Notes on Matthew 4:12-25: Questions, Chronology, and Fishers Of Men

Welcome to the GGFApologetics Notes on Matthew blog.  I am determined to work my way through a deep dive in The Gospel of Matthew this year.  Observations may range from pastoral to simple questions or a survey of Bible difficulties.  I will be drawing information from many different commentaries, articles and scholars. Sources noted below.

Let’s continue.

The second half of the fourth chapter in The Gospel of Matthew moves from Satan’s temptation narratives to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  Verse eleven left Him in the company of angels with the devil departing as Jesus ordered him away, overcoming the evil one will become a recurring theme throughout the gospel narrative. 

Reading The Bible Like A Novel

We notice when the story picks up again in verse twelve that the Evangelist is concerned with Jesus’ movements.  He lists several geographical locations in a short block of text. Matthew opens with a curious statement: “When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he returned to Galilee” (v. 12).  

Why?  Why does this prompt Jesus to move His ministry?  

Issues like these remind me of something I remember hearing from Bible scholar Michael Heiser.  He says we should read the Bible like it’s a novel. That is not to say that we assume it’s fiction or that it’s a lower form of writing somehow.  No. The statement acknowledges that we read novels with curiosity. With novels, we are looking to make connections to information given earlier or making note of present material to see if it pops up again later.  Reading novels, we are acutely aware of the work of the author and where he wants to lead the reader.  So, according to Heiser, when we read that Jesus returned to Galilee once He heard about John’s imprisonment, if the answer isn’t obvious, we should ask “Why?”  Why would Matthew include this information? Is it something his audience would understand without explanation?  

In this case, there were a few practical advantages for Jesus moving His ministry along the Sea of Galilee to Capernaum, a lakeside fishing village.  Capernaum was a busier, more populated place than Nazareth. There would be more resources, supplies for His ministry. And more people. A more populated mission field.  However, an increasingly dire reason may have been to get beyond the reach of Herod Antipas, who famously imprisoned John.

But Why? 

In my research, I uncovered a couple ways to look at the Why questions.  First, this passage represents another example of “Fulfillment Prophecy”.  Second, it may also offer commentary to Christ followers about recent events happening near the time of the Gospel’s writing in 80-85 AD.

 Fulfillment Prophecy

Matthew’s motivation for mentioning these locations, like Nazareth, Capernaum, and Zebulun and Naphtali, beyond historical detail may have more to do with his habit of reaching back into the Old Testament to bolster the prophetic street credentials of Jesus.  This time, it involves verse 13 of the Gospel:  

“Leaving Nazareth, he went and live in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali– to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:  ‘Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, along the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles — the people living in the darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.’” ( Matthew 12-16 referring to Isaiah 9:1,2)

Yes.  Matthew reports another fulfillment of prophecy, this time from Isa. 9:1,2.  It’s interesting that the apostle condenses the passage from Isaiah seemingly just to highlight the presence of those city names and make the connection between those locations and the “dawning light” (Jesus).  The full text from Isaiah read:

“[a]Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan—

2   The people walking in darkness

    have seen a great light;

on those living in the land of deep darkness

    a light has dawned.”

Topical, not Chronological

Here is a good place to make note that Matthew often arranged information topically, not chronologically.  So we must not think that John was locked up immediately after Jesus’ final temptation. So if this historical event is not to be understood as listed chronologically, why include it here?  Again, we should ask why. Scholar Warren Carter believes the text served as a cultural commentary on Post-Resurrection life:

“This Isaiah text functions in Matthew 4:12-16 as an analogy for Rome’s empire. “Galilee owned by or under the Gentiles” now belongs to and is ruled by another Gentile empire. Roman control had been freshly asserted over Galilee in destroying Jerusalem and its temple in 70CE. Matthew’s Gospel, written in the 80s, cites Isaiah 9:1-2 to describe Roman rule as ‘darkness” and ‘death.’ It positions Jesus, at the beginning of his public ministry, as the light or saving presence that shines in the darkness of Rome’s imperial domination. Jesus asserts God’s light or saving rule in Roman Galilee.” (Carter)

So, while not listed in this chapter to represent strict historical record, Matthew references recent tragic events, the Temple destruction ten years or so earlier, to convey to his Jewish audience Jesus’ place in history.  He offers the real hope of Christ to a defeated people.

The Kingdom Of Heaven

“From that time on Jesus began to preach . . .” (v.17) There are a couple times where Matthew uses a phrase like this to mark our entrance into a different section of the Matthew’s Gospel. The other similar verse is Matthew 16:21 which announces 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, chief priests, teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”

So verse 17 separates this proclaiming of the kingdom from the first part of the gospel, the introduction (Matt 1-4), and Matthew 16 begins Jesus’ journey to the Cross (Matt 16-28).  These markers divide the book, again, by topic. Four chapters within the Introduction. Twelve chapters in each of the final two sections.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” (v.17 continued)  This may sound familiar to those following along in this Matthew study because it is the identical message of John The Baptist.  Or is it? Scholar and commentator FF Bruce explains these words have different meaning when said by Jesus:

“Jesus’ message is summed up in the same words as John’s preaching but ‘the kingdom of heaven’ on his lips had not the same connotation as it did on John’s.  Jesus’ call to repentance was a call to men to re-access all personal and social values in the light of the approach of the divine kingdom in His ministry. . .” (Bruce, “UTNT”. P 15.)

