This morning I came across an article reporting Facebook’s sudden about face on the matter of whether Covid-19 came from a lab in Wuhan. The established narrative was that this debunked, a wild conspiracy theory, and thus the social media giant took it upon themselves to protect us from this misinformation.
Had you posted some speculation about the possible man-made origin of the pandemic prior to this it is likely it would be demoted by Facebook’s algorithms or removed entirely from the platform. This, like questions about the election results or the Biden laptop scandal, deemed to be fake news by Big Tech monopolies, present a prime examples of why I oppose all censorship.
All this to say that, no matter your politics or perspectives, these Silicon Valley elites did a rather poor job of playing impartial arbiters of truth and really can’t be trusted to police the national conversation. Sure, maybe it was an honest effort, confirmation bias can make a fool of the best of us, they were relying on the experts, yada yada, but clearly they can be wrong and can be wrong again.
Wisdom of the Crowds
A few months back I had planned to write a blog on an interesting phenomenon called wisdom of the crowds.
In an experiment, Sir Francis Galton, a statistician, had the visitors to a country fair guess the weight of a dressed ox. He also had some experts independently assess the weight. Many of the non-expert guesses were wild and yet, when taken collectively, as a mean average, do you know who came out on top?
The crowd beat the experts and actually came within 1% of the true weight of the slaughtered animal.
Now this wisdom, when manipulated, say by someone claiming to know the weight, is no longer accurate. And this is not to be dismissive of expertise. There is certainly a place for doctors, lawyers and engineers, professionals, those who have spent years in careful study or ‘know the math’ so to speak.
Still, maybe just maybe we should rethink this idea that some kind of central body, especially in matters of partisan politics, should have complete control over what information is or is not fit for public consumption. I mean, do you really believe that smart people are immune to things like group think, that there’s no echo chamber or chance that they miss something in their ‘expert’ analysis?
It is absolutely fact that well-educated people can get things wrong. Remember that deadly collapse of a bridge under construction in Florida, someone in the FAA approved the 737 Max to fly before it was grounded after two plunged killing all board, surgeons sometimes remove the wrong leg and there’s a good reason malpractice insurance exists.
Even the best of us make mistakes. Add political agenda to the mix and there can be tremendous blindspots.
A friend of mine suffers from a rare genetic disorder. But it had gone misdiagnosed for years. A local hospital even refusing to consider the possibility of a genetic cause by running tests. Well, it turns out, a relative of his, a layperson, reading in publication about someone with the same disorder, put two and two together, my friend finally demanded the tests and that is likely the only reason he’s alive.
So why, again, should we blindly trust a small team of experts when we can open it up to the entire crowd?
Let the Idiots Speak!
One of the things that bugs me most about the whole censorship regime is that truth can come from complete idiots. Yes, I get tired of crackpot conspiracy theories, critical thinking often seems to be in very short supply, and yet I would rather have the open conversation than to arrogantly assume that the unwashed masses have nothing of value to contribute.
First of all, as previously discussed, the established ‘expert’ consensus can be wrong. The problem with experts is that they often have a very narrow focus and rely on other experts rather than research everything for themselves. So, in other words, incorrect knowledge can be repeated over and over again, taken as fact, because everyone trusts their colleagues too much and sometimes, even after peer review uncovers the error, the myth persists.
For example, the Lancet, a renown medical journal, was forced to retract a study they published that came out against use of hydroxychloroquine as a Covid-19 treatment option. How this got past their editors is anyone’s guess, but this shows the danger of relying too heavily on a few experts.
Second, idiots, being less knowledgeable, can be at an advantage as far as telling the truth as they see it. Confirmation bias, as it turns out, is something that plagues the intelligent or those who are more able to rationalize their way around the problems with their perspective. It is far less likely that an idiot will come up with wrong (yet plausible sounding) explanation which sways public policy in the wrong direction—like a PhD college professor could.
Third, children, who are idiots due to their lack of education, are less prone to functional fixedness, they often speak in an unfiltered way and have a fresh perspective that should be heard. The story of the Emperor’s New Clothes describes this well, the child in the tale didn’t know what they weren’t supposed to say and blurted out the truth that the socially pressured adults refused to see.
So, in conclusion, the established ‘truth’ can be wrong, the child (or unsophisticated mind) can sometimes see through the knowledge others have, and therefore we should allow all to speak no matter how stupid they sound to us. No, that doesn’t mean we should let the idiots lead or ignore the experts, but there is great danger in shutting even their incorrect and sometimes offensive ideas out of the conversation.
At the very least, nobody is safe when the tyrant king murders the court jester. When the idiots can be silenced it won’t be very long before the powerful begin to use the label “idiot” for anyone challenging their authority, including you, and who will dare to speak up for you after that?
Being raised in a fundamentalist sect meant taking the Genesis accounts as being a historical narrative. I had been taught, and had for many years accepted without question, the idea that the veracity of the Gospel message hinged on the most ‘literal’ interpretation of the first book of the Biblical canon.
This understanding of this book had worked fine to get me through my school years. I gave my high school biology teacher, Mr. Toohey, an atheist who had once considered the priesthood, a headache debating the textbook claims about mutations, millions of years, and Macro Evolution. At this age, I thought this style of apologetics, debating science using the words of Scripture, was a key to securing the faithful against doubts and winning unbelievers.
Unfortunately, while this understanding may serve well those who do not venture too far from the Young-Earth Creationism intellectual ghetto, against what amounts to strawman versions of secularist arguments, it doesn’t hold up as nicely against a serious challenge and has left many religiously indoctrinated high and dry in their years in a university-level science program. There is a reason why many in my former religious tradition are terrified of higher education.
Even seminary was a synonym for cemetery to one of my childhood Bible-thumping pastors. It should make one wonder. If the foundation of faith is so flimsy that it can’t be tested, that it can only be sustained by ignorance, then what’s the point?
Sadly, it was a false choice, this dichotomy between science and religion, education and faith.
Getting the Cart Ahead of the Horse
The Biblical fundamentalists got everything exactly backward. The truth of Christ does not depend on proving the Scripture, word for word, is completely 100% historically accurate and scientifically verifiable. It is nice when those things do align, sure. And yet, no matter how many mundane parts of the Biblical narrative are established this way, the fantastic claims are never proven.
If a politician lists off ten facts and nine of them turn up true according to the fact-checkers, does that make the final most grandiose claim true?
No, no it does not.
One of the most persuasive tricks of liars is to hide their one falsehood amongst a long list of facts and true statements. And likewise, someone could prove 99.9% of Biblical claims and still not have touched anything of the miracles. The Bible is true because it says it is true might work for idiots and the indoctrinated, but it is always circular reasoning and there being a town of Bethlehem doesn’t mean Jesus walked on water nor establish His divinity and conquering of death.
No rational person believes that a prophet flew from Jerusalem to Mecca, on a half woman half horse with a tail of a peacock, because they read it in a book. I’m certainly not going to wear magical underwear because some dude, a few hundred years ago, claims he received golden tablets from the angel Gabriel. So why would any reasonable person expect someone to believe a book written thousands of years ago? Sorry, Ken Ham, I don’t care how many replica Arks you build, you’re not winning skeptical minds or hearts with this effort.
Human efforts fail.
When Sarai reasoned with Abram to produce an heir through her maidservant, how did that go for them?
We know it didn’t go too well and have the commentary of St. Paul:
Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise. These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written: “Be glad, barren woman, you who never bore a child; shout for joy and cry aloud, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband.” Now you, brothers and sisters, like Isaac, are children of promise. At that time the son born according to the flesh persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. But what does Scripture say? “Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.” Therefore, brothers and sisters, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.
(Galatians 4:21-31 NIV)
Here we see the contrast of human efforts “according to the flesh” and those of a spiritual and Divine origin. St. Paul emphasizes the “son” which is “born by the power of the Spirit” as an alternative to the “son” human reasoning that produced conflict and heartache.
It is amazing how many times St. Paul, and Jesus before him, encountered those who believed Scripture word for word and rejected Jesus as Lord. They, in many ways, had a stricter interpretation of the text than many of us do and did not face the strong headwind of modern science and philosophy either. And yet, even meeting Jesus in the flesh, seeing him with their own eyes, taking Scripture as literally as anyone, they saw Jesus as the imposter and rejected Him. So, how then can we be saved?
Fortunately, that question is answered many times over and over again, by St. Paul, and has next to nothing to do with the book of Genesis. The truth of Scripture is established on Christ, and His church, which established the canon of Scripture and does those “greater things” that Jesus promised would come through the power of the Spirit. Yes, we preach and teach, but only God can bring the increase. So, the apologetics industry starts us out on the wrong foot and doesn’t produce true faith in Christ.
