Saturday, April 28, 2012

Doubting Thomas

    Skepticism is not new. We live in a world of confusion, contradiction, and downright fraud. Only the fool believes everything he hears from others. A certain amount of skepticism, therefore, is healthy and wise. Thus it should come as no surprise to us that, no sooner had the resurrection taken place, when one of Jesus' own disciples expressed doubt as to whether it had actually happened.
    Most of Jesus' disciples had first seen the risen Christ on the evening of that original Easter Sunday. They had been gathered together behind closed doors ("for fear of the Jews") when Jesus suddenly appeared in their midst. What exactly were they seeing? A ghostly apparition? A hallucination? Jesus showed them the places where He had been wounded, and the text says "Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord" (John 20:20; NKJV). The unbelievable had actually happened, and their beloved Lord and Teacher had returned to them alive.
    There was one disciple, however, Thomas, who had not been present on the occasion, and when he heard about what had happened he frankly found it all hard to believe. How could such a thing even be possible? He demanded to see the physical evidence. "Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe" (v. 25). He had been confronted by the eyewitness testimony of at least ten different people, all of them personally known to himself, and yet he refused to believe. Thomas, you see, was a true empiricist, and he refused to accept a truth claim that was unverifiable!
    He was soon to be embarrassed, however, by his disbelief. For a week later Jesus appeared a second time in the same manner, and this time Thomas was present. Jesus challenged Thomas to do exactly as he had said he wanted to do. Thomas' response was one of total capitulation: "My Lord and my God!" (v. 28). Significantly his exclamation acknowledged the full deity of Christ, and Jesus did not correct him on that point. Thomas' confession of faith, in fact, forms the climax of John's narrative. It is the conclusion of the evangelist's argument.
    Jesus' final comment to Thomas was: "Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed" (v. 29). Thomas should have believed because of what Jesus had already taught him about His impending death and resurrection, and because of the testimony of his fellow disciples. He did not, however, and Jesus rebuked him for his unwarranted skepticism.
    We, of course, are among those who must believe without physically seeing. But in the written testimonials of the New Testament, supported by the prophecies of the Old, we have documentary evidence that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the promised Messiah, and that He really did rise from the dead. Faith is not, as some imagine, belief in the absence of evidence. Few major Christian theologians or apologists have ever accepted the claims of Christianity on the basis of a blind leap of faith into the dark. Rather, sound faith is an entirely rational acceptance of the facts based on convincing evidence.
    Christianity is not merely a comforting story or a fascinating legend. It is based on historical fact, and it is a fact that compels us to Jesus Christ Himself as our Lord and Savior.

Monday, April 23, 2012

But Can an Atheist Be President?

    In an op-ed piece in today's USA Today ("No 'religious test' in politics" – April 23, 2012) Michael Medved notes, quite correctly, that Article VI, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution says explicitly "No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." Mr. Medved pointed out that the language "left so little doubt as to its meaning that not even the most imaginative jurists or politicians have attempted to interpret it away."
    Voters do, of course, have every right to evaluate a candidate for office on the basis of his personal character and integrity, and these are generally tied to a strong sense of morality, and morality, in turn, is often tied to religion. George Washington, in his Farewell Address, put it like this: "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports." He went on to add, "And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion."
    And yet in actual practice it does not always seem to work out that way. We sometimes encounter dedicated public servants with a strong sense of integrity and yet with an apparent lack of religious attachment. Mr. Medved cites two examples in particular, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.
    How can this be? The case of Lincoln is especially intriguing. Lincoln saw the Civil War as a kind of moral crusade, and he often laced his speeches with biblical metaphors. Yet he was never baptized and never joined a church. His theology, as far as we can discern it, was hardly orthodox. While he respected and appreciated religion, for some reason he could not embrace it as his own. How then did he acquire such a strong moral sensitivity? He had a conscience, of course. He also had a religious upbringing and knew the Bible well. What he apparently lacked was "the new birth."
    Yet neither Jefferson nor Lincoln were atheists. They both believed in God. Jefferson could write: "And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? . . . Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever. . ." (Notes on Virginia). And Lincoln could say "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in . . ." (Second Inaugural). They firmly believed that a moral order exists in the universe, and that that order originated with a wise and beneficent Creator.
    Can our liberties be save in the hands of someone who does not believe in moral absolutes, divine providence, or eternal rewards and punishments?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Who Wrote the Gospels?

    In a recent comment posted on this blog Cedric Katesby asked the question "Who were they [i.e., the writers of the New Testament] and why would they be in a position to know?" It is a very good question indeed, and one that is basic to the truth claims of Christianity. How well documented are the events surrounding the earthly life and ministry of Jesus?

