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Sermon preached on Romans 15:4 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 10/30/2022 in Petaluma, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
If you were with us at Sunday School, you know we spoke about how in September 1522 Martin Luther published his German New Testament. So then, this year marks its 500th anniversary of its publication. He would later finish his translation work and in 1534 published the rest of what we know call the Luther Bible. I, however, have never read the Luther Bible. But that is the point. I don’t read or speak German. A copy of the Bible in German isn’t going to help me. It has been a great help to the many German speakers that have read and studied it. The point is that the Scriptures are meant to be studied and understood. That requires them to be in a language that its recipients can understand. The Scriptures have never been like a so-called magic spell that you read and it does something without need to actually understand what is said. No, the Bible is profitable and edifying as its understood – and even then it needs to be understood and received in faith.
So then, then idea that the Scriptures need to be translated into the common tongues of the people was one of the areas of reform addressed in the church at the time of the Protestant Reformation. The Roman Catholic church was largely using the Latin Vulgate to teach from to churches that increasingly either didn’t speak Latin or it was a second language to them at best. While we know the chief area of the Protestant Reformation dealt with the doctrine of justification, one could argue that this was a more fundamental concern that needed to get addressed. Because why did such an important doctrine like justification become so obscured in the first place? Well, the Latin Vulgate was translated from the original languages of the Bible back in the late 300s. That was because at that time, that was the common language of the people in the Western church. But then centuries go by, and the language of the people changed, but their Bible’s didn’t. The next thing you know, people are being taught the Bible in a language they don’t understand. So, it is not surprising that over time, important doctrines like justification could be obscured. How could the people be like the Bereans to check that what their pastors were teaching was biblical, if they couldn’t read the Bible? But that’s the other side of why this issue was so important during the Reformation. Because people like Martin Luther and William Tyndale translated the Bible into the common tongues and people started reading their Bibles. They could hear what the Protestants were saying about how the Roman Catholic Church had begun to preach a gospel different from what you actually find in the Bible. It is hard to imagine the Protestant Reformation succeeding if they hadn’t gotten the Bibles into the tongues of the people.
So then, with that introduction, today we will be considering verse 4 here in Romans 15 to establish us in this truth. Verse 4, “For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.” Let me begin by setting the context here in Romans 15 for this verse, because it is somewhat like a parenthetical note.
Paul just got done addressing conflicts in the church by saying that the stronger in the faith should be willing to put their own interests aside for the purpose of building up the weaker brother. In making his point, Paul quotes Psalm 69:9 in verse 3. That’s the context for Paul to make this point about the Scriptures in our verse 5 for today. You see, Paul takes a passage that is most immediately about something between God and the Christ, and says it’s applicable to us. Psalm 69 was about how the Christ looked to please God, not himself. And so then here in verse 4 Paul basically says that this was written down for our benefit. That’s the connection here in context.
Think about what Paul is saying. He says that while this Psalm is recording a conversation basically between Jesus and God, it was written down in former days so that we could benefit from it. Usually when there is say some conversation or something between two other people, it’s not something you necessarily need to know about. But the fact that what is essentially a conversation between the Christ and God is written down, is so that we can benefit from that conversation. It’s like when Lazarus was raised in John’s gospel, Jesus prayed aloud to the father prior to raising Lazarus in John 11. Jesus said that he said these words aloud, not because he needed to in order for God to hear his prayer. No, Jesus prayed them aloud for the benefit of the people standing there. And so, the same is true here. We have Psalm 69, this conversation between the Christ and God for our benefit. The beauty of this, Paul says, is this is true for all the Scriptures. They are for our benefit. That’s why God had them written down and has preserved them for us. That’s true not only for the Psalm 69 example, but as verse 4 says, it’s for all the Scriptures.
What kind of benefit do we get from these ancient Scriptures? Verse 4 says that they are for our instruction. Let me do some translating here for you. This Greek word for instruction can also be translated as teaching, doctrine, or education. Remember that the word doctrine in English is simple a fancy word for teaching. When Jesus gave that Great Commission he said to not only be making disciples but also teaching them, and that reference to teaching comes from the same root word as the word here for instruction. What’s my point? The Bible is intended to educate us. That means we need to learn what it says, understand what it says, and then begin to live out what it says. Let me say the obvious: this can’t happen if you are being read and taught the Bible in a language that you don’t understand. That was the whole point of the Tower of Babel, when God confused their languages as a judgment against their rebellious pride, God said explicitly it was so they would stop understanding each other, Genesis 11:7. If the Bible isn’t in your language, you won’t be able to have its purpose realized in your life. That’s a necessary conclusion from verse 4 here.
