The Word, Our Compass in the StormSeptember 8th, 2023
Acts 27:21-26; 2 Timothy 3:16-17
The Christian faith is founded on the doctrine of revelation; we believe that God has chosen to reveal Himself. To use the words of the late Francis Schaeffer, “He is there and He is not silent.” Indeed, He is a speaking God; He has entered into a relationship with the human race. It is part of God’s very nature to do so. So it is no surprise that the God who created us has also chosen to speak to us and reveal Himself to us. Without that divine initiative, we could not know God. God is incomprehensible to the human mind and transcends the human experience, however humbling that truth may ring in our postmodern ears. While our faith, once disclosed, is quite reasonable, the human race could never have reasoned its way to the Christian gospel or to the mysteries of the divine life. Whatever knowledge of God is available exists solely because God has chosen to make it known. Revelation is, therefore, the self-disclosure of God.
The Scriptures have graciously taught us that there are three main ways God has chosen to reveal Himself, that God’s revelation or self-disclosure comes in three forms. I would like to address these three forms of God’s self-revelation and how they become our compass in the storm. I want to do it by looking at one of the most well-known “storm” passages in the Bible: Paul’s famous shipwreck in Acts 27. For indeed, we are living in the midst of a massive cultural upheaval; the winds are howling, and everything that is not nailed down is blowing away. Many evangelicals have, like Paul’s companions on the ship of long ago, abandoned all hope of life itself. We have cast everything overboard just to stay afloat. The wider culture does not accept the Bible as God’s revelation, and even Christians need assurance as never before in the authority and reliability of the Scriptures.
We the people of God need to be quite clear about God’s revelation. I would like to use a compass as the central metaphor for God’s revelation. The Bible is like God’s compass for the human race. A compass orients you in the midst of darkness or a storm, or when you’re lost. The power of a compass is that it always orients you to true north. In the same way, the Bible is like a compass in that it is God’s revelation of Himself, His purposes. It tells who we are, what our predicament is, and what God has done about it. In every way, it orients us on our life journey.
Today, we are caught in a great storm, and as never before we need to look once again at the great compass God has given to His people in His self-disclosure or revelation. This divine compass is similar to our compasses, but in other ways it is unlike any compass we have ever seen. For example, this compass has not one, but three arrows that all point in the same direction, but all three are not always visible to everyone who looks at the compass. Let’s look at this compass we have in the midst of this great storm. The three arrows are the three forms of revelation that God has graciously given to us.
The first arrow of the compass is called general or natural revelation. This is God’s universal testimony to His existence, His presence, and His divine power. One of the great things about this arrow of God’s compass to the human race is that everyone can see it because it is a universal blanket of revelation. The rain falls on the just and the unjust. The beautiful sunrise appears to the atheist as much as to the theist. Indeed, the main way we encounter this general revelation is through the external witness of nature and the evidence that God has interwoven into creation itself. The Psalmist in Psalm 19 declares the glory of God’s general revelation: “The heavens declare the glory of God, the expanse declares the work of His hands… day to day pours forth speech, night to night reveals knowledge… their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.”
I think we often picture God’s revelation in nature as a beautiful sunset over a Florida beach, such as the beautiful white sands of Destin. But that may leave us with a kind of beach volleyball faith: the presence of God in the stillness and beauty of the moment. But God is the Lord of the whole world, and His presence is in all of it because He has chosen sovereignly to be in every part of His creation! Again, the Psalmist declares, “If I go to the uttermost parts of the sea… If I travel to the depths… thou art there!” Do we still sense the presence of God in the midst of a storm?
In Acts 27, where they are caught in a massive storm, notice in verse 15 that “The ship was caught by the storm and could not head into the wind; so we gave way to it and were driven along.” This is a picture of a group of people on a ship out on the open sea, completely out of control! Most of us, if caught in a storm like this, would not say, “The heavens declare the glory of God, the expanse declares the work of His hands.” But notice right in the midst of this storm, Paul is completely confident that his God is the Lord of the environment. It is amazing how much influence Paul, a prisoner, has on this ship because, as the situation becomes more and more desperate, even the sailors increasingly give their attention to the only person who seems to have confidence to get them through what must have seemed like an impossible situation! But Paul declares through his calmness that the creation is not some arbitrary furor that is outside of God’s sovereignty! It is a testimony to God’s power, God’s might.
The creation is a testimony to God’s existence, His creative power, His sovereignty. This is a great arrow in the compass. When we find ourselves no longer on the warm beach looking at the sunset, but out of control, afraid that our ship may run aground on some rocks and sink; when we seem completely helpless; the good news is that God is still on His throne. This natural or general revelation has the advantage of being universal; the entire world has access to it. It is an arrow in the compass that everyone can see. It points you in the right direction. It points you away from idolatry, from atheism, from crass materialism. Notice in this passage these sailors realize that they are in a desperate situation. In verse 18 they start throwing their cargo overboard, the stuff that belongs to others. But on the third day they start throwing the ship’s tackle overboard, the stuff that belongs to them, the very means of their livelihood. They eventually threw all their food into the sea in a desperate attempt to lighten the ship. This was not the time to fall down in front of a stone idol. The compass was not pointing that way. They needed help from the God of creation. Crises are not always a bad thing. Sometimes God uses crises – personal, cultural, national, or global – to awaken us to His voice and His word.
