New American Standard Bible or English Standard Version? Here’s Why I Switched to the ESV

In the winter of 2004/2005 I was debating switching from the New American Standard Bible to the English Standard Version. After some comparison, I decided to make the switch. Here is my review  explaining why. 

In 2001 Crossway released a new translation, the English Standard Version (ESV). The purpose of this translation is to be more literal than the New International Version (NIV) – particularly the recent “gender neutral” edition – and to be more readable than the updated New American Standard Bible (NASB). Both the ESV and the NASB are on the literal end of the translation spectrum. The chief difference is that the ESV translators attempted to emulate the literary beauty and rhythm of the King James Version (KJV) and Revised Standard Version (RSV), while the NASB translators focused more on strict literalism.

For many years I have used the NASB and its 1995 updated edition. But recently I have been comparing the NASB with the ESV, and I would like to share the fruits of my research with you. Since I do not possess the linguistic or critical skills needed to evaluate translations, I have primarily relied on the reviews of others. In particular, I have used Jack Lewis’s The English Bible: From the KJV to the NIV (Baker, 1982), for a great deal of my research. Along with the help of several young people where I preach, I used Lewis’s chapter on the 1977 NASB as a framework for comparing the ESV and updated NASB.

The primary result of my study has been this: approximately two-thirds of Lewis’s criticisms of the NASB have been corrected by the ESV, while virtually none have been corrected by the updated NASB.

Less Literal

There are several instances in which the NASB is less literal than the ESV. Some examples:

  • Ezekiel 3:7 – “the whole house of Israel is stubborn and obstinate” (NASB) vs. “all the house of Israel have a hard forehead and a stubborn heart” (ESV)
  • Psalm 88:18 – “My acquaintances are in darkness” (NASB) vs. “my companions have become darkness” (ESV)
  • Psalm 78:33 – “So He brought their days to an end in futility” (NASB) vs. “So he made their days vanish like a breath” (ESV)
  • 1 Peter 3:7 – “live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker” (NASB) vs. “live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel” (ESV)

Additions

There are dozens of times where the NASB adds a word to the text that the ESV does not. Some examples:

  • Luke 1:17 – “It is he who will go as a forerunner before Him” (NASB) vs. “and he will go before him” (ESV)
  • 1 Thessalonians 5:21 – “But examine everything carefully” (NASB) vs. “but test everything” (ESV)
  • Luke 5:39 – “The old is good enough” (NASB) vs. “The old is good” (ESV)
  • 1 Timothy 5:22 – “Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily” (NASB) vs.Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands” (ESV)
  • Mark 6:9 – “but to wear sandals; and He added, ‘Do not put on two tunics’” (NASB) vs. “but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics” (ESV)
  • Acts 7:59 – “as he called on the Lord and said, ‘Lord Jesus’” (NASB) vs. “he called out, ‘Lord Jesus’” (ESV)

Inaccuracies

There are several instances where the NASB translation is very poor, but the ESV is accurate. Notice a few examples:

  • Ecclesiastes 12:5 – “and the caperberry is ineffective” (NASB) vs. “and desire fails” (ESV)
  • Hebrews 9:16 – “For where a covenant is” (NASB) vs. “For where a will is involved” (ESV)
  • Acts 2:46 – “breaking bread from house to house” (NASB) vs. “breaking bread in their homes” (ESV)
  • Exodus 32:4 – “This is your god, O Israel” (NASB) vs. “These are your gods, O Israel” (ESV)
  • 2 Samuel 24:1 – “And it incited David” (NASB) vs. “And he incited David” (ESV)
  • 1 Corinthians 1:12 – “Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, ‘I am of Paul,’ and ‘I of Apollos,’ and ‘I of Cephas,’ and ‘I of Christ’” (NASB) vs. “What I mean is that each one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ’” (ESV).

Consistency

The ESV is not entirely consistent, but does seem to exceed the NASB in this regard. Here are just a few examples:

  • The NASB translates porneia as either “fornication” or “immorality.” The ESV consistently uses “sexual immorality.”
  • The NASB uses renders mlk differently in Leviticus 1:15 (“wring off its head”) and 5:8 (“nip its head at the front of its neck”); the ESV is consistent (“wring off its head” and “wring its head from its neck”).
  • Genesis 1:24 and 2:7 use the same Hebrew term for man and animals. The NASB translates them “living creatures” and “living being”, while the ESV is consistent (“living creature”).
  • While the NASB translates teleios as “mature” (Eph. 4:13), “perfect” (Phil. 3:15), and “complete” (Col. 1:28), the ESV consistently uses “mature.”
  • The NASB dropped the archaic term “seed”, but often uses “descendant” or “descendants,” neither of which are collective nouns like “seed.” The ESV almost always uses “offspring,” which is a collective noun.
  • The NASB translates psyche as “life” in Mark 8:35, but as “soul” in the next two verses, while the ESV translates it consistently as “life.”
  • 1 Corinthians 16:22 reads “he is to be accursed. Maranatha” in the NASB. Why translate “anathema” (he is to be accursed) but not “Maranatha”? The ESV has “let him be accursed. Our Lord, come”
  • The NASB translates the same word as “wings” and “covering” in Ruth 2:12 and 3:9. The ESV uses “wings” in both cases.

