The Preservation of the Word of God
November 29th, 1964 @ 8:15 AM
THE PRESERVATION OF THE WORD OF GOD
Dr. W. A. Criswell
11-29-64 8:15 a.m.
On the radio you are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the morning message entitled The Preservation of the Word of God. In a book that was published by your pastor some years ago entitled These Issues We Must Face, there is a message in that book entitled “The Preservation of the Word of God.” I hope either in our church library, or from a friend, or purchasing it, that you will read that book and especially that message. But for a long, long time, for several years, I have wanted to deliver another message on the preservation of the Word of God. And as you know, these last several Sundays, six or eight of them, I have been delivering a series of sermons on God’s Book, God’s immutable, unchanging, infallible, inerrant word. And this will be the last message that is delivered concerning the Bible, and properly it is on God’s keeping care of His holy and inviolable Book.
Now, the sermon this morning is built around three passages in the Bible. One of them is in the one hundred nineteenth Psalm; one of them is in the first chapter of 1 Peter; and the third one is in the fortieth chapter of Isaiah. In these passages there are three words—a Hebrew word in the Psalms, a Greek word in 1 Peter, and a Hebrew word in the fortieth chapter of Isaiah—there are three words that describe what God has done to preserve inviolate and inviolable His holy and eternal Word.
So we turn first to the one hundred nineteenth Psalm. This psalm is by far the longest chapter in the Bible. It has 176 verses; and every one of those 176 verses, every one of them, except verses 122 and 132, every one of those verses extols the word of God, and mentions the word of God; every one of them. This marvelous alphabetical psalm is a tribute to God’s holy Word.
- Now the eighty-ninth verse: “For ever, O Lord, Thy word is settled in heaven” [Psalm 119:89].
- The one hundred fifty-second verse: “Concerning Thy testimonies, I have known of old that Thou hast founded them for ever” [Psalm 119:152].
- The one hundred sixtieth verse: “Thy word is true from the beginning: and every one of Thy righteous judgments endureth for ever” [Psalm 119:160].
Now the Hebrew word in that text, verse 89: “Forever, O Lord, Thy word is settled in heaven” [Psalm 119:89]. Nitzav, translated here “settled,” which is a good translation, “Forever, O God, Thy word is nitzav in heaven.” You could translate it “fixed”: “Forever, O God, Thy word is fixed in heaven.” You could translate it “established”: “Forever, O God, Thy word is established in heaven.” The King James Version—which is a fine translation of the verb—is fine: “Forever, O Lord, Thy word is nitzav, settled in heaven.” It is fixed in heaven. And the meaning of the inspired psalmist is this: that God’s word was first in heaven before it was in earth. We have, therefore, a pattern; we have an original of the Word that we have in earth, we have an original of this Bible, of this Word of God in heaven. And it has been there, says this inspired psalmist, forever [Psalm 119:89]. These passages that we read out of this psalm: “Concerning Thy testimonies, I have known of old that Thou hast founded them forever” [Psalm 119:152], and again, “Thy word is true from the beginning: and every one of Thy righteous judgments endureth forever” [Psalm 119:160].
In Washington D.C. there is a bureau of weights and measures. And in that bureau, there is a standard for every weight and measurement that is used in the United States. There is a perfect inch. There is a perfect foot. There is a perfect yard. There is a perfect milligram. There is a perfect millimeter. There is a perfect quart. There is a perfect pint. There is a perfect gallon. Every weight and measure that we use, it finds its original, its standard, it is settled and fixed and established in that bureau in Washington D.C.
In Washington D.C., the capital of our country, there is a naval observatory. And every day at high noon, at twelve o’clock, the naval observatory chronometer is corrected by astronomical observations. And when that chronometer is corrected, every day, at noontime, at twelve o’clock, by the stars in the heavens, then from that original and correct time, all of the clocks in the United States are corrected. That exact and correct moment is communicated to all of the clocks in the United States. And our clocks are kept right by that standard time in the naval observatory in Washington D.C.
