Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Are You Sure About God? (Part 1)

     The atheist declares, “There is no God!” With just as much passion, the theist affirms, “God is!” The agnostic says, “I don’t know if God is real, but probably not.” Two of these would consider the atheist overly confident, two would claim the theist is delusional, and two would say the agnostic is noncommittal. Either God is, or he is not. There is no middle ground. 
     The problem is, we cannot see, hear, smell, taste, or touch God. Sensory perception is limited to the physical world, and God, who is outside the material realm, is beyond the reach of our physical senses. How, then, can we know anything about God and whether or not he even exists?

How do we know anything about anything?

     There are basically three ways of attaining knowledge: (a) personal observation and experience; (b) inferences drawn from observation and experience (inductive reasoning); and (c) the testimony of others. For example, how do I know it’s raining? (a) I observe or experience the rain with sensory perception; (b) I infer it’s raining when a soaking wet person enters my office building from outside; and/or (c) someone tells me it’s raining.    
     Now it’s possible that (a) I’m dreaming, and the rain isn’t real; or (b) I misinterpret how the person outside my office building got drenched; or (c) someone lies to me about the rain. Nevertheless, under normal circumstances, most of us are sensible enough to (a) distinguish between dreams and reality; (b) figure out how a person outside an office building gets wet, especially when multiple persons consistently enter the building in the same condition; and (c) discern whether or not someone is telling the truth, particularly when he/she proves to be a reliable source and numerous others give the same report.

Its not faith versus science …

     The physical universe is something we can all observe, so how is it to be explained? There are four possibilities: (1) it is just an illusion and doesn’t really exist; (2) it spontaneously arose out of nothing; (3) it has always existed; or (4) it was created by a force beyond and superior to itself.
     Atheistic naturalism, as opposed to theistic supernaturalism, begins with impersonal, mindless matter that either came into existence from nothing or is eternal. Life is believed to be a freak accident of nature, governed by nothing and going nowhere. The adamant claim is that outside the natural world, nothing exists. When astronomer Carl Sagan boldly announced, “the Cosmos is all there is or was or ever will be,”1 did anyone notice he was making a faith claim? All of these assertions are based on unprovable presuppositions. None can be verified by scientific experimentation or observation. Each must be taken on faith. If the issue were merely faith versus science, there should be no scientists who believe in God (yet there are!), and there should be no atheists who stake their claims on faith (yet they do!). Atheistic naturalism (or materialism) requires a great deal of faith, beginning with the faith claim that nature is all there is.

Here’s what we know from observation and experience …

     Thermodynamics is the study of matter and energy. The First Law of Thermodynamics affirms that the total amount of energy in the universe is constant. While usable energy is regularly converted into unusable energy, the sum total of all energy remains the same. The Second Law affirms that the universe is running out of usable energy and is heading toward disorder. This implies that the universe has not always existed; it had a beginning. Like a mechanical clock running down, there must have been a time in the distant past when everything was new, when all energy was available for use, when the clock was fully wound up.
     In the late 1920s modern cosmology was born at Mount Wilson Observatory when astronomer Edwin Hubble, using the newly constructed 2.5 meter (100-inch) Hooker Telescope, confirmed Albert Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity and proved the universe is expanding as distant galaxies are moving outward. If the universe is expanding, it can be traced in reverse to a single point in time when the expansion began. Atheists call it “the Big Bang,” while theists call it “Creation.”
     Within the natural world as we know it, something does not come from nothing. The physical universe is something. It exists. It’s real. Physical matter does not create itself or simply appear out of nothingness. If we start with impersonal, mindless matter, perhaps a cloud of interstellar gas, or a subatomic particle, or a sea of primordial slime – wait a minute – where did that come from? Rather than offering a reasonable explanation, our anti-theistic friends usually retort, “Okay, so where did God come from?”2
     Excursus: Who or what caused God? If one argues that God is the ultimate cause of the universe, where did God come from? The bottom line is, the evidence points to a source of the natural world beyond nature itself. It was at the beginning of the cosmos that time, space, matter, and finite energy all came into being. The ultimate cause of the physical world is thus outside of time (eternal), outside of space (omnipresent), outside of matter (immaterial), and outside of finite energy (omnipotent). The God of the Bible is beyond time, space, matter, and finite energy, without beginning or end (Eccl. 3:11; Psa. 93:2; Prov. 8:23; Rev. 1:8). The God of the Bible is the infinite, independent, supernatural primal cause of the finite, dependent, natural world (Gen. 1:1).


     We all have access to the same evidence, yet we are reaching different conclusions. How should the evidence be interpreted? Both theists and atheists make faith claims, so which is more reasonable? Science is limited to what can be seen, observed, and tested, and a one-time event that occurred in the distant past is beyond the reach of observational and experimental scientific investigation. In our next post, we will take the next step in our investigative journey and consider what we can know through inductive reasoning as we try to make sense of what we observe.
--Kevin L. Moore

     1 Carl Sagan, Cosmos (New York: Random House, 1980): 4. In the opening pages of the book, the Associated Press describes the author as “the most brilliant scientist of our times.” Sagan, who co-wrote the PBS television series “Cosmos” with his wife Ann Duryan in 1981, stated: “I am not an atheist. An atheist is someone who has compelling evidence that there is no Judeo-Christian-Islamic God.” Sagan died 20th December 1996 at the age of 62.
     2 Carl Sagan compared the question of the universe’s origin to the question of God’s origin, reasoning that if God is said to be eternal, why couldn’t the cosmos be eternal? <Link>. For an excellent response to this question, see Dr. Kent Hovind’s reply to Reinhold Schlieter, <Link>.

