THE IMPERISHABLE WORD OF GOD
Dr. W. A. Criswell
Isaiah 40: 8
I would like to say to young Tom Gowin that he says this is his first time to introduce me, his pastor. I think he did a good job of it. He did that. He did the best second introduction I ever had in my life. The best introduction I ever had was in Phoenix, Arizona, some time ago when the fellow who was to introduce me did not appear, and I introduced myself. I am sorry that I was not here at the beginning of your conference. I have been in Moncton; they call it Munk-ton, New Brunswick, on the Bay of Fundy on the Atlantic seacoast of the maritime province of Canada called New Brunswick. I have been up there lecturing this week to the Atlantic Baptist College. That is our Baptist college for all the maritime provinces. And I did not get in until last evening. But before I got to the house I heard wonderful reports about you, and in that I rejoice.
I have been assigned a subject by Tom Gowin: “The Disciple and the Word,” and I shall entitle the address The Imperishable word of God. And we shall follow it in three ways: the eternal word of God before the foundations of the world, and the eternal word of God in its present and living form, and the eternal word of God through the ages that are yet to come.
First, our discussion of the Word of the Lord in the eternity of the ages past: in Psalm 119:89: “For ever, O Lord, Thy word is settled in heaven.” The Hebrew word, translated “settled,” is natsab; and it is in a verbal form that literally means “God has caused His word to be forever,” natsab, settled. Another good translation would be “fixed.” Another translation equally acceptable would be “established.” Let’s use the word fixed. “For ever, O God, Thy word is fixed in heaven” [Psalm 119:89].
In Washington, DC, there is a Bureau of Measurements and Standards. In that Washington bureau there is a perfect, insofar as humanity could contrive it and achieve it, there is a perfect inch. There is a perfect foot. There is a perfect yard. There is a perfect gallon. All of the measurements that we use must conform by law to the fixed standards that are in the Bureau of Measurements in Washington, DC.
In Washington, DC, in the Naval Observatory there is a clock. And by that clock, at high noon every day, every timepiece in America is officially set. They accurately set that timepiece in Washington by the movements of the stars in glory. And the set standard of that exact time in Washington is the one paragon that is copied by all of the timepieces in America. “Forever, O Lord, Thy word is fixed in heaven” [Psalm 119:89].
When the Lord God handed down to Moses the pattern of the tabernacle, He said to the great lawgiver, “See that thou do all things according to the pattern that is shown thee from heaven” [Exodus 25:9, 40; Hebrews 8:5]. That is, the sanctuary itself is in heaven, and the pattern of it was given into the hands of Moses that he might make it according to the pattern fixed in heaven. There is a sanctuary; there is a Holy of Holies, the seven-branched lampstand, the table of showbread, the golden altar of incense, the ark of the covenant, in heaven. And Moses was to make the tabernacle precisely according to the pattern that was shown to him from heaven.
So the Bible avows, the word of God from eternity has been natsab, it has been fixed in heaven [Psalm 119:89]. And the Word that I hold in my hand is but a copy of the word of God that is fixed, that is established and settled in heaven. There were thirty-nine books of the Old Testament in the centuries past. There are thirty-nine books in the Old Testament today. There were twenty-seven books in the New Testament in the centuries past. There are twenty-seven books in the New Testament today.
The Bible out of which the Lord Jesus brought the message of the kingdom of heaven is the Bible [Luke 4:16-21], in the Old Covenant, that I hold in my hand today. And the Bible of the first Christian centuries is the New Testament that I read in this blessed Book today. The same canon, the same words, the same Book, the same inspired revelation of Almighty God; “For ever, O Lord, Thy word is natsab, it is fixed, it is established, in heaven” [Psalm 119:89].
There have been many, many attempts to add to the Word of God. The Council of Trent and the Senate of Jerusalem and the bishops of Hippo said, “We must add to the books of the Old Testament.” And they sought to add to the books, the canon of the Old Testament, the Apocrypha. “We must add to the books of the Old Testament.” God said, “No!” And there’s not a fair-minded Hebrew and there’s not a gifted, knowledgeable Christian in the world today that would add those monstrous absurdities found in the Apocrypha to Deuteronomy or to Isaiah. “For ever, O Lord, Thy word is fixed. It is settled in heaven” [Psalm 119:89].
There were those who said, “We must add to the books of the New Testament.” And uncounted numbers of gospels, and epistles, and apocalypses were written and they were sought to be added to the canon of the New Testament. But God said, “No!” And they withered and atrophied away. “For ever, O God, Thy word natsab, is settled, in heaven” [Psalm 119:89].
