Abraham – the friend of God

Abraham is the only person in the Old Testament who is called the friend of God[1].  The Lord used to speak to Moses as a man speaks to his friend (Exodus 33:11).  But Moses is never called God’s friend.  So what sets Abraham apart from the rest of God’s servants?

That’s what I wanted to find out.  The answer came from an unsuspecting text in the book of James.

“Wasn’t Abraham our father justified by works in offering Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was active together with his works, and by works, faith was made complete, and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness, and he was called God’s friend.” (James 2:21–23, emphasis added)

James is giving an argument for the case that there is no such thing as a faith that is devoid of works.  True faith – if it is of the saving kind, produces something.  It causes somethingHe then gives the example of Abraham offering up Isaac, quoting Genesis 15:6.  And James adds, “and he was called God’s friend.”

 Now why did James insert that?  What does that have to do with anything?  It is not at all related to his argument about faith and works.

Or is it?

Let’s have a think about this. Where do we find Abraham offering up Isaac?  In Genesis chapter 22.  If you are unfamiliar with the story you might get a little lost so let fill you in.  God calls a man called Abraham from his country and makes a covenant with him and says to him, “Abraham, leave your home and go to the land that I show you.  I’m going to bless you, I’m going to make you a great nation and all the peoples of the world are going to be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:1-3).  And Abraham believed.  He took God at his Word.  And he obeyed.

Abraham’s faith is then tested in progressive stages.  Each time he is tested, his faith grows.  But now here comes the biggest test: God asks him to offer up his son Isaac.  You can imagine Abraham’s response: “What – you want me to offer up Isaac – my only son?  You want me to sacrifice him?”

Isaac is the son of promise.  That means Isaac is the only means by which the promises God made to Abraham (and by extension to us) can be fulfilled.  If Isaac dies without children, there is no hope for the rest of humanity because it is through Isaac that the Messiah would come.

But that’s not James’ focus.  Why was he called God’s friend?  Because of what his faith accomplished.  Because of what his faith proved.  God had already pronounced Abraham righteous by his faith (Genesis 15:6).  But now, under the severest test, how will that faith stand?  God is asking,

“Is your faith real Abraham? Do you really trust me?  Are you willing to obey me, even when it makes no sense?  Do you believe I will keep my word that Isaac is the one through whom the promises will come?” 

And Abraham says, “Yes God, I do”

Hebrews chapter 11 fills in the gaps for it says, “He considered God to be able even to raise someone from the dead.” (Hebrews 11:19).  And so there he is with knife upraised, his love for God driving him to surrender even that which is most precious to him; God intervenes and says, “Stop, you don’t have to.”  This is why, based on this supreme act of love and obedience, Abraham is called God’s friend.

Proving we are God’s friends

So what does all that have to do with us?  Much indeed!  For in John 15 Jesus said this to his disciples:

“You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:14–15)

Just as Abraham proved his trust in God was real by obeying God’s command in the most difficult of tasks, namely sacrificing his only son (which, by the way, he didn’t have to do but God later would with his own son), so we too prove our trust in Jesus when obey his commands.

  • Jesus commands us to forgive those that sin against us.  Someone does something that hurts you; they sin against you.  You say, “Jesus, this person has wounded me and deeply hurt me.  I don’t want to forgive them.  But because you showed how much you love me by laying down your life for me, then I’ll do it Jesus – I will forgive.”
  •  The Bible commands us to abstain from sexual sin.  You are attracted to someone of the opposite sex (or for that matter, someone of the same sex).  Maybe you’re already in a relationship – one that might not be pleasing to God.  You’re doing stuff you know you shouldn’t.  If Jesus was telling you to stop, would you?  This is where it gets real doesn’t it?  This is when our faith gets tested.  So, what do you do?  You say, “Lord Jesus, I’m having difficulty here.  I’m finding this hard.  I have desires which I’m finding difficult to control.  But because you’re asking me to do this, I will.  Because you Jesus, mean more to me than anything.”
  •  Jesus commands you to take the good news to the lost.  You say, “I’m no good at that. I find that too hard.”  Well guess what?  I find it hard also.  But my response is, “Because of my love for you Jesus; because you’re my friend, and because you did the hard thing for me, the least I can do is do this for you.  I’ll go and I’ll tell people about you.”

 So let me ask you now in closing, would Jesus call you his friend?  Do you demonstrate self-sacrificial love toward others, not just those closest to you – not just your friends, but those different from you?  Does he see you obeying his commands – willingly, gladly out of love for him?  Does he see fruit in your life – things that give evidence that you truly do belong to him and his Spirit lives in you?

You may able to say without hesitation, “Yes, I know I am a friend of Jesus.  I don’t obey him perfectly, but I do obey.  I know he died for me on that cross.  His love for me has changed me.  So yes, I can say he is my friend.”

Perhaps you aren’t able to say that.  You’re not there yet.  Or you thought you were there, but after reading this, you know you’re not.  Your life does not give evidence that you are Jesus’ friend.  There are too many inconsistencies.

Do you want to change that?  You can.  But you’ve first got to come clean with him.  You need to get honest with him.  And you need to be willing to turn from things you know are wrong and allow him to come into your life as Saviour and King and change your heart so that you can do what is right.

Then you, like Abraham, could be called a friend of God.

[1] 2 Chronicles 20:7, Isaiah 41:8


The Friends of Jesus

During High School friends were very important to me.  I formed a tight friendship with five other guys.  We did everything together.  They were my family – my life.  Then we started going our separate ways.  Some left for jobs.  Others moved in with their girl-friends.  The tight five were a tight four, then three, then two and then only one.  One individual – after all those years, that I could still call my friend.

People can be fickle, can’t they.  They call you a friend.  They give you the impression that they value you – that you really matter to them.  But over time you find out that is not really the case.  You’re just a commodity.  You just happened to useful to them for a time, until a better option turns up.

Friendship with Jesus isn’t anything like that (thankfully!)  It is far deeper, more meaningful and more binding.  In John 15 Jesus says this:

“I do not call you servants anymore, because a servant doesn’t know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have heard from my Father.” (John 15:15)

I do not call you servants anymore…. I have called you my friends.  Those are the stunning statements that every believer in Jesus needs to hear.  The One who is Lord over the entire universe is calling his disciples, and by extension, all believers everywhere, HIS FRIENDS.  He gives to them intimate knowledge of his Father’s will – his plans and purposes behind what he does – things that mere servants would never have access to.

This is great news for all Jesus followers, if it wasn’t for the verses that precede this:

“No one has greater love than this: to lay down his life for his friends.  You are my friends IF you do whatever I command you” (John 15:13-14, emphasis added)

The problem is that little word “if.”  It’s a problem because it looks like Jesus is saying, “If you do what I command, then you will be my friend and the laying down of my life will count for you.”  Is that what Jesus means?  Do what Jesus commands and you qualify to be his friend and then his death on the cross will be true for you?  If that is what Jesus means, then I’m in trouble. Because I don’t do what he commands – at least consistently.  I don’t love my wife as I should, I don’t love my kids as I should, nor do I love the people in my church as I should.  I’m often anxious (when Jesus says I shouldn’t be) and I get angry and frustrated with people when they don’t do what I want and on and on it goes.  Clearly, I do not qualify to be Jesus’ friend.  So what are we going to do here?

What we need to understand is there is more than one kind of “if” in the bible.

  1. There is a kind of “if” or condition that is a CAUSE that precedes and brings about an effect.  Let me give you an example.  When I say, “If you come to come to my house tonight, then I will serve you coffee.”  My serving you coffee is dependent on you first coming to my house.  If you don’t come, I won’t serve you coffee.
  2. There is however, another kind of “if” or condition that is an EFFECT or RESULT that follows and confirms the cause.  I’ll give you an example of that: “If, as a result of reading this you understand this passage, then I have explained it to you clearly.”  So, your understanding of this text is the result of my clear explanation.

Now let’s apply this second meaning to our text.  If would read like this – “If you do what Jesus commands, then you confirm that you are his friend and the laying down of his life is true for you.  It has bought you; it has changed you.”  You say, “Well it has to be the second one.”  Why do you say that?  You say that because you know that is what the gospel teaches.  Being in a right relationship with God (or being Jesus’ friend) is not caused by my obedience (that would be heresy), but rather his laying down of his life reveals his love for me in such a way that it changes me so that I want to obey. And we could go to many other texts in the New Testament that would confirm this.

But we need to remember that the disciples didn’t have a New Testament.  All they had were these words of Jesus.  So, my question is: what do we find here in this text that might confirm the “if” clause in verse 14 – “you are my friends if you do what I command you,” has the second meaning and not the first.  Have a look at verse 9.

“As the Father has loved me, I have also loved you. Remain in my love.” (John 15:9)

As the Father has loved me, I have also loved youHave loved – what tense is that in?  That’s in the past tense.  And then Jesus says, “Remain in my love.”  You can’t remain in something unless you are already there.  Jesus loved them prior to any acts of obedience.  We see it also in verse 12:

“This is my command: Love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12, emphasis added)

So we know now that the first “if” condition above cannot work.  Obeying Jesus cannot be the cause of our friendship with Jesus because Jesus tells us in verse 9 and verse 12 we are to love one another, “as I have loved you.”  Jesus is saying, “I loved you with a great love – I laid down my life for you, and this has produced a change in you so you want to obey my commands and this obedience confirms that you are in fact my friend.”

Do you see now how important that we read the bible carefully?  Do you see how important every single word is and what is meant by those words?  It can be the difference between a false gospel (salvation by my efforts) and the true gospel (salvation by God’s empowering grace).

I’m so glad my friendship with Jesus is not dependent on my obedience.  I’m so glad that he loved me before I ever loved him.  I’m so glad that this love drove him to lay down his life for me so that I could be forgiven of my sin and be reconciled to God.  Such love has affected me deeply – so deep in fact, that I am more than willing to offer my life in service and obedience to him.

Note: I am indebted to John Piper for helping me understand this more clearly.  While preparing to preach on this passage I came across his “Look by the Book” blackboard study on this text.  It was truly a revelation from heaven.  You can view the video here.


If you would like to hear the message I preached on this text, you can find it on the Grace Church sermon audio page here







A branch on the vine

John 15 is one of those chapters I come back to again and again.  Each time I read it something fresh and new appears that I hadn’t noticed before.  Most of us are familiar with the passage.  Jesus takes an example of everyday life: a vine with its branches, leaves and fruit and uses it to teach his disciples the importance of remaining or abiding in him.

I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. Every branch in me that does not produce fruit he removes, and he prunes every branch that produces fruit so that it will produce more fruit. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I in you. Just as a branch is unable to produce fruit by itself unless it remains on the vine, neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me and I in him produces much fruit, because you can do nothing without me.” (John 15:1–5, CSB)

We need to stay closely connected to Jesus.  That’s the point.  We need the life of Jesus, pulsating in and through us, just as the life of the vine pulsates through the branches, to enable us to bear fruit and be the people God intended us to be.  If we don’t, we will fail again and again.

The Christian life is not me doing my best for Jesus.  It is Jesus doing his best in and through me.  Apart from him I can do nothing.

So far so good.  I get that.  Then comes the next part.  The Father, says Jesus, is the gardener (or vinedresser).  His role is to prune the vine.  Notice however, which branches he prunes.  It’s not the barren ones.  It’s the ones that are producing fruit.

That was something I hadn’t really noticed before.  And it got me thinking… hard.  If I’m on the vine – if I truly belong to Jesus, then I’m going to be pruned – regularly.  And if I’m not pruned regularly, something is wrong.

So, let’s think about how this works.  I’m no expert in the area of viticulture, in fact, the joke in our house is I’m a real nog when it comes to anything to do with gardening.  I have two gardening instruments in my tool-shed, a chainsaw and a big pair of loppers and I’m dangerous whenever I get hold of either of them.  My wife tells people we make a great gardening team – I destroy things and she rebuilds.

OK, so I’m no gardener but I did some reading on this.  There are actually several stages when it comes to pruning a grapevine:

  • There is what’s called pinching – that’s when you remove the little tips at the end of the branch so it won’t grow too rapidly
  • Then there’s topping, when a foot or two of new growth is removed to prevent the loss of an entire shoot
  • Then there is thinning where you remove entire grape clusters so the rest of the branch can bear more fruit as well as better quality fruit
  • And then there is cutting away of suckers to give more nourishment to the whole plant

And all of this pruning doesn’t happen all at once, but in stages.  Now I’ve watched someone prune a grapevine we had once, and I tell you, I got a real shock.  It was brutal.  He didn’t just snip off a little leaf here and there.  He chopped off entire branches.  But he knew what he was doing.  He knew what was necessary in order for my plant to grow healthy, juicy fruit.

The same is true for the Christian life.  God knows what is best for us.  He knows what to cut away.  Sometimes God prunes because there is sin in our lives.  Sometimes there is a relationship that needs restoring that we have been ignoring.  Sometimes it might be because there is fruit in our lives, but God wants us to bear more.  So, he picks up the knife and he begins cutting.

Now I think I can speak personally here.  I don’t mind sharing something of God’s work in this area in my life.  The most recent “pruning” I have experienced would be my son’s motorcycle accident.  But that’s still going on.  I have no idea of what God wanted to accomplish with all that.  I know I have a lot more understanding of what it’s like for people to go through trauma or loss.  I don’t know what the Father is up to, but he does.

Sometimes it’s only by looking back, years afterwards that we see what he was doing – like my first year of marriage.  When Francelle and I got engaged, we were the postcard couple.  The day we announced it at church a bunch of our friends made this huge placard and held it up and hooted and whistled and made a huge scene.  How I passed any papers at Seminary that semester I have no idea; I walked around half the time in a daze.  We were both utterly smitten.  We got back from the honeymoon and the whole thing crashed.  It was like, this is not the same person I married?  Someone has done a dirty and made a swap.  I was expecting lovely evenings gazing at each other across the table and instead I got plates thrown at me.  NOBODY told me about that in the premarital counselling!

What we had there was two very determined, headstrong, independent people trying to forge out a new life together.  There was pride and stubbornness and pig-headedness (more on my side than hers) that needed to be named, exposed and repented of.  Fruits of love and patience and kindness needed to grow in its place.  

 Snip, snip, snip.  The Father was very carefully, wisely and lovingly tending to his vine.

Perhaps you are experiencing a season of pruning in your life right now.  It might be relational conflict like it was with me in my first year of marriage.  Or you’re experiencing financial difficulty – you’re finding it hard to make ends meet week to week.  Or you are having to watch someone you love suffer.  That is almost as hard as going through it yourself.  It doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong.  It doesn’t mean you’re being punished or that you’re not performing in your Christian life to the extent God wants you to.  You’re being pruned – that’s all.  You’re part of the vine and God’s vine gets regularly pruned.

During a very difficult season in my life I was handed a little hard-covered book called Streams in the Desert, by L.B. Cowman.  Inspired by her experience as a missionary to Japan and China, it is filled with spiritual riches of God’s provision and purpose for our lives, particularly during seasons of suffering.

I’ll leave you with an excerpt from February 19:

A CHILD of God was dazed by the variety of afflictions which seemed to make her their target. Walking past a vineyard in the rich autumnal glow she noticed the untrimmed appearance and the luxuriant wealth of leaves on the vines, that the ground was given over to a tangle of weeds and grass, and that the whole place looked utterly uncared for; and as she pondered, the Heavenly Gardener whispered so precious a message that she would fain pass it on:

“My dear child, are you wondering at the sequence of trials in your life? Behold that vineyard and learn of it. The gardener ceases to prune, to trim, to harrow, or to pluck the ripe fruit only when he expects nothing more from the vine during that season. It is left to itself, because the season of fruit is past and further effort for the present would yield no profit. Comparative uselessness is the condition of freedom from suffering. Do you then wish me to cease pruning your life? Shall I leave you alone?”

The comforted heart cried, “No!”

It is the branch that bears the fruit,
That feels the knife,
To prune it for a larger growth,
A fuller life.

Though every budding twig be lopped,
And every grace
Of swaying tendril, springing leaf,
Be lost a space.

O thou whose life of joy seems reft,
Of beauty shorn;
Whose aspirations lie in dust,
All bruised and torn,

Rejoice, tho’ each desire, each dream,
Each hope of thine
Shall fall and fade; it is the hand
Of Love Divine

That holds the knife, that cuts and breaks
With tenderest touch,
That thou, whose life has borne some fruit
May’st now bear much.

—Annie Johnson Flint.[1]

[1] Cowman, L. B. (1925). Streams in the Desert (pp. 56–57). Los Angeles, CA: The Oriental Missionary Society.

Note: this post is based on a message I preached at our Church called “The True Vine.”  You can listen to it on our website here.

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