What All Great Speeches Have in Common

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What do Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr., Steve Jobs and Adolf Hitler all have in common?

For better or for worse (in the case of Hitler), they were all incredible speakers, who were able to move people to action with their words.

I recently listened to a great podcast featuring Nancy Duarte, CEO of Duarte Inc., and co-author of the book Illuminate: Ignite Change Through Speeches, Stories, Ceremonies and Symbols

Having analyzed speeches, particularly those which are exponentially effective in connecting with people and inspiring them to action, Nancy claims that the best speeches, sermons and talks all follow a similar cadence. She describes the pattern as “pumpkin teeth” — having a sequence of lows and highs.

Contrasting the Status Quo with a Vision of a Different Future

Stories that connect, she says, follow this pattern: they build tension and then have cathartic release. Great speeches emphasize contrast between what is and what could be; the speaker goes back and forth between contrasting today’s current reality (status quo) with tomorrow’s possible future. They start with the way things are, and then give them a vision of a different, brighter future.

Nancy, who is a Christian and moved to Silicon Valley with her husband originally to plant a church, points out that Jesus was a master at this kind of communication. In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, Jesus is constantly contrasting the way things are now on Earth, with the way things are and will be different in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Jesus said things like, “You have heard it said… but I say to you…”, and things like “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant,” (Matthew 20:25-26). Note the contrast between what is, and a vision for what could be.

Steve Jobs did this with his keynote speeches at Apple for years. When he introduced the iPhone, he used a hockey analogy to tell people that unlike other tech companies, Apple would always skate to where the puck will be, not where it is – essentially giving them a vision of a brighter future in contrast to the mundane present.

Ending: the “New Bliss” and a Cautionary Tale

Great stories and speeches, Duarte explains, tend to end with two key elements:

  1. A description of the “new bliss”, a picture of the great future that will come about if you adopt the new idea the presenter is putting forth
  2. A cautionary tale, explaining that the danger of not adopting this idea, and what will happen if you ignore it.

A perfect example of this is found at the end of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says: Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock… And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand… (read the whole passage here: Matthew 7:24-27)

Case Study: “I Have a Dream”

Martin Luther King Jr. did this in a masterful way with his “I Have a Dream” speech. He ended with a vision of the world that could be. Take note of the cadence of his speech:

[Positive: the Ideal] Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

[Negative: the Status Quo] But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

[Cautionary Tale] It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.

[Enduring Bliss] I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists… little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

How this Applies to Homiletics and Preaching

If you want to move people to action, you have to make a clear differentiation between what is now, and the future you’re inviting them into. In order to be persuasive, you must have contrast in some form.

For those who preach or teach the Bible, this is important to keep in mind and take note of, because every time we open the Word of God, we do so with a telos (aim or objective) not only to instruct, but to move people to action and response; to move them away from some things, and towards another thing – faith, repentance, decision, etc.

Paul wrote to the Corinthians: Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we seek to persuade others… God making his appeal through us: We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God! (2 Corinthians 5:11,20)

It’s important to keep these things in mind, and see that Jesus himself was the master of this kind of effective communication.

The goal is to present the problem and the solution in a way that truly reveals to the recipient both the urgency of the peril and the beauty of what makes the “good news” of the gospel so glorious, that they might respond in faith and action.

Video

Here is a TED talk that Nancy gave on this topic:

Christian Truth is in the Service of Christian Love

In the introduction to his book First Theology: God, Scripture and Hermeneutics, Kevin Vanhoozer writes this, which is worthy of a devotional thought for today:

Christian truth is in the service of Christian love. If I speak in the tongues of Reformers and of professional theologians, and I have not personal faith in Christ, my theology is nothing but the noisy beating of a snare drum. And if I have analytic powers and the gift of creating coherent conceptual systems of theology, so as to remove liberal objections, and have not personal hope in God, I am nothing. And if I give myself to resolving the debate between supra and infralapsarianism, and to defending inerrancy, and to learning the Westminster Catechism, yea, even the larger one, so as to recite it by heart backwards and forwards, and have not love, I have gained nothing.

