“From then, Pilate sought to release him, but the Jews screamed and said, ‘If you release this one, you are not devoted to Caesar — the one who make himself king works in opposition to Caesar!’”
Were this trial a chess match, here would be the move that would lead Pilate into check-mate. He has finally been maneuvered by the Jews into a corner. If he does not go along with this Jewish mob, they will make it look as if Pilate has rebelled against Caesar himself. The final words of this verse carry with them a double meaning…the Jews are pointing out that Jesus has claimed to be a king and thus is an enemy of Caesar and secondly, they are implying that if Pilate does not put Jesus to death, he is acting as king over them and that makes Pilate an enemy of Caesar. One by one the chess pieces have been put into place and Pilate is realizing that he has lost this bout with the Priest’s manipulation of his authority. Again, Pilate’s authority comes from Caesar…to become an enemy of Caesar means losing that authority.
Yet, as much manipulation is taking place on a human level, we need to be reminded that God is yet sovereign over all these events and he has so ordained that these events come to pass. These Jews are doing exactly what they want to do, as is Pilate, but God is permitting these things to come to pass. The darkness of this week and these events is a reminder of the darkness of our sin and depravity and what Jesus entered into on our behalf. The contrasting light will come with the resurrection, but for now, evil is being allowed to spew hatred at the Lord of Life.
Beloved, may we never be quick to take for granted the gift of grace found in the work of Christ. Worldly kings rise and fall…there would be other Caesars…but this King Jesus reigns supreme eternally. He is the source of all power and authority…though how often we put our hopes and dreams in the power of men.
“Then Pilate said to him, ‘Won’t you talk to me? Don’t you realize that I have the authority to release you and I have the authority to crucify you?’ Jesus answered him, ‘You have no authority over me apart from that which has been given to you from above. Because of this, the one who delivered me to you has a greater sin.’”
Authority is a sticky kind of thing because it does not reside within our persons. Authority must be given and similarly, authority can be taken away. Yet what makes it even stickier is that there are different levels of authority and thus those who give authority have first been given authority by something or someone that is outside of them. Thus, Pilate’s authority comes from the office that he fills and the authority of that office comes from Rome. But where does Rome get its authority? Their armies extend their authority, indeed, but in the end, it is God and God alone who gives authority to one nation to do this and for another nation to do that. Sometimes God does this with his direct ordination; sometimes God passively permits a course of action, but in the end, it is God and God alone who gives the authority to men to do what men do.
From whom does God get his authority? That is the wrong question to ask. The right question to ask is, “Why is authority given in this way?” The answer to this question answers both. First, authority is given this way because we are “contingent beings.” In other words, the fact that we have life and health and authority to do anything is contingent on the existence of a greater being or institution. Thus, Pilate’s role is contingent on the existence of the Roman Empire. Without it, there would have been no role for him in Judea. Even our lives themselves are contingent on the existence of the planet that houses and sustains us. Yet, God is the only non-contingent being. His existence is fixed — always has been, is, and always will be… And as a non-contingent being, not only does his existence reside within himself, but so does his authority.
Thus the authority that Pilate has is not absolute in any way. Kings and governors like to think of their authority as absolute, but it is still an authority that is permitted by God. And in specific, the authority that Pilate has over Jesus, to put him to death, is again an authority that has been granted to him not just by Caesar, but by God himself so that the promised redemption of the elect might take place through his son’s sacrifice on the cross. Jesus tells Pilate this not as a way of taking Pilate off of the hook, but as a way of cutting this prideful man back down to size.
Yet Jesus does make an interesting statement. He says that the ones responsible for handing him over to Pilate were guilty of a greater sin than Pilate. It is clear that Jesus is speaking of the Jewish authorities that have been contriving to put Jesus to death. They are guilty of a greater sin for their part in Jesus’ execution has been intentional and carefully planned out; Pilate has been a man trapped by powers outside of his influence.
Yet there is one who is ultimately responsible for Jesus’ death that is free from all sin…and that is God the Father who ordained from before the foundation of the world that he would send his Son to pay the righteous penalty for sin that we, as God’s chosen, owe. Indeed, in grace, it pleased the Father to crush his Son because of the redemption this would work for his own. This is the perfect mark of grace, a standard of redemption by which all things are measured…no sin as God’s perfect standard is demonstrated. From this point on, Jesus will remain silent before Pilate.
“And he said, ‘I am a servant of Abraham.’”
“‘And I am also a man under authority having soldiers under myself. I say to this one, “Go,” and he goes and to another one, “Come,” and he comes. And to my servant, “Do this,” and he does it.’ And Jesus hearing this marveled and said to the ones following him, ‘Amen! I tell you that you will find no one with such a great faith in Israel.’”
Rightfully, Eliezer begins by explaining that he is a servant, an emissary of sorts, sent by Abraham to meet with Nahor’s family. From the very start of this conversation, he makes it clear that he is not acting on his own authority, but under the authority of his master. All that he says from this stage out is said out of the context of that relationship — he is servant, Abraham is master. And a servant takes no liberties with the responsibilities that his master has given him.
