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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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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JUST DO IT (Part 3)

“Teacher, which command in God’s Law is the most important?” Jesus said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them.” [Matthew 22:36-40 (MSG)]

IMG_2710awDecades ago, I found an interesting article in a parenting magazine having to do with negative and positive commands. Because our brains tend to best process the end of a sentence rather than its beginning, when a mother says, “Don’t tease your sister,” the child tends to hear “Tease your sister!” Moreover, telling children not to do something requires them to double process. First, they have to figure out what it is they’re not supposed to do and then they have to figure out what it is they’re supposed to do instead! While there are an infinite number of alternatives to not doing something, there is only one alternative when told what to do! Since vague instructions like “Behave!” leave a lot of gray area, a clear course of action should be given.

I recalled that advice when writing about the 615 Old Testament mitzvoth. 365 of those laws were negative commands, one for every day of the year, and that’s a whole lot of “don’ts” and “shalt nots” to remember. Any reading of the Old Testament tells us the Israelites weren’t any more successful in obeying them than were my children when I told them not to do something.

Perhaps those psychologists were familiar with the Bible and the way Jesus put a positive spin on things when he summed up the law in the one word—love—and the two commands—love God and love your neighbor. Two direct laws, stated in a positive way, with no need to split hairs because there are no exceptions. Love—it’s what we do and the power of the Holy Spirit is how we do it

For years, I misunderstood Jesus’ words in Matthew 11 about taking on his yoke. Always anxious to unload my burdens and get some rest, I was happy to dump my problems on Him. This verse, however, isn’t about the burdens of our troubles and fears; it is about the burden of the law laid upon the Jews by the scribes and Pharisees. When following a set of laws is considered the path to salvation, it does, indeed, become a heavy burden. In contrast, Jesus’ yoke is easy because his teaching equips us to live our lives in God’s will. The yoke of discipleship is a light one; it is simply walking with Jesus and allowing him to teach us moment by moment how to live His way. Even though my initial interpretation was incorrect, that verse continues to give me comfort. If love leads my actions, I don’t have to worry about doing the wrong thing. Instead, when led by love, I become the right person—the person God wants me to be.

Don’t run up debts, except for the huge debt of love you owe each other. When you love others, you complete what the law has been after all along. The law code—don’t sleep with another person’s spouse, don’t take someone’s life, don’t take what isn’t yours, don’t always be wanting what you don’t have, and any other “don’t” you can think of—finally adds up to this: Love other people as well as you do yourself. You can’t go wrong when you love others. When you add up everything in the law code, the sum total is love. [Romans 13:8-10 (MSG)]

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COMPLICATING IT (Part 2)

For I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ. It is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes—the Jew first and also the Gentile. This Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight. This is accomplished from start to finish by faith. As the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.” [Romans 1:16-17 (NLT)]

tri-colored heronAmong the 613 mitzvot were laws about not adding to or detracting from the commandments. Unfortunately, man’s need for rules and regulations must be ingrained. Finding the original 613 laws an insufficient guide to Jewish life, the religious leaders stayed busy for the next several centuries clarifying the law by creating even more laws about how to keep the initial ones and then determining the proper way to atone for every infraction.

For example, finding the simple prohibition of work on the Sabbath too general, thirty-nine categories of work were created which led to sub-categories and then more laws about handling any of the implements used in such work. Among the work subcategories were sewing two stitches and hammering which meant handling needles or hammers on the Sabbath also was prohibited. There were, however, exceptions to the rules. If necessary, you could move a needle to open your prayer book and, if you had nothing else, a hammer could be used to crack nuts!

The laws in Leviticus said a priest with a physical defect could not serve in the sanctuary but, since a “defect” was not explicitly defined, 140 disqualifying physical blemishes were categorized that covered everything from head to toe (and even body odor). Even the size of a disqualifying mole was specified (but, if a mole had any hair, it was prohibited regardless of  size).

True to form, when an expert in religious law spoke with Jesus about the law of loving his neighbor, he wanted to define who his neighbor might be. While a fellow Jew surely would be a neighbor, what about a convert, an Edomite or an Egyptian? Would Moabites and Ammonites (who were barred from citizenship) be considered neighbors? And what about those hated Samaritans?

Interpreting those 615 laws became as difficult as understanding today’s complicated tax code. Eventually, it became more about doing a deed than following a creed—more about works than worship—rules than relationship—laws than love—penalties rather than penitence—and thinking it possible to save oneself rather than be saved.  Jesus brought a covenant that fulfilled the true intent and purpose of the law—one in which our salvation rests solely with God by grace through faith. There’s a lot we can do for ourselves but one thing we can’t do is to save ourselves by following rules. Salvation is God’s business; ours is getting saved, not by laws but by faith.

For Christ has already accomplished the purpose for which the law was given. As a result, all who believe in him are made right with God. [Romans 10:4 (NLT)]

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