Letting Go

Last week we had all four kids at home with us, for one night.  They live busy lives and it’s hard to coordinate their plans so that they are all here at the same time. There was plenty of laughs and banter – the kind of raucous you’d expect for the Somervell household.  I got them all to sit on the couch so I could take a picture, which was a bit of a mission because they wouldn’t keep still (hence the slightly blurred effect). “They haven’t changed much,” I thought to myself.  How did we manage to raise such an unruly lot? I can’t even take a picture without some level of chaos!”  

But as I stood there with the camera, watching them horsing around, a deep sense of fondness and affection for them welled up within me.  Despite all the pain, heartache and loss of sleep they have caused over the years, I really did love each of them deeply.  It’s not that I ever doubted this.  But something happens when your kids grow up into adults.  The relationship changes.  You are still their parent, but it’s in a different sense.  They are no longer living in your shadow.  They are their own individuals.  They now make their own choices in life – for better or for worse.  Some of those choices you are happy with; others you are not so happy with.  But you still love them all the same.

You may have heard of a phrase parents often use called “letting go.”  Well, it’s a lot easier said than done (in my experience).  And it’s not just a one-time deal.  I find myself having to continually “let go.”  After all, when you consider my wife and I have invested 23 of our 25 years of marriage raising, nurturing, teaching, training and caring for each of these precious individuals, you can understand why letting them go is a daunting task.  They are not ordinary people.  They are very special.  They are part of us.  They are a product of our love and commitment to each other and to God.

I can’t speak for my wife, but the most difficult part of the “letting go” has been with my two sons.  That might surprise you.  You’d think it would be with my daughters.  Fathers can be very protective of their daughters and find it hard when they leave home.  I have no problem with my daughters leaving home.  I know whose hands they are in.  They are both strong believers in Jesus and have surrendered their lives to his Lordship and loving care.  Whatever choices they make will be, for the most part, wise ones.

My sons however have not chosen to follow Jesus.  They made that decision in their late teens.  They both have their own reasons for that, which I respect.  But I personally find it very difficult.  In fact, rarely is there an hour in the day when I’m not thinking about it (and praying for them).  And it’s not because I’m a controlling father (at least, I hope not).  Nor is it because I’m disappointed that my own sons are not following in my footsteps.  It’s because heaven and hell are serious realities for me.  The Bible isn’t a collection of fairy stories and fables.  It is divine truth, which affects the eternal destiny of every human being, including my four children.

No loving, responsible parent, who holds these beliefs can overlook that.  It’s just not possible.  So yes, I’m still having a heck of a time letting my sons go (in the spiritual sense).  In fact, until they come to Jesus I don’t think I ever will.  I will continue to wrestle for their souls before my Heavenly Father, begging that He will reveal Himself to them in such a clear and profound way that they believe.

In the meantime, I will work on loving each one of them equally, without showing favouritism, supporting them in where I can and praying for them daily.  This is my God-given duty, privilege and joy.




We’re no different to you, Sonny Bill

Following last Saturday’s test match between the All Blacks and the Lions, the New Zealand media spewed forth a tirade of criticism toward Sonny Bill Williams for his most unfortunate shoulder charge on Lion’s wing Anthony Watson.  It was a Red Card event.  Sonny Bill was sent off for the rest of the game, leaving the All Blacks to fight the rest of the game out with only 14 men.

The media showed no mercy.  Their swords were out.  The headlines said it all – ‘SBW joins the hall of shame’, ‘A red day for Sonny Bill’, etc., etc.  Read a little further and it doesn’t get any better:

“SBW. Sonny Bill Williams, New Zealand’s best known and most polarising sportsman. Insert variations here, and thousands did in the aftermath: B for blundering, maybe even brainless; W for, well, take your pick. What was he thinking? In one of the biggest tests of his and his team-mates’ careers?

 At normal speed it looked an error of judgement. The slippery surface and the fact Anthony Watson was falling in the tackle were flimsy arguments for the defence. On replay it was a brain snap of epic proportions, and completely needless.”[1]

 “There were no arms and there was no concern for the opponent’s safety. He caught Watson flush on the jaw and the winger went down. It was the tackle of a man who still hasn’t got the violent stupidity of rugby league out of his system.”[2]

Wait a minute.  Let’s take a step back.  What are we actually dealing with here?  This isn’t a moral failure of some kind.  He hasn’t been caught with another woman in a public restroom (as another All Black was).  He didn’t beat up someone after a night on the booze.   It was an error of misjudgment during play.  Sure; it was serious – and extremely dangerous.  He could have put the other guy in hospital.  But it wasn’t intentional.  And from what we understand, there was no malice in it.

Under the Mosaic Law he would have received leniency.  Under grace he could receive full mercy.  He received neither from the New Zealand public.  How do we get it so wrong?  Why are we so quick to acquit the guilty and condemn the innocent (or at least, less guilty)?

To render such harsh criticism toward Sonny Bill for this action is not only unfair; it’s utterly hypocritical.  Why?  Because we are no different.  Are we to say that we never, in the heat of the moment, act rashly or out of character; that we never verbally shoulder-tackle our wives or husbands or kids, or that we never say or do something thoughtless that inflicts pain and injury on others?

Come on New Zealanders.  Get a grip.

