Who’s been watching the Olympic games in Tokyo where athletes are striving to win a gold medal? In the ancient games the winner received a laurel wreath to place on their head. The wreath was a symbol of victory. The Greek god Apollo wore such a wreath. And Julius Caesar wore a wreath to show his power. So, the laurel wreath was an ancient symbol of victory and success. (more…)
Did you know that ancient history and archaeology has confirmed the existence of many people mentioned in the Bible? In an article in the Biblical Archaeology Review, Purdue University scholar Lawrence Mykytiuk examined Roman and Jewish historical documents to answer the question; Did Jesus of Nazareth, who was called Christ, exist as a real human being, “the man Christ Jesus” according to 1 Timothy 2:5NIV3?
This post has been sourced from the Biblical Archaeology Society. In 2017 I posted a summary of this article.
Tacitus, a Roman historian
Tacitus—or more formally, Caius/Gaius (or Publius) Cornelius Tacitus (55/56–c. 118 C.E.)—was a Roman senator, orator and ethnographer, and arguably the best of Roman historians. His name is based on the Latin word tacitus, “silent,” from which we get the English word tacit. Interestingly, his compact prose uses silence and implications in a masterful way. One argument for the authenticity of the quotation below is that it is written in true Tacitean Latin.4 But first a short introduction. (more…)
During the COVID-19 lockdown my grandchildren did some indoor camping. They’ve also tried backyard camping. Did you know that the Jews have a festival where they live outdoors as much as possible during a week?
Three times a year Israelite families travelled to the temple in Jerusalem for a religious festival (Ex. 23:14-17; 34:23-24; Dt. 16:16). The first of these was the Passover in spring, when they remembered how God delivered them from slavery in Egypt. The second was the Harvest Festival in summer (Ex. 23:16), when they thanked God for providing an abundant wheat harvest in Canaan. And the third was the Festival (or feast) of Shelters (or tabernacles) in autumn when they remembered God’s care and provision during the 40-year exodus journey. (more…)
After a three-year drought, Australian farmers harvested a record amount of wheat (33.34 million tonnes) last year. The bumper crops came after a La Nina weather system brought heavy rains across the country. Last year China (142.81 million tonnes) and India (108.75 million tonnes) also had record wheat harvests. Did you know that Israel was promised record harvest in Canaan?
Three times a year Israelite families travelled to the temple in Jerusalem for a religious festival (Ex. 23:14-17; 34:23-24; Dt. 16:16). The first of these was the Passover, when they remembered how God delivered them from slavery in Egypt. The second was the Harvest Festival (Ex. 23:16), which was near the end of the wheat harvest in Canaan. It was also called the “Festival of weeks” (Ex. 34:22; Dt. 16:10), because it was seven weeks (or 50 days) after the Festival of Firstfruits (which was when they dedicated the barley harvest to the Lord on the Sunday after the Passover). Later it became known as Pentecost, which is the Greek word for 50th. It was also called “the day of firstfruits” (Num. 28:26) because farmers offered the firstfruits (the beginning) of their wheat harvest to God (Ex. 34:22). And they gave other offerings to God as well. At this festival they dedicated the wheat harvest to the Lord and gave back to God some of what He had provided for them. The offering of firstfruits was an acknowledgment that the harvest was from the Lord and belonged to Him. (more…)
In September 2010, 33 miners were rescued after being trapped in a copper mine in Copiapó, Chile for 68 days. In October 1987, an 18-month-old baby girl was rescued after being trapped at the bottom of a well for 58 hours. In 1956, 1,663 crew members and passengers were rescued from the Andrea Doria ocean liner when it capsized and sank after colliding with another ship. In January 1945, 510 prisoners of war were released in a daring raid on the Japanese Cabanatuan prison camp in the Philippines. And in November 1907, Jesús García drove a train away from Nacozari in Mexico because it had caught fire and contained dynamite. He died when the train exploded but he saved the Mexican village. But there are greater rescues than these.
Jesus often referred to Himself in the third person. And the title He used most often was the “Son of Man”. But what does this title mean and why did He use it?
Sometimes authors use pen names (or a pseudonym, or nom de plume) instead of their real name. For example, Samuel Clemens wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn under the name of Mark Twain. Eric Blair wrote Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four under the name George Orwell. Charles Dodgson wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass under the name Lewis Carroll. And Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express and Then There Were None under the name Mary Westmacott. Many women authors have used a nom de plume to get their work published due to bias against women writers. For example, Emily Brontë wrote Wuthering Heights under the name Ellis Bell. And Mary Evans wrote Middlemarch under the name George Eliot. Was the “Son of Man” Jesus’ pen name? (more…)
At our family Christmas party, my Christmas present was a book titled, “Remembering Bob” (Pieters-Hawke, 2019). It’s a collection of stories and memories about Bob Hawke, who was the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) President in 1969-1980 and the Australian Prime Minister in 1883-1991.
They say he was an outstanding leader and a great storyteller. His achievements included:
– preserving the Antarctic for peace and science
– contributing to the end of Apartheid in South Africa
– significantly raising the high school completion rate,
– strengthening healthcare, education, work life, and housing, and
– elevating environmental issues in political decision-making
But he regretted failing to deliver a treaty with Indigenous Australians. (more…)
Here is a conversation on God that is an extract from the comments after a blogpost. Check the post for the complete discussion that took place over a period of two months.
George 1 October
The new objection relates to the “proof of God” and the “divinity of Jesus”. These are big topics. I didn’t claim to prove the existence of God from the Bible. Instead, I would say that God is the most logical explanation of the existence and complex nature of the universe, the existence and complex nature of life, and the existence of the human conscience (innate sense of right and wrong). So, I agree that the Bible “is of itself not proof of God” – there’s lots of other evidence. However, the best evidence of the nature of Jesus is the historical record in the Bible. To investigate the “divinity of Jesus” one should study the most reliable ancient text about Him. Of course, one’s conclusion will depend on whether they have an open mind or not.
George 9 October
You say, “I would once again say that citing the Bible as proof of god amounts to nothing more than hearsay”. I didn’t claim to prove the existence of God from the Bible. Instead, I would say that the existence of God is the most logical explanation of the existence and complex nature of the universe, the existence and complex nature of life, and the existence of the human conscience (innate sense of right and wrong). So, there’s lots of other evidence available.
Commentator 9 October
Hi George I am curious if there is lots of other evidence that is not in the bible could you please point me in the right direction to find it?
George’s reply 19 October
You asked, “if there is lots of other evidence (of the existence of God) that is not in the bible could you please point me in the right direction to find it?”. The other evidence of the existence of God that I mentioned was: the existence and complex nature of the universe, the existence and complex nature of life, and the existence of the human conscience (innate sense of right and wrong). Look up any articles on the source or origin of these and see if they answer the question or not and see how many miracles they require. (more…)
“Believers revere Him as the Son of God. Skeptics dismiss Him as a legend. Artists cast Him in images that reflect their own time and place. Today, archaeologists digging in the Holy Land are helping to sift fact from fiction”. That’s the introduction to an article in National Geographic magazine (December 2017) by Kristin Romey on what archaeology reveals about the life of Jesus. Romey hoped to discover how Christians texts and traditions compare to the discoveries of archaeologists.
Could Jesus have never existed?
Is it possible that the story of Jesus is pure invention and He never really existed? Although this is the view of some outspoken skeptics, it’s not that of scholars such as archaeologists. Professor Eric Meyers of Duke University says, “I don’t know any mainstream scholar who doubts the historicity of Jesus. The details have been debated for centuries, but no one who is serious doubts that he’s a historical figure”. And professor Bryon McCane of Atlantic University says, “I can think of no other example who fits into their time and place so well but people say doesn’t exist”. Even scholars who disbelieve Christ’s miraculous deeds believe that Jesus did certain things in Galilee and he did certain things in Jerusalem that resulted in his execution. (more…)
When Megan Markle married Prince Harry, she was given the royal title (Her Royal Highness) the Duchess of Sussex. Did you know that Jesus Christ is given royal titles in the Bible like “Lord”, “King”, “Lord of lords” and “King of kings”?
In the New Testament, the Greek noun kurios (Strongs #2962) is translated “Lord” when it is used for deity. It is a title of God the Father (Mt. 1:20; 9:38; 11:25; Acts 17:24; Rev. 4:11) and of Jesus Christ (Lk. 2:11; Jn. 20:28; Acts 10:36; 1 Cor. 2:8; Phil. 2:11; Jas. 2:1; Rev. 19:16). And in some instances, it is uncertain as to whether God Father or God the Son is meant (Acts 9:31; 13:10-12; 20:19). Likewise, in the Bible, the title “Lord of lords” is given to God the Father (Dt. 10:17; Ps. 136:3; 1 Ti. 6:15) and to Jesus Christ (Rev. 17:14; 19:16). It refers to someone who has absolute dominion over all their realm. A supreme ruler.
A lord is a master, or ruler who has authority, control, or power over others. They are an important person like, a boss, a chief or an owner. After the resurrection, when the apostles said “Jesus is Lord”, they meant “Jesus is God”. Thomas said, “My Lord and my God!” (Jn. 20:28). Peter said Jesus was “both Lord and Messiah” and “Lord of all” (Acts 2:36; 10:36).
The Roman soldiers mocked Jesus as the “king of the Jews” (Mt. 27:27-31). They didn’t realize that as the Creator, Sustainer and Savior, He was the King of the earth and the King of the universe. But are we any better? What’s our opinion of Jesus?
Today believers have the privilege of voluntarily acknowledging that Jesus is Lord. They praise and worship God individually and corporately for what He has done for us through Jesus Christ. In particular, through Christ’s sacrificial death we can have our sins forgiven by God. There is no other way to heaven and peace with God.
But in the future, everyone else will be compelled to “acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil. 2:9-11NIV). It’s much better to avoid this by accepting the good news now and believing that Jesus died for your sins and recognizing Him as Lord of your life.
The statement “Jesus is Lord” means that Jesus is God. Like God the Father, He owns everything. If Jesus is Lord, then He owns us; and He has the right to tell us what to do. Are we obedient to the commands given in the Bible to His church?
Erickson M J (2013) “Christian Theology”, 3rd Ed. Baker Academic, p. 631
Written, July 2018
The World Cup is being played in Russia under the FIFA Regulations and the International Football Association’s laws of the game. Disobeying the laws can result in a yellow card or a red card. So far there have been three red cards in the 2018 World Cup. The Bible contains God’s laws for humanity. It tells us about our world and shows us the best way to live. And it tells us what God has done for us.
Paul summarized the good news in the Bible about Jesus as:
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for (because of) our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4NIV). He says that Christ’s death, burial and resurrection occurred in the way they were foretold in the Old Testament. Likewise, we will see that believers are to follow the New Testament.
In Isaiah 52:12 – 53:12 the prophet Isaiah describes a righteous suffering servant who will bear people’s sins so they can be spiritually healed. It’s clear that the servant will die:
“By oppression and judgment he was taken away (an unjust death).
Yet who of his generation protested?
For he was cut off from the land of the living (a death before reaching old age);
for the transgression of my people he was punished …
though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth” (Isa. 53:8, 9b).
It will be an unjust death administered as punishment for an alleged crime.
The reason for his death is given as:
“But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed (spiritually).
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:5-6).
The servant dies so that people can receive spiritual healing and peace because he takes the punishment for their sins, iniquities and transgressions.
These predictions were fulfilled when Jesus was crucified. His alleged crimes were blaspheme (Mt. 26:65), subversion and opposing Caesar (Lk. 23:2). Clearly, Jesus died for (because of) our sins. And His death was confirmed by His burial.
The servant’s burial is described as:
“He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death” (Isa. 53:9a).
These predictions were fulfilled when Jesus was crucified together with two criminals. And He was buried in a new tomb by Joseph, “a rich man from Arimathea” (Mt. 27:57). The Jewish religious leaders planned to have Him buried as a criminal, but God over-ruled and He was buried in a tomb prepared by “a prominent member of the Council (the Jewish Sanhedrin)” (Mk. 15:43).
In our experience death is terminal and permanent. But the Bible says that Christ’s death was temporary. It was interrupted by His resurrection, which is the reversal of death.
In a song expressing his trust in God for safety when he faced death, David said:
“Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
my body also will rest secure,
because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,
nor will you let your faithful one see decay” (Ps. 16:9-10).
Peter explained that David was referring to the resurrection of Jesus:
“Fellow Israelites, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. 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. For David did not ascend to heaven …” (Acts 2:29-34).
Jesus also said that Jonah’s three days in the belly of a huge fish was sign that He would be in the grave for three days (Mt. 12:40). So Jonah’s near-death experience symbolized Christ’s death and resurrection, including the time frame involved.
These predictions were fulfilled when Jesus was raised back to life. Paul says that people could verify this with eyewitnesses because Jesus appeared to the apostles and to more than 500 people at the same time (1 Cor. 15:5-6).
According to Jesus
Jesus also said that His life was a fulfilment of the Old Testament. He told the Jewish leaders, “These are the very Scriptures (the Old Testament) that testify about me” (Jn. 5:39). Before His death He told the disciples, “It is written (in the Old Testament): ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me (in the Old Testament) is reaching its fulfillment” (Lk. 22:37). This is a quotation from Isaiah 53:12.
And after His resurrection He told the two on the way to Emmaus, ‘”How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter His glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures (the Old Testament) concerning Himself’ (Lk. 24:25-27).
And He told the disciples, ‘”This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” Then He opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written (in the Old Testament): The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things” (Lk. 24:44-48). In this passage, “the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” means all the old Testament as Psalms was the first book in the writings category of the Jewish Scriptures.
There are three aspects to the good news about Jesus: the death of Christ for our sins, His burial that confirms His death, and His resurrection that shows His victory over death and that God accepted Christ’s sacrifice for sin. We have seen that each of these happened as the Old Testament predicted. The phrase “according to the Scriptures” occurs twice in this short passage, indicating the importance of these Old Testament prophecies (1 Cor. 15:3-4). They are mentioned before the eyewitnesses (v.5-7). So what the Bible says is more important than what someone else says.
The Old Testament prophecies are also important because they show that Christ’s work for us was planned long ago. Likewise, God’s plan for us was recorded in the New Testament many years ago. Because we are under the new covenant instead of the law of Moses, the Scriptures that we are to follow are those written to the church (Acts to Revelation).
The other instance of “according to the Scriptures” in the Bible is, ‘If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well’ (Jas. 2:8ESV). This is the fourth reason that James gives for condemning favoritism. If we really loved our neighbors as ourselves, we would treat them as we want to be treated. We learn from the parable of the Good Samaritan that our neighbor is anyone who has a need which we can help to meet (Lk. 10:29-37). And this is “according to the Scripture” because it’s a quotation from Leviticus 19:18.
