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How our Scriptures were chosen
This sermon is part of the sermon series "Txt Msg". See series.


We're going to be looking at Revelation chapter 22 today, and I want to talk about a very significant and serious decision that was made in history. It was the decision made regarding which books would be in our Bible and which books would not.

We're in the second week of a series that we've titled "Txt Msg: What We Believe About Our Bible." Last week we talked bout the origin of Scripture—that Scripture is inspired by God. This week I want to explore this question: How did we get this book? How did the Bible breathed out by God make its way from the writers' desk into this book? The Bible is not just one book. We may think of it as one book, but the Bible is really a collection of 66 books bound together in one cover. So how in the world did anybody ever decide what was in and what was out?

To help us understand this a little bit better, we're looking at Revelation 22. This passage really deals with a strong caution regarding the selection of what would be Scripture and what would not be. Starting in verse 18, John writes these words:

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book these things: if anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. And if anyone takes away words from the book of this prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in this holy city, which are described in this book. He who testifies to these things says, 'Yes, I am coming soon.' Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God's people. Amen."

Now, as you may know, the book of Revelation was spoken from Jesus to the Apostle John when John was in exile on the Isle of Patmos. The book of Revelation is really about the end of times, the future of the church, and the final and future coming of God's kingdom. And here we have the final words that were spoken by Jesus to John; it is a strong caution. It could be summarized this way: John, you need to tell people about the prophecy of this book, the Scripture, that they should not, first of all, add anything to it. They should never add anything to this revelation lest God add to you the plagues that are described in this book. In other words, you should not inflate the Scriptures unless you have a great reputation with a good dermatologist, okay? And similarly, just as you should not add anything to God's Word, you should not subtract anything from God's Word. Because, Jesus says to John, if you subtract or reduce God's revelation, then God will subtract from you or will reduce from you the share that you have in the tree of life and in God's holy city in the future.

As I study this passage I come to two conclusions. The first conclusion that I come to is that we have to be careful not to trifle with God's Word. I'll be honest: I'm not really sure what the plague thing really looks like for a person who messes with God's Word. And I'm not really sure what the loss is in this tree of life that was in the Garden of Eden, or what kind of loss there is in the holy city. Theologians are not really sure what this loss really looks like. But of this we can be sure: it's bad stuff. When you read this text, you can't help but conclude that this is not good news, that whatever the plagues are and whatever the loss is, the overriding principle here is that we must not trifle with God's Word. We should neither add or subtract from the Scriptures.

The second important observation that I make in this passage is that God's Scripture, his Word, has a very definite boundary. You cannot add or take away from something that is indefinite. How do you add to infinity? How do you subtract from infinity? You can't do it. The only way that Jesus could command this caution to John and generations that would follow is that there must be an understanding that God's Word, his revelation, has very clear distinguishable boundaries. That's the only way that we could ever possibly follow the command of neither adding nor subtracting from God's revelation.

I do believe that Jesus' words here are speaking specifically about the Book of Revelation. I think there's historical and grammatical reason to believe this is so. But other passages throughout Scripture say a similar thing. For example, in Deuteronomy 4:2, Moses tells the people: "Don't add to what I command you, and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the Lord your God that I give to you." Or consider what Solomon writes in Proverbs chapter 30: "Every word of God is flawless. He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him. Do not add to his words or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar." And so there is this theme in the Bible that God's Word has distinguishable boundaries and that we as God's people have to be careful neither to add nor take away from what is God's holy Word.

The question is, how do we know what is God's word? I mean, how do we know that the Bible we hold in our hands is no less and no more than God's word? People have argued throughout history about whether or not these 66 books are really God's final word. The Jesus Seminar in the 1990s were a group of pseudo-intellectuals that came together and debated whether or not Jesus really said the things that he said and did the things that he did. They sat around their tables voting about these things based on their opinion of whether a guy could actually say those things. They don't believe very much of what is said about Jesus in the gospels. And what do we do about the gospels that have resurfaced today? They were known in ancient times but have resurfaced and people have taken quite an interest in them. These include the gospel of Mary, the gospel of Thomas, the gospel of Judas, the secret gospel of Mark, and other writings. What do we do with those writings? Or what do we do with what other organizations, other groups who call their scriptures sacred? What do you do with the Koran or the book of Mormon—others who claim that God has spoken to them and they possess documents equal to or greater than the Scripture we claim is God's Word? What do we do with that? How do we know that what we have today is the right Word of God, no more and no less?