Works Consulted:
     Geisler, Norman L. and Frank Turek. I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004.
     Parr, Richard. “Big Questions of Life: Is there a God?,” HubPages (23 Oct. 2015), <Link>.
     ---. “Big Questions of Life: Relating with God,” HubPages (8 April 2014), <Link>.
     Stokes, Mitch. How to Be an Atheist: Why Many Skeptics Aren’t Skeptical Enough. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016.

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Wednesday, 15 February 2017

“Brother” in Acts

Before Saul of Tarsus was taught the gospel, Ananias addressed him as “brother Saul” (Acts 9:17). What does this mean?

     A form of the word “brother” (Greek adelphós) appears in the Acts narrative around fifty-seven times (textual variation notwithstanding), used in at least three different senses: (a) biological male sibling (1:14; 7:13; 12:2, 17); (b) ethnic kinsman (2:29, 37; 3:17, 22; 7:2, 23, 25, 26, 37; 13:15, 26, 38; 22:1, 5, 13; 23:1, 5, 6; 28:17, 21); and (c) spiritual brother in Christ (1:15 [or ‘disciples’]; 6:3; 9:30; 10:23; 11:1, 12, 29; 14:2; 15:1, 3, 7, 13, 22, 23, 32, 33, 36, 40; 16:2, 40; 17:6, 10, 14; 18:18, 27; 21:7, 17, 20; 28:14, 15). However, for the first thirteen chapters the distinction between (b) and (c) is somewhat blurred (cf. 1:16), seeing that the disciples to whom the term applies were all ethnic Jews. It is not until 14:2 that Gentile Christians are specifically called “brothers.”

     In the sense of “ethnic kinsmen,” the non-Christian Jews on the Day of Pentecost, before having heard the complete gospel message, are addressed as “men and brothers” (Acts 2:29; equivalent to “men of Israel,” v. 22) and then refer to the Jewish apostles the same way (v. 37). When Stephen stood before antagonistic, unbelieving Jews, he called them “brothers” (7:2), applying the same designation to Moses’ fellow Israelites (vv. 23, 26). In the synagogue of Pisidian Antioch, the local Jewish leaders, before knowing Paul and Barnabas were Christians, called them “men and brothers” (13:15), a common Jewish expression reciprocated in v. 26. When Paul stood before an angry Jewish mob wanting to kill him, he addresses them as “brothers” (22:1), refers to other non-Christian Jews as “brothers” (v. 5), then recalls Ananias’ words to him as a fellow ethnic Jew, “brother Saul” (v. 13).
-- Kevin L. Moore

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Wednesday, 8 February 2017

The Education of Jesus the Rabbi

     The word “rabbi” is of Hebrew origin, essentially meaning “master” and used as an honorary title for “teacher.” The apostle John, writing to a non-Jewish audience, uses the word “rabbi” (a Jewish term) and then translates it into Greek as didáskalos (“teacher”). This informs John’s readers of what the person who wears the title does but doesn’t explicitly convey the deep respect inherent in the term. The other Gospels do. In recounting the story of Christ’s transfiguration, the synoptic writers employ different words in their respective translations of the Aramaic conversation. Mark records the original Hebrew title Rabbí (Mark 9:5), whereas Matthew uses “Lord” [Kúrios] (Matt. 17:4) and Luke “Master” [Epistátēs] (Luke 9:33). These parallel renderings show the title’s reverential intent.1

Jesus and the Jewish educational system in 1st-century Palestine

     John 7:15 indicates that Jesus received no formal training, so how did he come to be recognized as “Rabbi”? Growing up in Nazareth of Galilee, what were his educational opportunities, and what was necessary to be a teacher of the Law in Jewish society? Education among the ancient Jews was provided in four settings: (a) the home; (b) the synagogue; (c) the temple; and (d) rabbinical school.

The Home

     All Jewish children were taught in their respective households. The Law decreed: “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deut. 6:6-7).2 Timothy, from Lystra in eastern Asia Minor, is typical of one who knew the holy scriptures from childhood (1 Tim. 3:15), thanks to a godly parent and grandparent (2 Tim. 1:5). Cf. Luke 18:20-21.
     When the Logos became flesh (John 1:14), “born of woman, born under the law” (Gal. 4:4), he was named Jesus (Matt. 1:21-25) and had no undue advantage over anyone else in the human race. “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things …. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect [katà pánta] …” (Heb. 2:14, 17).4 Jesus of Nazareth “learned,” just like everyone else, mostly in the proverbial school of hard knocks (Heb. 5:8).
     He was raised in an orthodox Jewish home. His stepfather Joseph was knowledgeable of and obedient to the Mosaic Law (Luke 2:21-24, 27, 39, 41). Jesus’ mother also knew her Bible well, quoting or alluding to numerous passages from all three sections of the Hebrew scriptures (the Law, the Prophets, the Writings) in her song recorded in Luke 1:46-55.3 Young Jesus was subject to his parents (Luke 2:51) and would have been taught the word of God from his earliest years. “And the child grew and became strong …. increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:40, 52).

