Craig Blomberg

Craig Blomberg
Distinguished Professor of New Testament, Denver Seminary

Marriage is for Life!

“To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.” (1 Cor. 7:10-11; TNIV)

The Denver Post had a cover story in its “Lifestyle” section recently on how older, long-married wives are increasingly divorcing their husbands. “Unhappiness, emotional estrangement and drifting apart are among the reasons more boomers are single than any previous cohort of 40-60 somethings” (Sheba R. Wheeler, “A gray area for women” [July 21, 2010], section D, page 1).

Debates over divorce and/or remarriage in Christian circles have tended to focus on the meanings of what have come to be known as Jesus’ exception clause (Matt. 19:9; divorce and remarriage can be considered in the case of adultery) and the Pauline privilege (1 Cor. 7:15-16; if a non-Christian partner wants to leave). Some Christian exegetes and/or therapists have argued for other similar worst-case scenarios to provide acceptable grounds for divorce—serious physical abuse, prolonged unrepentant addictions, life imprisonment, irreversible Alzheimer’s and the like.

Virtually no disagreement has existed, however, over the fact that, from a biblical perspective, mere “unhappiness, emotional estrangement and drifting apart” hardly qualify as acceptable reasons for divorce. All of these can be reversed if both partners make a good faith effort. But nothing in this newspaper article suggests these three reasons are limited to non-Christians, and personal experience shows that they are certainly not so limited.

One suburban Denver woman is quoted as saying, “The biggest thing was knowing I was approaching 50 and thinking I didn’t want to live the rest of my life married to someone I no longer loved” (section D, page 10). As is so endemic in our cultures and our churches, “love” is used here to describe a feeling. If you can fall in love, then you can fall out of love (or at least climb out of it)! If love, as in the Bible, is a choice, a commitment, then there is no falling. There is nothing that just happens to us outside of our control. Little wonder that cultures with arranged marriages (like many in biblical times) have microscopic divorce rates. The partners understand that it’s about how you behave toward one another, not about how you feel, that is most foundational to a marriage.

One might ask why this is “news” for the Denver Post. The article makes that answer clear also. Graying-haired men have been divorcing their wives in record numbers for some time now, often for “trophy wives”—noticeably younger, more attractive women who apparently care more about what their new, older partners can provide economically or socially in the short term than anything else, since second marriages on average dissolve faster than first ones. (Funny how in all the alleged interest in family values in the last presidential election, conservative Christians made next to nothing of the fact that this was precisely what the nominee of many of those voters’ choice had done years ago, whereas the other candidate had proved an exemplary husband and father. Guess the race really was about politics after all—which is probably what it should be—let’s just be honest about what we’re doing. But I digress.)

It’s not news either that most marriages that are going to end in divorce do so within their first eight years. What made this article worthy of publication was that the last bastion of faithfulness is falling. With younger men, younger women, and older men all leaving their spouses in record numbers for reasons far beyond anything remotely biblical, the only category of people left to join the bandwagon are older women. And now they have jumped on board.

It’s time to return to basics. Love is a commitment, not a feeling. Feelings follow from godly actions, not vice-versa. Wedding vows are promises: “till death do us part.” A divorcee by definition is a promise-breaker. Occasionally, it is impossible to keep promises no matter how much one wants to do so, because “it takes two to tango.” I cannot stay married if my spouse refuses to do so. But taking the initiative to divorce, and for no better reason than lack of personal fulfillment, simply cannot by any stretch of the Christian imagination ever be right.

I remember being shocked as a young adult by some Hollywood wedding (a true story) in which the traditional vows were replaced with promises to be faithful “until the death of love parts us.” That’s really what has become the norm today, even if we’re not honest enough to admit it. How many Christians getting married [now] would be prepared to go through with the wedding if those were the words they were told to repeat? Those who would be so prepared should save their money and skip the ceremony altogether. Especially for those already living together, wedding vows add nothing to what already exists unless they promise permanence. Might as well just keep “shacking up” with each other, to use some slang from my father’s lifetime, because it doesn’t take a promise to be faithful when good feelings are present. As C. S. Lewis put it years ago in objecting to shotgun weddings, why compound the sin of fornication with the sin of perjury? The whole point of wedding vows is to seal the relationship for the hard times. 

Those who wouldn’t be prepared to have a wedding with such trivial promises need to think long and hard about what they are promising with the traditional vows. And keep thinking about it every week, month, and year of their lives thereafter.

The organization Bill McCartney founded had it right. It boils down to whether or not we are going to be promise keepers. And if I can’t trust someone in the most solemn pronouncement they will ever make in their lives, why should I trust them in anything else?

Dr. Craig L. Blomberg serves as Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary.

Which Is Harder—to Leave or to Stay?

“But I will stay on at Ephesus until Pentecost because a great door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many who oppose me.” (1 Corinthians 16:8-9)

“Don’t settle for the easy Christian life by just staying at home. Listen for God’s call to overseas missions.”

“Living in the suburbs is way too easy. You need to move to the city. Get involved in urban ministry.”

“Have you been in the same job for a long time? Life is short; do you really want to be stuck in one place for most of it? Time to risk doing something different, moving somewhere new!”

How often have we heard these and similar well-intentioned remarks by Christian speakers, mentors or friends? How often have we used lines like these ourselves to advise others? I know I have.

But no matter how many times I read the last chapter of 1 Corinthians, I still find verses 8-9 bring me up short. Paul has already been ministering in Ephesus longer than in any community we know of throughout his apostolic missionary career. He has already promised the Christians in the churches of Greece, including the Corinthians, that he will be visiting them again. What’s the hold up? The answer is twofold and the two answers create a seeming paradox: Paul recognizes plenty of remaining opportunity for significant ministry and he recognizes the strength of the opposition.

How can both of these at the same time be incentives for Paul to stay on longer in Ephesus? Consider the alternatives. If all he received was opposition without any success, sooner or later he would need to obey Jesus’ words and shake the dust off his feet (an ancient public gesture of rejection) and move on (Matt. 10:14). If all he experienced was success without any opposition, eventually he would need to question if he were really remaining publicly faithful to teaching the full counsel of God’s will, because Paul also knew that the godly follower of Christ would eventually experience persecution, in some form or another (2 Tim. 3:12).

The only remaining option, then, is some combination of success and opposition. But how much is there of each? A significant amount, it would seem. Paul says that a “great” door has opened, but also that there are “many” who oppose him. If the ministry were advancing mightily with only a small amount of hostility, Paul could easily have assumed it was safe in Timothy’s hands and in the hands of the local elders (see 1 Tim. 1, 3 and 5). If there were a little fruit but major attacks, Paul might well not have felt free to leave even after Pentecost, which as an annual festival had to have been less than a year down the road. But if there were both significant growth and great opposition, then it made very good sense for Paul to want to stay long enough to try to quell the hostility and yet still eventually continue his itinerant ministry to which he had been called.

As recently as forty years ago, it was more common than not in this country for adults to work one main job throughout their professional career and for people to live in fairly close proximity to where they grew up. Today both of those prove the exception and not the norm. Forty years ago, the challenges reflected in the quotes at the beginning of this blog were frequently needed. Today, the most needed challenges may be for believers, once they find a good place for effective ministry (whether professional or lay), to stay put, to offer some stability in a transient world, to stop the perennial quest to climb the professional ladder, and that even as opposition waxes and wanes, ebbs and flows.

Years ago my wife and I owned a coffee cup which had on it the slogan, “Don’t let the turkeys get you down!” After almost 24 years of ministry at Denver Seminary, I think somebody needs to make a companion mug that says, “Just stay put. You can outlast the turkeys!” At least that’s been my experience here. But I know it can’t be generalized. My dad taught in one public school district his entire professional life, most of it at the one high school in the district. Not long after he began at that school, a slightly younger colleague was hired in his department who would stay there until after my dad retired. For years, she was his nemesis in numerous respects, but he eventually learned with the right combination of kindness and avoidance how to get along reasonably well with her.

Of course there will be times when God leads one to change jobs, ministries, or churches. But given the speed and frequency of such changes by most in the twenty-first century Western world, I suspect our default mode ought to be that we will stay where we are—bloom where we are planted, so to speak (cf. 1 Cor. 7:17-24)—until we have a sure, prolonged, and clear call from God to the contrary, and that we have as good a reason as possible under the circumstances to believe we are leaving our work and ministry in good hands before we depart. There will be exceptions, but I suspect they should be the exceptions and not the norm. I suspect on Judgment Day that God will be far more impressed with faithfulness and loyalty to a group of people or a ministry than with climbing a professional ladder or fulfilling our own dreams or personal desires—that “self-actualization” that our therapeutic culture so values but puts so many people at odds with each other and leaves a trail of damaged relationships in its wake.

