Tuesday, December 25, 2007

What Can We Believe About Christmas? Does Jesus Match the Prophetic Fingerprint?

Did Jesus offer credible credentials to back up his divine claims? Yes!

Miracles: John 10:37 told John to look for his miracles. Isaiah said Miracles would be one way the Messiah would authenticate himself.

  • Power over nature: walking on water
  • Power over sickness: healing leprosy & blindness
  • Power over death: raising Lazarus

Jesus’ opponents never denied his miracles. Even the Talmud admits miracles, and Mohammed, the founder of Islam, admits Jesus’ miracles and his virgin birth.

Character – often the closer we get to others, the more we see their flaws, but the opposite happened with Jesus!

John & Peter saw him up close and personal: their assessment:
1 John 3:5 – in Him is no sin
1 Peter 2:22 – committed no sin, no deceit was in him.

Who can have the same said about them?

The way he fit the fingerprint of divine prophecy.
Only the Messiah could fit this fingerprint:

He was:

  • Born of a virgin
  • Of the seed of Abraham
  • Of the tribe of Judah
  • Of the house of David
  • Born in Bethlehem
  • Heralded by angels
  • He cleansed the Temple
  • Rejected by the religious leaders

The Old Testament contains a description of Jesus being crucified 100s of years before crucifixion was implemented as a means of execution by the Romans. Could Jesus have intentionally maneuvered his life to fulfill these predictions? i.e., as he was going into Jerusalem, telling his disciples to go get him a donkey because Zechariah 9:9 says he is going to ride a donkey into Jerusalem, and he’s anxious for people to think he’s the messiah so they will torture him to death.

There’s no way Jesus could have maneuvered himself to intentionally fulfill all these prophecies: how could he arrange his place of birth? His ancestry? How he was betrayed for a specific amount? How his bones were unbroken on the cross unlike the others on the cross?

Mathematical odds of any human being fulfilling just 48 of these prophecies: 1 chance in one hundred million billion! Or one chance in a (say trillion 13 times). Have a blindfolded person find an atom out of a trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, billion universes the size of ours.

Odds are astronomical, but Jesus came to fulfill them.
Luke 24:44 – all writings must be fulfilled.

All through history, the only one to fulfill all these prophecies is the baby in the Manger.

This message was derived from Lee Strobel's The Case for Christmas. Click on the title for more information.

Monday, December 17, 2007

What Can We Believe About Christmas? Weighing the Evidence, pt. 2

If an atheist told you that Jesus’ bones had been found, would you still be a Christian?

How about if, instead of an atheist, it was someone at Main Street who told you; would you repudiate your Christianity?

What if I, as your pastor came and told you, and Pastor Dave, Mitch Arnold, and Dave Hunt came in to back me up; would you still be a Christian?

How about if you knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that someone had found the bones of Jesus Christ, proving that He hadn’t resurrected, would that do anything to your faith?

If it doesn’t change anything for you, then I would encourage you to figure out what the basis for your belief is, because it might be based more on wishful thinking than in fact. The truth is that nobody is going to find Jesus’ bones, because He rose from the grave. But this underscores the importance of the evidence we have that helps to prove what we believe is true.

Nazareth, Bethlehem, December 25th, Quirinius, a Roman census, no room in the inn, a baby born in a stable to a virgin mother… can we really be expected to believe any of this stuff?

When we evaluate truth claims, it’s important to first figure out what the claims are. What I mean by that is, it’s important that we actually look at what the Bible says, rather than simply relying on tradition. For example, what would you say if someone from the Way argued that Jesus wasn’t born on December 25. It’s obvious that He was, isn’t it?

You know what I would say? "Yeah, so what?"

Let’s see, where is that in the Bible? Ummm, Matthew doesn’t say anything about the timing, other than that wise men came during King Herod’s reign. Luke is a little more helpful, telling us it was while Quirinius was governor of Syria. Neither Mark nor John say anything at all on the subject. In fact, around 200 AD, scholars concluded that Jesus was born on May 20. Others argued for dates in April and March. It wasn’t a major issue, because early Christians emphasized the Epiphany on January 6, marking Christ’s baptism, rather than His birth. It wasn’t until AD 385 that Pope Julius I declared December 25 as the day to celebrate Christ’s birth. One reason he chose that date was to challenge the pagan celebration of the Roman god Saturn, a celebration which was characterized by immorality and social disorder.

Does it make a big difference whether we celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25 or May 20? Well, it doesn’t seem to bother us too badly to celebrate Presidents’ Day on a Monday or Mothers’ Day on a Sunday, even though the date changes yearly. And it wasn’t as if Christmas was just integrated into the pagan celebration – it was meant to replace it.

So what are some other critical questions that are asked about Christmas? Some question Luke’s account, wondering if archeology supports or undermines his statements. Why is that important? Well, think about this: Mormonism hinges upon the acceptance that Joseph Smith found some golden plates with special writing on them, that an angel named Moroni translated them for him, and that the angel then took the plates with him. Historically, Mormonism holds that long ago, a man named Lehi migrated from Jerusalem to Central America, and that within 30 years, they built a copy of Solomon's Temple. Then the people challenged the authority of Nephi (one of the first generation Central Americans from Jerusalem), so God cursed them, changing their skin color.

