The early 20th Century had a lot of controversy. The Evolutionary Theory seemed to knock people off guard and the reliability of Scripture was called into question. Controversies, however, are nothing new.
Christianity has always had to confront challenges. Whether it was from the early days of the Church, where Roman scholars vociferously argued against Christianity, or in the era of the Scope Monkey Trial, Biblical scholarship has had to answer big questions. In the case of this current post, emergence of conflicting gospel accounts seem to make the Four Gospels merely four opinions selected out of dozens of other narratives of Jesus. Isn’t it possible that Dan Brown is right and that Christianity squelched the truth of the gospels of Thomas or Judas?
In short, no.
The other gospels like Thomas and Judas were written much later than the Four Gospels found in the New Testament (and many of the key texts used to showcase the positive aspect of Judas were hastily made with bad translations). According to the earliest dated documents written concerning Jesus of Nazareth, the Apostle Paul seemed to have a very high view of Jesus. The Four Gospels found in the New Testament were more than likely written in the First Century and captured the early Church’s perspective on Jesus.
Quite frankly, those who might hold up contradictory new gospels like Thomas or Judas do so because they don’t like what the New Testament figure has to say about a variety of things. A Jesus of nice moral platitudes that our Founding American Fathers liked so much is easier to follow than a messianic figure who equated himself with God. As the earliest NT writer would say two decades after the crucifixion, the gospel is for our justification and promises restoration of the world one day. Having a fortune cookie version of Jesus is much safer than the Jesus found in the New Testament.
There will be a time where a follower of Christ will be confronted with questions about the Bible. Defending the reliability of Scripture can be important in certain contexts. However, sometimes defending the faith can be used in an abusive manner (see The Good, Bad, And The Ugly Of Apologetics), which is not good (just in case you didn’t know). Apologetics should never be used as a hammer. But for those occasions when an individual has a legitimate question, we truly do need to be able to give a reason for the hope that lies within us. We need to be able to answer legitimate questions.
Where fundamentalism gets it wrong is that they defend the faith at all times without smiling. Have you ever noticed that? Those people on the street corners holding those big signs, the ones that stand there shouting at you entering into a baseball game or walking down the pier. I agree that this is serious stuff, but to stand there angry is not good. Defending the Bible as God’s Word is a good thing, but using it as a hammer at all times is not always the best thing. Sometimes it needs to be a precise scalpel, a warm cloth, or a piercing sword.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. (Revelation 21:1-6)
When we hear or read about events in Revelation, what comes to mind? Usually it’s Left Behind or some apocalyptic scenario starring Kirk Cameron.
But let me suggest something different. Do me a favor and read that passage over.
It’s pretty startling isn’t it? It caught my eye because it is painting something new. A different story is being described to us. Something that is so new that I don’t quite know what to make of it.
Don’t get scared by the different imagery found in Revelation though. Revelation simply means an unveiling. It’s a revealing of what once was hidden to several First Century Church, placing world events into a new light. It’s like, while my wife and I knew that we had a child on the way, we chose to reveal what once was hidden to the world to our families and friends. We chose to reveal a hidden reality to others and it helped inform their frame of reference
Here in the final portion of the Bible, we are given a glimpse into the future. Here in the Revelation that was given to John, we are shown what it looks like when God moves into the neighborhood. That the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, will come down and establish its roots on this new earth. God’s dwelling place was made among the people.
We already had a glimpse of God moving into the neighborhood, when Jesus walked in ancient Palestine. While that was temporary and only lasted for a few decades, this time it is permanent. This time is when God pays cash for the house on the corner and invites the neighborhood over for a barbecue.
Did you catch what happens when God moves into the neighborhood? Check out the passage one more time and sit with it for awhile. We are given the image that God himself (!) will wipe away every tear from their eyes. God himself will look gently into their eyes, and will use the hands that formed the universe to comfort his people.
This is who God is. He’s not some philosophical construct, some wise Buddha or cosmic butler. No, he is deeply personal. The one who will wipe away our tears and call us his children, this same one will also declare that he has made all things new– including our broken lives.
This same God who started the story back a gazillion years in the past will complete it. The same Lord who declared “it is finished” on the cross will say “It is done” when the new Jerusalem is established. This is God’s character, this is what he is like. He will wipe away your tears, and he will make all broken things new. That is God’s eternal character.
How do you see God’s character?
Have you ever had those moments where you were put on the spot and had to say something? Only, when you were in that tight place, you froze and said nothing. Or maybe you said the exact opposite of what needed to be said. Isn’t that an awkward feeling?
For me, I remember being asked a question about Jesus, and being in a large group it was a little unnerving. I choked, didn’t really say a whole lot and the conversation continued onto other things. To be honest, it plagued me for a bit of time and I felt like I turned on my faith.
Perhaps you’ve had a similar situation confront you. You might have said exactly what needed to be said, or maybe it went down a trail that was completely unexpected. But if you have ever been in a place of denying or choking in the moment, I have good news for you.
You are not defined by your denial.
We are told that Peter, days after the resurrection story in John, was fishing out on the sea. He and his crew were doing the same thing they’ve always done and caught zero fish. Then emerged some figure on the distant shore, and this figure yelled out at the group. Faintly hearing the man, the crew listened and tossed the nets onto the other side of the boat. They caught so many fish that the net could not even be dragged into the boat!
Now, what would you do in this situation?
We are told they realized that it was Jesus, the one who was brutally executed days before this. Somehow by the power of God, he was raised three days later in bodily form.
After hearing the command, and then seeing the large amount of fish, Peter jumped into action. Peter, hearing the voice of the rabbi he followed for years, couldn’t wait for the ship to make its way to the shore. Instead, he dove into the sea, racing towards the shore.
I imagine a scene where Peter emerges from the sea dripping wet, and the other men sailing not too far behind. Then Jesus punches Peter in the face.
Oh wait, he didn’t do that. Oops.
Jesus didn’t react how I would have. No, Jesus called them into a private meal, he called them to share breakfast with him. It is here, in this scene on the beach, that Jesus spoke directly to Peter. He confronted him about the denial, but notice it’s not in this brutally condemning manner. He is telling him, “Peter, your past denials do not define you.”
Jesus did not forget the denials, he didn’t whitewash them. No, instead, he did not allow those to be the frame of reference for Peter’s life. Jesus is reconstituting Peter into a different story, one where he was a brave leader in the Early Church. One where he faithfully followed Christ, even if the result was being crucified upside-down. Simon Peter did not lose the chance to live up to the meaning of his name, and be the rock that we see in Acts.
For us, dear reader, we are not defined by our past. We are brought into the story of faith, the story of the Kingdom of God.
You are not defined by your failures or denials. No, you are defined by the Risen Lord and who he says you are. If you are in Christ, then you are a child of God, and you are not defined by your past, you are defined by the righteousness of Christ.
How do you cling to this new reality- this new story?
My wife and I were at our church on Palm Sunday when we encountered something new. I’ve read the four Passion Week accounts of the Gospels many times in my life. Whether reading them aloud, or in my head, I never came across a certain dramatization of it. But this past week, this time, it was different.
We read through the Scripture readings for that morning, working our way through the triumphant Palm Sunday narrative. In the Anglican tradition, worship is more of a whole body tradition and is not a pure spectator sport as some church services have been set up as. On Palm Sunday you are given a branch, to wave in the air. The palms are there to help draw you into the story, to place you on the road to Jerusalem, seeing the Messiah ride up into the city. Palm Sunday is a triumphant day, as the Messiah finally arrives on the scene to set up his Kingdom. Sadly, that’s not the case.
A few short days later in Jerusalem, shouts would come from the crowd again. While the congregation at my church cried out similarly in joy when Jesus came to the city, the congregation would flip a few minutes later.
The reading from Luke 23 was read with several voices. A narrator, Pilate, and Jesus all were voiced by three different people, yet the part of the crowds were played by, well, the crowd. It was here that I was placed among the people who shouted “Crucify him!”
How often does that happen though? How often do I flip from praises to curses? How do you line up?
I don’t like being put in that spot. Admitting that I would be in the crowd, chanting “Crucify him!” Wanting a murderer to be set free, and this Jesus guy to be put in his place. I know if I was in the crowd, I probably would have joined the others. I know if I was put in the sandals of Peter, I too would have fled from my faith.
I readily admit my weakness to you, because I know while my weakness is great, the strength of the Risen Lord is far greater. Where I am strong, he is stronger still. The Risen Lord that we celebrated on Easter ascended to the right hand of his Father, and one day he will return again and put the world to rights. Even when I yelled “Crucify Him!”, this gracious God would let me come back into his fold. For the crucified Christ is also a forgiving Lord.
As you may or may not know, my wife and I have recently found ourselves journeying towards the Anglican tradition. Originally, I was invited by a seminary classmate to visit their Anglican church for a service. It only took a few visits until we were both hooked on the liturgical service and the constant immersion of the people of God into the story of the Kingdom.
One of the things I appreciated from this tradition is the emphasis on God’s Word as a part of one’s church life. We read four chunks of Scripture in the service from four different parts of Scripture, and we are encouraged to read four chunks of Scripture at home through the guidance of the Book of Common Prayer. With so many opportunities to be formed by the Word, one will find themselves soon caught up in the redemptive narrative of the Bible.
I have found that the above prayer of St. Patrick reflects this immersion in the narrative of God’s story. It is rooted deeply in the Psalms and it is founded in the goodness of God’s creation.
For the early Celtic Christians, God was near. The Trinitarian God that is revealed in the Bible could also be seen in creation. The Celtic cross that is so prevalent draws on this frame of reference. Scripture and creation are inextricably tied in this one form, as the roundness of the sun and the shape of the cross are etched together. The revelation of God that is described by Paul in Romans are tied in this symbol, since God is revealed in both nature and the Bible.
The psalmists are so confident in their God, even when things look dark, even when things look utterly hopeless. There was room still for God’s salvation, for he saved his people through the Exodus. He saved his people through invasions, famines, and slavery. And if God did it once, he can surely do it again. That’s why Patrick could arise each day and rely on the strength of God.
Please keep in mind though that Patrick was not more spiritually talented than you or I. No, he had to learn to trust in God. And through his experience, he was able to boldly proclaim the prayer above. He was able to arise each day because he knew the God who formed the foundations of the universe also formed him and cared for him.
I pray that we would rely on this sure foundation.
“Take your son, your only son Isaac, the one you love…” Genesis 22.2
There once was a man and his wife.
This man was told to leave his family and go out on an adventure to a different land far, far away. As an incentive, this barren couple was promised a child. Yet, seasons came, and seasons went. Still, there was no child.
But then, it came. A boy! A precious boy, the light of an old couple. The well of hope was nearly exhausted when a son was born. Then one day, this man was told to do something unthinkable in our mind. It was natural though in the ancient world, to sacrifice a child to a pagan god, even an only child.
“…offer him there as a burnt offering…”
How would you have felt? This God, the one who promised the stars and called you out of a comfort zone. He took you, he took you to the edge of your sanity. He grabbed the innermost core of your being and asked you to do the unthinkable.
My friends, sometimes I think God pushes us. I think he pushes us to the edge. And then when we get to the edge of the road, we get nudged into the guardrail until we begin to look over the side of the deep chasm. We see the darkness on the other side and all hope of survival fades.
When all hope seemed to fail, suddenly something happened:
When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called the name of that place,“The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” (Gen. 22:9-14)
God provided, when things looked so strange and so bleak. God tested Abraham, and stretched him to the limit. Yet, when the unthinkable arose, God provided.
What has God asked you to sacrifice in the past and present?
There once was a holy man who was well liked. He was respected, people listened to him. Then God, as usual, decided to throw a curveball. He told this person to go far away, go to a town that he hated. He told this man to go visit a people whom he despised. This man did what any sensible person would do, he turned a full 180 and went the exact opposite of where he was meant to go.
This man, the prophet Jonah, thought he could outrun God. He thought he could outsmart him by getting the heck out of Dodge, leaving his homeland far, far away. Perhaps he wanted to visit Cyprus, Italy, or Spain. Whatever his side motivation was, Jonah had a call on his life. He knew deep in his core that he needed to move toward something. Move toward what God wanted him to do.
How often have I done this? Too many times. The heavy feeling in my heart to do X or say Y, and I choose to do the exact opposite.
Can anyone else relate?
One of the great things I have gathered from Jonah’s tale, is the fact that God is not done with him. When he is tossed into the sea on a stormy day, he is not lost. God doesn’t leave him for dead. No, a whale swallowed him instead.
A marine animal of some sort swallowed him and Jonah sat around in the belly of the whale/fish for three days. Jonah got to where he needed to go, the place where God called him to go days before. No doubt Jonah emerged from the belly of the whale smelling horrendous, smelling more like a decaying fish market than a prophet!
Dear reader, sometimes it’s better to be swallowed by a smelly fish. Sometimes it’s better to emerge through learning a lesson from God than to drown in a sea.
God is merciful, God is patient. Even when we choose to run in the opposite direction, we are told he constantly seeks us out.
As Jesus would relate, he is the good shepherd, the one who will search for the lost lamb who ran away. God wants us, he loves us enough to send us a smelly fish sometimes when we’re swirling around in the stormy waters of life.
What has helped move you to where you needed to go?
On Christmas Day, I want to leave us with two pieces. Chew on these two pieces and I wish you a Merry Christmas.
46 And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
56 And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home.
8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Forunto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”[c]
15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 ButMary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
How often have you used the phrase “I’m busy” to get out of something?
Think about it for a second. I know that I’ve said this many times! Sometimes, the excuse it legitimate, sometimes it is a slight exaggeration to get out of something. That after work function with coworkers or friends, perhaps a relative’s birthday party, or something that might better you as a person, like an athletic activity or hobby.
I was working through Luke 14:16-24 for a paper assignment for my school this week and this idea came up in the text. A man was going to provide a big feast for his friends, and he planned out everything perfectly. When everything was all set and ready to go, he sent out his servant to go tell his friends to come over to his house. However, one after another began to turn him away. They told him that they needed to look after business investments or to spend time with his new wife. I can just imagine the scene, as the servant is told “no” repeatedly.
I realized how often I use excuses to get out of things. Sometimes they are legitimate, sometimes they are not. But a lot of times, when I know that God is telling me to do something or say something, I brush it off. “I need to get home” I tell myself, “I don’t want to spend that money right now.” Excuses, excuses. How often do I use these lame arguments to get out of something?
The lord of the house invited his friends, but they rejected him. So he extended an invitation to everyone else, and they accepted. I hope that I find myself in the latter group more often than the former. My excuse might be legitimate, but I need to take action and live differently. To live a better story that includes feasting and serving instead of being all about my own business.
How do you overcome excuses?
Something I have learned this past year in seminary: Bible Study is tough work.
When Martin Luther broke from the Roman Catholic Church in the Sixteenth Century he was warned by the RCC. He was warned that if everybody was given the opportunity to read the Bible on their own, then anybody can interpret it on their own, potentially leading to many negative things. The Church no longer told the masses what to think. Now anybody could read the text in their language and come to different conclusions, no matter how wacky they might be. During the era of the Protestant Reformation, you had several factions rise up, opposing each other over different readings of Scripture. Nearly 500 years later, we see that Rome was right, if everybody could read the text in their own language, then anybody could make up any point on their own. Freedom spawned not only spiritual fervor, but also chaos.
See, studying the Bible is tough work, because anybody and everybody can have an opinion on the text. That is why I view my training in a seminary as both important and humbling, because I know teaching others is a heavy and joyous burden. There are hard passages in Scripture. There are difficult questions raised that many try to gloss over or ignore.
Who knows, it could happen to anybody. It could happen today.
What tools do you use to help you study the Bible?