Whether you’re a Christian or not, there’s a good lesson here – about prideful fault-finding.  Jesus puts his finger right on it in the Sermon on the Mount:

“Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged. For you will be judged by the same standard with which you judge others, and you will be measured by the same measure you use. Why do you look at the splinter in your brother’s eye but don’t notice the beam of wood in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ and look, there’s a beam of wood in your own eye? Hypocrite! First take the beam of wood out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:1–5, CSB)

Now this text is often misinterpreted to mean we should never judge other people under any circumstances.  But that’s not what Jesus is saying, because he goes on to explain the kind of censure he is forbidding: self-righteous, smug and hypocritical judgement.  Judgment that sees a tiny tear in someone else’s shirt while yours is nearly ripped in half.  Judgement that over-exaggerates small character flaws in others while minimizing (or completely ignoring) gigantic faults of your own.  Judgement that pronounces Sonny Bill a monster for a misjudged tackle while you, in a flash of anger, assassinate a family member for sitting in your chair or taking your pillow.

The beam of wood in your own eye prevents you from accurately seeing the tiny splinter in someone else’s eye.  In short; your sin blinds you and renders you incompetent to make any kind of accurate judgement on another individual.  It’s a lesson from the carpenter’s shop (where Jesus spent much of his life). I find it hard enough to see with just a bit of dust in my eye.  Multiply that obstruction by 1000 and, well – you get the picture.

So then, the answer is we shouldn’t judge?  Not at all.  The answer is when we see someone mess up, we do some self-diagnosis on our own behaviour for that day, or the week, or the month.  Who did you offend?  How did you inflict injury on someone?  Where did you mess up?  Be as severe on yourself as you are on others and the problem will be fixed.  Better still, be even more severe on yourself than you are on others and everyone else will look like an angel.

I think if we followed Jesus’ advice we’d all look at Sonny Bill’s misdemeanour in a more accurate light.  Instead of seeing Hitler reincarnate, we might pat him on the back and say, “That’s OK mate, we do this sort of thing all the time.  We’re just like you.”

Footnote:  For North American readers this incident occurred in a game of Rugby, not Football. There are very tight rules for what you can and cannot do in a tackle.  These guys don’t wear pads.  Shoulder-charges are illegal.  He was clearly wrong as this clip shows.  He was handed a four-week suspension after a judicial hearing.


[1] http://www.stuff.co.nz/sport/rugby/all-blacks/94296806/lions-tour-sonny-bill-williams-brain-snap-joins-all-blacks-hall-of-shame

[2] http://www.stuff.co.nz/sport/rugby/opinion/94049674/mark-reason-a-red-day-for-sonny-bill-williams-and-new-zealand

The Bible: can we trust it? (Part 4)

There are three tests of reliability that are used to establish whether or not an ancient document is reliable.  These are the Bibliographic test, the Internal test, and the External test.  The first test examines the biblical manuscripts, the second test deals with the claims made by the biblical authors, and the third test looks to outside confirmation of the biblical content.

Considerable time was spent in my last post on the bibliographic test, which deals with the early Greek and Hebrew manuscripts.  Now it is time to turn to the internal test.

2. The Internal Test

This test asks the question what claims does the Bible make about itself?  Now this may at first appear to be circular reasoning.  It sounds like we are using the testimony of the Bible to prove that the Bible is true.  But we are really examining the truth claims of the various authors of the Bible and allowing them to speak for themselves.

A number of biblical authors claim that their accounts are primary, not secondary.  They were eyewitnesses of the events they recorded.  For example, John wrote in his Gospel,

“He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows he is telling the truth.” (John 19:35, emphasis added)

Then, in his first epistle, he wrote this,

“What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have observed and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—what we have seen and heard we also declare to you…” (1 John 1:1–3)

The Apostle Peter makes a similar case when he writes in 2 Peter 1:16,

“For we did not follow cleverly contrived myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ; instead, we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”

The independent eyewitness accounts in the New Testament of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ were written by people who were closely associated with Jesus.  Their gospels and epistles reveal their integrity and complete commitment to the truth, and they maintained their testimony even through persecution and martyrdom.

Most of the New Testament was written between A.D. 47 and 70, and all of it was complete before the end of the first century.  There simply was not enough time for myths about Christ to be created and propagated.  And the multitudes of eyewitnesses who were alive when the New Testament books began to be circulated would have challenged anything that even looked like it was made up.

Furthermore, there are details found in the Gospels that give strong evidence for their integrity.  They record the disciples own failures – some of them very serious.  In Matthew 26:56 the disciples desert Jesus at his arrest.  A few verses later we find Peter blatantly denying that he knew Jesus (26:69-75).  In Mark 10:35-45 James and John are strongly rebuked for asking for the top seats alongside Jesus when he comes in his glory.  And when it comes to the resurrection, it is the women who believe, not the disciples.

If these accounts were false or fabricated, you would not likely find such candidness and honesty about the writers own failures.

3. The External Test

Because the Scriptures continually refer to historical events, they are verifiable; their accuracy can be checked by external evidence.

Flavius Josephus

The historicity of Jesus Christ is well-established by early Roman, Greek, and Jewish sources. Flavius Josephus (1st century Jewish historian) made specific references to John the Baptist, Jesus Christ, and James in his Antiquities of the Jews.  He provides many background details about the Herods, the Sadducees and Pharisees, the high priests like Annas and Caiaphas, and the Roman emperors mentioned in the gospels and Acts.

And then there are the archaeological finds.  Time and time again, archaeology has confirmed what the writers of the biblical texts recorded.  As Millar Burrows, former professor of archaeology at Yale wrote:

“On the whole … archaeological work has unquestionably strengthened confidence in the reliability of the Scriptural record. More than one archaeologist has found his respect for the Bible increased by the experience of excavation in Palestine. Archaeology has in many cases refuted the views of modern critics.”

