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.
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 EmperorNero, 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:
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.
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:
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:
But just howdoes 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:
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:
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 justsofar. 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.
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.
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?
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.
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:
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:
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:
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!
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 cannotadequately 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:
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!
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!
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:
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.
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?
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 soonafter 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.
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.
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 https://thegodstory.wordpress.com/2013/05/24/the-better-story-part-4-watergate/) 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.).
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?
“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:
Merriam-Webster says a miracle is “an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs.” And Dictionary.com 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 sensesare 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:
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 sciencehas 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.
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),” https://thegodstory.wordpress.com/2013/06/ 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!
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,
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:
And what happened that day was, of course, noteworthy to say the least. As C. S. Lewis states:
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?
Among the many religious words and phrases misunderstood by non-believers the word “salvation” is paramount. I can’t begin to tell you how many atheists and agnostics I’ve spoken with who ask the honest question,
Of course, many believers use the word casually, and often this puts off those who honestly want to understand how (if at all) it applies to them.
The Greek word Σωτηρία (Soteria, “salvation”) is a general word for safety, deliverance, preservation, or security. It usually refers to physical welfare, but in the New Testament it sometimes takes on a new meaning; what William Barclay refers to as “an antiseptic” against “life’s infection.”
I’m sure you’ve noticed there is a great deal of suffering and struggle in this world; it can be heart breaking. In fact, many organizations exist to attempt to alleviate that suffering. We’ve created these organizations simply because we all understand that life can be hard, even devastating. (BTW if those hard times have not visited you yet . . . they soon will, in some form or other.)
If you look around you at the pain caused by divorce, disease, and disaster (not to mention the ultimate joy killer, i.e. death) you might get the feeling that something is not right in this world. We track murder rates, the incidence of heart disease, the origins of various cancers, the effects of alcohol abuse . . . the list is endless.
There was a time when no one thought smoking was hazardous to your health. And you know, it didn’t matter a bit what people thought about it; it didn’t matter that they felt safe engaging in it. But often . . . lung cancer and death visited them just the same. We could talk about liver disease, prostate cancer, the effects of carrying too much body weight.
But what exactly is it?
When the Titanic sank on April 15, 1912 approximately 710 people were saved, delivered from the disaster in lifeboats; the rest (the number is not precise, but at least twice what were saved) died in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. A horrific tragedy indeed. And not one the passengers were anticipating in the least; they had no idea the severity of the danger they were in.
I was caving with some close friends when I was a teenager. At once point we were crossing through a room in the Arizona mountains that had a deadly drop off on one side. I knew there was danger over there because my friend, Tom Harlan, was standing by, guiding us as we passed, putting himself between us and the dangerous ledge. But from my safe position the carbide light on my head could not shine down there to show me the severity of the fall. It was there, I just couldn’t see it!
Such is life, yours and mine. There are times we need “saving,” aren’t there? Protection from a bully at school, rescue from a potentially devastating scenario with a friend, deliverance from a disease that threatens our health, security in a 9/11 or a Covid-19 world.
We all understand “salvation” in the aforementioned situations even though we may choose from a plethora of other terms to describe it: escape, emancipation, freedom, release, safeguard, preservation, extrication, etc.
Jesus refers to persons who are “lost” in some sense (Luke 19:10); it was his stated mission to “save” them. He continues to “save” even now (Hebrews 7:25). Do you know what causes (and has caused historically) all the struggle, pain, disease, and tragedy in your life, or the lives of others? My friend whose brother was killed as a teen by a drunk driver, my co-workers who succumbed to Covid-19, global racial injustice, the killing fields in Cambodia, the death toll in the fall of the Ming Dynasty, Rwandan genocide . . . . The list has no end.
You might answer, well, it was people doing wrong to one another. OK. Or you might say, well, it was just the way things are. OK. Would you be willing to consider another possibility?
It may seem silly at first blush to someone who has thought Christianity to be shallow, or uninformed. But let me assure you this worldview is anything but shallow and uninformed. This comes from the closing verses of 1 John 5.
The whole world is under the control of _____________________ (you fill in the blank the way you see it, but John says, “the evil one”).
2. Jesus came to __________________ (you fill in the blank the way you see it, but John says, “to give us understanding”).
3. The person who is saved cannot be harmed by the evil one. [Now that’s a grand assurance].
There’s a great deal I don’t understand about this world. Even with all the advancement of science and the achievements of technology I am still left with some really basic questions. Not tangential ones, not peripheral ones; rather, questions that are so fundamental yet virtually never talked about in our modern world.
Like . . . why is there evil? [Come on! Everyone thinks certain things are evil whether they believe in God or not.]
Or, what is the purpose of my life, or yours, or is there one?
Or, why is it I sense that my feelings of love are not fully explained by purely scientific means?
Why is it that people who profess no faith whatsoever still ask others to “send good vibes”?
Why does anyone think “the universe” gives a rip about karma or return good/bad to those who live a certain way?
So, what is Christian salvation? The short answer is that it is protection, a “prophylactic” (as Barclay puts it) against the things that infect this life. [NOTE: you may be touched with the aforementioned infection, but it will not be your ultimate end since you possess an antiseptic that will deliver you]. And salvation is the promise that even death (from which you are also not immune) will not be your ultimate end either. In addition, you will have a constant companion, a very real presence and power to aid you in facing anything you encounter on your journey.
Theologians have a word, “Heilsgeschichte,” to describe God’s saving acts in history, His deliverance of mankind. I suspect that just like professional dog trainers they use German words because they know that most people won’t understand what they’re saying. [Actually, that’s not true, but . . . I digress.]
It is not something relegated only to the religious or those uninformed about the great advances in science; it is as relevant as your latest vaccine. In fact, more so. It has to do with how you live your life now, and how you prepare for your inevitable demise, and what follows.
Do not dismiss it lightly. You are not fine just because you think you are; there are dangers (and blessings) you cannot see. Salvation is your escape hatch to protection, the security you long for (but are afraid doesn’t exist), the deliverance you most need.
When Leonard Cohen released the ominous, haunting song, “Hallelujah!” in 1984 he used a title common to everyone, religious or not. His masterpiece has both puzzled and enthralled listeners for years; the soothing rocking between the dominant and submediant chords is intoxicating. But his lyrics expose the listener to confusing and seemingly contradictory phrases.
The term “hallelujah” (Hebrew הַלְלוּיָהּ) is made up of two words (as is well known): Halal (הָלַל, to praise), and Yah (יה, the name for God). Thus the common translation, “Praise God.” Of course, like most words in a language there are different shades of meaning depending upon the context, and also upon other expressions used with a word. So that on occasion the best translation of Halal is “to shine” (Job 31:26; Isaiah 13:10; 14:12) like the stars, or sometimes “to be irrational” or “insane” (Ecclesiastes 1:17; 10:13).
One writer has suggested that Halal at its root is an expression of “exuberance,” or of being so beside one’s self that you completely “let go” (this would explain the use of this word as it relates to insanity, or foolishness). Is it the thing that offended and embarrassed David’s wife, Michal (2 Samuel 6:16) when he was worshiping so wildly?
Popular Christian music attempts to capture some of the seeming contradictions in the expression Halal, thereby explaining the strange bedfellows: suffering and praise.
Is the essence of Halal captured in Jesus’s words, “Your will be done”?
Cohen says that King David had a “secret chord” that he “played before the Lord.” And that it involved “the minor fall” and “the major lift.” It’s not merely his description of the chord structure in the song; it sounds like life’s alternating tension between failure and victory, disappointment and satisfaction, pain and peace.
Could it be that along with the definition of shining forth, praising, and boasting about God with a selfless abandon that sometimes looks like foolishness or even insanity, there is a profound underlying meaning that encompasses all the others?
When one is faced with the reality of impending death (Joshua 23:14; 1 Kings 2.2) just as Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:42), can one say, “Hallelujah?” Is this the word that was in Paul’s mind when he rehearsed his confidence in God’s certain deliverance (2 Timothy 4:18)? Was this the expression in the minds of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego as they were thrown into the fiery furnace (Daniel 3:21)?
No doubt it is the word on the lips of the martyrs in Revelation 7:12, and of the multitude in heaven (Revelation 19:1, 3, 5, 6). And although I do not think the creation itself can speak with our language it is probably the appropriate word to use on its behalf once it is “liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).
Book Five of the Psalter concludes with Halal after Halal and concludes with these words:
Cohen’s scenarios are dismal: there is (1) a “baffled king composing Hallelujah”; (2) Bathsheba cruelly drawing from his “lips the Hallelujah”; (3) love relationships are in shambles and they bring forth a “cold and broken Hallelujah”; (4) there was a time when communication in the relationship was intimate, even spirit guided, but now it is gone.
He stands before “the Lord of Song” and says “Hallelujah.” And incomplete and human as Cohen’s verses are there is clearly a resignation that should not escape us. This song does not purport to be a revelation from God Himself; still, it reflects an aspect of life with which we all identify.
This is God’s world. His rules are the only ones that apply (Psalm 135:6). And whether or not we understand it, agree with it, sympathize with it, or not, He is, indeed, “the Lord of the Song.” Not just Cohen’s song. But the song of each of our lives. And we have a choice. We can say, “Hallelujah,” willingly, trusting His goodness, or begrudgingly but resigned and in awe. Or . . . we can say it against our will. But rest assured, we will say it.
Granted, the word “Hallelujah” is not a depressing, morbid expression; rather, it is the very essence of exuberance and praise. But its flavor is determined by the heart and mind of the man or woman expressing it. It is a resignation and a bowing to what is, be that joyful or tearful; a complete submission, a yielding to the one and only Sovereign God.