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!
Here’s a question that was put to me recently about the interaction of Jesus’ divine and human natures:
Question: Since Jesus, as the Son of God and Second Person of the Trinity, is coequal with God the Father (and of course with the Holy Spirit as well) and since God is omniscient, how can the Son not know the timing of the future in Matthew 24:36? “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” (ESV)
Answer: The conventional theological explanation is that because Jesus emptied himself of the right to use certain divine attributes (Philippians 2:6ff), he therefore voluntarily put himself in a position where he limited lots of things about his divine nature in order to be truly human.
For example, he was limited to being in one place at a time, he was limited in that he had to eat, sleep, etc. It is natural therefore for him to be limited in knowledge as well, though that seems to have been periodically overridden at times when he had special insight into people’s thinking, etc.
I hope this sheds some light on the issue.
(Santa is No Substitute)
I am not one of those people who are opposed to Santa Claus, the Christmas tree or the yuletide spirit. Personally, I think that it can be a wonderful thing when families and friends enjoy the American and European traditions of Christmas at this time of year. Our family has always had a tree in the house in the weeks before Christmas Day, and it would be a yearly event to decorate it and the rest of the house with all sorts of festive nick-nacks. Over the years, my kids enjoyed waiting for the coming of Santa on Christmas Eve and, on Christmas morning, opening the gifts left under the tree in his name. It is my belief that traditions are hard enough to come by as it is in early Twenty-first Century America. It would be a pity to lose these types of happy memories and excitement during the Christmas season.
However, it should be remembered that, for followers of Jesus, the focus of the season has always been the incarnation of the Son of God. The Christmas season is meant to be a strong object-lesson in God’s personal care and love for each of us since he made the unfathomable sacrifice and took the immense trouble to take on flesh and blood and live on this globe just as we do. The manger, not the fir tree, is the central symbol of what we celebrate.
Though the mixing of Christian and traditional elements in the same holiday is confusing to some, many people can maintain this dual celebration without much effort. The trick is to enjoy the trimmings without losing the focal point. So, let’s sing Jolly Old Saint Nick and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Let’s feast, send cards and decorate the house. But let us never forget to bow our knees in awe and with a deep sense of gratitude for the birth of God’s Son into the world. Without that, we would indeed be lost and hopeless. No amount of Yuletide cheer could ever substitute for the birth of the baby in Bethlehem!
I Thought It Was All About Jesus
It has become my personal belief that there is something very wrong with aspects of Christianity these days. The problem, as I see it, goes beyond the periodic scandals involving unethical or immoral behavior by clergy or high profile Christians. The problem is deeper even than the fact that, in Western countries, Christianity is either plateaued or declining in numbers. It seems to me that we Western Christians are in danger of being like the man who attended the inauguration of one of the U.S. presidents: he enjoyed the band, the flags and the pomp and circumstance, but when asked afterward, he couldn’t remember who it had all been for. In a word, we are in danger of missing the point in all our Christian talk and activity.
In actual fact, the point is a person. His name is Jesus Christ. He is the one we are called to honor, trust and follow. He alone offers eternal life, cleansing from sin, inner peace and a life with purpose. Jesus is the crux and focal point of the Christian faith; it is absolutely meaningless without him. All our church attendance, preaching, Bible study, worship, missions and service activities are about Jesus. If we lose sight of this, these things are nothing.
Why do we sometimes miss the point? For one thing, we can easily overlook Jesus in all of our activities because the things we are doing are good and often successful. We are running programs which help people on one level or another. We enjoy the success which accompanies effective programs and we want that success to continue. Successful programs and ministries generate a certain excitement, which stimulates growth in numbers, finances and facilities. So it isn’t hard to see that what began as a genuine effort to serve Christ and minister to people, can become something with its own agenda and goals. Unchecked, these things can eventually take on a life of their own.
Another reason we may miss Christ in our Christianity is that we get stuck in the details of our faith. Let me be very careful how I say this so that I am not misunderstood. I have spent a good portion of my life either in receiving or imparting theological training. I believe strongly in being as precise and accurate in study and teaching of the Bible as I can possibly be. As I have served with various organizations over the years, I have put my signature at the bottom of some very evangelically orthodox statements of faith. So my credentials in the area of biblical knowledge and doctrine are solid. Yet I do believe that, at times, the details of our doctrine obscure what should be its focal point, namely Jesus and our faith in him.
