Above All Earthly Powers
Above All Earthly Powers
Martin Luther's famous Reformation hymn, "A Mighty Fortress," is about the triumph of God over all the attacks of Satan, including his attack on the precious Word of God. The Word itselfthat one "little word," as Luther called itwill be Satan's downfall. In fact, the perseverance and preservation of the supremely powerful Word of God do not depend on any earthly power, but only on the power of God.
The great Puritan theologian Thomas Watson had similar thoughts about the Bible's staying power. He said:
We may know the Scripture to be the Word of God by its miraculous preservation in all ages. The holy Scriptures are the richest jewel that Christ has left us; and the church of God has so kept these public records of heaven, that they have not been lost. The Word of God has never wanted [lacked] enemies to oppose, and, if possible, to extirpate it … but God has preserved this blessed Book inviolable to this day. The Devil and his agents have been blowing at the Scripture light, but could never blow it out; a clear sign that it was lighted from heaven.
There is no clearer example of this great truth than the story of King Jehoiakim and his unsuccessful attempt to extinguish the Scriptures by burning the first edition of the Book of Jeremiah. The king was in his winter apartment, and as he sat warming himself by the fire, he used the Word of God for kindling. Had the king had his way, everything Jeremiah ever prophesied would have gone up in smoke. Yet to this day we hold all of his precious prophecies as sacred treasure. The Word abidesno thanks to any earthly power, but only to the power of God. I want to show you five simple truths about the Word of God: it is written by the Spirit, received by faith, shared with others, rejected at one's peril, and preserved forever by God.
Written by the Spirit
First, the Word is written by the Spirit; it originated in the mind of the Holy Spirit and then passed through the prophet's pen before appearing on the pages of the Bible. In Jeremiah 36, we read how the Word of God came to Jeremiah, who then put it down in writingevery word of it. This transcription took place in 605 B.C., and it included all of the prophecies Jeremiah received in his first twenty years of ministry, which makes up all the content of chapters 1 to 25 and chapters 46 to 51.
The words Jeremiah wrote down were not his words—they were God's words. Although this book reflects Jeremiah's personality and experiences, its ultimate author is the Holy Spirit. That's why when the writer to the Hebrews quoted from the Book of Jeremiah in Hebrews 10:15, he wrote, "The Holy Spirit also testifies." In other words, the Word of God is a word from Godwhich is why it can never lose its saving power. Never forget that Scripture is the very Word of God.
God has written this powerful word for the purpose of our salvation from sin. These things are written, verse 3 says, "so that every one may turn from his evil way, and that I may forgive their iniquity and their sin." The Book of Jeremiah contains many terrible prophecies of divine judgment. But God wants to do something more than convict us of our sins; he wants to convert us to faith in his Son. This was Jeremiah's hope as well. All of God's warnings have the gracious purpose of turning us away from our sins. Even the preaching of final judgment and eternal punishment is founded upon the grace of God. The Word of God frankly tells us that we deserve to be damned in order to make us run to Christ and be saved.
In order for Scripture to fulfill that saving purpose in our lives, it first had to be written down. So Jeremiah summoned his secretary, Baruch, who "wrote on a scroll at the dictation of Jeremiah all the words of the Lord." The book of Jeremiah was revealed by the Holy Spirit, remembered by the prophet Jeremiah, and then written down by Baruch.
In addition to serving as Jeremiah's scribe, Baruch also served as his publicist. Jeremiah said, "I am banned from going to the house of the Lord, so you are to go, and in the hearing of all the people in the Lord's house, you shall read the words of the Lord from the scroll." It is not clear why Jeremiah was banned from the temple. Maybe he was ceremonially unclean, or maybe his preaching of judgment had made him Public Enemy Number One. But whatever the reason, Baruch went to the temple on a day of fasting, carrying the Word of God that was written by the Holy Spirit.
Received by faith
Baruch risked his life by helping Jeremiah, and we know from chapter 45 that he had some misgivings about serving as the prophet's "stunt double." Nevertheless, he "did all that Jeremiah the prophet ordered him In the hearing of all the people, Baruch read the words of Jeremiah from the scroll, in the house of the Lord."
