Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 - The Year in Review

Well another year is in the books and it's time to brag about all the wonderful and amazing things that we have done this year.  I would love to tell you all about the month we spent in Africa on a mission trip, the round the world cruise we took this summer, and the houses we helped to build.  Except we didn't do any of that.  Maybe next year!

Instead, the bulk of our year has been quiet and centered around home and church, with an adventure thrown in here and there to keep life exciting.  Home is becoming more and more comfortable and quiet.  And we have enjoyed puttering around the yard when it is warm enough and being crafty inside.  At least I putter and Sue and Mary are crafty.

Sue continues to work as the Admin Assistant for the Olympic Baptist Association.  I think her biggest joy in the job is being able to get the social interaction that is somewhat lacking from her minimally communicative husband.

Ed's part time job flared up a bit through most of the year, requiring about 10 hours a week, but that has died back down to just a couple hours a week now.  Mostly done via email from home, so the commute is not too bad.

We both continue to be actively involved in Kitsap Lake Baptist Church and the Olympic Baptist Association.  There are lots of opportunity to serve in both, and I am especially enjoying the opportunity to lead one of our new small groups.

I have spent quite a bit of time during the warmer part of the year in the back yard, working to create more gardens.  I do enjoy working in the dirt, at least when it is warm and dry, which most of our summer was this year.  This is a multi-year project that may never end, but it is relaxing and I enjoy seeing the gradual transformation.

I have been blogging for a few years now, but have recently made a concerted effort to be more consistent with it, and have launched a new blog specifically to handle the backpacking stuff.  I enjoy the challenge of putting words together in a written form, and the chance to play teacher online.  The lack of interaction is sometimes challenging, but I trust that God is still able to do something with my meager efforts.

Sue spends a lot of her time at home making stuff.  She seems to be nearly always either sewing or coquetting something, mostly quilts.  She and her mother seem to keep Navy Relief and some of local nursing homes well supplied with baby blankets and lap blankets.

Sue and I are both trying to keep active, with Sue hitting the YMCA most mornings, and me out running along the road 4-5 days a week.  I have also run a couple of half marathons during the year.  Not really competitive, but do enjoy the experience.

We celebrated a couple of milestones this year.  Sue and I have manged to stick together for 30 years now.  I am so very thankful that God brought her into my life.  I can't imagine what life would be like without her.

Mary also celebrated her 90th birthday last month.  We had an open house for her and drew quite a crowd.  Mary continues to live with us and has been generally healthy.

Our third big event of the year was a continuance of the Pacific Crest Trail travels of the past few years.  I put in another 500+ miles on the trail this year, mostly in northern California with a piece in Washington.  Most of it was solo, although I did have two different friends join me for pieces of the trail.  Just about half done with the PCT now and hope to finish in another 3 years.  Sue continues to provide support, meeting me at most road crossings and doing her own exploration in between.

Mike continues to live in the area and is working his way into the medical field.  He proposed this year to Jessica and we are looking forward to her joining our family next year, although in many ways she already has.

Rachael is out of the Air Force and in the reserves, living in Boston, has a boyfriend there and is attending school, working on a degree in sign language.  We miss having her closer, but she seems to be settling in on the wrong coast; bummer.

Looking forward to next year and all of the opportunities it will bring.  May your new year be filled with joy, peace & the love of God.  God is good!

Monday, December 30, 2013

What Kind of Spirit Do You Have?

For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.
2 Timothy 1:7 NIV (1978)
I am generally a timid person who dislikes any kind of conflict or confrontation.  While some people seem to thrive on butting heads with others, I find it to be exhausting.  As a consequence I seldom take a public stand, reserving that only for those things that are really important to me, and even then usually with reluctance.

And that's why this verse has always been so intriguing to me.  A spirit of power.  That seems so foreign to me.  And yet something that I would love to experience.  I have no interest in being in charge, preferring instead to let someone else do that.  But I would love to have the boldness to .say what needs to be said without all of the apprehension and distress that it currently causes me.

Don't get me wrong.  I have no interest in being one of those folks who say whatever comes into their minds with no concern for how it impacts those who are listening, or being attacked.  I do not believe that is what Paul is talking about.  The boldness I want to have should be equal parts power, love and self-discipline.

If I can't speak in love, then as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, I am only a noisy gong or clanging symbol.  Love, wanting what is best for others, should be the motivation for everything I have to say, especially those things that are potentially confrontational or challenging.

I also want to be able to stay in control of my speech, something that all too many people seem unable, or unwilling to do.  Just because I think it, does not mean I have to say it; what I say should be thoughtfully considered beforehand.  How much harm is caused to the person who thoughtlessly mouths bold words; to the people who hear those words; to the people who may be attacked by those words; and to the cause of Christ because of those words?  The expression "Engage brain before putting mouth in gear" is so very applicable here.

Lord, help me to speak with power, love and self-discipline.  Overcome my timidity with your Spirit.  Let me be willing to stand true for you and be a light in a dark world.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Showing Visible Progress in the Faith

Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.  Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching.  Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through prophecy when the body of elders laid their hands on you.
 1 Timothy 4:12-14 NIV
Timothy is instructed to set an example for the believers.  Set an example for them in what you say, what you do, in how you love and in the way you live out your faith.  Timothy was serving in a highly visible role of leadership within the church at Ephesus when Paul wrote this, and it might be tempting to dismiss this instruction as only applying to those in leadership.  But that would be a mistake.

Yes, we may not be preachers or teachers or in some other visible public role within the life of the church.  But we should all be trying to live out the life of Christ in all we do or say.  No matter who you are, or your position within the body of Christ, there are always those who look to you, those you influence with your words and life.  Be an example to them of what Christ has called us to be.
Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress.  Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.
1 Timothy 4:15-16 NIV
Paul follows up his direction to Timothy with an encouragement to be diligent in being an example and in carrying out your function within the body of Christ.  And that is something for me to take to heart as well.  Being an example is not just something I should do when I am feeling like it, or when others are watching.  Being diligent and giving myself "wholly to them" indicates this should be something that I work at continuously.

So that everyone may see your progress. Seldom can I read this phrase without some pangs of conviction.  Have I visibly grown in the faith in the past month, year, decade?  Or am I standing still, just treading water, keeping a foot in both worlds.  The change was indeed visible as a young believer 40+ years ago.  But why can I not continue to progress in a way that will cause others to take notice and be encouraged to do likewise?

Give yourself over to God.  Let him do his work in your life.  Let him clean you up.  Let him grow you.  Get to know him more and more intimately.  Every day draw closer to him.  While those around may not be able to see the difference in a day or a week, as the years go by you should become more and more transparent, fading from sight and letting God's glory shine out from you.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Canonization of the New Testament

In an earlier blog I briefly discussed the authorship of the New Testament and the transmission of individual texts from their writing until now.  The final topic in this discussion of the reliability of the New Testament is concerned with how we got the New Testament into the form that it is in today.  There is a lot of discussion, and much confusion, concerning the selection of the books that make up the New Testament.  What process and criteria were used for the selection, and rejection, of books for inclusion into what we today call the New Testament?

The process used for New Testament canonization was not well defined or directed and took a long time.  There are a number of factors that served to drive the selection of authoritative writings for the Christian churches.  These include: providing a response to those deemed as heretics; persecution and the need to know which writings to hide from destruction; and the need to identify orthodoxy.  Some writings were accepted at a fairly early date, others were accepted much later, some were considered but later rejected, and there are others that have recently been discovered for which there seems to be no early discussion, indicating they had only a very narrow following or a late date for their writing.  Contrary to the perception of many, there is no recorded attempt at developing and mandating a standard canon from a centralized authority.  By the time the Councils met to discuss this topic, the canon was largely in place and at most was only ratified or tweaked by the Councils.

