Evidence for the Truth of the Christian Message

August 2, 2010 by admin  
Filed under Defending the Faith, New

We live in a pluralistic society with dozens of competing claims to truth.  A bewildering variety of religions, philosophies, political ideologies and personal codes of conduct all attempt to convince us that they have special insights into reality and the proper way to live.  To many people, the historic Christian gospel appears as just one more voice in the marketplace of ideas.  All of this raises the question of why anyone should believe that what we have to say is any different.  In other words, who is to say that Christians are right when we claim that the gospel is uniquely the truth?

Providing compelling reasons to people who question the Christian Faith is called Apologetics.  We don’t have space in this article for more than a brief explanation of some of the more compelling pieces of evidence, so I will simply deal with some of the good reasons we have for believing the gospel under the following headings:

  • The reliability of the Bible
  • The amazing evidence for the Bible’s inspiration
  • The compelling body of facts affirming Jesus’ claims to be the Son of God, the Messiah of Israel and the risen Savior of the world.
  • The Evidence of History and Archeology
  • The startling transformation of the disciples of Jesus
  • The unstoppable spread of the gospel across time and cultures
  • The millions of supernaturally changed lives over the past couple of thousand years.

The first thing we must tackle is the issue of the Bible, and specifically:

  • Is the Bible trustworthy as a document? That is, can we understand our current Bible versions as accurately representing the original manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments?  To answer this question we must rely on the evidence of the manuscript tradition.  And, along with that is another question–
  • Is the Bible inspired by God? In other words, is the Bible more than just a collection of merely human writings?  Put simply, can we discern the hand of God in the books of the Bible?

OK, back to the first part of this question: You may already be familiar with the fact that the Bible comes from the ancient scriptural writings of the Jews, mainly in Hebrew, and from the Greek writings of the early Church.  As far as anyone knows, no actual documents from the original writers still exist.  That means we must rely on ancient manuscripts copies of these original documents.  But how do we know that when we pick up the Bible to read Genesis or Romans that what we are reading is a faithful and accurate representation of what was originally written by say, Moses or the Apostle Paul?

Old Testament Evidence. Let’s begin with a quick look at the manuscript evidence for the Old Testament.  What Christians accept as the Old Testament, Jews have been using for centuries as their sacred scriptures.  By the way, they don’t call it the Old Testament: they use terms like Torah, Tanach or simply the Hebrew Scriptures.

Until 1947, the standard Hebrew manuscripts available for making copies of the Old Testament were the Massoretic Texts.  These documents, dating from around 900 AD, were used as the basis for making more current copies of the Old Testament.  Since the conventional date for the writing of the books of the Old Testament is between 1400 and 400 BC, and the Massoretic Texts date from around 900 AD, that leaves an average of more than 1,500 years between the originals and the copies being used for Old Testament study and translation.  In other words, there appeared to be lots of time for copyists to make copying mistakes, or even deliberate changes.

But the situation changed in 1947 with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  Some of the documents of the Dead Sea Scrolls are dated from before 100 BC and the collection includes every book of the Old Testament except Esther.  So, suddenly we have manuscript copies a thousand years closer to the source.

These fragile manuscripts from well before the time of Christ have been compared with the Massoretic Texts in order to discover how much the material of Old Testament might have changed over centuries of copying.  The result was the amazing discovery that little or no significant variation occurred in more than 1,000 years between the Dead Sea Scrolls (around 100 BC) and the Massoretic Texts (around 900 AD).  It proved what Jewish and Christian tradition had always claimed: that Jewish scribes followed rigorous copying procedures to ensure accurate transmission of the text of the Hebrew scriptures.

New Testament Evidence.  If we are encouraged by the evidence for the Old Testament, the evidence for the integrity of the New Testament is even better.  The text used for study and translation of the New Testament is derived from literally thousands of early manuscripts.  Just for starters, there are the more than 5,000 manuscripts in the original Greek in which the books of the New Testament were written.

To be fair, not all of these manuscripts are complete copies of the New Testament.  Some are just fragments of books.  But even so, this is an impressive amount of evidence.  Add to this, the very early copies of the New Testament in other languages, which can be used for comparison with the Greek copies, This adds up to a total of more than 20,000 early manuscripts on which our current New Testament is based.

__________________________________________

Greek:                                                5,686

Latin Vulgate:                            10,000+

Ethiopic:                                           2,000+

Slavic:                                                4,101

Armenian:                                       2,587

Others:                                                 596

___________________________________________

If that were not enough, virtually the entire New Testament can be reconstructed from quotes found in the writings of early Christian leaders (called the Patristic Writings).  These date from the Second to around the Seventh Centuries AD.

What does all of this tell us?  Just that we can be highly confident that what we are reading in our mainstream English translations (or Spanish, French—or any other language) is a highly accurate rendering of what was contained in the original documents of the Old and New Testaments.

The issue of inspiration.  The Bible is littered with claims that it is much more than just the words of its human authors.  In the Old Testament, some writers passed on messages directly from God. For example Isaiah 44:6, “This is what the LORD says— Israel’s King and Redeemer, the LORD Almighty:  I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God.” In fact, the phrase “Thus saith the Lord” (or its equivalent) appears more than two thousand times in the books of the Old Testament.  Others received messages from God in dreams and visions, while still other writers like Samuel and Ezra saw themselves as guided by God to record events in Israel’s history.

In the gospels, Jesus affirmed the infallibility of the Old Testament in Matthew 5:18 and he cited other passages as predicting aspects of his life and ministry.  Verses like             2 Timothy 3:16-17 and 2 Peter 1:20-21 affirm the Old Testament to be from God.  Then in 2 Peter 3:15, the Apostle Peter refers to Paul’s New Testament writings like Romans and Galatians as being inspired in the same way as the Old Testament scriptures.

However, the Bible is by no means the only book claiming divine inspiration.  The Qur’an of Islam, the Book of Mormon and a variety of other religious books make similar claims.  So, what evidence is there that the claims made in the Bible have any basis in fact?  To answer this, we will look at the evidences of:

  • Fulfilled prophecy, and of—
  • The Bible’s uncanny insight into human nature.