Jesus, too, encountered such a man who understood the role of those under authority. A Roman Centurion sought to have a household servant healed but when Jesus offered to come to his home and do just that, the Centurion refused, stating that he was unworthy to have Jesus enter his home but that instead, if Jesus would speak the word, he knew his servant would be healed from afar.
The Centurion grounded his faith on the principle of submission. Because Jesus was God, the things in the world, by definition, had to be in submission to him. Jesus spoke and the storms were calmed. Jesus willed it and fish filled the nets of fishermen. Jesus blessed the fish and the loaves and they miraculously fed 5,000 men plus their families who were with them. Jesus cast out demons and healed diseases — he even raised the dead! Surely proximity means nothing to the God who can work all of these things. Surely the world was in submission to Jesus the God-Man. This, the Roman Centurion understood. The Centurion also understood that the reason he himself had authority over others (his servants and soldiers) was because he too was under the authority of one greater than he (Caesar) who had commissioned and sent him. Similarly, Jesus was under the authority of God the Father who sent him. This, Jesus commends over the faith of those around him in Israel.
Submission is not a popular term in our world today; neither was it a popular term in the Israel of Jesus’ day. Sadly, all degrees of sin have come from our unwillingness to submit to the authority and rule of God. C.S. Lewis used to say that one of the things that held him back from becoming a Christian was the realization that if there was really a God (as the Christians describe him) that God had the power to place expectation on Lewis’ life whether Lewis liked it or not. The fallen nature hates the idea that man is under the submission of a Holy God…yet we are.
Even in churches, we are used to people acting and speaking on the authority of men, not on the authority of God. Pastors often quote litanies of views by different commentators and theologians to make their point rather than standing on the authority of God. Church leadership meetings are often conducted along principles of pragmatism rather than Scripture. How often we find church business meetings that might begin or end with a few verses of scripture and prayer, but where 96% of the energy is spent debating on how money should be budgeted or spent? Is this faithful to 1 Corinthians 14:26? How often even pastors insist on their own agenda rather than speaking prophetically from the word of God (prophetically in the sense that the preacher’s role is to apply the Scriptures with directness of language and reason to the people in their own culture and era)?
While we like “doing our own thing,” as Christians we are called to be like the Centurion and the Servant of Abraham. We are called to be men and women acting in submission to God as he has revealed in His Word. It is then that we will begin to see God use us because it is only then that people will see God through our works and not us. One praises the master, not the tools in his hands; may we seek always to be sharp and ready for the master’s employment.
“For there, thrones of judgment dwell;
thrones of the house of David.”
It is in Israel where, in ancient times God dwelled and thus dwelt the law. Judgment needs to be given according to a standard—ultimate judgment according to an ultimate standard, thus in ancient times, Jerusalem was the place where true judgment could be given. In turn, in our Lord’s ultimate return, Judgment will once again locally take place from this area—an act as a symbolic reminder to the nations that the Law did indeed come through the people of Israel as given by God—not the preferences of men. Similarly, Christians are themselves called to be judges (1 Corinthians 6:1-3) not just of themselves, but of the whole world—in a very real sense, sitting in the thrones of judgment over the nations. Why is this? Again, it is because we have been given the Law of God and we have been given the Holy Spirit to guide us in its interpretation.
There has been a sad development in modern times, though, and what is seen as the source of authority for modern law has shifted from God to the societies of man. Thus, the culture is seen as being able to discern what is right and what is wrong and not as one which is forced to rely on divine revelation. Yet, is man his own authority? If one says that a nation has the authority to determine its own law, then how can one condemn what took place in Nazi Germany? The legal, constituted government had determined that these acts were morally justified, what right did the allied nations have for coming in and stopping him? One is tempted to say that the reason the allies were justified is that the worldwide governments as a united body have the right to make and enforce such principles and laws on individual nations. Yet, if this is the case, why is there so much inconsistency in enforcement. Why is China, for example, permitted to commit gross acts of human injustice while the allied nations take a stand against others? The answer is that politics now has replaced the divine standard and pragmatism is mankind’s authority.
Yet, what about the lives of individual Christians? Do we not function in the same way? Do we not say that God commands us not to tell lies but at the same time lie when it is convenient? Loved ones, if we are to be judges of the world—ought we not begin with ourselves and with the church (1 Peter 4:17). Let us submit ourselves, then, to the commands and expectations of God, working and laboring to serve Him in all we do and to be conformed into the image of his glorious Son. Let us rejoice with the psalmist that the throne of judgment was in Jerusalem, the place where God had given his divine law and does not rest in the whims of men.
“Then I said to him, ‘What are these two olive trees on the right and the left of the lampstand?’ … Then he said, ‘These are the two anointed ones who stand by the Lord of the whole earth.’” -Zechariah 4: 11,14, ESV
“And I will grant authority to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth. These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth.” -Revelation 11:3-4, ESV
The more that I study the book of Revelation, the more I have been struck by how John’s images are almost exclusively based on Old Testament figures. Of course, this should not surprise us. Yet, in reading commentaries on the book of Revelation, I have been disappointed as to how many commentators gloss over the Old Testament allusions and do their own thing with the imagery.