When it was first published, Jeremiah's book received mixed reviews. Baruch read it to everyone he could, but apparently most people were too busy fasting to repent! However, one man, Micaiah, was hanging on Jeremiah's every prophecy. He illustrates the second lesson: the Word that is written by the Spirit is to be received by faith.
Micaiah began by listening carefully. Jeremiah 36:11 says that he "heard all the words of the Lord from the scroll." Micaiah listened to Jeremiah's prophecies from beginning to end.
There were members of Jehoiakim's royal cabinet who did the same thing. When Micaiah came and told them what he had heard, they were not content with only a book report. They sent for Baruch and told him to bring the scroll. "So Baruch took the scroll in his hand and came to them. And they said to him, 'Sit down and read it.' So Baruch read it to them" and "they heard all the words." Like Micaiah, these government officials were careful hearers of the Word of God.
This is how we receive the Word: we start by hearing it from beginning to end. This is why expository preachingpreaching that takes God's Word the way God gives it: verse by verse, chapter by chapter, book by bookis so necessary. This is also why systematic Bible reading is so valuable, and why every Christian needs to make regular practice of reading the Word of God. Read all of it, from beginning to end. You can use a study Bible or a scheduled reading plan. But however you do it, listen to the Word of God, and listen to all of it.
With hearing the Word comes fearing the Word. When Micaiah heard that God was angry against his people's sin, he feared the Lord greatly. Immediately, he went to tell his father and some other public officials. When "they heard all the words, they turned one to another in fear." They literally started trembling in front of one another when they realized their nation was under the judgment of God.
It is one thing to hear God's Word. It is another to fear it, which means heeding all of God's warnings, trusting all of God's promises, and obeying all of God's commands. To fear the Word is to confess that you really are the sinner the Bible says you are; it is to trust that Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead the way the Bible says he did; it is to live the rest of your life the way the Bible says you ought to live it. This is all part of receiving the Word by faith.
Shared with others
But there is more. Anyone who really receives the Word wants to share it. When Micaiah heard the words of divine judgment, he just couldn't keep them to himself: "He went down to the king's house, into the secretary's chamber," where "all the officials were sitting," and he "told them all the words that he had heard." When the members of the royal cabinet heard these words, they wanted to share them, too. They said, "We must report all these words to the king" (36:16). When they went to the king, they begged him to receive the Word as respectfully as they had.
These men were passionate evangelists. They were not content to hear the Word of God for themselves; they wanted other people to hear it, tooevery last word of it. What makes this all the more impressive is that what these men shared was not good news. Rather, it was all about God's judgment against sin. I find that too much of our contemporary evangelism fails to take seriously the wrath of God. Many Christians testify to the goodness of God, but how often do we explain how much God hates sin and how severely he intends to deal with it? News of divine judgment has an essential place in evangelism. People have to hear the bad news about sin and death before they can receive the good news about life and forgiveness in Christ.
If we receive the Word by faith, we will listen to it thoroughly and share it generously. One place we are called to do that is in our families, and here I want to point out something that would be easy to miss. We know from verse 11 that Micaiah was the grandson of Shaphan. You may not recognize that name, but Shaphan was the Secretary of State under King Josiah. Second Kings 22:2 describes how, when the Law was rediscovered in the temple in the days of Josiah, Shaphan was the man who read it and reread it for the king. He was committed to the Word.
Apparently Shaphan was a good father and grandfather. In Jeremiah 26, Shaphan's son Ahikam protected Jeremiah. Then in chapter 29, Shaphan's son Elasah carried Jeremiah's letter to the exiles in Babylon. In Jeremiah 36, Shaphan's son Gemariah was one of the officials who took Jeremiah's scroll to King Jehoiakim. Shaphan's godly influence also extended to his grandchildren. His grandson Micaiah was the one who first heard Baruch read Jeremiah's prophecy and shared it with the king's royal cabinet. His cousin Gedaliah, another of Shaphan's grandsons, rescued Jeremiah and brought him into his own home when the city of Jerusalem fell at the hands of the Babylonians, as recorded in Jeremiah 39:14.