Let’s take just the prophecies specifically fulfilled by Jesus:

  • Jeremiah 23:5 says that the Messiah will come from of the family line of David.    This is fulfilled in the life of Jesus in passages like Matthew 1:6 and Luke 3:31.
  • Micah 5:2 gives Bethlehem as the place where Messiah will be born.  Again, this is shown to be Jesus’ birthplace in Matthew 2:1.  Some might bring up the fact that other of Jewish men in the First Century could make those claims.  That is certainly true.  Nonetheless, only those who could make these claims would have been candidates for Messiah.  So, this shows that Jesus’ claims were at least valid.
  • Messiah will be born of a virgin in Isaiah 7:14?  Luke 1:26-35 claims this is fulfilled in the angelic announcement to Jesus’ mother, Mary.  Again, some would point out that a virgin birth would be hard to prove.  Granted, but on this point there is independent evidence that there was indeed some irregularity about Jesus’ birth.  Oddly enough it comes from a source not exactly positive toward Jesus or Christianity–the Talmud of ancient Judaism.  It says, in reference to Jesus’ birth: “His mother was Miriam (note—we call her Mary), a women’s hairdresser.  As they say, ‘This one strayed from her husband’.”

The Talmud says in another place, also speaking of Mary, that she was, “… the descendant of princes and governors, who played the harlot with carpenters.” In other words, it was a well-known fact that Jesus birth was unusual.

Let’s move on to some things which would clearly be far-fetched for Jesus to fulfill through his own efforts:

  • According to Isaiah 50:6, the Messiah will be beaten and spit upon. This was fulfilled in Jesus’ experience according to Matthew 26:67.
  • His hands and feet will be pierced: predicted in Psalm 22:16 and fulfilled in Luke 23:33.
  • His clothing will be divided by casting lots; predicted in Psalm 22:18 and fulfilled in John 19:23-24.
  • His bones will not be broken: this is predicted in Psalm 34:20 and fulfilled in John 19:33.
  • His side will be pierced, according to Zechariah 12:10.  This is fulfilled in John 19:34.

One statistician calculated that the odds of Jesus accidentally fulfilling just eight of the more than sixty prophecies attributed to him would be on the order of 1 in 10 to the 17th power (that’s 1 in 10 with 17 zeros behind it).  Plainly stated, the chances are simply astronomical [Peter Stoner in Science Speaks].

The Evidence of History and Archeology. How about the many historical and archeological confirmations of the Bible?  Those who question the Bible sometimes ask questions like: “Don’t history and archeology show that the Bible contains significant errors, which bring the entire Christian Faith into question?”

Fortunately, many claims made by the Bible can be tested historically.  People, places and events mentioned can be directly confirmed through various types of inquiry.  For instance:

  • The strange three-hour period of darkness which Matthew 27:45 describes as covering the land at Jesus’ death, and which is referenced to Amos 8:9-10.  But can this be believed?  The claim that darkness covered a significant portion of the Mediterranean world between noon and 3:00 pm on the day Jesus was crucified might seem a bit hard to believe.  And yet there are those very intriguing references to such an event in non-biblical Roman sources.

For instance, the Second Century Greek author Phlegon, is quoted in the writings of Origen [Against Celsus, Book 2] as saying, “During the time of Tiberius Caesar an eclipse of the sun occurred during the full moon.” Another mention of this event comes through the Third Century author, Julius Africanus who says concerning this mysterious darkness,  “Thallus, in the third book of his histories, explains away this darkness as an eclipse of the sun—unreasonably as it seems to me…”.

So why would the writer Africanus consider a solar eclipse to be unreasonable as an explanation for the darkness during the crucifixion?  The answer is because a solar eclipse can only occur when the moon is directly between the earth and the sun.  But Passover season, when Jesus was crucified, only happens when the moon is full—that is with the earth directly between the moon and the sun.  In other words, a solar eclipse was impossible at that particular time.

Over the past century or so, a growing body of archeological evidence has also given its support to the overall picture of Bible events and conditions.  During this time, several prominent archeologists have become convinced that the evidence overwhelmingly tends to confirm the Biblical record.   For example:

  • William Foxwell Albright (dates), of John’s Hopkins University and Director of the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem, said this in his book, The Archaeology of Palestine: ”The excessive skepticism shown toward the Bible…. has been progressively discredited.  Discovery after discovery has established the accuracy of innumerable details, and has brought increased recognition to the value of the Bible as a source of history.
  • Dr. Nelson Glueck (dates), world-renowned expert of the archeology of Palestine and President of Hebrew Union College put it this way, “..it may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted (disproved) a biblical reference.  Scores of archaeological findings have been made, which confirm in clear outline or in exact detail historical statements in the Bible.”  Rivers in the Desert, pp. 31.

Here are some examples of archeological and anthropological confirmations of the biblical record:

  • Legends of a catastrophic flood found among widely scattered ethnic groups worldwide cast an intriguing light upon the story of Noah in Genesis 6-9.
  • The fact that Mesopotamia (parts of Iraq Iran and Syria) was the cradle of world civilization confirms the biblical account of early human culture from the early chapters of Genesis.
  • Various ancient documents, such as the Ebla, Amarna and Nuzi Tablets both confirm and shed new light on various cultural practices of people mentioned in the Bible. (Thompson, pp.1654-55, 1633, 1883)
  • In 1975 a clay seal surfaced, inscribed with the name of Jeremiah’s scribe, Baruch, authenticating the existence of that biblical character.
  • During archeological excavations in 1994 in northern Israel, workers found an inscription mentioning for the first time independently of the Bible, the Israelite royal House of David.
  • Archeological findings at Delphi in Greece authenticate the words of Acts 18:12-17 that Gallio was governor of the city of Corinth in 51 AD.  No mention of this fact had been available until this discovery at the turn of the Twentieth Century.

Psychological Arguments. Moving on to evidence that might be described as more psychological, the Bible has what I would call a supernatural knack for accurately describing human nature.  In example after example, it accounts in realistic detail, as no other religion or philosophy does, for the heights of our nobility as well as the depths and extent of our degradation.

Take for instance the case of King David who, in the book of Psalms, wrote some of the most moving devotional poetry ever composed, and yet who also deliberately committed sins of adultery and murder.  I could cite numerous other examples from the lives of Abraham, Moses, Peter and others whose lives are praised for their faith and heroism but who also had very typical human failings.