Lessons for us
What the Bible says is more important than the laws of football. Jesus lived, died, was buried and rose again “according to the Scriptures” or as the Bible predicted. What about us? Do we live as the Bible (God) says we should? Do we believe Jesus Christ is who the Bible says He is? Do we trust and rely on Him for our salvation? Do we recognize our sinfulness and separation from God? Have we confessed our sinfulness to God? Are we living for God or just for ourselves?
Written, June 2018
The book of Revelation was written during a time when emperor-worship unified the Roman Empire. The emperor was viewed as a divine figure, to whom temples, altars and priesthoods were dedicated. Emperors were worshipped, honored, respected and served at any cost. Because he rejected emperor worship, John was banished to the island of Patmos (Rev. 1:9-11). From Patmos John urged first century Christians to worship the true God and not the emperor, and he recorded this message in the book of Revelation.
The Greek verb to worship, proskuneo (Strongs #4352), occurs 60 times in the New Testament and 24 (40%) of these are in the book of Revelation. It’s the main book about worship in the New Testament. In this way, the book of Revelation is like the book of Psalms, which is the main book about worship in the Old Testament. In Revelation, worship describes homage or reverence towards God, or a person or an idol or an angel. This shows that if we don’t worship God, then we will worship someone else or something else. Who will we worship? The true God or Satan who is the power behind all false gods? This is important because it determines our eternal destiny.
The book of Revelation is framed with worship – it’s in the first and last chapters. After John sees a vision of the glorified Christ, he “fell at His feet as though dead” (Rev. 1:17NIV). This was an act of worship. After the final vison, John “fell down at the feet of the angel who had been showing” the visions to him (22:8). But the angel tells him to “Worship God” instead (22:9).
In Revelation, worshippers serve (7:15; 22:3), praise (19:5), and offer thanks (4:9; 7:12; 11:17). And they fall down (in worship) before God (4:10; 5:14; 7:11; 11:16; 19:4) and Christ (1:17; 5:8, 14).
The book of Revelation shows us who to worship and who not to worship.
Don’t worship angels
Angels are messengers from God. On two occasions when John received visions, he bowed down to the angel associated with them (19:10; 22:8). But he was told not to worship the angel. Jesus is superior to angels (Heb. 1-14). And Christians at Colossae were warned not to worship angels (Col. 2:18). So, don’t worship angels.
It is evident in the book of Revelation that there is a cosmic battle for our allegiance and worship. The true God and the victorious Lamb of God (Jesus Christ) continually reign and are being worshipped behind the scenes by angels and the redeemed in heaven, even during times when Satan seems to have his greatest impact. But Satan deceives the world into worshipping false gods and idols (12;9; 13:2-4; 20:2-3). 46% of the instances of The Greek verb to worship proskuneo in the book of Revelation refer to false forms of worship. In the end, Satan and his followers will be judged and cast into eternal punishment (20:1-4, 15). So, don’t worship Satan, who is an angel who rebelled against God.
Don’t worship heroes
Revelation describes political and religious leaders that oppose God’s people and God’s purposes (13:1-18). They are called beasts. And they deceive many people into worshipping them (13:4, 8, 12, 15; 14:9, 11; 19:20; 20:4). Paul also warned about worshipping and serving created things rather than the Creator (Rom. 1:25). We are not to worship saints, prophets, political leaders, religious leaders, or Mary, the mother of Jesus. So, don’t worship human heroes, no matter how great they are.
Don’t worship idols
An idol is anything we worship instead of the true God. Anything we want more than God. Anything we rely on more than God. Anything we give a higher priority than God. And anything we look to for greater fulfillment than God. In Revelation idols are described as “the work of their hands” and “idols that cannot see or hear or walk” (9:20). In those days it referred to images and statues, which people were urged to worship. It was like when some of the Jews (Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego) told the king of Babylonia, “we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up“ (Dan. 3:18).
Idolatry also refers to false gods such as materialism, naturalism, wealth, power, selfish ambition, self-indulgence, self-esteem (pride), recreation, and pleasure. And Paul said that it includes, “sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed” (Col. 3:5). Idols can also be “good” things that we’ve elevated in importance. For example, our children, spouse, physical attractiveness, money, job, or friendships. And technology.
Revelation also says that worshipping idols is equivalent to worshipping demons (9:20). This means that Satan is the influence behind idolatry. So, don’t worship idols. Instead let’s turn away from idols “to serve the living and true God” (1 Th. 1:9).
So the book of Revelation says not to worship angels, Satan, heroes or idols. These are false (counterfeit) gods. But what does it say about worshipping the true God?
Worship the true God
In Revelation we learn about what worship is like in heaven. It’s mostly corporate (the redeemed and angels), not individual. Vast numbers of people and angels worship God together (5:11-12; 19:1, 6). And it’s God-centered – directed to God and Jesus Christ. Here’s three examples of this worship.
First, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being” (4:11). So, let’s praise and worship our God as the great Creator.
Second, “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth” (5:9-10).
And at this time the angels said, “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise” (5:12)!
So, let’s praise and worship Jesus as the great Redeemer/Saviour/Rescuer. His death and resurrection enabled people from around the world to have their sins forgiven so they could be reconciled with God. This is the greatest example of unconditional love.
Third, “Great and marvelous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty. Just and true are your ways, King of the nations. Who will not fear you, Lord, and bring glory to your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship before you, for your righteous acts have been revealed” (15:3-4).
The context of this passage is God’s judgement of the ungodly. So, let’s praise and worship God as Judge of all. He is pure, holy and just. He’s the one who will right all the wrongs. He judges rebels and rewards His servants. And He is to be praised for His righteous judgements.
The book of Revelation is full of corporate praise and worship like, “Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give Him glory” (19:6-7)! And, “To Him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever” (5:13)!
The redeemed will worship God throughout eternity. They “are before the throne of God and serve Him day and night in His temple” (7:14). And they will worship and serve God forever (22:1-5).
People were made to worship. Bob Dylan sang, “you’re gonna have to serve somebody”. We worship either the true God or we worship a counterfeit. So, let’s worship the true God and not false gods. Let’s worship Him based on the patterns of heavenly worship depicted in Revelation. He’s the great creator, the great redeemer and the great judge.
Written, December 2017
I have been asked to provide evidence of the existence of God. While researching this topic, I discovered the following article by Dr Gregory E. Ganssle of the Department of Philosophy at Yale University.
You Cannot Prove God’s Existence
Ever since Immanuel Kant wrote his Critique of Pure Reason, it has been common for thinking people to insist that it is impossible to prove the existence of God. In fact this claim has been elevated to the level of dogma in American intellectual culture. The reason I know this is considered unquestionable dogma is the reaction I get when I call it into question. When someone says “You cannot prove the existence of God”. I want to ask “How do you know? You just met me! How do you know what I can do?”
What do most people mean when they recite this claim? Most people mean that I cannot provide a philosophical argument for the existence of God which will convince all thinking people. It is impossible, so the story goes, to provide an argument which will compel assent. If my argument will not convince the most ardent atheist, I have not proven God’s existence. Since I cannot convince such an atheist to believe, my arguments do not count as proof. If they do not count as proof, what good are they?
I agree that I cannot provide an argument that will convince all thinking people. But what does this tell me? Does this tell me anything about God? No. This tells me more about the nature of proof than it does about whether God exists. I cannot provide an argument which will convince everyone, without a possibility of doubt, that God exists. That is no problem. You see, I cannot provide an argument for any interesting philosophical conclusion which will be accepted by everyone without possibility of doubt.
I cannot prove beyond the possibility of doubt — in a way that will convince all philosophers that the Rocky Mountains are really here as a mind-independent object. I cannot prove that the entire universe did not pop into existence five minutes ago and that all of our apparent memories are not illusions. I cannot prove that the other people you see on campus have minds. Perhaps they are very clever robots.
There is no interesting philosophical conclusion that can be proven beyond the possibility of doubt. So the fact that arguments for the existence of God do not produce mathematical certainty does not by itself weaken the case for God’s existence. It simply places the question of God’s existence in the same category as other questions such as that of the existence of the external, mind-independent world and the question of how we know other people have minds.
Does this mean that arguments for the existence of God are useless? Not at all. Sure, I cannot provide an argument which will convince all thinking people but this does not mean I don’t have good reason to believe in God. In fact some of my reasons for believing in God may be persuasive to you. Even if you aren’t persuaded to believe that God exists, my arguments may not be useless. It is reasonable to believe that the mountains are real and our memories are generally reliable and that other minds exist. It is reasonable to believe these things even though they cannot be proven. Maybe some argument for God’s existence will persuade you that belief in God is reasonable.
So how can we know that God exists? Instead of looking for undoubtable conclusions, we weigh evidence and consider alternatives. Which alternative best fits the evidence? We will choose one alternative or another. There is no neutral ground.
Where Can we Find Information about God?
When you get to thinking about it, it seems that there are only two basic sources of information about God, if such a being exists. They are the following:
We can infer what might be true about God from what we observe in the universe. We look at the physical universe, human nature and culture and we observe things which may be clues to the existence or nature of the supernatural. God may have entered the Universe and told us true things about himself, morality, meaning and how to have a relationship with him. This is called Revelation.
Let me explain each of these. One year my wife and I drove from Los Angeles to Rhode Island. It took a long time. The country is pretty big. From this observation it makes sense to think that if there is some person or being who is responsible for making the physical universe, this being has a lot more power than we do. Now this is a rather simplistic example. Another observation we can make is that every culture we know anything about has a deep sense that certain things are morally permissible and certain things are morally prohibited. This leads us to infer that if there is some supernatural being responsible for human nature, that being is personal. He has a moral aspect to his nature.
The second source of information is that God may have taken the initiative and stepped into the universe to reveal himself. He may tell us true things about his nature and purposes and about human meaning and morality.
Christianity holds that both of these are good sources of information. We have clues to God’s existence which can be observed and God has entered the physical universe through the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth in History and told us about himself.
Now in this article I am concentrating on the first source. Can we know anything about God from what we observe? Are there good reasons to believe in God based on these observations? I think there are.
Reasons to Believe in God
I want to pick up two observations which I think give us good reason to think there is a God. First, the existence of the universe is better explained by the existence of God. Second, the existence of objective moral values is better explained by the existence of God.
The Existence of the Universe is Better Explained by The Existence of God.
I will begin by laying out the argument:
1. There are things which come into existence.
Everything which comes into existence is caused to exist by something else. There cannot be an infinite series of past causes. Therefore, there exists a first cause which did not come into existence. In other words, the first cause always existed. Let us look at each of the steps in the argument:
Premise 1. “There are things which come into existence.”
Many things have come into existence. This article is coming into existence as I write it. You came into existence and so did I. This premise is not uncontroversial.
Premise 2. “Everything which comes into existence is caused to exist by something else.”
It is obvious that Nothing can cause itself to come into existence. Anything that causes itself to come into existence has to exist before it exists. This is impossible. Perhaps something can come into existence from Nothing without any cause whatsoever. Can a thing just pop into existence with absolutely no cause? This also does not seem reasonable.
I have three children. If I walk into the dining room and see a picture of Pinky and the Brain which is drawn on the wall in Permanent Magic Marker I will ask “Where did this picture come from?” My daughter Elizabeth (who is almost five) might say “It came from nothing, Dad. Nothing caused it. It just popped there. I think it is quite strange — don’t you?” Will I accept this? No! Things do not come into existence from Nothing without cause. So, we have good reason to think that premise two is true. Everything which comes into existence is caused to exist by something else.
Premise 3. “There cannot be an infinite series of past causes.”
Is the series of past causes infinite? Can the universe have an infinite past? The answer is that it cannot. First, there are philosophical reasons to think the past cannot be infinite. Second, there are scientific reasons which support this view.
Why can’t the past be infinite? The answer is that it is impossible to complete an infinite series by addition. The series of past events is complete. Think of this mathematical fact. Why is it impossible to count to infinity? It is impossible because, no matter how long you count, you will always be at a finite number. It is impossible to complete an actual infinite by successive addition.
The past is complete. This claim means that the entire series of past events ends now. It ends today. Tomorrow is not part of the series of past events. The series of past events does not extend into the future. It is complete at the present. If it is impossible to complete an infinite series by successive addition (as it is impossible to count to infinity) the past cannot be infinite. If the past is finite, that is, if it had a beginning, then the universe had a beginning. We have strong philosophical reason to reject the claim that the universe has always existed.
I will not develop these. Rather, I will simply point them out.
Big Bang theory does not prove that the universe had a beginning, but it supports this claim.
The second law of thermodynamics does not prove that the universe had a beginning but it also supports this claim.
We can see that we have good philosophical and Scientific reasons to reject the idea that the Universe has always existed.
About the Universe, there are only three alternatives:
1. The universe has always existed. It has an infinite past.
2. The universe was popped into existence from nothing with absolutely no cause.
3. The universe was caused to exist by something outside it.
We have strong reason to reject the first two alternatives.
Alternative Three is the most reasonable. There was a first cause. This cause existed eternally. It initiated the big bang and created the universe. Now what can we know about this cause? Why think the cause is God? I will briefly sketch a few implications.
First, the first cause is not a part of the space-time physical universe because it caused the space time universe to begin. Therefore it is outside of space and time. It is not physical. Second, it has a great deal of power. Third, it is a personal agent. This means it is not an inert force but it must have aspects of person hood; namely, that it wills. How do we know this? This is because it is the best answer to the question of why the Big Bang happened when it did. Why not sooner? Why not later? All of the conditions for producing the Big Bang existed from eternity. The only kind of cause we know of that can initiate an effect when all of the conditions are already present is the will of a personal agent.
I have not argued that it is logically impossible that the universe popped into existence from nothing without cause. I have argued that it is more reasonable to hold that it has a cause and that this cause is a non-physical personal agent — God.
So it seems that the first argument is fairly strong. The existence of the universe is better explained by the existence of God.
The Existence of Objective Moral Values is Better Explained by the Existence of God.
People experience a sense of morality that leads them to hold strongly that certain things are right or wrong for all people in all cultures. For example, it is wrong to torture another person just for fun. It is wrong for me today. It is wrong for a citizen of the Philippines and it was wrong for someone living in 500 BC. Our moral sense provides strong reason to believe in a personal God.
It will help clarify what I am saying if we put it into the form of an argument.
If there is no God, there are no objective moral values.
There are moral values which are objective.
Therefore, God exists.
Before I discuss this argument, I must make it clear that I am not claiming that one must believe in God in order to be moral. I am not claiming that statistically those who believe in God are more moral than those who do not. I am also not claiming that our knowledge of morality depends upon God. This argument is to the effect that objective moral values themselves are foreign to a universe without God. They do not fit.
