Monday, April 22, 2013

Texting Jesus

Thoughts on Transmitting the Gospel


For we have not followed cunningly devised fables,
when we made known unto you
the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ,
but were eyewitnesses of his majesty.

(1 Peter 1:16)

What does it mean to be an eyewitness? There were many eyewitnesses to Jesus and His miracles at the time that He lived, including especially the lowly fisherman Peter. There were eyewitnesses who saw Him die on the cross and His resurrection. Peter's method of transmitting the incredible events that he witnessed firsthand was to talk about them publicly (e.g. Acts 4:8-12) and put them down in writing, specifically 1 and 2 Peter in the New Testament.

The idea of being an eyewitness took on new meaning after the events of last week. With the recent terrorism incident at the Boston Marathon news commentators noted another type of explosion -- that of technology. In the intervening years since 9/11 there has been a revolution in digital technology, literally at everyone's fingertips. People at the scene of a crime can click and record events as they occur. They can text information and attach photos within seconds.

Very shortly after the tragedy,  images were being posted on the Internet and on social media sites. The whole planet could see! Everyone with access to this technology could become a virtual eyewitness to these events! It was very difficult to view such terrible human suffering up close, and our hearts went out to the victims. The investigators asked the public to send in these images. Relying on surveillance camera shots and mountains of visual evidence, these officials quickly began piecing together the story of what happened in Boston.

While watching the news accounts last week, the 2 Peter verses suddenly seemed more significant. Peter's self-descriptive term "eyewitness" was very apt. Boston had so many on-site eyewitnesses, including all of us around the world who weren't there but who could still view the horror through the modern miracle of visual technology. Back in the days of Jesus, the events Peter observed on a daily basis were only occasionally witnessed by huge crowds of eyewitnesses. Yet these things that Jesus said and did were so earth-shattering that Peter and the other writers of the New Testament recorded their sightings of Christ's miracles for posterity. They also wrote His doctrine that He preached.

Obviously, there was no digital imaging technology 2000 years ago when Jesus Christ walked and ministered, delivered His messages and performed His miracles. But just imagine! Imagine how it must have felt to actually SEE the healing of the lepers, and WATCH as Jesus fed the 5,000! What the early disciples could have done with such modern powerful visual technology! But God didn't choose it that way. In fact, Peter felt it necessary to preface his remarks with the statement that he wasn't following "cunningly devised fables" but was making known to us the power and future coming of Jesus Christ. Such an incredible story as Christ's actual bodily resurrection, as testified to by the early eyewitnesses, must have sounded like a real whopper to a skeptic!

As Christ's disciple and part of the inner circle closest to Him, Peter got a visual foretaste of His future coming. After asserting that he was an eyewitness, Peter goes on to record that he was also an eyewitness to the Transfiguration (2 Peter 1:17-18). We know from Scripture that it was only Peter, James and John who witnessed this event firsthand. Interestingly, the legal requirement in both the Old and New Testament was "at the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses." (e.g., Deut. 17:6; 19:15; Matthew 18:16; 2 Cor. 13:1; 1 Tim. 5:19). Here were three eyewitnesses to the majesty of Jesus. Only three! But three was enough.

The Apostle John would later write similarly that he was also an eyewitness. Note how he describes his experience:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life;... That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:1,3)

John concludes with an interesting comment: "And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full." (1 John 1:4) John WROTE down what he witnessed, what he heard, and what he experienced firsthand with Jesus. There were no digital recording devices 2000 years ago. These eyewitnesses  committed their experiences to writing.

Luke likewise put eyewitness accounts into writing: 

It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word; (Luke 1:2)

Why put it into writing? Peter actually seems to answer this question in the next verse in this 2 Peter passage. As an Apostle, inspired by the Holy Spirit of God and entrusted to the care of feeding the Lord's flock with the Gospel message (John 21:16-17), he had the prophetic authority to write this firsthand eyewitness account:

We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts: (2 Peter:1:19)

In fact, Peter warns in the next two verses, that this Word is not subject to private interpretation, but came from the Holy Spirit.

Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost. (2 Peter 1:20-21)

Matthew Poole, in his 1600s Commentary on these several verses in 2 Peter, explains how the words of  Scripture are to be interpreted: man nor company of men, no church nor public officers, are to interpret the Scripture of their own heads, according to their own minds, so as to make their private sense be the sense of the Scriptures, but to seek the understanding of it from God, Who shows them the meaning of the Word in the Word itself, (the more obscure places being expounded by the more clear) and by His Spirit leads believers, in their searching the Scripture, into the understanding of His mind in it: God Himself being the Author of the Word, as verse 21, is the best interpreter of it.... [T]he first principle of our faith, that the Scripture is not of human invention, but Divine inspiration; that the prophets wrote not their own private sense in it, but the mind of God; and at His command, not their own pleasure."[1]

In sum, Scripture, as the Word of God, interprets itself. It can stand alone and doesn't need "cunningly devised fables" to supplement it. The written Word is the Truth and it is sufficient.

Photoshopping Jesus
In the Boston tragedy, shortly after the flurry of digital images began being posted all across hyperspace, human nature took over. People were trying hard to make sense out of this senseless act of brutality. One newspaper report recounted that people "began making their own often wildly irresponsible conclusions about who might be the bombers." People began developing their own theories which began "spinning out into the wider Internet." Furthermore, "the theories developed via social media complicated the official investigation, according to law enforcement officials. Those officials said Saturday that the decision Thursday to release photos of the two men in baseball caps was meant in part to limit the damage being done to people who were wrongly being targeted as suspects in the news media and on the Internet."[2]

During exciting, electrifying, or extremely volatile events sometimes stories get mixed up, facts become garbled, information and data get mangled, random pieces of irrelevant material become overly important, and the real truth of the matter can get lost. Even memories can fail. What authority can be trusted to give a true account of what just transpired? Unfortunately, in America not everyone believes "official accounts" anymore, especially with so many stories of government and/or media coverups. But trusting other sources for information isn't always a good idea either, especially since many of the websites pumping out alternative information have their own, sometimes sinister, sometimes self-serving, agendas.

We may never know for sure what really happened in Boston. But, unlike varying reports about the Boston situation, we can know for certain that Peter's words are the True Word of God. Peter has just assured us that he is delivering a "sure word of prophecy" with his eyewitness account. This means that it is the Word of God, irrefutable, inerrant. In the very next verses, however, Peter goes on to warn about FALSE accounts that would inevitably arise which would corrupt this pure Word of Truth:

But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction. And many shall follow their pernicious ways; by reason of whom the way of truth shall be evil spoken of. And through covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you: whose judgment now of a long time lingereth not, and their damnation slumbereth not. (2 Peter 2:1-3)

Matthew Poole reminds the reader that the word "also" in the first phrase of this text means that is "plainly related to what went before: q.d. Together with those prophets which were sent by God, there were likewise false prophets, such as were not sent of Him." We will have the problem of false prophets with us until the end of the Church age. But here and elsewhere in Scripture we are forewarned about their motives, their tactics and their agendas.

Poole explains that the word privily "signifies either to bring in slyly and craftily, under special pretenses, and without being observed (Gal 2:4; Jude 4); or to bring in over and above, or beside the doctrine of the Gospel, which they did not renounce; or both...." In other words, a crafty heretic won't deny the Gospel, he will just bring in a new teaching alongside it. A crafty false teacher doesn't need to negate the basic facts of the story, he just slyly supplements them with enough additional material to corrupt the original. The Apostle Paul, defending the Gospel message he was entrusted with, wrote, "For we are not as many, which corrupt the word of God: but as of sincerity, but as of God, in the sight of God speak we in Christ." (2 Cor. 2:17)

Matthew Poole also notes that in bringing in these damnable or destructive heresies these false teachers "either in their words or their practices, either directly, or by consequence of their doctrines or actions" deny Jesus. Their words can claim to follow Jesus, but their actions speak differently. Poole cites Titus 1:16: "They profess that they know God; but in works they deny Him, being abominable, and disobedient, and unto every good work reprobate." This is reminiscent of Luke 6:43 where the Lord says, "For a good tree bringeth not forth corrupt fruit; neither doth a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit."

Tragically, this denial of the Lord, whether in word or deed, is said to result in a swift judgment. Poole asserts that this is a "forensical or judicial" matter in that "whosoever professeth himself to be redeemed by Christ, and yet denies Him in his deeds, is said to deny the Lord that bought him; it being alike as to the greatness of the crime...." and that this "swift destruction" may be "temporal in this world; [but] to be sure eternal in the other (1 Thess. 5:3). Likewise, "so others running with them into the same errors, shall fall into the same destruction." It is very risky business to hook oneself up with a false prophet or/or his false prophecies!

