Observations on life; particularly spiritual

Posts tagged “bible

Failure isn’t final

Our car 2 400pxA few years ago our car was involved in an accident and was written off by the insurance company. It wasn’t worth fixing and they refunded the agreed value of money so we could buy a new car. The old car had failed. It was no longer useful for us. Sometimes if we fail, we can think that we are useless to God. It’s feeling like we are written off.

Its been said that everyone makes mistakes and “the only one who never makes a mistake is the one who never does anything”. We all fail sometimes in life. We all have weaknesses. And these can lead to embarrassment, shame, guilt, disappointment, depression, giving up and wondering whether we will ever be forgiven. The important question is “How can we survive failure?”.

In this post we are going to answer this question by looking at the life of Peter in the Bible.

Context

Simon Peter was a fisherman who lived at Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee. He was one of Jesus’ early disciples. Peter was a leader amongst the disciples as he was a natural leader and was probably the oldest one. After he spent three years following Jesus, he was an apostle who taught the church and wrote some of the New Testament, and he was an elder in his local church.

Peter was impulsive and impetuous. He was usually the first to act and speak his mind. He was enthusiastic. A man of action. Because of this, he often failed. Here are seven examples of this:

  1. Peter rebukes Jesus

When Peter was at Caesarea Philippi (north of the Sea of Galilee), he said that Jesus was “the Messiah, the Son of the living God”. Soon after this we read that: From that time on Jesus began to explain to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that He must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” Jesus turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns’” (Mt 16:21-23NIV).

When Jesus predicted His suffering and death, Peter rebuked Him saying “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” Peter thought he knew better than Jesus. Peter thought the Messiah would be triumphant and victorious and not go through suffering, rejection, and death. But he was wrong. Jesus said that Peter was influenced by human concerns (like power and status), rather than the concerns of God who was to use what Jesus went through as a suffering servant to offer salvation to humanity.

So Jesus rebuked him, “Get behind me, Satan!”, which means “get away from me”. Peter protested against Christ’s death, but that was Jesus’ purpose in coming to earth. The cross is God’s plan for delivering humanity from their sin. Peter acted like Satan. He was influenced by Satan, and was talking like Satan. Satan tries to discourage people from obeying God. He tempts us to take the easy path.

This incident shows that the death of Christ for our sins is not an option, but a divine necessity. There’s no other way to get right with God.

So Peter failed when he rebuked Jesus and tried to get Jesus to avoid going to the cross. He was ignorant of God’s plan. It’s an example of his self-centred audacity.

  1. Peter treats Jesus like another prophet

About a week later, Peter was taken up a high mountain and was privileged to see a vision of what it will be like when Jesus comes to reign over the earth. Mark says that, Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There He was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.) Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: ‘This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to Him!’” (Mk. 9:2-7).

He saw Jesus in dazzling white talking about His death with Moses and Elijah (Lk. 9:30). Peter suggested putting up three shelters, one for each of them. He put Jesus on the same level as Moses and Elijah. But by speaking from a cloud God rebuked Peter for comparing Jesus with Moses and Elijah. They aren’t equals, because Jesus is Lord over all. When Jesus reigns, He will be pre-eminent above everyone else.

The Bible says that Peter “did not know what to say, they were so frightened” and “He did not know what he was saying” (Lk. 9:33). So he rushed in and said the first thing that came into his mind!

This incident shows us that Jesus is the unique Son of God. He’s not just a human prophet like Moses and Elijah.

So Peter failed when he spoke before thinking. It’s called putting your foot in your mouth! Or shooting yourself in the foot. And he missed the bigger picture of seeing Christ’s glory.

  1. Peter didn’t want Jesus to wash his feet

In biblical times, the use of open sandals made it necessary to wash one’s feet frequently. A servant usually washed the feet of a host’s  guests. When Jesus celebrated His last Passover with His disciples, He began to wash the disciple’s feet. This shocked Peter. He thought it was wrong. So Peter said to Him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” (Jn. 13:6-9).

Peter didn’t stop to think about the spiritual significance of the foot washing. Because sin destroys our fellowship with the Lord, Peter needed spiritual cleansing. The external washing was a picture of cleansing from failure and sin. It symbolized Jesus washing away a person’s failure and sin. But Peter didn’t understand Jesus’ path to the cross.

This incident shows Jesus as a humble servant. It was before His greatest act of service.

So Peter failed when he resisted having Jesus wash his feet. He told Jesus not to do it. Fortunately he changed his mind soon after.

  1. Peter fell asleep when Jesus prayed

After the last supper, Jesus took Peter, James and John into the Garden of Gethsemane and told them to “Stay here and keep watch” and “pray that you will not fall into temptation”, while He prayed. He asked God the Father if there was any other way by which sinners could be saved other than by His death, burial and resurrection. But there was no other way. And Jesus wanted His followers to understand the importance of prayer during difficult times.

Then He returned to His disciples and found them sleeping. “Simon,” He said to Peter, “are you asleep? Couldn’t you keep watch for one hour? Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mk. 14:37-38). He came back and found them sleeping three times! They couldn’t stay awake when Jesus faced the thought of becoming a sin-offering for humanity. They slept when they should have been praying. They couldn’t stay awake.

This incident illustrates our human weakness.

So Peter failed to obey Jesus when he slept instead of keeping watch and praying. And later that night Peter did fall into temptation when he denied knowing Christ.

  1. Peter attacked the servant of the high priest

When Jesus was being arrested, Peter cut off the right ear of Malchus, the servant of the high priest (Lk. 22:50-51; Jn. 18:10-11). He was trying to stop Jesus being arrested. But Jesus told him to put his sword away and Jesus healed the man’s ear. At this time, Peter didn’t understand that Jesus came to die for our sins. Jesus was being arrested so He could be crucified. The time had come for Him to lay down His life. Jesus’ betrayal and death was in God’s eternal plan; it was no accident. It was predicted in the Old Testament, but Peter was acting against God’s plan and against God’s will. Peter failed. He didn’t understand that physical weapons are useless for spiritual warfare. Our weapons are prayer, the Bible and the Holy Spirit. Peter was on the wrong wavelength. He wasn’t on the same page as Jesus.

This incident illustrates that God’s battle is won by His power alone. The ultimate answer to our problems comes through faith in Christ, not faith in others, such as politicians.

So Peter failed when he used violence to try to stop the arrest of Jesus. He took matters into his own hands instead of bringing them to Jesus.

  1. Peter denied knowing Christ

Peter’s most famous failure is mentioned in each of the gospels (Mt. 26:69-75; Mk. 14:66-72; Lk. 22:55-62; Jn. 18:15-19, 25-27). This occurred when Jesus was being questioned by the high priest before His crucifixion. Three times Peter denied knowing Jesus.

Here’s how Luke described it: “Then seizing Him [Jesus], they led Him away and took Him into the house of the high priest. Peter followed at a distance. And when some there had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and had sat down together, Peter sat down with them. A servant girl saw him seated there in the firelight. She looked closely at him and said, “This man was with Him [Jesus].”
But he denied it. “Woman, I don’t know Him,” he said.
A little later someone else saw him and said, “You also are one of them.”
“Man, I am not!” Peter replied.
About an hour later another asserted, “Certainly this fellow was with Him, for he is a Galilean.”
Peter replied, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly” (Lk. 22:54-62).