Defending Premise 1. “If there is no God, there are no objective moral values.”
I have to admit that this claim is quite controversial and many philosophers disagree with me. I think, however, that objective moral values are not sufficiently explained in a universe without God. Many have agreed with this claim. For example, Dostoevski had Ivan Karamazov claim, “If there is no God, everything is permitted.” Sartre wrote of Dostoevski’s statement, “That is the very starting point of existentialism. Indeed, everything is permissible if God does not exist, and as a result man is forlorn, because neither within him nor without does he find anything to cling to” [see his essay Existentialism]. John Mackie — probably the best philosophical atheist of the twentieth century recognizes this: “[Objective moral values] constitute so odd a cluster of qualities and relations that they are most unlikely to have arisen in the ordinary course of events, without an all-powerful god to create them. If, then, there are such intrinsically prescriptive objective values, they make the existence of a god more probable than it would have been without them [The Miracle of Theism, pp 115-116].
Mackie recognizes that these objective values do not fit in the universe if there is no God. His answer, since he rejects God, is to claim that there are no objective moral values. His book on ethics is appropriately titled Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. I agree with Dostoevski, Sartre and Mackie. If there is no God, there are no objective moral values.
Defending Premise 2. “There are objective moral values.”
We know there are objective moral values. By this I mean that the content of morality is not determined by the individual, or by culture. Rather some things are objectively wrong. Other things are objectively obligatory. Actions such as rape, racist discrimination and torturing an innocent baby to death for no reason are really wrong. Furthermore, It is wrong for me to do these no matter when I live and no matter from what culture I come.
Now many people believe that morality is not objective. This view comes in three basic varieties.
1. The individual determines morality.
If the individual determines morality, then if I believe it is morally permissible to steal your stereo and beat up your girlfriend, it is permissible for me to do it. But it is not permissible for me to beat up your girlfriend. Therefore, the individual does not determine morality.
2. Society determines morality.
If I lived in a completely racist society, would racism be right for me? Not at all. When an American university student protests against South Africa’s policy of apartheid, he is assuming that morality is not determined by society. It is transcendent of cultures. All of our greatest heroes have been men and women who have stood up to society’s wrongs and appealed to a morality that is transcendent to society in order to demand change. If society determines morality, it is always morally wrong to criticize society. There is no morality outside of society which can form the basis of a moral critique.
3. Morality has survival value.
Some people claim that the reason we have this moral sense is that it helped the human race survive. Those individuals with moral sense grouped together for mutual protection and these did better than those without the moral sense. This is a kind of prehistoric social contract theory of morality. The problem with this is that we do not need morality to survive today. In fact, if you and I know that morality has no objective validity and the rest of our culture still thinks it is valid, we can take advantage of this to get the most we can. There is no moral reason to refrain from rape, robbery and murder.
These inadequate objections show that our sense is that there is a morality that is trans-personal, trans-cultural and trans-temporal The existence of a personal God is the best explanation for this. It is not up to the individual or the culture whether it is permissible to rape simply for fun. Any individual who believes it is morally permissible to rape for fun has a false belief. Any culture whose moral guidelines include the claim that it is permissible to rape for fun has simply got it wrong.
If it is true that Hitler was morally wrong, it is true that there are objective moral truths which are trans-cultural. If it is true that it was wrong for Romans to leave baby girls to die on the trash heaps — simply because they were girls, then morality is not determined by culture. If it is true that Martin Luther King was a moral hero because he criticized his own culture by appealing to objective morality, then it is true that morality is not determined by culture.
Now, It is true that Hitler was wrong. It is true that the Romans were wrong. It is true that Martin Luther King was right — heroically right. So, we know there are objective moral truths. But objective morality makes no sense in the Universe if there is no God. Objective moral values point to the existence of a moral being who created the universe. His moral character is the standard for objective right and wrong.
I have briefly presented two arguments for the existence of God. These show that it is more reasonable to believe that God exists than that He does not exist.
A. The Existence of the Universe is Better Explained by The Existence of God.
B. The Existence of Objective Moral Values is Better Explained by the Existence of God.
So we see that some of the things we observe about the natural world ground a strong inference to the claim that God does exist. This gives us reason to consider with renewed openness the possibility that God has entered the space-time universe and revealed Himself through the person and life and death of Jesus of Nazareth.
I have not claimed to prove with mathematical certainty that God exists. I have, however, provided good reasons to think that He does. If someone wishes to argue successfully that God does not exist, they must first, provide an answer for each of these arguments and second, they must offer arguments that God does not exist. Until they do this, we can conclude that we have good reason to claim that God does exist.
This article was written by Dr Gregory E. Ganssle of the Department of Philosophy at Yale University.
Posted, November 2017
According to the Macquarie dictionary a sense of humor is appreciating what’s amusing, funny or comical. A joke is an amusing or ridiculous circumstance. Laughter is usually normal and healthy, but there are times when it is not. For example, it can mask and trivialize sin (Jas. 4:9).
Of all God’s creatures, human beings alone possess a sense of humor. As they are also made in the image and likeness of God, I suggest that God is capable of humor as well (Gen. 1:26). But of course God doesn’t share all our attributes (such as sinfulness).
Solomon said that there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh” (Eccl. 3:4NIV). For example, we laugh at the things that children do. I wonder whether God (as our Father) laughs at some of the things that we do?
God created some funny creatures. For example, the distinctive call of the laughing kookaburra. And it looks like God was having fun when he designed the Australian platypus and bilby. The first English scientists to see a specimen of a duck-billed platypus thought it was a hoax because it had a bill and webbed feet like a duck, which is a bird. They thought the bill of a duck had been attached to the body of an otter, beaver or mole! The bilby is called a “rabbit-eared bandicoot” because it has ears like a rabbit. And its back legs look like those of a kangaroo, but it gallops like a horse!
Recently I went to the zoo with a grandson. We saw lots of God’s creatures. I’m sure God had fun designing all the animals in the web of life. From bacteria to whales. Will they walk, fly or swim? Adding a long neck or stripes. Which would be companions, predators and prey? They are so diverse, but integrated.
Funny incidents in the Bible
There are some funny incidents in the Bible. As “all-Scripture is God-breathed”, it means that God has caused these to be recorded (2 Tim. 3:16). At Babel the builders constructed a tower “that reaches to the heavens”. Ironically God had to “come down” to see the tower they were building (Gen. 11:4-5)! So it wasn’t very high according to God! Such delusions of grandeur would have made God laugh.
Laban tricked Jacob into marrying Leah instead of Rachael. She was veiled during the wedding and unrecognized in the darkness of the wedding night and the Bible says, “When morning came, there was Leah!” (Gen. 29:25). What a surprise! Did Jacob drink too much wine at the wedding?
God used a talking donkey to warn and rebuke Balaam for planning to curse Israel (Num. 22:21-35)! And he used a fish to get Jonah to Nineveh!
When the Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant they added it to their gods by placing it in the temple beside the god Dagon. But next day Dagon was flat on the ground before the ark. So they put Dagon upright once again. But the following day the idol was flat on the ground once again with his head and hands broken off (1 Sam. 5:1-5)! It was obvious who was the stronger God.
When Saul was pursuing David, he went into a cave to relieve himself. It happened that David and his followers were also in the cave and David crept up and cut off a corner of Saul’s robe (1 Sam. 24:1-4). Saul looked ridiculously vulnerable!
After being told that Jesus was from Nazareth, Nathaniel says “Can anything good come from there?”. Then Jesus says that Nathaniel was without deceit! And accepts him as a disciple!
The disciples took a metaphor literally. When Jesus said to them, “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees”, they said, “It is because we didn’t bring any bread” (Mt. 16:5-12)! They were dumb!
Funny sayings in the Old Testament
When describing a stork, the book of Job says “God did not endow her with wisdom or give her a share of good sense” (Job 39:17). That’s not very flattering!
God used irony and sarcasm when He answered Job. Where were you when I created the earth? Surely you’re old enough to answer my questions about the creation (Job 38:4, 21)? Of course the answer is no! Job wasn’t there in the beginning, but God was.
Jehoram, was an evil king of Judah who lead the nation into idolatry. The Bible says that “He passed away, to no one’s regret”, didn’t have a funeral fire and wasn’t buried in the tombs of the kings (1 Chr. 21:19-20). That’s a colorful way of saying what people thought about Jehoram.
Some of Solomon’s proverbs are funny:
– “Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman who shows no discretion” (11:22)
– “Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife” (21:9). And “A quarrelsome wife is like the dripping of a leaky roof in a rainstorm” (27:15).
– “The sluggard says, “There’s a lion outside!”” (22:13). That sounds like a good excuse to stay home!
God mocks idols. They had mouths, but can’t speak. Eyes, but can’t see. Ears but can’t hear. And mouths, but can’t breathe. They seem to be useless and dead! And then He adds the punch line: “Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them” (Ps. 135:15-18)! Idols are a fraud and worthless (Jer. 10:14-15). They were just a dead stone or block of wood (Isa. 44:9-20; Hab. 2:18-10).
God can use wordplay in serious situations. For example, the Lord showed Jeremiah the branch of an almond tree and said “I am watching” (Jer. 1:11). The Hebrew word for almond (saqed) sounds like the word for watching (soqed).
Funny sayings in the New Testament
Jesus used some funny illustrations:
– He said to the hypocrites, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Mt. 7:3). This hyperbole is hilarious!
– After He spoke with a rich man, Jesus said, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Mt. 19:24). This is another exaggeration.
– He said the hypocritical Jewish religious leaders were “like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean” (Mt.23:27).
– He said to the hypocritical Jewish religious leaders, “You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Mt. 23:24). They were leading people into danger like blind guides (Lk. 6:39). And by concentrating on minor matters (like gnats), they missed dealing with major matters (like camels). Jesus also used a pun here as the Aramaic word for gnat is galma and for camel is gamla.
– He also mentions lighting a lamp and putting it under a basket, building a house on sand, and a father giving their child stones instead of bread. All of which are ridiculous.
– And He makes a Samaritan behave better than a priest and Levite (Lk. 10:30-35).
The common people would have laughed at these comical images.
Jesus also used puns like saying “on this rock I will build my church” when he was speaking to Peter (whose Greek name meant detached stone) (Mt. 16:18).
When describing Abraham, the writer of Hebrews says, “from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky” (Heb. 11:12). That’s a colourful way of saying that he was very old when Isaac was conceived.
There are probably lots of other incidents and sayings in the Bible that would have been shocking or amusing in the culture of the time, but are lost on us today. For example, there is wordplay in the names of people and places in the Old Testament.
The Bible says that God laughs when nations rebel against Him (Ps. 2:4; 59:8). He scoffs at them. God also laughs when the wicked plot against the righteous (Ps. 37:12-13). They don’t realize it’s impossible to defeat the omnipotent God. It’s ludicrous because of the great difference in power.
We may say that God has the last laugh. It may be delayed; and evil may appear to have prevailed. But in the end, God will be victorious.
God is happy and joyful
When the Jews are delivered from their enemies in the future, the Bible says that God “will take great delight in you … will rejoice over you with singing” (Zeph. 3:17). This is similar to Paul saying that God is happy (“makariou” is translated as “blessed”) (1 Tim. 1:11; 6:15). This is lasting joy and not just a transient emotion.
Jesus used wordplay
Large crowds of people followed Jesus to hear Him speak and see Him do miracles. Obviously He was a skilled orator. And He would have seen the humor in life – that which is ludicrous or incongruous. He used exaggeration, irony, sarcasm, and satire to help communicate His message. It may have been like street theater with subtle wit and wordplay, but with a serious message.
Jesus also welcomed children and children usually see the funny side of life (Mt. 19:13-14; Mk. 10:13-16; Lk. 18:15-17).
Lessons for us
Humor is cultural and situational and doesn’t always translate into other languages. For this reason, much of the humor in the Bible is probably lost to us today. But we have seen that there is evidence that God has a sense of humor. This is consistent with a God who is personal and who sustains the world.
Coarse jokes are ungodly (Eph. 5:4). And some comedy relates to sinful behavior. This is not part of God’s character. It has been said that:
God is serious because sin is serious. God finds nothing funny about the state of the world. How could a God so holy and righteous be funny in a world where sin is still present? Jesus was a serious person because He was on a serious mission. Our eternal life was a serious issue to Him. Leaving His glory in heaven to come into the world was no fun. The death on the cross was no fun at all. He didn’t come to put people down, but to lift them up.
This is true, but it is clear that God is joyful and Jesus used wordplay. God is serious and He has a sense of humor. He has both attributes, not just one or the other. So, let’s have a balanced view of God.
The joy of the Christian life can be expressed in humor. While worldly humor glorifies sin, puts down others, ridicules righteousness, and hurts the soul – Godly humor encourages others, honors the Lord, and restores the soul. And humor helps us get through life by providing relief from the seriousness of life. So, let’s balance the seriousness and humor of life. And, like Jesus, let’s use appropriate humor to promote our communication with other people.
Although we are usually unaware of it, God is capable of good humor and there is evidence of this in the Bible and in creation. And the carrying out His plan of salvation and His coming exaltation bring Him much joy. Do we share in this joy?
Written, June 2017
There’s a country music song by Brooks and Dunn titled, “God must be busy”. It mentions fighting in the Middle East, a single mum who lost her job, people dying and missing in a tornado, the abduction of a young girl, a drought, elderly people who can’t afford their medication, and violent street gangs. The writer feels as small as a speck of sand and that God’s got better things to do than to help them. They think that God hasn’t answered their prayer because “God must too be busy to help me”. This is an example of those who say they don’t want to bother God about their problems because He’s too busy running the universe.
In a class I’ve been attending at Bible College we’ve been looking at what the Bible says about God. This includes God’s attributes (His character) and God’s actions. His attributes can be summarized as: God is great and God is good. An example of His greatness is His power and an example of His goodness is His love. Of course God is much greater than we can imagine and more virtuous than we can imagine.
But what does God do? In this blogpost we are looking at what God does. His actions. And we will see that in the past God has planned and created, but now He sustains and governs His creation.
Like an architect designs a building, and an engineer designs a car, and a graphic artist designs an animated movie and a sculptor designs a pot, God has planned everything that will happen (Rom. 9:20-23). Like the plan begins in the mind of the architect, the engineer, the graphic designer, and the sculptor; the plan also begins in the “mind” of God. He decides. It’s His will. When we say “God’s will”, we mean “God’s plan”.
We don’t know much about God’s plan. Only what’s revealed in the Bible. We see what happens, not why it happens.
First, God’s plan included creation. It was God’s idea. God didn’t have to create, but He did.
