Mary’s Virginal Conception (not birth) of Jesus

This time of year, there are always “news” items from scholars scoffing at the idea of Jesus being conceived with a man involved. This position has been rightly rejected, not least by J. Gresham Machen, who wrote an entire book on the subject. Nevertheless, as the objections keep coming back like a bad penny, I want to add some points to consider.

Before that, let me clarify that Mary had a virginal conception. Her state of virginity has nothing with the act of giving birth, except she was probably unprepared for the pain. Jesus was conceived when the Holy Spirit created the necessary genetic material to fertilize an egg and make it into a zygote.

1. We need to know that, claims to the contrary aside (because there is no real evidence), people in the first century, especially Jews, since they rejected stories about the Greek gods, knew nothing about a virgin conceiving a baby. Like claims of some moderns that the first Christians did not understand death or how to determine it, there is no evidence to suggest at all that Jews would readily accept a virginal conception. Everyone, including children who had seen animals mating, knew exactly how babies are made. They might not have known the technical medical details but they certainly that it takes a man and a woman having intimate relations. Asking someone else to believe that virginal conceptions had happened before or were nothing unusual is simply a denial of the facts that we know. However, as N. T. Wright has observed, you can offer any speculation you want if absence of evidence is not a problem. If this was not the case, why would Joseph needed to have an angel to convince him that the impossible had taken place??

2. Whether one believes that a virginal conception could have taken place depends upon what you think the world is like. If you deny that events not otherwise explicable are not done by God/god, then Mary’s virginal conception is, of course, a creation of the Gospel writers. If you believe that there is a God/god who acts within history, then the virginal conception should not be a problem. To borrow again from Wright, there is no “epistemological Switzerland.” Translated to simpler terms, there is no view of how the world works or of how we can know things about the past that is neutral. That is the one benefit, so far as I can see, of Postmodernism. That worldview denies, rightfully, that anyone can stand back and be neutral. Those who are scientific naturalists—everything that is came into being accidentally from other things that already existed—have no place for anything outside the material world that they can see (except for special pleading based on a multiverse). So of course, no supernatural being, let alone the God of the Bible, can possibly exist. This is an a priori belief. (If an atheist tells you that he/she has no beliefs, you may simply tell that person that such a view is bantha fodder. They absolutely do have some beliefs about reality and to say otherwise is simply false.)

 

3. Since I believe in Jesus and the God revealed in Jesus, I have a very different view. I think it completely impossible that DNA, RNA, genes, proteins, chromosomes, genomes, or the mechanics of how cells work and reproduce, is all something that God has done, then making DNA, genes, and such in order to fertilize an egg in Mary’s womb is not a problem. Today I heard a Christian assert that, while she believes that Jesus rose from the dead, doesn’t consider it a problem if the story of Mary’s virginal conception was made up by the Gospel writers. That simply baffles me. If God can raise Jesus from the dead with a new, physical body* that can seemingly appear and disappear at will (I posted a few months ago on what I think happened there), then creating the genetic material to fertilize an egg and make that work is not a big deal. Jesus stilled a storm. He walked on water. He raised multiple back to life. Why would it be impossible for the author of genes to make genes?

4. Two of the Gospel writers testify to Jesus’ virginal conception. The early church accepted this idea. It is totally reasonable that Mary herself, who seems present with other disciples in Acts 1, could have recounted this event. She should know. She was there in every sense. Going back the idea of how we know about historical events, we have more witnesses to Jesus’ virginal conception (Paul seems to affirm the virginal conception in Galatians 4:4) than numerous events in history for which there is only one source. So, it comes down to whether one is prepared to look at biblical texts and access fairly whether we may plausibly accept that events that they record took place.

 

I have no problem accepting the virginal conception as an historical event. Here is another thing to think about. One can accept that this event happened without invoking the Holy Spirit. The how can be ignored while accepting the what. I cannot in principle prove that the Holy Spirit caused the conception but that does not mean that something really weird happened. I am not saying that there is a natural explanation. I am simply saying that you can accept that something happened without knowing how it happened. That said, I accept Luke’s account of Mary’s commission by Gabriel.

I explain why Mary did not receive a simple annunciation that she would have a baby in my book, Echoes of Scripture in Luke-Acts. You can read the relevant portion on Google books in chapter 3. She was given a mission by God, commissioned to participate in his plan. One evidence of this is that Elizabeth calls out to Mary the term used in Judges  5 of Ja’el, a woman who helped save Israel from foreign domination. Gabriel’s greeting to Mary echoes that of the angel of the Lord commissioning Gideon to deliver Israel from the enemy. Who said women can’t lead in ministry?

 

*In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul said that fleshly bodies will die but spiritual bodies will be raised from the dead. Some have erroneously interpreted this to mean Jesus only appeared to have a body after his resurrection and that believers too will exist as spirits without physical bodies. This idea should be rejected. In the specific details of the passage, including the import of the Greek adjectives that Paul used, he is contrasting not physical versus spiritual. He is contrasting mortal versus immortal, perishable vs. imperishable. The Gospels assert that Jesus made multiple post-resurrection appearance and had to deal with the disciples’ understandable doubts that Jesus was really there bodily. If there had not been questions about this, the Gospel writers would not have emphasized it.

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White. Male. Evangelical. How do I Navigate Politics?

My intention for this blog has always been to discuss biblical or theological topics. Politics is, to some degree, not part of that. However, as others have wedded them so closely together, I want to address this. This is partly because fairness is really important to me and unfair things are being said about white males, especially the Evangelical kind, by Christians no less.

I have seen several tweets, blog posts, and articles in recent months asking how any Evangelical/conservative Christian could have voted for Donald Trump. I cannot hope to cover all the complexities of all these issues but I would like to suggest a few things worth considering.

First, to get some things out of the way, I reject categorically any sort of discrimination against someone based on their race ethnic group nationality gender religious convictions etc. I reject completely the misuse or mistreatment of women as though they were lesser or less intelligent or just there for sex or some other unjustifiable assertions or assumptions. So I believe that sexual abuse should be punished. Being a member myself of a minority group that is those with disabilities makes it particularly sensitive to issues of discrimination because I have experienced them myself. So you need to not assume about me any perception you might have of what Evangelical Christians might think politically and socially.

 

Second, my first allegiance above all else is not too political party or a social movement or anything like that it is to Jesus who reveals the God of the Bible completely because he is the God of the Bible. As an Evangelical, I consider Scripture authoritative when interpreted properly. There is absolutely no direct connection between Christian faith and a political party, any party. God is not on the side of Republicans he is not in the cited Democrats he is on the side of any party. From that perspective, I don’t per se want to consider myself a member of any political party and I certainly don’t expect my Christian faith to be shaped by political convictions. That certainly happens a lot not just with the Christian faith but with many face but it is in my view the distortion of any religious belief system unless it was built into the system as it is in Islam, for example. So I reject being theoretically logically messed up views that connect say God and gun control or garden. Or God and whatever. I understand that at some point in the past the head of the national Association of Evangelicals made their first most important issue tax reform. Sorry but the tax system you live under is not a theological matter it is not high on God’s priority list of our as I can discern we need to not make political social interests into doctrine that shape our view of God or how to live for God.

