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The Reliability of Scripture

Saturday, March 19, 2022

The sum of your word is truth,

and every one of your righteous rules endures forever.

Psalm 119:160

One of the most common questions people ask concerning the Bible is how we know with any degree of certainty that our modern English translations are anything close to what the original authors wrote (the autographs). Beneath this question lies a number of skeptical assumptions: The texts have been copied and recopied so many times that errors must have crept in at some point. Those errors would then be compounded over a 2,000 year-long game of “telephone.” Add to that the translation from one language to another and you end up with a recipe for inaccuracy.

Another common question is how we came to have only these 27 books in our New Testament while other writings were left out. What if those other books, such as the “gospel of Thomas” or those attributed to Judas, James, Nicodemus and Peter, are “inspired” writings too? Who gets to determine canonicity anyway? Is our current New Testament just a result of ecclesiastical politics? Let’s briefly address these questions.

Text and Translation — We have over 5,700 handwritten Greek manuscripts of part or all of the New Testament today. These range from small scraps with a few verses to completed copies of the New Testament. This large body of textual resources continues to grow (in number and in the amount of text represented) and stretches from the early second century to the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century. In addition, we have over 15,000 translations (which all required a source) and the writings of early Christians (which quote the New Testament extensively). In terms of manuscript evidence, we have an “embarrassment of riches.” We are not 2,000 years removed from the original documents but, in some cases, only a few decades (Google John Ryland’s papyrus P52 and you’ll see what I mean). This means transmission and translation of the text was no “telephone” game.

When compared with one another, textual critics find a remarkable degree of agreement between the manuscripts which speaks to the great care and accuracy with which they were copied. Most of the textual variants (the differences between them) are due to alternate spellings, the accidental omission or repetition of a letter, the substitution of a word with its synonym, etc. None of these variants change the message or meaning of Christianity in the least.

The formation of canon — Lists of books believed to be canonical (on par with the Hebrew Scriptures as God’s inspired word) were compiled as early as the second century. This was necessary to distance them from heretical Gnostic writings such as the so-called “Gospel of Thomas” and others previously mentioned. As time drew on, agreement on the number the books considered canon grew, until they were formally listed by Athanasius in AD 367. While the second-century writings of the early “church fathers” were considered (and rightly dismissed), the Gnostic writings were never even considered serious candidates for inclusion.

When held up to the 27 books which comprise our New Testament, these writings failed to meet the major criteria set by those councils: apostolicity (that a book was either written by an apostle or a close associate with an apostle), coherence (not contradicting previously accepted Scripture) and catholicity (widespread acceptance by the early Christian community). These apocryphal writings fair no better today. They lack both the historical and textual witness of the originals as well as the content and structure of the originals. For example, they say nothing of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection, the very heart of the gospel message (1 Cor. 15:3-4). We have no reason for placing any confidence in those extra-canonical books and every reason for confidence in the 27 books we do have.


Saturday, March 12, 2022

How long will you lie there, O sluggard?
    When will you arise from your sleep?
A little sleep, a little slumber,
    a little folding of the hands to rest

Proverbs 6:9-10

The "sluggard" is a figure of "tragi-comedy" (Derek Kidner): comedy because he is funny; tragedy because only sin can so debase a person. The image bearers of God were not meant to yawn through life. The wise are meant to read Proverbs and see their own inner sluggard (1:5-6), telling them to sleep when they should rise, rest when they should work, and eat when they should move. The wise know the sluggard is not an abnormality but an ordinary person who has made too many excuses. Laziness develops as imperceptibly and pleasantly as falling asleep. Let's look at four sayings of our inner sluggard.

"I need just a little more" (Prov. 6:9-11; 24:30-34; 19:24). These words are the sluggard's favorite response to wisdom. Laziness often lies behind that seemingly innocuous phrase "just a little more." What harm could a little do? What is one more snooze cycle? One more refreshing of the social media timeline? One more episode? Not much by itself, perhaps, but ten thousand "little mores" piled on top of one another amounts to quite a lot. Sluggards develop habits one small surrender at a time.