This is an image where there is quite a bit of debate on both for New Testament scholars and for Old Testament scholars. Who exactly are these two witnesses? Obviously there is a lot of unpacking that needs to be done with any suggestion as neither the Old nor the New Testaments give us a conclusive answer. We know this, though, the witness that these two witnesses will offer is faithful, it is in the face of opposition, and those who oppose the witnesses will be cut down with fire. John opens the image up a little more by giving us the picture of the witnesses being killed and then raised three days later.
I will argue that this is imagery that refers to Christ. The two witnesses being Christ’s two natures. His testimony is true, it was done in constant opposition, and those that oppose him will find themselves tormented in the lake of fire. He was handed over to the powers of Satan, was killed on the cross, and the children of the serpent rejoiced. But, oh their party came to an abrupt end as the angel pronounced what I consider the most important words in any human language: “for He is raised, as he said.” On those words hang the hope of all Christians! If we do not have this statement, we have nothing!
What wonderful testimony and witness did God offer to us in his son? There could have been no better witness; the very word of God made flesh. Let us rejoice in the provision that God has given us, knowing how this provision is far more than we could ever hope for.
“To be sure, in the same way, these people are dreaming, and to be sure, they defile the flesh. Also, they reject authority and they blaspheme. As for Michael, the Archangel, when disputing with the Devil, arguing about the body of Moses, he did not dare to judge—to bring denigration—but he said, “The Lord rebuke you.” For in these things which, as other things they have not known, they blaspheme. Likewise, the things that are known naturally to them (like unreasoning beasts) will bring their destruction.”
Here Jude is beginning to bring out the heavy spiritual artillery to describe these people who have entered into the church and are leading people astray. He does so by pointing out a that they are blaspheming, they are following in the footsteps of the false prophets, and then Jude uses some telling imagery to describe their character. In this passage, Jude addresses their blaspheming and he shows that they are doing so in three ways.
They are dreamers: They create theology with their imaginations. They sacrifice the truth for what is innovative and creative. Sound familiar? How many churches have wandered into error because they ordered their theology according to their thoughts and experience rather than ordering their thoughts and experience through their theology? How often do we hear something that “sounds good,” and we incorporate it into our theology or worship even though it doesn’t really fit with scripture? Yet, the end result of this kind of behavior is sin. It will lead to defiling the flesh, the rejection of authority, and in turn blaspheming God.
Dreams are highly subjective. Jude is contrasting their dreamy theology with his truth that has been once and for all time delivered by the apostles. The interesting thing is that their dreaming is causing them to defile the flesh. Never forget that your theology shapes who you are and how you behave in all of life. When we begin to be seduced by the evil of false theology, other parts of your life will follow suit.
And these things are blasphemy. They are elevating their own words and ideas above the words and ideas of God. They reject the authority of God in favor of their own authority. This is the sin of Adam and Eve. They took God’s law, rejected it, and justified their actions—at least to themselves, for one can never justify sin before God.
They speak in arrogance: Jude uses the illustration of Michael and the body of Moses to demonstrate how these people speak. Satan is sometimes called the “accuser of the brethren” (Revelation 12:10). Prior to the resurrection of Christ, Satan would make claim on the souls of believers, in his defeat by Christ, he no longer has room to argue and simply seeks to destroy believers. Thus, when Moses died, the Devil sought to argue for the body of Moses. Moses was a sinner and accordingly deserved damnation. Yet, Moses had faith in the promise of the Messiah and upon that faith, he was redeemed. It would have been right for Michael the Archangel to have rebuked Satan directly, yet, Michael understood that was not his place to denigrate Satan. He said, “the Lord rebuke you.” Even our Lord, Jesus Christ, who had every right and power to rebuke Satan during his forty days of trial in the wilderness, rebuked Satan with scripture.
In their arrogance, the false teachers were uttering words of arrogance not humility. How often have we heard others, or have we ourselves, sought to rebuke the Devil on our own strength? Brethren, this is not the example that has been set for us, let us use God’s words to rebuke the accuser who seeks to destroy. These false teachers were making bold claims, but were claiming authority within themselves, not God’s authority. When we place our own authority above God’s authority, that is blasphemy. And remember, these false teachers were not teaching a “new religion,” they were claiming to be Christian, using God’s name to further their own agendas. That is a violation of the third commandment; that is blasphemy.
It is important to note that this passage about the archangel Michael and the body of Moses is taken from a Jewish Apocryphal work called The Assumption of Moses. One thing that we must make entirely clear is that just because Jude quotes from the work does not lend canonicity or inerrancy to the work. It simply means that this section, that Jude quoted from, accurately describes what did happen. Non-Canonical works can be useful for us to understand history and culture, but it is important to always remember that they are human documents and are not the inspired word of God. It is valuable to read them, but when they contradict scripture, they cannot be held as accurate.
They speak in ignorance: These men speak on spiritual matters but have no personal relationship with Jesus Christ to inform their speech; they are speaking without understanding. We must always be reminded that spiritual truth requires the work of the Holy Spirit to gain understanding. When the pagan reads scripture, he may glean some good practical advice, but he won’t understand the things of God. That is why we pray, as believers, before we study scripture, for we know that our minds are fallen and we cannot discern these things apart from His Holy work.
