Reader Questions: Was Jesus’ Promise in John 1:51 Ever Fulfilled?

Here on the site there is a feature where you can Ask a Question or Suggest a Topic.

This question recently came in:

In John 1:51, Jesus told Nathanael that he would see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man. Was this ever fulfilled? If so, when?

That’s a good question, and there’s a great answer!

The passage you’re referring to is in the first chapter of John’s Gospel, where we read about Jesus calling his first disciples. Jesus called Philip, and then Philip went and told his friend Nathanael that “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael was skeptical that the Messiah could be from Nazareth, to which Philip invited Nathanael to come and meet Jesus to see for himself.

When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he greeted him in a way that implied that Jesus already knew him. When Nathanael asked how Jesus already knew him, Jesus replied: “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.”

Some scholars say that it was traditional for Jewish people to sit under a fig tree to read the Scriptures, but whatever happened with Nathanael under the fig tree must have been something so personal, and so private that Nathaniel was sure no one could have possibly seen or heard him. The fact that Jesus knew about it was enough to convince Nathaniel right there on the spot that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, and he immediately responded by saying: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

This brings us to the text in question.

Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.”

And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

John 1:50-51

If you look for a story in the gospels in which this happened, you won’t find one. The closest events you will find to this are:

  • Jesus’ baptism, when the Spirit descended on Jesus as a dove and the Father spoke from Heaven declaring that Jesus was His beloved Son in whom He was well-pleased.
  • Jesus’ transfiguration, in which Peter, James, and John saw Jesus in his glorified state, and he appeared with Moses and Elijah, accompanied by a voice from Heaven which told Peter: “this is my beloved Son, listen to Him.”
  • Jesus’ ascension, when he was caught up to Heaven.

However, while these examples include the heavens being opened, none of them include angels, much less Nathanael or anyone else seeing the angels ascending and descending on Jesus.

So, does that mean that Jesus’ promise to Nathanael was not fulfilled?

No. Rather, to expect this to be the promise of a literal vision of angels is to misunderstand what Jesus is saying, which is actually more significant than promising a vision of angels.

Jacob’s Ladder

When Jesus tells Nathanael that he will see “the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man, Jesus is making reference to a story from the Old Testament.

In Genesis 28, Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, was on the run from his brother Esau, who wanted to kill him. One night while Jacob was sleeping in a field, with a rock for a pillow, God appeared to him in a vision as he slept.

In this vision, Jacob saw the heavens opened up and a ladder, or a bridge, spanning the gap between Heaven and Earth, and “the angels of God were ascending and descending on it” (Genesis 28:12).

You might remember that the people of Babel, in Genesis 11, had tried to “build a tower with its top reaching to the heavens” in order to make a name for themselves and to protect themselves. They had sought to span the gap between Heaven and Earth through their own strength, endeavors, and intellect – and they failed.

What Jacob saw in his vision, was that God alone can span the gap between Heaven and Earth. Whereas we are incapable of reaching Heaven by our own works, God has come down to us from Heaven, in order to lift us up into relationship with Him and eternal life.

If Jacob was in fact reading the Scriptures under the fig tree, could it be that this is the exact passage that Nathanael had been reading, and Jesus was interpreting it for him?

Jacob’s Ladder is a Person

What Jesus was saying to Nathanael in John 1:51 is that HE is Jacob’s ladder! He is the bridge that spans the gap between Heaven and Earth that God pictured to Jacob in that vision! It is in Him that God has come from Heaven to Earth in order to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves: to lift us up into relationship with Him and give us eternal life.

Jesus is saying that He has come not just to point the way to Heaven, but to be the way to Heaven.

Now, you might be tempted to think: If it’s a ladder, that means I must need to climb as high as I can, and if I’m strong enough, and if I’ve got enough stamina to make it all the way, then I can reach God. But that’s not the idea behind this ladder. Listen to what Paul the Apostle has to say in Romans ch 10:

But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 

Romans 10:6-9

In other words: the message of the Gospel is not that you have to climb your way up to God, but that God has come down to you! This ladder is not the ladder by which we ascend to God – but rather the ladder by which God has come down to us, to lift us up to Himself.

