The Boiling Point

One of my first memories from science as a young boy involved learning the boiling point of water: 212°F. I didn’t know till years later that it varied depending on elevation, and that other liquids did not boil at the same point. That was too advanced for me at the time. I just needed the basics.

Science has enlightened us, hasn’t it? We are greatly indebted to researchers who have gone before us, aren’t we? Much of what was mysterious in the past has been boiled down to its basic elements by the scientific method; things that baffled us at one time are now understood and explained in astounding detail. We live in a truly enlightened age.

There isn’t much of what we would call science when we look at people living in the time of Jesus, is there? What nonbelievers often picture are groups of ignorant peasants wearing tunics and cloaks, genuflecting to various gods, engaging in outdated religious practices that smack more of myth than fact. And some are quick to describe them as unenlightened, believers in fantasy, duped by the ignorance of the age in which they lived.

So, when 21st century people come to Christmas what do they celebrate? Well, kindness, for one. There are presents, of course. But I think the predominant theme for most is the expression of good will to others, the acknowledgment that whether or not the baby in a manger was real, isn’t the point; it’s as good a story as any. All the camels pacing, the straw in the stable, the bright star in the sky, the men and women in odd clothes, the chorus of angels, and all the other trappings of the story with which we find impossible to identify do not deter us from the basic elements of the tale: peace on earth, goodwill to men.

But when Christmas is over, and the New Year begins, what do nonbelievers do with all the rest of it, i.e. the sequel to the Xmas story? They look at the tunics and cloaks, prayers and scriptures, Hassidic Jews shuckling (swaying) at the Wailing Wall, the exorcism of demons, the outmoded moral values, the modern day Christians hurrying off to church to sing hymns, etc. and they see a religious anachronism of which they want no part.

The foreign culture of the Near East of twenty centuries ago, and the strange words and beliefs of the day (often not even translated into modern day speech) give off an odor of ignorance, science-less, and unenlightened folderol to the modern nonbeliever. And I can understand that.

Until we boil it down, that is. Make no mistake: the Bible contains language, culture, and practices that are bizarre to modern man. But if you are willing to look behind the curtain of culture (so to speak), to “boil it down,” what appears is seamlessly relevant to the modern man or woman. For the intent of these ancient writings is quite clear:

you were made with an invaluable identity and significant purpose.

[Now that alone is what many need to hear in this day and age]

But that is not all we need to know; we can learn the basic temperature at which water boils, but there is more we need to know in order to function successfully in this mysterious world.

Even though your identity is priceless and your purpose secure, the snake of wrongdoing and evil will also be a part of your life’s experience; it will be your undoing unless you find a means of rescue. And hard as you try it will not be found in career, relationships, or self-improvement. For even if you are fortunate enough to have great success in all these areas . . . death awaits you. My experience, and perhaps yours, too, promises a far from flawless success in any of these areas. As they used to say, “Life’s a b_____, and then you die.”

Cheerful words? Of course not! But if you are an adult you have lived more than enough to have experienced what I’m talking about. The coming of Jesus and the ensuing message of “good news” he brought addresses these crucial areas of life: identity, purpose, failure, and rescue. It gave perspective to those wearing tunics and sandals many centuries ago, and it gives perspective to those in jeans and Hoka’s, today.

And . . . as a bonus . . . it even addresses the most defeating aspect of life there is: DEATH.

You cannot afford to let the odd, cultural trappings of the past obfuscate the true message of rescue that Jesus offers. It is not about anti-scientific, outmoded, anachronistic folderol; it is about the issues you already face in your life. The same issues faced by folks 2,000 and more years ago. We are the same. Not different.

So, what is your boiling point? That is, when all your concerns, your issues, your heart of hearts, your dreams, i.e. YOUR LIFE, are boiled down to basics . . . what is left? When water boils at sea level at 212°F an interesting thing happens. It changes.

A Word of Warning: if you go on this tremendous journey, this quest, looking behind the curtain of Bible culture, and finding your own boiling point (the point at which your heart is truly revealed) . . . you, too, will change.

Categories: Bible, Faith, God, Holidays, Inquiry, Religion, Science, Truth, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The House

It’s interesting what warrants an explanation in Scripture and what does not. For instance, John 1:42 informs the reader that the name Cephas is translated as “Peter;” John 4:25 helps the reader know that Messiah is the same as the title “Christ;” Mark 12:18 educates the reader as to one of the beliefs of the Sadducees; Luke 8:2 wants the reader to know that Mary was called “Magdalene.” And there are numerous examples that could be added.

But there are many occasions when the writers offer no explanation at all, assuming that the reader would readily understand. For example, when John refers to “the Word” (John 1:1-2, 14); he is sure to let the reader know it refers to Jesus (John 1:1-18), but gives no insight into the very colorful expression itself; when Mark refers to “the lake” in Mark 2:13; 3:7; 4:1 he gives no reference to which lake (we assume he means the Sea of Galilee since he refers to it as a lake in Mark 1:16). Or in countless places where Jesus refers to himself as “the Son of Man” – with no real explanation as to the origin or significance of that expression.

And it’s one of those words/phrases I want to focus on today: “the house.” When a writer composes a literary work, he or she assumes the reader will understand certain terms. Otherwise he/she would begin with a lesson on the A,B,C’s. Right? The intent to communicate with the reader is paramount, of course, so the writer will usually explain, translate, or give background to expressions he or she does not think the reader will understand. But when they do not . . . and the reader is left scratching his or her head, it is most likely that time, language, culture, or background has left the reader bereft of full comprehension.