Interestingly, because Matthew wrote to a Jewish audience, we have this much repeated phrase “Kingdom of Heaven”.  In Warren Wiersbe’s “Be Loyal” commentary on Matthew, he explains that, out of reverence for our Good Good Father, the Jewish people would not use the phrase “Kingdom of God”.  So they would use the word Heaven in its place. Kingdom of Heaven is mentioned thirty-two times in Matthew’s Gospel, while mentioning Kingdom of God only five times.  In parallel stories, in Mark and Luke, Kingdom of God has the majority of use.  Both those gospels were written to a non-Jewish audience, the Romans.

Wiersbe goes on to explain that:

“In the New Testament, the word kingdom means ‘rule, reign, authority’ rather than a place or a specific realm.  The phrase “kingdom of heaven” refers to the rule of God. The Jewish leaders wanted a political leader who would deliver them from Rome, but Jesus came to bring spiritual rule to the hearts of people.” (p42,43)

When Wiersbe mentions that Jewish leaders expected, in Jesus, a political leader, not a spiritual one, it makes me think about how we often observe uninformed criticism from skeptics.  These unbelievers scoff at examples of prophecy fulfillment inferring that New Testament writers simply invented the actions of Jesus in order to coincide with what was reported or prophesied in the Old Testament. But this accusation, in many cases, ignores the fact that the ancient Jewish people misunderstood so much about the coming of Jesus, who He would be, and how God’s Will would be accomplished.  The true events of the New Testament, in effect, would represent poorly told lies, in that the truth would be more difficult to believe because it so violently diverted from common Jewish thought.  

Fishers of Men

If one were to have The Gospel of Matthew as their only source for knowledge of the story of Jesus, they would have to believe that, seemingly out of the blue, Jesus commanded Peter and Andrew to “follow” Him in verse 19.  And they immediately dropped their nets and left their father Zebedee to follow this stranger. Remember, that before this, though, the events of John 1:19-3:36 had already unfolded. Jesus wasn’t a stranger at all. Jesus had spent a day with Peter, Andrew, James, and an unnamed disciple (possibly John) before calling them into service.  

The fishermen knew Him as the “Messiah” and John The Baptist had testified to them about Jesus before they were called into service.  The men did not follow Him blindly or as entranced sheep.

Note, this section of scripture also features the famous “fishers of men” line, for me, remembered so well from a children’s church song from Sunday school.  Well, interestingly, a similar phrase can be found in Jeremiah 16:16. But there, it’s fishers for men, meaning men catching people in judgment.  Jesus, on the other hand, ordained men to save people from judgement.  Another example of how Jesus turned the Jewish world on its head when he came here to be with us.

In closing, did Jesus turn your world on its head?  How differently would you be living if not for Jesus?  How has hope in Him changed you? Changed your relationships?  How would you describe this experience to an unbeliever?

God helping us, may we be true “Fishers of Men”.

Sources:

Carter, Warren. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3138

Bruce, FF.  “Understanding the New Testament:  Matthew”. Page 15.

Wiersbe, Warren.  “Be Loyal: Following The King Of Kings”. Pages 42,43.

Notes on Matthew 3

Each new year many believers vow to read the Bible cover to cover within the next 12 months. I have tried and failed this objective many times.  This year I want to try something different. I will study just a few books (starting with the Gospel of Matthew) of the Word instead of the whole book.  And I will STUDY instead just monotonously churn through words as I have done in years past. I will read commentaries, blog posts, opinions, histories, and textual criticism.  Pretty much anything about Matthew that I can get my hands on. So suggestions for study material would be appreciated.

I hope to periodically post notes and things I have learned from this endeavor.  I imagine some of it will be apologetics, some may be pastoral, and some maybe just asking questions for further study.  My hope in sharing is that someone else may be inspired to dig deeper into our Good Good Father’s Word. I have already benefited even in this short time.

So let’s begin.

In Those Days . . .

Thirty years goes by between Matthew Chapter 2 and Chapter 3.  If a modern day biographer did something like that, many the eyebrows would indeed raise.  But doubtful that ancient readers of the ancients texts cried, “What happened to adolescent Jesus?  The teenage Jesus? You missed stuff about young adult Jesus!” No Matthew skipped over a lot of ground to get us to the meat of the story.  It’s interesting that nine of Matthew’s 28 chapters are spent on the events of Jesus’ last days. So one third of the gospel. Writings of antiquity,unlike, say, modern biographies, often take this sort of lop-sided form.  

So, it’s clear, dilly dallying isn’t on the menu.  Matthew desperately wants to get his readers, the Jews, to the point where they learn who Jesus is and what He has done for them and how they should live with this knowledge.  So doesn’t it seem odd that we open chapter three by introducing another man? Not putting Jesus front and center? This new character is John The Baptist. (JTB going forward)

The Historical John

As someone very interested in arguments for the Historical Jesus, that is, arguments that make the case for Him as an actual historical figure, I am thrilled to see John come preaching in the Desert of Judea and saying “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”  Why? Well, because JTB is an undisputed, to my knowledge, historical person. From Luke 1, he is also a distant relative of Jesus. His ministry was even mentioned by noted ancient Jewish historian Josephus. So people who are mentioned in genealogies and who have relationships with multiply-attested real historic persons are widely understood to also be ones of history as well, not myth.