Smoother English

The ESV’s primary goal was to use smoother English than the NASB while retaining the literal meaning of the text. Here are some examples:

  • John 1:43 – “The next day He purposed to go into Galilee” (NASB) vs. “The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee” (ESV).
  • Luke 20:2 – “Tell us by what authority You are doing these things, or who is the one who gave You this authority?” (NASB) vs. “Tell us by what authority you do these things, or who it is that gave you this authority” (ESV)
  • Amos 1:1 – “which he envisioned in visions concerning Israel” (NASB) vs. “which he saw concerning Israel” (ESV)
  • Genesis 4:1 – “I have gotten a manchild” (NASB) vs. “I have gotten a man” (ESV)
  • Luke 23:45 – “because the sun was obscured” (NASB) vs. “while the sun’s light failed” (ESV)
  • Nehemiah 5:7 – “You are exacting usury” (NASB) vs. “You are exacting interest” (ESV)
  • 2 Corinthians 11:3 – “your minds will be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ” (NASB) vs. “your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (ESV)
  • Leviticus 19:27 – “You shall not round off the side-growth of your heads” (NASB) vs. “You shall not round off the hair on your temples” (ESV)

Criticisms of the ESV

The weakness of relying on Lewis’s critique of the NASB is that while we could easily check places where the NASB was poor and the ESV was better, I really have no way of knowing all the instances where the ESV is inferior to the NASB, or where both translations are weak. Based on very random research, here are some criticisms of the ESV:

  • The NASB italicizes added words; the ESV does not.
  • The ESV uses the literal Hebrew “Azazel” for “scapegoat” in Leviticus 16:10, with no note as to the meaning.
  • The ESV translates Matthew 16:18 as “the gates of hell,” although it does have “gates of Hades” in a footnote.
  • The ESV renders 2 Timothy 1:12, “I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me.” It does have the NASB rendering in a footnote.
  • The ESV renders Revelation 20:4 the same as the NASB: “They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.” This translation is in keeping with premillennial interpretation, as opposed to “lived and reigned” in the KJV and ASV.
  • My sense is that the ESV has fewer notes about textual variation than the NASB or NIV.

Some Concluding Thoughts

It would be very helpful if someone with the linguistic and critical skills could measure the ESV against the Hebrew and Greek text rather than just comparing it to the NASB. However, based on these initial findings, it seems to me that the ESV has a clear edge over the NASB in accuracy and readability.

Series on the Gospel of John (and a Reminder to Subscribe to the Blog!)

Our church is focusing on the theme of Christ-likeness this year, and in connection with that theme, I’ve been preaching through the Gospel of John. For any of you who would like to go through the gospel with us, I thought I would periodically include links to the sermons.

Before I paste in the links, let me also remind you that you can subscribe to the blog so that any time I upload new content, it will be sent to you by email. Just visit the blog on your computer (not your phone), look on the lefthand side for the box to enter your email, type it in and click the “subscribe” button. And of course, check your spam folder to make sure the updates aren’t being filtered there (although this blog is to online teaching what SPAM is to meat).

Here are the links to the sermons on John (so far). I hope these can be of some help to you as you desire to walk with Christ.

That You May Believe (Introduction)

The Word (John 1:1-5)

The Light (John 1:6-13)

The Word Became Flesh (John 1:14-18)

Four Ways in Four Days to Christ (John 1:19-51)

The First Sign (John 2:1-12)

The Law Was Given – Grace and Truth Came

John the evangelist concludes the prologue of the fourth gospel with these words:

For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (John 1:16-17)

At first glance, John seems to be drawing a sharp contrast between the Law on the one hand and grace and truth on the other. And if we filter John’s language through the grid of Paul’s teaching in Romans and Galatians, the juxtaposition of law and grace becomes even more pointed.

However, I don’t think that is what John intends by this passage. Granted, if we read it through the lens of Paul’s letters, and in light of the Reformation’s emphasis on justification by faith, we will draw the conclusion that John is contrasting law and grace. But the first rule of Bible study is to read passages in their own context before drawing contemporary applications.

So let’s think about the text in John 1:17 in the context of the first century. If you were a Jewish believer, as John was, the Law and grace/truth were not mutually exclusive. To the contrary, the giving of the Law of Moses was considered a profound act of divine grace. Even Paul says as much! “The Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God” (Romans 3:2). This is why the psalmist celebrated the Law as sweeter than honey and more precious than gold, and prayed to God to “graciously teach me your law!” (Psalm 119:29).

The opposite of “Law” is not “grace”, and it is certainly not “truth”. Jesus himself testified to the complete truthfulness of the Law. Its authority is so sure that not even the smallest stroke or letter can be ignored (Matthew 5:17). The enduring truth of the Law is so firm that according to Christ, “Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35).

If John’s intention was not to place the Law and grace/truth in a sharp antithesis with each, then what’s his point? The text provides us with two important clues. First, notice carefully the verbs that John uses in verse 17:

For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

The Law was given, grace and truth came. The Law was given through an intermediary, Moses. If you remember the account of the giving of the Ten Commandments (by the way, since they were given, they were a gift – an act of grace!), the people were terrified by the voice of God and insisted that Moses serve as an intermediary (Exodus 20:18-21). But in Christ, who John says is the Word of God (John 1:1), the divine message came in person – literally – in Jesus of Nazareth. Therefore, the contrast in the text is between the giving of the word of God to the people in an indirect fashion, and the coming of the Word of God to the world in a direct fashion.

