Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Follow the Evidence

In the sermon for this week we examined how we are to respond to the word of God by looking at Zechariah’s response to God’s message for him, found in Luke 1.5-25.  In sum, the angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah and announces that he will be having a son – fulfilling his prayer of many years – and that this son will be great in the eyes of the Lord, and that God will use him as an instrumental part of his plan of redemption for the whole world by having him prepare the hearts of the people for God’s Messiah.  Zechariah’s response to this wonderful news was: “Prove it to me.”  Listen to this week’s sermon here to find out why this was the wrong response.  
In effect, Zechariah was telling God that the evidence he had already provided wasn’t good enough, and that he needed more.  Skeptics of Christianity fall into this trap all the time, as they reject the evidence of God’s word and demand some kind of miraculous display before they will espouse belief. People often  will say they would believe if God would appear to them and show himself, implying that the first time God did this through Christ wasn’t good enough.  God must do more in order for me to believe, in order for me to obey.  The problem is, how much proof will be enough?  
Sometimes Bible-believing Christians fall into this trap as well. They know what God’s word says; they know the commands and instructions; they know what they must do to be obedient; but instead of following through and acting on what they know, they demand more proof.  In my experience, Christians often mask this unbelief as “waiting for the Spirit’s leading.”  Rather than simply obeying what they read in the Bible! Many Christians are waiting for a spiritual nudge, or divinely ordered “right” circumstances, or a sense of peace before they will move forward in obedience.  To me, this is the same as demanding more evidence – more proof – that God actually means what he says.  
Think of it like this: God supplied proof to Zechariah that his word was true, in that he sent an angel to deliver the message.  What could be better proof than receiving the word of God directly from the mouth of an angel?  But this wasn’t enough for Zechariah, so he asked God to prove it again.  Similarly, God has supplied Christians with proof that he has spoken: the Bible.  This should be all the evidence we need to motivate our obedience to his word.  But instead of acting on what the word says, we look for more proof that the word is true; we wait on the Spirit to give us that special sense of direction or contentment then we will obey what the Bible already says to do.  God has already told us what to do.  If we wait for the Spirit to confirm what he has said through a special feeling, isn’t that the same as asking God for more proof?
For instance, I have talked to many, many people who have a desire to share their faith with others, and who readily affirm that God has commanded them to do so in his word, and they have a sincere desire to be obedient to that command.  But at the same time, these people also feel that they need to wait for the Spirit to lead them into the conversation, or the “right time,” or to create the exact right circumstances for this faith-sharing encounter with their friend to take place.  Regardless of the reality that interpreting signs and feelings from the Spirit is a completely subjective matter that is open to wide interpretation, I think this misses the point of trusting God at his word.  
God has told us what to do in the Bible, and we should be about the business of doing it.  Don’t be like Zechariah – don’t ask for more proof of what God has already told you in his word.  To do so would be to falter in unbelief, like Zechariah.  Instead, take God at his word, and just do something.  
There’s another important lesson that we learn from the story of Zechariah.  When Zechariah asks for more evidence that God’s word is true, God grants it to him.  After Zechariah asks Gabriel for more proof, he’s struck mute, and stays that way for close to a year.  Do you think that extra measure of proof convinced him that God’s word was true?  I bet it did.  So maybe the extra measure of evidence you’re looking for won’t be very comfortable. It’s always better to believe God at his word – the first time – and then to move forward and get busy with the work of obedience.  

Friday, December 11, 2015

Who's Right: Matthew or Luke?