Certainly we must accurately understand Jesus as the Bible reveals him. It is also true that other key doctrines play a huge role in the correct understanding of the Christian faith. But what is all that worth if we never get around to worshiping Jesus out of awe and gratitude for his sacrifice? What does all that precise doctrine amount to if we bludgeon one another over hairsplitting doctrinal or stylistic nuances? What does it mean if we do not bless people? Why would outsiders be impressed with our message when they see us stressing over things that ultimately accomplish nothing? I cannot help but be reminded of the Parable of the Sheep and Goats in which Jesus condemns seemingly religious folks because they never fed the hungry or clothed the naked or visited the prisoners. Jesus’ point is that, in neglecting these people whom he died for, they revealed their true attitude of disdain for him.
A third reason we may miss Jesus in our practice of Christianity is because we assume that what we do is for our own benefit. A popular recent study program correctly reminded the church that its not really about us. How refreshing. If my Christianity is for my benefit alone, then I have indeed missed the point.
Now I am going to take a chance and say something else risky: In my observation, I see a very significant segment of the church practicing Christianity as a means of self-protection. Regardless of how some of us began our Christian faith, it has become a tool for keeping ourselves and those we care about safe from the outside world. We have come to believe that almost everything outside our own circles is, if not outright evil, at least gravely sinister.
Maybe it began as a genuine desire to remain true to our faith and uncorrupted by the world, but as time has gone by we have steadily built a fortress for ourselves. Stone by stone, gate by gate, bastion by bastion, we have worked to make our position impregnable. Ironically, the higher our walls and the more strongly our gates are defended, the less secure we have felt. Whatever happened to, “..go into all the world and make disciples..”? We have come a long way from our Lord who was often criticized for associating with the riffraff of his society and for being a drinker and a glutton because of his association with them. Truth is, many of us hardly know anyone outside our safe evangelical circles well enough to have any kind of a meaningful conversation.
Our Christianity will never be right until we snap out of the delusion that programs, success, doctrinal precision, or self-protection–valid as they may be–are in any sense the point. Only knowledge of and devotion to Christ himself makes any eternal difference. If I read the holy scriptures correctly, that is precisely their point.
For many, the person and ministry of Jesus has become a very comfortable part of life– so comfortable in fact that we can almost function on automatic when it comes to thinking and talking about him. One of my tried and true remedies against taking Jesus for granted has been to read the gospels more closely. When I have done this, I have found a depiction of Christ, which at times, has both startled and troubled me. Here are some examples of what I mean.
Jesus, the Friend of Outcasts. The religious establishment of the day regularly criticized Jesus for associating with the wrong people. He spoke with, ate with and spent time with a variety of those labeled as “undesirable” by the religious establishment, including swindling tax collectors, prostitutes, the severely diseased, Roman officials, and Jews lapsed from religious practice. Understood properly, this might disturb our view of Jesus for a couple of reasons:
First, it challenges the typical comfort zone of middle class people (like me) because we rarely come in contact with these types of people. Many of us have been raised in a circle which largely excludes people whose lifestyles are considered unsavory or improper in some way. We have come to consider ourselves as somehow a cut above those people and immune from their situations. The fact that Jesus would deliberately invite Levi the tax collector (otherwise known as Matthew) to be one of his inner- circle disciples, is so outside of the way we choose associates that it almost seems incomprehensible.
Then there is the very mindset from which Jesus befriended these social misfits. He cared about them, but he also expected that they would not remain in a lifestyle of selfishness, immorality, victimization or self-destruction. It is noteworthy that though Jesus did not condemn the woman taken in adultery, he gave her permission to become something new by commanding her to “…go and sin no more.” (John chapter 8). Change was both possible and required as proof of her repentance and faith.