Dr. Craig L. Blomberg serves as Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary.

The Threefold Antidote to Timidity

“For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.” (2 Timothy 1:7)

I had read the verse countless times. Probably due to messages I had heard, my attention was always drawn to the first half. Timothy was comparatively young and inexperienced in ministry, but that was no reason for others not to respect him or for him to be afraid even when others didn’t. But I hadn’t reflected on the second half of the verse nearly as much—not nearly enough.

How do Christian leaders follow God’s leading and call in difficult situations where fundamental biblical principles are being violated by others, whether doctrinal or ethical? How do they stand the best chance of succeeding when others are self-centered, demanding their own way, cantankerous, divisive, misled, jealous or troublemaking? Paul gathers together three key terms here that most people don’t naturally think of as belonging with each other. Any one of them by itself is usually not enough. Two of them together are much better. But all three are necessary for a full-orbed personality of godly leadership.

My father was the best teacher I ever had of any subject at any level of my schooling. He was a lifelong Spanish teacher, with most of his career spent in the public high school in Rock Island, Illinois. I had him for third- and fourth-year Spanish in the early seventies. He modeled all three of these character traits, most of the time, in a very excellent blend. The same was true of him as a parent. It took an awful lot to get him mad, either in the classroom or at home, but no one ever doubted that he was in charge or that he cared deeply about his children and his students. His power was balanced by love and normally kept in check by self-control.

But every once in a great while he would “blow.” You didn’t want to be around when he got angry. Yet his positions were almost always justified. When he unleashed his invective at someone else, he would often explain to me afterwards, “Sometimes you just have to turn up the volume!” What he meant was that sometimes people needed to see how upset they had made you; it wasn’t good enough just to keep your emotions under wraps. Somehow, carefully choosing his times to “explode,” my father would almost always get what he wanted.

Over the years of my adult life, I have occasionally tried to imitate Dad. For whatever reason, the process has seldom worked as well for me. Maybe it’s because he taught in a secular context and I teach in a Christian context, where people are far less used to seeing leaders get visibly upset. Maybe it’s because we don’t think long and hard about what occasions triggered Jesus’ and the apostles’ anger. (Answer: when legalistic insiders to the faith made a sham of their religion and deserved rebuke; the evangelical world, in contrast, tends to kowtow to such people and reserves its rage for non-Christians when they discover them acting like non-Christians!)

Maybe there’s a third reason as well. I have known leaders, with whom I’ve worked closely over a prolonged period of time, who just never get visibly mad. There is no question they are in a position of authority and know how to exercise it, but their self-discipline is so honed that even when they have to mete out unpleasant consequences to persistently intransigent people defying the policies of the institution, they do so calmly, exercising self-restraint. And meting out such consequences is always a very last resort; meanwhile, they consistently look for “win-win” situations when people under them are ensnared in division or simply can’t agree with their own views. I can’t confirm that these people have never gotten visibly angry in their entire Christian lives; if that were true they’d have done better than both Paul and Jesus! It’s just that it’s so rare that I’ve never seen or heard about it.

The older I get, the more I aspire to that model. I still blow it, more often than I care to admit, but not as often as I used to, so I think I’ve made some progress—power balanced by love and both held in check, with proper boundaries, by self-control. Why hadn’t I noticed that earlier in 2 Timothy 1:7?

Christian Mid-Course Corrections

I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge—God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you. Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (1 Cor. 1:4-9)

It was the summer of 1992. Denver Seminary was on the verge of completing its five-year participation in a program known as the globalization of theological education. We had two weeks of specially called summertime faculty meetings to work through all the implications of this for our mission, vision, values, and curriculum. One morning, a local pastor, who was also an adjunct professor at the seminary and a longtime friend of the school, addressed the faculty with about an hour-long presentation on everything seminaries were doing wrong, or at least inadequately, around the country.

It was a thoroughly depressing experience for all of us. Fortunately, the pastor had a second, later session in which he sketched his vision for how to rectify a good chunk of these matters—a mentoring program in which students wrote individualized learning contracts in the areas of ministry skills and spiritual formation. Two years later, we actually piloted a program that incorporated many of his dreams, known as CASE—Church Assisted Seminary Education. Two years after that, the seminary began the planning process that led to something not unlike our mentoring program today. But it took about seven years from beginning to end to create something that was always plagued with a certain amount of inertia that could be traced to that first gathering in which we felt we had all been whipped.

After all, we wouldn’t have been having the special meetings in the first place if we didn’t know we needed to make some changes. We also knew we were doing a lot of good things right. Many problems that characterized other seminaries weren’t our problems, though no doubt we had a few distinctive ones of our own. How much easier and shorter the whole transition would have been had we begun with a session that complimented us and encouraged us with the many good things we were doing well and with good faith efforts even in areas that were not going so well, before our speaker moved into the barrage of everything that convinced him of a need for a seminary overhaul.

Paul models precisely this approach to Corinth. By the end of 1 Corinthians, it is clear that this church holds the record for the number of problems among those who received apostolic letters, at least that we know of. Many of those problems surrounded their combative and divisive use of spiritual gifts, especially those of knowledge (wisdom) and speech—prophecy and tongues and their interpretation (chs. 12-14). Yet, in this opening prayer, which he allows the Corinthians to overhear, he thanks God for the very giftings that have caused so many of the problems. Obviously, he would much prefer to work with a group of people who are trying hard to serve Christ even if not always in the right ways, than those who are totally lifeless. And it is clear that it is God’s power and faithfulness that he trusts to bring the Corinthians around that allows him to be so upbeat before he begins to address the specific issues that need correcting.

How often have Christian employers, managers, pastors, supervisors, and leaders of many other kinds not followed Paul’s model? Just jump in with a group of people you don’t know very well, begin by sketching how dire the situation is, make those who have worked so hard to keep the organization afloat feel like their efforts are largely misguided, tell everybody they are going to have to change significantly the way they are doing things, or worse—that you’re about to clean house and start all over with a new team. The business world does that often enough that the church and parachurch organizations seem to feel they must imitate it. But, especially in Christian circles, I have yet to see it work in building morale or even in turning things around quickly. I seriously doubt it’s what God ever intends. The old “praise sandwich” (praise sandwiched around any criticism necessary) still works best. Paul knew. People matter more than programs or performance.

Dr. Craig L. Blomberg serves as Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary.

Does 2 Corinthians 1–2 Justify Promise-Breaking?

“Because I was confident of this, I wanted to visit you first so that you might benefit twice. I wanted to visit you on my way to Macedonia and to come back to you from Macedonia, and then to have you send me on my way to Judea. Was I fickle when I intended to do this? Or do I make my plans in a worldly manner so that in the same breath I say both ‘Yes, yes,’ and ‘No, no’?” (2 Cor. 1:15-17 TNIV)

I was startled recently to read on a friend’s blog that it was a sermon on 2 Corinthians 1-2 which was part of what convinced him that it was OK to renege on a promise that he had made. Indeed, he was convinced God was guiding him to back out of a commitment he had made to a large group of people that would have wide-reaching effects on them in favor of a new opportunity that would be personally more fulfilling. He had just not had a peace about the previous commitment but now felt completely at peace.

Of course, I don’t know what was said in the sermon that proved influential. Presumably it had something to do with the passage, quoted above, in which Paul justifies changing his travel plans to Corinth. Paul was in Ephesus at the time (1 Cor. 16:8), on the west coast of what we would call Turkey. He initially envisaged traveling across the Aegean Sea by boat to Corinth in the province of Achaia, which formed the southern half of Greece. Then he would head up the northern half of the peninsula, to Macedonia, visit the cities he had evangelized there (like Berea, Philippi and Thessalonica), retrace his steps to the south, back through Corinth, and then by boat across the Mediterranean Sea all the way to Israel. The geography of 2 Corinthians 1:15-17 makes perfect sense if this is what Paul had in mind.

2 Corinthians 1:23-2:4, however, makes it clear that Paul chose to abandon those plans. As he goes on to explain, he did not want to make another painful visit to Corinth. Instead, he wanted to wait until he was assured that they had dealt with a certain individual there who was causing all kinds of problems—possibly the incestuous offender of 1 Corinthians 5:1-5. Now, however, Paul has learned that this man has repented (2 Cor. 2:5-11). Paul is therefore on his way to Corinth, but traveling over land instead, along the northern shore of the Aegean to Macedonia and then making his way down south in Greece to Corinth (2:12-13, 7:5-7).

