No problem. You don't have to.’ He argued that the practical part of life was the concern of ethics. The factual part of life lay within the realm of science. So where did that leave religion? Well, religion he said, was concerned with, pure ‘feeling.’ It is something subjective and personal and so not open to criticism- you feel what you feel. Schleiermacher is the grandfather of modern liberal theology.

When I was about to go to study theology at Oxford, a book hit the scene, written by a group of eminent theologians which caused a tremendous outcry. It was called, ‘The Myth of God Incarnate.’ It argued amongst other things, that the Bible’s talk about God becoming man- the incarnation- was just a fictitious symbol, a way of expressing a personal truth which had no historical foundation. It was a myth. One of the writers, Professor John Hick, claimed that whilst the followers of Jesus thought that since he conveyed to them a sense of the divine they developed a poetic way of speaking about him as ‘Son of God’, but did not literally believe he was God, that didn’t come about until several generations later. So later Christians mistook a myth for a fact. But just before we dismiss these ideas as belonging to the extreme fringes of the church, let me say that I have been in plenty of meetings with professing Bible believing Christians, who when challenged about ,say the historicity of the resurrection, have replied, ‘ I don’t know about that, but I know Jesus lives in my heart, I have had an experience.’ So what? Who is to say your experience is more real than that of a Hindu? His might be more real than yours, then what?

Well, around the time of the apostle Peter in the Greek speaking world in which he was writing, there were religions saying pretty much the same thing. They were called ‘mystery religions.’ They essentially taught that you could enjoy a spiritual experience by being mystically initiated into their group. One way this happened was through the telling of stories-myths. One such myth was of a god called Mithras who came to earth, died and rose again. Not that that it was believed that this had literally happened, but by undergoing a special ceremony you could experience, as it were , the dying and rising to a new spiritual life just like Mithras in the story. Now what if in some way Christianity could be reinterpreted along these lines? Well, then, it was thought, that would make it so much easier to believe, for there would be no need for miracles. What is more it would not make Christianity odd- all this talk of God doing things in history, it would be just like most of the other religions on offer- dealing with moving stories which changed your perception on life. But Peter will have none of it. If you go down that route you leave true Christianity behind. So how can Peter possibly commend the view that Christianity isn’t something just subjective, but something objective, a matter of the head and not just the heart? Well, let me explain how, by telling you what happened to me just before Easter when I was in Northern Ireland. I was being driven down the main road in the town of Carrickfergus and there in the middle of a roundabout were three live Indian elephants, trampling the flowers. Who believes me? Why do you believe me? Well, you may say this is Ireland so anything is possible. But hopefully it is because you know that I am honest, I am not on LSD and so am a reliable witness. In fact I was with someone else, another minister, so I could call him as a witness if you wanted. You see, there was a circus in town and this was their idea of getting some free publicity, churning up the roundabout! Well, likewise Peter backs up his claim that Christianity is a matter of Truth, capital ‘T’ by calling on three witnesses.

First, there is the apostolic witness- vv 12- 15.So I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have. I think it is right to refresh your memory as long as I live in the tent of this body, because I know that I will soon put it aside, as our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. And I will make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things.’ For some reason Peter feels that he hasn’t long to live. Jesus had predicted that his life would end violently. And this sense of impending departure has raised a serious question in Peter’s mind, and no doubt the minds of those Christians he is writing to: ‘To where is the church going to look for answers to questions of belief when you have gone Peter?’ ‘What is going to stop the church falling into the hands of heretics-who is going to challenge them?’ Well, for the alternative ‘new age’ type of Christian teacher that was not going to be a problem at all. As far as they were concerned Christianity was about experience, not doctrine, taste rather than truth. But Peter doesn’t see it that way. Yes, Christianity is to have an outworking in our lives, as we saw last week, and changed lives is evidence of the truth of Christianity, but Christianity is not true because it works, it works because it is true. And so Peter sees it as his primary duty to pass on what he knows to be true without distortion. But how?

The key idea in this section is that of ‘remembering’ -look at v 12, ‘ So I will remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth.’ v 13 ‘ I think it is right to refresh you memory’ v 15 ‘ I will make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things.’ For Peter, Christianity is a religion of revealed truth. It is first and foremost an account of what God has said and done in history in the person of Jesus and its implications for the human race. So how is Peter going to make good his promise in v 15 that he will make sure that even after he has died Christians will always be able to remember these things?’ Well, in two ways. First, in writing these letters he is preserving Christian truth for future generations. But secondly, there is a strong argument in favour of the view that it was Peter who stood behind Mark’s Gospel. Mark was Peter’s curate and the vivid, racy, style of his Gospel together with a few other throw away clues, strongly suggests that Mark had committed to paper Peter’s memoires. And what he had received and was to pass on was nonnegotiable. He was simply telling it as it is. Well, fair enough- Peter was an eyewitness. But is that all there is to it?