    We have already given a partial answer to the question in two previous blog posts, "Are the Gospels Historically Reliable?" (1/1/12) and "How Do We Know that Jesus Rose from the Dead?" (1/5/12). It may be pertinent here, however, to add a few more details, especially concerning the so-called "Synoptic Gospels," Matthew, Mark and Luke.

    So then, who were the "evangelists," or authors of these three gospels? Matthew was one of Jesus' twelve disciples, a former despised tax collector who had occupied the bottom rung of Jewish society. According to early church tradition, Matthew originally wrote his gospel in Hebrew or Aramaic at the time that Peter and Paul were preaching in Rome. It was later translated into Greek by others.

    John Mark apparently came from a well-to-do family living in Jerusalem. His mother was a committed Christian, and Mark himself became a close associate of several early Christian leaders, including Barnabas, to whom he was related, Paul, Timothy, and Peter. According to tradition he was prevailed upon by others to put Peter's testimony in writing, and the result was our present gospel that bears his name.

    Luke was a Gentile and a physician, and a travelling companion of the apostle Paul. A well educated man, he could show himself capable of writing polished Greek.

    To get to the second part of Cedric's question, "Why would they be in a position to know?' the short answer is that Matthew was an eyewitness, Mark recorded the testimony of an eyewitness, and Luke had plenty of access to eyewitnesses. Undoubtedly what occasioned the writing of the gospels was the fact that the apostles were starting to pass from the scene, and it was necessary to get their message down into writing.

    What is especially interesting is the fact that there is an obvious literary interdependence to the synoptic gospels, in some cases right down to the very wording. The more conventional modern view is that Mark was written first, and that both Matthew and Luke used Mark as one of their sources. Matthew and Luke also presumably had at their disposal a collection of Jesus' sayings. This other document is usually designated "Q," or "Quelle," the German word for "source." The theory, however, has all the characteristic shortcomings of modern scholarship. It dismisses the testimony of the early church fathers, and relies instead on a highly subjective reading of the texts themselves, along with a hypothetical reconstruction of events. In short, it gets rid of the evidence and replaces it with conjecture. There is no historical evidence that any such document as "Q" ever existed.

    If the information that has been handed down to us from the early church is correct, however, Matthew was written first, and then Mark and Luke a short time after, viz., at about the time that Peter and Paul were martyred at Rome (ca. A.D. 64). Those would mean that Mark apparently used Matthew as one of his sources, possibly the Hebrew or Aramaic original, alongside what he could remember about Peter's preaching. In condensing Matthew's account, Mark edited out the portions of Matthew that were primarily of Jewish interest, such as the lengthy discussions of Jewish law. What he presents us with is the gospel for the Gentiles. Luke then probably used both a Greek translation of Matthew along with Mark, as well as a variety of other sources.

    This circumstance tells us something significant about all three of the gospels. Luke was a well-educated person, and he tells us in his prologue that his aim was "to write . . . an orderly account" so that "you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed" (Lu. 1:3,4; NKJV). If he used Matthew and Mark as his sources, what this tells us about them is that Luke thought that they were authentic accounts of the earthly life and ministry of Jesus. And what it tells us about Luke himself is that he was a skillful historian who handled his sources carefully. Significantly he does not appear to have injected his own theology into the narrative. As a close associate of Paul, he might have been expected to recast Jesus in a Pauline mold, a preacher of justification by faith as opposed to works of the law. But he did not. Luke went only as far as his sources would take him, and the picture of Jesus that emerges in his gospel is that of a controversial Jewish rabbi Who claimed to be the Son of God and the Messiah.

    At the time that these three gospels were written there were still many persons alive who had heard the apostles firsthand, and in some cases even Jesus Himself. They could easily have corrected any mistakes in the narratives. (The closest we come to a "correction" is the Gospel of John, which supplements rather than corrects.) All four gospels found ready acceptance by the early church, which was well aware of the existence of spurious gospels and could tell the difference between the false and the true.

    Thus the life and teachings of Jesus are, in fact, remarkably well documented. We know today as much about Jesus as we do about anyone else in ancient history.    

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The First Witnesses to the Resurrection

    The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is the central miracle of the Christian faith. It is the proof that Jesus actually was what He claimed to be, and it constituted the decisive victory over sin and death. Moreover it is the guarantee that we, too, can have eternal life.

    But how can we know that it really took place? The event was so extraordinary that many modern skeptics have found it hard to believe that it really happened. The writers of the New Testament, however, were unanimous in insisting that it was a genuine historical event, and the four gospels in particular are aimed at providing the necessary documentary evidence.

