Sermon – How Can We Know?

Recently I was asked to sit with a family in a hospital room while a palliative care nurse laid out end of life options for the person lying in the bed—a person that we would say is far too young to die. The elderly parents had been transported from the care facility where they live in order to be with their child—to help make difficult decisions. Because all of them knew that, barring a miracle from God, this individual did not have long to live.

This family is not a member of this church, but I have gotten to know them well over the past few years, and I’ve had many conversations with these parents over the past few weeks about their child’s situation. And so as we sat in that room, the father looked at me and said—more than once—“You said …”

“You said that the Bible says that if we believe in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, we’ll go to heaven when we die.”

“You said that there’s no sickness in heaven.”

“You said that in heaven we’ll live forever.”

“You said …” And each time, what he was really asking was: “Is that really true?” “Can we be absolutely certain?”

Now this is a Christian family. They have always believed in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. The parents believe—the child believes. But suddenly this is more than theoretical. They want reassurance—they want to know that what they believe is really true.

Because if their child is going to die, it makes a huge difference whether or not heaven is real. It makes a huge difference whether or not death means simply the end of everything or whether it means the beginning of a new and better life—a life far better than anything this world has to offer. A life that will never end.

This family wants to know what the apostle Thomas wanted to know 2000 years ago on the night of the Last Supper in that upper room: “How can we know?”

Because the atmosphere in that upper room was not unlike the atmosphere in that hospital room where a family was facing the loss of their child, the loss of their sibling.

Chapters 13-17 in John’s gospel give us what Bible scholars call Jesus’ final discourse—His last words to His disciples. It’s Jesus’ last night here on earth—and He knows it. He knows that He’s going to die the next day—and He’s preparing His disciples. He’s telling them what they need to know. Much of it He’s told them before—but now it’s become really real.

In that hospital room, as the parents were about to be transported back to the care center, as they said good-bye to their child, all of them were very aware that there was a very real possibility that this might be the last time that they would be together in this world. Their hearts are breaking because one of them is going away to a place where the rest of them can’t come—at least not right now And so they shared what was in their hearts—they shared their love.

Jesus, in that Upper Room, has washed the feet of His disciples, He’s told them that He’ll be leaving them—and that they can’t come where He’s going. He’s told them that He’ll be betrayed—betrayed by one of them—and He’s told them that Peter will disown Him three times.

And then He says, “Let not your hearts be troubled.”

“Let not your hearts be troubled”? How can their hearts not be troubled? Three years earlier, Jesus came into their lives and said, “Follow me.” And they did. He’d asked them to turn away from everything that had previously been important in their lives, to commit totally to Him—and they did.  If they’d thought about the future at all, it was in terms of sharing the glory of what they were sure would be His coming reign (Matthew 20:20-24). Matthew tells us how the mother of James and John had come and asked Jesus to let her sons sit on either side of Him when He came into His kingdom. All of them were convinced that the day was coming when Jesus would sit on a throne ruling over this world and that they would be right there with Him.

Now Jesus tells them that He’s leaving—that there will be no earthly throne, no palace, no conquering the Romans, no positions of power and prestige. Jesus had been telling them this all along, but they hadn’t really been listening. They’d been so sure that they understood what was going to happen and so opposed to the idea that Jesus might die that they had simply refused to listen.

Their whole world has been suddenly shattered. They felt betrayed—not unlike the way we feel when something terrible comes into our lives. We’ve followed Jesus, we’ve tried to live the way He wants us to live—and then suddenly a child dies or we receive an unexpected death sentence when we’re not ready to die.

And we think, “How can this be happening?” “How can God let this happen to me?” “This isn’t what I thought I signed up for when I said I’d follow You, Lord. I thought You’d protect me from bad things.”

We start to wonder: “Is what I believe really true?” We might even wonder: “Is God really true? Have I got it all wrong?”

The disciples, in that upper room, are terrified. Jesus said that Peter was going to deny Him—deny Him three times. And Peter’s the strong one. He’s the one they all depend on. If he’s going to deny Jesus, how could they possibly hope to remain steadfast in their faith?

2000 years later, many of us have hearts that are troubled. Troubled by the pain and suffering we see in the lives of people we love, perhaps even in our own lives. Troubled also by events that are going on in the world around us. By people who seem to be filled with hate, by a desire for vengeance. By the things going on in our government.

By the people who tell us that we’re wrong to put our faith, our trust, in Jesus. People who laugh and make fun of our faith. And maybe you’ve wondered, “How can we know?”