Let me give you an example:  In Acts 17:6-8, Luke uses the Greek word politarches to describe the city officials in the city of Thessalonica. That word didn’t appear in classical Greek literature so for many years, critics accused Luke of making a mistake.  Then archaeologists discovered a first-century arch in the town that used this very term — showing that the term was in use for government officials at the very time Luke was writing.

Gallio Inscription from Delphi, Greece, 52 C.E

Similarly, in Acts 18:12 Luke uses the term proconsul to describe a gentleman called Gallio.  That word didn’t appear either in classical literature so, again, scholars questioned Luke’s accuracy.  Then in the year 1900 an inscription was found at Delphi in Greece, dating to AD 51, using the same term — and amazingly, to describe the very same official, Gallio.   Once again Luke was proven to be a very accurate historian.

Many of the ancient cities in the Bible have been called into question.  One such city was Babylon.  Critics claimed no such city existed.  But in the 1920’s a man by the name of Robert Koldewey discovered the ancient ruins in modern-day Iraq.  King Nebuchadnezzar was considered completely factitious, that is until hundreds of inscriptions bearing his name were unearthed.  Again, the critics were silenced.

Robert Koldewey standing next to his excavation of the ancient city of Babylon in modern-day Iraq

Abraham is a name that dominates the narrative of the Bible – particularly in the Old Testament. He is held in the highest esteem by Christians, Muslims and Jews.  But did he really exist?  The Bible says he came from Ur of the Chaldees.  But did Ur really exist?  Critics claim since neither Abraham or Ur are found in any ancient records, they are a myth.

That claim could never be refuted, until archaeologist Leonard Woolley arrived on the scene.  Between 1922 and 1934, Woolley – together with archaeologists from the University of Philadelphia worked at what was thought to be the site of old Ur in southern Iraq.  After weeks in the back-breaking sun Ur was uncovered.

Sir Leonard Woolley

It is now clear that Ur was a major, highly developed and sophisticated city in southern Mesopotamia.  Ur was a city with a complex system of government and was a centre of commerce that used writing, receipts and contracts in business.

According to the Bible, David ruled in the tenth century B.C., using the traditional chronology.  Until 1993, however, the personal name David had never appeared in the archaeological record, let alone a reference to King David.  That led some scholars to doubt his very existence.  He had merely been created by later Biblical authors and editors.  But in 1993 that all changed with the discovery of the Tel Dan inscription in an excavation led by Avraham Biran.  Written in ninth-century B.C.E. Aramaic, it was part of a victory stele commissioned by a non-Israelite king mentioning his victory over “the king of Israel” and the “House of David.” 

“House of David” Inscription. Discovered 1993

Archaeology has confirmed hundreds of cities described in the Bible such as Arad, Bethel, Capernaum, Chorazin, Dan, Ephesus, Gaza, Hezor, Hezbon, Jericho, and Nineveh and many, many more.  Great discoveries are being made almost monthly today that confirm the truth of the bible and yet we never hear about it on the news or read it in the National Geographic.  When it comes to the historicity of the Bible, there appears to be a double standard – one for ancient texts and artefacts, and another for the Bible.  Yet the evidence is available for all to see, most of it being online.


When we take into account the bibliographic, internal and external tests of the Bible we find that it is far more reliable that the critics give it credit for (in fact, many attribute to it no credit at all).  We find there are VERY good reasons to approach it with an open mind, willing to take what it says as well as weigh its claims seriously.

So why read the bible?  Andy Bannister gives us three very good reasons:

Because from a historian’s perspective, we have good reason to trust it… Because only by reading it can you draw your own conclusions, rather than uncritically swallow somebody else’s second-hand-scepticism… Because through the pages of the four biographies in the New Testament, the gospels, one encounters a historical figure — Jesus of Nazareth — whose powerful personality continues to resonate and impact lives two thousand years on.

Those appear to be very good reasons to me to read this wonderful book.  What you do from here on with this – well, that is  up to you.

(Part 1)  (Part 2)  (Part 3)

The Bible: can we trust it? (Part 3)

In my last post we were looking at the first of the three tests used to determine the reliability of an ancient document: the quantity of manuscripts.  When we apply this test to the Bible, the result is amazing.  The number of New Testaments manuscripts is unparalleled in ancient literature.  The number of Old Testament manuscripts far less.  But what the Old Testament manuscripts lack in quantity, they make up for in quality.  And that is the next test we are going to apply.


  • Quantity of manuscripts
  • Quality of manuscripts
  • Time frame

b) The Quality of Manuscripts

Because the great reverence the Jewish scribes had for the Scriptures, they exercised extreme care in making new copies of the Hebrew Bible.  During the early part of the tenth century (916 A.D.), there was a group of Jews called the Masoretes.  These Jews were meticulous in their copying. The texts they had were all in capital letters, and there was no punctuation or paragraphs.  The Masoretes would copy Isaiah, for example, and when they were through, they would total up the number of letters.  Then they would find the middle letter of the book.  If it was not the same, they made a new copy.  It was very slow and meticulous work.  But this helped preserve the accuracy of the manuscripts.

Now all of the present copies of the Hebrew text which come from this period are in remarkable agreement.  But there was still a huge time gap.  The earliest Hebrew manuscript dates only back to 916 A.D., more than 1500 years after the last book of the Old Testament.  And that put the reliability of the Hebrew text into question.  That was until the discover the Dead Sea Scrolls.  And that changed everything. Rather than me telling the story, I’ll let this video do it for us.