 

Since I am a Christian first and a natural born US citizen second, my perspective is that the kingdom of God is more important than greater than any political system it’s essential that we accept that biblical principle. Paul said that we should obey the government. However as we know from other portions of the Bible such as Daniel went through six there are definitely times when rejecting the government’s position on something is important. So before I consider what I ought to do from a political standpoint such as who to vote for, I need a clear grasp of what it is I think that God’s will as revealed in Scripture is where I see gray areas I’m going to treat them as gray areas things that I can’t know for sure. When there is explicit data with the instructions and it’s appropriate for me as a Christian to follow those, I’m going to follow those and I am going to look for political candidates who express those. I do not expect or intend to establish a Christian government. I am not even sure that such a thing can really exist. Can you become a powerful US Senator while fully observing biblical morality? Not sure. What I can do, however, is look for candidates to vote for who exemplify moral virtues, based upon a biblical perspective or extended from Scripture. So, for example, creating a lie by voter fraud is contrary to Scripture.

 

So if I do not want to align myself as a Christian with any specific political party, how should I go about choosing whom to vote for? There are many hot button issues of our day and I want to be careful about this but here’s my perspective someone who is a politician who promotes unrestricted abortions is likely a moral virtue from a biblical perspective. Someone who wants to lessen the number of abortions that take place is, in my view, much more virtuous morally than the first person. So I’m going to look for the candidate for particular office who I think most reflects biblically grounded moral virtue. Doing the most that will align with God’s kingdom.

 

It is important to distinguish between things that are explicitly moral issues like life-and-death matters or sexual matters or bribery or theft or duplicity or hypocrisy. Matters I can come up with clear biblical assertions or trajectories about. On the other hand, there are matters that are important to me as an American or perhaps more properly, a “USer,” as lots of countries are in North America and South America. Are Canadians Americans, eh? In some sense yes, but the common usage is to call those who live in the U.S. Americans. So I will go with that. Having seen lots of governmental systems around the world and how they treat their people, I prefer the U.S. Constitution-based government of the United States. That is not a statement that the U.S. government is virtuous morally. It is to say that I appreciate freedom of religion, speech, and press. I appreciate due process. Of late we have seen politicians who clearly don’t care about due process for others, but I digress. I like living in a country in which the leader, the U.S. President, cannot direct the Army to do actual law-keeping within the borders of our land. That is the job of non-military organizations. The U.S., compared to most of the world, prospers financially. Obviously, not all prosper. I do think it is a matter of morality that about 98% of the wealth in the country is owned by the top 1% and they use their influence to make sure things stay that way. However, being patriotic is not a function of being a Christian.

 

So when I vote for candidates, I have two considerations. First, which of the two candidates had seems to have the most moral virtue, or from the negative side which of them seems least evil to me? Speaking patriotically, which candidate reflects most the values of the founding fathers, the authors of the Constitution? Those are two separate items.

 

So if I choose one candidate over another, it is either because I consider that candidate to have less or fewer evil intentions or values because, in equal in depravity to the other candidate, which candidate is most going to support the values of the founding fathers. Sample California because the course almost everything except being morally upright acceptable in California. The California state legislature voted to outlaw the therapy for minors who did not to have same-sex attraction or who did not want to have gender dysphoria. Without going off into a discussion of morals, this law contradicts freedoms guaranteed at the federal level in the U.S. Constitution. So whatever party made that a law, I am going to reject candidates from that party for political office. They are not supporting the values of the founding fathers although they want to continue to benefit from those values. The same legislators also voted for a Harvey milk day and forced upon all minors in public schools from kindergarten through 12th grade. A fundamental problem with this law is that it explicitly prevents or forbids a teacher to talk about negative actions by Harvey Milk. Since he said you should lie to get what you want, and was a sexual predator of young boys, I consider this immoral. They should not be celebrating someone who is so reprehensible. Though again the political party that did this is going to be a party whose candidates I oppose.

 

Many are saying illogical things, such as, if one voted for Donald Trump, and is an Evangelical, this is far from showing that Evangelicals or even some Evangelicals thought that Mr. Trump was a great person and everything about him was proper Christian behavior. If anyone thinks that, they need to do some serious study of Scripture, and read a book or two on biblical ethics, e.g., The Moral Vision of the New Testament by Richard B. Hays. Supporting Donald Trump now that he is the U.S. president does not mean that supporters think everything that he does is wonderful. As I will describe below, supporting a politician can be confidence in the person to do the right thing always or it could be a position that this politician is better than the person who might have won some election. Further, because political decisions for Christians ought to be guided as far as possible by Scripture, it is unreasonable to believe that any Evangelical who supports Donald Trump approves of everything he does. Similarly, I would hope that any Evangelical who voted for Hillary Clinton nevertheless rejects abortion on demand with no restrictions. An Evangelical might approve of Bernie Sanders’ embracing of socialism, which entails a rejection of life in the U.S. as we know it, but I would hope that does not mean this person accepts the Democrat position that anything sexual is fine except to object to some behaviors as immoral. These are illogical positions and I reject them.

 

I can give examples of problems with either Hillary or Donald but essentially, I would have voted for the presidential candidate who I saw as either less evil or more virtuous or more supportive of US constitutional values. Given that no political system is perfect or righteous, I want to hold on to biblical values first but also want the country overall to be as its founders intended it. (Those who disagree with our form of governments are welcome to move to Russia, Afghanistan, Cuba, or North Korea, where government systems are very different.) I have mentioned the issue of abortion above. From the Didache, written about 100 A.D., forward, Christians have opposed exposing babies or aborting them. I think they are right. So when I heard Hillary Clinton in a presidential debate in 2016 essentially say she believed in having no restrictions upon abortion, while her opponent did believe in placing restrictions on it, that pushed me toward voting for her opponent.

 

The U.S. Supreme Court was not granted the power of “judicial review” in the Constitution. However, it has had that power for over 200 years. Nevertheless, there is a difference between saying a law is contrary to the Constitution and inventing things in the Constitution because it is seen as a living document that always will agree with liberal progressive values. That is not what the Supreme Court is supposed to do. It is not supposed to create law. It is supposed to determine if a law has been broken and whether that law is constitutional. That’s all. So when a political party’s President nominates judges who believe in inventing laws, I oppose that president’s actions. When the U.S. President nominates Supreme Court justices who will not seek to invent rights not in the Constitution, I support that president’s actions

. Given that the last President nominated judges who in some ways opposed our Constitutional form of government, when a presidential candidate asserts that he will nominate judges who take a more conservative approach to the U.S. Constitution, I am going to support that candidate.

