Mars Curiosity: The Martians are coming — well, not quite

Several news outlets, including National Public Radio (NPR), are saying that the Mars Curiosity vehicle being monitored by NASA on the Martian surface has made a big discovery in its analysis of Martian soil, but scientists are cautiously waiting for further verification of their measurements. The NPR report suggests that in early December the announcement will be made that they have discovered evidence that Mars once contained living things.

This announcement, if it comes, will create a huge media splash. Some will claim that UFOs are now arguably more credible. Others will say that such a discovery shows that life is not so rare in the cosmos as had been thought, and they will suggest that the discovery undercuts the biblical account of creation, including God’s primary role. Such a conclusion is not logical, but you should get ready to hear it.

Many Christians are already afraid of science, ignore science, or deny many of its claims without good reason for doing so. Just for the record, I fully accept the creation of the universe and human life by God using whatever means he alone chose. Neither the universe nor human life developed apart from God’s ruling hand. Having said that, I also accept scientific conclusions about the age of the earth (just over 4.5 billion years) and global warming accelerated by human activity. [Those Christians who think global warming is a political agenda created by American political liberals (e.g., Al Gore) should explain why every national academy of science on earth, including our own, affirms global warming and our part in it.]

If Mars once hosted living things — or even if it still does — that does not alter the fact that all life exits by the creative act of God. Such a finding changes nothing about God’s role in dictating the terms for creation of the universe. So, why will some very smart people use this upcoming news to bash Christians and undercut God?

They will do so partly because the unbelieving world always opposes God (John 1:9-10). Let me be clear: if they attack us over the cross of Christ, over our teaching about Jesus’ sacrificial death for our sins, so be it. Such attacks would show that we are doing exactly what Jesus put us here to do, proclaim the gospel.

But, they will also attack because many Christians have behaved in such a foolish way as to make our shared faith a target. First, they have constructed an alternate, fact-free reality. In this fact-free reality, America was always a Christian country, its founders were fully orthodox Christians, and God intended our nation to be a theocracy. Second, we have allowed certain people to claim to be leaders of evangelical faith, allowed those leaders to lead us into becoming a political agency rather than a gospel-teaching church, and followed those leaders into the expression of hatred and contempt for those who oppose us. This is not what Jesus put us here to do! Worse, it creates stronger enemies who oppose the gospel.

So, if NASA announces the discovery of ancient life on Mars, get an understanding of what has been discovered. Don’t retreat into the anti-science bunker. Don’t be intimidated by those who make exaggerated claims about how the discovery disproves God’s role in creation. Above all, keep proclaiming Christ, loving others and studying what God has revealed in his Word and in the cosmos.

Copyright © by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.

Almost “Alone in the Void”

Adam Frank, a professor of astronomy and physics at the University of Rochester, has done us a favor. His op-ed in the New York Times forces us to face the music about our future prospects of mastering interstellar travel. His conclusion is that “There will be nowhere else to go for a very long time.” As a man who grew up with an astronomy book in one hand, a science fiction book in the other and a telescope of my own making in the garage, I find that a very hard pill to swallow!

Yet, as a physics major with a graduate degree in engineering, I understand the scientific principles that lead to Frank’s pessimistic assessment. He speaks of our love for “Star Trek” and “Star Wars,” but he says, “The truth is we propel ourselves into space using much the same physics as the Chinese played with when they discovered what we came to call gunpowder more than 1,400 years ago.”

Frank calls on us to think about it:

No salvation from population pressure on the shores of alien worlds. No relief from the threats of biosphere degradation in the promise of new biospheres. No escape from our own destructive tendencies by spreading out among the stars like seedpods in the wind. For as many epochs in the future as there are epochs of human history in the past, we may simply have to make do, get by with what we have and, in the end, learn to get along.

In light of our shared history, what would you estimate to be the chances of our learning to get along? Not so good!

Ah, but we are not alone, in spite of Dr. Frank’s realistic estimates. God created our cosmos and ever lives as its master. He pierces the vast, lonely void in the person of Jesus Christ to offer us salvation from ourselves, our sin, and our cosmic isolation. He offers us a purpose, a destiny, and, yes, he even offers us the only viable opportunity we will ever have to see what he has made.

I suggest you put down the astronomy book and the science fiction book and pick up the Holy Bible, which contains God’s offer of a relationship that will span the ages and the awesome distances that chill our human hopes. Trust in Jesus Christ, who alone can fill your spiritual void and show you the wonders of all he has made.

