Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Similarity of the Gospels

Why are three of the New Testament Gospels so similar? This seems suspicious to the modern reader. Whatever they are, they are not mere slavishly-produced copies. Each uses its own words to describe the same incidents. This is especially clear in the Greek. Also, there are incidents in any one of the three that are not in the other two. There are also incidents found in any combination of two gospels that are not found in the other. There are also descriptions of incidents, particularly in Luke, that are so different from the others that they argue for an independent source and perhaps even for different but similar incidents (Luke 4:16-30; 5:1-11; 7:36-50). (For comparison, see Matthew 13:53-58; 4:18-22; 26:6-13.) The logical conclusion is that each of the gospel writers chose those particular things he wanted to include out of the information he had. While there may be cases where some writer knew information the others did not have, I would not conclude that every incident left out proves the author's ignorance of it.

There are also cases where the same or a similar saying is spoken in different contexts in different gospels. This is not surprising since, as anyone who as listened to a speaker over a long period of time knows, there is a tendency for speakers to repeat the same statements and illustrations. This is not only a characteristic of a bad speaker, but a good speaker. Repetition is one way to firmly plant an idea in a hearer's mind. But writing is a different medium, and a writer would want to reduce such things to a minimum. Nor does it make sense to believe that the sayings of Jesus were lost and later recovered. If there is anything we remember about famous people, it is generally their sayings. If Mark left them out, it was because he not did see Jesus as mainly a moral philosopher, but the Son of God who came to pay the ransom for sin (Mark 10:45).

Why then the repetition? It was common in the ancient world for writers to have the idea they should repeat the record as they heard it. (See the similarities between Samuel and  Kings, and Chronicles.) Or if you look at the Roman historians you will see the same tendency. They valued consistency over originality. But even today, if you read a number of biographies of the same person, there is a tendency  to find an accepted way that person's story is told; the same sayings and incidents tend to crop up. I suspect that there grew up early a standard way to tell the story of Jesus. I also suspect that in that time, when books were scarce, this record was normally memorized. When the writers wrote the gospels they used this standard narrative, taking from it those parts that fit their purpose. John, which was probably the last written, emphasized things not already found in the other gospels. But I see no reason to believe they simply copied from one another.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Supernatural

Do we as Christians really believe in the supernatural? This seems a silly question; of course we do. We believe that God became a Man, was born of a virgin, worked miracles, died on a cross to pay the price for our sins, and rose again the third day. Certainly we believe in the supernatural. But do we believe in the supernatural today, in our lives and in our churches? My purpose here is not to become entangled in the complicated question of spiritual gifts, though I believe it is relevant. Rather I want to ask, on a more general basis, do we really believe God is supernaturally at work in us? Francis Schaeffer asked, if God were to come mysteriously in the night and remove every reference from the Bible to the power of the Holy Spirit and the power of prayer, would we live our lives any differently?

Now the Scripture says that the supernatural power of God is at work in our lives to transform us (2 Corinthians 3:18; Philippians 2:13; Ephesians 2:10). It also says that His power is at work through us to accomplish His purposes in the world (1 Corinthians 3:6,7; 2 Corinthians 3:5,6; Colossians 1:29) and that we will be victorious (Romans 8:37; 2 Corinthians 2:14; 1 John 5:4,5). That does not mean God will miraculously take away every problem; often God brings us through problems (John 16:33; 2 Corinthians 12:9,10; Romans 8:18). There is no condition given for these promises, though God does call us to respond in obedience (Romans 12:1,2; Titus 2:11-14; Galatians 5:16). But the conclusion is that we should trust in God to accomplish His goals in our lives (Psalms 127:1,2; Proverbs 3:5,6; Romans 8:28).