Our salvation does not depend on our own understanding of a book. St. Paul, in Romans 9:16, states clearly, that our sonship depends on God’s mercy, not human desire or effort. Scripture is the cart, not the horse. We accept that the Bible is true because we believe in Christ, and His Church, not because we can establish it through our human reasoning or effort. Faith is a work of the Spirit, a gift from God, not a product of our knowledge or works. Those trying to ‘prove’ the Bible are on a fool’s errand. trying to save themselves, slaves to human reasoning, lost and confused.
What Does That Have to Do with Babel?
Hopefully, the Noah rode on a T-Rex crowd is too triggered with that intro, because now we shift to something they may find more agreeable and that being the even greater monument to human reasoning and effort.
But, first, the tower of Babel narrative:
Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
(Genesis 11:1-9 NIV)
This story is likely the origin of the phrase, “men plan, God laughs.” Actual historical event, ancient myth or both, does not matter, the tower of Babel narrative is so much more. The account speaks to human limits and hubris, a true story told over and over again in history and a lesson repeated in different ways with each passing generation. The moment humans forget their place, begin to rely on their own cleverness and start to see themselves equal to their own Creator, the clock to destruction begins to tick.
These people, in the Biblical account, had somehow overcome the odds, they evidently were a resource-rich civilization, more powerful than external threats, and ready to cement their name in history. But just when heaven seemed within their grasp, the very thing that they had sought to avoid, being scattered, brought the entire endeavor grinding to a halt. Now Babel, the name a play on words that meant “to confuse,” is a synonym for colossal human failure. Sure, maybe it is an origin story for the diversity of language. But, undeniably, it is also a cautionary tale.
Other accounts tell us that this confusion of languages, by God, was to save humanity from the total destruction of another flood. In other words, it was an act of mercy to prevent an even greater calamity to end this project and scatter the people. But, more than that, it is a lesson about not leaving God out of the equation. What does that mean? Well, that means that we can’t see everything and, without humility to reign in our ambitions, we are an existential threat to ourselves. The proud fall because they cannot imagine the factors that they, in their overblown confidence, have missed.
Our Modern Towers of Human Arrogance
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”
(Isaiah 29:14 NIV)
History is replete with examples of bold declarations followed by catastrophe. Neville Chamberlain’s quip of having secured “peace in our time,” through a treaty with Adolf Hitler, comes to mind. Hillary Clinton was, according to the experts, most definitely going to win over Donald Trump.
But now it is time to tie all these threads together. The same thing that brought about the Protestant schism, also led to the Enlightenment, spread of Democracy, and, ultimately, the rejection of God.
This “age of reason” got off to a relatively good start, scientific discovery, development of technology, and representive government has enabled us to be more free and prosperous that many prior generations. However, as the tower of our knowledge and independent spirit rose, as we have made leaps in medicine, even landed a man on the moon, when American exceptionalism (the ultimate expression of Protestantism) finally conquered all, and our hegemony was nearly unchallenged, suddenly a day of reckoning seems to be upon us and this colossus, this oversized imagine of human endeavor, seems in danger of collapse.
A couple of decades ago it felt as if we were on the cusp of a new epoch. Racism vanquished, our old enemies irrelevant, the world connected as never before, the internet ready to put all knowledge at our fingertips and the stars seemingly within our reach. Secularism and science had triumphed over superstition and myth, we imagined no religion, nothing to kill or die for, as Coca-cola taught the world to sing. Former seminaries, our universities, forgetting God, became temples of human reason. “We didn’t need church or religion to be good people,” the atheists cried, while standing on the shoulders of theologians whom they dismissed, “in fact, we’ll go further without it!”
However, my own optimism has unravelled over the past decade or two.
Star Trek and the Jetsons still remains, firmly, in the realm of science fiction. The internet is a cesspool, filled with crackpot opinions, censored by billionaires bullies who pretend to be gatekeepers of truth while they spread misinformation, and nothing like a child of the 90s would’ve imagined. As church attendance slips, depression and drug usage has steadily increased—along with suicides and mass shootings.
Our universities, rather than continue to value free thought and expression, now have strict speech codes and safe spaces. The minds that once sought to improve the human experience, now only deconstruct tradition and erode the very ground that their institutional ivory towers were constructed upon, too drunk with nihilism to care. Even Coke brand, that once celebrated human diversity, has joined the graceless cult of woke in attacking “whiteness” and civilization itself—as if they have forgotten what has made their own comfortable ‘privileged’ life possible.
The government, “for the people,” that at least gestured towards the needs of the citizenry, now only serves global corporations, the powerful elites and special interests. The US flag, once a symbol of hope, the American ideal, and our unity as diverse people, something black athletes proudly wrapped themselves in less than a generation ago, has now been reimagined as a representation of oppression and hate. Our faith in our institutions is failing, the left decrying systemic racism, the right suspecting election fraud, nearly everyone feeling unheard.
We’re a civilization consuming itself and maybe it is because we’ve forgotten this:
You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
(Galatians 5:13-15 NIV)
We don’t go to church anymore, a trend that started before the pandemic and has only been accelerated, and “love your neighbor” is now used as a guilt trip rather than a reason to change our own toxic attitudes or be involved on behalf of others. John Kennedy’s call to service, “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” Those words, spoken today, would likely be derided as some kind of dangerous “ism” in today’s me-first, my tribe, my way or the highway, divisive identity driven, you’re literally a Nazi if you disagree, political environment.
Have we reached new heights only to implode?
What is really going on here?
Pride Cometh Before the Fall
Satan, we’re told, was the very best of the angels. His magnificent greatness eventually led him to believe that he was a rival to God. Jesus warned his disciples, having returned exuberant from working miracles, that he had seen Satan “fall like lightening from heaven” (Luke 10:18) and reminded them of their place before the Almighty.
Hubris is the downfall of many and the idea that we can find all of the answers for ourselves is that. With each success, with every innovation and breakthrough, there is a danger and risk of overconfidence.
In the past few centuries have seen our knowledge and abilities increase like no other time in recorded human history. The West threw off the authority of Rome, with the reasoning that every man was able to comprehend Scripture outside of the tradition of the church. Not long after, the authority of Scripture itself was called into question. Why do we need a book of myths written by those who lack our sophistication and understanding of the world? God was erased from our institutions, prayers only a ceremonial and many imagine themselves to be self-made or little gods. It is the height of ignorance:
You turn things upside down, as if the potter were thought to be like the clay! Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, “You did not make me” Can the pot say to the potter, “You know nothing”?
(Isaiah 29:16 NIV)
But it isn’t only the cultural elites, the atheists, the politicians who only pay lip service or liberal theologians whittling away at morality until there’s nothing left. This spirit of self-reliance, and arrogance, permeates through the whole civilization. We are blinded by information, buried in jargon, tangled in complexity, yet think we’re englightened.
We should be pumping the brakes, as technology advances faster than our ability to comprehend the consequences, I see it even (or especially) in those emerging from sheltered religious cloisters. Sure, the are the reactionaries, afraid of all change or improvement, but then there are those who have a little education and embrace it all nof realizing the potential. Our brightest minds are working on things much more dangerous than nuclear weapons, creating biological agents, developing artificial intelligence, considering climate altering measures, all potentially having the possibility of irreversible side-effects, and truly playing with fire.
We believe we are in control but are most definitely not and, with our new power, are one or two mistakes from an unmitigated disaster.
Like the tower of Babel, which likely took years of planning and building layer upon layer, our modern civilization was built. Our confidence has grown and exponentially along with our accomplishments. We’re clever, we found cures for disease, invented means to travel to the ends of the earth and beyond. But the higher we ascend the easier it is to forget what we are and where we came from. We didn’t create ourselves nor do we know as much as we think we know and this should always keep us humble.
Thinking we are God or next thing to God will, inevitability, lead to chaos, confusion and ultimate collapse into disorder. The bigger our collective endeavor gets, the more we live on our own reasoning and strength rather than depend on faith, the less able we are to cooperate, we erode the very foundations of civilization and the destruction will be swift. God, in His mercy, will scatter us before we become too foolish, with our great knowledge, to be saved. Human reasoning is a dead end, we cannot transcend ourselves outside of God’s help. If we reject that help we will fall.
Instantly I’m making judgments about that person’s lack of driving skills. How dare they interrupt my text messaging and topple the donut that was perched precariously on my lap!
However, later that same day, I’m cruising along in bumper to bumper traffic, my exit is coming up, I see an opportunity and take it. The guy behind me blows the horn, he obviously cannot appreciate my superior skills and that I had no other choice.
