To the Glory of God, Helping People Walk with Jesus in Faith, HOPE . . .

(This is part five in a series based on the tagline of our church: “To the Glory of God, Helping PeopleWalk with Jesus in Faith, Hope, and Love”)

We threw out the anchor, but nothing changed. At the age of thirteen it was my first year as a sailor in an old wooden sailboat which we bought with everything needed including an anchor. Except that it wasn’t really an anchor. More of a tin of beans filled with concrete and a hook. We threw it out as a last attempt in too strong a breeze for inexperienced sailors. It didn’t help. Yes, we remembered to tie a rope to it, but it didn’t help. It was not a good anchor.

“We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul . . . ” Hebrews 6:19 (NRSV)

The Bible describes hope in Jesus as a good anchor. But is it? Are there other anchors, or even better anchors, for our souls?

Can science be an anchor for the soul? On the one hand science provides good reason for hope. Having a son with Type 1 diabetes, I am very hopeful that a cure will be found someday. I am also hopeful that the technology will get better while scientists work toward that cure. My hope in both these things won’t be realized without scientists doing their thing! On the other hand, hope in science cannot be an anchor for our souls for at least two reasons.

First, nothing kills hope like what we learn from scientific discovery. Centuries of scientific observation tells us that we will not be alive for very long. Even as we attempt to extend our lives through better medical care, scientists tell us that the universe will not always be life permitting. Ultimately there is no hope for humanity if science is all you can base your hope on.

But more importantly, science cannot tell us everything about everything. Science has its limits. For example, scientists cannot teach us the facts of history. As a scientist, if you knew nothing about airplanes, you could, by observation, figure out how they work. However, you will never know about the many people, engineers, designers, and test pilots for example, who were behind the evolution of the airplane. Scientists can tell us a lot about how things work, but we rely on historians to teach us about the who behind things, the creators throughout history.

Science cannot teach us about things beyond the reach of the telescope, microscope, or any other instrument used to “observe” things. It cannot discover spiritual realities. Going to a scientist to learn about spiritual realities is like going to an auto-mechanic for heart surgery. Sure, the mechanic may know something about the heart, but heart surgery is not her or his expertise. Going to science to learn everything about reality is like buying a house off the internet based only on photos of the outside. There is much that can be learned from those photos, but there is so much more to learn. Science provides too narrow a view. There is so much more that cannot be seen or measured. Science cannot be a good anchor for the soul, for it is far too limited in the truths it can discover.

So religion is the anchor for our souls, right? Well, not so fast. Perhaps I might start my own religion. Let me begin with the promise that you will live forever if you give me $1000. Will you buy in? Why not? You know you will die and I will be $1000 richer! Placing your hope in my made-up religion is unreasonable. Placing our hope in any made-up religion is unreasonable. Every man-made religion, even though it may contain elements of truth, is not going to be reliably true in the things that really matter. The religious leader may point to things the scientist could never discover. But the religious leader may be far from the truth in what he thinks and says. Mere religion cannot be a good anchor for our souls, for it can be unglued from reality.

In what can we anchor our souls if neither religion, nor science, provide good anchors? The question turns out to be not “in what” but “in Whom?” Hope in Jesus Christ provides a good anchor for our souls for it is grounded in realities that science cannot discover, and reality religion cannot reasonably point to.

Hope in Christ is grounded in realities that cannot be observed, and which therefore scientists could never discover through science alone. There is no hope of finding just the right camera or instrument to be able to see God. But God has revealed Himself to us throughout history, to the patriarchs, people, and prophets of Israel, then supremely though Jesus. Through scientific discovery we may infer the presence of a creator, but we cannot discover the truth about the fall of humanity and God’s rescue operation. However, God can reveal it.

No one has ever seen God. But the unique One, who is himself God, is near to the Father’s heart. He has revealed God to us. John 1:18 (NLT)

But how do we know that all this Jesus-talk is not just more made-up religion divorced from reality? Unlike man-made religion, hope in Christ is grounded in realities that have been observed. It is based on real events experienced and observed by real people, many people. For example;

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 (NRSV)

The call to trust in Jesus is not a call to believe what one man claims to be true without providing any evidence for its truthfulness. It is a call to trust what many eyewitnesses were testifying to and willing to die for. It is a call to trust that the New Testament exists for good reason, not because a few people were trying to create a religion that would get them killed, but because so many people were responding to the events around Jesus, including his resurrection. It is a call to trust the reality of God as experienced through His presence as recorded in the Bible. It is a call to study history. There is a long history of God revealing Himself and people experiencing Him.