There is no evidence whatsoever that supports these claims, and indeed, there is evidence that shows that Joseph Smith’s version of history didn’t happen. So then, are we supposed to believe these things just because a Mormon holy book says them?

When we deal with skeptics, they will not accept "because the Bible says so" as proof. You and I accept the Bible as God’s Word, but the outside world does not – they need outside proof that of its credibility.

So what about Luke’s claims? Do they hurt or help his credibility? For years, scholars claimed that Luke didn’t know what he was talking about, in part because in Luke 3:1, he referred to Lysanias being tetrarch of Abilene in about 27 AD, but everyone knew that Lysanias was not a tetrarch, but rather the ruler of Chalcis some fifty years earlier! This is where archaeology came in; archaeologists found an inscription from the time of Tiberius, from AD 14-37, which names Lysanias as tetrarch of Abila near Damascus – just as Luke had written. It turned out that there were two people named Lysanias!

So how about the census? Can we really believe that the government would force its citizens all to their hometowns to be counted? Well, a Roman government order was found from AD 104 which says the following: Gaius Vibius Maximus, Prefect of Egypt [says]: Seeing that the time has come for the house to house census, it is necessary to compel all those who for any cause whatsoever are residing out of their provinces to return to their own homes, that they may both carry out the regular order of the census and may also attend diligently to the cultivation of their allotments.

Another papyrus from 48 AD indicates that the entire family was involved in the census.
So what about the people involved? Herod the Great died in 4 BC, and Quirinius didn’t begin ruling Syria until 6 AD. The math just doesn’t make sense! Except that an archaeologist named Jerry Vardaman found a coin with the name Quirinius on it in a special kind of writing, a kind that places Quirinius as proconsul of Syria and Cilicia from 11 BC until after the death of Herod. Meaning that there were two people named Quirinius.

How about Nazareth? In his article Where Jesus Never Walked, atheist Frank Zindler notes that Nazareth isn’t mentioned in the Old Testament or by Paul or even by first-century Jewish historian Josephus. In fact, no ancient historian even mentions Nazareth until the fourth century. How can we believe it even existed?

Well, after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD, priests were sent to various locations, and archaeologists have found a list, written in Aramaic, of where the priests and their families were sent. Guess where one of them was sent? The small town of Nazareth… Archaeologists have found first-century tombs in the vicinity of Nazareth as well, and thus are able to outline its boundaries – they determined that it was a strongly Jewish settlement in the Roman period, a place of only about sixty acres and a maximum population of about 480 at the beginning of the first century. No wonder people grumbled, "Can anything good come from Nazareth?"

The fact is that even by relying on ancient non-Christian sources, we would still be able to know the following facts:

  1. Jesus was a Jewish teacher.
  2. Many people believed that He performed healings and exorcisms.
  3. Some people believed that He was the Messiah.
  4. He was rejected by the Jewish leaders.
  5. He was crucified under Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius.
  6. Despite His shameful death, His followers, who believed He was still alive, spread beyond Palestine so there were multitudes of them in Rome by AD 64
  7. All kinds of people from the cities and countryside – men and women – worshiped Him as God.

With this in mind, what can we believe about Christmas? We can believe that the historical Jesus Christ was born just as Scriptures report, and that many people believed in Him. So the question we need to wrestle with is this: was Jesus really the Messiah?

Note: my main source for the archaeological facts in this sermon is Lee Strobel's book The Case for Christmas. The "bones of Jesus" proposition came from a lecture by Dr. Jerrry Walls in Introduction to Christian Philosophy. The Mormonism material came from Ruth A. Tucker's book Another Gospel.

Monday, December 10, 2007

What Can We Believe About Christmas? Weighing the Evidence

Many people have set out to write accounts about the events that have been fulfilled among us. They used the eyewitness reports circulating among us from the early disciples. Having carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I also have decided to write a careful account for you, most honorable Theophilus, so you can be certain of the truth of everything you were taught.
Luke 1:1-4

It all sounds a bit fanciful, if you ask me. A virgin and her husband-to-be, travelling by donkey through the wintry night to Bethlehem, where they find no room in the inn. So they end up in a stable where, on December 25, in the year 1 BC, they have a baby. They wrap the baby in cloths and lay him in a manger. Then an angel appears to shepherds and they run to see the baby. They hurry to put up a Christmas tree, because there’s no tree in the stable. Martin Luther then comes to help them hang candles in the tree to mimic the sight of the light hitting the snow on the trees in the forest they came through. A star shines overhead, and that’s what helps Santa Claus find the stable to bring Jesus his presents. Then magi come from the east, bringing gold, Frankenstein, and myrrh.

Sounds pretty crazy.

What, if any of this, can we believe? Is Christmas really credible? Who ever heard of these things happening? Skeptics continue to attack the events of Christmas and the credibility of the Bible. How can we know what really happened?