We speak now of the living word today; the imperishable, incorruptible Word of God today. We read a text from Simon Peter; chapter 1, beginning at verse 23:
We are born again, not of phthartos seed, but aphthartos seed, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever.
For all flesh is as grass, [and all] the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, the flower fadeth:
But the word of the Lord endureth for ever. And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you.
[1 Peter 1:23-25]
The apostle there takes Isaiah 40:8, and adds to it a significant word: not phthartos, but aphthartos. In the Greek language, the word a is used as a privative, as a negative, as a denial. It is called alpha-privative. The word gnō, gnōsis, put an “a” in front of it, agnaiō, agnosis, agnostic, “doesn’t know.” The word God, theos, put an alpha-privative in front of it, atheos, atheist, “no God.”
So here, the word phthartos, “corruptible,” and the word aphthartos, “incorruptible,” the word of God is incorruptible. It is without mistake and it is without error. And God has seen to it that it is so handed down unto us.
The same holy God who delivered the incarnate Word from the sword of Herod when He was a Babe in Bethlehem [Matthew 2:16-20]; the same Holy Spirit of God that raised incorruptible the incarnate God from the grave [Romans 1:4]; the same Holy Spirit of God that preserves us someday without fault and without blemish before the presence of the great Glory [Ephesians 5:27; Jude 1:24] is the same Lord God that has kept incorruptible and without mistake and error the word of God [1 Peter 1:23-25], the fixed word of God, through the ages and through the centuries [Psalm 119:89].
How did God do that? That’s one of the most interesting things in the earth, how God has kept incorruptible, without error and mistake, His Holy Word, because it has been copied by men through the centuries and the centuries up until Gutenberg. What did God do to preserve for us the Word incorruptible, without error, without mistake, when human hand, fallible and subject to error, copied it for centuries?
The way God did it is this. He caused thousands and thousands of copies of the Word to be made; and by comparing those copies, we can easily see where human error entered into it. Look at that a moment. There are more than four thousand one hundred and five ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. There are something like thirty thousand versions of the Latin Vulgate. There are something like one thousand other versions such as the Syriac and the Coptic, beside the papyri and the quotations from the fathers. And by comparing those thousands and thousands of ancient manuscripts, we can see exactly where a copyist made an error. You look at the wonder of that. Fifteen hundred years after Herodotus there was one ancient manuscript of the great first father of history, Herodotus. Twelve hundred years after Plato there was one ancient Greek manuscript of Plato. In the world today, there is but one ancient manuscript of the great Latin historian Cassius. There is one manuscript of the Greek Anthology.
There is hardly more than one ancient manuscript of Euripides, Aristophanes, Thucydides, Virgil, and Cicero. But against that background, of just one ancient manuscript of these great, marvelous historians and philosophers of the days past, there are thousands, and thousands, and thousands of manuscripts of the ancient Greek text. And when you compare them, you can see exactly where any copyist made any error, where any mistake crept into the infallible and imperishable Word of God.
That is why the Dead Sea Scrolls are so marvelously significant. In my humble opinion the greatest archaeological discovery ever made is the Dead Sea Scrolls, in Qumran, in those caves, just on the western side of the Dead Sea; finding those ancient manuscripts of the Word of God. For you see the liberal critics said, “The oldest manuscripts we have of the Hebrew Bible were written by the Masoretes, the Masoretic Text of about 1000 AD. But Isaiah wrote in 700 and 750 BC. So for a thousand seven hundred years, even Isaiah was copied, and copied, and copied. How do you know that you have the Word of God without error?”
That’s why the Dead Sea scrolls are so important, for the Dead Sea scrolls produced for us manuscripts of the Old Covenant, such as Isaiah, that were copied in 150 BC. It pulled back the manuscripts of the Old Covenant one thousand one hundred fifty years. And what we found in reading those Dead Sea scrolls is that the text we have today is the text that they had in the hundreds of years before Christ.
God has kept aphthartos, the incorruptible and infallible Word of God. And the Lord God is doing that today. If there is an heretical text that is translated today, God will see to it that there are forty other texts, there are forty other versions, there are forty other translations, that will be true to the Word of the Lord.
God does that in all of His work. If there is a pulpit preacher standing beside and behind the sacred desk who is preaching heresy, God will see to it that there is another preacher raised up who will be true to the revelation of this Holy Book. The same thing is true with the church. If there is a church that becomes liberal and Christ dishonoring, God will see to it that there is another church raised up that honors the Lord and honors the Word.