Copyright © 2012 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.

Exposition of Romans 4:9–10 Study carefully to get it right!

One of the big questions philosophers juggle is “what are the sources of that which we know?” Knowledge comes from a number of sources, but for a Christian, the revelation recorded in the Bible has primacy over all other written sources. An observant Jew would regard the Old Testament with the same esteem we have for the whole.

Even a sitting Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court has recently commented on the value of such biblical sources by citing the Jewish Babylonian Talmud, which “instructs with respect to the Scripture: ‘Turn it over, and turn it over, for all is therein.’. . . . Divinely inspired text may contain the answers to all earthly questions . . .”[1]

Presumably, if God has spoken at book length to reveal himself, then he has been careful to say what he means. Since God has used such care, we must sift what he has said with diligence to get it right. Paul said, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved,a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15).

(ESV) Romans 4:9–10  Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. 10 How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised.

In keeping with accurate interpretation of the Old Testament, Paul challenges his Jewish opponents to go back to Genesis and determine whether Abraham was declared righteous before or after he was circumcised (4:10). By doing so they will find the answer to the question posed in 4:9, which asks: “Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised?” If righteousness is available to the uncircumcised (i.e. Gentiles), then being a Jew is not required! Even a Roman Catholic like Justice Scalia would be eligible.

In the second half of 4:9, Paul takes us right back to Genesis 15:6 and repeats his thesis “that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness” (4:9b). In Genesis 17:1, we find that Abraham was 99 years old when he was circumcised. Going back to Genesis 16:16, we find that Abraham was 86 at the time Ishmael was born. The Jewish interpreters assumed that the events of Genesis 15:6 took place 16 years prior to the birth of Ishmael. By the reckoning of the rabbis, Abraham was declared righteous 29 years prior to being circumcised.[2]

From his biblical analysis, Paul concluded that Abraham was uncircumcised when his faith led God to declare him righteous. Not only did Abraham attain righteousness by faith, but he was not yet qualified to be a Jew at the time!

Facts undercut prejudices

Jesus used similar methods to those of Paul: “A lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” (Luke 10:25–26). To answer the most serious question life offers, Jesus sent the scribe back to the teaching of the Old Testament. Afterward Jesus evaluated what the scribe said and directed him toward life.

1. If you were paid by $5/word for reading the Bible, how much would you make for what you read last week? What does your answer tell you?

2. When you read something in the Bible that you do not understand, what sources of information do you have to clarify it (e.g. study Bible, Christian websites, friends, a pastor or other)? What incentives could you create to motivate yourself and your children, if any, to read the Bible and find good answers for their questions?

Many times the Gospel writers quote Jesus saying “Have you not read . . .” during his teaching ministry (Matt. 12:3; 12:5; 19:4; 21:16; 21:42; 22:31; Mark 12:26; Luke 6:3). A lot of questions have answers, if you look in God’s Word!

Copyright © 2012 Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

 


[1] Caperton v Massey Coal, 556 U.S. ___ (2009), Scalia, J., dissenting.

[2] C.E.B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, The International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark Limited, 1975) 235.

Exposition of Romans 3:1–4 God is reliable; humanity is not

The Jews misunderstood the Law of Moses as their assurance of salvation when in fact it was given to bring their flaws to the surface of their awareness. But instead of running to God for mercy, they reduced the law to a one-sided promise and wrapped themselves in a cloak of self-righteous pride.

By tearing away this façade, Paul brings out countercharges from his opponents that God is being both unfaithful and inconsistent. Are the Jews of Paul’s day right to object? God’s faithfulness and constancy means just as much to us as it did to them.

(ESV) Romans 3:1–4  Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? 2 Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. 3 What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? 4 By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written, “That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.”

The first eight verses of Romans 3 are considered some of the most challenging in the entire letter. Paul continues his imagined argument with a Jewish or Jewish-Christian opponent, a style known as diatribe.

