Teaching series from 1 Thessalonians

Divine Inspiration of the New Testament

1 Thessalonians 2:13

Teaching t22463


Last week, we covered 2:1-13, in which Paul reminded the Thessalonians of the way he helped them to grow spiritually once they became Christians. One key was his focused communication of what he called “the gospel”—the message about who Jesus is and what Jesus has done for us through His death on the cross. We ended with 2:13, which emphasized the power of the gospel (here called the word of God) to keep changing believers (read).

This week, I want to take a closer look at this same verse. What is it on our part that unleashes the gospel to transform us this way? Paul says it is the way we view this message. The Thessalonians “received” it, they “accepted” it—that is, they welcomed it not merely as a human message (speculation; spiritual philosophy; etc.), but as the very word of God. In other words, this message transforms our lives when we receive it as divinely inspired.

Conversely, if we doubt its divine inspiration, it will not have this impact on our lives (Gen.3:1). Some of us here this morning may not be being transformed by the gospel because we have reservations about its divine inspiration. EXAMPLES: “Why should we believe that the New Testament books are the inspired words of God? Why not regard them as human opinion or advice—or a mixture of the two?” “Do we just have to believe this by blind faith?” “What about other early Christian writings like ‘The Gospel of Thomas?’” “Maybe The Da Vinci Code is right—these books were selected by a later emperor as part of his political power play. The political ‘winners’ chose their own Bible.”

Some of you have wrestled with this question in the past, and some of you are wrestling with it right now. And you are/will be interacting with people who raise this question. So we’re going to spend today addressing it. This is a massive subject, and we will only touch on part of it. It is also challenging—but you can handle it, and it will be very helpful!

The meaning of “inspiration”

First, let’s define the term. When we use the word “inspiration,” we are usually describing something happening inwardly to a person—like an artist being “inspired” by a beautiful sunset to paint it, or like a poet being “inspired” by a lover to compose a poem, or like a person having “deep thoughts” and writing a prayer or meditation on the cosmos.

But when the Bible uses this term (e.g., 2Tim.3:16), it means something different. “Inspiration” means literally “God-breathed” (theopneustos)—God initiates this inspiration. He reveals verbal content about Himself and His salvation plan to and through chosen human messengers. When we say that 1Thessalonians, or the gospel of John, or 1Peter are inspired, we mean that God revealed to these authors His exact and inerrant message, and that He enabled them to communicate this content without any admixture of human speculation or error.

Divine inspiration & apostleship

The first thing we should note is that the New Testament authors claim to be inspired. It’s not that Paul just gave advice, and then much later Christians so revered his writings that they began to regard them as divinely inspired. No, they self-consciously claim divine inspiration for themselves as apostles of Christ.

This is the case with Paul (2:13 implies this; see also Gal.1:1:1,11,12). And he is not the only New Testament author to do this.

Peter claims this same inspiration for himself and the other apostles (read 2Pet.1:1; 3:2). The apostles’ teaching is Jesus through them, and equal in authority to the Old Testament prophets.

John claims this same inspiration for himself and the other apostles in 1Jn.4:4-6 (read). Notice the three pronouns. The “you” is John’s Christian audience. The “they” is certain false teachers/cult leaders. And the “we” refers to John and the rest of the apostles. He says: “We are from God...”

In other words, these men are claiming to be divinely inspired, and their claim is rooted in their role as apostles.

In fact, in one way or the other, all of the New Testament books make a claim to apostolic authorship. The vast are directly apostolic (writings of Paul, John, Matthew, Peter, James); the rest were written under the auspices of the apostles (e.g., Mark; Luke-Acts; Hebrews?).

What is an “apostle,” and why is apostleship connected to divine inspiration?

An apostle literally means “one sent out from another.” “Apostle” was a technical term to refer to an official representative/spokesperson for the one who sent him. An ambassador of the U.S., when he is conducting official business on behalf of the President, is an “apostle” in this sense. His message has authority because it is the message of the President spoken through him.

In the same way, the New Testament books are the message of Jesus spoken through His chosen apostles. Jesus made it very clear to His disciples that He would send them out as His official apostles—with His exact message and with His divine authority.

In Matt.10:40, Jesus says to His chosen disciples: “Whoever receives you receives Me, and whoever receives Me receives the One who sent Me.” In other words, “I am the Apostle of the Father—I speak officially for Him. So the way you respond to My words is the way you respond to God. And you are My apostles—you speak officially for Me in the same way that I speak for My Father. So the way people respond to your words is the way they respond to Me.”

Who were the these apostles? Jesus’ 12 disciples, minus Judas, plus Matthias (Acts1), plus Paul, plus James the Lord’s brother—at least these 14 people.

Jesus didn’t choose them because they were so humanly talented that they could do this job. He knew His apostles would need supernatural power to remember and understand and communicate His message. This is why He told them just before He went to the cross that the Holy Spirit would give them this ability:

Read Jn.14:26. The Holy Spirit would give them supernatural recall of what He said, and the ability to explain the meaning of Jesus’ teaching.