Perhaps the best known of all the scrolls is the Isaiah Scroll from Cave 1.  It is perfectly persevered and contains the entire book of Isaiah.  The 66 chapters of this prophet (who wrote in approximately 700 years B.C.) are copied in a neat and beautiful handwriting.  Professor Horn devotes several pages to a detailed description of the finding and the significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls and concludes:

Its text proves that since the time this copy was written, probably in the second century BC or in the first, the book of Isaiah has not experienced any change… Everyone who has worked with this scroll has been profoundly impressed by the unmistakable fact that this two -thousand-year-old Bible manuscript contains exactly the same text as we possess today.[1]

What about the quality of the New Testament manuscripts?  It is not as good as the Old Testament manuscripts, even though they are newer.  That is because of the vast amount of copies that were made.  What they lack in quality however, they make up for in quantity.  Taking the many thousand of manuscripts, scholars are able to look at all the variant readings and reconstruct what would very likely have been the original in any given passage.

And we are talking about very small variants here – a missing word, having “he” instead of “Jesus”, or words that have been added.  What you need to know is only a small number of these differences affect the sense of the passages, and only a fraction of these have any real consequences.  Furthermore, no variant readings are significant enough to call into question any of the doctrines of the New Testament.  The New Testament can be regarded as 99.5 percent pure.  That’s pretty close!

Let’s compare the numbers on variant readings.  The New Testament contains approximately 20,000 lines, of which 40 lines are in question.  This equals 0.5% (one half of one percent).  The Iliad contains approximately 15,600 lines, of which 764 lines are in question.  This equals five percent.  That’s ten times more variants than the New Testament in a document which is only three-quarters its length.  The sheer number of extant New Testament manuscripts we possess narrows tremendously the margin of doubt on the correct reading of the original documents (known as autographs).

Of the 0.5% of the New Testament variant readings, only one eighth of those amount to anything more than a stylistic difference or misspelling.  Here’s an example of a fairly typical variant reading:

MSS. 1 Jesus Christ is the Savior of the whole worl.
MSS. 2 Christ Jesus is the Savior of the whole world.
MSS. 3 Jesus Christ s the Savior of the whold world.
MSS. 4 Jesus Christ is th Savior of the whle world.
MSS. 5 Jesus Christ is the Savor of the whole wrld.

As you can see, many of these variants involve nothing more than a missing letter in a word, a misspelling, or a reversal of the order of two words (as seen above in #2).  Some may involve the absence of a word; but of all the variants in the NT, it should be noted that only about 50 have any real significance, and that no major Christian doctrine rests upon a disputed reading.

So we’ve considered the quality and quantity of biblical manuscripts, now let’s look at:

C. The Time Span of Manuscripts

Apart from some fragments, the earliest Masoretic manuscript of the Old Testament is dated at A.D. 895 (due to the systematic destruction of worn manuscripts by the Masoretes).  However, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls dating from 200 B.C. to A.D. 68 drastically closed the gap from 1500 to 400 years.

Now the time span of the New Testament manuscripts is exceptional.  The manuscripts written on papyrus came from the second and third centuries A.D.  Papyrus was a reed from the Nile Valley that was glued together much like plywood and then allowed to dry in the sun.  Another material was parchment.  This was made from the skin of sheep and goats and was in wide use until the late Middle Ages.  The Apostle Paul often wrote on parchment (1 Timothy 4:13).

The oldest of all known manuscripts that has survived is the John Rylands Fragment (P52), which was discovered in Egypt in 1936 and is now housed in the John Rylands Library in Manchester University.  It is another amazing story of survival.  This fragment is a small piece of papyrus that contains a few verses of the Gospel of John.  It has been dated by experts to around 130 A.D., only a few years after John’s death.  The 19th and early 20th century critics challenged the traditional date of John’s Gospel, saying it had been written much later – many even questioning whether John actually wrote it.  With the find of P52, those critics have now been silenced.  Take a look at this video clip – it is stunning to behold:

Then we have the Bodmer Papyri , dating back back to A.D. 175-225, which were discovered in Egypt in 1952.  They contain 104 leaves of John and other fragments.  Most of the papyri are kept at the Bibliothec Bodmeriana in Switzerland, outside of Geneva.  In 2007 the Vatican Library acquired Bodmer Papyrus 14-15 (known as P75), and is today kept at the Vatican Library.

Chester Beatty Papyri

And then there’s the Chester Beatty Papyri which dates from about A.D. 250 and contains most of the New Testament.  These papyrus fragments, well-preserved in earthenware jars, were found in an old Christian graveyard near the river Nile about 45 miles south of Cairo.  Dr. Siegfried Horn described it as “the greatest discovery with regard to the New Testament,” adding that the Chester Beatty papyri demonstrates once more that “no change of any significance had ever been made in the Biblical text.” [2]

Then came the find of a lifetime, the Codex Sinaiticus, which was discovered in St. Catharine’s monastery near the foot of Mt Sinai in 1859 by a German scholar, Konstantin Tischendorf.  It’s a fascinating story – one well worth reading if you get the time.  I’ll tell it briefly here.  Tischendorf had heard that St Catharine’s held the largest collection of ancient biblical manuscripts in the world and had visited the monastery on two occasions.

Monastery of St Catharine, Egypt, Sinai

On one of these visits, he had discovered a large basket full of old parchments in the middle of the monastery’s great hall and had been told two piles of old documents like them had already been burnt.  Horrified, he salvaged what he could and took home with him several pages that turned out to be parts of the Old Testament!  On his third visit in 1859, he discovered in the monaster library a large, bound manuscript that proved to be the remains in Greek of the entire Bible as we have it today.

Codex Sinaiticus

This manuscript dates back to 330-350 A.D.  It narrowed the gap between the last of the apostles and the earliest complete manuscript of the New Testament to less than 250 years and demonstrated beyond all doubt the differences between the bible we have today and the bible as it existed around 350 A.D. are marginal if not insignificant.  David Marshall says,

Thanks to the Codex Sinaiticus we can say with assurance that in the New Testament of our twentieth-century Bibles we have to all intents and purposes the gospels, books, and letters as set down by their first-century authors.