The most important criteria for inclusion in the canon seems to be orthodoxy, authorship and familiarity, with orthodoxy the most important of these.  If the writings disagreed with the beliefs of the person defining the list, it was not included.  And yet, across the Roman Empire the churches all developed fairly similar lists.  The four gospels accepted today, along with Acts and Paul’s letters had widespread acceptance fairly early.  The only real dispute concerned the catholic epistles and Revelation along with a small handful of other writings including, the Letter of Clement to the Corinthians, the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas.  I can find no evidence that the Gospels of Thomas, Judas or Mary were ever considered for inclusion into the canon by any branch of the church.  Nor were they specifically rejected.  They actually appeared to be unknown to church authorities in the first few centuries.

Other than the heretic Marcion, who accepted a watered down version of Luke and 10 of Paul’s letters, the earliest known list of writings identified as acceptable for the church is found in what is called “The Muratorian Fragment”.  This is generally believed to be from about 170 AD, although some will date it later.  The author of the list is unknown as is the reason for producing it.  It is similar to the New Testament of today with the following exceptions.  The beginning is missing but lists Luke and John as the third and fourth gospels, the order they have today.  The list includes the Wisdom of Solomon and the Apocalypse of Peter but does not include Hebrews, James, 1st and 2nd Peter or 3rd John.  The Shepherd of Hermas was authorized for reading but not considered scripture.

For the next few centuries various individuals across the Roman world compiled lists of authorized scriptures for the churches in their area.  These lists generally were very similar to the Muratorian Fragment, although the latter lists generally included some of the New Testament writings that were missing from the earlier list.  In 367 A.D., Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria included in a letter what he considered to be the authoritative books of the New Testament, a list identical to what most Christians accept today.  This was not the end of the issue though.  Many continued for quite some time, actually up until today, either accepting or rejecting a handful of books.  A number of councils, or synods, met in the following centuries to ‘officially’ ratify the contents of the New Testament, but by that time, for all practical purposes, the decision had already been made.

It is clear that the New Testament of today was not available to the church of the first few centuries, at least in its finished form.  The four gospels and Paul’s writings were the two earliest collections and appear to have received near universal acceptance by the middle of the 2nd century.  While there were many writings that came out of the early years of Christianity, there is little to indicate that more than about three dozen of them ever had anything like wide spread acceptance.  Of these, half were accepted by just about everyone leaving a written opinion and half of the remaining writings were accepted by enough to eventually be included into the canon.  From what I have been able to find there is no evidence of a conspiracy to reshape the beliefs of Christianity through the development of the canon.  Quite the opposite is actually suggested, that the canon was shaped by the beliefs of the early church.

The following documents provide a more detailed discussion of this topic

Conclusion

There is no way to prove that the New Testament is true.  But it is easy to demonstrate that:
  • it was written by people who, at the very least, were close to the events that are described; 
  • that what we have today is a very good re-creation of the original texts; 
  • and that the collection of writings we have today were selected, not for political reasons, but because the church at large used them and felt they were worthy. 
I think it is fair to say that, whether you agree with the writings or not, they are a fair description of the beliefs of the Christian church of the first centuries and not an attempt by a later generation to build a religion around some legends and myths.  And that leaves us with the question of why they believed these things, especially since it would not be too difficult to disprove them early on, if they were indeed not true.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Enemies of the Cross of Christ: Not Who You Might Think.

17 Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. 18 For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
Philippians 3:17-21 NIV
Earlier in this chapter, Paul had been discussing his desire to know Christ and his commitment to live, not in the past, but striving to be what Christ wants him to be.  And then he encourages the Philippian believers to follow his example, as well as others who live like he did.

After that encouragement, he shares with them something that breaks his heart.  There are those who live as enemies of the cross of Christ.  It would be tempting to assume that Paul is referring to unbelievers here, and that was my take until recently.  But I have come to believe that is not really who he was referring to at all.  Rather he is referring to those who claim to be believers, yet fail to follow the example Paul sets, living instead to satisfy their own desires.

Paul claims that these pseudo-Christians have made a god out of their stomach, or desires.  They have their minds set on the things of this earth, rather than the things of God.  In other words they live to make themselves happy, fulfilling the desires of their heart, seldom really thinking about what God wants of them.  And it saddens me to realize that all too often I fall into that category; more concerned about myself than I am about God.

Those who follow the example of Paul, turning away from their past and striving for God's purpose in their lives, have citizenship in heaven and are waiting for a salvation that will transform them into something like Christ.  Those who continue to live as a part of this world, satisfying their human desires, face destruction.

Am I going to let go of this world and pursue what God has prepared for me, or am I going to cling to this world and enjoy it as much as I can? My future is dependent on that choice.  I can have what this world has to offer, and face eternal destruction.  Or I can pursue God, as a citizen of heaven, and experience the salvation he has prepared for me.  The choice is yours ... as well as mine!

Friday, December 20, 2013

A Great Light Shining In the Land of Darkness

The people living in darkness
    have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
    a light has dawned

Isaiah 9:2, Matthew 4:16
The author of the gospel of Matthew uses this passage from Isaiah to announce the beginning of Jesus ministry in Galilee, but he just as easily could have used it to announce his birth.  The 'nation' of Israel was in a dark time, living under Roman rule.  The voices of the prophets had ceased hundreds of years earlier.  It seemed like God had abandoned them.  And then a light shown out into the darkness.  God himself, in the form of a newborn infant, came to bring light into the world.

What was that light?  The light was Jesus, and it was life for all who would believe.  That light was announced to the shepherds by angels and to the Magi by a star.  John the Baptist proclaimed the coming of the light as he prepared Israel for their coming Messiah.  Jesus himself proclaimed the Kingdom of God and invited all who would to enter it.  His apostles proclaimed the gospel of Jesus, the light of the world, to all the Roman world, and via their writings, to us today.

This Christmas, celebrate the great light that shines out from the manger.  Like the shepherds and Magi, come and worship him.  And then, like the shepherds, tell everyone you meet about what you have experienced of the light.  Honor Him today as Lord and God!  Let the light of Christ shine out into the darkness that is enveloping our world.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Intolerance of Tolerance

Tolerance: the ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with.
Tolerate: allow the existence, occurrence, or practice of (something that one does not necessarily like or agree with) without interference. 
Tolerance is a virtue that many people espouse, but I wonder how many of those calling for tolerance really understand what the word means.  Tolerance does not mean that we all agree with each other.  Tolerance implies just the opposite.  We have differing opinions, beliefs or behaviors that we disagree about.  Tolerance means that we recognize the differences, and the expression of those differences, without interfering with another's practice of those differences.

I believe homosexuality is wrong.  Some will say that is an intolerant position.  But what they are really saying is that they are offended that I believe differently than they do.  I have no interest in locking up homosexuals, or depriving them of any rights.  I would not dream of picketing outside my neighbor's house or otherwise trying to make life living next door to me be miserable.  If I owned a business, I would not exclude homosexuals from patronizing that business.  Nor do I fight against the extension of spousal benefits to homosexual couples.

I disagree with what they do, but I am willing to tolerate it, at least so long as I am not forced to do something contrary to my own beliefs.  And I believe that is an important attribute for a society that is as diverse as ours.  If we fought over everything with which we disagree, then we would accomplish even less than we do now.

And that brings me to the news this morning that Phil Robertson has been fired from his Duck Dynasty TV show because he dared to express a belief that was offensive to the homosexual community.  Nowhere have I found anything that would indicate he was trying to interfere with their lifestyle choices.  As far as I know he is not lobbying against homosexual rights.  The network that fired him admitted that his views were not being expressed on the show.  The only issue seems to be that he publicly expressed an opinion that was offensive to a group that has itself made a strong plea for tolerance.  And they put pressure on the network to punish him for that offensive (to them) opinion.

I find it a sad commentary on our supposedly enlightened society that we are so intolerant of opposing viewpoints, while at the same time calling for tolerance of our own.  Christians are often intolerant; sometimes even of each other.  Atheists are frequently intolerant of religious views.  Homosexuals are intolerant of anyone who seems not to be on their bandwagon.  Democrats are intolerant of Republicans.  Republicans are intolerant of Democrats.  So many things that cause disagreement among us, and cause us to take up arms against each other.

Are we really that insecure that opposing views cause us so much angst?

Can't we just accept that we disagree and get along?

