Monday, August 31, 2009

The Resurrection

It is rightly pointed out that the resurrection of Jesus is the hingepoint of the Christian faith. The question of whether Jesus really came back from death makes all the difference in the world. The apostle Paul said as much in 1 Corinthians 15:14-19:

If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is usesless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead.... And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.

So it is worthy of note that this belief in Jesus' resurrection is not only the most essential of the Christian faith, but also the most hotly contested--and yet, one of the most verifiable events in history, when one evaluates the historical evidence.

1. Eyewitness Testimony
In courtrooms, considerable weight is given to eyewitnesses who have observed the events being discussed in the court case. Since no one else in the courtroom was there, the eyewitnesses are considered key for helping reconstruct the events of the past. In the Bible, two of the four writers who tell the story of the resurrection (Matthew and John) were personal eyewitnesses to the fact, as disciples of Jesus. Luke insists that his account is an "orderly account" based on his own careful investigation of Jesus' life "from the beginning," "so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught" (Luke 1:1-4). And Mark, as a traveling companion of Paul, relied especially on Peter.

In addition, John and Peter both wrote letters to the churches, affirming their eyewitness status:

  • We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of your Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty (2 Peter 1:16).
  • That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched--this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Fathe rand has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard (1 John 1:1-3).

And Paul in one of the earliest writings of what we now know as the New Testament said, For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appearedc to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of hte brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also (1 Corinthians 15:3-7).

Here we see that the belief in the resurrection of Jesus can be traced to a very early point in the life of the church, attested to by a number of people who claim to be eyewitnesses to the fact. Clearly, this is not a belief that arose a number of years later; it was part of the Christian faith from the beginning.

2. Empty Tomb
Eyewitness testimony is great, but of course we all know that eyewitnesses can lie. What gives credibility to the eyewitness testimony is that there are other historical facts that back up their claims. One of the most striking is that it is almost certain that the tomb of Jesus was empty. We can know this because if Jesus' followers are running around claiming that Jesus is alive, the best way to squash that claim is to produce the body--which nobody did.

It's not because they didn't have a reason to. Many people, in fact, had a vested interest in putting this whole Jesus movement to rest--namely all those who had conspired to get him killed in the first place:

  • Jewish leaders--The whole problem for them with Jesus was that his teachings and his understanding of God and scripture profoundly threatened everything they loved--their privileged status, their power and influence, their wealth. The last thing they wanted was to see Jesus' followers take up his mantle and start spreading his influence throughout the Roman Empire.
  • Roman authorities--Until Jesus, they had been able to boast a 100% success rate with crucifixions. They certainly didn't want that image tarnished. Moreover, Jesus had been charged (at least officially) with rebellion against Rome and attempting to establish his own kingdom. While Pilate personally felt that Jesus was harmless, could he be sure that the same could be said for all of his followers? In addition, the tomb of Jesus had been guarded by Roman soldiers; it certainly made them look inept if it could be said that the tomb was empty.

The only reason that makes sense for why no one came forward with the body of Jesus is because the body wasn't there! This is especially true when we consider that the church was born in Jerusalem, the very city in which Jesus was crucified--the last place on earth that it could have started if the tomb were not empty.

3. The Disciples' Lives/Deaths
Many theories have been put forward as to why the tomb could have been empty. Some are so ridiculous as to require more faith than actually believing in the resurrection (for instance, some advance what is known as "The Wrong Tomb Theory"--that everyone in Jerusalem forgot where Jesus was buried and all went to the wrong tomb to look for his body). Probably the most common explanation from skeptics for the empty tomb is that the disciples stole the body.

Setting aside the difficulty of overcoming the Roman guard which was posted, and the courage required to break the Roman seal on the tomb (remember, Peter withered under questioning from a servant girl in a courtyard just days earlier), one must consider that each of the disciples was eventually executed for their faith, except for John who lived out his final days in exile on the island of Patmos.

Certainly, no one is willing to surrender their lives simply to perpetuate a lie. And they would have known it was a lie if they were the ones who had stolen the body. The only logical explanation for their behavior is that they were absolutely certain that they were telling the truth--to the point that they were willing to die for it. And the only way they could be certain it was the truth is if they had been telling the truth when they shared their eyewitness testimonies.

