Disappointing Leaders and Ezekiel 34.

People suffer when bad leaders are in charge. We might feel the pain of disappointing leadership in our workplace, affecting our work, our livelihood, family life, and finances.  Those who are to provide leadership within the family can leave family members scarred for life. This happens too often here in Canada, where we have it easy. Consider the poor leadership around the world, whether it be a tyrannical dictatorship over an entire nation, or an enforcement of archaic man-made rules. The so-called “Islamic State” comes to mind.

What are we to do in the face of bad, and even horrific, leadership? Ezekiel 34 is about leaders and leadership. As we read this chapter, we may think the word “shepherd” refers to the “pastors” of Ezekiel’s day. However, many Ancient Near East societies, including God’s people Israel, spoke of their kings and political leaders as “shepherds.” Therefore we should think of Ezekiel 34 as being about all kinds of leadership, not just “pastors”. With that in mind, let us take a look:

The word of the Lord came to me: 2 Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. 4 You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5 So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. Ezekiel 34:1-5 (NRSV)

The first thing we notice is that God is very disappointed in the leaders. To summarize, the leaders were exploiting people rather than caring for them. Rather than caring for the people; “with force and harshness you have ruled them” (verse 5). Sheep should be fed, not fed-up.

I wonder how many people in being asked to define a “leader” would focus on someone who is a ruler. The Bible never gives us a definition of leadership that would suit an entry in Webster’s Dictionary, but it does give us an analogy. A leader is to be like a shepherd. Any self-indulgent person can be a ruler given enough power. Such rulers are usually a disappointment in the eyes of the people under their care. They are also a disappointment in God’s eyes. It takes a person who has high regard and concern for others to be the kind of leader that pleases God, the kind of leader who can be described as a shepherd.

In the midst of His disappointment, God makes a promise:

Ezekiel 34:11-16 (NRSV) For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. 12 As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them  . . .  I will bring them out . . . I will feed them . . .  I will feed them with good pasture . . . I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down,. . .. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, . . .

God, Himself, will be the shepherd. And He will do this through His servant:

Ezekiel 34:23-24 (NRSV) 23 I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. 24 And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.

While this prophecy includes the restoration of God’s people from exile, the promise is ultimately fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus came to “seek and save the lost” as Jesus tells us in Luke 19:10 (reflecting Ezekiel 34:11,12). Jesus saw the people as scattered without a shepherd, as we are told in Mark 6:34 (reflecting Ezekiel 34:5). Mark also tells us that Jesus made the people lie down on green grass in verse 39, to feed them (reflecting Ezekiel 34:14, and also Psalm 23). In fact all along we see Jesus doing all the things a good shepherd does. And of course we ought to consider Jesus’ teaching in John 10, especially: “I Am the Good Shepherd” in verse 14. Jesus also teaches about leadership in a way that reflects the shepherd leader-as-servant teaching of Ezekiel 34:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26 It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 28 just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. Matthew 20:24-28 (NRSV)

From all this let us look at two practical applications.

The first concerns people who are leading. Anyone who is in a place of leadership, who has any kind of influence over others, is accountable to God. Therefore they would do well to look to God for His leadership on how to be a leader. It is not about ruling. It is about caring. The best example of that is the Good Shepherd Himself.

The second concerns people who are led. All human leadership is unsure and temporary.  There is not a leader in place today who will still be in a place of leadership 100 years from now. Most have less time that that, some much, much less. Disappointing leaders are really disappearing leaders. In contrast, God’s leadership is certain and eternal. God’s leadership is good. This is especially hopeful for those who suffer a lifetime under a terrible regime, or who suffer a whole lifetime because of one bad decision by a leader. There is a much more caring leadership for those who follow the Good Shepherd, now, and into eternity.

So what are we to do in the face of bad, and even horrific leadership? Look to the LORD to take the lead!

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?

Investigating Jesus: Good Witnesses

The case is strong. As lead detective you have uncovered all the evidence and drawn the best conclusions. Eyewitness testimony is a key part of the evidence. But what if the jury members do not trust the witnesses? Why should they believe them? As the investigator you already have confidence in the eyewitnesses because you have already asked the important questions to establish trust.

When it comes to investigating Jesus, why should we trust the eyewitnesses? As we continue the journey of following the lead of cold-case detective J. Warner Wallace let us consider four key questions which Wallace says must be asked about eyewitnesses. Here again, we are only scratching the surface, please see Wallace’s book Cold-Case Christianity, where each question is the topic of an entire chapter. So what four questions are to be asked?

Were the eyewitnesses actually there?

Some who would love to discredit the eyewitnesses and strike their testimony from the investigation will claim that the writings of the New Testament, including the four Gospels were written far too late to contain any valid eyewitness testimony. However, if we can determine that they were written close to the events, then we can have confidence the eyewitnesses would have had the opportunity to review them, or be involved in the writing of them. So are there reasons we should consider the books of the New Testament as being written early? Though not Wallace’s full list, here are a few things to consider:

  • The siege and destruction of Jerusalem including the destruction of the Temple is not mentioned in the works of the New Testament beyond a prophecy of Jesus. There are plenty of times where one would expect such to be mentioned. The simplest explanation for such absence is that these writings predate the Fall of Jerusalem in 70AD, and so while the eyewitnesses of Jesus are still alive.
  • Luke, who wrote the history-focused book of Acts never mentions the deaths of Peter, Paul, or James in the 60’s AD. Since Luke would have been keen to point to their martyrdoms as examples of how they picked up their crosses and followed Jesus, it is reasonable to conclude that Luke wrote Acts before their deaths.
  • As you can tell from his opening words in each, Luke wrote his Gospel before he wrote Acts, and so during the lifetime of the eyewitnesses. It is widely agreed that the Gospel of Mark was written before that of Luke.
  • Paul’s speaks of the eyewitnesses as being still alive to corroborate the testimony in 1st Corinthians 15:6

Can we verify what the eyewitnesses have said in some way?

Is there any corroborating evidence to show that the eyewitness testimony is genuine? Or does the evidence suggest that it is fabricated? Here are some things to consider:

  • Wallace points to the “unintentional eyewitness support” which he encounters in crime cases. These happen one witness unintentionally says something that answers questions that another witness has raised. Wallace gives many examples, but here is one: We might wonder from reading Matthew 4:18-22 why Simon Peter and Andrew simply get up and follow Jesus. We learn from Luke 5:1-11 that Jesus had previously been fishing with them and was the cause of a miraculous catch of fish. Of course they get up and follow when he calls!
  • There is a genuine feel to the testimony with the little discrepancies in the stories which you expect when people remember the same events, but from different perspectives. For an example of how people remember the same things slightly differently, ask someone how long this week’s sermon felt! If every person in church that day answered with 53 minutes and 12 seconds, you you would suspect a collusion and a memorized answer. Genuine witnesses do not need to memorize what they know to be true. Discrepencies are a mark of authenticity.
  • The Gospels were written from different parts of the Roman Empire. However, they all reference names which are appropriate to the location of Palestine in that time. This is an extra piece of evidence that the Gospel writers know what they are talking about.
  • Other writers, both Jewish and non-Jewish make reference to Jesus, and while they are sceptical about the conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead, they do confirm the kinds of things that were being said about Jesus whether they liked it or not.

Have the eyewitnesses changed their story over time?

You don’t want to trust witnesses who change their stories. Did the followers of Jesus say one thing early on, then something quite different later? Some things to consider:

  • The evidence points to the students of the eyewitnesses as being trustworthy in keeping and handing on their testimony. We will look at this next week.
  • Through something called “textual criticism” we can be quite certain about the reliability of the texts which we have. This will be covered two weeks from now.
  • The Jewish people were very good at keeping important records. The Christian Church inherited this passion for integrity in guarding the truth.

To sum this point up, the apostles never changed their tune despite pressure to do so, and the early Christians kept right on playing the same tune.

Do the eyewitnesses have a reason to lie?

Does the evidence suggest that the apostles were simply telling what they knew to be true, or did they have some motive to conspire together in a lie? Consider:

  • Wallace points out that the three key motives for being involved in a crime revolve around money, sex, or power. The apostles did not stand to gain in any of these things, in fact they stood to lose their lives for sticking to their testimony that Jesus was risen.
  • Some would say that we should not even consider the testimony of the apostles, for they had become Christians, and their testimony therefore is biased toward a “Christian slant.” Of course they were biased. They became biased because of what they saw and knew to be true. To not admit their testimony would be like not admitting the testimony of a witness because they were now biased regarding the guilt of the person they saw commit a murder. To quote Wallace from Cold-Case Christianity: “The disciples were not prejudicially biased; they were evidentially certain.”

Jesus called the apostles to fulfil the role of witnesses:

After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. . . . He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  Acts 1:3,7,8 (NRSV emphasis mine)

While we often apply this text to all Christians, we should not lose sight of the fact that Jesus is talking specifically here to the apostles. They were to fulfil the role of witnesses, telling everyone they knew, and everyone they didn’t know, about what they had seen and knew to be true. In the writing of the documents that make up the New Testament, their testimony has been preserved. They are still eyewitnesses down to this day. They are good witnesses, of some very very Good News! What will you do with their testimony?