Jude uses the example of how animals act on instinct to describe the thinking of these unbelievers. Animals have emotions, but they do not reason through issues. When a situation arises, an animal acts based upon its natural instincts. When a person is born, his fallen instincts are to sin. It is not until the Holy Spirit does a regenerating work on the person that, in God’s strength, he or she can resist said sins. Apart from being born again, a person acts like an animal when it comes to spiritual matters, following their natural instincts to sin.
One of the problems that has manifested itself in our culture is the turning of the Christian ministry into a career and not a calling. People go into the ministry because they like the idea of helping others and not because they are born again and have been called to serve as a pastor. Also, there is such a demand for people to fill pulpits, churches are sometimes hiring pastors who themselves are not born again. Even in evangelical circles, there are many who enter seminary unsaved, but knowing all of the right terminology to sound acceptable. They look at scripture like a group of human documents, full of flaws and in need of correction. This is just as much blasphemy as the previous two examples. They speak of what they do not know and only end up speaking lies and contempt against the truth. And that which they do know well—that is sin—will condemn them.
also bearing all things in the word of his power;
Beloved, we have asked the question in terms of what “all things” refers to, but we must also pose the question as to just what is the “word of his power.” Indeed, the simplest and most straight-forward answer, particularly in the context of the creation language that precedes it, is the idea that God spoke all things in to being and, as John reminds us that Jesus is the very Word by which God created (John 1:1-2). Yet, the language of this passage in Hebrews is not limited to the work of creation, but encompasses the entirety of all history (as well as the future) when he points out that not only were all things created by God, but all things are borne or upheld. The Apostle Paul speaks similarly when he states that all things “hold together” in Christ Jesus (Colossians 1:17). So it is the “word of his power” that not only creates, but sustains throughout redemptive history.
Thus, we are back at the initial question, what is this “word of his power”? The term that is used here is the word rJhvma (hrama), which is a synonym for the more familiar term lo/goß (logos). Both terms refer to words or communications that are either spoken or written and both can refer to generic “things” or “stuff.” The only distinct difference in usage between these two terms is that lo/goß (logos) can be personified, standing alone as “The Word,” to refer to our Lord Jesus Christ. With this in mind, we can do some searches to see how the language of “word” and “power” (du/namiß—dunamis, from which we get “dynamic” and “dynamite”) are used together in scripture.
With this in mind, Paul’s letters to the Corinthian churches are particularly helpful in understanding this language:
“For the word of the cross to those who are perishing is foolishness;
but to the one who is being saved, it is the power of God.”
(1 Corinthians 1:18 )
There are two things that we should note from this verse, though a lifetime could be spent reflecting on its meaning and ramifications for life and ministry. First, in the context of the passage, the language of “the word of the cross” is referring to the Gospel as it is preached. It is the promise that those who would flee sin and the things of this world, repent of their sins, and cling to Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, believing in their hearts and confessing with their lips, will be saved from eternal condemnation. It is the word that brings the only hope to mankind—that Jesus, who was perfect and without guilt, chose to come down to this earth, take on flesh to walk with men and to be tempted as we have been tempted, and yet lived without sin, went so far as to substitute himself for me, paying the penalty for my sin so that I might not have to face God’s wrath. Believer, let that great promise sink in and let your soul sing with praise! For Christ has come with grace and in grace you are forgiven! This is the word of the cross—this is the Gospel—that there is redemption to be found in the person of Jesus Christ! Indeed, as there is power in the blood, there is power in this message!
Secondly, also, please note the transition in verbs (participles in the Greek). In the first clause, “perishing” is presented in the middle tense and in the second clause, “being saved” is in the passive tense. While this may seem like a fairly minor nuance, note the implications that are brought about by this language. We are reminded, first, that our salvation is an action of God and we are passive recipients. We are “being saved,” not saving ourselves. We add nothing of our own merit to God’s salvific work. In turn, the language is different when it speaking of those “who are perishing.” The middle tense, in Greek, reflects the idea of people participating themselves in the action that is happening to them. In other words, by their unbelief, the people who belong to this world are destroying themselves as well as being condemned in judgment by God. This is the language that Paul developed further in Romans 1:18-32, and indeed, is reinforced by the language that is used in this verse.
Though much more could be drawn out of this verse, it provides us with a foothold on the idea that the word of Christ’s power is connected to the Gospel. Paul echoes this further when he writes:
“and my word and my proclamation were not in persuasive words of wisdom,
but in proof of Spirit and power.”
(1 Corinthians 2:4)
Once again, Paul is reminding us that his word and proclamation (the Gospel) were not given in terms of eloquent rhetoric, but were delivered accompanied by proof. And what was that proof of the Gospel? The Spirit came (people were born-again) and power was demonstrated (Paul’s words were accompanied by signs and miracles that confirmed his message). In other words, the proof of the message of the Gospel was not so much the logical consistency of it as the Greeks would have judged wisdom, but instead, the proof of the message was found in changed lives and miracles being worked. Yet, also we ought to be careful not to limit the term du/namiß (dunamis—“power”) to miraculous works, for the term carries with it the idea of ability and force. In other words, we should also understand that the “power” of which Paul speaks is in the ability of the Gospel to break down broken hearts, convict men of their sins, and bring them to repentance—something that is seen when the gospel is proclaimed even today. The Gospel changes those who hear it—it brings some to repentance and hardens others, but none will ever remain the same after sitting under its power!
