Halloween, Christians, and What I’ll Be Doing Tonight

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According to the Roman Catholic Church, All Saints Day (Festum Omnium Sanctorum) is celebrated on November 1, and is a day of remembrance for all those “who have obtained salvation.”

It is followed on November 2, by the Day of the Dead (Commemoratio omnium Fidelium Defunctorum), which is the “day of remembrance for those who have died, but have not yet received salvation, but are currently residing in purgatory.”1

October 31 is known as All Hallows Eve, the night before All Hallows (All Saints Day), AKA Halloween.

In the Protestant world, October 31 is Reformation Day, commemorating the day when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg castle church in 1517, which is generally acknowledged as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

On further examination, this may not be exactly how it happened — see What Really Happened on October 31, 1517?

How Should Christians Handle Halloween?

One of the big questions I’m often asked this time of year is how Christians should relate to Halloween.

Some common reactions:

  1. Ignore it / Protest it.
    This often manifests in things like refusing to hand out candy to kids who trick or treat, turning off the lights, leaving the house, etc.
  2. Have alternative events for people to attend, such as “Trunk or Treat” in the church parking lot, or a Harvest Festival.
    These are often billed as “safe alternatives to Halloween”, which implies that going trick or treating in your neighborhood is not safe. Whether this concern is for physical safety or spiritual safety is not always clear, but my assumption is that the latter is in mind.
    Besides the fact that teaching children to go approach strangers’ cars to get candy out of their trunk is probably not the safest idea, these events try to create a fun fall atmosphere without the dark/evil underpinnings of Halloween.
    To be clear, while many churches host fall festivals, what I have in mind here is specifically those which are held on October 31 as alternative events that compete with Halloween.
  3. Celebrate it.
    Some churches straight up celebrate Halloween by having parties, etc.

A Missional Approach to Halloween

Here are a few factors to keep in mind about Halloween:

  1. We serve a God who has defeated sin, death and the devil.
    Colossians 2:15, speaking of the forces of evil, says that He (God) disarmed the rulers and authorities (evil or demonic forces) and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him (Jesus).
  2. God has left us in this world and given us a mission, to reach people in His name.
    There are certain things which you can only do in this life, which you won’t be able to do in Heaven — particularly: evangelism. Jesus himself is our example in this, that he left the security and sanctity of heaven and entered into our fallen, sinful world, full of evil and darkness, in order to bring salvation to us.
  3. This is the only day of the year, when most of your neighbors are going to come knocking on your door. The only day.
    This is missional gold! How can you use the unique opportunity that this cultural moment presents?

I certainly would agree with those who say that Christian churches should not host Halloween celebrations, however, I would argue that churches ought to encourage Christians to take advantage of this unique cultural moment for the purpose of God’s mission. Hosting alternative events on October 31 that take people out of their neighborhoods, therefore, is, in my opinion, unwise and communicates the wrong message — both to Christians and their neighbors.

What We Will Be Doing This Evening

Tonight, my two year old will be dressing up as a tiger. She told us last night that her name when she wears her costume is “Adventure Tiger”. We will be going out to our neighbors houses, knocking on their doors, chatting with them, getting to know them — and, as we do every year, we will be inviting them join us at to our church.

After that, we will put our fire pit in our driveway, start a fire in it, brew a bunch of coffee, and invite our neighbors to come hang out and chat, meet each other, talk about life, etc. — and we will pray and trust that God will use those conversations and relationships as inroads for us to ultimately share with them the hope that we have in Jesus.

I’ll leave you with this quote from the TroubleFace Mom blog:

If Jesus can go straight to hell, stare death and devil in the face, win and come back alive, can’t we open our doors to the 6 year old in a Batman costume and his shivering mom?

May God help us to make much of Jesus today (and every day)!

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:

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

Making Sense of Different Bible Translations – Part 2: the King James Bible

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In Part 1 of this mini-series on Making Sense of Different Bible Translations, we looked at the fundamentals of how Bible translation is done, why so many translations exist and some guidelines for choosing a good translation.

Here in Part 2, we will be looking at the King James Version (KJV) specifically. In Part 3, we will look at the New International Version (NIV) and the question of gender-inclusive language.

When it comes to the King James Version of the Bible, some people feel very strongly that it is the only Bible that English speakers should use. Why is that, and is that a good position to hold? Let’s consider the main issues at stake in this discussion:

Manuscripts: Textus Receptus

The King James Version was translated based on a collection of Greek New Testament manuscripts called the Textus Receptus (Received Text). The Textus Receptus was compiled in the 1500’s by Erasmus Desiderius of Rotterdam, a Catholic priest and humanist.

Although he was a humanist and his work played a significant role in the Reformation, by putting the Word of God back into the hands of the people, Erasmus remained loyal to the pope. Martin Luther disputed with Erasmus over theology, which you can read more about here.