The second clue in the text is the expression in 1:16 –

For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

We have received grace and even more grace – how? The Law was a gift of grace. But as great of a blessing as it was, it was not the fullest expression of God. That came when the Word became flesh. The Law was a gift of grace – Jesus was an even greater gift of grace.

This passage, then, is an important reminder about the most distinctive doctrine of Christianity. In Islam, God’s most direct revelation is the Quran. In Judaism, it is the Law. But in Christianity, it is a person – the Word.

“Husbands, Love Your Wives” (or, Men and Women Are Different)

A couple of Sundays ago while we were on the way to church, Kristi noticed some rain to the south, heading right toward our church building. And sure enough, a block away from the building the rain began to pour. So, I drove under the portico, dropped Kristi off at the front door, and then parked. Since I am not exactly fleet of foot, I got drenched on my way into the building. A few minutes later, the rain stopped.

After worship was over, we were about to head to the car, when all of a sudden it started raining – again. So, I waddled out to the car and got soaked – again. As soon as I picked up Kristi and turned out of the parking lot, the rain stopped. It was like a scene from a sitcom!

I wasn’t alone, of course. Many other husbands were doing the same thing – they just had the good sense to have umbrellas (how long have I lived in Florida without remembering to get one?!?). Those fortunate enough to have teenage boy could foist the job onto them. But it was almost always men who were “braving the elements.”

This doesn’t mean that women are incapable of doing so. Many of our ladies at church are single, like my Mom was, and had to park for themselves. One of our ladies is married to a man who uses a walker, and so she had to drop him off and pick him up. And our young mothers routinely have to fend for themselves and their children as they run various errands through the week, especially if they also work outside the home . But all things being equal, if a husband and wife were driving together during that Sunday’s downpours , it was the man who sacrificed for his wife and walked in the rain, not the other way around.

Why is this the case?

Is it a matter of an arch-conservative religious culture?  Well, I see commercials and TV shows all the time that depict men holding umbrellas for women, and I assume these portrayals aren’t all written by Bible-thumping fundamentalists! Is it merely a matter of social convention? I don’t think so. While everyone agrees that gender roles and customs vary from culture to culture, even the most “woke” feminist would have been troubled if wives were the ones trudging through the rain instead of their husbands.

The reality is that men and women are different, and those physiological differences substantially (though not exclusively) account for many of the different roles we fill. The mantra of the radical progressive movement is that sex is based on biology but gender is determined by social convention and personal identity. No one questions, of course, that the expression of masculinity and femininity varies greatly from culture to culture. But it is also indisputable that many social customs are largely determined by the biological differences that intrinsically exist between men and women.

On average, men are larger, stronger, and faster than women. There are women who tower over me (like my wife), who can bench press more than me, and who can outrun me (all women, in fact!). But generally speaking, by virtue of biology, men have the edge on women when it comes to size, strength, and speed. And that is why, generally speaking, in culture after culture, it is men who are expected to fight in wars, investigate strange noises in the middle of the night, and endure the rain after parking. Biological sex creates many of our social conventions.

There is a dark side to these biological differences, however. Since men are stronger and larger than women, it is all too easy for men to exploit their physical advantages. Women are three times more likely to experience abuse, rape, assault, or stalking than men. Are men sometimes abused by women? Of course. But on average, it is men rather than women who are far more prone to perpetrate this sort of violence, and the simple reason is biology.

This is also why, in culture after culture, there have been gender-specific activities. In more primitive times it was the first big hunt. For millennia it often involved athletic contests. In many cultures right up until today it has taken the form of boy’s and men’s clubs and societies. These male-only activities are not inherently designed to denigrate women (although they can be perverted into doing precisely that). To the contrary, they serve the purpose of helping to channel male energy and aggression into virtuous responsibility and respect. They also create an environment in which men feel free to open up as men without the additional complication of male-female dynamics, which paradoxically makes men more open and available to women. Done well, these kinds of clubs and societies make better men, husbands, and fathers.

What I have just summarized reflects the wisdom of thousands of years of human tradition. And I can testify personally to the powerful affect my participation in sports, in camps, and in fraternal organizations has had on me as a man. Many of you can as well. And while I haven’t explicitly said this, it should go without saying that many of my female readers can testify to the same blessing they have received from various girl’s and women’s organizations. This is what true diversity looks like – celebrating the flourishing of men as men and women as women for the common good of both. Vive la différence!

Who could possibly object to this tradition of boy’s/men’s and girl’s/women’s hobbies, activities, or clubs? Only those who are in the grip of ideology (which one writer has defined as “the systematic way of ignoring reality”). In this case, the ideology is extreme egalitarianism which allows for no genuine differences between men and women, and therefore cannot tolerate the notion of male-only or female-only organizations or activities. This radical egalitarianism is intolerant in the extreme in its pursuit of sterile conformity. Like the Borg in Star Trek who go from solar system to solar system demanding assimilation into the collective, egalitarians poison everything they come into contact with because of their narrow and dogmatic fixation.