And there was much they suffered before they actually gave up their lives. Consider this description of his life from the apostle Paul:

I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides eerything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn? (2 Corinthians 11:23-29).

Who signs up for a life like this? Only those who believe that the benefit outweighs the cost. Only those who are fully convinced that Jesus Christ indeed rose from the dead.

4. The Audience
All this that we've examined so far is pretty convincing to me, but the clincher is the fact that the Christian faith grew so explosively in its first years. How could this happen if the audience the first Christians were trying to reach did not believe in the message they were sharing?

Shortly after Jesus was killed, Peter spoke to a crowd in Jerusalem (remember, the site of the crucifixion!). Many of the people listening had themselves probably seen Jesus put to death. Peter started out by saying, "Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know" (Acts 2:22). Then he went on to say, "God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact" (Acts 2:32).

And the audience's response is interesting. They didn't say, "We don't know what you're talking about!" or "Hey! That's not the way it really happened!" Instead, they were immediately terrified, and said, "Brothers, what shall we do?" And 3000 of them put their faith in Jesus that day.

The earliest New Testament books were written within 25-30 years after Jesus' death--plenty of time for many, many eyewitnesses to still be alive and able to rebut or refute the claims of the biblical writers. But there is no evidence that anyone at the time disagreed with the version of history that the Bible presents. Everyone agreed that that was the way it had happened.

If there is a God, and if he has revealed himself in Scripture, and if archaeology backs up the Bible's claims, and if dozens of prophecies were fulfilled in the life of Jesus in a way that no one could arrange, then it's not too big of a leap to believe that this God could raise his Son from the dead. The whole New Testament bears witness to that pivotal event, and the writers of Scripture are all in agreement. Moreover, the evidence is overwhelming--Jesus did rise from the dead. It's just one more reason that I find the Bible trustworthy.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Uniqueness of the Bible's God

As we're looking at the various reasons why the Bible can be trusted, we've looked at a historical argument (fulfilled prophecy) and a scientific argument (archaeology), but this week, I want to look at something a little different. While those lines of thinking are more objective and evidence-based, this week I'd like to focus on an aesthetic argument that has its own logic to it. You may or may not find this convincing, but I do. It has to do with the uniqueness of the God that the Bible presents to us.

The Bible claims to be God's word--the only authoritative and reliable record of his activity in history. By extention, the Bible asserts that all other sacred texts that claim the same status (The Qu'ran, The Bhagavad Gita, The Sutras, and so on) are not authoritative and reliable, especially with respect to the ways they deviate from the record given in the Bible.

So it is noteworthy to me that no other religion in the history of the world presents a picture of a God or gods like anything that resembles the God of the Bible.