If this is so, why do we so often trust in our plans, our methods, and our cleverness to accomplish God's will in the world. We trust in our organizations, our programs, our techniques, and our showmanship to impact those around us. We are like the Israelites of old, who trust in our horses and chariots rather than God (Isaiah 31:1). Now do not get me wrong; I am not against planning or doing things well (Galatians 6:9,10; Colossians 3:23,24: Romans 12:11). But I am asking the question, what are we trusting in? And if we are trusting in God's power, it will put what we do into perspective. It will not discourage diligence and hard work. But it will lead us away from gimmicks, manipulation, and self-aggrandizement. It also works against discouragement, despair, and acting out of desperation. For it puts in focus who we are really serving and where the power comes from.

Monday, June 27, 2011

A Touch of Humor - The Excuse

Playing around with sin to see how close we can get without getting hurt is a dangerous thing. Do you agree with this? Have you found it to be true in your own life or the lives of others?

Friday, June 24, 2011

A Voice from the Past - John Calvin

First, then, when they inquire into predestination, let them remember that they are penetrating into the recesses of the divine wisdom, where he who rushes forward securely and confidently, instead of satisfying his curiosity, will enter an inextricable labyrinth. For it is not right that man should with impunity pry into things which the Lord has been pleased to conceal within himself, and scan that sublime eternal wisdom which it is his pleasure that we should not apprehend but adore, that therein also his perfections may appear. Those secrets of his will, which he has seen it meet to manifest, are revealed in his word — revealed in so far as he knew to be conducive to our interest and welfare.

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion,1559, Vol. 3, Chapter 21, Section 1 (trans. by Henry Beveridge, p.1027; Sage Software, 1996 )

What do you think of this quote? What things might it pertain to?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Turn-Around

What is real conversion? Some Christian churches require a definite conversion experience, and others do not. What is the Scriptural position? There are in Scripture definite conversion experiences, like those of the Apostle Paul (Acts 9:1-19). But if we look at the original eleven apostles, it is hard to pin down a definite point of conversion. The emphasis in Scripture is on having faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:8,9; Romans 4:4,5; Galatians 3:23-26), not on the process by which we come to have faith. Now Scripture does warn us of the possibility that there are those who have the appearance of being genuine believers but are not (Matthew 7:21-23; 2 Corinthians 13:5; 1 John 2:19). But the basic issue is whether a person has real faith in Christ and His death and resurrection (Romans 3:21-25; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; 1 Peter 1:18-21), apart from anything they can do to earn it (Titus 3:5,6; Romans 11:6; Galatians 2:21). Now there is a danger of a person having grown up in a Christian church and knowing all the facts and having gone through all the motions, and lacking real faith. But there is also the danger of someone having an emotional experience or simply walking an aisle or saying a prayer, and not having genuine faith.

I would therefore conclude that the question to ask is: does a person right now have faith in Christ alone for salvation, apart from any good works they can do? From this arises certain problems. There are those who hold that once a person puts their faith in Christ, they cannot lose their salvation even if they later lose their faith (John 10:27-30; 1 John 5:11-13; Romans 8:29-30). Now I would agree that a genuinely saved person cannot lose their salvation, but I would also claim that this faith is a gift of God, who will preserve it in the heart (Acts 13:48; John 1:12,13; 6:44,45). But even if you would hold there is such a thing as a saved person with no faith, they are in a very dangerous spiritual condition and need to be recalled from it. There is also the question of infant baptism. Now I do not believe there is a clear basis in the New Testament for baptizing infants. But while there are different understandings of infant baptism, it is my impression that most would be uncomfortable with saying that someone who had been baptized as an infant but currently was without faith was a saved individual. And even if they were, they would be like the person previously mentioned, in a deeply backslidden condition, and should be urged to repent. Therefore, leaving aside the marginal cases, the conclusion I would draw is that the issue is a person's current faith. Some may have stories of sudden violent conversions; others may experience a gradual change, without being able to point to a definite point of conversion. But the important thing is the destination, not the journey we have taken to get there.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Is Scripture Full of Contradictions?

