Hard Sayings (John 6:60)

More than once Jesus’ disciples threw up their hands and said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” (John 6.60). Have you ever said something similar when you encountered a bracing section of the Bible?

Actually, we silently protest the hard sayings of Jesus more easily than his disciples. We open our Bibles in the privacy of home, and we have complete control over what we select to read or what we choose as fit for reflection. After all, Jesus is not physically there speaking to us about the things we need most to hear.

So, when our eye falls on something tough that Jesus said, like “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (John 6:54), we start scanning for something more cheerful to brighten the day. Over time we get to know the soothing parts of the Gospels, but the hard parts are like a forbidding land our feet hesitate to enter.

Jesus knew his disciples were grumbling about what he had said and that some had even turned back. You might think Jesus would try to reassure his disciples to keep them in the fold, but you would be wrong. Instead, he challenged the Twelve by saying, “You do not want to leave too, do you?” (John 6:67). No spin control. No soft words from a media consultant.

Peter responded to the challenge with frankness, “Lord, to whom shall we go. You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Peter speaks to us down the centuries. He says there is no turning away from the hard sayings of Jesus, because they are the words of eternal life. And he reminds us that to turn away from Jesus’ words means to turn away from Jesus himself.

How do we proceed? I recommend this spiritual discipline for the next month: spend time studying the Bible verses you like the least. Pray about them, and ask the Holy Spirit to guide you into all the truth. You may find this to be a hard saying. So be it.

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.

Overselling the NIV for 2011

In about one week the New International Version (NIV) for 2011 will be available in print form in bookstores and by online order. On balance, this is a favorable development for all English-speaking Christians.

However, NIV-2011 is a commercial product as well as a Holy Bible, so it will get some overheated marketing hype during the rollout. Take, for example, the opening paragraphs of the “Notes from the Committee on Bible Translation” available here.

This is the first paragraph:

When the original Bible documents first emerged, they captured exactly what God wanted to say in the language and idiom of ordinary people. There was no friction between hearing God’s Word the way it was written and understanding it the way it was meant. The original audience experienced a unique fusion of these two ingredients.

The first sentence is solid. In order to believe the second sentence, we have to believe that the original listeners had immediate and total comprehension of what God meant. That is a big exaggeration! Certainly they understood the vocabulary without having to use a reference book, but that is only the first step in the journey toward “understanding it the way it was meant.”

The apostle Peter seems to have a different idea when he says: “Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” (2 Peter 3:15–16).

To similar effect, Jesus explained to his disciples that some of the people would never understand his parables: “This is why I speak to them in parables: ‘Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand’” (Matt. 13:13). Jesus continued by quoting Isaiah 6:9–10 to demonstrate how this failure to understand was predicted before by the prophets.

Consider your own experience in reading English poetry in high school or college. Did you immediately understand it all? I sure didn’t! Poetic language is often subtle, and a large part of the Bible is poetic (e.g. Psalms and large parts of the prophets).

So, it would appear that the complexity of biblical thought and dullness of heart are two reasons to believe that instant understanding of God’s Word has never been the general situation. I could add the distortion in thinking brought about by suppressing the truth revealed by God (Rom. 1:21 and 1:28). NIV for 2011 will not change any of that.

Here is the second paragraph from the “Notes from the Committee on Bible Translation”:

Readers of the Bible today, however, can no longer experience this fusion. The passage of two thousand years has turned the Greek and Hebrew of Bible times from living languages into historical artifacts. If we had the original documents in our hands today, they would still represent exactly what God wanted to say. But the vast majority of people would no longer be able to understand them.

In some respects, this states the obvious. There may be a small number of people today who can sight-read the Hebrew Old Testament or the Greek New Testament, but there is a very high probability that you don’t know any of those people and will not meet one in your lifetime!

But let’s move back to the first century and check out the situation. To the average Jew in the first century, Moses was almost as remote in time as the first century is to us! Very few people spoke Hebrew, though Aramaic and Greek were both widespread. What were the versions of the Bible (Old Testament) being used? It appears that the most commonly used was a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament that we call the Septuagint, and it was very uneven in quality. Since the printing press did not come until 1453, availability was a serious problem.

Perhaps when Moses came down from the mountaintop with the covenant, the people could understand all of the vocabulary in the original Hebrew. On the other hand, I doubt the Egyptians had made slave education a high priority.