 

I don’t have a clear biblical perspective on what the tax laws should be like or whether coal processing is good or bad. Such decisions are made on extra-biblical grounds primarily. God is not a Republican or Democrat and no one should wrap the U.S. flag around their religious beliefs. I imagine, however, that Jesus would be content to meet with all the members of the U.S. Congress, given that he regularly hung out with tax collectors and sinners. If I, not having God’s wisdom, think that one party’s values, generally speaking, cohere more with my view of biblical virtue and preservation of the values of the founding fathers, there is not a contradiction between my faith and whom I voted for for President. Every election is, in my view, a choice between the greater and the lesser evil. I prefer to vote for whom I deem to be the lesser evil, and that might not include following news reports, fake or otherwise, about all the things a candidate does or says. I cannot vote for anyone who is perfect because there are no such people.

 

This might not be a perfect analogy but.. I am a Star Wars fan. Given a choice between being ruled by Emperor Palpatine or by one of the red-robed imperial guards, which would you choose? The guards I imagine are less evil and twisted than Palpatine. So I would choose an imperial guard. Sometimes, the choices of candidates feel like that to me. Voting for a particular candidate, in this case Donald Trump, was not for me at least, because I thought that Donald Trump as a person was great or virtuous. I don’t affirm that he is. Some Evangelicals have hailed him as an Evangelical. Whether he actually has saving faith in Jesus I do not and cannot know. God knows, and that’s sufficient. I am tempted to say he is not because of things he has said. However, almost anyone who claims to be a Christian could have the authenticity of her/his faith challenged based upon something they have said or done. Likewise, Hillary Clinton claimed to be a lifelong Methodist. With what has happened to the United Methodist Church, that does not promise very much, and again, whether Ms. Clinton has saving faith in Jesus is something that God alone knows, but based upon her words and deeds, I think such a claim is open to challenge. Certainly John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, would have serious questions about her faith.

 

There are many books one could read about this topic that go well beyond this single blog post. I do not claim to have the last word on the topic by any means. I do think however, it is important for Christians not to ask first, what party is this person in, but ask first, is this person virtuous? Political questions are complicated but we should ask them. I am using virtue as a standard. I am not using Christian faith as a standard because, as recent scandals show, claiming to be a Christian, and living like one are two different things.

 

I got an email message from Fuller Seminary, from which I graduated. There was an “After the Election” conversation. The purpose was, “to help us live more faithfully as Christ’s disciples in our current political milieu.” Amen to that.

The Bart Ehrman Corruption of Scripture

Bart Ehrman, former conservative Christian and now a professed agnostic who teaches for the University of North Carolina, continues to pump out books that make grossly exaggerated claims. One of them, Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, makes a lame case that there are so many variations in the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament that it is impossible to tell what the original text is or to trust any Greek MS of the New Testament. This book is on textual criticism. That it was a NYT bestseller seems strange in light of hat.

I am going to talk about this very briefly as a follow-up to my last post, which relates to the ending of the Gospel of Mark. Simply put, we absolutely can be confident about the original text of 99% of the New Testament. Erhman is correct that there are many variations but he ignores some important facts.

  1. Since any given manuscript (hereafter MS and MSS for manuscrips) is copied from an earlier MS, if the source MS has a particular reading (the text of the verse) than the MS that is being made will probably have that same text. So let’s say that some MS, such as G (there are a variety of designations for the various NT MSS), has a particular reading. The first copy made of G will probably have that same reading, unless of course the scribe doing the copying makes a change to the text, deliberately or accidentally. If there are 15 MSS that represent a copy of G or a copy of a copy of G or a copy of a copy of a copy of G, that means there are fifteen variants. I learned the New Math but even I can recognize invalid reasoning. In this example, there is only one variation that is copied and passed on 15 times, not 15 variations. Ehrman studied textual criticism with Bruce Metzger, who is widely regarded as one of the best textual critics of our time. So Ehrman knows better. He is not being a reasonable scholar. He is creating fiction in order to sell books and cause people to doubt the reliability of the biblical text. That applies to all the points I will make here.
  2. While Mark 16:9-20 is a big textual change, which was copied into many MSS including those used by the KJV translators, 99% of the variations are totally inconsequential. For example, there are variations in Paul’s letters between Christ Jesus and Jesus Christ. Ehrman wants to know, Which of these did Paul actually write? The better question is, Does this difference matter? Christ comes from the Greek Christos, which means “anointed one.” Since the Hebrew word Mashiach, Messiah, means anointed one, Christos is a Greek translation of the word for Messiah. Christ is not the last name of Jesus. It is a title. So whether Paul says in Greek “Jesus the Messiah” or “the Messiah Jesus” is of very little significance. This sort of variation happens a LOT but it does not mean that the text is unreliable. Both the word Christ and the word Jesus are there and they are together. The order does not matter in Greek. So there go 1000s of Ehrman’s alleged errors or variations.

Let me pause and talk about textual variations. I am working on a book chapter. I copied a piece of an ancient text translated into English into my chapter. Since I can theoretically select the text in one document and copy it to another, and can trust the computer to do the copy correctly, there shouldn’t be any variation from the original to what I have. Every copy of the original will be exactly the same because it was made with a printing press, which does not normally vary wording. Prior to the fifteenth century however, there wasn’t a printing press. All written texts had to be copied by hand. Those who did the copying were mostly monks who lived in monasteries that lacked electric lights, computers, and even coffee. Skipping some of the details, there were lots of opportunities for scribes to make mistakes. For MSS up through about the sixth century A.D., Greek was written with no spaces between words and no punctuation. The equivalent of the start of one of Paul’s letters might be,

PAULANAPOSTLEOFJESUSCHRISTBYTHEWILLOFGODGRACEANDPEACE….

There were not paragraphs. Each line on a manuscript had letters with no spaced from one margin to the other. You had to be able to read the MS in order to be able to understand what you were copying and do this without any good, modern conveniences. So sometimes, if a line ended GRACE and the next line ended GRACE, the scribe might make a mistake and skip a line. However, this is not a problem. It is easy to recognize when you compare MSS. Yet Ehrman counts all these differences as problematic variations.

Now, what are we comparing to? There are about 5000 Greek MSS of the New Testament, including fragments (like part of the Gospel of Luke with the rest missing). Scholars compare these MSS to see what each says word by word. They work to determine what the original probably said. Here is something of an analogy. The KJV Bible records in the Ten Commandments that, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” However, there is one notorious edition that says, “Thou shalt commit adultery.” Does this omission of the “not” make the KJV unreliable as a Bible? Of course not. So if a Greek MS omits a word or even phrase here and there, that does not make the text unreliable.

Now, how would we identify an omission or addition? In simple terms, most scholars believe that the oldest MSS of the Greek New Testament are the most accurate. So if we compare the earliest MSS to other New Testament MSS, it is often the case that the reading of an earlier MS will be preferred to that of a later MS. This is not a matter of “majority rules.” It is a matter of carefully considering what the earliest MSS say and what later MSS have. Using this principle (and there are several more specific guidelines), scholars have been able to determine with a  fair degree of confidence what the original text of the New Testament said. None of the places where it is difficult to decide makes any real difference to what the New Testament teaches. This approach, which Ehrman is well-aware of, reduces the actual number of variations dramatically.

