Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Is John 5 Corrupted With Angel Superstition?

As I continue to read the modern-day commentaries, I become increasingly convinced that our contemporary theologians do more to undermine the Word the God than some of Christianity's worst critics.  Christians should consider the warning of the Old Testament Prophet Jeremiah:  "How do ye say, We are wise, and the law of the Lord is with us?  Lo, certainly in vain made he it; the pen of the scribes is in vain.  The wise men are ashamed, they are dismayed and taken: lo, they have rejected the word of the Lord; and what wisdom is in them?" (Jer. 8:8-9).

When doubt is cast on the validity of any portion of Scripture, then the whole Bible is subject to question.  John 17:17 tells us that God's word is truth; it's all truth or it's not--there's no in between.  From the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith (LBCF), Chapter 1 'Of the Holy Scriptures', paragraph 4:  "The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the author thereof; therefore it is to be received because it is the Word of God."

In the same chapter, Christians are told "that [with] the Word of God dwelling plentifully in all, they may worship Him in an acceptable manner, and through patience and comfort of the Scriptures may have hope," (LBCF, Chapter 1, paragraph 8).

Through the Scriptures Christians have hope.  In 1 Tim. 1:1, Paul tells us that the Lord Jesus Christ is our hope.  Jesus is the Truth, (John 14:6), and He is the Word, (John 1:1).  Therefore, if Jesus is infallible, then the Word of God, or Scripture, must be infallible as well.  It is foundational to Christianity that the Bible is true:  "The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience," (LBCF, Chapter 1, paragraph 1).

Obviously, I'm belaboring the point of the Bible's infallibility for a reason.  This core doctrine came up in reading St. Andrew's Expositional Commentary on John by R.C. Sproul.  In Chapter 12, Dr. Sproul looks at John 5:4 which says:  "For an angel went down at a certain season in the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had."  He then goes on to explain this verse on page 77.  I'm quoting him at length because this excerpt is the prime example of why I continue to push-back against the "science of textual criticism" (bold emphasis is mine):
"This [the angel stirring the water] is the only instance in sacred Scripture where we find any indication that there was a pool in Jerusalem where an angel came periodically, stirred up the water, and gave miraculous healing to the first person who managed to get down into the water.  How are we to understand this strange account?

Let me preface what I'm about to say with some background about the manuscripts of the biblical books.  We don't possess the original manuscripts; they have been lost.  What the church possess are hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of copies that were made in the earliest days.  Through the science of textual criticism, scholars try to reconstruct what was in the original documents.  Thanks to the great number of copies and the precision of textual criticism, we have a high degree of confidence that the biblical manuscripts as we now have them are very close to the originals.  However, occasionally we find manuscripts differing as to what was in the original text, and this is one of those instances--some of the best texts of the Gospel of John do not include verse 4.  Therefore, it's very possible that this statement about an angel stirring up the water and healing the first person who stepped into the pool may have been a textual gloss that reflected more of the superstition of the people than the actual truth of God.

But if the stirring of the water and the healings were not caused by an angel, what was happening?  We know these pools in Jerusalem were occasionally fed by artesian wells.  The wells would start to flow and the pools would be stirred with an influx of water with special characteristics--something like the hot springs people visit even today for therapeutic reasons.  That may have been what was happening at Bethesda, and the people, not knowing the science of artesian wells, simply believed that the stirring of the water was due to the presence of an angel."
First of all, why do we have to understand this account fully in order to accept it?  Could this not be one of the "secret things that belong to unto the Lord our God," (Deut. 29:29)?  Personally, I have no problem believing this account.  The Lord worked miraculous healings all throughout the Old and New Testaments.  It never occurred to me to question the validity of this account until Dr. Sproul decided that verse 4 should not be included in John 5 based on the science of textual criticism.  The Apostle Peter tells us that God's Word abides and endures forever; it cannot be corrupted, (1 Peter 1:23-25).  God is sovereign; if I can't trust Him to preserve His Word, how can I have assurance that He will preserve me until the Day of Judgment?

Instead of believing that the Holy Spirit inspired these words and they are true even though we can't explain the miracle scientifically, Dr. Sproul hypothesizes that the healings were probably caused by artesian wells, but the angel "story" was included because the first century people were scientifically inept and too superstitious to understand the reality of the situation.  This example of scholarly arrogance corrupts the Word of God by subverting its infallibility.  Casting doubt and confusion through pragmatic and reasonable human logic at best keeps Christians "in need of milk, and not of strong meat," (Heb. 5:12), but at worst causes some to "stumble at the word, being disobedient," (1 Peter 2:8).  Clearly, there's no application to disobey in this passage, but where do you draw the line once you start questioning and even dismissing God's Word?