  • Personally Concerned. In the Bible, God is personally concerned with all of his creation, especially human beings. He lovingly, patiently, tenderly works with them to restore the personal relationship that was originally present in the perfect origins of the world before humanity strayed from his perfect design. In Islam, by contrast, God (Allah) stands as an aloof, unapproachable King and Judge who can be satiated only through radical submission and self-discipline. In eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, God is an impersonal force that permeates the universe. Other religions have a pantheon of warring deities and demi-gods that scheme against one another in an endless quest for their own selfish desires. No other religion presents an image of a loving, concerned God.
  • A Model To Imitate. In the Bible, God uses himself as the ideal for us to follow. His goal is that we should become like him--loving, faithful, honest, just, generous, servant-hearted, compassionate. In other religions, it's a matter of "do as I say, not as I do." God, or gods, must be appeased--human beings must do things their way in order to avoid punishments or to receive blessings. The gods of other religions are drunk with power--they have carte blanche to do whatever they want--and most of the time they are vindictive and capricious. In eastern religions, since God is not a person and possesses no character, there is no corresponding way to imitate; the best that can be hoped for is to be absorbed into God and nothingness.
  • Initiator Of Relationships. At each phase of the biblical story, God is the one who takes the initiative to establish a relationship with us, rather than the other way around. He did this in creation, at the fall of Adam and Eve, with Noah and the flood, with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, at the Exodus and giving of the Law, with all the prophets, and finally in Jesus. In all other religions, it is we who must pursue the Deity to gain his "goodies"--in Christianity it is God who pursues us because of his great, unsurpassing love.
  • Incarnate. In no other religion does God wrap himself in human flesh and come to reveal himself more fully than he ever has, and eventually take on himself the curse of sin to repair the broken relationship between himself and humankind. The Incarnation is a service (of the highest order!) to humanity. In some other religions, gods may disguise themselves as humans for personal gain, or because they've been punished by other gods with more power. In other religions, God remains a figure too remote and inaccessible to stoop to such a low level.
  • Dispenser Of Grace. Of all the contrasts, I believe this is the greatest. In all other religions, the worshipers must earn their way to God. But Christianity is the only religion in which God offers grace (unmerited favor) to people. It is based on the truth that we can never earn our way to perfection; if God were to accept us in our imperfection, he would have to himself compromise his own integrity (and cease to be perfect). Instead, he made a way for us to become perfect through the blood of Jesus, because it was impossible for us to achieve on our own. This concept is so remarkable and incomprehensible that the tendency is even for Christians to keep trying to earn God's love and favor. Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons are two "Christian" groups that teach that we must work to achieve our right standing with God, rather than trusting in the work already done by Jesus.

In other religions, God is either impersonal and inacessible, or God is angry and vengeful, or the gods are petty and selfish. Christianity stands alone as the religion where God is personally concerned about us, where he stands as a perfect model for us in all integrity, who initiates a relationship with us, even to the point of himself becoming human, and showers us with his grace and mercy.

You see, when people come up with their own religion, this isn't the kind of God they create. This is the kind of God that everyone should want, but it seems too good to be true. And ironically, the God of the Bible demands the we surrender the thing that we cling to most tightly--our own pride. The Bible says we are totally dependent on God's love and goodness, that we have nothing good to bring to him, and that message is even harder for us to accept than the idea that a god must be appeased with sacrifices.

The God of the Bible gets to the root of the matter. And for me, because God is, at the same time, both more lenient AND more demanding than the gods of other religions, it shows me that he must be the One True God. No person or group of persons could have concocted this story--there's no way anyone could have been so clever as to invent it. When you add in the fact that the Bible has 66 books with dozens of authors spread over thousands of years, presenting one consistent picture of God--yet developing more and more nuance and depth as he more fully revealed himself over time--there is only one conclusion I can reach: It is the story of God, and not of men. And I believe it.

Sunday, August 16, 2009


As I discussed last week, one of the reasons I find the Bible trustworthy is because of fulfilled prophecy. Just examining the evidence regarding the various prophecies about the Messiah that were fulfilled in Jesus is convincing enough. But there are many, many more that were also fulfilled throughout Israel's history. However, fulfilled prophecy isn't the only reason we have to trust what the Bible says.

Another reason that is just as strong is the evidence from archaeology. Over the last 150+ years, there has been extensive archaeological research in the entire region for lots of reasons:

  • The "fertile crescent" (the arc of land stretching from Israel to Mesopotamia) has been identified as the locale where the earliest humans were located. Consequently, many scientists are interested in discoveries related to the origins of humanity and studying primitive human life. This happens to also be the place where 90% of the Bible stories take place.
  • This region is the birthplace of three of the world's five major religions--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (the other two are Buddhism, which originated in China, and Hinduism in India). Many religious archaeologists have sought to make discoveries that would help shed light on the stories and people described in the various religious writings.
  • The area has also attracted many archaeologists who are hostile to religion, who have attempted to make discoveries that contradict the claims of scripture, or who have wanted to show that archaeology demonstrates that some facts are not as the Bible presents them.

Here's the crux of the issue: The Bible claims to be God's word--authoritative, accurate, and trustworthy in all its claims. There are many things that cannot be proven directly (e.g., whether an angel appeared to Gideon, whether God actually spoke to the prophets, or what was said at Jesus' trial before the Sanhedrin), but there are some things that can be proven. For example, if the Bible says Jericho was located a short distance west of the Jordan river and that its walls fell down (Josh. 6), then if the Bible is true we should find it where it's supposed to be, and there should be evidence that its walls collapsed. And that is exactly what we find. Jericho is actually one of the most excavated sites in Israel.