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Reliability of the New Testament

Introduction

Most of Christian doctrine (teaching) is based on the Bible, primarily the New Testament.  As a result, the opinion a person has about the Bible, particularly the New Testament, is going to dramatically affect their opinion concerning the validity of Christian doctrine.  Unfortunately, it is not possible to prove that the New Testament is true.

Because the New Testament is primarily historical and philosophical in nature, it cannot really be proved.  The historical aspect can be discredited or confirmed.  If its history were to be discredited, it would amount to a proof against the New Testament.  But confirming some parts of its history does not automatically prove all of it.

It is possible though, to explore the historically reliability of the New Testament.  This is not so much concerned with the message of the New Testament as it is with the reliability of the texts themselves.  The specific issues I want to address are (1) how close where the writers to the events they write about, (2) how faithfully have their writings been transmitted to us over the years and (3) how did we determine which writings should go into the New Testament.  In other words, do we have a faithful reproduction of writings from people who were close to the events themselves, or do we have corrupted texts by later authors, cherry picked by church authorities to suit their own purpose.

 Before discussing these points I would like to briefly talk about the topic of inspiration of the scriptures and formation of the New Testament.  Mormons believe that their primary holy book was given to them in a completed form and only required translation into English.  Muslims believe the Koran was spoken to Mohamed by the angel Gabriel and that he passed it on to friends to write down.  In both cases they believe that the very words they have are exactly as God gave them.  I do not believe that to be the case with the New Testament, or the Old for that matter, although there are certainly those who do.  I do not believe that the authors knew that what they were writing would later be a part of the Bible.  I do believe God in some way inspired them in the writing, but the words were their own.  Also, unlike the Book of Mormon and the Koran, the New Testament is a collection of writings that took shape over a period of time.  There were many other writings that were at one time or another, or by differing groups, thought to be equal with what was ultimately included in the New Testament.  This canonization process of the New Testament is actually another topic that will be addressed later.  For now it will be enough to note that it is not really correct to say that the New Testament was written at some point in time.  Rather, that the collection of writings that came to be called the New Testament was produced during some period of time.

Who Wrote it and When?

So, point #1, when were the writings of the New Testament produced and by who.  In general there is some disagreement as to when.  The primary exception to this are some of Paul’s writings.  Over half of the letters that are attributed to him are universally accepted as being written by the Apostle Paul.  And since he died in the mid 60’s they must have been written by then.  But of most interest to this discussion are the historical books; the four Gospels and the book of Acts.  None of these books directly identify the author.  The gospel of John comes closest to identifying its author with the claim to being written by the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’.  This is generally believed to refer to the Apostle John.  John is believed to have lived until near the end of the 1st century and his writings seem to deal, at least to some extent, with an emerging threat from Gnosticism coming at the end of the 1st century and into the 2nd.  So it is quite possible that the gospel of John could have been written toward the end of the 1st century and by the apostle John, although it was likely written even earlier.

One common event mentioned in the gospels that is used to date the gospels concerns the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.  Matthew, Mark and Luke all record Jesus words forecasting the destruction of Jerusalem.  Many use this as evidence that these three gospels were written prior to the event, because they give no indication of a fulfillment, and the predictions can’t be made to fit completely with the destruction that occurred in 70.  But many others claim these predictions prove a dating after 70, primarily because they believe predicting the future is impossible.  Because of the lack of any internal indication that the prediction was fulfilled, and the incomplete fulfillment, it seems best to me to date these three gospels prior to 70.  After all, if I were including a prophecy about some event after the occurrence of the event, I would do my best to ensure that the prophecy correctly covered the event.

John also indirectly provides a reference to this same event in John 5:2 where he comments that there is in Jerusalem a pool called Bethesda.  This pool was destroyed in 70, but John’s writing assumes it is still there.  This is at least a good indicator that when the Gospel of John was written, Jerusalem was still standing.

The only other internal clue I am aware of concerning authorship is the Luke – Acts set.  They seem to be written by the same person who claims, in the book of Acts, to have traveled with Paul a few times.  The physician Luke is traditionally credited with writing this two volume set.  Based on Paul’s letters, Luke was a sometimes companion of Paul and not an unreasonable choice as the author.  When Acts, volume 2 of the set, came to a conclusion, Paul is under house arrest in Rome.  Paul is killed in Rome in the mid 60’s and no mention is made of that in Acts, the second half of which covers Paul exclusively.  So it is quite likely that Luke – Acts was written prior to that event.  An interesting tidbit that Luke gives us at the beginning of his gospel account is that many others had undertaken to record the events in the life of Jesus.  Luke, apparently not satisfied with any he has seen, undertook to thoroughly research and write an account himself.  What these other accounts are he does not specify, but Mark was likely one of them.

Matthew is a hard gospel to date and identify an author for.  The apostle Matthew is typically credited with the composition but I think it unlikely.  The author seems dependent on other sources that would not seem likely for a firsthand witness.  The author of Matthew seems to use Mark as a source, copying nearly all of Mark as well as other sources.  The author of this gospel could actually been an editor who took other sources and merged them together into a single account.

That leaves us with Mark.  Tradition has it that this gospel was written by the John Mark who spent some time with Paul and whose parent’s house Jesus likely used for the last supper before his crucifixion.  That tradition claims that the apostle Peter, while in Rome, told Mark the stories of his experiences with Jesus and that Mark used that as the basis for his gospel.  Most scholars today believe that Mark is a source that was used by both Matthew and Luke.  If that is the case then Mark would have had to be written and in circulation prior to the others, giving a fairly early date for its composition.

So, in my opinion, for what it’s worth, we have one gospel written by an eye witness (John) and three written by those will little, firsthand experience with the events that they are writing about.  One of these, Mark, likely are the narrated stories told by a firsthand witness, with a second written after through research, and a third one with uncertain heritage.

Two resources will provide an example of the dating's that have been assigned to the books of the New Testament.  The first of these is from the web site, Errant Skeptics (http://www.errantskeptics.org/DatingNT.htm), which provides a listing of the dates given by a variety of scholars, both liberal and conservative, for the writing of the New Testament books.  The dates given below discard both the oldest and most recent estimates.  The second is from the book ‘Redating the New Testament’ by John A. T. Robinson, an often quoted book, although not universally accepted source.

Errant Skeptics Redating the New Testament
Matthew 49-90 c. 40-60+
Mark 45-73 c. 45-60
Luke 53-85 -57-60+
John 70-95 -40-65+
Acts 62-90 -57-62+
Romans 55-59 Early 57
1 Corinthians 54-57 Spring 55
2 Corinthians 55-58 Early 56
Galatians 48-57 Later 56
Ephesians 57-90 Late summer 58
Philippians 56-63 Spring 58
Colossians 54-68 Summer 58
1 Thessalonians 50-53 Early 50
2 Thessalonians 50-53 50-51
1 Timothy 62-67 Autumn 55
2 Timothy 64-68 Autumn 58
Titus 62-67 Late spring 57
Philemon 55-63 Summer 58
Hebrews 60-85 c. 67
James 40-130 c. 47-48
1 Peter 64-68 Spring 65
2 Peter 60-90 61-62
1 John Early 60’s – 100 c. 60-65
2 John Early 60’s – 100 c. 60-65
3 John Early 60’s – 100 c. 60-65
Jude 55-80 61-62
Revelation 68-100 Late 68

Another scholarly source for information about the New Testament documents is a book by FF Bruce, “The New Testament Documents; Are They Reliable”.  Of particular relevance to this discussion are chapter 2 – ‘The New Testament Documents: Their Date and Attestation’ and chapter 4 – ‘The Gospels’.

 Before leaving the topic of dating the gospels I would like to respond to the question of why they waited so long before writing.  It would seem logical that the life and teachings of Jesus would have been so significant that they would have been recorded earlier rather than later.  But there are several factors that would tend toward delaying that time.  Literacy was an issue, with most history still of the oral variety.  Putting something into writing would only be beneficial to a limited number of people.  It was also expensive, both for the materials and for the reproduction of the writings.  But as the church spread across the Roman Empire, beyond the reach of those who could pass on the oral tradition, there became more of a need of written sources.