What does this tell us?  It seems to me pretty clear that the Bible realistically portrays human behavior.  It also tells us that God is truly gracious in using real people to accomplish his will and in his urgency in redeeming us.  In other words, the biblical accounts ring true as they show real people relating to God.

Given the Bible’s inspiration and reliability, we can go on to make a case for other aspects of the Historic Christian message.  For example:

  • The miracles of Jesus are a powerful indication that his claims of being the Son of God were valid.  The Gospel accounts show Jesus doing things no one has done before or since.  With a simple word, he healed the sick and raised the dead.  He walked on water and turned water into wine.

Certainly other religions make claims that their founders worked miracles.  But the way in which the Gospels depict Jesus as doing the miracles and then downplaying the sensational effects they generated, certainly says that these events were performed by someone extra special and that they were performed for purposes which have nothing to do with common publicity value.

Then of course there is the resurrection.  Here is a topic worthy of discussion all by itself.  The resurrection is the supreme evidence that Jesus is indeed the Son of God.  From a historical point of view, it is clear that Jesus’ tomb was empty.  Even his enemies agreed about that.  But their explanation that Jesus’ disciples overpowered the guard and stole the body doesn’t fit with the demoralized spirit of the disciples at the crucifixion.  It doesn’t fit with their initial unbelief when the women announced that his body was missing.  Neither does it account for the dramatic change in the behavior of these disciples or the astounding growth of the early Christian movement.

The incredible impact of the Jesus’ resurrection shows that his crucifixion did achieve reconciliation with God and the making of a new humanity.

  • Let’s move on to consider the absolute conviction of the Apostolic generation.  Nearly all of them were willing to die horrible deaths for the message they proclaimed.  The argument has been made in numerous other settings that it makes no sense whatever that men would willingly die such deaths if they knew (or suspected) that their message was false.  Yet they remained unshakeable to the end.  That fact communicates huge confidence that the gospel message is truthful.
  • How about the impressive basic consensus of the Christian community which transcends generations and ethnicities.  Whether it was the unprecedented coming together of First Century Jews and Gentiles through the redemption of Jesus, or the gospel’s appeal in the Early Middle Ages to the barbarian tribes of Europe, or its spread in more modern times to the diverse peoples of every continent, the message of Jesus resonates in every time and culture.

So the Christian message is not tied to a certain group of people or a particular era in history.  It is truly trans-cultural and adaptable to a variety of peoples and situations.

  • That brings us to a final piece of evidence: the changed lives of millions upon millions of individuals over the centuries.  I could relate the stories of people like Augustine who changed from a philosopher critical of Christianity to the greatest defender of the Faith during those dark years when Rome was collapsing.  Then there is John Newton, who was actively involved in Britain’s slave trade during the late 1700s, but who was transformed into an opponent of slavery and an advocate of God’s amazing grace.

These examples represent thousands more.  In fact, the kind of proof for Christianity which is compelling to average people, isn’t the somewhat technical material we discussed earlier, but the truly changed lives of real believers living among us.

This is just a fraction of the evidence Christians can point to supporting the claims of Christianity.  A complete course in apologetics includes much more extensive evidence and arguments for the Christian Faith.  But let’s be realistic: none of the evidence is absolutely irrefutable.  There will always be arguments against any of the points we could make.

But then, for nearly everything in life, fool-proof evidence is hard to come by.  Even in our courts of law, jurors are asked to decide difficult cases based upon evidence that is merely “beyond a reasonable doubt”.  So what I have presented may simply be dismissed by those heavily committed to other points of view.  It boils down to this: I believe that, taken together, the evidence for the Christian faith is compelling in a way, which no other religion or “rival gospel” can match.  In other words, the evidence for Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior of the world authenticates itself in every area of human inquiry and experience.  That means we can share the good news about his with great confidence.

Michael Bogart                          (I owe much of the data for this article to Evidence that Demands a Verdict, by Josh McDowell.)

Some biblical information as to why people suffer

August 2, 2010 by admin  
Filed under Defending the Faith, Thoughts

The following is the outline used in a 20 minute radio interview on the subject of evil and suffering. The interview was given on July 16, 2010 on Radio Luz: XHTE in Tehuacan, Puebla in Mexico. The program is a favorite of the listeners called, “Un Cafecito Con Jose Angel”. The questions were asked in Spanish through an interpreter, Michel Lagunes, and I replied in English through the same interpreter.

I was in Tehuacan as part of our bi-annual term teaching more than 100 Christian leaders the subject of Apologetics. Jose Angel, one of the station owners, was part of the class and invited me for the interview.

Question: What is Evil?

  • Evil is the absence of the good, which comes from God; the exception to the normal that God created. Evil entered the Cosmos through the fall of Lucifer (Ezekiel 28:15)
  • Sin is a choice to step away from truth righteousness and goodness; it is choosing something partial, twisted, negative or improper. Sin entered the human race through Adam (Romans 5:12)
  • Suffering is a direct or indirect result of evil entering the Cosmos and gaining a foothold. In Genesis 3, the curses followed the disobedience.

If God is good, why does he allow evil and suffering in the world?

God’s reasons are above and beyond our understanding (Isaiah 40:13). We do know certain things about God:

  • He is good (Deuteronomy 13:4)
  • He is wise (Job 12:13)
  • He is all-powerful (Isaiah 44:6)

Maybe the best way to capture the essence of at least part of God’s reasons for allowing evil and suffering into the Cosmos is because he desired that people have real choice. Only with real choice can we truly choose him. Maybe we can over-simplify this and juts say that God, who loves us, wants us to really love him in return.

That choice to love God cannot happen if he pre-programmed us to love him. Only when we may choose to love or not love; obey or not obey, is there the possibility of love and obedience freely given. Sadly, some of his angels chose not to love him and evil entered the Cosmos. Then the human race chose its own way in the Garden, bringing the infection of sin into the human race.

The good news is that we may still freely choose him by faith. Hebrews 2:10 refers to Jesus Christ bringing many sons into God’s presence. We become God’s children through this choice we call faith.

How can the problem of evil and suffering be dealt with?

  • God has decisively dealt with sin and evil. He did this through his son Jesus on the cross (2 Corinthians 5:21). This means:
  • He personally knows the horrors of evil as well as the mental stress and agony of suffering (Philippians 2:8).
  • He has dealt a decisive blow to evil, sin and suffering (Colossians 1:20).
  • Someday God will put an end to suffering (Revelation 21:3-4).
  • In the meantime God is so wise and powerful that he can use all things (including the evil and suffering he didn’t cause) to work for the ultimate good of those who love him (Romans 8:28).