Because even people in the church sometimes tell us we’re wrong. Another conversation I had recently was with someone who told me that another Lutheran pastor in the area said that belief in “a god” was all that was necessary for salvation. Not the triune God of the Bible, but just belief in a god. They wanted to know, “Is what I’ve always believed wrong?”

“How can we know?”

In 2014, Barna research did a survey of American pastors and found that only 51% had a biblical worldview. Last week I heard that a more recent study found that the number has dipped below 50%–less than half of all American pastors believe that everything in the Bible is really true.

No wonder we’re confused. No wonder we start to question whether what we believe is really true.

Yesterday on the news, I heard a man running for national office from another state say, “Prayer is not the answer to the problems in this world. God is not the answer. We need to elect people who will take action.” Christians are openly mocked by much of the media when they speak of prayer, of belief in God. When miraculous events occur, they’re often reported with no mention of God.

The person was lucky.

Is God real? And if He is, is He really in charge? The Bible says that no one can be in a position of power without God allowing them to be there. The Bible says that God is in control of all things—always.

Is that really true? Is it possible to know that the things you believe as a Christian are really true? And does it matter?

Jesus, on the last night of His life in this world, tells His disciples what He’s been telling them all along—telling them that they can be certain. It is really possible to know for sure.

Thomas, who we like to call doubting Thomas, although he’s never called that in Scripture, is the one who says to Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” And “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’” (John 14:5-6).

Jesus is the truth. Jesus is the way—the only way.

But today we hear people say, “Well, that’s what our Bible says. But how can we even know that what it says is what Jesus really said? Don’t things get changed every time a new translation comes out?”

I’ve come to realize that a lot of you don’t really understand Bible translation. The oldest English translation of the Bible is the Tyndale Bible, translated by William Tyndale in 1524. The King James Bible, published in 1611, is often believed to be the most accurate English Bible translation.

Because apparently many people think that each new version of the Bible published is simply rewritten from a previous English translation. And so surely errors must occur along the way. But that’s not how it’s done. Each new Bible translation is translated from original Bible manuscripts written in the original Greek and Hebrew. And because there are many more original manuscripts available to us today than there were 400 years ago, current translations are even more accurate than the King James version. The Dead Sea Scrolls alone, discovered in the 1940’s, provided hundreds of additional manuscripts.

Bible translations today fall into two categories: literal translations and paraphrases. The ESV, published in 2001, is widely considered to be the most accurate English Bible available today—because it is a literal translation. Most of the other popular Bibles, the NIV, NLT, RSV, are what we can paraphrases.

All of them, however, can be relied on to be accurate.

But what about those original manuscripts? How can we really know that they’re accurate? How can we be sure that there’s enough there to rely on? When it comes to ancient documents, we have far more Bible documents available to us than any other ancient writing—and no one ever questions to reliability of those writings. Homer’s Illiad, for example, believed to have been written in the OT era, perhaps 1000 years before Christ, has 643 original manuscripts in existence. There are 49 existing original manuscripts of Aristotle’s writings.

In contrast, there are more than 14,000 original OT manuscript fragments in existence today—and we continue to find more. There are more than 5,300 existing NT manuscripts. And they all say the same thing. There is far more original evidence for the Bible than for any other ancient writing.

Well, that might be true, but how can we know that what the Bible says is really true? After all, a lot of it seems really unlikely. Do you know that nothing in the Bible has ever been proven to be wrong? Nothing. And new evidence is continually being found to verify its reliability.

For years many people thought that a lot of the OT was wrong. So-called experts would say that we know that the Hivites or the Hittites or the Amorites didn’t live where the Bible says they lived—and then archaeologists would uncover evidence that they really did live where the Bible said they lived. Currently many renowned scientists are uncovering evidence to support the biblical flood and many other OT events.

We can really know—but we have believed the world that tells us that we can’t. In Hosea 4:6 the Lord says, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.”

Habakkuk 2:14 says, “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

Luke begins his gospel with the words, “… that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.”

And the apostle Paul, in our reading from Philippians, speaks of “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”

These are just a few of the verses that speak of knowing—of being able to know for certain that Jesus is who He says He is and that what He says is really true.

This whole idea of knowledge, however, has become severely misunderstood and distorted over the last 200 years. So much so that it has become the accepted view that religion, that faith, stands apart from knowledge—that we can’t really know. That faith can’t really be based on evidence, on truth, but that requires only commitment. This has even been taken to mean that faith must sometimes go against knowledge—or at least with no support from knowledge.

Faith, then, has become something that we see primarily as something we must struggle with.