The end result is that, while Ehrman tries to create doubt about the reliability of the text of the Greek New Testament, which is the basis of most English translations, you can be confident that we have 99% certainty about the text of the original New Testament documents from Paul, John, Peter, etc. If Ehrman were acting like a responsible scholar, he would say that but writing sensationalist books is more profitable and damages the faith of more people. There are few scholars who actually agree with his conclusions. Ehrman is misrepreseting the facts. This is discussed more fully in a book entiled,  You can trust the Greek text behind your English or other language translation.

Bad Ideas from Well-Meaning Christians: “God has a Perfect Will for Your Life”

Within six months of my conversion, which happened while I was in high school, I became part of Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa. (You can’t be a member as they don’t do that sort of thing.) Within the next six months, I heard multiple pastors in various Bible studies there talk about finding God’s perfect will for your life. Who you should marry, where you should live, and what career field you should work in. I hadn’t progressed enough in my knowledge of the Bible or theology enough to recognize that this is a false assertion for most Christians. As I didn’t know this, I accepted what I was told. I wasn’t too concerned at the time about whom to marry or where to live when I grow up but I was concerned about the career question. At that time, I had been planning for a long time to become a biochemist. I thought it would be interesting and could be of benefit to humanity. I began praying earnestly for guidance from God. If he had a perfect will for my life, I definitely wanted to know it and do it. That’s one way of loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, after all.

 

A few months later, I had just climbed into bed and “heard” God say to me, “Teach the Word.” Let me say quickly that this wasn’t a booming voice from the sky. Some people, like Saul of Tarsus might get that (see Acts 9) but that’s not what I mean. This was internal, in my mind. That’s where I suppose many believers who “hear” God speak experience that. Teaching Bible was nowhere on my list of desired careers. I didn’t really do that sort of thing. So I was very unsure that this was God’s voice. I went to a pastor for counseling. He didn’t tell me what I really needed to hear. He told me that if this is what God said, I should get some training. My understanding is that this pastor would rarely suggest a thing. He would tell people who came to him that they wanted to teach that they should start with pulling out weeds around the tent the church met in.

 

To make a long story short, I made plans to get training and changed my college prep classes. I didn’t really know what else to do. There wasn’t any pastor in the church who could offer appropriate advice. No one in my parents’ circle of friends did anything like teaching the Bible, teaching anywhere, or could really advise on schooling for this purpose. Instead, like Han Solo, I had to make this up as I went forward. I attended a Christian college near to where my family lived. I even got a Calif. State scholarship for full tuition, which I read as confirmation from God that I was going the right direction. While there, the desire grew to train future pastors rather than be a teaching pastor. With little in the way of useful advice except that I should go seminary for this, I went off to seminary. I think I can say that I chose the wrong seminary, twice. The first one was way too liberal. The second was not that liberal but not prestigious either. I didn’t seek advice from the faculty there who could advise me some on my goals but somehow that didn’t come to mind. I think that throughout this part of my academic journey, I went to the “wrong” schools in terms of what my end goal was. My college was fine for what it did and I had a lot of good times there and developed some good friendships, but it wasn’t what I needed for the future. However, you don’t know what you don’t know.

 

I don’t think a day went by in college or seminary in which I prayed that God would show me whether he called me to teach as a career or not. If I’d “heard” him say he hadn’t, I would have left my theological studies and applied to UCLA to be chemistry major in a heartbeat. I heard nothing. In hindsight, I should have taken that as evidence and turned back to do biochemistry but I was afraid of not doing God’s perfect will for my life. The next step would be a Ph.D. program. I didn’t get into any of the U.S. programs I applied to (most Ivy League) and I couldn’t figure out how to pay for a Ph.D. in Great Britain. Many U.S. Evangelical Christians take that route but I don’t know how they paid for it. I decided that until I could make a Ph.D. happen that I would turn a career path that would pay well. So I began course work, first at a community college, and then at Cal Poly Pomona, to become a computer programmer. I have spent most of my working life as a computer programmer, always feeling like a square peg in a round hole because I was supposed to be teaching the Word.

 

Along the way, I got engaged but ended it because I saw that my fiancée and I were incompatible in some very important ways. Later, God gave me the gift of my wife, for which I am very grateful.

 

I did finally get a Ph.D. while working full-time and going to school part-time. I don’t recommend that approach at all. I then worked very very hard to do all the things that one is supposed to do to get hired to teach full-time, somewhere, anywhere. My former adviser once told me that based upon my C.V., I was qualified to be an associate professor. That didn’t help. I never attained that full-time teaching position. I love teaching Scripture. It fills me with energy and satisfaction. I love prepping to teach Scripture, reading commentaries, books about the Bible, journal articles, listening to lectures, and conversing with grad students and faculty (I wish I could do that more). However, I never got that job. I was really close once but the search committee chair told me that some faculty were concerned that my eye sight would prevent me from being able to connect with students. I still want to help equip current and future pastors to be better interpreters and preachers of Scripture with the goal of making better disciples. I applied all over the place for positions. I think I might have applied for one in every state of the US except Hawaii, Alaska, and Arkansas.

 

In all of the reading that I have done about God’s will and knowing God’s will and studying Scripture, I have come to a few conclusions. This idea of “God’s perfect will” is invalid. Indeed, it is only possible in the western world after the start of the Industrial Revolution. If I had been born in 1800, I would have learned whatever job my father did and followed in his footsteps. There’s a decent change that, like many cultures for thousands of years, my parents would have chosen a future spouse for me long before I even knew what a spouse was. Certainly, it’s true that people at various times in the past decided to go their own way in the world, follow a profession they actually were interested in and marry someone their parents didn’t pick. Certainly, in the Western world today, these basic cultural practices have fallen into disrepair. People study the trade or profession that they themselves choose. If they get married, it is to someone whom they decided to marry. In the times of David, Jesus, and Paul, that was not the norm.  So does that mean that every Christian before the Industrial Revolution failed to find God’s perfect will for a career or the “right” person to marry? I don’t think so. Indeed, it would be extremely arrogant to think so.

Furthermore, the few biblical texts that can be read in support of a “perfect will of God” theology don’t mean that. For example, “In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:6 NASB) is not a promise that God will guide you into some perfect will of his. Rather, if you acknowledge God in all your ways, you will walk in the path of wisdom and avoid immorality. That’s the clear contextual meaning.

 

So many Christians have sought God’s perfect will just like me and not gotten some great revelation from the sky either. If God has a perfect will for all believers and he wants us to do it, why doesn’t he make it easier to find out? Plus, look at the many bad things that happen in the lives of believers. If God is good, dying from cancer is probably not his perfect will for a believer (maybe for a hardcore Calvinist like John Piper but it is also unbiblical–a topic for another day). The God presented in Scripture is good and loving and it is not his will, I believe, for babies to be born missing limbs or families to lose a father or mother to a drunk driver. How do those fit into God’s perfect will for someone’s life?

