Jesus tells the church that having good theology and avoiding evil is not enough. Jesus also wants our love: love for God and love for neighbors. Brian Watson preached this message on January 24, 2021.
Words matter. They can be used for good or ill. How then can we use our words wisely? The book of Proverbs says a great deal about words used wisely and foolishly. Brian Watson preached this message on those passages on September 13, 2020.
Jesus sends his disciples out to tell the good news of the kingdom of God and to heal people. Though they will be met with opposition, some will receive their message and experience peace. Jesus promises that nothing will ultimately harm his followers and that they are blessed beyond measure. Pastor Brian Watson preached this sermon on Luke 10:1-24 on February 24, 2019.
The church is God’s household and temple. It is also a guardian of truth. That’s why right theology and right behavior matter in the life of the Christian and the church. Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 Timothy 3:14-16.
Today, we’ll continue our study of 1 Timothy by looking at an important passage, a beautiful passage, even. But it’s one that confounds many people. That’s because this passage speaks both about God’s grace and the need to protect the church from wrong teaching and sin. It will take a little while to explain why both God’s grace and the need to stand against wrong beliefs and behaviors confound people.
Let’s start with grace. Many people don’t understand the concept of grace. The reason that God forgives people who have done wrong is not because they have atoned for their own sins or righted their wrongs. It’s not because those because those people had more good deeds than bad deeds on their balance sheets. The reason that God forgives people who have done wrong is because of grace: That forgiveness is offered to sinners freely. It’s not something earned, deserved, or merited. It’s something that is given as a gift by a merciful God.
I think true grace is poorly understood because we don’t live in a very gracious society. People are perhaps even more harsh and judgmental today than they were years ago. This is true for probably many reasons. I imagine the fact that we are more isolated from one another and that we have instant communications to vent our fury contributes to our graceless culture. But the real reason we experience less grace in America is probably because so many people haven’t been transformed by God’s grace. So, people just don’t understand grace.
But if you start to tell them the concept of grace, they may assume that those who are forgiven by God either weren’t so bad to begin with, or that they hadn’t done things that were so bad. But Christianity doesn’t teach moral relativism. It says that while not all moral acts are equal, sin—failure to be, desire, and do what is right—is real, and one bit of sin in our lives is enough to earn condemnation. So, we can’t say any sin “wasn’t so bad,” because it’s an affront to a perfect, holy, righteous God, who at the end of history will not tolerate sin corrupting his creation and harming his people. God hates sin, and God’s people should, too.
That’s why anyone who truly understands God’s grace knows that we shouldn’t take advantage of it. The apostle Paul once asked a question he thought people might be asking. After he explained that God’s response to sin is grace, which comes through Jesus, and that God’s grace makes God look great, loving, merciful, generous, patient, and kind, Paul asked, “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” (Rom. 6:1). He raised that question because some people might think, “If God can forgive any sin, why does it matter what I do?”, or, “If God can forgive any sin, and his forgiveness makes him look good, then let’s sin even more so his grace can abound even more!”
Paul’s answer is that sin is contrary to righteousness. It’s contrary to God’s ways. If you’ve been forgiven of sin and you’ve come to know who God is, you shouldn’t want to keep sinning. You should realize that certain things aren’t compatible with God’s design for life. You should realize that dispositions of the heart and certain activities can lead us away from God or can diminish the amount of praise and honor that we might give to him.
So, Christianity teaches that God can forgive all wrongs and make all things right and it teaches that there are real rights and real wrongs, and that we should seek to eliminate those wrongs from our lives as we focus more and more on the rights.
And this is where it confounds people, including Christians. Some people think that grace and forgiveness are opposed to upholding moral principles or rules. That’s because in this world, many people see only rules and no forgiveness. And if you have that, you have judgmentalism, legalism, harshness, and, really, no hope. A world like that would be hard to endure. Other people think that everything should be about doing away with rules, or that everything should be forgiven regardless of whether a person ever changes. But if there were no rules and no standing up for what is right and wrong, things would descend into chaos.
Christians need both grace and unchanging moral principles. The church needs both forgiveness and rules. Without both, we will lose our way. And, fortunately for us, the message of Christianity is a message about truth and grace, or objective moral laws and forgiveness. You can’t really have one without the other.
I’ll explain more as we look at today’s passage, which is 1 Timothy 1:12–20. We started to look at this book of the Bible a couple of weeks ago. If you missed the previous two sermons, you might want to listen to them to get caught up. But if you’re joining us for the first time during this series of sermons, I’ll bring you very quickly up to speed. This letter was written by Paul, a special messenger of Jesus, to his younger associate Timothy. Paul was a Jewish man who did not believe that Jesus was the Son of God or Messiah when Jesus was alive. After Jesus was crucified and then resurrected, and after he ascended to heaven, Paul was so opposed to Christianity that he helped arrest and even kill Christians. Yet Jesus appeared to Paul while he was on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus, and Paul’s life was changed. He went from being Jesus’ greatest persecutor to Jesus’ greatest spokesman. He traveled around the Roman Empire telling both Jews and Gentiles that the only way to be right with God was to turn from sin—to repent—and to turn to Jesus and trust him and his work on their behalf.
Paul’s preaching was the tool that God used to bring Timothy to faith. Timothy probably became a Christian during Paul’s first visit to his city, Lystra (Acts 14). The second time Paul came to Lystra, Timothy became his associate. He either traveled with Paul or stayed in cities to minister to Christians there when Paul had to travel elsewhere. At the time that Paul wrote 1 Timothy, Timothy was in Ephesus, a significant city in the Roman Empire, in the western part of what is now known as Turkey. Paul told Timothy to stay in that city because there were false teachers who had been affecting the church. They were obsessed with “myths and genealogies,” which they used as foundations for their “speculations” (1 Tim. 1:4). They also misunderstood and misapplied the law that God gave to Israel, which we read in the Old Testament.
Last week, we talked about how those things were contrary to the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. But though Christians are not bound by the Old Testament law, that doesn’t mean they can do whatever they want. The moral principles that are reflected in that law, particularly in the Old Testament, are “contrary to sound doctrine” and “the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted” (1 Tim. 1:10–11). In the verses before the passage we’ll read today, Paul lists a number of sins that are against right beliefs and the message of Christianity. And at that point, you may think, “Well, Paul talks about grace and not being a legalist, but he sounds kind of legalistic himself.” But Paul knew what it was like to receive God’s grace, and that’s why he so’s insistent that people cannot be made right with God through their own obedience.
With all that in mind, let’s first read verses 12–17:
12 I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, 13 though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14 and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15 The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. 16 But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. 17 To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
Here, Paul thinks back to when he first became a Christian. He said that God had strengthened him and appointed him to work for him, even though he had once blasphemed, or slandered, Jesus and had persecuted his people. Paul had approved of the death of the first Christian martyr, Stephen, and had arrested Christians (Acts 7:58–8:3). In the book of Acts, Paul says,
9 I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10 And I did so in Jerusalem. I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. 11 And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities (Acts 26:9–11).
This is why Paul says he was “a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent” of Jesus. This is why he calls himself “the foremost” of sinners. He was opposed to Jesus in the strongest way possible, because he thought Christianity was a lie and that Jewish Christians deserved to die.
But Paul’s life changed because he received mercy. Why did Paul receive this mercy? He clearly wasn’t looking for a relationship with Jesus. Did he deserve forgiveness? Was he so good that God chose to change him? If you only read this passage, you might think Paul somehow merited salvation. He says he “had acted ignorantly in unbelief” and that Jesus strengthened him “because he judged me faithful.”
Paul acted “ignorantly in unbelief” because he didn’t believe Jesus was who Christians claimed he was. He didn’t believe that a man could also be God. He didn’t believe that Jesus was the anointed king that the Old Testament promised would come. So, he obviously wasn’t a believer. He didn’t know better. Does that mean he was responsible for doing what was wrong?
I don’t think it does. There are many times when we could be held accountable for illegal actions even if we didn’t know a law existed. The law doesn’t change whether we know it or not. Paul didn’t know that Jesus was the Messiah, but he should have known that. He should have known, from his extensive knowledge of the Old Testament, that Jesus had fulfilled God’s promises. He should have known that Jesus is the key that unlocks all the mysteries and complexities of the Hebrew Bible. So, I don’t think Paul means that somehow his ignorance wasn’t sinful or blameworthy. And I don’t think he means that people who knowingly commit sins are somehow beyond God’s mercy and grace. If that were the case, how many of us could be forgiven for things we did that we knew to be wrong?
Paul may be contrasting himself with these false teachers. They heard the true message of Jesus and they claimed to know him, only to teach false doctrine later. They were willfully teaching a false doctrine even though they claimed to be wise. In his former life, Paul was following his wrong beliefs with what we might call a “good conscience” (verse 5). He really thought he was doing the wrong thing. But perhaps these false teachers were not teaching false doctrine with a good conscience. That doesn’t mean they couldn’t repent and turn to Jesus. It just means that the more they rejected the truth, the more unlikely such repentance would be. The best commentary I read on this truth is by Thomas Lea and Hayne Griffin: “God can bring to salvation willful sinners as well as ‘ignorant’ sinners, but both groups need to come to God in faith and repentance. The more willful the persons, the less likely is their repentance.”
At any rate, Paul calls himself the foremost of sinners, so it’s not like he’s trying to say, “Yeah, I was against Jesus, but I wasn’t as bad as those other guys!”
And Paul says that Jesus called him to his service “because he judged me faithful.” This sounds like Jesus took a good look at Paul and said, “That guy’s faithful, I’ll make him my apostle.” That wouldn’t make sense, since Paul acted in unbelief and is the chief of sinners. What it must mean is that Jesus knew Paul would be a faithful, or trustworthy, minister of the gospel after he came to faith. Jesus knew that Paul had certain strengths: he knew the Scriptures, he was an unusually driven individual, and he had a background in the Gentile world of the Roman Empire since he grew up in the city of Tarsus. But this was all part of God’s plan. All of this was a gift.
And the gift of salvation can only be received by faith, not by willing one’s self to be more obedient, or to try harder. It doesn’t come from being more religious or more self-righteous. It doesn’t come through obedience to the Old Testament law, since no mere human being obeyed perfectly. It can only be received by faith.