Our hope in Christ is also a hope that neither science nor religion could provide:

We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain, 20 where Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf, has entered, having become a high priest forever . . . Hebrews 6:19-20 (NRSV)

The talk about a curtain, inner shrine, and high priest relates to Old Testament symbolism around the presence of God. The temple, the “Most Holy Place” within the temple, and priesthood all symbolized God’s desire to be with people, but also the impossibility of a sinful people being able to approach, and so be fully with, a holy God. So there was a sacred space and a whole lot of rigmarole to teach people about holiness and the Holy One. Enter Jesus, who being God the Son, is the only One Who could dwell fully in the presence of the Father. He became our “high priest”, meaning that He is the mediator between ourselves and God. Through His death and resurrection Jesus did what religion could never do. He also did for us what we will never be able to do despite the wonderful advancements being made through science. He reconciled sinful people to a holy God. Neither science, nor religion, can do that.

As a church we are called to help people walk with Jesus in hope. We do that best by living as people of hope, anchoring our hope in Jesus while always being ready to say why:

. . . you must worship Christ as Lord of your life. And if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it. 16 But do this in a gentle and respectful way. 1 Peter 3:15-16 (NLT)

 

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Investigating Jesus. Untampered Evidence.

In objecting to Christianity many people cite a lack of trust that the evidence has been handled well and has not been tampered with. The “telephone game” is raised as an example of how things get changed when passed from one person to another so that you cannot trust the final message to be the same as the original. So how do we know that the Christian message has not changed over time from the original? How can we trust anything we hear about Jesus from the New Testament?

J. Warner Wallace points out that with policing there is a “chain of custody” which exists to ensure evidence is properly documented and protected. There is a paper trail documenting all the people who have ever handled it, with policies and procedures in place, all to ensure that jurors can trust they are indeed presented with the facts. The evidence cannot be tampered with. So can we identify a “chain of custody” with respect to the New Testament and the Christian message? Wallace has done the hard work for us in identifying at least three different “chains” which link the New Testament as we now have it to the original apostles. I will refer you to Wallace’s book, “Cold-Case Christianity” where he treats these with much greater detail, but to summarize:

  • John’s students confirm the accuracy of the Gospels: John taught Ignatius and Polycarp who taught Irenaeus who taught Hippolytus who lived 170-236 AD.
  • Paul’s students confirm the accuracy of the Gospels: Paul taught Linus and Clement of Rome and then we have Evaristus, Alexander 1, Sixtus, Telesphorus, Hyginus,Pius, Justin Martyr and then Tatian.
  • Peter’s students confirmed the accuracy of the Gospels: Peter communicated through Mark who taught Anianus, and then we have Avilius, Kedron, Primus, Justus, Pantaenus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Pamphilus of Caesarea and then Eusebius who lived 263-339 AD.

These “chains” represent three different parts of the Mediterranean world, with John’s chain running through Asian Minor, modern-day Turkey, Paul’s running through Rome, and Peter’s running through Northern Africa. In each of these locations and through time we find the same message consistently communicated with the New Testament works quoted or referred to often. Wallace points out that if we did not even have a New Testament, we could piece together the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in quite a lot of detail just from what these “Church Fathers” tell us.

As I had done a joint-major in Classical Studies I was intrigued by Wallace’s mention in this chapter of Herodotus and Thucydides. These two authors from antiquity, and many others like them, are used by classical historians in piecing together ancient history. Now the historians may or may not agree that Herodotus and Thucydides are accurate in their respective telling of history, but it is important for us to note that historians do not cast much doubt at all upon the fact that they are reading the works of Herodotus and Thucydides. Remarkably, there is no chain of custody to which we can turn to verify that these sources have not been tampered with. We can not refer to the the writings of the students or of the students of the students and so on of either Herodotus or Thucydides. And yet, no one ever brings up the “telephone game” as a reason we should suspect these books as we have them now to be fabrications or distortions of the originals. It seems obvious that many people develop a hyper-scepticism when it comes to the New Testament.

Scepticism is a very good thing. It keeps us from being naive, from believing things we ought not to. Scepticism can keep us from believing false witnesses who are trying to pull the wool over our eyes. However, hyper-scepticism is a bad thing. If all judges and jurors fell into hyper-scepticism, justice would be obstructed and many a guilty person would go free. Evidence would never be trusted as authentic. So why is it that a healthy scepticism with regard to ancient works turns to hyper-scepticism with regard to the ancient works that make up the New Testament? It goes back to Genesis 3 when Satan used his first and best tactic, saying to Eve: “Did God really say?” He continues to inspire a God denying hyper-scepticism in our day.

The apostles knew that God really was speaking into the world through Jesus, his life, death, and resurrection. They, and all their students knew the great importance of handing truth on correctly:

Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand,  through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 (NRSV emphasis mine)

From a historical perspective, there is a wonderful “chain of custody” which gives us confidence that the New Testament and all that is said in it has been preserved well and untampered for us. From a theological perspective, of course there is a chain of evidence. God, having gone to such lengths to love us, would not allow his love to be hidden by layers of deceit. Do you need to read the New Testament with a new appreciation that it is genuine and untampered evidence?

Believe It Or Not, Mary and Joseph, a Baby Is On the Way.

Christmas is an unbelievable time. It’s time for God to intervene in a special way. All along God has been preparing His people for something special, and this something special is on the way in the birth of Someone special. It’s time for God Himself to be incarnate. It’s time for Jesus to be born.