 

We should seek God’s will. For most of us, that is going to be a life that honors and clings to Jesus all the time.  You don’t have to be a pastor, missionary, or “teach the Word” to do that. Paul makes this clear when he tells believers, almost none of whom were church leaders of any kind, to present their bodies as living sacrifices, not be conformed to the world but be transformed by the renewing of their minds “in order to test for genuineness/prove/approve what the will of God is, that which is good and well-pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:1-2 my translation).  Here Paul says there is a perfect will of God. It equals presenting your whole self to God as a living sacrifice, refusing to be conformed to the world’s values, and to be transforming by having your mind, your view of life, your worldview, your desires, your goals, your hopes, and as you do all this, you will be able test for genuineness or approve what the will of God is. It is good (do positive things and nothing immoral) and well-pleasing (God is pleased by how you live) and perfect/mature. I would contend that what follows this expresses some of God’s perfect will: using spiritual gifts for the benefit of others, doing good, loving other believers, and avoiding evil

 

So yes, God does have a perfect will, but it is not what school to attend, what career to do, or whom to marry. Those are all important decisions and you should seek guidance, including wise counsel from mature believes, on these matters but that’s not what God’s will is about.

The Bart Ehrman Corruption of Scripture

Bart Ehrman, now a professed agnostic who teaches for the University of North Carolina, continues to pump out books that make grossly exaggerated claims. One of them, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, makes a lame case that there are so many variations in the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament that it is impossible to tell what the original text is or to trust any Greek MS of the New Testament. This book is on textual criticism. That it was a NYT bestseller seems strange in light of hat.

I am going to talk about this very briefly as a follow-up to my last post, which relates to the ending of the Gospel of Mark. Simply put, we absolutely can be confident about the original text of 99% of the New Testament. Erhman is correct that there are many variations but he ignores some important facts.

 

  1. Since any given manuscript (hereafter MS and MSS for manuscrips) is copied from an earlier MS, if the source MS has a particular reading (the text of the verse) than the MS that is being made will probably have that same text. So let’s say that some MS, such as G (there are a variety of designations for the various NT MSS), has a particular reading. The first copy made of G will probably have that same reading, unless of course the scribe doing the copying makes a change to the text, deliberately or accidentally. If there are 15 MSS that represent a copy of G or a copy of a copy of G or a copy of a copy of a copy of G, that means there are fifteen variants. I learned the New Math but even I can recognize invalid reasoning. In this example, there is only one variation that is copied and passed on 15 times, not 15 variations. Ehrman studied textual criticism with Bruce Metzger, who is widely regarded as one of the best textual critics of our time. So Ehrman knows better. He is not being a reasonable scholar. He is creating fiction in order to sell books and cause people to doubt the reliability of the biblical text. That applies to all the points I will make here.
  2. While Mark 16:9-20 is a big textual change, which was copied into many MSS including those used by the KJV translators, 99% of the variations are totally inconsequential. For example, there are variations in Paul’s letters between Christ Jesus and Jesus Christ. Ehrman wants to know, Which of these did Paul actually write? The better question is, Does this difference matter? Christ comes from the Greek Christos, which means “anointed one.” Since the Hebrew word Mashiach, Messiah, means anointed one, Christos is a Greek translation of the word for Messiah. Christ is not the last name of Jesus. It is a title. So whether Paul says in Greek “Jesus the Messiah” or “the Messiah Jesus” is of very little significance. This sort of variation happens a LOT but it does not mean that the text is unreliable. Both the word Christ and the word Jesus are there and they are together. The order does not matter in Greek. So there go 1000s of Ehrman’s alleged errors or variations.

Let me pause and talk about textual variations. I am working on a book chapter. I copied a piece of an ancient text translated into English into my chapter. Since I can theoretically select the text in one document and copy it to another, and can trust the computer to do the copy correctly, there shouldn’t be any variation from the original to what I have. Every copy of the original will be exactly the same because it was made with a printing press, which does not normally vary wording. Prior to the fifteenth century however, there wasn’t a printing press. All written texts had to be copied by hand. Those who did the copying were mostly monks who lived in monasteries that lacked electric lights, computers, and even coffee. Skipping some of the details, there were lots of opportunities for scribes to make mistakes. For MSS up through about the sixth century A.D., Greek was written with no spaces between words and no punctuation. The equivalent of the start of one of Paul’s letters might be,

PAULANAPOSTLEOFJESUSCHRISTBYTHEWILLOFGODGRACEANDPEACE….

There were not paragraphs. Each line on a manuscript had letters with no spaced from one margin to the other. You had to be able to read the MS in order to be able to understand what you were copying and do this without any good, modern conveniences. So sometimes, if a line ended GRACE and the next line ended GRACE, the scribe might make a mistake and skip a line. However, this is not a problem. It is easy to recognize when you compare MSS. Yet Ehrman counts all these differences as problematic variations.

Now, what are we comparing to? There are about 5000 Greek MSS of the New Testament, including fragments (like part of the Gospel of Luke with the rest missing). Scholars compare these MSS to see what each says word by word. They work to determine what the original probably said. Here is something of an analogy. The KJV Bible records in the Ten Commandments that, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” However, there is one notorious edition that says, “Thou shalt commit adultery.” Does this omission of the “not” make the KJV unreliable as a Bible? Of course not. So if a Greek MS omits a word or even phrase here and there, that does not make the text unreliable.

Now, how would we identify an omission or addition? In simple terms, most scholars believe that the oldest MSS of the Greek New Testament are the most accurate. So if we compare the earliest MSS to other New Testament MSS, it is often the case that the reading of an earlier MS will be preferred to that of a later MS. This is not a matter of “majority rules.” It is a matter of carefully considering what the earliest MSS say and what later MSS have. Using this principle (and there are several more specific guidelines), scholars have been able to determine with a  fair degree of confidence what the original text of the New Testament said. None of the places where it is difficult to decide makes any real difference to what the New Testament teaches. This approach, which Ehrman is well-aware of, reduces the actual number of variations dramatically.

The end result is that, while Ehrman tries to create doubt about the reliability of the text of the Greek New Testament, which is the basis of most English translations, you can be confident that we have 99% certainty about the text of the original New Testament documents from Paul, John, Peter, etc. If Ehrman were acting like a responsible scholar, he would say that but writing sensationalist books is more profitable and damages the faith of more people. There are few scholars who actually agree with his conclusions. Ehrman is misrepresenting the facts. This is discussed at more length in a book entitled, Misquoting Truth. You can trust the Greek text behind your English or

Why Are You Hanging on to Mark 16:9-20?

I was surprised but I guess I shouldn’t be. This post may sound arrogant but I am only expressing the view of New Testament scholars, including many Evangelical and conservative scholars and apparently this needs to be said again. The other day in a list of some Patheos Evangelical blogs, I saw one that talked about Mark 16:9-16. I don’t want to sound arrogant but it’s virtually certain that Mark did not write that part of his Gospel. This is not a secret. It’s well-known that early, important Greek manuscripts that contain the Gospel of Mark, such as Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, lack those verses or have them set apart so it is clear that the scribe considered them problematic. Nor are they attested early on by Patristic writers. Within later manuscripts that do contain verses in Mark’s Gospel after v. 8 there is a long ending in some, a short ending in some, and a combination of the two in some of them. One can understand why a scribe would compose an ending for the Gospel. It seems to stop at an odd spot. The women run from the tomb where they have been told that Jesus is risen from the dead and they tell no one. Luke and John both tell us that the women did go to the male disciples who were hiding out behind closed doors. So does Mark stop at that spot.  There are a few options. It might be that in the process of writing, he was interrupted, perhaps by Roman soldiers looking for Christians to burn in Nero’s garden as human torches. It could be that Mark did not otherwise have a chance to finish. Even though with a finished papyrus scroll, the beginning would be on the outside sheet and the last sheet would be on the inside, perhaps the original was rolled the opposite way as it probably would in the writing process. Then the possibility exists that the rest of Mark’s account is lost.

 

There is another theory that I’m very confident is wrong. It goes like this. All the way through Mark’s Gospel, the disciples have not done a very good job as disciples (they are imperfect but they are learning about Jesus for the first time and have a lot of rough edges that the Lord needs to sand down). Jesus predicts his coming death and they argue about who is the greatest. They show a lack of faith at times. As seen in all the Gospels, they don’t understand what Jesus says about his coming death and resurrection, primarily because they believe he is the Messiah and a Messiah who is killed is not part of what the Messiah is like. There were many pretenders in Jesus’ day who claimed to be the Messiah but weren’t. They died. If Jesus died, then he couldn’t be the Messiah. They all desert him when a mob comes to take Jesus away. In these and other ways, the disciples in Mark are not people that you would want to form the leaders of your church.

 

So, it is argued, Mark ends his Gospel with the women in fear saying nothing to anyone in order to challenge his audience to see if they will remain silent or they will go out and testify about Jesus. One analysis I read of this argument identified it as a good postmodern ending for a book but not an appropriate ending for a first-century biography. Furthermore, in Mark’s Gospel every single promise that Jesus makes is fulfilled except for his promise to meet the disciples in Galilee. That’s missing from the ending of Mark and that is quite odd. Another reason why the missing ending is likely missing rather than being omitted by Mark on purpose has to do with the Synoptic Gospels. If you read Matthew, Mark, and Luke, you will notice that they all tell basically the same story. At many points Matthew and Luke, when they record an event that is recounted in Mark’s Gospel, have wording that is very similar to what is Mark except that Mark’s account is usually longer and more detailed. This is simply a fact you can see by reading. In fact, I began reading the Bible before my conversion. I read Matthew. Then I started reading Mark and got the sense that I had already read this story before and in a sense, I had. I didn’t understand that.

 

It might be of interest to look at some of the content of these verses. You can pick up snakes. That seems to me to be clearly based upon the story of Paul in Acts in which he shakes off a viper. The drinking of poison seems odd. My guess is that the author of this ending was thinking about an anti-Socrates. He had to drink poison, thus committing suicide. If Mark did write this, then one should never join the CIA because you might be expected to take cyanide to avoid giving confidential information to an interrogator. So you would take it, suffer the pain from it, but not die from it because of this promise. According to the ending of Mark, if given poison to drink, it will not hurt you. The fact that some of those who handle snakes or drink poison to prove their faith die should be evidence enough that these verses are not original. Of course, if they are original, the idea is that if in the course of evangelism one of these things happens, God will protect you. They absolutely do not mean that if you dare God to keep his promise by doing something foolish, he will make sure you stay safe. I remember reading the story of Keith Green’s death in an overloaded small plane. His death and the death of everyone else on the plane had nothing to do with God’s will in my view. It had to do with what happens if you try to defy the laws of nature. IF you lack sufficient lift to get a particular mass into the air and keep it there. If you lack that, your plane will crash. Yes, it seemed like a terrible death and like God could have used Keith Green more but it seems to me that if you challenge common sense that God is under no obligation to protect you from your poor judgment. What about Mark 16:16? Now salvation is not dependent upon faith alone. It also requires baptism. That sounds more like a third-century idea. All throughout Acts people who believe in Jesus are always baptized. Mark 16:16 then might seem like a corrective to those who, by the fourth century A.D., believe that baptism removed all your sin and guilt (not Jesus’ death) and therefore people waited until they were very old before getting baptized. Of course if you delayed baptism and died before getting it, you would perish eternally. Therefore, the author of this verse is seeking to get people to undergo baptism instead of them failing to because of belief in a false understanding of what baptism does. This is where the Disciples of Christ and the Stone Campbell Movement come from. One representative of the latter group said that you not only have to believe and be baptized to be saved but you need to believe that you have to be baptized to be saved. Bantha fodder.

 

Matthew, Mark, and Luke together are called the “Synoptic Gospels.” The syn is from the Greek preposition sun, which means “with” and the “optic” is from Greek as well and means, “seeing.” When sun is put at the start of a word, it usually has the sense of “together.”The Synoptic Gospels see together. That is, they have the same basic story. There are many exceptions to this, such as all the parables found in Luke 10-17 or Matthew’s genealogy. Nevertheless, the majority of New Testament scholars who have studied the contents of Matthew, Mark, and Luke have concluded that Matthew and Luke followed Mark’s order of events and used what Mark wrote and then added additional information that they had to what they got from Mark. Copyright laws weren’t quite so strict then, I suppose. If this theory is correct, we can reconstruct how Mark’s Gospel ended by taking all the pieces that Matthew and Luke share in common and use that as the basic form of the original ending of Mark’s Gospel.

 

I once heard Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapel (I was once a regular part of that church and normally attended evening Bible studies several nights a week if I could get a ride) say that there are more manuscripts that contain these verses than omit them. That is a true statement but it misses the reality of the creation of (biblical) manuscripts. There was no printing press in the first century or fourth century or fourteenth century. So any text that you wanted to make a copy of, had to be made by a scribe who was supposed to make a copy of the manuscript you gave him. (I’m sure women are capable of being scribes but I’ve never heard of one; most scribes were monks living in monasteries and if theer were women in the monastery, they were not copying manuscripts, but I digress). In the process of copying the text, odd things happen. First, you should know that the earliest Greek manuscripts of the New Testament did not have spaces between words or any punctuation. Sometimes it appears that the scribe read a line and wrote it down. When he returned to the text, the next line in the original ended the same way as the line below it. So he scribe would mistakenly skip that line. That’s how one manuscript renders Jesus’ high-priestly prayer in John 17 with, “I do not pray that you protect them from the evil one.” The scribe skipped a line. If you find he Sinaiticus web site, you can see that the text is in several vertical columns. In one manuscript, the scribe copied across the columns instead of down each one. The result is that in the genealogy of Jesus in Luke 3, someone begets God!

 

If you look at manuscripts according to date and place of origin, you’ll find that most of the goofy stuff or clear scribal accidents (remember that many scribes were in monasteries and monasteries sometimes made and sold alcohol, and you can guess what happened), you can see that the further one got from Alexandria, Egypt, and the later a manuscript was chronologically, the more errors it tended to have. Even if you copy accurately, if the manuscript that you are copying has dumb errors in it, your text will be wrong. If you’ve played the telephone game, you may know that someone tells you something that you repeat to the next person in the line but it turns out at the end of the game that what you were told is not what was originally said.