There are two kinds of KJV adherents: those who trust the Textus Receptus, and those who trust the KJV itself.

As discussed in Part 1, the Bible doesn’t change, but language does. As a result, new translations of the Textus Receptus have been done, most notably the New King James Version (NKJV), which also uses the Textus Receptus as its basis, but which translates it into modern English. Those who are trust in the Textus Receptus are happy to use the NKJV and other translations of the Textus Receptus which use current rather than archaic English, such as KJ21 and MEV.

However, there are some KJV Only loyalists who reject any translation other than the original KJV, showing that they are not loyal to the Textus Receptus, but to the KJV itself. This brings up several problems:

KJV Only Problem #1: Which King James Version?

The King James Bible has undergone three revisions since its first publication in 1611, which updated the spelling and use of many words – in order to make them more comprehensible in the common language of the people. If you buy a KJV Bible today, you will be getting the 1769 version, unless you go out of your way to get a 1611. So the question for KJV loyalists is: which KJV are you loyal to? If you accept the 1769 (which is almost all KJV’s available for sale today), then you are dealing with what was essentially the NEW King James Version of the 18th century. There seems no reason in this case then to reject the New King James Version of the 20th century either.

KJV Only Problem #2: What About Other Languages?

As a missionary in Hungary, I remember times when people would come from America to serve at our youth camp, and they would bring English KJV Bibles to give out to the kids… Hungarian kids, who not only don’t speak English, but who certainly don’t understand Shakespearean English from the 1600’s. I have heard stories of American churches buying boxes of KJV Bibles to send to orphanages in Mexico.

Do people need to learn English, and specifically archaic English, in order to read and understand the Word of God?

Other languages have translations of the Textus Receptus which predate the KJV, including the German Luther Bible (1522) the  the Spanish Reina translation (1569), and the Hungarian Vizsoly Bible (1590).

Furthermore, when the KJV was first introduced in 1611, it was criticized for being too easy to understand, because it was written in the common language of the people at that time. When the Bible is translated for the first time into a new language today, it is translated into the language the cultures speaks today, not the way they spoke 400 years ago.

Thus, it seems unreasonable to be loyal to the KJV itself, rather than the Textus Receptus. Next, let’s look at the Textus Receptus:

Is the Textus Receptus the best manuscript of the New Testament?

Since Erasmus assembled the Textus Receptus in the early 1500’s, many Biblical manuscripts have been discovered which are older and more accurate than the manuscripts in the Textus Receptus. What these manuscripts show is that the later Textus Receptus manuscripts contained several additions to the text, which were not present in the older manuscripts.

It should be noted: none of these “textual variants” have any significance for Christian theology. They were added, it seems, as forms of commentary, or to help bring clarity – but they seem to have been added nonetheless.

Do Newer Translations Remove Verses?

As explained in the section above, the Textus Receptus includes some verses which older manuscripts show us were later additions to the text by zealous scribes who were trying to help, but which were not a part of the original manuscripts.

So, rather than newer translations “removing verses”, what you actually have is that the KJV (or the Textus Receptus, rather) has added verses to the Bible – something which is also forbidden by Revelation 22:18-19.

See: On Those Missing Verses and Why are newer translations of the Bible missing verses?

Both the KJV and more modern translations are upfront about these facts. The KJV indicates words which have been added for clarity by using italics, and newer translations use brackets or footnotes to show places where the Textus Receptus includes text which is not found in the oldest manuscripts.

Landing the Plane

Our loyalties as Christians should be the original texts of the Old and New Testaments, written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, not to any particular translation of those words which God inspired. It is often helpful to look at several translations in order to get a full understanding of the meaning of a text.

Further reading: The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust Modern Translations? by James R. White

Making Sense of Different Bible Translations – Part 1

whats-the-difference-between-various-bible-versions

It has been said that the best Bible translation is the one you will read. It’s true: the point is for you to read and understand God’s message to you. The best translation in the world won’t profit you anything if you don’t actually read it.

However, what if you’ve moved past that point – and you are reading the Bible? What are the differences between various translations, and how should you go about choosing the right one?

According to the American Bible Society, since William Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament into English in 1526, about 900 English translations of the Bible have been published.1 Why so many – and what are the differences between them?

The Bible doesn’t change with time, but language does.

Language is something that is constantly in flux. Language uses sounds and symbols to refer to unchanging realities, but the words we use to refer to those realities do change over time. For example, the word gay has a different meaning in the modern vernacular than it did 100 years ago. The word Awful, in the past meant “awe inspiring” – but in modern English it no longer means that.