Peter had a Galilean accent that was conspicuous in Jerusalem (Mt. 27:73). And he was recognized by a relative of Malchus who had seen Peter cut off Malchus’ ear (Jn. 18:26). But he still denied knowing Jesus.

And this happened after Peter promised never to disown Jesus. After the last supper, “You will all fall away,” Jesus told them, “for it is written: “‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.” Peter declared, “Even if all fall away, I will not.” “Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “today—yes, tonight—before the rooster crows twice you yourself will disown me three times.” But Peter insisted emphatically, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the others said the same (Mk. 14:27-31). And Peter said earlier, “I will lay down my life for you [Jesus]” (Jn. 3:37). But instead of being bold before the Jewish leaders in the Sanhedrin (like Jesus), he couldn’t even stand up for Jesus before a servant girl!

Peter wasn’t the only disciple that failed at this time. After Jesus was arrested, they all deserted Him and fled (Mk. 14:27, 50). John was the only other disciple at the trial and crucifixion (Jn. 18:15-16; 19:26-27). They were the only disciples who followed Jesus to the courtyard of the house of the high priest. And Peter wasn’t a coward, he tried to cut off the head of Malchus! Peter’s denial was when his faith faltered, but it didn’t completely fail – because Jesus had prayed that his “faith may not fail” (Lk. 22:32). But his faith was momentarily overshadowed by his tiredness (he had been up all night) and his doubts and fears (Jesus’ case looked hopeless). He was afraid and exhausted. He found it difficult to be the odd man out. And he was unprepared to be questioned by a servant girl.

This incident illustrates human weakness and the danger of self-confidence. Even mature believers are prone to failure. Especially when they face unexpected trials and temptations. And self-confidence can lead to humiliation.

So Peter failed when he denied knowing Jesus. He did what he said he would never do. He cracked under pressure, and in a crisis he lost his courage. They were moments of disloyalty.

  1. Peter discriminated against Gentiles

Peter was a Jew, and he was the first to bring salvation to the Gentiles when he visited Cornelius. However, later he was influenced by legalistic Jewish Christians to discriminate against Gentiles.

Paul said, When Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, ‘You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?’” (Gal. 2:11-14). Paul’s argument continues to the end of Galatians 2. Paul emphasised that salvation was through faith in Christ and not through keeping some Jewish customs. And all believers are unified in Jesus Christ, and cultural or national differences shouldn’t affect their fellowship. Peter must have responded well to Paul’s rebuke because he referred to “our dear brother Paul” (2 Pt. 3:15) in one of his letters.

Peter contributed to racial divisions within the church. He had been mixing freely with Gentiles, but when some Jews arrived from Jerusalem who insisted that circumcision was required for believers in Christ, Peter began avoiding the uncircumcised Gentile believers. Paul called Peter a hypocrite for following the law of Moses. But because of Paul’s bold confrontation, the behavior was corrected and Peter went on to serve God in unity amongst all races and nations.

This incident shows us that even mature Christians can lapse into sinful behavior.

So Peter failed when he discriminated against Gentiles.

Peter’s failures

Peter was a follower of Jesus who failed big-time. He was corrected by God, Jesus, and Paul! We’ve looked at seven instances where Peter failed. It was a habit of his. He failed when he misunderstood Jesus. Peter failed when he sinned. His main sin was self-confidence. His failures and sins had painful consequences.

David Reynolds 1 400pxIn October David Reynolds led for most of the Bathurst 1000 car race. But when he spun the rear tyres at a pit stop, he was given a penalty that moved him to seventh place. This failure had a consequence.

When Paul reminded the Christians of when the Israelites failed in Old Testament times, he said, “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). He didn’t want them to repeat Israel’s mistakes. It’s a warning to the self-confident like Peter. A warning that spiritual pride often leads to a spiritual fall. A spiritual failure. It’s a warning to those who think they are spiritually strong. For example, Elijah had a great victory over the prophets of Baal, but soon after he was running away from queen Jezebel.

But Peter’s failure didn’t define him. Although it’s recorded in the Bible, it wasn’t the end of Peter. It didn’t stop him from being a leader in the early church. He was not rejected by Jesus.

But how did Peter survive failure?

Peter’s transformation

After Peter publicly denied knowing Jesus he repented and was restored to fellowship with the Lord. This restoration was recognized publicly after Christ’s resurrection. Three times Peter answered Jesus, “Lord, you know that I love you” (Jn. 21:15-19). Jesus accepts this declaration, restores him to fellowship and commissions him for service by saying “feed my sheep”. The three affirmations matched the three denials. Peter learnt to be humble; he said “Lord, you know all things” (Jn. 21:17). And he told others to “clothe yourselves with humility” (1 Pt. 5:5). Peter served as an apostle and a church elder (1 Pt. 5:1-4). Through Jesus, Peter learnt that failure isn’t final.

Peter was restored to service because of his repentance. God used him mightily in the early church. He preached the first sermon when the church began on the day of Pentecost and 3,000 people decided to follow Jesus. He was courageous; he was put in jail more than once for proclaiming that Jesus had risen from the dead.

Jesus chose Peter knowing that he would fail and knowing that he would be restored. God used Peter’s failure and sin to strengthen his faith and build him up for service in the early church. It cured him of his excessive self-confidence. Jesus can transform failures into followers. Like Peter we all fail and we all sin in some way. But like Peter we can be transformed from failure to following Jesus once again. Like him we can be former failures, and not final failures.

Billy Monger 6 400pxBilly Monger is a British car racing driver. In April 2017 he was involved in a high speed crash and had the lower part of both of his legs amputated. It seemed like that was the end of his career. But in 2018 he recommenced driving a Formula 3 car with hand controls. It was a great recovery.

Now that we’ve looked at how Peter survived failure, we need to consider “How can we survive failure?”. There’re two answers to this question. The first is to ensure our failures aren’t fatal. And the second is dealing with ongoing failures.

How to ensure our failures aren’t final

Judas Iscariot failed and sinned when he betrayed Jesus. But his failure was final and fatal. How can we escape this fate? The process is summarized in this diagram.
Failure not final 1– Failure and sin separates us from God and puts us under His judgment, and if we do nothing about this separation and judgment, it is final and hell is our ultimate destiny. Although failure is an event and not a destiny, in this case it leads to a destiny. To not trust on Christ is a fatal failure and a fatal sin.
– The first step to fix the problem is to be convicted of our failure and sin. It involves recognizing it. We may feel guilty or sorry. For example, after he was confronted, the man who had been sexually immoral at Corinth was very sorry about his behavior (2 Cor. 2:7).
– The next step is to confess our failure and sin to God. It means admitting that we are wrong.
For example, David confessed his adultery, deceit and murder (Ps. 32:5).
– The next step is repentance, which is a change of behavior where our change of attitude is shown in our actions. It’s like doing a U-turn in a car to go in the opposite direction. For example, the prodigal son stopped his wild living and travelled back to his father. He remembered that his father still loved him. We cannot become a follower of Jesus without conviction, confession and repentance. That’s the way to respond to failure and sin.
– Then God promises to forgive all our failures and sins, in the past, the present and the future. Peter preached, “Repent … and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out” (Acts 3:19). God is a judge of all those who have never trusted in Him. This judicial forgiveness removes the barrier to heaven. It is when an unbeliever comes to faith in Christ. If we acknowledge our sinfulness and believe that Jesus paid the penalty for us, then we are viewed as God’s children. Jesus died for all our failures, weaknesses, and sins. Have you experienced this kind of forgiveness? If not, why not start following the Lord by confessing your sins and trusting Christ as Savior?
– After our failures and sins have been dealt with, we have peace with God and are reconciled with God. And heaven is our ultimate destiny, where all our failures are forgotten.