Well, no, for there is the divine witness vv 16- 18. We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased." We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain’. Immediately, Peter places the Christian religion in a different league from all the other religions around, for he says in v 16 ‘We did not follow cleverly invented stories’. The word he actually uses is ‘myths’. So he is saying, ‘Don’t put Christianity in the same category as some sort of religious drug trip. This is not a nice made up story to convey some universal ideal. Jesus was God who came in the flesh. He did die upon a cross. He did physically rise from the dead and ascend into heaven and one day he is going to come again. In fact, the reference to ‘Jesus coming’ in v16 could refer to both his first coming and his second coming. ‘And we know this ‘,says Peter, ‘because we were there. We saw these things with our own eyes. We stood on a physical Palestinian hillside in the cold light of day and with our own physical eyes saw Jesus transfigured before us, so that for a moment we looked beyond his human nature and glimpsed something of his divine nature. Not only that, but with our own physical ears we heard God identify Jesus as his own beloved Son.’ The implication being, that had we been there we would have seen and heard these things too. In other words, there is the divine testimony to take into account as well as that of the apostle’s.

Let’s pause just there and take up three of the problems which people have with Christianity today. First, the exclusivity of Jesus- that he is the only way to have a saving relationship with God. If what Peter has just said is true, how else can Christianity be anything but exclusive? Either God did speak from heaven and say, ‘This is my beloved Son’ or he didn’t. If he didn’t forget about trying to salvage Christianity by speaking such patronising nonsense that we are dealing with sublime myths. Let’s be honest, call it a hoax, and turn this building into something more useful like a bingo hall. But if God did speak in this way, then Jesus stands alone and he takes priority over every other person in my life. Secondly, we have the supernaturals of Jesus. If it is true that God himself walked upon earth- an unusual event in and of itself (to put it mildly) then should we be so surprised that his life was surrounded by unusual events? Of course not. If there are such things as demons, then we could expect them to cluster around him and he casts them out. If he came to undo the results of our sins-like sickness and death, then miraculous healings would supernaturally follow. But thirdly, there is the historical distance of Jesus. People say, but that happened such a long time ago, how can we be sure? Well, of course you can’t prove Christianity like you can prove a chemical reaction by carrying out an experiment in a laboratory. But then again you can’t ‘prove’ that the Battle of Hastings took place, or any other historic event for that matter. It is more like ‘proving’ a case in law. Whether someone is guilty or not is a matter of providing proof beyond all reasonable doubt. And in most cases you are dependent upon the testimony of eyewitnesses. The question is, are they reliable, were they there? ‘Ah,’ you say, ‘Mark’s Gospel was written some 30 years or so after the events. That is a long time. The memory can play all sorts of tricks. You can also let later experiences colour your recollection. What is more, Peter was biased, so who can trust him?’ Is that what you think? Well, let me tell you something. My son Philip and I had the privilege of visiting Pearl Harbour a couple of years ago. While we were there we heard a man speak called Don Stratton. Don had just turned 80 years old and for over 60 years he had not related the events of which he spoke in remarkable detail that day, except that earlier he had been carefully quizzed by a historian. The day Pearl Harbour was attacked by the Japanese on December 7th, 1941 he was a 19 year old sailor who was in a gun turret of the battleship Arizona. After the first wave of Japanese bombers, 55 of 60 of his fellow crew members at his station were lying beside him dead. He was only one of five who survived. He managed to get out and also save other sailors, which meant crossing through a wall of fire, hand over hand via a rope which was suspended 45 feet in the air. Don was then laid out on the grass with 60% of his body burned. He should have died. But he didn’t . He recovered and went back as a sailor into the war. Now what is the point of that? Well, it is this: Don Stratton had an experience he would never forget. He was part of history. Every agonising second of that day was etched into his memory. He could remember and tell in vivid detail something that had happened over 60 years ago, as if it were only yesterday. Now I take it Don Stratton is an honest man, a modest man too in that he didn’t want to talk about what happened and was a real hero. But what would we say to someone who would dismiss him, claiming ‘Well, he would say that, he was biased , he was an American. It was too long ago.’? We would say, ‘Look he was there, he was a witness, and he has the scars to prove it- listen to him. This was a major life changing event- Pearl Harbour, no less, you are not going to have an experience like that and forget it are you?’ Well, what is even that compared to the coming of Jesus? A mega life changing event if ever there was one. Peter’s testimony is backed up by God’s testimony, he remembered it. Here we are in the world of fact not fiction, based upon memories not myths. Pearl Harbour and the transfiguration are in the same world, on the same level- history. And that is one reason why I am a Christian and not a Buddhist or a Hindu- for Christianity is rooted in factual history, not fancy ideas.