That, of course, is a composite of many true events out on the road. When I do something wrong, there’s always a good reason for it and if there isn’t a good reason—Well, nobody is perfect, everyone makes mistakes, right?
People believe they see things as they are.
We feel we are a fairly good judge of ourselves and others.
This trust in our own abilities is what enables us to navigate life. If we couldn’t judge up from down or left from right we would have no means to make a decision or progress in a direction. We are aiming creatures. We have two eyes pointed frontward, stereoscopic or “binocular” vision, so we can judge distance and aim correctly at a target down range. That is what our mind does, it prioritizes one thing over another, it is a sorting machine, we are built to judge and—unless sleeping or in a vegetative state—we are always making judgments.
Unfortunately, this forward facing vision gives us big blind spots. We can only see in one direction at a time. When we are locked in on a particular subject we can lose grasp of the bigger picture and possibilities outside of our range of vision. We are creatures with a finite mind and ability to comprehend. We need our judgment to navigate through life and yet our judgment is not perfect, we are short-sighted, biased and often inconsistent. We project into our environment. We judge people based on our presumptions about them and their motives.
We tend to justify or rationalize our own bad behavior, see our mistakes or the mistakes of those whom we love as being the result of circumstances, then turn around and mercilessly judge the faults of others as being serious character defects. This tendency—called fundamental attribution error—leads us to judge ourselves only by our own intentions and others only by their actions. It is extremely common, if not completely universal, and shows up constantly in political and religious debates. The other side is evil, corrupt and inexcusable—our own side is righteous, well-intended and misunderstood.
We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.
Truth be told, many people are not good at judging others as they imagine themselves to be and are wrong more they realize. Our memory is selective. On one hand, we sort out examples that go against our fundamental assumptions about reality and, on the other, we can easily recall those things that confirm our existing ideas. This confirmation bias, combined with fundamental attribution error and our many other cognitive limitations, unless humbly considered, will make us a very poor judge.
Legalism is a misuse of the law by those who do not understand the intent of the law.
The basic intent of the law is to create order out of chaos and yet law itself can become a source of confusion and conflict. The problem with any law is that it requires interpretation and understanding of the intent. This is why we have lawyers, judges, juries, and courts—to safeguard the intent of the civil law from abuse.
Legalism abuses the intent of the law.
Legalists incorrectly use the technicalities of language to find loopholes and carve out special exemptions for themselves. Legalists also apply their own interpretation of the law to others in a way that is harsh and often hypocritical. For them, the law is a tool to help them achieve their own personal or political ends.
That is not to say legalists are lacking in sincerity either, they are often diligent students of law, they have zealously committed the letter to memory and know the words inside and out. But what legalists lack is the spirit of the law and their knowledge is a hindrance to them.
#1) The rich man who relies on his own abilities rather than live in faith. (Matt. 19:16-30, Mark 10:17-31 and Luke 18:18-30) In this story, we are told of a young man who is wealthy and also very religiously devoted. He comes to Jesus, whom he addresses as “good teacher” and asks “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus, upon hearing this man’s diligence, tells him to sell all he has, to give the proceeds to the poor and then to follow him.
Sadly, and ironically, this account is often used by modern legalists to make a new religious formula rather than understand. This man was a legalist who succeeded in following the law and still lacked one thing and that thing being faith. There are a few who are able to keep the letter of the law and miss the intent of the law because of this. The intent of the law is so we depend on God for our salvation rather than our own works:
For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.” The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, “The person who does these things will live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit. (Galatians 3:10-14 NIV)
The law is not there so we can believe we will impress God with our careful obedience. No, the intention of the law was to do the opposite—it was to remind us that we do not measure up to the righteousness of God and that we are therefore condemned to death. This rich young man had achieved the letter of the law, he had done everything that could be done through his own abilities, yet lacked the most important thing and that being faith in God. Jesus gave the answer to how we are saved: “What is impossible for man is possible for God.”
#2) The religious hypocrites who use the law to accuse others and are guilty themselves. (John 8:1-11) In our day we don’t take some sins as seriously as we do others. Many, for example, are condemning of homosexuality and yet do not seem to realize that there are many things that we take rather lightly that are sin and that all sin comes with the penalty of death. Such was the case in the following extraordinary account:
The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” (John 8:3-5 NIV )
We are told they did this was intended as a trap for Jesus. Evidently they knew the compassion Jesus had for sinners and wanted to present an impossible dilemma: a) He follows the law, condemns her to death as is required and proves to be no better than them or b) he contradicts Moses, can be accused of rebellion against the law and be himself condemned under their law.
He avoids their trap:
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:6-11 NIV)
We have no indication of what Jesus wrote in the dirt. However, it is fairly obvious, it takes two to tango and yet we only have a woman standing accused—What happened to the man involved in the adultery? Why was no man brought with this adulterous woman?
It is also interesting that the only tool these men seemed to have was condemnation. Perhaps this is psychological projection? Maybe deep down they felt guilty and the reason they needed to find fault with Jesus and this woman is so they could feel better about themselves?
Whatever the case, we know that Jesus did not condemn this woman. This could be interpreted as Jesus saying that what she did doesn’t matter. But, he doesn’t say her sin doesn’t matter—he tells her to go and sin no more.
#3) Judas betrays Jesus with his legalistic use of compassion. (John 12:1-8, Matt. 26:6-13) If you want to see the ultimate expression of legalism, it is Judas (and other disciples) interrupting a beautiful act of worship to criticize and, in the process, throwing the words of Jesus back in his face:
Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” (John 12:3-8 NIV)
It is interesting there are many who use the words of Jesus the same way as Judas. They use them to support a socialist political agenda or as a means to condemn any extravagant form of worship. They rationalize their condemnation of others using the words of Jesus and, despite completely missing the spirit of the law, are correct according to the letter of the law—but they completely lack the joy and life of the Spirit. They might hide their legalism in compassion for the poor or in concern for the kingdom of God and yet themselves are no better in their attitudes than the legal experts who put Jesus to death.
What is the true intent of the Biblical law?
To save us from ourselves.
Those who use the law to parse away their own guilt or as a bludgeon to use against those who do not add up to their own standards, even standards that are based in the law itself, have missed the point—we don’t add up and by our own efforts we never will.
Any person, when held up to a perfect standard, will fail by comparison. How can we, as finite and limited creatures, ever compare favorably to an infinite and limitless good? This is a reality that should humble us and fundamentally change how we treat other people.
It is fitting that the first step in Christianity is repentance. If one considers the severity of the law and that everyone stands condemned before God—and that just might change our perspective about that guy who just cut us off in traffic.
The Christian answer to legalism: “Judge not lest ye be judged.”
Legalism is applying the law to others in a way we, as individuals, were never ordained to do. Yes, we must make judgments for ourselves and should always promote what is good even if it offends. Yes, there are some things that are under the jurisdiction of civil authorities (Romans 13:1-7) and sin is to be addressed by the church. However, we are not given license to go out on our own as individuals passing judgment on others, quite the opposite:
Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor? (James 4:11-12 NIV)
Some religious experts, who argue the false dichotomy of faith versus works, might see James (above) as contradicting Paul’s emphasis on grace, but they can’t on this point:
You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written: “‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me; every tongue will acknowledge God.’” So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God. Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. (Romans 14:10-13 NIV)
Our true obligation to others is not to bring them condemnation—it is to be like Jesus and show them the love and grace we want God to show us.
The truer law is not that of the letter. It is the law of reciprocation. What we do to others or demand be done to them will be the same standard that is applied to us. In other words, if you live by the sword you will likewise die by it (Matt. 26:52) and if you judge others by the law you are putting yourself back under the curse of the law and will be required to do the impossible without God’s help—as Paul warned the Galatian church.
Jesus, when asked by a lawyer, says the entire law hangs on two commandments: He says to love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22:35-40, Mark 12:28-32) and this is some practical application:
For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matthew 6:14-15 NIV)
That is black and white. So is this:
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. (Matthew 7:1-2 NIV)
The law is a means to end, to point us to our need for Jesus, and not an end in itself as many religious folks attempt to make it. The law itself can only bring condemnation and death because nobody is able to match the righteousness of God. The law is given, ultimately, not to condemn anyone—but rather so we can all know our own need of a savior and be saved.
Be perfect, not in legalism, but in mercy…
One of the starkest warnings Jesus gave (Matt. 18:21-35) was a parable about a man forgiven a debt impossible to pay and is shown great mercy by the king whom he owed. This same forgiven man turns around and demands a small sum owed him—throwing the offending party in jail. The end result is the king revoking the mercy he had shown and doing what the unmerciful man had done to the one who owned him a little. That is the response Jesus gave to how much we should forgive.
James further expounds:
If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker. Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:8-13 NIV)
Merely showing favoritism is mentioned in the same breath as murder and adultery!
Presumably, given we should be one in Christ according to Galatians 3:28, that would include any kind of favoritism. In other words, sexism, racism, ageism, xenophobia, social elitism, or anything else used to justify the favorable treatment of some and unfavorable treatment of others, makes you condemned as much as the evilest men of history under the law. James says that a person is guilty of breaking the entire law if they show favoritism…
Who then can be saved?
It is interesting, especially in a discussion of legalism, to consider some of the discrepancies of language in Scripture. For example, one Gospel calls out only Judas for his judgmental attitude towards the woman pouring perfume while another says it was disciples (plural) and not just Judas. One Gospel account of the rich man has him calling Jesus “good teacher” while another omits this entirely and says he started by asking “what good thing must I do” instead. Perhaps the writers were a bit less concerned than we are with the legalistic details and more with the message?
There is also an inconsistency between what the Gospels tell us Jesus said at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. I quoted Matthew’s version in my last blog: “Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Which seems sort of vague and open to some interpretation. I mean, how does one compete with the perfection of God? However, in Luke 6:36, in the same context of love for enemies, we read: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” Combining the two different tellings, it seems what is being asked of us is to be perfect in mercy towards others and not perfect in some onerous legalistic manner.
We should turn our natural tendency to fundamental attribution error around. In other words, rather than judge those outside our own social group and show mercy to our own, we should judge ourselves (our own people) more harshly and leave the others to God. Or, in more practical terms, if someone cuts us off in traffic, rather than attribute his or her annoying act to an irredeemable character flaw, we should assume the best. And, if we cut someone else off, we should not excuse our own poor driving habits and take full responsibility instead.
If we want to be judged by God’s perfect law (and condemned) we should be legalistic.
Jesus may have said his yoke is easy, but it is not easy for someone born and raised outside the conservative Mennonite culture to become Mennonite—especially not a woman.
Mennonites are not the only ones that demand conformity to a list of cultural expectations. Fundamentalist sects all have their fundamentals, their own special set of rules, cultural expectations, or doctrinal essentials that they use as tests for membership.
For example, a very sincere and sweet Christian friend of mine was asked about her view of “Once Saved, Always Saved” theology. Her questioner, someone who believes in eternal security, did not like her answer and now counts her as lost. To them salvation depends on our ability to parrot a theological position, a work of the mind, and no nuances are allowed.
And these false dichotomies, based on personal opinion, exist at all levels. If your hermeneutic allows for some flexibility interpreting the creation narrative of Genesis, then Ken Ham (including his partner in self-promoting pseudo-scientific dogmatism, Bill Nye) will insist that you should be an agnostic.
Nothing is further from the truth.
Jesus rebukes religious gatekeepers and damned missionaries.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are. (Matthew 23:13,15)
Jesus confronts the religious elites, who had positioned themselves as the final arbiter of truth, and he rudely knocks them off their pedestal. He confronts them for shutting people out who might otherwise enter and says they make those few they do convert “twice the child of hell” as that they are. That is a shocking reproach for those who are diligently religious.
Missionary service is typically unquestioned and perhaps that is because many of us feel guilt for not doing enough ourselves? But missionaries get no free pass from Jesus; on the contrary, he rebukes them even more severely and describes them as being counterproductive. I hope, after considering that, it goes without saying that missionary service can be a false indication of sincere faith and love for God.
There are many reasons why a person might want to be a missionary other than pure love for God and other people. Traveling, in our day and age, is fun and many enjoy the adventure. There are also the duty-bound “do-gooder” religious types, motivated more by fear than love. But there is an even more insidious reason why a person may choose to be a missionary service, and that is the power over others it offers:
1) Power of peer respect: There is no question that being a missionary is considered honorable amongst religious people. It draws positive attention. Those who have served in a visible way are often given special praise and in my church it is almost a prerequisite to being ordained. It can become a basis for ranking members of the church into higher and lower tiers. When used that way, it goes directly against the admonition of Jesus to be a brotherhood of equals earlier in his sermon.
2) Power of material resources: I know missionaries who go out like Jesus sent his disciples (Mark 6:7-13) in the power of the Spirit and with little more the shirts on their backs. Unfortunately, we do not embody that kind of faith anymore. Our missionaries rely on the power of their own calculations and often with enough resources to live comfortably beyond the reach of the people they are trying to evangelize. This can create a situation where people serve the missionaries’ whims for no reason other than attaining access to their resources. Being treated as royalty can also be gratifying to those who hold this power.
3) Power to be a religious gatekeeper: Everyone, including the religious elites condemned by Jesus, believes they are right, and that sanctimonious feeling can be the basis to becoming an evangelist. Recently a friend shared the testimony of Megan Phelps-Roper who was raised in Westboro Baptist Church and joined in their protests as a child. It was through conversation with the “other side” that she realized her spirit was wrong and repented.
Unfortunately, there are many who never do get knocked off their pedestal, never do humble themselves in the light of God’s grace, and do damage to the cause of Christ. They position themselves as the final arbiters of truth, as gatekeepers to the kingdom with the licence to shut people out, and the words of Jesus apply to them just as much as they did to the religious elites in the original audience.
Knowledge can become a barrier to truth when it leads to dead religion rather than following in faith.
We shut people off from the truth when we center our faith on our own religious “knowledge” rather than on the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. These “all or nothing,” black-and-white propositions are a distraction from the substance of Christian faith. Obsession on theological minutia causes confusion rather than bringing clarity, and our additional requirements take away from the simple truth of the Gospel message:
If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:9-13)
We should remember what Jesus said to his disciples when they took issue with someone speaking in the power of Jesus name outside their exclusive club:
“Master,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.” “Do not stop him,” Jesus said, “for whoever is not against you is for you.” (Luke 9:49-50)
It should be noted that in the verse just prior to this, the disciples were having an argument over who amongst them would be greatest. Jesus answers them by bringing a child beside him and declaring that whoever would be most welcoming to that child in his name would be greatest. I’m guessing that child wasn’t 100% theologically correct.
We should serve others in truth of self-sacrificial love and in humility rather than in superiority of knowledge.
There are many who go out in the strength of their own knowledge. They never do comprehend the significance of God’s grace, and are blind though they think they see:
We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God. (1 Corinthians 8:1b-3)
Some say it is the thought that counts.
It is also said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
But before we say or think too much, we should take heed of what Jesus said and consider it a warning against an idea that our salvation comes from our religious diligence or right ideas. Instead we must be an example of the grace shown to us while we were yet dead in our sins.
We need to hold the door open for those wishing to enter and lower the threshold, rather than trip them up with our own pet doctrines.
We are not called to be gatekeeper; instead, we are called to serve in love and humility.
A couple Sundays ago I was riding along with some church friends on our way to a hymn sing (something us conservative Mennonites do) and we came upon a hitchhiker.
The hitchhiker, a young man, was strumming some sort of ukulele. He had a sign asking for a ride west. We were going west. We conferred quickly, decided to make use of our extra seat and soon were on our way with one more passenger.
The young man, a friendly nineteen-year-old from Raleigh, North Carolina, has spent nearly two years on the road and told us of his nomadic lifestyle. He relies on the hospitality of others, often sleeps under the stars, and is on his way to California.
Being that we are religious and on our way to a church service, the conversation turned to religion. He explained that he is uncomfortable with the “Christian” label. He described himself as “a follower of Jesus” and later that evening mentioned the influence of Taoism.
We invited him to church. He accepted the invitation and soon he was amongst us Mennonites as we sang acapella music. To my ears, we sounded pretty good. He stayed until the end of the service and soon enough was being introduced by me to others in attendance.
One of those introduced, after some friendly chat (the usual Mennonite game banter and assessment of pedigree) ended by quoting John 14:6 at the young man, “Jesus is the way and the truth and the life” and emphatically stating this is the only way…
As we paused with this sort of non-sequitur concluding statement, presented in such a religiously cliché way, I almost asked this ordained Mennonite man if he knew what it meant. But, fearing he would try to answer if I asked, I restrained the impulse and smiled.
I have no idea what my guest was thinking, he was courteous and didn’t seem too uncomfortable in our midst. And so the evening went some polite conversation and some awkwardly presented evangelical dogma, me holding my tongue with slightly annoyed amusement and answering his questions.
Incidentally, nobody offered this young man shelter for the night (one of those asked apparently making excuse for himself because of his wife) and so we took him a few miles further west to ‘civilization’ where he would have more options. We prayed with him, gave him some cash and bid him farewell before returning east again.
What is truth?