In his introduction to the book of Luke, we find that Luke set out to write an orderly account from eyewitnesses about the events that took place. His goal: so that his reader (whether there was one intended reader, whose name was Theophilus, or if it was intended for a general audiences of studyers of God, which is what "Theophilus" means) could be certain of the truth of everything he had been taught.

So are you certain? What do we know is true? And why do we accept it? The first thing we have to do is determine if the accounts we have of Christmas are trustworthy. Many of us never thought to examine the trustworthiness of the Bible. It is, after all, the Bible! We just accept it at its word. Of course, that’s how we may approach it, but many outside the faith (and even some inside it) approach the Bible with a great deal of skepticism.

They raise questions like:
  • Were the Gospels really written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John?
  • How can the Gospels be accurate biographies, written as long as they were after Jesus’ life?
  • Weren’t the Gospel authors trying to push their own agendas?

Let’s look at authorship first. Why is this important? Did you know that all four Gospels were originally anonymous? But the unanimous testimony of the early church was that Matthew was written by Matthew, Jesus’ disciple, the tax collector (otherwise known as Levi). Mark was written by John Mark, a companion of Peter. Luke was written by Paul’s missionary partner, the physician Luke. John was written by either John the Apostle or John the Elder.

Nobody would have had cause to lie and say that these were the authors when they really weren’t. Indeed, when later "gospels" were written, they were always attributed to well-known and exemplary figures: Peter, Philip, Mary, James, Mary Magdalene, and even Thomas. Yet Mark and Luke were not even among the twelve, and Matthew, as a tax collector, would have been the least liked of the bunch (except for Judas).

Though there is some question about which "John" wrote the gospel, it is clear that he was an eyewitness to Jesus’ life. It has been accepted from a very early time that these four were the gospel authors – in 125 AD, Papius specifically affirmed Mark’s careful account of Peter’s eyewitness testimony, that he "made no mistake" and recorded "no false statements." By 180 AD, Irenaeus confirmed traditional authorship.

But why would we accept testimony so far after Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection?

The accepted dating for the Gospels, even in liberal circles, has Mark in the 70s; Matthew and Luke in the 80s; and John in the 90s. These are late speculations – but here’s something to think about: the book of Acts ends apparently unfinished. It doesn’t include Paul’s death, which happened in 62 AD. So it is likely that Luke finished Acts before 62 AD, meaning that Luke would have to have a dating earlier than that, and Mark was written even earlier! Thus the gap between the events and the written account was some 30 years. To our standards, that doesn’t seem very fast, but to the standards of that time period, it was like lightning. Think about it this way: do you believe in Alexander the Great? The two earliest biographies of Alexander the Great, by Arrian and Plutarch, were written more than 400 years after Alexander died, yet historians consider them generally trustworthy. The Gospel accounts, on the other hand, were written within the lifetime of eyewitnesses!

…eyewitnesses who could challenge or correct any untrue statements!

So why doesn’t Mark, the earliest writer, even include the birth narrative? This simply demonstrates the way ancient biographers wrote. They weren’t obsessed with celebrity culture the way we are, and they didn’t write biographies simply to write them. They only wrote if they felt like people could learn something from the biographies themselves. Each of the Gospel writers came with an agenda: Matthew was writing to try to convince Jews that Jesus was the Messiah. Luke highlighted the poor and marginalized, and Mark to show Jesus as the suffering servant. Thus while Matthew included a genealogy to demonstrate Jesus’ Jewish lineage, Mark focused on the events leading up to Jesus’ death on the cross.

So does this mean the Gospels aren’t trustworthy, as each author had an agenda? No. All it means is that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John had agendas. The current thought that news must be objective (which it isn’t – try watching the news with a critical eye, and you’ll find the agendas of the newsmakers) is new. This wasn’t the case in the Ancient Near East. And think about this: just because someone has an agenda doesn’t make them wrong or inaccurate. What is important is that we don’t have Luke trying to refute Mark or John trying to refute Matthew. Instead, they are in agreement about who Jesus was and what He did! This is very important, and it should tell you something about their validity. Especially since they were written while eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection were still living to refute or correct any untrue or inaccurate statements.

As we continue looking at Christmas over the next several weeks, I want to make something clear. I started out this sermon with a mishmash of Christmas tradition, both fact and fiction. Some of it is true, and some false. Some we have evidence about, and other is just how the celebration has evolved over 2000 years.

The only reason I bring any of it up is that it doesn’t matter what is true or false if you’re not willing to accept the implications thereof. This isn’t simply an intellectual exercise to figure out fact versus fiction. It’s a serious attempt to prove that the Bible is a trustworthy witness. If it is not, then none of it matters. But if it is, then it all matters, and it should transform our lives.

Note: my main source for this sermon is Lee Strobel's book The Case for Christmas.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Mission Sunday

This week was Mission Sunday, so, instead of a sermon, there were presentations made for the following ministries:
You can click on any of the above links to find out more information about these life-changing programs to share the love of Jesus Christ with the most needy.