Apparently, this change of travel plans provoked criticism from someone in Corinth. Paul appears to have been accused of not being trustworthy, like the person who says “yes, yes” to something at one moment and then says “no, no” the next. Paul emphatically denies that this is the case (2 Cor. 1:18-22). All along he had wanted his next visit to Corinth to be one of mutual encouragement and if that meant postponing his trip and altering his itinerary, then so be it. The constancy was not at the level of the timing of the trip or who else Paul would visit en route before or after Corinth, but that he would indeed come again and do so when the Corinthians had mended their ways.

But neither was Paul breaking any promises. Paul says he “wanted” to visit them twice according to a certain itinerary (Gk. eboulomēnv. 15), not that he ever actually said he would definitely do things this way. The verb appears twice again in this passage, both times in verse 17, translated by the TNIV as “intended” and “did... make plans.” And the reason for Paul’s change of plans had nothing to do with his own personal fulfillment. His concern was entirely for what was in the best interests of the Corinthians.

But what about 2 Corinthians 2:12-13? Paul has now left Ephesus, heading overland to Greece, to meet up with Titus who has been in Corinth and find out if things were better with the church there. Apparently, the two have an agreed-upon travel route, each coming from opposite directions, and they are not sure at what point they will meet up. As he always does as he travels, Paul will also preach the gospel in the communities through which he passes. He does so at Troas, in what we would today call northwestern Turkey. Apparently, there was a good enough response there and perhaps invitations to stay longer than he had originally planned so that Paul can write “that the Lord had opened a door for me.” 

But the main purpose of his trip is to meet up with Titus, in hopes of hearing that things are well enough in Corinth for him to continue on to that city. Paul’s lack of peace comes from not encountering Titus and thus from not yet receiving that good news. So he continues on his journey. This is a far cry from making a promise to engage in ministry at one location, subsequently not having a peace about it, and so going elsewhere. It is the exact opposite. The lack of peace comes because Paul’s original and primary commitment has not yet been fulfilled. He must remain faithful to that and not be tempted to go back on it in favor of a new opportunity, however alluring it must have been to stay in Troas to lead more to Christ.

I’m afraid the sermon my friend heard must have exactly inverted Paul’s original meaning. 2 Corinthians 1-2 is all about promise-keeping and in no way justifies promise-breaking because of new, unforeseen opportunities that are more personally appealing.

How to Cope with Apostasy

"They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us" (1 John 2:19 [T]NIV).

One of my most memorable assignments in seminary was to write a paper discussing Calvinist and Arminian interpretations of a number of the key passages in the Bible that each group most cites to buttress their understanding of perseverance. We were particularly to focus on how Calvinists dealt with texts, like the warning passages in Hebrews, which most strongly seemed to teach the possibility of forfeiting salvation. We were likewise to focus on how Arminians dealt with texts, like the Johannine promises of security, which most strongly seemed to teach that God would always preserve his flock. A kairos moment of sorts hit me when I came to 1 John 2:19, cited above. This put all the pieces of the puzzle together for me. Phenomenologically, apostasy happens. Theologically, John explains how to interpret it. People can fool others and probably even fool themselves, up to a point. Yet only where they wind up at the end of their lives ultimately determines their final destiny -- and their true spiritual nature all along. One can defend "eternal security," but only for those who are truly Christ's. And only with 20-20 hindsight can we fully determine who truly were his.

Sadly, I have watched people abandon professions of faith in Christ at a variety of times in my life. I have heard others tell their stories, whom I have encountered only after the fact. Over my 22 years of teaching at Denver Seminary, I am aware of four of our graduates who have done this; these are the stories that hurt the most. There are no doubt a handful of others I don't know about, though overall the graduates I do hear from, like the survey results we receive from more systematic canvassing of our graduates, are extremely heartening.

As I have become more familiar with the blogworld, I have discovered that there are plenty of websites devoted to attacking Christianity or at least to pointing out everything that makes it hard for various people to accept it. Some are intellectually quite rigorous. I have had some fascinating response when I have joined in the conversations on such blogs--some encouraging, others less so. Not surprisingly, a disproportionate amount of the passion exercised against Christianity, especially historic, orthodox Christianity, seems to come from ex-evangelicals.

It would be easy to lash out with a torrent of invective against such individuals. After all, doesn't John call them "antichrists" in 1 John 2:18 and 1 John 2:22? Yes, but he is not directly addressing them. If they are the ones who have left the church, then by definition they are not the ones present when this letter is read out to the local congregation of those who have "abided" or "remained" faithful to the truth. It is one thing to warn "the flock" in strong language against those who would ravage them; it is quite another to speak this way to the "wolves" themselves. In the blogworld, however, this seems to be Christians' preferred modus operandi, and I can assure you from personal conversations with the ex-Christians, skeptics, and atheists that this does absolutely nothing but alienate them further and convince them their decisions were the right ones.

Robert Yarbrough's outstanding new Baker Exegetical Commentary on 1-3 John has some profound reflections on 1 John 2:19. A woodenly literal translation of the last third of this verse reads "but in order that it might be shown that they are not all of us." The thought is incomplete; the elliptical sentence has to be finished with something like "they went out." The NIV, TNIV, NRSV, NAB and NLT mask entirely that there is purpose clause (using hina) here. The NJB and NET hint at the idea of purpose, but turn the passive voice verb "be shown" into an active one, easily creating the impression that the people leaving the church did so intentionally to demonstrate who they really were, when in fact John's point is that this is God's intention in the context, irrespective of the specific human motivations. For this verse, the HCSB, ESV, NASB and RSV get it right. Yarbrough explains, "God is continually at work showing forth his glory, and for his people this means their ongoing sifting and purifying. . .When ostensible members of the people of God turn away from the beliefs and practices authorized by God and subsequently depart the community, God is glorified in that the truth of who are his and who are not is revealed" (pp. 147-48).

But that can't be where we stop. Just as not all who profess Christ are truly his, not all who claim to have given up the faith have truly defected. 2 Timothy 2:25-26 shows Paul holding out hope that some will return to the fold. In other instances, those who never were truly Christ's will become so, now truly, for the first time. "The pain of an open parting of the ways. . .can be the necessary prelude to a higher level of community cohesion and doctrinal integrity" (p. 148), including among some who once were among us, left us and later came back. We have frequently seen this at Scum of the Earth Church in Denver with its particularly transient and needy population.

 Yogi Berra had it right, "It ain't over till it's over." Let's keep that in mind for ourselves, for our fellow church members and for all people elsewhere. There may be an unforgivable sin, but only God knows who has crossed that threshold. Our task is to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) to everyone. Just as we are surprised by some who apostatize, we will be surprised by some who repent.

Bible Translations Aren't THAT Different, but We Can Have Preferences

Having spent my annual week last week with my fellow members of the NIV-TNIV Committee on Bible Translation, sifting through large stacks of proposals for minor tweaking of how we translate this or that word or phrase in anything from Genesis to Revelation, I’m in the mood for writing a blog on translating Scripture. A series of conversations in recent months, linked only by the theme of Bible translation, has made me dramatically more aware than ever before of the following observations:

1) Many people, unchurched and churched alike, have never actually looked in any detail at multiple Bible translations and therefore don’t have a good feel for just how different and similar they are. As a result, they tend to think they are actually far more different than they really are, leading to strange questions like, “With so many different English translations, how do we know which one or ones, if any, we can trust.” The short and most basic answer is, except for those produced by unorthodox sects like the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World Translation or Joseph Smith’s personal Joseph Smith Translation, or those deliberately designed to be a paraphrase and not a bona fide translation at all (like The Message or the old Living Bible Paraphrased), you can trust ALL of them. Not one will ever flawlessly come up with the very best rendering in every passage, but not one will ever lead you astray on any important matter of faith and practice. Do yourself the favor of getting the software that allows you to compare a couple dozen major English translations for a representative cross-section of Bible verses or passages of your choice and prove it to yourself!

2) Because of the passion with which some scholars and church leaders have advocated one of the bona fide translations above others or criticized one or more of those translations, way too many people both inside and outside of the church have the misimpression that you can’t trust all of them the way point 1) above phrases it. It’s time for those scholars and church leaders to come clean and correct these misimpressions. With the wealth and luxury of so many options in the English-speaking world, it’s time to put a lot less money and effort into internecine argumentation and a lot more into letting the world know the magnificent wonders of this collection of books we call the Bible, regardless of what translation one prefers!

3) We must help our people, and others, understand the difference between formal equivalence, dynamic equivalence, and mediating approaches. To oversimplify but to make the point, the more literal the translation is, the harder it will be for the general population at large to understand it. The more readable for one particular subculture the translation, the less literal it will be. It is simply inaccurate and thus irresponsible to say that the more literal a translation, the better, for all situations. The most literal translation of all is an interlinear, which is indecipherable to most people. The most readable, understandable and accurate, all in one package, will always be those translations that do not consistently aim for either formal equivalence (word-for-word renderings) or dynamic equivalence (thought-for-thought), but aim at a middle ground between the two—as literal as possible while still being as fluent and understandable by the greatest number of people as possible.

4) In light of this last point, and completely apart from debates about inclusive language, the tradition of translating represented by the NIV-TNIV continues to achieve this balance most consistently. The next best options aren’t even close.

Time and Eternity

“But do not forget this one thing, dear friends. With the Lord, a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day” (2 Peter 3:8)

In context, Peter is explaining that the apparent delay in Christ’s return should not be viewed from a human vantage point with respect to time. God’s timing is not our timing. From the viewpoint of eternity, even a thousand years can seem as quick as a day. God isn’t slow at all in bringing the end but wants to give people as much time as possible to repent (2 Peter 3:9).

Extrapolating from the immediate context, there are many unanswerable questions about time and eternity with which philosophers wrestle. The end of Revelation 10:6, in older translations, was sometimes rendered, “time will be no more,” leading to the notion that the eternal state does not include a succession of moments. But modern translations recognize that this clause means, “There will be no more delay,” that is, before the end of human history as we know it. It may be that time is not something God created but simply an inherent part of the existence of any form of consciousness. We just don’t know.

What does seem clear is that, if I borrow models from mathematics and think about a line extending to infinity, then even the longest finite period of time is just a miniscule blip in that graph. Technically speaking, it can’t be graphed, because any definable segment of the line would still be too long! In more poetic forms that is what Peter was saying. And he wasn’t inventing the idea; he was quoting Psalms 90:4, a marvelous prayer of Moses reflecting on God’s sovereignty as he considered how fleeting life was....

How much more can we look forward to never-ending, grand reunions with living Christians we wish were closer. How many baby boomers like me imagined when our high-school and college-graduating classes said their tearful goodbyes to people they thought they might never see again, that e-mail and Facebook would make that abundantly possible decades later? How many foreign missionaries of past eras setting sail from their homelands never to talk to their families again could have even fantasized as science-fiction developments like Skype and webcams that now can put people in instant communication with each other from virtually anywhere in the world? How much more will we cherish eternal life that eliminates all barriers among God’s people, and most important of all, the barriers we cause ourselves through human sin, keeping relationships from being as perfectly loving and joyful as possible.

I often tell people that the hardest thing about my job is saying goodbye to ¼ of my closest friends every year. Maybe there’s a little exaggeration there, but not much. I love getting to know students. Few other jobs could possibly put one in touch with so many phenomenal servants of God. I wish I could develop a close relationship with every one of them but of course that is impossible. Circumstances lead one to acquaintance with many but deep friendships with only a few.

One of those graduates I counted as a close friend from several years ago had the opportunity to accept a ministry in Denver recently but was also being wooed by a ministry in another country. After months of waiting, with all signs suggesting that my friend would accept the call to Denver, at the last minute, with my excitement building to a fever pitch, the choice was made for the other ministry. I was stunned—both at the choice and how I was experiencing all four stages of grief simultaneously: disbelief, anger (especially at the other ministry for its “theft” of my friend), sorrow and, yes, also acceptance.

Ecclesiastes 3:11 says that God “has set eternity in the human heart.” I don’t pretend to understand much of what that involves, but I’m convinced a part of it has to do with the fact that even when we are physically present with our closest friends, every celebration, every special event, every happy memory goes by all to fleetingly. We are creatures who understand, however dimly, something of the unending sinless fellowship that we were made to have with God and each other and we long for it. When even feeble approximations of that fellowship are rudely snatched away from us in this life, whether through death or through departure, we intuitively recognize how wrong that is. Praise the Lord that one day this separation will be rectified—forever. And that’s a whole lot more than even a thousand years!

Are You a Person of Your Word?

“Above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ Otherwise you will be condemned.” (James 5:12 TNIV)

When people want to lament the decline in morals in this country, they typically point out upswings in violence (especially to the unborn), promiscuous sex (of both hetero- and homo- varieties), and perhaps our enslavement to greed and consumerism. Without denying any of those trends, I wonder if more attention needs to be paid to being people of integrity—whose word and promises can be trusted. After all, the Ten Commandments include not only prohibitions against murder, adultery, and coveting but also against bearing false witness.

The passage in James 5 is a quotation from the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:37). The context in both cases is about taking oaths (not about cussing). The point is not so much a prohibition, as our Quaker and Mennonite friends have often thought, against solemnly swearing in a lawcourt that something is true, but rather against the notion that certain kinds of oaths are less binding than others (see Matt. 5:33-36). If that was the problem afflicting some of the Pharisees, Jesus explains, then don’t use oaths at all. Just be so trustworthy that if you say you will do something, then you will do it.

My grandfather was a very successful businessman in a small-to-medium-sized town in Iowa. He died in 1984 at the age of 84, when I was 29. I remember him more than once talking about how back before World War II, in his community, there were few of the elaborate contracts of today, just friends’ words to each other. You promise to buy this land by such-and-such a date and you have the money to the seller on time. You promise to deliver certain goods to a retailer and you never shortchange them. The vast majority of the time the system worked, whether the person was a Christian or not.

After the war, my grandpa would continue, some people started to renege often enough on such deals that now they needed to be sealed with a handshake. Then, somewhere in the mid-60s, as he was getting ready to retire, more and more formal contracts were coming to be written for people to sign, because handshakes weren’t always a reliable guide to people’s follow-through on their commitments. Today, even signatures mean little in some circles, so we have endless litigation by people suing those who have reneged on formal contracts.

I had a disturbing conversation with a group of Christians recently that I led in a case study about a situation in which a Christian job applicant reneged on a promise to accept a job if offered it, in favor of a more attractive offer that had subsequently emerged. About half of the group saw nothing wrong with that, since no contract had yet been signed. Even more disturbing was the fact that some saw nothing wrong with leaving a brand-new job after just having signed a contract and after having made a verbal multi-year commitment (not in the contract), again in favor of a more attractive position.

Is it any wonder so many marriages these days end in divorce, not as they used to after years of struggle and hurt, but at the slightest sign of personal inconvenience? I met a divorcee in her mid-thirties recently who initiated proceedings after only a two-year marriage because her husband failed to keep a tidy home and this showed his “profound disrespect for her,” because she had repeatedly asked him to keep things cleaner. I probed to see if there wasn’t anything more serious than that but there wasn’t. I asked if they had tried counseling and she replied, “Oh yes, as soon as he heard I was talking about divorce, he insisted we go for counseling. We went a few times. But my heart had already checked out, so I didn’t see any point in continuing.”

What I wanted to ask but didn’t was “So why should anyone ever believe you again when you promise to do something for them, especially if it is something much less solemn than a promise to stay in a marriage for life?”

James and Jesus teach us that if we promise to do something and have it within our power to carry it out, then we are to do it, period. End of discussion. Become known as somebody so trustworthy that you don’t even need to shake hands, much less sign a contract. People know you’re a person of your word. And it’s striking how strongly they phrase the alternative: In James: “otherwise you will be condemned.” In Matthew: “anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” Ouch!

Dr. Craig L. Blomberg serves as Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary.

Of Earthquakes and End Times

“When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.” (Mark 13:7-8 TNIV)

Not long after the 2004 tsunami that devastated Indonesia and neighboring countries, a document was circulating on the Internet, purportedly showing a dramatic rise in earthquakes in recent years and using that to fuel fervor that Christ’s return was imminent. Now we have watched the horrific earthquake in Haiti, followed frighteningly closely by another in Chile, even stronger on the Richter scale. Less damage done was directly related to attempts in that country to build structures better able to withstand giant quakes, a caution virtually ignored in Haiti. Then this morning, there are reports that a 6.0 earthquake has hit eastern Turkey.

