CONTRADICTION OR CONFIRMATION?

Having carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I also have decided to write an accurate account for you, most honorable Theophilus, so you can be certain of the truth of everything you were taught. [Luke 1:3-4 (NLT)]

Both Matthew and Luke tell the story of the Roman centurion so confident in Jesus’ power to heal his servant from afar that he told Jesus just to say the word. Although their versions differ, that does not necessarily mean they are faulty or false. Let’s see if we can reconcile their differences.

In Matthew’s version, the centurion personally sought Jesus’ help but Luke says he sent some Jewish elders on his behalf. From a 1st century viewpoint, however, there is no discrepancy. When an intermediary acted or spoke for someone, it was as if he’d done it himself, just as the Secretary of State or press secretary can speak for the president. Both versions say the centurion sought Jesus’ help and Luke merely explained that he did this through his representatives. While today’s Bibles use quotation marks, they were unknown to Scripture’s writers so the centurion’s words are not necessarily a direct quote. While Luke’s account is more detailed, both can be true.

The central point of both versions is Jesus’ amazement at the centurion’s faith in His authority and His words, “I tell you the truth, I haven’t seen faith like this in all Israel!”  While both gospels repeat the centurion’s words about his unworthiness and Jesus’ ability to heal, Luke says Jesus started to the centurion’s before being stopped by those words but Matthew never said He started out. Matthew, however, does report that Jesus said He’d come and, since he never said Jesus didn’t start walking, both versions can be correct, especially since they both mention a crowd following Jesus. Again, in spite of their differences, neither version really contradicts the other.

While Matthew repeats Jesus’ words that many Jews would be excluded from the Kingdom, Luke doesn’t. Luke, on the other hand, gives us details about the centurion when Matthew doesn’t. That, however, doesn’t mean that one account is incorrect—just that the authors chose what to include. An explanation for their choices can be found in the identity of the writers. Although the gospels were written for all Christians, with his emphasis on prophetic fulfillment, frequent references to Hebrew Scripture, and focus on Jesus’ work within Galilee among the Jews, Matthew’s gospel is geared toward Jews. Any account of this encounter directed toward a Jewish audience would surely pass along Jesus’ warning to them.

The Gentile Luke addressed his gospel to Theophilus, another Gentile (possibly a new covert). His account was written for a larger predominately Gentile audience to spread the truth that the Messiah came for all nations. Rather than repeating Jesus’ warning to the Jews, He chose to elaborate about the centurion’s good character and explain why Jews would speak on his behalf.

Finally, if the gospel of Matthew was written by Matthew the disciple (as the early church held and a growing number of Biblical scholars believe), his would be a first-hand account told from his viewpoint. Luke, however, consulted several eyewitnesses, maybe even the centurion or those who spoke on his behalf, so his perception would vary from Matthew’s.

By carefully reading both accounts of this encounter, we get a fuller picture of the event, just as we did yesterday by reading all of the reports about that Chicago plane accident. When we come across what appear to be contradictory stories in the Bible, a closer examination will show that they are complementary. 19th century theologian Charles Hodge said, “The best evidence of the Bible’s being the word of God is to be found between its covers. It proves itself.” Indeed, it does.

For when we brought you the Good News, it was not only with words but also with power, for the Holy Spirit gave you full assurance that what we said was true. [1 Thessalonians 1:5a (NLT)]

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WITHOUT ERROR

All scripture is breathed by God, and it is useful for teaching, for rebuke, for improvement, for training in righteousness, so that people who belong to God may be complete, fitted out and ready for every good work. [2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NTE)]

Since God can’t err and the Bible is His word, we’re left with the conclusion that the Bible is without error. While we’re not Christian apologists, there will be times when we are called on to defend its integrity. Scripture is God-breathed but, for the most part, the writers did not serve as stenographers recording His exact words. They were human beings, with distinctive personalities, writing in their own style, from their perspective, and using the language of their day. Nevertheless, even though God used men to do the writing, He inspired the words they wrote. The truth in Scripture comes from God, not from the men who penned the words.