This is what I suspect when I read about “the house” (Matthew 13:1, 36; 17:25). Is this “the house” of Simon and Andrew (Mark 1:29-31; Luke 4:38-39), the “door” of which is referenced in Mark 1:33 where crowds had gathered seeking healing? Clearly, Jesus had a “house” in Capernaum (Mark 2:1), but was this Simon Peter’s house, and not his own?

What interests me most is the fact these details are not spelled out for the reader. All we read is a seemingly casual, matter-of-fact reference to what is clearly a specific house, not just any old house mentioned for the sake of the story. The writer assumes the reader knows exactly which house this is!

One need only use the letters NYC for me to immediately understand the reference is to New York City, in the state of New York, in the United States of America; if you reference the numbers 911 I think of an emergency call, but if you put 9/11 I think of something quite different, but you don’t have to spell it out for me. Sometimes what we don’t say matters just as much as what we do say, e.g. the hesitancy of the earliest New Testament writers to use the term “Savior” while the Roman Emperor was using that title, too; or when Jesus strictly tells his disciples not to refer to him as “Christ” (since that was an extremely inflammatory political title at the time).

So, when the Gospel writers refer to “the house,” I am reminded that these writings we now call Scripture were not primarily literary works. They weren’t stories for the sake of storytelling, meant for a broad audience that may or may not understand all their historical references. In short, they weren’t written as audition pieces trying to “make it” into Scripture, Bible audition entries. No! They were documents meant for a specific group of people in a specific place(s), and they assume a great deal from their readers. Where no assumption is made, they clarify with a translation or an explanation.

In the 1790s you would not have to explain the lyrics to “Ring Around the Rosie,” but nowadays you had better explain them if your purpose is to communicate with your readers. When you wrote an email or text to your family or friends in 2019 you would not have used the expression “no collusion” without first deciding whether or not you could just as easily use an expression that wouldn’t be quite so politically volatile.

When we write we carefully consider the words we use, the expressions we need to clarify, and the contexts we need to illuminate . . . if we truly want to accurately convey something to our readers.

And so, it stands to reason that virtually every Christian in Matthew’s intended audience would have been familiar with “the house” where Jesus had stayed during his ministry.

This raises some points of credibility that are worth noting:

  1. These excerpts from the life of Jesus are not presented as literature; rather, as historically rooted vignettes that presuppose reader knowledge, intended to make a point.
  2. They are not primarily biographical; rather, stories from Jesus’s life are chosen and woven together for the writer’s own unique purposes.
  3. Believability is inadvertently enhanced, because of the assumptions the writer makes about his readership. In other words, the writer does not try to explain himself; he shares a common understanding with his readers (which he would not likely assume if he were inauthentic).

There are numerous instances where a foreign expression presumably unknown to readers is translated (e.g. Mark 15:16, 22, 34) or explained (e.g. Mark 7:1-4, 11), but when it is not, it is certainly safe to assume the writer expected the reader of his day to readily understand it.

This then, was the case with the curious expression, “the house.” As readers today, we might be left with some uncertainty as to the meaning. They were not.

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When Otis Redding released Respect in 1965 (popularized 2 years later by Aretha Franklin), no one had any idea what a popular hit had been created. In fact, just this year (2001) the song was voted #1 in The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Franklin added the memorable feature of spelling the word out letter by letter.

When I was in Vacation Bible School as a child we learned a song that nonchalantly insulted Satan. And no one thought a thing about it. The implication was clear: Satan doesn’t deserve our respect, so he can “sit on a tack.”

Then as an adult I was exposed to a couple of puzzling verses in Scripture that gave me pause.

“This (the judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah) is especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the sinful nature and despise authority. Bold and arrogant, these men are not afraid to slander celestial beings; yet even angels, although they are stronger and more powerful, do not bring slanderous accusations against such beings in the presence of the Lord.”

2 Peter 2:10-11

” . . . these dreamers pollute their own bodies, reject authority and slander celestial beings. But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not dare to bring a slanderous accusation against him, but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you!'”

Jude 8-9

It’s clear that Jude, at least, had another topic about which he wanted to write (Jude 3-4), but he was compelled to address other issues, respect for authority being one; the other being how to deal with those who were not respectful to authority.

And it is clear that in the localized Christian persecution of the mid 60s AD, carried out by the Roman Emperor Nero, if there were any justifiable reason for Christians to rebel, Peter would not have said the following arresting sentence as he wrote about suffering for the cause:

“Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors . . . . Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.”

1 Peter 2:13-14, 17

This said of one of the most despicable, self-important, abusive and insane political leaders of all time. Read The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius if you want a clear glimpse at Nero’s character. But expect to be shocked! [See also Romans 13:1-7 for Paul’s perspective].

Our society is in a grave place when it comes to respect for authority. Many have bought into the notion that respect is not to be given unless it is earned. And, of course, each person has his or her own litmus test to evaluate when it is earned. Civilized societies have a process by which evaluation can take place, and leaders who do not pass that test are ousted from position and replaced with someone that more appropriately fits the wishes of the people.

If not done in an orderly and sensible way, the alternative is anarchy. And in that instance the despots are waiting in line.

I don’t intend to apply this for the reader, because clearly I would leave out an application that would be most fitting for you. You can do that work yourself. Self-evaluation is the best kind sometimes; it’s harder for one to point a finger at oneself.

So, how are you with showing respect to authority? Or have you decided you are the God of your universe, and you can make your own rules.

God help us! We have no idea what we are dealing with.

Categories: Truth | 2 Comments

Do You Have Insight?

