January 31, 2010

How the Bible is Not Like the Telephone Game

It is not unusual to hear someone say that our Bibles are like the bad results of the telephone game. When kids play the telephone game, one kid whispers a sentence to the next kid who whispers it to another and on down the line. Finally the last kid repeats the garbled mess out loud and everyone gets a kick out of how butchered the message got in transmission. Critics assert that all we have are copies of copies of copies of copies, etc., of the original manuscripts and thus our current Bibles are like the results of the telephone game and we have no way of knowing what the original message was. (Some people will also say that the Bible is a translation of a translation of a translation, etc. Anyone making this claim doesn't know that all modern translations are made directly from the original languages.)

In reality, the manuscripts of the Bible are more like a tree. Imagine a tree with several branches coming off of the main trunk, splitting into other branches and then smaller ones yet. When the original copies of a Biblical letter—such as Paul’s letter to the Colossians—were written, other copies would be made for churches in other cities. Many copies would be made from the original and sent to various places in the Roman Empire. From those copies, other copies would be made for more Christians, and eventually to replace the old copies as they wore out. This means that there are multiple lines of transmission. This means that even if a change was made on one branch of the tree, it would not affect every other copy. Other branches would still be okay.

This also means—contrary to The DaVinci Code—that it would have been impossible for someone such as Emperor Constantine to change the text of the Bible, even if he had wanted to. There would be no way to gather and change all of these documents.

Scholars are able to determine where many manuscripts fit on this family tree by their age and shared characteristics. By comparing manuscripts, they are able to weed out any alterations and determine with great accuracy what the original text said.

In addition, there are several good reasons why the Bible is not like the telephone game.

1. The New Testament documents were in writing. They were not whispered one time, with the chance of mishearing one word for another. They were in writing and could be copied carefully and reviewed.

2. As mentioned, there were multiple lines of transmission. In the telephone game there is only one chain. The Bible has many branches. Even if someone got it wrong, other branches would get it right. Imagine a different version of the telephone game: One person whispers a message to four different people, and each of them whispers it to four more people, and so forth. Even if someone intentionally tried to sabotage the message, it would still be very easy to figure out what the original message was at the end of the game when you compared all of the final answers.

3. Bible scholars don’t just rely on the last version of the message. Imagine the same game of telephone from the paragraph above. Now imagine that not only do you get to hear the report from all the last people, you also get to hear other reports from many people early on in the tree. That would make it even easier to know with certainty what the original message was.

4. In addition to ancient manuscripts, we have over one million quotations from the New Testament by the early church fathers. Even if the entire New Testament was destroyed, it could be almost entirely reassembled just by using these quotes. Also, these quotes are from various points in history, meaning that changes in the Bible would also be reflected in these quotes. Further, in addition to the 5,700 Greek manuscripts that we have and the million plus quotations, we also have thousands of ancient translations of the Bible in languages such as Latin and Coptic. There are more than 10,000 manuscripts in Latin alone. Although these are translations, there are also very helpful witnesses to the original text.

5. Finally, there is a motivational difference between the New Testament scribes and kids playing the telephone game. Many kids—myself included—would intentionally try to garble the message in the telephone game. In contrast, the scribes were professionals who took great pride in their work. Copying these manuscripts by hand was painstaking work and they were motivated to do the best they could. They viewed these texts as sacred, not something to be careless with. The fact that many scribes would knowingly recopy a type-o, rather than fix it, shows that they were dedicated to copying the text as it was in front of them. Yes, sometimes there were mistakes as they looked at the wrong line, or a word with a similar ending. And there were times when the scribe would wrongly think that the text in front of him had a copying error in it, and by ‘fixing’ the ‘error’ would actually be making a copy error. But all of this shows that they were trying very hard to create an accurate copy.

In conclusion, the telephone game is a very bad and misleading analogy of how the Bible was copied.

Sources include Dan Wallace's debate with Bart Ehrman.

January 30, 2010

A Brief Message

I'm not sure how a kid wouldn't notice this, but...

My wife called me at the office and told me that my five-year old son had something to tell me. She put Eric on the phone and he told me that he was at school when he discovered that he was wearing two pair of underwear. When he got himself dressed in the morning, he put a new pair of underwear on but forgot to take the old pair off.