In stories like the healing of the Roman centurion’s servant or the women at the tomb on Easter morning, we find different versions of the same event but it’s a mistake to assume different means incompatible or false. An article published by the CrossExamined ministry comparing five actual press reports of the same Chicago accident demonstrates how different accounts of the same event can appear contradictory when they aren’t. The first one, by AP, reported an airplane plane sliding off the runway, crashing through a boundary fence onto Central Ave., hitting a car, killing a child in that car, and pinning another car underneath it. Never mentioning crashing through a fence, the second account referred only to the car in which the passenger died, identified the fatality as a 6-year old boy, placed the accident at 55th and Central, and noted that no passengers on the plane were seriously injured. Rather than a fence, the third account referred to a security wall, said the plane hit two cars, didn’t name either street, and, while reporting a child’s death, never mentioned he was a passenger in one of the cars. In the fourth account, Reuters reported the airplane’s destination, made no mention of hitting cars or a child’s death, and called it a security barrier rather than a fence or wall. The fifth account simply reported that a plane skidded off the runway and ended up at 55th and Central.

Which account, if any, is true? In spite of their differences, they’re all correct! As for what the plane went through—there was a wall that served as a security/noise barrier along with a fence and the plane crashed through them both. Whether the second car was hit or pinned was merely a matter of semantics. The reports of either one or two cars are both correct because where there are two, there always is one! No account ever said “only” one car was involved and none reported “only” one barrier/wall/fence. The absence of details in some accounts doesn’t invalidate their report and, while later accounts of the same incident gave more details (including that four others in another vehicle also were injured), the additional information doesn’t negate the validity of the first reports. A partial report is not a false one!

Deviations in a story do not necessarily mean errors or deceit. In fact, identical statements by multiple witnesses are more suspect than ones with slight variations. Because each witness has a unique viewpoint, multiple witnesses always mean slightly different accounts. A report of the crash from a passenger on the plane would differ from the pilot’s account or that of someone standing at 55th and Central; all of those would differ greatly from statements by the parents of the boy who died.

Just because the Bible is without error doesn’t mean it is without difficulties. While all of those original accident accounts are correct, if they were hand-copied several times, translated into another language, and copied again, chances are we’d eventually find a few unexplainable inconsistencies or minor errors. Although the Bible is God’s word, He only uttered the original text. Any mistakes we find today are man’s, not His!

If we are perplexed by any apparent contradiction in Scripture, it is not allowable to say, The author of this book is mistaken; but either the manuscript is faulty, or the translation is wrong, or you have not understood. … The pious inquirer will find all perplexity removed by a careful examination. [Augustine]

You must know this first of all, that no scriptural prophecy is a matter of one’s own interpretation. No prophecy, you see, ever came by human will. Rather, people were moved by the holy spirit, and spoke from God. [2 Peter 1:20-21 (NTE)]

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WITH JUST A WORD

I tell you the truth, I haven’t seen faith like this in all Israel! [Matthew 8:10]

Coming from a career in the military where, as the commanding officer, his word was law, my brother-in-law had a rude awakening when he retired from the Navy and returned to civilian life. If, at his word, a squadron of planes could be on the runway and ready for flight at 0700 sharp, he didn’t understand why the cable man or plumber couldn’t be counted on to arrive on time (let alone, at all)! Unfortunately, the power and authority he had as a commanding officer didn’t transfer to his new role as a private citizen.

Like my brother-in-law, the Roman centurion who asked Jesus to heal his servant was used to the power of his words. When the centurion spoke, he spoke with the emperor’s authority and he knew he didn’t need to be present to have his orders carried out by the 100 men he commanded. Recognizing Jesus as more than an itinerant rabbi, the centurion knew that, when Jesus spoke, He spoke with God’s authority. Like the centurion, Jesus didn’t need to be present to exercise His power—all that was needed was His command!

Typically, people were amazed by Jesus but, that time, Jesus was amazed by the centurion. Turning to the crowd around him, He commended the Gentile’s faith—saying he’d not seen so great a faith in the land. Reminding his listeners that the Kingdom of Heaven was open to everyone, both Gentile and Jew, He warned them that faith, rather than heritage, would determine attendance at the Messianic banquet and cautioned that some Israelites would not be there!

The only other time Scripture records Jesus’ amazement is when, after being scoffed and scorned in Nazareth, Jesus expressed amazement at his fellow Jews’ lack of faith. Mark tells us that was why Jesus could perform only a few healings (but no miracles) in his home town. The lack of miracles, however, doesn’t mean that Jesus didn’t have the power to perform them; it means that He chose not to do so in an atmosphere of unbelief. Rather than being subject to our faith, God acts in response to it! God’s power is unlimited but He will not force His blessings on those who don’t believe. Let us remember that the One who spoke the universe into existence is capable of far more than we can ask! The centurion had great faith in Jesus; we should follow his example!