This is largely due to the fact that the culture in which we live has moved in a direction that is irrational—that’s governed by the overarching idea that there is no absolute truth, that each one of us can decide for ourselves what is real. It’s a world governed by feelings, on what we want to be true. So  even when we’re not aware that this is happening, we’re led to base our faith on will and feelings, with no thought that it’s based upon knowledge of how things really are.

Further, this has led even those whose professions are based on fact, such as science and medicine, to state as valid conclusions what are really only personal opinions.  Responsibility to truth and logic has slowly disappeared from our academic and intellectual worlds over the last century.  And so we are all too willing to accept, or at least not to question, whatever an “expert” or “professor” says, especially if it matches up with what we want to be true or what is currently fashionable.

All of this has a profound effect on Christianity, because if we accept what the world calls truth—even when there is no actual evidence for the claims—makes it very difficult to follow Jesus.

This has led to the idea held by many in this country today that the basic teachings of Christianity—the existence of a personal God, His intervention and direction in human affairs, the spiritual nature of human beings, the fundamental reliability of the Bible and so forth—have been discovered to be either actually false or to be without credible evidence.

It’s led us to a place where even a majority of Christian pastors in this country don’t believe that the Bible is true.

Many of them don’t even believe that Jesus is the Son of God—or they think it doesn’t matter if we believe this. But is there any basis for this? Have we been misled? Is Jesus just a good man who showed us good ways to live? Who said good things? Or is He the Son of God?

Jesus did a lot of good things. He taught a lot of good things. And He said that He was the Son of God. He said that He was the way, the truth, and the life. Not one of the ways—the way. He said that it is only through believing in Him that we can receive salvation. Only through following Him.

He said that the way to heaven is Jesus Himself. Faith in Him shatters the barrier of sin and death, and blasts open the road to the eternal life of the kingdom of God. It is “the road that leads to life” (Matthew 7:14).

This idea that Jesus is the ONLY way to the Father isn’t just John’s idea. Matthew, in 11:27 says, “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

In Acts 4:12, Peter says, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

  1. S. Lewis

How can we know?

Jesus tells us: Remember.

Jesus tells them that He’s going away to secure their future destiny (2-6). He’ll continue to live, but in a different place. He is returning to life in His Father’s house—returning to the life He previously lived.

And He’ll go through a specific route, through death and resurrection (10:17-18, 12:31-32). So His going is clearly an act of power—no matter what it might look like, they can remember that He told them how He was going to go.

Jesus appeals to their knowledge of Him. Jesus has never told them anything that didn’t happen. And later they’ll be able to look back at the things He told them that were going to happen and see that they happened exactly as He said they would. So they can trust that what He’s saying about the future, about eternity and salvation, is true.

All of Scripture tells us to remember. Remember what God has done for His people—and remember what He has promised to do in the future.

We live in a world that is deeply troubled.

The answer to trouble is to believe—believe in Jesus. For John, there is only one faith and that is in Jesus and God at the same time.

If part of the reason for our “troubled hearts” is the loss of dear ones through death, or our disillusionment with this present world, we are called to renew our trust in Him and rediscover His gift of peace, in the confidence that He IS coming back as He has promised and that He has prepared a place for all who love Him, in the glory that will surely be.

This teaching is exclusive. It’s popular in our culture today to say that all religions reach God, they just follow different paths. But the Bible teaches that there are no other paths. ”No one” comes to the Father except through Jesus. Anyone who has ever been lost in a forest or other wilderness knows that taking the wrong path makes a person even more hopelessly lost. So it is with the spiritually lost. Only one way leads to safety, to salvation—Jesus.

“No one comes to the Father except through me.”  At a time when the idea is widespread, even among Christians, even among Lutherans, that there are many ways to heaven, this is not popular. But if, in Jesus, God has come among us in person to reconcile His rebellious and Lost world, it follows necessarily that through Him, and Him alone, is the way to God.

We find in Peter and Judas a warning to be loyal to Jesus as He is rather than as we would like Him to be. Only He can guide and correct our mistaken notions, as we see him doing repeatedly in John’s gospel. We should be asking him to do so in our lives, receiving the guidance He has given the church through the Spirit.

We remember how badly we need a Savior. We remember that nothing in our past can disqualify us from being a part of God’s family if we come to Him ready to repent and put out trust in the salvation of our Lord and Savior.

We remember that even when the world seems to be continually telling us that unless we are perfect, unless we are free of all sin, we are disqualified from anything. We’re no good. We’re worthy only to be tossed aside as useless garbage.

But we have a God who tells us that no one is too dirty, too beaten, too bad, to come to Him—come and be restored, made new.

Everyone always wants to know details about heaven. John provides none—other than that it is simply being where Jesus is.

Because Jesus is all we need. Thanks be to God.

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