Second, God’s plan includes the history of nations and individuals. For example:
– God used Assyria to punish ungodly nations, “Have you not heard? Long ago I ordained it. In days of old I planned it; now I have brought it to pass, that you have turned fortified cities into piles of stone” (Isa. 37:26NIV). It says that God planned it long ago. God also determined the beginning, the end and the area occupied by nations (Acts 17:26).
– David says that our life span and its events have been already determined by God, “Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (Ps. 139:16).
Third, God’s plan included salvation (Eph. 1:11). God gave a promise to Abraham, and through him to humanity. This promise-plan is fulfilled in the history of Israel, in Jesus Christ as the source of salvation, in the church, and in the age to come (Kaiser, 2008). God wanted to have people become like Himself, so He could enjoy their fellowship (Rom. 8:29; 1 Jn. 3:2). Jesus was sent on a mission at a time that was determined beforehand (Gal .4:5-5). The death of Jesus was part of “God’s deliberate plan” (Acts 2:23). God decided beforehand what happened (Acts 4:28).
God’s plan is good; it has good consequences. And the ultimate purpose of God’s plan is His glory (Eph. 1:12, 14; Rev. 4:11; 5:13).
When did God do this planning? The Bible says that it was “before the beginning of time” and “before the creation of the world” (Eph. 1:12; 2 Tim. 1:9; 1 Pt. 1:20). So it was made before anything was created. When the triune God was all that existed. In eternity past.
But God’s work is more than planning; He also creates.
God brought everything that exists into being without the use of pre-existing materials. God created time, the physical world of matter, forces and energy out of nothing. He also made the spiritual world of angels. God created things from what He created earlier. For example, He made animals, birds and Adam from dust and Eve from Adam (Gen. 2:7, 19, 21). There was nothing evil within God’s original creation (Gen. 1:31). And through the laws of genetics, variations can be created within the various types of creatures that God created. This limited variability helps creatures survive changes in their environment.
Creation is emphasised at the beginning of the books of Genesis, John and Hebrews. The Bible says that God created the world for His glory (Ps. 19:1; Isa. 6:3; 43:7; Rom. 1:20-21). In heaven, God the Father is praised, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will (God’s plan) they were created and have their being” (Rev. 4:11).
An architect is greater than a building, and an engineer is greater than a car, and a graphic artist is greater than an animated movie and a sculptor is greater than a pot. As a creator is greater than their creation, God is greater than anything in creation. He alone is to be worshipped.
But God’s work is more than planning and creating; He also sustains.
The whole creation belongs to God and matters to Him. He cares for it. God sustains and preserves the creation He has brought into being. This means that God is active in creation (nature) and in our lives. Without God’s sustenance, nature would cease to be. It’s like driving a car without using cruise control. The driver needs to keep pressing on the accelerator pedal to make it go and to keep it going.
The Bible says, “In Him (Christ) all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). And Jesus is “sustaining all things by His powerful word” (Heb. 1:3). The fundamental forces of nature are gravity, electromagnetism, and nuclear forces. Gravity holds the universe together, keeps planets in orbit and keeps the atmosphere, water, and us on planet earth. Electromagnetism keeps electrons in orbit around the atomic nucleus and binds atoms to one another to form molecules and compounds. And nuclear forces hold the nucleus of an atom together. Scientists believe that these forces are related, but they don’t know how. But we know how – Jesus holds all things together! He’s the common power.
God sustains nature. Jesus said that God provides for the birds and flowers (Mt. 6:25-34). He works through the processes of nature to provide for the needs of His creatures (Job 5:10; Ps. 104:10-28).
God also sustains humanity. We are in His care (Dt. 31:6). Jesus said that all the hairs of our head are numbered (Mt. 10:30). In Athens, Paul said that God “gives everyone life and breath and everything else” (Acts 17:25). Also, Christians are sustained through suffering. Writing from prison, Paul said that God will meet all our needs (Phil. 4:19).
But God’s work is more than planning, creating and sustaining; He also governs.
God has planned what is to occur and history is carrying out His intention. He works behind the scene so that events fulfil His plan. History is moving towards a definite goal. This means that God is active in history. God directs history. For example, God controlled:
– Nature when Elijah said it wouldn’t rain and there was a drought for 3.5 years (1 Ki. 17-18; Lk. 4:25; Jas 5:17).
– The rise and fall of nations (Dan. 2:21; Acts 17:26).
– Events in the lives of individuals. Hannah praised God, “The Lord brings death and makes alive; He brings down to the grave and raises up. The Lord sends poverty and wealth; He humbles and He exalts” (1 Sam. 2:6-7). David said, “my times are in your hands (Ps.31:15). And Paul realized that even before his birth, he had been set apart by God for a special work (Gal. 1:15-16).
Two illustrations come to my mind. SimCity is a city-building computer game, which was released in 1989. A person building a city in SimCity is like God directing history. And it’s like 3D virtual reality. Monash University have developed a virtual civilization of Angkor Wat in Cambodia as it was 1,000 years ago. 25,000 computer people are animated to perform tasks as four classes of people: residents, commuting workers, suppliers and visiting elites. Virtual reality gives audiences a sense of time and place. In real life it’s God who is directing history, and not a digital animator.
The government of God is when He directs the course of events to fulfil His purposes. For example, look at the history of the Jews. Although their future was threatened in Egypt, in Babylon, and in the holocaust, God has preserved them as a nation.
So God is sovereign. He rules. That’s what is meant by the term, the “kingdom of God”. David said, “His (God’s) kingdom rules over all” (Ps. 103:19).
God also redeems. He is waiting patiently for people to repent of their sin and rebellion (2 Pt. 3:9). He is calling the chosen and justifies them when they come (Rom. 8:28-30, 33-34). Then Christ and the Holy Spirit intercede on their behalf (Rom. 8:26-27; Heb. 7:25). And God makes them more like Jesus, which is called a “good work” (Phil. 1:6). Because no one can separate believers from the love of Christ, “in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28; 31-39). So God is working for their good.
Meanwhile, He is preparing a place in heaven for the redeemed (Jn. 14:2). When Christ returns, God’s love, patience, holiness, mercy and grace towards sinners will be evident for all to see.
Lessons for us
We have seen that God plans, creates, sustains and governs. The planning is now past. And God has created in the past, but Christians are part of a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17) and God promises a millennial kingdom (Rev. 20:1-6) and a new heaven and a new earth in the future (Rev. 21:1 – 22:5). On the other hand, God is actively sustaining and governing at present and into the future. What are the lessons for us in all these things that God does?
It is evident that God implements His plans. Because His plan included creation, He creates and He sustains His creation. Because His plan includes the history of nations and individuals, he governs history. Because His plan includes salvation, He redeems those who follow Him.
Because God has a good plan for creation, history and salvation; life has purpose and we are moving towards the time when God’s glory will be revealed.
Creation has value because God made it and sustains it. But, do we believe that God will meet all our needs? We can be confident that God will sustain us. Peter said, “Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you” (1 Pt. 5:7).
People have value because they are made in the image of God, because Jesus came as one of us, and because believers will be like Him in heaven.
What about when we are struggling in our circumstances? Let’s remember, God is sovereign. He rules. He knows what’s happening. He cares. Like Jesus said in the Garden of Gethsemane we can say, “Not my will, but yours (God’s) be done” (Lk. 22:42). God answers our prayers in accordance with His will (His plan). We can be assured that our life is in God’s hands, and that His plan for our lasting good, and for His glory, is being followed. He is always in control. God is with us in our struggles. He loves us so much that He gave His life for us. So, we can continue to trust God whatever our circumstances.
God is constantly working out His purpose in our lives, in the life of the church and in the world at large; sometimes visibly and sometimes unseen. So, although God rested on the day after creation, He is certainly busy today!
In the past God has planned and created, but now He sustains and governs His creation. And it’s good to know that we are part of God’s plan. So Brooks and Dunn were right and wrong – God is busy, but He’s not too busy to help us today!
References: Millard J. Erickson (2013) “Christian theology”. Third edition. Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI, USA.
Kaiser WC (2008) “The promise-plan of God”, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, USA.
Written, April 2017
In a world of evil, pain and suffering, some question whether God is good. Instead they claim that the God described in the Bible is cruel and definitely not good. But how do we define “good”? Is it what makes me happy? Is it what only happens in the short-term? It is being nice and politically correct? Or is it different to these?
What does the Bible reveal about God’s attributes, characteristics, nature or qualities? In this case we are looking at who God is, not what He does. Erickson (2013) divides these attributes into two categories: God’s greatness, and God’s goodness. My previous blogpost summarized aspects of God’s greatness.
This blogpost summarizes eight aspects of God’s goodness. They may be grouped into purity (holy, righteousness, and just), integrity (genuineness, honesty and faithfulness), and love (benevolent, gracious, merciful, and persistent).
God is Holy
The Bible says that God is holy (Ex. 15:11; 1 Sam. 2;2; Ps. 99:3). He is “high and exalted” (Is. 6:1; 57:15). In this context, the Hebrew word qadosh (Strongs #6918) means that God is separate from all of creation. The proper reaction to God’s holiness is awe and reverence (Ps. 99:3). Also, God is not wicked or evil. He “cannot be tempted by evil” (Jas. 1:13NIV). This means that God is absolutely pure and He is untouched by the evil in the world. So God is holy.
God is Righteous
David says, “The Lord is righteousness in all His ways” (Ps. 145:17). He always does what is right. Nothing He does is wrong. There is no sin or wickedness in Him (Ps. 92:15). In fact, He defines what’s right and what’s wrong. He’s the source of morality. God sets the standard of righteousness. And He commands only what is right (Ps. 19:7-9). So God is righteous.
God is Just
Isaiah says, “the Lord is a God of justice” (Isa. 30:18). Justice is when God requires others to follow His moral laws. The Bible says that sin has consequences and that God will punish sin. For example, although the wicked may prosper (Ps. 73:3-12), they will be ultimately destroyed (Ps: 73:17-20, 27). Although this justice may not be evident in the short-term, it is certain in the long-term. So God is just.
God has Integrity
Integrity includes genuineness (being true), honesty (telling the truth), and faithfulness (proving true). Jeremiah says “But the Lord is the true God; He is the living God, the eternal King” (Jer. 10:10). God is real, unlike many other gods. And His attributes are true. So God is genuine.
What God says is accurate. God cannot lie (Tit. 1:2; Heb. 6:18). God “does not lie or change His mind; for He is not a human being, that He should change His mind” (1 Sam. 15:29). Because of this and His omniscience, He can always be trusted. So God is honest.
God keeps all His promises; “God is not human, that He should lie, not a human being, that He should change His mind. Does He speak and then not act? Does He promise and not fulfil?” (Num. 23:19). So God is faithful.
God is Benevolent
God is loving and caring. Jesus said, “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). This is a sacrificial, unselfish love, that seeks the good of others and which is called agape in Greek (Strongs #25). He died for His enemies, “God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us … while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to Him through the death of His Son” (Rom. 5:8-10). God’s benevolence extents to all humanity and to animals (Mt. 5:45; 6:26, 30; 10:29). So God is benevolent.
God is Gracious
God deals with us according to our need; not according to our merit, worthiness or what we deserve as sinners. He supplies underserved and unmerited favors. God told the Israelites, “The Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin” (Ex. 34:6-7). And Paul said, “In Him (Jesus) we have redemption through His blood (death), the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that He lavished on us” (Eph. 1:7-8). Our salvation comes through God’s grace: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). This is God’s response to the fact that we have rebelled against Him and so deserve to be banished from His presence forever. So God is gracious.
God is Merciful
God is also compassionate; “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him (His faithful followers)” (Ps. 103:13). For example, when God rescued the Israelites from Egypt He said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering” (Ex. 3:7). Jesus also felt compassion for the physical and spiritual condition of the people He met; “When He saw the crowds, He had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Mt. 9:36). In response He “went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness” (Mt. 9:35). So God is merciful.
God is Persistent
Another aspect of God’s love is persistence. He withholds judgment and offers salvation and grace over long periods of time. David said, “But you, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Ps. 86:15). God often delays judgment so that people will repent and turn to Him (Rom. 2:4; 2 Pt. 3:15). It seems that God warned Noah’s generation for 120 years about the coming flood (Gen. 6:3; 1 Pt. 3:20). Also, He was patient with Israel even though they repeatedly rebelled against Him. And Christ’s second coming is delayed because God doesn’t want “anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pt. 3:9). So God is persistent in His love.
God’s goodness in Scripture
The Bible refers repeatedly to God’s goodness. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are each said to be good (Neh. 9:20; Mt. 7:11; Jn. 10:11). God is inherently good and His actions are good – “You are good and what you do is good” (Ps. 119:68). The Hebrew word towb (Strongs #2896) means good and kind (Brown-Driver-Briggs).
The Israelites praised God with thanksgiving saying “He is good” because His love to them endures forever. (1 Chron. 16:34; Ps. 136:1, Jer. 33:11; Ezra 3:11). Reasons to praise God include being good, loving, and faithful – “the Lord is good and His love endures forever; His faithfulness continues through all generations” (Ps. 100:5; 135:3). David gives reasons to praise God – “They celebrate your abundant goodness and joyfully sing of your righteousness” (Ps. 145:7). According to the parallelism of Hebrew poetry, His righteousness is said to be equivalent to His abundant goodness.
David appeals to God’s goodness when he prays for forgiveness – “you, Lord, are good” (Ps. 25:7). He mentions God’s goodness in association with His guidance of those who fear Him – “Good and upright is the Lord” (Ps. 25:8). David is confident that God will answer his prayer for deliverance from his enemies – “the goodness of the Lord” (Ps. 27:13). When he was being pursued by his enemies, David used a figure of speech urging people to trust and experience God – “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8; 1 Pt. 2:3). The context is the Lord delivering the righteous in their sufferings. And when David prayed for deliverance from enemies, he praised God for being forgiving and good – “You, Lord, are forgiving and good” (Ps. 86:5).
Moses saw that God’s goodness included His mercy, forbearance, love, faithfulness, forgiveness, and judgment (Ex. 33:19; 34:6-7). And Hezekiah appealed to God’s goodness when he prayed for forgiveness of those who ate the Passover without purifying themselves – “the Lord, who is good” (2 Chron. 30:18).
Jesus reminded the rich ruler that only God is intrinsically good – “No one is good—except God alone” (Mt. 19:17; Mk. 10:18; Lk. 18:19). The Greek word agathos (Strongs #18) means inherently good (Thayer’s Greek Lexion). It describes what originates from God.
Peter alludes to Psalm 34:8 – “now that you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Pt. 2:3). Since they have personally experienced God’s goodness, they should lay aside the sins mentioned in verse 1. This shows that we must personally experience God to know His goodness.