And it is impossible to please God without faith. Anyone who wants to come to him must believe that God exists and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him. [Hebrews 11:6 (NLT)]

Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But not with God. Everything is possible with God.” [Mark 10:27 (NLT)]

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LOOK DEEPER

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” [1 Samuel 16:7 (ESV)]

carolina wrenYesterday, when writing about the lack of physical descriptions of Jesus, I realized how rarely Scripture describes anyone. Granted, we know that Goliath was huge, Saul was tall, Ehud was left-handed, Samson had long hair, Esau was hairy, Zacchaeus was short, that Sarah, Esther, and Rachel were beautiful, and that Leah was not. Those brief descriptions, however, were necessary to explain the narrative. Other than their ages, for example, we know nothing about the appearance of Noah, Abraham, or Moses and we don’t even know the ages of any of the disciples! Appearance, however, isn’t important to God.

1 Samuel 9:2 describes Saul as “the most handsome man in Israel—head and shoulders taller than anyone else in the land.” Looking kingly, however, isn’t qualification enough to be a king. After removing Saul’s kingship because of his disloyalty and disobedience, God sent Samuel to Jesse’s house to find and anoint Israel’s new king. Once there, the prophet took one look at Jesse’s impressive-looking eldest son Eliab and was sure he found the new monarch. When God rejected Eliab, Jesse lined up the rest of his sons and Samuel continued on down the line. Going about this selection process as would a casting director—by choosing someone who looked regal—Samuel seemed to have forgotten that Israel already had a king who looked the part. What they needed was someone worthy of the role.

When God rejected all seven of Jesse’s boys, Samuel asked if there were any more. He learned of the young David out herding animals in the fields. This youngest son was so far down the family’s pecking order that his father hadn’t even summoned him to the feast but Samuel insisted on sending for him. Although David is described as being pleasant looking, with beautiful eyes and a ruddy complexion, a young shepherd boy (no matter how handsome) doesn’t sound much like king material, but God told Samuel, “This is the one.”

God explained to Samuel that He doesn’t look at a man’s appearance; He looks at a man’s heart. With his pink-cheeks and beautiful eyes David may not have looked the part, but he had the makings of a king because he was what God wanted: a man after God’s heart. [13:14] While people see what a person appears to be, God sees who that person actually is!

In spite of our best efforts not to do so, like Samuel, we tend to categorize people by their looks and often allow age, physique, beauty, ethnicity, clothing, wealth, grooming, or style to outweigh substance. If God doesn’t judge people by appearance, I wonder why we so often do. Unlike God, we can’t immediately see what’s in a person’s heart but, when we estimate a person’s worth by his exterior, we often miss the opportunity to ever see into his interior! God calls us to live by faith rather than sight; perhaps we should apply those words to the way we view our fellow travelers on this planet. Let us remember Isaiah’s description of Jesus—the Messiah who had “nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance, nothing to attract us to him.” [53:2] That man was God’s son! If we saw Him on the streets today, would we write Him off as readily Jesse did his own son?

For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. [Isaiah 53:2-3 (ESV)]

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THE CAMEL AND THE NEEDLE (Part 2)

Jesus said to his disciples, “I’m telling you the truth: it’s very hard for a rich person to get into the kingdom of heaven. Let me say it again: it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.” [Matthew 19:23-24 (NTE)

camel-GCParadegrounds2wAfter the rich young ruler departed, Jesus compared the difficulty of a rich man entering heaven to a camel trying to squeeze through the eye of a needle. Because of its impossibility, people find this metaphor troubling. To rationalize it, some scholars speculate that a narrow gate called “The Needle” was located in the wall surrounding Jerusalem. Supposedly used after dark when the main gates were closed, it was so small that a camel had to be unburdened of rider and cargo before getting down on its knees to pass through the gate. They interpret the metaphor as meaning that people must leave behind their baggage, repent, and humble themselves to get through the gate to God’s kingdom. While that’s correct and their explanation makes an excellent Sunday school lesson, no historical or archeological evidence exists that such a gate existed.

Other scholars conjecture that the original word was kamêlos, meaning cable or rope, and a copying error caused it to be written kamilos, meaning camel. They prefer an interpretation that, while it may be extremely difficult to get a rope through a needle, it wouldn’t be impossible, especially if Jesus meant a large carpet needle. Be that as it may, it seems improbable that three gospels would have the same transcribing error.