The whole family was committed to publishing the Word of God. They received the Word by faith. They listened to its saving message. They shared it with others and carried copies to faraway places. They supported and defended faithful ministers of the Word of God.
What kind of legacy are you leaving for your children and grandchildren? Are you receiving the Word and sharing it with others? Give your family the Bible. Read it to them. Share its truths, so they can see it work in their lives. If you do this, then your sons and daughters will go anywhere and do anything to proclaim the gospel of God, and not even the darkest powers will be able to extinguish its flame.
Rejected at one's peril
We see in this passage, however, that not every family leaves such a legacy. We learn from the example of King Jehoiakimwho would not hear and did not fear the Word of Godthat whoever rejects the Word of God does so at his peril. Jehoikim's blasphemous book burning leads to the awful consequences of rejecting God's Word.
Jehoiakim had never been a godly king. It is evident from this story that his cabinet members rarely knew exactly how he would react but were always prepared for the worst. Verses 19 and 20 tell us that on this occasion, they took the precaution of sending Jeremiah and Baruch into hiding and concealing the sacred scroll.
What happened next is one of the most memorable scenes in the Bible. One of the king's servants fetched the scroll and read it to the royal court: "It was the ninth month, and the king was sitting in the winter house, and there was a fire burning in the fire pot before him. As Jehudi read three or four columns, the king would cut them off with a knife and throw them into the fire in the fire pot, until the entire scroll was consumed in the fire." Jehoiakim didn't even have the decency to wait for Jehudi to finish. As soon as he unrolled another section of the scroll, the king methodically used a knife to cut and to burn Holy Scripture.
We don't know why Jehoiakim did this terrible deed. Maybe he doubted the reality of divine wrath; later in chapter 36 he questioned Jeremiah's motives for prophesying judgment. Or perhaps Jehoiakim thought that burning God's Word would prevent his doom. If so, he failed to understand that the power of the Word is the power of God himself. J. I. Packer once commented that burning God's Word and ignoring its warnings is like "getting out of a car to destroy a 'Bridge Out' sign: done at one's own peril."
The shocking thing was not so much Jehoiakim's stupidity as his audacity. The king was casualalmost nonchalantin his defiance of God's Word. The Bible tells us "neither the king nor any of his servants who heard all these words was afraid, nor did they tear their garments." Instead the king insolently turned a deaf ear to the godly men who pleaded with him not to do this wicked thing. Then he added injury to insult by asking for Baruch and Jeremiah to be arrested. Things were very different when the Scripture was rediscovered in the days of King Josiah. When Josiah heard the Word in 2 Kings 22:11, he did not tear the scroll; he tore his clothes as a sign of repentance.
How are you receiving the Word of God? These are the only two ways to respond to the Word of God: either to receive it by faith, or to reject it in defiant disbelief. Either we hear the Word, or we ignore it. D. L. Moody once explained the difference like this: "Either the Bible will keep you from sin, or sin will keep you from the Bible."
Sadly there are many people like Jehoiakim in the world today: sinners who will not be still to hear a biblical sermon; scholars who cut and paste the Bible rather than receiving it as a Word from God; church-goers who only open their Bibles on Sundays; ministers who spend all their time thinking about how a passage will preach instead of letting it preach.
Are you more like Jehoiakim or more like Micaiah? Of course you want to say you're more like Micaiah, but what would your Bible say if its pages could talk? If we do not love the Word and live by it, then I wonder if we are really any better than Jehoiakim. Ignoring it is just about as bad as burning it. The Word of God was written by the Spirit to be received by faith, not rejected at one's peril.
Preserved by God
Finally, the Word is preserved forever by God. You know, with so many enemies in the world, it is a wonder there is any Bible left for us to read. Yet the Word of God is indestructible. In fact, no sooner had the first edition of Jeremiah been reduced to ashes than the second went into production.