People may wonder how many times we dropped him when he was a baby, but this will not stop me from using this in a sermon the first time I get a chance. Ephesians 4 and Colossians 3 tell us that the Christian life is about taking off the old and putting on the new. As Ephesians 4:22-24 says, “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” This should be our response to the free gift of salvation given to us through faith in Christ.

God doesn’t want spiritual nudists—who take off the old but do not replace it with new character. It’s not enough just to stop stealing; God wants us to work, doing something useful so that we can have something to share with those in need (Eph. 4:28). Don’t just stop being a drain on others, but be productive so you can help those in need. Don’t just take off unwholesome talk, but put on speech that builds up others according to their need (Eph. 4:29).

Don’t be a spiritual nudist, but don’t make the opposite mistake either. Don’t just add the good but fail to take off the bad. You may think it looks better on the outside, but it’s still disgusting.

I wish only five-year olds made this mistake.

Try to notice that you are still wearing your dirty underwear before you put the clean pair over them. Don’t just layer Jesus on top of your sin.

January 26, 2010

Why Faith Isn't a Work

A student wrote me with a good question that I remember struggling through in the past as well. Scripture teaches that we each need to receive the Lord Jesus as our personal Savior in order to actually be saved. Scripture also teaches that salvation is 100% a free gift of God. It is 100% grace and 0% works. So the question is, why isn't faith a work? If it is something that we must do, why wouldn't it be considered a work?

I wrote this as a reply and I'm posting it for other people it might be helpful to.

First off, I think we can be really clear that faith is not a work. We can know this because the Bible repeatedly contrasts faith and works:

Ephesians 2:8-9, "For it is by grace you have been saved, thought faith--and this is not from yourselves--it is the gift of God--not by works, so that no one can boast."

Galatians 2:15-16, "We... know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Christ Jesus. So, too, we have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified."

Romans 3:28, "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law."

So, I think it is clear that faith is not a work according to the Bible. But why not? Isn't it something we DO? What makes it different than, let's say, going through some ceremony or something else that people could do?

I think that one of the passages that helped me the most on this was Romans 4:4-5, "Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited to him as righteousness." What I noticed here is that for Paul, saving faith means that we need to stop working. That is, we need to stop working in order to earn or contribute to our salvation. To trust 100% in Christ means by necessity that we are trusting 0% in human effort. It has to mean that because if a person is trusting 10% in their own effort, it means they are only depending on Christ 90%. Saving faith means shifting all of our trust on to Christ alone for salvation. That is why a certain kind of faith is the way God saves us, rather than something else. Since faith means reliance or trusting, salvation by faith alone gives God all the glory since it means that we are relying 0% on human merit and 100% on Him.

The type of faith that saves needs to be faith in which we “let go” of anything else that we are depending on to save us. It is like the guy hanging onto the tree branch off the cliff. We need to stop depending on the branch and let go so that God can save us.

And that is why this type of faith is not a work. This type of faith is a repudiation of our work. It is a repudiation of our own merit. This type of faith is declaring ourselves to be spiritually bankrupt before God, depending on Him alone to save us. And this isn’t the “chapter 11” type of temporary bankruptcy in which a company gets some help, reorganizes it’s assets and then moves out of bankruptcy. This is “chapter 7” bankruptcy, the kind in which a company declares that it is done and without hope.

Saving faith is the kind of faith that says, “I have no other argument. I have no other plea. It is enough that Jesus died, and that He died for me.”

I’m convinced this is also what Paul meant in Philippians 3:3-8 when he talked about his own salvation. He had said that if anyone could be saved depending on human effort, it would have been him. He was as dedicated as a person could get. But then he wrote, "But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ... I consider them rubbish [literally "dung"] that I might gain Christ." Paul ceased depending on his own righteousness and started depending on Jesus' work alone to make him right with God. Instead of depending on his own spiritual merit badges, Paul changed his mind and considered them as worthless as dung as far as gaining righteousness. He continues in verses 8-9, “…I consider them rubbish [dung] that [in order that] I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law [works], but that which is [received] through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is [received] by faith.”