Here’s what Josephus wrote about The Baptist in his work of ancient history, “Antiquities” (xviii. 116-119):

“Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and was a very just punishment for what he did against John called the baptist  [the dipper]. For Herod had him killed, although he was a good man and had urged the Jews to exert themselves to virtue, both as to justice toward one another and reverence towards God, and having done so join together in washing. For  immersion in water, it was clear to him, could not be used for the forgiveness of sins, but as a sanctification of the body, and only if the soul was already thoroughly purified by right actions. And when others massed about him, for they were very greatly moved by his words, Herod, who feared that such strong influence over the people might carry to a revolt — for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise — believed it much better to move now than later have it raise a rebellion and engage him in actions he would regret.

And so John, out of Herod’s suspiciousness, was sent in chains to Machaerus, the fort previously mentioned, and there put to death; but it was the opinion of the Jews that out of retribution for John God willed the destruction of the army so as to afflict Herod.”

The Poorly Told Lie

In current Jesus conversations with skeptics these days, all you need to do in mention Josephus to hear someone shout “Interpolation! The writings of Josephus were corrupted by Christian copyists or translators!” And yes, there is a very real possibility that one of the sections mentioning Jesus was tampered with (by whom, nobody knows).  So some skeptics might reflexively imagine that the passage on John the Baptist was interpolated at the same time as the passage on Jesus. Yet, as John P. Meier states (“John the Baptist in Josephus,” p. 227):

“The account Josephus gives of the Baptist is literarily and theologically unconnected with the account of Jesus, which occurs earlier in book 18 and correspondingly lacks any reference to the Baptist. The passage about the Baptist, which is more than twice as long as the passage about Jesus, is also notably more laudatory. It also differs from (but does not formally contradict) the four Gospels in its presentation both of John’s ministry and of his death. Hence it is hard to imagine a Christian scribe inserting into book 18 of the Antiquities two passages about Jesus and the Baptist in which the Baptist appears on the scene after Jesus died, has no connection with Jesus, receives more extensive treatment than Jesus, and is praised more highly than Jesus.”

So as Meier believes, the injection of new Christian material into the JTB passage in Josephus in this way would amount to the telling of a poorly told lie.  There would be many other bits of information more beneficially added to the passage that would further a Christian agenda or promote Christianity more fully.  One of which would be to directly mention Jesus and form a strong connection between the two. As written, it is too well disguised as an independent report to have any purposeful evangelistic use due to those nefarious Christian interpolators!

Now! Introducing . . .

I think the best way to describe the function of JTB in the Gospels is that his job is that of a herald.  Historically, a herald was an officer in medieval Europe who carried messages to and from different military commands.  We also often think of heralds as announcers who inform us that an important person is about to enter the room. So to respond to my own comment above about it being odd that Matthew starts chapter three by shifting the focus to another character,  he really isn’t doing that at all. John only points us and his audience TO Jesus Christ. He is the prophesied “voice of one calling in the desert.  ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” (Isaiah 40:3).

The first chapter of the Gospel of John describes JTB this way:  

“6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. 8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. 9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.”

“Great in the Sight of the Lord”

The Gospel of Luke describes JTB’s early family history.  The book describes the miracle of his birth to a barren woman, Elizabeth.  His father Zechariah, a Jewish priest who served in the Temple, received a message from the angel Gabriel about his son’s future arrival.

First of all, I wonder what it was like to know from a young age that you will be “great in the sight of the Lord” (Luke 1:15).  If not for the next detail of being “filled with the Holy Spirit” (same verse), I imagine one could abuse such a situation. And many of us are told by our parents that God has a plan for us, but I imagine few of them have this knowledge corroborated by an angel.

The detail of Zechariah’s position as one in a division of temple priests also helps to shed some light onto JTB’s pre-Gospel history.  John Meier, a scholar who has issues with the Infancy Narratives in Luke, makes this observation:

“. . . I think that if anything can be salvaged from Luke’s narrative, it is the idea that John was the only son of a priest who functioned in the Jerusalem temple.  This would be a most significant nugget of information, for the only son of a Jerusalem priest would have the solemn duty to follow his father in his function and to make sure that the priestly line was continued by marriage and children.  If this was in fact the historical situation, John at some point must have consciously turned his back on and—in Jewish eyes—scandalously rejected his obligation to be a priest in his father’s footsteps and to supply priestly descendents after him.  Forsaking family duty as well as his priestly duty to the Jerusalem temple—therefore, forsaking all that was the most sacred to Judaism—he went into the wilderness of Judea to announce imminent judgment and the dire need for moral cleansing on the part of all the Jews.” (AMJV2 pp24.)

So John may have turned away from the norms and obligations of his culture in order to wait on his calling from the Lord.  Dressed similarly to the prophet Elijah, coming out of the desert, possibly in a Qumran settlement, John did not seek to exchange niceties with approaching Pharisees and Sadducees.  “Brood of vipers!” served as his opening greeting to the religious elites of the time.  Then he flatly informed them that their reliance on their heritage as being people in the line of Abraham will not save them from the impending “unquenchable fire” (3:12).  They must “produce fruit in keeping with repentance” to avoid the “coming wrath” (3:8).  Gangster.

