Category Archives: Old Testament

Is John Shelby Spong right that the Bible is unreliable?

Question:  I read an article by John Shelby Spong, a former Episcopal bishop, who seemed to question the historicity of the Bible and its authority over our lives in areas of morality.  Can you help me with his views?  Here is a link to the full article: http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/12/29/my-take-the-3-biggest-biblical-misconceptions/?hpt=hp_c2.

Answer:  Reverend Spong sees three misconceptions people have about the Bible.

Misconception One

Spong’s  initial statement is,

To me, three misconceptions stand out and serve to make the Bible hard to comprehend.  First, people assume the Bible accurately reflects history. That is absolutely not so, and every biblical scholar recognizes it. 

Let me fill you in on a little secret.  When someone says that “every” biblical scholar or pastor or parent or politician or whoever says or believes the same thing, you can know for a certainty that this is an overstatement that is hiding contrary views.  And believe me, there are contrary views among biblical scholars on Spong’s position.

There have been many books written by reputable scholars for both the Old and New Testaments that support the historicity of the Bible.  But let’s deal with some of the examples Spong uses.

Spong notes,

Abraham, the biblically acknowledged founding father of the Jewish people, whose story forms the earliest content of the Bible, died about 900 years before the first story of Abraham was written in the Old Testament. 

From this disputed fact (disputed because there are reputable scholars who believe Moses wrote the account of Abraham 400 years after his life) Spong draws the conclusion that too much legend has grown up over that amount of time to give a realistic picture of a hero in Israelite history.  He makes the same argument about Moses and Jesus and the accuracy of their life stories.  Because the account of Jesus includes miracles this must surely be, in Spong’s mind, a padding of the account to make Jesus look more powerful than he was.

But oddly, when we read the account of Moses on the life of Abraham we do not find a glorified Abraham.  We see a very “warty” Abraham who lied about his wife being his sister, who married his wife’s servant at Sarah’s suggestion in order to circumvent what God told him would happen, and who expressed fear despite God’s promises to him that he would have a son through Sarah and that God would make a mighty nation from him.  Rather than glorifying Abraham we see him in his fallen human nature struggling to believe God.  By Spong’s account we ought to see him performing miracles and walking on water after so many years of legendary addition to his life story.

But this is not the way Bible history is written.  It defies the tendency Spong fears and gives us real people.  The other assumption Spong is making about the Bible is that God did not or could not guide the transmission of Abraham’s story, or Moses’ story or Jesus’ story, for that matter, accurately, protecting it from inaccurate accretion.  Spong’s naturalistic perspective, ruling out God’s purpose and power, taints all of his alleged concerns about the Bible.

Still dealing with the historicity of the Bible, Spong then asserts,

Jesus of Nazareth, according to our best research, lived between the years 4 B.C. and A.D. 30. Yet all of the gospels were written between the years 70 to 100 A.D., or 40 to 70 years after his crucifixion, and they were written in Greek, a language that neither Jesus nor any of his disciples spoke or were able to write.

First of all, there is no reason to believe that Jesus did not speak or write in Greek, but even if he didn’t, how does that make an account of his life written in Greek therefore and of necessity inaccurate?  The logic is baffling!

It is of utmost importance, in fact, to recognize that such accounts of the life of an important person written only 40-70 years after his life and contained in thousands of existing manuscripts (there are over 5,000 existing New Testament manuscripts alone)  is unheard of for other famous individuals in history.  And it is likely that the accounts of the New Testament were written in some cases only 20-30 years after Jesus’ death.  This means there were people still alive who could refute or exonerate the accounts.  This is why Paul mentions that there were over 500 people who saw Jesus alive, or why the Gospels mention Simon of Cyrene who was forced to carry Jesus’ cross, or other individuals who could be asked about these facts.

Spong’s last historical jab is this,

Perhaps the most telling witness against the claim of accurate history for the Bible comes when we read the earliest narrative of the crucifixion found in Mark’s gospel and discover that it is not based on eyewitness testimony at all.

