PHARISEES AND SADDUCEES (Who’s Who – 1)

The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tried to catch him out by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. [Matthew 16:1 (NTE)]

magnoliaIf I mentioned the Rotary or Kiwanis clubs, used the acronyms AARP, NRA, or PETA, or referred to the #MeToo or BLM movements, today’s readers would understand my references but they’d be unfamiliar to a reader 2,000 years from now. That’s the difficulty we sometimes encounter when reading the New Testament. While the authors knew who they were talking about, the 21st century American often doesn’t.

1st century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus lists at least four main sects of Judaism—the Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, and Essenes. Although no group constituted a majority, each group claimed to possess the only truth. Since politics and religion were almost the same thing in the Palestine of Jesus’ day, we’ll get a better grasp of the hornet’s nest into which Jesus stepped when He began preaching if we know a little about the various religious and political groups He encountered.

The Pharisees are the group we know best. Having originated about 150 BC, they were comprised of people from all walks of life. Josephus reported that “the Pharisees have the multitude on their side.” Popular with the people and considered the highest religious authorities, these powerful men were influential in the local synagogues. They believed that God transmitted both the written law (the Torah) and an oral law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Believing both the written and oral laws of divine origin and equal importance, they demanded strict observance of both. Their leaders were called rabbis or teachers and often attracted followers or disciples. Jesus frequently censured the Pharisees and clashed with them about things like fasting, hand washing, their concept of the Sabbath, and temple contributions. While we tend to see them as legalistic hypocrites, not all Pharisees were phonies or opposed to Jesus; some even became His followers. Moreover, their emphasis on following Jewish rituals and traditions outside of the Temple kept Judaism alive after the Temple’s destruction in 70 AD.

The Sadducees were another religious group in Jesus’ day. Composed mostly of priests, they existed from about the 2nd century BC until the Temple’s destruction. Their political responsibilities included administering the Jews in Judea, collecting taxes in the temple, and regulating relations with the Roman Empire. Because they were backed by the rich and elite, the Sadducees tended to side with whomever was in power. Because they profited from Temple business, unlike the Pharisees, they weren’t popular. Josephus reported that “the Sadducees are able to persuade none but the rich, and have not the populace obsequious (obedient) to them.” It was the Sadducees Jesus criticized when he cleared the Temple’s outer courts of its market and money changers.

Believing solely in the authority of the written Torah, the Sadducees rejected the Pharisees’ oral traditions. Their difference can be seen in the way the two groups interpreted the law of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth….” [Exodus 21:24] Inflexible in their literal interpretation of the Torah, the Sadducees would demand the loss of an eye (tooth, hand, or foot) as punishment for causing such a loss to another person. With their oral tradition, the Pharisees interpreted the law figuratively and would only demand that an equal monetary compensation be given to the injured party. While both the Pharisees and Sadducees believed in mankind’s free will, the Pharisees differed in their belief that God had foreknowledge of man’s destiny. Pharisees believed in the existence of angels and spirits, that spirits could communicate with man, and in the resurrection of the dead during the Messianic age; the Sadducees did not.

What both groups did agree on was that Jesus was a threat to their positions and they joined forces against their common enemy. Sadly, each group was so sure they possessed the only truth, it never occurred to them that they could be wrong! They were so intent focusing on the Law that they missed the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecies when He was right in front of them!

“Well, well!” replied Jesus. “You’re a teacher of Israel, and yet you don’t know about all this? I’m telling you the solemn truth: we’re talking about things we know about. We’re giving evidence about things we’ve seen. But you won’t admit our evidence. … And this is the condemnation: that light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light, because what they were doing was evil.” [John 1:10-11,19 (NTE)]

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LEARNING FROM HENRY FORD

Live wisely among those who are not believers, and make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be gracious and attractive so that you will have the right response for everyone. [Colossians 4:5-6 (NLT)]

yellow-crowned night heronJust north of us are the winter estates of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. Along with their homes, gardens, and laboratory, is a museum. It was there that I first learned of the unlikely friendship between automobile pioneer Henry Ford and naturalist and essayist, John Burroughs. After Ford introduced his Model-T car in 1908, Burroughs, who was concerned about its effects on nature, called it a “demon on wheels” that would “seek out even the most secluded nook or corner of the forest and befoul it with noise and smoke.” Upset by the naturalist’s censure, Ford sent Burroughs a letter explaining his view that the automobile would connect people to the land and allow them to explore it rather than destroy and pollute it. Accompanying that letter was a new Model-T! “Out of that automobile grew a friendship,” Ford wrote in his memoirs.

The friendship lasted many years and Ford introduced Burroughs to Thomas Edison and tire manufacturer Harvey Firestone. In 1914, these four men, known as the “Vagabonds,” took their first of many camping trips and Burroughs learned first-hand how Ford’s “demon on wheels” made it possible to connect with the land. The Vagabonds called it camping but, being a famous author and titans of industry, they didn’t rough it. They were accompanied by a support staff that set up each man’s ten-foot-square tent (complete with cot and mattress), a customized truck with refrigerator and gas stove, personal attendants, film crew, a library, and a kitchen staff who prepared gourmet food. At night, Edison kept the campsite lit with lamps and a generator. While Ford demonstrated the auto’s ability to get man into the countryside, Burroughs taught him about the beauty of nature.

As fascinating as this tidbit of history is, this story of Ford and Burroughs also illustrates what good evangelism can look like. Granted, Ford was trying to sell cars rather than salvation, but there is much to learn from his method. Burroughs’ negative assessment of the car could easily have led to ill will, debate, and whatever was the early 20th century version of angry tweets. Instead, Ford simply showed Burroughs how it worked!

Christians aren’t superior, smarter, or more worthy than non-believers; we’re just blessed to have found a better way to navigate life through Jesus. Few of us are skilled apologists and most of the non-believers we meet aren’t interested in long theological arguments. Rather than reacting with an “I’m right and you’re wrong!” attitude, we can learn from Ford who extended the hand of friendship and found common ground with Burroughs in their love of the outdoors.

Ford started to “convert” Burroughs through exposure; perhaps we can do the same. Instead of giving a non-believer a car and taking him to the Everglades, we can present him with what authentic Christianity looks and sounds like in our actions and words. Rather than talking the talk, Ford showed Burroughs what it was like to drive a car into the wilderness. Rather than talking the talk about Jesus, Christians need to show non-believers what it’s like to walk as Jesus walked.

Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some. I do everything to spread the Good News and share in its blessings. [1 Corinthians 9:22-23 (NLT)]

And if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it. But do this in a gentle and respectful way. Keep your conscience clear. Then if people speak against you, they will be ashamed when they see what a good life you live because you belong to Christ. [1 Peter 3:15-16 (NLT)]

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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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IMITATING CHRIST

Instead, clothe yourself with the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. And don’t let yourself think about ways to indulge your evil desires. [Romans 13:14 (NLT)]

rue anemoneBecause of the Jewish prohibitions about images, I understand why no pictures of Jesus were drawn by His followers. Nevertheless, any decent author gives a minimal word picture of his characters but the gospels’ writers give us nothing. With Melville’s description of Captain Ahab’s gray hair, scarred face, and whale-bone peg-leg, we know more about the fictional whale hunter’s looks than we do about the real Jesus! The most we know about His exterior is found in Isaiah’s prophecy: “There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance, nothing to attract us to him,” [53:2] which describes most of us! Adjectives are few and far between in Scripture but the Bible isn’t a novel and its words were God-breathed not writer created. If God wanted us to know about Jesus’s appearance, He would have told us. After all, if we knew what Jesus looked like, wouldn’t we focus more on His looks rather than His words? Rather than wanting to emulate His character, we’d probably want to match His features—after all, He was God!

When Paul told the Romans to “put on” or clothe themselves with Christ, he wasn’t speaking of robes, sandals, beard or haircut. He was speaking of spiritual clothing—to take off our “dark deeds like dirty clothes, and put on the shining armor of right living.“ [13:12] While we know nothing of Jesus’ physical appearance, the New Testament writers gave us more than enough description of Jesus’ words and behavior to clearly picture the “shining armor of right living.” When we put on Christ, our minds and behavior transform so that our lives imitate His—so that, when people see us, they should see Him.

Below is an excerpt from the Epistle to Diognetus. While not part of the Christian canon, it is a valuable document. Written around 130 AD, the author calls himself Mathetes (meaning “disciple” in Greek) and claims to be a student of the apostles. Yesterday, I wrote of the misconceptions surrounding the early followers of Jesus. In Mathetes’ letter, he defends the doctrines of Christianity and describes Christian behavior to the “most excellent Diognetus.” In one chapter, Mathetes explains that, while Christians follow the ordinary customs of clothing, food and conduct, “they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life.” The lifestyle to which Jesus calls us has not changed since Mathetes’ time and yet, when reading his words, I wonder if anyone would describe today’s followers of Christ in the same way.

They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.

To sum up all in one word—what the soul is in the body, that are Christians in the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, yet is not of the body; and Christians dwell in the world, yet are not of the world.  [Epistle to Diognetus – translated by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson]

Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him. [Colossians 3:10 (NLT)]

Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy. [Ephesians 4:24 (NLT)]

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WHEN GOD MOVES A STONE (Easter – part 1)

On the way they were asking each other, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” But as they arrived, they looked up and saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled aside. [Mark 16:3-4 (NLT)]

Easter tombAlthough Jesus repeatedly predicted that He’d rise from the dead, the women didn’t bring clean clothes for a living man that Sunday morning when they went to the tomb. Instead, they brought burial spices of their own with which to anoint His dead body. Because of the Sabbath, Jesus’ burial was rushed and His body laid in a borrowed tomb. Although Joseph and Nicodemus had anointed Him, perhaps the women were concerned that, in the men’s haste to finish before sunset, they hadn’t done a proper job of preparing the body. The spices they brought would conceal the stench of decay and, out of love for Jesus, they wanted to complete the burial rites properly.

Not knowing about the guards Pilate had posted at the tomb, the women wondered how they would manage entry into it. Many Judean tombs were caves. The opening was covered by a large disc-shaped stone set into a groove cut in the bedrock. Getting the stone in place was fairly easy as it was rolled down a slight incline to cover the tomb’s opening. Several men, however, would be needed to roll it up the incline. “Who will roll the stone away?” they asked. Even though the women didn’t know how it would be done, they trusted that it could be done and proceeded in faith.

For a moment, consider that heavy stone at the cave’s opening. It was impossible to remove from within the tomb but it wasn’t removed so Jesus could exit the tomb. The Messiah who raised the dead, walked on water, and healed the sick certainly didn’t need anyone to move the stone for Him. Regardless of size, no boulder could block the way of the one whose resurrection meant that death had been conquered. That stone wasn’t moved so He could get out; it was moved so that His followers could get in, find the tomb empty, and share the good news!

The women didn’t let their reservations about moving the stone stop them from going to the burial site and serving their Lord. What about us? When we are called to serve Him, do we worry about the stones that might block our way and allow them to stop us? Let the Easter story remind us that, just as that stone was removed for the women so they could tell the good news, God will remove the barriers blocking our way from sharing the resurrected Christ!

Then the angel spoke to the women. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead, just as he said would happen. Come, see where his body was lying. And now, go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and he is going ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there. Remember what I have told you.” [Matthew 28:5-7 (NLT)]

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