"The Bible is full of contradictions." This is a statement often taken for granted, even by those who are not quite sure what the "contradictions" are. But I would be dishonest to deny that there are problems. This is not surprising, given that many people have put considerable effort into looking for such problems. How, then, are those of us who believe the Bible is the Word of God to respond to such problems? Now it is beyond the scope of this post to deal with the systematic issues, such as creation versus evolution and whether science disproves miracles, though I have written of them elsewhere. Rather, I would like to deal with the incidental problems that, for many, seem more important than the real, basic conflicts.

Now it is not surprising, in an ancient book, where the cultural and historical background is imperfectly understood, where our knowledge of the language is limited, and where there has been a certain, though minor degree of textual corruption, that there would be problems. We live in a world under sin and a curse, where all things suffer from corruption. While I believe that God has overridden this to a large degree to preserve the substance of His Word (the preservation of the Bible is incredible, compared to books of any similar date), He is not willing to override the principle entirely.

It must also be remembered that many of the problems have solved by further information about the background history. Take, for instance, the King Belshazzar  of Daniel 5, who was thought fictitious until he was found in Babylonian records. Others are resolved by a fuller understanding of Christian theology. Take, for instance, the conflict between 2 Samuel 24:1 and 1 Chronicles 21:1, which is easily resolved based on Job 1 and 2. Many others have good answers. And  while there still difficulties, they need to be looked at in view of what has been answered.

But the bottom line is that while I do think that Christians need to address these issues (though to address them all in detail is beyond the scope of a post of any reasonable size), we need to ask if we really want to base our philosophy of life one way or the other on such things. Should we not start by addressing the areas of substance, rather than incidental matters? The individual who, based on broader principles, concludes that the Bible is the Word of God will often not be impressed by such minor difficulties and will be willing to trust God for the answers to them, even if they cannot easily see what they are. The individual who has rejected the Bible based on broader principles will often see the smallest difficulty as inexplicable and will reject all attempts at explanation. Perhaps we should start by dealing with the basic issues, and from our conclusion on those, the details would be put in perspective.

Monday, June 20, 2011

A Touch of Humor - Priories

Are there times we want to reject what God is doing in our lives because it seems to deprive us of something we want? Do you know of any examples of this?

Friday, June 17, 2011

A Voice from the Past - Martin Luther

If, then, you want to divide the Word of truth rightly (2 Tim 2:15), you must distinguish the promise from the Law as far as possible, both in your attitude and in your whole life. It is not without purpose that Paul urged this statement so diligently; for he saw that in the church this evil would arise, namely, that the Word of God would be confused, which means the promise would be mixed with the Law and in this way be completely lost. For when the promise is mixed up with Law, it becomes Law pure and simple.

Martin Luther, 1535 Lectures on Galatians, Verse 3:17 (Luther's Works, Vol. 26, Concordia Publishing House, 1963, p.302)

What do you think of this quote? How important is this distinction?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Understanding God

Our spiritual life is grounded in how we understand God. It is impossible to know God (or anyone else for that matter) without knowing something about Him (Jeremiah 9:23,24; Isaiah 43:10-13; Romans 1:18-23). We must avoid an arid intellectual knowledge that knows all about God but does not know God (Matthew 11:27: John 17:3; Hebrews 8:11). But it is equally dangerous to think we can know God without knowing anything about Him. This leaves knowing God to be an indefinable emotional experience without any basis in reality. It is not clear whether, under these circumstances, we are experiencing God or our own psychological processes. If someone tells me they know my brother, but cannot tell me anything about him, I have to question if they know him.

But there is an opposite danger for those who are convinced we do know something about God, and that is to feel we have Him all figured out. This is despite many Scriptural assertions that we cannot fully understand God (Romans 11:33: Isaiah 55:8,9; 1 Corinthians 3:18). There is an approach to God that sees Him more as an equation then a person. It sees God's attributes as determining how He behaves, rather then being facts about His nature. Sometimes God's attributes are almost seen as taking God by the throat and forcing Him to do things contrary to His will (His justice made Him do this). The truth is, as limited and sinful human beings, I question whether we can really understand how, for instance, perfect love and perfect justice fit together. Rather, we need to turn to God to show us by His actions how these work. Now believing that God can be totally understood by us can result in rejecting fundamental truths of the Christian faith, such as the Trinity and salvation by grace through faith. But even if not taken that far, understanding God based on our human wisdom can affect our position on other issues, such as God's sovereignty versus human free will. It is easy to try to follow what makes sense to us rather than what the Scripture says.