Michael Bogart

Why all the anger over the inscription on the cross?

June 3, 2010 by admin  
Filed under Defending the Faith, New

The gospel account in John, chapter 19 records a seemingly trivial detail of Jesus’ crucifixion. The Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, had ordered an inscription to be posted over the head of Jesus on the cross. In English it reads, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”. The Jewish leaders of the day were upset enough about these words that they demanded that it be removed. So what’s the big deal?

On the face of it, Pilate was simply doing what custom often dictated: posting the crime of the criminal for all to see. Jesus had been reputed to the the king of the Jews. Pilate had even questioned Jesus about this claim and Jesus had admitted it. The Jewish leaders themselves had requested that Jesus be executed with the words, “We have no king but Caesar!”, implying that they knew of Jesus’ claim and rejected it. So, it does seem logical to post this inscription. Pilate is simply saying, This man is being executed because he is “the King of the Jews”. So, why the uproar?

Clearly, Pilate is getting some of his own back in doing this. He felt blackmailed by the Jewish leadership into executing Jesus, whom he considered to be innocent of any Roman capital offense. His conscience was bothering him, so he got a bit of revenge on them by wording the inscription in a way that would anger them. Notice he didn’t say, “This man claimed to be king of the Jews”, but that “He is the king of the Jews”.  Not only this, but Pilate was also insulting the Jewish people as a whole by saying in effect, “Look at what Rome can do to your king.” But despite the urgent demands, Pilate refused to be manipulated, sticking to his guns and saying, “I have written what I have written. Period.”

But there may be something else here. The inscription was in three languages: Latin, Greek and Aramaic. Aramaic was the language of the people of Judea at the time and can be similar in some ways to biblical Hebrew. If the inscription were to have been written in Hebrew, it probably would have read: Yeshua haNazarei, v’melech, haYehudim (Jesus the Nazarene, the king of the Jews).

There was a school of thought within Judaism in those days (just as there is today) that there is a pattern of finding the divine name and other interesting sacred words scattered as the first letters of various portions of biblical text. This is one avenue of study within what is known today as kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism. Here is the point: the initial letters in a Hebrew version of this inscription would spell YHVH: the tetragrammaton, or sacred name of God.

It could be that the leaders were aware of how such an inscription would read in Hebrew, and that its initial letters would spell the name of God and further confirm Jesus claims, not only to being the king of the Jews, but the Son of God as well. That would certainly lead to the kind of indignation they expressed to Pilate. In Pilate’s refusal, we may very well see the ironic justice of God in testimony to Jesus’ real identity as he died for the sins of the world. Shalom!

Michael Bogart

Where Does Morality Come From?

public-opinionThe issue of morality is a tricky one when people begin to discuss community standards.  Whose standards will be adopted and codified into law?  Why should the morality of one group be preferred over another?  Why shouldn’t one individual’s opinion be considered just as valid as that of others?

One person may say, “I live by the Golden Rule: Do to others what you want done for you.”  Another says, “Anything goes so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else.”  Still another puts it like this, “The only one I have to please is myself.”  All of these are definite standards for making ethical decisions and all of them affect other people.  But where does true morality come from?

In North American society, the current approach is that morality is defined and decided by majority rule.  This idea sounds eminently reasonable to our democratic way of thinking.  Yet, thinking a bit deeper brings up some troubling problems with the idea of morality by majority consensus.  Where did the majority get their views?  Who are the shapers behind that public opinion?  Why should the views of the morality-shapers be allowed to dominate the minds of so many?  In other words, what guarantee is there that the moral  opinions of the masses are right or good?

Consider Germany in the 1930s.  The Nazi Party was steadily gaining power.  It controlled the press, the educational establishment and even many of the churches.  Nazi propaganda took advantage of certain ideas and feelings already shared by many Germans, and cleverly shaped those notions into the kind of public opinion it desired.  As a result, the world was torn apart and millions died, including six million Jews.   Yet, if we agree that morality should be decided by public opinion, we have little room to criticize the morals of Nazi Germany.  Their consensus was just different than ours, that’s all.

Some will point out that we aren’t like those terrible Nazis or the German people they duped.  Really?  The moral standards of North Americans as just as subject to shaping by the media, government and education as any other culture in history.  Others will point out that we are different because we value tolerance.  The truth is that it really depends upon which side of the current notions of tolerance you fall on.  There are a sizable group of people in our culture right now who would claim that intolerance, not tolerance, rules the day.  North American society may be tolerant of some people and beliefs, but certainly not all.  It just depends on who is in and who is out of power at the time.

Another problem with morality by consensus is that it is subject to constant change.  Like a ship with no compass and no chart, a society which has no external moral standards is directionless.  External principles are essential both to individuals and to cultures simply because they provide a necessary corrective when standards become out of sync with reality.

So what is the alternative?  Let me put it plainly: there is a God.  He created the Cosmos.  He built into his creation certain moral laws based upon his own nature, by which people should live.  The truth is that right and wrong, good and evil, exist independently of what people may think about them.  Thomas Jefferson referred to this in the Declaration of Independence when he wrote about, “..certain inalienable rights endowed by our Creator.”

In the final analysis, workable moral standards are only possible when they are based on a source external to the changing whims of the masses or of those who generate public opinion.  That external source is God.  He is both truly good and truly wise.  He alone is impartial, favoring no one.  To follow his standards, which Jews and Christians believe are given in the Bible, is to have both a compass and an anchor.  In contrast, morality based on the ever-changing opinions of some manufactured majority consensus is biased, arbitrary and chaotic.  It seems that we are not far from this in our own times.

We must think clearly about this issue: If there is such a God as is revealed in the Bible, then it follows that there are external standards of right and wrong.  In that case, what the majority happens to believe is irrelevant.  On the other hand, if there is no such God, then morality is indeed invented by people and agreed upon by each generation.  But in that case, true moral principle ceases to exist, and in its place is a mere scramble to shape and dominate the masses.  That is why, if God does not exist, both Nazism and Communism make perfect sense.  Power is all there is.