“But the Kingdom of God is not in word but is in power!”
(1 Corinthians 4:20)
One more note found in connection with Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, and this is in connection with the idea of Kingdom. In short, the Kingdom of God refers to the entirety of God’s redemptive plan in bringing his people to himself through the ages. Hence, it is a kingdom that is coming (Matthew 6:10; Luke 13:29), but it is also here (Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:15). That is why Paul can assert that while believers live in this world, our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). With this in mind, Paul affirms that the Kingdom is not found merely in word, but in power as well. There is a power and might in the gospel that draws believers into the kingdom and speaks redemption and judgment to the nations.
The final passage that it is important for us to look at is found in 2 Corinthians 5:1-6:13. Paul is speaking of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and how Christ came and died to set them free from sin. Paul speaks of how every man will have to eventually stand before the judgment seat of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:10) and that Paul and the Apostles have been commissioned to sound that warning so that men and women may be reconciled to God through Christ’s completed sacrifice and as Christ bore our sins, so we too may bear his righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:11-21). Paul then calls the people to respond in faith (2 Corinthians 6:1-2) and reminds them that the ministry that Paul had in Corinth was an honorable one (remembering that false apostles were seeking to discredit Paul, which is part of the reason he is writing). Paul goes on to describe the character of the ministry that he had in Corinth and writes these words:
“in words of truth, and in the power of God;
through the weapons of righteousness, in the right hand and in the left hand;”
(2 Corinthians 6:7)
One must really read verses 3-10 for the full context, but Paul is describing the work he has done in Corinth, and he describes the Gospel he preached as in “words of truth” and as “the power of God.” This, of course, picks up on the language of 1 Corinthians 1:18, and is a reminder that this power of God is the Gospel. As a side note, take care to notice the language of the second clause of this verse. Paul is employing gladiatorial language, portraying righteousness (in connection to the Gospel) as the weapons of battle. Gladiators often fought with double weapons, typically an offensive weapon in the right hand and a defensive weapon in the left (remembering that even a shield or a net can be considered a weapon). Oftentimes we think of the military language of the Bible that portrays the church, through the Gospel, tearing down the gates of Hell in a systematic and organized way. And, indeed, this is the role of the organized church through the ages—hence we are called to put on our “Gospel Armor” (Ephesians 6:10-20). Yet, Paul describes his early work in Corinth in different language—that of being a gladiator, attacked from every side, and typically fighting alone or in a small group. Indeed, how often that is the case with those on the mission field and how true an illustration this is of Paul’s ministry to Corinth.
So, with these things in mind, we can rephrase our question. If the “word of his power” is in reference to the Gospel as well as to creation, then we must ask, how the Gospel helps bear or uphold all things. The answer is really very simple. When Adam and Eve fell, they earned God’s wrath and judgment. Yet, God offered them grace and promised them a coming redeemer (Genesis 3:15). This redeemer, of course, is Christ and this promise made to Adam and Eve was the first proclamation of the gospel. Without God’s promise to send his son as redeemer, without the promise of the Gospel, the world would have ended in judgment then and there at the garden. Instead, we have history. Indeed, that history has been marred by sin and the effects of sin in this world, yet that history has been steeped in the grace of God as God has, generation after generation, brought men and women into a relationship with himself through faith in Jesus Christ. The very fact that we have history is a direct result of the Gospel that was given and the work of which was completed by Jesus on the cross. So long as there are more of the elect who have not yet been brought to faith and so long as there are yet elect who will yet die for their faith, this world will continue along its designated path and history will move along—upheld by the Gospel. When the Gospel is no longer necessary, the world will cease to be.
Oh, loved ones, do you not see the importance of this great gift that God has given us? Will you not revel in its promise? The gospel is the word of God’s power and the gospel is the warp and the woof that holds the fabric of existence together. It will not fail you as it has not failed God throughout history. Trust in it, proclaim it, rejoice in it, and give God thanks for it. And teach your children to do the same.
How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds
In a believer’s ear!
It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds,
And drives away his fear.
Jesus! my Shepherd, Husband, Friend,
O Prophet, Priest and King,
My Lord, my Life, my Way, my End,
Accept the praise I bring.
What of those who claim that the Bible contains errors and discrepancies either in its internal unity or in its scientific or historical claims? Also, what of those who claim that the Biblical books were assembled, revised, and rewritten through the ages resulting in our modern Biblical text?
Largely, the claims that seek to refute the inerrancy of scripture fall into one of two categories. The first is that of simple inconsistencies that are seen on a cursory examination of scripture and the second falls into the category of the study of source criticism or what is often referred to as “Higher Biblical Criticism.”
The first category is more simply explained than the second. Many, in seeking to discredit the Bible have taken to seeking out areas of apparent discontinuity and have argued that there are errors within the text. Yet, in each of these cases, a thorough study of the passages in question as well of the broader contexts of those passages, will serve to nullify any claim to Biblical error. For every objection to the internal unity of the Bible, evangelical Christian scholars have set forth a reasonable and legitimate response which demonstrates the unity of the texts.
This first category also includes those who would look to current historical, scientific, or archaeological data and conclude that the Bible is in error in terms of the events that it relates. Once again, this demonstrates the limitations of modern science. Scientific and archaeological premises change from discovery to discovery and we cannot expect to rewrite our understanding according to the whim of these scientists. In addition, scientists are relying only on their own ability to observe the world around them, an ability that has been marred and weakened by the fall of man. Scripture is given by God, who has not been affected by the fall, thus it is relayed to us by the one who we ought to appeal to as the highest authority by which we understand the things in the world around us.
The second category is more involved, and that is in terms of the question of source criticism, a theory that dates back to the early eighteenth century and a French physician named Jean Astruc. His suggestion was that the ancient Biblical texts were not unique manuscripts written by one individual over a period of time, but were instead compilations of the writings of many assembled together to form the whole we have today. In the case of Astruc, he largely divided up the Pentateuch according to the use of God’s name and assigned each related text to a different tradition, assuming then that our Biblical account was combined from these source traditions to form a kind of amalgam that was revised and edited eventually into a final form.
While there were others who built on Astruc’s hypothesis, the major proponents of this principle were two German scholars named Julius Wellhausen and Karl Heinrich Graf who lived in the 19th century. Their position, called the Documentary Hypothesis theory, went as far as to suggest many contributors, later redactors, and then editors of the Biblical texts, constantly revising the text as history progressed. This theory has formed the basis for much of Biblical critical scholarship, essentially treating the Bible as they would a humanly written document.
To understand this challenge to scriptural inerrancy, one must understand the historical context behind the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis. In the early 19th century, a philosopher named G.W.F. Hegel rose to prominence. Hegel argued that all things are constantly in the process of change, something he referred to as the “passing of opposites.” Opposite positions were constantly colliding with one another and as they collided, a synthesis would result. This process, Hegel called the “dialectic.” As a result of this presupposition, Hegel argued that this process applied to all things—including religion. Though his book on the Philosophy of Religion was published posthumously, it was a compilation of his lecture notes on the subject, notes that he taught to his students for many years. This position implies that religion began as the primitive worship of rocks and trees and as the people grew more sophisticated, so too, the religion became more spiritual, and hence a development takes place. Carl Marx would apply Hegel’s philosophy to politics, Charles Darwin would apply Hegel’s philosophy to biology, and Graf and Wellhausen would apply Hegel’s philosophy to the development of scripture.
Aside from being based on a faulty presupposition, for when you have a religious text given by an omniscient God, there is hardly room for this kind of theological revision, the principles upon which source criticism is based are faulty. First, we have already spoken of how they see use of different names of God to signify different traditions of authorship of the Biblical text. Yet, the reality is that the different names of God are used to describe different aspects or attributes of God’s character. Thus, depending on the context of the event that is being recorded, there is often variation in the name of God being used to reflect the activity that is taking place.
The second area of attack for source critics is that of repeated narratives, where we find a very similar story taking place in the lives of two people. First of all, this view simply ignores the rhetorical tradition of the Jewish people, where repetition was deliberately used as a mnemonic tool and to draw theological connections between two similar events. Neither of the events are manufactured as the source critics suppose, but in the providence of God, there were often similarities between two events so that the story could be told in such a way as to bring out those similarities and draw that connection.
The third area of attack for the source critics is that of apparent discrepancies, something we have already discussed. The fourth approach is to look at varying writing styles, which is connected with the variance in the use of the names of God. Can one not consider that a single author is capable of writing in different ways and using different vocabulary at different points in his life or when describing different situations? The position of the source critics in this area is based solely on the premise that one writer will always write with the same writing style and will always utilize the same vocabulary and themes to get his point across. This simply is not so, either in modern writing or in writing from ancient times. The final area of attack is that of distinctive theologies seeming to show up in the context of certain texts and not in others. For the same reasons, this position fails as well. Theology is developed in the scriptures not by thesis and antithesis colliding, but by the gradual revelation of God to his people.
To some degree, all who study the Bible need to use some level of source criticism. There are more than 5000 full or partial manuscripts of the New Testament text alone, from which scholars have worked to discern the most accurate rendering of the original text. Texts must be compared and one must determine which is most reliable and which likely carries scribal errors (misspelled words, transposed words, fuller explanations given, etc…). Yet, this level of scholarship does not hold the authenticity of divine revelation in question, but simply seeks to sift through the wealth of evidence at hand for the purpose of most accurately presenting that which is divinely revealed in scripture. Those involved in the “Higher Critical” schools take things one step further, placing into doubt the divine origin of scripture and arbitrarily eliminating texts or theological concepts that do not agree with their Hegelian presuppositions.
How do we know that the 39 books of the Old Testament that we have actually constitute the complete written revelation of God during that era? How do we know that the 27 books of the New Testament complete that which was begun in the Old Testament?
First of all, the 39 books of the Old Testament are confirmed as genuine by both Jesus and the New Testament writers. Jesus not only quoted or alluded to many Old Testament texts, but he used the traditional Jewish groupings to speak of the Old Testament scriptures, referring to them as the Law of Moses (Genesis through Deuteronomy), the Prophets (former and later), and the Psalms (also called “the writings”). In addition, the New Testament Writers either quoted from or alluded to passages from every book of the Hebrew Old Testament except for the Song of Solomon. Also, Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, the sermon that inaugurated the Christian church, was largely an exposition of Old Testament Passages. Paul the Apostle is also regularly found “reasoning with the Jews from scripture” when he is on his missionary journeys. Peter also boldly points out in his first epistle that it is Jesus that all of the Old Testament prophets were searching for. Jesus himself speaks of the Old Testament as being writings about himself. While it is true that the New Testament writers also are found to allude to extra-Biblical writings, that fact in itself is not enough to bestow Canonicity upon the whole of the outside cited text, it simply means that the cited text is accurate insomuch as the citation has used it.
Secondly, we have the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament called the Septuagint or the LXX. This text was begun about 300 years before the birth of Christ and was a popular text in the first-century. While the LXX is nothing more than a translation, the books that it translates are the texts which we now refer to as the Hebrew Old Testament. Yes, many do cite that the Greek translation of the Apocrypha is often included with the Greek LXX, but it is clear that the Apocrypha and the Septuagint comprise two separate texts.
Thirdly, the Jews venerated the scriptures as they were the very words of God. They were dedicated to preserving it and making sure that it was not defiled by error or false teaching. The Masorites labored tirelessly to make sure that the text we have in our hands is the whole of what God revealed to his people in the ancient times. Their testimony is that the Old Testament that we have today is the Old Testament that Jesus used and was used for years before he walked the earth in the flesh.
The Jewish historians Philo and Josephus, who were contemporaries of the New Testament writers, refer to the books of the Bible that we refer to as the “Old Testament” as the Jewish Canon. Early Latin and Syriac (the Peshito) translations present to us the consistent witness that the 39 books of the Old Testament are God’s revealed word to his people. The Targums and Talmudic writings as well, which are the writings of Jewish tradition and an ancient commentary on the Bible, also submit that the Old Testament books we have in our hands today are the Canon of the Hebrew faith. Ancient Hebrew scrolls found in Archaeological sites like Qumran contain texts which once again confirm the content of the Old Testament as containing the complete Jewish canon of scripture.
The formation of the New Testament canon developed in the same way as did the Old Testament canon. As mentioned above, the New Testament writers understood that the letters they were writing were scripture and thus inspired by the Holy Spirit to be God’s witness or standard for his church for generations to come. As the Apostles began to die off, the church became more and more deliberate in their work to define for all, those letters and books which were God-breathed. As time went on, the church also had to fight heretical teachings and to communicate to the congregations what documents were heretical, thus councils were held, not unlike how the early rabbinical councils were held, to clarify for the church which books were canonical and which books were not.
There have been many who have accused the church of manufacturing their canon based along the lines of church traditions, but this claim cannot be substantiated and is quite contrary to what took place. While the final form of the canon that we know today as the New Testament did not take place until the Council of Hippo in A.D. 393, the role of the council was simply to clarify and affirm what the churches had been affirming as far back as the first century A.D. The oldest formal listing of Canonical books is the Muritorian Canon, which dates back to the mid-second century (named after the scholar who discovered it), contains a listing of canonical books that is almost identical to our modern listing, with only slight variations. There were other second-century theologians, like Irenaeus, who also produced canonical lists, which are remarkably similar to what we find in our New Testament today.
In addition to these formal listings, we can also look to the writings of the early church fathers to see the citations that they make to the Apostolic writings. For example, while the Muritorian Canon does not include the book of Hebrews in its formal listing, Clement of Rome, a contemporary of Paul and the other Apostles, cites it in his writings. Hebrews is also cited by others like Ignatius in his letter to the Philadelphians and it is found in the Didache, a late first century or early second century guide for instructing new communicants. Thus, it is clear from the earliest extant documents that even the books not included in the Muritorian Canon were being used by the churches as scripture.
When the church fathers were organizing these canonical listings, there were three criteria that were used. First, they sought to insure that the documents of canon were either directly written by an Apostle or were guided by an Apostle. In this case, Matthew, John, and Peter were all apostles originally called by Jesus to follow him and were sent out with power at Pentecost. Paul was called as an apostle separately from the others to be the Apostle to the Gentile nations. Mark, though not an Apostle, traveled with Paul and served under Peter’s guidance in Jerusalem. It is held that Mark’s gospel account is largely drawn from Peter’s teaching and preaching in Jerusalem. Luke, who also was not an Apostle, served with Paul on his mission trips and certainly wrote under his guidance. James and Jude, while not believers during the life of the Lord, came to faith after the death and resurrection of their half-brother, Jesus. They served in Jerusalem and would have been under the guidance of the Apostles there. There is also evidence that this James would lead the church in Jerusalem at least for a time. The book of Hebrews is the greatest mystery of all. It is structured more like a sermon than a letter, so it does not contain the customary greeting which would instruct us as to who the writer was. It does contain themes that are similar to many of Paul’s writings which has led some to believe it is of Pauline origin, but the language is very different. Some have suggested that it may have been the Apostle John or one of his students, others have suggested Barnabas or Apollos. The reality is that we do not know. What we do know is that from the earliest era of church history, it has been understood as having come from or having at least been influenced by one of the Apostles.
The second criterion that the early church fathers used was whether or not a book contained theology that was consistent with the rest of the scriptures (both Old and New Testaments). They understood that while God was doing “something new” he was also building on the foundation that had already been laid in ancient Israel. They understood also that the canonical writings were breathed out from God and thus ultimately had one author, that is God himself. If there is one author and that author is God, there cannot be any contradiction within the whole of the text.
The third criterion was that the book was being used by the churches to the edification of the church. In other words, the church fathers understood that the scriptures were given by God for instruction and the building up of faith as well as for the conversion of lost souls. They understood, then, that documents which bred nothing but contention within the church did not come from the lips of God. Certainly there are some of the Biblical documents that are difficult to hear, particularly if they contain rebukes that happen to apply to you, but the rebukes as well as the promises of blessing are given so that the body of Christ might be built up in its most holy faith to the glory of God on high.
In terms of confirming that the canon we have today is the authentic New Testament canon, we can look at many of the same kinds of things as we did when we discussed the Old Testament canon. There is an internal unity to the New Testament books that cannot be manufactured by human writers. New Testament writers quote and allude to each others’ texts. Extra-Biblical writers quote from the New Testament writers extensively, quoting or alluding to almost the entirety of the New Testament. In addition, when looking at the Bible as a whole, certain observations can be made about scripture that set it apart from other writings, either ancient or modern:
- The scriptures do not glorify man in any way, but glorify God. Ancient texts tend to glorify men and to create a mythology around them that makes them larger than life. This is not the case with scripture. God alone is glorified.
- The scriptures go out of their way to portray all of the Biblical characters in all of their sin and weakness. God is clearly the hero of the Biblical narrative, not Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob, etc…
- The Bible gives names, dates, and place names that have been found and confirmed to be accurate.
- Never has a book so impacted the course of history as has the Bible. No book of ancient religion or philosophy has brought about the rise and the fall of men and nations and no book has inspired men to such good deeds as a result of what it contains.
- Never has a book other than the Bible inspired men and women to die rather than to give it up. Never has a book other than the Bible inspired men and women to go to the furthest corners of the earth, risking life and limb, to present it and its contents to those who live in remote or government restricted areas.
- No other book has the power to give peace to a person’s spirit when they lie at death’s door. The sheer power of the book to shape a person’s life is testimony of its divine nature and origin.
As was written by A.A. Hodge on this subject:
In this respect you may compare the Koran of Mohammed with the Christian Bible. In the great debate between the missionary Henry Martyn and the Persian moulvies, the latter showed a great superiority of logical and rhetorical power. They proved that the Koran was written by a great genius; that it was an epoch-making book, giving law to a language pre-eminent for elegance, inexhaustible fullness, and precision, revolutionizing kingdoms, forming empires, and molding civilization. Nevertheless, it was a single work, within the grasp of one great man. But Henry Martyn proved that the Bible is one single book, one single, intricate, organic whole, produced by more than forty different writers of every variety of culture and condition through sixteen centuries of time—that is, through about fifty successive generations of mankind. As a great cathedral, erected by many hands through many years, is born of one conceiving mind, and has had but one author, so only God can be the one author of the whole Bible, for only he has been contemporaneous with all stages of its genesis; he has been able to control and co-ordinate all the agents concerned in its production, so as to conceive and realize the incomparable result.
The word Canon comes from the Greek word “kanw/n” (kanon) which in turn is derived from the Hebrew word hn<q’ (qaneh). The Hebrew word literally refers to a “reed” or a “rod.” In common usage, it referred to a straight rod of uniform length that could be used for measurements. In figurative use, it was common to use the term to refer to an ideal or a standard. Thus, the idea of a Canon of scripture was to designate the writings which had been inspired by God for use as the standard for religion and life for God’s people. By the time the New Testament writers were writing, the concept of Canon was clearly understood in the church and the writers understood themselves to be agents of God in the completion of the Canon.
It is worth noting that Marcion also published an early second century canon, but it was highly doctored to reflect his heretical views. Thus, it should not be seen as a genuine canon, but as a heretical document of a false teacher.
The Muritorian Canon contained the following list of books in this order: Matthew & Mark (the first section of the document is missing, but what follows implies the presence of Matthew and Mark in the missing section), Luke, John, the Acts of the Apostles, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Galatians, 1 Thessalonians, Romans, 2 Corinthians, 2 Thessalonians, Philemon, Titus, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Jude, 1 John, 2 John, The Wisdom of Solomon (Apocryphal), Revelation, and the Apocalypse of Peter (but listed as doubtful). The Shepherd of Hermas is listed as useful for the believer but not scripture and is prohibited as a subject of preaching. Also, the Letters of Paul to the Laodiceans and to the Alexandrians is listed as forged in Paul’s name to further the heresy of Marcion. Finally, the writings of Arsinous, Valentius, Miltiades, and Basilides are condemned. To include these documents, the canon instructs, would be to “mix gall with honey.”