But before this birth something else needs to happen first. Mary and Joseph need to know about it. And this is where things can get tricky. What if they don’t believe it? A virgin conception does not happen everyday after all. What if they don’t want it? Being in on God’s plans. What if they don’t want Him? Jesus, their son, or rather, her son, and you are not going to believe who is really responsible for this preganancy! I imagine the majority of Mary and Joseph’s neighbours and friends didn’t. Joseph himself didn’t believe at first either:

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, . . . Matthew 1:18-20

Though the writer of the Gospel of Matthew states rather matter of factly that this child is from the Holy Spirit, clearly Joseph initially does not think so. He already knows about the pregnancy before an angel explains it to him. If Mary told him about the angel’s explanation, he is not buying it. Mary must be lying. Being a good man he resolves to do, not the right thing, which would be to expose her obvious lack of fidelity publicly, but to do a good thing, breaking the relationship off, letting Mary carry on quietly with her life. An angel intervenes to help Joseph move from disbelief to trust, both trust in Mary, and more importantly, in what God has in store for them.

Mary quickly comes to a place of trust:

(NRSV) Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Luke 1:38

It takes Joseph longer, but he eventually also comes around to a place of trust:

Matthew 1:24-25 (NRSV) When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

If Jesus were born today into our Western civilization, I wonder if a Mary or Joseph would be harder to find. If we were Mary or Joseph, we scientifically informed Westerners might try to explain away the experience. Joseph in the Bible evidently entertained the possibility that Mary was lying. A man today might conclude likewise, but also that the angel appearing to him in a dream was, in reality, more dream than angel. As for Mary, a woman today might entertain the possibility she was drugged and raped with the whole angel thing being an emptionally charged episode. That Joseph’s encounter with an angel mirrored that of Mary’s could be chalked up to the power of suggestion. There is, in our culture, a tendency in matters of faith to go with any possible explanation rather than a supernatural one. Any explanation without God, no matter how ridiculous it might be, is preferred to every explanation that includes God, no matter how good it is. In contrast to our society’s assertion that “nothing supernatural is possible,” Mary believed the angel’s assertion that “nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37)

What if you were Mary or Joseph? Would you trust the supernatural explanation, or would you go with the other possibilities? When it comes to finding truth, do you go with the most reasonable explanation, even if it involves the supernatural, or do you default to the possibilities that discount the supernatural?

The reality and existence of God as revealed in the Bible has great explanatory power for so many questions. Such as:

  • Why is there something rather than nothing?
  • Why does the evidence point to the universe having a beginning?
  • Why does the universe seem to be fine tuned for life in many ways?
  • Why does our solar system and planet seem to be placed “just so” for life?
  • Why do the ecosystems of the world work so well together?
  • Why is there life at all and not just dead matter?
  • How did life come about when even a simple cell is so complex?
  • Why is there mind and intelligence?
  • Why do human beings seem to be set apart from the rest of the animal world in so many ways?
  • Why are there objective moral values?
  • Why do we appreciate beauty?
  • Why is there is a unity and unified story across the Bible when the documents of the Bible were written over hundreds of years by many different writers?
  • Why are the NT documents the way they are?
  • Why was the tomb of Jesus empty?
  • Why were the early disciples changed people ready to die for their claims?
  • Why did Jewish theology develop the way it did into Christian theology, not changing direction, yet going down an unexpected road?

The supernatural explanation, that God the Creator exists, and that Jesus rose from the dead, is able to explain these questions and so many more. But there are those who would never allow for such an explanation. “It is possible that . . . ” becomes the mantra. It is thought that even if we have not found them, there must be other explanations rather than the “God explanation” that explains so much so well.

There are two difficulties to living with such a mantra. First, one’s mind would never be open to the possibility of God. A closed mind is not the best starting place for finding truth. Second, we don’t live that way. It is possible that my chair might fall apart at any moment. Yet here I sit. The possibility of chair failure does not dissuade me from my apparent trust in this chair. Does my wife truly love me, or did she marry me for my money? The latter is possible, the former is more likely and explains so much more besides. And so I trust. Is it possible I exist due to aliens swapping me out for the real Clarke Dixon. Possible, but not a possibility that I am concerned with. You can invoke aliens to cast doubt on anything and everything, especially God. But we don’t live that way. We don’t live with incredulous doubt, we live with sensible trust. As cold case detective, J. Warner Wallace points out, juries make incredibly important decisions based on what is beyond a reasonable doubt, not on what is beyond every possible doubt. If you approach matters of faith the way you approach life, a case can be made that the reality of God and His love is beyond reasonable doubt and can be trusted even in the face of other possible explanations. But if you are not open to a supernatural explanation, or you do not want it to be true, you will always default to other possible explanations. But will they be true? Though Joseph and Mary may have been able to come up with other possible explanations for what they experienced, they knew that this baby was Someone special. Do you?

(All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV)