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The Problem with Red Letter Bibles

Posted by M.Ferris on

All God’s Words are Important

If you are a Bible reader, chances are at some point in your life, you’ve owned a red letter Bible. A red letter Bible is one where the words of Christ are in red font, to highlight their importance. I was reminded of this by an NPR story about a new edition of the gospels that contains no chapters or verses, but the text only. Other editions have done this previously, so it’s not brand new. If it lowers the barrier of entry for new readers of Scripture, so much the better, but I think the implications of this are beyond what most people consider. There are three things that one should consider when it comes to red letter Bibles.

1) It is an editorial decision about where to begin and where to end the red letters.

In many cases, this is obvious. Matt. 17:20, for example. He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” It’s clear where the evangelist’s introduction stops, and the quotation of Jesus’ words begins. But other passages are more difficult. John 3:16 is the most famous verse in Scripture. It occurs after (seemingly) a discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus, but where exactly do Jesus’ words end, and John the evangelist’s narrative pick up again? It is entirely possible that Jesus words end at verse 15, and the entire paragraph beginning with verse 16 is comprised of John’s words. Where to start and stop the red is thus an editorial decision, but one that subtlely directs the reader to think, “these words are the really important ones.” If John’s narrative does pick up at verse 16, however, it makes no difference whatsoever in their importance for Christians. Red letter markings undermine this fact by drawing an artificial distinction.

2) It represents a canon within a canon.

The idea of a “canon within a canon” is a term used to explain when people, groups, or traditions favor one part of Scripture over others. The effect of this is a demotion of some books of Scripture, some parts of God’s word, as lesser. (One must distinguish this from the idea that some books teach certain doctrines more explicitly or systematically than others. Were one to look for the clearest explanation of justification by faith, one would look to Romans rather than Revelation.) But just as the editorializing I detailed above involves the imposition of relative importance to some parts of Scripture, so too does the “canon within a canon.”

Michael J. Kruger describes this in explaining how New Testament scholar Kurt Aland approached the problem of knowing which books are canonical. Quoting Aland, he notes “Thus, the only way forward is to discover the “canon within the canon” by reducing the New Testament to its core truths and selecting the parts that will bring “unity to the faith.”[1]

What Aland says accords with what the Red Letter Christians states as one of their core values. “By calling ourselves Red Letter Christians, we refer to the fact that in many Bibles the words of Jesus are printed in red. What we are asserting, therefore, is that we have committed ourselves first and foremost to doing what Jesus said.” First and foremost are Jesus’ words, that is, they are to be favored over the God-breathed writings of the Apostles. Elsewhere on the site, we read, “Jesus is the lens through which we understand the Bible.” This is a reversal of fact, however. We know about Jesus from the Bible. As John says, “these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ.” The other writings of the New Testament are not a barrier or hindrance to our deeper knowledge of Christ, they are God’s own method of it! The idea of Jesus first (apart from Scripture?) in order to understand Scripture is an impossibility. We know about Jesus only through the writings of the New Testament–all of them.

It is a false dichotomy to suggest Jesus’ words must be favored over the rest of the New Testament. It is not either/or, but both. If Christians are not living according to the teachings of Jesus, the solution is not to strip away what the Apostles wrote, but “these things ought you to have done, and not to have left the other undone.” It was Paul who wrote, “Be imitators of me, even as I am of Christ.”  Red letter Bibles perpetuate the erroneous view that we must prefer and obey one part of the New Testament over others.

3) Red letter Bibles represent a view of inspiration that is problematic.

Christians have always believed that all of Scripture is God-breathed, in every part; the epistles no less than that gospels. Setting some words off in red as an indication they are more important than the other words cannot but make one think they are more inspired than others. Should Christians pay less attention what Paul wrote, because his words are not in red? We believe that the Holy Spirit is the one who inspired the writers to record what they wrote, whether it is the words of Jesus in the gospels or the words of the apostles in the rest of the New Testament. Therefore, it does not add anything to the authority of God’s word (and in fact may confuse the issue) to have some highlighted above others. There isn’t a two-tiered inspiration of God’s word.

The Manuscripts project has a noble goal in making the Bible more approachable for new readers. I applaud this. My advice would be to complete the task they have started in removing chapter and verse divisions by also removing the editorial imposition of red letters. God’s word can and will speak to hears in a monochromatic font.



[1] Michael J. Kruger. Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books (Kindle Locations 1856-1860). Good News Publishers. Kindle Edition.



The Truth of Apostolic Succession

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Does the Bible have anything to say about apostolic succession?

It does, in fact, but in a different way than what some teach or believe regarding the term. In what is likely his last epistle, Paul writes to Timothy “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.” (2 Tim. 2:4.) There is succession, but of the gospel itself and of the body of doctrine taught by the apostles. The power and authority of this message do not come from ordination or office, but that the message is the gospel of God. Mark Dever writes, “The church is apostolic, and is to be apostolic because it is founded on and is faithful to the Word of God given through the apostles. From the apostles until the present day, the gospel that they preached has been handed down. There has been a succession of apostolic teaching based on the Word of God.”[1]

In every age, the gospel comes under siege from various fronts. In the post-apostolic era, some attacked the identity of the Lord Jesus as the eternal Son of God. The testimony of Scripture is that Jesus descends from David, according to the flesh, but also that he is Immanuel – God with us. This mystery of godliness – God manifest in the flesh, is a necessary part of the good deposit to pass on to the next generation.

Later, the idea that salvation is found in the Church rather than in the person of Christ undermined the truth of the gospel. In this same epistle, Paul has written that he knows whom he has believed, not what. Salvation is vested in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ, not in the Bride of Christ. These are but a couple of examples of how the gospel comes under siege, and often by those who claim to adhere to it.

In other words, threats to the gospel very often come from those who ought to know better. The gospel, if personified, could well say, “I was wounded in the house of my friends.”

It is imperative, then, that those who know the gospel and love the gospel, be about transmitting the gospel to those who will handle it with the care and reverence it requires. Paul counsels Timothy to pass on the good deposit he received. He should carefully and faithfully teach and instruct those of the next generation. Why is this essential? The current dangers to the gospel are two-fold. The first is a focus on the relevance of the gospel itself. Several years ago, I heard a youth pastor say that the number one thing he is pressured to be is relevant. This thinking assumes that the gospel needs some modification or some adjustment before it becomes relevant. But the message of mankind’s ruin and alienation from God, and the gospel as the power of God could scarcely be more relevant. We are the ones who need change, not the gospel. Teaching doctrine clearly will demonstrate how utterly relevant the gospel is for every age.

The second danger so prevalent now is the politicization of the gospel. The gospel becomes subservient to a program of social action, and in its crassest form, of achieving legislative goals. These things may or may accord with the New Testament, but they are temporal goals, rather than eternal. The goal of conformity to Christ may well be undermined by such concerns. To transliterate the word gospel from the original gives “evangel.” Evangelicals, then, are those who hold to the gospel. When evangelical comes instead to mean a voting block, it represents a failure to transmit the message, a failure to guard the good deposit. If we make the gospel about power and authority in this world, we have failed to adhere to the apostolic message.

Those who are in a position to teach, to pass on (and there are few who aren’t in some way able to teach others), bear a responsibility to teach sound doctrine, which is all the relevance anyone needs. This is the real succession that is apostolic: the faithful proclamation of God’s truth.


[1] Mark Dever, The Church: The Gospel Made Visible (Nashville, B&H Publishing Group, 2012), p. 18-19.


Priesthood: The Other Recovered Reformation Truth

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When people think of the Reformation and its heritage, the most common thing is the recovery of justification by faith alone.  But one of the other things that Martin Luther proclaimed was the priesthood of all believers.  Luther didn’t practice this to the degree that the Reformation step-children (the Anabaptists) did, but still, this was a truth he did revive. With all of the talk about Protestants and Rome being not that far apart, we should recall that when it comes to the priesthood of all believers, the gap may be even wider than it is with justification.

Rome (and other sacramental/liturgical churches) still maintain a hierarchical structure, very much like the corporate world. You have a CEO (the Pope) and a board of directors (the College of Cardinals.) You have district managers (bishops) and regional managers (archbishops.) As some have noted, (see Stuart K. Hall, Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church, p. 90) this structure was imported wholly from the governmental organization of the empire that early church fathers were familiar with.

But when we come to the New Testament, no such things exist. No pope, no archbishop, no cardinal. Bishops we have, but they are not regional officers, overseeing all the churches of a certain area. They are elders (always plural) over one local congregation. They are synonymous with Presbyters (from which Rome and Orthodoxy have drawn priests), and their work is to shepherd a local flock. They are not rulers, but guides.

Deacons we find as well. Their qualifications are very much the same as those of elders – always focusing on the character of the man primarily, and secondarily on the work they do.  The only priests known in the New Testament are every single believer in Jesus Christ. This is where the priesthood of all believers comes from. Not only is there no hierarchy found in the New Testament, but every believer is fit to worship, and to be part of building up of the body, in love.

No hint of clericalism is found in the New Testament, nor a separate class of clergy/laity. We are all the called of Jesus Christ. (Rom. 1:6.) When it comes to celebrating the Lord’s Supper, nothing prevents a group of believers from partaking in this. No bishop or church leader is needed to officially preside or bless the elements.  Similarly, when it comes to baptism, any Christian could perform a baptism. This is some of what it means to exercise the priesthood of all believers. In pointing these things out, I do not imply that those who have devoted themselves to the work of the gospel full time are not to be honored. Indeed, as Paul says, we should esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. (1 Thess. 5:13.) We need their shepherding and care.  But I’m likewise sure that no one engaged in the work of the gospel would turn down the help of other believers.

Exercising our priesthood may show itself most clearly in our study of and handling the Word of God. Every Christian has the duty, the privilege, of reading the Scriptures for himself or herself and to apply it to their lives. We do so without requiring the intervention of any “clergyman.”  We do so dependant on the Holy Spirit, whom, it was promised by the Lord Jesus, would guide us into the truth. We do so relying on the power of the Word of God as living and active. We wield the sword of the Spirit because God Himself has put it into our hands, equipped us for battle, and said that we have a heavenly captain.

Rome still wants to maintain control of the Scriptures, and reserve for itself the “true meaning.” But at this 500th Reformation anniversary, recall (and rejoice) that the Scriptures in the hands of God’s people is a heritage to celebrate. We do so by exercising our priesthood – all of us – as equipped for our ministry by God alone.


If They Do Not Hear Moses

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At the end of Luke 16, Jesus tells a parable about a poor man named Lazarus, and an unnamed rich man. Both men die and go to different destinations. The poor man goes to “Abraham’s bosom”, commonly thought to be heaven. The rich man ends up in Hades – hell. He is in agony in the flames and cries out to Abraham for relief. There is much speculation about this parable. “Can those in hell really communicate with those in heaven? Can they, in fact, see across the divide? Interesting as they may be, those details aren’t the main point of the parable. Near the end, the rich man’s appeal to Abraham is this:

And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”

The parable isn’t about how one gets to heaven or hell but articulates a doctrine of Scripture. The rich man’s appeal is for a miracle. Send someone from the dead to warn them about this place, to tell them the truth, and then they will believe. But Abraham counters, they have Moses and the Prophets, let them hear them. Moses and the Prophets encompass all the Hebrew Scriptures, the whole of what we know as the Old Testament revelation. These are the Scriptures that Jesus turns to in his post-resurrection ministry as a witness to himself. And, on the Emmaus Road, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Lk. 24:27).

The Scriptures of the Old Testament contain the testimony of Jesus as Messiah. He is the suffering servant of Isaiah 53, the one bringing good news to the downtrodden in Isaiah 53, and the coming King Psalm 24, and the book of Daniel. The Scriptures bear witness to the truth of Jesus as Son of God and the one by whom God will judge the world.

The rich man isn’t satisfied with this answer, and says “no, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” This is an attitude that hasn’t lost currency. To the extent we downgrade the Scriptures we share this attitude. We are telling God that his word is insufficient if we demand to see signs or to have a “surer witness.”  At the end of John’s gospel, he tells his readers “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” What Jesus did while on the earth validated his identity to those first eyewitnesses. But now that he has been raised from the dead, God himself has validated his son, and he points us to the Bible as the surest witness possible. The purpose of recording these things is to enable belief, and belief in Him brings life.

At a time when so much of the church is departing from a doctrine of Scripture that affirms it as God’s Word, it is imperative for Christians to have a solid foundation in the Bible.  We help no one by offering a gospel that isn’t built on God’s revelation. We appeal to no one with an authority that isn’t that of God himself. We have no message for a sin-cursed world if it not based on God’s book. It not only behooves Christians to have a robust view of Scripture, if we do not hold to the Scriptures as God’s Word, we are prey to every doctrinal wind and wave that blows.


Getting to Know the Gospels Better

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One cannot study the gospels without the idea of harmony coming to the fore. Specifically, in the synoptic gospels, the idea of laying one gospel alongside the other two has a very long history. Beginning with Tatian’s Diatessaron in the 2nd Century, putting the gospel records side by side to see both similarities and differences can show you an awful lot. Tatian intended to highlight the fact that the gospels are one story. He reduced the 3780 total verses of the four gospels to 2769 in his “harmony” – a reduction of about 25%(!) One can see some logic in his method. The Lord Jesus did not live four different lives, each evangelist giving us but one of them. His earthly ministry, death, and resurrection are relatable as a single narrative story. What Titian’s method obscures, however, is that the Holy Spirit inspired not just one evangelist, but four. Each of the four has a distinct perspective on the life of Christ, and so attempts at harmonization can mask the diverse pictures each gospel writer provides.

In one of the books I’ve been using for gospel study, the author recommended marking in your Bible which gospel incidents (aka ‘Pericopes’) occur in which gospels. An pericope is not just a narrative of an event, or a parable, but any unit teaching Jesus spoke, or something the evangelist recorded. It can be as short as a single verse, such as Mark 14:51, the young man who flees from the garden after the arrest of Jesus. In looking at the gospels in these incidental portions, you’re better able to better compare them, and importantly, to glean from them more of what each author put there differently from his fellow evangelists. I did this, and I believe it has indeed given me a better understanding of the gospels. It isn’t a short exercise, and it requires a fair bit of grunt work, but I see it paying dividends. There are a couple of steps to doing this.

1.  Get a list of gospel periscopes. There are several online, and various folks count them differently. The one I used is from the Semantic Bible site.  This list has 355 distinct periscopes. Note that things like Matthew’s genealogy and Luke’s genealogy are counted as different. Your first thought may be, “Both Matthew and Luke contain genealogies of Jesus.” They do, but they differ enough from one another that you should ask how and why, and it makes sense to count them as different.

2. Mark your Bible with an different colored dot for where these periscopes occur. I chose purple to represent Matthew, green for Mark, red for Luke, and blue for John. Any color will do, you just need to be consistent. It took me several hours over 3-4 days to do this. It’s laborious, because you have to constantly refer back to the list, and make sure you’re in synch. This is the result:

The above is from Matthew 12, and you can see that beginning at verse 22, this pericope is found in all 3 synoptic gospels. However, with verse 31, only Matthew and Mark record the portion about the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. At verse 33, the tree and its fruit is found only in Matthew.  You can thus see how each writer frames the same story a little differently, and you begin to ask why. You ask not only about the material they include, but how they record it is significant. For example, all three synoptic gospels record the baptism of Jesus. Only Matthew contains the dialogue with John about needing to baptized by Jesus, and Jesus’ answer about fulfilling all righteousness. Why? Matthew and Luke both say that afterward the heavens were opened, (though Matthew says “the heavens were opened to him”) but Mark says the heavens were “torn open.” Why? These are examples of the subtle differences you begin to notice in the gospel records, and doing so helps you go deeper into these narratives of the Lord Jesus. Asking good questions of the text of Scripture helps you better understand God’s Word.

Another thing you notice is what material is unique to each writer. For example, all of Luke 15, and about half of chapter 16 are unique to this gospel. Why? Even without the markings I describe above, it’s fairly easy to see that a huge amount of John is unique (On the basis of verses to be found in other gospels, it’s nearly 86% of them that are found only in John.) But something else I noticed is that as the gospels progress, and Jesus comes closer to his death and resurrection, this material is found in all four gospels. This tells me what Paul echoed to the Corinthians, that what is of first importance is, “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” The atonement is the heart of the gospel, and it is the heart of the gospels. That is but one small example of the benefits of studying the gospels in this degree of closeness.

Jesus is the Logos, the Word, the one in whom God has, in these last days, spoken to us. The very words of Scripture are the way we know him. Studying these words with greater focus, greater detail, can only yield spiritual treasures.


Reading Scripture Recursively

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I’m a programmer by trade and so the idea of recursion or looping is something I use all the time. It’s the technique of repeatedly passing through a set of data, usually doing some process on each bit of data as you read it; counting, summing or sorting. The thought of applying that to the Bible isn’t immediately apparent, but there are some parallels. Many Christians set of goal of reading through the entire Bible in a year. That’s a valuable goal that yields real benefits. For one, you maintain a familiarity with all of Scripture that’s important to an understand biblical theology. Such an overview of the grand themes of the Bible is necessary and sadly lacking for many readers of Scripture.

But there’s another kind of reading that is likewise necessary, to more deeply explore a particular book of the Bible. I refer to this as recursive reading, because you pass over the same material repeatedly. Reading in this fashion isn’t a head-banging exercise to simply do it again and again. Rather, as you read, you are looking for themes to emerge, you note the writing style of the author of a book, or what words are repeated in the book. You get an understanding of the book that only comes by more or less soaking in it.

A couple of years ago, I read through Ezekiel in this way and noted that the phrase “And they shall know that I am the LORD” kept coming up.  That phrase occurs over a dozen times, demonstrating that a key purpose in the prophecy given of Ezekiel was to call the people back to the One they had forgotten. If I hadn’t read and re-read the book, that detail may not have struck me. This method works best, particularly with the Old Testament, if you read larger chunks of Scripture in one sitting. To get through the Bible in a year, you need to read about 3.5 chapters per day. I’ve found that to pick up the sort of themes and other details I’m talking about, 10-12 chapters at a time is a better amount. Doing that, you’d get through the book of Exodus in 4 days. After that, you flip back to chapter 1 and do it again. And then do it again after that. Repeat till saturated. You’ll begin to notice things and to understand in a far different way than you would by visiting a book of the Bible only once a year.

The other aid in recursive reading is to write. I’ve used a wide margin Bible for several years, and would not part with it, but if you don’t have one, or don’t want to use one, a notebook at the ready will do. I also think it’s very important to write, not type your notes.  The research around cognitive science bears out that retention and learning are simply much better when you are dealing with physical media of pen and paper, rather than electronic. My own experience, anecdotal though it may be, affirms this as well. I remember things better if I write in longhand.

Coming to the New Testament, this method is no less beneficial. The gospels are longer books, narrative in many places, and so a similar technique applies as with Old Testament books.  A concordance is a great tool, and here too, this is another area where I go old school and not electronic. If you look up a word online, it’s rare to see a list of all occurrences in a single list. If you do, there is still pagination involved.  I still use Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance quite often, and seeing the words and their occurrences shows what an online concordance doesn’t. Look at the number of times Mark uses the word “straightway” or immediately compared to the other gospel writers.

Mark is the gospel of action, and his repeated use of this word demonstrates this theme. Could you have read that in a commentary? Sure, but don’t reach for the commentary first. Go to it last, after you’ve exhausted your own reading, written what you’ve learned, and then you can compare your thoughts with someone else’s.

In the epistles, you’re dealing with much shorter books, but the benefit of going over the same ground, again and again, is no less true for these letters. Material in the epistles is concentrated theology, like a sponge that is full, but repeated wringing will bring forth more. In a book such as Ephesians, reading it through once a day for 30 days, writing, sifting, ruminating on the text – this gives you an understanding that a once a year pass through will simply not provide. What modifiers or adjectives does Paul uses when he talks about grace? Can you arrive at a definition of ‘mystery’ as Paul uses it in Ephesians? Those are a couple of examples of the sort of questions recursive reading helps you with. It’s impossible to know the Bible too well. God’s Word continues to yield treasure to the one who reads, and mining the Scriptures in this way will bring eternal wealth.



The Son of Man: Jesus’ Self-Designation as Messiah

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The term “Son of Man” occurs repeatedly in the gospels as the way that Jesus most frequently refers to himself. Why is this, and what does the term mean? The fact that the term is limited almost exclusively to the gospel records also informs the meaning of Son of Man.  There are at least three things one can say about the title, and its meaning.
Son of Man is a Messianic title. The use of Son of Man can be traced to Daniel 7:13-14, where the vision Daniel sees includes this:

“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.”

From Daniel, one can see that Son of Man is an ascription of Messianic identity. In applying it to himself as he repeatedly does, Jesus is making an overt and explicit claim to be Messiah. The second half of this passage further clarifies who Messiah is. He is the one to whom a kingdom is given, people – all people – will honor and serve him. No longer is it only the people, but peoples who will serve him, all the Gentile nations along with Israel. His kingdom is not temporal, but eternal. These things cannot be true of anyone but God. The Messiah therefore is identified as deity. No one but God is to be served everlastingly. This is important to see, because for those who aver that Jesus never made an explicit claim to be God, Son of Man is in fact just this.

When Jesus uses the term in the gospels, it comes with statements that reinforce these claims. “But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” (Matt. 9:6). Recall that the scribes had murmured to themselves that Jesus was guilty of blasphemy, for no one but God had authority to forgive sins. In this they were indeed correct, but Jesus meets this not by opposing that assumption, but by affirming that he, as Son of Man, has the authority to forgive sins, because as Daniel makes plain, the Son of Man is a title of deity.

In John 5, Jesus makes a series of statements that are almost mathematical in their implication. If A = B and A = C, then A = C. “For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will. The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father.” (John 5:21-23) This culminates in Jesus’ claim that he possesses all authority to judge. “For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man.” Here, again, the authority he has is linked to his being the Son of Man.

Why does Matthew have the preponderance of usages of the term? Messiah is preeminently the promised Messiah to Israel. He is her King and ruler. Secondly, the title also has to do with ruling on the earth, and the promises of earthly blessing are given to Israel, not to the church. This is why the usage of the term is so concentrated in those chapters where Jesus is teaching about his return and the judgment to come upon the earth. Matthew 24, the chapter when Jesus speaks of his return in power and glory, contains 6 references. The parallel passage in Luke has 4 occurrences.

Son of Man does not highlight Jesus as Head of The Church.
After the gospels, the term occurs but once in Acts, when Stephen is about to die and sees the heavens opened, and says “I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts 7:56.) Recall that is was before a Jewish council, and the high priest that Stephen is witnessing, and this, too, makes sense. Importantly, the term Son of Man occurs in none of the New Testament epistles. Why is this? Again, it is because the term refers to Jesus in his office as Jewish Messiah, rather than Bridegroom or Head of church. Paul, more than anyone else, presents Jesus as head of the church, which is his body.  It surely indicates this purpose that when speaking the body of Christ, no writer of an epistle ever references Son of Man when speaking of the Lord Jesus. Those in the body of Christ will not come into judgement to determine their eternal destiny. They have already been judged in the person of Christ on the cross. But those who are not in Christ will one day face judgement for their sins, and will stand before the Son of Man. This reflects the absence of the term in the epistles. When we come to the book of Revelation, the term reappears. And this, too, is fitting. The book has to do with judgments upon the earth, the sphere of the Son of Man’s authority. Yet because the Son of Man does not preeminently highlight Jesus in his relation to the church, this does not mean that Christians should not be interested or set aside all that it entails. On the contrary, we worship the Lord Jesus for all his manifold offices and glories.

Son of Man points to the Kingdom of God on the earth. The subject of prophecy is often fraught with difficulty and confusion. Many believers simply don’t study prophecy because it is perplexing. But I continually go back to something written by William Kelly on the topic. In his Lectures on the Book of Revelation, he notes:

“The objection to the study of prophecy arises from a root of unbelief, sometimes deeply hidden, which supposes all blessing to depend on the measure in which a subject bears immediately on one’s self or one’s circumstances. Thus when some cry out, That is not essential, I would ask, Essential to what? If they mean essential to salvation, we agree. On the other hand prophecy is essential to our due appreciation of Christ’s glory and of the glory that is to be revealed. To slight prophecy therefore is to despise unwittingly that glory and the grace which has made it known to us. It is the plainest evidence of the selfishness of our hearts, which wants every word of God to be directly about ourselves.”[1]

In other words, if prophecy is primarily about what is future, rather than the here and now, this shouldn’t lessen our interest in it. It has to do with the revealing of Christ’s glory upon the earth. When the Son of Man comes in his glory, it will be for judgment and to establish his kingdom physically and visibly. In the prophets, there are numerous passages that put forth these Kingdom conditions. The Kingdom of God is such a vast topic, and so much the substance of Old Testament revelation that it is impossible to do justice to it briefly. But one can say that among the many promises about the Kingdom, its open manifestation is certainly among them. A couple of examples illustrate this. Hab. 4:2, “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” Is. 11:9, “They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain, For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD As the waters cover the sea.” This open manifestation of the Kingdom links to the Son of Man, and  takes us back to Daniel 7, where dominion and rule are promised to the Son of Man. As you read the gospels, reflect on all the richness that this self-designation of Jesus means. If it is a promise of the glory to come, it is his glory, and therefore should interest every Christian.

[1] William Kelly, Lectures on the Book of Revelation (Bibles and Publications, Quebec, 1984), p.4-5.


Why Four Gospels?

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A question that is logically posed by readers of Scripture is, why are there four gospels? The question becomes more interesting when one begins to read the four evangelists; a striking feature is both their similarity and dissimilarity. Are these biographies of Jesus? If the Holy Spirit inspired these records, surely there should be one story, one official biography? These questions can sometimes trouble new believers, and unsettle them when they encounter the differences. They begin to wonder, what Jesus actually say? But it tends to be an unformed view of both Scripture and inspiration that is behind these questions. If we approach the gospel records with the right frame of mind, this transforms our view, and most importantly, they transform us. It has helped me to bear several things in mind when I read the gospels.

The Holy Spirit is an editor.  The four evangelists were not simply stenographers who followed Jesus around Palestine with quill and scroll, recording every utterance. Two of them, Matthew and John, were themselves apostles, and so kept company with Jesus. Mark and Luke were not among the Twelve, and so they relied on other sources. It’s clear when reading the gospels that all of them bear slight differences to one another, even in the synoptics – the first three that share a similar viewpoint. Imagine if four directors, four cinematographers, filmed an event. The resulting films would no doubt differ from one another, in what each director chose to highlight, where to cut and edit. But would these differences cause one to say, “The second director was not there, because his version differs from the first”? That would be a naive conclusion, and it is similar with the gospels. The differences between them do not indicate a failure to corroborate the evidence, but the subtleties of each gospel writer.

There is a theological purpose in each evangelist. Matthew is commonly regarded as the more Jewish gospel, appealing to the seed of Jacob. For example, the healing of the Canaanite woman’s daughter is found in Mark 7. Jesus answers the entreaties of the woman to heal her child somewhat abruptly “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Matthew’s account is a bit different. He identifies her as a Canaanite, while Mark calls her a Gentile, a Syrophoenician. Matthew also records Jesus as saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Why these differences? Matthew’s gospel consistently has this Jewish perspective, a focus on Israel, while this is far more muted in Mark. The Holy Spirit, through Matthew, is accomplishing a different theological emphasis from Mark, and the other evangelists. When we study the individual incidents themselves (often called periscopes), we again see differences and similarities among the gospels. The question of why some are included, some are omitted, is often called redaction, but it simply means that the evangelists choose the material they include, what they omit, and the ordering of it. This process is not at all inconsistent with a high view of inspiration. The Holy Spirit can choose the methods he uses to move the writers of Scripture.

Jesus’ common language was not Greek. The New Testament was written in koine (common) Greek, due to economic and political conditions that prevailed in the first century. But the Jews of Palestine did not speak Greek among themselves. They spoke Aramaic, a dialect of Syriac. The gospels are therefore already at one level of remove from the words that Jesus spoke. This, too, is not at all problematic if one remembers that the Holy Spirit is behind these records. He inspired the writers of the gospel records to write what they did, and human language is no barrier to him. He inspired what he wanted recorded about Jesus, with all the rich theological significance that the four gospels give us. If this requires you to adjust your view of inspiration, you shouldn’t fear this honest assessment of the material. Recognizing that even in the act of writing the gospels, a translation took place, in no way undermines their authority of accuracy.

Scholarship is not the enemy of truth. There has certainly been a lot of nonsense published in the name of scholarship, (the Jesus Seminar of several years back, for example), but close study of the gospel records, their sources, and textual criticism is nothing that believers should fear. Indeed, the more one does study the gospels closely, the more amazing they prove themselves to be as God-breathed documents on the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ. I’ve found a couple of books very helpful in gospel study. The first is The Historical Reliability of the Gospels by Craig Blomberg.  Blomberg is a first-rate scholar, and a Christian – something that is not a given in New Testament studies. His book is a careful analysis of why the gospels are trustworthy. The other book is W. Graham Scroggie’s A Guide to the Gospels. Scroggie’s book is a series of studies on various aspects of the evangelist’s records. It Luke’s use of Mark, Features of Matthew’s Gospel, for example. Traversing the material from several different approaches like this yields much benefit. No matter how one approaches them, the gospels deserve the attention of every believer.



TLDR: God’s truth in a post-literate world

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Probably a dozen years ago, I received a review copy of a book called Goodbye Gutenberg that purported to be the future of communicating ideas. The book claimed that the future would not be one of reliance on words and letters so much as a combination of picture and symbols that would replace the “old” system of letters, words, and sentences. I didn’t find the book compelling, and in hindsight, I wonder if it was partly due to being raised on a diet predominantly of print for teaching and learning. We certainly had movies and in grade school, those were the days of film strips and vinyl records. But for the bulk of learning, it was textbooks. And for hundreds of years prior to this, it was print on page that was the substance of pedagogy.

What I think Goodbye Gutenberg got wrong was to assume that the style of book it represented would carry this new way of teaching, yet convey the same ideas as before. But Neil Postman, the prophet of media, foresaw all of this and wrote about it with rueful warning. He opined, “a medium contains an ideological bias. And it is a fierce competition, as only ideological competition can be. It is not merely a matter of tool against tool – the alphabet attacking ideographic writing, the printing press attacking the illuminated manuscript, the photograph attacking the art of painting, television attacking the printed word. When media make war against each other, it is a case of world-views in collision.” [1] The nature of ideas communicable by pictures differs from those communicable by print. A picture is worth a thousand words only when you’re assembling IKEA furniture or the like. But pictures cannot convey the subtlety and nuance of abstract ideas. Concepts of doctrine such as atonement, redemption, propitiation, justification are difficult if not impossible to fully expand and develop except through words, and in fact, lots of them.

The title of this post is a common Internet acronym meaning, “too long, didn’t read.” There’s certainly a lot of dross online that is not worth reading, but I wonder as well whether the online preference for the visual over the lexical has made people less likely to tolerate the latter. If we become accustomed to the visual presentation of everything, even abstract ideas, we are less likely to read than to watch. I’ve often clicked on a news story only to be shown a video. This is no doubt a response to what content providers think readers (or viewers) want. It is bowing to the post-literate world. It’s not that people can no longer read, it’s that their preference is to not read for long stretches. This is post-literacy. As an example, there has been a notable decline in long-form journalism at major newspapers across the country. Web sites can track a lot of data points on their users such as how long a person stays on a page or whether focus moves to a different tab in the browser. I don’t doubt this shift to more visual content is in response to that data.

Online readers, then, have gotten used to wanting ideas in bite-sized portions. The truths of Scripture are not presented this way. The original manuscripts didn’t contain chapter and verse divisions, so even when we excerpt portions of Scripture, they are just that: excerpts of a larger narrative or presentation of God’s truth. Scripture is grasped by repeated passes through the text, and by reading deliberatively. These texts are often long. Consider the sacrifice of Isaac, introduced in Genesis 22. A ram is substituted for Isaac, and when we come to Leviticus, we see substitutionary atonement in the opening chapters of the book. Both of these of course picture the Lord Jesus Christ in his sacrificial death. In other words, the thread of a truth quite often runs through many books in both testaments. Reading widely and deeply in God’s word is the only way to learn what God has put there.  The practical illiteracy of Christians when it comes to the Bible is sadly common. Is the TLDR mentality in part responsible for this?

If you are struggling with your reading of Scripture, the prescription may be oxymoronic: read more. Marinating in Scripture will cause you to want to understand more, to know more, and your enjoyment of God will deepen. The primary means of our knowledge of who God is, what he has done, and what he will do comes through the written word of God. The online world may manifest a preference for image over words, but Christians can’t go along with that in the service of God’s truth. If any should not answer “Too long, didn’t read” it should be followers of Christ.

[1] Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York, Vintage Books, 1993), p 16.

Bible/The Church

Bible Answer Man: Wrong Number

Posted by M.Ferris on

The recent conversion of Hank Hanegraaf to Orthodoxy has caused a stir in evangelical circles, but only because of Hanegraaf’s prior ministry. As the so-called “Bible Answer Man” one would think he of all people would base his views and teaching on the Scriptures. Perhaps not. The reasons for such conversions still fall into the same sort of categories that Scot McKnight wrote about in From Wheaton to Rome: Why Evangelicals Become Roman Catholic.  The fact that it’s Orthodoxy rather than Catholicism in Hanegraaf’s case doesn’t really affect these reasons. In almost all such cases, there is always an insistence that “nothing has changed” in core beliefs. And indeed Hanegraaf made this statement. But clearly, something has changed, because he wasn’t content to stay where he was, but rather take the step of joining the Orthodox Church. Hanegraaf’s comments indicate he felt there was a lack of experience in his faith that left him wanting more. He pitches it as an embrace of life rather than merely truth. He doesn’t claim that joining the church is his conversion to Christ, (nor do I doubt he is a true believer), but if you have Jesus, he is the way the truth and the life, and therefore, you have all you need already.