Now we have ensured our failures aren’t fatal, how can we deal with ongoing failures?

Dealing with ongoing failures

James says that teachers “all stumble in many ways” (Jas. 3:2). This applies to us as well.
Note the words “all” and “many”. Everyone fails sometime. And there are many ways to fail. In this passage, James addresses failures caused by the words we speak. The principle of this verse is that a sense of failure and sinfulness is necessary for our spiritual health.

The Bible says that Christians cannot grow as followers of Jesus without regular conviction, confession and repentance of their failures and sins. For a Christian, all sin has been dealt with by the death of our Savior. Paul said, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). But God allows us to fail so our faith can be strengthened. That’s what happened to Peter. He did more for Jesus Christ after his failures than he did before. His pride and self-confidence were replaced with humility and confidence in God and determination to serve Him.

The process for dealing with our ongoing failures is summarized in this diagram, which is similar to the previous one. Sin causes failures and spoils a believer’s relationship with God.Ongoing failures

Conviction. The first step is to admit our failures and sins instead of excusing them. Peter was convicted after he denied the Lord three times. The Bible says he wept bitterly (Mt. 26:75).

Confession. The next step is to confess our failure and sin (1 Jn. 1:9). David said, “I have sinned against the Lord” (12 Sam. 12:13). Christians need to do this regularly. It means admitting our failures and sins and confessing them so our relationships can be restored with each other and with God. If we examine ourselves and get right with God, we will not come under His discipline. That’s why the Christian life should be full of confession. So our fellowship with the Lord can be restored. The Christian life is full of restarts. Each of these involves conviction of sin, confession of sin, repentance to put things right, and then putting our failures behind us and moving ahead.

Repentance. The next step is to change direction and turn around to follow God once again. It involves completely changed attitudes and behavior. It is more than confessions or remorse. The Bible says it’s having a new heart and a new spirit (Ezek. 18:30-32). The churches in Revelation were urged to repent (Rev. 2:5, 16; 3:3, 19).

Forgiveness. After we are convicted and confess and repent, God offers forgiveness. He has great mercy. David was told “The Lord has taken away your sin” (2 Sam. 12:13). God is a Father of all those who have trusted in Him. This parental and family forgiveness restores a believer’s fellowship with God after it has been broken by failure and sin. The Bible says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9).

Restoration. Once we are forgiven, we are restored to following Christ once again.
This should be a time for celebration, like when the prodigal son returned home (Lk. 15:22-24).

Tiger Woods 4 400pxUp to 2013 golfer Tiger Woods won 79 titles. But then he struggled with personal problems and injuries. He was divorced in 2010 and his fourth back surgery was in April 2017. Many people had written him off. But in a great comeback he won the Atlanta title in September 2018.

The Bible says that Abraham, Moses, Elijah, David, and Peter all failed God at some time; but they recovered from this to serve God in mighty ways. For them, failure was an event, but not a destiny.

Lessons for us

We have seen that failure is a normal part of life. It’s not unusual. We should expect to fail from time to time. Failure is a fact of life.

Google+ 4 100pxEven Google has failures. In 2011, Google launched Google+, which was supposed to be the next big social network. I was thinking of posting on it with links to my blog, like I do on Twitter. But Google+ was a flop and it’s being closed down.

The ability to handle failure is a vital part of our spiritual life and a sign of maturity. Fear of failure shouldn’t dominate our mind. The Bible says we are all sinners and prone to failure, but in Christ we can become overcomers.

Failure doesn’t disqualify us, even if we’ve been following Jesus for some time. God gives us another chance.

Peter was very good at failing, but he was even better at not giving up. Through his failures, Peter refused to throw in the towel. He learned from his bad decisions and allowed God to shape and mould his character. So next time you’re feeling down about yourself, remember Peter. Take a deep breath and try again.

Let’s learn from our failures and mistakes. These teach us how much we need God and His mercy in our lives. God can use failure to do spiritual housecleaning. Peter laid down his pride and put on the Holy Spirit’s courage. Remember that God sees beyond our faults and failures. If we have failed, God can make us useful again. And he continues to call us to serve Him.

Parents, let your children fail. Just as God lets us fall flat on our faces so that we may become stronger, we must allow our children the privilege of failing, too. And when they do fail, be ready to forgive them as God forgives us. For that is God’s answer to human failure.

Conclusion

So, failure isn’t final. No matter how we feel, it’s not the end. If Peter can fail, we can fail. If Peter can be restored, we can be restored. There is hope for us all.

Remember our car that was written off? It was taken to the insurer’s yard of damaged vehicles. Then it was probably sold to someone who repaired it and it’s probably still driving around today. It was restored.

Capstone-CollegeThe students at Capstone College in Poatina in Tasmania struggled at high school. Because of negative experiences, they hated school and found excuses to do other things instead. Their attendance record was poor – they were absent more than present. They were failures as students. But this failure wasn’t final or permanent or set in stone. Things have changed. They are now happy to attend school at Capstone College. Because of Capstone College, their life has turned around.

And failure needn’t be final for us also. Through Jesus, our life can turn around. The gospel solution to surviving failure is that God offers us forgiveness and restoration, and now we must confess our failures and sins to Him. So because Jesus died to pay the cost of our failures, failure isn’t final. Because of Jesus, failure isn’t final. Through Jesus, failure isn’t final. That’s how to survive failure.

Written, December 2018


Many ways to present the message about Jesus

choose own adventure 6 400pxGospel metaphors

Choose your own adventure was a series of children’s books where the reader choose the main character’s actions and the plot’s outcome. This style of writing has been called gamebooks and interactive fiction. Today we are looking at choosing your own metaphors.

The key message of the Bible is the good news (or message) about Jesus, which includes:
– Our sinful state,
– Who Jesus is,
– What blessings God has promised to us, and
– What our response must be.

Various methods are used in the New Testament to communicate the message about Jesus including: parables, letters, speeches, sermons, conversations, and discussion meetings. Today God uses people like us to tell the message to humanity so that they can repent of their sin, trust that Jesus paid their penalty for rebelling and ignoring God, and follow and obey Him (Rom. 10:14-15).

The Bible gives us different ways to tell the message about Jesus to different people. To Jews, the apostles presented Jesus as the risen Savior and they quoted from the Old Testament. For example, Peter’s preaching on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). Whereas to the Gentiles they talked about God’s providence (sending rain, making crops grow, providing food), His creation, and the universal human desire to worship a god. For example, Paul’s preaching at Athens (Acts 17).

Transgression and guilt

In the past we have often explained the gospel message like this. “We have all done things that we know are wrong, and if we break one law, it’s equivalent to breaking all of God’s laws. We stand guilty before God. We deserve to be punished by Him. But if we trust in Jesus’ death for us, God will forgive and justify us”. It describes how we can move from sinfulness to salvation.