The incident above, especially the quotation of Scripture, seemed like a good basis for a blog and reason to consider the meaning of truth. Truth, in this case, the idea of truth (alétheia) found in the passage, the truth of Jesus, that was partially quoted at my young hitchhiker friend.
The words “I am the way and the truth and the life” are cherry-picked from the Gospel of John. It is a part of a discussion Jesus was having with his disciples about imminent events. The disciples, as usual, were bewildered and asking questions:
“Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’
Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.'” (John 14:6-7)
Jesus responds to explain in further detail, stating that he is one with the Father, that his words are spoken by the authority of the Father and telling them that the Father will be revealed to them through obedience to his teaching and by the Holy Spirit.
The truth of Jesus is more than book knowledge.
It is interesting to note that Jesus did not tell his followers to diligently study Scripture.
Instead, Jesus told them to obey what they knew and that more would be revealed by the Spirit after their obedience. It might seem backward, but faith without works is dead (James 2:14-26) and salvation is a gift from God:
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:8-10)
That is not to say that the Scripture is unprofitable, it most certainly is profitable to a believer. It is “through faith in Jesus Christ” (Hebrews 2:3-15) that Scripture is able to make us “wise for salvation” and only through this truth of faith can we ever understand.
Book knowledge is not the same as correct understanding and those who opposed Jesus most vehemently had a great knowledge of Scripture. In fact, it was because of their own understanding of Scripture (and dogmatic literalism) that they rejected Jesus.
The truth of Jesus is something more than mere book knowledge, it is more than religious devotion to the study of a text or a theological proposition. The truth of Jesus is something more profound and powerful than words on a page. It is a spiritual reality that goes far deeper than fallible human knowledge or our finite ability to understand.
The truth of Jesus is something beyond description in words.
Truth is a word, but truth itself is not a word.
We use words to paint pictures in the minds of our audience. Words are symbols used to describe ideas, they are things we use to describe other things and yet words are not themselves the thing being described. Words are not truth of themselves any more than a portrait in acrylic color on canvas is the actual person being portrayed.
Words depend on the ability of our audience to understand them. One could tell their cat to “take out the garbage” and the poor critter would stare at them blankly. Language—like beauty is in the eye of the beholder—depends on the interpreter to correctly understand the word usage Communication is an interactive affair requiring both parties to be on the same metaphorical page.
Furthermore, talk is cheap, words can also be used to construct a false image of reality and deceive. Jesus warns of false teachers, people who profess with their mouths to be faithful, who present themselves as sheep and yet are inwardly wolves—We are told we can know people by their good or bad fruit. (Matthew 7:15-23)
So truth is more than words. Truth is an abstraction, it is something greater than the sum total of words and language used to describe it. Truth is something bigger than us and beyond our own concept of reality. Truth is transcendent and, still, it is something that can be fleshed out and represented.
The truth of Jesus is God’s word and a living testimony about a greater reality.
Jesus was brought before Pontius Pilate, a Roman civil authority, to be judged. The Gospels give slightly different versions of the events. In summary, the religious leaders accuse Jesus, they say he claims to be their king (a crime amounting to sedition against the established state) and insist that he is evil.
Here’s one account of the beleaguered governor questioning Jesus and trying to get the bottom of the issue:
“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. ‘Your own people and chief priests 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 Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.’
‘You are a king, then!’ said Pilate.
Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.’
‘What is truth?’ retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, ‘I find no basis for a charge against him.'” (John 18:33-38)
This conversation is interesting and especially when Jesus claims to have come to “testify to the truth” and says those on the side of truth listen to him. It is reminiscent of when he told the religious dogmatists that his sheep hear his voice and makes an incredible claim:
“The Jews who were there gathered around him, saying, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’
Jesus answered, ‘I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.'” (John 10:24-30)
For this Jesus is accused of blasphemy. But to that charge, he replies by quoting their Scripture to them. He quotes from Psalms 82:6, where it says “I have said you are ‘gods’,” and uses that to argue against their idea that his claim of divine sonship was blasphemy.
Pilate seems agnostic about truth and exasperated by Jesus. He is dealing with a contradiction, he sees an innocent man not worthy of punishment and the religious crowd sees a man guilty of blasphemy against God who deserves death.
Pilate ultimately bends to political pressure and, while washing his own hands, complies with the demands of the crowd. However, both Pilate and Herod (who’s part is described in Luke 23:8-12) seem to see Jesus as a curiosity rather than as a direct threat to the state.
The truth of Jesus is found in our following his example and being a self-sacrificial testimony of God’s grace.
The truth of Jesus is not a reasonable or rational proposition by worldly human standards. It is only understood through spiritual means, through having the “mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2) and a process that starts in the heart (2 Corinthians 3) rather than through outward means.
It is transformative, as Paul explains:
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:1-2)
The Orthodox Christian tradition would call this theosis or divination. Unfortunately, my own Anabaptist tradition has picked to focus on the other negative end (the “be not conformed” part) and the result is an idea of “non-conformity” that usually amounts to a reactionary worldly effort to control outward appearance.
The truth of Jesus is about more than our ability to conform to a man-made list of requirements. It is a truth that transcends all worldly means and is expressed in our unrelenting, unapologetic and uncompromising pursuit of the divine. The truth is a positive vision. The truth is God’s grace made manifest in us.
The truth of Jesus is a path we walk that leads us to greater life and the perfection of divine love.
The words “the way” (hodos) refer to a journey. It is a path to walk and live out. The trail was blazed by Jesus who died for our sins, but it is lived also by those who truly believe and wish to be disciples. As Jesus said:
“Then he said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.'” (Like 9:23-24)
Jesus is using the cross as a metaphor. A cross, in human terms, represented suffering and shame. However, in following after Jesus, for a believer this is not useless suffering, it is not pain for the sake of pain or self-flagellation, it is suffering for the good of others or making a path to something greater.
Jesus promises a more abundant life (John 10:10) to those who follow him. In this he is not promising material or worldly wealth. But he does say that we should use our worldly wealth to gain friends and gain true riches (Luke 16) which is to prioritize God through our loving people:
“Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.” (1 John 4:20-21)
Jesus said we can know the truth of a person’s profession of faith by their fruit (Matthew 7:15-23) and that the fruit of the Spirit is described by Paul “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23) Our truth must be more than words.
So what does ‘I am the way and the truth and the life’ mean?
To understand this we need to understand the context. The context is the last supper, it is during the Passover feast, the night Jesus is betrayed and an intimate moment. In these passages of Scripture (John 13 and 14) the implications are clear.
Jesus explains that his disciples will be known by their love for each other, he says he must go so they may know the truth more intimately (promising the Spirit to those who obey his instructions and example) and then goes on to demonstrate a truth of love worth dying for.
The truth of Jesus is not a theological proposition, not a religious profession or book knowledge. His truth is not a product of human reasoning and founded on scientific research or evidence. The truth of Jesus is something found in our walking in the Spirit, it is demonstrated in our love for others and bringing the dead to life.
Truth is living a reality greater than our reality, something that transcends worldly knowledge and human understanding. Truth is both known and still yet to be known, it is a reality that goes beyond the currently available evidence and is something that can only be experienced through a true walk of faith.
The truth of Jesus transcends religion and is a walk of faith.
In some respects, it seems my hitchhiking friend may have a better grasp of faith than his religiously indoctrinated counterparts. He is more literally taking no thought for tomorrow (Matthew 6:34) and depending on God to provide. By contrast, we too often rely on our own understanding, planning, and abilities.
I wish my traveling friend well on his journey and pray that the truth of God’s word (Jesus) is made manifest in him. May God’s truth of self-sacrificial love and spiritual life be found in us who claim to know Jesus.
“‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.'”
The book of Ecclesiastes paints a bleak picture of life. It describes how cycles of nature repeat and nothing really changes from before. We labor yet we are soon to be forgotten along with our labor.
If that is how he felt then, then how should one feel today? Meaning can be further lost in our current understanding of the vastness of time and space. We rush with an ever quickening pace into a sea of nothingness.
“Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind. For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.” (Ecclesiastes 1:17-18)
Wisdom goes hand and hand with sorrow because the unwise do not realize they are unwise. So a wise person is often stuck watching the foolishness of others unfold before their eyes without being able to do anything to stop it. Knowledge of the patterns of people and history is often a source of painful helplessness.
What can a compassionate and intelligent person do but mourn the world then bury themselves in pleasurable indulgences so they can forget?
The excesses of king Solomon, the writer of Ecclesiastes, were not a product of foolishness, they were an attempt to escape a maddening reality where all men (wise or foolish) would eventually perish. His knowledge and wisdom made all of his pursuits become empty.