Fulfilling All Righteousness

So we now see how John’s story simply sets the stage for Jesus to re-enter to story.  After establishing the workings of John’s introductory movement, Matthew set up the meeting between the “herald” and the most important person in history.

First, however, JTB needed to make clear that his baptism is different from that of the One coming.  After all, he was sent to preach a message of repentance and deeds, clearing a path for the Savior from sin.  John says in Matthew 3:11:

“11 “I baptize you with[a] water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with[b] the Holy Spirit and fire.”

New Testament scholar Oscar Cullman explains that:  

“This is then the new element in Christian Baptism according to the preaching of the Baptist.  This new baptismal gift of the Holy Spirit is imparted neither by Jewish proselyte baptism nor by Johannine baptism.  It is bound up with the person and the work of Christ.” (BINTNT p.10)

In chapter 3, verse 13, it is told that “then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John.  Maybe it’s a small detail, but one might read this as all occurring in one scene: John chastising religious leaders and preaching his message of repentance, then Jesus shows up.  It very well could have happened this way I suppose, but I see this more as a compressed narrative where Matthew is stacking separate stories one on top of the other. Apart from careful reading, these connections almost appear seamless. However, the idea that the sinless Messiah needed to receive John’s baptism of repentance when he had nothing for which to repent is a difficult one to fathom.  I am not embarrassed to say that I struggled with this one. Even John seemed shocked by the idea and suggested that it was he who needed the Messiah’s baptism, not the other way around.  To this Jesus said, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.”(v.15)

Let’s look closer at this response. One thing to note, this is the first time Jesus speaks in the entire New Testament, considering the traditional book order of the Gospels in your bible and excluding instances chronologically earlier.  Next, when I read “Let it be so now. . . “ I read the now with emphasis, as if it is a command.  Jesus here takes the role of someone lesser while simultaneously possessing the role of King.  So when He says, “it is proper for us to do this . . .” he means this is okay, acceptable, the right thing to do.  It is not that this needs to happen. And he convinces John that there’s no problem with doing this.  This is what Jesus wants to do in order to “fulfill all righteousness”.  I believe His baptism became a symbol of his joining fallen humanity because by joining us, he is fulfilling all righteousness by sharing our baptism of repentance.

The following is what happened next:

16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

It is unclear who heard the voice from heaven or saw the Spirit of God descend, but anyone who witnessed this happen could only be awe-struck. Were they surrounded by disciples of John or was this a more personal and private meeting? The text isn’t clear. What we do know is that this event kicked off Jesus’ ministry and started His journey to the Cross. Him be praised!

Here are some words taken from the Matthew Henry Commentary on Matthew that may sort this out a little more:

“At Christ’s baptism there was a manifestation of the three Persons in the sacred Trinity. The Father confirming the Son to be Mediator; the Son solemnly entering upon the work; the Holy Spirit descending on him, to be through his mediation communicated to his people. . . Out of Christ, God is a consuming fire, but in Christ, a reconciled Father. This is the sum of the gospel, which we must by faith cheerfully embrace.” (Henry)

May we all continue to cheerfully embrace faith in our Savior, Jesus Christ.  Thank you for reading this installment. May God bless you and keep you.

Sources:

http://peterkirby.com/john-the-baptist-authentic.html quoting “John The Baptist in Josephus” by John P. Meier. Pp 227.

Meier, John P. “A Marginal Jew Volume Two:  Mentor, Message, and Miracles”. P.24.

Cullman, Oscar.  “Baptism in the New Testament”. P.10.

Henry, Matthew. “Commentary on Matthew”.

All Scripture from NIV.

Are Christians Atheists Too?

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Are Christians Atheists Too?
Wandering the raucous hallways of a facebook apologetics forum the other day and ran across an unbeliever who loved the “I just believe in one less God than you” argument. I mean really loved it. Moving up and down the threads, I saw him employ it numerous times in seemingly one sitting. But what’s the appeal really?
I suppose people may think it’s a winning argument because it attempts to convict the believer of the same irrationality of which we accuse the unbeliever: Certain gods do not exist. And if we, indeed, make the claim that these other gods do not exist, we are then guilty of doing the same thing as atheists do, though not really atheism. In such a case, we would be making a positive knowledge claim [the non-existence of god(s)] that we cannot support observationally. So I would like to advise that we cease doing so, if this is the case, but I’ll get to that later.
The atheist argument follows that the believer denies the existence of all other gods except the God of their own personal choice, presumably the God of the Bible. So we, as believers, assume our own atheism [non-existence of god(s)] or their silly “lack of belief” stance on atheism, regarding Thor and Zeus and Krishna and the like. The popular statement of this position is worded as such by atheist Stephen F. Roberts:

“I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

Christian apologist J. Warner Wallace has a tidy answer prepared for those who hold this position:

In every criminal trial, a jury is asked to evaluate the actions of one defendant related to a particular crime. While there are millions of other people in the world who could have committed the crime under consideration (and indeed, millions of these people were actually available to commit the crime), only one has been charged. If the jury becomes convinced this defendant is the perpetrator, they will convict him based on their beliefs. They will convict the accused even though they haven’t examined the actions (or nature) of millions of other potential suspects. They’ll render a verdict based on the evidence related to this defendant, in spite of the fact they may be ignorant of the history or actions of several million alternatives. If the evidence is persuasive, the jurors will become true believers in the guilt of this man or woman, even as they reject millions of other options . . .At the end of a trial, juries are “unbelievers” when it comes to every other potential suspect, because the evidence confirming the guilt of their particular defendant was sufficient. In a similar way, we can be confident “unbelievers” when it comes to every other potential god because the evidence for Christianity is more than sufficient.”