When Isaiah was encouraging the people of Judah, saying that restoration from “the Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel” would bring rain for their crops, food for their animals, and gracious healing for their wounds, he pledged:

“Although the Lord gives you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, your teachers will be hidden no more; with your own eyes you will see them. Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.‘”

Isaiah 30:20-21

Hyperbole? Perhaps. The Hebrew people were enthralled with it.

Metaphor? Perhaps. The ancient writings are replete with it.

His prophetic words have both inspired and puzzled Jews and Christians ever since. And I will not pretend I am going to totally unravel that Gordian Knot in this blog entry, today. It has to do with the way God-followers learn, and the way they are directed in life. So, it is extremely important; well worth our time to explore.

When Paul writes to young Timothy, encouraging him to “endure hardship . . . like a good soldier” (2 Tim. 2:3; see also 2:10, 12; 3:10; 4:5), to fight the tendency to be “ashamed” (2 Tim. 1:8, 12, 16; 2:15), and to “be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 2:1), he adds this statement:

Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this.”

2 Timothy 2:7

But just how does that insight come?

At the crux of this whole conundrum is the central question: how do we learn from God?

If you were raised as I was you tend to lean on your intellect primarily (or at least you tell yourself this is what you are doing), because you believe that you are on your own “down here” to evaluate things, make decisions, then act accordingly. Others I’ve encountered appear to fly by the seat of their pants, impulsively choosing one path or another, allowing emotion (or something else) to “light the way” for them.

Either extreme is inadvisable.

The ancient Hebrew emphasis on “study of the Scriptures” (1 Tim. 4:13; 2 Tim. 3:15; 2 Tim. 4:13; John 5:39) tempers that second approach, but does not completely delineate every avenue God uses to inform us. It is why Solomon prays for “a discerning heart” (1 Kings 3:9) and why Daniel says that “wisdom” is a gift from God (Daniel 2:21; see Psalm 119:34; James 1:5). There is study. And there is more than study.

When Paul tells Timothy to “reflect” (Gk νόει pronounced “no-aye” – to perceive, apprehend, understand, gain an insight into, consider, imagine, etc.) on his words, then promises the Lord will give him “insight” (Gk σύνεσις – pronounced “soon-eh-sis” – comprehension, intelligence, acuteness, shrewdness, understanding, wisdom) he is not introducing a foreign, unknown concept; rather, one rooted in Hebrew Scripture as well as the experience of believers.

Although difficult to explain, there is an “understanding” (1 John 5:20, Gk διάνοια – pronounced “dee-ah-noy-a”) that Christians have been given; Paul calls it “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16), and it has to do with “spiritual” understanding. It sounds convenient at first blush, especially to those without faith in God, but as Hebrews 11:3 suggests, faith gives perception not attainable with knowledge or the senses.

In ancient Greek, Homer used the expression σύνεσις (insight) to describe the union of two rivers. And so it is with thought. When study and prayerful reflection are combined the result is a deep insight not achievable by any other means. That is why Paul uses σύνεσις (insight) to say:

“For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding.”

Colossians 1:9

Jesus said his followers should love God with all their σύνεσις (Mk 12:33 “understanding”), along with all their heart and strength. Crowds were amazed at the 12-year old Jesus, because of his σύνεσις (Lk 2:47 – “understanding”). Jesus’s disciples struggled because they did not have this σύνεσις (“understanding”) about his true identity (Mk 6:52; 8:17, 21). And Paul, quoting Isaiah 29:14, says that God sometimes “frustrates” this σύνεσις (“intelligence”) in foolish men (1 Cor. 1:19).

Paul prays for the Colossians to have a “heart united in love” so they could have “the full riches of complete σύνεσις (“understanding”) “to know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (Col. 2:2-3).

It seems to me there are several things at play here: (1) knowledge of the Scriptures, (2) a heart that is pliable, and (3) a request of God for the gift of insight. Possibly this is why Paul would exhort young Timothy:

“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.”

2 timothy 2:15

And what is involved in that correct handling? An unashamed, godly, enduring and reflective young minister, not willing to quarrel, not resentful, never tiring in reminding others of the power of the resurrection, and in a constant personal pursuit of righteousness, etc. A tall order? Yes indeed.

Honestly, I have prayed for insight in writing this blog entry. Because I am coming to understand more and more, the older I get, my pursuit of knowledge only gets me just so far. I suffered for many years with a pursuit of spiritual knowledge that lacked a reflective, pliant heart to match it. That’s a recipe for disaster.

True spiritual direction only comes when one has studied, then reflected on something (often for a long time), then followed the resulting insight with a humble, pliable heart.

Ivan benson

The great Mortimer Adler waited until his 80s to write about his change from atheism to faith in God; he wanted to be sure he had thought about it all enough before trying to address others on the subject.

Insight demands reflective thought. And thought often takes time. In our world we are awash with demands on our time, so we search for ways to accomplish tasks with the most efficiency; this often translates into speediness. In the “thought” department this usually spells disaster. Don’t cut corners here. Give whatever time it requires. You are not the master of your own insight; it comes from another Source.

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Does Anyone Have a Can Opener?

I was talking with my wife recently about a Biblical topic I felt needed to be addressed on this blog. Her response was something like, “Why would you want to write about THAT?” I replied, “Well, it would be like opening a can of worms, wouldn’t it?”

Now don’t get me wrong. There are times when difficult, or controversial topics must be addressed. But why do I seem to have this underlying attraction to topics wherein the fallout is like opening a can of worms: inflammatory, provoking, unsettling?

Within a day I had reversed my intentions and decided not to broach that particular subject, at least not just yet. And certainly, even in the future, not in a way that is hurtful or attacking or shaming.