“The wise have eyes in their heads, while the fool walks in the darkness; but I came to realize that the same fate overtakes them both. Then I said to myself, ‘The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise?’ I said to myself, ‘This too is meaningless.’ For the wise, like the fool, will not be long remembered; the days have already come when both have been forgotten. Like the fool, the wise too must die!” (Ecclesiastes 2:14-16)
It is a reality that is inescapable, watching people make the same mistakes over and over again, seeing where the patterns of today will lead, being treated as a fool by those whom you are trying to warn, unable to convince them until it is too late and the die is already cast. It is enough to make a wise person stop wasting their efforts.
This is the battle a writer who wishes to make a difference in the world must face. There is no point in writing if there’s nobody to read or comprehend. We wish to be understood so that others might gain from our experience and insights. But in a world of over seven billion voices who has time to listen? How can true wisdom seperate itself from the inane chatter?
Even my triumphs, even when a blog I write hits a chord and is viewed a thousand times, there is often a feeling of morose that follows. My writing is never good enough and even if it was who’s actually listening? I feel compelled to speak my mind yet then wonder if it is meaningful that I do say a word. I fight off discouragement until it is time to write again.
However, what matters to me ultimately is not the thousands of anonymous visitors here. No, it is the people, small and unimportant to the world, whom I’ve been able to encourage. Whatever lofty ideas I share here matter very little in the end. What matters is those who have found my love to be genuine and will remember someone cared about them.
The meaning in my life doesn’t come from being important to the world. My meaning comes from being remembered and appreciated by those unnoticed and forgotten by the world. If our efforts make a positive difference for one person then it is enough.
My voice might not make much difference in the world. But if I can change the world for one person and give them hope or answers then I have made a world of difference to them.
I find the most meaning in life when I narrow my focus to loving one person.
I am dismayed when fellow Christians (especially those claiming to speak for the church) make definitive statements that are unsupported in the evidence. There are many who take a dogmatic black and white stand on ideas not supported logically, scientifically or in appropriate understanding of Scripture.
I am dismayed because we stand to hurt our credibility when we make our stand on things we do not actually know and with reasoning that falls apart under closer scrutiny. It is too often the case that those who think they are defending the Gospel truth are actually destroying it in their stubborn obstinacy and inability to see past their own presuppositions about the evidence.
This is a problem in the fundamentalist circles I am most familiar with. Instead of simply taking a stand on faith or sticking to the text of the Bible as they claim, many add their own assumptions. They go another step off the firm ground of what is truly known and onto the quicksand of over-interpretation, unsupported inference and baseless speculation. It is sad because it is unnecessary, it too often is the bathwater that conceals the true baby of Christianity, and drives critical thinking people away.
Two examples (often given in opposition to Evolution theory) is the idea that there is a clean break between living and non-living things. The other is a misuse of the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the word “entropy” to mean something that it does not. Both of these ideas originate in extrapolation from Biblical language, but neither one of them is actually as definitive in the Scriptural record as some might assume.
Postulate #1) Life cannot originate from non-life.
It seems obvious enough at first glance, doesn’t it? I mean, have you ever seen mud materialize into human form, then suddenly become animated, walk and talk as a human would? I have not. We do not typically see dead organisms come back to life without a miracle.
And yet, under the microscope, it is interesting that the line between life and non-life is actually blurrier than one might imagine. Viruses are considered dead because they do not have the ability to reproduce without a host cell and do not replicate themselves in the typical way of cell-division. However, a virus can reanimate a dead cell, take control of it and use it to replicate.
Cells themselves are not ‘living’ in their individual components any more than a car is alive when you start it. Yes, in one sense there is life, but it is the ‘life’ of chemical reaction (albeit in a complex system) and in physical processes not considered as living taken independent of each other.
Think about it: The sun (due to gravity and other forces) is orderly, it takes hydrogen and, through a process of fusion, creates light energy and heavier elements. Cells likewise, take one form of matter and through chemical process convert it to something else. The difference between the sun and a cell, when we cut past the descriptive language to the actual material substance, is one of complexity and size rather than living or dead.
Our physical body is basically a complex machine comprised of individual self-replicating cells that work in concert with other different cells to produce organs, tissues and a body. At the smallest level it is all chemical reaction and a sort of mechanical process that usually considered non-living. But, at some point, taken together, these dead parts become something considered a living organism. It is bit of a both/and paradox rather than an either/or dichotomy.
The difference between life and non-life seems to be a continuum more than a black and white line. We do not consider a bacteria as equal to a plant or an animal equal to ourselves and the difference is probably the amount of ‘life’ each organism represents. Likewise, I do not know if we can consider an animated universe something ‘dead’ with all the creative processes at work. All, to me, are expressions of a creative and living God.
Postulate #2) Entropy is corruptive and not a good thing.
Lay people often misunderstand the Second Law of Thermodynamics (the state of entropy of the entire universe, as an isolated system, will always increase over time) as some kind of moral statement. This misunderstanding is understandable. Entropy is associated with decay and the universe is (by appearances, because of entropy) like a wind up clock that will finally someday be exhausted.
However, the increase of disorder or entropy in the universe is not an entirely bad thing. In fact, entropy is how we get the energy and substance we need to survive. When a man enters an ‘orderly’ forest, cuts a swath out to build a cabin and cultivates the space created, he has increased entropy. Our favorite star (aka: the sun) taking ‘orderly’ hydrogen and turning it into a mix of heavier elements and light is increasing entropy. Entropy is what makes the universe work and allows something as complicated as biological life exist.
Another way to understand entropy is to see it as an increase in complexity. A stack of lumber is an orderly arrangement and has a relatively low state of entropy. Hire a carpenter and turn the orderly stack into a house and, with addition of work to cut the lumber to different lengths, along with the contamination of nails, drywall, windows, doors, plumbing, and other building materials, you have increased entropy.
A pile of rocks is at a relatively low state of entropy. People, one the other hand, represent a very high level of entropy. We are arguably the pinnacle of disorder in the universe with our complexity and creative abilities. Our turning orderly raw materials into complex creations, the process we use involving the dispersal of energy, is creating a higher level of entropy. A 747 is a product of entropy as much as human engineering.
Entropy is like the sun or rain. The same sun that produces the energy we need to survive can also cause skin cancer and kill us. The rain cycle that we depend on for fresh water is also capable of producing floods and destruction. Entropy is not exclusively creative or destructive, it is not something moral or immoral, it just is, and it is necessary for life to exist as we know it.
If life is an emergent property of physical complexity or entropy, then what?
The idea of life being an emergent quality of complex physical processes is unsettling to some. There are serious philosophical questions and potentially big theological implications. Nevertheless, if honest use of terms is our concern, we must be fearless and follow the evidence where it leads.
One idea at stake is our human exceptionalism. In the book of Genesis we read an exceptional account describing the creation of man. In it we both see humanity as being “in the image of God” and also that God ‘breathed’ the “breath of life” directly into man. This is directness in the creation of humankind is unique in the Genesis narrative, but what does it really mean?
We are not exceptional to animals in our physical body. A human heart can be patched with a valve from a pig. Human insulin can be created with bacteria and our genetic code is not too significantly different from other animals of our level of complexity. It would appear that other animals also have consciousness at some level.
So clearly, for the Genesis account to be true, we are somehow special, touched uniquely by God, yet not in a physical sense. When defining the terms used in Scripture, it is good to compare different accounts and see how similar language is used elsewhere. In the case of breathing we are not without another reference for sake of comparison.
Genesis is not the only time in the Biblical canon that the divine breathed on men and gave them life:
“Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.'” (John 20:21-22)
The disciples of Jesus were clearly already physically alive. But they were not yet ‘born of the Spirit’ and therefore could not understand the things of God. Read John 6, Jesus talks about the “living bread” he represents and understand that he is not speaking about physical bread nor about physical life. There are many cases in Scripture like this one where a completely ‘literal’ (physical reality) interpretation is incorrect.
So, perhaps what many have been taught and think they know about the book of Genesis is wrong? Perhaps the book is less about physical reality and more about a greater spiritual truth? I believe that is possible, even probable, and leads to less conflict with what is known through scientific inquiry.
Knowing what we need to know…
I believe many Biblical fundamentalists confuse the bathwater of their own established interpretation, traditions and dogmas with the baby. The baby or fundamental truth of Christianity is not found in historical documents nor proved with scientific evidence. The truth of Christianity is found in knowing what Paul knew:
“For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.” (1 Corinthians 2:2-5)
The truth of Christianity is Jesus. And, by Jesus, I do not mean the historical figure who’s words we read in a book and the religious traditions that borrowed his name. I mean the Jesus that we live out daily and our having the mind of Christ today. The church must represent Jesus to the world presently, the power of the Spirit must be our reality now or our religious words only perpetuate a fraud. Jesus must be experienced in our lives today and his will expressed through us or the truth is not in us.