In the story of the building of the tabernacle, God gave to Moses a pattern from heaven and said to Moses, “Moses, see to it that you make this tabernacle according to the pattern which I have shown thee from heaven” [Exodus 25:9]. It was in heaven first, and then according to that original pattern in heaven, it was made down here in the earth. So is God’s Word: the original of God’s Word is in heaven, and it was first there before it was here. “Forever, O Lord, Thy word nitzav, Thy word is fixed, it is settled, it is established in heaven” [Psalm 119:89]. And the same Lord God that preserved the incarnate Word, the Lord Jesus, from the destruction of the sword of Herod when He was born [Matthew 2:13-16], and the same Lord God that preserved the incarnate Word from corruption when He was slain and laid in the sepulcher [Matthew 28:2-6; Acts 2:27; Romans 1:4], the same Lord God preserves inviolate His word in earth [Psalm 119:89]. The same Lord God that preserves His saints unto eternal salvation [Proverbs 2:8] is the same Lord God that preserves the Bible without error [2 Timothy 3:16], through all of the centuries and the millenniums and the generations. The Holy Spirit that inspired it [2 Peter 1:20-21] is the same Holy Spirit of God that preserves it and keeps it [Psalm 119:89].
Thousands of years ago there were thirty-nine books in the Old Testament. Today there are thirty-nine books in the Old Testament. In the first Christian centuries, there were twenty-seven books in the New Testament. Today there are twenty-seven books in the New Testament. The Bible that Jesus used is the Bible that I hold in my hand today. And every jot and every tittle in the Bible that Jesus had is the same jot and the same tittle, in the same spot, in the same place as in this Hebrew Bible that I hold here in my hand [Matthew 5:18].
Some of the strangest things you will find in that Hebrew Bible; look how they are written there in columns, just suddenly, for no reason at all, and nobody can understand, just suddenly the copyist, the author started writing in columns; and there it is, and every Hebrew Bible for the uncounted generations is written exactly like that. I turn again. Look how it is written there with just one word on the extreme margin, and every Hebrew Bible is written exactly like that; every jot, every tittle, every iota in the same spot, in the same place. I turn the Bible again. The Hebrew, the Jews call this “brickwork upon brickwork, brickwork upon brickwork”; it looks like brickwork, and every Hebrew Bible, every one in the world is exactly like that: every jot and every tittle in that same place. I turn the Bible again, and there you see another instance of that unusual formation in writing the Word of God. I turn the Bible again, and there you see another instance of it, exactly. And those copyists, in making the Word of God, they even counted the letters, and the letters on the pages, and at the end of each one of those thirty-nine books, they wrote how many letters, how many t’s, how many r’s, and carefully numbered all of the letters in order that every copy might be made exactly alike.
As you know and as you have read, about half a dozen years ago or so, there were discovered those Qumran, those Dead Sea Scrolls. And those scrolls were copies of some of the Old Testament books, like Isaiah. And those scrolls were manuscripts of the holy Word of God that were more than a thousand years earlier than the manuscripts that we have today. And yet, those Dead Sea Scrolls, representing manuscripts a thousand years older than any we possess today, showed that the copyists had made Isaiah and the rest of the books that were discovered, they had made them exactly as they were in the beginning. The Dead Sea Scrolls, which pushed back the manuscripts that we have of Isaiah more than a thousand years, those Dead Sea Scrolls changed not our present Isaiah at all. That is the keeping hand of God in preserving His holy Word.
And for the years and the centuries, there have been attempts to add to the Bible, to add to the books in this holy, holy Word. For example, the Council of Trent, and the senate of Jerusalem, and the bishops of Hippo said, “We must include in the Bible these apocryphal books. We must include it,” they said. But they are not included; and there is not a fair-minded Jew or a fair-minded Christian in the world today who would want to include the monstrous absurdities found in those apocryphal books along with Isaiah or Deuteronomy. And there were those who said, “We want to add to the twenty-seven books of the New Testament.” And they wrote other gospels, and other epistles, and other apocalypses, and tried to add them to the twenty-seven books of the New Testament. But God said, “No”; and those other apocryphal epistles and gospels and apocalypses rotted away like as if you had tied fruit to a tree. God says, “This My Word, this is My Book,” and God has kept it inviolable through the centuries and the millenniums. “Forever, O Lord, Thy word is nitzav, it is settled, it is fixed, it is established in heaven” [Psalm 119:89]. And when I hold it in earth here in my hand, I have a copy of what God’s Word is established in heaven.