This one thing I know: there is no more vital task facing Christians today than responding faithfully to Scripture as God’s authoritative speech acts — not because the book is holy but because the Lord is, and because the Bible is his Word, the chief means we have of coming to know Jesus Christ.

Those who interpret the Bible rightly — those who look and live along the text, following the written words to the living Word — will have rightly ordered loves and rightly ordered lives. The apostle Paul leaves us in no doubt as to either his first theology or his first love: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8).

Kevin Vanhoozer, First Theology: God, Scripture, & Hermeneutics (IVP Academic, 2002), 40-41

What is Dual-Covenant Theology and What Does it Mean that “All Israel will be saved”?

Romans 11:26 makes an interesting statement, which has led to much confusion and debate:

“And in this way all Israel will be saved.” (Romans 11:26a)

Context

As we’ve been studying through Romans at White Fields on Sunday mornings, we have come to chapters 9-11, which deal with questions concerning Israel, such as: Has God forsaken Israel? Since the Old Testament contains many promises to the nation of Israel, are those promises no longer valid? How do we make sense of the fact that many Jews have  rejected Jesus as Messiah – and that most Christians are not ethnically Jewish?

In answering these questions, Paul is quick to assert that, No, God’s word has not failed in regard to Israel (Romans 9:6), nor has God forsaken Israel (Romans 11:1).

Paul explains Jewish unbelief in two important ways:

  1. The remnant argument: “Not all who are descended from Israel are Israel,” (Romans 9:4), & “And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: ‘Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved'” (Romans 9:27).
    Additionally, it is understood that many who are not ethnically Jewish will be added to the “chosen people of God” – As indeed he says in Hosea, “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’” “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called sons of the living God.’” (Romans 9:25-26)
  2. The responsibility argument: “But of Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.” (Romans 10:21)

Dual-Covenant Theology?

In an attempt to explain this idea that “all Israel will be saved”, some have adopted a dual-covenant theology, which basically says that the Jews are going to be saved under the old covenant (law), but Gentiles are saved under the new covenant (Jesus, grace).

The problem with dual-covenant theology is that it goes against everything Paul has been teaching in Romans, and what the rest of the Bible teaches: that Jesus is the only way of salvation for all people, both for Jews and Gentiles (i.e. everyone in the world).

John Stott writes this:

There is no hint of a special way of salvation for the Jews which dispenses with faith in Christ. It is understandable that since the holocaust Jews have demanded an end to Christian missionary activity among them, and that many Christians have felt embarrassed about continuing it. It is even mooted that Jewish evangelism is an unacceptable form of anti-Semitism. So some Christians have attempted to develop a theological basis for leaving Jews alone in their Judaism. Reminding us that God’s covenant with Abraham was an ‘everlasting covenant’, they maintain that it is still in force, and that therefore God saves Jewish people through their own covenant, without any necessity for them to believe in Jesus. This proposal is usually called a ‘two-covenant theology’.

Bishop Krister Stendahl was one of the first scholars to argue for it,47 namely that there are two different salvation ‘tracks’—the Christian track for the believing remnant and believing Gentiles, and the track for historical Israel which relies on God’s covenant with them. Professor Dunn is surely right to reject this as ‘a false and quite unnecessary antithesis’.

Romans 11 stands in clear opposition to this trend because of its insistence on the fact that there is only one olive tree, to which Jewish and Gentile believers both belong. Jewish people ‘will be grafted in’ again ‘if they do not persist in unbelief’. So faith in Jesus is essential for them. Whether or not Dr Tom Wright is correct in the notion of ‘a large-scale, last-minute salvation of ethnic Jews’, his emphasis on present evangelism (‘now’, three times in verses 30 and 31) is healthy: ‘Paul is envisaging a steady flow of Jews into the church, by grace through faith.’