That’s why in verses 12–20 there are seven appearances of the Greek word that means “faith” or related words. It’s hard to see in English, but the Greek word that means “faith” can also be translated as “trust.” So, when we read “faithful” (verse 12) and “trustworthy,” we’re looking at two translations of the same Greek word. To have faith, or to believe, is to trust something to be true. More importantly, it’s trusting a person, Jesus. To lack faith, or to be in unbelief, is to fail to trust that something is true. It may be to fail to trust that Jesus can fix your problems and put you in a right relationship with God. Paul used to rely upon his own religious efforts to be righteous (Phil. 3:4–6). But then he came to see that real righteousness only comes through faith in Christ (Phil. 3:7–9). That’s because even the most law-abiding, religious-rule-respecting person fails to obey perfectly. God’s standards for moral purity are so high that we don’t measure up. And more than just obedience, he wants our hearts. He wants our love and trust and worship. We don’t naturally give him those things.
But the amazing thing is that Jesus came into the world to save sinners. As the Son of God, Jesus has always existed. He is the one through whom God the Father created the world. He is the one who sustains he universe by his powerful word (Heb. 1:2–3). But he left heaven to come to Earth to become a man, to experience the pains of being a human being, and to be mistreated, mocked, rejected, betrayed, arrested, tortured, and killed. And this was not because he deserved any of that. No, we do. Yet he came to rescue sinners.
The amazing thing is that Jesus would take Paul, who was cheerfully rounding up Christians and having them killed, and make him his messenger and even his trophy. That’s what Paul says. Look at verses 15 and 16 again: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” Jesus came to rescue the worst sinner and make him a trophy of grace. Paul stands as an example of Jesus’ “perfect patience.” Jesus could have put an end to Paul. He could have destroyed him. And in a way, he did. But he didn’t do that through killing Paul and sending him to hell. No, Jesus just hijacked his life and changed it, giving him faith, repentance, and eternal life.
And that’s why Paul breaks into a bit of praise in verse 17: “To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” It’s not clear whether he’s referring to Jesus or God the Father here. That’s because in Paul’s mind, you can distinguish between the Father and the Son, but they are so closely associated that you can’t think of one without the other. They, along with the Holy Spirit, are the three Persons of the one God.
Why would Paul praise God so much? I’m sure it has something to do with Paul remembering his past. Here he is, about thirty years after he persecuted Christians, yet he still refers to himself as the chief of sinners—in the present tense! I wonder how often he could see in his mind’s eye that day when Stephen was killed in front of him, while he approved. I wonder if he could hear the cries of Christian he arrested. I wonder if he could see the faces of the Christians against whom he cast votes, sending them to their deaths. I imagine it would be very, very hard to forget those things.
But every time Paul remembered such things, he must have turned his mind to Jesus. How could Paul deal with the fact that he had approved of the killing of innocent Christians? The only way, as far as I can see, was for him to reflect on what Jesus had done for him. Listen to what Paul writes in Galatians 1:13–17:
13 For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. 14 And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. 15 But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, 16 was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.
Again, Paul says he “persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it.” But he also says something interesting: God “had set me apart before I was born.” God had plans to bring Paul to himself before Paul was born. God had always known what Paul was going to do in his persecutions. God never learns any facts, because he has always known them. But God chose to use Paul, the persecutor, to become his prize.
That must have been a comfort to Paul. He knew that even though he had done wrong, he knew that God had chosen him, had plans for him, and loved him. And God sent his precious Son to come to the world to save Paul, to bear the punishment that he deserved. Though Paul may never have actually killed anyone himself, he was associated with the killing of God’s people. And, in the end, whether someone orders a killing or carries it out, does it matter? Which is worse? Paul knew he was responsible for his role in trying to destroy the church.
Now think of this: What kind of punishment would you want to dish out to someone who killed someone you love? What kind of punishment would you give to someone who ordered the deaths of your children? You can imagine your anger, your desire to punish that person.
But this is what is amazing about God: Though Paul deserved that punishment, he didn’t get it. Instead, his punishment fell upon Jesus. God’s perfect, one-of-a-kind unique Son died to pay for the sins of those who had or would persecute him, those who did or would betray him, those who did or would ignore him and disobey him. He paid for their sins if—and this is a very big if—they turned to him in faith, repenting of their sins. Another way of saying this is that Jesus’ death can cover an infinite number of sins, but it is actually applied only to those who turn to him in faith, regardless of what they have done in the past.
Paul must have thought deeply about these things. I’m sure the pangs of his former sins would rise up in his heart from time to time. He might have felt the occasional wave of grief crash upon the shore of his anxious soul. But it was at those times that he would turn to the truth that God chose him, made plans for him, sent his Son to die for him, and even had his Son appear to him while he was trying to bring more damage to his Son’s church—all so that he could be saved from condemnation and used in God’s kingdom. All of that is grace.
That is something to sing about. That is something that should cause us to praise “the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God.”
Paul never forgot that he was a sinner. But that didn’t mean he couldn’t boldly speak out against sin. Let’s read verses 18–20:
18 This charge I entrust to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies previously made about you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, 19 holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith, 20 among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.
Paul was entrusted with the gospel, the message that Jesus is the Son of God, the crucified Messiah, who came to save sinners. And this same message was entrusted to Timothy, about whom prophecies were made. What those prophecies were exactly isn’t clear. It’s possible someone had prophesied what Timothy would do. It’s also possible that prophesies led Paul to Timothy. Regardless, Paul told Timothy that he should “wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience.” Paul knew that Timothy would be involved in spiritual warfare. He wouldn’t wield the weapons of this world, like a sword. No, he would use things like Scripture, prayer, and reliance on God’s power. And he would have to fight to hang on to what is true and right, particularly in the face of opposition.
Paul mentions two people who “made shipwreck of their faith.” Two men Hymenaeus and Alexander, caused problems. Literally, they made “shipwreck of the faith”—Paul probably means they were trying to destroy the Christian faith by what they were saying. So, Paul says he “handed [them] over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.” We don’t know who these men were. Hymenaeus is likely the Hymenaeus mentioned in 2 Timothy 2, where Paul says that he and a man named Philetus “have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some” (2 Tim. 2:18). If that is the case—and we can’t be sure—then Hymenaeus later taught the resurrection of the dead had already occurred, which is strange since Christianity teaches that this resurrection will happen when Jesus returns. It’s something you couldn’t miss. He might have taught that some people had missed out. Alexander was a common name, and though Paul mentions an Alexander in 2 Timothy 4:14, a coppersmith who did him great harm, we can’t be sure if it’s the same man. Regardless, it seems that these men were causing such problems that Paul had to excommunicate them.
Paul uses the language of “handing someone over to Satan” in 1 Corinthians 5, when he tells the church in Corinth that they should remove an immoral man from their church. The idea is that such a person should be treated as an unbeliever, and they should be removed from the protection of the church. When they are outside of the church, they will be treated as though they belong to Satan. It could be that they might be overcome by guilt and run back to the church, seeking forgiveness. It could be that Satan could afflict them with spiritual attacks or even physical ailments. We don’t know. But Paul acknowledges that God can use Satan to discipline wayward people, driving them to despair so that they might learn not to oppose God. We don’t know if these men ever turned to Jesus truly or if they were never Christians to begin with. The point is that there are times when divisions occur in a church and people need to be removed. This is not opposed to the gospel of grace.
Christians should be able to say that certain things are right and others are wrong. When we do that, we are always aware of the fact that we are sinners saved by grace. We should never forget that. But we still must say, “That is right, and this is wrong.” The world has a hard time understanding that. Non-Christians might quickly say, “Yeah, but you’ve done that wrong thing, too!” And we have to say something like, “Yes, I have, but it was wrong then and it’s wrong now. Yes, I was forgiven for it, but it’s against God’s design for our lives; therefore, it’s destructive, and I don’t want you or me to do whatever is destructive.” The fact that we’re sinners saved by grace doesn’t mean we can’t speak out against sin now, even if it causes a bit of internal tension.
Paul knew he wasn’t more deserving of grace than Hymenaeus and Alexander. The difference is that Paul turned away from his unbelief and attacks on the church. Hymenaeus and Alexander hadn’t, so Paul removed them from the church. And he told Timothy to fight the good fight, to guard the gospel, to make sure that no one would bring dishonor to God’s church or distort the message of forgiveness found only in Jesus.
Now that we’ve gone through this passage, what have we learned?
This passage teaches that we can think we’re in the right when we’re not. Paul thought he was right to persecute Christians. I’m sure he read his Bible and prayed to God and felt he was doing the right thing. But we can still be in the wrong. Even the most religious people can be opponents of the gospel. Perhaps the most religious people are often enemies of the gospel. All this means we must be careful about our ideas. We must truly check the Scriptures, consult with other Christians, and continue to pray for God’s guidance and wisdom.
This passage also teaches that God can correct us, even the worst of sinners. Maybe you’re feeling like you’re one of the worst. Maybe you’ve wondered if God could forgive you for that thing you did, whatever it is. Think about the example of Paul. And he’s not alone. The Bible is full of stories of great sinners becoming great saints. If you’re not a Christian, I would love to talk to you about Jesus and answer any questions you might have.
This passage also teaches us that after coming to faith, we have a duty to guard the truth. We have a duty to guard the conduct of the church. There will always be opponents of the gospel. Even the most religious people can get in the way of the mission of the church. That’s why we need to fight the good fight. God has never promised us something that is easy. But he has given us a great task, to hold fast to the gospel. There is no better news than this: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
- All Scripture quotations, unless indicated otherwise, are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Thomas D. Lea and Hayne P. Griffin, 1, 2 Timothy, Titus, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 74. ↑
- The Greek word that means “faith,” “belief,” or “trust” is pistis. The Greek word translated as “faithful” or “trustworthy” is pistos. The Greek word translated as “unbelief” is apistia. The Greek word translated as “to believe” is pisteuein. ↑
Christ Jesus came into the world to save the worst of sinners. This is the amazing truth at the core of Christianity. Yet that grace isn’t opposed to standing firm against false teaching and sin. The church needs both grace and truth, as the apostle Paul well knew. This sermon on 1 Timothy 1:12-20 was preached by Brian Watson on May 6, 2018.
This past week, we had a memorial service. It was somewhat typical for a church service. A lot of the people there are churchgoers or used to be churchgoers. People generally dressed appropriately for the occasion. And that’s usually how things go. But several years ago, I was part of an interesting memorial service at my last church, where I was associate pastor. A man named Henry had died and his family came to our church because they needed a place where they could have a service. Henry wasn’t a member of that church. His family and friends were not members of the church. But the senior pastor agreed to conduct the service because he thought it would be a good opportunity to tell people about Jesus.