But this works both ways. Diligence develops habits by facing one small unpleasant task at a time. "A little labor, a little energy, a little moving of the hands to work" gets the job done. Instead of stacking up small surrenders, the diligent stack small successes by the strength which God supplies. Over time, how we handle the little things has a big effect (Mt. 25:23).

"I can do it tomorrow" (Prov. 20:4; 19:15; 24:30-34). If the sluggard's conscience should protest against "just a little more," he has another word at his disposal that rarely fails: tomorrow. In Palestine, autumn is the season for plowing and planting while summer is the season of the harvest. For some reason, "the sluggard does not plow in autumn" (perhaps, as the KJV suggests "by reason of the cold"). He justifies putting off work in the hope he could always do it tomorrow. But then he wakes up with nothing. The time for planting and plowing has passed. Tomorrow came but by then it was too late. 

We often do this. The conversation we should initiate today or the forgiveness we should seek today is put off until tomorrow. Whatever is put off today is harder to seek tomorrow. We may find that the opportunity has slipped away. Wisdom teaches us to take the farmer's view of life. That is, we must take advantage of the season rather than living by our feelings. We can't finish a work we never start (Prov. 14:23). We are not promised tomorrow anyway (Jas. 4:14). Therefore, the old adage is true: "don't put off for tomorrow what can be done today."

"I would be putting myself at risk" (Prov. 22:13; 26:13). Indulging a bad excuse is a little like feeding a pigeon: give bread to one and more will come. Bad excuses breed bad (and worse) excuses over time. When a loved one refuses to entertain the sluggard's "littles" and "tomorrows," he takes more radical measures: "haven't you seen the lion roaming the streets? I'll die!" It sounds absurd but "laziness is a great lion-maker. He who does little dreams much" (Spurgeon). There is no shortage of dangers, real or imagined, in the world which the sluggard can use to excuse himself from his duties. If there is something we don't want to do our inner sluggard will concoct an excuse. 

On the other hand, wisdom teaches us to prioritize our duties with no excuses. If something is truly important to us, we will find a way to see it done. This involves taking some risk but, as with all important things in life, the greater risk would be doing nothing. We should never avoid doing what ought to be done because it is "dangerous" or "risky." "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a living God" (Heb. 10:31). We must fear God above any potential risk for doing what is right (Mt. 10:28). 

"You don't know the pressures I'm under" (Prov. 26:12-16). The sluggard disguises his laziness with euphemisms. He is not a shirker but a realist (v.13); he is not self-indulgent but just not a morning person (v.14); he is not lazy but doesn't want to be rushed (v.15); he even regards himself as wise (v.12). Our laziness often becomes apparent when we try to defend ourselves against it. Self-pity is another favorite excuse because the sluggard's work is always the hardest work, his excuses are the best excuses, his diversions are the most reasonable diversions - no matter what others might say. 

But the wise learn to be distrustful of their own hearts (Jer. 17:9). They "lean not" on their own understanding but trust in the Lord (Prov. 3:5). Rather than responding to challenges with the self-pitying excuse "Don't you see my burdens?" they remember their proneness to folly and learn to ruthlessly condemn their inner sluggard.

Christ provides us with the pattern for all things. He was not a "workaholic" (he knew how to rest, feast, sleep, and enjoy himself) but he also knew how to work. Scripture speaks of the "steadfastness of Christ" (1 Thess. 3:5), his diligence in working while it was day (Jn. 9:4). He plowed in the autumn, forsaking every excuse, and reaped in due season. He never cried out "Lion!" but walked into the lion's den for us (Psa. 22:21). Therefore, Paul tells the sluggard, "Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living." (2 Thess. 3:12).

Four Portraits, One Jesus

Saturday, March 05, 2022

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Mark 1:1

Our New Testament begins with the books Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which are sometimes called “the Gospels.” However, it would be more appropriate to call them “The gospel according to Matthew, Mark…” etc. because there is only one gospel message (Gal. 1:6-9). The word “gospel” (= “good news”) is used to describe the message of God’s saving act in his Son (Mk. 1:1, 14-15; Rom. 1:16; 1 Cor. 15:1). Not until Justin in the second century were these accounts referred to as “the Gospels,” their own literary genre.