The two-covenant theology also has the disastrous effect of perpetuating the distinction between Jews and Gentiles which Jesus Christ has abolished. ‘The irony of this’, writes Tom Wright, ‘is that the late twentieth century, in order to avoid anti-Semitism, has advocated a position (the non-evangelization of the Jews) which Paul regards precisely as anti-Semitic.’ ‘It would be quite intolerable to imagine a church at any period which was simply a Gentile phenomenon’ or ‘consisted only of Jews’.

Stott, John. The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World (The Bible Speaks Today Series) (pp. 304-305). InterVarsity Press.

If not dual-covenant theology, then how will “all Israel” be saved?

Since Paul has made it clear that “not all who are descended from Israel are Israel,” i.e. not every ethnically Jewish person is part of Israel, i.e. the remnant of God’s chosen people who will be saved – and that additionally, many non-ethnically Jewish people will be grafted into the “olive tree” (Israel) as “wild branches”, from which many “natural branches” have been cut off (Romans 11:17-24), it is in this way that we understand that “all Israel” (the remnant of believing Israel) will be saved, along with the “fullness of the Gentiles” (Romans 11:25) who will be “grafted in”.

Here’s a short video discussion we had about this topic this week:

Adoption, the Gospel and Michael Ketterer

As we’ve been studying through the book of Romans at White Fields, one of the topics we recently looked at was how the Bible says that adoption is a one of the most profound Earthly pictures that we have of what God has done for us in the gospel.

Adoption is a picture of the gospel

We who were not children of God – destitute, orphans – God reached out to us, and not only did he pardon us and forgive us, not only does he give us his Spirit to help us in our weakness, but he has reached out to us and adopted us. At great cost to himself, doing something for us that we could never have done for ourselves, he has given us a new identity, paid our debts, given us a new belonging, a new future, a new family and a great inheritance.

For more on this topic, check out the sermon: Adopted by God from Romans 8:12-17.

Adoption is close to my heart for personal reasons

Adoption is something close to my heart. In 2008 we began foster parenting an 8th grader from the church I pastored at the time, and in 2011 we adopted him.

When you adopt a child, you are making the decision to love someone and care for someone, not because you have to, but because you choose to. While all adoption is beautiful, I am particularly moved by people who adopt not because they cannot have biological children, but because they understand adoption as a ministry and a way that they can live out the gospel – a way that they can live out what God has done for them in Christ, and bless someone else in a way which will absolutely change their life.

Michael and Ivey Ketterer

It’s been a while since I’ve watched America’s Got Talent, but I recently heard about Michael Ketterer, who appeared on the show and performed so well that he was fast-tracked from the audition process straight to the live show round of the competition.

Michael Ketterer is a musician who is part of United Pursuit, a Los Angeles based collective of Christian artists and musicians. He describes himself as a part-time worship leader, part-time nurse, and full-time dad.

Michael and his wife Ivey have 6 children, 5 of whom were adopted through foster care, and one of whom suffers from cerebral palsy – the neurological disorder which we were initially told that our daughter would have (Read: I Believe in Miracles; Here’s Why).

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The Ketterer Family

Michael and Ivey share their story of foster parenting and adoption in this video. With the exception of the part where he talks about demons (3:20), (we aren’t to resist evil on the basis of who we are, our own name and authority, but only in the name of Jesus and on the basis of his authority – see Jude 1:9) this is a great and moving testimony of love and being moved by the love of God to love others. I encourage you to watch the whole clip:

Here is the video of Michael’s first appearance on AGT:

Also check out Michael’s album, The Wild Inside, which he recorded with United Pursuit here:

You can help White Fields in our efforts to make a difference in the lives of children and care-takers in the foster system here in Colorado. Click on these links to learn more about our two annual outreaches to foster families on the Front Range:

Project Greatest Gift – A Longmont Initiative to Help Children in Foster Care

Project Back to School

Finally, maybe there are some of you whom God would lead to get involved with foster parenting or adoption through the foster system. Here is a link with information about foster parenting and adoption in Colorado: Co4Kids.org For those of you outside of Colorado, information can be easily found for every local area with a quick internet search.