It would seem in my own experience as one raised in the steady, consistent, hard-working and respectable middle class, that we are often willing to have compassion on outcasts as long as it costs us little. When we are involved with those in what would seem to be destructive lifestyles, we expect very little from them in terms of the ability to be other than what they are. A dishonest person is basically stuck in their dishonesty. The same goes for an immoral or physically disabled person. To many of us, a person who has a mindset of dependency will always be that way simply because they aren’t up to making the cut into our class—the respectable, stable, competent people. Jesus’ treatment of people turns these notions upside down.
The Jesus Who Loves His Church. During his ministry, Jesus gathered a group of followers and forged them into a community which was to be sacrificially devoted to one another. Upon his departure from the earth, this community became the Church. The book of Acts records the fact that as new people heard the good news about Jesus and believed, they became members of the community. Jesus taught them that his good news would only be demonstrated powerfully as the truth when his people are devoted to one another: “People will be convinced that you are my disciples through your love for one another.” This was no social club, no casual fraternity. This was a profound change of allegiance.
Many people in the Twenty-first Century are highly individualistic. Such a sacrificial community doesn’t suit either our personal sensibilities or our cultural patterns. Even when we do belong to a congregation of Christians, many of us are almost as likely to change our affiliations as we are to seek different employment. We complain about how the church doesn’t meet our needs. We seldom volunteer to help in any meaningful way. We are unconcerned when fellow Christians suffer. It is little wonder that outsiders aren’t terribly excited about the Christian faith. Why would they be intrigued about Christ’s Church when they see us behaving with such apathy towards something Jesus loves?
The Non-Materialistic Jesus. It has been correctly said that Jesus had more to say about money and possessions than about heaven and hell combined. He once advised a wealthy and very religious young man to sell everything he had and give the proceeds to the poor before being eligible for entrance into the Kingdom of God. He warned that it is impossible to serve both God and material wealth because one will always win out over the other. There isn’t enough room in a person’s heart for devotion to both.
Jesus was known personally as one who frequently had nowhere to lay his head at night. He was supported during much of his ministry through the generosity of wealthy patrons. At the end of his life he literally was left with the clothes on his back, and even these were confiscated by his executioners.
How do we square all this with our obsession over money, possessions, comfort and even luxury? Obviously some people are going to end up wealthy because of hard work, smart investments or fortunate birth, but never does the New Testament condemn wealth or possessions themselves. It is, however, decidedly against the kind of devotion to these things which makes them the central focus of one’s life and the keeping of them at all costs. Need I explain how uncomfortable this makes most of us?
The Non-Political Jesus. Everyone likes to find in Jesus an ally for their particular political and social views. Marxist guerillas in Latin America claim Jesus as a fellow revolutionary and liberator of the poor. Capitalists claim Jesus as a friend of free enterprise. Homosexual activists point out that Jesus never married and theorize a gay Christ in an effort to support their social agenda. Yet it is dangerous to read such foreign concepts into the Jesus of the New Testament.
If Jesus is examined impartially in the gospels, his teachings are strictly non-political. When asked if Jews should pay taxes imposed by their Roman conquerors, Jesus’ enigmatic reply was , “..give Caesar what is due him, but be sure you give God what is rightfully his.” Jesus was careful to pay his own tax to the Romans, yet he refused to acknowledge Rome’s ultimate authority over his life when facing Pontius Pilate.
This is not to say that his teachings have no political implications: they most certainly do. However, Jesus’ goal was never to transform governments or the social order, but to transform people from the inside out. Jesus acknowledged that he was indeed a king (in fact, rightful heir to the throne of David) yet he stated clearly that his kingdom was not of this world. It was something that people brought into their lives by choosing allegiance to him. It would spread from life to life until all nations would be represented and then it would come fully on earth. No armies would bring it by conquest; no governing bodies would enact it by law; no violent revolution would establish it by force. Although at times, Christians have attempted all of these methods to establish or enhance Christ’s Kingdom, in every case the result has been less than satisfactory.
It is an inner kingdom. It is a kingdom taking form through a brotherhood, a sisterhood, a family of faith. It is a kingdom growing despite (or even because of) persecution and hardship. Christ’s kingdom is coming with such certainty that no army, no law, no natural disaster can postpone it by a single minute. This is a radically foreign idea to most modern people.