Jesus is telling Nathanael, and us, in John 1:51 that Jacob’s ladder is a person, and that person is Him! What good news!

If you have any questions or topics you’d like me to address, fill out the form on this page: Ask a Question or Suggest a Topic.

The Number of the Beast and Solomon

In my recent post, I answered some questions about what the “Mark of the Beast” is: Reader Questions: Could the Mark of the Beast Be Transmitted Through a COVID-19 Vaccine?

This past Sunday I taught through 1 Kings 9-10 in our Desiring the Kingdom series. You can watch or listen to that message here.

In that study, we read 1 Kings 10:14, which says:

Now the weight of gold that came to Solomon in one year was 666 talents of gold…

1 Kings 10:14

This is the only time this number, 666, appears in the Bible other than in Revelation 13:18, where we read about the beast who rises from the earth and it says:

This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666.

Revelation 13:18

Is this just a coincidence or is there some significance to this number having been used to describe Solomon’s annual income?

Pastor Mike and I discuss that question in this week’s Sermon Extra video:

Augustine on Ambition

Should Christians be “ambitious”? Is “ambition” the opposite of humility?

Augustine of Hippo, the African bishop from the 4th and 5th Century has a take on ambition which might surprise you.

The Opposite of Ambition is Not Humility

According to Augustine, “the opposite of ambition is not humility, it is sloth, passivity, timidity, and complacency.”

We sometimes like to comfort ourselves by imagining that the ambitious are prideful and arrogant so that those of us who never wish and never aspire, who never launch out into the deep, get to wear the moralizing mantle of humility, but this is just a thin cover for a lack of courage, even laziness.

James K.A. Smith, On the Road with Saint Augustine

Interestingly, Augustine’s view on ambition is that “playing it safe” and not taking risks is not actually an expression of humility like many may assume, but is often based in pride and a fear of other people thinking less of you if you were to fail.

In James K.A. Smith‘s recent book, On the Road with Saint Augustine, he tells the story of Augustine’s journey from provincial North Africa to Carthage, and from there to Rome and Milan, originally as a rhetoric teacher, not as a priest. It was Augustine’s ambition which originally led him from his birthplace to these places, but in Milan his friendship with Ambrose, bishop of Milan, changed his life and led him to pursue a relationship with God which led to him stepping into vocational ministry for the rest of his life.

See also: Book Review: On the Road with Saint Augustine

Smith argues that Augustine never stopped being ambition after giving his life to the Lord. What changed was his goal, the aim of his ambition.

The Ultimate Ambition

According to Smith, the Augustinian question when it comes to ambition is: “Whom and what do I love when I am being ambitious?”

The goal, he would argue, is not to be devoid of ambition, but rather to live a life which has “friendship with God” as its supreme ambition.

This is the only ambition, Smith points out, which comes with a guarantee of success and ultimate security! (“Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” James 4:8)

Solomon and the True End of Ambition

Augustine challenges us to ask, What if buried in your ambition to succeed in business, academics, sports, and other pursuits, is a desire for something else, something more – which is found in God himself?

Currently at White Fields we are studying through the life of Solomon in 1 Kings. Solomon was an ambitious person; he asked God for wisdom so that he could govern the nation well, and he succeeded both in making the nation wealthy and powerful, but also in becoming wealthy and powerful himself.

In the Book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon tells the story of his ambition; he acquired many lovers, much money, incredible power, extensive knowledge, as well as exotic animals, parties and entertainment. And yet, in the end, he found all of it to be empty and ultimately unfulfilling. None of it did for him what he had expected it would.

In the end, Solomon comes to the realization that buried in his ambition was ultimately the desire for God himself, and what could only God can give.

Solomon’s conclusion at the end of Ecclesiastes is a cliff-hanger, because Solomon says that the chief end of humanity is to keep God’s commandments (in order to be in relationship with Him). The only problem of course, is that Solomon failed to keep God’s commandments — and so have we! What is needed therefore, is one who can reconcile us to God by somehow bridging the gap created by our shortcomings and sins. The good news of the gospel is that this person has come, and his name is Jesus!

Because of Jesus, our ambition can find its ultimate desire, and can be redirected into areas which are secure and eternally meaningful: relationship with God, and participation in His mission to bring the truth of his love and grace to the world!