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For…. you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:14-15)

Parents’ Religious Hypocrisy a Leading Factor in Atheism

An article posted by Relevant Magazine today cited a recent study published in the Religion, Brain and Behavior Journal, which sought to understand why people choose to become atheists.

Although the researches expected to find that most people became atheists because they grew up outside of a religious setting, what they found was that many who call themselves atheists became so, at least in part, as a result of observing their parents to be insincere, hypocritical or unfaithful.

Furthermore, the study found that the more choice a child or youth was given to choose their own way, including whether or not to attend church services, the more likely those youth were to reject their parents’ faith before reaching adulthood compared to those who were not offered that choice. Additionally, other research has shown the positive impact that faithful religious practice has on children as they grow into adulthood.

The researchers pointed out that there were plenty of cases in which someone had chosen atheism in spite of growing up with religious parents who were devout, loving and sincere. However, it does seem that where hypocrisy did exist, it was a factor which contributed to their decision to reject their parents’ faith.

Interestingly, in a poll I took earlier this year, in which I asked the question: “What are the biggest hurdles that people have when it comes to embracing Christianity?”, the number one response I got was: “Hypocrisy”. This aligns with the results of a 2007 Barna research project, in which they asked people why they rejected Christianity.

Read: “I Took a Poll; Here’s What I’ve Learned So Far

It should be remembered, that Jesus himself took great issue with religious hypocrisy; he neither tolerated it, nor remained silent about it. In fact, he said something so extreme, that if Jesus himself hadn’t said it, most people wouldn’t dare go as far as saying something like this:

If anyone causes one of these little ones–those who believe in me–to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.  (Matthew 18:6)

Clearly, hypocrisy is a big deal – both to God and to people. Children are perceptive, and they intuit the discrepancies in people’s words and their actions, the latter of which tend to reveal our true values and beliefs.

May God help us who call ourselves Christians to be sincere, humble, repentant and loving, while we hold onto very important convictions about the truth – in order that we might shine like lights in the world (see Philippians 2:14-15) and draw people to Jesus.

Here is a message from a series I taught earlier this year called, “The Trouble Is…”, in which I address the issue of religious hypocrisy, both for Christians and for those who are not Christians, or who are unsure of where they stand:

Also check out the follow-up discussion we recorded about this topic:

Are some parts of the Bible more inspired by God than others?

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Are some parts of the Bible more the “Word of God” than other parts of the Bible? For example: are the gospels (and within them the words of Jesus) more inspired by God than the Psalms or the historical books or the Apostolic epistles?

A related question is: Are some parts of the Bible more important than others?

A Canon Within the Canon

The word canon means the “measuring rod”, the “standard” by which other things are measured. This is the word the church has used to describe the collection of 66 books which are considered authoritative because they are uniquely inspired by God and are treated as “holy scripture.”

In 2 Timothy 3:16, we are told: All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.
(For a discussion of which Scriptures Paul was referring to here, see: Did the New Testament Writers Know They Were Writing Scripture?)

Although the Christian church as a whole officially recognizes this written canon, every denomination, local church and individual Christian has their theology shaped by greater reliance on some parts of the canon than others. This creates, in practice, a “canon within the canon”; certain parts of the Bible which are considered more authoritative, or even more inspired by God, than other parts of the Bible.

While this is very common, we must challenge ourselves by asking whether this is appropriate, and whether it is congruent with our understanding of what it means that the Bible is “inspired” or “breathed out” by God.

How was the Bible “Inspired”?

When it comes to understanding what it means that Scripture is God-breathed, on the one end of the spectrum are those who believe that God dictated the Bible word for word in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, and the writers were simply secretaries who recorded those words. At the other end of spectrum are those who believe that God inspired the writers in the way that an artist, musician or author feels “inspired” by a sunset or something else which “inspires” them to create a masterpiece.