Doubtless somewhere people will again start to use such disasters as signs that we are living in the last days. Or to put it more accurately, since the New Testament consistently insists the last days began with Christ’s first coming, they will insist that we are living in the last days of the last days!

But wait. How often do we go back and read what the Bible actually says? Revelation, of course, depicts apocalyptic earthquakes during the tribulation itself of a greater magnitude than anything the world has ever seen. But the place in Scripture where people turn to make a link between “ordinary” earthquakes and the nearness of the end is Jesus’ Olivet Discourse. I’ve excerpted the relevant verses above. Along with earthquakes are mentioned several other kinds of plagues on humanity.

What’s crucial is to read the text carefully. Wars and rumors of wars should not alarm God’s people. The end is still to come. The Greek reads all’ oupō to telos, literally, “but the end is not yet” (as, e.g., in the RSV, HCSB, ESV and NKJV). Such portents do not herald the end! Amazing how the Christian grapevine, fueled by popular scaremongering novels, can disseminate a tradition of exactly the opposite of what the Bible actually says.

But what about earthquakes and famines? These are merely “the beginning of birthpangs.” This statement is asyndetically connected to the preceding one (i.e., without a Greek conjunction where one would be expected), so that the two statements are tied even more closely together than they would have otherwise been. In English, though, we need a conjunction for the translation to sound fluent; hence, “this is/these are but the beginning of birth pangs/pains” (RSV, NRSV, ESV, NET).

In other words, just as labor pains remind a pregnant mother that there is a baby inside her that the body wants to bring into the world, so too do these various earthly disasters remind believers that Christ will return, bringing an end to human history as we now know it. But my how unreliable those labor pains can be, sometimes coming months ahead of the actual due date, sometimes weeks in advance. They remind us that we are getting closer to the climactic day, but we knew that already just because of the passing of time. They turn out to be singularly unhelpful in predicting the actual moment of delivery. So, too, with disasters and the Parousia. In fact, given all the scriptural predictions about Christ’s return coming by surprise, like a thief in the night, and so on, I suspect he will choose a time that very few people have predicted and when there is very little apocalyptic fervor in the air!

Are All Sins Equal?

“But you have neglected the more important matters of the law-- justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23).

I hear the comment so often, in one form or another. It boils down to the question: “How can I judge someone else for what I think is their sin, when I commit plenty of sins myself?” There are numerous ways the Christian should respond. One answer is because Jesus told us to do so—see Matthew 18:15-18. A second involves definitions. If by “judge,” someone means being unnecessarily harsh or “judgmental,” then no, I shouldn’t act that way. That was Jesus’ point in Matthew 7:1. But Christ and the apostles regularly “judged” in the sense of analyzing what was right and wrong and declaring what fell into which category.

But in this blog I’m more interested in the issue behind this question which seems to suggest that all sins are somehow equal. One person commits adultery, but probably all of us lust. So how can we criticize the adulterer or engage in church discipline with them? After all doesn’t Jesus equate lust and adultery in the Sermon on the Mount? No, not exactly. He says that both bring us in danger of judgment. Every sin separates us from God, and every sin requires forgiveness. So in the sense that every sin creates a problem that needs to be dealt with, yes one can say that the Bible equates various sins.

But that hardly makes all of them equally bad! I would vastly prefer that my wife harbor inappropriate thoughts about another man but never act on them than that she commit adultery! I would even more prefer that people who dislike me think hateful things about me but not act on them than that they murder me! In terms of the severity of consequences for oneself and for others, especially in this life, there is a huge difference as to how bad different sins are.

And that is no doubt a big part of what Jesus meant when he criticized the Jewish leaders in Matthew 23 for scrupulously tithing, even down to the tiniest garden herb, but neglecting what he calls the “weightier” or “more important” matters of the Law. He immediately adds that they should have done the one without neglecting the other, thereby showing that he is not challenging any of the Law, at least not before his crucifixion, resurrection and sending of the Spirit at Pentecost would fulfill and thereby do away with the need for his followers literally to obey the civil and ceremonial laws of Israel. But even while the whole Law of Moses was still in force, there were issues that were much more important than others. Echoing the language of Micah 6:8, Jesus could sum these up with the terms “justice, mercy, and faithfulness.”

An older fundamentalism often seemed obsessed with railing against inappropriate sex, drink, and drugs. Today some Christians seem to revel in the degree to which they tolerate others who overindulge in any or all of these areas or actually themselves have sexual partners to whom they are not (heterosexually) married, or get drunk or are addicted to non-prescription drugs. But I wonder, have both groups overestimated how “weighty” these matters are compared with the neglect of social justice, concerning which Micah berated Israel?

Don't Be a Cretan!

"One of Crete's own prophets has said it:  'Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.'  He has surely told the truth!" (Titus 1:12)

Four years ago, my then 14-year-old daughter Rachel was watching me put together some power-point slides for class and asked if she could make one. I told her to make me something for Titus, since I didn't have much of anything creative for that often neglected of Pauline epistles. The result was a slide with several bullet-point entries like, "I like Titus." "Titus is short," "You should read it, too." She insisted I include it in my class presentation which I did every year since. Students always laughed.

Last summer she asked to revise the slide. She took out the bullet points and substituted one large all-capitals, stylized, red-letter slogan: "Don't be a Cretan!" The more I thought about it, the more it struck me that such a summary could well hold its own in competition for the "big idea" of the letter. Titus is pastoring one or more churches on the island of Crete in the Mediterranean sea, beset by problems related to a Judaizing heresy, perhaps with other local syncretistic elements mixed in. The Christians are quite young, many probably from rough and rustic backgrounds, so godly and mature leaders are hard to come by. In this context it is not surprising that the first two main topics Paul addresses after a rich, theologically detailed greeting (Titus 1:1-4) are the criteria for choosing elders/overseers (vv. Titus 1:5-9) and rebuking the false teachers (vv. Titus 1:10-16). Into this last section, he inserts the verse quoted above on the evils of being a Cretan.

Already in pre-Christian Greek philosophy the "liar's paradox" was well-known. If I truthfully declare that Andreas always lies, and then Andreas pipes up by saying, "I am lying," is he telling the truth or lying? If he is telling the truth, then his statement that he is lying is true, which means he has to be lying rather than telling the truth. If Andreas' statement is false, which it should be if he always lies, then it is false that he is lying which means he is telling the truth, which is what he can't be doing. So there is no way to answer the question as to whether Andreas is lying or telling the truth! Everybody still with me?  :)  (This is why I don't teach philosophy for a living!)

So now substitute Paul for me and the Cretans for Andreas. (Since Andreas is a Greek name and one I picked at random for the purposes of illustration, it's easy to make him be a Cretan). The reason Cretans got the reputation that they did was because they boasted that they housed the tomb of Zeus. But as head of the Olympic pantheon of Greek gods, Zeus could not die. So the Cretans' claim must be a lie. The Cretan philosopher Epimenides then coined the slogan that Paul quotes and endorses here.

Most commentators have simply assumed that Paul, like Epimenides, was employing hyperbole. He knows it is logically impossible for all of them to lie all the time. But as a broad generalization, he was able to use this well-known quotation to reinforce for Titus the seriousness of sorting out the problems in the Cretan churches. And the Cretans can't get too mad at Paul because all he is doing is citing their own writer back to them. Besides Epimenides' slogan had become somewhat humorous in the Hellenistic world; it wasn't necessarily even meant to cause offense, so much as poke fun at the silly claim about Zeus. Perhaps it wasn't too much worse, culturally speaking, than someone who might remind lifelong Cubs fans like me at the start of a new baseball season, "Cubs are always losers, always letting their fans down, lovable and laughable though they might be." Especially if a Cubs fan was being quoted, and since there is a core truth behind the quotation, it's hard to get too upset.

But English scholar Anthony Thiselton suggests that Paul is actually trying to point out how self-defeating it is to live in ways that do not match one's ideology or, in this case, religious commitments. This would certainly make the passage much more widely relevant and applicable, not only to situations that resemble Crete's but to all of us. 

We've just finished celebrating Good Friday and Easter Sunday, powerful annual reminders of the need for cruciform, selfless, servant lifestyles buttressed by the spiritual power already ours now to live above our circumstances and one day to triumph over death with resurrection bodies for life everlasting, wonderful beyond imagination. Are we demonstrating to the world around us that these spiritual truths are indeed realities in our lives, or are we creating our own liars' paradoxes, leading some to think, "Christians are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons"? Telling the truth, doing good, avoiding boorishness and violence, working hard and not overindulging our appetites for anything we are tempted to covet are crucial priorities for one who would bear Jesus' name before today's mockers and skeptics.