Now, the second passage concerns a Greek word in the first chapter of 1 Peter: “Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever…And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you” [1 Peter 1:23-25]. He quotes here Isaiah 40:8: “The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of God abideth forever.” Then he adds here, he adds a word of his own; and that word is aphthartos. Now look at it: “We are born again, not of phthartos word, not of phthartos seed, but of aphthartos; not of corruptible seed, but of aphthartos, incorruptible” [1 Peter 1:23]. The apostle says there not only does the Word of God abide forever, but it abides inerrant and incorruptible. God’s Word is kept and preserved according to the power of the Holy Spirit of God; not only kept forever, but kept incorruptible, aphthartos.
That in itself to me is a miracle. It was not until a thousand five hundred years after Jesus that printing was invented. And through all of those centuries and centuries and centuries, the Word of God was copied by hand. Sometimes a piece here, sometimes a piece yonder, sometimes a piece over there; and yet through all of those dark ages, and through all of those centuries, God’s Word was kept inerrant and incorruptible [1 Peter 1:23]. Why, it’s an unbelievable thing! So many copies did God make of His holy Word, that whenever a copyist made an error, a human error, by comparing it with other copies you can easily see where the copyist made a human error. God saw to it that the copies of the Word of God were so prolific and so many until the true and inerrant Word can be easily found and easily discovered. A scholar has estimated that there are more than 4,105 Greek manuscripts, ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament; that there are between fifteen thousand and thirty thousand ancient Latin versions; that there are more than a thousand other ancient versions in other languages, beside the papyri and the quotations in the early church fathers.
You think of the marvel of that when you remember, listen: one thousand five hundred years after Herodotus had written his history, there was only one copy of it, one manuscript of it. One thousand two hundred years after Plato had written his books, there was only one manuscript of it, one copy of it in the whole world. There to this day is only one manuscript copy of The Annals of Tacitus. There is only one manuscript copy of the Greek Anthology. In the whole world there are but a little handful of manuscript copies of Euripides and Sophocles and Thucydides, of Cicero and of Virgil. And yet God saw to it, in the days when those manuscripts were either burned, or destroyed, or rotted, or passed away, or lost, God saw to it that His Holy Word was copied by the thousands and the thousands and the thousands, so that any time a copyist might have made a human error, it can be easily seen by comparing it with other thousands of copies. God has done that through all of the generations and all the ages to keep His truth alive in the earth.
There may be one copyist who made a human error, but other copyists God sent in order that that human error might be seen. There may be one preacher who departs from the truth, but God will raise up other preachers who will be true to the faith. There may be one denomination that will depart from the truth of God, but the Lord will raise up another denomination that will be true to His message. There may be one translation, one version, that is modernistic and seeks to humanize Jesus, and to enthrone humanity as deity itself; but there’ll be other translations that are true to the message of God, deifying our Lord Jesus, and teaching us that we are lost sinners in the presence of the great High and Holy God [Romans 3:23]. That’s the Spirit of the Lord in the earth, keeping incorruptible and inviolate His truth [1 Peter 1:23]. “We are saved,” he says, “we are born again, not of phthartos, not of corruptible seed, but of aphthartos, of incorruptible seed, which is the word of God, which liveth and abideth forever” [1 Peter 1:23].
Now we must hasten, for there is one other marvelous and incomparable passage. This one is the fortieth chapter of the Book of Isaiah. Speaking on the preservation of the Word of God, we now turn to how God has kept it through all of the centuries and all of the millenniums. Isaiah 40, verses 6 through 8:
The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field:
The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the Spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass.