So, on that Saturday, we had an entirely different congregation show up at our church. The service started late because at least half the group was outside smoking. As I remember it, there were a lot of people in denim and leather. During the service, there was an opportunity for anyone to share memories or thoughts about Henry. One man stood up and said, “The thing about Henry is, he stuck to his roots. No matter what, he was true to his roots.” That was about all he said. Now, from hearing people speak, I got the sense that Henry touched many lives. He seemed to be a good friend and the people there loved him. But this friend, the one who stood up and spoke, didn’t say what Henry’s roots were. I suppose his friend meant that Henry was true to himself, a “what you see is what you get” kind of guy who was loyal to the people around him.
Who among us wouldn’t want someone to say at our funeral, “He stuck to his roots”? When we first hear that, it seems like a good thing. It sounds like this person didn’t compromise. No, he stuck to his guns. He didn’t sell out.
But we’re only as good as our roots. I don’t mean historical roots, or genealogical roots. We all have those, and sometimes they’re not good, but we can move away from them.
What I mean is that each one of our lives is rooted in something. Our lives are based on something, they’re built upon some foundation. Usually, this is what we believe is true or what is most valuable to us. For Christians, that root, that foundation, is Jesus Christ, our Lord. Today, in a passage from Colossians, we’re going to see how Christians need to stay rooted in Christ by continuing in their faith, avoiding all other philosophies and religions, and remembering the gospel.
Today, we’re going to be looking at Colossians 2:6–15. This is part of a letter that the apostle Paul wrote to a group of Christians in the city of Colossae. Let’s start by reading the first two verses:
6 Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, 7 rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.
In the first two verses of this passage, Paul tells the Colossians to walk in Christ as they have received him. “Received” is a technical term that refers to receiving the teachings of Christ. The Colossians have heard about Jesus and they have believed in him. So, Paul tells them to continue to follow Jesus as their Lord. They are supposed to be rooted in him and built up in him, as they are established in the faith, just as they were taught. This kind of life should result in an abundance of thanksgiving.
This passage teaches us something very important about Christianity. It shows us that making a commitment to Jesus, professing faith in him, is merely the beginning of a relationship with God. Real faith, or trust, in Jesus is not one moment in your life. Real faith, the kind that unites you to Jesus and puts you into a right relationship with God, is a lifelong thing. We need to continue in our faith and live as though Jesus is the Lord of our lives. Jesus should be our King, our Master, the one who “commands our destiny” as we just sang. When Paul says, “built up in him,” he implies that we are a work in progress. We are supposed to grow into what God wants us to be as his children.
These two verses alone also show that salvation should lead to thanksgiving. Christians, we should be thankful that God has saved us out of a dark future of condemnation and a bleak present of a meaningless, hopeless life. As Paul says in Colossians 1:13–14,
13 He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
And this passage touches on a very important theme that runs through the whole Bible. It is the theme of the temple. The church is God’s temple. We are supposed to be the “place” where God dwells on earth, where God is worshiped, and where the forgiveness of sins can be found. I think that’s why later Paul says that we—together, as the body of Christ, as the temple of the living God—have been filled by and in Jesus. Our purpose is to glorify God by worshiping him in all areas of our lives. And our lives should be marked by thanksgiving as we respond to the gospel of grace. We who were once dead have been made alive in Christ. We are now his servants and he is our Master. For that reason, we shouldn’t let anything else take us captive.
That is why Paul warns the Colossians not to be taken captive by any other philosophies. Let’s read verse 8: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” If we are to stay rooted in Christ, we must avoid all other empty, deceitful, rival philosophies. Paul doesn’t condemn all philosophy. After all, the word simply means “love of wisdom.” Paul has just told us in verse 3 that “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” are hidden in Christ. The kind of philosophy that Paul warns about is the philosophy according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. The key is that these philosophies are described as “empty deceit.” They are empty because they cannot fill us up the way that Jesus does. And they are deceitful because they are not true.
We know that there are a lot of manmade philosophies out there. And these philosophies are godless ones, such as naturalism, the view that there is no God or anything supernatural, or scientism, that all of reality can be explained through science. These are essentially worldviews in which God does not exist, and all can be explained by science or by human reasoning. In Colossae, the “empty philosophy” might have combined Jewish regulations, such as dietary laws and circumcision, with mysticism and a form of asceticism. If you look at the next passage in Colossians, verses 16–23, you can see that. The Roman Empire was full of many different religions, and there might have been a temptation for these Christians in Colossae (a city in what is now known as Turkey) to add other religions or philosophies to Jesus. Certain people in Colossae might have believed that these things were necessary in order to have a right standing with God. But Paul says that the Colossians need nothing other than Christ.
It’s a little harder to know what Paul means when he writes about philosophies according to “the elemental spirits of the world.” The “elemental spirits” can either mean the physical elements of this world, such as air, earth, fire, and water. They can also mean spiritual beings like demons. Perhaps the best way to understand this phrase is to see it as both. Unbelievers worship the creation instead of the Creator. These “elemental spirits” somehow represent idols, or rivals to God. Paul could have meant that these “elemental spirits,” or “elemental principles,” were being taught by some false teachers. Ultimately, false teaching and false religious practices are rooted in the demonic realm. They belong to Satan, the father of all lies (John 8:44).
In our day, many empty and deceitful philosophies try to usurp the throne of Christ. Any form of idolatry is a rival to Christ as Lord. Obsession with romance, wealth, fitness, or politics can prove to be an empty philosophy.
There are many false teachings that creep into the church, like the postmodern thought that no one religion can be true, or that all religions lead to the same place, or that everyone is saved and there is no hell. There are other false teachings that become popular, such as New Age teachings. The specifics come and go, but they all tend to do with finding spiritual healing and peace outside of Jesus. And there are many false teachings that attempt to say that Christianity is false. I like to call this “Dan Brown history.” You know the story: there were many competing Gospels, and the Church decided which Gospels to keep and which ones to cover up.
I realize that there are many people who don’t regard themselves as religious, or who don’t think they have become captive to any philosophy or ideology. I think all of us are religious. We all think something is ultimate, and that something doesn’t require any other explanation. That something tends to be our god. And people seem to do a lot of irrational things.
This week I heard about a man named Braco the Gazer. He’s a Croatian man who appears to thousands of people and just gazes at them for several minutes. He doesn’t speak. He doesn’t stare. He just sincerely gazes. And people claim that his gaze gives them feelings of love and light and energy and heat, and that his gaze can even bring healing.
Perhaps such things have a kind of placebo effect. But they don’t unite us to God. They don’t make us right with him or give us eternal life. That’s why we need to reject all of these false teachings. Christianity is a true view of all of reality. Christians need to develop a Christian worldview that tells us that the purpose of life is to glorify God; all truth comes from God; the problem of the world is sin; and the only solution is Jesus. We need to guard our doctrine and the doctrine of our churches.
Sadly, I have seen many examples of people leaving their Christian roots because of empty philosophies. I have a friend whom I met in Austin when I was a graduate student at the University of Texas. We met at the church that I was attending and eventually joined. I was studying voice at the university and he was a singer, too. Thought he had a day job working in a government office, he wanted to be a Christian R&B singer. He had even recorded an album. We became friends and occasionally had lunch together. We would talk about life and music.
From what I knew of this man when I lived in Austin, he was a godly man. He had a wife and three daughters, and it seemed to me that he wanted to use his musical abilities to serve the Lord. It was only after I left Austin that I noticed a change. The next time I came back to visit, I had lunch with this man. He started to tell me how he had been doing some “research” on the Internet. He told me there were other Gospels, like the Gospel of Thomas. He told me other religions featured a virgin birth and a resurrection. I wasn’t very familiar with these things at the time, but now I know that there is a lot of bad history out there. The other Gospels were written in the second century or later. For example, the Gospel of Thomas was written towards the end of the second century. Thomas certainly did not write it. The same is true for the Gospel of Judas and other false gospels.
At any rate, this man was reading this inaccurate history and he was starting to doubt his faith. On my next trip to Austin, I once again had lunch with this man. He told me he was starting to look into Judaism. After all, if he couldn’t trust Christianity, he might as well go back to the roots of Christianity.
The last time I saw this man, he said he was just trying to live his life. He said he meditated on Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” He told me he realized he needed to work on loving himself better. He also hinted at having some desire for contact with men. His comments were very ambiguous, but I could tell he had struggled with same-sex attraction.
This was the last time I saw him, but every few months, we would talk on the phone. Eventually, he told me some big news. He had decided to leave his wife. He had also tried out homosexuality. Though he had sex with a man, he didn’t know if he wanted to pursue being gay. He was obviously very mixed up. The last time I talked to him, he told me he was doing naked yoga and be was still trying to sort out his sexual orientation. From the looks of his Facebook profile, he is involved in some group that makes sexual pleasure their religion.
That’s just one example of someone I know who has left the faith. Another, closer friend I had seemed to be a strong Christian. But something has happened in her life, and I’m not sure what. All I know is that she divorced her husband and is now exploring astrology.
Now, you don’t have to get caught up in strange things to be taken captive by an empty, deceitful philosophy. People leave the faith in order to pursue desires, relationships, careers, or simply because they don’t want Jesus to be Lord over their lives.
We must guard our hearts, guard our doctrine, and even guard each other so that we can continue to stay rooted in Christ. We don’t need any other philosophies, because all true wisdom is found in Christ. And he is the only one who can save us.
If we are to stay rooted in Christ, we need to remember the gospel message. That means we must continue worshiping, reading the Bible, and even preaching the gospel to ourselves. We must remember that in Christ, we have access to the fullness of God. If we are in Christ, our old self has died. If we are in Christ, we are risen to new life. If we are in Christ, we have forgiveness of sins. And if we are in Christ, our enemies have been defeated.
Let’s read verses 9–15:
9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. 11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.
Verses 9–15 summarize the key elements of the gospel message. In Christ, we have access to the fullness of God. In verses 9 and 10, Paul reminds us once again that the fullness of God dwells in the physical body of Christ. “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.” Jesus is God, or, to put it more accurately, the God-man. And if we are united to Jesus, we have access to the fullness of God. Think about that: if the fullness of God dwells in Jesus, and we are “in Christ” through faith, we have direct access to all of God. If we are the body of Christ and he is the head of that body, we are connected to the one who is over all rulers and all authorities. If we are the temple, God’s dwelling place on Earth is in us. Our Lord is the Lord of the universe. He is the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. There is no greater power out there. Why would we want to worship something else or pursue any other philosophy? In Christ, we have everything we need.