The Uniqueness of Sex

"Flee sexual immorality.  All other sins people commit are outside their bodies, but those who sin sexually sin against their own bodies." (1 Corinthians 6:18)

I remember my father (who was 37 when I was born) and his older sister (13 years older than him) describing young adulthood in the 1920s and 1930s. Women wore one-piece bathing suits that went down to the ankles. Non-Christians felt at least some guilt or shame if they had premarital sex, and in Christian circles virginity was the norm, with rare exceptions.

I had the "privilege" of having my adolescence span the turbulent period of the late 60s and early 70s when some women burned bras, Woodstock celebrated free air and love (i.e., a lot of public, outdoor sex), and Helen Reddy sang, "I am woman, hear me roar!" But still evangelical Christian leaders unequivocably upheld the historic Christian teaching on abstinence before marriage, even as not all of their young adult charges followed suit. Josh McDowell was still young, though, and spoke to rapt audiences of teens about "Maximum Sex"--i.e., saved for a heterosexual spouse.

Today, I regularly hear youth pastors saying that most of the "Christian" kids to whom they minister have had premarital sex. I hear well-read Christians of various ages admitting they're not sure the Bible really excludes the practice, since most of its prohibitions involve adultery--breaking the marriage covenant. I hear still others insisting that it doesn't matter what the Bible says about sex, it's as outmoded on the virtues of virginity as it is on gender roles in home and church. There's nothing wrong and a lot right about sexual relationships between consenting adults, they allege.  

The Bible hasn't changed, nor has God's Spirit, which enables humans to obey Scripture. So why are we giving up (or giving in) so ridiculously easily and prematurely in this area?

Then one reads 1 Corinthians 6:16 and just scratches one's head.  What? "Sexual immorality" (porneia or "fornication"--sexual relations with anyone other than a heterosexual spouse) is a unique sin against one's own body? What about cutting? What about alcohol or drugs? And surely suicide is the ultimate sin against one's body!

All very true, so long as "body" (sōma) is taken as meaning just the tangible or fleshly part of a human being. But the scholars who have researched the term in depth tell us it can also mean the human person in his or her most intimate acts of communication or communion with others. I suddenly start to understand a little better why the word "intercourse" is used both for conversation and for sex!

Now verse 16 makes sense. Plenty of sins damage one's own body but don't affect the bodies of other people. Sexual intercourse, by definition, requires two people. It is the most intimate of expressions of self-giving love; two people naked before each other, in postures and position that are meant to express ultimate vulnerability and therefore trust and ultimate allegiance, at least at the human level. Someone once said that what is most wrong with sex outside of marriage is not the risk of pregnancy or STDs, much as those remain even in our highly sexually educated society because people continue to refuse "protection." Rather, what's most wrong is that it takes from someone else what was designed to reflect the most intimate of human commitments without being willing to promise the ultimate loyalty intended to go along with that intimacy. Actually, they said it more succinctly and memorably, but I can't exactly remember how or where!

Augustine in his Confessions explained that once he got his sex life under control, he turned to his gluttony, because the same kind of drives were at work in each case, and the same solution required: delayed gratification. Maybe our obesity as a nation and our sexual incontinence are linked!

Does an Angel or Eagle Fly in Revelation 8:13?

Recently a friend from my church sent me a question on Facebook. She had read Revelation 8:13 out of both the New King James Version (NKJV) and the NIV (New International Version). The NKJV said that in one of John’s visions he heard an angel flying through the middle of heaven crying out woes over the earth. But the NIV said it was an eagle that was flying, not an angel. She wanted to know how two such different English translations could come from the same Greek word.

Here’s what I wrote her in reply:

Ah, the perils of using the KJV (or the NKJV)! :) The translators of the KJV did a marvelous job for their day with the couple dozen manuscripts available to them. But now we have rediscovered thousands, including dozens earlier and more reliable than what the KJV translators had access to. What is remarkable is how carefully preserved in general the Bible was, but there are differences.

The NKJV updated the language of the KJV but intentionally didn't change the manuscript base from which they worked. Some editions of the NKJV have footnotes alerting readers to the places where all other modern translations use a different textual basis but not all editions do this.

So, with that long-winded introduction, the short answer to your question is that “eagle” and “angel” DON'T both come from the same Greek word! The dozens of oldest and most reliable manuscripts have aetos, which means “eagle.” A handful of manuscripts, used by the KJV and NKJV, have angelos, which means “angel.” And a large number of very late manuscripts, reflecting scribal indecision and an attempt to harmonize the two readings, have henos angelos hos aetos, which means “one angel like an eagle”!

I’ve had enough experience with instances where the KJV and NKJV alone have one reading and all other translations of any recent vintage have a different one that I was pretty sure of my answer before even turning to my reference works. But for pastors and students used to working exclusively with the UBS (United Bible Societies’) Greek New Testament, you’ll find nothing at Revelation 8:13 to disclose any textual variants.  Remember that the UBS includes only about 1400 of what they deem to be the very most important or interesting variants out of a much larger number that they could have used.) The NA (Nestle-Aland) Greek New Testament, on the other hand, gives many more variants but, to conserve space, offers only very selective manuscript evidence to go along with each. The Word Biblical Commentary series also tends to give more detailed textual-critical information than any other commentary series today does, in small print, right after the translation of each passage and before the actual commentary proper on a passage begins. David Aune’s 3-volume masterpiece in the WBC gives as full a collection of textual variants as any volume in the NT part of the series (David Clines wins the award for his work on Job in the OT WBC volumes). So, Aune gave me the information I was able to provide for my friend in the above quoted paragraphs.

The NIV has way outsold other English translations of the Bible since it first appeared in 1978. Before the proliferation of several new translations that appeared in the last decade, it accounted for as much as 42% of all English Bibles purchased worldwide, though more recently it has dipped to closer to 30%. The KJV has frequently come in at about 20%, with the NKJV sometimes almost as high though usually in the mid-teens. The NLT has also often hovered around 20%, with no other translation even in double digits, percentagewise, of the “market share” in the last decade, though the ESV is starting to come close.

But why does the NKJV get this much attention? If you’re really in to the Elizabethan style of the KJV, it ruins it. If you can’t understand the KJV or simply value more modern English, there are a plethora of options for you. The only reason for retaining the NKJV is if you are among the less than one-tenth of one percent of all textual critics in the world who actually think the KJV and NKJV did use the better manuscripts. But lots more people than that have for some reason decided that the NKJV is for them. May I respectfully suggest they are misled.

Time to put the NKJV on the shelf if you own one and get a modern translation that uses an accurate textual base.

(Perceptive readers may recall previous blogs in which I argued that we should stop so much squabbling about the modern translations because they all have a place and something to contribute. I’m not contradicting myself in this blog, merely clarifying that, even though the English got updated in the NKJV, and even though it was published in the 1970s, it does not qualify as one of the truly “modern” translations that I was thinking about.)

When an Argument from Silence Becomes Utterly Meaningless

Not long ago an unsolicited e-mail asked me to comment on a skeptic’s blogsite that had posted a list of about twenty “historians” from the Jewish, Greek or Roman worlds of around the time of Christ. Not one of them ever mentioned Jesus, the blogger pointed out. Surely that should cast serious doubt on whether the Jesus Christians worship ever even existed.

It was an intriguing list. There were a few names I didn’t recognize that I had to look up, but most were indeed ancient writers from one of those three cultures. The trouble was that only about a third of them could be legitimately called historians. One was an ancient taxonomist who wrote about flora and fauna. A couple were writers on medicine or ancient science. Two were geographers. Several were poets and playwrights.

Of those who were truly historians, several did indeed live “around the time of Christ” but just a little bit before him. Gee, I wonder why they never mentioned him! Several others were actually second- or third-century writers not writing about life in Israel at all but about other parts of the Roman empire. In short, there wasn’t a single name on the list for which there would have been good reason for Jesus even to have been mentioned.

At least this blogger had the wherewithal to acknowledge that the first-century Jewish historian does twice refer to Jesus and that early second-century Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius do too. He obviously just had no idea who all these other folks were, and, in fact, acknowledged that he had taken the list from some obscure book published early in the twentieth century.