The Synagogue

     Another very important part of the Jewish educational system was the synagogue. The synagogue was a multi-purpose assembly place for prayer, worship, and scripture reading (Acts 15:21), also functioning as a court, a community center, and a school. Both boys and girls attended the synagogue school from age 5 or 6; boys continued on until around age 15, while girls were usually married by then. In Nazareth, where Jesus was raised [tréphō], it was customary [eíōtha] for him to attend the local synagogue (Luke 4:16).

The Temple

     The temple in Jerusalem also had a role in the Jewish educational system. For those living in the vicinity or visiting from time to time, there were occasions to learn from respected rabbis. As a 12-year-old boy, Jesus had opportunity to be “in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” (Luke 2:46). Young Jesus would have also been quizzed by these learned rabbis, an important method of rabbinical instruction,5 and “all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers” (v. 47).

Rabbinical School

     Finally, Jewish boys who demonstrated exceptional promise were sent to Jerusalem to learn from a renowned teacher of the Law (like Hillel, Shammai, or Gamaliel). Young Saul of Tarsus was “brought up” in Jerusalem, “educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law …” (Acts 22:3). Since Jesus showed so much promise as a boy (Luke 2:47), why was he not afforded the opportunity to attend rabbinical school? First of all, his family probably couldn’t afford it. Secondly, the last time in the biblical record his stepfather is depicted alive is when Jesus was 12 years old (Luke 2:48-51). Afterwards there are numerous references to Jesus’ mother and his siblings but no mention of Joseph, who presumably had died. Jesus would then have the responsibility of supporting his family (cf. Mark 6:3; John 2:12) and therefore could not have pursued further education.
     A few months before his death, Jesus was teaching in the Jerusalem temple. “The Jews therefore marveled, saying, ‘How is it that this man has learning, when he has never studied?’” (John 7:15). This observation, of course, must be understood in context. Jesus had “studied” or “learned” [manthánō] his entire life – at home, in the synagogue, and periodically in the temple (Luke 2:46, 51; 4:16; Heb. 5:8). His listeners were amazed simply because he didn’t have a degree from one of their prestigious institutions of higher learning.


     Education is good, and Christian education is even better. But whether or not you have the opportunity to pursue additional training in more formal settings, do what Jesus did. Develop good Bible study habits at home, search the scriptures with fellow Christians at church assemblies and small group gatherings, avail yourself of the plethoric learning opportunities at lectureships, workshops, seminars, retreats, gospel meetings, et al., and then share what you’re learning with others (2 Tim. 2:2, 24; Heb. 5:12). There is absolutely no excuse for any member of the Lord’s church, especially in the 21st century, to be biblically illiterate!
     But “whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 John 2:5-6).
--Kevin L. Moore

     1 Luke, writing from a Greek perspective, never employs the Hebrew term “rabbi.” John uses the word but translates it for his Gentile readers (John 1:38). In John’s record, the title is applied once to John the baptizer (3:26), and the rest to Jesus by Philip and another disciple of John (1:39), Nathanael (1:49), Nicodemus (3:2), his disciples (4:31; 9:2; 11:8), Jewish crowds (6:25), and Mary Magdalen (14:45, the emphatic form Rabboni). Mark, as a Jewish writer, seems to employ the title instinctively in reference to Jesus, recording the words of Peter (9:5; 11:21), a blind man (10:51, the emphatic form Rabboni), and Judas (14:45). Matthew appears to be more reserved in his usage of the title, perhaps because of its abuse among egotistical leaders, recording the Lord’s rebuke of the scribes and Pharisees (23:7, 8) and the words of Judas Iscariot (26:25, 49).
     2 Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version.
     3 1 Sam. 2:1; Psa. 34:2, 3, 9; Hab. 3:18; 1 Sam. 1:11; Psa. 138:6; Gen. 30:13; Mal. 3:12; Hos. 11:1; Psa. 71:19; 33:21; 105:3; 126:3; 111:9; Gen. 17:7; Ex. 20:6; Psa. 103:17, 18; 147:11; 2 Chron. 20:6; Ex. 6:6b; Psa. 98:1; 118:15; Isa. 40:10; 52:10; Job 5:11; Psa. 138:6; Prov. 11:2; 29:23; 1 Sam. 2:5-8; Psa. 113:9; 23:5; 34:10; 107:9; 146:7, 9; Prov. 13:7; Eccl. 5:13; Psa. 98:3; 1 Chron. 16:12-16; Psa. 136:21-23.
    5 According to the biblical record of Christ’s earthly ministry, he asked 307 questions and only directly answered three. See M. B. Copenhaver, Jesus is the Question (Nashville: Abington, 2014).

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