There is more than enough divisiveness in the world, today; I don’t want to contribute to it any more than is absolutely necessary.

Even though I am sometimes drawn to controversy, the truth is this: I love gentle and kind words that are heartfelt. And I think most of us do. We don’t get much encouragement from controversy. It may boost our egos if we feel like we’ve won an argument, or make us feel good about ourselves if we establish how much smarter we are than someone with another point of view. But real, useful, helpful encouragement? No. Not much. None.

Many years ago a minister came to speak at our church. He was . . . different. Now, let me say I enjoyed the hard-hitting (even bombastic) preachers of the day; they were exciting. They almost made you want to say, “Hit me again!” when they chastised their listeners or chided them for being less than they ought to be. But this new guy – he was unique. Even in his bold moments you sensed the underlying love and support he had for those listening.

He is still alive, today, still appealing to Christians and non-Christians alike in his unassuming yet powerful, heartfelt way. I want to be like that, too.

Life-giving. Speaking words that give more breath to the hearer than he or she had before I began talking. I may leave them deep in thought and introspection, but . . . still alive, still breathing, rather than lying beaten and dead in a heap of hopeless humanness.

It’s interesting that the words of Jesus recorded in Scripture are so telling: he was hard on the proud religious types, and forgiving yet firm with the other types. He was a breath of fresh air to unbelievers, and took some of the excess breath away from proud believers. I want to be like that, too.

So, the truth is . . . I am not looking for a can opener. I have no trouble opening those cans. But what I could use is a humility stick. Anybody got one?

Categories: Truth | 2 Comments

Miracles (Part 5): Why not Me?

Have you ever wondered why miracles happen for some people and not for others? Couldn’t God just make everything good for everyone all at once, do away with poverty, disease, and depression, and completely disarm the Evil One while He’s at it?

I remember a 24 hour prayer vigil for a fellow teacher named Peggy decades ago in Memphis. We each signed up for a time slot to pray for her recovery from the swelling caused by surgery following a brain aneurysm; we were methodical and faith filled. Peggy never recovered. My wife’s mother had a similar surgery several years before this. We prayed diligently and asked others across the country to pray . . . and her projected recovery, though bleak at best, was an amazing success.

Story after story could be told relating the same contrasting results. The God of the Universe is not like a gum ball machine; you simply cannot drop in a coin and expect the same result every time.

But this leaves us with the classic dilemma, doesn’t it? If God were all powerful why couldn’t He just heal everyone who needs healing, provide food for all the hungry, etc.? In brief, it’s the issue of the Problem of Pain dressed in an alternate outfit.

Let me cut to the chase and answer honestly, OK? In all my almost 68 years of life I have come to the following definitive conclusion: I simply do not know!

But having gotten that important truth out of the way . . . let me say some things I think are pertinent to this juggernaut question, this puzzling conundrum. One of my readers suggested I specifically write about this topic, and that is what prompted this 5 part series on Miracles. His reasons were very personal. And they involved the health of his mother. Consistent prayers of faith did not remove her debilitating disease, so from a young adult age she was forced to live life confined to a wheelchair; she died in her 50s. Why?

Life can be cruel sometimes. Even brutal. So, why does the Red Sea part for some while others are drowned in its swell? In this FINAL blog entry we will take a slight departure from the definition of “miracle” we have been addressing, and view it not merely as the instantaneous restoration of a missing limb or some such thing; rather, we will be talking about prayers answered for serious medical conditions and the like.

I can only think of two things worth being said on this account.

  1. Right beside encouragement from Jesus to “always pray and not give up” (Luke 18:1-8), and that “whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24), there stands the ardent prayer of Jesus himself, pleading for his life:

“Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me.”

Mark 14:36

But Jesus himself is not saved from the agony of a shameful, painful, undeserved death. It is interesting that he is aware this is a possibility, too, and so he ends with this caveat: “Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 11:36).

And the great apostle Paul, burdened with his “thorn in the flesh” (perhaps it was bad eyesight) prays three times for deliverance but is told: “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Corinthians 12:9). It is interesting that Paul is here reminded of the reason for this: “for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

If Jesus’s prayer is not answered as prayed, and Paul’s prayer is not answered as prayed . . . whose would be? Clearly, the equation is not simple, not mathematical, not comprehensible.

2. God is sovereign. Period. It is not what we want to hear, not the way we want things to pan out, not the notion of fairness and security and power we long to be true. Sometimes it is the greatest test of our faith. We want to make God in our image, but we are reminded:

“My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

“The Lord does whatever pleases him, in the heavens and on the earth, in the seas and all their depths.”

Isaiah 55:8-9; Psalm 135:6

But when my earnest desires, prayed for in faith and trusted for in God, do not come true . . . I have a decision to make. Do I continue to trust God, and eventually rest in the fact that He has taken into account everything pertinent to my situation (or that of my loved one), and made His sovereign response? Or do I abandon the very Giver of Life himself?

When Lazarus was raised from the dead (John 11:44) it was to create faith in those standing nearby (John 11:45) as well as to propel a growing political fear that would eventually take Jesus to the cross (John 11:46-48, 53), because this was God’s plan (Acts 2:22-23). It stands to reason that like Paul’s thorn in the flesh God’s refusal to answer our prayers for healing, etc. is FOR A REASON.

When I had my near fatal heart attack almost five years ago I had no clue why this had happened to me! This kind of thing happens to other people, but . . . not to me! And why did I have to have residual heart damage when some other heart patients go on their way and return to an even fuller, active life? But I have been learning . . . there is a reason. There are things I needed to learn that I could learn no other way, things I needed to value that I would not have valued any other way. My prayers for full restoration have not been answered. Nor will they be.

And now . . . I do not want them to be. God’s strength is “made perfect” in my “weakness” (borrowing Paul’s words).

When we surrender to the Sovereignty of God life becomes much simpler. But sometimes, not wanting to trust that truth, we offer that surrender like something being pried from our hands. We resist.

We seldom picture Jesus wrestling with this kind of thing, but . . . he did. John records his inner struggle:

“Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour.”

John 12:27

Surrendering to the Sovereignty of God is a process, and often that process is far from instantaneous.

Acceptance. Although it sometimes only comes through gritted teeth, it is the ultimate destination of the believer. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God” (Deuteronomy 29:29), but one day all that is “mortal” in us will “be swallowed up by life” (2 Corinthians 5:4), and “our light and momentary troubles” will achieve for us “an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Corinthians 4:17). Then we will “know fully, even as (we) are fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

As Paul David Tripp has said: ” . . . over all the trouble that confounds and dismays us is a God of glorious wisdom, power, and grace who rules every moment of every situation” (New Morning Mercies, August 12). We may not instantly like, or approve of, all that happens to us and around us in this life. But trusting that God knows best, and that He takes into account an innumerable number of things beyond our understanding, we can eventually yield to His wisdom and rest in His decisions.

One day you may be standing on the banks of the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army behind you in hot pursuit, and you will watch as God Himself parts the waters and sends you across to safety on dry land. And on another day you may watch as the Messiah you followed for three years, the one who taught you how to pray, the one who healed the sick and fed an army of 5,000 men beside the Sea of Galilee, is hung up on a cross and dies.

And with these two seemingly contradictory experiences you may eventually come to understand . . . that the God who at times appears defeated . . . is not defeated at all. His plan unfolds with resoluteness and aplomb; that as surely as the wall of water stood at attention for Israel’s deliverance, the apparent death of Jesus, defeat in the extreme, was merely the moment in God’s theater just before the curtain call. Applause resounds forever!

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Categories: Truth | 4 Comments

Miracles (Part 4): “Death be not Proud!”

The last memory I have of my mother was seeing her lying still in her assisted living bed, not much more than an hour deceased (if that). It is an ominous thing to see someone who only minutes before has passed from this life. There is a surreal quality about it; in fact, it may be the most vivid illustration of the word “surreal.”

If you live long enough you will eventually witness death. It will come to your parents, friends, and finally . . . to you. It has been described metaphorically as a hand, or a finger, and it has been referred to as The Grim Reaper, grimly harvesting the souls of all persons.

But beyond the captivating metaphors and the countless depictions in literature, modern movies and media, the reality of death is staggering to the survivors of the one who has died. Metaphor simply cannot adequately describe the phenomenon, common as it has been to man since the dawn of time.

Can you imagine the first death in this world, how the family coped, how they felt? The Hebrew story of the first death, Cain killing Abel (Genesis 4) is gripping and gruesome even at first blush. But I can hardly imagine the reaction of the first man and woman as they tried to absorb it’s meaning. Devastating. But the story leaves this out; we are left to our own imaginings.

I have previously described death as “the great equalizer.” No matter your religious faith, or your lack of religious faith, it is the one common denominator; we all share the same awareness of it, and we all wish we could avoid its effects: the pain of loss, the irreversible finality, the indescribable grief.

You can almost audibly hear the shouts and roar of approval when the New Testament says:

“The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”

1 Corinthians 15:26

Throughout scripture, from Isaiah 25:8 to Revelation 21:4, this refrain is echoed again and again: man’s obligation to die (Ecclesiastes 7:2; Hebrews 9:27) will one day be removed forever!

The assurance of that promise is to be found tangibly in what is probably the most controversial miracle of all: the resurrection of Jesus from the dead almost 2,000 years ago.

Unless you are like the close relative I spoke with almost 50 years ago when I was in college (who after admitting that the resurrection story was probably not contrived, but true, said simply, “But I don’t care!”) you are indeed interested in whether or not this event truly happened; you most certainly “have a dog in this hunt.” Because if it is historically accurate, and not just some ethereal or imaginative tale meant to inspire or enthuse, it means that death does not finally take each of us in the end; it does not have the final word.

This is particularly true since the one who defeated death said: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies” (John 11:25). And the most prolific writer of the New Testament documents said, “we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus” (2 Corinthians 4:14).

It has been asserted over and over again that the teachings of Christianity, profound as they might be, are meaningless if the physical resurrection of Jesus did not, in fact, occur. It is the focal point of the faith; without it Christianity is just one of many self help philosophies suggesting you believe a LIE simply because it will make you FEEL better!

“If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith . . . we are to be pitied more than all men.”

1 Corinthians 15:14, 19

The bodily resurrection of Jesus is the hinge upon which the door of the Christian faith swings; it is the fulcrum, the foundation, the very heart of the faith. Why? Because Christianity is not primarily a collection of wise sayings, admirable attitudes, or kind epithets. That can be found in many of the world’s religions. What separates the Christian faith from all others is that it’s founder was not just a guru imparting wisdom; rather, rooted in history itself, he experienced our worst nightmare, did battle with our numero uno nemesis, then by some supernatural power his body returned to 98.6 degrees F. and he never passed away again.

Fantastic? Yes indeed!

But if it is true . . . really true . . . as true as the loss you felt when your grandmother died, as real as the terror and anger you felt on 9/11, as factual as the hopeless disillusionment you carried deep inside you at the untimely death of a friend. Then it matters. It matters like nothing else in your life has ever mattered!