    By all accounts the first witnesses to the resurrection were a group of Galilean women who rose early that Sunday morning to anoint Jesus' body with aromatic spices. It will be noted that they became the first to learn of Jesus' resurrection precisely because they were busily engaged in meeting the temporal needs of their Lord and Savior. These were women who had been helping Him throughout His earthly ministry, and they continued to care for Him even after His death. Significantly they were up before dawn to engage in their work of devotion.

    They went, having every reason to believe that Jesus was really dead, and fully expecting to find His corpse in the tomb. When they arrived, they received instead the surprise of their lives. The tomb was empty, and they were met by a young man with an announcement that scarcely seemed possible: Jesus had risen from the dead and was alive!

    The appearance of the young man – he was wearing a shining robe – suggested that he was an angelic being of some sort. In addition to His announcement, "He is risen! He is not here" (Mark 16:6; NKJV), he offered two lines of empirical evidence to verify the claim. The first was the empty tomb itself: "See the place where they laid Him." One might suspect that the body had been stolen, but if they had been the case, all that the Jews or the Romans would have had to do to prove that Jesus was really dead was to produce the body, and they did not. It was, in fact, never found, at least not dead.

    The second line of evidence was especially astonishing: the women were to tell the disciples to go to Galilee, where they would actually see Jesus – alive. They would then know for certain that Jesus had risen from the dead.

    When we add to this the angel's testimony itself, the women were confronted with a total of three different lines of evidence: the verbal testimony of a heavenly being, the empty tomb, and the possibility of actually seeing Jesus alive again. That Jesus actually rose from the dead may seem hard to believe now, but the first witnesses found it hard to believe, too. The were seized with trembling and amazement, "for they were afraid" (v. 8). But we are confronted with essentially the same three lines of evidence as were the women of Galilee, and to a great extent the record of their discovery forms the basis of our faith today. The resurrection of Jesus is, in fact, one of the best documented facts in history. The available evidence compels faith in Jesus as the risen Lord and Savior. Let us bow before Him in reverence and trust, and own Him as our Savior, too.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Triumphal Entry

Jesus had arrived at Jerusalem, and the time had finally come for His climactic confrontation with the Jewish authorities. He would now reveal Himself openly to be the Messiah, and thereby set off the chain of events that would ultimately lead to the crucifixion.

    The way Jesus enters the city is most striking. The people were expecting the Messiah, a conquering hero. Normally such a figure would be expected to come riding on a white horse at the head of a great army. Jesus, on the other hand, was mounted on the colt of a donkey. By riding upon a donkey, Jesus was calling attention to the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9: He is "Lowly and riding on a donkey, A colt, the foal of a donkey" (NKJV). The Hebrew word translated "'lowly" (ani) often carried the connotation of affliction and distress, and its use here may very well point to the cross. Thus Jesus was announcing the true nature of His mission: the Messiah will obtain the victory through a supreme act of self-sacrifice.

    But His manner of entry also tells us something about the character of the Messiah. He does not come riding upon a horse, in a great display of majesty and power, but humbly, on a young beast of burden. This indicates that the Messiah will not exercise power the way a typical worldly potentate does, in an arrogant, domineering manner, controlling, manipulating, and exploiting his subjects. Rather, the Messiah "did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many" (Matt. 20:28). In this way He serves as a role model for us, in the manner in which we ar to practice leadership within the community of believers. ". . . whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave . . . "(vv. 26,27).

    The manner in which He acquired the foal is significant as well. He does not have to go looking for the foal: He already knows where it is. And the disciples are not told to beg, borrow, buy or rent the animals: they were simply to say, "The Lord has need of them," as if Jesus were their rightful owner. All of this points to it having been a foreordained event, and a fulfillment of a prophecy. The donkey and its foal were already there, waiting for their appointed destiny, and the hour of fulfillment has now come.

    As Jesus approached the city, the excitement was palpable. Some began spreading their garments in the way before Him; others cut off branches from the trees (John tells us specifically that they were date palm trees). They cried out "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He Who comes in the Name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!", echoing the words of Psalm 118:25, 26). ("Hosanna is from the Hebrew phrase that means "Save, now . . ."). They may have meant it as a spontaneous outpouring of joy, but it had prophetic significance as well. The psalm, a part of the "Great Hillel" sung at Passover time, eerily foretells the sacrificial work of the Messiah (v. 27), His rejection by men (v. 27), as well as His triumphant resurrection (vv. 17,18).

    The stage, therefore, was now set for the climactic final confrontation between Jesus and the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem. He was recognized by the masses as a great prophet, if not the actual Messiah Himself, and thus His entrance into the city was a direct challenge to His opponents. The final collision was now unavoidable!