The same thing is true about a denomination. If a denomination departs from the faith and apostatizes, God will see to it that another denomination is raised up who will be His messenger of truth in the earth. This is the aphthartos, the incorruptible Word of God.
We come now to the Word of God in the ages that are yet to come. Isaiah 40:8, the one quoted by Simon Peter in chapter 1:23-25: “The grass withereth, the flower fadeth, but the word of our God shall stand forever, yaqum, but the word of our God yaqum, shall rise, flourish, endure, forever” [1 Peter 1:23-25]. The first meaning of that word qum, in its verbal form here, yaqum, the first meaning of that word is to rise, “But the word of God shall rise, it shall stand, it shall live forever” [Isaiah 40:8; 1 Peter 23-25].
In Moncton, where I came from yesterday, the whole earth covered in snow and ice, the rivers, the lakes frozen solid; I can hardly believe it. In that city of Moncton, they have a word, a motto given the city, Resurgo, and the word refers to the history of the city when first as a village it died. Then it came to life when the great transcontinental railroad, the Canadian Railroad, made its eastern terminus there in Moncton. So they use the word resurgo. And that word resurgo is exactly this word yakum, to rise! “The word of God shall rise, it shall endure forever!” [Isaiah 40:8; 1 Peter 1:23-25].
There have been many merciless and ruthless attacks against the Word of the Lord. We speak first of the pagan attempt to wipe the Bible from the memory of men and from the face of the earth. And in those pagan attacks, I choose one: that by Diocletian that rose to its climax in 303 AD.
Diocletian saw that the Christian based his faith upon a book that he held in his hand, the Bible, and that he preached out of the Bible. That’s where what you call a “book” comes from. For to the ancient, a book was a scroll, always a scroll. But when the Christian preacher stood up, he didn’t have time to dig through a scroll to find a passage or to take a wheelbarrow full of scrolls around with him citing those great truths that affirm the deity of Christ.
So the Christian preacher did something the world had never seen before. He took the scroll, he took the scroll and cut it up into leaves, and then bound the leaves at the back, and it was called a codex. That’s the first time the world ever saw anything like that, a codex, what you call a Bible; the Christian preacher taking the scroll and cutting up the passages into leaves and binding them at the back. Then when he preached he turned to the Word of the Lord and said, “Thus saith the Lord”; and then to the Word of the God, “Thus saith the Lord.” That’s the way the ancient Christian preacher delivered the message of the Lord. Isn’t that a wonderful comment?
So Diocletian the Roman emperor saw that the Christian faith was founded upon a book. To destroy the faith, therefore, he sought to destroy the Book. And there was launched once again one of those terrible and indescribably inhuman and merciless attacks against the Christian and the Christian religion. Wherever there was a Christian found with a copy of the Bible, he was summarily executed. And wherever the Bible was found, it was burned, it was destroyed. And Diocletian thought that he had brought the Holy Word of God to absolute extinction. And over a burned Bible he erected a Roman pillar. And on that Roman pillar he wrote these words: “Extincto Nomine Christianorum,” destroyed, extinct, is the name of the Christian.”
Do you know who followed Diocletian? In 312, barely eleven years after the day of Diocletian, barely eleven years, Constantine placed on the shields of his soldiers a Christian cross; and underneath the Latin caption, in hoc signo vinces, “in this sign, conquer,” within eleven years after Diocletian erected his pillar that he had destroyed the Word of God: “The grass withereth, the flower fadeth, but the word of God, yaqum, shall rise, shall stand, shall endure forever” [Isaiah 40:8].
I refer now to the ecclesiastical attack against the Word of God. Isn’t that one of the strangest anomalies in human history, that the church itself should have been the engine of oppression and persecution that sought to destroy this Holy Book? I shake my head.
Martin Luther was a churchman all the days of his life. And Martin Luther was a grown man when he said, “This is the first time I have ever seen a copy of the Bible”; a grown man and a churchman all the days of his life. A grown man, “This is the first time,” he said, “I have ever seen the Bible.”
John Wycliffe is the morning star of the Reformation. The Inquisition could not seize John Wycliffe before he died a natural death. But they dug up his body, and they burned it, and they cast his ashes on the bosom of the river Swift. But the river Swift runs into the Avon, and the Avon runs into the Severn, and the Severn runs into the sea, and the seas bathe the shores of the continents of the world. And they bore on their bosom the ashes of John Wycliffe, carrying the Word of the Lord, “For ever, O God, Thy word resurgio, yaqum, shall rise forever and ever” [Psalm 119:89].