The problem with the “dictation” view of inspiration is that the writing styles of the various human authors are very apparent in what they wrote. Paul’s very long complicated sentences are very different than the short simple sentences of 1 John or the Gospel of Mark. The Gospel of John recounts the life of Jesus in a very different way and from a very different point of view than that of Matthew or Luke. Furthermore, many of the Psalms are cries of imperfect people who are voicing their complaints to God – or expressing sentiments which are not God’s heart.

The problem with the artistic view of inspiration is that the Bible clearly tells us that Scripture is not just a great human book, but the “Word of God”; a message which has been conveyed from God to us. 2 Peter 1:21 puts it this way: “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit,” and Romans 15:4 says that “everything that was written in the past was written to teach us.”

So, what is the correct understanding of Biblical “inspiration”?

Dynamic Verbal Plenary Inspiration

Dynamic

The biblical writers conveyed God’s message in terms of their own personalities and historical circumstances, and yet they transmitted the message fully and exactly as God desired.

Verbal

As opposed to the idea that God only inspired the thoughts of the writers, or gave them the “big ideas,” which they then wrote down in their own words, we know that God’s inspiration of Scripture extends even to the words that were used.

For example, in Galatians 3:16 Paul wrote, “the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ.” By making this distinction about the significance of the particular word that was used in the Scriptures, he is making the point that God’s inspiration of Scripture is to be understood as “verbal,” i.e. that God inspired certain words to be used instead of other words in order to convey His particular message.

In Matthew 5:17-18, Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” Jesus is here affirming that the smallest details of the Scriptures are inspired by God. If the punctuation is inspired, how much more so the very words?

Plenary

Plenary means “complete or full,” and when used to describe the inspiration of the Scriptures, it means that all parts of the Bible are equally of divine origin and equally authoritative.

Dynamic Verbal Plenary Inspiration acknowledges that the Bible is both a human book and a divine book. To put it simply: The Holy Spirit so guided the writers of Scripture so that they gave us, in their own unique manner, exactly the message God intended.

This begs one final question: Just because all parts of the Bible are equally authoritative, does that mean that all parts of the Bible are equally important?

Are all parts of the Bible equally important?

While all parts of the Bible are divinely authoritative, there are some parts of Scripture which we can say are more important, or at least more relevant, than other parts.

The progressive nature of revelation

Hebrews 1:1-2 says: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.”

God’s revelation has had a progressive nature throughout history, culminating in Jesus’ coming, his teachings and his life, death and resurrection, along with his explanations of the significance of these things (see Luke 24:13-49).

Therefore, books like Romans and Hebrews contain a later and fuller revelation of the gospel, the core message of the Bible, than do books like Ecclesiastes, for example. Ecclesiastes, I would argue, can only be fully understood in light of Jesus and the significance of his life, death and resurrection.

Thus, while all parts of the Bible are to be understood as authoritative and of divine origin (this, by the way, was the criteria for the solidifying of the canon at the early church councils), we understand that the progressive nature of revelation means that some books will be more relevant than others, or that some earlier books must be understood in light of what is revealed in later books.

Conclusion

The Bible is God’s gift to humanity; our guide for life and eternity. It is the only book that is “God-breathed,” and it is important that we be careful to avoid creating a “canon within the canon.”

Further Reading:

Did the New Testament Writers Know They Were Writing Scripture?

2 Timothy 3:16 says: All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness

What Scriptures are being referred to here?

Obviously it is referring to the Old Testament scriptures, but interestingly, this comes from 2 Timothy, the last letter which Paul wrote, at the end of his life. By this time — almost all of the books that we have in our New Testaments had already been written, and were being distributed amongst the Christians, to be read and studied in their churches.

So, when Paul says, “All Scripture” — he’s not just talking about the Old Testament, he’s also talking about the New Testament!