Though they lack some key features of traditional histories and biographies (for example, there is not much said about Jesus’ childhood and they do not always adhere to strict chronology), they best fit within these categories and give us a helpful framework to understand them. Though each account is unique, they all start, in some way, with the beginning of Jesus’ work on earth and end with his crucifixion and resurrection. This separates them from second and third century documents like the so-called “gospels” of Thomas or Peter which were written later and ascribed to the apostles.

If there is only one gospel message, why then do we have four similar but unique accounts of the same story? Over the years, Christians have attempted to answer this by “harmonizing” the four books in order to reconstruct the life of Jesus into a more complete picture. While this approach can be very helpful, we should also learn to view and appreciate each book on its own merit. 

In our quest to understand them, we must remember that each book functions on its own as a piece of literature. These four authors were as much theologians as they were historians. They did not merely “cut and paste” other sources together nor did they mechanically transcribe golden tablets that fell from the sky. God’s message is heard through four unique voices that reflect their own individual personality, writing style, experience, purpose and unique audience.

Therefore, we must approach each one as (1) historically reliable, (2) theologically charged, and (3) God-breathed (inspired). Each author put in a great deal of effort to write their account (Lk. 1:1-4). Those efforts, however, were superintended by God’s Spirit so that the final product was exactly what God wanted to communicate to his people (2 Pet. 1:21). God’s involvement and oversight of the writing process is what makes these texts “sacred” and “God-breathed” (1 Cor. 2:6-16; 2 Tim. 3:16-17). Scripture, then, is the result of the collaborative efforts of God’s Spirit and human authors.

One helpful way to appreciate each book is given below:

How deep: Matthew — Matthew was a Jew writing to Jews to show the depth of the gospel. He quotes extensively from the Old Testament to demonstrate how Jesus fulfills Jewish prophecy.

How wide: Luke — Luke was a Gentile writing to Gentiles to show the width of the gospel. He emphasizes the universal scope of God’s plan in welcoming Gentiles and outcasts into the kingdom.

How high: John — John shows the cosmic height of the gospel. His unique introduction, followed by a series of miraculous signs and accompanying discourses, emphasizes Jesus as the divine Son of God.

How low: Mark — Mark shows the lowliness of the gospel. He challenges Greek misconceptions about the Messiah by emphasizing Jesus’ authority in the first half of the book and then his suffering in the last half leading to his crucifixion.

What is Truth?

Saturday, February 26, 2022

“What is truth?” said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer. — Francis Bacon

Truth is commonly believed to be subjective, a matter of perspective that depends on one’s culture, society, ethnic group, gender and other contingent factors. Many believe no one worldview can rightly claim to be true because there are many truths. Things are only “true” if they are meaningful to the individual. This post-modern view of truth is detached from objective and knowable reality.

The difficulty for us who follow Christ is two-fold. First, our culture is increasingly pressuring us to adopt its diminished and warped view of truth when our Christian faith cannot coexist with such a view. If the gospel is news at all, let alone good news, it must be true. This means it must report facts and correspond with objective and knowable reality. The apostle Paul makes this point concerning Christ’s resurrection from the dead. If Christ has not been raised then our faith is empty and we are the most miserable creatures on earth (1 Cor. 15:14-19). He stakes everything on the objective truth that Jesus’ resurrection is an historical fact. If this is not objectively true then the entire Christian faith is irrelevant.

Second, it is challenging to communicate a faith based on objective truth to an audience who doesn’t believe in objective truth. But we can’t effectively persuade our post-modern neighbors to see the truth of the gospel if we do not have a firm handle on it ourselves. So we ask, as Pilate once did, “What is truth?”

For a statement to either be true or false, it must first be meaningful and intelligible. For example, the statement “Rocks explode” is neither true nor false, because it is nonsensical even though it is grammatically correct. The statements “There is one God,” “There are many gods,” and “There is no God” are all meaningful but they cannot all be true. Each statement is making a meaningful claim but they may or may not correspond to reality.

