Observations on life; particularly spiritual

Christian

Extra-biblical evidence of Jesus

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jigsaw-3-400pxHave you ever worked on a giant jigsaw puzzle? What if some of the pieces are missing? How about piecing together the 20,000 Dead Sea Scroll fragments! Historians piece together pictures of what life was like in days gone by. They also look for patterns – what has remained the same, what has changed, and why. In their investigations, historians follow a process of historical inquiry – they ask questions, form opinions and theories, locate and analyze sources, and use evidence from these sources to develop an informed explanation about the past.

Most of what is known of the ancient world comes from written accounts by ancient historians. But these only record a sample of human events and only a few of these documents have survived. Few people could write such histories as illiteracy was widespread in ancient times. And the reliability of the surviving accounts needs to be considered.

According to Christian history, Jesus lived in Palestine about 5 BC to 33 AD. The gospels record His birth, teaching, death, burial and resurrection. But all historians are biased and selective. Christians are biased towards believing that Jesus existed as a historical person, whereas non-Christians can be biased towards doubting the existence of Jesus. Could the story of Jesus be just a Christian myth or conspiracy and He doesn’t exist outside the Bible or outside early church history? By the way, almost no early ancient historian believes this. But how robust is the historical evidence about Jesus? How confident are we that Jesus lived in history?

Jesus was a Jew (a minor race) who lived in Galilee, which was a part of Palestine (not the capital, Jerusalem), which was an outpost of the Roman Empire (a tiny part of a vast empire). He was a long way away from the local center of power and from Rome (the capital of the empire). So the fact that we can find any written record of Jesus outside the New Testament is significant. Based on this, the best place to look for extra-biblical (outside the Bible) evidence of Jesus is in ancient Roman and Jewish literature.

Roman literature

In His work “Lives of the twelve Caesars” (AD 120, about 85 years after Christ’s death), the Roman historian Suetonius (AD 69 – AD 122) says,
He (Claudius) expelled the Jews from Rome, on account of the riots in which they were constantly indulging, at the instigation of Chrestus” (Book 5, Life of Claudius 25.4).
Claudius was the Emperor of Rome in AD 41-54. “Chrestus” may be a misspelling of Christ (this is debated by classical scholars). If Chrestus refers to Christ, the riots were about Him, rather than led by Him. Alternatively, it has been suggested that Suetonius misunderstood conflicts between Jews and Christians over “the Christ” as a conflict involving a person named Chrestus (a common slave name). This passage may refer to the expulsion of Jews from Rome in AD 49 mentioned in Acts 18:2. Or, Chrestus could have been an agitator in Rome. As the meaning of this passage is inconclusive, it’s debatable whether it refers to Jesus Christ or not.

Now we move to an earlier reference that is more conclusive. In his “Annals” (AD 115-117, about 80 years after Christ’s death), the Roman historian Tacitus (AD 56 – AD 120) says,
They (Christians) got their name from Christ, who was executed by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius. That checked the pernicious superstition (Christianity) for a short time, but it broke out afresh not only in Judea, where the plague first arose, but in Rome itself, where all horrible and shameful things in the world collect and find a home” (15, 44).
The most recent complete copy of the Annals was copied in the 11th century AD (1,000 years after it was written). The Annals is a history of the Roman Empire from the reign of Tiberius to that of Nero (AD 14–68). The context of this passage is the 6-day fire that burned much of Rome in July 64 AD. The integrity of the passage isn’t disputed by classical scholars. It indicates the manner and time period of Christ’s death. Emperor Nero (37-68 AD) accused the Christians of starting the fire and persecuted them. This means that the Christians in Rome must have been a well-known group, with many members, and with good internal organization. Paul Barnett suggested that as a former consul in Rome, Tacitus would have had access to official archives and may have seen Pilate’s report to Tiberius about the execution of Jesus and others in Judea in AD 33.

We now move from Rome to Bithynia in Asia Minor (now Turkey). Pliny the Younger was the Roman governor of Pontus/Bithynia in 111-113 AD. We have a whole set of exchanges of his letters with the emperor Trajan on a variety of administrative political matters. Letters 10, 96-97 describe his encounter with Christianity (See Appendix A and B), where the emperor advises that Christians be punished unless they denounce Christianity by worshipping Roman gods.

Pliny said that Christians:
– Wouldn’t offer prayer with incense and wine to images of the Emperor and Roman gods.
– Wouldn’t offer sacrificial animals at temples to the Emperor and Roman gods.
– Wouldn’t curse Christ.
– Met on a fixed day before dawn and sang a hymn to Christ as to a god (worship).
– Pledged not to commit any crimes such as fraud, theft, or adultery, or be dishonest or untrustworthy.
– Assembled together to eat ordinary food (communal meal).
– Practiced depraved, excessive superstition. “Superstition” was what the Romans called religions they didn’t like.
Trajan supported Pliny’s approach, provided he acted justly and not on the basis of rumor.

Pliny’s letter supports the existence of the early Christian Church (80 years after Christ’s death) and its rapid growth and mentions aspects of its belief system. It shows that the movement had spread from Jerusalem into Asia Minor and to Rome. And it was widespread in Turkey at that time. Clearly the movement was named after its founder, Christ. This meant that Jesus existed. Because if Jesus didn’t exist, then Christianity wouldn’t exist. Furthermore, Christians worshipped Christ “as to a god”. Clearly Pliny said this because Christ was a human being, unlike their Roman gods. Also, it states that Christians died for their faith (Pliny executed Christians who refused to renounce their faith), which is unlikely to have happened if Jesus was only a mythical figure that had not existed. So this passage shows the impact of Jesus about 80 years after His death.

Jewish literature

Josephus (37 – 100 AD) is the best known Jewish historian. He was born in Jerusalem and went to Rome in 71 AD where he wrote his histories under Roman patronage. Jesus Christ is mentioned twice in his “Antiquities of the Jews” (a history of Israel from Genesis to the first century AD) published around 93 AD (about 60 years after the death of Jesus). The oldest manuscripts of the works of Josephus in their original language of Greek date to the tenth and eleventh centuries (800 years after it was written).

Book 20, Chapter 9, 1 of the “Antiquities of the Jews” says,
he (Ananus the high priest) assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned”.
This event is dated at 62 AD. The Bible also says that James was the brother of Jesus (Gal. 1:19). According to Dr. Chris Forbes (Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at Macquarie University), no historian suggests that this passage is forged or not authentic. This passage assumes you already know about Jesus, which is true because Josephus has already mentioned him two books earlier (see below).

The exact wording of Book 18, 63-64 of the “Antiquities of the Jews” is disputed as it comes down to us only through Christians. It has probably been edited by a Christian scribe (whose annotations have been added to the text) and it’s fairly easy to decide which parts were written by Josephus and by the scribe. Here is a likely wording of what Josephus wrote:
Now, there was about this time (a source of further trouble) Jesus, for he was a doer of surprising works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure (men who welcome strange things). He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him (cease to cause trouble). And the tribe of Christians, so named for him are not extinct to this day” (D. Bock, 2016)

The context of this passage is the political disturbances that the Roman rulers dealt with during this period. It’s clear from what Josephus wrote that:
– Jesus lived during the time of Pilate.
– Jesus had a reputation for doing unusual works (miracles).
– The Jewish leadership pressured Pilate to condemn Jesus to the cross.
– Jesus died by crucifixion.
– Christianity and Christians came out of Christ’s ministry.

Does any tampering with a passage like this make it inadmissible? No, because historians always face incomplete and inconclusive evidence. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle with lots of pieces missing! In this case, the consensus is that there is a historical nucleus written by Josephus, but it was edited by a Christian scribe.

According to Justin Martyr (Apology 69.7; AD 160), the Jewish view of Jesus was “They said it (Christ’s miracles) was a display of magic art, for they even dared to say that he was a magician and a deceiver of the people” (D. Bock, 2016). So the Jews acknowledged the existence of Jesus and explained His unusual ministry by saying He was a “magician”, “deceiver” and a “false prophet”. In this context a “magician” was an appeal to spiritual forces, and not to an entertainer. Because they tried to explain the source of His power, they accepted Christ’s miracles. This is consistent with the account in the gospels where the Jews say that Jesus:
– was “subverting our nation” (Lk. 23:2).
– “stirs up the people all over Judea by His teaching” (Lk. 23:5).
– was “inciting the people to rebellion” (Lk. 23:14).
– “It is by the prince of demons that He drives out demons” (Mt. 9:34; 12:24).
– was “called Beelzebul (Satan or the prince of demons)” (Mt. 10:25). Here He was accused of being a deceiver.
Also, the Israelites were told in the Pentateuch that a prophet that urged them to follow other gods “must be put to death for inciting rebellion against the Lord your God” (Dt. 13:1-5). So false prophets were to be put to death (Dt. 18:20-22). Furthermore, during Christ’s religious trial, the high priest Caiaphas accused Him of blaspheme, which was punishable by death under the law of Moses (Lev. 24:16; Mt. 26:65-66).