That doesn’t mean we can’t learn other things, like math and science and history. But we should learn those subjects knowing that math and science are possible because they reflect the orderliness of the mind of God and the order and design of his creation. All truth is God’s truth. So, we should learn to connect all of life, including everything we learn, to God. We should learn to interpret every fact in light of the existence of God.
Beginning in verse 11, Paul gets to the heart of the gospel. In Christ, our old selves have died. Paul talks about this transformation that God performs in Christians by using the metaphor of circumcision. God told Abraham, the father of all the Israelites, that all of the men among God’s covenant people had to be circumcised (Genesis 17). Literally, this was a surgery, a putting off of part of the flesh. But even in the Old Testament, circumcision took on a metaphorical quality. Israelites were told they needed to have circumcised hearts, which meant they needed to have new hearts, hearts changed by God (Deut. 10:12; 30:6; Jer. 4:4). We might say that to be right with God, we need to have spiritual heart surgery. That’s because before that transformation, we don’t desire or love rightly. Our problem is that we don’t love God and other people the way we should. We don’t desire to do what is noble and right, at least not all the time and not with the right motives.
Here, Paul says that all Christians have been “circumcised with a circumcision made without hands.” In other words, God is the one who did this circumcision. God has performed this spiritual heart surgery on his people. It was done “by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ.” The meaning of this is debated. Some people think the circumcision of Christ refers to his actual circumcision, which is a reminder that Jesus obeyed the law, the covenant demands of God. Paedobaptists—those who believe children of believers should be baptized while they are infants—believe that Christian baptism is the equivalent of circumcision, and this is what they baptize babies. However, the mention of faith in verse 12 shows why this view is wrong. Baptism apart from faith does nothing.
Other people think the circumcision of Christ is a way of referring to his death. When Jesus died, he was “cut off.” Still others think that it refers to the spiritual circumcision that Christ performs on us. Even in the Old Testament, circumcision language was used for regeneration, or being “born again.” God told the stubborn, rebellious people of Israel that they needed circumcised hearts and even ears (Jer. 6:10; Acts 7:51). To listen to God’s voice and respond to it rightly, we need to be transformed. We often think of the gospel as dealing with Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. And that’s right. But part of the good news is also that God transforms us so that we can respond rightly to Jesus. He gives us the Holy Spirit.
I think the “circumcision of Christ” refers both to his death and to our regeneration. If we are united to Christ in faith, we participate in his death. This is very similar to what Paul writes in Romans 6:3–4. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
True circumcision is also described in Romans. Romans 2:28–29 says, “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.” To be circumcised by God is to have a radical heart surgery performed by God the Father, through the Son, by means of the Holy Spirit.
In Christ, we become spiritually alive. Not only do we die with Christ, but we rise with him, too. This dying and rising is represented in baptism, which is considered part of the complex of events—faith, repentance, receiving the Spirit—that marks our initiation into the family of God. The key element in verse 12 is faith in God’s ability to do powerful things. If God can raise Jesus from the grave, he can make us into new creations. This is very similar to what Paul writes in Ephesians 2. We once were dead in our sins and now we are alive in Christ.
In Christ, we have forgiveness of sins. Because of what Jesus did on the cross, by dying in our place, we have the forgiveness of sins. Our debt to God that stood over us with its legal demands was nailed to the cross. This reminds me of that verse in “It Is Well with My Soul”:
My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
On the cross, Jesus paid our debt. We all have turned our backs on God. Sure, we may think of him when we have a need, but the rest of the time we don’t think of him and love him as we should. We don’t live life on his terms. Our lives are rooted in something else. God cannot have this, because our sin ruins his creation, and because he is a righteous, perfect judge. Yet Jesus lived the perfect life that we don’t live—always rooted in God—and he died in our place, paying the penalty for our crimes against God. And his resurrection proves that his death paid that debt in full. Jesus took on the sentence for our crimes against God and walked out of the grave a free man, having satisfied the penalty for our sin.
Finally, Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension to heaven have accomplished one last, important thing. On the cross, God “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” Ultimately, Jesus died because it was God’s plan to save us through Jesus. But Jesus also died because Satan and the unbelieving Jewish leaders in Jerusalem wanted him eliminated. The devil and the Sanhedrin thought that they defeated Christ when he was crucified, but the irony is that through death, God defeated his enemies. When Jesus died, the authorities stripped him naked, paraded him in front of angry crowds, and celebrated their triumph over him. But Paul tells us the reality is quite different. Through Jesus’ death and subsequent vindication, God stripped his enemies naked, paraded them in public, and celebrated his triumph over them. This may not be apparent to the world right now, but when Jesus returns, it will be.
Once again, we see that Jesus is Lord over all authorities and rulers, on earth and in heaven. If our root is in Christ, no enemy can defeat us. We must remember to preach this gospel message of regeneration and forgiveness and triumph to ourselves, to remember that we have everything we need in Christ. We need to do this in the midst of temptation or discouragement, to keep us from slipping away from Jesus.
Now that we’ve looked at the details of this passage, how should we respond?
Let me first ask this: what is your life rooted in? What is your life built on? If it’s not truly built on Jesus, or on the one true, three-in-one God that is the Father, Son, and Spirit, it will be built on something else, something that isn’t lasting.
If you haven’t built your life on Jesus, I would urge you to do that. Other things may sound good. Other ideas, ways of life, or even religions may sound very attractive. But they either won’t be true (in the case of other religions) or they won’t put you in the right with God (in the case of philosophies). Only Jesus can forgive our sins, change our hearts, and give us eternal life. But we must be rooted in Jesus. We can’t plant Jesus into another root. It doesn’t work that way. He won’t be built on our lives. It’s the other way around.
A lot of people have wrongly been taught that to become a Christian means saying a prayer, or making a one-time confession of faith. Now, we can and should pray to God when we come to faith, and we should confess that we believe that Jesus is Lord and God and that he died for our sins. But real faith isn’t just saying words. Real faith is a living, continuing trust in Jesus. There are many false converts, people who once said they believed and were baptized and are not following Jesus. Let’s not be fooled. Those people are not Christians. Anyone can say some words. Anyone can get wet. Anyone can appear to follow Jesus for a short time. But real Christians continue to follow Christ.
If you’re not a Christian, or if you’re not sure you’re really a Christian, I would love to talk to you about what it means to follow Jesus.
If you are a Christian, how do we stay rooted in Christ?
There are some practical ways to help us stay rooted in Christ. We need to continue to read our Bibles. My goal is to read the entire Bible every year. I think it’s a reasonable goal—though I’ve often failed. You can do it by reading twenty-three chapters each week, or a little over three chapters a day. We need to remember that “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4; Deut. 8:3). But there’s no law saying you have to read in the Bible in one year. Try reading it over the course of two years. If you read two chapters a day, even if you miss a day here or there, you can read it two years’ time. Staying in the Bible helps us remember what is true and what is valuable. It keeps us rooted in Christ.
We can also read other books that help us understand the Bible or help understand how to connect the Bible to every area of life. What’s important is that we are careful about our inputs. You will only be as good as the diet your brain and your heart are getting. So, choose wisely.
Here’s something I want you to think about. We have a limited amount of time, and we should be careful how we spend our time. Think only about reading. Tony Reinke, in his book on reading called Lit!, makes the following observations. There are currently eighteen million books in the Library of Congress. In fifty years, there will probably be at least twenty-eight million books. If in the next fifty years we read one book a week, which is a lot of reading, we could read 2,600 books. That sounds impressive. But that means that for every book we read, we choose not to read ten thousand other books. We will only be able to read one out of every ten thousand books, and only if we read one book per week. So choose your reading wisely. Don’t waste all your time on the Internet, watching TV and movies, and reading bad books.
We can also stay rooted in Christ by worshiping him, particularly on the Lord’s Day with other Christians. Remember that Paul said we should abound in thanksgiving. Be thankful that God saved you and show your thanks through prayer and through praise. Sing of how good God is and talk to him regularly.
Staying rooted in Christ means that we have to dig up weeds that would threaten us. Whether those weeds are sinful practices or distractions or philosophies, ideologies, or even other religious ideas, if they are contrary to Jesus, we need to root them out of our lives so that we can stay rooted in Christ.
Finally, remember the gospel. Remind yourself that you have sinned against the holy Creator and are deserving of eternal condemnation, and you have been saved by God’s grace, which is available at great cost: Jesus’ death on the cross. Preach the gospel to the people around you, whether it’s your congregation, your Sunday school class, your family, or your friends. Never assume that they know the good news of Jesus Christ. And even if they know it, we never move past the gospel. We need to keep hearing it and thinking about it. It keeps us rooted in Christ.
When we continue in our faith, reject the world’s deceitful philosophies, and remember the gospel, we stay rooted in Christ. If you do these things, when you die, someone will stand up at your funeral and say, “He stuck to his roots, no matter what.”
- These words come from the hymn “In Christ Alone.” ↑
- For the role of the Holy Spirit in regeneration, even in the Old Testament, see James M. Hamilton Jr., God’s Indwelling Spirit: The Holy Spirit in the Old and New Testaments, NAC Studies in Bible & Theology (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2006). ↑
- Tony Reinke, Lit! (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 93–94. ↑
What is your life rooted in? What is it built on? If it’s not built on Jesus, it’s on shaky ground. Find out why it matters that our lives are rooted in Christ and how we can keep our lives rooted in Christ. This sermon on Colossians 2:6-15 was preached by Brian Watson.
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message answering the question, “Is the devil real?” He provides an overview of what the Bible says about Satan, focusing on who he is and what he does. He also tells us the good news of how Jesus conquers Satan and evil and how Christians can guard themselves against the devil.
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on 2 John, showing that Christians and the church need both truth and love. Truth requires and fosters love, and love motivates a desire to know the truth and live according to it.
Have you ever heard news that sounds too good to be true? Years ago, I used to get emails offering me great fortune. I’m not sure when this started, but it was around 2004, and I got several of these messages. I guess I was particularly lucky. Here’s an example:
I am Barrister Rotimi Adams, the personal attorney to Mr. James Watson, herein after referred to as my client, a national of your country, who until his death was a major crude oil contractor with the federal government of Nigeria.
My client and his entire family were involved in a fatal motor accident along the Sagamu express road, sparing none of the occupants of the vehicle. I have since then made several enquiries to your Embassy, in a bid to locate any relation of my client, and these efforts of mine have not been productive. I then decided to trace his last name over the Internet, and came across your name that is why I have contacted you to assist me in securing the money and property left behind by my client before they are declared as unclaimed and unserviceable by the bank where they have been lodged for safekeeping. I am particularly interested in securing the funds lodged with Global Trust Bank Plc, totaling fifteen Million, United States Dollar (USD15M). This is because the said Bank has issued a notice to me, unequivocally instructing me to produce the Next of Kin/Beneficiary to the said account within the next ten official working days, or have the account confiscated.