In the early church world there were vastly different accounts of Jesus, His ministry and teachings. These caused no end of difficulties for the early church leaders. Much of this literature is considered Gnostic, pseudoepigraphal or apocryphal. (See our post "The Rise of Apocalyptic Paganism in the Church" and especially the sub-section "The Original Apocalyptic Source Material.") Already the early church had a serious problem with false prophets who were writing false gospels. It would become an ongoing issue in the church and still affects us to this very day. In fact, many of these early writings are experiencing a resurgence, especially amongst evangelicals. (See, for example, our article "'Babylon Rising' and Canon in Crisis: Apocrypha, Pseudoepigrapha, Fresh Revelations, and an 'Open' Canon" by Pastor Larry DeBruyn.)

These "feigned words" of false prophets can have disastrous consequences. Those who would corrupt the Gospel of "the Lord that bought them" (by His shed blood), do it for their own "pernicious" (destructive) motives. Peter openly states that these motives are money ("covetousness") and power. In fact, Matthew Poole bluntly points out that when we are made merchandise of, we become someone else's "slave." The sad consequence of all of this, the Apostle Peter concludes, is that "the way of Truth" is blasphemed.

Consider the parallels. With our modern-day high-tech computer Photoshop tools, anyone can take a digital image and distort it for their own purposes. In fact, it is so easy to corrupt digital images that it is nearly impossible for ordinary citizens to discover photo tampering. Likewise these early false prophets were corrupting the Gospel message by mixing in their own false teachings. Jesus warns that this tampering and corrupting will go so far that there will even arise "false Christs" who will have the power to "shew great signs and wonders" (Matthew 24:24; Mark 13:22). Again, note the power of image. Signs and wonders are sights to be seen, powerful and intoxicating experiences that can easily corrupt and deceive those not well-grounded in the Word of God. In our modern era of high technology, it is easier to fathom how Christ's endtime warning in Matthew 24 could be about an image of a "false Christ" that is worshiped (Rev. 13:15; 14:9-11).

The Written Word
God chose to deliver His message of salvation via the written Word, not via images. This is why literacy -- the ability to read and write -- is so important to the Church whenever and wherever it experiences revival. In our postmodern era, the importance of the written Word is being downgraded to mere oral and visual images. Part of the reason, we believe, is because it is easier to manipulate people this way. (See our article "The Newest Heresy of the NAR: Orality," e.g.) Images are also potent on film. Mel Gibson's The Passion is one such example. In it he mixed both Scriptural and extrabiblical visions of a Catholic sister. It is a good example of "privily" bringing in additional material to corrupt the simplicity of the Gospel message.

A study on the use of the word "image" in the Old Testament Scriptures indicates this word continually refers to graven and molten idols that were made by man and worshiped as gods. These images caused the people to go into harlotry and idolatry, something which was admixed with their other beliefs. It ended up bringing them to destruction, ruin and judgment. Jeremiah warned not once but twice: "Every man is brutish by his knowledge; every founder is confounded by the graven image: for his molten image is falsehood, and there is no breath in them." (Jer. 10:14; 51:17. See also Romans 1:23 in the New Testament.)

In the remainder of 2 Peter, the Apostle continues to write of judgment, and gives many warnings about denials of the Gospel significance of the story of Noah, and about angels and fallen angels. In fact, Peter delivers one of Scripture's sternest warnings about falling into error. These are not warnings to be taken lightly, nor dismissed as irrelevant in our modern enlightened age. Nor are Peter's warnings legalistic or narrow-minded. Adding to the Scripture in such ways as 2 Peter describes results in terrible consequences.

We can rejoice because

So mightily grew the Word of God and prevailed.
(Acts 19:20)

Holding forth the Word of life;
that I may rejoice in the day of Christ,
that I have not run in vain, neither laboured in vain.

 (Philippians 2:16)

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God, and the Word was God....
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us,
(and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,)
full of grace and truth.

 (John 1:1; 14)

1. Quotations taken and adapted for blog posting from A Commentary on the Holy Bible, Volume III, Matthew-Revelation, by Matthew Poole (Hendrickson Publishers). All bold and emphases added.
2. David Montgomery, Sari Horwitz and Marie Fisher, Washington Post, "Officials overwhelmed by evidence, videos: Technology, tips helped put focus on pair."