Jesus as a First Century Jew. Twenty-first Century people can easily forget that, like the rest of us, Jesus was born and raised in a particular ethnic context. Like all Jewish boys throughout history, Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day according to the commandment in Moses’ Law. At age thirteen, he became a son of the covenant (bar mitzvah). He attended synagogue, kept the sabbath, ate kosher and observed the numerous laws of Torah. The gospels show Jesus as very careful to make the journey to Jerusalem to attend mandatory feasts and participate in temple rites. Even his humor is Jewish (“It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter heaven.”)
For those outside Judaism, there is much in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life which can seem puzzling or culturally unintelligible. It is not unheard of, on the other hand, for Jews to investigate the gospels and find immediate common ground with Jesus, even after twenty centuries of Jewish adaptation and cultural change! So it should be no surprise that Jesus’ way of interacting with people, his concerns and his teachings are all very Jewish in character. A bit of reading up on Jewish custom and religious practice can make a huge improvement in one’s comprehension and insight into the story of Jesus as told in the gospel accounts.
But as a Jew, Jesus’ most severe criticism was aimed, not at Gentiles or even at Jews who weren’t taking seriously their obligations to the Law of Moses. He reserved his condemnation for the religious elites of the day, the Pharisees and Sadducees. Why? Because Jesus saw them as missing the point of the very scriptures they claimed to live by. He saw them obsessing over the minutia of the religious code, using it to elevate themselves in relation to others and manipulating people through guilt and intimidation. That is why his message to those oppressed by the power of the religious elite and despairing of any share in God’s Kingdom, was such truly good news.
The More-Than-Human Jesus. Certainly Jesus was born in a particular time and place (during the reign of Caesar Augustus in Bethlehem). He was entirely human as is shown in his human traits (hunger, thirst, anger, sorrow, death). But then there is that other side of Jesus, which may make us uncomfortable, such as his claim to be the Messiah of Israel. The New Testament spends a great deal of space showing how this claim is validated by the many prophecies concerning Messiah in the Old Testament (Micah 5:2, Isaiah 7:14, etc.) Yet the scriptural experts of his day couldn’t believe that a carpenter’s son, the circumstances of whose birth was dubious to say the least, from a backwater town like Nazareth, who had never attended any of the respectable rabbinic academies, could possibly be God’s answer to centuries of prophetic utterance.
More than this, Jesus claimed to be God in human form. In John chapter 8, we encounter Jesus saying to these very religious leaders that Abraham, some two thousand years before, had personally acknowledged him and had forseen his day coming. Jesus claimed that to see him, was in fact to see God. He claimed that he and God the Father were one: that is, somehow unified in nature and being. So incensed were the religious elites by all these claims that they plotted to kill him. Even today these claims, if taken seriously, must surely shake the conventional viewpoints of many.
The Living Jesus. The gospels assert that Jesus is literally, physically alive. Contrast this with the notion that Jesus was simply a tragic figure whose life was cut short before his calling was fulfilled. His disciples then were so lost without his magnetic personality that they began to talk about him as though he were still living. So after several generations, the belief that the deceased teacher from Nazareth was still alive somehow became solidified as Christian doctrine.
Of course, this line of thinking is pure nonsense. From what the gospels record about the circumstances of the resurrection it just doesn’t add up. Neither can this “wishful thinking view” possibly be right when the incredible spread of the early Christian message is considered realistically. The early Christians proclaimed Jesus’ resurrection from a very confident factual position. The location of Jesus’ tomb was common knowledge. No one could deny that it was empty. The likelihood of Jesus being mistakenly buried before he was actually dead makes no sense since the Romans were experts at the process of crucifixion. Even if that could be believed, the idea that a severely wounded Jesus could revive, roll away the huge stone and then escape the detection of those who were determined to eliminate him, is far fetched (to say the least).
More likely would be a conspiracy by his friends to steal the body and fake a resurrection. Yet even this doesn’t add up. The disciples were as sure as anyone that Jesus was dead. They were demoralized and afraid. Even if they had planned such a daring theft of Jesus’ body, they had proved their incompetence in such a mission when some of them unsuccessfully attacked a group of soldiers only days before at Jesus’ arrest. So the body-snatching theory falls apart as well. No, the best explanation, given the facts, is that Jesus rose bodily from the grave.