In the New Testament, what you find is that the Apostles understood that God was using them in their time to bring about a New Testament of Holy Scriptures, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Here are a few examples:

  • In 2 Peter 3:15-16, Peter refers to the writings of Paul as “Scriptures”
  • In 2 Thessalonians 2:13, Paul referred to his own message as “the word of God”
  • In 1 Timothy 5:18, Paul takes a quotation from the Gospel of Luke – and he calls it “Scripture” (Luke 10:7)
  • In some of his letters, Paul instructs the recipients to distribute his letters and have them read in the churches. (Colossians 4:16, 1 Thessalonians 5:27)

What Paul is telling Timothy in this text is to stick to the Scriptures, because they come from God, not from man.

The Bible is not only inspired in the sense that it is like a great work of art that we might say is “inspired” – but it is inspired in the greater sense, that the words it contains were breathed by God Himself!

What that means is that the Bible is no ordinary book — it is the very word of God to us, and therefore it alone is worthy to be the highest authority in our lives.

Is the Book of Esther Fictional? Does it Really Belong in the Bible?

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Did you know that the Book of Esther never mentions God?

Did you know that whereas almost every Old Testament book is quoted in the New Testament, the Book of Esther is not?

Did you know that the Dead Sea Scrolls contained copies of every Old Testament book except the Book of Esther? (for more on the Dead Sea Scrolls, see: Why the Dead Sea Scrolls Matter for Christians)

The Book of Esther tells the story of a Jewish girl in Persia who becomes a queen and uses her position to save the Jewish people from an attempted genocide. This story is the basis for the Jewish holiday of Purim, a holiday which is not prescribed in the Law of Moses.

These facts, along with the lack of corresponding historical records which corroborate the events talked about in the book have led many people to question not only whether Esther is historical, but whether it belongs in the Bible at all.

Martin Luther, for example, criticized the Book of Esther, accusing it of being too aggressively nationalistic and containing no gospel content.

It isn’t only Christians who are divided over the Book of Esther; Jewish congregations are also divided over whether Esther is a true story or a fable, and whether it belongs in the canon of Scripture (e.g. the Orthodox Union considers it historical and canonical, whereas the Assembly of True Israel considers it neither historical nor canonical).

Let’s consider the relevant questions:

Is Esther Historical?

The Book of Esther focuses on a ten year period (483-473 B.C.) in the Persian Empire during the reign of Ahasuerus, also known as Xerxes.

The book contains several historical, chronological and cultural details, which would lead us to believe that it is intended to be read as actual history, rather than as a parable. As in the case of Jonah (see: Is Jonah a Historical Account or an Allegory?), specific historical and geographical details are characteristic of historical narratives and not of allegorical stories (e.g. the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son).

In Esther 1:1 we read an accurate description of the extent of Xerxes’ empire, in 1:2 we read about the location of the seat of the Persian government, and in 1:3-4, we read that in the third year of his reign, Xerxes gave a banquet for all his officials and servants, including the army of Persia and Media. The reason this is important is that it coincides with the accounts of the historian Herodotus which tell us that Xerxes’ second invasion of Greece took place from 480 to 479 B.C., which means that this great gathering mentioned in Esther 1:3-4, which verse 4 says lasted 180 days, is likely describing the preparation for that military invasion of Greece.

According to Herodotus, Xerxes began his return to Persia after his defeat by the Greek navy at Salamis at the end of 480 B.C. The dismissal of Queen Vashti, described in Esther chapter 1, would correspond to this timeline, having happened just before Xerxes departure to Greece, and his encounter with Esther would have happened just after his return. Herodotus claims that Xerxes “sought consolation in his harem after his defeat at Salamis,” which corresponds with what the Book of Esther describes and the time when Esther would have become queen.

Despite the clear historical setting, no outside sources exist which tell us about Esther becoming queen or about the killing of 75,000 Persians. However, it seems that the author’s intent is to relay historical events, and while corroborating sources do not exist, the same is also true of other historical accounts, including those of Herodotus.

Thus, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence which would lead us to believe that Esther is not a historical account, and where historical accounts from this period do exist, they line up with the historical, cultural and geographical details that Esther gives.