Rather than trying to reason away the difficulty of getting a camel through a needle, perhaps we should take this hyperbole at face value and accept it for what it is—an impossibility! In fact, in the Babylonian Talmud, there is a Persian metaphor about the impossibility of an elephant going through the eye of a needle. Jesus’ listeners may well have been aware of the Persian saying and, since a camel was the largest animal known in Palestine, it would make more sense to Judeans than would an elephant! If we stopped at this verse, it really would seem that the wealthy are automatically barred from God’s Kingdom. But, if wealth blocked us from God, why would He return twice his original wealth to Job? When Zacchaeus gave away half of his wealth, why didn’t Jesus tell him to give away all of it?

The disciples would have been incredulous at Jesus’ metaphor. In their 1st century Jewish world, if anyone could enter God’s Kingdom, it would be a rich man. After all, he could buy all the sacrificial lambs he needed to atone for his sins, easily pay his Temple tax, freely drop money into one of the many Temple receptacles, and even give alms to the poor. If a rich man couldn’t enter the Kingdom, they asked who could.

It is in Jesus’ answer that we begin to understand the fullness of God’s grace: “Humanly speaking, it’s impossible. But everything’s possible with God.” [Matthew 19:26] What the rich young ruler couldn’t understand and the disciples needed to know was that, rich or poor, there is nothing any of us can do to buy our ticket to the Kingdom because God’s Kingdom doesn’t operate on a works or financial system. Salvation on our own terms is impossible.

When Jesus gave His “Sermon on the Mount,” He said, “Blessings on the poor in spirit! The kingdom of heaven is yours.” [5:3] He wasn’t speaking of those who were penniless. Jesus was speaking of those who recognize their spiritual bankruptcy—those who know they have nothing of their own to offer God—those who know how poor they are regardless of their bank balances or investment portfolios.

No man can purchase or earn God’s favor—the most we can do is receive God’s grace with a humble and contrite heart! Thinking that we are rich, however, will keep us from reaching out for that grace.

For you know the grace of our Lord, King Jesus: he was rich, but because of you he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. [2 Corinthians 8:9 (NTE)]

 You say, ‘I’m rich! I’ve done well! I don’t need anything!’ – but you don’t know that you are miserable, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. [Revelation 3:17 (NTE)]

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THE RICH YOUNG RULER (Part 1)

Someone came to Jesus with this question: “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” [Matthew 19:16 (NLT)]

Most of the Jews in Jesus’ day believed that God would never bestow wealth on a sinner so the rich young ruler presumed he’d inherit eternal life. Nevertheless, he asked Jesus what good deed was needed to guarantee it. While we might expect Jesus to give an answer about faith in Him, He tells the man to obey the commandments. When the man wants to know which ones, Jesus lists several of the commandments dealing with man’s relationship with man. The man, unable to recognize his own sinfulness, proudly claims to have obeyed every one since childhood. Assuming Jesus will tell him he’s done all that is necessary, he asks if there is anything else he needs to do. Thinking his prosperity is evidence of God’s favor, he’s stunned when Jesus tells him to sell all he owns, give the money to the poor, and then come follow Him. Unwilling to part with his possessions, the rich young man sadly departs.

Jesus, however, isn’t establishing a universal principle that, to be saved, we must all be penniless. After all, God never told Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, or Solomon to give away their wealth. Martha, Mary and Lazarus appeared to be people of means and Joseph of Arimathea was wealthy, but Jesus never told them to sell their possession and give everything away.

Although the rich man’s wealth obstructed his discipleship, the issue wasn’t his wealth: it was his heart! He loved and trusted in money more than God. Without even realizing it, this man who claimed to obey the commandments had violated the first and greatest one of all: “You shall have no other gods before me.” The man couldn’t put his faith in God and follow Jesus until he stopped having faith in and following his money! We can have only one God and He must take precedence over everything else in our lives!

While it was wealth that deterred the young man from following Jesus, their exchange was about more than wealth and applies to every one of us. Indeed, wealth can be a hindrance to our salvation, but so can a number of other things—things like reputation, appearance, status, security, family, education, profession, comfort, drink or drugs, science, sex, or self. Like the rich young ruler, do we love something more than God? What would He ask you to give away?

You must not have any other god but me. [Exodus 20:3 (NLT)]

No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and be enslaved to money. [Matthew 6:24 (NLT)]

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