January 7, 2018
The parable of the blind men and the elephant can be traced back 2500 years. The story suggests six blind men came upon an elephant – an animal they had never encountered before. They tried to determine what it was by touching it. But, each man only touched part of the elephant. One touched its side and said, obviously it’s a wall. Another touched its trunk and said, it’s a snake. Another touched its tail and said, no, it’s a rope. Another its leg and said, it’s a tree. Another its ear and said, it’s a fan. Finally, the sixth man touched its tusk and declared it a spear.
The point of the parable, I suppose, is reality depends on your experience and your perceptions. Or it could be said, the moral of the parable is people tend to project their partial experiences as the whole truth, ignore other people’s experiences, and we should consider you we be partially right, having only partial information, and therefore, we are also partially wrong.
Well,19th Century American poet John Godfrey Saxe published a most famous version of the story. In it, he suggests the elephant is a metaphor for God, and the various blind men represent different religions which disagree on something (that is, God) no one person has fully experienced. Our perceptions are limited, not the whole truth, and therefore, ultimately faulty. Listen to his poem:
It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right
And all were in the wrong!
So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!
Cute. Obviously, many have delightfully latched onto the moral of the story, applying it to various world religions, which only contain part of the picture, and therefore are partly right, and partly wrong. Notice the last line, not one of them has seen. Is that right?
In a sermon several of us heard a few years ago at a pastors conference, Pastor Kevin Deyoung suggested there is a problem with the parable, that is, as it relates to religion. You see, what if as the blind men – who were truly blind – what if as they groped about, the elephant spoke, “I am an elephant.” I think it’s a wall – I am an elephant. I think it’s a tree – I am an elephant. The elephant, Saxe suggested, is a metaphor for God. But, what if God has made Himself known? I am God. What if God spoke?
This, you see, is the challenge of modern society. How do you know? How can you believe in something or someone you’ve never seen or heard? Therefore, since I’ve never seen with my own eyes, I will not believe. I’m an agnostic, or, I’m an atheist. And so, atheism is fastest growing among young people under the age of 30 – surveys in the US demonstrate that demographic reaching almost thirty percent – those who claim to be atheists. But the question is, what if God is not silent? What if has God has spoken? And yet you respond within the bounds of the parable, but an elephant cannot speak. And so you would impose categories of the creature on the Creator – and limit God so as to say, He cannot speak, and yet, you do.
But, you ask further, how has God spoken? The Christian faith suggests three clear ways:
- First, by what is called general or natural revelation. That is, creation itself declares the undeniable reality of a Creator – of God Himself. Psalm 19 says:
1 The heavens are telling of the glory of God;
And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.
2 Day to day pours forth speech,
And night to night reveals knowledge.
Moreover, Romans 1:20 says, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they [people] are without excuse.” Why is it people spend so much time denying that which is not real? Because they know in their heart of hearts, He is real and undeniable – and they are therefore without excuse.
Creation clearly points to a magnificent, master Creator. But, Paul goes on. Though the reality of God will be clearly seen – as a bunch of blind men – we take the truth of the existence and majesty of God and suppress it – even deny it. Listen as Paul writes:
21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.
22 Professing to be wise, they became fools,
23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.
You see, modern man is not the first to deny the reality and existence of God despite the clear evidence of His self-revelation, and they will not be the last. With foolish, darkened hearts – blind eyes – they deny Him. Or they recreate Him into a more palatable, controllable image. Let’s make Him like us.
The prophet Isaiah had some interesting things to say about that re-creation – that lowering of God into images we could handle. First, he declares the incomparable majesty and greatness of God in chapter 40, saying things like:
12 Who has measured the waters [what waters? All waters] in the hollow of His hand,
And marked off the heavens by the span [the universe is about that big],
And calculated the dust of the earth by the measure,
And weighed the mountains in a balance
And the hills in a pair of scales?
13 Who has directed the Spirit of the Lord,
Or as His counselor has informed Him?
14 With whom did He consult and who gave Him understanding?
And who taught Him in the path of justice and taught Him knowledge
And informed Him of the way of understanding?
15 Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket,
And are regarded as a speck of dust on the scales;
Behold, He lifts up the islands like fine dust.
17 All the nations are as nothing before Him,
They are regarded by Him as less than nothing and meaningless.
18 To whom then will you liken God?
Or what likeness will you compare with Him?