This worked well in the previous generation for Billy Graham because people were familiar with the Bible. But many people no longer believe in absolutes and they aren’t familiar with the Bible. They see laws as just oppressive institutions, such as governments and churches, wielding power. So, we should probably be looking for other models of sin and salvation to this one of transgression/guilt and forgiveness/justification. Some other models for sin are given below.    

Bancrtoft Smith & Warner 400pxShame and dishonor

Smith, Warner and Bancroft brought shame and dishonor to the Australian cricket team last year for cheating in South Africa and were banned from playing for up to 12 months. They brought the game into disrepute and let down their teammates. When Paul preached to Gentiles, he said that they had been enjoying God’s general creation blessings but didn’t thank Him for them. Because they dishonored God, they needed to repent (Acts 14:15-17; 17:22-31). So instead of saying, “We stand guilty before God”, we could say “We have not been honoring God” or “We have shamed God”. But if we trust in Jesus’ death for us, God will restore us.

Defilement and impurity

Women who suffer domestic abuse often feel defiled by what they have suffered. And those who are addicted to drugs can feel defiled and disgusted with themselves. So instead of saying, “We stand guilty before God”, we could say “We feel defiled”. But if we trust in Jesus’ death for us, God will purify us.

Brokenness

All our relationships have some level of brokenness. This includes our relationship with ourselves, our relationships with others and our relationship with God. So instead of saying, “We stand guilty before God”, we could say “Our relationship with God our Father is also broken”. But if we trust in Jesus’ death for us, we can be reconciled with God.

Self-righteousness

We tend to look down on people that are not like us. If we care for the environment, we will look down on those who don’t care for the environment. If we are happily married, we will look down on those whose marriages have failed. So instead of saying, “We stand guilty before God”, we could say “We are guilty of putting other people down and having an elevated view of ourselves”. We feel morally superior to them. But if we trust in Jesus’ death for us, we can find our identity in Christ.

Idolatry

God gives us life, freedom, pleasure, success, health, sports, school, work, family, friends, wealth and possessions. But we can live for these instead of the God who gave them. So instead of saying, “We stand guilty before God”, we could say “We become enslaved to what we live for and neglect the giver”. But if we trust in Jesus’ death for us, we can find real freedom as we worship Him.

Falling short

People are often urged to make the most of every opportunity and be the best they can to make a difference in this world. It’s a common message at school speech days. And we can do lots of good things, but we’re not good enough to be God’s children. So instead of saying, “We stand guilty before God”, we could say “We need to admit we fall short of being a child of God”. But if we trust in Jesus’ death for us, we become a child of God.

Needing peace

Because of fractured relationships at home and work, many people long for peace. Every aspect of our lives is affected by disharmony, disruption and despair.  So instead of saying, “We stand guilty before God”, we could say “We need peace in our lives”. But if we trust in Jesus’ death for us, we will have peace with God.

Describing sin

One commonly used definition is “Sin is anything that we think, say or do that is against what God says in the Bible”. It displeases God and separates us from God. And that’s right. But we can also use other words to describe sin. That’s what Jesus did in His parables. In the parable of the rich fool, it’s described as storing up earthly wealth but not having a rich relationship with God (Lk. 12:21). In the parable of the lost sheep, it’s being lost (Lk. 15:1-7). In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, it’s being confident of our righteousness and looking down on others (Lk. 18:9). Also, the meaning of the word “sin” has changed to the idea of a guilty, playful pleasure, like chocolates, ice cream, candy (lollies), or lingerie. It’s something that we have a delightful giggle about. Not something that can have serious consequences. So, some other ways to describe sin are: shame and dishonor, defilement and impurity, brokenness, self-righteousness, idolatry, falling short, and needing peace.

Likewise, we can use other metaphors to describe salvation (see Appendix).

Conclusion

Let’s be creative and use these metaphors appropriately to present the message about Jesus to others.

Appendix: Tabular summary of metaphors for sin and salvation

Sin or sinful state Correct response Salvation (blessings)
Transgression
Guilt
Rebellion
Disobedience
Repentance
Faith Obedience
Justification
Forgiveness
Shamefulness
Dishonor
Honoring God Restoration
Honor
Uncleanness
Impurity
Defilement
Stained
Recognize our defilement Cleansed
Purity
Sanctification
Broken relationships
Brokenness
Recognize our brokenness Becoming a child of God
Inheritance
Self-righteousness
Looking down on others Pride
Calling on Jesus name Have our identity in Christ
Idolatry Worshiping God God’s favor
Falling short (of God’s righteousness) Calling on Jesus’ name Reconciliation
Enemy of God Ceasing our hostilities Peace
Reconciliation
Unfaithfulness Faithfulness Reconciliation
Wandering
Going astray
Lostness
In darkness
Following God’s ways Being on the correct path Restoration
Falsehood
Error
Repentance
Correction
Restoration
Captivity
Slavery
Imprisonment
Debt
Serving Jesus Freedom
Redemption
Liberation
Released
Ransomed
Blindness
Disease
Recognize our blindness/disease Healing
Illumination
Insight
Deafness Recognize our deafness Healing
Hearing
Deadness Recognize our lack of spiritual life Life
Regeneration
Raised
Reborn
Recreated
Renewed
Ignorant of God Listen to Jesus Know God personally
Not a child of God Repentance
Returning
Adoption
Reconciliation
Security
Separation Returning Union
Wickedness Godliness Godly flourishing
Righteousness
Thirsting Recognize our thirst Contentment
Starving
Hunger
Recognize our hunger Contentment
Danger
Sand
Calling on Jesus name Rescued
Delivered
Rock
Burdened
Restless
Calling on Jesus name Rest

Acknowledgement:
This blogpost was sourced from the following book,
Chan S (2018) “Evangelism in a skeptical world”, Zondervan, p. 63-101.

Written, November 2018


Human destinies: Hell

Wildfire 1 400pxThe Bible teaches more about hell than it teaches about heaven. An understanding of hell can give us an appreciation of God’s mercy and God’s love. It can also help us to understand how dangerous it is to be without faith in Christ. Not to be covered by the grace of God, heading towards a destiny the Bible calls hell. This blogpost is a summary of a presentation on this topic by Dr. Xavier Lakshmanan.

Johnathan Edwards preached a sermon titled “Sinners in the hand of the angry God”. He spoke about hell and human beings outside the covering of God’s grace in Christ Jesus, heading towards hell, which is a dangerous thing. Recently I saw a similar title, “God in the hand of angry sinners”. Postmodernity is witnessing the fact that God is thrown into the hands of angry sinners who are tearing apart everything that is noble, everything that is eternal, and everything that is miraculous. We are living in a world in which people do not want to talk about death or life after death or cemeteries or graveyards or corruptibility or decay or disintegration. These are things which aren’t favorable, positive or good. But we must talk about hell because the Bible talks about hell.

What do we mean by “hell”? It’s not life without the presence of God because He is there as the God of justice, righteousness, holiness and judgment. But there is no fellowship with God in hell. It’s a place of fire. It’s circumstances that aren’t normal or acceptable, or favorable or comforting, but are disturbing, or challenging or distracting. It’s eternal. A place of pain, thirst, and solitude. A place for Satan and his followers (demons and unbelievers).

There are some false ideas about life after death, such as the Roman Catholic teaching of purgatory where people are purified after death so they can go to heaven. And the theory of annihilationism, which is the destruction of the wicked after death. These are all extrabiblical.