There is a deep internal incoherence embedded in this ideology, however. It claims to support the notion of equality, but it inevitably undermines equality. How so? Here’s one example. Egalitarians purport to support women’s rights. But radical egalitarianism denies that there’s any true difference between men and women. If that’s so, then does it even make sense to speak of women’s rights? Obviously not. Gender is just a social construct, remember? But all ideology eventually gives way to biology. Remember the famous line from Animal Farm (a novel about egalitarianism). “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than other’s.” Radical egalitarianism inevitable leads to a crass power struggle, and when it comes to gender, who does that tend to favor? Radical egalitarianism always exacts a heavy price from women.

You can actually see this playing out right now on a very modest scale in the recent decision of the Boy Scouts to change the name of its parent organization to just “Scouts” in order to include girls as well as boys for membership. From what I can gather, the organization still intends to offer boy-only and girl-only activities. I hope that this is the case, given how vital they are to the development of young men and women. But it should be no surprise that the Girl Scouts perceive a threat in this move:

Girl Scout leaders said they were blindsided by the move, and they are gearing up an aggressive campaign to recruit and retain girls as members…

The overall impact of the BSA’s policy change on Girl Scouts membership won’t be known any time soon. But one regional leader, Fiona Cummings of Girl Scouts of Northern Illinois, believes the BSA’s decision to admit girls is among the factors that have shrunk her council’s youth membership by more than 500 girls so far this year.

She said relations with the Boy Scouts in her region used to be collaborative and now are “very chilly.”

I have no idea how this will all play out. Maybe the organizations will find a way to resolve this in a manner than truly is the best for all the children involved. But I think it is fair to say that this decision by the Boy Scouts illustrates the collapse of many cultural institutions that once helped to affirm and enhance the unique and diverse potential of young men and young women.

It is paramount for Christians to intentionally fill the gap left behind by this cultural collapse. Older men need to mentor young men, and older women need to do the same for young women (Titus 2:2-6). And more than ever in this age that is hostile to boys (as books from a wide array of authors attest, such as this one and this one and this one), mature Christian men need to step up as fathers and older brothers to help guide young men into the unique responsibilities God has assigned.

And that task is a noble one. It is the call to love, serve, and give, just as Christ loved us. “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). This is what it means to “act like men” (1 Corinthians 16:13). More than ever we need to be a “band of brothers” to build in one another the gallantry and courtesy Christ demands of us as men.

 

 

 

 

 

The Grim Future of Private Religious Schools (and Some Ideas)

A few weeks ago the small private liberal arts school I attended and taught at began a project to build a new student center. This meant that the old student center had to come down. I have to admit that I was very sad as I stood at the demolition site and snapped this picture of the ruins of a building that held such special memories.

But what concerns me far more is the future of schools like the one I attended. Part of my worry has to do with the declining enrollment problem facing all colleges. The pool of high school graduates in America has been steadily declining for some time, and it is estimated that this trend will continue through 2030. Because of these deflated numbers, analysts predict that as many as half of the colleges and universities in the country could close their doors in the next 10-15 years.

But the general demographic trend is not the greatest source of my anxiety. I am especially concerned about the future of private religious colleges. Schools like the one I attended and taught at typically have codes of conduct that reflect the religious beliefs of the institution. Such codes often include specific language about moral issues like sexual conduct.

And therein lies the problem. There is a growing climate of hostility in America to the traditional Christian view of sexual ethics. There is no better way to illustrate this increasing anti-religious bigotry than the recent New Yorker column lamenting the “infiltration” of Chick-fil-A into New York because the owner has donated to pro-traditional marriage causes. (For some great satirical responses to this article, check out this Babylon Bee piece and this blog post).

And the assault on religious freedom is only going to grow stronger. Multiple polls demonstrate that the “Millennial” generation does not hold a robust view of the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. A 2015 Pew Research survey revealed that “four-in-ten Millennials say the government should be able to prevent people publicly making statements that are offensive to minority groups.” A 2017  Brookings study found that 44% of college students do not believe that the First Amendment protects “hate speech.” And since the pro-LGBTQ movement believes that any statements defending traditional marriage or critiquing same-sex actions constitute “hate speech,” you can see where this mindset will lead. I’m no prophet, but I will make this prediction: within my lifetime there will be a serious movement to repeal the First Amendment protections of freedom of speech and freedom of religion. And if you don’t believe me, check out this video.

At the moment, private religious schools are permitted to maintain these codes of conduct and still receive federal money because of our nation’s strong commitment to religious freedom. Such schools can apply for what’s called a “Title IX Exemption.” This is why private religious schools can maintain their status with government accreditation agencies, which is crucial in order for students to receive federal grant and loan money such as I relied upon to go to college.

But this exemption is under assault. Schools that have applied for this exemption are accused of perpetuating “the harms of religion-based bigotry.” And it is clear that the pro-LGBTQ lobby intends to strip this protection of religious freedom away from such schools, a prospect that the government’s solicitor general admitted during the Obergefell case. That leads me to another prediction: the next Democratic administration will strip the Title IX exemption of its power to protect the religious freedom of schools.

Let me pause to address the issue of “religion-based bigotry” before I go further. Some of you may think that codes against same-sex conduct are no different than codes against interracial dating and marriage that many schools of a previous generation enforced. But the two issues could not be more different. One has to do with conduct, the other has to do with race. A school that says that sex is reserved for the one man-one woman relationship of marriage is not bigoted against gay students. The code applies to all students, gay or straight. Whatever the person’s orientation, the same rule applies to everyone’s conduct. Such a rule that has to do with behavior is totally dissimilar with a rule that has to do with race. Sadly, many schools did have such racist rules, and the fact that those sinful and hateful rules are now being used to club all adherents of traditional morality over the head is reason #2,182 not to be a racist if you are a Christian.

All of this means that the “dark clouds of Mordor” are growing more ominous by the moment. If this exemption is taken away, then the federal government will be able to threaten schools with the loss of accreditation unless they change their codes of conduct. Those schools that refuse to bow the knee to Baal will lose accreditation, and with it all federal loan and grant money for students. Additionally, students who graduate with unaccredited degrees may find it hard to be hired, especially if the company is “woke” to progressive social causes. This will be the end of many private religious schools.

So, what to do? How can private religious schools navigate between the Scylla of falling enrollment and Charybdis of federal decertification?

It will be a mistake for schools to search for mere short-term solutions. Yes, you can temporarily inflate enrollment numbers by adding sports teams, with the incoming revenue stream of federal loan and grant money for which many athletes qualify. But when (not if) accreditation is lost, this money will vanish overnight. Nor will it help to look for cost-cutting measures with faculty salaries and benefits. The last thing a small school needs in these troubled times is a demoralized faculty and staff. Nor will it help to address the problem with cosmetic changes to the campus. This will not be sufficient to address the demographic shift of available high school students.

Instead, here are some things these schools can do:

  1. Schools should wean off all federal money, including student grant and loan money, as soon as possible. As Carl Trueman has written, “Given the financial significance that the federal student loan system has for most colleges, this process will be painful and difficult for many, where it is possible at all. Yet it is vital.” Schools should use the next two years as a reprieve and phase out all programs that are unsustainable without this money.
  2. Schools should look for students from non-traditional sources. While the number of high school graduates is falling, there are many other potential student populations. Instead of waiting for students to come to campus, the campus needs to go to the students, with on-line and hybrid course offerings, extension and satellite campuses, and other such options. The on-campus population may decline, but the overall student population and revenue stream can grow.
  3. Schools should create job placement networks for their students. Schools like the one I attended have a tight-knit network of alumni. This is the perfect situation for collecting databases of alumni and friends of the school that can post job openings for students. Imagine the power of recruiting a student who knows that when he or she is finished with classes, the school will actively seek to set them up with a prospective employer. This can ameliorate the stigma of a non-accredited diploma.

And even if it should be the case that private religious schools do not survive, there is still hope. And the fact is, families and churches should not totally delegate responsibility for rearing children to such institutions to begin with. If these schools, which are adjuncts to the home, no longer exist, our children can still flourish in the faith, so long as we do our job. But it would be a shame if future generations did not have the opportunity that my wife and I enjoyed to receive an education in a faith-affirming environment. There are challenges ahead, but they can be met with resolve, imagination, and love.

 

The Purpose of John’s Gospel – Produce Faith or Reinforce Faith?

Toward the end of the fourth gospel the author states his purpose for writing:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30-31)

That you may believe. The Gospel of John is written to persuade people to come to faith in Jesus Christ.

Or is it?

Many Greek manuscripts of John contain the Greek term that means “come to believe,” πιστεύσητε  (pisteusete). But many manuscripts have a different term, πιστεύητε (pisteuete), which means “that you may hold the faith.” It’s only one letter’s difference, but it makes a big difference in this case. Is John writing so that his readers come to have faith, or is he writing so that his readers hold onto the faith they already have? Most of our English translations choose the former (like the ESV above), but my limited reading on the textual evidence suggests that the slightly better attested reading is reflected in versions like the New Living Translation: “that you may continue to believe .”

If this is the case, why would John write such a gospel? Why is he concerned about whether his readers will persist in their faith in Christ? One answer might be a distinctive emphasis of the fourth gospel, the threat of expulsion from the synagogue. John’s gospel is the only one of the four that mentions this threat.

  • His parents said these things because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that if anyone should confess Jesus to be Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue. (9:22)
  • Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue. (12:42)
  • I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. (16:1-2)

Late in the first century, in response to the spread of Christianity, the rabbis included into the cycle of benedictions at the synagogue a prayer that condemned heretics like the “Nazarenes.” This prayer, the Birkat ha-Minim drew a line in the sand for any Jewish believer in Christ – reject the Christian heresy or face the consequences. Since the synagogue was the center of religious and social life for first century Jews, to be excommunicated from the synagogue was to be disowned by your family and your community.

If the original wording of John’s stated purpose was to encourage his readers to continue to believe, such a backlash against Jewish Christians around the Empire may offer a reason for his concern. And it may also explain the unique structure of the gospel, which focuses on the signs of Jesus’ ministry in chapters 1-11, and the “glory” of Jesus’ death and resurrection in chapters 12-21. John wants his readers to know that the faith they have placed in Jesus is well-founded so that as they face suffering they will maintain their commitment in light of the promise of  glory to come.

That makes the fourth gospel incredibly relevant to our own time. The social structures of the contemporary culture here in America are exerting tremendous pressure on Christians to surrender fundamental commitments of faith. It is going to get more difficult to hold on to our confession that Jesus is Lord and King. John has already explained why this is happening:

And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. (John 3:19-20)

And Jesus told his first disciples that hatred of him would redound to hatred of them:

If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. (John 15:18)

No one wants to be hated. I certainly don’t! But if Jesus is who he says he is, then I would rather be hated by others and loved by him forever. And the signs of the first half of this gospel are designed to assure me that Jesus is indeed who he claimed to be, so that I will greater confidence in the promises he claims to give.