The kindness (goodness), love and grace of God is why He acted to save fallen humanity (Tit. 2:11; 3:4). The Greek word chrestotes (Strongs #5544) is translated goodness, or kindness (Thayer’s Greek Lexion).
God and humanity
These are all positive moral attributes because God has no negative moral attributes (sin). And God exercises these attributes all the time, they are part of His character. Because God is good, everything He does is good. For example, “in all things God works for the good of those who love Him” (Rom. 8:28).
The attributes listed above can also be found in humanity, but not on a continuous basis. They are part of humanity being created in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:27). People can be holy, righteous and just, but not when they are sinful. People can be genuine, honest and faithful, but not when they are sinful. People can be benevolent, gracious, merciful and persistent in love, but not when they are sinful. This means that people don’t exercise these attributes all the time like God does.
The fact that we can share these attributes with God would help Christians to represent Him on earth. Through them we can “participate in the divine nature” (2 Pt. 1:4). For example, our new self is righteous and holy (Heb. 12:10; Eph. 4:24). And Christians and churches are urged to be holy (2 Cor. 7:1; Eph. 5:25-27). Although they are already positionally holy through Christ, they are to become holy in practice.
Lessons for us
Our God is good because He is pure, trustworthy and loving. His purity is evident as holiness, righteousness and justice. His trustworthiness is evident as genuineness, honesty and faithfulness. And His love is evident as benevolence, grace, mercy and persistence. In this respect God is unique, being far above humanity and any other deity. He’s greater than all other gods. So He deserves our praise and thanks!
That’s how the Bible defines what is “good”. Because God is pure, He deserves our respect. Because God is trustworthy, let’s trust His message in the Bible. Because God is loving, let’s accept His love shown in Christ’s sacrifice. And because God is good, let’s follow and serve Him.
Millard J. Erickson (2013) “Christian theology”. Third edition. Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI, USA.
Written, April 2017
The Islamic call to prayer begins with “Allahu akbar”, which means “God is great” or “God is greater”. This phrase is recited by Muslims in many different situations.
There are lots of ideas about God. Some think God’s like a harsh judge or policeman. Others think God’s like an indulgent grandfather. Is God close or distant? Is God involved in our world or disinterested? Is God separate from creation (nature) or a part of it? Is God fixed or changeable?
Job’s friends were rebuked for misrepresenting God (Job. 42:7). And the Israelites were commanded not to worship false gods (Ex. 20:3-5). God has revealed Himself to humanity in creation, the Bible and Jesus Christ. As all we know about Jesus is from the Bible, the Bible is the best way to know what God is like and what He is not like.
What does the Bible reveal about God’s attributes, characteristics, nature or qualities? In this case we are looking at who God is, not what He does. Erickson (2013) divides these attributes into two categories: God’s greatness, and God’s goodness. This blogpost summarizes eleven aspects of God’s greatness.
God is Spiritual
Jesus said, “God is spirit, and His worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth” (Jn. 4:24NIV). This means that God’s not part of our physical world. It’s like He is in a different dimension or realm of reality. He is not composed of physical matter and is not restricted by the limitations of our physical universe. So God is invisible (1 Tim. 1:17; 6:15-16). But Jesus did reveal some of God’s attributes when He took on a human form (Jn. 1:18; Col. 1:15). So, let’s study the Bible to find out more about the unseen God and how He wants us to live.
God is Alive
Jesus said, “as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son (Jesus) also to have life in Himself” (Jn. 5:26). God is self-existent and the source of all life (Acts 17:25). In contrast to dead idols, He is a living God (Jer.10:10; 1 Th. 1:9). Because God is alive, He can think, act, communicate, and answer our prayers. And He can give spiritual life to those who seek Him. So, let’s bring our cares and needs to the living God in prayer.
God is Personal
The Bible teaches that God is personal, with self-consciousness, intelligence to reason and design, a will, capable of feeling, and choosing and having a relationship with people. Personal names and pronouns are applied to God. In the beginning, God communicated with Adam and Eve. And later, Jesus visited earth as a human being. God is not an impersonal force. So, let’s interact with the personal God as we read the Bible.
God is Triune
It is evident from Scripture that there is one true God who is in the form of three persons. When dismissing idols as gods, Paul said that “There is no God but one” (1 Cor. 8:4). And in a discussion on faith and deeds James said “You believe that there is one God. Good!” (Jas. 2:19). So Christianity is monotheistic. But it is a different monotheism to that of Islam.
Jesus told His disciples, “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son (Jesus Christ) and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 28:19). Here the singular name of God is said to be “the Father … the Son and … the Holy Spirit”, which is three persons. Jesus was God (Jn. 1:1). He was “in very nature God” and equal with God (Phil. 2:6). Jesus was also “the exact representation of His (God’s) being” and called “God” and “Lord” (Heb. 1: 3, 8, 10). Also, the Bible uses the “Holy Spirit” and “God” as interchangeable expressions” (Acts. 5:3-4; 1 Cor. 3:16-17; 6:19). So let’s praise God for sending Jesus as part of His plan of salvation. And pray to Him in Jesus name because Jesus is our mediator (Jn. 16:23). And realize that the Holy Spirit is always available to help us because He lives within us.
God is Infinite
As God created everything, He can’t be limited by anything. This includes: time, space, knowledge, power, and anything else we can think of. He is outside time and space (or in a different dimension or realm of being). So He can’t be limited by any of the constraints in the universe. God’s greatness can’t be measured. So, let’s respond with awe to the infinite God. As this attribute is beyond our understanding, it is considered in more detail in the next four attributes.
God is Eternal
Because God existed before there was time, He isn’t limited in time. He’s not located at a particular time in history because He created time. This means that He doesn’t have a time clock like us. He always is, always was and always will be. God is eternal – He is “the eternal God” (Gen. 21:33; Dt., 33:27; Rom. 16:26). As God existed before anything else came into being (Gen. 1:1), He can continue to exist independently of everything else. Because He had no beginning (or cause), God has no birthday or age. He also has no end – He is immortal. Moses prayed, “from everlasting to everlasting you are God” (Ps. 90:2). This means that God is always present. He has access to creation at all times. Although God isn’t bound by time, He is aware of the succession of events within the history of the universe. And because God is eternal, He doesn’t get taken by surprise. So, let’s appreciate the eternal life we have though the eternal God.
God is Everywhere (omnipresent)
Because God existed before there was space, He isn’t limited in space. He’s not located at a particular point because He created space. This means that He doesn’t have any GPS coordinates like us. Conversely, there is no point in space where it can be said that God isn’t present. David wrote, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens (up), you are there; if I make my bed in the depths (down), you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn (east), if I settle on the far side of the sea (west), even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast” (Ps. 139:7-10). David couldn’t hide from God’s presence. This means that God is accessible at any point in His creation. And God can access all the universe. So God is omnipresent. But this doesn’t mean that He is everything. So, let’s be aware of God’s presence at all times.
God is All-knowing (omniscient)
Because God existed before knowledge came into being, He knows everything. David wrote, “You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely. You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain” (Ps. 139:2-6). And the writer of Hebrews says, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of Him (God) to whom we must give account” (Heb. 4:13). God sees and knows everything! Nothing is hidden from Him. Nothing is a mystery to Him. So God is omniscient. Since He knows everything, His justice will always be administered fairly. So, let’s trust the all-knowing God to know what is best for us.
God is All-powerful (omnipotent)
Because God created and sustains everything, He has unlimited power. From Genesis to Revelation, He is referred to as “God Almighty”. God told Abram, “I am God Almighty” (Gen. 17:1). And John saw “the Lord God Almighty” in his vison of the heavenly city (Rev. 21:22). God’s power over nature is illustrated in the Bible by many miracles such as the birth of Isaac, the plagues in Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, and Christ’s miracles including the stilling of the storm. Of course God cannot act contrary to His nature or fail to fulfil His promises. So, let’s trust the all-powerful God to keep His promises.
God is Constant (unchanging)
God’s attributes don’t change with time. Although the Jews repeatedly broke their covenant with God, God kept His part of the covenant in accordance with the statement that “I the Lord do not change” (Mal. 3:6). And James says that God “does not change like shifting shadows” (Jas. 1:17). There is no reason for God to change because He is perfect. So He is constant, consistent, reliable and trustworthy. He’s perpetually the same. That’s why God is said to be like a rock (Dt. 32:4). This means that God is dependable and will fulfil His promises. So, let’s rely on the constant God.
God is All-sufficient (sustainer)
When Jacob blessed his son Joseph, he said that God Almighty blesses “with blessings of the skies above, blessings of the deep springs below, blessings of the breast and womb” (Gen. 49:25). So God nourishes and sustains His people like a mother breastfeeds her infant. Because God is self-sufficient, He needs nothing from anyone. He is able to supply all the needs of His people; “my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of His glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19). God has addressed all our problems, doubts and difficulties, in the gospel of His Son, Jesus Christ. So, let’s rely on the all-sufficient God to get through the trials of life.
God’s greatness in Scripture
The Bible refers repeatedly to God’s greatness. He is “the great God” (Dt. 10:17; Ezra 5:8; Neh. 8:6; 9:32; Ps. 95:3; Dan. 2:45) and “great and awesome” (Dt. 7:21; Dan. 9:4). Also, Jesus is said to be “our great God and Savior” (Titus 2:13). The Hebrew word is gadol (Strongs #1419), which in this context means great in importance (Brown-Driver-Briggs). The Greek word is megas (Strongs #3173), which in this context means a person of great rank because of their ability, virtue and power (Thayer’s Greek Lexion). In these passages, this greatness relates to the triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The magnitude of His greatness is described as:
– “God is greater than any mortal” (Job 33:12)
– “How great is God—beyond our understanding!” (Job 36:26)
– God is “very great” (Ps. 96:4)
– God is “greater than all” (Jn. 10:29)
God’s greatness demands a response:
– “praise the greatness of our God!” (Dt. 32:3)
– “great is the Lord and most worthy of praise” (1 Chron. 16:25; Ps. 104:1)
– “And they were all amazed at the greatness of God” (Lk. 9:43)
God and humanity
The only attributes listed above that are shared by humanity are spirit, life and personality. But there are also differences. While on earth, our spirits are linked with our bodies, whereas God the Father and the Holy Spirit are spirits without bodies and Jesus Christ is a spirit linked to a resurrected (heavenly) body. Although we are alive, we are not self-existent or the source of all life. And although we can know, feel, will and act, we can’t do this as three persons! But because we are both personal, we can have a relationship with God.
Lessons for us
Our God is great because He is an infinite, eternal, omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, living and personal triune spirit, who is reliable (constant) and all-sufficient. God is mega! He is unique, being far above humanity and any other deity. He’s greater than Allah and all other gods. So He deserves our praise and worship!
Millard J. Erickson (2013) “Christian theology”. Third edition. Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI, USA.
Written, April 2017
I don’t believe in the Tooth Fairy. I don’t believe in the Easter Bunny. I don’t believe in Santa Claus. You could say, I’m a skeptic! But what if I don’t believe that Babe Ruth, Mark Twain, and Christopher Columbus were real people? That they were myths as well.
Also, what if I don’t believe that people who lived longer ago like William Shakespeare (AD 1600) and Muhammad (AD 600) were real people? And what if I don’t believe that Jesus (AD 30) existed? That He’s a myth made up by Christians.
According to a survey in 2015, 22% of people in England thought that Jesus was a mythical or fictional character, while another 17% were unsure whether He was real or not. The remaining 61 % said Jesus was a real person who actually lived. It was found that younger people are the most skeptical about Jesus’s existence.
What is a “myth”?
In everyday language, the term “myth” is given to stories, ideas or beliefs that are false and not true. They are unreal or imaginary stories that may be called “legend”, “fiction”, “fairy tale”, “folklore”, or “fable”. But academic scholars use “myth” as a synonym for a story with a symbolic message that used to be believed as true, but now there are no implications on the truthfulness of the story. In this post I’m using the everyday usage of the word “myth”, not the academic one.
Let’s look at two skeptical views about Jesus.
Skeptical views about Jesus
Christ myth theory.
Some people claim that Jesus is a mythical character, and not a historical person. He never existed. He was made up by the early church which wrote the New Testament. They conclude this from the following beliefs:
– Jesus left no writings or other archaeological evidence.
– We don’t have any original manuscripts of the New Testament.
– The genre of the gospels may be legendary fiction instead of ancient biography.
– The Gospels and other early Christian writings cannot be verified as independent sources, and may have all stemmed from a single original fictional account.
– All documents about Jesus came well after the life of the alleged Jesus – so it’s all unreliable hearsay. No eyewitness accounts survive.
Mainstream historical view
Others say that Jesus of Nazareth did exist but He had virtually nothing to do with the founding of Christianity and the accounts in the gospels. They believe that Jesus was an extraordinary man, but He didn’t do miracles. The miracles were made up by Christians afterwards and written in the Bible. The life of Jesus was embellished like St Nicholas became Santa Claus.
We will now evaluate these two skeptical views about Jesus. Do they match the evidence or not?
Historical evidence for the existence of Jesus
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. But the 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. For example, my great grandfather Richard Hawke is in a list of people living on the goldfields at Hill End near Bathurst in New South Wales in 1867. This is listed in a book that was published 109 years later in 1976 (“Valleys of gold” by Brian Hodge).
Jesus was a Jew (a minor race) who lived in Galilee, which was a part of Palestine (not the capital, Jerusalem). And Palestine 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 evidence of Jesus that is independent of the Bible is in ancient Roman and Jewish literature.
About 80 years after Christ’s death, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote (“Annals”, 15, 44, AD 115-117): “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”.
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 AD 64. It indicates the manner and time period of Christ’s death. Emperor Nero (AD 37-68) accused the Christians of starting the fire and he persecuted them.
Josephus is the best known Jewish historian. He was born in Jerusalem and went to Rome in AD 71 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 AD 93 (about 60 years after the death of Jesus).
A passage in Book 18, 63-64 of the “Antiquities of the Jews” says:
“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”.
The context of this passage is the political disturbances that the Roman rulers dealt with during this period.
A passage in 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 AD 62. The Bible also says that James was the brother of Jesus (Gal. 1:19). This passage assumes you already know about Jesus, which is true because Josephus has already mentioned him two books earlier.
Summary of Roman and Jewish literature
These two non-Christian historians are independent historical sources, one Roman and one Jewish. What do they say about Jesus?
– He was a Jewish man named Jesus and Christ (in Greek) who lived in Judea.
– He had a brother named James.
– He had a reputation for doing unusual works (possibly miracles)
– He won over both Jews and Greeks (but most of this happened after His death).