 

The upshot of all this is that having 100 10th-15th centuries manuscripts that read something different from a 4th-century manuscript does not make the majority correct. The majority can be wrong. I’m tempted to make a political comment about certain politicians that were elected by majority before Donald Trump and I really wonder, What were they thinking? I won’t name names because I don’t want this to go off in the wrong direction. The majority of the U.S. Supreme Court voted for the Dred Scott decision, which was clearly wrong. No one should ever own slaves and the fact that Paul seemed to affirm slavery is a misunderstanding of the historical and social situation in the first century A.D. Paul should never have been used to justify southern slavery, which was a very different thing. Be that as it may, no one should ever own slaves, whether people ripped from their homes on another continent or forced into sexual slavery right here in the U.S. The majority is not always correct. That’s true in human thinking, deciding, and actions, and copying manuscripts is no different.

 

I know this is too long for a blog post and will end with this.

 

 

So no one should be preaching from or writing devotionals on any part of Mark 16:9-20. That someone is suggests that they did not do serious study on the passage. Yes, I know there are defenders of this passage because it is in the King James Version of the Bible. The KJV translators did the best that they could with what manuscripts they had. However, if you look at a modern Bible translation such as the NIV or NASB, you will see that at the end of Mark’s Gospel they make it clear that the passage is not found in the best, earliest manuscripts.

 

 

Jesus is NOT Like Casper the Friendly Ghost

I remember from when I was young there was a cartoon about Casper the Friendly Ghost and like all ghosts I’ve seen portrayed, he could pass through walls.(I’m not affirming the existence of ghosts per se.) I’ve heard it before but I was surprised to encounter N. T. Wright saying in his book, Surprised by Hope that Jesus, in his resurrected body, passed through walls to be in the upper room with the disciples, as seen in Luke 24 and John 20. It might be that ghosts, at least those in stories like Casper the Friendly Ghost, can pass through walls. However, this is not an accurate claim for Jesus.

 

First, it is essential to note that when the canonical Gospels or any Greco-Roman document mentioned resurrection, they have only one thing in mind: the return of someone who has died to bodily life. Greco-Roman writers denied that this could happen. Plato and all who followed him would have been aghast at the thought. Resurrection, contrary to the claims of some New Testament scholars, did not and could not mean anything other than a risen bodily existence. It did not mean Jesus the ghost. It did not mean a deep sense of Jesus’ presence. It meant that after leaving the tomb, however that worked, Jesus appeared on multiple occasions to his disciples and invited them to touch him. He ate food in front of them. These are not the behaviors of ghosts. If we believe that Jesus floated through walls, we will fail to have a proper understanding of what a resurrected body, yours, mine, anybody else will be like.

 

The Gospel writers do not say that Jesus passed through walls. They indicate that at one moment, Jesus was not present and the next moment he was. How could that be? I think that we get a hint if we look at Peter’s speech in Acts 2. Jesus has ascended and is seated at God’s right hand. That’s metaphor of course but it tells us there is another reality than the one we see. It is heaven. Paul speaks of God and Jesus in the heavenlies in Ephesians 1. Jesus was not spending his time floating around the earth and passing through solid objects. There is a different place or mode of existence in which Jesus, God, and the angels exist. It is most often called heaven and we can do that, as long as you give no place to the idea of heaven being clouds and dead humans existing as spirits hanging out.  So how might Jesus move between heaven and earth to appear to his followers after he rose from the dead?

 

I think—I have no verse for this—that Jesus “stepped,” as it were, from the spiritual/heavenly realm into our material realm. When he disappears to the travelers on the Emmaus road, he does not fly to Jerusalem to encounter the dispels there. He disappears by entering the spiritual realm. We don’t see this realm. I would guess that it still has objects in it but they are of some nature other than the material world that we live in. Analogies from science fiction come to mind. Perhaps this other realm is in subspace, as described in Star Trek: Next Generation. Perhaps the spiritual realm is the 19th dimension. I have no idea. I am only convinced that we should add nonsense about Jesus passing through walls and instead consider options that fit better with what Scripture says. Something similar may have happened with the “horses and chariots of fire” that appeared out of nowhere (2 Kings 6:16-17). I cannot prove this theory but it seems to me to explain what Jesus did better than the alternatives. Heaven is not “up” and earth “down,” like Jesus used a transporter. He simply appeared suddenly. I think that suggests that he stepped from the spiritual realm into our realm. This is my own idea. I’ve never read it anywhere. You’re welcome to make comments and suggest other ideas if you have them. All I ask is that we all stop saying that Jesus passed through walls. I don’t think that is what a physical, touchable resurrection body is like. I also think that my suggestion helps in understanding God as omnipresent. I don’t think that means that God exists in the space between atoms. I think it would mean that his realm is “next to” the material realm and spiritual beings may freely pass from one realm to another.

 

Why God Won’t Prove His Existence

Why God Won’t Prove His Existence

It’s a commonplace that atheists demand that God prove himself before they “believe.” They want God to roll back the heavens and speak to them directly and show his face. That’s not going to happen. There are at least three problems with this demand.

First, I am using a computer. If I say, “I believe in computer monitors,” what I’m really saying is that I know they exist. I’m looking at one. (I’m not entering into philosophical speculation about whether we are simply in God’s imagination and not real nor pondering whether we are really in the Matrix.) I know the monitor exists. I can reach out and touch it. It would be ludicrous to deny that computer monitors exist when one is less than 10 inches from my face. If God forcefully made himself known to someone, that person would not “believe” in God. They would know God or at least some being that science couldn’t explain showed up to confront their unbelief directly. They would “Know” this being exists, not “believe” this being exists. The God of the Bible places a high value on believing.

Second, this experiment has already been done and humans failed. If you believe the biblical accounts in the book of Exodus-Numbers, which I do, you know that the God of Scripture showed up multiple times forcefully to the Israelites. He did amazing things that everyone could see. Yet, over and over again, they doubted God and his instructions. Clearly seeing is not really believing unless you choose to do so. Showing himself to the Israelites apparently did nothing for their faith at all. When you think about it, this fact alone suggests to me that what is recorded really happened because the story of God’s people in Scripture is pathetic. It is hardly the story of Israel triumphing over its enemies and faithfully obeying God. In fact, it couldn’t be further from that. Why would writers possibly create material about their own people that was so negative? That’s not plausible. If God confronts you, you don’t believe. You know, unless of course you choose to reject what you know.

Third, God cannot force you to turn to him and love him. Consider this hypothetical situation. Some single guy sees a woman and he thinks she’s gorgeous. He watches her and likes her way of living and way of speaking. He falls madly in love with her but has never spoken to her directly. He wants to marry her but knows that is not plausible unless she loves him as well. So how can he make that happen? He kidnaps her, takes her to his basement, and ties her to a chair. Then he looks her in the face and says, “Love me.” She refuses. He yells in her face repeatedly, “You have to love me!” This goes on for about two hours. She finally says, “Okay, I love you.”