Additionally, the early church lived in expectation that Jesus would be returning within their lifetime.  And with that, there was no reason for them to commit to writing the life of Jesus.  What value would it have it he returned within just a few months or years?  But as it became obvious to them that Jesus return was not as imminent as they expected, it became more important to have written accounts that would survive the apostles and others who had known Jesus.

Transmission of the Texts

Transmission of the New Testament deals with the path it took from the original writings to what we have today.  I want to look at three topics in this discussion:  copyist errors, the number of copies, and textual criticism.  My goal through this discussion will be to demonstrate that the New Testament documents that we have today are substantially the same as the originals.  I am much indebted to Bruce Metzer’s book “The Text of the New Testament:  It’s Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration”.  This is, as far as I have been able to determine, a classic in the area of textual criticism of the New Testament.

Up until the invention of the printing press all books were copied by hand.  This was a slow and tedious process and extremely difficult to do without any errors.  Whether one person reads and many write or one person reads and then writes there were common errors that crept into the reproduction.  Most generally these errors amount to simple spelling errors or replacement of similar sounding words.  Occasionally a distracted scribe would forget where they were and skip a section or repeat a section already copied.
 Frequently these errors would be caught either by the copyist or a reviewer, but not always.

At other times it appears that the copyist made intentional changes; likely because they thought they were correcting an error that had been introduced earlier.  Some of these changes would be corrections of spelling errors or word replacement described earlier.  Other times the change had more significance.  If the scribe or monastery they worked in felt that Jesus or Paul or another author could not have possibly said something as recorded in the manuscript they might feel the need to change the words to better reflect what they believed he would have said. Over the years these generally minor, although occasionally major, changes accumulated.  As the originals disappear followed by the original copies and the copies of the copies, etc, we end up with several families of manuscripts from different locations none of which completely agree within the manuscript family and sometimes have great variance between families.

I am sure you have heard some pretty large numbers connected with New Testament manuscripts.  There are between 5 and 6 thousand Greek manuscripts, and twice that number in other ancient languages.  In addition, there are thousands of manuscripts that include quotes from the New Testament.  But these numbers, while real enough, seem a little deceptive to me.  Most of them are from the 8th century and on and most are considered of little value for determining just what the original writings said.  So far there are no first century manuscripts and only a handful from the second.  There are quite a few from the 3rd through 5th centuries, including some complete copies of the New Testament from the 4th and 5th.  In addition the translations into other languages, while not useful for determining specific words, are good for verifying the basic content and ordering of events and speeches.  A third source useful for reconstructing the originals are early Christian writings that include quotes from the New Testament documents.  Metzger comments that there are enough of these quotes from antiquity that the entire New Testament could be reconstructed from them.  These are also subject to scribal copy errors as well as incomplete or inaccurate quotes so care must be taken with these.  All in all there are several dozen good Greek manuscripts as well as other sources from the first 5 centuries that are useful in textual criticism.

I had wanted to give a brief description of textual criticism but find that I am unable to distill this very complex process into a short paragraph.  Instead, if you are interested, you can review http://www.skypoint.com/members/waltzmn/intro.html for a brief (10 pages or so) description of this topic.  In a sentence, textual criticism is the process of comparing manuscripts to determine, as closely as possible, what the original text said.  The end result of this process is a Greek New Testament that is a close approximation of the original.  Included with this Greek NT is a list of all of the alternate readings along with the manuscript(s) the alternates come from.  These ‘close to original’ Greek New Testaments become the basis for the modern translations that we use today.

I frequently hear the charge that the New Testament has been translated so many times that there is no way to tell what the original was.  The truth is that our modern translations have only been translated once, from the reconstructed Greek to English (or some other language).  We do not copy from one English version to another as some seem to believe.

Another charge is that the text has been altered so much that it does not resemble the original.  While this cannot be completely refuted, it is highly unlikely.  For this to occur it would have had to happen prior to more than a handful of copies of a document being made.  As copies are made they were dispersed around the Roman Empire.  Alterations made to one copy would be reflected in subsequent copies of that copy, but would seldom make it into other ‘families’ of manuscripts.  And with the seeming inability of the early church to completely eliminate Gnostic versions of the gospels and other writings it would seem far-fetched to think they could have eliminated all copies of some orthodox manuscript that they wanted to alter.

The process of textual criticism is used, not just on the Bible, but all ancient manuscripts.  It has become a very structured process and as best as I can tell there are few scholars familiar with the process who question the ability, given enough material to work with, to reconstruct a reasonable facsimile of an original.
 The New Testament has many more ancient copies than any other work from antiquity and copies from closer to the original.  While I believe numbers like 99.5% complete reconstruction are not likely, I do believe that what we have today is a pretty close copy of the original autographs and that it is safe to believe that what I read today is, to all intents and purposes, the same as what was originally written.

Summary

By no means does this essay prove that the New Testament is true; only that it was written close to the events that the Gospels and Acts describe and that what we have today is a faithful reproduction of what was originally written.  Ascertaining the truth of what was written, or more properly that the authors believed what they wrote to be true, is another topic.


Monday, December 16, 2013

The Cross: Love in any Language

Why did Jesus die on the cross?  There are some who say that Jesus had to die in order to satisfy God's wrath against sin.  That without a sinless sacrifice God's anger could never be appeased.  But I believe that paints a too small picture of God.  It makes it sound like his creation has backed him into a corner, and the only way out is via Jesus death on the cross.

1 Corinthians 1:18-25 gives us a better reason for the cross, and Jesus death on it.  Some people are hung up on wisdom.  If something does not seem rational to them, like the cross, then they reject it.  Other people look for the miraculous, looking for God to prove himself to them.  But God cares about faith on our part, something that is not compatible with proof via miracles or rational thought.  So God gives us a crucified messiah, something that is offensive to the religiously minded, and foolish to the intellectually minded, and rejected by both.  But those who come in faith to that crucified, and risen, messiah, will find eternal life with God.

So our response to the cross is a test of faith; do we have it or not!  But it is more than that.  Who would you die for?  I suspect most would willingly give their lives for a spouse or child, with some having a wider but still restricted circle.  Why am I so willing to die for my immediate family?  Because I love them.  And what more vivid of a demonstration of my love for them could there be than to die in their place.

And that is a second reason for the cross.
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Romans 5:8 NIV
God demonstrated his love for us in a pretty dramatic fashion; by dying as a sacrifice, taking my place.  How much does God love me?  Enough to die for me, even when I was in rebellion against him.  When I see the cross, rather than seeing a gruesome death or an instrument of torture, I should see a symbol of God's love for me.  Like my wife's wedding ring is a symbol of my love and commitment to her, so the cross is a symbol of God's love and commitment to me.  And that is a symbol that should be good in pretty much any language.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Fight the Good Fight, With Love!

Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong.  Do everything in love.
1 Corinthians 16:13-14 NIV
There is an interesting dichotomy between the two verses in this passage.  Paul starts off with a series of four directives that are somewhat military in nature.  These are instructions that you might give a soldier who is going out into harms way.  Be on your guard; pay attention to what is going on around you so that the enemy can't sneak up on your unawares.  Stand firm; hold the ground that you have been assigned to defend, not running away when the enemy puts in an appearance.  Be courageous; trust in your training, your equipment and your skill to the conflict; don't be afraid to stand up to the enemies attack.  Be strong; don't back down from your enemy.

On the other side, Paul tells us to do everything in love.  Our life, our actions, our words, our attitudes; all should be a reflection of love; the love of God for us, our love for him, and love for others in the world.  Love here is agape, a love that is directed at others; doing what is best for another person.  Everything I do should be motivated with seeking the good of others.

Be involved in the fight, and do everything in love.  On the surface those directives seem at odds with each other.  But only when we think of fighting as something done to destroy an enemy.  Our fight, though, is for the hearts and minds of those that Satan has blinded.  And that is something that must be done in love if it to be successful.

In 2 Corinthians 10:4, Paul states that the weapons we fight with are not the weapons of this world.  Rather than fight with swords, guns, tanks, ships or planes; we can fight with love.  Love people around you, respond to their attack with love, always seek to do what is best for them.  And see what a difference it makes in the world around you.  And how much better that difference is than if you had responded with a self first attitude.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Justified and Redeemed Through Christ.