I solicit your consent to enable me produce you as The Next of Kin to my deceased client, since you both bear the same last name. The funds will then be transferred to you as the beneficiary and shared according to a proposed sharing pattern /ratio of 70:30, i.e. 70% for me and 30% for you. I will provide all the necessary legally obtained documents to back up any claim we make regarding this process, and will just require your understanding and cooperation to enable us achieve success within a legitimate arrangement, eliminating any liability resulting from any breach of the prevalent laws.
Your urgent response will be highly appreciated; you can as well forward to me your Telephone number immediately for more discussion.
Barrister Rotimi Adams
That’s great news. I could get 30 percent of $15 million—that’s $4.5 million! Of course, all I have to do is transfer the good barrister some funds in order to pay the fees for acquiring the necessary documents. But it’s totally worth it. After all, what’s an investment of a thousand or two dollars when I’m getting millions of dollars back?
Of course, this is a scam. And we know it is. You’d have to be pretty naïve not to see that. And I should know, because I fell for it twice. But by the third time I received a message like that, I was wise to those scammers. All kidding aside, we know that such a message is too good to be true. We don’t have reason to trust Barrister Adams, or whoever it was that wrote that email.
That email promised great wealth, but the message of the Bible promises us something far greater. The Bible promises us not a few million dollars. The Bible promises us eternal life, a life with God in a perfect world, a life that never ends.
Today, we’re starting to look at a letter that is most certainly written by the apostle John, one of Jesus’ original followers. Towards the end of the 1 John, he tells us the reason for writing this letter. In 1 John 5:13, he says, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.” In the Gospel of John, which uses very similar language, John writes,
30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 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 (John 20:30-31).
John wrote his Gospel, his biography of Jesus, so that we would believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God, and that we would have life by believing in him. And John wrote his first letter so that his readers would know for certain that they have eternal life.
John tells us that by having a proper relationship with Jesus, we will live forever. It’s hard to top that claim. It’s the best news. And John is so sure about his message that he writes, in chapter 4: “We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (v. 6). John says that those who disagree with him don’t know God. That, too, is a big claim. In chapter 2, he writes, “No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also” (v. 23). So, not only do you have to listen to John to know God, but you must agree with how he describes the Son, Jesus, in order to have the Father. No one who holds a different view of Jesus than the one John presents has a right relationship with God. No one who denies John’s view of Jesus has eternal life.
A lot is riding on these claims. If John is right, one’s eternal destiny is on the line. John wrote this letter because people who had different views of Jesus left the churches that he wrote to. John wanted to reassure his readers about who Jesus is and how they could know they have eternal life. Having a right view of Jesus is essential. That’s not because God is going to give us a final exam at the end of our lives, as if we’ll be tested on some theological knowledge. No, the idea is that if you have a real relationship with Jesus, you’ll know what he’s like, just as if you’re actually married to your spouse, you’ll know what he or she is like. Jesus isn’t a wax nose. He has a particular identity. And the gospel, the good news about who Jesus is and what he’s done for us, isn’t something we can edit. This message has a particular content. Different religions say very different things about God and Jesus. We need to know who the real Jesus is.
So, how do we know that John is right? How do we know his claims are true? Why should we trust John when we can’t trust Barrister Adams?
One reason we should consider John’s claims is that he says he was an eyewitness to the life of Jesus. And, unlike Barrister Adams, John had little to gain by making that claim. He certainly didn’t stand to make $10.5 million. As a Jewish man living in the Roman Empire, John’s claims about Jesus would put him at odds with both Jews who weren’t Christians and Romans who weren’t Christians. In fact, it’s hard to understand why John and the other apostles would make the claims they do unless they believed what they were writing was true.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s read the beginning of John’s first letter. I’ll read 1 John 1:1–4:
1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— 2 the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— 3 that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4 And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
John begins by talking about “the word of life.” That could be the message of the gospel, the good news about who Jesus is and what he’s done. But John says that he and others touched the word of life. So, he must be referring to Jesus himself. Jesus is the word of life. You can’t separate the man from the message about him. This is very similar to the beginning of John’s gospel:
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:1–5).
In both his Gospel and his first letter, John talks about “the beginning.” In 1 John, it seems like he could be talking about the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. But in the Gospel, he’s talking about the beginning. In this Gospel, John says that Jesus is God and that he created the universe. Christianity says that Jesus is both God and man, that he is the one who created the universe and everything in it, and that he is the one who gives eternal life.
So, why should we believe this claim?
That’s a complex question, and I won’t be able to do justice to it fully this morning. The evidence is too complex to get into fully, but I’ll try to give us reasons why it’s rational to believe that Christianity is true. After all, if it’s not true, it’s useless. If you read the New Testament, you can very easily see that the writers are stating quite clearly that Jesus is the truth (John 14:6). They say that if he didn’t rise from the grave in a real, indestructible body, Christianity is worthless (1 Cor. 15:12–19).
There are many reasons why people believe in a certain religion. Often, people accept their parents’ faith, or the faith of those around them. Of course, other people rebel against their parents’ faith, and their own faith (or lack thereof) seems to be a reaction against their upbringing. Some people are attracted to a religion because they like what it teaches. They are attracted to a certain vision that a religion paints. But if a religion isn’t true, there’s no good reason to embrace it.
If I didn’t think John and others saw Jesus during his life, could testify to his death, and saw and even touched Jesus after he rose from the grave, I wouldn’t be a Christian. I was thinking about this recently: What would have to be true for me to stop being a Christian? In other words, what would be a defeater for the Christian faith?
I don’t think science can disprove Christianity. I don’t believe the Bible is a book of science. There are ways to harmonize the Bible with various scientific paradigms without doing damage to the text of the Bible. That doesn’t mean that scientists are always right. Not at all. But I don’t think science has the tools to disprove Christianity.
Some people assume that the miraculous and the supernatural don’t exist, and that since Christianity is built on these things, it’s false. But, again, I don’t think science disproves miracles. To disprove miracle claims, you would have to be omniscient. Think about it: To say, “A dead man has never risen from the grave two days after being killed,” is to say that you have known what has happened to every single dead person from the dawn of time. Of course, dead people stay dead. Unless. Unless God exists. If God exists, anything is possible. If God exists, he can bring the dead to life, just as he made a universe out of nothing. We have a number of lines of evidence for the existence of God as well as philosophical arguments that show that the idea of God is rational and coherent. So, miracles are certainly philosophically possible. And we have numerous miracle claims throughout history, from around the world. Many people from all times and places have claimed to have witnessed miracles. Though I have never personally witnessed a miracle, I have every reason to believe that miracles are possible.
I think there are only two ways that you could disprove Christianity. One is to show that the Christian system of thought, or the Christian worldview, is incoherent or self-contradictory. Having studied the Christian worldview extensively, I think it’s a system of thought that doesn’t contradict itself. By itself it makes sense. And I think it makes sense of life. But that doesn’t necessarily mean Christianity is true. It could all be a lie. If someone could prove that the Gospels and the other New Testament documents were simply made up, and if Jesus didn’t rise from the grave, then I would have to abandon Christianity.
So, should we trust John and his claim that he and others can testify that Jesus is the Son of God, that he is God, that he is the Creator, and he is the one who can give eternal life? I think we have many good reasons to trust John. But in order to see why Christianity is unique as a religion, we have to consider how it differs from other religions.
Before we do that, let make one important comment: We live in a pluralistic society, in which there are many religions. And we live in a relativistic culture, which often refuses to state that any religion is true. But the fact is that they can’t all be true. They say very different things about God and Jesus. They say very different things about how to be reconciled to God and have an eternal reward. The things they say are contradictory. It is impossible that they’re all true. I believe that Christianity is true and that other religions are false. That doesn’t mean I have to be hateful or disrespectful to people with different views. I can love other people even when I say, “I think you’re wrong.” That’s true tolerance.
So, my point is that we shouldn’t belittle other religions. My point is that they can’t all be true. We should, at the least, know the story of their origins. To see why we should trust that the Bible is God’s message to us, we should look at how other religions have made claims about their holy books.
First, let’s consider the story of how Islam started. The story is about a man named Muhammad, living in what is now Saudi Arabia. “Muhammad was in the habit of taking regular periods of retreat and reflection in the Cave of Hira outside Mecca. This is where the first revelation of the Qur’an came to him in 610 ce, when he was 40 years old.” Muhammad was alone in the cave the first time the angel spoke to him, but subsequent times others were with him. According to one account,
When he experienced the ‘state of revelation’, those around him were able to observe his visible, audible, and sensory reactions. His face would become flushed and he would fall silent and appear as if his thoughts were far away, his body would become limp as if he were asleep, a humming sound would be heard about him, and sweat would appear on his face, even on winter days. This state would last for a brief period and as it passed the Prophet would immediately recite new verses of the Qur’an. The revelation would descend on him as he was walking, sitting, riding, or giving a sermon, and there were occasions when he waited anxiously for it for over a month in answer to a question he was asked, or in comment on an event: the state was clearly not the Prophet’s to command. The Prophet and his followers understood these signs as the experience accompanying the communication of Qur’anic verses by the Angel of Revelation (Gabriel), while the Prophet’s adversaries explained them as magic or as a sign of his ‘being possessed’.
According to another account, after Muhammad experienced the first encounter with the angel, “Mohammed [sic] came down from the mountain sick with fear, thinking he might have been possessed by a jinn, an evil spirit.” Both of those accounts, by the way, were written by Muslims.
Muhammad then spoke these revelations to others, who wrote down the revelations. They were only collected into the form of the Qur’an after Muhammad’s death in 632. The Qur’an is very different from the New Testament for a few reasons. One, the revelation came from an angel to one man. Two, Muhammad is not really the author of the Qur’an. He relayed a message, but, at least in the story of Islam, he is not considered an author. And, three, the content of the Qur’an ranges from the time of the Old Testament, including many stories of Old Testament figures like Adam, Noah, Moses, and David, to the time of the New Testament, including many mentions of Jesus. But these revelations were given many centuries after the events took place.