Another example is the word Terrible. In the King James Bible, this word is used many times, e.g. Psalm 47:2 – “For the LORD most high is terrible; he is a great King over all the earth.”
The word Terrible used to have the meaning of our modern Awesome, which is why more modern translations translate this verse: “For the LORD Most High is awesome.” The word Terrible has come to have an expressly negative or pejorative meaning.

One of the reasons for newer translations is not to change the Bible, but because languages change over time. (Further reading: “What are some English words that have changed in meaning since the translation of the KJV?”)

The Tension of Translation

I am bilingual; I speak Hungarian fluently and occasionally work professionally as a translator and interpreter. Anyone who is bilingual will tell you that there is an inherent tension in translating or interpreting between simply translating the words someone said and conveying the meaning of what they said.

For example, in Hungarian there is a term: Zsákbamacska. It literally means: “a cat in a bag,” but what it means is to trick someone, promising them one thing and then giving them an unwanted surprise. In English, we would call that: “pulling a fast one” – or “a switcheroo.”
Furthermore, in English, we do have a colloquialism about a cat in a bag; we say: “Don’t let the cat out of the bag,” or “she let the cat out of the bag” – which means to reveal something earlier than it was meant to be revealed.

In other words, it is possible to translate that phrase directly, but to do so would actually convey something different than what the original writer or speaker had intended to convey. To actually be accurate, you must translate the meaning of the term, not just its words. However, if you only translate meaning and ideas, some of the power of the language will be lost, because particular words conjure pictures (like a cat in a bag), which are rich with insinuations, allusions and other communicative forces.

The ideal translation of any text or speech from one language to another does both, and it is a very difficult balance to reach.

Remember: every translation is inevitably an interpretation.

Because of the nature of language, it is impossible to translate something in a purely clinical, sterile way without getting your “fingerprints” on it.

For example, if in the source language there is a word for which there are two words in the target language, then the translator must decipher which word best matches the meaning they discern the speaker/writer to intend.

For example, in Greek there is one word: pisteuo – for which we have two words in English: faith or belief. There is a difference between faith and belief in English, but not in Greek. Conversely, in Greek there are four words for love, whereas there is only one in English; so if you tell someone you love them in English, in order to translate that into Greek, the translator must interpret what you meant: Do you love this person as a brother/sister? Do you love them romantically? Do you merely feel an empathetic bond to them?

All translations are inevitably interpretations, which is why it matters who translated your Bible and what their underlying theological beliefs and assumptions were.

Some Comparisons for Consideration

All translations fall on the word-for-word and idea-for-idea continuum.

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I personally use and recommend the ESV and the NASB. After those, I would consider the NKJV and the NIV. I will explain my reservations about the NKJV in part 2 of this post, as well as answering some common assumptions about the NIV – however, both can be avoided by choosing the ESV or NASB 🙂

The reason I prefer these translations is because they are more literal translations – meaning that they attempt to translate word-by-word as much as possible, rather than paraphrasing the basic idea in modern vernacular. For example: the statement “he who has clean hands and a pure heart” (Psalm 24:4 ESV) is interpreted as “those who do right for the right reasons” in the CEV.

I prefer more literal translations because I believe that the very words, not just the ideas of Scripture were inspired by God and are thus very important. Much of the theological richness of certain words or metaphors inevitably tends to get washed out in a thought-by-thought translation, even if that is not intended.

The ideal translation is one which accurately translates the original text, but yet is readable. This is a difficult balance to strike, which is why there are so many translations out there – and why I choose the ESV, because it does both well.

Here is a comparison from Romans 3:24:

  • (ESV) justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
  • (NASB) justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.
  • (NIV) justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
  • (KJV) Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
  • (NKJV) being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
  • (CEV) God treats us much better than we deserve, and because of Christ Jesus, he freely accepts us and sets us free from our sins.
  • (NLT) Yet God, with undeserved kindness, declares that we are righteous. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins.
  • (Message) Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself. A pure gift. He got us out of the mess we’re in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be. And he did it by means of Jesus Christ.

Every translation is an interpretation, but at what point does an interpretation become a commentary?

Notice the word “justified”, which has enormous theological implications, appears in the more literal translations, whereas in the thought-by-thought translations they take the liberty of explaining what the word “justification” means (or at least what they understand it to mean). That explanation may seem nice, but by doing so, they are crossing the line from being translations to being commentaries. The Message in particular, should not be considered a translation, but rather a commentary, as it is focused on explaining ideas and concepts rather than translating the original text into English.

Click here to read Part 2 of this article, where I look at the King James Version specifically.

The Vietnam War’s “Napalm Girl” Found Redemption and the Power to Forgive in Jesus

 

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It’s one of the most iconic images of the Vietnam War; a nine year-old Vietnamese girl running through the streets after her village was accidentally hit with a napalm attack by South Vietnamese troops, who incorrectly thought they were bombing a Viet Cong rebel hideout.