Literally thousands of statements in the Bible have been confirmed through archaeology, and so far none have been proven to be false. Here are a few examples:

  • References to the Hittites (as in 2 Kings 7) were also once regarded as scriptural inaccuracies. Until a little more than a century ago nothing was known of the Hittites outside of the Bible. Some suggested there had been a scribal error and that Assyrians were actually intended. The Bible was vindicated when Hittite monuments were discovered in the 1870s at Carchemish on the Euphrates River in Syria. In 1906, excavations at Boghazkoy in Turkey uncovered thousands of Hittite documents.
  • It was once claimed there was no Assyrian king named Sargon as recorded in Isaiah 20:1, because this name was not known in any other record. Then, Sargon's palace was discovered in Khorsabad, Iraq. The very event mentioned in Isaiah 20, his capture of Ashdod, was recorded on the palace walls. What is more, fragments of a stela memorializing the victory were found at Ashdod itself.
  • Another king who was in doubt was Belshazzar, king of Babylon, named in Daniel 5. The last king of Babylon was Nabonidus according to recorded history. Tablets were found showing that Belshazzar was Nabonidus' son who served as coregent in Babylon. Thus, Belshazzar could offer to make Daniel “third highest ruler in the kingdom” (Dan. 5:16) for reading the handwriting on the wall, the highest available position.
  • Some scholars doubted that Biblical King David actually lived. But in 1993, Israeli archaeologist Avraham Biran discovered a ninth-century B.C. stone tablet among the rubble of a wall at Tel Dan in northern Israel. The 13 lines of script on the tablet commemorate the defeat of Baasha, king of Israel, by Asa of "the House of David." This provided not only the first corroboration of their warfare (described in 1 Kings 15), but also the first mention of the name David outside the Bible.

And I could go on and on. Obviously, the miracles described in the Bible, as well as its spiritual message, must be accepted on faith, which is the basis of our relationship with God. But archaeology does demonstrate that--at the very least--the people, places, and events of the Bible are real. And this is no small matter, since one of the claims of the Bible is that God has revealed himself through the history of the people of Israel. If the historical record isn't accurate, then the claims about God based on that record can't be trusted either.

And while any one piece of evidence can be dismissed as a coincidence or insufficient by itself, it is the weight of the myriad of discoveries that demonstrates so clearly that the Bible is indeed the word of God. Time and time again, when an argument is made against the Bible because of a lack of evidence for some claim or another, archaeology ends up proving the Bible accurate and trustworthy after all.

Over 25,000 sites have been discovered by archaeology pertaining to the Bible, as well as the records of tens of thousands of individuals and events. Nelson Glueck, the renowned Jewish archaeologist, said, "It may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted its Biblical reference."

In fact, many archaeologists have been convinced by their own findings that the Bible is an astonishing book - some even to the point of becoming Christians. Sir William Ramsay, for, example, was a wealthy atheistic English archaeologist who was determined to disprove the Bible. He spent many decades over his diggings and published book after book, detailing his findings which all confirm the Word of God. Sir William finally declared that the Bible is accurate and is the Word of God as a result of his findings!

We can have every confidence that when the Bible says something happened, it happened. The biblical writers were not in the habit of falsifying evidence. Biblical kings, wars, cities, rivers, people-groups, palaces, springs, tools, events, shrines, religions, customs, and more have all been verified through archaeology. It's one more reason why I can confidently believe everything the Bible says.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Fulfilling Prophecy

OK, as we're examining the trustworthiness of the Bible, in conjunction with our Sunday worship series, "The Messiah," I think the first thing that we ought to look at is this whole issue of Jesus fulfilling prophecy. There are really four separate questions to be addressed:

  • How do we know the prophecies were written before Jesus' birth? Couldn't they have been created after the fact?
  • Could Jesus have fulfilled the prophecies about the Messiah by coincidence?
  • Could Jesus have arranged the circumstances of his life so that he fulfilled the prophecies about the Messiah on purpose?
  • Did Jesus' followers embellish his life story after his death, claiming that he fulfilled prophecies that he, in fact, never did?