To further make the point, Paul’s quote for them of Psalm 69 in verse 3 is in Greek. But Psalm 69 wasn’t written in Greek. It was written in Hebrew. Paul gives them a translation of Psalm 69 in Greek because these Romans spoke Greek as the common tongue. To clarify, this is true throughout the New Testament, that we have quotes from the Old Testament put into Greek because that was the common language of the original recipients of these writings. And notice how Paul treats the translation of Psalm 69. He refers to it as Scripture. Yes, I think we are right to acknowledge that the ultimate inspiration and authority and inerrancy of Scripture is in the original languages. But Scripture here and elsewhere shows that faithful translations of Scripture aren’t treated as some inferior product, but in so far as they are a faithful translation, they are thus treated for what they are, the very Word of God.
And so, the Protestant Reformers knew they needed to be getting the Bible into the language of the people. They won’t be able to understand it if its not in a language they understand. Now to be fair, the Roman Catholic church didn’t completely forbid the use of Bible translations. In fact, at the Council of Trent, they declared the Latin Vulgate to be the official Bible of the church, which is itself a translation. But at the Council of Trent, which was the official Roman Catholic Church’s response to the Protestants, they discussed this issue. That would have been a great time for them to acknowledge the need for Bibles to be translated into all the vernacular tongues if they thought it important. Instead they issued all sorts of warning and conditions around the use of Bibles in the vernacular. They even warned that if the Bible was permitted everywhere and without discrimination in the vernacular, that it might do more harm than good! I’m sorry, but we should want the Bible to go anywhere and everywhere in a language that it will be understood. It won’t do more harm than good, for it will not return void, but rather will accomplish what God purposes it to accomplish, Isaiah 55:11.
So then, today we’ve seen how the Bible is meant for us to understand it so it can educate and train us as disciples. We’ve made the application that this means it needs to be in a language that we can understand. Let us now turn to consider how verse 4 goes on to say what the ultimate outcome is for this instruction that we get from God’s Word. It says so that we may have hope.
That’s what is supposed to be the result of being trained in God’s Word. We should have hope, a biblical hope as Pastor Miller used to say. Th Bible, rightly received and understood, produces the fruit of hope in our lives. This hope especially has in mind our eternity in glory with our God in the new creation. That hope that Christ will return and being the final culmination of our salvation. That’s the ultimate hope the Bible gives us as we learn it. But that ultimate hope also extends into the here and now. We have that hope of glory here and now and it affects how we live here and now. Our hope of glory gives us hope in our daily Christian walk. It gives us hope even in things like how we treat our Christian brothers, like how the context says it should promote peace when we find ourselves in conflict with one another. Our hope of glory gives us hope in our interactions with the world, and even under the afflictions of the devil and our old sinful flesh.
How does the Scripture give us such hope? Well, in a big picture, it teaches us the gospel of Jesus Christ that promises us eternal life in such a glory for all who repent of their sins and put their trust in Jesus. That’s the message of hope that Scripture gives to us. But verse 4 also delves a little deeper into the way the Bible gives us this hope when it mentions endurance and encouragement. Most translations put verse 4 in the word order that’s there in the Greek, but Greek word order is usually for stylistic reasons not necessarily for grammatical reasons – rather grammar in Greek is communicated through the suffixes on words. So, if we reorder it to match our typical English grammar conventions, I’d end verse 4 saying, “That we might have hope through the endurance and encouragement of the Scriptures.” “That we might have hope through the endurance and encouragement of the Scriptures.” In other words, we have hope through the endurance and the encouragement we get when we learn the Scriptures. Studying the scriptures gives us endurance and encouragement in our faith which enables us to find hope in our lives.
Regarding this endurance, I would note that some translations translate it as “patience.” I believe the sense here is that when you study the Scriptures they teach us to be patient. While our hope is glory, we know both from Scripture and experience that getting there is full of much tribulation and sorrow. We have to have patience with our own imperfect sanctification that causes trouble in our lives. We have to have patience when the world hates us and afflicts us. We have to have patience against Satan who tries to turn us away from God. But Scripture teaches us patience as part of our trusting in God and God’s good plan. Scripture teaches us that God’s timing is perfect and that what we go through between now and glory is an outworking of that plan that is both for our good and his glory. So, learning from Scripture teaches us the patience that we need during this time while we wait for our hope to be realized in the full.