It’s good to remember a few things with such cases, things that always seem to be factors. These are the common motivations behind conversion to sacramental traditions.

A desire to connect with the historical roots of Christianity. That’s a worthy and good desire, but it can’t be found in Orthodoxy. When we look at the Orthodox Church, we don’t find the church of the apostles but the church of late antiquity. The structure of a hierarchical church, with priests, bishops over priests, and archbishops and metropolitans mirrors the Roman empire, but it isn’t found in the pages of the New Testament. Nor do we find the doctrine of the apostles in the Orthodox church. Veneration of Mary, and icons are clearly extrabiblical traditions that find no place in biblical Christianity. The point was humorously made by the Babylon Bee, noting that Hanegraaf would be rebranding himself as the “Apostolic Tradition Man.” And this is where Hanegraaf and all who make such a move aren’t always forthright in their statements. They may believe they lose nothing, but only gain in such a migration, but they can’t maintain the position of Sola Scriptura and remain in their new home. Believers should most certainly connect with history, but the New Testament writings are the historical documents that comprise Christian authority, not the writings of late antiquity. If you base your faith upon the Scriptures alone, you are certainly connected with history – and with the living word of God.

A move away from the Scriptures as supreme authority. Hanegraaf would no doubt vociferously disagree with that. On his radio show, he quoted the well-known aphorism; “In essentials unity, in non-essentials, diversity, in all things charity.” But, significantly, he didn’t cite any Scripture as to why he made this move. Within Orthodoxy, there is a reliance on tradition, the consensus of the Fathers, as an equal authority alongside Scripture. But as Jaroslav Pelikan pointed out,

“Such an exhortation as ‘let us reverently hold fast to the confession of the fathers’ seemed to assume, by its use of ‘confession’ in the singular and of ‘fathers’ in the plural, that there was readily available a patristic consensus on the doctrines with which the fathers had dealt in previous controversy and on the doctrines over which debate had not yet arisen – but was about to arise. When it did arise, the existence of such a patristic consensus became problematic.”[1]

It’s fine to speak of fathers in the plural, but we also have to speak of “confessions” in the plural too, because the fathers don’t always agree. Tradition, in other words, is shifting sand, unreliable as a basis for truth. It’s impossible to hold to both Scripture as supreme authority and tradition as supreme authority. That remains a fundamental difference between the Orthodox view of authority and the evangelical view. The seven ecumenical councils are canonical for the Orthodox. But the councils aren’t Scripture, and as G.L. Prestige wrote, “The Gospels afford a collection of material for theological construction; the creed puts forward inferences and conclusions based on that material. The one represents the evidence, the other the verdict. And be that verdict ever so correct, the fact remains that it was the evidence, and not the formal verdict which was once deposited to the saints.”[2] In the Orthodox view, the conclusions are moved into the evidence column.

Elevating Experience over Scripture. It’s exceedingly common to find people expressing dissatisfaction with evangelical worship. And indeed, much of it is vapid. But the appeal of Orthodoxy is sensual, i.e., involving the senses. Smells and bells as it’s been called. At the heart of this type of thinking is the principle of Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi. Or, as the church prays, the church believes. Attributed to Prosper of Aquitaine in the fifth century, the formulation states that how the Church worships governs what the Church teaches. In other words, liturgy is the wellspring of doctrine. But that is to invert things. Our experience of worship can never inform our doctrine. Rather, our doctrine dictates how we worship. If our feelings, our experience prescribe what our beliefs are, we open ourselves to all manner of falsehood.

Many people look to Hanegraaf for answers, and therefore he has a huge responsibility. It was interesting that in the days following his announcement, a caller asked if he could explain the differences between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Hanegraaf gave a few examples of the magisterium vs. the oral and written deposit of truth (evangelicals reject any oral tradition as equal to the Bible), but at the end of his answer, he oddly backpedalled somewhat from his ability to speak on such things. “I don’t consider myself an expert, I’ve only been studying this for two or three years… so having only spent a mere two and half or three years on this subject I am not the expert. There are people that are far more adept at talking about these things than I am. But I am learning and at some point the treasure chest will be part of my heart and soul, and I’ll be able to communicate with a whole lot more instruction.” That’s an odd stance for the Answer Man.

Christians should not look to their fellow believer’s experience as any kind of rule or guide for what we believe. Scripture must test all things. Even how previous generations interpreted Scripture is not an authority. I can learn from them, to be sure. But quite often I learn they were wrong. In this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we’ve been reminded of that anew. This, apparently, is something the Bible Answer Man has forgotten.

[1] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 2: The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700) (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1974), p. 21.

[2] G.L. Prestige, Fathers and Heretics (London, SPCK, 1968), p. 3.