When we find our answers in Jesus (rather than Genesis) and should have spiritual experience in our lives. What makes us unique is the emergent quality of faith and the breath of God’s own Spirit in us. We are in the image of the divine because we have the mind of Christ. These are things revealed by faith and not products of mere human knowledge.
We need not know more than the way of Jesus. If we live that out our lives will reveal the truth of Christianity without our need of superfluous or false knowledge to bolster our case. Let the proof of faith be in the truth of our actions and the image of God found in our divine love.
“Delicious!” A man yells, from a grassy knoll to those passing back and forth on the road below, as he points in the direction of a large structure beside him. He excitedly invites the travelers to join him in celebration of deliciousness.
Another beside that man extols the virtue of “home cooked” and describes images on the structure as being nutritious food. She implores, “come dine with me!” Then, in a hushed voice, she tells the travelers who listen that the guy yelling delicious is a simpleton and there’s much more to be told about the object than that one word. She hands the traveler a chunk of the structure to eat.
Others stand very near the structure seemingly oblivious to their surroundings. They bow their heads reverently as they memorize portions of the structure. They ignore the travelers while reading ritualistically. Some carefully catalog and categorize the colors, pictures, shapes and the sequence of letters on the object. Amid their detailed analysis, they warn each other about those who got into discussions with travelers that were led away and distracted from studying by the groups furthest from the structure.
To the left of the guy yelling “delicious” sits a group sitting smugly in the shade of the object. One tells the others, “it is just wood and canvas and intended as a place to shelter.” They discuss together the materials that the structure is constructed of and theorize the process of how it was built. And, other than lofty arguments over how to distribute the available protection of the shelter, this group rests confidently knowing they better understand the purpose of the object than the others.
Just then another traveler rounds the bend, he looks at the reverenced structure, utters the words, “delicious home cooked food just ahead.” And then attempts conversation with the others about the meaning of the structure. For his perspective on the structure (that it is a marker pointing ahead rather than a destination point or object of worship) he is ridiculed as a dreamer, condemned as dangerous and ignored as boring. Eventually, with night falling, he tells the other travelers, “follow me to the restaurant advertised on the billboard.” They leave the object beside the road.
Those sitting left of the structure shrug and continue their lofty discussion. The guy yelling delicious is now dancing with tears running down his face having forgotten about the travelers already. The rest of those gathered on the knoll lament the lack of dedication to the structure. Some double down on their efforts to worship the structure, they warn all the more passionately against ever leaving the structure and continue trying to find their sustenance in the structure.
Meanwhile, just down the road, as the sun slips beneath the horizon, two travelers sit comfortably at a table eating a home cooked meal. “Delicious!” One traveler says to the others…
Knowledge is power or that is what I am told. But how does our knowing make us more capable and is that capability to know always from our own betterment?
The answer is, no, not always, and our knowledge could very well be less for our own betterment than we know. The same knowledge of the human body used by a doctor to save life can also by others to take it. Knowledge of how to start a fire gives one the ability to cook and create glass or steel, and yet it is also a tool of an arsonist. If knowledge is power it can be a destructive power. Knowledge can be power to do evil.
Increased knowledge does not equate to moral progress…
“Of all the problems which will have to be faced in the future, in my opinion, the most difficult will be those concerning the treatment of inferior races of mankind” (Leonard Darwin)
Knowledge can also be deceiving and dangerous when it is incomplete, over-interpreted or not properly contextualized. Eugenicists, like Darwin in the quote above, claimed confidently that their knowledge of science gave them the ability to decide what races of men and women should be allowed to reproduce. People too easily use knowledge that validates their own presuppositions to overreach and sometimes with deadly consequences.
The confident and exuberant knowledge based claims of one generation become the warnings to the next. Things argued as logical, reasonable, fact based and morally responsible by one generation will sometimes be regarded as the atrocities of the next. Eugenics in America has become a prime example. Very intelligent and knowledgeable men (like Nikola Tesla) argued for sterilization of races they deemed inferior. But, the results of these brilliant forward thinking men of yesteryear, we now as a society pay a price for today.
“Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” (Proverbs 16:18)
One would think our knowledge of historical blunders would act to restrain our enthusiasm for allowing our knowledge today to delude us. But increased knowledge does not equate to increased wisdom or humility. Knowledge we possess can be a source of dangerous pride. Pride that can blind us to the limits of our own knowledge and ability to reason correctly from the knowledge we possess. Knowing what we do not know, being humble with what we think we know and listening to those who know differently from us can save us from our limited knowledge being our own destruction.
Known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns…
“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” (Donald Rumsfeld)
Every fool in history was a likely victim of their own knowledge. History is replete with examples of well-intended and intelligent men who misjudged on the basis of the knowledge they had. I do not take Neville Chamberlain for an idiot because of his infamous “peace for our time” utterance after his meeting with Hitler gave hope of avoiding war. In retrospect, with the knowledge available even then, one could have concluded very differently than Chamberlain and Hitler’s rise may have been thwarted saving countless lives.
Many terrible mistakes might have been avoided if people would have arrived at different conclusions using the greater available evidence or even the same knowledge they had making a bad judgment. Confidence in our ability to discern from our knowledge is good. However, if our confidence is an insulation to keep us from hearing contrary opinions, if it is used to demean those who disagree and their perspectives, we are on a very dangerous road. It is with more knowledge we can realize the conclusions we reached based in prior knowledge were overconfident, arrogant and wrong.
“Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.” (Proverbs 15:22)
More knowledge is not a savior of humanity. Educated and knowledgeable people are some of the most dangerous people if they are unrestrained by moral conscience or humility. There is a story of a new king (1 Kings 12) who decided to disregard the council of older advisors, choose to follow the advice of more agreeable peers and sowed the seeds of his own destruction. We too risk the same when we seek the council of those who confirm our own biases and disregard the perspectives of those outside our own peer group or culture.
“…knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know.” (1 Corinthians 8:1b-2)
Based in their knowledge people too often pick advisors who are no different from them. It is a form of self-love. From young people who turn to age-group peers, to fundamentalists (religious, scientific or otherwise) who vehemently defend their own various established dogmas and quickly dismiss any interpretation counter to their own, we need to be wary of our own potential knowledgeable ignorance. Having an abundance of fact, logic and reason does not equate to having good discernment. Knowing you could be wrong and not know what you believe you know could save you (or those you influence) plenty of sorrow and regret.
The advantage of not knowing and loving freely…
I believe we are often geared too much towards our own knowledge and not enough towards love and humility. If we were more mindful of the limits to our own knowledge or more aware of the lessons of history (and able to apply them to ourselves) we would probably not be as quick to trust our own discernment. Knowledge can lead to arrogance, but the right kind of knowledge can lead to our being humbled and able to submit to the way of love that defies common understanding.
“For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2)
Unpackaged: Knowing only Jesus Christ is to know only the Spirit of God and power of love, and to know only that could do more good for the world than a supercomputer of facts. Love has more power than the combined intelligence of those who unlocked the secrets of the atom and the awe-ful results of their knowledge.
The world would be better with more who had the faith (and courage) of a young woman, Maryann Kauffman, who lost her husband to a senseless act of violence and choose knowing only Jesus or forgiveness rather than bitterness. I can know without knowing that her pain is as real as anyone else’s, but evidently her love is bigger.
May we resolve to know goodness more completely and I know we will be better for it. There is no loss in willing self-sacrificial love…
Books are powerful and there is little doubt of that. Their words carry ideas far beyond those who wrote them. The power of books is widely recognized and that is why they are written; that is why books are removed as a potential threat. Books have undoubtedly had a huge influence on the course of history.
Books carry both good and bad messages. Books have popularized ideas that have led to hate and harm of people. If one were to list the most dangerous books in history there are many titles that might come to mind. Books such as Mein Kampf, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion or The Communist Manifesto can be linked to political purges, religious persecutions and genocide. With each title one could discuss the human causalities related to each and try to rank them.
However, there is one book that perhaps is more dangerous (especially spiritually) than all of those titles combined and that is the book this blog is about. It is a book so powerful that it has been used to create sectarian division within the very group it was written to inform. Knowledge of this book has historically caused some religious experts to reject as a false teacher that others believe it was written about. It is a favorite source of ridicule of those skeptical of the truthfulness of the ideas it contains. This is a book that was used as a means to tempt Jesus. This one book is actually a combination of books that were compiled into the single book which is now called The Holy Bible.