Taking either of these extremes can result in a distorted picture of God. We can see God as our good buddy and lose the concept of His greatness, majesty, and holiness. We can see God as a taskmaster who is just waiting for us to get out of line so He can punish us. We can see God as a distant manager, who cannot be concerned about me and my problems. We can see Him as the Great Unknown, too unknowable to provide either help or correction. All these come from trying to reduce the real God of Scripture down to a size that allows us to make sense of Him. We must take God as He is and for who He claims to be, rather than who we think He is. To do otherwise will lead to a distorted approach to the spiritual life.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Standing for the Truth

Some of the people I greatly respect are those who stood for the truth of God in difficult times. For instance, there was Athanasius, who stood for the truth of the deity of Christ when it was under serious attack. The Council of Nicaea had taken the stand that Jesus Christ was indeed God come in the flesh, but the Emperor Constantine was indifferent, and one of his sons, Constantius, (the one who ultimately outlived his brothers to become sole emperor) was positively hostile and persecuted those who held to the position that Christ was God. Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria, who was seen as the representative of orthodoxy, was sent into exile multiple times, being recalled only to be sent into exile again, as imperial policy changed. But Athanasius stood firm, and the truth of God ultimately triumphed. There was also Martin Luther, who stood firm for the truth that we are declared just in the sight of God through faith in Christ. And he stood firm against pope and emperor at the risk of his life (many who followed him gave their lives) to maintain this truth. Church history is full of those, like Athanasius and Luther, who maintained their principles in defiance of opposition and danger.

We should respect such men and, if necessary, imitate them. But there is a danger. It is possible for someone to take the attitude they are standing for the truth when they are standing for some relatively unimportant detail. There are matters of truth that need to be stood for. But there is the danger of taking some personal opinion on a minor point and making it something earth-shattering. How do we know what to stand for? We should start by taking our stand on the broad emphases of Scripture. If Scripture is inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16,17; John 17:17; 2 Peter 1:20,21), we need to trust it, not only as our guide to what is true, but as to what is important. Many times the Scriptures clearly state what the important issues are, and those are what we should emphasize (Deuteronomy 13:1-3; 1 John 4:1-3; Galatians 1:8,9). Also, we need to realize that we are sinners (Romans 3:23; Jeremiah 17:9; 1 John 1:8-10) and do not always know all the answers (1 Corinthians 3:18; 8:1-3; Romans 11:33). This does not mean we should adopt the modern false humility of claiming not to know anything. We are commanded to stand for God's truth, though with love and gentleness (1 Peter 3:15; 2 Timothy 2:24-26; Ephesians 4:14-16). But this must be God's truth, not every incidental opinion we happen to hold. It is good to respect and wish to imitate those who have stood for and do stand for God's truth. But we need to be sure that what we are standing for genuinely qualifies for this.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

What Needs Revived?

Some things that divide Christians are not obvious ones found in doctrinal statements but more subtle mindsets that work behind the scenes. One such issue was the shift from traditional Protestantism to Revivalism. This was not simply a shift from carnality to spirituality, but between two ways of viewing spirituality.

This change resulted from a shift in the character of western society. There was a movement from an avowedly Christian society to a superficially Christian, secular society. Under the older situation the church was seen as a normal fixture of the society, and the majority of the nation were seen as part of it. Therefore, it saw its main function as indoctrinating those under its care in the truth of God and incorporating them into the organizational church. Under this system there existed those with a genuine faith in Christ and a desire to serve Him. But others grew up in the church, learning its teachings and rituals by rote, without saving faith. Also, there was a tendency for a church so deeply imbedded in society to become conformed to the world. But the biggest problem was that as society secularized, there was a departure from Biblical Christianity, which left many with, at best, a nominal adherence to it. They were left with a crowd to convert, rather than a congregation to instruct.