In summary:  Applying the bibliographic test we find that the Old and New Testaments enjoy far greater manuscript attestation in terms of quantity, quality, and time span than any other ancient documents.  Sir Frederic Kenyon, British palaeographer and classical scholar, after researching all the available evidence, reached this conclusion:

The Christian can take the whole Bible in his hand and say without fear or hesitation that he holds in it the true word of God, handed down without essential loss from generation to generation throughout the centuries.

We still have two other tests to conduct – the Internal test and the External test.  But that’s for next time.

[1] Siegfried H Horn, Light From the Dust Heaps, Review and Herald, 1955, pp 79-80

[2] Horn, op cit, pp.89-90

(Part 1)  (Part 2)  (Part 4

Keep Looking

Every now and then you come across something that is – well, simply wonderful.  I’ve been in pastoral ministry for many years now.  Over that time I’ve exhorted, encouraged, coaxed and even bribed people to give time to reading, studying and meditating on the Word of God.  I’ve always said, “You can’t rush it.  You must give time to it.  Gems are not mined in 5 minutes.  Nor are wonderful spiritual truths from God’s Word.” 

But it’s hard to get that message through.  Then I found this video from John Piper.  So did another member on my staff team.  We played it during our service a couple of weeks ago, to serve as an incentive to our people to SLOW DOWN in their reading.  Have a look and then I’ll show you how it can work.

Now let me show you example of how this works.  This week I was preparing a message on SERVING.  My text was Mark 10:42-45:

“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in high positions act as tyrants over them. But it is not so among you. On the contrary, whoever wants to become great among you will be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you will be a slave to all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” [CSB]

OK, so greatness in the kingdom of God looks different from greatness in this world.  Great people in this world go to the top and everyone else serves beneath them.  Great people in the Kingdom stay at the bottom and serve those around them.  It’s called servant-leadership.  Jesus modelled it with the greatest act of service: dying on the cross on our behalf.  Now he calls us to live it.

So that wasn’t too hard.  But nor is it that illuminating.  Any disciple of Jesus ought to know this.  Let’s look a little harder.  Something obviously happened to trigger this response from Jesus.  He didn’t just say it out of the blue.  And sure enough, when we read the passage prior to this we find James and John had approached Jesus and asked:

“Teacher, we want you to do whatever we ask you” (10.35)

Now that’s a very naughty question.  When my kids used to come at me with that I would rebuke them and inform them that is manipulation and we don’t do manipulate to get our way in this family.  Well, interestingly enough Jesus is quite gentle with them – more gentle than I was with my children:

“What do you want me to do for you?” he asked them. (10:36)

A shrewd response.  James and John then ask if they could sit on his right and his left when Jesus sets up his kingdom.  They are opportunists.  They are getting in early while the stocks are low and there’s no competition.  Jesus replies by saying,

“You don’t know what you’re asking. Are you able to drink the cup I drink or to be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with” (10:38)

They are asking for positions of prominence.  They want, like so many of us in this world, to be noticed; to be seen.  They love the idea of notoriety and status.  But the path to greatness in God’s kingdom is not status but obscurity, suffering and death.  Death to self-promotion, self-will, self-interest and self-glory.  And in Jesus’ case, death on the cross.  So now Jesus defines what true greatness (which is servanthood) looks like.  It is loving people so deeply you are not only willing to put their interests before you own.  It is dying for them if necessary.  Now we just dove 10 fathoms deeper.

But wait… there’s more.

If we back up three verses earlier we find a scene where Jesus is with his disciples walking along the road.  Now if we were to linger here, and look closer at the details, reading and re-reading these verses we find something interesting:

“They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them. The disciples were astonished, but those who followed him were afraid. Taking the Twelve aside again, he began to tell them the things that would happen to him. “See, we are going up to Jerusalem. The Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death. Then they will hand him over to the Gentiles…” (10:32–33)

Disciples on the road – on a path.  Heading up to Jerusalem.  And Jesus is walking ahead of them.  Not behind them.  Not beside them.  He is leading the way.  The disciples are astonished.  Jerusalem is a hot-spot for trouble.  It’s the home-base for Jesus’ enemies.  He’s heading straight for trouble.  And the disciples, they realize, are heading into trouble with him.  Then Jesus turns and spells it out for them.  “Fellas – I’m going there to die.”  But it goes right over their heads, just as things often go over our heads.

So we need to look harder – and further.  What’s happening on the other side of our passage?  Well let’s have a look:

“They came to Jericho. And as he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a large crowd, Bartimaeus (the son of Timaeus), a blind beggar, was sitting by the road. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many warned him to keep quiet, but he was crying out all the more, “Have mercy on me, Son of David!” Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” So they called the blind man and said to him, “Have courage! Get up; he’s calling for you.” He threw off his coat, jumped up, and came to Jesus. Then Jesus answered him, “What do you want me to do for you?” “Rabboni,” the blind man said to him, “I want to see.” Jesus said to him, “Go, your faith has saved you.” Immediately he could see and began to follow Jesus on the road.” (10:46–52)

OK, so they have just passed through Jericho.  They are still on the way to Jerusalem.  They are back on the road.  Then they come across blind Bartimaeus who is sitting by the road.  Bartimaeus is not on the road.  He’s not part of the travelling band.  He’s not a disciple of Jesus, but he’d like to become one – if only he could see.  When he hears that Jesus is near he cries out to him – using his Messianic title.  He knows Jesus’ true identity.  He has faith in what he can do.