– He was sentenced by Pilate to be executed by crucifixion during Tiberius’s reign. The Jewish leadership pressured Pilate to condemn Jesus in this way.
– Christianity and Christians came out of Christ’s ministry.
– Both Jewish and Roman leaders were hostile towards Jesus and Christians.
So, hostile Jewish and Roman witnesses show that Jesus is a historical figure, and not a myth. This means that the first skeptical view that Jesus never existed is debunked. It is a myth itself!
In 2013 Time magazine had an article on “the 100 most significant figures in history”. They ranked them like Google ranks web pages. They said that historically significant people leave evidence of their presence behind. The top rank went to Jesus, followed by Napoleon, Muhammad, William Shakespeare and Abraham Lincoln. So Jesus left an impact in our world. One indication of this is that the years in our calendar are dated from when He was born. Mythical figures don’t leave such an impact. Another indication is the growth of the church despite persecution.
We will now evaluate the second skeptical view that doesn’t believe Jesus did miracles.
Historical evidence for Jesus’ miracles
Now we’ve established that Jesus existed, the question is “did He do miracles?”. Is the only evidence of these in the New Testament that was written by Christians? No! The Christian message was offensive to both the Jews and the Romans. They attacked Christianity by saying that Jesus was a real wonder-worker who made blasphemous claims to divine authority.
Jesus was regarded by the Jews of His day as a person who possessed supernatural powers. According to Justin Martyr, they said that Christ’s miracles “was a display of magic art, for they (Jews) even dared to say that he (Jesus) was a magician and a deceiver of the people” (Justin Martyr, AD 160). They executed Him for sorcery and said His power to do miracles was Satanic.
According to Celsus, an anti-Christian Greek Philosopher, “Jesus performed His miracles by sorcery” (“The true word”, about AD 180). And, “because (Jesus) was poor he hired himself out as a workman in Egypt, and there tried his hand at certain magical powers on which the Egyptians pride themselves; he returned full of conceit because of those powers, and on account of them gave himself the title of God…”.
“These were the actions of one hated by God and a wicked sorcerer…”
Celsus treated Jesus as a person who was a dangerous con-artist like a conjuror or illusionist. He considered Jesus to be a magician who made exorbitant claims.
So both hostile Jews and Greeks acknowledged that Jesus had miraculous powers. And they said that these were magical, Satanic and deceptive.
Were the gospels fabricated?
Some skeptics claim that the gospels were fabricated after Christ’s death and aren’t reliable accounts of what actually happened. But you wouldn’t expect the following in the gospels if they were fabricated:
– Mathew was written by a tax collector and Jews hated these.
– A key event, the resurrection of Christ, was revealed first to women who had low status in society at that time. A woman’s testimony was not accepted in court during those days.
– No Jew would invent a story of a crucified Messiah, and Christians wouldn’t invent such a horrific ending for their leader.
– There are multiple accounts of the life of Jesus in the gospels with variations between them.
– The embarrassing parts would probably have been deleted: Jesus’ baptism by John (Mk. 1:4-11), His family believing He was out of His mind (Mk. 3:21), His ignorance of the time of His own return (Mk. 13:32), His not doing miracles in some places (Mt. 13:58), and Jesus calling Peter Satan (Mt. 16:23).
– Why would two of the leaders in the early church reject Jesus when He was on earth? His brother James was a skeptic (Mk. 3:21; 6:2-4; Jn. 7:5) and Paul persecuted Christians (Acts 7:58, 60).
– Why would the apostles invent so many miracle stories, when most Jews expected a political deliverer as Messiah, not a wonder-worker?
– Why would the writers say that some people doubted that Jesus rose from the dead (Mt. 28:17; Mk. 16:11-13; Lk. 24:11, 38; Jn. 20:24-27)?
– Why would the apostles invent a religion that caused them painful humiliating deaths?
The New Testament was written by the apostles and their associates. The apostles were eyewitnesses to the events they described and the associates would have obtained information from eyewitnesses. Scholars think that the “memory gap” between the events described in the gospels and their documentation is about 30-55 years. There are variations between the gospels. This is because there are multiple witnesses and multiple writers. And like in real life, there are variations between the accounts (each records different aspects and details) but they have the same core message and they are consistent with each other. It’s a bit like children recalling events from their childhood for a parent’s eulogy.
Let’s look at the “copy gap” (between the original document and the oldest manuscript available today) for some 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 AD 300-325 and Codex Sinaiticus in AD 330-360. 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. In this way, the evidence for the existence of Jesus is stronger than that for most other people of the ancient world.
Do we have an open mind?
I’ve presented some evidence, but whether you believe it depends whether you have an open mind or not. Our presuppositions can override the evidence in order to inevitably conclude what was presupposed from the start. That’s circular reasoning! In such cases our assumptions and beliefs largely determine our findings and interpretation of these. If we have already made up our minds, no evidence will change them.
Let’s look at some people who investigated Jesus with an open mind.
CS Lewis was Irish and became an atheist in his early teenage years. He graduated from Oxford University with triple First Class Honors in Classics, Philosophy and English. And he wrote many books. His mother died when he was 10 years old, he had been unhappy at school, and he experienced trench warfare during the First World War. But after spending some years with Christian colleagues at Oxford University, at 30 years of age he became a Christian. He realized that atheists don’t have an open mind because they deny the supernatural and therefore the existence of God. They don’t even consider this possibility. But if God exists, then surely the Creator can intervene in His creation. He can alter the natural environment, reverse the progression of disease, or conquer death in ways we consider to be miraculous. He has written many books defending Christianity, including “Mere Christianity”.
Lee Strobel trained at Yale Law School and was an avowed atheist. He was a legal journalist for 14 years. After his wife’s conversion, he began investigating the Biblical claims about Christ. After a nearly two-year investigation, he became a Christian at the age of 29 years. He has written many books defending Christianity, including “The case for Christ”.
Jennifer Fulwiler was an atheist blogger. But she came to realize her mind was closed to ideas that didn’t fit into her atheist worldview. At the birth of her first child the only way her atheist mind could explain the love that she had for him was to assume it was the result of nothing more than chemical reactions in her brain. Then she realized that’s not true! She found that the Christian worldview had the best rational explanation for the world in which we live. She writes a blog called “Conversion Diary”.
Warner Wallace was a homicide detective. He was an atheist, but reading the gospels changed his life. After he saw that they were accurate eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus, he became a Christian. He stresses that as detectives need to be open minded by avoiding presuppositions, so should we. And the highest standard for prosecution is “beyond a reasonable doubt”, not “beyond every possible doubt”. This is because they are dealing with history, not observational science or mathematics. Wallace writes a blog called “Cold case Christianity”.
This evidence from an author, a journalist, a blogger and a detective shows that when people investigate Jesus with an open mind, they are convinced that He did the things described in the Bible.
Lessons for us
We have seen that Jesus is a historical person and not an imaginary figure. The evidence is overwhelming. And that He wasn’t an ordinary person. He did miracles and founded Christianity that has spread across the world. Also, the gospels are based on eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus and not something fabricated by early Christians. And people with an open mind will agree with this finding.
Do you have an open mind about Jesus? Have you read about Him in the gospels? Do you think He is a great moral teacher, but don’t accept his claim to be God? In that case, Jesus would be a liar. Why would a person willingly die under an accusation they knew wasn’t true? Or do you think He was deluded? That He had a mental illness? Then why would the apostles give up their lives for such a person? The only other option is that He was the person who He claimed to be and who He demonstrated to be by His miracles, the divine Son of God.
And if Jesus existed and did the things that history says He did and He’s alive today as the Son of God, then what must change in our lives today?
Why did Jesus come?
Jesus coming to earth is a bit like us becoming an ant in order to talk to the ants. Or us becoming an amoeba or bacteria to communicate with them. It’s amazing! It’s even more amazing because Jesus made and sustains the world He entered! The Creator and Sustainer became a creature at the same time.
Jesus came to earth so we can have spiritual life. A life connected with God now. A life that is connected with God forever. That’s called eternal life. He did it to solve the problem of our rebellion against God. Adam and Eve rebelled against God. Noah’s generation rebelled against God. The people of Babel rebelled against God. The Israelites rebelled against God. The Jews and Romans killed the Son of God. And we ignore God. He’s not in our calendar! The Bible says that we all rebel against God and that’s what separates us from Him (Rom. 3:23). We’re all guilty of wrong attitudes and wrong behavior. How do we know what’s right and what’s wrong? The Bible gives examples and our conscience can guide us (Rom. 2:15). The consequence of our guilt is to be separated from God.
Jesus solved the problem of our rebellion against God by taking our punishment when He was executed by crucifixion. He substituted for us. No one else could have done this because everyone else is a rebel and is separated from God themselves. Only Jesus could do this because He is the Son of God who is always in contact with God the Father.
Jesus asked Peter, “Who do you say I am” (Mt. 16:15-16NLT). Peter answered, “You are the Messiah (or Christ), the Son of the living God”. Can you say that as well? If we recognize that we can’t get right with God ourselves because of our rebellion, and that as the Son of God, Jesus has done all that is needed for us to get right with God, then the Bible says that the barrier between us and God comes down and we are no longer separated from Him. We come near to God. We become spiritually alive. If you want to get right with God, pray to Him about it and speak about it to a Christian today.
Jesus described eternal life as follows: “as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man (Jesus) must be lifted up (be crucified), so that everyone who believes in Him will have eternal life. For this is how God loved the world: He gave His one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent His Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through Him” (Jn. 3:14-17NLT).
Here we see that Jesus was on a rescue mission. Just as the Israelites could be healed of snakebite by looking at the bronze snake on a pole, which changed their status from dying to being alive, our separation from God can be removed by accepting Christ’s sacrifice for us. We become spiritually alive and our destiny changes from hell to heaven.
Jesus also said, “I have come that they may have (eternal) life, and have it to the full” (Jn. 10:10). Jesus came so we can have spiritual life. And following Jesus turns an empty spiritual life into a bountiful one. “Life, be in it!” was a program to encourage us to be more physically active. But Jesus says, “Eternal life, be in it!”. Let’s get spiritually active.
Jesus as Lord
But what if you already follow Jesus? This evidence about Jesus and the Bible supports our faith. We are Christians because of historical events, not because of mythical stories.
Peter told Cornelius that Jesus Christ “is Lord of all” (Acts 10:36). “Lord” means a person who has authority over others; a master, boss, chief, or ruler. But most people act like Jesus was a liar or a mental case. They live as though Jesus never came to earth. But if we have trusted Him to bring us close to God, the Bible says that we are to live as though He is Lord of our lives (Rom. 10:9). That means giving Him priority. How can we do that? By obeying God’s commands and principles in the New Testament. A disciple follows their leader.
Paul is also a good example to follow (1 Cor. 4:16; Phil. 3:17). He said “You should imitate me, just as I imitate Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Is what we say and what we do consistent with what Paul said and did? Here’s one example from Paul, “dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all He has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind He will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship Him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect” (Rom. 12:1-2). Do we give our bodies to God? Does He influence our calendar? Do we copy the behavior and customs of this world? Or, do we let God transform our lives? Do we let Him change the way we think? Are we different from those that don’t follow Jesus? Is it evident that we are spiritually alive?
We have seen that because Jesus lived on earth almost 2,000 years ago, and did miracles to prove His divinity, and paid the price so we can be reconciled with God, if we turn to follow Him, He turns an empty spiritual life into a bountiful spiritual life.
Eternal life, be in it!
Written, February 2017
Also see: Extra-biblical evidence of Jesus
Have 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Also see: Jesus:history or myth?
I have been asked the question, “Where did Jesus’ power come from – God, Jesus Himself, and/or the Holy Spirit?” The Bible records that Jesus definitely had miraculous power. In His hometown Nazareth, the people asked, “Where did this man (Jesus) get this wisdom and these miraculous powers” (Mt. 13:54NIV)? Even king Herod said that “miraculous powers are at work in Him” (Mt. 14:2).
The miracles associated with Jesus were events that couldn’t be explained by natural occurrences. So they require supernatural explanations. That’s why they are said to confirm Christ’s divinity (Jn. 20:30-31).
As Jesus was sent to earth by God the Father, was this the source of His power?
God the Father
After Philip asked, “show us the Father”, Jesus said, “Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing His work” (Jn. 14:10). The NET translates “His work” as “His miraculous deeds”, and says that this is most likely a reference to the miracles that Jesus had performed as a manifestation of the mighty acts of God. And Luke said that God the Father did miracles through Jesus Christ and “because God was with Him” (Acts 2:22; 10:38). Finally, through His “incomparably great power” and “mighty strength”, God the Father, “raised Christ from the dead” (Eph. 1:19-20). This was the greatest miracle of all.
So, God the Father was the power behind Christ’s miracles. But as Jesus was a member of the divine trinity, was this another source of His power?
His own divine power
Jesus’ miracles demonstrated His amazing power. When Jesus walked on the Sea of Galilee during a storm and calmed the storm, the disciples said “Truly you are the Son of God” (Mt. 14:22-32). When Jesus said He could forgive a paralyzed man’s sins and heal him, the religious leaders knew that only God could do this (Mt. 9:1-8; Mk. 2:5-12; Lk. 5:18-26). Then Jesus healed the paralytic (a visible miracle) to confirm that the man’s sins had been forgiven (an invisible miracle). And when Jesus healed a paralyzed man on the Sabbath day He referred to it as His work (Jn. 5:17). As Christ’s miracles provided evidence of His divinity, they were evidence of His inherent divine power (Jn. 20:31).
Luke said “the power of the Lord was with Jesus to heal the sick” (Lk. 5:17). The Greek noun kurios translated “Lord” (Strongs #2962) in this verse, which means master and owner, is applied to Jesus in Luke 5: 8, 12 elsewhere in this passage. Therefore, according to the context, in v.17 it means that Jesus had absolute power to heal the sick (some infer that the lack of an article in the Greek text implies the reference is to God the Father, but the article is also absent in verses 8 and 12). Contrary to some teaching, Jesus didn’t empty Himself of His divine power when He became a man (Phil. 2:7). Instead, He always had this divine power, which could be used when required.
When Jesus defended His claim to be equal with God He said, “the Son (Jesus) can do nothing by Himself, He can do only what He sees His Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does” (Jn. 5:19). This doesn’t mean that Jesus had no inherent ability to accomplish anything miraculous on His own. He was so closely united with God the Father that He could only do the very things which He saw His Father doing. Jesus also said, “By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but Him (God the Father) who sent me” (Jn. 5:30). Jesus is so closely united with God the Father that He could not act by Himself. He could not do anything that was independent or inconsistent with His Father’s will. Instead, He was obedient to His Father and always in fellowship and harmony with Him. Finally, Jesus raised Himself from death (Jn. 2:19; 10:17-18). As already mentioned, this was the greatest miracle of all.