“I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.”

Revelation 1:17, 18

Ah yes! The keys. What each of us wouldn’t give to have THOSE keys!

Numerous ink has been spilled over the last 2,000 years detailing the fact that someone does indeed possess those keys. That one happens to be mankind’s greatest benefactor. Jesus.

But assertions as monumental as these need substantial backing. With our investigative hats on we must look at all available facts, study eye witness accounts, delve in deeply to see if these things are so; so much is riding on this. A few reliable and thorough resources could be of help:

  • The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, by Gary R. Habermas and Michael Licona, 2004.
  • The Resurrection of the Son of God, by N. T. Wright, 2003.
  • Therefore Stand, (chapter 8), by Wilbur Smith, 1945.

But remember, any investigator worth his/her salt will begin with the original sources found in the documents we call the New Testament. No authentic historical research can ignore the first hand accounts . . . unless, of course, one has already decided what is attested to there is untrustworthy. And we’ve already covered the reliability of those accounts in a previous blog entry.

If you are an honest inquirer . . . or even one bent on finding the obvious inaccuracies of the event (as was famous atheist Anthony Flew, author C.S. Lewis, scholar Mortimer Adler, etc.), search hard and thoroughly. If it isn’t true I want to be the first to know.

Is it too good to be true? I love the words of Paul as he makes his defense before King Agrippa:

“Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?”

Acts 26:8

The truth is this: the news is not too good to be true! Death does not have to have the final word in your life or the lives of your loved ones. I am confident that if you pursue this quest we’re on you will come to know this. But . . . our journey with miracles is not at a close. Because even though Jesus was seen alive by numerous individuals (even large groups) after his death (1 Corinthians 15:5-8), some of his followers were able to perform miracles for a time to substantiate their message to those who would listen (as we have pointed out previously this was the primary reason for miracles).

But that leaves us with some hard questions. Why wasn’t everyone healed miraculously in the early days of the church? And why is it that even today when Christians faithfully pray for healing, etc. some are healed and some are not? This is what we will address in Part 5.

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Miracles (Part 3): Is there any Evidence?

When an investigator approaches a crime scene he/she is looking for evidence that will lead to a clear understanding of what took place there. By examining the crime scene forensically, interviewing any possible witnesses, and corroborating the details of victim and/or witness observations, the hope is that plausible or even incontrovertible conclusions will emerge.

When one looks at ancient history to determine the details of a given record this process is hampered, of course, by the passage of time and the detrimental effects it has on physical evidence, not to mention the absence of living witnesses. And yet . . . some of the same processes can still be applied.

When my paternal grandmother and her younger sister were orphaned in 1896 in South Carolina, grandmother was 9 years old; her mother had died, and her father was labeled “destitute” by the institution which took them in. My brother and I examined census records from those years, private records of the institution, and letters personally describing their time there to us written by my grandmother’s sister many years later. In 1986 a book was published by the institution which included a photograph of my grandmother, her sister, and five other children who together comprised the first graduating class in 1907.

My paternal grandfather’s past was a bit more challenging to uncover, but after many months of painstaking research and correspondence with helpful persons in Sweden his history began to emerge. He and his cousin were stowaways on a ship that sailed from Gothenburg to Boston in April 1911. He was a brick layer in Sweden, born in 1878; years after coming here he found work with the WPA and a local Chattanooga brewery before his death in 1942. He and my orphan grandmother had married in 1915. They had three children.

So what does this have to do with miracles?

The process by which one determines the FACTS in history is much the same as the process described above in the search for my family heritage. And by the way . . . since those initial findings in my family other documents and testimonies from published books have surfaced buttressing, clarifying, and in some cases correcting information. The process is always ongoing.

So, if you have not already decided philosophically that miracles CAN’T happen . . . what evidence exists to suggest they MIGHT? How does one proceed?

  1. Read purported first-hand accounts. Now at first blush this may seem inadvisable, because one sometimes assumes there to be a historical bias. And sometimes that’s the case. But it would be grossly irresponsible not to make yourself aware of what those historically closest to a situation have said. You can expect to find that any discrepancies and falsehoods will emerge when all the evidence is gathered; they always do.

2. Examine the historical accuracy of the language used, as well as allusions to places and events that can be substantiated by other histories. Look for anachronisms or inaccuracies that would tend to cast doubt on the authenticity of the document(s) in question.

3. Read the comments/reviews of those living at or near the time, persons not claiming first-hand experience and not even a vested interest; objective, or with/without an axe to grind.

Questions to Ask:

How soon after the event(s) took place was the first-hand account recorded? (in the case of the earliest New Testament writings that would be about 18 years), a time in which many were alive who actually heard and saw Jesus himself. The opportunities to counter what was written and name it as a hoax were numerous.

“The evidence for our New Testament writings is ever so much greater than the evidence for many writings of classical authors, the authenticity of which no-one dreams of questioning. And if the New Testament were a collection of secular writings, their authenticity would generally be regarded as beyond all doubt.”

F. F. Bruce, the new testament documents: are they reliable?

How does this compare to other ancient historical works? With thousands of Greek manuscripts of the New Testament (in whole or in part) there is little comparison: Caesar’s Gallic War (9 manuscripts, the oldest is 900 years after Caesar’s time); the Roman History of Livy (35 manuscripts, earliest is from the 4th century AD); the Histories of Tacitus (4 manuscripts, earliest is from the 9th century AD); the History of Thucydides and the History of Herodotus (8 manuscripts, earliest are 900 AD). Whereas parts of manuscripts of the New Testament have been found dated as early as 125-130 AD.