A history lesson on the canonization of Scripture

To help us understand this, I want to give you a bit of a history lesson on the collection or the collation of the Scriptures that we have today—the 66 books that we have in our Bible. The Old Testament is made up of 39 books, and those books record history from the time of Adam, the creation of the world, right up to about 400 BC, under the writings of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, the last three prophets that we have in your Old Testament. So our Old Testament was written over about a thousand years but includes anywhere from two to three to four thousand years of world history. Now, this is what you have to understand. There was never any real debate or concern about the 39 books that make up our Old Testament. There was widespread acceptance among the Jews that those 39 books (including the law spoken by Moses—also known as the Torah, the prophets and historical books, and the wisdom literature or poetic books) were indeed the Word of God, that they were Scripture. In fact, in the New Testament, Jesus himself quotes from 24 of the Old Testament books! And 36 of the Old Testament books are mentioned throughout the New Testament! The New Testament writers had a clear understanding of what was considered to be Scripture, God's law.

It wasn't until AD 90 that a group of Jewish rabbis, scribes, and scholars came together to put the final stamp on what was known as Scripture. This was the Council of Jamnia. Up to this point, oral tradition had taken the Scriptures forward in the community, but there had never been some final declaration or gold seal stating these 39 books as the Word of God. The Council of Jamnia canonized the Old Testament Scripture. The word canon means "measuring" or "rule."

Now, the Council of Jamnia did not declare the 39 books of the Old Testament to be canon. They didn't decide and grant authority to any of those books. Those books were rule and law and authoritative the moment God spoke the words from his mouth. When Michelangelo crafted the Sistine Chapel, when did the Sistine Chapel become a masterpiece? Did it become a masterpiece the moment that it was painted, or did it become a masterpiece later, once people saw it? It was a masterpiece the moment it was painted. It just took people a while to recognize it's worth. And in the same way, the moment that God spoke the Scriptures to human beings through the Holy Spirit, those words were canon. They were rule. They were authoritative. The councils that followed later simply needed to discover that. They needed to understand and discern which books were canonical and which books weren't. And so the Council of Jamnia, operating with several criteria—and we'll come back to this in just a moment—were able to discern and agree that these 39 books were considered God's law and canon up to that point.

The Old Testament ends with the prophetic words from Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. In fact, there's even a passage in Malachi in which the prophet predicts that the next prophet that would speak on the scene would be somebody who comes in the spirit of Elijah. And the Old Testament comes to an end and guess what? For 400 years everything goes silent. God doesn't speak, there is no prophecy that is given, there is no revelation that is revealed; all goes silent. There is a group of individuals that begin to write some documents during this time that we'll come back to in just a second, but there were no Scriptures that were written during this time, until we get to the New Testament.

The New Testament reflects the time period of about 60 to 90 years, and includes the birth, the life, and the teachings of Jesus, the growth of his early church, and the writings of the apostles during that time, helping the church to get off of the ground. And it's interesting what you find in the New Testament. Jesus refers to the Old Testament as Scripture. He calls it scripture. Paul refers to the words of Jesus as Scripture. Peter refers to the words of Paul as Scripture. And Jude makes reference to the writings of Peter as being Scripture. They're all supporting; they're giving props to one another. They're pointing to one another as actually writing the very words of God. Don't let some movie or supposed documentary tell you otherwise. There was very little debate in the early church as to which books in our New Testament were actually Scripture—that actually were communicated from God. There was widespread agreement about most of the books that we have in our New Testament, and it was at the Council of Carthage in 397 AD that a group of church fathers and scholars came together and, using very, very strict criteria, determined which books written since the Old Testament would be in the New Testament canon.

Criteria for canonization

There were five criteria used by the Council of Carthage used to affirm or discover which books would be canonical. The first criterion was the criterion of apostolic or prophetic authorship. A book accepted into the Old or New Testament canon of Scripture had to express very obviously within the writing or be clear objectively outside the writing that it was written by an apostle or a prophet of God.

The second criterion was widespread acceptance and circulation among the early church. In fact, one of the reasons some of these other pseudo gospels have been rejected in recent years is that they had virtually no audience in the early church.

A third criterion is internal consistency. That is, the book has theological consistency with what has already been determined and understood to be canon. It agreed with what was widely accepted as the word and the works of Jesus. It had to have an internal correspondence and consistency with what had already been defined.

Fourthly, in the same way, the text had to reflect historical accuracy. Some of the problems with the other gospels that have cropped up in recent years is that these writings, which were written too late, contain errors regarding what we know about the history during the time of Jesus and the early church, so they do not reflect a historical accuracy. This lack of historical accuracy makes those writings suspect.

And the last criterion, which is a more subjective, is that the book must reflect a spiritual attestation. It must reflect an internal resonance that indeed these are the words of God. Many of the early writings that did not make it into the canon, rather than reflect a kingdom agenda and lift up the person of Jesus, these writings instead were promoting some political or social agenda. Or it was clear that they were written in order to buttress or support the idea of Gnosticism during that day, or some other Greek philosophy. Their agenda was clearly not about the kingdom of God.