This similar to what Paul says about his fellow Jews who did not believe in Jesus as the Messiah. In Romans 10:2 Paul says that "they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge." They were fired up and "committed" to God, but something was wrong. Being fired up for God is not the same thing as having saving faith. In the next verse, Romans 10:3, Paul explains what was wrong. "Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness." Their problem was that they were trying to establish their own righteousness. That is, they were trying to do their part to earn their own salvation. They were trying to become right with God by their own efforts.

Now, in John 6:28-29, the people asked Jesus, “What must we do to work the works God requires?” Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the One He has sent.” Yes, in this passage Jesus calls believing a “work.” But I think we need to think of it as a “work” in quotation marks. The people were asking Jesus what they needed to “do” to be right with God. The main point of Jesus’ reply was that all they had to “do” was to put their faith in Him. He wasn’t teaching that believing is something that earns salvation.

The book of Galatians shows us how much God dislikes the idea that salvation could be combined with works. Paul starts this book by writing in chapter 1:6-7a, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all.” In Galatia, the “different gospel”, which was not gospel at all, was the teaching that people had to believe Christ and be circumcised [a work] to be saved.

Depending on Christ + 0 = the true gospel of salvation

Depending on Christ + anything else = a different, false gospel

If we have a backup plan to save us, it is an insult to God. Let me give you an example that I think is helpful. Imagine that you are at a racetrack and a professional driver offers to take you around the track in his car. However he tells you that you don’t have to buckle up since there is no chance that he is going to get into an accident. If you buckle up, just to be safe, it means that you actually don’t fully trust that he will not get into an accident. After all, no matter how good of a driver he is, he can’t know for certain that an accident won’t happen. By putting on the seat belt, you prove that you do not 100% trust him.

Now imagine that Jesus is the driver. Since He is God and knows the future, He can actually tell you with 100% certainty that there is no way there will be an accident. Now, if He tells you not to put your seat belt on, what would it be saying to Him if you put it on anyway? It would show that you don’t really believe Him.

This is why it doesn’t make any sense to think that salvation could be by a combination of faith and works. If we depend on human merit at all, it means that we do not really trust Jesus to save us. It means that we think that Jesus’ perfect life and His death on the cross in our place might not actually be enough! It is crazy arrogant to think that need to add anything to what Jesus did. It is an insult to Him to think that we need a backup plan in case He doesn’t keep is promise to come through for us.

Anyway, I hope this was a bit of help. On an even deeper level, I believe that we are so dead in sin that none of us would choose to receive Christ as Savior unless God first did a work to change our hearts. Romans 3:11 says there is no one who seeks God. If God hadn't done a work in my heart first, I would have willingly continued to push Him away forever. Even saving faith itself is a gift of God, therefore God gets all the glory. This is a second layer that explains why faith isn't a work; because it doesn't originate in us. Not all who are saved understand or completely agree with this, but it is true that all who are saved have stopped trusting in their own merit and instead trust in Christ alone for their salvation.

Faith is not a work because it doesn’t earn anything, it just receives what Christ earned in our place.

January 20, 2010

God Has No Purpose

God is not made. He is self-existing. He is the eternal "I AM."

These statements are true and have apologetic value, but what is the application of these truths? As I thought about this I asked myself, "What makes something that is 'made' different from something that is 'not made'?" I realized that everything that is 'made' is made for a purpose. Things are made for specific reasons. Hammers are made to pound nails. Nails are made to hold things together. Chairs are made to sit on. Even people are made for a purpose.

But, if God is not made, then He is not made for a purpose. Thus, could it be that God does not have a purpose?

Now, it sounds odd to suggest that God doesn't have a purpose, because for something not to have a purpose makes it seem worthless. But the opposite is true: It is not that God has a purpose... God is the purpose.

As Romans 11:36 states, "For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever! Amen."

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that God doesn’t do things with purposes in mind. God is purposeful. God’s creation has purposes. God’s actions have purposes. But God Himself is not a means to a greater end. In that sense He does not have a purpose.

So basically...
-Everything that is made is made for a purpose.
-God is not made.
-God is not made for a purpose.
-God does not have a purpose.
-God is the purpose.

Stop treating God like He is a means to and end. Stop treating Him like a magic jinnee. He is not a tool. God is not a path to a greater goal; God is the ultimate goal. We are created for Him because He is the purpose.
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