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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ALEXAMENOS

“I’ve said these things to you,” Jesus went on, “to stop you from being tripped up. They will put you out of the synagogues. In fact, the time is coming when anyone who kills you will suppose that they are in that way offering worship to God. They will do these things because they haven’t known the father, or me. But I have been talking to you about these things so that, when their time comes, you will remember that I told you about them.” [John 16:1-4 (NLT)]

Locarno-Madonna del SassowIn any cathedral or art museum, we’ll find many pictures of Jesus and even rather graphic depictions of Him on the cross. None of them, however, tell us anything about His appearance because they were created long after His time. Still, in a world where we seem to memorialize everything with pictures, you’d think one of Jesus’ followers would have sketched Him while blessing the children, giving the Sermon on the Mount, or feeding the multitude! 1st century rabbis in Judah, however, vehemently objected to the depiction of human figures because the second commandment prohibited making a “graven image.” With its Jewish roots, this prohibition carried into the early church and inhibited early Christian art.

At first, Jesus was represented indirectly by symbols such as the peacock, lamb, dove, and anchor. One of the most common was the ichthus (fish) because the Greek word served as an acronym “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” While making the sign of the cross dated from sometime in the second century, because of its connection with the horrific death of criminals, the cross did not became a symbol of Christianity until the 4th century; crucifixes and other depictions of the crucifixion did not occur until the 6th.

One earlier depiction of Jesus’ crucifixion, however, does exist. Crudely scratched into a stone wall, it was discovered in 1857 during an excavation of the Paedagogiumon (a school for the training of slaves) on Rome’s Palatine Hill. Dating from around 200 AD, it shows a man (or boy) worshiping a figure on a cross; the figure, however, has the head of an ass. The inscription reads, “Alexamenos worships his God.” This derisive graffiti gives us an idea of the way early Christians were ridiculed for worshiping a man who had been executed as a criminal.

Along with claims of onolatry (donkey worship), the early Christians had to deal with several other disparaging, malicious, and false accusations such as incest, cannibalism, and drinking the blood of infants. Roman orator Marcus Cornelius Fronto (c. 100-160) wrote that Christians were “initiated by the slaughter and the blood of an infant” and that Christianity was “foolish” because, “they worship a crucified man, and even the instrument itself of his punishment” and “are said to worship the head of an ass.”

This was the world—a world that misunderstood, slandered, ridiculed, hated and persecuted them—of the early Christians. And yet, they proceeded in faith and spread the gospel. I wonder how the 21st century church would do in similar circumstances! As for Alexamenos, the fellow mocked by that ancient graffiti—more graffiti was found on a wall in an adjacent room. In Latin it said, “Alexamenos is faithful.”  In the face of opposition, we must be the same!

Think back on those early days when you first learned about Christ. Remember how you remained faithful even though it meant terrible suffering. Sometimes you were exposed to public ridicule and were beaten, and sometimes you helped others who were suffering the same things. You suffered along with those who were thrown into jail, and when all you owned was taken from you, you accepted it with joy. You knew there were better things waiting for you that will last forever. So do not throw away this confident trust in the Lord. Remember the great reward it brings you! [Hebrews 10:32-35 (NLT)]

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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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IN ALL CIRCUMSTANCES

Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus. [1 Thessalonians 5: 18 (NLT)]

With his words, the Apostle Paul doesn’t give us any exceptions—we are to give thanks in all circumstance (rather than some or most and certainly not just in the ones we like)! Right now, however, I’m not feeling particularly thankful. In the span of a week’s time, two dear friends died—men that were like brothers to us. Distance and COVID meant that we couldn’t even grieve in person with their families. As I sit here tearfully, I realize that in the past eighteen months a dozen people who were important parts of our lives are no longer with us. Grief weighs heavy on my heart. When I consider my prayer list and the people on it who are struggling with the devastating aftereffects of a stroke or suffering from cancer, Parkinson’s, chronic pain, dementia, and heart failure, I realize that number will soon grow. I want to stomp my feet and shout at God that it’s not fair and ask Him how He expects me to give thanks!

As a Christian, I know I should be in a permanent state of thanksgiving for God’s grace in my salvation and I am thankful for that. It’s things like the suffering and loss in life that pose the problem for me. I should be reassured by the words of Romans 8:28 that, “We know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.” In theory, I know that even in the worst of circumstances, God can take a bad thing and make it work for a good purpose. I know He is in full control of all of life’s happenings and that He can put all of those horrible events together to achieve a beautiful God-designed purpose. Nevertheless, that knowledge is of little comfort to those who mourn. Finding comfort in Paul’s words is a great deal harder than repeating them.

That David could say he was “worn out from sobbing” and his vision was “blurred from grief,” [Psalm 6:7-6] tells me that neither grief nor calling out to God in sorrow means a loss of faith; sorrow is an unavoidable part of life. One thing that frequently keeps us from giving thanks in our grief is that pesky question of “why?” I’ve written enough about Job to know that I have no business asking why and that I’ll never know the answer. Yet, even knowing God’s reasons wouldn’t take away the sense of loss or make the grief disappear.

Where do we find the ability to give thanks? Perhaps by looking more closely at the Apostle’s words. Paul tells us to be thankful in everything not for everything. While there’s a fine line between the two, we don’t have to be thankful for things like heart attacks, strokes, car accidents, COVID, or cancer but we do need to have a grateful heart in the midst of those afflictions.

Giving thanks in all circumstances requires a change of heart. Without that change, we might stop crying, start smiling, and even laugh at times but something sour will begin growing in our hearts—bitterness, anger, resentment, or self-pity. Giving thanks is the only way out of the pit of grief; yet it seems impossible until I remember the simple truth that God is good. Regardless of the circumstances, He remains the same loving, wise, and good God that He always has been.

Pauls’ admonition to give thanks in all circumstances follows two other directives—to rejoice always and to pray continually. In prayer, I asked the Spirit for guidance, strength and peace and then listed the names of those for whom I mourn. Thinking of each one by name, I rejoiced in the privilege of having those beautiful people in my life—to have talked, worked, agreed, and disagreed with them—to have touched and been touched by them—to have both taught and learned from them—to have shared good times and bad, gain and loss, secrets, sorrow, and laughter with them—to have loved and been loved by them. As I thanked God for the blessing of bringing each and every one them into my life, I found that I am, indeed, thankful in even this circumstance!

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever.… You are my God, and I will praise you! You are my God, and I will exalt you! Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever.  [Psalm 118:1, 28-29 (NLT)]

And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. And always be thankful. [Colossians 3:15 (NLT)]

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WHEN FACED WITH A CHOICE (LIES – Part 3)

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. [Philippians 2:3-4 (ESV)]

coreopsisWhile writing about lies these last few days, I recalled Mark Twain’s Was it Heaven? or Hell?, a short story in which the principle of absolute truth is challenged by that of Christian love. The widowed Margaret and her 16-year old daughter Helen live with their two elderly maiden aunts, Hannah and Hester. The aunts are uncompromisingly strict in their moral code and any sort of lie is inexcusable. When Helen admits having told a small and harmless lie, the aunts demand that she confess to her mother who is ill in bed.

It is only after the doctor visits that the sisters learn that both Margaret and Helen have typhoid fever. When the doctor asks the sisters if any situation could be a valid reason for a lie, they maintain they’d never lie to shield a person from injury or shame—not even to save someone from pain or grief. Positive that any lie would cost them their souls, they vow never to tell a lie of any kind, not even one of courtesy, kindness or compassion.

Not knowing that her daughter is sick in bed, Margaret assumes Helen’s absence from her side is to prevent her from getting typhoid. When Margaret asks about the girl’s well-being, Aunt Hester hesitantly replies that Helen is well when, in fact, her health is rapidly failing. Learning of Hester’s deceit, Hannah reprimands her sister for lying but, the following day, when Margaret asks Hannah about the youngster, she also lies that Helen is well. Not wanting to give Margaret the cruel truth that her daughter is dying, the sisters regularly reassure her that Helen is happy and healthy. As the girl’s health further deteriorates, the aunts even forge cheery notes to reassure her sick mother. When Helen dies, the aunts continue to bring her mother news of the girl’s well-being and, to explain the noise during her wake, they even tell Margaret they’re having a party. When Margaret dies, Hannah and Hester agree that she was blessed never to have known of her daughter’s death.

At midnight, an angel of the Lord appears and says, “For liars a place is appointed. There they burn in the fires of hell from everlasting unto everlasting. Repent!” The women fall to their knees but, rather than repent, they say they’d tell the same lies again. The last words of the story ask this simple question, “Was it Heaven? or Hell?”

Mark Twain was not a Christian so he can be excused for not understanding that the sins of a Christian already are forgiven. Nevertheless, the underlying question remains—is every lie, no matter its reason or purpose, a sin? Were the sisters’ lies a sin or did their act of love trump the sin of a lie? After three days of writing about deception, I still don’t know the answer. While we have a God of truth, truth is not god! The Apostle Paul asked, “Am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God?” adding, “If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” [Galatians 1:10] If we come to a time when we have to choose between truth and deception, perhaps we should ask whose approval we are seeking and who we would be serving with our actions.

For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”… The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. [Galatians 5:13-14,22-23 (ESV)]

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THE GRAY AREA (Lies – Part 2)

Therefore, the proud may not stand in your presence, for you hate all who do evil. You will destroy those who tell lies. The Lord detests murderers and deceivers. [Psalm 5:5-6 (NLT)]

gray catbirdYesterday, when writing about notable liars in Scripture, I thought of other less commendable circumstances when people lied. When David was on the run from Saul, he arrived in the town of Nob and visited Ahimelech, the high priest. Although his purpose was to obtain food for his men and a weapon for himself, David blatantly lied and said he was there on a private matter for the king and lied again to explain being weaponless. Ahimelech, who didn’t know of the rift between Saul and David, gave David bread for his men along with Goliath’s sword.

While the lies told by Rahab, the midwives, and Elisha can be justified, David’s lies can’t and Scripture gives us no reason to think Ahimelech was an adversary. Rather than taking the easy way through deception, David should have trusted God, explained the situation honestly, and left it up to Ahimelech as to whether or not he would help.

David probably thought his deception harmless but it wasn’t! Saul’s chief herdsman, Doeg the Edomite, heard the exchange and reported it to the king. Misconstruing the priest’s aid to David as treason, Saul ordered the death of all the priests in Nob. Obliging the king, Doeg killed 85 priests and slaughtered everyone in their families. When David learned of the massacre, he regretted his action and learned a valuable but costly lesson about honesty and integrity.

Although the Doeg never lied, he failed to tell the whole truth. When reporting the priest’s aid to David, he neglected to mention that David lied to the priest. When Ahimelech tried to explain that he had no knowledge of any plot against Saul, Doeg had a second opportunity to clarify the situation, but he didn’t and his half-truth was as sinful as any lie!

Like Doeg, Samuel also told a half-truth. Although his real purpose was to anoint a new king when he arrived in Bethlehem, he said he came to offer a sacrifice. While misleading, his answer was truthful since he’d brought a heifer with him and did have a feast. The difference between his half-truth and Doeg’s was that God instructed the prophet to answer that way!

Nevertheless, people played fast and loose with the truth several times in 1 Samuel. Saul lied to Samuel about obeying the Lord’s command to completely destroy the Amalekites and all they owned when he only destroyed what was of little or no value. After planning a ruse to test Saul’s intentions toward David, Jonathon lied to his father about David’s whereabouts. Michal helped David escape from Saul’s men by making it look like her husband was asleep in his bed. When her subterfuge was discovered, she falsely claimed that David had threatened to kill her if she hadn’t helped. Twice, David deceived King Achish and the Philistines: first, by feigning madness and later by making the Philistines think him an ally who was raiding the Jerahmeelites and Judeans when he really was raiding non-Israelite allies to the Philistines. Saul later deceived the Witch of Endor about his identity.

Some of these lies and half-truths seem justified while others do not. Some seem incredibly self-serving and some served others. While some situations seem clear cut, many others aren’t. Is there a gray area between absolute and complete truth and outright deception? How do we know what is right? Let us continue to look to Scripture for our answer.

Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit; let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it. [1 Peter 3:10-11 (ESV)]

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