The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God yaqum forever. The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God yaqum, shall rise up to live, shall stand, shall endure forever.
Now this part of the message, the last part, is built around that word qum, yaqum, qum. And the idea in qum, is “to stand,” is “to rise”; that’s a basic meaning of the word. Crushed, or fallen, or cut down, or persecuted, or violated it rises up to live and to endure. So the idea of the verse is that whatever decay, whatever persecution, whatever destruction, whatever fading away, whatever withering, whatever violation, the Word of God shall arise to live, and to stand, and to be established, and to endure forever.
Among others, may I speak of three terrible and fierce depredations and onslaughts and violations of the Word of God? First I shall speak of pagan persecution. In 303 AD Diocletian, the emperor of the Roman Empire, instituted a persecution of the Christians that was fierce and merciless beyond anything the world had ever known. And Diocletian came to the conclusion that these Christians were kept alive by a Book; they called it the Bible. They were a people of the Book. So Diocletian concluded that, “If we can destroy that Book, we can destroy the Christian sect.” So there never was in the history of the world as fierce and as terrible and as merciless a persecution against a people and a book as was instituted by Diocletian in 303 AD. Whoever was found with a copy of the Holy Scriptures was summarily executed. And Christians died by the myriads. And from one part of the civilized world to the other, that Book was ferreted out and consigned to the flames.
In about a year or two after that persecution was instituted by Diocletian, they thought they had achieved their purpose and destroyed every Bible in the world. And over an exterminated and destroyed Bible there was erected a Roman column, and on it this inscription: “Extincto nomine Christianorum. The name of the Christian is extinguished.” That was in 303 AD. Any child who goes to school knows that in 312 AD the emperor Constantine placed as the insignia of his conquering armies, on the shields of his soldiers, the cross of Jesus Christ. Within nine, within eight, within seven, eight, or nine years after Diocletian thought he had destroyed every Bible and had murdered every Christian, within a half a dozen or more years, the Bible was exalted, and Christianity was the recognized religion of the civilized world. “The flower fadeth, the grass withereth, but the word of our God yaqum, shall rise up and endure forever” [Isaiah 40:8].
I speak now of an ecclesiastical destruction. One of the strangest turns of fortune in all history is that one of the bitterest persecutions of this Holy Book has come from the ecclesiastic himself. Martin Luther was a churchman all his life; and Martin Luther was a grown man when he said, “I have never seen a Bible.” And when John Wycliffe translated the Holy Word into the vernacular, into the common language of his English people, the terrible Inquisition was not able to seize him before he died, but they exhumed his body, they dug up his body, and burned him, and threw his ashes on the breast of the River Swift. And anyone who was found with a copy of the Bible, that copy of the Bible was hung around their necks, and they were burned at the stakes. But the ashes of John Wycliffe that were strewn over the bosom of the River Swift, the River Swift carried those ashes to the Avon, and the Avon flows into the Severn, and the Severn flows into the sea, and the sea carried the ashes of John Wycliffe to the shores of the whole world. And where John Wycliffe’s ashes were carried by the waves of the sea, there was also carried the immutable and the unchanging Word of God. “The flower fadeth, the grass withereth, but the word of our God yaqum, shall rise, shall stand up to endure forever” [Isaiah 40:8].
Now I speak of the most vicious and the deadliest of all of the attacks against the Word of God that the world has ever known: it is the attack of rationalism. And it is in that attack that we live today. The Wellhausens, and the Bauers, and the Strauss’s, and the Tubingen schools have looked upon that Bible, have denied the deity of the Lord, have scoffed at the miracles recorded in its pages; and they have said this Holy Book is just like any other antique piece of lore: full of myth and legend and fable; and no more inspired than an ancient Greek legend about the gods that live on Mount Olympus. And that awful and deadly attack of rationalism has entered into the very veins and arteries of God’s people in the earth; in our schools and seminaries and in our pulpits. It has looked at times as if the prophecy of Voltaire would come to pass. Voltaire died in 1788, and Voltaire said, “A hundred years from now the Bible will be no more than an antiquarian curiosity.” And it looked as if the prophecy of Hume would come to pass when he said, “I see the twilight of Christianity.”