No matter what notions are currently popular, our consciences still tell us there there is a God and that his standards are good and fair and right.  So the question is, who will we listen to?  Those who say, in effect, there is no right or wrong, just power?  Or the God who created us and loves us?

Michael Bogart

Look in the Bible for Basic Answers

October 10, 2009 by admin  
Filed under Defending the Faith, Thoughts

CSL047The last book of the Bible was written 1,900 years ago. In that time, empires have risen and fallen: Rome is gone; Charlemagne’s empire has vanished; mighty Britannia has given her children their freedom. Major wars have been fought. New philosophies have come into vogue and have declined. Electronic technology has improved and become common place. In light of all this, the Bible may seem like a quaint but archaic book, good only for gathering dust on the shelf or for analyzing in a classroom.

What could the Bible possibly have to say that would be relevant to us and our particular needs in the Twenty-first Century? Surprisingly, it has a lot to say! This is partly because fundamental human needs haven’t changed at all in 2,000 years and partly because God inspired scripture to speak to people in every age. So, the Bible we have today continues to answer the basic questions people are asking. You can look up the scripture references yourself and see what you think. For example:

  • Is there a God, and if so, what is He like? (See Psalm 14:1, Romans 1:19-20, John 3:16, etc).
  • How did the universe come into being? (See Hebrews 11:3, Genesis chapters 1 and 2, etc.)
  • Why do humans have a strong tendency to hurt others, break widely accepted rules and live for themselves? Is there some basic flaw in us? (See Genesis chapter 3, Romans 1: 18ff, 3:9-18, etc.)
  • Is there some way to correct this flaw and have acceptance with God? (See John 14:6, Romans 3:22-23, Galatians 5:24).
  • Is there any basis for real brotherhood among people? (See Genesis 1:27-28, 10:32, Romans 10:12, etc.)
  • Does life have any meaning or purpose? (See John 10:10, John 17:3).
  • Is there life after death? (See Revelation 20:11-15, Luke 23:40-43, John 14:2, Revelation 7:9).

These questions and many others are answered in the book of books, known as the Bible. I challenge you to search for its answers yourself. You might just be delighted by what you find!

Michael Bogart

A Brief Summary of Ancient Montanism

August 30, 2009 by admin  
Filed under Defending the Faith

fire graphicMontanism was considered a heretical movement by the early church.  Founded by the self-proclaimed prophet, Montanus, in the Second Century AD, it began as a ministry within the Christian Church in the region of Phrygia in modern Turkey.   Montanism then spread throughout Asia Minor, with many villages and towns converted to the movement.   In the next century, Montanism was also established in North Africa under the leadership of the bishop Tertullian.

Although little is known about Montanus himself, it is clear that before his conversion to Christianity, he was a priest of the mystery cult of Cybele.  The circumstances of his conversion to Christianity are not recorded.  His ministry, however, quickly became separate from conventional Christianity because of its emphasis on ongoing, authoritative prophecy and ecstatic experience, its extra-canonical writings and its independence from the rule of established bishops.

The receptivity of Phrygia to the Montanist message may have been due to the fact that in the pre-Christian era, this region had been a center of several mystery cults whose worship was characterized by ecstatic activities.  Since the main Montanist writings have been lost, the chief sources for the history of the movement are found in the Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, the writings of Tertullian and Epiphanius, and various inscriptions in modern Turkey.

The essential principle of Montanism was that the Paraclete (the Holy Spirit) was manifesting himself through Montanus and the prophets associated with him.  For example, Montanus claimed to speak directly from God in his announcement that the second coming of Christ was imminent.  He was often associated with two young women, Prisca and Maximilla, who had left their husbands to be associated with his ministry.  They soon became leaders within the movement and exercised their own prophetic ministries.  The Montanist prophecies, while rejected by the established church, were recorded and gathered together as sacred documents for use within their congregations.  Only about a score of their oracles have survived into modern times.  However, Epiphanius comments that these prophecies, “..manifest a kind of enthusiasm that dupes those who are present, and provokes them to tears, leading to repentance”.

The movement did not at first question the authority of church leadership or deny any essential Christian doctrines.  Because of this, the Montanists were able to enjoy a brief period of acceptance by the established church, since it had always acknowledged the return of Christ and the gift of prophecy.  It soon became clear, however, that the Montanist prophecy was something different from what the church ordinarily accepted.  The fact that Montanus claimed to have the final revelation of the Holy Spirit, implied that something could be added to teaching of Christ and the Apostles.  Hence, their official condemnation by the established church around the year 177 AD.

Because of his conviction that the end of the world was at hand, Montanus prescribed a strict moral code for his followers in order to detach them from their physical desires and prepare them for Christ’s coming.  This code included a renunciation of marriage, fasting, the desire for martyrdom and a rigorous process of penance.

Although Montanism benefited from the endorsement of its most famous convert, Tertullian of Carthage, even his influence could not halt its decline after 313 as the Christian Church, with the backing of the Roman government, increasingly applied pressure upon the movement until its extinction in the Sixth Century.

Michael Bogart

Which Bible Version Should I Use?

August 24, 2009 by admin  
Filed under Bible, Defending the Faith, Thoughts

brown-bible1A Basic Explanation of English Bible Versions

One of the most frequently asked questions among Christians these days is, “Which version of the Bible should I use?”. The wide variety of English Bible translations have indeed been a great blessing in many ways; but at times they have also been a source of confusion. The person hearing a sermon or attending a Bible class may be at a loss because the version they are using reads slightly differently from the one being used by the leader. So how did the English speaking church go from the time in the early Twentieth Century when the King James Version (also known as the Authorized Version) was nearly universal among Protestants, to our situation today with easily a dozen widely used translations?

Before we go into a brief history of the English Bible, we should remember that neither the Old or New Testaments were originally written in English. In fact, the English language (as we would recognize it) was non-existent during the period of time in which these documents were being composed. The books of the Old Testament were written over approximately 1000 years, beginning around 1400 BC, with the majority written in ancient Hebrew, while a few of the later ones were penned in the related language of Aramaic. The New Testament was composed in a type of ancient Greek known as Koine (common or trade Greek) during the second half of the First Century AD.