Osborne does a great job summarizing the biblical text that includes today’s verses as well as tomorrow’s verses:

The basic issue is this: if there is no advantage in being Jewish, and if God can reject one of his covenant people, then how can it be said that God is faithful to his covenant promises? Paul’s lengthier response in Romans 9-11 is anticipated here: God’s response in judgment also constitutes being faithful to his promises. The covenant contained blessings and curses (= salvation and judgment here), and both are proper depending on the actions of the covenant people.[1]

Since the Jew has no special advantage over the Gentile during the judgment of God — thus has Paul argued in Romans 2 — why then would anyone think it preferable to be a Jew (3:1)? In light of all that is said in the Old Testament about the privilege of being God’s people, Cranfield points out a serious issue: “The question raised is nothing less than the question of the credibility of God.”[2]

The NET Bible does a great job translating Rom. 3:2 by saying, “Actually, there are many advantages. First of all, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.” It is no accident that Paul begins with God’s revelation in words because that is the gateway to so much more! Cranfield explains that the phrase “the oracles of God” is virtually identical to “the Word of God.”[3] But possession of that treasure makes the holders all the more responsible to heed the words!

The other advantages held by the Jews are not taken up in this context, but Rom. 9:4–5 names many more: “the adoption as sons, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the temple worship, and the promises. . . . the patriarchs, and from them, by human descent, came the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever!” (Rom. 9:4–5, NET).

Paul’s question in 3:3 is a rhetorical method of putting the blame where it belongs, but translators are unsure how to punctuate the sentence.

(ESV) What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God?

(NET) What then? If some did not believe, does their unbelief nullify the faithfulness of God?

For complex reasons, the NET Bible’s punctuation should be preferred here.[4]

Cranfield points out the heavy density in 3:2–3 of words based on the Greek root underlying the noun for faith and the verb for believe and entrust. Moo brings this insight to bear on 3:3 by saying, “These words point up the contrast between Israel’s ‘faithlessness’ and God’s ‘faithfulness.’”[5]

In case rhetorical questions tend to confuse you more than help you, the NLT fairly renders them more directly: “True, some of them were unfaithful; but just because they were unfaithful, does that mean God will be unfaithful?” (Rom. 3:3, NLT).

Cranfield summarizes 3:3 by saying, “It is unthinkable that God’s faithfulness to his covenant with Israel should be rendered ineffective even by the Jews’ unbelief.”[6] Romans 9–11 shows how God will fulfill the covenant, just as he promised.

Humanity — here epitomized by unbelieving Jews — always has an excuse, a justification, an argument to shield itself from judgment. Paul seizes instead on the Old Testament’s assertion that God is faithful at all times. Osborne says, “Behind the term true is the Old Testament term for ‘faithful’ (emet), meaning God is true to his promises.”[7]

By their unbelief the Jews had failed to keep the covenant’s provisions, yet they still wanted its blessings! Paul says it was God who was keeping the terms of the covenant by invoking the curses on covenant breakers. Osborne says, “God cannot be faithful to his covenant until he judges Israel; only then will he be proved right to his promises (and warnings).”[8] God’s judgments will in all cases be vindicated.

Semper Fi Ultra!

Christians have a critical stake in the issue of God’s faithfulness toward the Jews. If God has broken his promises to the Jews, then his promises to us are meaningless. Not to worry! Paul makes it plain that doubting God’s reliability is pointless; worse, those who accuse God of breaking his promises are liars.

1. Name one or two key promises from God are you relying on.

2. Over the centuries believers have had to resolve the issue of God’s reliability; how do you suppose they did so? How did you resolve the issue for yourself?

David had it right; “I will bow down toward your holy temple, and give thanks to your name, because of your loyal love and faithfulness, for you have exalted your promise above the entire sky” (Ps. 138:2, NET).



[1] Grant R. Osborne, Romans, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004) 79.

[2] C.E.B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, The International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark Limited, 1975) 177.

[3] Cranfield, Romans, 178-179, footnote 1.

[4] Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1996) 183-184.

[5] Moo, Romans, 184.

[6] Cranfield, Romans, 181.

[7] Osborne, Romans, 82.

[8] Osborne, Romans, 83.

Exposition of Romans 1:21–23 — Why exchange God for a scarecrow?

Pragmatism is very attractive to many Americans because they have had lessons in the hard school of experience. Pragmatism keys on what works, and in a society like ours that usually amounts to self-interest. If some activity returns sufficient personal benefit, Americans are likely to adopt that activity. We even have a slogan for this strategy: “That works for me!”

But, in the history of humanity, self-interest has not always been clear. The entry of sin into the human heart has brought the desire for self-rule as a short-term replacement for God’s rule. God has used the Bible to reveal that such a strategy will work out disastrously, but humanity has consistently chosen the wrong side of this exchange.

(ESV) Romans 1:21–23  For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

Romans 1:21 takes as given that all humanity has always known about God’s divinity and power and then moves on to describe what treatment that revelation received. They decided to ignore it! Concerning what they did not do, various translations express the verb differently: “did not honor him” (ESV), “did not glorify him” (NET and HCSB), and “wouldn’t worship him” (NLT). In addition they did not thank God even though “he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25). No wonder Paul called such suppression of the truth “ungodliness and unrighteousness” (1:18).

Dunn accurately says: “Human behavior is marked by an irrational disjunction between what man knows to be the true state of affairs and a life at odds with that knowledge. This failure to give God his due and to receive life as God’s gift is Paul’s way of expressing the primal sin of humankind.”[1] Humanity knows the score and lives in denial.

The second half of 1:21 tells the internal consequence of turning aside from God: their thinking became futile and empty, and their hearts became dark. The Bible commonly speaks about the futility of life apart from God: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Ps. 14:1); “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov. 1:7); those who reject God lack reliable and adequate knowledge to continue their lives.

When humanity turns away from the light of the world, inner darkness is the logical result. Jesus said: “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matt. 6:22–23). This is the plight of many today.

It is in the above senses that Romans 1:22 says, “Claiming to be wise, they became fools.” Romans 1:23 uses the metaphor of an exchange to speak of what humankind gave up and what was received in return. Having rejected the living God, they turned to idolatry. We remember  the idolater who cut a log into two pieces, fashioning one half into his god and using the other half to cook his supper (Isaiah 44:14–17)! Of course, such a “god” makes no compelling demands on us. Is that not why he was fashioned into a “god”?

Through the prophet Jeremiah, God expressed his total scorn for idols: “Their gods are like helpless scarecrows in a cucumber field! They cannot speak, and they need to be carried because they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of such gods, for they can neither harm you nor do you any good.” (Jer. 10:5, NLT).

A bad bargain

While idolatry in its ancient form (stone or wooden images) has generally faded in the western world, it has only taken a different form. Now there is widespread trust in various ideas of human origin: we can solve our own problems through mutual cooperation, technological development, democracy and market economics. There is a naïve faith that the Internet will allow us to pool our wisdom and give birth to solutions for cancer, nuclear proliferation, war, poverty, resource scarcity and global warming. Nowhere in this picture is there a turn toward God.

1. What cultural forces do you see that promote the idea that God is irrelevant to human affairs? What forms do these forces take in your life?

2. As a Christian, you are betting your life and your destiny on the Lord’s assurance that he will reward you with heaven for trusting in Jesus Christ. How does that commitment make your life different from those who have exchanged God for something else?

Many of us who serve the Lord Jesus Christ are looking for solutions in another direction. Jeremiah said it well: “Who would not fear you, O King of nations? That title belongs to you alone! Among all the wise people of the earth and in all the kingdoms of the world, there is no one like you.” (Jer. 10:7, NLT). Amen!

Copyright © 2012 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials developed for Christ Fellowship (McKinney, Texas), by permission.



[1] James D.G. Dunn, Romans 1-8, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word Books, 1988) 59.

New Testament Manuscripts: Craig Blomberg evaluates variants

Craig Blomberg has addressed an issue that worries a lot of Christians: the claims by some people (e.g., Bart Ehrman) that the New Testament cannot be trusted because hundreds of thousands of variant readings exist among the manuscripts we have.

Blomberg, a professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary, gives a brief and compelling summary of why this issue should not worry you. In fact, we have every reason to rejoice over the wealth of material we have to ensure we have an accurate text for the Greek New Testament used to translate our English Bibles.

Copyright © 2011 Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.

Midrash in Matthew’s Gospel

Midrash is not a term familiar to most Christians, though Jewish people who have trusted in Jesus as their Messiah might recognize the term. My latest book, The Path to the Cross, uses midrash to explain Matthew 1–2. The purpose of this post is to define midrash so that you will understand what is said about it in the upcoming series on The Path to the Cross.