I refer last to the most deadly of all of the formidable foes the Word of God has ever faced. I speak now of the modern liberal attack of rationalism. The Wellhausen’s, and the Bauers and the Strausses and the Tubingen schools who scoff and laugh at its revelation; “Its miracles are myth and legend, and its words are like Aesop’s fables.” And that assignment and assessment of the Bible has come to be the standard in the ordinary academic and intellectual world. For a man to believe the Bible as being true is to look upon a man who ought to have his head examined. He ought to be in some kind of an institution. He’s provincial and he speaks as he does because he doesn’t know any better. And that attack against the Word of God has consumed the modern intellectual world, both in the church and outside of it.
Voltaire, who died in 1778, Voltaire said, “A hundred years from now, a hundred years from now, the Bible will only be in the possession of an antiquarian as a strange curiosity.” And the infidel Hume said, “I see the twilight of the Christian faith.” Young people, did you know, one hundred years after Voltaire made that prognostication, a first edition of “Voltaire” sold on the streets of Paris for nine cents? And on that same day the British government gave five hundred thousand dollars, in modern money three million dollars, for Codex Sinaiticus, taken from possession of the czar in Leningrad and placed in the British Museum in London. I have stood twice in the presence of that Sinaiticus Codex in the British Museum and looked upon its pages. I went to the St. Katherine Monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai in the Sinaitic Peninsula where Tischendorf took it from the hands of a Greek monk and brought it as a gift to the czar of Russia.
Hume didn’t know the time of day. He thought it was twilight. It was sunrise, for the Word of God now is being spread, and spread, and translated, and translated, and spread, and published, and declared, and declaimed, and exhibited over the face of the whole earth, and what a miracle we are seeing today.
Tell me, do you know of a book even a thousand years old that people are reading today? Do you? The only bodies that I know that are reading an ancient book are these kids who are studying Latin in school. They’re studying Cicero, or they’re studying Caesar because it’s crammed down their academic throats. Do you remember that kid who wrote up there on the blackboard, “Latin is a dead language, as dead as dead can be; it killed all the Romans, and now it’s killing me.”
Do you know a book a thousand years old that people are reading today? Tell me again, do you know a religious book that people are reading today? Do you know anybody who is reading the Bhagavad Gita of the Hindu? Do you know anybody who is reading the Avesta hymns, the fading hymns of the Parsees? Do you know anybody who is studying the Tripitaka of Buddha? Do you know anybody who is following the six classics of Confucius?
But think of the millions that every year are buying the Word of the Lord. Tell me again, do you know any authors who, writing in another language, translated into a strange language, are popular? There is a rule in literature, and goes like this. No book that is written in another language ever finds circulation in still another.
Do you know anybody who is reading the authors in Spain today? Do you know who the great authors are in Brazil today? Do you know who the great authors are in China today? But this Book, translated into a thousand different languages, is as vibrant, and viable, and vital as in the pen of the apostle who wrote the epistle, or the great lawgiver who wrote the Pentateuch.
Why, one of those Hottentots in the middle of Africa, talking to a white man, said, “I feel sorry for you because you can’t read the beauty of the language of Hottentot in the New Testament, John 3:16.” Isn’t that an amazing thing? To him, in Hottentot John 3:16 was the most beautiful language in the world. It is thus to me in the English language. There is no Shakespearean poetry, there is no grandeur in Milton, there is no speech known to man that rivals the glory and the beauty of the Book I hold in my hand, a translation out of another tongue. For ever, O Lord, Thy word is fixed in heaven, aphthartos, incorruptible, yaqum, it rises to endure forever [Psalm 119:89].
On a dark, stormy night I was walking down the streets of Kharkov in eastern Russia with a Christian disciple of the blessed Jesus. As I walked by his side in the dark of the night, he took out of his heavy coat the precious Word and showed it to me. He had a Bible. And he spoke to me of his love for that most treasured of all possessions, and said to me, “If they knew that I had it, it would cost me my life.” And he put it back in the folds of his big coat.
About four weeks ago a traveler from afar came to see me here in Dallas and said, “Do you remember that man who walked by your side in Kharkov, and from the heavy folds of his coat he showed you his Bible? Do you remember him?” I said, “I could never forget that man.” And the traveler from afar said, “I bear the news to you, he has been executed for the Book.” He has laid down his life for the Book.
Thou truest friend man ever knew,
Thy constancy I’ve tried;
When all were false, I found thee true,
My counselor and guide.
The mines of earth no treasures give
That could this volume buy;
In teaching me the way to live,
It has taught me how to die.
[“My Mother’s Bible,” M.B. Williams]
“The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of God,” yaqum, resurgio, “shall rise forever” [Isaiah 40:8].