When these biblical languages could not be understood by a significant number of God’s people, there were attempts to translate the scriptures into the languages spoken by them. For instance, in the book of Ezra, Ezra the priest had the Hebrew scriptures translated into Aramaic for the Jews who had been exiled to Babylon and could no longer speak the native language of their ancestors. Several centuries later, in around 200 BC, other Jewish scholars did the same thing for Jews living in Greek-speaking lands. The New Testament was translated in the first several centuries AD into Latin, Ethiopic, Syriac and other languages of early Christians.

The English-speaking people did not officially convert to Christianity until the 600s AD. Along with the rest of the Western Europe, they used the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible in worship. Consequently few people had access to the Bible in its original languages. Due to the Roman Catholic policy of using a uniform version of the Bible among its people and closely guarding those scriptures from misuse by untrained people, centuries went by without any serious attempt to translate the scriptures into English. The first successful effort to do so was by the priest, John Wycliffe in the 1370s. He used the Latin Vulgate as the basis for his work, rather than Greek or Hebrew manuscripts. Though Wycliffe’s translation was second-hand at best, its major contribution was to create in the common people a hunger for the Bible in their native English.

The first attempt to use the original languages for translation was by William Tyndale in the 1520s. His excellent work was supplemented in the years that followed by other versions, such as the Coverdale Bible, the Geneva Bible and the Bishops’ Bible, which were the first English Bibles to be used for public worship. With the growing influence of Puritanism in the late 1500s and the inheritance of the English throne by King James I, there was a renewed desire for a standard English Bible to be used in all the Protestant churches. King James commissioned this project in 1607at the Hampton Court Conference, with a panel of 50 scholars who worked on the translation for four years. This Authorized Version was published for use in 1611 and became the standard for English use for the next 350 years. It is a remarkable combination of quality translation (given the manuscripts available at the time) and an elegant English style.

Toward the end of the 1800s a number of Bible scholars and clergy began to sense that the Authorized Version was no longer adequate for several reasons. More recent discoveries of ancient manuscripts had added to the knowledge of the original language texts. Along with this, English had changed dramatically since 1611, so that the English itself needed updating as well. These concerns led to the Revised Standard Version of the 1880s, which was updated again in 1952. The Twentieth Century saw an explosion of Bible translations. The New American Standard Bible in 1971 was an attempt to translate the Bible into a distinctively American English. While the English style has been accused of being awkward, it is actually one of the most precise translations in the English language.

New theories of translation in the late Twentieth Century added to the mix of versions available. Rather than a closely literal approach, many opted for what can be described as either a paraphrase or a thought-for-thought translation. Among these are the Living Bible (1962), which is a paraphrase, originally designed for children, the Good News Bible (1966) which is another paraphrase designed for people in the counter-culture, and the New International Version (1978) a thought-for thought translation aimed at the entire English-speaking world. The NIV has become one of the most widely-used versions because of its simple, generic English and its accuracy of translation. All of these translation efforts have used the reconstructed original language manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments.

There have also been some recent revisions of older translations. The New King James modernizes the English of the Authorized Version, while at the same time, adjusting the translation from updated manuscript data. The New Revised Standard Version is a gender –neutral update of the older Revised Standard Version. Other popular versions of the Bible include the Phillips expanded paraphrase, the Message, which is a more recent paraphrase, and the Roman Catholic New Jerusalem and New American Bibles.

So, which Bible is best for you? Many people like to use a paraphrase or a thought-for thought version for reading, while relying on a more literal version for study. Try sampling a few to find out which suits your needs. Stay away from off-beat, inaccurate and agenda-driven translations, such as the New World Translation of the Watchtower Society. Otherwise, find a Bible you will use regularly and use it!

Michael Bogart

What it means to be saved by faith

July 13, 2009 by admin  
Filed under Defending the Faith

butterPicMany people use the word faith. People claim to have faith or not to have faith in lots of things from baseball teams to governments, marriage and religion. When someone uses the word faith, a variety of things come to mind.

In one popular dictionary, there are at least nine shades of meaning in the current English usage of the word faith.  For example, it can be defined as a personal opinion, a religious system, a sacred promise, or even as an attitude of perseverance (as in “Keep the faith.”). We English speakers have a genius for taking a word and using it creatively. In many ways, that is what makes our language so rich and adaptable.

However, there are times when we must be very clear about what we mean. For example, when Christians use the word in a gospel sense, much hinges on the correct understanding of the term. The gospel of Jesus Christ promises forgiveness, new birth, peace of mind, life-purpose, eternal life and much more. In essence, the gospel is this: If we will turn from our destructive patterns of doing things (sin) and put our faith in Jesus Christ, we will be saved. But what exactly does it mean to put faith in Jesus Christ? The New Testament idea of faith comes from the Greek word pistis, meaning trust, reliance, conviction–faith. As the New Testament uses the word there are several facets to the meaning of pistis:

First, it is a firm conviction that Jesus is who he claimed to be in the gospel accounts and that his death on the cross paid the penalty for human sin against God.  It is an acceptance of what the gospels and the rest of the New Testament say about him.  In other words, it is a belief that the information given to us in the Bible is accurate.

Of course, there are many people who simply don’t believe these assertions are true. They deny that Jesus was deity in any sense, or that his death had any significance other than as a tragic example of injustice. Some even deny his existence. Other people do believe in Jesus as he is portrayed in the New Testament. They have come to the conviction that Jesus was unique in his dual nature as human and divine; that his death achieved atonement for sin; that he is lord over all and that to know him in a faith-sense is to be granted eternal life. This is the factual basis for faith. It is the mental response to the gospel message.

But faith moves on from a willing acknowlegement of certain biblical and theological truths to a personal choice to surrender one’s life with its willful independence, destructive behavior and violation of moral principles and  to rely on God to remake us from the inside out. In other words, it is entirely possible to know the facts about Jesus and assent to their validity, but to miss eternal life. What is lacking is a profound response to these truths. This works out as a definite choice to receive Jesus’ forgiveness and allow his benevolent ownership of our lives.

This is why a main feature of evangelistic events is to bring truth to bear on the conscience so that people come to a point of decision. Without a definite positive response to Jesus Christ, there can be no salvation. This is salvation-faith. It what God asks of us in response to what he has done in Christ. It is both emotional and volitional. That is, it is a choosing to act on what the mind accepts.