The New Testament, on the other hand, is different. One, it was written by at least eight people and probably nine. Two, it was authored by people, who were under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to write what he wanted written. That’s why we can talk of John writing his Gospel or a letter, or Paul writing letters. They are truly authors, but they were doing exactly what God wanted them to do, so that we also say their words are God’s words. And, three, the authors of the New Testament claim to be eyewitnesses or people associated with eyewitnesses. For example, at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, he makes it clear that he wasn’t an eyewitness to Jesus, but he interviewed eyewitnesses and wrote up his own orderly account of Jesus’ life (Luke 1:1–4).
The Qur’an talks about Jesus but it says he isn’t the Son of God. It says,
People of the Book [in this case, Christians], do not go to excess in your religion, and do not say anything about God except the truth: the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, was nothing more than a messenger of God, His word directed to Mary, and a spirit from him. So believe in God and His messengers and do not speak of a ‘Trinity’—stop [this], that is better for you—God is only one God, He is far above having a son, everything in the heavens and earth belongs to Him and He is the best one to trust.
To Muslims, Jesus is just a great prophet, but he is not divine.
The Qur’an also claims Jesus wasn’t crucified. Therefore, there is no resurrection. The Qur’an curses “The People of the Book” (in this case, unbelieving Jews) for killing prophets. These are the people who said, “We have killed the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, the Messenger of God.” But then, in a parenthetical note, it says, “They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, though it was made to appear like that to them; those that disagreed about him are full of doubt, with no knowledge to follow, only supposition; they certainly did not kill him—No! God raised him up to Himself. God is almighty and wise.”
The problem with this is that the Qur’an was delivered six hundred years after Jesus was crucified and raised from the grave. Even people who are skeptical about Jesus’ identity know that he was crucified under Pontius Pilate. That is one of the most agreed-upon facts in the ancient world.
So, the Qur’an gets Jesus wrong. It seems that the Qur’an is a bit of a mash-up of Jewish and Christian doctrines, including later Jewish legends. It seems to contain information from false Gospels, which were written beginning in the late second century, well after all the eyewitnesses to Jesus had died.
Here is the point: The Qur’an is wrong about Jesus’ death. That is certain. And it says very different things about God than the New Testament does. It says different things about salvation, or how to achieve eternal life. Which one would you trust: Eyewitness testimony written by multiple sources within a lifetime of Jesus’ ministry or supernatural revelations directed through one man six centuries later?
Now let’s move on to the origins of Mormonism. Their major prophet, Joseph Smith (1805–1844), lived twelve hundred years after Muhammad. In 1823, in upstate New York, Smith was allegedly visited by an angel named Moroni. The angel told Smith about golden plates, upon which was engraved “the fullness of the everlasting Gospel.” He also told Smith about two stones, the Urim and Thummim, which were “seer stones” that could help Smith translate the contents of the plates into English. The angel told Smith that when he got these plates and stones, he could only show them to a few people. If he showed them to others, he would die. Then, a vision was given to him that indicated the location of the plates. However, he wasn’t allowed to take the plates, which were buried in the ground in a stone box, until 1827.
Between 1827 and 1829, Smith “translated” the “reformed Egyptian” hieroglyphics on the plates by using a “seer stone.” Smith would look at the seer stone, placed at the bottom of a stovepipe hat (in order to block out any light), to “translate” the contents of the golden plates. He dictated what he saw to his disciple, Oliver Cowdery, who sat on the opposite side of a curtain from Smith. Shortly before The Book of Mormon was completed, Smith claims that John the Baptist appeared in person. After translating The Book of Mormon, the angel told Smith to return the golden plates.
There are a number of problems with The Book of Mormon. One great problem has to do with its original language, the so-called “Reformed Egyptian” language. In another Mormon book, The Pearl of Great Price, we’re told that one of Smith’s associates, a man named Martin Harris, brought samples of this “Reformed Egyptian” language to a professor at Columbia University, named Charles Anthon. (Martin Harris, by the way, is listed in The Book of Mormon as one eleven total witnesses who saw the golden plates.) According to The Pearl of Great Price, Anthon said that Smith’s translation was correct and that the portion not translated yet contained Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic characters.
That sounds impressive. Who wouldn’t want to have their translation of an ancient language verified by a professor? But there’s a problem. A man named E. D. Howe learned of Smith’s claim and wrote a letter to Anthon about it. Anthon wrote a letter back to Howe, dated February 17, 1834. In the letter, Anthon stated that the story was “perfectly false.” He wrote, “Upon examining the paper in question, I soon came to the conclusion that it was all a trick, perhaps a hoax.” He then described the writing on the paper as a jumble of Greek and Hebrew, as well as Roman letters inverted or placed sideways, arranged in columns. He wrote, “[I] well remember that the paper contained anything else but ‘Egyptian Hieroglyphics’.”
As if that were not enough, The Book of Mormon has other problems. It has long passages copied out of the King James Bible and though it claims to recall the history of people living in the Americas between 600 B.C. and A.D. 421, archaeologists have not located any of these places and have no evidence of these peoples. Thomas Stuart Ferguson, a professor at Brigham Young University, was given the task of finding archaeological evidence for The Book of Mormon. “After twenty-five years of dedicated archaeological research, Ferguson found nothing to back up the book and, in fact, he called the geography of The Book of Mormon ‘fictional.’”
Now, let’s compare those stories with the story of how the New Testament was written. The New Testament wasn’t delivered on plates by an angel. It wasn’t dictated by angel. The story is that the eternal Son of God became man and lived in Galilee. He taught in unforgettable, unparalleled ways. He called twelve disciples, who witnessed his teachings and the miracles he performed. At least one of them saw him die, and they all (minus Judas, who was replaced by Matthias) saw him alive after he rose from the grave. Some of them would later write down biographies of Jesus. Others would write letters to churches. At least two other people who weren’t eyewitnesses—Mark and Luke—wrote their own biographies. Mark knew the apostle Peter and Luke knew the apostle Paul. Luke seems to have interviewed other eyewitnesses, including Mary. And Luke wrote the history of the early church called the book of Acts. When they wrote, they were under the direction of the Holy Spirit, who caused them to write what he wanted written. The Holy Spirit used their experiences, knowledge, and personalities to write what he wanted written.
At least eight different people wrote the 27 books of the New Testament. They didn’t write it all together, in the same time and in the same place. It’s not as if they stayed together in a room in Jerusalem and churned it out in a few months. They wrote in different places (Judea, Antioch, Rome, Corinth, etc.), at different times (roughly 48–96), to different churches and/or individuals in different locations. James White, an author who was written on many topics related to the Bible, calls this “multifocality.”
We should observe that the apostles and their associates had no political power. Their own writings admit that sometimes they disagree with each other. Paul says that he had to correct Peter in Galatians 2:11–14. In Acts 15:36–41, we’re told that Paul and Barnabas had a “sharp disagreement.” One can suppose that the apostles as well as men like Mark and Luke conspired to fabricate a story, that they made things up to get a following or to gain power. But they had everything to lose, including persecution by Jews and Gentiles. And they don’t always present themselves in most flattering light. In the Gospels, Peter is often presented as headstrong and foolish. Yet he was the leader of the apostles. Why would anyone make that up?
Here are some positive reasons to believe that the New Testament is trustworthy. One, the documents of the New Testament were written early, within the first century A.D. As opposed to the Qur’an, which reports on events that took place hundreds and even thousands of years earlier, the New Testament reports on events that took place only years or decades earlier. Two, the books of the New Testament were written by eyewitnesses (Matthew, John, Paul, Peter, James, Jude) or those who associated with eyewitnesses (Mark, Luke, and perhaps the author of Hebrews). Three, the New Testament documents were written by multiple men, who didn’t always agree in life, but who agreed in their writings. Four, we have thousands of manuscripts of these books, some dating to as early as the beginning of the second century. That may not seem very impressive until you start comparing manuscript evidence with other ancient books. Five, archaeological evidence corroborates the New Testament. That doesn’t mean that every event described in the New Testament has left an artifact. But historical places and the names of people have been verified. It used to be that people thought that John’s Gospel was written far too late to be written by one of Jesus’ followers. But archaeological discoveries have shown that John’s knowledge of Jerusalem, was very accurate. And this is something that only someone was familiar with the city prior to its destruction in the year 70 could know. Six, if we can trust that the New Testament is basically historically accurate, then we can see that Jesus often referred to the Old Testament as God’s word (John 10:35; cf. Matt. 19:4–5; 22:43), as an unbreakable (John 10:35), and unalterable document (Matt. 5:17–20). He clearly viewed the Old Testament as authoritative (Matt. 4:1–11). He told his disciples that his words would never pass away (Matt. 24:35). He told them that after he had ascended to heaven, he would send the Holy Spirit to teach them all things and cause them to remember what he said (John 14:26; 16:13–14).
If you want to know more about why you can trust the New Testament to be true, you can visit our website, wbcommunity.org, and find some things I’ve written under the “Articles” section, which is under the “Media” tab. I would also recommend a couple of books. One is Cold Case Christianity, by an LA homicide detective named J. Warner Wallace. Wallace has solved many previously unsolved murder cases, cases that went “cold.” He has been featured on Dateline NBC. He was an atheist in his mid-30s when he decided to investigate the “case” of Christianity. He treated the Gospels like evidence reports and after doing a lot of research, he came to believe they’re true. He also has a website: http://coldcasechristianity.com. Another book that I would recommend is Tim Keller’s The Reason for God. He has a chapter on the trustworthiness of the Gospels, but his book also handles common objections to Christianity and presents a positive, and even beautiful, case for the faith.
Not only is the story of how the New Testament was put together different from the origin stories of the Qur’an and the Book of Mormon, but the message is very different. In Christianity, there is a clear distinction between God and human beings. The same can’t be said of Mormonism, which teaches that God was a man and that men can be gods. But Christianity, as opposed to Islam, also teaches that we can truly know God and call him our Father. Christianity says, “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). There is no equivalent concept in Islam. In fact, John tells (1 John 1:3) that we can have fellowship with one another and with God. We can be united to God and have a real, personal relationship with him. That’s why John says that his letter makes his joy—and our joy—complete.
And both Islam and Mormonism have a system of merit. Islam says all our works will be weighed on scales. Those whose good works outweigh their bad works and who confess that “there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His messenger” will enter Paradise. Mormonism focuses on obedience. In the words of Joseph F. Smith, the sixth President (or Prophet) of the LDS Church, “Every blessing, privilege, glory, or exaltation is obtained only through obedience to the law upon which the same is promised. If we will abide by the law, we shall receive the reward; but we can receive it on no other ground.”