These were the five criteria used by the councils to determine whether or not a book was truly canonical. And can I tell you that the 27 books that we have in our New Testament passed with flying colors. They overwhelmingly showed most or all of these criteria, and there was very, very little doubt, very little discussion about these documents. I say "little doubt," because there were a five books that were not written by direct apostles: the gospel of Luke, Luke's second book, Acts, the Book of Hebrews, the gospel of Mark, and Book of Jude. But there were other points of contact in which we knew that Luke participated with Paul in his missionary journey, and Mark had joined Peter. There was clear attestation that these books held credible authority in the life of Jesus and the growth of the early church.

Do you know that the excluded writings—the gospel of Mary (Dan Brown highlighted the gospel of Mary in The DaVinci Code), the gospel of Thomas, the gospel of Judas—these other writings failed miserably at most or all of these criteria. They're written far too late in general (most of them between 150 and 200 AD), and they're certainly too late to have been written by Mary, Judas, or Thomas. Or the books clearly support some kind of political or theological agenda. The gospel of Mary is a very feminized gospel; it was clear that it was put out by a sect at that time that was trying to restore greater credibility to women. And there are direct contradictions between the gospel of Mary and the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. So these extra-biblical writings that we have were put to the same test, the same criteria for canonization, and they failed miserably. We can be sure that what we have today is the very word of God.

If you come from a Catholic background as I did, you know that your Catholic Bible contains a collection of other writings in the Old Testament. Your Old Testament is not 39 books but 46. Where did those extra seven books come from? Well, those books are considered apocryphal, which means "hidden meaning." They are apocryphal writings that have gone along with the Scriptures. There were rabbis and teachers that were living during the time when God didn't speak, the time of silence after the last of the prophets, and they were recording the history of the Jewish people. They were recording the Jewish people's longing for a Messiah, the expectation that the Messiah would come soon. But neither the Jews nor the non Jews during that time gave those apocryphal writings the same authority as Scripture. And neither Jesus nor any of the other New Testament writers ever refer to the apocryphal writings. And so at the Council of Carthage when the canon was collated and brought together and somebody raised their hand and said, "What about all of these apocryphal writings?" the response was given, "Those are interesting books, they're helpful in some spiritual matters, but they do not contain the same weight of authority as the Scriptures." They did not include the apocrypha at the Council of Carthage.

Fast forward about a thousand years to the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. The church split. You were either Catholic or you were a protestor, a Protestant. Martin Luther found doctrines within the Catholic Church to which he did not agree, hence the split from the church. And it was at the council of Trent in the mid-1500s that the Catholic Church reintroduced the Apocrypha back into Scripture and decided to elevate those writings as being equally authoritative to the Scriptures that we have today. That's where the Apocrypha came from.

So what we have in our hands, the 66 books that we treasure, we can trust those works of having gone through incredible scrutiny, incredible decision making, incredible survey to understand what is understood as the Word of God and what is not.

Submission to Scripture

So what do you do with this? If we're not careful, this becomes just mere academics, right? When we talk about canonization, does it have any bearings on our lives? The answer is yes. In fact, as I studied the Scriptures this week I came up with three words that I want to leave with you.

The first word I want to leave with you is submission. You see, if the Scriptures were canon, if they were rule of law, if they were authoritative the moment that they were spoken and not when a council decided them, if they are authoritative because God spoke them, then this Bible has authority over me, and I live my life in submission to it. Some people view the Bible is just a document—an ancient, irrelevant book of fables and myths that people who've got nothing better to do read on occasion. That's their opinion of the Bible, and so the Bible has no bearing on their life. The Bible is under them. But there's another way that many Christians sometimes live, and that is with the Bible beside them. They would never put the Bible under them, but they put the Bible beside them. It is co-equal with them. And so their Bible challenges their life and sometimes conflicts with their life, and they negotiate with the Bible; sometimes they win and sometimes the Bible wins. My friends, listen to me: this is a very dangerous way to live. When we live with the Bible beside us, we find ourselves picking and choosing the verses that we want to believe. This is exactly what a heretic by the name of Marcion did in 160 AD. When there was discussion during this time period about what was Scripture and what wasn't, you know what Marcion said? He said essentially, "I think the God of the Old Testament is just an angry elf. He just doesn't like people. So the Old Testament can't be Scripture. And you know what, when I look at some of the writings of Paul, I find he's kind of strict. I don't think some of Paul's writings should be Scripture. And there's some of the writings of Jesus and some of the gospels, I don't think they're Scripture." Marcion's scripture, his canon, was Luke and ten letters from Paul. He excluded everything else because there was something in each book that he found he just couldn't agree with. He subtracted from the Scriptures the things that he didn't like.