Spong is here assuming a view of Mark’s Gospel that sees it as a deliberate attempt to conform the life of Jesus to Old Testament prophecies.  He assumes what he wishes to prove.  But there is ample tradition and indications within Mark’s Gospel itself that it is based on eyewitness account.

Misconception Two

The second misconception Spong mentions is “the distorting claim that the Bible is in any literal sense ‘the word of God.’ Only someone who has never read the Bible could make such a claim.”  Well, of course, there are many who have read the Bible and claim exactly that.  But Spong’s evidence is that God endorses the violent judgment of unbelievers and this could certainly not be attributed to the God “everyone” knows is the true God.  And because people have misused these passages they cannot be from God.  Huh?  Again, the logic escapes me.  Has anyone misused Spong’s words?  Then they cannot be true.

Misconception Three

“The third major misconception,” according to Spong, “is that biblical truth is somehow static and thus unchanging.”  And there is something to what Spong is saying here.  There is a progression through the Bible of understanding and perspective, but it does not seem accurate to portray this as changing truth.  Because God deals with Israel in a way He does not deal with the church does not mean He is changing truth.  We deal with our children one way when they are minors and another as they mature into adults.

Spong’s final statement is,

The ultimate meaning of the Bible escapes human limits and calls us to a recognition that every life is holy, every life is loved, and every life is called to be all that that life is capable of being. The Bible is, thus, not about religion at all but about becoming deeply and fully human. It issues the invitation to live fully, to love wastefully and to have the courage to be our most complete selves.

But this only seems another way of saying that Spong has decided what being fully human is apart from Scripture, keeping the parts that fit with his perspective and explaining away those that don’t.  This kind of subjective handling of Scripture leaves one feeling that it would be best for him to simply say what he thinks is right and holy without appeal to the Bible at all.

For other articles exposing the poor logic and facts of John Shelby Spong see:

What’s Wrong with Bishop Spong?
William Lane Craig vs. John Shelby Spong on the resurrection of Jesus

John Shelby Spong’s Liberating the Gospels: A Critique

Randall Johnson


Lessons From the Old Testament: Arts and Technology

Lamech married two women, one named Adah and the other Zillah. Adah gave birth to Jabal; he was the father of those who live in tents and raise livestock. His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all who play stringed instruments and pipes. Zillah also had a son, Tubal-Cain, who forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron.  (Genesis 4:19-22)

They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”  (Genesis 11:3-4)

Then the LORD said to Moses, “See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills— to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts.  (Exodus 31:1-5)

The LORD was with the men of Judah. They took possession of the hill country, but they were unable to drive the people from the plains, because they had chariots fitted with iron. (Judges 1:19)

Where there are no oxen, the manger is empty, but from the strength of an ox come abundant harvests.  (Proverbs 14:4)

From the beginning of civilization there has been a division among those who who focus on the arts and those who focus on technology.   This is not to say that the two are opposed.  It is more a matter of gifting and because we have trouble giving value to more than one thing at a time and because we tend to value our own gifting over others, we sometimes find ourselves at odds in this area.

But the Bible values both.  Art speaks to our souls in a way that calls forth our deepest emotions and challenges us to be our most God-like selves.  Art draws our attention away from ourselves and is our attempt to put into words or pictures our sense of wonder at the glory of God’s creation.  Art connects us to the earth, to each other, and to God with a sense of appreciation.

Technology does much the same thing but with a different emphasis.  Technology is our attempt to shape our world with the creative energy of God in order to draw from it our most practical necessities.  Technology is what makes us more productive at growing food, finding shelter, providing clothing, and, of necessity, in a fallen world, protecting ourselves.

Sometimes the two are at odds with each other because of the time required to survive.  In survival mode we may prioritize art beneath technology.  But normally we find a way to do both.  We marry technology and arts together often.  A car does not have to be beautiful, but we prefer it that way because of being image bearers of the Creator who is both artistic and technological.

Sin has made it likely that we will use art and technology for wrong purposes.  When we use art to express a message of hopelessness, that may be a legitimate expression of what we are feeling, but it is not true to the reality of the gospel.  When we use technology in a way that hurts others or hurts the earth, we are not being responsible with our God-given abilities.