But Christianity is different. It says we can’t earn our way to God (or become gods and earn our own planets). Christianity says that God came down to us. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). The God who is love sent his Son. That is, God the Father sent God the Son, by the power of God the Holy Spirit. Jesus fulfilled the perfect life that God required; he is the only truly righteous person. Yet his righteousness is credited to all who trust him. (We’ll learn more about what that faith looks like as continue to study 1 John). And Jesus died for us. His death satisfied God’s just demands. All who trust in him have eternal life. This is a gift given to us by a God who comes to us. It is not something we can earn from a God who is either distant and tyrannical or who is, in the end, fundamentally not all that different from us.
If you’re a Christian, I hope this message gives you confidence to know that we have good reasons to believe that Christianity is true. I hope that you can use elements of this message when you try to share the gospel with others. And if you’re not yet a Christian, I would encourage you to do your homework. Be like Jim Wallace and examine the evidence. I would be glad to meet with you, answer any questions you have, and give you resources.
The story of Christianity is unique. I think it’s more beautiful than the story of other religions. And, more importantly, it’s true.
- I didn’t actually save the original emails. I found this example at https://www.expertlaw.com/library/consumer/spam_email_fraud3.html and slightly edited it. ↑
- For an in-depth treatment of miracles, see Craig S. Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011). ↑
- M. A. S. Abdel Haleem, “Introduction,” in The Qur’an: A New Translation by M. A. S. Abdel Haleem, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), xi. ↑
- Ibid., xiv. ↑
- Tamim Ansary, Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Islamic Eyes (New York: Public Affairs, 2009), 19. ↑
- Qur’an 4.171 in Haleem’s translation. ↑
- Qur’an 4.157–158 in Haleem’s translation. ↑
- In fact, one strategy for demonstrating the truth of Jesus’ resurrection is to rely on three facts that most scholars, whether they’re believers or not, agree to be true. The first is that Jesus of Nazareth, a remarkable figure who was a wise teacher and possibly a miracle worker, was crucified by Pontius Pilate during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius. The second is that after Jesus died, his followers claimed to have seen him alive again. They claimed that the resurrected Jesus appeared to various groups of people for a number of days. The third is that Saul of Tarsus, otherwise known as the apostle Paul, came to believe in Jesus even though he had previously been an unbelieving Jew and an opponent of Christianity. Given these three facts, it’s hard to explain how they could have occurred unless Jesus actually rose from the grave. Jesus’ followers could be lying, but they couldn’t have experienced a group dream or hallucination. But why would they lie? Lying would bring persecution to them from both Jews who rejected Jesus and Roman Gentiles who said that Caesar, not Jesus, is Lord. And since Christians refused to worship the many gods of the Greco-Roman world, they were often ostracized. And why would Paul lie? He was an enemy of Jesus. He would have no reason to hallucinate a vision of Jesus or to fabricate stories of Jesus. ↑
- For more information, see James R. White, What Every Christian Needs to Know about the Qur’an (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2013), 229–247. ↑
- This information is taken from “The Testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith,” located at the beginning of The Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1981). ↑
- It should be noted that Smith used seer stones to attempt to locate treasure. He had a reputation for being involved in magic and treasure hunting. See Richard Abanes, One Nation under Gods (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003), particularly chapter 2, “Moroni, Magic, and Masonry.” ↑
- See “Joseph Smith—History,” 1:68–73, in The Pearl of Great Price. ↑
- “Joseph Smith—History,” 1:63–65, in The Pearl of Great Price. ↑
- E. D. Howe, Mormonism Unveiled (Painsville, OH: n.p., 1834), 270–272; quoted in Walter Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults, gen. ed. Ravi Zacharias, managing ed. Jill Martin Rische and Kevin Rische (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2003), 212–213. ↑
- Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults, 216. The historical problems of Mormonism go from bad to worse. Joseph Smith claimed that he acquired the Book of Abraham in 1835. In that year, Smith’s church purchased several papyrus scrolls supposedly written by Abraham and Joseph, patriarchs who appear in biblical book of Genesis. (These men would have lived well over three thousand years earlier.) Smith translated these scrolls, which contained important information regarding Mormon doctrines such as pre-existence. However, the truth of the matter is that the scrolls Smith acquired were copies of common Egyptian funeral texts. In 1912, several Egyptologists examined Smith’s “translations” and found them to be “fraud,” “absurd,” “a fabrication,” and “undoubtedly the work of pure imagination.” These judgments were based on Smith’s drawings of the scrolls. However, the actual scrolls themselves were destroyed in a fire in Chicago in 1876. Therefore, Mormons could claim that Smith’s translation, based on the scrolls, not the drawings, was accurate. However, papyri fragments of these scrolls reappeared in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1967. These fragments showed that Smith’s critics were right all along. We have proof that Smith was a fraud. See Abanes, One Nation under Gods, 449–55. ↑
- James R. White, The King James Only Controversy, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2009), 82. ↑
- Craig L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 182–183. See also J. Warner Wallace, Cold Case Christianity: (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2013), 20 ↑
- One could also add a seventh reason to believe the New Testament. Where the Qur’an and The Book of Mormon seem to protest too much about their truthfulness, the New Testament, while affirming its truthfulness, has an actual ring of truth to it. It doesn’t sound like a fable or a myth. If you compare it with false Gospels from the second and third centuries, such as The Gospel of Peter, you can see what I mean. (You can read that document here: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/gospelpeter-brown.html.) C. S. Lewis, who was a professor of literature, once made the following observation: “I have been reading poems, romances, vision literature, legends, and myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know none of them are like this. Of this [gospel] text there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage . . . or else, some unknown [ancient] writer . . . without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern novelistic, realistic narrative.” (C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections, ed. Walter Hooper [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1967], 155, quoted in Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism [New York: Riverhead, 2008], 110). ↑
- https://wbcommunity.org/articles. See, “Why We Can Trust the New Testament,” https://wbcommunity.org/can-trust-new-testament; “The New Testament versus The Book of Mormon and the Qur’an,” https://wbcommunity.org/new-testament-versus-book-mormon; and “Evidence for the Resurrection,” https://wbcommunity.org/resurrection. ↑
- J. Warner Wallace, Cold Case Christianity: (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2013). ↑
- Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Riverhead, 2008). ↑
- Qur’an 21.47; 23.99–104; 99:6–8 ↑
- Joseph F. Smith, “Eternal Life and Salvation 441,” in Gospel Doctrine, 11th ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1959), https://archive.org/stream/gospeldoctrine009956mbp/gospeldoctrine009956mbp_djvu.txt. ↑
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on 3 John, which talks about the importance of supporting gospel ministry, particularly missionaries. Why is supporting this ministry good and hindering it evil? Because the gospel is the best news, a priceless treasure.
This message was preached on December 14, 2014. Pastor Brian Watson discussed how we can know the truth about Jesus, particularly in light of all the many claims about “new information” regarding the “true Jesus.” What do historians say about Jesus? What about those “other” Gospels? Listen to know why we can trust what the Bible says about the Son of God.
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 John 5:6-12. What is the content of the Christian faith? How do we know it’s true? Why should we believe it? Christianity says that God became man and has spoken to us. This grand claim should cause us to, at the least, examine the evidence.
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 John 4:1-6. How can we know if a message is from God or not? How can we determine who is a false teacher? The true message from God, the gospel, gets facts about Jesus right, whereas false teachers distort Jesus’ identity or his message. We need to know the Bible to be able to tell the difference.
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 John 3:19-24. How do we know we “of the truth”? How can we have confidence that we are God’s people and that God will hear our prayers? What if the desires and motivations of our hearts condemn us? What then? Listen to find out what John says about our hearts and about the God who is greater than our hearts.
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 John 1:5-10. God is light and John urges his readers to walk in the light. That means being honest, letting God expose our sins for what they are, and walking in a way that is pleasing to God. We also have the great promise that those who turn to Jesus in faith will be cleansed from all their sin.
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on the beginning of 1 John. John claims to be an eyewitness to the “word of life,” Jesus. John makes a big claim in this letter, that to have eternal life, one must know who Jesus truly is and have a relationship with him. John says one must agree with his account of Jesus. How do we know the New Testament is true? Why is Christianity, and not other religions, true? Listen to find out.
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message based on Acts 25-26 titled, “True and Rational Words.” In this passage, Paul is on trial before the governor, Festus, and he presents the case for Christianity to Herod Agrippa II. When Christianity is on trial, we see that it is true because it is the fulfillment of the promises of the Old Testament and the resurrection of Jesus is supported by eyewitness testimony.
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on Acts 20 titled, “Declaring to You the Whole Counsel of God.” In this message, we see the importance of preaching and teaching the whole truth that God has revealed to us. The word of God brings life and health, but there are false teachers who are “speaking twisted things.” Leaders of churches need to protect the church by teaching truth and refuting lies. They also need to practice what they preach.
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message based on Acts 17:16-21 titled, “The City Was Full of Idols.” We see the apostle Paul identifying false gods and false beliefs, something we need to do in our own time and place.
It is often alleged that there are many errors and contradictions in the Bible. In a previous piece (“When Was Jesus Born?”), I addressed the issue of an alleged error in the Bible: the time of Jesus’ birth, particularly with respect to the census conducted by Quirinius, the governor of Syria. Here, I will deal with a supposed contradiction: the different genealogies of Jesus, found in Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38, respectively.
The Nature of Contradictions
Before looking at the text, we should take time to think about what a contradiction actually is. According to philosopher Simon Blackburn, a contradiction is, “The conjunction of a proposition and its negation. The law of non-contradiction provides that no such conjunction can be true: not (p & not-p).” In other words, a contradiction is when one says that something is and is not. It is impossible to be a bachelor and a married man (a not-bachelor, if you will). However, philosophers often allow more nuance into what is called the law of non-contradiction. As Aristotle famously writes, “It is impossible for the same attribute at once to belong and not to belong to the same thing and in the same relation” So, turning our attention to the two genealogies of Jesus found in the Bible, we can say that Joseph is Jesus’ father and not Jesus’ father, and this is not a logical contradiction. How is that possible? The ways that Joseph is father to Jesus and is not-father to Jesus differ in relation, or sense. Joseph, Mary’s husband, is Jesus’ father in the sense that he raised Jesus and served as his human father. We would say he adopted Jesus. Joseph is not Jesus’ father in the sense that he is not his biological father. He is not Jesus’ true father: the Father, the first person of the Trinity.