The Old Testament word for hell is “sheol”. It is used for the unseen state of life; or a grave or pit; or torment. It’s meaning in a particular passage is determined by the context. In the New Testament the word “Gehenna” means a place of torment or a place of perpetual burning with fire. It implies agony, infliction and suffering. This conveys the eternal nature of hell and the experience within hell. The Biblical passages we will look at about Gehenna are horrifying. Much of this language uses figures of speech like parables, similes, metaphors, and symbols to describe things that are indescribable (like something spiritual or divine). Most of the passages about hell were spoken by Jesus. They are true because they were spoken by the Son of God and included in the Word of God (the Bible).

The Bible says the following about hell.

It’s real

Words represent what they describe. They symbolize what they describe. They are symbols that represent what is real. Hell is a word that represents a real spiritual place. The concept is real.

A passage about the eternal state says, “But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death” (Rev. 21:8NIV). The fire and burning is a symbol of something in eternity. This “fire” can hurt the spiritual bodies of unbelievers.

The Bible mentions three kinds of death:
physical death is the separation of the soul and spirit from the human body.
spiritual death is the temporary separation of the soul, spirit and body from God. They are still able to be reconciled with God and obtain eternal life.
– the second death is the eternal separation of the soul, spirit and body from God in hell. Jesus said, “be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt. 10:28).

The Bible describes the judgement of unbelievers, “Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life [an unbeliever] was thrown into the lake of fire [the second death]” (Rev. 20:15). Going to church doesn’t make us a believer. Being baptized doesn’t make us a believer. Having Christian parents doesn’t make us a believer. The Bible doesn’t teach that. Instead, the Bible teaches that those who believe that the Lord Jesus Christ suffered for their sins are saved from this punishment. It’s a personal commitment to Christ that makes the difference.

So, hell is real whether we believe it or not. And whether we like it or not. Our beliefs are not going to change the truth. Hell is real. But those who want to comfort others don’t believe that hell is real.

It’s eternal

When Jesus returns to establish His kingdom, He will separate those living at that time into believers and unbelievers. This is what Jesus will say to the unbelievers, “Then He [Jesus Christ] will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal [endless or everlasting] fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt. 25:41). This says that hell was not originally intended for people. It was meant for Satan and demons. Unfortunately, it’s also the destiny of unbelievers.

Hell is eternal and the punishment there is everlasting. It’s not going to end. There is no mitigation. The Bible says, “then they will go away to eternal punishment” (Mt. 25:46). Not temporary purification (like purgatory). Not temporary sanctification. Not temporary considerations of suffering. Not annihilation. It’s continual. Forever and ever.

A place of fire

Jesus used a hyperbole to emphasize the need for drastic action to deal with our sinfulness, “It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out” (Mk. 9:43). Can you imagine a place full of fire? An “eternal fire” (Mt. 18:8). This is figurative language from Isaiah 66:24. We can’t image how horrible it will be. But that is what the Bible says.

In August 2018 a national disaster was declared in Northern California due to massive wildfires burning there. And in September 2018, a wildfire forced more than 700 people from their homes in Croatia and Italy. It’s horrifying to be trapped in a wildfire.

A place of worms

Jesus used another hyperbole to emphasize the need for drastic action to deal with our sinfulness, “It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where “‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched’” (Mk. 9:47-48). This is more figurative language from Isaiah 66:24. It relates to the garbage dump in the valley of Hinnom (Gehenna in Greek) near Jerusalem where fires and maggots were prevalent. The second (eternal) death is likened to being devoured by worms that never die. It could be a figurative way to refer to a guilty conscience and the memory of shameful things done in this life. It shows that the misery of unbelievers will never end. Hell is characterized by unending suffering.

A place of torment

The Bible says that those who oppose God will be “tormented with burning sulfur” (Rev. 14:9-10). And Satan “will be tormented day and night for ever and ever” in the lake of burning sulfur (Rev. 20:10). Torment means mental agony. No celebration. No peace of mind. What a terrible situation to be in forever.

A place for Satan

We have already looked at, “the eternal [endless or everlasting] fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt. 25:41). Hell wasn’t originally meant for human beings. It was prepared for the angel who rebelled against God. God doesn’t like human beings to be confined in hell. God is gracious. He died for all the people of the world. And He loves each one of us. And He wanted everyone to be with Him in heaven. But unfortunately, if someone rejects the gift of salvation, this is their final destiny.

The Bible says that the great political and religious leaders who rebel against God in a coming day will be “thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur” (Rev. 19:20). So, Hell is a place where Satan and his followers, whether they be demons or human beings, end up being tormented forever. There’s no escape. It’s permanent confinement.

Lessons for us

If you are a believer, confirm your personal commitment to Christ by displaying godliness and the fruit of the Spirit (2 Pt. 1:10). Strengthen yourself. We are not heading to hell. Hell is not a fearsome thing for a believer. But we are heading to heaven where the joys of heaven will carry us through eternity. And “Preach the word [the good news about Jesus]; be prepared in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2). Remember many people are heading towards hell. Make use of every opportunity to witness for Christ. We don’t want anyone to perish in hell.

If you an unbeliever, or if you are unsure, Paul says, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord’, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9). Trusting Jesus as the One who took our punishment when He died and is now the Lord of our lives is the only way to escape the horrors of hell.

Acknowledgement: This blogpost was sourced from a presentation by Dr. Xavier Lakshmanan on this topic. Dr. Lakshmanan is Head of Theology in the Australian College of Christian Studies.

Written, October 2018

Also see:  Heaven and hell” What is hell like?
Where’s hell?


The journey and the destination

Journey 1 400pxRecently I travelled from Australia to Europe to spend time with some family members. It was good to see them after a trip of over 26 hours. The people at the destination made the tiring trip worthwhile.

Before leaving Australia, I attended a funeral where it was said that it’s not our destination that matters, but the journey along the way. This was probably a creative way to say that life is better than death. Or focusing on the present and enjoying the present instead of worrying about what will happen at the end of life.

Bible journeys

Abraham travelled from Mesopotamia to Canaan, a distance of about 1770 km (1100 miles). His descendants, the Israelites, travelled from Egypt to Canaan. This took 40 years and most of the adults died along the way. Later, after their exile in Babylon, the Jews travelled back to Judah. The purpose of these journeys was achieved when the people reached their destination.

Jesus travelled within Palestine preaching the good news about the kingdom of God. Then He travelled to Jerusalem to give up His life sacrificially. After the resurrection and ascension of Christ, Paul and the apostles took missionary journeys across the Roman Empire. For Paul, sometimes the journey was difficult (2 Cor. 11:23-33). Likewise, the purpose of these journeys was achieved at their destinations.

The journey of life

A journey is also a great metaphor for life. Life is a difficult journey and a time of testing, challenges and maybe persecution. Like Job we have many questions about life and its unfairness. But God steers His people through difficult times (Isa. 43:1-7). May God help us trust in Him for what we don’t understand (Job 42:3). And may we take up the opportunities to trust in God’s faithfulness over and over again.

But the busyness of life can distract us from the important things of life like being aware of God’s presence and His willingness to help in times of need. Life is a journey in history, with a past, present and future. As time goes by our present becomes past memories and our final destination comes closer. Death and life after death is our ultimate destination.