May God help us to avoid the false humility which is based in fear and pride, and be ambitious for Him!

New Sermon Series: Desiring the Kingdom

For a long time I have wanted to study the books of 1 & 2 Kings with our church.

These are historical books which tell the history of the nation of Israel after the time of King David, beginning with the “Golden Age” of King Solomon, and following the downward spiral that began with his apostasy, followed by the division of the people into two rival kingdoms, and their subsequent apostasies and exiles in Assyria and Babylon.

This history is, on the one hand tragic, and on the other hand full of hope. One of the great “narrative plot lines” that runs throughout the Bible is that of the desire for a king and a kingdom.

While on the one hand these books show us how even the best people are merely people at best, we are constantly reminded of and pointed to the promised Eternal Kingdom and its coming King: the Messiah, Jesus Christ. He alone remains as the sole hero of the stories in these books!

Through the failed kings of Israel and Judah, we are reminded of our desire for a kingdom and a king, and the ever-increasing realization that what we desire will be fulfilled in Jesus and His Kingdom.

I invite you to join us on this journey through 1-2 Kings online on the White Fields YouTube channel and Facebook page, as well as on our website: whitefieldschurch.com

Are the Anakim the Same as the Nephilim?

This past Sunday I taught a message from Numbers 14 and Joshua 14, about how Joshua and Caleb understood something about obeying God by faith: that just as we need food to sustain our bodies and keep us healthy physically, we need challenges and steps of faith in our walk with God in order to stay healthy spiritually.

Here’s a link to that message if you’d like to watch it or listen to it.

One issue that comes up in the text, which I didn’t address in the sermon is the question of whether the Anakim (the sons of Anak), mentioned in Numbers and Joshua as the giants in Canaan, are the descendants of the Nephilim mentioned in Genesis 6. In Numbers 13:32-33, the 10 faithless spies claim that there are giants in the land of Canaan who are “from the Nephilim.” What does that mean?

Who are the Nephilim?

When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.

Genesis 6:1-4

There are two main theories on who these Nephilim were:

Theory #1: The offspring of demons and human women

This theory, while perhaps seeming quite foreign to modern Westerners, has the support of extra-biblical Jewish literature. It interprets the above passage along these lines: the “sons of God” is a phrase used in the Bible to refer to angels, therefore the “sons of God” who had relations with the “daughters of men” which resulted in children being born means that these were fallen angels who manifested in physical form and had sexual relations with human women resulting in a race of half-human, half-demons – and that this is what, at least in part, precipitated the flood of God’s judgment in the time of Noah.

The challenges to this view are the question of whether it is possible for demons to have sexual relations with humans, resulting in offspring.

In Matthew 22:30, Jesus states that, “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.” However, this merely tells us that angels do not marry, it does not tell us whether or not they are capable of sexual relations with human beings, resulting in offspring.

This view is also interesting in that it seems to correspond with some other ancient stories of the “Titans” – a race of half-human, half-“gods” – who lived on Earth.

Some people see a possible connection with this in 2 Peter 2, where Peter says:

For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly

2 Peter 2:4-5

What’s interesting about this passage is that the word Peter uses for “hell” is the word “Tartarus” which was considered the deepest part of hell, reserved for fallen angels – or in Greek mythology, that reserved for the Titans. It is also possible that Peter is only referring to the judgment of fallen angels (demons) and not to any kind of unique race of mixed demon-human offspring, but it is interesting that it is tied to a discussion about the flood in Noah’s time.

Theory #2: The intermarrying of the godly line of Seth with ungodly peoples

This theory also has historical precedent, and states that the “sons of God” is a term which refers to the godly and messianic (AKA “kingly”) family line of Seth, because Genesis 4 ends with the words:

And Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and called his name Seth, for she said, “God has appointed for me another offspring instead of Abel, for Cain killed him.” To Seth also a son was born, and he called his name Enosh. At that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord.

It is from the line of Seth that the Messiah will come, and some people interpret this to mean that there was an intermarrying of the godly family line of Seth with the ungodly family lines of others like Cain’s descendents, who turned away from the Lord, not only as individuals but as clans and societies. Intermarriage between people who follow God and those who don’t is forbidden, and thus – according to this interpretation – this was a further sign of the depth of depravity at that time: that even the godly people were becoming unfaithful to the Lord, hence the fact that Noah was the only godly person to be found.

Those who argue with this position would say that it makes no sense that intermarriage would so upset God that it would precipitate the judgment of the flood, and that it does not explain the existence of the Nephilim, who must have been very tall people.

In response, those who hold this position would say that what precipitated the flood was that “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” (Genesis 6:5) God then states in Genesis 6:7 that He will blot out man from the earth, with the exception of Noah. In other words: the judgment of the flood was intended to blot out human beings, not to destroy a race of half-human, half-demons. Furthermore, they would argue that the statement about the Nephilim is simply an aside; it is merely stated that the Nephilim were on the Earth at this time during which the godly family line of Seth was mixing with the ungodly line of Cain – and this is not necessarily an “origin story” of the Nephilim.

Does Nephilim simply mean “giants”?

Another important factor in this discussion is the etymology of the word “Nephilim”. Genesis 6:4 never actually calls the Nephilim “giants”, but the Nephilim are understood to be giants because in Numbers 13:32-33, the giants in the land of Canaan are described as coming from the Nephilim.

Also, the Septuagint (Ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible {AKA: Old Testament}) translates both the Hebrew נְּפִלִ֞ים (Nephilim) and גִּבֹּרִ֛ים (gibborim, “mighty men” or “men of renown”) in Genesis 6:4 as γίγαντες (gigantes, “giants”).[1] (It may be that the Septuagint translated Nephilim as “giants” because of the account in Numbers 13, though some think Nephilim comes from the Aramaic word naphiyla for giant.[2]) (Source: [3])

If the word Nephilim simply means giants, then the statement in Numbers 13:32-33 that the Anakim are related to the Nephilim is easily understood, as simply meaning that they are giants.

The Nephilim and the Flood

One of the problems with the idea that the Anakim in Canaan are descended from the Nephilim in Genesis 6, is that in between Genesis 6 and Numbers 13 there was a giant flood that wiped out the entire population except for Noah and his immediate family.

This means that either:

  1. The flood in the time of Noah was local rather than universal, and therefore some Nephilim survived the flood
  2. What happened in the time of Noah with fallen angels having sexual relations with humans, producing half-human, half-demon offspring happened again after the flood
  3. The word nephilim is simply a general term for giants

The problem with the first option is that even if the flood was local rather than universal (which I don’t believe it was, and I the text seems makes it clear that it was not merely local), the point of the text seems to be that the Nephilim on the Earth at that time were destroyed in the flood either way. There is one other view on this, which states that perhaps a demon-child was able to survive the flood in the womb of one of Noah’s daughters, but this seems a bit far-fetched and has the same problem as the second option:

The second option brings up the obvious question of: if it could happen again after the flood, who’s to say it couldn’t happen now as well? Yet we have no evidence of any half-demon, half-human giants in the world today.

On the third option, if the word nephilim simply refers to giants in general, then it explains why Genesis 6:4 says that the Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward.

What is the connection between the Anakim the Nephilim?

Again, there are a few possibly explanations here, but since I don’t consider the view that some Nephilim survived the flood, these are the three remaining possibilities:

  1. The spies in Numbers 13 were exaggerating, and saying that the giants they saw in Canaan (the sons of Anak, AKA: Anakim) were the Nephilim of Genesis 6 in order to scare the people of Israel into agreeing with them that they should not enter into the land and fight the battles.
  2. These were indeed half-demon, half-human offspring who resulted from sexual relations between demons and humans after the flood.
  3. The spies were simply using a word which refers to giants in general. This is the way the (Jewish, pre-Christian) translators of the Septuagint interpreted it, and this is reflected in the Textus Receptus which is the basis of the King James and New King James translations in English, which don’t use the word Nephilim in Numbers 13, but rather the word “giants,”

I lean towards explanations 1 and 3, seeing in explanation 2 the same problems listed above in the previous section.

Certainly this is a tangential issue and not one related to the core of biblical faith, but I hope this helps bring some clarity and help for those who have wondered about it.

New Series: By Faith / They are Bread for Us

As we make the move into our own building (see: We’re Moving!), we will be doing a special series on the topic of faith, from March 22-April 5, 2020.

This move is going to be a stretch for our church; it takes faith to give up what you have (in our case: in the Memorial Building) for the sake of what can be, but it’s worth it.

I was recently talking with a pastor friend who has led his church through some big steps of faith, and he told me that he is a bit envious of the position we are in the right now of taking this step of faith and stretching ourselves in order to open up new opportunities for ministry, because every time he and his church have done that, it has led to so much spiritual growth and vitality in their lives.

They are Bread for Us

In Numbers 14, when the people of Israel were supposed to enter the Promised Land, but 10 of the 12 spies convinced the people not to go because it was too hard, because there were giants in the land – it was Joshua who spoke up and said,

If the Lord delights in us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. Only do not rebel against the Lord. And do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us.

Numbers 14:8-9a

What did Joshua mean that “they are bread for us”? Joshua understood that: just as we need food to sustain our bodies and keep us healthy, we need challenges and steps of faith in our walk with God in order to stay healthy!

Give me the land with the giants…

Later on, in Joshua 14, the people have entered into the Promised Land – Joshua and Caleb being the only ones from the original generation who were allowed to enter in because they were the faithful spies who were willing to obey and follow God by faith despite the challenges of the task.

In Joshua 14, we read about how Joshua divided up the dwelling places of the tribes of Israel in the Promised Land, and he gave first dibs to Caleb to choose any portion of the land he would like for himself. Here was Caleb’s response:

And now, behold, the Lord has kept me alive, just as he said, these forty-five years since the time that the Lord spoke this word to Moses, while Israel walked in the wilderness. And now, behold, I am this day eighty-five years old. I am still as strong today as I was in the day that Moses sent me; my strength now is as my strength was then, for war and for going and coming. So now give me this hill country of which the Lord spoke on that day, for you heard on that day how the Anakim were there, with great fortified cities. It may be that the Lord will be with me, and I shall drive them out just as the Lord said.”
Then Joshua blessed him, and he gave Hebron to Caleb the son of Jephunneh for an inheritance. Therefore Hebron became the inheritance of Caleb the son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite to this day, because he wholly followed the Lord, the God of Israel.

Joshua 14:10-14

At 80 years old, Caleb wasn’t interested in “taking his foot off the gas” and spending the rest of his years relaxing. Rather, he wanted to live in a beautiful place, where he could continue to fight giants.

Why? Because Caleb understood that following God by faith and taking steps of faith that challenge us, these things are bread to us.

Faith is like a muscle; it needs to be stretched and used and tested in order to remain healthy and grow.

We have such an opportunity as a church in moving into this new facility. May God use it in our lives and in our region for the benefit of many!

Were the Apostles Aware that Their Letters Were Scripture?

In 2 Peter 3:2 Peter says something very interesting:

that you may be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us, the apostles of the Lord and Savior,

2 Peter 3:2

Here’s why this is interesting: Peter is putting the commandments of the Apostles on the same level as the word spoken by the “holy prophets.”

The “holy prophets” were those who wrote the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament). The Apostles and their “commandments” came through the writings of the New Testament letters, or epistles.

We can be sure that this is the case, because later on in 2 Peter chapter 3, Peter refers to the teachers of the Apostle Paul in his letters – specifically in regard to the same topic which Peter is addressing in 2 Peter 3:2 where he refers to the “commandment” of the apostles, which is to be patient and diligent in waiting for the coming of the Lord.

And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.

2 Peter 3:15-16

Did you catch that? Peter calls Paul’s writings “Scripture”!

2 Peter was written shortly before Peter’s death in Rome, and after Paul the Apostle’s death, also in Rome. Thus, at this time, all of Paul’s letters which we have in our New Testaments were already written, they were being distributed amongst the churches, and they were considered Holy Scripture – in the same way that these Jewish believers considered the Old Testament to be Holy Scripture!

This is all the more interesting when we consider what Peter wrote in the first chapter of this letter, in which he describes how Scripture is written and inspired by the Holy Spirit:

And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. 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.

2 Peter 1:19-21

Were the Apostles aware that they were writing Scripture? Perhaps sometimes they were not, but it would seem that many times they were!

For a broader discussion of this topic, check out:

The Statistical Probability of Jesus Fulfilling the Messianic Prophecies

black and grey casio scientific calculator showing formula

With all the religions out there, how can you know that Christianity is true? How can you know whether the Bible actually gives the accurate and correct story of the world?

How do you know that Christianity isn’t just a fairy tale, made up by people to help them cope with hardship and death, and deal with life?

That’s the question which the Apostle Peter addresses in 2 Peter 1:16-21, which we studied this past Sunday at White Fields Church in the sermon titled, “Dawn is Coming” (2 Peter 1:16-21)

Peter essentially gives two evidences for why we can trust the Bible:

  1. Christianity is based on historical facts which had many eye-witnesses
  2. The record of Messianic prophecies which Jesus fulfilled

The Test & the Evidence

The Book of the Prophet Isaiah contains an incredible claim: the Lord God is contrasting himself with the pagan gods which many people worshiped in the form of idols, and God says, Here is how you will know that I am the one true God, and those so-called ‘gods’ are nothing: I will tell you the end from the beginning; I will tell you what will happen before it happens, and then when those things come to pass, that will be the proof to you that I alone am God. See: Isaiah 44:6-8; 46:9-10; 48:5-6

So God himself challenges us to put him to the test, and he goes on record predicting things about the future which will come to pass. Roughly 1/3 of the Bible is made up of prophecies, including many about the promised Messiah, which predicted various things about his identity and actions.

According to one calculation, there are 332 Messianic prophecies from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), which Jesus fulfilled.

This is why the Dead Sea Scrolls are such a big deal: they date back to about 100 years before the birth of Jesus, which shows us that the prophecies which Jesus fulfilled were indeed written before his birth, and were not later redactions or additions. See: Why the Dead Sea Scrolls Matter for Christians

Peter Stoner’s Calculations

Professor Peter W. Stoner was Chairman of the Departments of Mathematics and Astronomy at Pasadena City College and Chairman of the science division at Westmont College. In his book, Science SpeaksProfessor Stoner outlines the mathematical probability of one person in the first century fulfilling just eight of the most clear and straightforward Messianic prophecies.

Josh and Sean McDowell quote Stoner in their book, Evidence That Demands a Verdict:

We find that the chance that any man might have lived down to the present time and fulfilled all eight prophecies is 1 in 1017 (1 in 100,000,000,000,000,000).

In case you’re wondering, the Mega Millions had a $1.6 billon jackpot in October 2018, and the odds of winning it were merely 1 in 302,575,350. [1]

Stoner went on to calculate the probability of one person fulfilling 48 prophecies: 1 in 10157.

In case you’re questioning whether Professor Stoner’s math was wrong, H. Harold Hartzler, PhD, of the American Scientific Affiliation, Goshen College, writes in the forward of Stoner’s book:

The manuscript for Science Speaks has been carefully reviewed by a committee of the American Scientific Affiliation members and by the Executive Council of the same group and has been found, in general, to be dependable and accurate in regard to the scientific material presented. The mathematical analysis included is based upon principles of probability which are thoroughly sound and Professor Stoner has applied these principles in a proper and convincing way.

What Makes Christianity Unique

Along with eye-witness evidence of historical events (testimony for which people died, suffered imprisonment, torture, and the torture of their loved ones), and the prophetic record, something else that sets Christianity apart from all other religions and philosophies is the path of salvation it presents:

Whereas other religions offer ways to save yourself or endear yourself to God through doing actions, or keeping rules – the gospel message of the Bible is that you cannot save yourself, no matter how hard you try – but that God has done for you in Christ that which you could never do for yourself, in order to save you – because he already loves you.

That’s much better news, and a promise you can take to the bank.

The Fig Tree & the Tree of Life

gray trunk green leaf tree beside body of water

In 2 Timothy 1:10, Paul the Apostle tells us that Jesus came to abolish death and bring life and immortality to light through the gospel. I looked at this passage yesterday in a sermon titled “Born That Man No More May Die,” as part of our Advent series, looking at who Jesus was and why he came.

In the sermon I looked at a story that has always intrigued me: Jesus’ encounter with Nathaniel in John 1, in which Jesus declares that Jacob’s ladder (Genesis 28) was a foreshadowing of Him: Jesus is the bridge between Heaven and Earth, between mortal humanity and immortality.

What Was Nathanael Doing Under the Fig Tree?

In John 1, we read that Nathanael is skeptical when he hears that Jesus is from Nazareth; he cannot believe that the Messiah could ever come from a place like that. In my sermon, I explained that the reason Nazareth was despised was because it was a generally poor, working class town, where most of the people worked for the pagan Greeks in the nearby city of Sepphoris.

Nathanael is then introduced to Jesus, and immediately he lets go of his skepticism and is convinced that Jesus truly is the Messiah. What changed his mind? It was something that Jesus said to him as soon as they met:

Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” (John 1:47-48)

What was Nathanael doing under the fig tree? According to some Jewish rabbis, Jewish people would traditionally read the Scriptures under a fig tree because of the belief that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (the tree Adam and Eve were told not to eat from lest they die), was a fig tree, because after they sinned and their eyes were opened to the fact of their nakedness, Adam and Eve tried to cover themselves with fig leaves.

The statement about an Israelite in whom there is no deceit is likely as allusion to the story of Jacob, whose name means: “deceiver”, but after wrestling with God, he was given a new name: Israel, which means something like: “grapples with God”, “subdued by God” or “governed by God.”

These allusions to Jacob “the deceiver” whose identity was changed by his encounter with God, along with the mention of the fig tree lead many to believe that Nathanael must have been reading about Jacob in the Book of Genesis, and the fact that Jesus knew that, convinced Nathanael that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, the promised Savior and king.

Cut Off from the Tree of Life?

Speaking of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, in Genesis 3, after Adam and Eve ate of it, they were cast out of the Garden of Eden, and an angel with a flaming sword was placed to guard the entrance of it, lest they – or anyone else – eat of the Tree of Life and live forever. (Genesis 3:22)

That verse might strike you as a little bit confusing: Doesn’t God WANT us to eat of the Tree of Life and live forever?

The answer is: Yes, but not in this fallen state. In other words, it was an act of God’s mercy that Adam and Eve were cut off from the Tree of Life, lest they eat from it and live forever in their fallen state. Instead, God allowed them to die, so that he might one day redeem them through Jesus, and ultimately resurrect them unto eternal life. For us as well, it is God’s mercy that he allows us to die “the first death” (physical death) and saves us from “the second death” (eternal Spiritual death, see Revelation 21:8).

Further Discussion

Mike and I sat down this week and discussed these and other topics in our weekly Sermon Extra video. Check it out:

Is There Only One Correct Way to Interpret a Given Passage of Scripture?

white ballpoint pen on book pages

In the Gospel of Matthew, Matthew explains how different aspects of Jesus’ life fulfilled Old Testament prophecies. However, upon examinations, some of these prophecies bring up interesting questions.

Yesterday I addressed one such question: Is There a Prophecy that Says that Jesus Would Come from Nazareth? – based on Matthew’s claim in 2:23 that Jesus was raised in Nazareth in order to fulfill what was spoken by the prophets.

The Issues: Authorial Intent and Multiple Meanings

Another verse in Matthew chapter 2 brings up a different issue: In Matthew 2:13-15, Matthew describes the flight to Egypt, when Jesus and his family fled to Egypt for several years because Herod wanted to kill Jesus. (See also: Advent Meditations: Jesus Was a Refugee) In Matthew 2:15, Matthew says that when Jesus returned from Egypt, it was a fulfillment of Hosea’s prophecy: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Here’s why this is interesting: When Hosea wrote these words, he was speaking of Israel as God’s “son” whom he brought out of Egypt in the Exodus. Hosea’s intention was not to speak of the Messiah. However, what Matthew is saying, assumedly under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is that even though Hosea’s intent was merely to refer to Israel, he was also writing (by the inspiration of the Spirit) about the Son of God, i.e. the Messiah, whom we now know to be Jesus of Nazareth – even though he did not realize it at the time.