Napalm is a jelly-like substance that is highly flammable, and so the girl’s clothes were on fire, and she ripped them off as she ran down the street in pain and terror.

That photo won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972. The girl’s name is Kim Phuc.

But what happened after that photo was taken is actually much more interesting. Kim was able to emigrate to Canada. Although she had grown up following the local religion of her parents and ancestors, Kim became a Christian. She found redemption and the power to forgive in Jesus.

Take a minute to listen to her incredible story of how she became a Christian and how God has and is using her to spread the gospel:

For e-mail subscribers, click here to listen.

If Jesus is the Son of God, Why Did He Call Himself the “Son of Man”?

Jesus’ favorite way of referring to himself was as the “Son of Man”. This term is used of Jesus 88 times in the New Testament, and Jesus refers to himself  as the “Son of Man” more often than as the “Son of God”.

I am often asked why this is, and why Jesus preferred this term over the term Son of God. Here are some thoughts on what that term means and why Jesus may have preferred it:

Son of Man is a Messianic title from the Old Testament

The title: “Son of Man” was a reference to a prophecy found in Daniel 7:13-14:

I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.

This description of the “Son of Man” matches that descriptions of the Messiah found elsewhere in the Old Testament. What is particularly interesting is that the Son of Man is exalted, divine, and is sent from Heaven – and yet, is distinct from “the Ancient of Days”. This is in line with Trinitarian theology, which states that the Son and the Father are distinct persons within the Godhead.

The Son of Man according to this prophecy is both human and exalted. He does the work which only God can do, indicating that he is God, and yet he is distinct from the “Ancient of Days” who sends him. This tells us that the Messiah would be human, but he would also be God at the same time, while a distinct person from the “Ancient of Days”, AKA the Father.

As I discussed in a previous post – Why Did Jesus Tell Some People to Keep Quiet About His Miracles and Identity? – although Jesus was sometimes very explicit about his identity, other times Jesus was more subtle and implicit in how he revealed his identity. In that post I delve into some reasons why that was, but here it suffices to say that by using the term “Son of Man”, Jesus was using a term by which those who had ears to hear would pick up what he was putting down.

Son of Man speaks to Jesus’ humanity

The term Son of Man emphasizes the fact that Jesus was truly and fully human. Although he was conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin, he is nevertheless fully human.

Why are you telling me this?

Remember that the Gospels were written by humans under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. What that means is that there is a particular telos or objective inherent to what they have written and how they have written it. This is true of any historical account: any time anyone tells a story, they include certain details and leave out other details depending on what they want to emphasize for their audience. This is true of the Gospels as well. So what is the telos or objective of the Gospel writers in making sure we know that Jesus often used the title “Son of Man” in referring to himself (other than the fact that he actually did)? Probably it is to emphasize that Jesus was truly and fully human.

Trinitarian theology

We know from early church history, that there was a tendency amongst some Christians to emphasize the deity of Christ to the negation of His humanity. The converse was also true, and these discussions and debates culminated with the codifying of the doctrine of the Trinity at Nicaea and in the Athanasian Creed. Even to this day, there are some Christians, e.g. Coptic Christians, who are “monophysites”, which means that they believe that Jesus only had one nature: a divine one, and that he was not fully human. The use of the term “Son of Man” emphasized Jesus’ true humanity.

Son of Man actually had more significance in that context than Son of God

To the Jewish mind, the term Son of God might be used to refer to any person without too much controversy, because they would agree that we are all created by God, and therefore could be called “sons” of God. For example, Psalm 82:6 says, “You are all sons of the Most High.”

The same could be said of “Son of Man” for that matter, in the sense that all humans are sons or daughters of men. The difference is that in the Jewish context, the term “Son of Man” actually carried more significance because of Daniel’s prophecy.

Remember that Jesus actually did call himself the Son of God on several occasions, as John’s gospel in particular records. Again, this gets to the point of the telos of John’s gospel, which is to emphasize Jesus’ deity – whereas other gospels aim to emphasize his humanity.

But it is not only in John’s gospel that we see Jesus being called “Son of God”, which reminds us of the importance of his two-fold nature as both fully God and fully man, a nature that was necessary in order for him to be the perfect Savior that we need.

A case study

I will leave you with these words from Mark’s gospel:

Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Living God?” And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” And the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further witnesses do we need? You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” And they all condemned him as deserving death. (Mark 14:61-64)

Notice in this text:

  • Jesus said he is the Son of God
  • Jesus called himself the Son of Man – and connected that term with the imagery directly from Daniel 7:13-14
  • This was understood by the Jewish people to be a claim of deity, which is why they accused him of blasphemy and condemned him to death.