Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Contradicting Contradictions

Throughout my life I have met many people who have rejected the evangel due to the many apparent contradictions in the Bible.  For these people, faith in God becomes meaningless when they view God's revelation as inaccurate and unreliable.  After all, if God's revelation is inaccurate in some passages, how can any of it be upheld as inerrant?  When all revelation of God comes from Scripture, our ability to trust in that revelation's accuracy must be unshakeable.  Apparent contradictions must be thoroughly examined in order for us to fully trust and believe the truths of God's Word.

Without a doubt, most of the apparent discrepancies in Scripture are due to nothing more than faulty translation.  Avoiding confusion, then, begins with using a reliable version like the Concordant Literal Version.  But even when using a reliable version, we will inevitably encounter a myriad of potential discrepancies in the text that will force us to dig deeper to uncover the truth.

In this article I will focus on one example of an apparent contradiction in the gospel accounts and will demonstrate through this "digging deeper" method that the Bible is, in fact, a reliable revelation worthy of our trust.  While this one example is not proof of the validity of other passages, it serves as a model for the text as a whole and how to approach the various passages that raise suspicion.

The dilemma I will be examining is the number of men crucified with Christ and the timing of their deaths.  Now, you would be hard-pressed to find a believer who does not believe there were two men crucified with Christ.  Most people would not view this issue as one of vital importance.  After all, it doesn't really hold any major significance to our understanding and faith.  But it becomes very important when the vast majority of our English Bible translations contain a clear contradiction in relation to the issue.  On its own the issue is insignificant, but when it calls into question the Bible's accuracy it suddenly becomes extremely significant.

It's not surprising that nearly all believers assume there were two men crucified with Christ when each of the gospel accounts focuses on two.  Matthew 27:38 and Mark 15:27 mention two "robbers" crucified with Christ.  Luke refers to two men in Luke 23:32 and calls them "malefactors" (criminals).  As robbers are criminals, it is only natural to assume that Luke is referring to the same two men as Matthew and Mark.  Still, Matthew is very specific in labeling the sins of the men he describes.  They are "robbers" and their sin is theft.  Luke, on the other hand, is very non-specific, which is ironic given that Luke is generally considered the most specific of the four gospel authors.  A malefactor can be guilty of any crime.  Nothing in Luke's account proves that the men are guilty of the specific crime of robbery.  But no major discrepancy exists until we read further in Matthew 27 and find out in verse 44 that both robbers "reproached" Christ.  That is, they reviled and hated Him.  Like many in their community at the time, they viewed Jesus as a false prophet who deserved a merciless fate.

If the men Luke refers to are the same men Matthew and Mark describe, it is a bit shocking to read further into Luke 23 that one of them defended Christ against the other while they were being crucified.  Upon hearing one man next to Christ mock Him and challenge His authority, the other man in Luke's account replies, "Yet you are not fearing God, seeing that you are in the same judgment! And we, indeed, justly, for we are getting back the deserts of what we commit, yet this One commits nothing amiss."

It is highly unlikely that a man who reviled Jesus as a guilt-ridden false prophet throughout the crucifixion suddenly rushed to His defense and hailed Him as the true Messiah who had done "nothing amiss" when another challenged Him.  This unlikely circumstance is possible, however, so there's more "deep digging" to be done.

Luke's account tells us that the "malefactors" were "led to be despatched together with" Christ and were crucified with Him at the same time (Lu. 24:32-33).  Matthew's account, however, says the Roman soldiers crucified Jesus, then divided His garments by casting lots, then sat down to keep watch over Him (events which would have obviously taken a good deal of time), and then crucified two robbers on either side of Him.

So, Luke's account depicts two malefactors who were led away with Jesus and crucified at the same time, while Matthew's account depicts two robbers who were crucified after Jesus.  Still, these differences do not necessarily prove a discrepancy.  The time interval Matthew mentions may not be long enough to refute the notion that the men crucified "together" with Christ in Luke are the same men in Matthew.  It is possible that Matthew and Luke may still be referring to the same men.  We still have more "digging" to do.

