What sets the Bible apart and makes it so extraordinary? Listen to guest speaker Alex Costanzo as she explores the many ways God's Word is credible, unchanging, transformative, and the greatest love story you'll ever encounter.
Hey Cornerstone, greetings to you. Happy Valentine’s Day. I’ve actually always loved Valentine’s day. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the Midwest and suffered through freezing gray winters. Valentine’s Day was kind of that bright spot after Christmas and New Year’s, something to look forward to, to get me through that long winter. I have vivid memories of hand-making Valentines and exchanging them with friends at school.
Valentine’s Day also reminds me of my husband, Michael. We met in college and one of our first dates, fun fact, was a Valentine’s day dance. Valentine’s Day is the anniversary of my family moving here to San Francisco. We just hit our ninth year. Time goes fast. This is actually the longest I’ve lived in one place, and I love it. I absolutely love it.
But, this time of year also reminds me of my mom because her birthday is right around the corner, and I want to share a little bit more about her today. She was just a wonderful, wonderful lady. She loved the Lord. She was full of life, very bright with a beautiful singing voice. She was always singing. She was a dedicated mom to my brother and me and sadly she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s when she was just 58 years old, which isn’t much older than I am now. My mom and I were always very close and her Alzheimer’s really was kind of a curveball for me. I guess I just always thought that she was going to be there.
I was living on the east coast, she was still in Indiana, and I was working a lot. So I didn’t get to see her very often. All of a sudden, big chunks of her began to disappear. She’d be less talkative on the phone. When I came to visit, she wasn’t driving anymore. Then at my next visit, she wasn’t cooking anymore and she was this amazing cook. Then she stopped singing. Before I knew it, she was gone, although her body was still there. It was heartbreaking for our families. She didn’t recognize us. She couldn’t really do anything for herself anymore. My dad had to retire early and took care of her. He bathed her, dressed her, fed her for 12 long years.
She and my dad lived with Michael and me for the last five years of her life, and I really cherish that time because even though she wasn’t aware or very responsive, my kids could still experience her. But part of my grief that I had to work through was that I didn’t really get the chance to know her more completely. It’s funny how we wake up one day and we realize that our parents are real human beings. They each have a history and a personal story. I just wish that I had asked her more about her story.
But a couple of years ago, I was given this incredible gift to know her more. It still blows my mind when I think about it. I was visiting my dad who is now happily remarried, I have an amazing stepmom, by the way. Her name is Jean. While my dad was sorting through a bunch of old boxes he came across my mom’s journal. She had kept it right around the time of her diagnosis. I never knew that this journal even existed, let alone that it was addressed to me. Each entry would start with, “Dear [inaudible 00:03:56],” which is my Korean name, but there are only two problems. Number one, I’m blind so I can’t read the journal, and two, it’s written in Korean, so even if I could see, I still couldn’t read it because my Korean is pretty lousy.
Now enter my dear friend, Julie. She volunteers to translate it for me, and I’m so grateful for Julie. Over the course of about six months, she would send me three or four translated entries a week on email and it’s like a whole new world opened up for me. My mom would tell me about her day and about what was going on in her life. It was a more vulnerable, transparent version of my mom than the one that raised me. She would write about her struggles, her hopes and dreams, and her walk with the Lord. The entries that left me in tears were the ones that wondered where I was that day, the ones that expressed how she was hoping I would call and that she missed me.
Here’s an entry I’ll share. It’s from April 1995. I’m just going to read it. Sunny day. [inaudible 00:04:59], where are you today? To follow you like a sunflower because I want to talk with you. I wish I could have some quiet time with you. If I think of my daughter every morning, I think this is the happiest time for me. Last night, I had a dream that you had a baby. I can’t believe how adorable the baby was. They were saying how the baby looked just like Mike when he was little but I think the baby looked even cuter and more handsome than Mike. [inaudible 00:05:30], are you also living a thankful life? Being humble and thankful, I think are the most important to God. Let’s live life fully again today, okay? I’ll end here for today and see you again tomorrow, okay?