Dead Sea scrolls

Is Jesus mentioned in the Dead Sea scrolls (DSS)?  Scholars have dated the scrolls from approximately 200 BC to 70 AD (the date of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans). According to scholars most of the scrolls were written before Christ’s birth and so we wouldn’t expect Jesus to be mentioned in them. That’s why most scholars have dismissed any connection between the community that hid the scrolls in caves at Qumran about 2,000 years ago and the earliest followers of Jesus. Therefore, they assume that Jesus isn’t mentioned in the Dead Sea scrolls. And this preconceived idea may influence how they translate the text of some of the scrolls.

It has been suggested that words such as “dove”, “nail”, “cross” and “mourning” in DSS fragment “4Q451” may refer to Jesus. And “11QT54” says that a person who is a “glutton and drunkard” and a traitor is to be crucified. But it is debatable as to whether these refer to Jesus or not.

Discussion

Skeptics are biased towards doubting the existence of Jesus. Because the contents of these documents differ from their bias, they usually doubt the authenticity of these passages. But if we discard so many different passages, then we are in effect saying that any ancient document is unreliable and that we know very little about ancient history.

Because of the temporal spread of these documents, it’s unlikely that all the statements about Jesus were interpolated into the original texts. Together with the consistency between these passages, this is strong evidence of the existence of Jesus. The documents stated that:
– Jesus lived in Judea/Palestine.
– Jesus was a wise man and a teacher.
– Jesus did “surprising works” (miracles) which the Jews said was magic.
– Jesus was Jewish and had a brother called James.
– James (who was martyred in AD 62) was a contemporary of Josephus.
– Some people said Jesus was the Christ (that is, the Jewish Messiah).
– Jesus was accused by the Jews.
– Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate, during the reign of Tiberius.
– Jesus had followers (called Christians) who were persecuted for their faith in Christ.
– Early Christians believed Jesus was GOD.
– Early Christians upheld a high moral code.
– Early Christians met regularly to worship Jesus.
– Early Christians were persecuted and some were martyred.
– Christians were named after Christ.
– Within 85 years, Christianity spread from Judea to Asia Minor and Rome and the Christians in Rome were well-known, with many members, and with good internal organization.

So there is significant evidence outside the Bible for the existence of Jesus. This means that the story of Jesus isn’t a Christian myth or conspiracy. By the way, the mere existence of someone in history is (often) easily established on the basis of small textual samples (sometimes even a single name in a list or sentence). So, we are confident that Jesus lived in history. These historical sources rule out the option that the story of Jesus was a fabrication (it was made up).

There are no “contemporary” accounts of Jesus. But the fact is, almost no ancient historical figure has contemporary accounts of their existence, including Alexander the Great, and we don’t see anyone questioning his existence.

It’s also instructive to look at the “copy gap” (between the original autograph and the oldest manuscript) for these historical documents. For the works of Josephus in their original language of Greek, the copy gap was about 800 years and for the Annals of Tacitus it was about 1,000 years. On the other hand, for the New Testament, the copy gap was about 300 years – Codex Vaticanus was copied in 300-325 AD and Codex Sinaiticus in 330-360 AD. So the gap is significantly shorter for the New Testament. A longer gap means more copies of copies, which means more potential for copy errors to appear in the text. So the version of the New Testament we have today should be a more accurate copy of the original than is the case for these other Roman and Jewish historical documents.

Conclusion

Extracts from ancient Roman and Jewish extrabiblical literature confirm that there is a historical basis for the existence of Jesus outside the Bible and outside early church history. So the evidence that Jesus existed is conclusive. Furthermore, these independent extrabiblical sources are consistent with the biography of Jesus given in the gospels of the Bible. This means that the story of Jesus isn’t a Christian myth or conspiracy. And we are confident that the Jesus described in the Bible lived in history.

Appendix A: Pliny’s letter (AD 111)

“It is my rule, Your Majesty, to report to you anything that worries me, for I know well that you are best able to speed my hesitation or instruct me in my ignorance. I have never in the past been present at the investigations into Christians, and so I am at a loss to know the nature and extent of the normal questions and punishments.

I have also been seriously perplexed whether age should make some difference, or whether the very young should be treated in exactly the same way as the more mature. Should the penitent be pardoned, or should no mercy be shown a man who has recanted if he has really been a Christian? Should the mere name be reason enough for punishment however free from crime a man may be, or should only the sins and crimes that attend the name be punished?

Till I hear from you, I have adopted the following course towards those who have been brought before me as Christians. First, I have asked them if they were Christians. If they confessed that they were, I repeated, my question a second and a third time, accompanying it with threats of punishment. If they still persisted in their statements, I ordered them to be taken out (executed). For I was in no doubt that, whatever it was to which they were confessing, they had merited some punishment by their stubbornness and unbending obstinacy. There were others possessed by similar madness, but these I detailed to be sent to Rome, for they were Roman citizens.

Soon, as I investigated the matter, types began to multiply as so often happens, and charges started to spread. An anonymous notebook was presented with many names in it. Those who denied that they were or ever had been Christians I thought should be released, provided that they called on the gods in my presence, and offered incense and wine to your statue (which I had expressly brought in with the images of the gods for that very purpose), and, above all, if they renounced Christ, which no true Christian, I am told, can be made to do. Others informed against admitted that they were Christians but later denied it; they had been, but had given up, some three years past, some further back and one person as long as 25 years ago. All of them reverenced your statue and the images of the gods, and renounced Christ.

They stated that the sum total of their fault or error was as follows. On a fixed day they used to assemble before dawn to sing an antiphonal hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath not for any criminal purpose, but to commit no fraud, no robbery or adultery, to bear no false witness, and not to deny any debt when asked to pay up. After this it was their custom to separate and to reassemble to eat a communion meal, all together and quite harmless. They claimed that they had stopped even that after my edict in which I followed your commands in banning society meetings. So I felt it all the more necessary to find out the truth under torture from two slave girls whom they called Deaconesses. But I found nothing but a depraved and groundless superstition.

So I postponed my inquiry to consult you. The matter seemed worth your attention, especially since the number of those slipping is great. Many people of all ages and classes and of both sexes are now being enticed into mortal peril and will be in the future. The superstition has spread like the plague, not only in the cities but in the villages and the countryside as well. I feel it must be stopped and checked. It is true that everyone is agreed that temples once deserted are now being attended once again, and that sacred ceremonies once neglected are again being performed. Victims for sacrifice are everywhere on sale, for which only an odd buyer could be found a short while ago. All this goes to show how many men could be saved if there is room for repentance.”

Appendix B: Emperor Trajan’s reply

“You have acted quite properly, Pliny, in examining the cases of those Christians brought before you. Nothing definite can be laid down as a general rule. They should not be hunted out. If accusations are made and they are found guilty, they must be punished.

But remember that a man may expect pardon from repentance if he denies that he is a Christian, and proves this to your satisfaction, that is by worshiping our gods, however much you may have suspected him in the past. Anonymous lists should have no part in any charge made. That is thoroughly bad practice and not in accordance with the spirit of the age.”

Written, January 2017


Whatever happens

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2016-race-400pxBecause of favorable tail winds, the recent Sydney to Hobart yacht race was won in record time. The most disastrous race was in 1998, when a severe storm developed near Eden, with the loss of six lives and five yachts and 55 other sailors had to be airlifted from their yachts by rescue helicopter. Only 38% of the yachts finished the race in 1998. Meteorological observations showed that mean wind speeds reached 55 knots (100 km/hr; 63 mph), with frequent gusts to 75 knots (140 km/hr; 86 mph). And wave heights were 5-8 meters (16-26 ft), with individual waves up to 15 meters (49 ft). So the weather is a major factor influencing the progress of the fleet. Sometimes it helps and other times it hinders.

Our journey of life is like this yacht race – it’s made up of good times and difficult times. It’s always changing. And sometimes things can be out of our control. But it’s good to know that according to the Bible, whatever happens, God is always in control.

1998-race-book-3-400pxGod’s promise

The year 2017 begins today. What will this year bring in your journey of life? Like the life of Abraham in the Bible, there will be ups and downs. Good times and difficult times. But whatever happens is no surprise to God, because He has promised:

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28NIV).

The context of this verse is “our present suffering” (Rom. 8:18). Because hope sustains believers when they suffer (v. 22-25), they can wait patiently for their ultimate redemption (v.25). Two reasons are given for waiting patiently. First, the Holy Spirit helps them when they pray (v.26-27). And, second they can be confident that God works in all the circumstances of their lives to accomplish His good purpose for them (v.28). Whatever God allows to come into our lives is designed to assist our growth into the image of Christ (v.29) and bring us to final glory (v.30). This means that in a coming day we will be free from sin and will have glorified bodies like Christ’s. So, our daily lives aren’t controlled by impersonal forces such as chance, luck or fate, but by our loving God. Instead, we know that God manages the circumstances and events of our lives toward a proper end. The “things” that happen to us might not be good in themselves, but God uses every event for our ultimate good. All hardships, misfortunes, suffering and setbacks contribute to the good. He brings good out of “all things”. So, God is at work on our behalf (v.28-30). He is sovereign over all the affairs of life.

This doesn’t mean that everything will turn out OK in our lives. The reason for this is that the object of this promise is God’s eternal purpose, not just our temporal affairs. For example, Joseph went through lots of suffering, but acknowledged that God allowed it (Gen. 45:5-8), and God used it for good within his lifetime (Gen. 50:19-20).

As well as bringing ultimate good out of every event in our lives, God controls the timing of our lives.

God’s timing

The Bible says that Jesus was born at a time that was set by God:
“But when the set time had fully come, God sent His Son (Jesus), born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship” (Gal. 4:4-5).
A father in the Roman Empire marked a specific time when his child became an adult. Likewise, God the Father marked a time when He sent His Son into the world. God had a precise time for Christ to be born (Daniel 9:24-27). He came precisely at the moment God designed from eternity. This is the time when God began to put to an end to the dispensation of the law by sending His Son to fulfill all the demands of the law.

Likewise, for us. We were born at a time set by God. David wrote: “all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (Ps. 139:16). David’s span of life and its events were sovereignly determined. Our span of life and its events are also sovereignly determined. This gives meaning to our life. Because we are living when God planned for us to live, it’s the right time for us.

But, as well as bringing ultimate good out of every event in our lives, and controlling the timing of our lives, God meets all our needs.

God’s provision

Because David was aware of God’s promises, timing and provision, he wrote Psalm 23 (NLT).

The Lord (God) is my shepherd;
I have all that I need.
He lets me rest in green meadows;
he leads me beside peaceful streams.
He renews my strength.
He guides me along right paths,
bringing honor to his name.
Even when I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will not be afraid,
for you are close beside me.
Your rod and your staff
protect and comfort me.
You prepare a feast for me
in the presence of my enemies.
You honor me by anointing my head with oil.
My cup overflows with blessings.
Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me
all the days of my life,
and I will live in the house of the Lord
forever.

With the assurance of God’s provision (v.1), rest (v.2), strength (v.3), guidance (v.3), protection (v.4), comfort (v.4), honor (v.5), goodness (v.6 and love (v.6), what more could David want? If we trust in God through Christ, like David we can experience God’s shepherd care. After all, Jesus said He was “the good shepherd” (Jn. 10:11, 14-15).  He is “good” because He died in order to save His sheep (followers). In this way, God met the needs of true Christians.

Conclusion

We have seen that God uses every event in our lives for our ultimate good, controls the timing of our lives, and meets all our needs. So whatever happens in 2017, let’s remember that God is always in control. And He cares for us.

Written, January 2017


Is the New Testament reliable?

website-evaluation-2-400px

website-evaluation-2-400pxA US assistant professor of communication and media has compiled a list of about 134 unreliable news sites. The list has four categories of truthfulness. Category one includes fake, false or regularly misleading websites, which use distorted headlines or dubious information. Category two covers websites that may circulate misleading and/or potentially unreliable information. Category three is used for websites that employ clickbait-headlines, while category four covers sites that are purposefully fake with the intent of satire/comedy, but have the potential to be shared as actual/literal news. The best thing to do to combat unreliable and untrustworthy web sites is to read/watch/listen widely and often, and to be critical of the sources we share and engage with on social media.

I have received the following comment.
“Explain 1 john 5:7-8 and why roman church admittedly added this idolatry to the koine Greek original scriptures? Why was Mark 16:9-20 and hundreds of other passages added into the bible by roman church fathers? Maybe James was belittled since he said to maintain all the laws as did Jesus.
Jesus says in Mathew 15:24 and 10:5-6 his movement was for Jews only…not for gentiles or Samaritans …Paul comes along and re invents the entire movement into “Paulianity” calling all laws of God a curse …Many people are now asking these questions.”

The commentator seems to be saying that the New Testament isn’t reliable. This post addresses the topics raised by the commentator and concludes that the New Testament is a reliable document.

Explanation of 1 John 5:7-8

6This is the one who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ. He did not come by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. 7For there are three that testify: 8the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement” (1 Jn. 5:6-8NIV).

The author, the apostle John wrote this letter in about 90 AD to combat Gnostic heresy whose central teaching was that the spirit is good and matter is evil. Gnostics believed that the human body (being matter) is evil and God (being spirit) is good. Salvation is the escape from the body, which is achieved not by faith in Christ but by special knowledge (gnosis is the Greek word for knowledge). They denied Christ’s humanity. Some believed that the divine Christ joined the man Jesus at baptism and left Him in the Garden of Gethsemane before He died. This means that it was only the man Jesus who died.

John opposed this heresy by stressing that Jesus was truly divine and truly human (1 Jn. 1:1; 2:22; 4:2-3; 5:1; 5:5). Then he says that Jesus “came by water and blood” (5:6). Water probably symbolizes Christ’s baptism and blood symbolizes His death. Jesus was just as much Christ when He died as when He was baptized.

In verses 7-8 John mentions three sources of testimony for believing the divinity of Christ. These are the Holy Spirit, Christ’s baptism and Christ’s death. The witness of the Holy Spirit is the message of the apostles recorded in the New Testament. The witness at His baptism was when God the Father said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased” (Mt. 3:17). The witness of Christ’s substitutionary death is that it fully paid the penalty for our sins. No one took His life from Him; He gave it up by Himself. If He was only a man, He couldn’t have done this. All of these witnesses are united in their testimony of the divinity and work of Christ.

Addition to 1 John 5:7

A few very late manuscripts of the (Vulgate) Bible add to the end of v.7 “in heaven—the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one. And there are three that testify on earth”. Erasmus added these words about the trinity to later editions of his Greek New Testament under pressure from the Pope (they occur in the official Roman Catholic Latin Bible, the Vulgate). These words are included in the Textus Receptus Greek text (e.g. NKJV), but not in the Critical (e.g. most modern translations) or Majority Greek Texts. But this passage isn’t found in any Greek manuscript before the fourteenth century AD (see Appendix A). Please note that the doctrine of the trinity does not rest upon this single passage because, as shown below, it is mentioned in many other Scriptures.

The commentator calls the late addition of the trinity to 1 John 5:7, “idolatry”. So is belief in the trinity of God the Father, God the Son (Jesus Christ) and the God Holy Spirit, Scripturally correct or heresy? Here’s what God says (2 Tim. 3:16) about this topic:
“As soon as Jesus was baptized, He went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he (John) saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on Him. And a voice (of God the Father) from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased” (Mt. 3:16-17).
“Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Mt. 28:18-20).
“God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, He has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear” (Acts 2:32-33).
“May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God (the Father), and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Cor. 13:14).
“I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know Him better” (Eph. 1:17).
“How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal (Holy) Spirit offered Himself unblemished to God (the Father), cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!” (Heb. 9:14).
“who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ” (1 Pt. 1:2).

As each of these seven Bible passages refer to the members of the trinity as being part of the triune God, the trinity is a fundamental belief of the Christian faith. So, it’s not idolatry to believe in the trinity. Instead, it’s heresy to claim to be a Christian and not believe in the trinity.

Other additions to the Bible

The commentator askes, “Why was Mark 16:9-20 and hundreds of other passages added into the bible by roman church fathers?” The original manuscripts of the Bible are no longer in existence. What we do have is tens of thousands of copies of the original New Testament manuscripts dating from the 1st to the 15th centuries A.D. There are many more manuscripts than for any other ancient document and the oldest manuscripts are closer in time to the original than for all other documents. This means that the Bible is the most accurate document we have from antiquity. Yet historians believe the account of other ancient documents, which are not as reliable as the New Testament.

In these manuscripts, there are many minor differences. Textual criticism is the linguistic study of these manuscripts in an attempt to determine what the original reading actually was. For example, see a discussion of Mark 16:9-20 in Appendix B. This is the only addition to the New testament that involves several verses. All the others only involve one or a few words. Consequently, the New Testament available to us today is a reliable reconstruction of the original manuscripts.

It is important to keep in mind that even though there are textual variations in the Bible manuscripts, they are all of minor significance. None of the discrepancies affect the Bible’s crucial teachings. No significant Christian doctrine is affected by any textual variants. Even if all the “additional” verses were completely removed, the Bible’s message would not be altered.

The King James Bible was translated over 400 years ago and many Biblical manuscripts have been discovered since then. Many of the more recent discoveries are older than anything the KJV translators had access to and are considered more accurate. So, today’s Bible translators have the benefit of greater knowledge and better manuscripts than the translators of the KJV had in the early 1600s.

Contradictory or consistent?

The commentator also says, “Maybe James was belittled since he said to maintain all the laws as did Jesus. Jesus says in Mathew 15:24 and 10:5-6 his movement was for Jews only…not for gentiles or Samaritans …Paul comes along and re invents the entire movement into “Paulianity” calling all laws of God a curse …” These comments relate to the Jews, the Jewish laws, and alleges contradictions between different characters and authors of the New Testament. The answer depends on an understanding of the old Jewish covenant and the new Christian one. The Old Mosaic covenant applied until the day of Pentecost, 50 days after Christ’s death. Jesus lived under this covenant and His ministry was to Jews, and not to Gentiles. So Jesus kept the old Mosaic covenant.

But the letter of James was written under the new covenant. James was a leader in the early church in Jerusalem. James mentions some of the ten commandments (Jas. 2:8-13). But Christians are not under the law of Moses. Believers are delivered from the law and its penalty through Christ’s death. However, 9 of the 10 commandments are repeated in letters written to the church. They are not given as laws but as instructions in right living. And they affect one’s reward, but not one’s salvation. So it’s wrong to claim that James urges Christians to follow the laws of Moses. There is no record of him doing this. This means that he wasn’t belittled by Judaizers.

Like James, Paul’s letters were also written under the new covenant. That’s why he condemned those who were trying to live under the old covenant.

The main differences between James and Paul relate to the place and time of their ministry. James ministered in Jerusalem where there were more Jews than Gentiles and Paul ministered in countries around the Mediterranean Sea where there were more Gentiles than Jews. And James wrote in about 50 AD, whereas Paul wrote in about 50-68 AD.

Conclusion

If “many people are now asking these questions”, then they need to read these answers. Because of linguistic studies of the numerous ancient New Testament manuscripts, the New Testament available to us today is a reliable reconstruction of the original manuscripts. This means that it’s reliable and can be trusted.

When reading the New Testament it’s important to realize that the Christian church commenced after Christ’s death. So the books of Acts to Revelation cover Christianity, whereas the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) describe a period when the Jews were the people of God. So, the gospels record events under the old covenant and the change of covenant needs to be taken into account before we can apply their principles to the church today. When this is taken into account, and there is competent exegesis (interpretation), the messages brought by different characters and authors of the New testament are consistent and not contradictory.

Appendix A: NET Translation notes on the late addition to 1 John 5:7-8

This passage is found only in nine late manuscripts (mss), four of which have the words in a marginal note. Most of these mss (221 2318 [18th century] {2473 [dated 1634]} and [with minor variations] 61 88 429 629 636 918) originate from the 16th century; the earliest ms, codex 221 (10th century) includes the reading in a marginal note, added sometime after the original composition. The oldest ms with the passage in its text is from the 14th century (629), but the wording here departs from all the other mss in several places. The next oldest mss, 88 (12th century) 429 (14th) 636 (15th), also have the reading only as a marginal note. The remaining mss are from the 16th to 18th centuries. Thus, there is no sure evidence of this reading in any Greek ms until the 14th century (629), and that ms deviates from all others in its wording; the wording that matches what is found in the Textus Receptus (TR) was apparently composed after Erasmus’ Greek NT was published in 1516. Indeed, the passage appears in no Greek witness of any kind (either ms, patristic, or Greek translation of some other version) until a.d. 1215 (in a Greek translation of the Acts of the Lateran Council, a work originally written in Latin). This is all the more significant since many a Greek Father would have loved such a reading, for it so succinctly affirms the doctrine of the Trinity. The reading seems to have arisen in a 4th century Latin sermon in which the text was allegorized to refer to members of the Trinity. From there, it made its way into copies of the Latin Vulgate, the text used by the Roman Catholic Church. The Trinitarian formula made its way into the third edition of Erasmus’ Greek NT (1522) because of pressure from the Catholic Church. After his first edition appeared, there arose such a furor over the absence of the passage that Erasmus needed to defend himself. He argued that he did not put in the passage because he found no Greek mss that included it. Once one was produced (codex 61, written in ca. 1520), Erasmus apparently felt obliged to include the reading. He became aware of this ms sometime between May of 1520 and September of 1521. In his annotations to his third edition he does not protest the rendering now in his text, as though it were made to order; but he does defend himself from the charge of indolence, noting that he had taken care to find whatever mss he could for the production of his text. In the final analysis, Erasmus probably altered the text because of politico-theologico-economic concerns: He did not want his reputation ruined, nor his Novum Instrumentum to go unsold. Modern advocates of the TR and KJV generally argue for the inclusion of the passage on the basis of heretical motivation by scribes who did not include it. But these same scribes elsewhere include thoroughly orthodox readings – even in places where the TR/Byzantine mss lack them. Further, these advocates argue theologically from the position of divine preservation: Since this verse is in the TR, it must be original. (Of course, this approach is circular, presupposing as it does that the TR = the original text.) In reality, the issue is history, not heresy: How can one argue that the passage goes back to the original text yet does not appear until the 14th century in any Greek mss (and that form is significantly different from what is printed in the TR; the wording of the TR is not found in any Greek mss until the 16th century)? Such a stance does not do justice to the gospel: Faith must be rooted in history. Significantly, the German translation of Luther was based on Erasmus’ second edition (1519) and lacked the passage. But the KJV translators, basing their work principally on Theodore Beza’s 10th edition of the Greek NT (1598), a work which itself was fundamentally based on Erasmus’ third and later editions (and Stephanus’ editions), popularized the passage for the English-speaking world.

Appendix B: NET Translation notes on the ending of the gospel of Mark

The Gospel of Mark ends at Mark 16:8 in some witnesses (א B 304 sys sams armmss Eus Eusmss Hiermss), including two of the most respected mss (א B). The following shorter ending is found in some manuscripts (mss): “They reported briefly to those around Peter all that they had been commanded. After these things Jesus himself sent out through them, from the east to the west, the holy and imperishable preaching of eternal salvation. Amen.” This shorter ending is usually included with the longer ending (L Ψ 083 099 0112 579 al); k, however, ends at this point. Most mss include the longer ending (vv. 9-20) immediately after v. 8 (A C D W [which has a different shorter ending between vv. 14 and 15] Θ Ë13 33 2427 Ï lat syc,p,h bo); however, Jerome and Eusebius knew of almost no Greek mss that had this ending. Several mss have marginal comments noting that earlier Greek mss lacked the verses, while others mark the text with asterisks or obeli (symbols that scribes used to indicate that the portion of text being copied was spurious). Internal evidence strongly suggests the secondary nature of both the short and the long endings. Their vocabulary and style are decidedly non-Markan (for further details, see TCGNT 102-6). All of this evidence strongly suggests that as time went on scribes added the longer ending, either for the richness of its material or because of the abruptness of the ending at v. 8. (Indeed, the strange variety of dissimilar endings attests to the probability that early copyists had a copy of Mark that ended at v. 8, and they filled out the text with what seemed to be an appropriate conclusion. All of the witnesses for alternative endings to vv. 9-20 thus indirectly confirm the Gospel as ending at v. 8.) Because of such problems regarding the authenticity of these alternative endings, 16:8 is usually regarded as the last verse of the Gospel of Mark. There are three possible explanations for Mark ending at 16:8: (1) The author intentionally ended the Gospel here in an open-ended fashion; (2) the Gospel was never finished; or (3) the last leaf of the ms was lost prior to copying. This first explanation is the most likely due to several factors, including (a) the probability that the Gospel was originally written on a scroll rather than a codex (only on a codex would the last leaf get lost prior to copying); (b) the unlikelihood of the ms not being completed; and (c) the literary power of ending the Gospel so abruptly that the readers are now drawn into the story itself. E. Best aptly states, “It is in keeping with other parts of his Gospel that Mark should not give an explicit account of a conclusion where this is already well known to his readers” (Mark, 73; note also his discussion of the ending of this Gospel on 132 and elsewhere). The readers must now ask themselves, “What will I do with Jesus? If I do not accept him in his suffering, I will not see him in his glory.”

Written, December 2016

Also see: Can we trust our Bibles? How the Bible came to us


Joy to the world

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st-marys-christmas-2016-img_1352-cropped-400pxJoy to the world
All the boys and girls
Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea
Joy to you and me

“Joy to the world” was a silly singalong song with a catchy melody released by Three Dog Night in 1971. It’s silly because some of the words are nonsensical. In her 1994 Christmas album Mariah Carey changed the third line of the chorus to “Joy to the people everywhere you see”. Although this song sounds joyful, the only sources of joy and happiness it mentions are drinking and sex, which are fleeting. But at Christmas we remember a source of “great joy”, which is enduring. A hymn writer expressed it as: “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” According to the Bible, the joy of Christmas is Jesus.

True joy

On the first Christmas night, an angel told the shepherds, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord” (Lk. 2:10-11NIV). The Greek word translated “joy” chara (Strongs #5479) means joy, gladness, delight, and a source of joy. So the baby Jesus would bring great joy to humanity as the Jewish Messiah who would enable people to have their sins forgiven so that they could be reconciled with God.

This feeling of joy is conveyed in the Christmas carol that’s not a Christmas carol! The words of “Joy to the World” were written in 1719 by Isaac Watts (1674-1748). And the melody was derived from portions of Handel’s (1685-1759) Messiah. It’s based on the Psalm 98:4-9, which celebrates Christ’s triumphant second coming, not His humble first coming. Watts published it under the heading “The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom”.

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.

Joy to the world, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.

In verses 1 and 2 Watts writes of heaven and earth rejoicing at the coming of the King. In Psalm 98 and Psalm 96:11-13, all of creation is called upon to make a joyful noise before God, for the Lord has come to “judge the earth,” and restore His creation. Verse 3 of the song speaks of Christ’s blessings extending victoriously over the realm of sin. In Genesis 3, a great tragedy occurs when Adam and Eve sin against God, and are banished from the garden as God puts a curse upon the ground (Gen. 3:17-18). Verse 4 of the song celebrates Christ’s rule over the nations.

Psalm 98:4-9 says:
4Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth,
burst into jubilant song with music;
make music to the Lord with the harp,
with the harp and the sound of singing,
with trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn—
shout for joy before the Lord, the King.

Let the sea resound, and everything in it,
the world, and all who live in it.
Let the rivers clap their hands,
let the mountains sing together for joy;
let them sing before the Lord,
for He comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
and the peoples with equity.

Psalm 96:11-13 is similar:
11Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad;
let the sea resound, and all that is in it.
12 Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them;
let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.
13 Let all creation rejoice before the Lord, for He comes,
He comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
and the peoples in His faithfulness.

So the Bible associates true joy with both the first and second advents of Christ. True joy comes from God, and not from our circumstances. That’s why the joy of Christmas is Jesus.

Two advents

The distinction between the two advents of Christ was unknown until the New Testament era. For example, Isaiah 9:6a described the first advent, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given” and it’s followed by a description of the second advent, “and the government will be on his shoulders …” (Is. 9: 6b-7). And when Jesus read in the synagogue from Isaiah 61 (Lk. 4:16-21), He only read about His first advent (v.1-2a) and not the second advent (v.2b-3). That’s why many Jews failed to recognize their Messiah when He came as a humble servant instead of a powerful king. It’s interesting that the Magi (Wise men) recognized that Jesus was a king (Mt. 2:2). And Matthew, Mark, Luke and John record that the notice on His cross was “The king of the Jews” (Mt. 27:37; Mk. 15:25; Lk. 23:38; Jn. 19:19).

The first advent is when the Savior came to die sacrificially, and the second one is when He comes to reign on earth. The first is the precursor (predecessor; something that happens before something else) of the second. And the second is the consequence of the first. We live in the period in between the two advents when people have the opportunity to have their sins forgiven.

We can have true joy by looking back at the first advent and looking ahead to the second one. Jesus is the joy of Christmas and the joy of the future peace on earth during Christ’s reign.

st-marys-christmas-lights-2016-img_1347-cropped-400pxChristmas lights

I have just seen The “Lights of Christmas 2016” screened on St Mary’s cathedral in Sydney. This was a spectacular lightshow to “Celebrate the magic of Christmas”.  It was advertised as follows:
“The theme we have chosen this year is Joy to the World and it is revealed through nature. The audience will be taken on a dream-like journey of enchantment and imagined worlds. Fireflies lead us on our expedition through underground caverns, then rising up to the skies and returning to the ocean. Along the way we meet a family of animals, all bringing colour and joy to the world!”

So this show, screened on a gothic church, depicts animals and nature as bringing “joy to the world”! What a comparison! The temporary joy from animals compared to the eternal joy available through Jesus! Secular joy compared to true joy. A person’s idea of joy, compared to God’s idea of joy. But the true joy of Christmas is Jesus, not animals or any other part of the celebration.

God’s Christmas gift

Jesus is God’s gift to humanity. God sacrificed His own Son so that we could have eternal life and be spared from judgment. The coming of the Savior, which we remember at Christmas, brings “great joy” because:
– It’s “good news” for sinners like us – He came to save people from their sins through His death and resurrection. That’s why He was named Jesus (Mt. 1:21).
– It’s true news – fact not fiction, legend, myth or a fairy tale. It was a normal birth in an unusual location.
– It’s about the unique Lord Jesus Christ who reconciled sinful people to God. He was Savior, Messiah and Lord (Lk. 2:11). Messiah (or Christ) means “chosen one” and “Lord” is a synonym for God.
– It was for everyone – “a Savior has been born to you” was initially addressed to the poor uneducated shepherds.
– It has eternal value.

But a gift only brings joy if it is received. Have you received God’s Christmas gift? Do you believe that Jesus came for you?

Summary

We can seek happiness in many ways. But the Bible reveals the source of true lasting joy. At the first Christmas an angel announced that Jesus would bring “Joy to the world”. And the song by Isaac Watts describes the joy associated with Christ’s second advent. The joy of Christmas is Jesus. He came so that we could experience joy. Not always happiness, but an inner contentment of joy. The true joy of Christmas lasts all year long and for a lifetime. Do you know the joy that only Jesus can bring? May you have a joyful Christmas.

Written, December 2016


True Christmas: Sacrifice and Celebration

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birthday-jesus-4-400pxAt a birthday party we celebrate a person’s life. But what if a person isn’t mentioned at their birthday party? That would be embarrassing! Christmas can be like that, because Christmas is when our culture chooses to remember the birth of Jesus Christ, but not everyone does this.

We usually celebrate Christmas with family and friends. But I was reminded recently that Christmas is not only a time of celebration. It also involves a lot of sacrifice; because it took sacrifices to get Christ here into this world. A sacrifice is something that’s given up (forfeited or surrendered) for the sake of a better cause. This blogpost is a summary of a presentation on this topic by Dr. Xavier Lakshmanan.

Christmas is not just holidays, or food, or drinks, or decorations, or Santa Claus or gifts, or greetings. That’s the celebrative part of Christmas, which is an outcome of the real Christmas. But celebrating without recognizing the birthday person (Jesus Christ) is embarrassing and tragic.

The first Christmas

There was a great celebration that first Christmas. When the shepherds were told the good news about the baby Jesus, the angels praised God, “Glory to God in the highest heaven” (Lk. 2:14-18NIV). And the shepherds were very excited when they saw the baby Jesus.

But what about Mary’s family? Because of their shame, they probably weren’t celebrating. Her pregnancy would have been known in their local community. But no-one would have believed that she was carrying a holy baby. Like everyone else, her family would have thought she was carrying an illegitimate child, which brought shame and disgrace on the family and into the community. Even her fiancé (Joseph) planned to divorce her quietly (Mt. 1:18-25). But he changed his mind when an angel told him that Jesus was indeed a holy baby.

Did God celebrate at the first Christmas? Probably not. That was when God lost His Son, giving Him to the world as a human being to stand forever with people who were sinners. So behind the scenes there is a sacrificial aspect to the first Christmas.

Christmas was God’s idea

Jesus taught Nicodemus, “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16). There are four things in this verse: God’s love, God giving, an invitation to believe, and an invitation to live. The first two and the last two are linked together. God so loved that He gave. For God, to love means to give. And He gave the best He could give. That is Himself. And then He says “whoever believes”. Nicodemus is urged to believe that Jesus is the Son of God in order to have eternal life instead perishing. Giving is always sacrificial, while receiving (in this case, believing to receive eternal life) is a reason to celebrate.

At Christmas we remember that God gave Himself, which is a sacrifice. Sending Jesus to earth was God’s idea. In this sense, God invented Christmas. And when we receive God’s gift (of forgiveness, love, joy, peace, and eternal life through Jesus), that’s a reason for celebration. Let’s look at four things that God sacrificed on the first Christmas so that we can celebrate.

The sacrifice of God’s glory

On the night before He was executed, Jesus prayed to God the Father, “And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began” (Jn. 17:5). Before Christ came into the world, He lived in heaven with God the Father. He had the glory and splendor of deity. But on the first Christmas Jesus sacrificed (gave up) His glory. Instead of being visible, it was hidden (or veiled). In John 17 Jesus is praying that His visible glory might be restored in heaven.

Paul explains why Jesus sacrificed His glory, “What if He did this to make the riches of His glory known to the objects of His mercy, whom He prepared in advance for glory – even us, whom He also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?” (Rom. 9:23-24). God is preparing some people for glory. Jesus had to sacrifice His glory at the first Christmas so that we can regain our glory (which was lost by Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden) by trusting in Jesus Christ.

On the first Christmas, God not only sacrificed His glory; He also sacrificed His riches.

The sacrifice of God’s riches

Paul said that Jesus was the greatest example of generosity: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). Jesus was enormously rich because He was God. But at the first Christmas, He became poor. So He went from wealth to poverty. Jesus gave up everything so poor sinners like us who were under God’s judgment can become rich in Him. We are rich “in Christ”. This has been expressed in verse as:
Let the weak say “I am strong”,
Let the poor say “I am rich”,
Let the blind say “I can see”,
Because of what the Lord has done in me.

We can’t understand Christmas without reference to the crucifixion and the resurrection, because the incarnation (Christ’s birth) became a saving event through the crucifixion.

On the first Christmas, God not only sacrificed His glory and His riches; He also sacrificed His nature.

The sacrifice of God’s nature

Paul said that Jesus was the greatest example of humility: “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to His own advantage; rather, He made Himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Phil. 2:6-8)

God is a spirit who is immortal, eternal, and beyond our world of time, space, mass, and energy. But on the first Christmas, God shattered Himself and became a human being. The Creator of the universe transformed into a servant. A dependent baby. In this way, His divinity was hidden (or veiled).

Paul said that Christians had “put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:24). God had to shatter Himself at the first Christmas so that sinners like us can be recreated. When we trust in Christ as Savior, we put on a new self, which is created in the image of God (just like God).

On the first Christmas, God not only sacrificed His glory and His riches and His nature; He also sacrificed His life.

The sacrifice of God’s life

Jesus said, “I lay down my life for the sheep” (Jn. 10:15) and “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45).

When Jesus came as a baby the first Christmas, He came to sacrifice His life. So Christmas cost God’s life. Why? So that we may have His life. Jesus said “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (Jn. 10:10). The “life” referred to here is spiritual life. This life is given by God upon trust in Jesus Christ (Jn. 5:39-40; 1 Jn. 5:11-12). Because we have spiritual life, we can celebrate at Christmas by celebrating Jesus who is the source of spiritual life. Christmas is a time to encounter this life in Christ Jesus. As we saw in John 3:16, He loved to give, and we believe to live (spiritually). But if we are spiritually dead, our Christmas is meaningless.

Summary

True Christmas is not just a time of celebration. It involves much more than celebration. Christmas is a time to:
– Reflect on God’s sacrifice (what He has done for us),
– Recognize Jesus our Savior,
– Reconnect with Christ (God’s Christmas gift to us), and
– Rejoice.

Let’s celebrate Christmas meaningfully by remembering God’s sacrifices. Christmas is a sacrifice and celebration of God’s glory. Christmas is a sacrifice and celebration of God’s riches. Christmas is a sacrifice and celebration of God’s nature. Christmas is a sacrifice and celebration of God’s life. And let’s be willing to sacrifice for others just as God sacrificed for us.

Acknowledgement: This blogpost was sourced from a presentation by Dr. Xavier Lakshmanan on “True Christmas: Sacrifice and Celebration”. Dr. Lakshmanan is Head of Theology in the Australian College of Christian Studies.

Written, December 2016


Testing Islam

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indonesian-campaign-400pxIndonesia’s reputation for religious tolerance is expected be tested at the blasphemy trial of Jakarta’s Christian Governor Basuki Purnama. Blasphemy is speaking irreverently of God or sacred things. Apparently Mr Purnama told voters that they were being misled by Islamic clerics who said Muslims were not permitted to vote for a Christian. This remark sparked inaccurate reports that Mr Purnama had criticized the Koran, not the clerics. Mass protests followed as conservative Muslims campaigned for Mr Purnama’s jailing. Blasphemy is a criminal offense in Indonesia and punishable by up to five years in prison.

It is estimated that about 25% of the world’s population is Muslim. This increases to over 90% in the Middle East and North Africa. The Islamic faith is monotheistic like Judaism and Christianity. But do Muslims worship the same God as Jews and Christians?

True or false?

The Bible contains three clear tests for determining whether a belief, teaching or philosophy is true or false. To be true it must pass each of the three tests.

The Jesus test

This test states that, “Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist … This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood” (1 Jn. 4:2-3, 6NIV). The question to be answered in this test is: What does it say about Jesus Christ? Is it consistent with Christ’s unique birth, divine and human nature, sinless life, sacrificial death, resurrection, and second coming (1 Jn. 4:1-3)?

The gospel test

The Bible warns about those promoting a different gospel, “If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!” (Gal.1:9). The question to be answered in this test is: What is its gospel? In other words: what is the core belief or hope? The Bible says that the root cause of all our problems is that everyone has sinned and fallen short of God’s requirements—resulting in death. The only means of rescue is salvation by repentance of sin and faith in the work of Christ. ‘Different gospels’ are those that differ from this. They either add to it or take away from it. There is a warning against adding to or taking away from the words of the Bible (Rev. 22:18-19).

The fruit test

Jesus Christ warned, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them” (Mt. 7:15-20). The question to be answered in this test is: What kind of fruit is evident? In other words, what type of attitudes and behavior does it encourage? Is the divine nature or the sinful nature most evident (Gal. 5:19-23)?

I have previously summarized Islam and Islamic prayer. These tests will now be used to assess the Islamic faith.

Testing the Islamic faith

The Jesus test

Jesus is mentioned in 93 verses of the Quran. But what do Muslims believe about Jesus Christ? See Appendix A: “What Muslims think about Jesus?” In summary, they believe that:
– Jesus was a Muslim prophet.
– He had a miraculous birth.
– He performed many miracles.
– He wasn’t crucified or resurrected.
– He wasn’t God or the son of God.
– He announced the coming of Muhammad.
– He will return in the end times to help bring the world to its end.

Islam clearly fails the Jesus test. The Islamic Jesus is different to the Biblical Jesus. The main shortcomings are a failure to acknowledge Christ’s divinity and His sacrificial death (crucifixion) and resurrection. This means that Muslims reject the climatic part of the Bible when God solves the problem of humanity’s sinfulness. He does this by sending His only Son Jesus to the earth as a substitute to take the punishment that we all deserve.

The Islamic view of Jesus lies between two extremes. The Jews rejected Jesus as a prophet, while the Christians considered Him to be the Son of God and worship Him as such. The Islamic claim that Jesus was not executed by crucifixion is without any historical support. One of the things that all the early sources agree on is Jesus’ crucifixion.

But is Allah like God the Father? They are similar in being omnipotent, omniscient, creator, and sustainer. But there is a major difference: Allah didn’t send Jesus to die for our sins. So Allah isn’t the God of the Bible.

The gospel test

The Quran mentions Paradise and Hell as future destinies for humanity. But how do Muslims believe one gets to Paradise instead of Hell? See Appendix B: “What Muslims think about Salvation” In summary, they believe that:
– Allah sent prophets to show us the right way of living.
– Salvation is possible through belief/faith in Allah and good works, including keeping the five acts of worship (pillars of Islam).
– The essential belief/faith is that “There is no God but Allah” and “Muhammad is God’s Prophet”.
– On the day of judgment, if a Muslim’s good works outweigh their bad ones and if Allah wills it, they may be forgiven of all their sins and then enter into Paradise. So salvation is based on Allah’s grace/mercy and a Muslim’s good works.

This is different to what Christians believe about salvation. The Bible teaches that salvation is by God’s grace alone: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith … not of works” (Eph. 2:8-9). The Christian gospel may be summarized as: “Because of His infinite mercy, God sent His Son (Jesus) to earth to save people so they could live right. He was the sacrifice which would permit God to blot out all our sins, and enable us to be clean so that we could dwell eternally with our holy God. Jesus died for the sins of humanity”. But Islam teaches that faith in Allah alone is not enough for salvation. It is a religion of salvation by works because it combines a Muslim’s works with Allah’s grace/mercy.

Christ’s substitutionary death is the core of a Christian’s salvation. But Muslims deny that Jesus came to this earth with the purpose of sacrificing himself for the sin of humanity, freeing them from its burden.

A Muslim’s salvation is never guaranteed. The individual Muslim must produce good works and hope that at judgment day Allah will grant favor. By contrast, the Christian’s salvation is sure and confident. God’s promises are never broken, and we can rely on scripture when it declares that faith in Jesus saves (Acts 16:31) and we can rest confidently in this assurance (1 Jn. 5:13). Our forgiveness and salvation are completely based on the work of Christ on the cross (1 Pet. 2:24) and not on any of our deeds because we have a sinful nature (Rom. 7:18).

It would seem the Islamic system of salvation is more a reward than grace. Faith in God alone saves a Christian (Rom. 5:17, 19), but faith in Allah alone isn’t sufficient to save a Muslim. The problem with being saved by God’s grace and human works is that human works are never sufficient to please God. God is infinite and holy. How can we finite sinners ever hope to please God by our deeds? By the way, works do have a place in the life of a Christian, but only as evidence of a pre-existing faith (Jas 2:18).

Islam is also different to Judaism where the death of a sacrificial animal dealt with one’s sin. And one of the characteristics of God was a Redeemer who delivered and rescued His people from Egypt. There are no substitutionary sacrifices or redeemers in the Islamic faith.

So, Islam fails the gospel test.

The fruit test

It’s difficult to assess attitudes and behavior objectively. I have just visited Morocco and France. Cultural and religious pressure makes it difficult to be Christians in these countries. About 1% of the people in Morocco are Christians and most of these are foreigners. And less than 1% of the French are evangelical Christians.

There seems to be a lack of religious freedom in Morocco. I was unable to find a Christian church anywhere near where I was staying in Casablanca (a city of about 4 million people). Attempting to convert a Muslim to another religion is punishable with up to three years imprisonment and a substantial fine. And Moroccan Christians have to meet secretly in houses. They are not free to worship at a Christian church. Whereas in Lyon (a city of 500,000) there were several evangelical churches nearby. Also, although some Moroccan stores had Christmas decorations, there were no depictions of the nativity. There is no freedom for Moroccan Christians to practice their faith in Morocco or to organize a Christian celebration. Yet in Australia (where ~2% are Moslem), all Muslims are free to worship at an Islamic mosque.

Islam also makes a habit of demanding and complaining in order to insist that others view the world in the way that they do. The blasphemy trial of the Christian Governor in Indonesia is an example of this. In 2011, all Islamic nations had criminal laws on blasphemy. And thousands of people in these nations have been arrested and punished for blasphemy of Islam. In some Muslim countries Christians live in fear because of what a careless word or a false accusation might lead to. Is blasphemy a criminal offense in any non-Moslem country? Have any blasphemy trials been held recently in these countries? Have you ever heard of Christians trialing those who criticize Jesus or the Bible for blasphemy?

What type of attitudes and behavior do you think the Islamic faith encourages?

Results of the tests

So the Islamic faith fails the Jesus Test and the Gospel Test and the results of the Fruit Test are debatable. This means it’s a false teaching, which isn’t consistent with the overall message of the Bible.

Discussion

Islam regards itself, not as a subsequent faith to Judaism and Christianity, but as the primordial religion. They believe that the Biblical prophets were all Muslims. They also believe that in the generations after Jesus’ departure from this world, his teachings were distorted and he was elevated to the status of God. Six centuries later, with the coming of Prophet Muhammad, the truth about Jesus Christ was finally retold and preserved eternally in the last book of divine revelation, the Quran. Furthermore, many of the laws of Moses, which Jesus followed, were revived in their pure and unadulterated form and implemented in the divinely prescribed way of life known as Islam.

The Biblical narratives are rich with historical details, many confirmed by archaeology. They cover more than a thousand years, and reveal a long process of technological and cultural development. In contrast the Quran’s sacred history is devoid of archaeological support. Its fragmentary and disjointed stories offer no authentic reflection of historical cultures. No place name from ancient Israel is mentioned, not even Jerusalem. Many of the supposed historical events reported in the Quran have no independent verification. And many Quranic stories can be traced to Jewish and Christian folktales and other apocryphal literature.

There is a fundamental difference between Christian attitudes to the Jewish scriptures and Islamic attitudes to the Bible. Christians accept the Hebrew scriptures as authentic. They were the scriptures of Jesus the apostles and the early church. In contrast Islam’s treatment of the Bible is one of complete disregard. Although it purports to ‘verify’ all earlier prophetic revelation, the Quran is oblivious to the real contents of the Bible. The claim that Christians and Jews deliberately corrupted their scriptures is made without evidence, and this only serves to cover up the Quran’s historical inadequacies.

Islam is characterized by many laws and salvation through good works. In this aspect, it is like the Old Testament. It’s like an Arabic version of the Old Testament that also mentions Jesus. But the new covenant (of Christianity) is superior to the old ones (the laws of Moses and the laws of Islam).

So Islam is a retrograde religion. It’s like the false teachers at Galatia who were putting Christians back under the law of Moses. In the book of Galatians Paul opposed these false teachers and stressed that good works are not a condition of salvation, but a fruit of it. The false teachers were zealous because they wanted a following and they enslaved people with rules and regulations (Gal. 4:17-31). Islam is like Ishmael who was born into slavery. But Jesus can set us free from the need to slavishly following such rules and regulations (Gal. 5:1).

Some Muslims are zealous and devout, but salvation is dependent on the object of one’s zeal and devotion and not on the zeal itself. Their focus/object is the teaching of Muhammad and the Quran, which we have shown to be false. Like Judah in Jeremiah’s time, Muslims are “trusting in deceptive words” (Jer. 7:8). In Judah’s case the deceptive words spoken by the false prophets was that God wouldn’t destroy Jerusalem because He wouldn’t allow the Jewish temple to be destroyed. This superstitious belief was stated repetitively, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord” (Jer. 7:4), which reminds me of the repetitive nature of Islamic prayer. But repetition doesn’t increase the truthfulness of a statement. In Islam’s case, the deceptive words were spoken by Muhammad who was a false prophet. Because of false prophets, Judah followed “other gods” (Jer. 7:9) apart from the real God, while because of Muhammad, Muslims follow the “other god” of Allah.

Muslims also claim that Christians believe in three Gods: Father God, mother Mary, and son Jesus. And they say the trinity is polytheistic. This isn’t true. Mary wasn’t divine. And the Bible says that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three aspects of one God. So, Christianity is monotheistic.   

Summary

We have tested Islam against three tests from the Bible. It clearly failed two tests (about Jesus and the gospel) and the results of the third test are debatable. This means it’s a false teaching, which isn’t consistent with the message of the Bible. So Muslims don’t worship the same God as Christians.

Appendix A: What Muslims think about Jesus

According to Islamic tradition, the main Muslim prophets were: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. Jesus was a precursor to Muhammad. Jesus announced the coming of Muhammad. They claim this is also mentioned in the New Testament – “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you” (Jn. 14:16-17).

Jesus was one of the greatest messengers (prophets) to humanity. He was created miraculously like Adam with no parents. His mother was a virgin named Mary (but this doesn’t mean that he was the son of God). He performed many miracles. He will return in the end times to help bring the world to its end.

Jesus wasn’t crucified. For Jesus to die on the cross would have meant the triumph of his executioners; but the Quran asserts that they undoubtedly failed. Jesus wasn’t resurrected – it was spiritual, not physical. The Quran says that the original biblical message has been distorted or corrupted over time.

Jesus is not divine. He’s not God or the son of God. The miracles of Jesus and the Quranic titles attributed to Jesus demonstrate the power of Allah rather than the divinity of Jesus—the same power behind the message of all prophets.

Islam regards all prophets, including Jesus, to be mortal human beings who were righteous messengers of Allah. They view Muhammad as the perfect man, not Jesus.

Appendix B What Muslims think about Salvation

Salvation is defined to be the saving and deliverance of people from sin and its consequences. It’s difficult to determine what Muslims think about salvation, because individual statements don’t always cover all the general beliefs that are held on this topic. The following is compiled from a range of sources.