But there is still another aspect to the New Testament usage of the word faith.  Faith always results in actions and conduct consistent with the assent of the mind and the response of the will and emotions. The book of James reminds us that faith without works (actions) is dead. This is stating the rather obvious truth that we understand pretty well in other aspects of life. In a romantic relationship, if the feelings, commitments and words don’t show themselves in any sort of tangible action, the beloved would clearly have the right to question the reality of what he or she has been told. To say we believe in Jesus and never act in a way which confirms that claim, rightfully causes people around us to be highly skeptical of the validity of our faith.

In other words, faith in Jesus shows itself in visible ways.  Certain things we were in the habit of doing which are offensive to God and other people now bother us. We notice and feel uncomfortable about how we use our mouths, how we treat people, how we regard ourselves and about our attitude of flippancy toward God. There is a new desire to please God along with the beginning steps of tangible actions showing that desire. We are pleased to see the basic shape of faith appear in our lives as we act on what we have come to believe.

OK: enough explanation.  Now let’s get practical: does this describe you? Perhaps you don’t know enough yet to have a well-rounded theological faith, but at least you believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that he died for you, rising again from the grave. You have moved on from what you know about Jesus to a response of gratitude and a willing reception of what he has done. Your life is now showing the beginnings of real change on a number of levels. This is biblical faith, saving faith. There is nothing on earth like it.  I highly recommend it!

Michael Bogart

The Benefits of Christianity in Society

June 24, 2009 by admin  
Filed under Defending the Faith

state churchGone are the days when society largely took for granted that the Christian Church was a necessary part of Western Culture.  Long gone.  This has become such a fact of life that the benefits of an organizational Christian presence in society should be re-examined.  Studies of the behavior patterns of North Americans and Europeans in the early Twenty-first Century show that when making important decisions, most people think, not in terms of Christian values, but of personal fulfillment and well-being.   This is a significant shift from much of the Twentieth Century, when a Christian decision-making grid was commonly accepted.

Believers may bemoan this trend as an abandonment of core Christian values, such as honoring God, obeying his will and serving others but, like it or not, it would appear that this trend will be around for the foreseeable future.  So maybe Christianity ought to be evaluated from this new pragmatic perspective.   What are the benefits of a significant Christian presence in society?  Let me suggest a few of the positive outcomes of vibrant Christianity in a given community.

Better marriages. All things being equal, the presence of churches which teach biblical family values results in more couples staying together.  I am not just referring to husbands and wives agreeing to remain married even though they have ceased to have affection for one another.  I am talking about couples who discover a deeper and more lasting love for one another because of their relationship to God.  It is a known fact among Christian people that a commitment to one’s spouse, a willingness to work though issues and a dependence upon God to cause positive change in both lives has saved many thousands of marriages which otherwise would have ended in divorce court.

Better family life. Along with husbands and wives staying together, there are fewer problems raising children when families are involved in churches. “Parents: don’t exasperate your children, but bring them up in the teaching and discipline of the Lord”, is a hugely valuable principle at a time when families are breaking down in record numbers.  Churches which teach the Bible by precept and example tend to have a higher percentage of intact and reasonably healthy families.

Lasting relationships. We are moving so fast in these times that it is difficult to form deep, long-term friendships.  Again, churches who teach the Bible’s perspective on relationships tend to produce people who know how to befriend others and work through issues which could otherwise cause separation.  Churches also provide venues for meeting people who desire these kinds of friendships.  In Christian circles it is a rather routine thing to meet people who have remained friends over many years through some pretty difficult circumstances.

Personalized care. One of the best kept secrets in most communities is the fact that churches regularly provide free counseling, not only to their members, but often to virtually anyone who desires it.  Many churches have pastors or staff members who are trained and gifted in the art of listening to people, helping them understand the dynamics behind their situation and offering sound, practical and biblical advice toward a solution.  Obviously the more people who receive this care, the healthier a community becomes.  This is especially refreshing when people are sometimes seen as figures on a spread sheet rather than as valuable persons.

Character building. While it is not the only voice in society encouraging people to become more than they are, the Christian church performs this role as well.  Not only does it encourage people to dream large dreams and achieve great things, but it also builds character in ways that the other voices seem to be neglecting: that of correction.  How many places can you go in Twenty-first Century Western Culture and have someone tell you the painful truth about yourself?  I understand that this sort of thing seems out of fashion.  I also know full-well how abused this type of thing can be, with churches sometimes working people over in the most trivial and narrow-minded of ways.  But when a person truly is involved in things which are harmful to others and ultimately self-destructive, isn’t it a good thing that there are places where people can be lovingly confronted and helped to find a new path in life?

Finding God. When people get tired of the materialism and the seemingly endless chasing of personal fulfillment, many crave something more substantial.  Christianity promises that if anyone desires to find God, he is willing to be found.  In fact the truth is quite a bit better than that.  God has made himself very accessible by becoming one of us, living as we live and doing what was necessary for us to have full and abundant relationship with our Creator.  Of course I am speaking of Jesus Christ.

I am well aware that some people take this basic Christian assertion to be narrow and exclusive.  In fact, it is quite the opposite.  Other religions teach that people must attain some ultimate spiritual goal through hidden knowledge, austere self-denial, or the offering of something precious to win the deities’ favor.  The Christian gospel is so simple and so attainable that some people have found it almost too good to be true.  A person may be welcomed into relationship with God simply by putting their trust in Jesus.  This means believing that he is who he claimed to be: the Son of God; accepting his self-sacrifice in payment for your wrongdoing and embracing his offer to join with you in making you new from the inside out.

The irony in this is that in putting faith in Jesus, a person actually finds the personal fulfillment which has eluded them for so long.  Far from being narrow, faith in Jesus is something a small child can do.  It is something a mentally disabled person can exercise.  The basic message of Christianity is truly trans-cultural, finding those in every people group who resonate with its good news.  It embraces both men and women.  It reaches every strata of society.  It changes lives when nothing else can.

All this and more come with an active Christian presence in society.  Those who are concerned with the welfare of their communities would do well to make certain that churches are free to do what they do so well: benefit people and change lives for the better.

Michael Bogart

Understanding and Dealing with the New Age

June 14, 2009 by admin  
Filed under Defending the Faith

new-age1The New Age Movement is a grab-bag of many sub-groups and organizations who share common goals and concepts. The recurring link between these groups is their commitment to working for a “new age” in which spiritual consciousness and harmony will come to planet earth. Though some would take pride in using the term “new age” to describe themselves, others might use such descriptive terms as human potential, aquarian, cosmic consciousness or various types spiritualities (such as native American spirituality, feminist spirituality, etc). Certain buzz words are commonly used among New Age groups, such as: holistic, synergy, unity, oneness, global, awakening, self-actualization, networking, energy, etc.