The problem with this first arrow, even though it is universal, even though it points us in the right direction, is that it doesn’t tell us enough. Being caught in a massive storm and sensing the hopelessness of the situation may give you the courage to throw your idols overboard, but it won’t teach you about Christ. You don’t look at a beautiful sunset or the brilliant array of stars on a clear night and say, “Ah, God sent His son Jesus to die on the cross for my sins.” This is not information that general revelation proclaims to us. It points in the right direction, but we need this second arrow of the compass to get through the storm.
The second arrow of the compass is the Word of God. This is not called general revelation, but special revelation. This gives us specific knowledge about this God of the natural order, this creator, the word of God. In verse 23, the angel of the Lord had come to Paul and had given him specific information. “Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.”
Central to the power of Psalm 19 is that it beautifully transitions from the voice of creation to the voice of God’s revelation: “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul… the statues of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple…” It is a condensed version of Psalm 119 that uses eight different Hebrew words to describe the Law of God. Psalm 19 uses four of the seven: law, statutes, precepts, and ordinances.
The Scripture as contained in the Old and New Testaments is the great deposit of revelation. 2 Tim. 3:16 uses the word “theopneustos,” which means “God-breathed.” It is much stronger than the English word “inspiration.”
When I left seminary in 1984, I was ordained in the United Methodist church. It seems I was unprepared for the full solemnity of the occasion, as I had no robe. I finally found a black acolyte’s robe. It wasn’t fancy, but it was black cloth, and it meant I could be ordained. The Bishop laid his hands on me and set me apart to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments and uphold the discipline of the church. I felt tingles all down my spine and tears in my eyes. I think the ordination took, even though I was only wearing a lowly acolyte’s robe. When I rose to my feet, one of the leaders came up to each of us and handed out these little cards entitled “Succession of Ordination.” It was a card that showed the Methodist version of Apostolic succession. John Wesley laid hands on Thomas Coke, who laid hands on Francis Asbury, who laid hands on this bishop, who laid hands on this bishop, who laid hands on this bishop, etc. It showed the line of succession from John Wesley right down to the Bishop who had just laid hands on me. I was, this paper assured me, in apostolic succession.
As I got into the ministry, I met, quite tragically, plenty of ordained ministers who didn’t seem to be preaching the New Testament gospel. I was reminded of an old battle that was fought way back at the time of the Reformation in the 16th century. Are you in apostolic succession because someone laid hands on you? No. We are in apostolic succession when we teach what the apostles taught. The moment we cease to teach what the apostles taught, we cease to be in apostolic succession. We must proclaim the eternal gospel that was once and for all delivered unto the saints.
The Word of God has been under assault for much of the last 150 years in the Western church. When the Word of God is forsaken, the church becomes lost in the cultural storm and can no longer save itself, much less assist others who are seeking refuge, shelter, hope and peace. We call for those who have forsaken the Word of God to repent. But we must also look in the mirror. Because those of us who so avidly confess the Word of God so often deny it in our lives and actions. We are selective.
The Bible can be confidently trusted as the Word of God. We are not left adrift on the sea of this culture. Paul is confident of His destiny to preach the Word of God to the Emperor. On the surface, the story seems to be about them drifting towards some unknown shore or being driven helter skelter to some horrible destruction. But in fact, they are right on target! In the midst of the storm, they are right on course. Paul knew his destiny. This is not passive determinism! Paul and his companions are caught in a real storm. Most of the account is very descriptive and doesn’t seem to be filled with Christian content: they are working the sails, putting ropes under the ship, and throwing the cargo over. Life is sometimes like this. There is no reason to believe that Paul did not help them throw the cargo over! This text is filled with a lot of mundane things, just like life is: fixing the car, painting the house, etc.
You see, on a technical level, we may do some of the same things the world does. But our overall framework and the power behind what we do is completely different. It is not that the Bible is some kind of magical book filled with tantric mantras that, if quoted, release some kind of mysterious cosmic power. Oh no. The Word of God may be trusted, and you may build your life on the certainty of it, precisely because its power comes from outside of the Bible, in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Which brings us to the third arrow in the compass: the Living Word made flesh, our Lord Jesus Christ. The final way that God has chosen to reveal Himself is through His personal revelation in the Person of Jesus Christ. The courage and calmness exhibited by the Apostle Paul reminds us that God is a relational God Who reveals Himself as a personal God who enters into relationship with His people. Paul speaks with confidence, not only because the angel of the Lord brought the word of God to Paul, but because of the assurance that the Lord Himself was standing by, honoring His word. Paul encourages the sailors, who had not eaten a bite in over ten days, by breaking bread in their presence, a symbolic reenactment of the Lord’s Supper. Paul gives thanks, and Christ’s risen presence is there, just as surely as the night when Jesus did the same act and said the same words with the two on the Road to Emmaus. This act is rooted in a relationship. Paul had personally met the Lord on the road to Damascus and was transformed by the Person of Jesus Christ. He knows who runs the universe. It is not that we have just heard His word in the storm like Elijah who heard the still small voice, but, in the words of the Apostle John as he opens his Epistle, “What we have seen with our eyes, that which we have looked at and our hands have touched… this is He whom we proclaim to you.” The Word was made flesh. In His first creation, God spoke His word and it was. But in this new creation, God speaks not just in audible words thundering from Mt. Sinai; He speaks His final word in the person of Jesus Christ. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.
We have confidence in this world because we are holding a compass with three arrows: the arrow of natural or general revelation as seen in creation, the arrow of special revelation as heard in the Word of God, and the arrow of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, who embodies the Word of God and the glories of creation.
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