The Bible is arguably one of the most influential books in all of human history. The Bible carries both great potential for good in the right hands and also a terrible power for evil used wrongly. It has inspired some to great acts of self-sacrificial love. It has been used by others as justification for violence. The power and potential of the Bible is in the hands of the interpreter.
Biblical reformation, the division in the church and the interpretation question
Biblical fundamentalism is branch of Christianity that has become popular since the Protestant Reformation. It is a belief system made possible with the invention of the printing press and widespread availability of Biblical texts to the general public. This wresting of control of the church from the institutional church and new emphasis on a written text was a significant development in church history; it seemed necessary at that time as a reaction to the abuses of the institution of church.
Unfortunately, as reactions often do, the resultant bibliocentrism has also created a great deal of other problems. The biggest of those problems is the all too obvious explosion of sectarian divisions within the church. The confusion is evidenced in the reality of the over 30,000 separate church denominations in existence today. The widespread availability of the Bible has clearly not created church unity. It has rather clearly created the opposite and a spirit of division.
Those of the Sola scriptura (by Scripture alone) view cannot agree on how Scripture should interpreted and let alone how it should be applied. Those who believe the Bible is sufficient alone put the interpretation of their own group and own personal interpretation above all others, each believing they are more correct than the others. Everyone doing what is right in their own eyes.
Bible based faith produces results that are wildly different from person to person. I know a guy who believes sincerely that the Bible teaches that Christians should basically be like ISIS and should either remove (kill) unbelievers entirely, subjugate them or enslave them and he has many proof texts to support his position. I know of many others who believe that the Bible teaches pacifism, endorses state socialism or forced wealth redistribution and they too can produce many supporting texts. I know some who based in their own understanding of the Bible believe Jesus was not God.
We could go through Scripture with a variety of people and get completely contradictory perspectives on what it actually says in many significant areas. On the basis of a few snippets of text, on a specific definition of a word or two and on the base assumptions they brought into their reading people have built whole doctrines. Different hermeneutic (or interpretive) approaches produce greatly different theologies that are contradictory in their extremes. The Bible is a great source of confusion.
People in the church cannot even agree on an appropriate translation of Scripture. Some will insist an earlier Old English translation of the Bible is more accurate than others and can give complex rationals in support of their position. Some even teach the one version they believe in is the only acceptable ‘inspired’ version. Varying degrees of literalism have led to many disputes within the church. Some believe the Bible teaches that the world is flat based in their dogmatic literalism. Others see more figurative speech, more allegories and metaphors.
Whole doctrines built off of words or phrases that aren’t clearly understood and yet are assumed to be understood in ignorance. The Bible, according to 2 Peter 3:15-16, describes concepts that are difficult to understand and words which can be misused in ignorance:
“And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.”
In the hands of “ignorant and unstable people” the Bible is potentially destructive. I believe we do not need to look far into history to find many examples of where this has been the case. If you do not know examples, then I will present the Münster Rebellion and the Bible-based predictions of Harold Camping as examples of Biblical application gone badly.
So, to my friends of Christian faith: Be humble, be diligent and do not ever believe your own knowledge of Scripture is without potential error. Faith cannot be in reading the Bible alone, there must be source greater than the Scripture that guides us spiritually and that is where the Spirit of God comes in.
Biblical literalism, the rejection of Jesus and the Elijah Question
Error is not a new problem with those attempting to interpret the written text of Scripture for themselves. Jesus himself was rejected on the basis of the Scriptural interpretation of those who knew the bulk of the book (we call Bible) better than most of us probably ever will or can hope to so many years removed from the culture and people it was written to. The Pharisees knew their Bibles well and also knew what it said about the Messiah.
Based in Malachi 4:5-6 there was an expectation that Elijah would return before the Messiah. According to Jesus the prophet John the Baptist was Elijah and he is recorded having said that in Matthew 11:13-14:
“For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come.”
However, the experts on Scripture, who rejected Jesus, were evidently looking for some more literal. Perhaps they were envisioning Elijah returning in a spectacular way and hoped for a kingdom of physical world importance, who knows? But the answer Jesus gave did not satisfy them.
It is interesting that even John the Baptist himself denied being Elijah when questioned in John 1:19-21:
“Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.” They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.”
So, should we take John’s own words recorded in Scripture at face value? Should we believe the words of Jesus in Matthew 11:13-14 that contradict them? This is a serious problem for a literalist. This irreconcilability of message can easily explain the angst of those looking for a literal fulfillment of Malachi. Considering that John the Baptist himself would not claim to be Elijah probably caused some of the critics of Jesus to be even more secure in their own understanding of Scripture.
Luke 1:13-17, however, offers us this view of John the Baptist:
“But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
What Luke suggests is a literal return of Elijah, but not a literal physical return of Elijah and a spiritual fulfillment instead. John the Baptist was a return of Elijah, in that he embodied the “spirit and power” of the prophet, and yet he was not literally Elijah in physical form. To reconcile John 1:19-21 with Matthew 11:13-14, we can probably assume that John the Baptist was being humble in his answers, not even claiming to be a prophet, and that Jesus was exalting him as he should have been.
But, those who rejected John the Baptist as Elijah also rejected Jesus as Messiah and their knowledge of Scripture did not save them as they apparently believed it would. In John 5:30-40 this type of misplaced faith in Scripture is confronted by Jesus:
“I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me. If I alone bear witness about myself, my testimony is not true. There is another who bears witness about me, and I know that the testimony that he bears about me is true. You sent to John, and he has borne witness to the truth. Not that the testimony that I receive is from man, but I say these things so that you may be saved. He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light. But the testimony that I have is greater than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen, and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent. You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. I do not receive glory from people. But I know that you do not have the love of God within you. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him. How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?”
For those who believe that the Scripture is God’s own voice, I think they need to take heed of what is written above and understand what Jesus is trying to explain. The people Jesus spoke to were experts on Scripture, they were extremely knowledgeable of the books of the Bible they had and put faith in their knowledge of the text like many religious people do today.
Unfortunately, what their knowledge of the book could not give them is true faith that can only come from the Spirit of God. The passage above in some translations tells us that they “searched diligently” the Scripture and yet before that tells us they have never heard from God or had “his word” in them. This passage flies directly in the face of those who think the written words of Scripture are themselves the word of God.
Biblical temptation of Jesus and the authority question
I’ve had Christian friends post on social media a message similar to this:
“When you carry the Bible, Satan gets a headache. When you open it, he collapses. When he sees you reading it, he faints. When he sees you living it, he flees. And just when you’re about to re-post this, he’ll try to discourage you. I JUST DEFEATED HIM! Copy and re-post if you can. Any takers?”
I do appreciate the enthusiasm. But it is perplexing to me that a person who has read the Bible themselves can believe that. The account of the temptation of Christ should put that idea to rest. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke all give an account of a conversation between Jesus and Satan that proves the exact opposite.
Satan is not afraid of Scripture. Satan cited Scripture and tried to use it to deceive Jesus. This is a version of that temptation in the Matthew 4:5-6:
“Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”
That is a quote of Psalm 91:11-12 used by the devil to tempt Jesus!
We don’t actually defeat our spiritual enemy through our enthusiasm for the Bible. Evil is not afraid of the Bible. Evil men have long used the Bible to accomplish their own selfish ends and have deceived many using the book. It is not a book that will save us from temptation. It is not a book that will give us the right answers or knowledge to defeat those who attempt to deceive us. What we need is the same authority dwelling in us that led Jesus into the desert to be tempted in the first place. What we need is the word of God in us or the Spirit of God and then (and only then) Scripture will become profitable in our hands. We need the authority that gave authority to those who were inspired to write the Scripture.
It is a bit paradoxical that I am trying to explain this using Scripture what I do not believe Scripture alone can explain. But, it is because I believe those who are Biblically religious and yet truly spiritually seeking will understand through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Many simply give credit to the wrong source unknowingly. They allow the true authority to speak to them and still do not understand they are actually receiving their understanding through that authority. So, to them, those who are listening to the voice of Jesus in their heart even unknowingly, Paul gives us a solution to understanding Scripture in 1 Corinthians 2:6-16:
“Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”—these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.”
To understand God in Scripture you must have the ‘mind of God’ in you first. It is not enough just to have knowledge of Scripture. Even the best Biblical doctrines and theology all will fall short if they are practiced by a person not also under subjugation to the Spirit of God. The words of the Bible are not magical in themselves, the words themselves are dead and the interpreter is the one who gives them life. And, to give the words of the Bible the right life requires that one have the “mind of Christ” while reading them and not any other.
The Spirit of God is the ultimate authority, the ultimate teacher and is the one we should trust when we claim to be a follower of Jesus Christ.
Stay tuned, this will likely be a multiple part series…