1. Were the prophecies about the Messiah fabricated?

It might seem hard for us to know when something was written in ancient times. After all, we don't have the original documents. All we have are copies of copies of copies. But there are several things that help us know that the prophecies about the Messiah were not fabricated, or invented after the fact.

  • The Dead Sea Scrolls contain many of the prophecies about the Messiah. During the excavation of the caves, archaeologists discovered at least fragments of every single Old Testament book, including a nearly intact scroll containing the entire book of Isaiah, which has more prophecies about the Messiah than any other book in the Old Testament. And while the prophet Isaiah lived 700 years before the time of Jesus, and these are just copies, many of these scrolls still date to over 100 years before the birth of Jesus. The scrolls confirm that there has been very little corruption of the biblical text through the copying process over the centuries--and certainly the prophecies about Jesus date to well before his birth.
  • Non-biblical sources are all in agreement that during the time of Jesus there was widespread anticipation among the Jewish people that a Messiah figure would come. Josephus, a Jewish historian from the first century A.D., is probably the most significant source of information on this time. However, Roman government records also show that there were many insurrections, rebellions, and revolts led by individuals who claimed to be Messianic figures. In fact, Jerusalem was destroyed by Rome in 70 A.D. as a result of one of these rebellions, and the Jewish people were scattered around the world until the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1947.
  • The Gospels, written within 30-50 years of Jesus' death, clearly portray Jesus as the Messiah, the fulfiller of prophecy. If there weren't an expectation of a Messiah, the readers of those stories would have instantly rejected them as nonsense, or at the very least, works of fiction.

2. Is it just coincidence that Jesus fulfilled the Messianic prophecies?

OK, so there are some predictions that were made before Jesus' birth that line up with the biblical accounts of Jesus' life. Isn't it possible that someone would have come along eventually who looked like the picture that was painted? Wasn't it just a matter of time? After all, lots of "prophecy fulfillments" are really in the eye of the beholder, since prophecies usually tend to be rather vague.

It's true that some of the biblical prophecies about the Messiah are a little fuzzy; in fact, some of them weren't even considered to be Messianic prophecies until after Jesus came, and his followers realized that more Old Testament passages referred to him than they first thought. However, many of the prophecies are very specific, and rather restrictive, eliminating any real chance that any one person would fulfill the prophecies coincidentally.

  • In many places, the Bible tells us that the Messiah will be a descendant of David (2 Sam. 7:12-16; Isa. 55:3-5; Jer. 23:5-6)
  • The Messiah will be born in Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2)--a small town of about 500-700 residents at the time of Jesus' birth. Certainly very few people were born there in human history.
  • The Messiah would establish his kingdom approximately 490 years after the prophet Daniel (see Dan. 9:24-26)--Jesus died 483 years later.

A team of mathemeticians have calculated the odds of only eight Messianic prophecies being fulfilled in one person to be one chance in one hundred million billion--millions of times greater than the total number of people who've ever walked the planet! It would be approximately like putting a sticker on a silver dollar, and then covering the state of Texas with silver dollars two feet deep, and then asking a blindfolded person to wander around the state and bend over and pick up one coin. The odds that they would pick the marked coin are the same odds that any person would fulfill even eight Messianic prophecies by coincidence.

The odds that any person would fulfill 48 different Messianic prophecies was one chance in a trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion! That's equal to the number of atoms in a trillion, trillion, trillino, trillion, billion universes the size of our universe! The prophecies are like a fingerprint--they're absolutely unique to only one life in all of history, the life of Jesus.

3. Did Jesus fulfill the Messianic prophecies on purpose?

Some people have wondered whether Jesus simply arranged his life so that he fulfilled the various prophecies about the Messiah. Growing up in that time period and knowing what the various prophecies were, perhaps he put himself in positions that could be construed as fulfillments of those prophecies.

For instance, in Zechariah 9:9, it says, "Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a cold, the foal of a donkey." Jesus fulfilled that prophecy in Matthew 21:1-11. Surely, that scene could have been manufactured easily enough.

While some of the prophecies are of this type, many are far beyond Jesus' control:

  • As we've already seen, the Bible predicted where and when the Messiah would be born. Surely Jesus couldn't arrange that on purpose!
  • The Bible tells us who Jesus' ancestors would be.
  • One Messianic prophecy promises that his bones would never be broken (Ex. 12:46; Jn. 19:31-37)
  • The Messiah would be betrayed for 30 pieces of silver (Zech. 11:12; Matt. 26:15)
  • He was given wine vinegar to drink while on the cross (Ps. 69:21; Jn. 19:28-30)

These and many more show that Jesus couldn't have possibly fulfilled the Messianic prophecies intentionally through guile and smarts.

4. Was the story of Jesus' life altered by his followers after the fact?

So, we know the prophecies already existed at the time of Jesus' birth. We know he couldn't have fulfilled them by accident or on purpose. But maybe he didn't fulfill them at all. Maybe his followers "padded his resume" a bit, to bolster their religion that they had started. After all, it would help give them credibility if they could convince people that Jesus was in fact the Messiah. Maybe they just said that he was born in Bethlehem, from the line of David, and so forth, and none of it's true.

There are several insurmountable problems with this line of thinking:

  • There were many eyewitnesses to Jesus' life when the Gospels were written. Those within the Church accepted these accounts of the life of Jesus as scripture. But if the eyewitnesses had disagreed with the versions written down by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, they never would have risen to the status of scripture--they would have been discounted and ignored.
  • The Gospel writers didn't do their writing in isolation. Luke, for example, says that he thoroughly researched everything. They spoke with lots of people. If the Gospel writers had played fast and loose with the truth, someone in the Christian community would have gone to them and said, "Look, Matthew, we're trying to share a message of Jesus, which is all about righteousness and truth; don't taint it with these lies."
  • The Jewish community had even more motivation to discount the Gospel accounts. They were trying to put down this whole Jesus-movement. They would have jumped on any opportunity to discredit the Gospels by pointing out falsehoods, but there is no historical evidence that anyone of that time period made the claim that the fulfillment of prphecies was falsified. Not one example.
  • Most importantly, if the Gospel writers themselves had known that they were perpetrating a fraud, they wouldn't have given up their lives for it. Every single one of the twelve disciples were killed for their faith, with the exception of John, who spent his final years in exile on the island of Patmos. If they didn't believe that their story was true, none of them would have been willing to die.

As astonishing as it is, the only feasible conclusion is that God revealed his plan to prophets hundreds of years ahead of time. He arranged history so that we would be able to identify the one and only Messiah when he came, and Jesus is the only person in the history of the world who fulfilled the prophecies about the Messiah. Because of fulfilled prophecy, I know I can trust the rest of what the Bible has to say.

But this is only one reason I find the Bible to be trustworthy. I'll be sharing more reasons in the coming weeks. Because if we can truly believe what the Bible says, it makes all the difference in the world.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Who was Jesus?

To say there's a lot of interest out there about who Jesus is, would be a colossal understatement. I did a Yahoo! search on "Jesus" just to see what would happen--it came back with 678 million different web pages for me to peruse (over 2/3 of a billion different websites that refer to Jesus!!). If I were to visit 1000 sites a day, it would take me just over 1857-1/2 years to see them all.

And I wonder, if I were to examine them, how many of them agree? Because it seems to me that there are as many opinions out there about Jesus as there are people--everyone's got their own take. Here are some of the answers I found out there:

  • Barbara Thiering, author of the book, Jesus and the Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls, contends that Jesus "was born, according to the modern calendar, in the year 7 BC, in a religious community near the Qumran plateau, 25 km. east of Jerusalem. His mother conceived him while she was engaged to be married, at a time when people in the community she lived in still considered her to he a virgin. As a result, some regarded her son as illegitimate. In later life, he married twice and fathered three children. Emerging as a religious leader, he was arrested for infringing the rules of Judaism. As punishment, he was sentence to death, but survived a bungled execution. His loyal followers helped him to escape and he spent the rest of his life in hiding, meeting with friends and helping his associates to write documents that would spread his ideas. He was 70 when he died, possibly in France."
  • David Bergland, the 1984 candidate for president on the Libertarian ticket, opines: "Jesus was not divine, but was a prophet, a fabulous man who taught morality through parables, and gathered a great following.... he may or may not have been crucified, but his followers went on to build a religion and a church based on his teachings. The basis for this belief is, typically, that millions of people have believed in him for 2,000 years so he must have existed. But being the son of God, the miracles, death and resurrection-that’s just a bit much for anyone with a healthy stripe of skepticism."
  • From a Jewish perspective, the official website of the Jews And Hasidic Gentiles - United To Save America insists, "The man known today as 'Jesus'... became a 'king' (over the Christian church) who changed the original Law, doing away with the Hebrew calendar and the Biblical holidays (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkos the Festival of Tabernacles, Passover, etc.). He disregarded the one, infinite G-d of the Hebrew Bible in favor of a new 'trinity' that included himself. And he repeatedly broke the Law by committing terrible sins, while openly challenging the G-d-given authority of the rabbis of the Sanhedrin.
    Naturally, Jesus did sometimes pretend to respect the Law, but whenever he thought he could get away with it, he turned right around and broke that same Law. In Matthew 5:17-19, he declared that he came to fulfill the Law, and in Matthew 23:1-3 he defended the authority of the rabbis. But the rest of the time, he rebelled against the Law—thus showing that his occasional words of piety were meant only to hide his evil agenda."
But, of course, the divergence of opinion isn't surprising--or at least it shouldn't be. People were divided about Jesus from the very beginning. In Matthew 16:13, he asks his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" and they responded with all sorts of answers that various people had offered up:
  • John The Baptist
  • Elijah
  • Jeremiah
  • One of the prophets
Today, we wonder how people could confuse Jesus with these other personages. But in an age without mass communication and photography, it would be easy for people to confuse Jesus and John the Baptist--they had a similar message and both called the people of Israel to repentance because of "the kingdom of God." When people are going off of second- and third-hand reports, it's natural they might confuse the two.

When people confused Jesus with great Biblical heroes from the past, they were essentially saying that Jesus' ministry reminded them so much of what they had heard about these historical figures, he must be some kind of reincarnation or a second coming of these great men. And in fact the last prophecy in the Old Testament promises, "I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes" (Mal. 4:5). We understand John the Baptist to be the prophet like Elijah who prepared the way for Jesus the Messiah, but the people back then thought perhaps Jesus was that Elijah figure, or some other person from Israel's history.

Nicodemus, in John 3, approached Jesus and told him, "Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him." What remains implicit is that Nicodemus nevertheless is having trouble figuring out what to make of Jesus' ministry. Jesus routinely criticizes the Pharisees (a group to which Nicodemus belongs) who are simply doing the best they can to obey all the commands and precepts of God flawlessly. What Jesus pointed out is that God was looking for an internal transformation, not external compliance, and most of the Pharisees did not love what God loves. It's a question of identity--would the Messiah really come down on the most religious, most holy, most respected Jewish leaders of the day, and instead hang around with prostitutes and lepers?

In Matthew 13:54-55, we read that the people of his hometown took offense at him and were amazed by his teachings: "Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?" they asked. "Isn't this the carpenter's son? Isn't his mother's name Mary, and aren't his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas?" In other words, they asked, "Isn't he just an ordinary person? Where does he get off?" It's a question of identity.

Although characters in the Bible struggled with Jesus' identity, the writers of the New Testament did not. They simply presented Him as the divine Son of God. The Gospels declare that he is who he claims to be. So in the end, the question about Jesus is really a question about scripture--is it reliable? Can it be believed? When the Bible records what Jesus said and did, is it accurate?

We can either accept the Bible as trustworthy, or reject it as fanciful myth-making. But we should have reasons for whatever judgment we make. As we go through our weekly message series series on "The Messiah", I'll be blogging about why I believe the Bible to be trustworthy and true, and why we can believe in Jesus, the Son of God, the Messiah, the Alpha and Omega, the Lord Almighty who reigns supreme as God over the universe.