I couldn’t wait to read these journal entries. I was like a kid on Christmas morning anticipating the gifts under the tree. Whenever I heard my inbox ding, I’d drop whatever I was doing and check to see if it was a letter from my mom and I’d read them over and over and over again. Ironically, during the same time, Michael’s mom suddenly passed away from brain cancer. I was also very close to my mother-in-law. It was a painful yet tender season for me losing my mother-in-law, but also gaining a part of my own mom, whom I had lost decades before.
Julie wasn’t able to finish translating the entire journal because as my mom’s disease progressed, her writing became harder to make out and to understand, but the ones I do have I’ll treasure forever. I came to regard her journal as love letters from her to me. How precious are words of love from one person to another? There’s something about having a record of these words. We can go back to them, we can read them to remember. We hold them so dear.
Then I got to thinking, and it was sort of a breakthrough idea for me. God’s word is like his love letters to us. Through the Bible, we can know him, his hopes and heartaches, his promises and plans for us, his unconditional love for us. Just like my mom would yearn for that phone call from me, the Lord yearns for us to make time for him. For some reason, reframing the Bible as love letters from God just made it so much more personal for me. It renewed my desire and excitement to be in his word and just like my mom’s letters, I just couldn’t wait to have that time with the Lord.
If you take a step back and think about it, the fact that the creator of the universe wants to talk to us to share his thoughts and speak words of love to us is absolutely astounding. I think it’s easy for us to take the Bible for granted, right? I mean, we live in a free country. The Bible is so available and accessible to us and we have so many distractions. It’s good to remind ourselves what a beautiful gift we have in God’s word and how extraordinary it is. That’s what I want to do in the time I have left. I also want to give you some practical ideas on how to incorporate these love letters more in your daily lives. My desire is that your desire to meet our Lord in his word will grow.
The Holy Bible is such a fitting name for God’s word because the word holy means set apart. The Bible truly is set apart from all other books in so many ways. First of all, it’s the best-selling book of all time. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, there are five billion copies circulating out there and some sources estimate that it’s actually more like seven billion. This doesn’t include all the digital downloads of the Bible that happen today. It dwarfs all other titles from any genre. For some reference points, the runners are up are the Quran with only 800 million copies, Don Quixote with 500 million, and I looked up a couple more just for fun, the Lord of the Rings, 150 million, and for you Potterphiles, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, 107 million.
The Bible also holds the record in language translations. According to the United Bible Societies, whose goal is to translate the Bible into every world language, 97% of our global population has access to some form of the Bible in their native language today, 97%. 648 have the full Bible. That would include us English speakers, and another almost 1500 have the New Testament. These translators are on track to get to 100% by 2035.
When Jesus told his followers to go and make disciples, I wonder if they had any idea of how far-reaching the gospel would actually travel. In Matthew, Jesus said, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations.” It gives me chills to think of how Christ’s words are playing out through the millennia. The gospel of Jesus is reaching every nation on this earth. It’s the most available, most read, most prolific piece of literature in human history.
But not only that, the Bible is actually extraordinary in its reliability and accuracy. There’s a large body of evidence from archeology and non-Christian historians that corroborates the people and events in the Bible. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to get into any of that, but I do want to give you a quick tutorial on textual authenticity. I this doesn’t sound very interesting to you, this might be a good time to get a refill on your coffee, but hang with me. I promise this is going to be good.
When it comes to ancient texts like the Bible, it’s all about the quantity and the quality of manuscripts. A manuscript is simply a copy of the original work. We don’t have any originals of ancient texts because they were written on materials that broke down over time, like animal skins. But the more copies or manuscripts you have, the better you can authenticate the text. That’s because you can cross-check the versions for similarities and differences, especially if you have a nice sample across geographies and time periods. Scholars can actually quantify how far these copies have strayed from the originals over time.
In addition, the less time between these copies in the original writing, the more reliable. Well, the New Testament has 5,800 Greek manuscripts. It was originally written in Greek. If you include the ones that were translated into other languages like Latin, the count is more like 25,000, and the earliest copies date less than 50 to 90 years from the originals, which is just phenomenal in the world of antiquity.