New Agers tend to be very syncretistic, in that they adopt ideas and practices from many sources. However there are various common characteristics, including:

Open-Ended Revelation. Various books (including the Bible) may be honored and used by groups within the movement. Divine revelation is seen as personally perceived and on-going. God (or the Ultimate) may manifest itself to or through anyone. There is no single truth because truth is personal and experiential.

God. The concept of deity is much more nebulous than in Judeo-Christianity. Groups tend to see the Ultimate as an impersonal life-force, rather than as a personal being. Deity can neither be analyzed nor systematized — because God is all. As in the Star Wars Epic, the Ultimate has a “light” and a “dark” side. In other words, the New Age concept of deity is often dualistic (including both good and evil).

The Cosmos. The universe itself is a form of God. This can either mean that everything shares in the divine being, or that the universe is not fully real, existing only as a shadow of the Ultimate.

Humanity. It will be no surprise, then, that people are also seen an emanation of God. As such, people have infinite potential if they will draw on their inner divine nature and seek consciousness of union with the Ultimate.

Salvation. Though the term “salvation” is sometimes used among New Age groups it is almost never used in the gospel sense of the word: new life and cleansing through faith in Jesus. It usually carries the same significance as the term “enlightenment”, “inner awareness” or “cosmic consciousness”. The goal is to seek a profound and intuitive understanding of the “divine nature within” as the outer, unreal self is stripped away.

Jesus is usually seen as an insightful teacher or spiritual master similar to those in Hinduism, Buddhism or the ancient mystery cults. He is deity only in the sense that anyone is connected to the divine. Many of Jesus teachings are re-interpreted to fit with New Age ideas.

The Coming New Age. As the 1960s musical group, The Fifth Dimension, sang way back in the day, there is a new age coming with the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. The old Age of Pices (the fish) was the Christian era of religious doctrines which stifled true spirituality. By contrast, the new age will be one of spiritual energy and fulfilling personal experience. Linear thinking (typical of both Christianity and Modernism) is a hindrance to enlightenment. The new era will be one of intuitive thinking and freedom.

Self-Actualization. Eastern wisdom, tribal ceremony, feminine perspectives and occult practices are often the preferred methods to foster spiritual awareness. Magic, astrology, crystals, cosmic energy, etc. are used as a means to self-understanding and the releasing of potential. Reincarnation and karma are incorporated because they allow multiple opportunities to achieve these goals.

Tolerance. There is a widespread belief that all religions, philosophies and cultures are equally valid. People ought to accept and tolerate almost any concept, lifestyle or practice. The odd thing is that there are certain exceptions to this general rule. Often it is Christianity which is the target of scorn, dislike and discrimination because Christians are seen as the major obstacle to new age goals.

Dealing With the New Age. A Christian approach to dialog with people from New Age groups should focus on the core truths of the gospel, such as:

The Bible is God’s complete revelation (Hebrews 1:1-2). It is God’s loving communication with us through those he inspired to write it (2 Peter 1:20-21). Its purpose is to introduce and explain God’s perspective on the world and his plan for redeeming it. With the coming of Jesus, that plan is fulfilled and no further revelation is required.

God is a personal being who is both holy and merciful (Isaiah 6:3, Psalm 25:6). The fact that he is both holy and merciful is truly good news because he is in no way tainted with the evil and ugliness in the Cosmos, while at the same time he is willing and able to save those who are caught in the dreary and horrifying web of sin. He is also omni (all) powerful, knowing and present (Isaiah 55:9), which means he is strong enough to intervene, wise enough to be trusted and completely accessible. The best part is that he actually desires relationship with us.

The Cosmos is God’s creation, distinct from him, but certainly showing evidence of being designed and made by him (Romans 1:20). It is the perfect venue for the utter defeat of evil (Revelation 21:4).

People are made in God’s image, which means we are eternal beings, sharing a certain similarity of self-consciousness and creativity with him. Though we are not ourselves divine, people may become his children through a reversal of the faithlessness of the Garden. This happens when people trust in Jesus’ atonement and are forgiven and reconciled to God (John 1:12). The redeemed will eventually be glorified because of our union with Christ (Psalm 8:4-5).

Jesus is the business-end of the Father’s redemption. As the Second Person of the Trinity, he is divine (John 1:1-4). He is also fully human (Romans 5:17). This too is good news because his deity assures his ability to atone for the sin of the entire world while his humanity allows him to die on behalf of human beings. As a true man, he is also able to relate to our limitations (Hebrews 2:18).

A sticking point for new age people is the New Testament claim that salvation is through Jesus alone (John 14:6). They take this truth as excluding other religions. Sadly, this is exactly backwards because Jesus as the sole source of eternal life is actually tremendously good news. None of the things offered in other religions really leads to any eternal resolution of the fundamental human problem. Not everyone can attain the esoteric wisdom of Eastern philosophies. Few can devote the time to the study of rituals and incantations. Most people are stuck in whatever routines and ruts their birth and culture dictate. The New Testament gospel is simple enough for a child to grasp, yet profound enough to satisfy the most philosophic intellect. It is trans-cultural (Galatians 3:28). It is accessible to male and female. It transcends all classes and backgrounds. The practice of Christian faith can be adapted to any society or culture (Acts 10:34-35).

There is more good news because there is indeed a new age coming when Jesus returns and judges evil and the demonic powers behind it. He will set up a kingdom of truth and righteousness and peace (2 Pet 3:11-13).

The big picture is actually very simple: if the gospel is truly good news, perhaps the best approach is to simply let it be what it is: good news. We Christians may need to learn to give up our own need to prove our faith with the very kind of linear thinking many new age people find so unappealing. Letting the gospel be good news and living the good news in everyday life can be a compelling testimony to the truth we have found!

People are attracted to authenticity. Few people can resist the joy or peace or true self- acceptance that come with new life in Christ. If followers of Christ were to actually seek these qualities and learn to live in the promises of the new life they already possess, perhaps we might experience a breakthrough with those desiring a new age.

Michael Bogart

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