Notice how Jesus answers: “What do you want me to do for you?”  This is the very same answer he gave to James and John when they asked for the best seats in the kingdom (v.36).

Something is going on here.  Mark is trying to show us something.  But what?

The disciples are on the road with Jesus.  The road is leading to suffering and difficulty.  James and John are looking for positions of greatness. They want to be seen.  Bartimaeus isn’t on the road.  He isn’t of the company following Jesus.  But he’d like to be – if only he could see.  Jesus heals him – immediately, supernaturally.  And what happens next?  Bartimaeus begins to follow him… on the road.

So what is Mark trying to show us?  Bartimaeus is a picture of true discipleship.  He shows us what a true follower of Jesus is like.  True followers of Jesus are not ones who seek positions of power and authority.  They are not ones seeking to look great in the eyes of others.  They are people who are broken and damaged and on the side of the road, who call out to Jesus for the restoration and healing that only He can provide.  Then they get on the road and follow him.  After following him for some time, they become like him.  They too become servants, who have servant hearts and ask the servant question, “What do you want me to do for you?”

Now you might be thinking, “I would never see all that.”  Perhaps not all of it, but if you lingered long enough, you might have seen some of it.  All those things can be discovered, simply by the process of observation.  You don’t need a commentary or bible dictionary or some fancy Study Bible or anything else.  You just need to look at the text.  Then you need to look at it more.  You begin asking yourself questions.  Then you look again, but closer.  You come back the next day and look again and then you see something you didn’t see before.  And so the process continues.

So give yourself daily to look and look and look at God’s Word.  Don’t give up or look away until you have seen more of him.  Wonders untold will be unveiled before your very eyes.

Footnote: Much of what I discovered in that text was not used in my sermon.  It didn’t fit the purpose for which my message was heading.  But it certainly changed the way I saw Mark 10:42-45.  And I’ll never “see” Bartimaeus in the same way again.





The Bible: can we trust it? (Part 2)

We turn our thoughts now to the veracity or truthfulness of the Bible.   How can we know that the Bible we have now is the same as the one that was originally written? Isn’t it a translation of a translation of a translation?

When I was at school we played this game called Chinese Whispers.  You sit around in a circle and the first person would whisper something in the ear of the person sitting next to him and it would go around this circle.  By the time it got to the end you’d end up with something so outlandish it was nothing near to what was said in the beginning.  People think the bible works the same way; it’s become so corrupted through the centuries we can never know what was originally written.

Interestingly enough, nobody questions other ancient works we have today such as Plato and Aristotle.  Nobody says, “Are these really the things that Plato actually wrote?”  They only do that with the bible.  There’s a double standard – one standard when it applies to ancient literature and other standard when it applies to the Scriptures.  Yet, as you will see, the Scriptures are more than adequate to handle that criticism.

Let me explain the process of how we got our English bibles today.  There are 4 links in the chain of God’s Word to us:

It all starts with Inspiration.  What exactly is divine inspiration?  The best definition I have found is from Geisler and Nix:

“Inspiration is that mysterious process by which the divine causality worked through the human prophets without destroying their individual personalities and styles to produce divinely authoritative and inerrant writings”[1]

There are two great Scriptures on inspiration.  The first is 2 Timothy 3:16 which says, “All Scripture is inspired [theopneustos – God breathed] by God” and then there is 2 Peter 1:21 which says, “no prophecy ever came by the will of man; instead, men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”

That’s very different from other religious writings such as Quran which is a dictation.  Allah speaks and Mohammed has to write it all down, word-by-word, which is why devoted Muslims have their children learn Arabic so that they can recite it in it’s pure form – any other form would be a corruption.   The Bible isn’t like that.  When Matthew or Mark or Luke wrote their gospels their own writing style and personality comes through, yet the Holy Spirit ensures it’s from God.  When writing to the church in Corinth Paul voices his disappointment in their behaviour; yet everything he says is from God.   That’s how divine inspiration works.

Now look at the last link in the process: Translation.  Translation is the process whereby bible scholars and linguists convert Scripture from the original languages (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek) to another language.  Every English bible today is a direct translation from the original languages.  Not one of them is a translation of a translation.  The difference lies in the technique or approaches the translating committee use – Formal, Dynamic and Optimal equivalence (we’ll get to that later).

OK, so that leaves the two middles links in the chain: Canonization and Transmission.  Canonization describes the process by which the community of God’s people accept certain scriptures as divinely inspired and authoritative.  Transmission describes the ancient process of copying Hebrew and Greek manuscripts to preserve them for future generation and to distribute them for greater use.  Since there were no copy machines, the texts had to be copied by hand.  In this way they were “transmitted.”

Let’s start with the Canon.  The word canon (from the Greek word kanon – meaning rule or standard) is a technical term for the original 66 books of the bible.  From the writings of early church Fathers and historians we can discern at least five principles that were used to determine whether or not a writing was to be included in the canon:

  1. Was the book written by a prophet of God?
  2. Was the writer confirmed by acts of God?
  3. Did the message tell the truth of God?
  4. Does it come with the power of God? If it’s from God, it will have a transforming power in the lives of those who read it.
  5. Was it accepted by the people of God? When a book was received, collected, read and used by the people of God as the Word of God, it was regarded as canonical.  And not all books were immediately accepted.

The book of Esther was in question for example, as it has no mention of God.  Yet the providential hand of God is at work from beginning to end.  The Song of Solomon was questioned due to its sensual flavour.  Jude was questioned for his use of the apocryphal Book of Enoch and 2nd Peter was questioned because of its late appearance history.  Eventually however they were recognized as Scripture by the entire church.