Wallace’s response deals with our ability to judge rationally which gods exist evidentially through argument and reason. The existence of alternative “gods” do not logically hinder our ability to find one true One or render the existence of one true God irrational. That’s Wallace’s argument. But I want to deal with the first part of Roberts’ claim.

I CONTEND THAT WE ARE BOTH ATHEISTS . . .
Atheist Stephen F. Roberts’ argument, well, maybe more of an assertion, is that atheists and theists, if they do reject other gods, do so for the same reasons. This is untrue. Theists reject other gods because of what they know. Atheists, reportedly, reject other gods because of what they don’t know (lack of belief).
See, not too long ago, unbelievers adopted a new definition for atheism. Most of them categorically reject the definition of atheism found in the “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy” which calls atheism:

“Atheism” is typically defined in terms of “theism”. Theism, in turn, is best understood as a proposition—something that is either true or false. It is often defined as “the belief that God exists”, but here “belief” means “something believed”. It refers to the propositional content of belief, not to the attitude or psychological state of believing. This is why it makes sense to say that theism is true or false and to argue for or against theism. If, however, “atheism” is defined in terms of theism and theism is the proposition that God exists and not the psychological condition of believing that there is a God, then it follows that atheism is not the absence of the psychological condition of believing that God exists (more on this below). The “a-” in “atheism” must be understood as negation instead of absence, as “not” instead of “without”. Therefore, in philosophy at least, atheism should be construed as the proposition that God does not exist (or, more broadly, the proposition that there are no gods).

They have replaced the definition above with what we will call a “lack of belief”. This position, if they would even agree to call it one, conveniently makes no knowledge claims. This is the upside for the god-denier. No propositions to defend. This “lack of belief” holds that theism must do the heavy lifting to convince them of our claim, since they have made none. The downside of this tactic is that atheism now lacks, among other things, explanatory power. A “lack of belief” only describes a personal deficiency and not reality. Atheism, as such, ceases to have cultural relevance as defined here, since non-beliefs cannot motivate or comment on or improve anything.

ANATOMY OF A TRAP
So Roberts’ argument now becomes a trap, volleying the adherent between two definitions. The unbeliever must admit that they reject gods because of a personal deficiency, rendering the position impotent, or they must make a positive claim that NO gods exist, a knowledge claim that they cannot support with evidence. They can’t really do both, can they?
While theism, Christianity in particular, continually seeks to explain the universe through reason, science, history, and philosophy, atheism reverts to “feels” and spiraling nihilism.

BUT ARE WE ATHEISTS TOO?
But are we atheists too? Well, God never makes these claims. In fact, He acknowledges other “gods” quite boldly in scripture:

“For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe.” Deut 10:17.
“Give thanks to the God of gods, for his steadfast love endures forever.” Psalm 136:2.
“For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods.” Psalm 95:3.
“For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on *all the gods of Egypt* I will execute judgments: I am the LORD.” Exodus 12:12.
“God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:” Psalm 82:1.
“For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” 1 Cor 8:5-6.

And an article by Elizabeth Sloane from www.haaretz.com, an online edition of the Haaretz Newspaper in Israel reasons:

Early Judaism did not deny the existence of other gods. The Biblical story of Exodus categorically acknowledges and affirms the existence of other gods. It paints the plagues of Egypt not just as war on the pharaoh, but as a war on the gods of Egypt: “Against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments” (Ex. 12.12).”

Some may counter with examples of many other passages in scripture that seem to directly contradict the verses above. But what are they saying when they use the word “god” or “gods”. These are man-made idols. These are creations of creation, not of our Good Good Father. None of these stand in opposition to the God of the Bible on their own. They exist but not as the One True God who is worthy of worship, but as idols. False gods. Unholy machinations of our fallen nature.
So, no. We are not “both atheists”. We do not fall into contradiction claiming things we cannot determine through reason and evidence, like the non-existence of false deities. We continue to be able to explain reality by appealing to what best fits the evidence and not revert to a weak position of “lack of belief”.
God Bless.
https://coldcasechristianity.com/writings/do-atheists-believe-in-just-one-less-god-than-christians/
https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/atheism-agnosticism/#DefiAthe
https://www.haaretz.com/archaeology/.premium.MAGAZINE-what-if-god-didn-t-really-care-if-we-worship-other-gods-1.5459638

You Are More?

 

10th avenue

Attending a Christian music concert the other night, I became inspired by the lyrics of the Tenth Avenue North song “You Are More”.  This is a song that I have long admired and believe it’s message is true. Here is a sample of the chorus:

“You are more than the choices that you’ve made,
You are more than the sum of your past mistakes,
You are more than the problems you create,
You’ve been remade.”

The song, written to the believer, makes a value judgement regarding a person’s relationship to the choices, mistakes, and problems attributed to them.  It places a person’s identity above their undesirable actions or consequences. Now I would think that believers and unbelievers, the same, would agree with most of these words, apart from the last line, “You’ve been remade”.  Aside from this reference to the regeneration of the human soul, surely there are folks who deny the existence of God and the resurrection of Jesus who surely believe in their own personal value and, thus, feel enabled to enthusiastically belt out those lyrics right beside me.