For the past two weeks at Riverview we have examined the genealogical records presented in both the gospels of Matthew and Luke.  Both genealogies serve to prove to the reader that Jesus is indeed qualified to bear the title of Messiah and be the representative Savior of all those who will trust in him.  You can listen to the sermon on the genealogy in Matthew here, and the genealogy in Luke here.  
It doesn’t take a very close reading, however, before one realizes that the genealogies in Matthew and Luke are quite different at points.  Some skeptics would use this as evidence that the Bible is contradictory, saying that the gospel authors can’t even agree on the members of Jesus’ own family.  Such a conclusion is very flawed, however, as there are numerous ways to resolve discrepancies of genealogical origin, and there have been several theories proposed by scholars and researchers that propose ways of reconciling these differences, all of which are possible.  These theories should negate almost any objection a skeptic of scripture has regarding the differences in Matthew and Luke’s genealogical data of Jesus.  In what follows I will briefly outline three possible reasons for the differences in the genealogies, and explain why the differences do not present a problem for those who believe the Bible.
1. First, the genealogical records can differ simply because of the way we communicate lineage in written discourse.  For instance, you could say that I am the “son of” my great-great grandfather, John Detlefsen, born in 1847.  I am not his direct son, but I am his “son” in a broader sense, in that I come from his line.  It could be that Matthew and Luke are focusing on different “sons” of Abraham (and Adam, in Luke’s case), and so they mention different names from different generations of Jesus’ genealogy.  This kind of selective genealogy was, and is, common in genealogical records.  This is probably the best explanation for the differences between Matthew and Luke’s genealogical records.
2. Closely related to the explanation above is that it is possible that, in his genealogy of Jesus, Matthew’s desire was to report Jesus’ direct lineage.  In other words, Matthew literally wanted to show Joseph’s (Jesus’ earthly father) direct line to Abraham.  This would mean that Matthew’s lineage of Jesus literally included Jesus’ direct (earthly) father, grandfather, great-grandfather and so on.  It is also possible that Luke’s purpose in his genealogy of Jesus is to communicate Jesus’ royal line.  This would mean that Luke is more concerned with noting Jesus’ ancestors who are official representatives of the throne of David.  Thus, Luke’s genealogy of Jesus represents his royal heritage, whereas Matthew’s represents his familial heritage.  Careful readers will note that Luke and Matthew even have different names listed for the man representing Jesus’ grandfather.  This explanation quickly resolves the apparent contradiction: the name listed in Matthew’s genealogy is Jesus’ actual grandfather, whereas the name listed in Luke’s genealogy is Jesus’ “royal” grandfather.  
3. A third option is entirely unrelated to the previous two, and asserts that the genealogy found in Matthew traces Joseph’s lineage, whereas the genealogy in Luke traces Mary’s.  This explanation would account for the differences between the two genealogies.  While unprecedented, I find this to be a very possible and realistic interpretation of Luke’s genealogy.  In first century Jewish culture, it would have been unheard of for a woman’s genealogical records to be officially recorded, as it was a patriarchal culture that centered mostly around the actions and lives of males.  However, one of Luke’s main points in his gospel is that this new kingdom that Jesus is building is a kingdom of equality between genders, ethnicities, nationalities, and so on.  In fact, Luke’s gospel records some very counter-cultural interactions between Jesus and women (see Luke 8.1-3, for example).  It is therefore not too much of a stretch to think that Luke is furthering this kingdom ideal to include the genealogy of Mary in his report of Jesus’ life and ministry.  Furthermore, Luke notes in his introduction that he has used eyewitnesses to formulate his account of Jesus life, and many scholars agree that most of the material in chapters 1-2 probably came from an interview that Luke conducted with Mary herself (Luke 1.2).  Thus, it is not unreasonable to presume that part of the information Luke gleaned from Mary was a detailed record of her lineage.  
On this side of heaven we will never know with certainty why the genealogies in Matthew and Luke are different.  In answering the question of which one is accurate, we can affirm that they both are, although we can’t definitively say how.  But we can be confident that there is a good reason for the differences, and a reason that does not call their (or the Bible’s) accuracy into question.  The three theories I listed here are only some of the dozen or so possibilities for the differences between the genealogies in the gospels.  Even in light of their differences, we can have confidence that they communicate the entrance of the Savior into the world and accurately express the continuation of God’s plan of redemption for all creation.  

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

A Peculiar Public Interest

I've been blogging here and there, on a semi-regular basis (with several month or even year gaps between posts sometimes!) since 2008.  Five years ago today, I wrote a post on this blog called "Hamstring the Horses and Burn the Chariots."  Little did I know when I wrote that post that, of the 507 published posts on my blog, it would become far and away the most popular and most viewed post that I'd write.  It's a comparatively short post, and not necessarily deep, but I suppose it is interesting - at least interesting enough to me for me to have written it.

That post has received more than 2,100 unique views since I wrote it (small potatoes for most blogs, but significant for mine).  In November alone the post was viewed 132 times.  The second most-viewed post I've written comes in at 831 total unique views, so the difference in views is significant.  How do people find this post on my blog?  It turns out that a lot of them have Googled a question about the text in Joshua that relays God's command to Joshua to hamstring the horses and burn the chariots of the opposing armies that Israel will face.  For instance, at least 129 people have clicked over to my post because they've Googled a question about those verses, with the search terms "hamstring a horse," "hamstring horses," and "hamstring horses in Bible" being the most frequently used.  Apparently people find God's commands to hamstring the horses and burn the chariots of Israel's enemies rather peculiar.

I've preached on this text before as well, and when I did I received a few comments from people at my church about how they cringe at the thought of hamstringing horses, as this seems to be a barbaric practice, at best.  Apparently a reader thought so as well, and commented on the original post: "...this method of hamstringing is nothing but torcher [sic].  If they were to take the time to hamstring these animals it would have been just as easy to kill them and put them out of their misery.  You can't even begin to realize the agony these animals endured."  I don't doubt that it was very unpleasant for the horses.  But regardless of how we feel about the animals, we need to realize the point of the command God gave: trust in me, not in horses.

Kind of neat, and a good reminder for me to continue not trusting in horses and chariots.