The core belief of Islam is: “There is no God but Allah” and “Muhammad is God’s Prophet”. Allah gave this teaching to Muhammad. In this way, he showed Muslims how to live. This belief is an essential part of the Islamic faith.

The Quran teaches the necessity of both belief/faith in Allah and good works for salvation. The good works include doing honorable deeds plus keeping the five “pillars” of Islam: witness (“There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet”), ritual prayers five times daily, giving money to charity, fasting during Ramadan, and a pilgrimage to Mecca.  On the day of judgment Allah will have a set of scales to weigh one’s good deeds against their bad deeds. Salvation is achieved by having more “good” deeds on account than “bad” ones, thus hoping to win Allah’s favor. And if Allah wills it, they may be forgiven of all their sins and then enter Paradise. So salvation is based on Allah’s grace/mercy and the Muslim’s good works.

Islam teaches that on the Day of Judgment every person will be resurrected and will be accountable to God for their every word and deed. Consequently, a practicing Muslim is always striving to be righteous while hoping and praying for Allah’s acceptance and grace. Salvation is only through belief and practice.

Islam stresses the notion that God can forgive all sins, if a person truly repents and then refrains from repeating it. God does not need any blood sacrifice for that, let alone descend in the form of man himself and die for everyone’s sins (like Christians believe). Rather, God’s mercy extends to all creatures, believers and disbelievers alike.

Written, December 2016

Also see: Basic Islam
Islamic prayer
Recognizing false teachers


Islamic prayer

islamic-prayer-400px

islamic-prayer-400pxPrayer is a major part of Islamic life. The call to prayer is broadcast five times daily from mosques. But how do they pray and what do they say? To minimize bias, the following content has been mainly drawn from Islamic websites.

Prayer times

Muslims are required to pray formally five times a day, as follows:

  1. Dawn.
  2. About mid-day: when the sun is highest in the sky.
  3. About mid-afternoon: when the shadow of an object is the same length as the object itself, plus the shadow length at the mid-day prayer time.
  4. Sunset.
  5. Nightfall: when the sun’s light is gone from the western sky.

Since these times are based on the position of the sun in the sky, the prayer times change slightly from day to day. At each of these times there is a “Call to prayer” to remind people of the need to pray. The prayer should be offered before the next call to prayer.

Besides this formal prayer, Muslims can offer voluntary prayers before or after the obligatory prayers as well as at other times.

Call to prayer

Historically, the mosque minaret was used as a tall platform from which to call Muslims to prayer and to announce the central tenant of the Islamic faith to non-believers. Today, however, the call to prayer is typically recited into a microphone and transmitted through loudspeakers installed on the minaret. This allows the call to prayer to be heard at great distances without climbing the minaret.

The call of the announcer is considered an art form, reflected in the melodious chanting of the call to prayer. However, some people don’t think it’s melodious! In Turkey, there is an annual competition to find the country’s best announcer.

Here’s a translation into English of the Arabic “Call to prayer”.

Allah (God) is the greatest, Allah is the greatest
Allah is the greatest, Allah is the greatest
I testify that there is no God but Allah
I testify that there is no God but Allah
I testify that Muhammad is God’s Prophet
I testify that Muhammad is God’s Prophet
Come to prayer, Come to prayer
Come to salvation, Come to salvation
Allah is the greatest, Allah is the greatest,
There is no God but Allah

Another line is often added to the first prayer of the morning (dawn):
Prayer is better than sleep
Prayer is better than sleep

How to pray

Muslims can pray together at a mosque or elsewhere alone. It’s compulsory for men to attend the Friday afternoon prayer in a congregation. Most prayers will take between 5-10 minutes. This can be influenced a lot by which chapters you choose to recite from the Quran. So formal prayer can take about 25-50 minutes per day. Here’s how Muslims pray formally to Allah.

In this ritual, the words are set in Arabic (no matter what the person’s native tongue) and there is a series of set movements that go with the words of the prayer. Each movement is always preceded by the phrase “God is Most Great”. All Muslims are to pray these prayers in Arabic, even if they don’t understand the language; the Arabic words have been translated into English below.

Muslims must be ritually clean before they pray and pray in a ritually clean location. They make sure of this by ritual washing of the parts of the body that are generally exposed to dirt and grime – mosques have washing facilities for this.

The prayer generally follows this sequence.

  1. Standing facing Mecca, raise hands up to your ears and say “Allah is Most Great”.
    Standing with hands folded over chest, say
    “O Allah, how perfect You are and praise be to You. Blessed is Your name, and exalted is Your majesty. There is no god but You”.
    “I seek shelter in Allah from the rejected Satan”.
    “In the name of Allah, the most Gracious, the most Merciful”.
  2. Standing with hands folded over chest, recite the first chapter of the Quran (if this is the second cycle of the prayer, recite another short portion of the Quran):
    In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Praise be to Allah, Lord of the Worlds. Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Master of the Day of Judgment. Thee (alone) we worship and Thee (alone) we ask for help. Show us the straight path. The path of those whom Thou hast favored; Not the (path) of those who earn Thine anger nor of those who go astray” (1:1-1:7)
    Then recite any other verses of the Quran that you would like. For example,
    Say: He is Allah, the One! Allah is He on Whom all depend. He begetteth not, nor is He begotten. And there is none like unto Him” (112:1-112:4).
  3. Raise hands up, saying:
    “Allah is Most Great”
    Bow with hands on knees, saying.
    “Glory be to my Lord, the Almighty
    Glory be to my Lord, the Almighty
    Glory be to my Lord, the Almighty”
  4. Rise to standing while reciting “Allah hears those who call upon Him;
    Our Lord, praise be to You”
  5. Raise hands up, saying “Allah is Most Great”. Prostrate on the ground, reciting
    “Glory be to my Lord, the Most High
    Glory be to my Lord, the Most High
    Glory be to my Lord, the Most High”
  6. Rise to a sitting position, saying “Allah is Most Great”.
    “O my Lord, forgive me, have mercy on me, fulfill my needs, raise me, provide for me, guide me, and protect me from sickness”.
    Say, “Allah is Most Great”.
  7. Prostrate again in the same manner, saying:
    “Glory be to my Lord, the Most High
    Glory be to my Lord, the Most High
    Glory be to my Lord, the Most High”.
  8. Rise to a standing position, saying “Allah is Most Great”.
  9. This concludes one cycle (or unit) of prayer. Begin again from Step 2 for the second cycle. Each prayer is 2-4 cycles: 2 at dawn, 4 at noon, 4 at mid-afternoon, 3 at sunset, and 4 at nightfall.
  10. After two cycles and the last cycle, remain sitting after the prostrations and say,
    “Salutations to Allah and prayers and good deeds. Peace be upon you, O Prophet (Muhammad), and the mercy of Allah and his blessings. Peace be on us and on the righteous servants of Allah. I bear witness that there is no god but Allah. And I bear witness that Muhammad is His servant and His messenger”.
    Then repeat the declaration of faith, raising the forefinger of the right hand, to act as a witness.
  11. If the prayer is to be longer than these two cycles, stand up and begin again to complete the prayer, sitting again after all cycles have been completed.
  12. When the last cycle has been completed, say.
    “O Allah, let Your Peace come upon Muhammad and the family of Muhammad, as you have brought peace to Abraham and his family. Truly, You are Praiseworthy and Glorious. Allah, bless Muhammad and the family of Muhammad, as you have blessed Abraham and his family. Truly, You are Praiseworthy and Glorious”.
    Finally, Muslims ask for forgiveness and mercy, and ask God to bless them and their children until the Day of Judgement:
    “O Allah! I seek refuge in You from the torment of the Hellfire, from the torment of the grave, from the trials and afflictions of life and death, and from the deception of the False-Christ. O my Lord! Grant me and my parents forgiveness, and bestow Your mercy upon them, just as they brought me up when I was small”.
  13. Turn to the right (toward the angel recording your good deeds) and say, “Peace be upon you and Allah’s blessings”.
  14. Turn to the left (toward the angel recording your wrongful deeds) and repeat the greeting. This concludes the formal prayer.

Summary

We have seen that a Muslim is to be involved in formal prayer for about 25-50 minutes each day. And these prayers are spread across five periods of the day. Each prayer has a set sequence of body movements and Arabic words. The “call to prayer” includes a summary of the Islamic faith – that Allah is the only God and that Mohammad is His prophet.

Muslims pray this formal prayer 35 times per week, 150 times per month and 1,825 times per year. As prayer is only one of the five main practices of Islam, this shows that it takes dedication to be a practicing Muslim.

Written, December 2016

Also see: Basic Islam
Testing Islam