After the king burned the scroll, the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah once again, telling him to take another scroll and "write on it all the former words that were in the first scroll." That's exactly what Jeremiah did. He took another scroll, gave it to Baruch, and dictated the second edition of his prophecy. This edition was new and improved, because according to the very end of this chapter, "many similar words were added to them." How defeated Satan was! When he tried to destroy the Word of God, it came back stronger than ever!
Jehoiakim himself makes an appearance in the expanded edition of Jeremiah's manuscript. This is one of the great ironies in the Bible. Among the many words Jeremiah added were some that pertained specifically to the king, pronouncing judgment on him and all his children: "Therefore thus says the Lord concerning Jehoiakim: He shall have no one to sit on the throne of David, and his dead body shall be cast out to the heat by day and the frost by night. And I will punish him and his offspring and his servants for their iniquity. I will bring upon them all the disaster that I pronounced against them, but they would not hear."
Know this: God will hold you responsible for whatever you do or fail to do with his Word. God always has the last word. His Word always outlasts its enemies. Satan has done his worst to prevent the production, the translation, and the proclamation of God's Word. But he has completely and utterly failed. Consider all of the reliable manuscripts of the Bible, which are far and away the most numerous and best-attested writings we have from the ancient world. Think of the many reliable translations that are available to us in English. Or consider the work of Bible translation going on right now all over the globe. It won't be long before the Gospels will be available in every language. Some time after that, the Book of Jeremiahincluding the very words that Jehoiakim cut from the scroll and burned in the firewill be read by every tribe and nation. The Word of God may be despised by some, but it will never be destroyed.
Voltaire, the famous French atheist, openly declared, "In twenty years Christianity will be no more. My single hand shall destroy the edifice it took twelve apostles to rear." Voltaire said further that within fifty years no one would even remember that Christianity ever existed. That very year, the British Museum paid the Russian government five hundred thousand dollars for a Bible manuscript; at the same time copies of Voltaire were selling in the London book stalls for only eight cents. Fifty years later, Voltaire's home became the headquarters of the Geneva Bible Society and was being used to disseminate the Christian Scriptures. Don't tell me God doesn't have a sense of humor!
When William Tyndale had just published the first translation of the New Testament in the English language, Archbishop Wolsey, in his great rage against the Protestant gospel, began to burn copies of Tyndale's Testament at St. Paul's Cathedral in London. To keep the fire burning, Wolsey wanted a steady supply of Bibles, so the bishop of London tried to buy as many as he could in Antwerp, where they were printed. There he met a merchant named Packington, who overheard him say that he wanted to buy more Bibles. The merchant assured him he could supply as many as the bishop wanted.
Mr. Packington was really in business with William Tyndale. Immediately he went to Tyndale and said, "I know you are a poor man with a pile of New Testaments that you have spent everything you have to print. But I have finally found a buyer." When Tyndale asked who it was, Packington told him it was the bishop of London.
"Oh," said Tyndale, "that's because he will burn them."
"Yes, I know," replied Packington.
"Then I am even happier," Tyndale said, "because I will gain these three benefits: I will get money from the bishop to bring me out of debt; the whole world will cry out against the burning of God's Word; and the surplus will enable me to correct the New Testament and publish a new edition that you will like even better than the first."
So the bishop got his books and Tyndale got his money. Later, when even more New Testaments were printed and started flooding into England, the bishop of London sent for Packington and said, "Sir, why are there so many New Testaments abroad, when you promised me that you had bought them all?" If the bishop had bothered to look, he could have found his answer in the pages of Tyndale's New Testament, which said in 1 Peter 1:2425: "The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away: But the word of the Lord endureth forever."
The very best story of how God preserves his Word is the story of Good Friday and Easter Sundaythe gospel story of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word. Jesus died for our sins on the cross, but he did not stay dead. The Living Word was brought to life, never to die again. By faith in his undying love, you too may have eternal life. You can read about it right here in the Word of God, which will abide forever above all earthly powers.
For the outline of this sermon, go to "Above All Earthly Powers."
Philip Ryken is president of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois.