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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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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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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WHAT REASON? (Part 1)

If you obey my decrees and my regulations, you will find life through them. I am the Lord. [Leviticus 18:5 (NLT)]

Ten COmmandments windowThe Ten Commandments are the foundation of both Jewish and Christian principles, conduct, and accountability, but they are just ten of the 613 mitzvot or commandments given to the Jewish people. In light of the big ten, many of those commands, such as using accurate scales and weights and fulfilling our promises make perfect sense as do prohibitions about speaking derogatorily of others or standing idly by if another person’s life is in danger. Moreover, laws regarding boundary markers, evidence, assessing property damages, and not perverting justice or accepting bribes certainly were necessary in a new nation. Some laws, like the ones regarding latrine placement, covering excrement, and making a guard rail around a flat roof seem reasonable from a health and safety viewpoint. Other laws may have served as a way to separate the Jews from their pagan neighbors. Perhaps it was because the Hittites, Elamites, and Sumerians were clean-shaven and the Egyptians often were clean shaven or had shaped goatees that Jewish men were not to trim the hair on their temples or shape their beards. Many laws, such as the intricate laws of sacrifice, the blue tassels on hems, reciting the Shema twice a day, and saying a blessing after meals, were related to worship and God.

Many of those laws, however, seem inexplicable. What, for example, makes land animals that don’t chew the cud and have completely split hooves (like the pig) unacceptable food? Why eat only fish with fins and scales but no shellfish or mollusks? If locusts can be eaten, why not ants? Why can’t linen be woven with wool? Why can’t a Nazarite eat grapes or raisins or cut his hair and why did every sacrifice require salt?

As I looked through these ancient laws and tried to understand God’s reasoning behind them, I missed the point. The first rule God made was the simple one he gave to Adam and Eve: don’t eat from that tree. Although He warned that death would be the result of disobedience, God didn’t explain His reasons for the prohibition because obedience to God isn’t supposed depend upon human reasoning. If we have to understand before we obey, rather than obedience, it becomes agreement and dependent on us! God, however, doesn’t require our understanding or agreement; He requires our obedience.

Abraham didn’t know where he was going when he packed up his family nor did he question God’s reasoning when he placed his son on a sacrificial altar. Building an enormous ark on dry land probably made no sense to Noah, wearing out his troops by marching around Jericho for a week seemed a questionable battle plan to Joshua, and Mary didn’t understand God’s reasoning behind her pregnancy; nevertheless, they all obeyed without understanding.

Obedience shows reliance and trust—an acceptance that God knows more than we can ever know or understand—that God is God and we are not! I don’t know God’s reasoning behind those mitzvot nor do I need to. It’s enough that God made them and expected the Israelites to abide by them. The only thing we must understand about God’s commands is that they are divinely decreed and, as such, are to be unquestionably obeyed. Rather than leading us away from God’s blessings, obedience will lead us to them.

Loving God means keeping his commandments, and his commandments are not burdensome. [1 John 5:3 (NLT)]

Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding.  Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take. [Proverbs 3:5-6 (NLT)]

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RENDERING UNTO CAESAR (Part 1)

And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away. [Matthew 22:20-22 (ESV)]

The Pharisees and Herodians set out to trap Jesus into saying something that would offend either the people or Rome. By prefacing their question with flattery about His impartiality and integrity, they pressured Him into giving an answer to their politically charged question—was it right to pay taxes to Caesar. The tax about which they were asking was the tributum capitis, a sort of head tax that had to be paid by every male over fourteen and every female over twelve. Already heavily taxed by Rome, this tax was especially hated by the Judeans because they saw it as a symbol of their servitude and submission to their foreign rulers. 

Jesus’ questioners were sure they’d backed Him into a corner where He’d offend people regardless of His answer. If He said to pay taxes to Caesar, He would be denying God’s sovereign reign over Israel, supporting the hated Roman rulers, and alienating his fellow Jews. On the other hand, if He said not to pay taxes, Jesus would offend Rome and lay himself open to a charge of treason. Requesting to see a denarius, Jesus exposed his questioners’ hypocrisy when they had one. No truly devout Jew would carry a Roman coin with its idolatrous portrait of Tiberius Caesar and inscription that called him the “son of the divine Augustus.” Instead of falling into their trap, Jesus then employed a typical rabbinical technique by answering their question with one of his own. He asked whose picture was on the coin. They had to admit it was the emperor’s. Since, in the ancient world, an image on an object indicated ownership, it clearly belonged to Caesar. “Therefore,” said Jesus, “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Caught in their own trap, they didn’t yet understand that we can’t outsmart God!

On the surface, Jesus’ answer points out the obligations of dual citizenship—that obligations to both government and God must be fulfilled. Like Jesus’ questioners, we have a dual citizenship and, as citizens of both the Kingdom of God and our nation, we must fulfill our obligations to both. We are to render to whatever Caesar is in power that which is his without turning from our obligations to God. Hidden in Jesus’ answer, however, is the idea that Caesar is only entitled to what is his; he cannot claim what belongs to God! In both Jewish and Christian theology, however, God has dominion and authority over everything. In short, all things belong to God!

Nevertheless, when loyalty to government is not incompatible with loyalty to God, it appears that support of the state is part of being obedient to the Lord. Like it or not, today is tax day and, unless you filed for an extension, today is the last day to do your rendering unto Washington!

For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. [Romans 13:6-7 (ESV)]

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