25 “[Finally, God speaks] To whom then will you liken Me
That I would be his equal?” says the Holy One.
26 Lift up your eyes on high
And see who has created these stars,
The One who leads forth their host by number,
He calls them all by name; [pay to name a distant start – too late] Because of the greatness of His might and the strength of His power,
Not one of them is missing.
Humanity is supposed to look at the magnificence of creation and know there is a God – One to whom no one compares. But…we dismiss Him. We truly are blind people, groping in the dark – refusing to receive His clear self-revelation. You could flip over to Isaiah 44 and find the prophet making fun of us. He says, a man cuts down a tree and uses one half to make a fire to keep warm, or bake bread, or grill a steak. And with the other half, he carves an idol, and bows down to it. How foolish, blinded we are. The heavens declare the glory of God so that we are without excuse.
But general revelation is not the only way God has made Himself known. Let me stop there and ask a simple question, if there is a God, and we are His creation – would it not make sense for Him to make Himself known – to reveal Himself to us? Indeed, He has. Contrary to the deists and the like who suggest God created everything, then sits back with a bowl of popcorn to see what will happen. No, He has communicated with His creatures – namely, those created in His image. We do not create God in our image – we are created in His – emotionally, spiritually, relationally, morally, eternally. And He is not silent – He has spoken.
Which brings us to the second way God has revealed Himself, and that is through what is called special or supernatural revelation. There are two kinds of special revelation. The first is His Word – the Bible. God has spoken through His Word such that we can actually know Him. He is a God of words, Who has chosen to communicate in word His truth to us. God would be ultimately unknowable, if it were not for His gracious, self-revelation through His Word. He inspired the authors of Scripture through the prophets to write – and the Word of God is ultimately a theology book to teach us about God. II Peter 1:19-21 says:
19 So we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts.
20 But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation,
21 for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.
God has spoken in His word. This is why we study the Bible – word by precious word – to know God, Who has spoken. We can know Him. We don’t have to grope around in the dark and guess. The Bible is His self-revelation. But it was not His final revelation. His final, complete, perfect, glorious revelation came in and through His Son. Hebrews 1:1-2 says it this way, “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son…”
God spoke through the prophets in the Old Testament, under the Old Covenant – but Jesus came, in fulfillment of the promises, to bring the New Covenant – God spoke. Jesus is the final, complete, clear, authoritative, glorious revelation of God to us.
So, when people say, how can you believe in a God you have never seen, we can say, we have seen Him. He is revealed in creation, in His Word, and in His Son. It’s a trifecta – what more do you need? You have the entire universe which screams His glory; you have God Himself, self-disclosed in His Word; but that’s not all – you God Himself in the flesh. What more do you need? I haven’t seen it with my eyes. You are ignoring the clear evidence of His revelation. You see, here’s the bottom-line truth: according to Romans 1, people want to live how they want to live – not in accordance with the clearly revealed and righteous truth of the true and living God. So they make God up – or deny His existence – so they can live how they want – in continued rebellion against Him.
When people say, all religions are the same, groping around in the dark, trying to piece together the unknowable, we can say, au contrare, we have the full picture. We are not in the dark. God has spoken and fully and finally revealed Himself in His Son – and given us Light. Don’t you want to know Him, too?
And so, if we have the truth of God – the perfect, complete, full, glorious revelation of God through His Son – why would we consider anything else? Why would we consider quitting, and going back to our miserable, pre-Christians lives? Why would we consider abandoning that which we know to be true? Despite the hardships, the challenges, the opposition, the difficulties of living out the Christian life – why would we quit? Jesus is better than anything this world or any world religion has to offer.
We arrive this morning to the glorious book of Hebrews. Let’s me take the next few moments to introduce you to the book. We ask the normal questions – who wrote it, to whom was it written, and when was it written? The simple answer to all those questions is, we don’t know.
The book is strictly anonymous – the author doesn’t identify himself, which presented a problem for the early church. You see, in order for a book to be accepted into the Bible – called the canon – it was thought necessary to be written by an apostle or a close associate of an apostle. So, for example, Matthew was an apostle. Mark was a close associate of Peter. Luke, a close associate of Paul. John, an apostle. Peter, an apostle. This is why the Apostle Paul made such a big deal about Jesus appearing to him, calling him and teaching him personally.