Can you really force someone to love you? Do you want a relationship with someone who wants nothing to do with you but is forced into it? Would this woman’s asserted “love” be real? Not at all.  You cannot force someone to want to know you or love you.

If God wanted a bunch of beings who walked around and said, “God, I love you,” but did not feel anything, he could have created robots. However, sci-fi stories aside, you cannot have a meaningful relationship with a robot. It does not possess the capability to love you truly. It can only do what it is programmed to do.

In the biblical worldview, God wanted authentic trust in him. He wanted people to choose him because they wanted to know him. According to the Bible, God loves every human with incomprehensibly great love. That means, in part, that he seeks what is good for them. (It’s not just emotional.)He wants them to love him in return, based upon God taking the first step.  Tearing open heaven and confronting Richard Dawkins is not going to produce the sort of response that God seems to want. I’m married. I love my wife. She is wonderful. Similar to the “spiritual law,” “God loves me and has a wonderful wife for my life.” I wouldn’t want to be married to her if she was brainwashed to love me. I wouldn’t want to be married to her because I ordered her to love me. I want her to be my wife because she chose to love me on her own. Anything else is worthless.

God, according to the Bible, places a high value on faith. He provides enough evidence to believe in him but refuses to beat people over the head to force them to turn to him. If I as a human do not want a drone that says, “I love you” because she was programmed to say that or somehow forced to say that, how much more would God not want someone to proclaim love to him because he grabbed that person by the hair and demanded his or her love.

Therefore, I am not surprised that God does not “show up” in an unmistakable way to people who do not believe in him. God, it seems from Scripture, wants us to choose to believe in him, know him, and love him. He will not get the relationship with us that he seeks if he gives someone no choice because he is twisting his or her arm. I wouldn’t want God to be like that. What do you think?

A Verse is a Terrible Thing to Waste: “Behold I stand at the door” (Rev 3:20)

At the altar call I responded to, I was led to say the “Sinner’s prayer.” Part of the preaching was based on Revelation 3:20, “Behold I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come into them and eat with them, and they with me.” (I am translating the singular pronoun as them and they because this is almost certainly not meant only for males. However, in Greek, if you want to indicate a generic person, you would use the masculine singular format.

Now, I’m not bashing on people who use this during altar calls because the Lord uses all sorts of things in bringing people to himself. After all, God used a donkey to get Balaam’s attention.  However, we should look at the context. In Revelation 2-3, there are seven letters to churches in Asia Minor (modern-day western Turkey). If you looked at them on a map, you’d see that the seven cities roughly make a circle, and it was probably the route followed by someone delivering a message whether imperial or otherwise. Each letter addresses a specific church but since all seven letters are near the start of the same document, each church gets to read/hear the letters to the other churches.

Jesus addresses this statement as part of a letter to the church in Laodicea. Technically the letter is to the messenger of the church of Laodicea but that doesn’t affect the meaning at all. I’m sure all the house churches in Laodicea would have heard the letter being read. The context in the letter is that the church of Laodicea is “lukewarm.” Jesus says the he wishes the church were either hot or cold. Hierapolis, which is near to Laodicea, was famous for its hot springs, used by many for health and others because no one had invented a Jacuzzi yet. Colossae, to which Paul wrote a letter, was also near to Hierapolis and Laodicea. Colossae got its was from a rive. The water at Hierapolis was hot and healing. The water at Colossae was cool and refreshing. Laodicea got its water from Hierapolis. By the time it got there, it was not hot enough to have health benefits but it was not cool and refreshing either. Both of those would have been good but Laodicea had neither in its physical water supply. The original recipients of this letter would have instantly known what Jesus was talking about. I wish you were either heath-giving or refreshing. Since you are neither, like drinking water out of the garden hose on a hot summer day, I will vomit you out of my mouth. This is no altar call for non-believers. It is for a church that is so caught up in its own self-sufficiency, that it has pushed Jesus out of the church. Jesus is knocking on the door of the church and perhaps, by extension, the door of each individual. However, it says nothing in Revelation 3:20 about knocking on the door of the heart of an unbeliever. I’m sure the Holy Spirit does that but this is the wrong text to get that out of.

There are lots of ways to invite a non-believer to give her life to Jesus but this should not be one of them because it is not what the passage is about.

Can I really do ALL Things through Jesus the King? (Philippians 4:13)

“I can do all things through Christ the Messiah strengthens me.” Philippians 4:13

This verse is regularly and frequently used out of context. On its own out of context, I could apply it to, say, sports. Even though I have not done the high jump since high school, this verse means that Christ can give me strength to do a 9-foot high jump, which I do not think anyone has ever done. Or it could mean that through Christ’s strength I’m going to make a million dollars. Or just make my life go right at the time. However, none of these is what the context around this verse is talking about. In the letter to the Philippians, one of the things that Paul is doing is thanking them for money they have sent to support him. Yes, I know, Philippians and more particularly Philippians chapter 4 is not weed like a thank you but that is probably what is. Now, just before Paul writes I can do all things through the Messiah drink me, he says that he is learned to be content in all situations, whether with much or with little. Let me pause for a moment to clarify my use of the word Messiah. The Greek word for the anointed one is Christ the Hebrew word for the anointed one is Messiah Christ is not Jesus’ last name. It is a title it is not like Paul is saying I can do all things through Smith. He is talking about the must via who came. The concept of a Messiah for most of us is not very meaningful. Messiah was supposed to be the king over all of Israel and set things to rights. So we could translate Christ as King for Gentile purposes. So Paula saying that through the king, the        King of Kings, he can receive strength to do what he needs to do. Specifically, this means learning to be content in all situations. My life and the lives of most Westerners are far far easier than Paul’s life was. Yet I am discontent a lot so this verse is for me. I can pray for the strength to be content in my situation, physical pain, career failure, and more. It does not mean that King of Kings will give me strength to do any old thing. Although Sampson misused the strength he was given God-given strength for specific purposes. And the strength of Jesus the King gives is for specific purposes. For me being content is one of the hardest things I try to do. I have hope though, because Paul said he learned this so if I want to apply this verse correctly I have to practice in Paris to learn to be content in all situations I wish authors and teachers and preachers would stop using this verse out of its context to mean things Paul never ever intended to mean. That’s why my previous post was about the importance of context versus pretext. If I ignore the context of this verse I can come up with all manner of things that I should expect Christ to give me strength to do, but that’s not what it. So if you try to apply it to something that it doesn’t apply to and you don’t find that the king gives you strength, you should not be surprised.

Now it may well be the case that Jesus the King will give you strength for other things, such as resisting temptation, learning endurance, or growing in gratitude. You can expect strength for those things but remember that this is going to be strength for the things that Jesus the King wants you to accomplish and the most important thing that God is at work in the lives of Christians to do or be is to be more like Jesus, to grow spiritually, and to be transformed by the renewing of your mind as Paul says in Romans 12:1-3.