Thus far, we have looked at the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but now we come to John.  John's account includes fewer details than the others, but also mentions "two" crucified with Jesus in John 19:18.  This verse in most English translations reads nearly identically.  In the popular ESV we read, "There they crucified Him, and with Him two others, ONE on either side, and Jesus between them."

This seems to settle the issue.  According to John's account in the ESV (and most translations), there were two others crucified with Jesus - one on either side.  If this is true, then we are left with believing that Luke and Matthew refer to the same two men but with different titles, that one of them who despised Jesus experienced a sudden and mysterious change of heart, and that when Luke says the malefactors were crucified together with Christ he is choosing to omit the lengthy period of time Matthew notes between Christ's crucifixion and the other two men.  All of this, while highly unlikely, is still within the realm of possibility.

As I stated before, most of the apparent discrepancies in Scripture are due to faulty translation.  John 19:18 is no exception.  In the original text, the Greek word for "one" (italicized above) does not appear.  It has been added by scholars in an obvious attempt to uphold tradition.  Without the negligent addition of the "one," we read: "There they crucified Him, and with Him two others, on either side, and Jesus between them."  The CLNT correctly omits the "one" and reads: "...where they crucify Him, and with Him two others, hence and hence, yet in the midst is Jesus."

Correctly translated, John's account reveals that there were actually two sets of two men - two on one side, and two on the other.  This true, the accounts of Matthew and Luke are easily reconciled and make perfect sense.  The two malefactors in Luke were led away with Jesus and crucified at the same time - one on either side - while the two robbers in Matthew were crucified later, also one on either side.  The two robbers both hated Jesus, while only one of the malefactors did.  As the two malefactors were crucified at the same time and next to Jesus, they were able to converse with each other and with Him.

Rather than describing the same two men in very different ways, we find that Luke described the two criminals who were crucified beside Jesus, while Matthew (and Mark) describe two robbers who were later crucified beside the two malefactors from Luke.  John, then, mentions both sets of men.

The illustration below models the true biblical picture (R=Robber, M=Malefactor, and J=Jesus):

R                              M                              J                              M                              R

The final proof that four, not two, men were crucified with Christ is also found in the nineteenth chapter of John.  John 19:32-33 says the soldiers broke the legs of the first two criminals but did not bother when they came to Jesus seeing He was already dead.  If Jesus was crucified between two men, the soldiers would have passed Jesus on their way from the first criminal to the second on His other side and then backtracked to Jesus. This hardly makes sense. When we realize that there were two men on each side, however (4 total), it makes perfect sense that the soldiers broke the legs of the first two men and came to Jesus in normal order as He was third in the line.

At first glance the four gospel accounts seem to paint different pictures of the crucifixion and at the very least some highly unlikely circumstances, but upon in-depth study it becomes apparent that a long-held belief of Christendom is inaccurate and has been fueled by faulty translation rooted in tradition.  Uncovering truth, such as with this example, often proves to be an exhaustive but worthwhile process.  When we trust in God's Word and commit to uncovering the truth, our faith in the Bible's accuracy will only increase.

Learning that Jesus was actually crucified between four men, while interesting, is not a matter of major importance.  What is important is understanding the process and necessity of digging deeper to find the truth in Scripture to enable yourself to trust fully in God's Word.  Contradict contradictions and help others do the same.

© 2012 by Stephen Hill

Monday, September 24, 2012

What is Love?

Love is, without a doubt, the most powerful element of existence.  Countless people have given their lives in the name of love while countless others have taken their own lives in hopeless pursuit of it.  The effects of love range from the darkest depths to the loftiest heights.  But how many people fully grasp the true nature of love?

How can we begin to define the far-reaching facets of something as complex as love?  For starters, we can consult the Word of the very One who gave us love.

Paul gives us a vivid account of the attributes of love in 1 Corinthians 13.  Here, we read that love is patient, kind, not envious or boastful, arrogant or rude.  It is not selfish, irritable, or resentful, and rejoices with truth while opposing wrongdoing.  It bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things.