If you need encouragement to hold on to your faith, I suggest you take a look at the Gospel of John.


Over the next several weeks I will be preaching through the Gospel of John, and if you would like to follow along, you can listen to the lessons on our church website. Here are the first two sermons:

That You May Believe

The Word (John 1:1-5)

 

 

 

Christians Need to be More Judgmental with Each Other

What?!?!? More judgmental? Shane, have you lost your mind?!? Everyone knows that Jesus said we are not supposed to judge each other. “Judge not lest ye be judged!” And see, I even quoted it King James style just to let you know I’m really angry!!

If I may slip a word in edgewise, let me explain what I mean by “judgmental.” I don’t mean hyper-critical, or hypo-critical, but I do mean critical – critical in the sense of holding each other accountable when we need it.

And it turns out, that’s what Jesus meant as well. Look at the full context of the verse you quoted-

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:1-5)

Was Jesus condemning all “speck removal”? Not at all. In fact, Jesus quite plainly says that he wants us to be able to see clearly enough to take the speck out of our brother’s eye. But what Jesus was condemning was a hypocritical mindset that is eager to point out the mistakes in the lives of others while self-righteously ignoring the glaring problems in our own life.

We know for certain that Jesus was not opposed to making any judgments. In the very next verse, he insists that we make a very serious judgment:

Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you. (Matthew 7:6)

Who are “dogs” and who are “pigs”? We have to decide – judge – who fits this description.

A few verses later, Jesus goes on to say that we must discriminate between right and wrong choices to make:

Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (Matthew 7:13-14)

And in the next breath, he warns about the insidious danger of false prophets, who we must distinguish from those who teach the truth-

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. (Matthew 7:15-16)

Taken in its broader context, Jesus’ statement that we should not judge simply cannot mean that we are never to make critical judgments about a person’s character, or about certain beliefs, or about choices in life. What Jesus is teaching is that we must do so from a profoundly humble posture that has as its first impulse careful introspection rather than careless criticism.

But just as surely as a speck in the eye needs to be removed before it causes permanent harm, we need to help each other confront the mistakes we have made before those mistakes cause greater damage. Here’s how Paul expresses the point:

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:1-2)

Like Jesus, Paul says that we should help heal or restore a brother who has slipped into sin (has a speck in the eye). And like Jesus, Paul says that we should do so having first examined our own behavior (“keep watch on yourself”), guarding against prideful self-righteousness (“lest you too be tempted”). But the bottom line is the same. In the right spirit, and with the right motives, we need to call each other to account. According to Paul, this is a measure of whether we are truly “spiritual.”

I’m convinced that the root problem with many of the hot-button issues prevalent in our culture right now is the refusal of professed Christians to hold each other accountable. For instance, the generation that is younger than me really struggles with the clear biblical teaching that same-sex actions are sinful. It seems arbitrary to them for this one behavior to be singled out as sinful. But same-sex conduct is not singled out for censure. ANY sexual relationship outside of the one man + one woman for life relationship of marriage is sinful. When the Pharisees came to Jesus to ask him about divorce, here’s how Jesus answered the question:

“Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matthew 19:4-6)

According to Jesus, God’s design is the inseparable “one flesh” relationship of a man and woman in marriage. Since divorce violates this design, Jesus condemns it, and says that remarriage after divorce (with one exception) constitutes adultery:

And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery. (Matthew 19:9)

So does this mean that homosexual acts are sinful? Yes. But it also means that premarital sex, extra marital sex, and divorce and remarriage are wrong as well. The reason that the biblical injunctions against homosexual conduct seem arbitrary is because far too many professed Christians have been arbitrary in what they have taught and practiced. Christians who wink at sex outside of marriage or casually engage in serial divorce and remarriage but suddenly draw the line at homosexuality aren’t living by conviction; they are just bigots.

Similarly, how many Christians object to the horror of abortion as an affront to the sacred value of human life while at the same time harboring prejudice toward others merely because their skin is a different color? Have we held each other accountable for racial prejudice, or have we just swept it under the rug? Aborting a fetus is wrong because that human being bears the image of God. But what about hurling racial epithets?

With [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. (James 3:9-10)

We can’t claim to stand for the dignity of human life while despising and denigrating human beings whose skin is a different shade than our own.

Brothers and sisters, the world can see through our inconsistencies. And above all, the Lord who judges the thoughts and intents of our heart can see through us (Hebrews 4:12-13). The answer is not to surrender to the culture and walk away from the standards of God’s revealed truth. The answer is for us to be more consistent, to hold each other to greater accountability, to “judge” each other with a deeper and holier love for God and one another.

 

 

 

Your History Is Not Your Destiny

Mom and I

Eighteen years ago today my Mom passed away after suffering a massive stroke. I will never forget the sense of dread that swept over me when the president of the college where I was teaching came to my classroom and told me I needed to call my Granny. My worst fear had always been that something would happen to my Mom, and then Granny would die shortly after, and I would be all alone.  On April 11, 2000, that nightmare seemed to be coming true.