Similarly, we have this encouragement that comes from the Scriptures. When we study the Scriptures, we find much comfort and peace in life’s varying circumstances. When we struggle with sin, we are encouraged that one day our sanctification will be complete and we will sin no longer. When we experience trouble from our enemies of the world, Satan, and our flesh, we are encouraged that one day we will be vindicated and will triumph over all those enemies. We are encouraged them to keep living in faith, keep trusting in God, keep that hope alive because one day glory will come.
The reformers needed this patience and encouragement. They were called heretics. Some of them were even martyred for their stand. At the Council of Trent, the Catholic Church even said bookdealers were subject to fines and other punishments if they sold Bibles in the vernacular languages without permission in writing from the bishop. But praise be to God, that the Scriptures they so heartily defended also was the source of endurance and encouragement that they needed in living out their Christian hope. So, too, this is what we will need today.
To be fair, I do think today’s topic has been one of the few reformation era matters that has slowly been a matter of reform among the Roman Catholic church. Most of the concerns by the Protestants has seemed to fall on deaf ears. But by 1610 there was an English Bible that the Roman Catholic Church had produced, though in fair criticism it was produced as a translation of the Latin Vulgate and not the original Greek and Hebrew texts, which I believe shows that they still had an overly elevated view of their Latin heritage. Still, in their masses, they continued to use Latin extensively until after the Second Vatican Council when they finally made a move to make the mass and readings in the vernacular, though that was sadly just in the 1960s. But I think we would be fair to recognize that in this one particular topic, the Roman Catholic Church has made some important progress. If more Roman Catholics will now read those Bibles, who knows, but God might yet work more change in them.
And that is then my application for today. To get the Bible in the common languages, it has been a literal fight. People have been martyred fighting for it. But we now have them. Most of us have them in excess. But just because we have Bibles in our own language, doesn’t mean we will benefit from them. We have to then read them and study them. I said earlier it would be impossible for you to understand the Bible if it is in a language you don’t know, so too it will be impossible for you to understand your English Bible if you don’t study it.
Let us not neglect then this great treasure we have with our Bibles translated into English. Let us be recommitted to reading our Bibles. You won’t understand your Bible at home if you leave it on the shelf collecting dust. Let us be recommitted to going to church and hearing our Bibles preached. You won’t understand your Bible at church if you don’t come to church, and even if you do come, you won’t understand your Bible at church if you don’t pay attention during the reading and preaching of the Word. Let us be recommitted to after the service spending some time speaking the Bible to one another. Scripture commands us to in Colossians 3:1 to, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom.” Our fellowship is supposed to help us understand the Word, but it won’t happen if you don’t intentionally participate in speaking and hearing God’s Word from each other.
I will make a special application now to our brethren who still speak Spanish as their primary language. We are so glad you are here, and I know many of you are really working on your English. But if you still aren’t well equipped with your English yet, you need to make sure you are making use of the resources that we are making available to you. We have translations of the sermon and the bulletin readings each week for the very reason that we’ve been talking about today. If you have need of them, make sure you are using them. As we’ve said today, God’s Word has been written down so we could really learn, and that is not a magical thing. It involves using language to communicate truth.
Let me give one more final application. Verse 5 goes on to apply our verse for today back to their larger context in Romans. Notice how that verse uses that same language of “endurance” and “encouragement”. Paul says these things we are getting from Scripture also apply to their conflicts with each other; they apply by saying that they should seek to live in harmony with each other. In other words, Paul is saying that the Bible’s teachings have practical applications for our daily living. That is still true for us today. Just like we said that we didn’t fight this hard to get Bibles into English to then not study them, so too, we shouldn’t work really hard at studying and studying and studying our Bibles to then not really look to apply them. The Scripture is to be applied, practically. Its instruction is to be heeded. It’s to be lived out. It doesn’t do us any good to have the Bible in our own language so we can understand and then ignore it. Let us learn from it and by God’s grace look to live it out.
What a treasure God has given to us in his Word. He loves us and cares for our wellbeing. As his children, he gives us his word to rear us up unto spiritual maturity. Praise God for his Word! So then, let me give you some Latin today after all: Sola Scriptura, and Soli Deo Gloria! But let me also translate it, Scripture alone is the foundation of our faith, and all this is to the glory of God alone!
Copyright © 2022 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
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