Differences in Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38
With all of that in mind, let’s turn our attention to Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38. When looking at the two, there are clearly differences: Matthew starts from Abraham and, going in chronological order, ends with Jesus. There appear to be forty-one different names (if we don’t county any names twice, and if we don’t include Mary). David tells us, in verse 17, that these names represent a total of 42 generations: fourteen from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the Babylonian exile, and fourteen from that exile to Jesus.
Luke, on the other hand, gives his genealogy in reverse chronological order, starting with Jesus and going all the way back to Adam. His list contains seventy-seven names, with no discernible set of groupings.
A closer look yields something else: there are different names in these two genealogies. Both lists have some commonalities (such as the Abraham-Isaac-Jacob-Judah-Perez-Hezron and Boaz-Obed-Jesse-David sections). But between David and Jesus, there are thirty-eight names that differ. It should be obvious that, if both of these genealogies are intended to be true in the same sense, we have a logical contradiction. However, if they are different in sense (or relation, to use Aristotle’s term), then there is no logical contradiction.
The Different Purposes of Matthew’s and Luke’s Genealogies
Before we look at a very likely solution to this problem, we must acknowledge that these genealogies serve slightly different functions in these two Gospels. Though there are four Gospels in the Bible, all telling the same general story of Jesus, they differ in details, structure, and themes. These differences do not mean they contradict each other; rather, the four Gospels complement one another. This fourfold depiction of Jesus enriches our understanding of who he is and what he did for us.
Matthew starts his Gospel with this sentence: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Interestingly, the second word in the original Greek is geneseōs, which might intentionally evoke the beginning of the Bible, the book of Genesis, along with its tôledôt formula: “These are the generations…” (Gen. 2:4; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10, 27; 25:12, 19; 36:1; 37:2). The Gospels of Mark and John also recall the beginning of Genesis.
More clearly, Matthew wants us to know that Jesus is the son of Abraham and the son of David. In other words, he wants us to know that Jesus is the long-awaited offspring promised to Abraham (Gen. 12:7; 13:15; 17:8; cf. Gal. 3:16) and the long-awaited son of David (2 Sam. 7:12-16). Jesus is the fulfillment of the covenant God made with Abraham, and he is the fulfillment of the covenant God made with David. This is part of Matthew’s emphasis on fulfillment (Matt. 1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; 3:15; 4:14; 5:17; 8:17; 12:17; 13:14, 35; 21:4; 26:54, 56; 27:9). Matthew is highlighting the fact that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah.
Matthew’s arrangement of this genealogy is clearly intentional, for he eliminates some names. In verse 8, he moves from Joram to Uzziah, though we know from 1-2 Kings and 1-2 Chronicles that Ahaziah, Joash, and Amaziah reigned in between Joram and Uzziah. Matthew is clearly doing this for a purpose. (We should note that “was the father of” [egennēsen] can be used of forefathers, such as grandfathers and great-grandfathers.) Perhaps it is to accommodate his three groups of fourteen generations. As Craig Blomberg explains, “Even though the Old Testament mentions several additional ancestors, Matthew arranges his names into three groups of fourteen, with David as the fourteenth. In Hebrew the gematria (the sum of the numerical equivalents of the consonants in a word) for David was 14 (D+V+D = 4+6+4). Given the popularity of various creative uses of gematria in ancient Judaism, Matthew may well have employed this device to stylize his genealogy and stress Jesus as Son of David.”
Vern Poythress observes something else in Matthew’s genealogy: there are some alternate spellings of the names of kings. This is not an error, as it preserves the same referents (the same individuals) and, as anyone who has read the Bible knows, often people have different names by which they are known. But Matthew might have had deeper theological purposes for these spellings:
By spelling “Asa” as “Asaph,” Matthew refers to king Asa, the son of Abijah; at the same time, on top of this main connection, it creates a literary allusion to or reminiscence of Asaph, of the tribe of Levi, the head of the Levitical singers (1 Chron. 25:1). This allusion subtly suggests that Jesus is not only literally the heir to the kingly line of David, through king Asa, but figuratively and spiritually heir to the Levitical line of priestly activity. By spelling “Amon” as “Amos,” Matthew refers to king Amon, the son of Manasseh and at the same time creates a literary allusion to Amos the prophet. It suggests that Jesus is spiritually the heir to the Old Testament prophets.
This may seem odd to us, but we have no right to demand that Matthew or the other biblical authors write history the way that we would. Any written history is shaped by an author for a particular purpose. This is true of modern biographies as well as ancient ones. The writers of the Gospels shaped their stories according to theological purposes. This does not make their writing any less true or historical.
Luke, on the other hand, does not begin his Gospel with a genealogy. He places his genealogy between two important events in Jesus’ life: his baptism and his temptations in the wilderness. Jesus was baptized to identify himself with sinful humanity, which originated with Adam and Eve and their original sin. This event may also recall the beginning of Jesus: the three persons of the Trinity are present (the Father, the Word [=Jesus], the Spirit). Jesus is, in various ways, depicted in the New Testament as the inauguration of a new creation, one without sin. So, just as the Spirit hovered over the waters at creation (Gen. 1:2), he descends on Jesus while he is in the water of baptism. Just as God declares his creation to be “very good” (Gen. 1:31), the Father says of Jesus, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22).
After his genealogy, Luke writes of how Jesus was tempted in the wilderness by Satan. Adam and Eve succumbed to Satan’s temptation in the garden of Eden (Gen. 3:1-6). Israel gave into temptation many times in their wilderness wanderings, between the time of the exodus out of Egypt and their entrance into the Promised Land (see the book of Numbers, in particular). Jesus, however, as the true Son of God, did not sin when tempted. It seems that Luke is showing that Jesus is not only the hope of Israel, but the hope of the world. Jesus is the one who will crush Satan’s head (Gen. 3:15; cr. Rom. 16:20).
According to I. Howard Marshall, “the point of the genealogy is rather to show that Jesus has his place in the human race created by God. The fact that the genealogy is carried back to Adam, as the son of God, may perhaps point a contrast between this disobedient son of God and the obedient Son of God, Jesus.”
A Solution to an Alleged Contradiction
Some theologians have claimed that Matthew presents Joseph’s genealogy, whereas Luke presents Mary’s. This explanation is unconvincing, however, since both genealogies lead to Joseph. The more likely explanation, one that suits both the Gospel writers’ respective purposes, is that Matthew is presenting a genealogy of the royal heritage of Jesus and Luke is presenting Jesus’ biological genealogy. (Actually, it’s Joseph’s biological genealogy. As Darrell Bock observes, “In the first century, legal status depended on the father, so the most natural way to take the reference to Joseph is as a genealogical reference.”) If Jesus is the true Son of David, the true King, he would be the rightful heir to the throne. So, Matthew indicates this with his genealogy. If Jesus is the second Adam (1 Cor. 15:45) and the offspring of Abraham, he must be a legal descendant. So, Luke indicates that.
How can these genealogies diverge? Shouldn’t these genealogies be one and the same?
Gerald Bray, a British theologian, demonstrates how genealogies can diverge by using an example from his homeland:
To understand just how complex genealogies can be, we need look no further than that of the British royal family. Queen Elizabeth II can trace her ancestry back more or less directly to the accession of George I in 1714, but there is not a straightforward succession from father to son. When we go back to the Tudors (1485-1603) and Stuarts (1603-1714), we find that of the twelve rulers they produced between them, the present queen is descended from only two—Henry VII (1485-1509) and James I (1603-1625). Ironically, although she cannot claim the first Elizabeth as her ancestor, she can include Elizabeth’s great rival, Mary Queen of Scots, whom Elizabeth I executed for her pretensions to the throne of England! Legal and physical descent are very different, and if we do not know the details, we might easily think that one (or both) of the competing genealogies had been made up. We do not have the background information we need to decide what the different genealogies of Jesus mean, but the British example is a warning that we must be careful not to draw conclusions that may seem obvious on the surface but that are actually quite mistaken.
Bray includes a footnote to that passage: “Of the eleven monarchs since 1714, George II was succeeded by his grandson (1760), George IV by his brother (1830), William IV by his niece (1837), and Edward VIII by his brother (1936).” The point Bray is making is that biological and royal ancestry are not always one and the same. This historical example demonstrates that the suggestion that Matthew and Luke are using two different genealogies—both true in their own senses—is possible.
If this solution is true, then the royal and biological genealogies converge upon Joseph because the one with the royal heritage (Jacob, listed as Joseph’s father in Matt. 1:16) died childless, and his next of kin would be Joseph. It is possible that Jacob and Heli (Joseph’s actual father, according to Luke 3:23) were related or otherwise very close. Perhaps if Heli had died, Joseph would have become Jacob’s heir. An alternate view here is that Matthan, the father of Jacob, father of Joseph (Matt. 1:15-16) is the same person as Matthat, father of Heli, father of Joseph (Luke 3:23-24). Perhaps Matthan/Matthat have two different fathers listed (Eleazar in Matthew; Levi in Luke) because of a levirate marriage, in which case Eleazar, heir to the royal throne, died with child. Eleazar’s brother Levi then married his widow, and they had Matthan/Matthat as a son, who was the biological child of Levi and the royal heir of Eleazar. Given that scenario, then if Jacob, son of Matthan/Matthat, died without child, his nephew, Joseph, son of Heli, would become his heir. These are but two possible (albeit complicated) ways that these genealogies could converge.
We may ever know exactly why Matthew and Luke use differing genealogies. There may be another proposal that makes better sense of the evidence, or more evidence may come to light in the future. However, there is no reason to assume that we have found a real contradiction here. As is so often the case, the Gospels present different pieces of information that complement, not contradict, each other.
- Simon Blackburn, Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd ed. rev. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 78. ↑
- Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1005b 19-20, in Aristotle in 23 Volumes, vols.17, 18, trans. Hugh Tredennick (Medford, MA: Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1933, 1989). ↑
- Craig L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey, 2nd ed. (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 233. ↑
- Vern Sheridan Poythress, Inerrancy and the Gospels: A God-Centered Approach to the Challenges of Harmonization (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 70-71. ↑
- I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1978), 161. ↑
- Darrell L. Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994), 352. I. Howard Marshall adds, “From the legal point of view, Joseph was the earthly father of Jesus, and there was no other way of reckoning his descent” (The Gospel of Luke, 157). ↑
- Gerald Bray, God Is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 565. ↑
- Ibid., 565 n. 26. ↑
- Details of a levirate marriage are found in Deut. 25:5-10. Vv. 6-7 state, “If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.” This way, the inheritance and legacy of the man who died without a son could continue. ↑
- For more information, see D. A. Carson, Matthew, in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 9:88-94. ↑