The unbeliever’s testimony to the value, or “moreness” of humanity can be witnessed in instances like their moral indignation to the plight of the poor.  The fight for civil, moral, or “reproductive” rights also calls to attention a belief in inherent attributes of each individual that would not be relevant to beings whose existence stem from strictly material forces.

But how can they so rightfully agree?  On what rational basis can they place themselves, their worth, their identity, above the accumulation of their actions if not for the presence of an ultimate provider of value?

“You are more than the choices that you’ve made,
You are more than the sum of your past mistakes,
You are more than the problems you create,
You’ve been remade.”

The unbeliever may think that the answer lay in his ability to create value within himself.  In other words, much like they claim meaning and purpose for their lives, the God-denier himself needs to be the source of his own value.  But if that were true, where does one attain this value, if they do not possess it from the start? And is this self-given value real? For instance, if I call myself a king, but am not actual descendant of certain royal heritage, am I a true king?  I may feel as though I am a king. I may self-identify as one, but if I were honest, I have no authority to change the objective state of who I am, or have been from the start, no matter how many people I ask to “bow” to it.

Conversely, Christians account for this inherent worth of humanity from a source outside themselves.  Value, worth, meaning, and purpose are things that are given to us, not things true by virtue of human declaration.

Believers rely on the authority of the divine inspiration of scripture.  From Genesis 1:27: “So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female he created them.”  As image-bearers of God, humans are set apart from the rest of creation and given dominion over “the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (v.28)  Not only does God demonstrate our value to Him through creation, He does so by the sacrifice of His son on the cross for those who love Him. We know this because Romans 5:8 tells us that “ . . . God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”.

“You are more than the choices that you’ve made,
You are more than the sum of your past mistakes,
You are more than the problems you create,
You’ve been remade.”

This “remaking” we hear about in the last verse of the song’s chorus informs us of a regeneration of the believer’s spirit accomplished by Christ succumbing to death on the cross, paying for the redemption of His people with His life.  An undeserved act of God alone to bestow righteousness upon those who love Him. Something He as sovereign Lord alone has the authority to do.

So humanity can only be more because of our status as image-bearers of the Good Good Father.  Because of grace, believers are not only more, but are righteous because of Christ’s finished work for our redemption.

“You are more than the choices that you’ve made,
You are more than the sum of your past mistakes,
You are more than the problems you create,
You’ve been remade.”

May we sing that last verse as loudly and surely as we are able to sing the three before it.

God Bless.

Contradiction or Undesigned Coincidence?

undesigned coincidence
As we move closer to Easter, as with most religious holidays, we will often experience a cultural backlash against our Christian faith. We see billboards, bought by atheist groups, denoting a lack of need for a Savior. At Christmas, we may see mythicism promoted by unbelieving “friends” on our facebook feeds. And claims alleging that the Bible is nothing but a book of fairy tales. It is for this reason I would like to share this bit of Bible teaching, to, both, strengthen our own confidence in scripture and help us further provide an answer to “everyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope you have . . . with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).

To do this, I will be referring heavily to Lydia McGrew’s marvelous book, “Hidden in Plain Sight: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts”. McGrew’s book, itself, is an unearthing of evidence for the historical reliability of the gospels written in the 18th and 19th centuries by apologists William Paley and Jame Blunt, respectively.

From the synopsis of her book, the term “undesigned coincidences” refers to:

“ . . . an apparently casual, yet puzzle-like “fit” between two or more texts, and its best explanation is that the authors knew the truth about the events they describe or allude to. Connections of this kind among passages in the Gospels, as well as between Acts and the Pauline epistles, give us reason to believe that these documents came from honest eyewitness sources, people “in the know” about the events they relate.”

For this article, I want to simply paraphrase one of my favorite instances of this inter-locking of events within the gospels, though there are many more illustrated in McGrew’s book. Please, by all means, check out this book for the rest.

We start in John 18:10 when Jesus and His companions are waiting in the garden of Gethsemane. Jesus waited there for Judas to arrive with a detachment of soldiers to arrest Him. Verse 10 explains the reaction of Jesus’ followers to His detainment at the hands of the officials sent by the chief priests and Pharisees.

“Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus)” (verse 10). So after introducing the name Malchus to us, the Book of John doesn’t mention him again. We can only assume that the high priest’s servant left the scene holding the right side of his head, less an ear.

The story then leads us to the trial of Jesus and this exchange between Pilate and Jesus as He was questioned out of earshot of the Jewish council whose goal is to have Jesus executed. John 18:33-36:

“Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

“Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”

“Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “It was your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”

Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

Do you see a contradiction here between these two passages in the same chapter of John? When Jesus claims that His kingdom is not of this world, He supports His claim by saying that if it were not so, His followers would fight to save Him. Well, evidenced in John 18:10, Peter did fight. He lopped off Malchus’s ear with his sword.

So when Pilate hears these claims of being peaceful from Jesus, he goes to the Jews and says that he finds “no basis for a charge against him” (v. 38). Now because it was the aim of the Jews to present Jesus as opposition to Caesar, they could have shown a conflict in Jesus’s own words, opposed to the actions of his disciples (Peter), by simply showing Pilate Malchus’s wounded head. They could have attempted to show that Jesus and His disciples have a violent revolution in mind for the kingdom of Rome which would be a capital offense.