Lessons for us

Let’s face the reality of our journey of life. Few of us would think of taking a two-week vacation without any plans as to where we will go or what we will do. But we often forget to consider our personal destination.

Many opinions about this topic are available on the internet. But the best ones are in the Bible because God is the “author” (or “source”) of life (Acts 3:15). And Jesus is the “word of life” and the “bread of life” (Jn. 6:35, 48; 1 Jn. 1:1). These metaphors describe God’s role in physical and spiritual life.

Although the journey of life is better than death, it isn’t better than eternal life. Physical life ends, but spiritual life doesn’t end. And the purpose of life isn’t to enjoy ourselves or accumulate wealth or possessions. Instead our spiritual destination is more important than the journey. Is our future destination secure? At the end of our earthly life journey we will leave everything physical behind. So our enjoyment, wealth, and possessions provide no security for our future destination. But if we put God first instead of material things, we will be rewarded in heaven for the things we do that have eternal value (Mt. 6:19-24). Have we started on that spiritual journey? Do we focus on things of eternal consequence? Do we follow Jesus? Do we help other people to follow Jesus? Do we live by faith, and not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7)? Are we motivated by what lies at the end of the journey (Heb. 11:13-16)? Are we progressing spiritually (2 Cor. 3:18)? Are we becoming more Christ-like (Phil. 1:20-21)?

Written, August 2018


As the Bible says

world cup 4 400pxThe 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.

Christ’s death

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.

Christ’s 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.

Christ’s resurrection

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.

Discussion

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 that reads you

June-18_BibleReads_JPG 400pxIn the months leading up to my decision to become a Christian I read the Bible intensely. I remember being impressed that an ancient book could be so relevant in a modern world. Yet, two things stood out most of all for me.

Firstly, the sense I had that God was present as I read. I had never felt this before with any other book. It seemed as though how I responded mattered to God. And the Bible exposed me. It read me accurately. It knew the wrong things I had done – the selfish thinking and pretending to be somebody that I wasn’t. As I read I struggled with the knowledge that experiences can be manufactured by the mind. Did I want there to be a God? Or was God revealing Himself to me? Over time, my struggle with skepticism decreased.

The second thing that stood out was how impressive Jesus was in the four gospel accounts of His life. At the end of Jesus’s famous, Sermon On The Mount, Matthew, the author of the gospel reports that, ‘crowds were amazed at His teaching, because He taught as one who had authority’ (Mark 1:22). I can appreciate this sentiment. Jesus really does teach with wisdom and authority. Elsewhere in the gospels people are in awe at His power over the physical world – demonstrated repeatedly with various, extraordinary miracles. Given the integrity of Jesus’s words, it didn’t seem reasonable that those events were clever deceptions.

So, despite the age of the Bible, it read my need and provided a solution – Jesus. It was Jesus who spoke of the possibility of knowing God and it was Jesus who died on the cross to make the hope of a fresh start with God possible.

In the Bible, the book of Hebrews describes what I, and many others have experienced. It says:

For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires. Everything is naked and exposed before His eyes, and He is the one to whom we are accountable.

So, if you’ve never read the Bible, then my encouragement to you is … find a copy and begin by reading the shortest biography of Jesus – Mark’s gospel.

Bible verse: Hebrews 4:12, “For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires”.

Prayer: Dear God, thank you for speaking to us through the Bible in ways that soften our hearts and move us to you.

Acknowledgement: Written by Malcolm Williams, Director of Outreach Media.

Images and text © Outreach Media 2018


Do we have the right Bible?

The Bible is loaded with contradictions and translation errors. It wasn’t written by witnesses and includes words added by unknown scribes to inject Church orthodoxy (Eichenwald, 2014). That’s the opinion of Newsweek.

And Humanists reject the claim that the Bible is the word of God (Sommer, 1997). They are convinced the book was written solely by humans in an ignorant, superstitious, and cruel age. They believe that because the writers of the Bible lived in an unenlightened era, the book contains many errors and harmful teachings.

How reliable is the Bible? Is it trustworthy? Can it withstand objective scrutiny? This blogpost is based on a presentation by Tom Murphy titled, “Do we have the right Bible?”.

Has translating the Bible over and over for almost 3,000 years ruined its reliability? Don’t errors accumulate like messages get changed when they are passed along a line of people in the Telephone game (or Chinese whispers)?

Don’t the many translations of the Bible ruin its reliability?

Slide2 400pxThe Telephone game is a very false comparison. The English translations we have are not the product of a long line of translations. Our current English translations are translated directly from the original languages.

If that’s so, then why are there so many different translations then? Surely if translations are made directly from the originals then we would have only one version.

There are three main reasons we have so many different English translations of the Bible. First, translation research advances with time. Ongoing research helps us to more accurately understand and translate the original languages. Second, changes in modern English. The English language changes with time. New translations are made using modern English, so people can easily understand the Bible. Third, there are different approaches to translating. Some translators use one-word for one-word as much as possible, while others try to translate thought-for-thought.

We have so many versions, not because some shady telephone game has corrupted the text but because we are getting better at translating the Bible and we want translations in contemporary English everyone understands.

But weren’t the books of the bible written hundreds of years after the events they describe? Given that time gap, their messages could all be legends!

Could it all be legends?

Showing the biblical books are not legends begins with showing when they were written. They were not written hundreds of years later. The biblical manuscripts contain four kinds of  evidence that indicates when they were written.

Independently verifiable historical statements.
Only a writer living at the time could have known these facts, which we can verify using archaeology or extra-biblical documents. For example, statements like names of places, people, geography, and significant events. Historical accounts that are written long after the events they describe don’t include such comments. Verifiable statements like these strongly affirm the early writing of the biblical books. Famous archaeological examples include evidence for the Assyrian King, Sargon II mentioned in Isaiah 20:1 and the Pool of Bethesda mentioned in John 5:2-9. Prior to the archaeological discoveries that confirmed the historical accuracy of Isaiah’s reference to Sargon II (1843) and John’s description of the pool of Bethesda (1964), both biblical passages were considered to be blatant historical errors on the part of the biblical authors.

Historical events that are not mentioned.
Some historical events are not mentioned that definitely would have been mentioned had they already occurred. This evidence gives time frames for the writing of biblical books. For example, Acts 18:2 mentions the expulsion of the Jews from Rome (AD 41-54) but does not mention the destruction of the Temple (AD 70), therefore Acts dates between AD 41 and AD 70.

Direct manuscript evidence.
Having just a tiny surviving fragment of a book that we can date puts a limit on the latest date it could have been written. For example, as Papyrus fragment P52 from the book of John dates to about 120 AD, John must have been written before then.

Who the writer was and when they died.
Knowing the writer and when they died helps date a book. For example, multiple extra-biblical sources tell us Paul died shortly before AD 68, so all of Paul’s letters were written before AD 68.

Slide11 400pxThis evidence tells us the books of the bible were written very early. Look at the dating of the Gospels to see just how small a gap we are talking about. They were all written within decades of the crucifixion. The liberal dating is invariably later than the conservative dating for two main reasons. First, some biblical books make predictive statements (see Appendix A), like the destruction of the Temple in Mathew 24. Liberal scholars assume that such successful predictions are not possible and assume the book must have been written after the event. Second, some books (like John) show a very high view of Jesus’ divinity. Liberal scholars assume this to be a slow evolutionary development and therefore date the book later.