Why is Esther in the Bible if it doesn’t mention God?

Esther was recognized as scripture by the Jews before the time of Christ. Josephus, the Jewish historian, says that the Jewish Scriptures were written from the time of Moses “until Artaxerxes,” whom Josephus identifies as the “Ahasuerus” in the book of Esther (Against Apion 1.40-41 & Jewish Antiquities 11.184). Therefore, Josephus understood Esther to be the last book to be written in the Jewish canon.

In the Christian church, Esther was listed among the books of the Old Testament canon at the Council of Carthage in A.D. 397, but was widely accepted by Christians as canonical long before that because of its inclusion in the Jewish Old Testament canon.

Although God is not named in the book, God is not absent from the story. Like in the story of Joseph, Esther is a story which highlights the providence, or the “invisible hand of God” at work in the world, ordering and ordaining events to happen according to His divine plan.

Many scholars believe that the absence of the word “God” from Esther was not a mistake, but was an intentional literary device, aimed at focusing attention on the importance of human initiative and divine providence. The sheer number of “coincidences” in the Book of Esther beg the reader to take notice of the invisible hand of God at work to bring about salvation and justice.

Does Esther contain any gospel content?

Contrary to Martin Luther’s claim that Esther does not contain any gospel content, the story actually contains very many foreshadowings of the salvation which Jesus will bring. Consider, for example the basic elements of the story:

There is an enemy of the people who wants to kill and destroy them. God raises up a savior at just the right time, who uniquely has access to the throne of the great king, who alone can save the people from this impending doom. This savior, at risk to herself, enters into the throne-room of the king and intercedes on behalf of her people, thus securing their salvation. The evil-doers, who throughout the story seemed to act unencumbered, receive the pronouncement of judgment from the king.

Furthermore, we see how the evil Haman desired to be treated as royalty even though he was not. In this we have a contrast with the one who was indeed royalty, but set aside his privileges in order to become a servant so that He might save us (see Philippians 2:3-11 and Matthew 20:28).

Finally, we see in Esther an example of God’s faithfulness to His covenant people.

Conclusion

Because of the scarcity of historical accounts and the lack of thoroughness of those which exist, it would be unwise for us to assume that this story is not historical just because we have not yet found other accounts which corroborate certain aspects of this story. The fact that some parts of the story do have corroborating historical evidence and accounts should give us confidence that Esther is a historical story about actual events – which ultimately are part of the picture and foreshadowing of the Great Savior who has now come: Jesus Christ, who entered into the throne room of God to make intercession for us, that through Him we might be saved from the great enemies of our souls.

Is Jonah a Historical Account or an Allegory?

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The story of Jonah is a fantastical story about a rebellious prophet who runs away from his calling, then tries to kill himself and gets swallowed by a giant fish who transports him back to where he started and barfs him up on the beach. Then he walks into a large city, preaches the worst sermon ever, and the whole city repents – much to Jonah’s dismay.

The key literary device used in the Book of Jonah is: satire, defined as: the exposure of human vice of folly through the use of humor and irony. In other words, the story of Jonah is intended to make you laugh…and then cry – as you realize that you are actually a lot like Jonah yourself.

Is Jonah an Allegory?

For these reasons, many people have questioned whether Jonah should be understood as an allegory instead of an historical account. As an allegory, Jonah represents Israel: a nation who has not shared the heart of God for lost people and has run away from their calling to be God’s light to the nations. The fish would represent Israel’s (at that present time: current) captivity, which would mean that the calling to go to Nineveh represents the implied proper behavior or response that Israel should have once their captivity is over.

Aside from the miraculous (fish) and fantastical (all of Nineveh repenting) nature of the story, another reason people have argued that Jonah is meant to be understood as an allegory or parable is because there is no historical record outside of the Bible that corroborates the repentance of Nineveh at the preaching of Jonah.