Conclusion: My advice is that if you think you know all there is to know about Jesus, maybe a serious and informed look at the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) might upset your comfortable views. Jesus isn’t someone you can easily categorize and put on a shelf. He still has the ability after all these centuries and across cultures, to make people squirm a bit. He also has the ability to call forth our deepest admiration and even devotion, just as he did twenty centuries ago. If you are content with some kind of dumbed-down Jesus, then you needn’t read the gospels with any kind of searching eye. But if you are brave enough to do so, brace yourself for some discomfort and perhaps a whole new life!
Jesus of Nazareth has been hanging on the cross for approximately three hours. Ever since he was nailed to the rough wood at around 9:00 am he has been suffering pain of the most intense kind. Aside from the actual nail wounds in his hands and feet, the seven-inch spikes have crushed the main nerves in his wrists and ankles. This is causing stabbing, burning pain to shoot up his limbs. The two criminals crucified with him are also writhing in agony, increasing the stress and chaos of the scene.
Before Jesus had even reached the cross, Roman soldiers had flogged him with a metal tipped whip until his back was laid open and oozing with blood. The soldiers had mocked him as they forced a crown of thorns onto his head, causing deep puncture wounds. Jesus had then been forced to carry the heavy crossbeam of the crucifix through the twisting streets of Jerusalem. Part of the way to the place of execution he stumbled, unable to carry the load any further. No doubt, he was in the advanced stages of what is medically called hypovolemic shock. The blood loss was robbing him of most of his strength, causing him raging thirst and the swelling of his tongue.
Now on the cross, Jesus’ most pressing problem was not the pain, the thirst, or the exhaustion, but the inability to breathe. In order to exhale or to speak, he would be forced to push himself up with his legs, causing an even greater degree of pain. Soon he would run out of strength in his legs and sag down until stopped by the spikes holding his wrists.
However, to this point, Jesus had suffered no more than many thousands of others whom the Romans had executed in this manner. Crucifixion was an unimaginably horrible way to die. The Romans knew this and used it as an object lesson for any who might wish to defy their rule. Then, about noon (what the New Testament calls the sixth hour of the day), what Jesus had dreaded in the Garden of Gethsemane came upon him. The real suffering took place in this three hour period from noon to 3:00, during which God the Father somehow put our sins upon him and judged him in the full fury of divine wrath.
Matthew, Mark and Luke record that a deep and eerie darkness spread over the land during this second three hour period. This event was much noted in the ancient world and was evidently discussed in various writings for years afterward. A Greek author named Phlegon, writing around 137 AD reports that in the 202nd Olympiad (that is, 33 AD) there was “….the greatest eclipse of the sun (ever recorded). It became night in the sixth hour of the day, so that the stars even appeared in the sky.” He further states that there was a great earthquake, felt as far north as the Black Sea coast of what is now Turkey.
A writer named Thallus, whose original work (around 52 AD) is now lost, was quoted by a later author named Julius Africanus, who wrote in AD 221. In reference to this unusual darkness of 33 AD, he says, “Thallus in the third book of his histories explains away the darkness as an eclipse of the sun—unreasonably as it seems to me.” The early church leader Tertullian (215 AD) says that this darkness was widely observed in such cities as Rome and Athens, and calls it “a cosmic event”.
What was the significance of these three hours of darkness, with its accompanying earthquake? Let me suggest several things:
It was the time of God’s judgment on the world’s sin. In essence, God the Father identified his Son Jesus with our sins, turned his back on him and caused him to suffer our judgment. The Bible has many references to God being full of light. If the presence of God the Father was removed from Jesus, it would explain the darkness.
It was the time of Satan’s short-lived triumph. Satan is described as the Prince of Darkness in the Scriptures. For three hours Satan could abuse and torture Jesus spiritually, mentally, emotionally and physically as he gloated over the apparent failure of God’s Kingdom. The concentration of evil into that focal point also explains the darkness.
The earthquake is explained in Matthew 27:51, where it tells us that along with the violent shaking of the earth, the curtain in the Jewish Temple (which separated the holy presence of God from sinners) was torn in two from top to bottom. Clearly the New Testament is teaching that complete and final atonement for sin had been made. To put it simply, that earthquake tore the curtain separating us from God. Now the way to God’s presence is open for any who come through faith in Christ’s atonement.
At 3:00 pm, just before the earthquake, Jesus raised himself on his mangled legs one final time to proclaim, “It is finished. Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” As the dust from the quake settled and the darkness dispersed, Jesus’ friends took his body from the cross and put it in a tomb donated by a wealthy follower. There it lay as night came. A day and another night came and went.
Then, at dawn on Sunday morning, Jesus rose from the dead in victory over sin and death. Light from the rising sun supplemented light from the heavenly messengers in confirmation that atonement was complete. The rule of darkness was broken. The Kingdom of light and peace and joy was assured.
“So what?” you ask. Here’s the point. It is your choice whether to remain in the darkness or come into the light. John 3:19 speaks of those who refuse Christ’s light, preferring the darkness because their deeds are evil. Colossians 1:13 describes those who have put their faith in Jesus as being transferred from darkness into light. Jesus has paid for your sins and made eternal life available. Now the choice is yours: to go your own way, or to follow him!
“Ladies and gentlemen! The President of the United States!” This is the introduction given by a person at the entrance to the Floor of the House of Representatives just before the President gives his State of the Union Address. This official’s job is to announce clearly that the person the assembled dignitaries have come to hear has arrived and is about to ascend to the podium.
It is possible, though highly improbable, that this person could make their announcement in a drunken state, or in tattered clothes, or that he or she could hog the limelight in such a way that the president might be overshadowed. But one thing is for certain, if that sort of thing happened, the announcer would not hold their job for very long. The announcer’s only function at that point is to introduce the President and let him speak.
From time to time, it seems that there are some “announcers” in Christian circles who have done this very thing. I am talking about men and women in Christian ministry who have grabbed attention for themselves, sought to represent the Kingdom of God and somehow have forgotten that the whole issue is not them at all. In so doing these folks have reflected badly on the one they should have been drawing people’s attention to.
As a preacher and Christian leader myself, I understand how tempting it might be to hog the limelight. Though I have never achieved celebrity status, I can imagine that when such a person finds himself (or herself) with power, popularity and access to wealth, it must be tempting to believe that they are somehow a cut above others and that the attention they are receiving is deserved. If they dwell on that sort of thing long enough, it is not difficult to see how they might begin to feel that they are above the standards that everyone else must keep. Perhaps some of these “announcers” may have begun with the best of intentions; others may never have had pure motives or even really understood the gospel from the beginning. God alone knows.
Be that as it may, I think we need to be reminded of something very important: no matter how shabby or disreputable the announcer may be, it is Jesus Christ that we need to hear. I am not excusing Christian people who bring shame on Christianity. To dishonor Christ’s name is very nearly inexcusable. But even if all those who proclaim Christ were dishonest, Christ would still be as good and true and powerful as ever because he is perfect.
So I am calling us all to remember that it is Jesus who died for sin; who offers forgiveness and new life through faith; who claims lordship of our lives. It is Jesus Christ who will judge the heart of each person. In other words, Christ is the all-important issue.
I for one am glad when a man or woman of God announces Christ clearly and reflects his image brightly. When they do not I mourn, not only because it reflects so poorly on the rest of us announcers, but mainly because it discourages people from seeing Jesus in all his truth and grace and glory.
So I urge us all to remember: announcers have their job to do. If they do it well, be glad; if they do it poorly you may have a right to be disgusted. But either way, don’t focus on them. It is Jesus who is the real attraction. Whatever you do—hear Him!
Please read no further if you don’t want a refreshing change in your life. Stop reading now if you want to escape the rearrangement that joy may bring to your world. If you prefer the status quo; if you would rather muddle through as you are; if you would like things to stay the same as always— this is not an article you will want to waste your time on. Please skip over this and continue with other pursuits, because a decision to trust wholly in Christ will inevitably bring a new and beneficial direction to your life.
So, if you want to avoid joy, a good way to do that is to avoid any commitment to Christ.
If you would rather not experience the peace that results from forgiveness of your sins and wrongdoings, don’t consider this any further.
If you would rather not rub shoulders with some of the most surprising and wonderful people anywhere, by all means don’t attend church.
If you take comfort in labeling all Christians as hypocrites and narrow-minded fools on the thin argument that because some do exist, therefore, all who follow Jesus must be the same, please keep your mind tightly closed to the facts.
If you want to miss the most fascinating and profound reading you will ever encounter, please—under no circumstances read the Bible.
If you desire no straight answers to questions about Christianity’s claims to truth don’t pick up a book or browse the internet seeking such things.
Let me say it again, don’t read this!
If you want no understanding ears to listen to your hurts or insightful suggestion to a practical problem, don’t contact a pastor or Christian friend.
And- especially- don’t ponder the point of this obvious reverse psychology if you would just as soon not be bothered with anything like fulfillment, purpose for living or challenge to become something higher and better.
But if, by chance, there are stirrings of some of these deep yearnings somewhere within you, remember:
I warned you not to read this!
Much could be said about the Bible as the Word of God and how it is to be read, studied and applied to daily life. These issues will be dealt with in other articles. For now, let me simply confine myself to some basic facts.
The Bible contains a total of 66 books in two major sections:
The Old Testament is made up of 39 books, which outline God’s redemptive work in the world before the time of Christ, and focus specifically on the nation of Israel.
The New Testament has 27 books, which describe God’s more complete redemptive work since the time of Jesus’ birth, and focus on the new, multi-ethnic people of God, the Church.
These books were written by around 40 different authors over a span of approximately 1500 years (1400 B.C. to 100 A.D.).
The 66 books of the Bible were written in three original languages. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew and Aramaic; the New Testament in Koine Greek.
There are several very good English Bible translations, which enable us to read and understand the sense of the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts.
The various books were written using various writing styles, including poetry, history, logical argument, stories, prophecy, wisdom literature, etc.
Though each of the books of the Bible has its unique purpose and setting, a common theme joins each of the books into a whole, showing us God’s holy character, his plans for human redemption and his great love for us, demonstrated in Christ.
Here are some suggestions for getting a grasp on the overall message of the Bible:
Read Genesis for an understanding of early human history and the background of the nation of Israel.
Read Exodus to see how God’s covenant with Israel set the stage for his dealings with the Jewish people and his later work with the entire world by outlining standards of right and wrong, good and evil.
Read Psalms and Proverbs to find comfort, wisdom and help in the issues of life and in worshipping God.
Read Mark and John for a basic grasp of the life and identity of Jesus Christ.
Read Romans to get a panorama of God’s entire plan of redemption.
Read Acts and Ephesians to see how God has implemented a new covenant through the Church to include people from all nations.
Read Revelation to be assured that God’s plan will be fulfilled and his people ultimately given eternal joy.
If you are a beginner to the Bible, you may encounter parts of it which may seem puzzling, boring or hard to understand. The main thing in such cases is not to give up. You may want to temporarily skip over those parts in your reading, making a note to come back to them later when you have gained more knowledge or experience in this amazing book.
Remember: the Bible is not written in code. Both the human authors and God who inspired them, intended for us to understand the basic message. Part of the task is to learn some basic things about Bible times and culture as well as how to separate presuppositions from what is actually in the text. The other part of understanding the Bible is simply asking God to give you insight as you read and study.
The traditional claim of the Christian Church is that the Bible represents the Word of God handed down through the centuries by God’s people. Judaism has, likewise, regarded that portion known to Christians as the Old Testament as having divine authority. Of course there is much more to Judeo-Christianity’s understanding of the nature of the Bible than this, but for the purposes of this article we will begin by assuming the truth of these simple statements.
Flowing from the doctrine of the inspiration and authority of God in the writing of Holy Scripture is the question of the historical transmission of those documents. In other words, can we trust the copying process? Confidence in the Bible depends to a large degree on our confidence that the documents scholars use for modern Bible translations are faithful to the original writings. As far as anyone knows, none of the original manuscripts of the Bible written by the actual authors are still in existence. This fact leads to the very legitimate question of whether what we read in the Bible is really what was written down by Moses or Isaiah or Paul.
Because of the lack of proven original material, scholars must therefore rely on a comparison and analysis of manuscript copies to reconstruct the contents of the original text of the Bible. Scholars trained in the discipline of manuscript study study the various ancient copies available in order to sift out the small percentage of variant texts and synthesize the original content of the source document penned by the original writer. Without going into detail, the cumulative effect of decades of this study has yielded a very high degree of confidence in the texts of both the Old and New Testaments.
The manuscript evidence for the Hebrew Scriptures is quite strong (as already mentioned, Christians refer to this body of material as the Old Testament). While it might seem obvious that most of the books of the Hebrew Scriptures were written in the Hebrew language, a few of the later portions are in a related language called Aramaic. This material of the Hebrew scriptures was probably composed sometime between 1400 and 400 BC by several dozen different authors, including Moses, Samuel, David, Solomon, Ezra, and others.
Until 1949, the best and earliest manuscripts for the Hebrew Scriptures were known as the Masoretic Texts. These documents were copies of a chain of earlier manuscripts (now lost) made by Eastern European Jews between AD 800 and 1000. These texts had been the main source for the material used by both Jews and Christians for the Hebrew portions of the Bible. From the Eighteenth Century Enlightenment until the mid Twentieth Century, many critics of the biblical text argued that the accuracy of these fairly late manuscripts is likely to be very poor because of the long time-span (at least 1,300 years) from originals through a series of copies to the Masoretic Texts.
However, in 1947, through what some would call the providence of God, the textual integrity of the Hebrew Scriptures was overwhelmingly confirmed by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. This large collection of miscellaneous scrolls, some of which date from as early as 200 BC, included very ancient copies of each of the book of Hebrew scripture, except for Esther. The scrolls were found carefully preserved in desert caves in the Qumran area of the Dead Sea. What scholars have discovered in studying these manuscripts is that, apart from a few very minor discrepancies, there had been virtually no change in the text of the Scripture in well over 1,000 years. Almost overnight, the argument that the manuscript evidence for the Hebrew Scriptures was doubtful suddenly became much less convincing.
In addition to the Hebrew manuscript copies, there is also an ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures made around 200 BC known as the Septuagint. A study of this translation in comparison with the Hebrew text further confirms the it manuscript integrity. So, based upon the evidence of the meticulous care with which the Jews copied their scriptures, as well as the insight provided by the Septuagint, we can have confidence that the material of the Hebrew Scriptures has a high degree of accuracy.
When it comes to the New Testament portion of the Bible, the evidence is even better. The books of the New Testament were written in Koine Greek (a kind of trade Greek) between AD 45 and 100, with the very earliest still existing manuscript portions dating from just after AD 100.
For example, there is a fragment of chapter 18 of the Gospel of John, which dates from around AD 110. Since the Gospel of John was likely written around AD 95, that puts the time from original to the earliest known copy at about 25 years. An even earlier manuscript portion, known as the Chester Beatty Papyrus, dates from the years just after AD 100. Since Paul probably wrote this portion some time during the years 55-65, this puts the time lapse from original to copy at less than 50 years. These examples illustrate the amazingly high quality of New Testament manuscript evidence compared with other examples of ancient literature. All told, there are something like 5,000 early Greek manuscript portions of the New Testament in existence today. Add to this evidence the many ancient Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic and Armenian translations from the early centuries of the Christian Church. Working with these manuscripts, scholars are able to do intensive comparisons of the available manuscripts in order to “weed out” any copying mistakes and synthesize the original text of the New Testament.
Beyond the manuscript evidence, there exist a very large library of writings leaders of the early Christian Church (before 500 AD) which quote so extensively from the New Testament that it can be virtually reconstructed from those writings alone. One expert estimated that only one half of one percent (.05 %) of the New Testament is in any doubt as to the original wording, and most of the uncertainty has to do with word order, rather than content. So, just as with the Hebrew Scriptures, the text of the New Testament is highly accurate.
All of this points to the conclusion that the Bible available to us is extremely reliable. It has lost very little, if anything, in its transmission from the original writings of its authors. While none of this by itself proves the Bible’s inspiration, it does lend credence to Judeo-Christianity’s ancient conviction that the Scriptures are the word of God, fully inspired and authoritative for the ages.