Why didn’t they do this? If our only source of information is John’s Gospel, it doesn’t make sense that the Jews wouldn’t use the attack on Malchus to make their case, right?

However, the question is answered in Luke 22:47-53. Describing the scene in the garden, Luke says:

“While he was still speaking, there came a crowd, and the man called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He drew near to Jesus to kiss him, but Jesus said to him, “Judas, would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?” And when those who were around him saw what would follow, they said, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” And one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. Then Jesus said to the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders, who had come out against him, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs? When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness.” (Luke 22.47–53)”

In an excerpt from “Hidden in Plain Sight”:

‘Only Luke says that Jesus healed the servant’s ear, though Matthew and Mark also recount that the ear was cut off. Here again, Luke supplies a unique detail within a passage that is in some respects similar to the other Synoptic Gospels. And here, too, this detail is confirmed by an undesigned coincidence. If it is true that Jesus healed the servant’s ear, it explains Jesus’ words to Pilate, though those words are given only in John. Jesus could confidently declare that his kingdom is not of this world and even say that his servants would be fighting if his kingdom were not peaceful. If anyone tried to say that Peter cut off a servant’s ear, the wounded servant himself could not be produced to show this, and an admission that Jesus healed the ear would be further evidence of Jesus’ non-violent intentions, not to mention evidence of his miraculous abilities.”

This is one of my favorite undesigned coincidences because, embedded within, it, in a way, confirms an actual miracle. Because if not for the soldier’s healed ear, the Jews could have produced actual evidence, though circumstantial and dishonest, to build their case against our Good Good Father. Instead, the happening of the crucifixion of Jesus depended entirely on the political manipulation of Pilate and making him worry that he appeared to be “no friend of Caesar” (John 19:12).

In this way and among other ways, detailed in Lydia McGrew’s book, John and Luke fit together like a puzzle, Luke explaining a difficulty in John. The writer of John’s Gospel undoubtedly knew about the soldier’s ear but, for some reason, left out this detail, all the while, continuing the narrative as if it did happen. In a completely unforced way, John’s story only makes sense in light of Luke’s version. Not to mention, that in a separate coincidence, Jesus’s testimony in John 18:36 explains why Pilate cannot find reason to charge Jesus in Luke’s gospel. So the authors of both gospels end up supporting the historical reliability of the other in a subtle, undesigned way.

What should be made of all this? The best explanation is that the authors knew the truth about the events they described.

God bless.

The Good Good Father vs. The Straw god

scarecrow-wizard-of-oz

A true tragedy within contemporary culture is the great amount of people, some even claiming to be Christians, who do not understand the character of God.  In some cases, their animosity does not seem to be based in mere misunderstanding, but in strategy.  Willingly or unwittingly, they create gods of their own choosing, what I will call Straw gods (small “g”).  Like straw man arguments, these ideas are formed in order to defeat a god who is fallible, limited, not all-powerful, not holy, or all-knowing.  Below, I would like to give a few examples of just such questions or statements that confuse a Straw god with the God of the Bible, explain the inherent problems with them, and even try to answer them in a way that will not support their faulty premises.  To do that, I will humbly borrow the theological gravitas of Arthur W. Pink and his book, “The Attributes of God”, from which I will quote extensively.

Before we begin, I want my readers to know that I sampled these questions from various atheist/ Christian Facebook groups.  These are real questions that should demonstrate to us the magnitude of our culture’s inability to understand who our Good Good Father is.

Let’s proceed.

 

Question #1.  Shouldn’t a god who commits mass murder be held accountable?

The answer is yes.  But a god who commits mass murder cannot be the God of the bible.  The questioner, here, posits a Straw god who can be convicted of a crime (murder) and then be held accountable for said crime.  The holiness of this god is called into question, as well as his sovereignty.  One is moved to ask if this god that isn’t all good or all powerful or all moral is worthy of our praise?  Truly, the one named in this question is not.

The Bible tells us that “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John1:5).  Certainly, a being without darkness would not be a murderer.  Such diabolical claims are most often made in relation to Old Testament commands to utterly destroy enemies of Israel, punishing them for their grave disobedience.  Either way, it is our sinful world that deserves God’s punishment.  Punishment, not murder.  These deaths occurred due to the despicable things done to one another and done to a people who had been warned, but remained in direct rebellion against their creator.  Pink explains:

“Because God is holy he hates all sin. . . It follows, therefore, that he must necessarily punish sin.  Sin can no more exist without demanding his punishment than without requiring his hatred of it.  God has often forgiven sinners but he never forgives sin; and the sinner is only forgiven on the ground of Another having borne his punishment . . .” (page 54)

Other times, questioners may conflate the existence of natural disasters, like hurricanes and tsunamis, with a murderous god.  After all, aren’t God’s decrees the “counsel of his own will” (Ephesians 1:11).  The problem here is that these “acts of God” seem to be the only acts attributed to Him.  Isn’t a beautiful warm summer day an act of God?  A cool refreshing breeze?  Rain for the farmer’s crops?  But when we see an event happen that, with our limited knowledge, we deem to be negative, doesn’t it seem that these are the only acts God must be responsible for?  Pink offers:

“O that men would praise the Lord for his goodness, and for his wonderful works to children of men” (Ps. 107:8).  Gratitude is the return justly required from the objects of his beneficence; yet it is often withheld from out great Benefactor simply because his goodness is so constant and so abundant.  It is lightly esteemed because it is exercised toward us in the common course of events.  It is not felt because we daily experience it.” (page 77)

A page earlier Pink talks about examples of God’s goodness revealed in our human experiences:

“With comparatively rare exceptions, men and women, experience a far greater number of days of health than they do of sickness and pain.  There is much more creature happiness than creature-misery in the world.  Even our sorrows admit of considerable alleviation, and God has given to the human mind a pliability which adapts itself to circumstances and makes the most of them.”  (page 76)

Truth is, the proof of God’s eternal goodness cannot not be explained by the results of a  temporary existence.  Exiting the material world does not mark the end of the human experience of those who love God.

Still, they will call Him a murderer or genocidal.  If we are to accept this characterization of our Good Good Father, we also must ask ourselves the following questions:

How is it possible for the creator of the morality to be immoral since immorality is a deficiency of perfect morality?  It is not.  God is the maximal Being.  He cannot exhibit traits that are not perfect.  

By what standard can we judge a being who made us?  It is one thing to pass judgement upon someone who resides on our same footing, a coworker, friend, or neighbor, but it is an entirely different story to act as judge over a being of infinite perfection.

The question then asks shouldn’t God be held accountable.  Whom could He possibly be held accountable to?  If there is one, to which, our God could be held accountable, that being would then be God.

We, as believers, rejoice in the fact that our holy God has absolute authority over creation.  Clearly, the Straw god in question #1 is about one that is unholy and not good and without authority.

Question #2.  Why would a loving God send anyone to hell?

So the Straw god put forth is one that cannot reconcile his loving nature with his nature of wrath.  This is not the God of the Bible worshiped by Christians.  According to His word (1 John 4:8, Ps. 7:11), God is all loving and yet the wrath of God is another perfect facet of his Divine character.  To infer otherwise, as this question does, misunderstands both attributes.

In his book, mentioned above, Pink lists several qualities related to His perfect love and makes the point that “it is not simply that God ‘loves’, but that He is love (1John 4:8).  Love is not merely one of his attributes, but His very nature” (page 98).  So because He is love and He is sovereign, infinite, holy, immutable, and gracious, it stands to reason that so is His love.

After having defined God as love itself, the skeptic might propose that His reaction to the rebellion by His creation to His face should also be loving, which is in keeping with his identity.  To this, I would say that God’s response to those violating the law is wholly loving.  His response is the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.   Folks that are moved to respond to this supremely loving act are saved, given eternal life. For those who are unmoved by Him, He respects their will to remain separated from His presence.  Moreover, “How could he who is the Sum of all excellency look with equal satisfaction upon virtue and vice, wisdom and folly?” (page 106)  In other words, how should a being whose every nature is perfect respond to what is “impure and vile”?  Wouldn’t not judging evil be, in fact, unloving and violate His divine character?  In effect, wouldn’t it also be a “moral blemish” attributed to a morally perfect God?  Pink says, “Indifference to sin is a moral blemish, and he who hates it not is a moral leper” (page 106).

Clearly, in order for God to be God, He must be able to reconcile all his Divine characteristics.  That is the Good Good Father that deserves our worship.

Question #3.  Can’t god get rid of evil?

It should be noted that often the same skeptic who has asked questions #1 and 2, at another time, may turn around and ask question #3.  Which creates a no-win situation.  One where God can neither punish evil or let evil reside without accusation.  And clearly, if this questioner is one that adheres to materialist belief, it should be asked of them how their concept of evil is grounded, since if material is all that exists, they cannot possibly believe in such a thing as evil in the first place.

But back to the subject.  The question is really the first part of a famous quote of ancient philosopher Epicurus:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?  Then he is not omnipotent.  Is he able but not willing?  Then he is malevolent.  Is he both able and willing?  Then whence cometh evil?  Is he neither able nor willing?  Then why call him God?”

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?”  Of course, He is able.  Pink opens his chapter entitled “The Power of God” with this:

“We cannot have a right conception of God unless we think of him as all-powerful, as well as all-wise.  He who cannot do what he will and perform all his pleasure cannot be God.  As God hath a will to resolve what he deems good, so has he the power to execute his will.”  (page 58)

It’s really this simple.  Any god who is limited in any way cannot be the God of the Bible.  The question most people get hung up on, and I suppose rightly so, is why He would allow evil.  Please remember though that with His power, as Pink comments, comes wisdom.  God is not like a bully on the playground who does not know his own strength.  He has reasons, perfect reasons, even though we do not know what they are at every moment.  But, ask yourself, why would we know the absolute motivations of a perfect being when we are as we are?  We are woefully dependent upon Him and His providence.

Admittedly, the information above does not prove or serve as evidence for the existence of God.  It is to serve as somewhat of a guide for your conversations with seekers or non-believers about our Good Good Father.  With this culture war, we cannot allow skeptics to reintroduce the Him as a less than perfect being.  We must defend the true God of the Bible, instead of the Straw god promoted by a secularist culture whom is simply set up to fail.

God Bless.