In this passage, Paul personifies love.  He gives actionable qualities to an intangible force.  We can more easily grasp Paul's description by substituting the phrase "someone who is loving" for "love" in the passage.  Thus, we read:  "Someone who is loving is patient, kind, not envious or boastful, etc."

If you were to ask the majority of people to define love, they would inevitably define it first and foremost as a feeling.  But Paul's insights from the very Word of our Creator shed a very different light on the matter.  While strong feelings certainly play a role with love, they are not what primarily define it.  As Paul points out, love is proven by action.  One who shows love acts in a way that upholds the nature of love.  To love is to do something - namely, to demonstrate patience, kindness, and a love for the truth, while rejecting jealousy, arrogance, rudeness, selfishness, irritability, resentfulness, and wrongdoing.

We read in Romans 5:8 that God shows His love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.  In other words, Christ's death has special significance because we were not deserving of God's love.  The proof of God's love for us lies in the glorious reality that Christ did something for us when He had no reason to feel anything for us in our wretched, undeserving state.  He endured the most unimaginable pain for the most undeserving recipients.  This is why Jesus told His Jewish brothers to not take credit for the simple task of only loving those who loved them in return (Ma. 5:46; Lu. 6:32).

Jesus and His Father didn't prove their love by feeling something; they proved it by doing something.  And that "something" happened to be the most selfless, kind, and patient act in all history.

The Bible's definition of love is clearly opposite that of the world's.  It's no wonder marriages end more often than not and that countless families are torn apart throughout the world.  When love is viewed primarily as a feeling, the inevitable result is always misery.  Love as a feeling is rooted in selfishness while love as a committed action is rooted in self-less-ness. Is it any wonder marriage vows consist of commitments to love, honor, cherish, and support one another in good times and bad, in sickness and health, for richer or poorer?

What, then, can we learn from the truth about love?  When we understand that love is an action more than a feeling, we realize the importance of taking action to keep our relationships strong regardless of how we may feel.  When we follow Christ's example by doing the things that define love even when our recipient seems undeserving, the rewards will be greater than we could possibly imagine.

Christ's death as the greatest expression of love demonstrates to us that the more undeserving someone is of love, the more remarkable our love is when we grant it.  If your husband wrongs or annoys you, commit to acting in a way that demonstrates your love.  While other wives withhold love-making as a form of punishment, make love to your husband with intense passion.  If your wife harms you, show your love by acting graciously and with forgiveness.  When other husbands may leave the house, buy your wife flowers and praise her qualities you cherish most.  If a coworker offends you, demonstrate your love by responding with selflessness and kindness.  Where others may insult him in defense, buy him lunch and tell him how valuable of an asset you think he is to your team.

In 1 John 4, we read that "God is love."  He is not lov-ing; He is love.  Period.  Love defines Him; it is His very essence.  The qualities Paul lays out in 1 Corinthians 13 define Him.  God not only feels these attributes, He acts upon them in dealing with His entire creation.  Imagine our fate if God were to act upon His feelings toward the unending sins of mankind.

Paul goes on in 1 Corinthians 13 to uphold love as the greatest force, even compared to faith and hope. Why?  Because without love, faith and hope are meaningless.  When we hope, it is for something we long to have.  When we are faithful, it is because we find something worth believing in.  Love is the very thing we hope for and believe in because it is ultimately the only thing worth hoping for and believing in.  It is the culmination of everything holy, perfect, and righteous.  Even the entire Law is "summed up" in the commandments of love (Gal. 5:14).  Without love, there can be no goodness or happiness. Since God is love, lovelessness equals godlessness.

Above all else, remember by the examples of our Lord Jesus Christ and our great apostle, Paul, that, contrary to popular belief, love is best exemplified through action, not reactions to fleeting, deceitful feelings. Commit to living a life of love through action above feeling.

© 2012 by Stephen Hill