Have you ever wondered how you got the Bible that is in your hands? I am not referring to the obvious fact of picking it up off the table or buying it from Amazon; I am referring to the question of how an ancient collection of books has been preserved over time to be held in the hands of an individual living in the 21st century. The process in which God has ordained His Word to be available to His people is through 4 simple phases:
The Bible is first and foremost not wisdom conjured up from within the 40 biblical authors. The Bible is extraordinary and set apart from any other book known to mankind. It has 40 authors, 66 books, 2 testaments, written on 3 continents, written in 3 languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) and written over a span of 1,500 years from beginning to end yet remains completely unified in doctrine and themes. But this is not what makes the Bible supremely extraordinary. What ultimately sets the Bible apart from any other book is that it is God-breathed. God is the ultimate author of Scripture. In theology we call this dual authorship. The Bible was written by men, but God through the Spirit was carrying out the process through inspiration. This is what makes the Bible authoritative for all mankind. It is not the commandments and wisdom of men, but of God. Let’s look at two passages in particular:
2 Timothy 3:16-17: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
2 Peter 1:20-21: “Knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
Once the original manuscripts were written down by the biblical authors, Christians would begin to make copies of the originals. For example, Paul would write a letter to the church in Galatia, Ephesus, or Corinth and then these believers would copy Paul’s letter and spread it out to other churches and believers. Today, there are 5,700 Greek manuscripts containing part or all of the New Testament text. There are 23,769 known copies of these New Testament manuscripts with the earliest copy being no more than 50 years from the original manuscript.
To help put this in perspective of how reliable our copies of the original New Testament manuscripts are, there are 210 known copies of Plato’s Tetralogies with a gap from the original to the earliest copy being 1,295 years. The Bible stands alone in regards to textual criticism and reliability to what the biblical authors wrote down on stone, papyrus, and animal skins over 2,000 years ago.
The ultimate hope that Christians have in the trustworthiness, reliability, and faithfulness of the Scriptures is not found in anything else except Christ’s own faithfulness to His own word. In Matthew 24:35 Jesus says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Throughout the history of the church, no matter how dark things may seem, God’s Word has never been lost. It has been twisted by false teachers, kept from God’s people, but God has always guarded His Word from being lost.
There may not be a more highlighted period of God’s preservation of the Scriptures than what took place in the 16th century. It was during this era that a remnant of God’s people boldly went back to the Book, back to the Bible for doctrine and life. Steve Lawson in his book, Pillars of Grace recounts this period of church history with the following:
The Protestant Reformation stands as the most far-reaching, world-changing display of God’s grace since the birth and early expansion of the church. It was not a single act, nor was it led by one man. This history-altering movement played out on different stages over many decades. Its cumulative impact, however, was enormous. Philip Schaff, a noted church historian, writes: ‘The Reformation of the sixteenth century is, next to the introduction of Christianity, the greatest event in history. It marks the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of modern times. Starting from religion, it gave, directly or indirectly, a mighty impulse to every forward movement, and made Protestantism the chief propelling force in the history of modern civilization.’ The Reformation was, at its heart, a recovery of the true gospel of Jesus Christ, and this restoration had an unparalleled influence on churches, nations, and the flow of Western civilization.
Under the guiding hand of God, the world scene had been uniquely prepared for the Reformation. The church was greatly in need of reform. Spiritual darkness personified the Roman Catholic Church. The Bible was a closed book. Spiritual ignorance ruled the minds of the people. The gospel was perverted. Church tradition trumped divine truth. Personal holiness was abandoned. The rotten stench of man-made traditions covered pope and priest. The corruption of ungodliness contaminated both dogma and practice.
‘The Reformers did not see themselves as inventors, discoverers, or creators,’ according to historian Stephen Nichols. ‘Instead, they saw their efforts as rediscovery. They weren’t making something from scratch but were reviving what had become dead. They looked back to the Bible and to the apostolic era, as well as to early church fathers such as Augustine (354–430) for the mold by which they could shape the church and re-form it. The Reformers had a saying, ‘Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda,’ meaning ‘the church reformed, always reforming.‘Steve Lawson, Pillars of Grace
Even in the dark periods of church history where God’s Word was not made available to His people, the Scriptures were not lost. They were preserved. They were waiting to be put back into the hands of the people. The Reformers, under God’s sovereign hand, placed the Bible back where it belongs. It was translated into the common tongue, read and preached from the pulpit, and made available to every person no matter their education or social status.
The final work in which God has preserved His Word is through Bible translation. Scholars of Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic seek to translate word for word the original manuscripts and copies of biblical text into the common tongue of people groups all over the world.
Wycliffe Bible Translators (WBT) give the following statistics: “The full Bible is now available in 717 different languages, giving 5.75 billion people access to the complete Scriptures in the language they understand best. The New Testament is available in another 1,582 languages, reaching another 830 million people. Selections and stories are available in a further 1,196 other languages, spoken by 457 million people. There are currently 3,883 languages with no Scripture. 220 million people, speaking 1,892 languages, still need translation work to begin. 1 in 5 people, speaking 6,661 languages, do not have a full Bible in their first language.”
The Apostle Paul says in Romans 10:14-17: “For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?’ So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”
Faith comes to us from God, and God grants faith to us through the hearing of His Word. Therefore translation work is vital in fulfilling the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) and growing in Christ (2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 3:18).