Why Most Bible Scholars Believe Jonah is a Historical Account

1. Jonah is a historical figure

2 Kings 14:25 speaks of a prophet named Jonah who lived in the 8th Century BC. This lines up with the timeline of the events of the Book of Jonah, and it would line up with the Assyrian Empire being powerful at this time.

2. The story presents itself as a historical narrative

The book is presented as a historical, not a fictional narrative. Specific historical and geographical details are characteristic of historical narratives and not of allegorical stories (e.g. the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son, allegorical stories which are given no historical or geographical anchoring). See: Jonah 1:1-3; 3:2-10; 4:11.

Furthermore, the story of Jonah has all the marks of a prophetic narrative, such as those about Elijah and Elisha in 1 Kings, which also set out to report actual historical events.

Therefore a simple reading of the text would lead us to believe that this is a historical narrative.

3. There is no strong evidence against it being historical

For those who would argue that the miraculous element of the story is not possible, that would lead to bigger questions about the ability of God and the nature of the world. This assumption, of course, would have implications for how one reads most of the Bible, not just the Book of Jonah. If, on the other hand, God is capable of doing miracles, this should not be considered a major issue.

The lack of historical account from Nineveh about Jonah’s coming and the subsequent repentance of the entire city is not considered strong evidence against Jonah’s historicity either, since 1) records were not kept in ancient society as they are now, and 2) whatever records did exist were regularly and intentionally destroyed by each successive ruling party or civiliazation. Historians would not consider the lack of corroborating historical accounts from Assyria to be evidence against the historicity of the Book of Jonah – whether they believe the story to be true or not.

The question of whether an entire city would repent is not really a problem either considering the communal nature of ancient and Eastern societies. A look at the history of the spread of different religions shows that entire nations have often converted after the command of their king or ruler. Such a response, therefore, would not be unprecedented or even unusual.

4. Jesus spoke of the story as having historical and future relevance

In Matthew 12:40-41, Jesus declared that “the men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah.”

Conclusion

Therefore, my conclusion is with the majority of scholars who believe Jonah to be a historical account. Certainly we should acknowledge though, that it is not history for history’s sake, but that there is a particular didactic (teaching) intention in the way the story is told. May we learn from it!

For more on Jonah, check out this study I did at White Fields Community Church: Jonah: God’s Mission in the World

David Foster Wallace on Atheism and Worship

In 2008, at the time of his untimely death, the Los Angeles Times declared that David Foster Wallace was “one of the most influential writers of the last twenty years.”[1] He was an award-winning, bestselling postmodern novelist, who loved to push boundaries in his storytelling.

Although Wallace was an agnostic, he made some profound statements about atheism and worship in his now famous commencement speech, which he gave to the graduating class of Kenyon College in 2005.

Here’s what he said:

webdavidfosterwallaceYou get to choose what to worship. Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.

And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god … to worship … is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you.

Worship power, and you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they are evil or sinful; it is that they’re unconscious. They are default settings. They are the kind of worship you just gradually slip into day after day … without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. [2]

Wallace, although not a Christian, understood and communicated a very profound and very biblical truth: everyone worships, but anything you worship other than God will “eat you alive.”

Romans 6:16 tells us that there is no such thing as not worshiping, and that anything we worship other than God will enslave us.

Rebecca Manley Pippert puts it this way:

“Whatever controls us in our lord. The person who seeks power is controlled by power. The person who seeks acceptance is controlled by it. We do not control ourselves. We are controlled by the lord of our lives. (Pippert, Out of the Saltshaker, p. 53)

Whether we call ourselves religious or not, all of us have a lord, a master, and we are all worshipers.

The only way to be free, is by having a lord and a master who will not crush you, but who will liberate you – and in Jesus we have exactly that: one who came not to crush us, but to liberate us from all that enslaves us and to fulfill our deepest longings.

Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:10,13)

What a tragedy it would be to know this truth and not come to the fountain of living water and drink in order to be liberated and fulfilled!

Here is a recording of Wallace’s speech. The part about worship begins at 17:50.