I also find it interesting to note that the Puritan commentators Matthew Poole and Matthew Henry never discount the miracle of the angels stirring the water for healing.  In his commentary on John 5:1-4 Matthew Henry states:  "Now this is all the account we have of this standing miracle; it is uncertain when it began and when it ceased," (Vol. 5, p. 742).  He goes on to discuss some of the conjecture about its beginning and ending, but he does not question the validity of the miracle or its inclusion in Scripture.

Christian scholars will never possess or recreate the original manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments.  But the Bible has not been lost because God has promised that His Word will stand forever, (Isa. 40:8), and it will not pass away, (Matt. 24:35).  The Word of God is quick and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, (Heb. 4:12).

Liberal Christian theologians are known for questioning many orthodox views of Jesus--His deity, His virgin birth, His miracles, His resurrection, etc.  Reformed Christian theologians criticize their liberal counterparts for rejecting the orthodox foundations of Christianity.  But the devil is crafty; he has found a way to infiltrate both sides through the so-called science of textual criticism.  This is a call for Christians to "put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil," (Eph. 6:12).  God has preserved His Word throughout the ages in His church through the Textus Receptus or Received Text, which is available for all Christians to read in the King James Bible.

"O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding profane and vain babblings, and opposition of science falsely so called: Which some professing have erred concerning the faith.  Grace be with thee.  Amen," (1 Timothy 6:20-21).

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Internal Call of God

I've undergone pointed criticism for my "unduly harsh" review of Bible Revival by Kenneth Berding.  After further consideration, I still stand by my original review; I do not recommend this book.

Mr. Berding's book has been lauded for his call to action.  How can calling on everyone to read the Bible not be a good thing?  Obviously, there's really no harm if that were to happen, and daily Bible reading could create a more moral society than what we are seeing in America right now.  BUT, it would be an external change only.  I stated in my review that I believe that all Christians should read their Bible; however, a true Christian should hunger after God's word without prompting.

If you've read many of my posts, you know that I'm quick to cite Romans 10:17 which tells us that faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.  Wouldn't it produce more Christians if more people were reading the Bible?  This is where I make a distinction.  The short answer is -- No, more Bible reading would not convert more people.  People who are saved read the Bible, but not all people who read the Bible are or will be saved.  The author's grandfather was the ultimate example of this.  Mr. Berding related how his grandfather regularly read his Bible and committed verses to memory, but "never came into [a] personal relationship with Jesus Christ," (Kindle location 119).

To say it another way, a Christian is elect of God, and therefore believes.  It's not that a Christian believes, and therefore is elected.  Saving faith is a gift from God.  It's an internal call of the Holy Spirit that produces (1) belief in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ and (2) repentance unto life.

I'm not against a call for more Bible reading.  I'm against the false assurance that if you just read your Bible more, then God will be obligated to do his part in bringing about the work of the Holy Spirit.  Mr. Berding clearly thinks that "Christians" can force the hand of God:
"But is it my conviction that we will never see anything that lasts--that is, we will never see anything worth calling a revival of the Holy Spirit--unless we recommit ourselves to the Bible.  We need a revival of the Bible," (Kindle location 34).
The internal call of God cannot be forced by any work of man; you are either a sheep, or you are a goat.  There is no "book about learning, living, and loving the Bible that would teach and stir the hearts of our people," (Kindle location 44).  That is the role of the Holy Spirit alone.

"When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on his left.  Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world," (Matt. 25:31-34).

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Book Review: Memorial: The Mystery of Mary of Bethany

In Memorial: The Mystery of Mary of Bethany, Dolores Kimball seeks to answer questions about the character of Mary of Bethany and to show "life-changing truths women today will find inspiring and encouraging."  The author concludes the Introduction by noting that "As we look closely at Mary's life, we will find her to be the perfect role model for women today, one whose amazing story deserves to be told and retold, as Jesus said, 'in memory of her.'"  It's important to remember that the Mary of Bethany was an actual person and the account of her life in the Bible is a historical narrative.  Women today can learn from the events recorded in Scripture, but we are not Mary of Bethany, nor will we achieve her status.  I find it very refreshing that Ms. Kimball does not allegorize Mary's life, but she exposes the motivating force behind Mary's action: her strong faith in Jesus Christ.

Mary of Bethany does not have many words attributed to her in the Bible, but her act of anointing Jesus for His burial has given her a prominent role in the Gospels.  It would be easy to place her action above her faith.  To prevent this from happening, the author clearly lays out the biblical relationship between saving faith and works: "Even if we accept that we are saved by faith, and most Christians do accept it, we are still compelled to do something to add to that faith some kind of deeds...But good works are the result of salvation, not the cause of it.  They flow from salvation and are the fruit of it," (Kindle location 138).  The author also clearly identifies the Author of saving faith: "God's work is to give us the gift of faith that justifies us," (Kindle location 150).