God is not against technology.  He is against technology that is used to accomplish selfish and human-centered needs in a way that contradicts where the real sovereignty of the world lies.   God is not against arts.  He is against arts used to lead people away from truth.  The Old Testament recognizes several examples of the proper use of arts and technology and the improper uses.  Everything, according to the Old Testament, must be seen as a good gift from God and used in accord with His desires.  This is because He loves us and loves His world and knows what is best for both.  Arts and technology are ultimately, in God’s hands, a form of worship and a form of serving others.


Lessons From the Old Testament: God’s Concern For Justice

Amos

For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not relent.  They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals.  They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed. (2:6,7)

Hear this word, you cows of Bashan on Mount Samaria, you women who oppress the poor and crush the needy and say to your husbands, “Bring us some drinks!” (4:1)

There are those who turn justice into bitterness and cast righteousness to the ground.  There are those who hate the one who upholds justice in court and detest the one who tells the truth. (5:7,10)

Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts.  Perhaps the LORD God Almighty will have mercy. (5:15)

Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land, saying, “When will the New Moon be over that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath be ended that we may market wheat?”— skimping on the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales, buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, selling even the sweepings with the wheat.  The LORD has sworn by himself, the Pride of Jacob: “I will never forget anything they have done.” (8:4-7)

Micah

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly  with your God. (6:8)

It incurs the vociferous punishment of God, makes Him sick of our hypocritical religious practices, and has drawn His most severe calls to repentance.  Injustice!  Taking advantage of those who are most easily taken advantage of – the poor, the widowed, the orphaned, the foreigner!  People who have no ability to fend for themselves!

The prophecies of the Old Testament are full of such charges and warnings of impending doom for those who mistreat the ones God loves.  Why would God be so particularly compassionate toward the poor, the widows, the orphans and foreigners?  Why does He love the underdog?  I think it is because they have the least to commend themselves to anyone else and are the most perfect examples of the spiritual neediness that we all have.  They may also be those most likely to have open and dependent hearts for God, desperately needing Him like no others seem to.

Do you share God’s heart for the oppressed?  James accurately reflects the Old Testament emphasis when he says, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”  (James 1:27)  His heart has not changed from one Testament to another.


Lessons From the Old Testament: Insincere Repentance

“Come, let us return to the LORD.  He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds.  After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us, that we may live in his presence.  Let us acknowledge the LORD; let us press on to acknowledge him.  As surely as the sun rises, he will appear; he will come to us like the winter rains, like the spring rains that water the earth.”
“What can I do with you, Ephraim?  What can I do with you, Judah?  Your love is like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears.  Therefore I cut you in pieces with my prophets, I killed you with the words of my mouth—then my judgments go forth like the sun.  For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.
Hosea 6:1-6

I’m ready to give Israel an “atta boy”  when Yahweh reads them the riot act.  They sounded so good to me, but God saw through the insincere words to their hearts and noted the absence of a key ingredient to repentance — a changed life.

We’ve all done it.  We’ve felt some guilt for our lifestyle, heard a sermon that brought us to a point of regretting our behavior, had a friend confront us and knew we needed to change, but in the end we did nothing.  We said the right things, like Israel did (maybe through one of their leaders), but we just couldn’t bring ourselves to alter our conduct.

What this suggests is that the key to real change is real repentance.  How wrong do I see my attitude or behavior?  How wicked does my own heart appear to me?  How desperately do I need forgiveness?  In short, how much do I need my relationship with God?  This is the gauge of true repentance.

Just think of the husband who says he’s sorry for using pornography, but feels some justification in that his wife doesn’t sufficiently meet his needs.  There shouldn’t be much confidence that he will change.  Or think of the fellow worker who sullies your reputation to get ahead in her boss’s eyes.  She may acknowledge to you that it was wrong, but if her underlying belief is that it is up to her to make her own success, who’s to say she won’t do it again?