Paul spend the first part of his letter to the Romans dealing with the futility of trying to obtain right standing before God via one's own efforts.  Whether the Jews by following the Law, or Gentiles who follow their conscious, all of us fall short of God's expectations and are worthless.  But fortunately God does not leave us in that condition, acting on our behalf to take care of the righteousness problem.
But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.  This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
Romans 3:21-24 NIV
Paul tells us that God's righteousness has now been made known and given to us.  No longer do I need to depend on my own efforts to be righteous, or to have right standing with God.  Instead, I am able to experience his righteousness, a righteousness that is available to everyone who has faith in Jesus; all who believe.

It does not matter what my background is, the color of my skin, the level of my education, my social standing, or religious upbringing.  All of us are equally in need of a right standing before God, one that we are unable to attain for ourselves.  All of us have sinned; an archery term meaning to miss the mark; and we have missed the bulls eye of God's glory.

In the passage above Paul uses two terms to help describe what God has done for us.  The first is justified, a legal term that is the equivalent to a judge's verdict of not guilty.  In Paul's day, bribing a judge to get a favorable verdict would not have been uncommon.  But in this case the verdict is freely given at no cost to ourselves.  It is an act of God's grace, or his favor directed towards us.  God declares me to be righteous, because he wants to, not because I have paid him off.

The second term here is redemption; a term that was used for buying freedom for a slave.  God has bought us, who were slaves to sin, and set us free from that bondage, and into the liberty of sons of God.  And the redemption price was in what Jesus did for us on the cross.

Even after all this, I have the option to continue to try on my own, or reject God altogether.  But why would I?  He has done it all for me, and all that is required on my part is faith in what Jesus has done for me.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

God's Purpose in Creation

As expressed elsewhere, I am convinced that this universe, and the life it contains, is the product of an intelligent creator.  And that the creator was purposeful: the universe, and life, were created for a reason; a reason beyond his own amusement.  I believe, based on the teachings of the New Testament, that life here, along with the whole physical creation, is simply a step along the way toward fulfilling the creator's purpose.  And that purpose seems to be the creation of offspring, children of God.  And what we are now is only a temporary, preparatory stage on the journey towards his ultimate purpose for creation; similar to a caterpillars journey to butterfly-hood.

The Present

If the future is what its all about, why not just skip this phase of life and just immediately start off in heaven, or wherever our future place is.  Since God is said to have known who would come to him before creation, it would seem like the present really serves no useful function.  But is that true?

The following passage, from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, provides some connection between my life here, and what's to come
10 By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. 14 If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.
- 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 NIV
As a believer, the foundation that I build my life on is Jesus.  I have the opportunity to build on that foundation using a variety of building materials, some good and some not so good.  I build on this foundation by the way I live my life while in this physical form.  When I live in obedience, I am building with gold, silver or costly stones.  When I act in disobedience, I am using wood, hay or straw.  At some point, as I leave this life, the quality of my work will be tested and rewarded accordingly.  What I am doing here and now is important to my eternity.  Matthew 6:19-21 expresses a similar idea using the location of our treasure.

And in the parable of the talents, Matthew 25:14-30, We find that the two servants who made good use of what the master has given them are judged, found worthy, and then rewarded with additional responsibility.  Jesus appears to be alluding to a time of accounting for us at the end of this life.  Have we been faithful with what God has entrusted us with here?  If we have proven faithful, then we will enter into the masters happiness and be given additional responsibilities.  In other words, how we respond to God here will have an impact on what we do in the life to come.

Life here would seem to be important because somehow it furthers our development, preparing us for what lies in the future.  We are not just waiting for a spot in paradise.  We are preparing for a job in the kingdom.

Am I a good steward of Gods creation?  Do I  follow the example that Christ set when he lived among us?  Am I faithfully seeking to represent the kingdom of God in the place I live and work?  God is not calling us to separate from the world, but rather to be its salt and light.

The Future

The New Testament teaches that what happens when this life comes to an end is dependent on your relationship with the creator.  Those who have walked with him in faith will continue with him for eternity.  Those who have not face destruction.  But there are a lot of differing opinions as to just what is involved in those two final destinations.

For Believers

While I have found few believers that will express in words that heaven will be whatever their vision of paradise is, it is apparent in listening to them talk about heaven that is what many are looking forward to: a time for tears to be wiped away, bodies to be made strong, families reunited, and no limit to the amount of chocolate that can be consumed.  Praising God all day and night along with the heavenly choir.  Visiting with Abraham, Moses, David, Peter, Paul and Mary.  Having all of our questions answered to our complete satisfaction.  Watching videos of our favorite histories.

But while some of that may be true, I have a hard time accepting that heaven is just a place of reward.  I know for sure that I have done nothing that deserves reward.  The only reason I have a place in his kingdom is because God has chosen me as an act of his grace.  Nor can I imagine that watching video's, eating chocolate or chatting with all the old hero's of the faith would be very satisfying for all of eternity.

Instead I look forward to working in the kingdom, being a part of whatever function that God is preparing me for now.  Here I am in boot camp, learning to be faithful and obedient.  Then I will be doing my real job, a job that I was created to do and am in training for now.  I cannot imagine what that job is now, but I look forward to doing it alongside my Father and creator.

For Unbelievers

What destination awaits those who are not among the elect of God, who have not walked with him in faith?  The traditional response is that they will spend an eternity in a conscious state of torment.  But I struggle with this response for a couple of reasons.

The first reason is that it is not really what I understand the Bible to teach.  While it does talk about a fire that never goes out, and worms that never die, and that unbelievers will face that at the judgement, that is not the same thing as claiming the unbeliever will experience the fire for eternity.  What generally happens to something that is thrown into the fire, or eaten by worms?  It is destroyed, ceases to exist, vanishes:  the fire and worms may not die, but what is thrown into them is consumed.  And that aligns better with the more commonly described fate of the unbeliever: destruction or perishing.  A time of judgement, potentially followed by punishment, and ultimately annihilation, fits the New Testament better than eternal conscious torment, at least to my way of understanding it.

The other problem I have with the traditional view of hell is that I can find no purpose in it.  I do not deny that God has a plan that is beyond my understanding, and as God, he can do whatever he wants.  But if his purpose in creation was to produce the church, the body and bride of Christ, and then the creation can be destroyed, what purpose is served by also preserving the damned in a place of torment.  For the life of me I cannot see what that would accomplish.  Just let them disappear with the rest of this material universe.

Just to be sure that there is no misunderstanding, I do not believe everyone is ultimately saved; far from it.  Nor am I swayed by those who claim an eternal conscious punishment of unbelievers is immoral.  God is God, and I am not.  I do not question his right to do what he will with his creation.  But, based on the scriptures, and my own understanding of his purpose, the traditional view of hell just doesn't fit.

In Short

In short, I believe that all of this creation was for the purpose of growing the Bride of Christ, the church.  And that when that purpose is accomplished, this creation will cease and his church will continue in whatever role he has created us for.  And further, while I am here, I will do my best to be prepared for the future he created me for.

Monday, December 9, 2013

None Righteous

Is anyone "good enough" to be considered righteous before God?  There are many who at least seem to agree that it is possible.  That if they successfully follow a strict moral code, the Law of Moses as an example, that they will have right standing before their god and will experience some version of paradise when this life is complete.  But Paul's argument in the early part of his letter to the Roman church is definitely at odds with that viewpoint.
As it is written:
   “There is no one righteous, not even one;
       there is no one who understands;
       there is no one who seeks God.
   All have turned away,
       they have together become worthless;
   there is no one who does good,
       not even one.”

Romans 3:10-12 NIV
After arguing for the better part of 3 chapters that we are all guilty of sin, he concludes with a series of quotes from the Old Testament, including the one above, that are clear in their assessment of our standing with God, even the best of us.

It would be easy to take offense at this passage, especially if you are one who tries hard to be good.  To be told that you are worthless and are not doing good is like a slap in the face.  I may not be perfect, but that is a far cry from being worthless.