So, leaving aside the difficulty of certain biblical concepts and dullness of heart, we would still be hard pressed to find a time when some magical “fusion” of hearing God’s Word and understanding it was ever the case. The only case I can think of that works is Adam and Eve in Eden before their disobedience. They heard God and understood him but did not ultimately obey him.

I welcome the NIV for 2011 and consider it a definite improvement over the NIV as updated in 1984. The research done in support of using contemporary English grammar is particularly notable. Yet the translators —or the marketing department mavens — are close to offering something they cannot deliver. Overall the “Notes from the Committee on Bible Translation” is well worth reading to get a feel for the changes you should expect.

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.


Upside Down (Luke 18:9–14)

Anyone who spent time with Jesus soon found out that he could flip things around in an instant. That did not make him a comfortable companion, especially for those who were self-satisfied.

Once Jesus found himself in the presence of “some who were confident that they were righteous and looked down on everyone else” (Luke 18:9, NET), so he told them a parable.

Two men ascended the hill to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. What an odd pair! The Pharisees had taken rigorous religious vows and so were considered by the people to be among God’s favorites. On the other hand, the tax collectors made their living by bidding on tax-collection contracts whose terms were secret. A tax collector made his living on the difference between what he collected and the (secret) amount he actually had to pay to the government. They were widely hated for a reason!

As you might imagine, the prayers of these two men were very different too.

The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself like this: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: extortionists, unrighteous people, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get.”
(Luke 18:12–13).

Well, I would not want to be the second one to pray after that auspicious start! Those standing near waited to hear what the tax collector could possibly say to a holy God.

The tax collector, however, stood far off and would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, be merciful to me, sinner that I am!”
(Luke 18:13)

Remember that those listening to Jesus were confident of their righteousness, and you can guess whose prayer enjoyed their approval. But, in a flash, Jesus declared:

I tell you that this man went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.
(Luke 18:14)

With that unexpected bombshell, Jesus not only shattered the self-serving expectations of his listeners, but also humbled them in fulfillment of his words.

A Final Word

At times believers wonder how a person achieved salvation in times before Jesus’ death and resurrection. The answer is that salvation has always been by God’s grace through faith. No one has ever been saved apart from God’s mercy. How ironic it is that the sinful tax collector understood the truth better than the mock-pious Pharisee. The tax collector knew that his works could never save him. Only his repentant admission of sin and cry for God’s mercy stood any chance. He descended Temple Mount a justified man.

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.

Books: Getting the Reformation Wrong by James R. Payton, Jr.

James R. Payton, Jr. has written an excellent book that helps Protestants like me get a better grip on what the Reformation was all about: Getting the Reformation Wrong (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010). If you consider yourself an evangelical Christian, then the Reformation is your heritage, and it set the stage for what your local church is today.

In his masterful history of Europe, Norman Davies has said, “The religious revival, clearly visible at the end of the fifteenth century, was largely driven by popular disgust at the decadence of the [Roman Catholic] clergy….Europe was full of tales about simoniac bishops [bishops who sold a church office or preferment], nepotistic popes, promiscuous priests, idle monks, and, above all, the sheer worldly wealth of the Church.”[1] This laid the foundation for a challenge to the Roman Catholic Church’s (RCC) grip on all religious power in western Europe. It was not long in coming.

After reform pressure had built for two centuries, the “Protestant Reformation” effectively began in 1517 as a protest against certain corrupt practices of the RCC. This quickly expanded into a much broader re-evaluation of RCC theology in relation to the explicit teachings of the Bible.

The man who boldly kicked off a series of monumental changes — though he had no notion of what would happen — was a young doctor of theology named Martin Luther (1483–1546). Payton capably shows the long history of abuses and calls for change that led to Luther’s actions. In doing so he combats the idea that Luther thought of reform all on his own — one of many ways that evangelicals get the Reformation wrong.

Payton refutes many similar myths, including these:

  • The Renaissance was strictly a human-centered movement.
  • The Reformation progressed rapidly and smoothly.
  • The Reformers were in agreement about most theological issues.
  • The medieval Catholic Church was monolithic and unchanging.

But the myth that is worth the price of the book is this: Protestant scholasticism was a return to doctrinal faithfulness. The problem with this myth is that most of us need it explained!