God “requires steadfast love” and we only experience steadfast love when we recognize how undeserving of love we are.  “He who is forgiven little, loves little” (Luke 7:47).  And the reality is, we are in need of great, even gargantuan, forgiveness.  There is no little forgiveness with God when it comes to us.  Sincere repentance comes from the realization of supreme sinfulness and always leads to transformed behavior.


Lessons From the Old Testament: God Is in Our Midst

This is what the LORD Almighty says: “These people say, ‘The time has not yet come to rebuild the LORD’s house.’”  Then the word of the LORD came through the prophet Haggai: “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?” Now this is what the LORD Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways.  You have planted much, but harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it.”  This is what the LORD Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways.  Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build my house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored,” says the LORD.  “You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away. Why?” declares the LORD Almighty. “Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with your own house.  Therefore, because of you the heavens have withheld their dew and the earth its crops.  I called for a drought on the fields and the mountains, on the grain, the new wine, the olive oil and everything else the ground produces, on people and livestock, and on all the labor of your hands.” (Haggai 1:2-11)

God is not happy with Israel His people.  They have been back in the land after He cast them out mere years before, and already they have forgotten first principles.  And first among the first principles is that God is first.  This is not a selfish neediness on God’s part, that He would demand the Israelites put Him first so He can feel good about Himself.  This is essential for Israel’s health as individuals and as a people.  If they fail to see that God is in their midst because He loves them, and that nothing else is more important than their relationship to Him, if they put all their energy into building their own lives, there will visit their souls a poverty of spirit that will leave them empty of life and a vacuum for devilish lies.

God wants to spare them this, so He sends them a poverty of wealth.  When wealth comes into their hands, it falls through them like a sieve.  They can no more hold onto what they so desperately are clinging to than they can grasp the wind.  God makes the heavens and the earth to fight against them so that they will wake up and realize that the true source of their wealth is a relationship with their Creator and Redeemer.

They must finish building the temple!  They must not neglect the most ferocious reality of their lives — God is living among them.  The mighty Fashioner of worlds, whose immensity cannot be contained in a trillion temples, nevertheless wants to live with them.  He wants to parley with them on a daily basis.  He wants to be a part of their daily quest for food, their interaction with family, their expressions of creativity in work, and, of course, their worship.

Have you acknowledged the God in your midst today?  Have you entered into His temple like a favored guest and received His kiss on the cheek, His anointing oil on your head, and His provision of abundant food?  Does every aspect of your life radiate like spokes from His hub?  Nothing else will satisfy the deep longing of your soul.


Lessons From the Old Testament: Evil Instruments in a Righteous Hand

O Lord my God, my Holy One, you who are eternal— surely you do not plan to wipe us out?  O Lord, our Rock, you have sent these Babylonians to correct us, to punish us for our many sins.  But you are pure and cannot stand the sight of evil.  Will you wink at their treachery?  Should you be silent while the wicked swallow up people more righteous than they? (Habakkuk 1:12,13)

Habakkuk had been complaining that his own people were living abominable lives and punishment needed to happen.  There was too much injustice, too much suffering by the innocent, for God to let it continue.  But when God told him that He was going to send the Babylonians to punish His people, Habakkuk had a change of heart.  Now God was going too far, using a people even more unrighteous than his own to punish them.

There are two wrong assumptions made here by Habakkuk, and by us too, most likely.

(1) One form of rebellion, because it is more violent and despicable than another, is therefore more deserving of just punishment.  It is true that the more heinous the crime the more severe the punishment (Matthew 10:15), but it is also true that all sin is rebellion and desesrving of just requital (James 2:8-13).  Israel did not deserve to get off the hook because Babylon was more unrighteous than her.

(2) God cannot stand to be in the presence of evil.  This seems true on the face of it, but we find several times in Scripture when God interacts with, even tolerates, evil in His presence.  The most famous example is Satan (see Job 1, 2; Revelation 12:10).  And in fact, every human being with whom God fellowships is evil at his or her base (Jeremiah 17:9,10).