As it turned out, I was wrong (as is often the case with the anxious worries we experience). Granny lived ten years after Mom passed away, and I can’t imagine any grandson having a closer bond that I did with the woman I talked to every day for a decade. And the same year that Granny’s body began to slowly wear out, I reconnected with a friend from my college days and started dating. Granny never got to meet Kristi, but I told her about my new love, and Granny was very happy.

By the spring of 2011 I knew that I was going to ask Kristi to marry me – I just needed to pick the right time. And then it hit me – April 11. That had been such a sad date for so long, but I could choose to give it new significance. And so, the evening of April 11, 2011, I popped the question, and Kristi said, “Of course.”

There are things in life that we cannot control and cannot change (like my Mom’s passing). Sometimes these events are the result of choices other people make that we have no influence on at all (like my father’s decision to abandon Mom when she became pregnant). Sometimes we make bad choices or let good opportunities slip away (why didn’t I pursue Kristi in college?!?!?!). But whatever has happened in the past, we have the freedom to make better choices in the present and create a better future.

Is there a clearer example of this in the Bible than the apostle Paul?

If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee;  as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:4b-11)

Paul’s encounter with Christ forced him to dramatically reevaluate his past and chart a different course for the future. Paul’s history was not Paul’s destiny! And Christ can make the same difference in your life.

Perhaps there is a date in your life that marks a heartbreaking loss. Grief and remembrance are an important part of life, but this may also be a great opportunity to give that date new significance by serving someone else. During one of our trips to Moffitt Cancer Center for Kristi’s treatments we ran into the husband and daughters of one of our church members who had passed away. They were marking the anniversary of her death by passing out flowers at the clinic. What a beautiful gesture!

Or, maybe there is a day seared into your conscience because of a moral failure. That date on the calendar might become a reminder to get away and spend time alone with the Lord – or to spend a day sharing the gospel with others. Or, perhaps it could be a time to seek out the fellowship of Christians who will encourage and reassure you.

And there may be a day that is memorable because of something good that happened that you can reassign an even greater spiritual significance. This is what the Lord did with the sabbath command, which was first given as a day of rest from toil (Exodus 20:8-11) but invested with additional meaning as a celebration of the deliverance from the toil of slavery in Egypt (Deuteronomy 5:12-15). And it is what Jesus did in taking the Passover and (in musical terms) raising it to a higher key through the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:26-29).

The point is that we should not ignore the past, but neither should we feel imprisoned by it. Christ enables us to put the past in its proper perspective because of what he has in store for us in the future, and that gives us the guidance we need to live in the present.

I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 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. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. (1 Timothy 1:12-17)

 

Does God Change His Mind? (Part 4)

Image from Ligonier Ministries

Over the last few weeks I’ve been considering the question of whether God changes his mind. Here’s what we’ve looked at so far:

 

  • In the first post in this series I observed that many passages of Scripture say that God does change his mind, while others say that he does not.
  • In the second post, I argued that because God has infinite presence and knowledge, he doesn’t change his mind.
  • In the third post, I suggested that given the infinite nature of God, the passages that speak of God as changing his mind should be interpreted as accommodative language, language that says something about God in terms that are sort of like but not exactly like what such language would mean about human beings.

Let me say a bit more about this matter of accommodative language. Accommodative language helps us to understand profound truths in concepts that we can grasp. When the weather person talks about “sunrise” and “sunset”, she is describing something that is really true – our position relative to the sun is changing – but in language that accommodates how things appear to us rather than what is technically or scientifically the case (the sun isn’t moving – the earth is). In the same way, when the Bible speaks of God changing his mind or regretting a decision, it is describing something that is really true – someone’s relationship with God is changing – but in language that accommodates how things appear to us rather than what is technically or theologically the case (God isn’t changing – people are).

But can we have a genuine relationship with God if he doesn’t change?  For instance, if God doesn’t change his mind, why should we even pray to him? To some people, the notion of an unchanging God means that God is static and unresponsive. But I would like to suggest that the fact that God is unchanging doesn’t make God less relational – it makes him far more relational than we can imagine.

The only reason we would think that God’s unchanging nature makes him unable to relate to us is by assuming that God must relate to us in the same way that we relate to each other. In human relationships, we don’t possess infinite presence or knowledge. We are bound by time and space. I can’t be two places at one, and I can only do one thing at a time (“multi-tasking” is really doing a bunch of different things switching back and forth one at a time). And while we can sometimes predict what will happen and plan accordingly, that ability is limited and imperfect since we are locked into the flow of time.

But these same limitations do not hold true for God. He can be two places at once (actually, all places at once!). And he can do more than one thing at a time (he’s not limited by time at all!). God is not locked into the flow of time, but transcends time in his eternity. So if we are imagining that God can only respond like human beings respond – in time and space – we are severely truncating the limitless nature of God.

For God to be truly responsive, what must be the case is that our choices really matter to God. But this doesn’t mean that he must be restrained by time and space like we are. All that is necessary for God to be responsive is that if we did not make certain choices, God would not make certain decisions. But the fact that our choices are made in time and space whereas God’s decisions are made in eternity doesn’t diminish the reality of the relationship. To be responsive is to act because of something, not necessarily after something.

In God’s eternity, all of the moments that are past/present/future to us are like “now” to him. And so, what is sequential and episodic to us is present all at once to him. It is sort of like what we experience when we look at a diarama, like this Cyclorama in Atlanta. It portrays various events in the Battle of Atlanta. These events took place at different times and in different locations, but we can see them all at once. God’s view of all time and space is like this, only infinitely greater.