To meet this challenge there was a shift away from an emphasis on corporate identity to one of individual response. This emphasized people's inner experiences, both in terms of conversion and of spiritual growth. I am convinced that this was a shift that was necessary to deal with the superficial Christianity of the day. The problem was that, like many originally necessary corrections, it proceeded too far in the opposite direction. It frequently overemphasized experience and individualistic piety over established teaching and corporate commitment. It often resulted in concentrating on subjective experience for reassurance of one's salvation or spirituality. This frequently led to false self-confidence or perpetual doubting. It is tempting to say we need a position in the middle (and I believe, in some sense, this is right), but this can lead to a tame mediocrity with neither intellectual vigor nor committed passion.

I am convinced that the answer is the Cross. Understanding that God became a man (John 1:1-18; Philippians 2:5-11; Hebrews 2:9,10) to pay the price for sins (1 Peter 2:24-25; Colossians 2:13,14; Romans 5:8), is a profound intellectual concept with deep implications. It also calls for a community to preserve it and to instruct and establish people in it (Ephesians 4:11-16; 1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Colossians 2:19). But it also calls for an individual response of faith (Romans 4:4,5; Ephesians 2:8,9: 1 John 5:11-13) and obedience (Titus 2:11-14; 1 John 4:19; 2 Corinthians 5:14,15). This opposes the idea that it is adequate simply to be part of the right group or to go through the motions of worshiping God (Matthew 7:20-23: Malachi 1:10; Romans 9:6). It is focused on Christ that we find the right balance.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The How-To Syndrome

One of the common features of our culture is the abundance of how-to and self-help information available. Books on such subjects form large shelves in bookstores and libraries. These also are prominent in Christians circles. The impression is often given that it is impossible to have a romantic relationship, raise children, have a career, or, in the Christian context, grow in Christ or run a church without detailed examination of such material to make sure we are doing it the right way. It is amazing how previous generations have been able to manage such things without these detailed instructions.

But I am convinced that in many cases this creates more problems than it solves. We are given the impression that if we just follow the advice that is given, we can have a perfect marriage, perfect children, perfect career, perfect spiritual life, and perfect church. But in the real world it does not work that way. This can end up putting the individual on a treadmill of frustration, trying to achieve these goals. Or if someone manages to convince themselves they have reached the ideal and have everything under control, they can become complacent and be blindsided by problems when they come. Also, if someone else is involved, we can end up pressuring them to follow the instructions we believe will make the relationship reach our expectations. If they refuse or they try and fail, from our perspective, to make the grade, this can result in major problems in the relationship. Therefore, we can destroy a relationship by trying too hard to improve it.  There is a general problem here that when we trust in our own abilities and ideas (even if those ideas originally came from another human being) rather then trusting in God, we are setting ourselves up for failure (Psalms 127:1,2; Proverbs 3:5,6; Isaiah 31:1).

Based on Scripture, the most important thing is being saved by God from our sins, and this is something He does and we obtain through faith in Him (Romans 3:21-31; 4:1-8; Ephesians 2:8,9). Now as a result of this, we are called to obey Him (Romans 12:1,2; Ephesians 2:10; Titus 2:11-14), but God promises to work in us to change us into who He wants us to be (2 Corinthians 3:18; Philippians 2:13; Colossians 1:29). In all the aspects of our lives we can expect problems (John 16:33; Acts 14:22; 1 Peter 4:12,13), but we can trust God to ultimately bring us through them (Romans 8:28-39; 2 Corinthians 2:14; 4:17,18). Also, perhaps a certain amount of common-sense recognition of the limitations of what we can expect in the real world can be helpful here. Now I am not saying you should throw out all your self-help books. Some of them can have useful information if put in the right context. But we need to put them in perspective. After all, people did these things for many generations before such books came along.