What about the Apocrypha?  The Apocrypha (meaning “hidden”) refers to the fifteen books written between the years 300 B.C. and 100 B.C.  Eleven of these fourteen books are considered Scripture by the Roman Catholic church.  They were later rejected for the following reasons:

  • Nowhere do the books themselves claim to be inspired
  • They are never cited by any other Biblical book
  • They were rejected by Jewish Scribes
  • They contain a number of errors

Then there are the Gnostic gospels – the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Thomas.  The Gospel of Thomas is a text found in the Nag Hammadi collection of Gnostic writings, discovered in Egypt in 1945.  This text, like the Gospel of Judas or the Gospel of Philip, claims to be written by an apostle, but is actually the product of Gnostic teachers who used the fame of the Apostles to give their own writings credibility.  The early church knew of the book and rejected it. Eusebius of Caesarea said it should be “cast aside as absurd and impious.”  Here’s a little sample:

When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and the female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the female female; and when you fashion eyes in place of an eye, and a hand in the place of a hand and a foot in place of a foot and a likeness in place of a likeness; then you will enter [the kingdom].

You don’t have to be a bible scholar to see why that fails the test of canonicity!

You say, “OK – so I understand why the early Church Fathers chose some books and rejected others.  But how did they know that the actual manuscipts they had in their hands were reliable?”  That’s a very good question.  In his book, Introduction in Research in English Literary History, C. Sanders sets forth three tests of reliability that are used to establish whether or not an ancient document (or any document for that matter) is reliable.  These are the Bibliographic test, the Internal test, and the External test.  The first test examines the biblical manuscripts, the second test deals with the claims made by the biblical authors, and the third test looks to outside confirmation of the biblical content.  So let’s take some time here see how the biblical manuscripts stack up.  Firstly,

  1. The Bibliographic Test

Now within the Bibliographic test we are going to look at 3 things – the quantity of the manuscripts, the quality of the manuscripts and the time span. Firstly,

a) The Quantity of Manuscripts

The quantity of New Testament manuscripts is extraordinary.  In fact it’s unparalleled in ancient literature.  There are over 5,000 Greek manuscripts, about 8,000 Latin manuscripts, and another 1,000 manuscripts in other languages (Syriac, Coptic, etc.).  In addition to this extraordinary number, there are tens of thousands of citations of New Testament passages by the early church fathers.  In contrast, the typical number of existing manuscript copies for any of the works of the Greek and Latin authors, such as Plato, Aristotle, Caesar, or Tacitus, ranges from one to 20.

Take a look at the above chart.  You can see Homer’s Iliad has the largest number of manuscripts, but none of them can be dated.  The History of Herodotus was written in 425 B.C. but the earliest manuscript found dates to A.D. 900 – a whopping 1300 years later.  And there are only 8 of them.   The writings of Tacitus were written in A.D. 100 with the earliest manuscript dating at A.D. 900 – 800 years later.  And there are 20 copies.  But look at the New Testament.  Written between A.D. 35-100, the earliest manuscript dating as far back as A.D. 125  and there are 5,735 copies that have been discovered.  But you are not likely to see that in the National Geographic!

You say, “Well what about the OT?”  There are only a small number of Hebrew manuscripts available.  But there’s a reason for that.  Many ancient manuscripts were also lost or destroyed during Israel’s turbulent history.  Also, the Old Testament text was standardized by the Masoretic Jews by the sixth century A.D., and all manuscripts that deviated from the Masoretic Text were evidently eliminated.  But the existing Hebrew manuscripts are supplemented by the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Septuagint (a third-century B.C. Greek translation of the Old Testament), the Samaritan Pentateuch, and the Targums (ancient paraphrases of the Old Testament), as well as the Talmud (teachings and commentaries related to the Hebrew Scriptures).

But quantity of manuscripts alone doesn’t always give us an accurate indication of how reliable a given document might be.  We also need to look at the quality of manuscripts.

But that’s for my next post.

[1] Geisler, N. L., & Nix, W. E. (1986). A General Introduction to the Bible (Rev. and expanded., p. 39). Chicago: Moody Press.

(Part 1)  (Part 3)  (Part 4

The Bible: can we trust it?

The general perception of the public is the Bible has been discredited by modern science and historical scholarship and is no more than a book of myths and legends.  It is full of errors and contradictions and teaches that the earth is flat.  Furthermore, the books of the New Testament were written centuries after the events they describe.  So how on earth could they be accurate?

These are the statements that you often here from critics and sceptics of the Christian faith.  Usually they have obtained their information second-hand or even third-hand and not from original sources.  They are things people have either read or heard and they have taken it as fact.  A good way to respond is to say, “That’s very interesting.  Do you mind if I ask where heard that information?” or “Would you mind elaborating on those errors and contradictions.  I’d be interested to look into that.”  Seldom will you get a clear answer, and it can become a good opportunity for a discussion.

For example, one of the arguments against the Bible is that is wasn’t put together until the 4th century when the emperor Constantine feigned conversion, and, chairing the Council of Nicaea, completed the paganization of Christianity and fixed the 66 books of the Bible (which he altered), thereby solidifying his power base.  This conspiracy theory was popularized in Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code.”  The truth is Christianity by that time had gained so much momentum it was unstoppable and Constantine merely joined the side he knew wouldn’t lose.  And as with regard to the canon, in the second century there was a false teacher by the name of Montanus who claimed he had received divine revelation from God and wanted to be recognized as such.  The early Church Fathers (or Apostolic Fathers) realized they needed to make clear what was Scripture and what wasn’t and formed the Muratorian Canon.  A fragment of this was discovered in the Ambrosian Library in northern Italy in 1740 and dates back to 190 A.D.  It is nearly identical to the New Testament we have today.  By the time of the Council of Nicaea (325 AD), the matter of the NT canon was already settled – the only debate was the book of Hebrews and Revelation (due to question of authorship).