In our age of growing disinterest in history and classics (i.e., Greek and Roman language, history and literature) more generally, his faux pas isn’t surprising I guess. What is surprising to me, but perhaps it shouldn’t be either, are the number of people who ask why, even granted these late-first- and early-second-century witnesses, historians who wrote closer in time to Jesus’ ministry (probably 27 or 28 through 30 A.D.) didn’t refer to Jesus.

The question I always want to ask is “And which individuals are these who you think should have referred to Jesus?” The fact is that we no longer have in existence the writings of a single Jewish, Greek, or Roman historian who wrote about life in Israel during the first third of the first century. And even those whose names we know about, because later authors refer to them, are precious few in number, and we typically know little if anything of the contents of their writings. It’s hard for non-existent sources to reference Christ, or anyone else for that matter.

So why do so many atheists “buy” this meaningless argument from silence without even questioning whether sources exist in which we should expect to find something about Jesus but don’t. The only answer I can think of is that they really aren’t interested in learning truth, only in challenging it, and that without even being curious to find out what they don’t know that they don’t know!

G. K. Chesterton put it well a century ago. When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing. They believe in anything!

Christmastime Leadership

This week I got blindsided by someone who had let a lot of minor frustrations in his life build up throughout the fall until I unwittingly proved to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. All his fury was unleashed on me. Fortunately, only three days later, he profusely apologized and I gladly and quickly made amends. Reconciliation in ministry is often not that easy.

Pastors frequently testify to one or a small number of parishioners who remain a thorn in their flesh for years on end. They typically assume the worst of motives in their leaders, spread gossip—often a core of truth supplemented by false inferences, misleading embellishments, and negative innuendos. It can be extraordinarily difficult to know when to respond to unfair charges being made against oneself, risking an escalation of the problem, and when to try to ignore them in hopes that they will go away, but leaving others to believe untrue things about one. Many pastors try proactively to be very controlling with their congregations in hopes that people will be afraid to cross them. The strategy can work reasonably well, but it doesn’t foster good will and is not what Peter describes in [1 Peter 5:1-4].

Peter’s original audience included numerous Christian congregations in various Roman provinces in what today we would call Turkey (1 Pet. 1:1). They were undergoing local harassment for their faith (4:3-4) with Nero’s persecution looming on the horizon. If evidence from a slightly later period of time is at all representative, they were probably targets of many false representations of their beliefs and practices, mixed in with accurate descriptions of that which already repulsed the Hellenistic world. If anyone had accepted church leadership in hopes of satisfying their desires for power and influence, they might well have been tempted to resign as the situation grew bleaker. Peter uses a series of three contrasts in 5:2-3 to challenge the elders/overseers/shepherds of these churches to to reflect on their motives for leadership and to encourage them not to give up.  They should serve willingly, not for reward or status, and not autocratically. The term for “dishonest gain” could also mean “shameful gain” or “foolish gain.” Peter’s point could be that people are not to desire too much or inappropriate or ill-gotten gain, but more likely any time one’s motive for ministry is what one can get out of it one has lapsed into that which is dishonest, shameful or foolish.

How can Christian leaders continue to follow this counter-intuitive approach? Central to the answer to this question is recognizing the eternal glory that awaits us after we suffer. Verses 1 and 4 bracket Peter’s trio of contrasts by reminding us of the everlasting rewards of the life to come. As I think back on some of the models of leadership that have had the best impact on me over the years, I recall individuals who were secure enough in what they stood for and strong enough in their walk with the Lord that when people unjustly abused them, they didn’t fight back but quietly prayed for their oppressors and just kept moving forward in obedience to God. Dr. Vernon Grounds, professor, dean, president and chancellor of Denver Seminary (in that order) for 59 years, who passed away at age 96, may have been one of the best models ever of letting such criticism leave him undeterred, unruffled, and still kind to his critics. 

I can’t pretend that I’ve even come close to his model. But with 41 fewer years of life thus far, maybe I can still grow a little more. If the king of kings could become a human embryo, he can surely help me to become more humble and less defensive and self-justifying!

Dr. Craig L. Blomberg serves as Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary.

Can Allah and God Be Used Interchangeably?

“For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with an inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship – and this is what I am going to proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23)

Timothy George wrote an excellent book exploring the similarities and differences between central Christian and Muslim beliefs, published in 2002, and provocatively entitled Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad? Among other things, George observed that Old Testament Jews were strict monotheists, much like Muslims. Without an explicit concept of the Trinity, prior to the coming of Christ and New Testament revelation, their doctrine of God closely resembled Muslim understanding of Allah. In fact, the etymologies of Allah and El (or Elohim), a common Hebrew name for God in the Old Testament are probably related in pre-Arabic, pre-Hebraic Semitic tongues. Jews who did not become followers of Jesus often stumbled over the very thing Muslims do, the notion of the deity of Jesus or of a Triune God more generally. So perhaps Muslim views of Allah approximate pre-Christian Jewish understandings of Yahweh. Because the New Testament can properly speak of Yahweh, the Lord God of Israel, as Jesus’ father, then maybe the Father of Jesus is the God of Muhammad.

George, however, concludes that this is going too far. The God of the Old Testament was a Triune God from all eternity past, whether most Jews ever realized it or not. There are at least hints of a plurality within the Godhead in the Old Testament in ways there are not in the Qur’an. There is nothing in the Old Testament that unequivocally states that God cannot have a Son, as repeatedly appears in the holy book of Islam. Read both the Jewish Scriptures and the Qur’an and despite the occasional picture of Allah as compassionate, the dominant impression one gets is of an all-powerful, all-knowing being whose mood is almost always one of judgment, primarily on outsiders to Islam. Read the Old Testament—actually read the whole thing and don’t just trust someone else’s simplistic summary—and Yahweh, God of Israel, is predominantly a God of love. When judgment does appear, most of the time it is against God’s own people. The major exception, with the inhabitants of Canaan in the days of Joshua, came only after centuries of God’s patience, until their sins had reached “full measure” (Gen. 15:16).

But one of our readers asks me to address this issue via a slightly different question: Can Allah and God ever be used interchangeably? Here I would agree with many missiologists, especially some who have served in Muslim contexts, that the answer is yes, so long as one goes on to define one’s terms carefully.

That’s exactly what Paul did on Mars Hill. Using theos, the general term for G/god in the Greek language, and based on an inscription to an unknown theos, he proceeded to define the term for the Athenians more accurately. But he never abandoned the term. “God” is an exceedingly common word for God in the Bible! There are plenty of accounts from the history of Christian missions of missionaries insisting on using a foreign word for God, or even creating a new word, in a given language because they cannot accept any indigenous word as close enough in meaning to the God of Scripture. Inevitably, additional barriers have been erected for the acceptance of the Gospel. Now in some instances, this may have been unavoidable, if no term exists that is not inherently polytheistic.

But in Arabic, Allah is as monotheistic as words come. Arabic Christians, before Islam was even birthed in the seventh century, used Allah to translate the biblical words for God. Here is a history we can draw on. Theos, of course, was used by Greek translators of the Septuagint, long before the coming of Christ, despite it being a term very susceptible to polytheistic overtones, but not inherently so.

So it all depends on context. If one can use Allah and explain what one means by it and this is a bridge for sharing Christian beliefs, by all means use it. If among a different group of people, it is inextricable from distinctively Islamic tenets, one may have to abandon it. Great discernment is needed either way.

What is the "Sin Unto Death" (1 John 5:16b)?

"There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that you should pray about that" (TNIV).

I continue to think a lot about apostasy. No, not as an option for me (!), but trying to make sense of the experiences and decisions of others. I also recently finished Robert Yarbrough's new Baker Exegetical Commentary on 1-3 John and gave it a glowing review (see under Denver Journal on our website). John has a lot to say about the topic in these little letters and the verse quoted above may be the most well known of all he has to say.

Ironically, his main point in this context is to encourage his congregations to pray for those who have committed all other kinds of sins besides the one that leads to death (vv. 1 John 5:16-17). But by setting up the contrast between the two kinds of sins, he naturally piques our curiosity about the more heinous of the two.

It is unlikely that John is talking about sins that lead to physical death, as with Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11. Every other use of "life" (zoÄ“) or "death" (thanatos) in the Epistles of John refers to spiritual life or death. In light of 1 John 2:19, it is unlikely that John thinks of these people who sin unto death as ever having been true Christians, though they may have fooled others and even themselves (the kind of deceit that should preclude us ever treating ‘eternal security" glibly or casually and that should ever keep us pronouncing with 100% assurance on the spiritual condition of anyone else).