Homer’s Iliad is a distant second place with only 1700 manuscripts, the earliest one dating 400 years from the original. The New Testament is in a class all of its own by an order of magnitude. But the real kicker is that when you compare all these manuscripts with each other of the New Testament, there is an astonishing 99% accuracy across them. The differences are spelling errors, grammatical variations and scholars agree that there are no differences in sentence meaning. Wow.
Are you still with me? I know I’m kind of geeking out, but I want you to fully appreciate how the Bible has endured over thousands of years and maintained its integrity. We can be confident that the words of God we have today have not been altered or corrupted. There was no loosey-goosey game of telephone going on. God made sure of that. The Book of Isaiah declares, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.” And Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away but my words will not pass away.”
I came across the fact that even if we lost all 25,000 manuscripts of the New Testament, we could easily reconstruct it by looking at the vast body of work that scholars wrote about it in the first few centuries alone. It’s like it would be almost impossible to wipe out the story of Jesus. God’s word is unstoppable and unchanging, unstoppable and unchanging. The message literally has not changed for thousands of years. What a beautiful message it is.
Michael and I have a friend named Rob. Really smart guy. He’s a cybersecurity guru. He didn’t grow up in church or knew anything about the Lord. When he was a teenager, he found a Gideon Bible in a hotel room and started to read it and he couldn’t put it down. He’s been following Jesus ever since. It’s amazing to me that God reached Rob not through a church or through a friend from school or through a neighbor, but directly through his word. We should never underestimate the power of God’s word.
Rob said that there was a supernatural authority to the book that he just couldn’t shake, an authority that understood human nature at its core, and Jesus seemed to fulfill all the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah. But the real hook for him was a message of redemptive love. It was like God was reaching across time and space and taking a hold of his heart. God’s word is a timeless and powerful message of love. Love is the most powerful force in the universe and God invented it because God is love. He demonstrated that love by sacrificing His son so we can be in a relationship with Him so we can have eternal life with Him.
But the Bible isn’t just an instruction manual on how to get to heaven. In the words of Dwight Moody, “The Bible was not given to increase our knowledge, but to change our lives.” In other words, not for our information, but for our transformation, and transformation here on earth. The promise of eternal life is just the beginning because the Lord invites us to know him and to trust him and to live a new life through Jesus. God’s word is transformative and grows us into the image of Christ.
Jesus declared that God’s word is our spiritual food. When Satan was tempting him in the desert, he said, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” And it’s difficult to grow in the Lord if we aren’t fed by his word consistently. Think about physical food for our bodies. We simply can’t function if we only eat once or twice a week. And it’s also important that we don’t always depend on others to feed us spiritually.
Michael and I have three boys. It was not easy raising little boys without sight. One of the hardest stages for me was the baby food stage. I was really bad at feeding them, as you can imagine. Poor kids. It was kind of like a cruel game of pin the tail on the donkey. I’d miss their mouths and shove it up their noses or get it in their hair, and it was so great when they finally learned to feed themselves. I’m pretty sure that they were a lot happier, too.
In the same way, we need to learn how to feed ourselves spiritually. Our relationship with the Lord is a personal one and we need lots of face time with him. What we’re doing right now is really important and crucial. We’re worshiping corporately. As a community, it’s necessary and healthy, but it’s not sufficient. If you’re only getting prepared teaching once a week and nothing else, it’s like being spoon-fed. I’m not discouraging godly books and podcasts. Those are all really good things. But what I’m talking about is learning to engage directly with God’s word in your personal time with the Lord, just you, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit.
Our Cornerstone community is emphasizing discipleship this year, so maybe we could challenge ourselves to feast on God’s word in a new way or do it more consistently throughout the week. I had a mentor who taught me different ways to interact with God’s word using the illustration of the hand and its five fingers. It really stuck with me over the years, so I’m going to share it with you today. Each finger on the hand represents a different approach.
Let’s start with the first finger. Read it. This is pretty self-explanatory. Just open your Bible or your Bible app and read. You can read just one verse a day or a chapter a day, you can use one of those Bible in a year’s plan, you can read it out loud to your kids, and listening to an audiobook is great. If you’re new to this, start with the gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. If you’re going through something hard, read through the Psalms. If you’re going through some life transitions, consider Proverbs or try reading a different translation than the one you normally use. My 13 year old hates to read, but he loves to read his Bible. And he says to me, “There’s some really interesting stuff in there, Mom,” and I couldn’t agree more.