My father told me many stories about his mother and father while he was living. I knew his mother, but his father had died about a decade before I was born. But I have seen their grave stones, and I have talked with Dad’s brother and sister (now both deceased), corroborating many details and gaining insights into repeated phrases, family expressions, and their collective accounts of the same history. I have even had Swedish letters written to my grandfather translated, and years ago made contact by telephone with a distant cousin living in Sweden. She sent me pictures of the extended family and provided details previously unknown. The pieces of my lineage, scant and historically murky, have become more clear than ever.

There is no group of historical documents that have received more scrutiny, more forensic inspection, more linguistic examination, etc. than the collection called the New Testament.

You do not have to “park” your proverbial “brain” in order to trust it’s accuracy and reliability. There is no question that it should be scrutinized, because it makes unparalleled claims. So let’s scrutinize it!

As scholars have scrutinized it through the years many interesting facts have come to light. There was a time when some doubted Pontius Pilate was anything but a real historical figure until archaeology substantiated his existence. Over and over again details heretofore unsubstantiated in history have come to light because of new discoveries in the Middle East. From the caves at Qumran to the John Ryland’s fragment, archaeology continues to shed a favorable light on the accuracy of the Biblical documents.

As I have written previously in this blog (see THE TRUTH will eventually come out. If falsehoods and deception are present they will not stand up under close scrutiny. Testimony of eye witnesses or their descendants contradicting false claims will surface, and the proverbial “gig” will be up. That has not occurred with the New Testament.

If we look at comments/reviews of writers living at or near the time of Jesus we find numerous accounts substantiating his presence historically, and references to his death, the darkness at his crucifixion, the persecution of his followers, the claim of his resurrection, etc. (see Tacitus, Lucian, Josephus, Suetonius, Thallus, etc.).

So, if it isn’t just a bunch of make-believe characters in a fairy tale world, set in places you’ve never heard of and can’t visit, espousing events for which there is no historical record . . . what is it?

History? Yes, perhaps it is.

With a particular point of view? Indeed. What written history isn’t from a particular point of view?

Then let’s put on our investigative, scrutinizing hats, and look deeper. Shall we? In Part 4 we will look at the most controversial miracle of all time. Are you ready?

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Miracles (Part 2): Are They Natural?

“Have you ever witnessed a miracle?” Now I’m not talking about the many awesome experiences we sometimes get to have, (even those that are very rare): the birth of a child, the beauty of a sunset, someone extending forgiveness after he/she has been horribly treated, or recovery from a life-threatening illness/accident, etc.

I had a friend in college who had been blind from birth (he and his twin). He once attended a gathering where there was faith healing being done on a stage and he entered the line of persons waiting to be healed. He was promptly removed. A professor of mine whose arm had been amputated entered a similar line at another faith rally; he too was promptly removed. The explanation? In both instances the henchmen enforcing their expulsion from the healing line said essentially the same thing: “This is an impossible miracle!”

I have never witnessed the instantaneous healing of a paralytic (Matt. 9:1-8; John 5:1-9), or a deaf mute (Mark 7:31-37), nor seen the blind receive sight (Matt. 9:27-31; Mark 8:22-26), nor seen someone raised from the dead (Matt. 9:18-26; Lk. 7:11-18; John 11:1-46), although evidently there were persons who claim they did when Jesus walked the earth. I have, on occasion, witnessed dramatic reverses in dire medical conditions, known of persons in emotionally challenging situations who believed they were guided by something much bigger than themselves, and heard of catastrophic events that turned out better than expected after Christians prayed.

But personally witness a miracle? No.

C. S. Lewis defines a miracle in this way:

“An interference with Nature by supernatural power.”

C.S. Lewis, Miracles: a preliminary study, 1947

Merriam-Webster says a miracle is “an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs.” And says a miracle is “an effect or extraordinary event in the physical world that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural cause.”

Okay, I think we get the idea. Although there are, no doubt, many popular usages of the word miracle, e.g. people call childbirth a miracle, a beautiful sunset a miracle, etc., we are going to define it here in a bit more dramatic way.

As we concluded in Part 1 of this series the predominant purpose for miracles in the early days of the church was to confirm the message being presented by Jesus and/or his apostles. Clearly the words they were speaking were more important than the fantastic miracles that drew so much attention. But the two worked hand in hand to present a message with credibility. The fact that I (and most likely you) have not witnessed a miracle of this magnitude in my (or our) lifetime in no way means they could not have happened in the past. As stated in the previous post, “Miracles (Part 1),” the occurrence of Christian miracles seems to have clustered in extraordinary times, moments of great importance inaugurating heretofore unprecedented events in history.

But at this point it is crucial that we resolve an important question.

Since our senses are not infallible, and each person’s experience is understood within the context of what he or she deems possible (thereby making our experience and/or our comprehension of history biased) we must answer this question:

“Is Nature all there is?”

If Nature is all there is, and everything is a part of Nature, then “every finite thing or event must be (in principle) explicable in terms of the Total System.” (C.S. Lewis). [NOTE: Our very ability to reason about these things rationally comes from an orderly system that was at one time disorderly, irrational and unthinking (if the evolutionary theory is correct). Yet we do not question our ability to think rationally.] The upshot of this belief excludes miracles automatically since they would not, by definition, be explicable by natural law.

Advancing science has not made it harder for miracles to be accepted (as some often think), for if a miracle is “a unique invasion of nature” then a further study of nature has nothing to do with its credibility. Science attempts to teach us what “normally occurs.” Miracles fall outside this purview; they are anything but normal, anything but natural. We have become quite enamored in our culture with what is “natural.” We judge our foods, our inclinations, our sexual preferences, our very bent on life by what feels natural to us. But miracles will never be natural.

“Miracle is, from the point of view of the scientist, a form of doctoring, tampering, (if you like) cheating.”

C.S. Lewis, Miracles: a preliminary study

The laws of nature produce no events, therefore a miracle does not break the laws of Nature. But once an event occurs the laws of nature rush in to take over. As Lewis states: “Miraculous wine will intoxicate, miraculous conception will lead to pregnancy, inspired books will suffer all the ordinary processes of textual corruption, miraculous bread will be digested.”

If you are determined that what you see is all there is and that everything you know of is fully explicable in light of what you see around you (i.e. nature), then you have already decided about miracles; they don’t happen. To you they simply cannot occur, and eventually some scientist will discover the reason(s) for the particular phenomenon that some call a miracle.

As I wrote in “The Better Story – Part 7 (the Great Divide),” you are standing metaphorically at the Continental Divide of faith, and have chosen one slope with many educated proponents. But if you are still willing to pursue this query with me, and ready to examine the other sloping side of the Divide, stick around and see where we go in Part 3!

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Miracles (Part One)

The New Testament uses the word we often translate as miracle in a number of interesting ways. In Greek it looks like this: σημεῖον (pronounced say-may-on). In ancient Greek it was used to refer to “a sign,” “a characteristic,” or “a mark.” For example, it was used to describe the identifying lightning of Zeus. It was “an indication,” or “a pointer,” e.g. (1) a crane’s cry announcing autumn, (2) a mark that causes you to recognize someone, (3) a marker for the final resting place of an important person, (4) a marker for the finish line in a race.

In almost all cases it was a visual indicator.

In the New Testament it can be a signature (2 Thess. 3:17 – as we used to say to those who couldn’t write, “Make your mark.”), a specific signal (Mt. 26:48 – the kiss of Judas), or a sign that validates or gives identifying evidence (Lk. 2:12 – “the baby will be wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” See also Rev. 12:1; 15:1). It communicates a visual assurance intended to authenticate (Acts 4:16 – “undeniable miracle”). In its verbal form it can be translated “take note of” (see 2 Thess. 3:14).

When σημεῖον (“sign”) is combined with τέρας (Teras – “wonder, omen, portent, prodigy”) and δύναμις (Dunamis – “power, strength”) this trio definitely signifies a miraculous event (Acts 2:22; 4:30; 6:18; Heb. 2:4) has occurred. But often, sign is used alone to indicate something clearly miraculous (Jn. 2:11; 4:54; 6:14; 11:47; Mk. 16:17, 20; Acts 8:6). Note, too, that these signs and wonders and powers can be counterfeit (2 Thess. 2:9), so one must not just be swayed by apparent miracles!

Other words of interest in this regard include ἴασις (Iasis – “healing, cure” in Acts 4:30), ἔργον (Ergon – “work” translated “miracle” in Jn. 10:38) and others. But here we will focus on “signs,” “wonders,” and “powers.”

The stated purpose for miracles was to confirm the message being presented when it was first new (see Acts 2:22; 14:3). The populace even requested miracles for this very purpose (Jn. 2:18), to provide proof.

Just as we say, “It’s a sign of the times” in modern speech, people in Jesus’s day used a similar expression (Mt. 16:1, 3-4). We look for signs to corroborate or support our points of view be they political, religious, social, or scientific. In this same way miracles were signs, indicators, signals that something noteworthy was taking place. As John’s disciples distinguished between him and Jesus, they said,

” . . . John never performed a sign . . . “

John 10:41

So, the validation of the words being presented seems to be a paramount reason for miracles in the days of Jesus and in the early church. Paul spent months “arguing persuasively” about Jesus (Acts 19:8) and for two years had daily “discussions” in formal lecture halls (Acts 19:9-10). It is interesting to note that when Paul is imprisoned in Rome (Acts 28:23-24, 30-31) he spends the whole day from dawn to dusk “explaining,” “declaring,” and “convincing” people about Jesus. He does this for “two whole years” (Acts 28:30-31), and there is a glaring absence of any reference to him doing miracles in this period.

Persuasion with words, of course, was significant in the ministry of Jesus and it remained a focal point for the early Christians (Acts 2:14ff; 3:12-26; 4:8-12, etc.), but laced through and through is the mention of the importance of miracles (Jn. 20:30-31; Acts 4:21-22) to give credibility to the message. When Peter preaches the first gospel message on Pentecost he draws on the words of the Old Testament prophet, Joel. And he does so by bringing together two of the aforementioned trio of words:

“I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke.”

Acts 2:19

And what happened that day was, of course, noteworthy to say the least. As C. S. Lewis states:

“God does not shake miracles into Nature at random as if from a pepper-caster. They come on great occasions; they are found at the great ganglions of history . . . .”

C.S. Lewis, miracles: a preliminary study

Further, Lewis adds insight when he states: “Miracles and martyrdoms tend to bunch about the same areas of history – areas we have naturally no wish to frequent.”

Of course, none of this proves that miracles are/were real. But it clearly indicates that for the early Christians miracles were inextricable from the message of the Good News. To remove one was to strip the other of its full significance.

But did they really happen? I mean really? It’s the 21st century, and we are science people now, right? We don’t go in for hocus pocus. So . . . how do we know they really happened? And further, why were certain people chosen for a miracle, and others excluded? And how does prayer for present miracles fit into all this for the 21st century believer?

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