But these reasons rest on assumptions that presuppose Christianity cannot be true; they reject the idea that God exists and/or that He influenced the authors to make successful future predictions. They also reject that Jesus claimed to be God and that His disciples believed Him.

The Jesus legend hypothesis fails because there was simply not enough time between the historical Jesus and the written records for legends to have corrupted the narrative. Secular historian Professor A. N. Sherwin-White points out that at least two full generations are needed for legendary developments to obscure the core details in a historical narrative. For example, the two earliest biographies of Alexander the Great were written more than 400 years after his death, yet classical historians still consider them to be trustworthy. The fabulous legends about Alexander did not develop until the centuries after these two biographies. After 400 years, Alexander’s history is less corrupted than the Gospel accounts are alleged to be, though the largest gap between the Gospel accounts and the actual events is only about 70 years, even using the most sceptical dates.

The problems for the legend hypothesis get even worse when two other facts are considered.

The Gospels use older source material.
For example, the Passion Story included in the gospel of Mark was probably not originally written by Mark. Rudolf Pesch, a German expert on Mark, says the Passion source must go back to at least AD 37, just seven years after Jesus’s death.

The Gospels are not the oldest texts in New Testament.
Older New Testament texts affirm the supposedly legendary resurrection of Jesus. In 1 Corinthians (written about AD 55) Paul cites what is apparently an old Christian creed: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: 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, and that He appeared to Cephas (Peter), and then to the Twelve” (1 Cor. 15:3-5NIV). All grammatical and textual evidence tells us that the creed Paul gives came from Peter and James when Paul visited Jerusalem, reaching back to within the first five years after Jesus’ crucifixion in the very city where the crucifixion occurred.

To conclude, both Christian and non-Christian scholars are at a near-consensus that the entire New Testament was written within the first century AD, within decades of Jesus’ death. The texts are so close to the life of Jesus that legendary evolution simply cannot account for the narratives they contain.

But we don’t have the original manuscripts! How do we know that we have what Moses, David, and the Old Testament prophets really said or wrote?

Can we know what the original Old Testament texts said?

With no photocopiers, the original texts were copied by hand as they wore out or more copies were needed. The Jewish people had scribes who oversaw this. They were such meticulous perfectionists that they would count all paragraphs, words and even letters to check they copied correctly. They even knew the middle letter of every book and would count backwards to check for mistakes.

The Masoretic text is used as the source text for translating the Old Testament because we accept the Old Testament that was accepted by the 1st century Jewish community – Jesus’ community. The Masoretic text is a Hebraic and Aramaic text that circulated amongst Jewish communities between the 7th and 10th centuries AD, the oldest copy we have is from the 9th century AD.

For a long time, critics pointed out that this text is very far removed from the original manuscripts, which were penned between the 15th and 5th centuries BC. They questioned if, after so many centuries of copying, we could really have the original words. That’s where the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls was helpful.

Dead sea scroll 1 400pxDiscovered in the Qumran caves in 1947, these well-preserved texts date back to between 200 BC and 100 BC. For example, the Great Isaiah Scroll is a copy of the book of Isaiah. Of approximately 1,000 scrolls found, 225 are Old Testament Books and include every book except Esther. Amazingly, there is a virtual agreement between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Masoretic text from 1,100 years later! The meticulous scribal process preserved the textual integrity for over 1,100 years! This means that we can confidently trust the Old Testament we have today. There is no evidence of grand changes through a great historical game of telephone (or Chinese whispers).

But we can go further. We currently we have four major groups of Old Testament manuscripts in three different languages, transmitted independently of each other over a span of over 1,000 years, yet they all show a high degree of agreement. In addition to the Masoretic text and Dead Sea Scrolls we also have:
The Septuagint, a Greek translation that originated between the 3rd century BC and 2nd Century AD.
The Vulgate, a Latin translation produced by the Christian priest Jerome in the 4th century AD, and
The Peshitta, a Syriac (Aramaic) translation produced in the second century AD.

By comparing all the texts available, we can reliably discern the content of the Old Testament. Of all the apparent variants in the surviving Old Testament manuscripts, none introduce wildly divergent readings from the Masoretic text that can’t be readily explained by a copyist error (such as spelling/grammar mistakes) or an easily identifiable change intentionally inserted by the scribe responsible for producing the manuscript. And the footnotes of any good study bible will point out these variants (there’s about 45 of them; of these only in 9 do translators resort to using the Dead Sea Scrolls over the Masoretic and of the 45 only one influences more than one sentence – it’s a paragraph found between 1 Samuel 10 and 11).

Also, critics assume well-used papyri disintegrate within 10 years at best, meaning many hundreds of copies of copies must separate the original text from the oldest surviving manuscripts. However, studies by historian George Houston demonstrate that ancient manuscripts were actively used anywhere from 150 to 500 years, and each copy would have been used to make hundreds more. For example, The Codex Vaticanus was reinked in the 10th century after 600 years of use. So the oldest surviving Old Testament manuscripts we have may only be a few generations of copies from the originals. For the New Testament, we could theoretically have direct copies of the original texts, or at least copies of the very first copies.

All this means that the conditions were very favorable for preserving the contents of the biblical texts. The close agreement observed across the 1,100-year gap between the Dead Sea and Masoretic manuscripts is evidence of this.

Well that covers the Old Testament. But what about the New Testament? How can we be sure we know what Jesus said, or that we know what Paul and the other New Testament authors wrote?

Can we know what the original New Testament texts said?

The New Testament text is even more certain than the Old Testament. Some surviving fragments date back to 120 AD. That’s only 35-100 years after the originals! Another big help is that there are nearly 6,000 partial or complete New Testament manuscripts in the original Greek. Add to this approximately 10,000 manuscripts of Latin translations and another 9,300 manuscripts in some 13 additional languages. All together we have about 25,000 copies of the New Testament. And these numbers are counted from databases that notoriously lag-behind current developments and do not record manuscripts contained in private collections or in the form of scrolls – it is quite likely that we have well above 25,000 copies of the New Testament to work with.

Slide22 400pxLet’s compare the date of the oldest manuscripts and number of existing manuscripts with a few other pieces of literature that historians consider accurate. For the New Testament, the time gap is hundreds of years smaller and the number of manuscripts higher by thousands compared to other works from antiquity. This shows that the New Testament is the most trustworthy document from antiquity. By comparing all the manuscripts we possess, scholars easily identify copying mistakes. This process is called textual criticism. Through this process, we can ascertain the wording of the New Testament with about 99.9% accuracy. See Appendix B for more information on copying mistakes.

Well, all this only proves that we know what these books originally said. But, how do we know the right books are in the Bible? It was just people who decided wasn’t it?

Do we have the right books?

Usually when critics argue that people decided what books should be in the bible (which is called the canon), they are using a different definition of canon than Christians do. The critic thinks the church decided to declare some books authoritative and not others – that the canon didn’t exist until church leaders conferred authority on a few books when they wrote canonical lists. But the Christian understanding is different. If God exists and He inspired human writers, then the canon began to exist the moment the author put pen to paper and the canon grew as each God-inspired book was written.