So, His own divine nature was the power behind Christ’s miracles. But as Jesus was “full of the (Holy) Spirit”, was this the source of His power (Lk. 4:1)?
The Holy Spirit
From His baptism, Jesus was indwelt by the Holy Spirit (Mt. 3:16; Lk. 4:18). During this period, the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (Mt. 4:1); empowered Jesus’ return to Galilee (Lk. 4:14); empowered Jesus to drive out demons (Mt. 12:28); and empowered Jesus to instruct the apostles (Acts 1:2). When the 72 disciples returned with joy from a missionary trip, Jesus was “full of joy through the Holy Spirit” (Lk. 10:21). The sin of blasphemy against the Spirit was attributing Christ’s power over demons to Satan’s power rather than the Holy Spirit (Mt. 12:31-32; Mk. 3:29).
According to Scripture, the main miracle associated with the Holy Spirit seems to be driving out demons. So, the Holy Spirit was the power behind some of Christ’s miracles.
We have seen that the Bible says Jesus had miraculous power and that the source of this power was God the Father, Christ’s divine nature and the Holy Spirit. So, the whole divine trinity provided the power for Christ’s miracles.
Written, November 2016
Also see: Why did Jesus do miracles?
Christ’s resurrection and the feeding of the 5,000 are the only miracles recorded in each of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John of the Bible. According to the Bible, Jesus was the first person to be raised from death to eternal life, never to die again (Rom. 6:9; 1 Cor. 15:23). But who raised Jesus back to life from death? The Bible gives various answers to this question.
God did it
The most frequent explanation is that God raised Jesus from death (Acts 2:24, 32; 3:15, 26; 4:10; 5:30; 10:40; 13:30, 33, 34, 37; 17:31; Rom. 4:24; 10:9; 1 Cor. 6:14; 15:15; Col. 2:12; Heb. 13:20; 1 Pt. 1:21). “God raised Him (Jesus) from the dead so that He (Jesus) will never be subject to decay” (Acts 13:34NIV). As Jesus was both a physical human being and the spiritual Son of God, the death and “decay” refer to His physical body, and not to His divine nature. Only people die, not spirits. His earthly body wasn’t eternal but was subject to death just as ours is.
Righteousness is promised “for us who believe in Him (God) who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He (Jesus) was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Rom. 4:24-25). So Christ’s death dealt with the problem of our sins and the fact that He rose confirms that the price has been paid to make us right with God. As Paul says, ‘‘If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised Him (Jesus) from the dead, you will be saved’ (Rom. 10:9).
Also, “by His power God raised the Lord (Jesus) from the dead, and He (God) will raise us also” (1 Cor. 6:14). So because God raised Jesus from death, in the future He will also raise the bodies of believers from death. Resurrection is the opposite of death. Death separates the body from the soul and spirit, while resurrection reunites them. But as noted above, it didn’t affect the divine part of Jesus.
God the Father did it
The Bible also says that God the Father raised Jesus from death (Rom. 6:4; Gal. 1:1; Eph. 1:19-21; 1 Pt. 1:3). Paul said that through His “incomparably great power” and “mighty strength”, God the Father, “raised Christ from the dead and seated Him (Jesus) at His (God the Father’s) right hand in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 1:19-20). So Jesus was raised and given the place of highest honor and authority (the right hand) in God’s dwelling place (the heavenly realms).
It should be noted that some of the instances of the word “God” used in the context of Christ’s resurrection actually refer to God the Father (1 Th. 1:9-10).
Jesus did it
The Bible also says that Jesus raised Himself from death (Jn. 2:19; 10:17-18). Jesus told the Jews, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (Jn. 2:19-21). In this instance, the temple was a metaphor for His body. So to “destroy this temple” was a figurative way to predict His death and to “raise it again” was a figurative way to predict His resurrection. When Jesus said that He had the power to raise Himself back to life, it shows that He had divine power, because this is impossible for a human being to do.
When Jesus predicted that faithful Jews and faithful Gentiles would be united in the Christian church, He described how this would be made possible: “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father (Jn. 10:17-18)”. To “lay down” one’s life is to die willingly and to “take it up again” is to resurrect back to life. So He willingly died and rose again for those who trust in the saving power of His death and resurrection. This passage says that Jesus used His divine power to rise from death in obedience to the command (instruction or plan) of God the Father. This was possible because His divine power wasn’t affected by His death – it wasn’t destroyed.
Did the Holy Spirit do it?
Some think that the Bible also says that the Holy Spirit raised Jesus from death (Rom. 8:11; 1 Pt. 3:18). Romans 3:18 says:
NIV: “And if (since) the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of His Spirit who lives in you”.
ESV: “If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you”.
HCSB: “And if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, then He who raised Christ from the dead will also bring your mortal bodies to life through His Spirit who lives in you”.
NET: “Moreover if the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will also make your mortal bodies alive through His Spirit who lives in you”. And according to the NET Bible “the one who raised Jesus from the dead” and “the one who raised Christ from the death” refer to God. So this verse belongs to the first category. “God did it”.
Another possibility is that the term “Spirit of Him” could be a title of the Holy Spirit like “Spirit of God” (Rom. 8:9). According to this interpretation, the Holy Spirit raised Jesus from death. But according to its context, this verse is saying that the Spirit of God within us is stronger than the sin that is in our bodies. Which is similar to “The one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 Jn. 4:4). So this verse doesn’t definitely say that the Holy Spirit raised Jesus from death – it is only a debatable inference.
1 Peter 3:18 says that Christ was:
NIV: “made alive in the Spirit”.
ESV: “made alive in the spirit”.
HCSB: “made alive in the spiritual realm”.
NET: “made alive in the spirit”. And according to the NET Bible “The reference may not be to the Holy Spirit directly, but indirectly, since the Spirit permeates and characterizes the spiritual mode of existence”.
As most of these contemporary translations don’t capitalize “spiritual”, there is no conclusive evidence in 1 Peter 3:18 that the Holy Spirit raised Jesus from death.
The Bible definitely teaches that Jesus was raised from the dead by God, God the Father and by Himself. Is this a contradiction? No, because God the Father and Jesus Christ are referred to as “God” in the Bible and they can do what God alone can do (Heb. 1:8).
None of the verses say that God the Father alone raised Jesus from the dead, or that Jesus by Himself without the aid of the Father raised Himself, or that Jesus didn’t have the power to raise Himself. Paul called Jesus “the author of life” (Acts 3:15) and Jesus certainly had the power to resurrect Lazarus back to life (Jn. 11:11-44). Furthermore, Jesus told Martha “I am the resurrection and the life” (Jn. 11:25).
Also, it doesn’t follow that the Father and the Son must be one and the same person in order for all these statements to be correct, since all that is required is for them to have the same ability and power to raise the dead. After all, Jesus said that He could do everything that the Father does (Jn. 5:19-24).
Whether the Holy Spirit, who is also referred to as “God” (Acts 5:3-4), was involved in the Resurrection of Christ is a debatable matter as the Bible doesn’t seem to provide conclusive evidence of this.
Written, October 2016
12 images of Christ’s death
Earlier this year consumer advocate Choice found that dried oregano is being padded with substitute olive and sumac leaves. One product contained less than 10% of the real thing, while other brands had just 11-50%. Dried olive and sumac leaves were a cheaper substitute that looked similar to oregano. Some of the suspect samples came from Turkey.
Other food scandals include imitation honey, horsemeat marketed as beef, mislabelled seafood, and peanuts being mixed into ground cumin. These are examples of bad substitution. Today we are looking at a good substitution by God.
Every good drama, movie or story has at least one climax. The climax is the turning point of the story when the main problem is addressed. Today we are looking at the climax of the bible.
In the introduction of the Bible it describes how our earliest ancestors Adam and Eve rebelled against the God who made them and this resulted in all the problems we experience today like evil, pain, suffering, disease and death.
The climax is when God solves the problem of people’s sinfulness. He does this by coming to the earth and taking the punishment that we all deserve – that’s the substitution. The Bible’s climax has two twists. Firstly, Jesus’ followers believe He is the Messiah, but their hopes are dashed when instead of setting up His kingdom on earth, He is executed as a criminal. So their great expectations are replaced by grief and loss. Secondly, a few days after His burial Jesus miraculously resurrects back to life and the grief and loss is replaced with joy! What a dramatic fluctuation in emotions!
There is a movie called “God’s not dead!”. Well today we are looking at when God died. That’s amazing! How could the God with the power to create and sustain the universe die like a human being? We will see that multiple images and symbols are required to convey the message of Christ’s death and its impact.
The symbols of Christ’s death are categorized below as: people, animals, inanimate things, and religious ceremonies.
Abraham sacrificing Isaac
Hebrews 11 says, “By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son” (Heb. 11:17NIV). When God tested Abraham’s faith about 4,000 years ago, he told him to sacrifice Isaac his only son. At the last minute, God provided a ram to take Isaac’s place. That’s another substitution. This climax in Abraham’s life happened on Mount Moriah, which was also near the place where Christ later died, in Jerusalem (Gen 22:1-14; 2 Chron. 3:1).
Isaac is like Jesus: they were only sons loved by their fathers, and willing to do their father’s will (Gen. 22:2; Mt. 4:17). But there is a difference: Isaac didn’t die as a sacrifice but Jesus did; and Abraham was spared the grief but God wasn’t.
If the death of Jesus is like Isaac bound on the altar, it reminds us of the role of God the Father and God the Son. This symbol also reminds us of how the death of Jesus was God’s plan which depended on Christ’s obedience. It’s all about God.
Jonah swallowed by the big fish
Jesus said, “as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man (Jesus) will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Mt. 12:40). When Jonah was thrown overboard in a Mediterranean storm in about 760 BC, he was swallowed by a huge fish and he was in the belly of the fish for three days (Jon. 1:17). After this he was vomited onto dry land (Jon. 2:10). Then Jonah preached in Nineveh and when they turned to follow God, the Israelites were relieved of the Assyrian threat.
The Bible says that Jonah is like Jesus: being swallowed by the fish was like Christ’s death, being in the fish for three days was like Christ buried in the tomb and being vomited out was like Christ’s resurrection back to life. It says that “God provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah” (Jon. 1:17). It was God provision. Likewise, God provided Christ’s death for us.
The Bible also says that Jesus rose on “the third day” after His death and burial (Mt. 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; Mk. 9:31; 10:34; Lk. 9:22; 18:33; 24:7, 21, 46; Jn. 2:19; Acts 10:40; 1 Cor. 15:4). The third day means the day after tomorrow (Lk. 13-31-33). Apparently the Jews counted parts of days as whole days.
If the death of Jesus is like Jonah being swallowed by the fish, it reminds us that the death of Jesus was God’s plan. He provided it. This symbol also reminds us that Christ was only dead for three days and then He rose back to new life.
Animal sacrifices in Old Testament times were also symbols of Christ’s death. For example, the ram that replaced Isaac on Mount Moriah was like Jesus. An innocent animal died as a substitute instead of Isaac. Likewise, although He was sinless, Jesus took our punishment. He died in our place. Paul said, “God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us”. He died for us. And “Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us as a … sacrifice to God” (Rom. 5:8; Eph. 5:2).
And during the Passover, a lamb was killed and its blood put on the door frames of their houses. The lamb had to be “without defect” (Ex. 12:5). This is like Jesus because Peter said, He was “a lamb without blemish or defect” (1 Pt. 1:19). That’s a metaphor saying He’s like a lamb without blemish or defect. God said, “when I see the blood (on the door frames), I will pass over you” (Ex. 12:13). In this way the Israelites were saved from the death of their firstborn. None of the Israelites died because a lamb had died instead of them. They benefited from the animal’s death. They received mercy instead of judgment. They were protected from God’s judgment. On the next day, in the exodus they were delivered and rescued from slavery in Egypt. After this, the Passover was celebrated annually in remembrance of this great deliverance from slavery.
It’s interesting that Jesus celebrated the Passover on the evening before He died, and He was crucified on the day of the Passover (14 Aviv) – a Jewish day is comprised of a night followed by the daylight hours. Also Paul said, “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7). Another metaphor. So the Passover lamb is like Jesus. It died to save the household from God’s judgment.
John the Baptist called Jesus, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29). The lamb was a sacrificial animal among the Jews. It was killed as a substitute and its blood was sprinkled around. Here all humanity benefits from Christ’s death (it’s for “the world”), not just the Jews.
Jewish animal sacrifices (like the burnt, fellowship and guilt offerings, and the day of atonement) that were required under the law of Moses are symbols of the death of Jesus. In all these cases, innocent animal life was given up to protect human life. The judgment and penalty for their sins were carried out through a transfer of the sin of the people to the animal sacrifice. Forgiveness is possible because the penalty of sin (death) is transferred to a sacrificial animal. The animal was a substitute for the people. The Bible says, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:22). The shedding of blood means death.
A major difference between the animal sacrifices and Christ’s death is that the sacrifices continued daily, weekly, and annually, whereas Christ only needed to die once (Heb. 9:26; 10:1, 11-12). His single death fulfilled the animal sacrifices of the old covenant (Heb. 9:7-28; 13:11-12). So there is no need for animal sacrifices anymore (Heb. 10:18). His death was “once for all”. For all time and for all people.
If the death of Jesus is like an animal sacrifice, it reminds us that Jesus died for us. God died for us! The Creator died for His creation! His creatures! This symbol also reminds us that through the death of Jesus we can receive mercy instead of judgment. This symbol will endure because in heaven we will proclaim, “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain” (Rev. 5:12).
On the day of atonement, the Jewish High Priest put both his hands on the head of a goat and confessed all the sins of the Israelites and “put them on the goat’s head” (Lev. 16:7-10, 20-22). Their sins were symbolically placed on the goat. And the goat was taken away and released in the wilderness to carry all their sins to a remote place. Symbolically it carried away the sins of the people.
This is similar to what happened at Christ’s death. The sins of the whole world were placed on Jesus Christ. Peter said, ‘“He himself bore our sins” in His body on the cross’ (1 Pt. 2:24). And when He died He took the penalty for them – the wages of sin is death. So they were taken away for ever. Aaron laying his hands on the goat symbolizes the placing of our sins on Christ, to be taken away forever. As the goat substituted for the Israelites, Jesus substituted for us.
If the death of Jesus is like the scapegoat, it reminds us that Jesus died for us. This symbol also reminds us that through the death of Jesus our sins are taken away forever.
The heartbroken wife of Alice Springs man Kevin Reid, shot dead in Georgia US recently, has told of how he died protecting her during a robbery attempt. He moved her out of the way and probably saved her life. She said her husband died a hero. That’s an example of sacrifice.
The bronze snake
When Jesus taught Nicodemus about the source of spiritual life, He said “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man (Jesus) must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in Him” (Jn. 3:14-15). So He referred to an incident when the Israelites were travelling through the wilderness towards Canaan in about 1400 BC (Num. 21:5-9). When they complained about God and Moses causing their poor living conditions, God sent venomous snakes and many died. After Moses prayed for the people, God told him to make a bronze snake and put it up on a pole and “anyone who is bitten can look at it and live”. If they looked, they were delivered and healed of the snakebite. God provided a way to save them from death.
Jesus was saying that He must be lifted up on a pole (the cross) like the bronze snake, so that sinners looking to Him by faith might have everlasting life. The next verse says “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). That’s the context of this famous verse. It’s all about how God used the crucifixion to provide a way to save people from spiritual death. The death of Christ was how God loved the world and how He gave His only Son. Like the bronze snake, God has done His part. But we need to do something as well. Just as the Israelites needed to look at the snake on the pole to live, belief, acceptance and trust in God’s act of love is the only way to change our destiny from eternal death to eternal life.
If the death of Jesus is like the bronze snake, it reminds us that His death is the only way to eternal spiritual life. This symbol also reminds us that if we don’t accept that the death of Christ paid the penalty for our sins, we are doomed to eternal spiritual death.
As Christ was crucified on a Roman cross, the word “cross” can be used as a figure of speech for Christ’s death. For example, Hebrews says, “For the joy set before Him He (Jesus) endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2).
As Christ’s crucifixion resulted in the good news of salvation, the word “cross” is also used as an extended figure of speech for the Christian gospel. For example, Paul said, “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 12:18). The “message of the cross” is the good news (gospel) about the death of Christ. It’s belief in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection to forgive sins. This is nonsense to unbelievers. But for believers it’s the power of God because God is at work in proclaiming the message and convicting sinners to come to faith in Christ. So both the word “cross” (Gal. 1; Eph. 2:16; Col. 2:13-14), and the phrase the “cross of Christ” (1 Cor. 1:17; Gal. 6:12, 14; Phil. 3:18;) are used to mean the gospel of Christ and all its benefits.
If the death of Jesus is symbolized by the cross, I’m reminded that there were three crosses. This symbol also reminds us of the impact of Christ’s death. The man on one cross believed that the death of Christ paid the penalty for his sins, while the other man rejected this opportunity.
The word “blood” is often used as a symbol of death in the Old Testament. And “shedding blood” means murder. Also, blood had a special role in animal sacrifices. The animal’s blood was evidence that the penalty (of death) had been paid. This is summarized in the New Testament, “the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed (ceremonially purified) with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:22). And covenants were confirmed by blood from animal sacrifices (Ex. 24:6-8).
In the New Testament, blood is often a symbol of Christ’s death. For example, Pilate told the Jews, “I am innocent of this man’s blood” (Mt 27:24-25). And the people replied “His blood is on us and on our children!”. Paul said, “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins” (Eph. 1:7). And John said, “the blood of Jesus … purifies us from all sin” (1 Jn. 1:7). Here the word “blood” means Christ’s death. By the way, Christ’s physical blood had no miraculous power or properties, but was just like that of any other person.
Jesus didn’t bleed to death, but the terms used in the Bible for Christ’s death include: the blood of Jesus, the blood of Christ, the blood of the Lamb, His own blood, His blood, my blood, and your blood. This symbol occurs so often, that it can be called a motif, which is a recurring element in a story that has symbolic significance. In their repetition, motifs emphasize what’s most important about a story. For example, in his most famous speech, Martin Luther King Jr. used “I have a dream” as a motif to tie together different ideas such as a quote from the US Declaration of Independence and people who once were at odds sitting down together.
The noun “blood”, is also used as an extended figure of speech for the Christian gospel and all the benefits of Christ’s death. These benefits associated with the figurative “blood of Christ” include:
- Redemption (Eph. 1:7; 1 Pt. 1:18-19), like being released from slavery.
- Salvation, like being delivered from danger.
- Forgiveness ( 1:7), like cancelling debts.
- Reconciliation, like restoring a broken relationship, and having peace with God (Rom. 1:20).
- Justification (Rom. 5:9), like acquittal from condemnation and guilt.
- Adoption, like an orphan finding a new family.
- Sanctification (Heb. 10:10; ( 13:12; 1 Jn. 1:7), like gaining Christ’s righteousness, being holy and set apart for God. And cleansing from sin, like “takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29); “the blood of Jesus, His Son, purifies us from all sin (1 Jn. 1:7); “has freed us from our sins by His blood” (Rev. 1:5); and “they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:14).
All of these benefits are associated with the term, the “blood of Christ”.
If the death of Jesus is symbolized by blood, it reminds us of all the animal sacrifices in the Old Testament. This symbol also reminds us all the benefits of Christ’s death.
The torn curtain
When Jesus died, the heavy curtain that separated the Jewish temple in Jerusalem into two rooms (Ex. 26:31-33) was torn in half from the top to the bottom (Mt. 27:51; Mk. 15:38; Lk. 23:45). As the ark of the covenant symbolized God’s throne and presence in the Most Holy Place, the curtain separated sinful humanity from a holy God. The only person who was allowed into the inner room (the Most Holy Place), was the High Priest who could only enter once per year on the Day of Atonement after the necessary animal sacrifices had been offered.
As the curtain symbolized Christ’s body, its tearing symbolized His death (Heb. 6:19-20; 10:19-20). The tearing of the curtain signified that through Christ’s death believers have direct access to God (Heb. 9:11-14; 10:19-22). It symbolized a new era of access to God for all nationalities, not just the Jews.
If the death of Jesus is symbolized by the torn curtain, it reminds us of the beginning of a new relationship with God. This symbol also reminds us that Christ’s death is the only way for people to approach God the Father.
Jesus came to “give His life as a ransom for many” and He “gave Himself as a ransom for all people” (Mt. 20:28; Mk. 10:45; 1 Ti. 2:6). A ransom was the price paid to free a slave. Similarly, Christ paid the ransom price of His own life to free us from spiritual death and the slavery of sin. He died on behalf of us all, but not all will accept this offer of freedom.
If the death of Jesus is like a ransom, it reminds us that a cost was involved and God the Father and Jesus made that payment. This image also reminds us of the benefits of Christ’s death for believers – it’s like being freed from slavery.
John 3:16 says “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son (as a gift), that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life”. And God “did not spare His own Son, but gave Him (as a gift) up for us all” (Rom. 8:32). And Paul says that Jesus “gave Himself (as a gift) for our sins” as “a sacrifice to God” (Gal. 1:4; 2:20; Eph. 5:2).
A gift involves a giver and a receiver. Here the gift is salvation through Christ’s death and resurrection. The givers are God the Father and His only Son, Jesus. And the receivers are those who accept God’s supreme gift.
If the death of Jesus is like a gift, it reminds us of the love and generosity of the divine givers. This image also reminds us that we need to accept the gift in order to receive its benefits.
In March this year, Ryan Martin drowned just minutes after saving the life of a young girl near Coolangatta. He was one of a number of people who went to the girl’s aid. He didn’t know the girl, he just saw her in trouble and went to help. She was carried safely to shore but moments later Mr Martin began to struggle against the rough current. Surf lifesavers pulled him from the water but were unable to revive him. A friend said “He sacrificed himself to save the life of a young girl. The act of a true hero”. He gave her the gift of life, when she faced death.
Christian baptism is a public identification with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ (Rom. 6:3-11). People are baptised by being immersed in water. It’s like a short version of Jonah being swallowed by the big fish. But they are under the water for a few seconds rather than three days! Going into the water is like death by drowning. Staying under the water is like burial, and coming up out of the water is like resurrection. It’s a drama that shows we are united with Christ’s death and should no longer be slaves to sin. And instead of being raised like Christ, we have a new spiritual life. Paul said “if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (1 Cor. 5:17).
Paul summarized the gospel message as: “what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). Christ’s death was the payment for sin. His burial was the proof of His death. And His resurrection was the proof of God the Father’s acceptance of the sacrifice of Christ, and that death is conquered.
If the death of Jesus is symbolized by baptism, it reminds us of its power over sin and Satan. This symbol also reminds us of how the death of Jesus can bring a new spiritual life.
The Lord’s supper
At His last Passover, Jesus told His disciples to remember Him regularly like the Jews had remembered the Passover associated with the exodus from Egypt. They were to do it by communally eating bread and drinking wine. The bread and wine were metaphors of Christ’s death. When Jesus said “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me” (Mt. 26:26; Lk. 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:24), He meant that the broken bread represented His broken body. When Jesus said, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt. 26:28; Lk. 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25). He meant that the wine represented blood, which was a symbol of His death.
As the old Mosaic covenant between God and the Israelites was confirmed by blood from animal sacrifices (Ex. 24:6-8), the new covenant was confirmed by Christ’s death.
If the death of Jesus is symbolized by the Lord’s Supper (the bread and wine), it reminds us that His death is the source of our spiritual life. This symbol also reminds us that the new covenant is superior to the old one and to all other religions.
We have looked at several symbols of Christ’s death from the Bible. They show that: It depends on God the Father and God the Son like Abraham sacrificing Isaac. It’s followed by resurrection like when Jonah was swallowed and vomited out by the big fish. In it Jesus was our substitute like an animal sacrifice – He took our punishment so we could receive God’s forgiveness and mercy. Through it, a believer’s sins are taken away forever like the scapegoat. It’s the only way from spiritual death to spiritual life like the bronze snake. It offers a choice to accept or reject like the choices made by those on the other two crosses. It has many benefits associated with the motif of blood. It began a new relationship with God like the torn curtain. It results in freedom like a ransom. It needs to be accepted like a gift. It gives power over sin and Satan like baptism. And it’s superior to the old Jewish covenant and all other religions like the Lord’s supper.
So multiple images and symbols are required to convey the message of Christ’s death and its impact.
In response, have you accepted God’s gift of forgiveness and salvation? Have you entered into the new relationship with God? Have you transformed from spiritual death to spiritual life? It’s the most important thing we can do. If not, confess your sinfulness like that criminal on the cross, who turned (repented) to trust that through Christ’s sacrificial death he could be reconciled with God.
If we are believers: When we realize what they have done for us, how often do we thank God the Father and Jesus for this great sacrifice? Do we keep meeting collectively to obey the Lord’s command to “do this in remembrance of me” (Lk. 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:24-25). Do we appreciate the exchange: Jesus took our punishment so we could receive God’s forgiveness and mercy? Are we assured that our sins are taken away forever? Are we free of the slavery of sin? Do we realize the implications of Christ’s resurrection and our new spiritual life? Is our spiritual life evident? And do we appreciate all the benefits associated with salvation?
Written, September 2016
Muhammad Ali, former world heavyweight boxing champion, died recently.
The greatest boxer
Born in Louisville, Kentucky as Cassius Clay, he won an Olympic gold medal at Rome in 1960. At the turn of the millennium, Ali was voted man of the century, sportsman of the century, and personality of the century. In 1999 Ali was named Sportsman of the Century by Sports Illustrated and Sports Personality of the Century by the BBC.
After beating Sonny Liston in 1964 to become the world heavyweight boxing champion, Clay boasted, “I am the greatest!” Then he changed his name to Muhammed Ali. Ali dominated boxing in the 1960s and 1970s and held the heavyweight title three times. His fights were among the most memorable and spectacular in history, but he quickly became at least as well known for his colorful personality and his showy antics in the ring.
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” was one of many phrases Ali used to describe what he could do in the ring, while “I am the greatest” was a common catchcry. He was a charismatic boxer with a flair for showmanship. His courage inside and outside the ring and his verbal taunting of opponents were legendary, as were his commitment to justice and his efforts for the sick and underprivileged.
Muhammad Ali was an entertainer. He leaves behind a legacy of thrilling fights, trash talk poetry and taking a stand against racism, inequality and war.
Bill Clinton praised his stunning gifts: his strength and speed in the ring, his wit and way with words and managing the public and his mind and heart. And he said that Ali was smart.
Although Ali received many accolades, he wasn’t the greatest man to have lived. Here’s what the Bible says about Jesus Christ.
The greatest ever
“Christ is the visible image of the invisible God.
He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation, for through Him God created everything in the heavenly realms and on earth.
He made the things we can see and the things we can’t see—such as thrones, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities in the unseen world.
Everything was created through Him and for Him.
He existed before anything else, and He holds all creation together.
Christ is also the head of the church, which is His body.
He is the beginning, supreme over all who rise from the dead.
So He is first in everything.
For God in all His fullness was pleased to live in Christ, and through Him God reconciled everything to Himself.
He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth by means of Christ’s blood on the cross” (Col. 1:15-20NLT).
Because He is “first in everything” and “supreme over all creation”, Jesus Christ is indeed “The Greatest!”. He is supreme in creation (He created everything and holds it all together) and in redemption (He died to enable us to be reconciled and have peace with God).
Jesus Christ is not only supreme in the physical world, but also in the spiritual world. He’s the source of spiritual life, the first to be resurrected with a glorified body and the leader of a new creation.
So, Jesus is supreme and unique in greatness.
Lessons for us
Although Ali was called “A man of faith” who was “deeply religious and spiritual”, he wasn’t spiritually smart. Everyone has some kind of faith, but it’s what we are trusting in that counts. At his Muslim funeral service (jenazah), there were prayers for his sins to be forgiven, for him to be “surrounded by light”, and for him to be accepted into heaven. Unfortunately, it’s too late to pray for these after someone’s death. These are matters to be decided during one’s life, not afterwards. It seems that Ali rejected the strong spiritual foundation of the Bible which he knew about as a youth and accepted a weaker one instead.
Although Muhammad Ali was a great boxer, his achievements are insignificant compared to those of Jesus Christ. While, Ali’s body rests in Cave Hill Cemetery, Jesus sits at the right hand of God. Ali was praised in eulogy, but Jesus Christ will be praised universally: “To Him … be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!” (Rev. 5:13). Over time Ali will be forgotten, but Jesus will be praised eternally.
Jesus said, “And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul?” (Mt. 16:26). So, wealth doesn’t help our eternal destiny. Fame doesn’t help our eternal destiny. Religious observance doesn’t help our eternal destiny. And good works (and it seems as though this was how Ali thought he would get to heaven) don’t help our eternal destiny. All these can take so much of our time and energy that we can miss the central purpose of our life (eternal life and following Christ) and spend eternity in hell. In the big picture nothing matters without faith in Christ.
Let’s be spiritually smart and trust in Jesus Christ. He’s the greatest of all, not Muhammad Ali.
Written, June 2016