Read Jn.16:12-15. The Holy Spirit will guide them into all truth. This does not mean that He will reveal DNA structure or Newtonian physics. It means (in context) that He will enable them to accurately understand and explain the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection. And He will disclose to them what is to come—about the Jesus’ return at the end of the age, and about Jesus’ reign in God’s eternal kingdom.

Read Jn. 15:26,27. They will be able to be Jesus’ unique witnesses, not only because they have been with Him from the beginning of His public ministry, but also (and more importantly) because the Holy Spirit will testify about Jesus to/through them.

Inspiration, then, is a consequence of apostleship. Jesus chose certain people to be His apostles, and uniquely equipped them through the Holy Spirit to speak His exact message through them. So we don’t believe that everything in the New Testament is inspired because we can prove every statement—no one could ever do that. Rather, we believe everything in the New Testament is inspired because it is apostolic. In other words, because we believe that Jesus is the Messiah, what He says about His apostles is definitive—and He says they are His inspired spokespersons.

Of course, this raises another question: “How do we know that Jesus was the Messiah he claimed to be?” Time does not permit us to answer this question in detail. We will do a series on this in the fall.

Now let’s consider three important implications of thisapostolic divine inspiration...


First, Da Vinci Code-type views of the New Testament is false. These books were not selected by a pagan Emperor who rigged a church council 300 years after Jesus. And early church councils were not constantly voting dozens of different books in and out of the New Testament canon. These books were accepted by Christians as divinely inspired immediately from the time they we were written, because they were written by apostles.

The early councils did question a few of the New Testament books—but their only question was: “Is it apostolic?” As soon as confirmation of apostolic authorship was found, they were acknowledged for what they always were—inspired scripture.

The early post-apostolic Christian leaders understood this very clearly. Their writings go back even to the late first century. But they quote the apostles’ writings as “the word of God,” and state that their writings are not authoritative like the apostles’.

Second, the Roman Catholic doctrine of “apostolic succession” and cults that claim “later revelation” (e.g., The Book of Mormon) are wrong. This is because the apostles were all dead by 100 AD. Jesus insisted that only eye-witnesses of His resurrection could be apostles (Acts1:22; 1Cor.9:1), and Paul was the last apostle (1Cor.15:8). Therefore, apostolic authority ended with their writings.

Catholic doctrine rightly understands the divine inspiration of the apostles. But it wrongly holds that the apostles passed this authority on to the bishop of Rome (the popes), so that they are the divinely authoritative interpreters of Scripture. Mormons rightly believe in apostolic inspiration, but wrongly believe that Jesus chose Joseph Smith as a latter-day apostle.

This is a big deal! It is the difference between the New Testament being our actual authority and having someone else’s interpretation of the New Testament (or some other “scripture”) be our actual authority. And these books contradict the clear teaching of the New Testament by teaching a different way of salvation (ongoing reception of grace through sacraments administered by priests; faith in Jesus plus works). When Martin Luther (a Catholic monk) studied the New Testament, he realized that the church was wrong—salvation is a free gift, received solely by individual faith in Jesus. The Reformation he started (at great personal sacrifice) restored this good news to the world!

Third, because the New Testament is inspired, Christians are bound to its ethical teaching as God’s instruction to us—not only pertaining to human sexuality (e.g., 1Thess.4:2,3), but also to how we view and use material possessions, how we relate to other races or socio-economic classes, the prohibition of substance abuse or dependence, the obligation to forgive our offenders, the sanctity of human life, etc.

We are not like our culture—we do not decide for ourselves what is right and wrong, and then pick and choose from the New Testament ethics what agrees with us. This is arrogating ethical authority to ourselves (or to our culture), and is sitting in judgment over the New Testament’s ethical teachings instead of sitting under its ethical authority. If we do this (and many American evangelicals are doing this), we will wind up like our postmodern culture, lost in and broken by the moral chaos and mayhem and misery that Jesus wants to save us from!

Rather, as Christ’s followers, we accept the authority of New Testament ethics, and we submit ourselves to God follow them as His will for our lives. We commit ourselves to wrestle with the difficulties in doing this:

There are ethical complexities, but we try our best to understand the ethical principle undergirding these so we obey the principle in our culture (e.g., HOLY KISS; etc.).

We acknowledge that there are ethical dilemmas (e.g., DUTCH CHRISTIANS LYING TO NAZI SOLDIERS TO HIDE JEWS). So we try to understand the Bible’s ethical priorities so we can obey the greater command in such rare situations.

We also freely acknowledge that we often fall short of New Testament ethics. But we don’t change the ethics to suit us; we admit our sins to God and appropriate His mercy through Christ. And as we humble ourselves to “receive” and “accept” God’s Word (1Thess.2:13), His power enables us to be gradually but deeply ethically transformed! This is what the rest of 1Thessalonians is about, and we will approach it this way. Is this your posture toward New Testament ethics?

Polycarp (70-150 AD), was a Christian leader who wrote the church at Ephesus about Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: “For neither I, nor any other such one, can come up to the wisdom of the blessed... Paul. He, when among you, accurately and steadfastly taught the word of truth... And when absent from you, he wrote you a letter, which, if you carefully study, you will find the means of building you up in that faith which has been given you.” The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, p. 33.