Furthermore, this means that there are two meanings and interpretations of this passage which are both correct: historically it speaks about God bringing Israel out of Egypt, and prophetically it foretells that the Messiah would sojourn in Egypt for a time.

Polysemy and Multivalence

There are several Old Testament prophecies which are used in the Old Testament in this way: while they have a historical meaning, which corresponds to the authorial intent of the original writer, they also have a prophetic meaning, which the author was unaware of, which found (or still will find) its fulfillment in the future.

For example, several passages in the prophetic books warn of an exile which is to come, but then conclude with a promise of the regathering of the people of both Israel and Judah to the land, as well as a time of peace and prosperity to follow. The return of the people to the land was fulfilled in the time following the Babylonian exile. It could also be said that this was fulfilled again through the Zionist movement in the 19th and 20th centuries. And yet, both of these were only partial fulfillments, since the ultimate fulfillment of promised kingdom of peace, justice, and righteousness will only see its complete fulfillment after the return of Jesus.

What this means is that many biblical texts are polysemic and multivalent. 

  • Polysemic: “multiple meanings”
  • Multivalence: “many appeals or values”

Scholars of textual hermeneutics, like Paul Ricoeur and Hans G. Gadamer explain the polysemy of biblical texts by saying that, unlike scientific formulas and computer codes, the texts of Scripture sometimes contain “surpluses of meaning.” [1]

This is why some texts in the Bible are not entirely controlled in their interpretation by their original human writers (i.e. authorial intent). The Hosea passage cited in Matthew 2 is a perfect example of this. What is notable here is that the different meanings do not contradict each other.

John Goldingay explains, “An element of polyvalence or irreducible ambiguity characterizes parts of scripture.” [2]

Thus, Scripture cannot be used to say anything we want it to, but we would be contradicting Scripture itself to claim that there can only be one correct interpretation of every passage in Scripture. What is important is that the different interpretations do not have contradictory meanings.

Above all, this should leave us in awe of the rich complexity and beauty of the Word of God, and it should leave us all the more convinced of its divine inspiration.

Multivalence and Multivocality

Multivalence means different appeals or values, and Multivocality means that Scripture speaks to different listeners in different voices that say different (but, again, not conflicting) things.

Christian Smith illustrates this by compiling a list of different lessons and applications which can be faithfully gleaned from Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well in John 4:

  • Christians would do well to “get out of their comfort zones” in order to preach the gospel to those who are culturally different or who live in foreign lands, but are “ripe for the harvest”
  • A person who drinks of “the living water” that Jesus offers will never again “thirst” for the unsatisfying “waters” of “the world”
  • Jesus knows every detail about our personal lives, and loves us enough to confront us with hard questions in order to lead us to repentance
  • Jesus knows everything we have ever done, and still loves us and stands ready to forgive us
  • An effective strategy for evangelism is to build relationships, ask questions, and point people to Jesus
  • Those who have truly encountered Jesus and repented will naturally respond by telling others, i.e. evangelizing
  • The fact that Jesus was physically tired shows that he was fully human
  • The fact that the woman left her water jar to go and tell people in town about Jesus models the kind of priorities we ought to have in regard to possessions and the mission of God
  • By speaking to this Samaritan woman, Jesus reveals that he has come as the Savior of people from all the nations
  • Jesus’ reply to his disciples about hunger and food shows us the proper outlook on doing God’s will and God’s work [3]

Again, this is not to say that we can make Scripture say whatever we want; we certainly cannot. Yet any of these above messages – and more – would be faithful interpretations and applications of this text.

Considering Inspirational Intent

We must not only consider authorial intent, we must also consider the intent of the inspirer: God. To do this, we consider canonical, or biblical theology: i.e. the message and narrative of the Bible as a whole.

This is what Matthew is doing  in several instances where he re-interprets Old Testament passages and applies them to Jesus; he is considering the grand narrative and message of the Bible as a whole, as a story which – in all of its “sub-stories” – is about Jesus. He applies a Christo-centric hermeneutic, in other words; one that he likely learned from Jesus himself after the resurrection when Jesus “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45), and “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27)

May God help us to understand, interpret, and apply His Word faithfully and accurately – according to His intent!