This book brings the story of Mary of Bethany to life and highlights the incredible amount of faith that she had in Jesus Christ while He walked on the earth.  While reading this book, I was edified and convicted at the same time.  The author reminds Christians, and especially women, not to become dull and allow the cares of this world to override the desire for the sacred; but to set our minds on things above, (Kindle location 414).  Ms. Kimball also calls out one of the major problems with professing Christians today: "As Christians who possess the gift of eternal life and the presence of God in our hearts, our focus should be more on the Lord who saved us and less on ourselves," (Kindle location 1150).

In trying to show that the "desire for preeminence is a sure destroyer of discernment and wisdom," (Kindle location 911), the author relays a story of a deaconess in her church who tried to claim authority to rule the women of the church in contrast to the absence of pride and ambition in Mary.  (I do not agree with nor endorse the office of deaconess for women in the church.  The office of deacon is clearly laid out in 1 Timothy 3:8-11.  A deacon is the husband of one wife and his wife should be grave; therefore, the role of deacon is to be filled by a man, not a woman.)

It appears that Ms. Kimball did a lot of research for this book, but she does not cite her specific sources for behavioral studies or first century cultural practices.  I appreciate the plethora of Bible verses to support her statements grounded in Scripture.  However, there are times when she speculates about the feelings of Mary and Martha, the motivation of the disciples' response, etc.  The author's speculations are well-thought out and reasonable, nevertheless an assertion made where the Bible is silent is still just human conjecture.  When the Bible remains silent on internal motivation and feelings, Christians must be mindful that while speculation can help our understanding, it is not scriptural and should not be considered equal to or above the authority of the Bible.

One area of concern is the author's view of her speculation.  In the Epilogue, Ms. Kimball says: "Unraveling her [Mary's] mystery required a good deal of reading between the lines and putting seemingly unrelated passages together to come to conclusions that are not at first obvious," (Kindle location 1264).  She continues: "The significance of Martha's entire story struck me like a thunderbolt one evening...I have no doubt that was from God because I would not have come up with it on my own," (Kindle location 1284).  This statement places her book on level with the Bible because she has received direct revelation from God, and therefore, what she has written cannot be questioned.  This is a very dangerous stance to take on any book outside the Bible and does not show true humility of the author.

One area of confusion is the author's statement near the end of her book: "Faith is resting in the nail-scarred hands of Jesus...No longer are we burdened by the requirements of the law, not even those requirements we put upon ourselves or those put upon by others...we weary ourselves with the do's and don'ts of the Christian life," (Kindle location 1247).  This antinomian statement is confusing and contradicts not only the what the author has written, but also Scripture.  The author herself tells us (as noted above) that good works are a fruit of salvation.  Christians are not under the law in regards to salvation because Jesus Christ accomplished that for us, but the Apostle John says that Christians who know Jesus keep His commandments, (1 John 2:3-4).  James also tells us that faith without works is dead, (James 2:17).  It is unclear what "requirements of the law" the author is referring to and how that biblically contradicts resting in Christ for saving faith.  "Good works, done in obedience to God's commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith," (1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith (LBCF) Chapter 16, paragraph 2; [emphasis mine]).

Overall, I recommend reading Memorial: The Mystery of Mary of Bethany with the caveat that the author has included her own embellishments into the scriptural text that may or may not be true.  Mary of Bethany stands out in Scripture because of her faith.  At times faith may be weakened, but it gets the victory, growing up in the full assurance of Christ, who is both the Author and Finisher of faith, (LBCF Chap. 14, para. 3).

Full Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Spurgeon on Cremation

In preparation for my next book review, I'm reading a sermon from Sermons on Women of the Bible by Charles Spurgeon.  The sixth sermon under 'Women of the New Testament' is titled 'Mary of Bethany: To Lovers of Jesus--An Example.'  In this sermon Pastor Spurgeon discusses the beauty of Mary's action when she anointed the head of Jesus with very precious spikenard, (Mark 14:3).

As I came to the end of the sermon, the topic of cremation took me by surprise, (pp. 274-75):
"The seventh beauty, to my mind, is this:  you may think it a little far-fetched, but I cannot help mentioning it, for it touches my heart.  I believe that Mary had in this anointing of the Savior some little glimpse of his resurrection from the dead, and of his after existence.

For I would ask of you--Why do nations at all embalm their dead?  Why not consume them in the fire?  A mysterious something makes the ordinary Christian man shudder at the thought of cremation. That must surely be an acquired taste: unsophisticated nature does not court the furnace or covet the flame; we prefer to lie beneath the green hillock with our fathers."
The Prince of Preachers does not covet the flame, but prefers burial; this is my preference as well.

"But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead," (Matt. 8:22).