Protestant scholasticism was a return by the successors of Martin Luther and John Calvin  to the methods of Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, who taught how to analyze a subject — such as theology or the revelation contained in the Bible — using reason and lots of definitions. This process especially emphasized many types of causes (e.g., efficient, internal, external, primary, secondary, instrumental, active, passive, final, etc.). This process made things more about Aristotle than about God!

Payton offers the example of how one Protestant scholastic theologian explained the incarnation of the Son of God. “Mary is the material cause, the Holy Spirit is the efficient cause, human salvation is the final cause, and the miraculous conception of Jesus is the instrumental cause.”[2] Whatever else we might say about such blather, we can be sure (1) the Bible never explains anything in this way, and (2) both Martin Luther and John Calvin hated scholastic theology. Luther compared it to syphilis and Calvin called it slime. Those two were not shy!

As a second example, Payton explains that the way Protestant scholasticism explained faith shows how different their approach was from the way the original Reformers understood faith: “Faith was depersonalized to the acceptance of right doctrine — which could be objectively and convincingly laid out for others to see. For the Reformers, though, faith was first and foremost personal bonding to God — cleaving to him, assured of his loving embrace.”[3]

You may be wondering what this has to do with you. Well, those who followed Luther and Calvin reverted to scholasticism to defend against the powerful counter-attack from the Jesuits. In doing so, they explained the Christian faith in Protestant scholastic ways that are still being used within Protestant circles to this very day. In particular, Calvinism had a profound effect on Christianity in England, and then jumped to America when our country was founded. This form of Christian faith was shaped more by Calvin’s successors than by Calvin — most of the adherents just don’t know it.

Contemporary forms of Calvinism are still explained in Protestant scholastic terms, though slightly modernized. That is why the people who start studying Calvinism feel like they have been dropped into a class full of aggressive, debating philosophers. To master the concepts, you have to learn loads of arcane definitions (e.g., supralapsarianism, sovereign grace, synergism, effectual calling, reprobation, libertarian free will) and learn how the various parts of the system are logically related. I don’t recommend it!

Payton wrote this book as a text for college-level classes in Western civilization, theology, and history. For anyone trying to understand the Protestant Reformation or trying to adopt its insights, this book will keep you from falling victim to long-standing myths.

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.

[1] Norman Davies, Europe: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 484.

[2] James R. Payton, Jr., Getting the Reformation Wrong (Downers Grove: InterVaristy Press, 2010) 204.

[3] Payton, Getting the Reformation Wrong, 208.


A Tragedy Disguised as Christian Witness

Today was a sad day for the cause of Christ; a Christian church was freed from five million dollars in damages by the U. S. Supreme Court. What is sad about that? Read on.

First, Chief Justice John Roberts summarizes: “Fred Phelps founded the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, in 1955. The church’s congregation believes that God hates and punishes the United States for its tolerance of homosexuality, particularly in America’s military. The church frequently communicates its views by picketing, often at military funerals.” Snyder v. Phelps, 562 U.S. ____ (2011), page 1.

About 20 years ago, pastor Phelps hit on a strategy to get attention for his message. Justice Samuel Alito describes this media strategy in his dissent:
“As the Court notes, church members have protested at nearly 600 military funerals. . . . They have also picketed the funerals of police officers, firefighters, and the victims of natural disasters, accidents, and shocking crimes. And in advance of these protests, they issue press releases to ensure that their protests will attract public attention.
“This strategy works because it is expected that respondents’ verbal assaults will wound the family and friends of the deceased and because the media is irresistibly drawn to the sight of persons who are visibly in grief. The more outrageous the funeral protest, the more publicity the Westboro Baptist Church is able to obtain. Thus, when the church recently announced its intention to picket the funeral of a 9-year-old girl killed in the shooting spree in Tucson — proclaiming that she was ‘better off dead’ — their announcement was national news, and the church was able to obtain free air time on the radio in exchange for canceling its protest.” Snyder v. Phelps, 562 U.S. ____ (2011), Allito, J. (dissenting) pages 5–6.

Using this cruel strategy, Phelps and others from his church targeted the funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq in the line of duty. To do so, they drove from Topeka, Kansas, to Westminster, Maryland, after issuing a press release to make sure of media coverage. At the funeral and two nearby locations these supposed Christians carried signs. Chief Justice Roberts says: “The Westboro picketers carried signs that were largely the same at all three locations. They stated, for instance: ‘God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11,’ ‘America is Doomed,’ ‘Don’t Pray  for the USA,’ ‘Thank  God for IEDs,’ ‘Thank  God for Dead Soldiers,’ ‘Pope in Hell,’ ‘Priests Rape Boys,’ ‘God Hates Fags,’ ‘You’re Going to Hell,’ and ‘God Hates You.’” Snyder v. Phelps, 562 U.S. ____ (2011), page 2.

A federal jury found Phelps, the church and others guilty of inflicting emotional distress upon the Snyders and assessed total damages at 10.9 million dollars. The district court reduced the damages to five million dollars. The Supreme Court reduced the damages to zero saying that Westboro Baptist Church was entitled to protection under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Certainly this case proves that the U.S. Constitution did not fall from heaven, though it has generally served us well. The fact that Christians are behaving in ways that satisfy the Constitution means nothing when they are defying the commands of Christ and causing untold damage to the cause of Christ.

There can be no doubt that homosexuality is abhorrent to God (Rom. 1:24–27). But Matthew Snyder was not homosexual. Even if the facts were otherwise, Jesus told us to love our enemies, not hate them (Matt. 5:44). Worse still, the behavior of Westboro Baptist Church members is regularly causing great anger that can only hurt the gospel. The Court stated, “Westboro believes that America is morally flawed; many Americans might feel the same about Westboro.” Snyder v. Phelps, 562 U.S. ____ (2011), page 14. They can and they do!

Westboro Baptist Church is tragically wrong. They are just like those who shot and killed an abortion doctor in the pew of a church. When did Christians start thinking they could combat evil by doing evil? And what will happen when America no longer wants to tolerate Christians who are willing to commit sin in the name of Christ?

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.

Should Christians Keep Israel’s Feasts?

Recently I got detailed questions from someone connected with the movement that believes Christians should keep the Law of Moses. Below I summarize the incoming question (with supporting verses) and then give my point-by-point response:

The core of your questions is this: “I am wondering why Christians don’t celebrate the Lord’s feasts.” You raise several points in favor of our doing so:
a. God says the feasts are a “perpetual” command (e.g. Lev. 23:14). You favor the assumption that it also applies to Christians since we have been grafted in (Rom. 11:17) and are now part of the people of God.
b. Jesus observed the feasts (e.g. John 10). You say we are to be like him.
c. You dismiss Col. 2:16-17 by referring to an Aramaic/English Bible and an interpretation from it that Paul was referring to pagans judging Christians.
d. You cite Acts 20:16 [“he was in a hurry to reach Jerusalem,if possible, by the day of Pentecost” (NIV)], Acts 18:21 [“I must by all means keep this feast that cometh in Jerusalem” (KJV)], John 10:22-23 [“Then came the Feast of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was in the temple area walking in Solomon’s Colonnade” (NIV)], and John 12:20 [“Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the Feast” (NIV)]. You use these quotes in support of two ideas: (1) “the apostles did celebrate the feasts after Jesus’ ascension” and (2) “it would be right” to celebrate the feasts as Jesus did.

I will try to deal briefly with each of the points. However, even at this point I must say that I seriously doubt that you or any other Christian can possibly be keeping these feasts in accordance with the Law of Moses because you are not making all the required sacrifices, have no earthly High Priest to perform some of the steps, and have no Temple standing at which to perform the appropriate worship. These are serious problems! James says, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (James 2:10, NIV 2011).

Now let’s take your points one-by-one:

Claim: God says the feasts are a “perpetual” command (e.g. Lev. 23:14). You favor the assumption that it also applies to Christians since we have been grafted in (Rom. 11:17) and are now part of the people of God.

Response: The short answer here is that we are not Jews. The fact that Paul uses the metaphor of grafting a wild branch into the olive tree does not mean that the wild branches are the same as the natural branches. If they were, what would be the point in naming two different types of branches and talking about how God is dealing with them differently?

You are correct in saying these feasts are a “perpetual” command, but the verse says “it is a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwellings” (Lev 23:14, ESV), and the “your” is not a reference to Christians either historically or now. This involves the Jews.

Claim: Jesus observed the feasts (e.g. John 10). We are to be like him.

Response: The key here is that these events all take place before Jesus died on the cross in satisfaction of all that God required. His death changed everything profoundly, and we live after his death not before it. Jesus obeyed the Law of Moses because that was what was required of him. It does not logically follow that all that was required of Jesus is required of us as well. For example, Jesus died for the sins of the world. Must we do so as well? Jesus lived in Nazareth. Must we do so as well? Being like Jesus has serious limits.

Claim: You dismiss Col. 2:16-17 by referring to an Aramaic/English Bible and an interpretation derived from it that Paul was referring to pagans judging Christians.

Response: Actually it does not matter who was doing the judging. What matters is that we as Christians are not to be involved in those practices mentioned in Col. 2:16, and the reason is simple. Col. 2:17 says, “These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (NIV 2011). The feasts were part of the “shadow of the things that were to come,” but Jesus did come! So, now we put aside the shadow-things in favor of the reality found in Christ. As I said before, his death and resurrection changed everything.

As a person who studies Bible translations closely, I do not recommend you rely on an Aramaic translation of the NT. The NT was revealed to us in Koine Greek, and the Greek text is hard enough to translate into English. Putting Aramaic into the picture makes matters worse, not better.

Claim: Your next points all involve the apostles allegedly observing feasts after the ascension of Jesus. [I am leaving out the verses about Jesus in John 10 and John 12 because I have previously covered the fact that these events happened before Jesus’ death.]

Response: You cite Acts 20:16 [“he was in a hurry to reach Jerusalem,if possible, by the day of Pentecost” (NIV)]. So far, so good. However, this verse does not state that Paul was doing that in order to observe the feast like the Jews. It is far more likely, in light Paul’s theology and mission, that he wanted to be in Jerusalem at Passover because there would be a maximum number of Jews to whom he might proclaim Christ. In any event, he did not observe the feast due to violence plotted against him.

In a similar case, I have been to the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, but that does not mean I went there to worship like a Mormon. We must be careful about assumptions.

Claim: You cite Acts 18:21 [“I must by all means keep this feast that cometh in Jerusalem” (KJV)].

Response: No modern English translation retains that clause because it is not supported by the best Greek manuscripts of the NT. Thus, it is not a valid basis for Christian doctrine.

Summary: Although it is true that the feasts have many interesting analogies in relation to Christ, we now have Christ himself and no longer need the analogies.

Hebrews 3:1–3: “Therefore, holy brothers and sisters, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, whom we acknowledge as our apostle and high priest. 2He was faithful to the one who appointed him, just as Moses was faithful in all God’s house. 3 Jesus has been found worthy of greater honor than Moses, just as the builder of a house has greater honor than the house itself.”

[For further information on this topic, I suggest you read the two posts that begin here.]

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide.


Are you holding on tight?

Are you holding onto your salvation with a firm grip? If you are, there will come a day when your hand gets tired. Or perhaps that day has already arrived.

You had an iron grip on eternal life the day you trusted in Jesus to pay the penalty for your sins. But as time went on there was the incident of cheating on the exam, the casual sex with someone you just met, the cash payment on which no taxes were paid. We both know God rejects all that as sin, so maybe your grip on heaven is not as firm as you thought. In place of confidence, a secret sense of foreboding about your salvation has seeped into your heart. Are you — again — lost?

Jesus foresaw that fear would steal into your heart, he understood that your grip on salvation was only that of human strength. He knew someone had to watch over us in the dark of night when human hands must lay their burdens down, someone to shepherd the vulnerable flock. “I am the good shepherd,” he said. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).

As wonderful as that promise is, it is a one-time protection, for a dead shepherd protects no sheep. Jesus knew that too, so he added, “I lay down my life only to take it up again” (John 10:18). Our resurrected shepherd keeps unending watch over his flock!

Yet our fear again takes voice to wonder whether we are still part of his flock. Might it be that our sin has banished us from his care? Jesus answers No! in the most emphatic possible words:

27 My sheep listen to my voice; and I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish; no one will snatch them from my hand. (John 10:27–28, NET Bible)

The context makes clear that those who listen to Jesus’ voice are those who have put their faith in him. At the moment of salvation, Jesus gives them eternal life, and they will absolutely not — the negative forms of the New Testament Greek are the strongest possible — spiritually die forever! Jesus goes further to say that “no one will snatch them from my hand.” But that is not the end of the assurance he gave about our salvation, for he said:  ”My Father who has given them to me is greater than all, and no one can snatch them from my Father’s hand” (John 10:29, NET Bible).

You may rest now and relax your grip. Your hand has never been the one that mattered in holding your salvation eternally secure. No one will snatch it from the hand of Jesus. No one can take it from the hand of the Father. No one will, no one can. Not even you.

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.