Another false claim is the Bible teaches that the earth is flat and it was not until Christopher Columbus’ historic journey to the “New World” that the Church became forced to accept this as fact and do away with its false belief.  The idea that Christians believed in a flat Earth has been taught in school textbooks, short films, and is believed by many even today.  The truth is it was one or two random people who claimed to represent the church held to a view that the earth was flat.  Most of these were ignored by the Church, yet somehow their writings made it into early history books as being the “official Christian viewpoint.”

The list goes on.  No matter how quickly these false notions are dealt with another one seems to flare up.  J.I. Packer wrote,

“If I were the devil, one of my first aims would be to stop folk from digging into the Bible.… I should do all I could to surround it with the spiritual equivalent of pits, thorns, hedges, and man traps to frighten people off.”

I think the Devil has done a pretty good job at that over the years.  He doesn’t want people getting too near it.  He knows all too well what might result!

Last Sunday I put forth a case for the veracity, truthfulness and trustworthiness of the bible at our church.  I told our people the Bible they hold in their hands is historically reliable, scientifically viable and apart from a few very minor variations in the early Hebrew and Greek manuscripts, is 100% accurate.  It was a lot of information so I’ll split it over two or three posts.

Firstly – the uniqueness of the Bible.

The Bible is not actually a book, but a collection of books written in 3 different languages by over 40 different authors who lived on 3 different continents over a time span of about 1500 years.  It is written in a variety of different literary genres – history, poetry, biography, prophecy, and prose and yet contains one central, unifying theme: God’s plan of salvation for mankind.

Have a think about that.  Imagine questioning forty different people on their religious views: people from every socio-economic background in nearly every walk of life (kings and paupers, statesmen and fishermen, poets and physicians), on three separate continents (Asia, Africa, and Europe), in three different languages (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek), using a variety of literary forms (poetry, history, civil and criminal law, ethics, biography, prophecy, and personal correspondence), spanning a period of over 1,500 years – and then asking them to write down their thoughts about God, the history of mankind and how everything is going to end up and what do you suppose would be the result?  They’d never agree.  Yet all the books of the bible harmonize – perfectly.  That’s remarkable.

There are more copies of the biblical manuscripts than there are for any of the classics like Plato, Aristotle and Socrates.  F.F. Bruce, an acclaimed bible scholar says, “There is no body of ancient literature in the world which enjoys such a wealth of good textual attestation as the New Testament.”

 Around 2,500 prophecies appear in the pages of the Bible, about 2,000 of which already have been fulfilled to the letter—with no errors.  The remaining 500 concern the future.

The Bible has stood the test of time.  It has been, and continues to be, the bestselling book of all time.  Publishers won’t readily admit that.  They avoid putting it on their lists with the excuse that sales numbers for these books are nearly impossible to track because many are given away by churches or governments(!).  The Bible is also the world’s most illegal book, having been banned in more than 50 countries.

The French philosopher Voltaire once said, “A hundred years you will never hear of it.  Possibly you might see a copy in a museum, but otherwise it will be gone.  It is a thoroughly discredited book.”[1]  A hundred years later, the house in Paris where these words were spoken, became the property of the Bible Society and was the centre of distribution of Bibles around the world.

The Bible has been a huge influence in Western civilization.  It has impacted art, literature, music, ethics and social reforms and humanitarian endeavours.  Our dating system and world calendar stems from the Bible.  The English common law, the Bill of Rights, the Magna Carta are all rooted in the 10 Commandments of the Bible.  Isaac Newton, English mathematician and scientist: “We account the Scriptures of God to be the most sublime philosophy. I find more sure marks of authenticity in the Bible than in any profane history whatsoever.”

When we pick up a Bible, we are holding in our hand a book that has outlasted repeated attempts to destroy it by force or by argument for more than 2000 years.  Yet it has survived unscathed.

The following quote is from Robert Chapman. I think you will find it great reading:

This book contains the mind of God, the state of man, the way of salvation, the doom of sinners, and the happiness of believers. Its doctrines are holy, its precepts binding, its histories are true and its decisions are immutable. Read it to be wise, believe it to be safe, and practice it to be holy. It contains light to direct you, food to support you, and comfort to cheer you. It is the traveller’s map, the pilgrim’s staff, the pilot’s compass, the soldier’s sword, and the Christian’s charter. Here paradise is restored, heaven opened, and the gates of hell disclosed. Christ is its grand subject, our good its design, and the glory of God its end. It should fill the memory, test the heart, and guide the feet. Read it slowly, frequently, prayerfully. It is a mine of wealth, a paradise of glory and a river of pleasure. It is given you in life, it will be opened at the judgment, and be remembered forever. It involves the highest responsibility, rewards the greatest labour and condemns all who will trifle with its sacred contents.[2]

In my next post we’ll be looking at the reliability of the biblical manuscripts and how we can know they are a trustworthy and accurate copy of what was originally written.

Note: If you would like to listen to the message you can find it here.  You might find the powerpoint for the sermon useful while listening.  You can view it on our church facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fgracechurchrichmond%2Fvideos%2F1338452696270883%2F&show_text=0&width=560


[1]   Cited in RT Kendall, The Word of the Lord, Marshall Pickering, 1986, p.48

[2] This quotation, widely reprinted, has been attributed to Robert Cleaver Chapman (1803–1902).

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