The Old Testament Canon has never been in doubt. It is the exact list of books that the Jewish community has used for thousands of years. It is the exact Old Testament that Jesus declared to be inspired and authoritative (Mt. 5:17). The only differences are in the order and grouping of the books. The oldest references we have to the Old Testament canon comes from the Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote during AD 95 in his work Against Apion that the Jews recognize 22 books as authoritative; this list of 22 books covers all the Old Testament recognized by Protestants, with the exception of Ezra,  Nehemiah and Esther. However, Josephus commends these books in his AD 93/94 work Antiquity of the Jews (which also mentions Jesus).

Regarding the Old Testament Apocryphal books. The Jewish community rejected all Apocryphal books as authoritative. Early Jews may have privately read the apocryphal books for insightful historical and/or theological observations – Josephus and prominent 1st-century Midrashic rabbis did this – but they opposed any consideration of these books as Scripture.

What about the New Testament? Did Emperor Constantine decide what counted as Scripture at Nicaea in AD 325. Are the books in the Bible just the politically motivated selections of a Roman Emperor 300 years after the fact?

Was the New Testament decided at Nicaea?

As for the New Testament, the books we have in our Bible imposed themselves on the early church; they were recognized as inspired from the beginning. It’s a common myth that the biblical books the church uses were imposed on Christianity by the Roman Emperor Constantine at the council of Nicaea in AD 325 for political reasons. This is not true. We have ample evidence to show that the New Testament books we use were considered authoritative from their very beginning.

The New Testament writers recognized each other’s words as scripture.  Peter wrote, “His (Paul’s) letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction” (2 Pt. 3:16).

We also have very early lists of canonical books produced well before Nicaea that give a nearly identical list of books to our current New Testament today.

  • Around AD 180 we have records of the church father Irenaeus listing every book in the NT as cannon, except Philemon and 3 John.
  • The Muratorian fragment from AD 180, affirms 22 of the 27 books of the New Testament, in a list remarkably close to Irenaeus’.
  • Then in AD 198 Clement of Alexandria had a remarkably similar position, He affirmed the four gospels, 13 epistles of Paul, Hebrews, Acts, 1 Peter, 1&2 John, Jude, and Revelation.

Slide34 400pxBeyond these lists, we have numerous quotations from early church fathers which quote the books of the New Testament as authoritative scripture. These Church fathers frequently begin their quotation with “It is written”, the same language used before citations of Old Testament scripture. All of this predates the Council of Nicaea by 100-150 years. Therefore, the canon was not “foisted” on the church then. Nicaea could have only ratified the near 200-year consensus the church already held. It is interesting to note that a number of the later church fathers (after AD 150) condemn as heretical some of the Apocryphal texts by name (most notably Acts of Paul and The Gospel of Thomas).

There was never any concern that the cannon the church accepted was wrong. The bigger concern in the early church was that some Christians would be misled into believing that the counterfeit apocryphal books should be regarded as scripture when they really shouldn’t. This was the real reason official lists of canonical books were authorised at various church councils – to combat heretical teachers and apocryphal books masquerading as scripture.

In AD 367 Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, listed all the books that are in the New Testament canon. He also spoke up against books to be rejected because they were “an invention of heretics”. He called these “apocrypha”.

So we have the right Bible because its ancient words have been preserved since it was written.

How does knowing all this help us today?

It’s important to know that we have the right Bible because our entire faith and hope of salvation depend on the historical fact of Christ’s resurrection as documented in the Bible. Paul corrected those who said there is no resurrection of the dead by saying, “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that He raised Christ from the dead. But He did not raise Him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep (died) in Christ are lost (forever). If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead” (1 Cor. 15:13-20). If the apostles were “false witnesses”, their message in the Bible would be unreliable. But knowing that the Bible is reliable gives us confidence and assurance in our Christian faith. The New Testament confirms many times that “Christ indeed has been raised from the dead”. It’s fact, not fiction.

Peter said that what the Apostles wrote was based on eyewitness accounts and not on fabricated stories (2 Pt. 2:3). “For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty” (2 Pt. 1:16). Knowing that we have an accurate copy of what they wrote means that we have access to eyewitness accounts. This means that the Christian faith is based on real objective historical events and not on subjective human ideas or religious concepts.

And Christians are to defend their faith. In the context of criticism, opposition and persecution, Peter said, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Pt. 3:15). We need to know why we believe what we believe. Our “hope” is our confidence about God and eternity. We can have confidence that we will have eternal life if we believe that Jesus died for our sin. And all this is based on the trustworthiness of the Bible.

Sometimes critics just want to undermine our faith or the faith of our fellow believers. We defend our faith as an act of reverence to Jesus and as a support and comfort to our fellow believers who may be struggling with doubt. And sometimes the critical questions come from a seeking heart and by answering them we might be helping clear away the obstacles that may be keeping someone from coming to faith in Jesus.

Conclusion

The Bible is the most reliable document we have from antiquity. It’s good to know that we have the right Bible. It’s an accurate copy of the message that God gave in ancient times.

Appendix A: Predictive statements in Daniel

Daniel is an example of a book of the Bible that makes predictive statements. Even giving the book of Daniel the absolute latest possible dates critics can give (ca 200 BC based on the Dead Sea manuscript found at Qumran), the predictive statements found in the later chapters of this book still precede the actual events described. Prior to the Dead Sea Scroll findings, critics did indeed try to claim that all of Daniel’s predictive statements came after the fact. The Dead Sea discovery proved that some of the book’s predictions definitely precede the events, even if we were to say that the copies found in Qumran are the earliest manuscripts containing them.

Appendix B: How are variants counted?

Some critics, like Bart Ehrman, say that the New Testament contains over 400,000 variants from the standard text, which is more than the total number of words in the New Testament (about 138,000)! So how is this number calculated? Please note that a “variant” is not an error. It’s where texts are not perfectly matched. Most of these variations are insignificant.

These variants were counted by the number of manuscripts they are found in. For example, if a spelling mistake occurs in just one verse and this mistake is found in 2,000 of the 25,000 manuscripts we have, that one spelling mistake was counted as 2,000 variants, even though it’s just one word in just one verse. So saying there are more than 400,000 variants is a misleading statement. Furthermore, 70% of all variants are one particular scribal error called the moveable-nu; it is the Koine Greek equivalent of accidentally using “a” instead of “an” in English. Of all variants, less than 0.1% are worth even mentioning in the footnotes found in good study bibles. Only two variants affect more than two verses, the end of Mark (Mk. 16:9-20) and the story about the woman caught in adultery (Jn. 7:53-8:11). And no variants at all influence any Christian doctrine or practices. This is largely because the doctrine and practices are taught in many passages of the Bible. They don’t rely on a single passage.

It’s interesting to note that the large number of variants is mainly due to the large number of ancient manuscripts. These increase the accuracy in determining the text of the original manuscript. So, it’s actually a strength and not a weakness!

Acknowledgement

This blogpost was sourced from a presentation by Dr Tom Murphy (a chemist) titled, “Do we have the right Bible?”.

References

Eichenwald K (2014) “The Bible: So misunderstood it’s a sin”, Newsweek 23 December 2014.
Sommer J C (1997), “Some reasons why Humanists reject the Bible”, American Humanist Association.

Written, May 2018

Also see: Can we trust our Bibles? How the Bible came to us.
Is the New Testament reliable?
Mind the gap