One hundred years after Voltaire had died and had uttered that prophecy, the first edition of Voltaire sold for ten cents on a market street in Paris. And that same day the British government paid five hundred thousand dollars for Codex Sinaiticus, a copy of a manuscript of the Word of God, and the British government paid it to the czar of Russia and removed it from Leningrad to the British Museum in London. And when Hume said, “I see the twilight of Christianity,” Hume got mixed up; he couldn’t tell sunrise from sunset. For through the days and the ages and the years and even now, the Word of God in power is preached here in our own land and in our missionaries, and in the distribution of the Word of God all over the earth.
Did you ever think of the miracle of this? Who reads a book a thousand years old? Why, a book written yesterday is passé. Who reads a book a thousand years old? Only these kids that go to school, and Cicero and Virgil is jammed down their throats; but not a one of them would read it unless they had to. Who reads a book of other religion? Who reads the Bhagavad Gita? Who reads the Vedic hymns? Who reads the Avesta? Who reads the Tripitaka of Buddha? Who reads the six classics of Confucius? Nobody! And who reads a book written in another language? It is a rule of thumb that no book written in another language can be circulated effectively when it’s translated in yet another. By that I mean, a book written by a Spaniard has hardly any opportunity to be read by the English speaking people or the German speaking people. Who are the authors in Turkey? Who are the authors in Brazil? Who are the authors in Afghanistan or China? We have no idea. Yet this Book, written in a foreign tongue, in a dead language, is read by the increasing millions and circulated by the increasing millions around this world.
Oh, how blessed, how miraculous, how precious! All of the persecutions of Diocletian did not break one string from its harp of a thousand strings. All of the onslaughts of the rationalists have not broken one twig from its vast forest. All of the infidelity of Paine and Voltaire and Ingersoll have not drowned one word in their infidel ink. And all of the boasts of the rationalists have not destroyed its life by one moment. “The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand forever” [Isaiah 40:8]… “Heaven and earth may pass away: but My words will never pass away” [Luke 21:33].
The earth shall pass away some day,
But My Word shall not pass away.
The sun may fade, the moon decay,
But God’s Word lives forever.
The flags of nations may be furled,
The mountains to the seas be hurled,
One thing will still outlast the world—
God’s Word will live forever.
[“The Book That Lives Forever,” author unknown]
The preservation of the Word of God: to me, when I hold that Book in my hand, I hold God’s greatest demonstration of His faithfulness to humankind. This is a copy of what God hath written, and preserved, and fixed, and settled in heaven [Psalm 119:89].
Now while we sing our hymn of appeal, somebody you to give his heart to Jesus, somebody you to put his life in the fellowship of the church, while we sing our hymn, and while we make appeal, come. On the first note of the first stanza, come. There’s time and to spare; we’ll be dismissed in time for our places in Sunday school, but if God bids you here, to give your heart to Jesus, to bow in His presence, to receive the truth of His Word into your soul, come, make it now. However the Spirit of God shall lead in the way and shall make the appeal to your heart, come this morning, come now, while we stand and while we sing.
PRESERVATION OF THE WORD OF GOD
Dr. W. A. Criswell
I. Word of God is fixed forever from eternity past
1. Psalm 119:89: forever settled in heaven
2. 39 books in the Old Testament, 27 books in the New Testament
3. Dead Sea scrolls an example of God’s preservation of His truth
1. Lives and abides forever, 1 Peter 1:25
2. Corruption kept out by multiplying (copying) the text, there are thousands and thousands of copies of the ancient text
3. Any additions or deletions are immediately discovered by comparing the thousands of ancient copies
1. Standing forever, qum, rises,
2. All attacks to eliminate the Bible throughout history have failed
3. Pagans, the church itself, rationalists have failed