But the problem with this is that I am judging my goodness by human standards of goodness.  Yes, I may be better than most people, at least according to some specific moral code.  But what if the requirement is 100% adherence to the moral standard you find yourself under, whether the Old Testament law, or your own conscious?  We all fall short of that standard, making us all losers.  None of us are righteous, at least in our position before God, the judge.

I am incapable of making myself acceptable to God.  No matter how hard I might try, I invariable fall short.  And that is true of every other person who has ever lived, apart from one.  But, as Paul lays out in the next few chapters of Romans, God has not left us to continue that futile effort.  Instead he provides us with a better way.


Friday, December 6, 2013

Pride: A Pathway to Foolishness

Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.
Romans 1:22-23 NIV
God's creation is wonderful and declares his power and glory.  Few who look closely at the workings of the universe, and of life, can come away from the experience without marveling.  I struggle to understand how one could look at the creation and fail to see the hand of the creator at work.  And yet there are those who do.

The wise, the intelligent, the learned.  Why do so many of them reject God today?  What is it that causes them to turn from worship of the creator, to worship of the creation itself?  Is it really wisdom, like they claim? Or is it something else?

In the 11th chapter of Genesis is the legendary story of the Tower of Babel.  In this story it is said that mankind began to build a tower that would reach up into the heavens, to make a name for themselves.  While the word pride is not used in this account, I do believe it is at the heart of it.  It was pride in their own abilities that led to the building of this tower.  Pride that caused them to attempt to put themselves in God's place.  Pride that led them to believe they could replace God.

And I believe it is pride that causes so many today to turn from God, reveling in their own wisdom and understanding, and in the process becoming fools.  Education and learning are wonderful things.  Modern science is a great tool to help us to understand the creation around us.  But when we put education or science on the throne, instead of God, we have done what Paul is expressing in the verses above; claiming to be wise, but becoming fools.

Learn all that you can.  Explore the creation.  Understand how it works.  Make our world a better place for all.  But in the process, don't be a fool and forget the creator.  Honor him as God!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Obedience That Comes From Faith

Through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith for his name’s sake.
Romans 1:5 NIV
This verse comes out of Paul's opening introduction in his letter to the Romans.  In it he expresses that he has been tasked with calling Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith.  We are all familiar with obedience.  It is called for in most of the things we do.  Nearly activity of our lives has some set of expectations associated with it.  How many rules are associated with driving a car?  Or even going out to eat?  Sometimes the rules are explicit, like following the speed limit, while sometimes they are implied, don't stare at fellow dinners.

Why do we obey these rules, either explicit or implicit.  Generally it is out of a sense of obligation, or a fear of the consequences.  If I fail to obey, I may not be allowed to continue in that activity, I may face a fine, or I may get my nose punched in.  And all to often we take this approach as believers, obeying the Bible's instructions out of fear of the consequences of failing to do so, or out of a sense of obligation, it is what is expected of me.

But Paul gives a better reason for obedience here as he talks about obedience that comes from faith.  I have been called to obey as a response to faith.  My obedience should flow out of my faith.  If I really believe that God exists and that he has a purpose for me; if I really believe that Jesus died on the cross for me, and that he rose from the dead; if I really believe that the Holy Spirit is living in me, and providing direction to me; then I will naturally want to do what pleases him.  Not because I am afraid of the consequences of messing up.  And not because I feel like I have to.  But because I want to.

Obedience to God should not be the result of trying to improve my standing with him.  Rather it should come about because of my standing.  I belong to him, I am happy about that, and I want to serve.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Why the Christian God?

While there is no foolproof physical or logical proof that can be given for the existence of a supernatural deity, there are sufficient grounds for a rational acceptance of a creator.  But that is still a big step away from accepting the God of Christianity, of Islam, of Hinduism, or of any of the other thousands of religions that have existed throughout history.  How, as a Christian, can I rationally claim that only Christianity can lead to knowledge of God, and that all other religions are dead ends?

Cultural
The most common method of choosing a God is to choose, or adopt, the God that you grew up around.  This has the advantage of being easy, requiring little if any effort or thought.  Nearly every cultural group has their own concept of God and indoctrination into that concept happens early in life.  Included with that indoctrination is the belief that they have found the correct path to God, and all others are mistaken.  Yet, how valid is that approach?  Pretty much all religions make that claim, and they can’t all be correct in their assessment.  It would seem, since at most one of these religions, that teach the correct way to God, can be correct, that the odds of being born into the correct one would be pretty slim and this method of choosing the correct God would have a pretty high failure rate.

Comparing Attributes
Another way to know would be to make a comparison of the attributes of a logically derived creator of the universe with the attributes of the God of the Bible.  But even if these attributes line up, it at most will serve to not eliminate the Christian God.  There may be more than one logical set of attributes for a creator God, and there may be more than one religion that successfully maps to one of these attributes sets.  Also, it is generally beyond most people to logically derive the attributes of a creator God and to compare that attribute set with every religion that has ever existed.

Holy Writings
A third way to determine the correct God would be to compare the holy writings of a religion with the way the world is observed to be.  If these writings provide a valid explanation for the condition of the world, including the interaction of the creator and his creation, then the likelihood of this God being the correct one is greater than if that explanation does not bear any resemblance to reality.

So what explanation does the Bible offer for the condition of our world today and for God’s activity in it?  The Bible claims that God spoke the whole universe into existence and that he did so for a purpose; the purpose of producing ‘sons of God’.  The Bible claims that the general movement of people is away from God and toward satisfaction of self interest.  The Bible also claims that God is seeking people who will turn away from their own self interest and serve him via faith rather than through ritual.  The Bible also claims that all who come to God in faith will become new creatures and that he will take up his abode within them.

The creation accounts in Genesis are frequently used to discredit the God of the Bible because of the time frames used and the order of events.  But the most significant aspect of these accounts, and what sets them apart from other creation myths, is that God speaks into existence the universe and all that is in it, rather than forming it out something that already existed.  Hebrews 11:3 confirms this for the New Testament; that at God’s command the universe was formed out of what did not previously exist.  And the general consensus of the scientific community supports this, that what we see around us is not just a general reordering of something that has been in existence forever.  At the very least, there has been a dramatic reconstruction of the elements of the universe, and one that allows for no glimpse of what may have previously existed.

The thought that people will, in general, move away from God seems at first a little strange, since so much of the world seems somehow to claim to know him.  But if there is a God who created us with a purpose, it is hard to imagine that that purpose was for us just to enjoy life in the here and now, and/or, to worship God as creator.  It seems much preferable, at least to me, to picture God’s purpose as reaching beyond this short life and into eternity.  If that is the case, then when I focus on this short life, and what I can get out of it, then I am ignoring God’s greater purpose in creation.  And it is easy to see that most people, including the religious, very much live their lives as though this was all there is.  The Bible talks about sin and claims that all sin, that all have fallen short of God’s purpose.  We generally think of sin as doing something bad.  But sin is simply falling short of God’s purpose for us.  And that is something that we all do.

The Holy Spirit
I am aware of only a single religion today that teaches that God lives within the life of those who have committed themselves to him.  This unique teaching of Christianity, should it be possible to verify, would offer a much higher level of proof for the God of Christianity than anything else mentioned.  But the challenge here is to provide proof that the Holy Spirit, the indwelling presence of God, does indeed exist and is a part of the life of those God has chosen.  Because God is not detectable using our most sensitive scientific instruments, there is no way to conduct an experiment to determine his presence.  Instead we need to use other methods to evaluate the presence of the Holy Spirit.

In proving the presence of the Holy Spirit, first of all it must be pointed out that the whole concept of the Holy Spirit will appear as foolishness to the person who does not already have his presence within.  The unbeliever may be able to detect a difference in the life of the believer, but the cause of that difference will remain a mystery.  Apart from the Holy Spirit’s help, the presence of the spiritual, or supernatural, realm will be nothing more than a silly concept.  The Holy Spirit opens up a new sense within the believer that allows them to experience the spiritual.  Just like a blind man cannot understand red, or the person with no sense of taste understand sweet, so the man without the Holy Spirit cannot understand the spiritual.