Midrash is an ancient exegetical technique — where “exegetical” relates to the critical interpretation of a text — and it was used by the ancient rabbis. Midrash is based on certain assumptions about the biblical text. According to Charles T. Davis, the ancient Jewish interpreters believed: “The ultimate goal of midrash is to ‘search out’ [from Hebrew darash “inquire about,” “examine,” “seek”] the fullness of what was spoken by the Divine Voice.”[1] Davis adds: “Since Scripture is the Word of God, no word is superfluous. Every repetition, every apparent mistake, every peculiar feature of arrangement or order has meaning.” I make extensive use of this last idea in explaining the presence of five women’s names (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary) in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus (The Path to the Cross, chapters 1–3).

Because they believed every word expressed by the Divine Voice had purpose and meaning, the ancient rabbis would earnestly seek connections between various texts of the Old Testament. They did this by comparing texts that seemed to share common themes or similar patterns of events. By their assumptions, such similarity would have meaning intended by God.

James Kugel explains some of the principles of early Jewish biblical interpretation by using the following ideas[2]:

  • The biblical text is basically cryptic. It has subtle nuances.
  • The biblical story contains a lesson for today.
  • The Bible is not only internally consistent, but it also allows for confirmation of the interpreter’s beliefs and practices.
  • Questions about the Scriptures may be resolved via a scrupulous examination of the precise wording of the biblical text sometimes using a verse, a phrase, or even a single word.

Of course, the bulk of Matthew’s Gospel is narrative, and his genealogy of Jesus gets it started. Two Jewish experts on midrash say, “In the narrative portions of the Bible, on the other hand, there was always a curiosity about what was left out of the story.”[3] This encouraged informed speculation about the missing facts. They further explain: “There is more to the Bible than initially meets the eye. In each sentence, word, and letter, there was either a direct message from God or an opportunity for the Rabbi to elucidate what God wanted from the Jewish people. Therefore, the text couldn’t just be read; it had to be studied. It could not be perused; it had to be deciphered.”[4] In my opinion, Matthew was encouraging such decipherment by inserting the names of the five women.

Further insight into Matthew’s methods may be gained by considering the methods used by ancient synagogue teachers. Katz and Schwartz describe this teaching by saying that the speaker would display his skill by using a distant verse of Scripture and employing a germ of an idea to connect that verse with the Bible passage scheduled for congregational reading on that day. The audience would be held in suspense to see how the speaker intended to connect the two by some form of midrashic comparison.[5] The germ of an idea Matthew uses to suggest this distant connection is the five woman’s names that he inserts into the genealogy of Jesus. In The Path to the Cross (chapters 1–3), I explain how the distant connections illuminate and supplement the birth narrative of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel.

As useful as midrash was in illuminating the meaning of the Old Testament writings, a danger always presented itself. Charles Davis describes this danger by saying, “The great weakness of this method is that it always threatens to replace the [biblical] text with an outpouring of personal reflection.”[6] Careful use of midrash can lead to profound discoveries in the biblical text, but careless use of midrash is simply the fanciful product of a human mind. At best, midrash is the skillful comparison of Scripture with Scripture; at worst it is invention.

In what may seem like a shift of topics — but is not! —midrash is roughly like the technique employed by some translators involved in publishing English Bibles that are based on the method called dynamic equivalence. The NIV 2011, for example, is very good, but it has a potential flaw. The Committee on Bible Translation says, “The NIV tries to bring its readers as close as possible to the experience of the original audience[.]”[7] Clearly, the key word is “experience.” The big problem is that we have no way of knowing exactly how the original audience experienced the Word; we have to guess. On a good day, that will make certain parts of NIV 2011 like the positive form of midrash — illuminating and helpful. In less favorable situations, NIV 2011 may be more like the speculative form of midrash. How much guessing is too much?

Copyright © 2011 Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.



[1] Charles T. Davis, “Midrash,” based on Rabbi Burton Virotsky’s “Reading the Bible.” 10 September 2011 < http://www.faqs.org/faqs/judaism/FAQ/03-Torah-Halacha/section-25.html>.

[2] James L. Kugel, “Early Jewish Biblical Interpretation,” The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism, Eds. John J. Collins and Daniel C. Harlow (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Co., 2010) 131–137.

[3] Michael Katz and Gershon Schwartz, Searching for Meaning in Midrash (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2002) 9.

[4] Katz and Schwartz, Searching for Meaning, 11.

[5] Katz and Schwartz, Searching for Meaning, 22.

[6] Davis, “Midrash.” 10 September 2011 < http://www.faqs.org/faqs/judaism/FAQ/03-Torah-Halacha/section-25.html>.

[7] “Notes from the Committee on Bible Translation,” page 1.