You might be thinking, I can't believe that, taking stuff out of the Bible. Who would ever do that? You know what, friends? We do it every day. How about Exodus chapter 22? Listen to what God says: "Don't hold back offerings from your granaries or your vats." You might think, That's the Old Testament. This idea of tithes and offerings, that doesn't apply to the New Testament church. And even if it did, God doesn't understand my economic condition right now. If it works for you, that's great, but it doesn't apply to me.

And how about this passage in the book of James: "Don't grumble against each other, brothers,"—he's talking to the church—"Don't grumble or you will be judged." Well, I agree we shouldn't grumble, unless they don't sing the song I wanted to sing. I am a tithing member of this church, and there are things here worth grumbling about!

We say we would never rip those pages out of our Bibles. But we do it every day. I do it, you do it. We take out the sections of Scripture that do not agree with us, forgetting that the decisions about what was in and out was made hundreds of years ago. If the Bible is God's word, the moment that it was spoken it was not to be negotiated. It is over me, and I live under it.

We believe the Bible is the Word of God and has the right to command our belief and our actions. It has the right to command, to direct, to point out and to say, "Live this way." And here is the promise: if you live in submission to the Word of God—in your finances, in your relationships, in your purity, in your ethics, in your business—you'll discover all the blessings that God has for you in your life.

Chip Ingram said this: "Surrendering to God is the channel in which God's blessings flow." I believe that with all my heart. When we surrender and say, "God, this is a tough text for me right now, but I will submit to it," then we start to discover everything that God has for our life.


The second word that I want to introduce to you today is the word stewardship. Now, it is very unlikely that any of us are going to go home and deconstruct our Bibles or that we're going to go home and write another gospel, bury it, unearth it a couple of days later, and claim that we have found some secret writing for Jesus. None of us are going to probably violate Revelation 22:18-19 at face value, right? But it is possible that we can subtract and add to Scripture through misinterpretation and misapplication. Second Timothy 2:15 is a sobering passage. Paul says: "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who accurately handles the word of truth." You know what that verse tells me? That verse tells me that when I open my Bible, it is possible for me to incorrectly handle God's Word. And that verse tells me that it's a terrible thing when I do. I find that when people mishandle God's Word, they end up in one of two places: they end up in legalism, or they end up in liberalism. Legalism is when we interpret too much from God's Word and we make it say more than it was intended to say. Liberalism is when we interpret God's Word too little, and we make it say less than it does; it has less significance and impact for our lives. So my friends, be careful as you interpret. Reading Scriptures is a rich and joyful process, but be careful as you interpret and apply God's Word.


Here's the last word I have for you: substitution. Every day you and I are inundated with millions of messages that all claim to be true. And the reality is, if we're not careful and discerning, we're liable to substitute some of these messages for what is really true. We're liable to read C.S. Lewis or Beth Moore and love them more than we love the Scripture they are actually writing about. If we're not careful, we're liable to get all of our understanding about the end times from the Left Behindseries than we are from the book of Revelation and the book of Daniel, right? If we're not careful, we're liable to get all of our skepticism and our security about the Scriptures from Discovery channel than we are from the Word of God. And all of these substitutes can mess us up—even if they are good intentioned.

The denomination I grew up in had this phrase: Where stands it written? So when I read my C.S. Lewis and I find something that makes me go, "Whoa, that's good stuff!" I stop and say, "Hold on just a minute. Where stands it written? How do I know that Lewis is true here? Where would I go in my Bible to find what Lewis is talking about? Where stands it written?" We go to the Scripture, and we allow no other substitutes to direct our lives. Submission, stewardship, and be careful of substitution.


Many of you know that Emmitt Smith holds the NFL rushing record. There were 11 seasons where he rushed over 1,000 yards. Well when Smith was a high school freshman, he was constantly fumbling the ball. One day his coach came up to him, got in his face, and screamed, "You will never be a good running back unless you hold on to the ball, and if you don't hold on to the ball, you won't stay on this team!" Smith remembers that day as the day he decided to hold on tightly. Great men and women throughout history have become great because they've held tightly onto something.

Spiritual growth and maturity comes from us holding tightly onto the Scripture that was carefully guarded, carefully contained, and carefully collated over hundreds and hundreds of years. What we have today is the Word of God. My friends, hold tightly to it.

David Daniels is the lead pastor of Central Bible Church in Fort Worth, Texas.

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Sermon Outline:


I. A history lesson on the canonization of Scripture

II. Criteria for canonization

III. Submission to Scripture

IV. Stewardship

V. Substitution