Christianity has become quite a diverse umbrella of various beliefs and practices.  But according to Romans 10:9-10 only those who confess Jesus as Lord and believe in his resurrection will be saved.  And according to Matthew 7:21, many will claim him to be Lord that he will disown, because they did not do the will of God.  The experience of the indwelling presence of God is limited to those who have confessed Jesus as Lord, believe in his resurrection and do the will of God.  To others, the ability to understand the spiritual is the same as it is for the unbeliever; it is a foreign concept.  They may accept that there is such a thing, but there is no evidence of it in their lives.

But for the one who has confessed the Lordship of Jesus and lives in obedience to God, the indwelling presence of God is a reality.  To the believer, this is evident in the ability to communicate with God and to know his response, not generally with audible words, but within the awakened spiritual component of our lives.  The one without the Holy Spirit labels this as foolishness or imagination; but to the one who experiences it, there is no doubt about the reality of it, or its source.  But there is evidence of the Holy Spirit’s presence in the life of the believers that should be evident to others around them.  Galatians 5:22-23 identifies the fruit of the Spirit, or the result of his presence within as: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  While these attributes are certainly found in unbelievers, they should always be found, in increasing measure, in the lives of those who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

There is little proof that can be offered to the skeptic that Christianity alone, among all religions in existence today, or in the past, is the only way to God.  I do believe it paints a logical and rational picture of a purposeful creator and that its writings do explain the condition of the world today.  But the best that can really do is to not eliminate Christianity as a valid pointer to God.  It is really only in the claimed presence of God within the lives of those who are his that we can have any assurance that we are on the right path.  While that offers little in the way of proof to the skeptic, it does offer assurance to the believer that they do indeed have a relationship with God and are on the correct path.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Who Ya Gonna Listen To?

Early in the life of the church, Peter and John are brought before the religious leaders of Israel, who also doubled as the political leaders under Roman rule.  The problem is that Peter and John has been teaching the people about Jesus, something that the religious leaders took great offense with.  And during this hearing, Peter and John are forbidden to publicly speak about Jesus.  While the parallels with today and not exact, it is becoming more challenging to freely share about Jesus out in the community and the workplace.  And I believe Peter and John's response to the religious/civil authorities is instructive to us.
But Peter and John replied, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges!  As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
- Acts 4:19-20 NIV
I believe that Peter and John recognized the authority of those who were questioning them and who had forbidden them to speak in the name of Jesus.  But they also recognized a higher authority, that of God.  And they made clear that if those two authorities provided conflicting directions, that they were going to follow the higher authority, that of God.  God had told them to speak about Jesus, and thus, that was their plan, regardless what the religious/civic leaders directed them to do.

After their release Peter and John meet with the church and prayed for boldness to continue to speak about Jesus.  Going on from there, they continued to preach and teach about Jesus.  And once again found themselves standing before the religious leaders, accused of spreading their propaganda about Jesus.  This time they end up beaten and again forbidden to speak of Jesus.  I believe their response this time is particularly relevant to us.
The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.  Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah. 
- Acts 5:41-42 NIV
They did not complain about the violation of their rights.  They did not try to replace their leaders.  They did not wallow in self pity.  Instead they left rejoicing at having been counted worthy of suffering for Christ.  And they continued to obey God by proclaiming the gospel of Jesus wherever they went.

To respond to abuse with rejoicing, and continued obedience.  What an example they set for us today!

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Count Your Many Blessings

One of the hymns I grew up with was "Count Your Many Blessings".  And, since this is the Thanksgiving season, I think I will attempt this feat, in no particular order:

  1. Being a part of God's creation
  2. Knowing the creator
  3. Jesus
  4. Having a wonderful life partner
  5. My son
  6. My daughter
  7. My son's fiancee
  8. Being a part of Kitsap Lake Baptist Church
  9. Having the opportunity to be a Bible teacher
  10. Being a part of the Olympic Baptist Association
  11. Being retired
  12. Having a retirement income that lets me enjoy life
  13. My house
  14. My gardens
  15. My home - combination of #4 & #13, although mostly #4
  16. The Olympic Mountains
  17. The Pacific Crest Trail
  18. Backpacking
  19. Running
  20. Generally good health
  21. Senior discounts
  22. Friends
  23. The United States
  24. Washington (the state)
  25. The view out my front window
  26. All the electronics in my life (laptop, phone, kindle, TV, etc)
  27. The internet, Facebook and other ways to keep in touch
  28. Blogging
  29. The Bible
  30. National Geographic
  31. Football (Seahawks)
  32. Good food
  33. Iced tea
  34. Science, especially cosmology
  35. Our military, police & fire crews
  36. Hammocks
  37. Wild animals in the woods
  38. My mother-in-law
  39. Rain, snow and sunshine
  40. Parents and grand-parents, long gone but not forgotten
  41. Music
  42. Quiet times
  43. Sleep
  44. Being warm and dry on cold, wet days
  45. A dependable car and truck
  46. Health care
  47. J. R. R. Tolkien, for feeding my imagination
  48. Patrick McManus, for making me laugh
  49. C. S. Lewis, for making me think
  50. You, for making it all the way through this list.
There are so many things in my life to be thankful for, blessings both small and great.  I am truly blessed!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Jesus, Lord and Christ

Who is Jesus?  If you were to ask a sampling of your non-church friends this question you would get a variety of answers, ranging from myth, to good teacher, to God.  But more important, who is he to you?  When Jesus asks his disciples this question, Peter quickly responds with “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  Peter later reaffirms this declaration at Pentecost, when the church explodes with the coming of the Holy Spirit.  During his inaugural sermon Peter declares:
“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.” - Acts 2:36 NIV
The people of Jerusalem had rejected Jesus and had seen him crucified.  They had turned their backs on him and his claims over their lives.  But Peter boldly declares to them that God had taken the one they had crucified and made him both Lord and Messiah, or Christ.  Regardless the peoples response to Jesus, he was God's anointed one, his chosen one, the one that God had promised for so long.  And, in spite of their rejection, he was lord, the one that God had put into a place of authority over them.

I do believe that this verse forms the foundation of what we see take place in the book of Acts, as the apostles accept Jesus as God's anointed, and their Lord, and in doing so are used to transform the Roman world.  That transformation did not happen overnight, but it did begin there, and quickly spread out to the rest of the known world.

Today, I call Jesus Lord.  But is he?  When I am honest with myself, I must admit that too often that is just lip service, and I am still in control.  I follow and obey when it is convenient, and ignore his claims when they are inconvenient.  What would my world be like if only I would let go of self and truly embrace Jesus as Lord?  Someday I hope to be brave enough to find out.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Two Men Went Up To Pray

Pharisees were the fundamentalists of Jesus day.  They were very concerned with strict adherence to the Old Testament Law, as well as maintaining separation from pretty much anyone who wasn't a Pharisee, especially Gentiles and those they considered sinners.  I am sure you have met modern day Pharisees, although they more commonly go by the name of Baptist or some other fundamentalist denomination.  Note that not all Baptists are fundamentalists, but many are.  It is also worth noting that I mostly hang out with Baptists.

Tax collectors are not popular today.  In Jesus day they were despised, collaborators with an occupying force (Rome), and a general waste of oxygen. At least that's what the Pharisees of the day considered them as being.  While the Pharisees were considered to be holy, the tax collectors were thought of as low life scum, folks that a good Pharisee would go out of his way to avoid.

With that in mind, Jesus tells an interesting parable whose two main characters are a Pharisee and a tax collector, and their dissimilar approaches to God in prayer.
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable:  “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Luke 18:9-14 NIV
The Pharisee pats himself on the back and tells God how lucky he is to have such a wonderful person on his team.  He compares himself to the tax collector and is confident that he is superior in every way; quite the catch for God.

The tax collector knows his value, at least to the world around him, and makes no assumptions concerning his standing with God.  Instead, with mourning and humility, he pleads with God for mercy, something that he knows he does not deserve.