Second, for a statement to be true it must correspond to reality, it must be factual. Facts determine the truth of a statement. We may be entitled to our own opinions but we are not entitled to our own facts. Believing a statement is one thing but that statement being true requires some proof to back it up. The statement “Al Gore won the 2000 U.S. presidential election” is false because it does not correspond to reality.

The statement “Jesus lived in ancient Palestine” is true because it corresponds with objective history. But what about statements made in the future tense like “Jesus will come again”? This statement is more difficult to prove because it is an assertion about a future event. It is certainly meaningful and it is either true or false; Jesus will either return or not, the two statements are antithetical.

Can we rationally believe this statement with the same degree of conviction as those concerning the past? We can and should  believe it because God has given us sufficient reason by keeping his many prophetic promises in the Old Testament. God’s faithfulness in keeping past promises should give us confidence to trust him to keep his future promises. God is consistent and is a God of truth and not falsehood. He does not contradict himself and cannot deny himself or lie. His word is truth (Psa. 119:160; Jn. 17:17) and his word always corresponds to reality.

In the same way, moral statements in Scripture are true because they match reality. The statement “Adultery is wrong” is true because it corresponds with the objective moral law of God which is grounded in his own perfect moral character. This statement is not verified by appealing to historical fact but rather moral fact.

Whatever postmodern wind of doctrine blows against us, Christians must hold to the anchor of God's truth.

Honest & Humble Evangelism

Saturday, February 19, 2022

For our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts. For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness.

1 Thessalonians 2:3-5

The defense of Christianity as objectively true, rationally compelling, and subjectively engaging plays an important role in evangelism. When engaging in apologetics, we are to persuade people of the truth of the gospel with rationally sound arguments. God calls us to love him with all our “mind,” as well as with our “heart” and “soul,” which necessitates an intellectual dimension to our devotion to God (Mt. 22:37). The Christian faith is a thinking, rational faith.

Since this is so, part of our approach to evangelism must be to help remove the intellectual obstacles that hinder others from coming to Christ. Therefore, apologetics is always in service to evangelism.

But we must be cautious. Our persuasion must not, as Paul puts it, “spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive.” The weapons we employ “are not of the flesh” but are spiritual in nature and have “divine power to destroy strongholds” of faulty “arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor. 10:3-5). Therefore, we do not use personal threats, power plays, coercion or deception to achieve the goal of conversion. The means of evangelism must agree with the ends (conversion).

Instead, the methods we use to convince others flow from the Scriptures themselves. We speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15) with “wisdom from God” (1 Cor. 1:18-31) so that others may hear the gospel, believe it, and follow it. We tell the truth and leave the results to God who will judge the world in righteousness.

Jesus engaged in apologetics with his sharpest critics (for a series of good examples see Matthew 22). If he is our example in all things, we must follow his lead. Let us, as Jude says, “contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jd. 1:3). But let us do so honestly and with the utmost integrity. “The bad man with a good argument is only half-clothed. One may have a sword (arguments) but lack a shield (godly character), and thus become vulnerable and ineffective.” (Groothuis, Christian Apologetics p. 37).

Paul told the young evangelist Timothy to keep a close watch on his life as well as his teaching (1 Tim. 4:16). Therefore, humility is also essential in evangelism. Humility is not, however, intellectual timidity or uncertainty. One can be humble and convicted of the truth at the same time. If we grow in our ability to persuade others without growing in the grace of humility, we will become arrogant which will undermine all our evangelistic efforts. Paul was well aware of this when he said, “we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” (2 Cor. 4:7)

Another aspect of our humility in evangelism is our dependence on God through prayer. We cannot engage in anything for God without asking for his blessing and support first. Paul asked the Colossians to pray for his efforts to reach the lost (Col. 4:2-4). The church in Antioch prepared with prayer and fasting before sending Paul and Barnabas on their mission to preach the gospel throughout the Mediterranean world (Acts 13:1-3). We too must pray for wisdom when preparing to evangelize the lost.

Honesty and humility are indispensable to successful (i.e. biblical) evangelism. Success is not determined by the number of people converted but by whether or not we spoke the truth in love. We have been “entrusted with the gospel, so we speak not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts” (1 Thess. 2:4).

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