1 John 3:10 offers us considerable help here: "This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Those who do not do what is right are not God's children; nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters." No, the kind of help I'm thinking of is not what some might immediately think of - that professions of faith must be complemented and thereby demonstrated by love and obedience to the commandments, though that is a central theme of John. Rather it is the simpler but subtler observation that those whom one category of "fake Christians" fail to love are called adelphoi ("brothers and sisters," or "siblings" for those who prefer an accurate, one-word English equivalent).

But the way this term of biological or spiritual kinship is used involves reciprocity. I never call someone my brother who cannot in turn call me his brother. So that means that the fake Christians in John's community would have also been called brothers (or sisters). Thus when this same language of siblingship reappears in 1 John 5:16, we dare not assume that it proves John has true believers in mind. He is simply echoing the language of the community itself as they refer to one another as brothers and sisters. Tragically, some who have these terms applied to them and perhaps apply them to themselves as well may turn out to have been masquerading, wittingly or unwittingly.

Are we therefore never to pray for such people? As Paul would say, mē genoito ("by no means," or for Denver Seminary grads who had Elodie Emig or me for Greek, you'll know the more accurate though dynamically equivalent translation that might offend some readers)! One has to recall that Greeks didn't put their negations in misleading places in their sentences like we do. John very intentionally says that he is not telling them, on this occasion, to pray for those who sin unto death. This is quite different from him telling them not to pray for them! He's simply saying that he's not talking about the sin unto death in this context but those sins that aren't unto death.

Of course, if we knew who those people were who had so hardened their hearts that they had committed what Jesus calls blasphemy against the Spirit (Matthew 12:32) so that God gives them over to their depravity (Romans 1:24-28), we could stop praying for them, knowing it was pointless. But we don't have such knowledge and when we guess as to who such people might be we often guess wrongly. So we dare never stop praying for anyone no matter how much it seems like they might be sinning unto death. Deathbed conversions remain surprisingly common even today, including by some of the once-most-hardened atheists and "believers"-turned atheists!

So what is the sin leading to death? Yarbrough puts it well: it "is to have a heart unchanged by God's love in Christ and so to persist in convictions and acts and commitments like those John and his readers know to exist among ostensibly Christian people of their acquaintance, some of whom have now left those whom John addresses" (p. 311). The assurance John offers is always for those who are presently believers (1 John 5:13), not for those who have repudiated their professions of faith. But as long as the breath of life remains in a person, repentance unto eternal life is always possible. The only unforgivable sin is the sin of unwillingness, in the final analysis, to repent and come to Christ.

The Proper Use of Galatians 1:8?

I knew I was in trouble when I saw the Scripture chosen for the header at the top of this pastor's blog: "But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let that person be anathema" (Galatians 1:8). Without reading a single post, I accurately predicted what its contents would be -- tirades against all the ways mainstream evangelicalism had gone "liberal." I was actually honored to be included with the many wonderful godly leaders and scholars who were attacked, including former teachers and colleagues, current peers with whom I went to school, and leading pastors on the American evangelical scene.

The blog was extreme, but the use of Galatians 1:8 was not unusual. There is a large segment of very conservative evangelicalism or fundamentalism that regularly appeals to the seemingly harsh language of the New Testament in combating false teachers, whether in Galatians, or in 2 Corinthians 10, or in Philippians 3, or in 2 Peter 2 or in Jude 1 to justify using harsh invective against those with whom they disagree. How can anyone object? They are following inspired, inerrant models!

One can and should object for at least five reasons. First, such rhetoric was more common and acceptable in the first century than it is today. Read the Old Testament prophets, the diatribes at Qumran, or the full text of the Hippocratic Oath and Paul seems almost mild in comparison. Yet this language was understood as neither ad hoc nor ad hominem but conventional, culturally acceptable ways of strongly disassociating oneself from certain perspectives.

Second, even in Paul's world one had to balance this text against his quite different command in Galatians 6:1-"if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently."

Third, as I showed in a paper published in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society in 2002, the harshest, condemning language in the New Testament is consistently reserved for those who challenge the very heart of the saving message of Jesus Christ. Unless a false teacher's beliefs or behavior, if imbibed, would prove so damaging that a person would actually be lost who adopted them, then the inspired authors' tones remain quite different.

Fourth, even when it is a core doctrine that is at stake, it is those who have distorted the gospel in an overly conservative, legalistic, works-righteousness direction who come in for the strong denunciation, not those who are flirting with "left-leaning" boundaries.

Finally, the only acceptable reasons for such rhetoric can be the sincere hope that it will win the offending person or persons (back) to the Lord and/or keep others from following suit. In today's Western world, the latter almost never occurs when one replicates such harsh tones. Indeed, one's opponents are simply alienated even further and their antagonism is reinforced. Increasingly, especially among those not yet middle-aged, even Christians recognize that this flies in the face of the centrality of the command to love one's neighbor and even one's enemy. Those who weren't in any danger of doing so become likely to throw the baby out with the bathwater and reject Christianity altogether when they observe Christians who are characteristically combative.

That ought to be more than enough to warn all of us who care about what God thinks and wants in this world to be extremely wary of ever sounding like Paul in Galatians 1:8--except, ironically, in the occasional need to censor people like the writer of the blog I stumbled across, since his legalistic theology actually turned out to be a close replica of the Judaizers Paul censored in Galatia!

He or she who has hears to hear, let them hear...

The Rich in James 5

"Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and ear your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you" (James 5:1-6)

Of course these words don't apply to us! In the context of James these are most likely the rich non-Christian who were oppressing the largely impoverished congregations James pastored, made up of day-laborers, akin to our modern-day migrant workers, in agricultural settings. By not receiving their agreed-on wages at the end of each day, the workers might not have enough money to buy food for themselves and their families. If this happened often enough, they would have to borrow money in order to avoid starvation. But they would sometimes be unable to repay their debts and eventually could be thrown into debtors' prison. There they would have no way of earning any money. Unless they had friends, they would not eat in prison because ancient Roman prisoners did not bother to feed prisoners. But friends from outside could bring prisoners things to eat. Unless a well-to-do benefactor came to their aid from outside, they would languish in prison for life, a life often drastically shortened by the cruel conditions. It is this sense in which the rich oppressors were condemning and murdering innocent people.

The Sunday before Election day, I preached in the only Evangelical church of Meynooth, Ireland, home to the theological college that trains Ireland's Catholic priests and, until six years ago, was bereft of evangelical churches altogether. It was a small gathering of about one hundred people meeting in a large classroom of a secondary school. But what a wonderful gathering of people it was, welcoming, friendly, and yet serious about their faith. As has regularly been my experience in Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand (but rarely in the United States except after special disasters or tragedies), part of the worship service was devoted to praying for the world and the nation in some detail, by a leader very abreast of the news of the week. The children's sermon even involved an explanation of American politics, the election, and the significance of the outcome in a very even-handed, unbiased fashion and with more political savvy than I often experience in American evangelical churches.

I shouldn't have been surprised. Most countries in the world spent a disproportionate amount of their recent news on the American elections, not because they were enamored with America, but because they realized that in our global village their political and economic well-being is closely tied to what the U.S. does. I was reminded once again of how evangelicals even in the comparatively prosperous nations of Western Europe (and Ireland had the fastest growing economy in the world at one point in the last decade until the recent financial downturn) still lag noticeably behind even the average middle-class American Christian. Not in a critical but merely in an informative way, the pastor in Meynooth reminded his Irish congregation before I spoke that 50% of all the military spending in the entire world was done by Americans in the last year, that Americans have one of the highest percentage of homeless people in the "developed" world, and that Americans still consume more of the world's resources than any other country on the planet, even though the Chinese have between four and five times as many people as we do.

How do we know that the rich in James 5:1-6 are non-Christian? The two main answers are (1) because of the behavior described of them, and (2) because God pronounces only judgment against them. But then if we are honest, we have to say that, by global standards, we are the ones who have lived in luxury and self-indulgence, especially in what we spend on our homes and on our churches, in how much we eat and how much we throw away on recreation and entertainment. At some point presumably this disqualifies any profession of faith in Jesus we might otherwise make. I wish I knew where that line was.

But that would only tempt me to get as close to the line as possible. Since I don't know, I have to consistently ask myself how I can do more and more to move away from the danger of being anywhere close to such a line. After all, the earnings on the investments I didn't give away in the last ten years have all disappeared in the last few months due to the financial crisis. Will I ever learn the lesson?