But Peter has one more witness to call- the Biblical witness vv 19-21. ‘And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.’ Peter talks about us having the ‘word of the prophets being made more certain’ and then speaks of the Old Testament Scriptures. Why bring these into it? Well, it all has to do with that little word ‘interpretation’ in v 20. You see, even if you could persuade the wobbly Christian that the apostles were reliable eye witnesses. That is only half the battle. Because the alternative religious leader will come along and say, ‘Even if I grant you that these things happened. They are just events. How do you know they have been interpreted correctly? Surely you need something else to be sure?’ And that something else, as we saw last week, would be offered by the new guru-the experience. Now just to show this isn’t just theoretical, I can tell you that a few years ago there was one prominent minister in Hull who, in writing, said that all truth is subjective. That we can’t even read the Bible for ourselves because we bring to it our own cultural baggage. So he argued that only certain people, who as he put it, were specially anointed with the Holy Spirit could give us access to God’s truth. Of course he is one of these people. That is being taught in 21st century Hull. So what do you say? Well, some go with it and seek the anointed teachers. But how do you know that they are anointed and have the right interpretation? Just because they say so? What happens when they disagree amongst themselves? Well, fortunately Peter foresaw this coming and points out that God has himself given his own interpretation in the Bible which is open to anyone who would care to take the time to look.

First, Peter is saying that their interpretation as apostles of these events concerning Jesus is confirmed by the prophets, which is what v 19 is all about. He is saying when as an apostle he speaks of the deity of Jesus and his coming, these are not clever thoughts on his part, they are inspired thoughts on God’s part, in line with the writings of earlier prophets. That is what prophecy is about. In the Bible a prophet is someone who has been inspired by the Spirit of God to interpret events, past, present and sometimes future- God’s way. And Peter makes this point negatively and positively.

Negatively. he says in v20, ‘ No prophecy came about by the prophet’s own interpretation (literally man’s unravelling.)’ Prophecy is not like watching a TV documentary with the sound off, with the prophet trying to work out for himself what is going on. No, God supplies the sound.

But what guarantee is there that the prophet’s managed, as it were, to watch the picture and properly listen to the commentary? The positive answer is there in v21 , that they were men ‘who spoke from God, as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.’ These men - like King David who wrote psalm 2 and Isaiah who wrote Isaiah 42 quoted by God at the transfiguration- ‘This is my Son, whom I love with him I am well pleased.’ and Peter himself , were not passive when they wrote these things down. The picture Peter is using is that people being borne along rather like a boat on the sea, as the Holy Spirit blew them. They were not passive instruments any more than sailors are passive passengers, but they were guided totally by this wind, this Spirit, of God to the destination at which he wanted them to arrive . So 2 Peter is a letter written by Peter, but it is exactly the letter God wanted him to write, down to the last detail. And while you read it like any other letter, knowing that God is the ultimate author means you pay far more attention to it than any other letter-for this is God speaking. Do you see?

This means, that as Christians, you and I must be Bible students. If I want to be sure about who God is and what he has done and what he wants of me, then it is to the Bible I must go. If I want to be a Christian led by the Holy Spirit then I must go to the book he has inspired and be led. If I want to keep balanced as a Christian until Jesus returns this is the book I have to keep coming back to so as Peter says in v 19 ‘You do well to pay attention to it, as to light shining in a dark place ,until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.’ That is why John Wesley wrote these words: ‘I want to know the way to heaven. God has condescended to teach the way. He has written it down in a book. Oh give me that book, at any price give me the book of God, here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be a man of one book.’ There is only one sure way of keeping on course- keep the Bible central. If you want an authentic Christian experience, you can do no better than to turn to here, for as you read it and cherish it, and practice it, then the morning star will dawn in your heart.

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