And so, who wrote Hebrews? If it was to be accepted as canonical, it needed appropriate authorship. So for many years, it was supposed the Apostle Paul wrote it. The only problem was, he didn’t, and pretty much everyone knew it. Not only does the author use a higher, more polished style of Greek, not only does he use a different vocabulary than Paul, not only does Paul identify himself in every one of his other 13 letters, not only does the book contain different categories than normally found in Paul, most notably, the author says in chapter 2, verse 3 that he heard the truth of the faith from others who heard it from Jesus. This is completely contrary to what Paul says elsewhere. So, virtually everyone today recognizes, Paul didn’t write this great book.
But, assuming it needed to be written by an apostle or close associate, other viable guesses have been made – like Barnabas, or Apollos, or Luke, or Priscilla. The list is long. There are good reasons for some of the suggestions, but for most of them, we don’t have other writings with which to compare, so they simply guesses. In the end, to quote an early church father, who wrote the epistle is known to God alone. But clearly, it is inspired by God and has been accepted into the canon for almost 2000 years.
To whom, then, was it written? Again, we don’t know. An epistle then usually began with an identification of the author, and to whom it was written. This one doesn’t. Some even argue that it technically isn’t a letter – it’s more of a sermon – what the author himself calls in chapter 13 a word of exhortation. But, it ends with some things characteristic of a letter, so we’ll call it a sermon-letter. But again, to whom was it written? You understand, the titles were not inspired – such as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. This one, from the earliest days, carried the title, To The Hebrews. Why? Because a careful reading of the book makes clear the readers were formally immersed in Judaism – they were quite familiar with the Old Testament. This, and other reasons, suggest the readers were Jewish Christians.
But where were they living? And the answer is, we don’t know. They could have been Jews in Palestine – Jerusalem is a frequent guess. But, without going into detail, there are clues these Jews were not living there. So the most oft-guessed location is to the Jewish believers in Rome. Why Rome? A couple of important reasons. First, the book is first quoted by Clement of Rome, which is important for dating the book, which we’ll come back to. Additionally, these believers were facing persecution – but not quite to death…yet.
Which leads to the next question – when was it written? Well, Clement wrote his letter in 96, in which he quotes Hebrews, so it must have been written by then. Further, if was written to Rome, the persecution could be referring to the time in 49 AD when the Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome. Why did he do that? Well, they were apparently fighting about a man named Chrestus, which most believe was actually Christos, or Christ.
But they were expelled – lost their homes, which Hebrews talks about. But they hadn’t martyred yet – that came later in 64 AD under the Roman Emperor Nero. Oh also, the author speaks of the Jewish sacrifices still being offered – in the present tense. If it was past 70 AD, when the Temple was destroyed, there would not have been sacrifices being offered. Besides, if the author was wanting to prove Jesus was the fulfillment of the sacrifices – the final sacrifice – no need for further sacrifices – wouldn’t it make sense for him to point to the destruction of the Temple? So, most agree the letter was likely written to Jewish believers in Rome in the early 60s AD.
All guesswork. But why was it written? On this, we can agree. The author himself says, it’s a word of exhortation. His readers were facing great difficulties – challenges. Some had already quit – likely returned to Judaism. Others were considering doing so. Some had already quit assembling with other believers. It was a challenging time. So he writes to encourage them to persevere – to press on. To not quit. Some of those exhortations come in the form of warnings – some of the strictest, strongest warnings in the New Testament.
But his primary argument is this: Jesus is greater. He’s better. You see, He is the eternal Son of God, and He has become our Great High Priest by His cross work. As such, He better than angels, who mediated the Old Covenant. He’s better than Moses, than the Levitical priesthood, He’s better than Aaron. He’s better than the Old Covenant sacrifices – why, He’s the fulfillment of the OT sacrifices. He’s just better – fill in the blank – He’s greater, He’s better than anyone or anything. So why would you consider quitting? This book is about the supremacy of Christ, the singular sufficiency of His work, and therefore the necessity of faith in Him alone for salvation. Why would you consider anything else?
This is a word for us today in an increasingly hostile culture. In a country that has largely abandoned the faith. In a country that is embracing atheism or secularism or Islam or any number of other religions or so-called spirituality. We know and love God, Who has spoken – and made Himself known. Why would you ever consider leaving? The author sums up his purpose in 10:23, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful.” Persevere, press on. It is eternally worth it.