With this in mind, consider the story of Jonah. Did God have to wait to see what Jonah would do, step by step, in order to respond to him? Not at all. In his eternity, God sends Jonah. He sees that Jonah runs. Because Jonah runs, God sends the storm. Because of the storm, Jonah is thrown off the ship. Because Jonah is thrown off the ship, God sends the great fish. Because Jonah is in the fish, he prays. Because God sees and hears Jonah’s prayer, he saves him.  In Jonah’s world of space and time, these events happen sequentially, one after the other in time. But in God’s eternity, he sees this all at once. But this eternal perspective doesn’t eliminate the genuine choices Jonah makes in time, and it doesn’t eliminate the genuine responsiveness of God. God acts because of Jonah’s free choices, but not after his free choices. In God’s eternal nature there is no “after” but there is responsiveness.

In fact, there is far greater responsiveness than we can imagine. We are limited by time and space in the way that we respond to each other. I’m often frustrated by my lack of time, resources, and availability to help other people. But almighty God is not so limited. In fact, because my future is swallowed up unto his eternal “now,” God already knows what I need, and is already at work providing answers to prayers that are yet future to me in time but present to God in eternity.

And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matthew 6:7-8)

But why do we even bother to pray if God already knows what we will ask? Because prayer is about more than treating God like a heavenly ATM machine! It is about a relationship, a melding of our will with God’s. As John Chrysostom wrote sixteen centuries ago:

But if he already knows what we need, why do we pray? Not to inform God or instruct him but to beseech him closely, to be made intimate with him, by continuance in supplication; to be humbled; to be reminded of our sins. (The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 19.4).

Distinguishing God’s perspective in eternity from our perspective in time also helps us to understand various passages in which God says one thing will happen, but something else actually happens. In the story of Jonah, the LORD gives Jonah this message for the people of Nineveh: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4). But after forty days, Nineveh was not destroyed. Who changed?

“When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it” (Jonah 3:10).

On the surface, it seems like God changed – just like it seems as if the sun rises and sets. But the deeper change was on the part of the people of Nineveh – they turned from their evil way. And since they turned from their evil way, they experienced the God of holy love in a much different way than had they persisted in their sin.

In his eternity, God knew that the Ninevites would repent. But as God related to the Ninevites in time, he addressed the situation on the ground as it was from their perspective. So long as they were in sin, they faced the wrath of his holy love. But when they repented, they encountered the mercy of his holy love. Since God relates to us in time, our choices are truly meaningful (see Jeremiah 18:7-10). He just isn’t limited to our time-bound frame of reference.

This discussion is a little mind-bending for sure. But what else would we expect when we creatures of the dust try to grapple with eternal God’s nature and power?! The most important point to take away from this look at God’s unchanging nature is that since he doesn’t change, we can always count on God. We often falter and fail; God does not. “If we are faithless, he remains faithful” (2 Timothy 2:13). And the faithfulness of God assures us that whatever happens in this transient world, God is constant and dependable.

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

Abide With Me, Henry Francis Lyte (1847)

Take Up Your Cross

And he strictly charged and commanded them to tell this to no one, saying, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:21-23)

Jesus predicted his death three times in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke), and with each prediction Jesus also taught about the nature of discipleship – what it means to follow him. To follow Christ is to imitate Christ, to do what he did, to go where he went. And in this passage, Christ laid out the grim destination of this call to imitation – the cross.

Jesus came to do the Father’s will, regardless of the cost to himself. And he invites us to follow him in the same self-denying journey of commitment to the Father’s will. So that none of us would misunderstand the painful nature of this commitment, Jesus expressed it in the most graphically violent way imaginable in the first century. We are summoned to follow Jesus in the shameful procession to Golgotha, bearing our own cross on the march to the grisly execution called crucifixion.

This language is not to be pressed into crude literalism (although many Christians through the years have been put to death for their faith – even by crucifixion). But this language should not be diluted, either.  Following Christ in absolute commitment to the will of the Father is very, very difficult.

It means surrendering your desires to God’s. It means ignoring the jeers of the crowd to stay on the unpopular path of conviction. It means loving and forgiving those who are undeserving (though never as undeserving as you were of the Father’s love). It means sacrifice, and some day it could even mean death.

But the final destination of the way of Christ is not the cross – it is an empty tomb and a glorious new life. Jesus promised. “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24). Following Christ means losing your life to save it, becoming first by becoming last, seeking greatness by serving others.

So take heart! Yes, those of us who have joined the procession of cross-bearers have chosen the most difficult path of all. But our Lord’s resurrection guarantees that the journey will be worth it.

Must Jesus bear the cross alone,
and all the world go free?
No, there’s a cross for everyone,
and there’s a cross for me.

How happy are the saints above,
who once went sorrowing here!
But now they taste unmingled love
and joy without a tear.

The consecrated cross I’ll bear
till death shall set me free;
and then go home my crown to wear,
for there’s a crown for me.

Upon the crystal pavement down,
at Jesus’ pierced feet,
joyful I’ll cast my golden crown
and His dear name repeat.

O precious cross! O glorious crown!
O resurrection day!
When Christ the Lord from heaven comes down
and bears my soul away.

Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone by Thomas Shepherd (1693)