So Habakkuk is unjustifiably upset with God.  God does assure Habakkuk that He will punish Babylon, too (chapter 2).  But He is going to use this unrighteous, horrendously violent juggernaut of a nation to cause Israel to suffer.  He is going to do this because He loves Israel and wants to move them to righteous living.

So then, the real question for Habakkuk and for us becomes, “How do I live through the season of life where God looks like He is absent from the righteous, not answering my prayers for relief, and not doing things the way I think He should do them?”  Habukkuk‘s answer is in chapter 3.

I trembled inside when I heard this; my lips quivered with fear.  My legs gave way beneath me, and I shook in terror.  I will wait quietly for the coming day when disaster will strike the people who invade us.  Even though the fig trees have no blossoms, and there are no grapes on the vines; even though the olive crop fails, and the fields lie empty and barren; even though the flocks die in the fields, and the cattle barns are empty, yet I will rejoice in the Lord!  I will be joyful in the God of my salvation!  The Sovereign Lord is my strength!  He makes me as surefooted as a deer, able to tread upon the heights. (3:16-19)

He honestly acknowledged that present circumstances were not going to be tenable, acceptable, good.  But he was determined to believe that God was using this for good.  And because of this truth he was going to rejoice in the God of his salvation.  He was not going to rejoice in his sufferings, but in what God was going to do by way of showing off His salvation.  He believed that God was going to prove right and fair in the end and more wise than Habakkuk in His determination to bless those He loved.

Evil instruments in God’s righteous hand means that the evil instrument does not get the last word, but the righteous hand does.


Lessons From the Old Testament: Not by Might, nor by Power

Zerubbabel displays a plan of Jerusalem to Cyr...

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So he said to me, “This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the LORD Almighty. (Zechariah 4:6)

One of the consistent messages of the Old Testament is that despite the fact that we are made in God’s image, despite the fact that we can do amazing things with the abilities God gave us, and despite the fact that God loves us immensely, when it comes to accomplishing the purposes of God we are severely handicapped.  God communicated this to Jacob when, after wrestling with him all night at Peniel (Genesis 32:22-32), and after abiding Jacob’s lies and other means of making his life work out the way he wanted it to, He finally touched Jacob’s hip and disabled it.  Jacob needed to know that he could not depend on his own resources to accomplish even what he wanted to accomplish, much less accomplish the purposes of God.

This is the reason for David’s frequent self-description in the Psalms as “needy” (Psalm 40:17, for example).  This is why we read in the Psalms, “His pleasure is not in the strength of the horse, nor his delight in the legs of the warrior; the LORD delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love (Psalm 147:10).”

And when God is instructing His people Israel about the restoration of their exiled nation, He makes a point of noting to Zerubbabel, one of His appointed leaders, that it is not Zerubbabel’s strenth or might that will accomplish this.  Does this mean that Zerubbabel’s leadership is unnecessary?  Absolutely not!  Rather, it is an invitation to Zerubbabel and all leaders to look to God for strength and wisdom to do what is required.

We recognize that as a people we are hampered by our own sinful ways of responding to others, our own inner fears and failures, and our own lack of wisdom, at times, to always choose the right path.  And there are some obstacles that we cannot overcome no matter how righteously and wisely we are acting.  All of this combined makes it imperative that we look to the Lord for help.

Hezekiah did not have the resources to deal with attacking Assyria when they stood outside the walls of Jerusalem demanding surrender (2 Kings 18).  He brought the problem to Yahweh and Yahweh delivered His people.  Jehoshaphat faced much the same dilemma (2 Chronicles 20) and trusted in Yahweh in much the same way Hezekiah did.

Other leaders, however, trusted in their own wisdom and reacted out of their own selfishness and woundedness and failed to properly lead their people.  The examples of this are unfortunately very much more prominent in our biblical record than is comfortable.  Saul chose to sacrifice without Samuel, David chose to stay at home instead of going to war and committed adultery and murder, Solomon married into idolatry, his son listened to the advice of his young contemporaries and threw the kingdom into division, and the list goes on and on.

When will we realize that it is not by our might nor by our power that God’s purposes will be accomplished?  Rather, “those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles;  they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint” (Isaiah 40:31).