Okay. The second finger of the hand is meditating, meditating on God’s word. What does that mean to meditate? It simply means to think about it and to reflect, just to take some time. We don’t have to read through scripture like it’s a race, although according to my husband and some of his friends who all do the same Bible plan, it is a race. But take a piece of scripture or a few verses and ruminate on it for a day or a week.
You know what it’s like? It’s like marinating a piece of chicken. Chicken does not taste like much by itself, right? But the longer you let that chicken hang out in the marinade, the more flavor it absorbs, and in the same way, marinate yourself in scripture. Just let yourself so can all those flavors and nuances. The Lord will give us aha moments if we have the patience to sit with something and just listen. It’s nice to write down these thoughts that he gives you. If you’re using a physical Bible, you can write little notes in the margins. Talk about a precious thing to hand down to your children. You can also keep a simple Bible journal, just the date, the scripture you’re marinating in, and any thoughts.
I wanted to give you an example from my own journal about John chapter one. I was thinking about the first few verses that go like this. “In the beginning was the word. The Word was with God, the Word was God, the Word became flesh.” And then here are some of the thoughts that I jotted down. So interesting that Jesus has called the word. Words are important. Words are how we communicate. Jesus was the physical embodiment of God’s message to me, the word incarnate. God spoke to us through Jesus. God isn’t a mystery to me if I know Jesus. You get the idea.
Okay. Another way to interact with God’s word is to study it. What constitutes studying the Bible verses just reading or meditating? This is not an official definition, but to me, I think it’s about going both broader and deeper. Broader might mean that we look at the historical and cultural context of the passage and cross-referencing other verses, comparing the passage to other passages in the Bible that discuss the same topic, and then going deeper might mean looking at the passage in different translations or looking up the meaning of certain words in the original language to gain some more insight.
There’s a lot of Bible study material out there, studies on different books of the Bible and on different topics. I personally love studying the Bible with others because I learn so much more from other people’s insights. Many of our shape groups do Bible studies and there are interchange organizations that are really good at this, like Community Bible Study and Bible Study Fellowship.
Okay, let’s keep going. The pinkie stands for memorize. Memorize scripture. I recently read about an American pilot named Howard Rutledge. He was shot down in Vietnam and spent seven years in prison and five of those years were in solitary confinement. He writes about the importance of knowing scripture in a book called In the Presence of Mine Enemies. Howard was not a strong Christ follower when he was first captured, but he and his fellow prisoners rediscovered their faith together. They would use precious seconds of communication to help each other reconstruct scripture and hymns.
He said, and I quote, “Thinking about one memorized verse could make the whole day bearable. I would pray, hum hymns silently, quote scripture, and think about what that verse meant to me. Scripture and hymns might be boring to some, but it was the way that we conquered our enemy and overcame the power of death around us.” Imagine being completely cut off from your Bible. It’s an unlikely scenario for most of us, but there is still great value in memorizing scripture. It’s a good discipline. The more scripture we know, the more scripture we have instant access to when we really need it.
Like King David says in the Psalms, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” And I want to just add here that it’s not about perfection. It’s okay if you don’t memorize word for word and every chapter and verse number. I’m really bad at the verse numbers. It’s about becoming more familiar and being able to recall the ideas and the promises of the Lord. But if you’ve never tried it, give it a whirl. Give it a whirl. You probably know a lot more than you think. The lyrics of many worship songs come straight from the word. Worship songs are kind of like a twofer, right? It’s scripture that you can sing to the Lord.
Okay, and then we finally have the thumb of the hand, which is apply. God’s word is useless if we don’t apply it to our lives. Paul tells us in Second Timothy, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we’re wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work.”
No matter if you are reading, meditating, studying, or memorizing, always ask yourself, “So what? So what? What is the Lord trying to show me? Does he want me to change my attitude? Does he want me to work on a certain relationship? Is he asking me to surrender my worries to him? Am I supposed to help someone even if it’s going to cost me something?” Head knowledge is one thing, but the Lord wants to change our hearts. Again, not just information but transformation.
I really like the illustration of the hand because it’s hard to hold onto something without your thumb, right? By applying God’s word to our lives, we can better hang on to him. We’re living out our faith. And the more fingers you hang on to something with, the better a hold of it you have, the stronger and more secure the grip. The more of these things that we do, read, meditate, study, memorize, and we don’t have to be doing them all at the same time, but the more we do, the richer, the deeper and more intimate, our relationship with him becomes.
Here’s my last idea. God’s word is alive and will never fail us. Do you know what I hear a lot? I find myself doing the same thing. When we’re in the middle of something difficult, we say, “I just wish God would give me a sign.” But often the sign we’re looking for is in his word. If we ask the Lord for help and seek his response in his word, we will find answers, maybe not right away, but he will walk through it with us. We’ll find hope and strength, peace and comfort. Psalm 119, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. He will guide us and show us the way. Always go to the Lord first with your concerns and questions. If your kids are going through something, go to the word together. Always undergird it with prayer, ask the Holy Spirit to give you eyes to see and ears to hear. And if we seek the Lord with all our hearts, we will find him.”
A friend of mine was describing a meme she saw the other day. I thought it was so funny. It said, “I finished Netflix. There’s nothing left to watch. I’m all done.” But we can never be all done with God’s word no matter how many times we read the same scripture. He will always show us something new, something fresh because his word is alive and active and living and breathing and full of infinite compassion and wisdom. As we grow in him, he will show us even more.
Before I close, I have three questions for you. First, how can you dig deeper into God’s love letters today? Let’s be intentional. Try something new. Join a shape group and do a study. Maybe try the marinating thing out if you have never done that or challenge yourself to read the Bible daily.
Next question, who needs God’s love letter today? Maybe you have a friend. You’re supposed to invite that friend to your shape group or read or study the Bible with you. Maybe send a verse to someone who needs encouragement or maybe even send somebody an actual Bible.
Finally, who needs a love letter from you today? Recent health issues in my family have made me think a lot about words said and unsaid. Both my father and my father-in-law are both fighting stage four cancer. I think I shared that with you guys before, and they’re both doing great. They really are. They’re tolerating treatment well and still praising the Lord. But when my dad was first diagnosed, I felt an urgency to write him a letter and he had just turned 82, so I sent him 82 reasons why I love him. And he told me he was so blessed. Is there someone in your life who needs to hear from you today? Words of love or maybe reconciliation? Maybe you could write an old-fashioned letter or even just a quick text message. Let’s communicate what’s in our hearts now.
In a moment, the band is going to do a song and Pastor Cherry will close us out, but first, just a quick reminder about giving. You can do this online or on the app or send a check to the office and a heartfelt thank you for continuing to give generously. I’m going to leave you with a final blessing. May you have the power to understand as all God’s people should how wide, how long, how high and how deep is the love of Christ. Amen.
Isn’t that great? Let’s sing our love song to the one who has given us his love letters. When you see yourself as one loved, it changes everything. When you see yourself as a beloved son or beloved daughter, you have a secure base that cannot be shaken. It doesn’t mean we won’t struggle from time to time, but the love of God will prevail in our lives. One of the things I have come to realize is that when I love him when I say I love him, it’s going to be reflected by the way in which I live, by the choices I make.
Jesus said in John 14:21, he says, “He that has my commands and keeps them, this is the one who loves me.” I show him my love by how I keep his words. But I cannot keep words that I do not read and study and understand. Do you see how those things are connected, how they go together like hand in glove? I show him, my love, by keeping his commands, but I keep his commands by studying them and taking them into my life, and allowing them to be at the center of who I am. This is the beautiful interplay of all of these things, his words lived out in our life. He’s given us beautiful things, not the least of which is his word. Remember, he’s so good and he’s so God, and he wants us to be so good and so God, and I pray this prayer for you as well as me. May he keep you, spirit, soul, and body this week, this week, this year in Jesus’ name, amen.