I wonder if the Pharisee had any idea that God didn't even know he was there, but had all of his attention focused on the repentant tax collector?  While the Pharisee felt good about himself, and enjoyed the acclaim of others who looked up to him, he failed to realize that God didn't care about what he thought of himself, but was instead looking for those who who humble themselves before him.

Somehow I don't think things have changed today.  While us modern day Pharisees are generally not so blatant about our self righteousness, we are too often guilty of comparing ourselves to the 'sinners' around us, and then feeling good about ourselves, secretly knowing that God is proud of us.

But how much better to approach the God of all creation with humility, beating our chest and realizing that we are totally unworthy of him.  Thankful that he has made us, redeemed us, and brought us into his family.  We should never forget that it is not because of what I am, but because of who he is.

God, have mercy on me, a sinner.  So glad that he did ... and still does!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Tips for Being an Effective Apologist

As a disciple of Christ, I am called on to always be ready to answer anyone who asks me about the hope that I hold on to.  And it is not just me, but all who call on his name who are expected to be able to do this (see 1 Peter 3:15-16).  Below are some tips that may be helpful to you in being able to successfully give a defense for your faith.

1. Be a Believer:  An essential step to being an apologist is that you have a relationship with God; that you are a follower of Jesus.  If not, you will be trying to defend something that is outside of your experience.

2. Be Active in your Faith:  It will be very challenging, and not too effective, to share the reasons for your faith if you are not personally living it.  You really need to believe, and be obedient to, the truth you are trying to defend.

3. Know What You Believe:  Can you explain to someone else what you believe?  It is not enough to say that you hold to the doctrinal statement of your particular church or denomination.  You are not really called to defend a doctrinal statement.  You are called to give answer to anyone who asks you why you believe.  And to be able to do that, you need to know what you believe.

4. Know Why You Believe What You Do:  Knowing what you believe is really only a first step.  You also need to know why you believe it.  It is generally not sufficient to claim the belief because it is what your church teaches, even though it likely does teach that.  It is much better when you can put into your own words just why you believe some truth about your faith.

5. Care About Others:  An effective apologist needs to have a concern for the people that he is sharing with.  Without that, your defense will likely be more of a sterile debate or an angry exchange.  Genuine concern for the person you are sharing with will be evident to the other person, and will make them much more likely to at least give you a fair hearing.

6. Know Your Questioner: Who is it you are providing a defense to?  Is it another believer who has doubts or an alternative view?  Is it an honest inquirer who just whats to know why you believe what you do and is open to your response?  Or is it someone who is just looking to argue and has no interest in what you have to say?  Knowing who you are talking to should impact the way you make your defense, and whether you should even bother; the last given alternative is one that most are advised to avoid.

7. Don't Get Sidetracked: It never ceases to amaze me the direction that conversations about faith can take.  And too often those detours really have nothing to do with the original discussion or question.  Sometimes that is OK.  But other times the detour was intentional; an effort to steer the conversation into an area that your discussion partner feels more comfortable debating.

8. Be Respectful: Do not attack the other person, belittle them, or act like they are stupid because they don't believe like you do.  Respect them as a creation of God.  And respect their right to hold to the beliefs they do.  That they do not believe like you is not a reflection on your value or beliefs.  Remember that they are not answerable to you, but to God.  Treating them with dignity and respect is your best shot at having them give you an attentive audience.

9. Keep Your Cool:  Remember to always maintain a gentle and respectful attitude in your defense.  If you feel you are reaching a place where you can't do that, then its time to disengage.  Lashing out may be just the response that your questioner is looking for.  While by no means applicable to all, I have found that some of those who are interrogating you are like a small boy with a stick, poking at the lion through the cage bars, trying to invoke a response.  Don't give them that satisfaction!

10. Know When to Quit: You need to stay aware of the effect your defense is having.  If it is being productive, then by all means continue.  But all too often you quickly reach a dead end and need to gracefully disengage.  If you have been able to explain to your questioner what you believe, and why, and have done so with gentleness and respect, then you have accomplished what you are called to do.  How they respond is not up to you, and you are not obligated to go over the same thing over and over, or chase them through every rabbit hole they go down as they seek to confuse you.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Love Your Enemies

I generally enjoy reading the scriptures and find inspiration, and challenge, within its words.  But occasionally there are times when Jesus has something to say to me that I really do not want to hear.  This morning, for instance, while reading through Luke I ran across the following.
“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.  If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them.  Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.  Do to others as you would have them do to you.
"If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them.  And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that.  And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full.  But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.  Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Luke 6:27-36 NIV
I can never remember this passage smacking me quite so hard before.  Yes, there have been people I have struggled with in my life, and  even a small handful that have hurt me badly enough that I avoid them as much as possible.  But for some reason I have never considered them as enemies and so have not applied this to them.

But that has recently changed with the realization that there are a few people around the edges of my life that I am at least treating as enemies, even though I have not given them that title before.  And with that the pretense of ignorance is gone and I am faced with having to respond to Jesus words, directed straight at me.  Will I love them?  Will I do good to them?  Will I pray for them?  Will I forgive them?  Will I be merciful?

As much as it pains me to admit it, I don't want to.  I would much rather continue to pretend like they no longer exist.  But I can't do that.  To do so would be to deny Jesus lordship in my life.  To disobey his voice would be to deny his authority over me.  To forgive would be to experience His forgiveness in my own life.

Does it matter that the harm they have done has not been directed specifically at me, but toward others that I care about, or to churches I have served in?  Does it matter that they are happy and/or content with what they have done?  Or have not repented of their actions?  I wish it did.  But I cannot see any exceptions in what Jesus says.  And even see him applying this to the worst case scenario; to those who are currently directing their enmity against me.

And so I am praying for a change in heart; for an attitude of forgiveness; for a willingness to readmit them to my world.  I know it will not be easy, but it is necessary if Jesus is truly to be my Lord.

Friday, November 15, 2013

I Was There

In Mark's gospel there is an interesting, and seemingly irrelevant, passage that is included in the account of Jesus arrest at Gethsemane, an account that is one of the few in Mark that is not included in either Matthew or Luke.
A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind. - Mark 14:51-52
Jesus has been arrested by the crowd sent out by the chief priests and all of his disciples have fled.  And now we see a young man, lightly clad, following Jesus, likely as they led him from the garden and back into Jerusalem.  He is seized by the crowd, sucks his garment, and runs away naked.  As humorous as this account is, in the midst of the seriousness of the rest of the account, what possible value does it offer?

I wish I could remember where I heard the following possible explanation, but it has been long enough ago now that I have lost any inkling of where I heard it, and can only repeat it in general terms.

Jesus has gone into Jerusalem and celebrated the Passover with his disciples in the upper room of someone's home.  The gospels don't tell us whose house this was, but it is known that in Acts the early church would use the home of a woman named Mary, the mother of John, also called Mark (Acts 12:12).  It is not unlikely that this was also the home that was used in the Passover meal recorded in the Gospels.

If indeed they are the same home then it is likely that Mark would have been celebrating the Passover downstairs with his family at the same time that Jesus is upstairs with his disciples.  During the meal upstairs Jesus identified his betrayer, who then left to go inform the priests as to Jesus whereabouts.  And then, after the meal, Jesus leaves with his disciples, minus Judas, for a quiet place outside of town.

Eventually Judas returns with the crowd to arrest Jesus, finds him gone from the home and then heads out to what was probably a common place for Jesus to visit while in Jerusalem.  But Judas' visit to the house awakens the young Mark, who then hurriedly wraps up in a sheet and runs to the garden to warn Jesus, but arrives too late.

Mark is there to see the arrest and starts to follow to see what will happen when he is grabbed and flees, streaking for home.  And then Jesus is taken to the home of the High Priest to begin a series of trials leading up to his crucifixion.

So why is this passage included here?  I believe it is Mark telling us, I was there.  I saw his arrest and can verify first hand that part of the story.  Rather than being a humorous anecdote injected into the account of Jesus arrest and trials, I believe this is a stamp of authenticity from a first person witness of the event.  He is not just telling us what he heard from Peter or others, but, at least for this event, what he had seen.