Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Mysterious Moving Stone

Biblegems #180
Question: When was the stone rolled away from Jesus’ tomb, before the women arrived or after?

The stone was rolled away before the women arrived. The confusion comes from our misunderstanding of Matthew ‘s dramatic style in describing the empty tomb.

Here is the scene according to Matthew:
Matt. 28:1-2 After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it.

At first glance, it appears that the two Marys were present when the earthquake took place, and that they watched as the stone was rolled away by an angel and the guards fled in terror. However, the earthquake, the angel, the Roman guards at the tomb and their response to the angel in verses 2-4 all describe what the guards witnessed before the women arrived.

In recounting these events, Matthew uses a dramatic literary technique similar to what would be called a “flash back” in our day. If this were a movie, the story would open with the important characters confronted by a crisis. In this case, two women showing up at the tomb of a man they had sacrificed everything for (v. 1). From our point of view as the audience, all we would see is the shock on their faces. We would not yet know the nature of the crisis, only their reaction to it. Then the scene would “flash back” to significant events leading up to their discovery of the empty tomb, the angel, and why there was no guard (2-4). Now that we understand the crisis, the story picks up again at verse 5 with the angel at the tomb addressing the frightened women.

All four Gospels agree and contribute details to what the women saw. Jesus’ mangled body was wrapped in a linen cloth, laid in a borrowed tomb and, according to Jewish custom, “anointed” with approximately 100 pounds of aromatic spices in a glue-like substance. A stone weighing roughly two tons was rolled down a sloped track against the entrance. Pontius Pilot placed a wax seal marking the tomb as under Roman control and stationed a trained guard of soldiers at the entrance. Every possible precaution was taken to assure that Jesus’ body remained unmolested in the grave.

As all four Gospels indicate, when the women arrived at the tomb at dawn on the following Sunday morning they found the massive stone had been rolled uphill in its track, and no guards left at their posts—or anyone else except the angels (Mk. 16:1-4; Lk. 24:1-4; Jn. 20:1-4).

The mysterious moving stone stands as a testimony verified by many witnesses that Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God and Son of man, conquered death and rose from the dead. “Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them” (Heb. 7:25).

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Centurion’s Words At The Cross

Biblegems #179
Question: According to the Gospel of Matthew the centurion at the cross called Jesus “the son of God,” while Luke reports the centurion calling Jesus “a righteous man.” Why the difference?

Here are the two passages:
Matt. 27:54  When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!”
Luke 23:47  The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, “Surely this was a righteous man.”

There is no reason to doubt that the centurion used both terms of Jesus as he struggled to comprehend “all that had happened.”

Think of it—Jesus’ last words and last breath were accompanied by an earthquake so severe that the multi-layered, four-inch thick[i] curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people” (Matt. 27:51-53).

When you combine these terrifying natural disasters and supernatural events with all the turmoil and commotion leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion and death—the biting taunts of the other crucified men: Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” (Matt. 27:40), and of the Jewish leaders: Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” (Matt. 27:43)—it’s no wonder the Roman centurion concluded that Jesus was being vindicated by God as both righteous and divine.

Matthew, Mark and Luke all record the events surrounding Jesus’ death that directly and profoundly impacted this centurion who oversaw the crucifixion. Jesus’ last words would have come from eyewitnesses who were close enough to hear. Of the twelve disciples, only John stayed close to Jesus all the way to Golgatha and the crucifixion. The only others with him from Jesus’ core group of followers were four women: Jesus’ own mother, His aunt (Salome?),[ii] Mary of Magdala and another Mary, the wife of Clopas (Jn. 19:25).

Others at the scene may have become followers of Jesus after His death and resurrection, including the centurion, from whom Matthew, Mark and Luke would have learned certain details. For some standing near the cross it would have been the soldier’s declaration that he had presided over the execution of an innocent man that would have been the most memorable. As Peter would later write:
         1Pet. 3:18 For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit

For others near the cross, the soldier’s declaration that Jesus was indeed the Son of God would have been most unforgettable. In fact, Mark tells us the purpose of his Gospel account is to present Jesus as the “Son of God:”
         Mark 1:1 The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

What greater testimony of Jesus’ divine nature than from a calloused executioner!

[i] According to rabbinic tradition, the temple veil was as thick as the breadth of a man’s hand.
[ii] See Matt 27:56; Mark 10:35; 15:40

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

When Was Jesus Crucified?

Biblegems #178
Question: When Was Jesus Crucified? The Gospel of Mark says it was the third hour, but John seems to suggest it was the sixth hour.

Mark 15:25 reads: It was the third hour when they crucified him.

John 19:14-16 reads: It was the day of Preparation of Passover Week, about the sixth hour. “Here is your king,” Pilate said to the Jews. But they shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!” “Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked. “We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered. Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified. So the soldiers took charge of Jesus.

Most likely, John's Gospel best reflects the actual timing of the crucifixion. Here are the three possible answers to this apparent contradiction that have been suggested over the years. Sound principles of biblical interpretation help reveal which, if any, of these solutions is correct.

Possibility #1
Some speculate that Mark used Hebrew reckoning of time, while John used the Roman system. In that case, John’s “sixth hour” would be 6 AM, not twelve noon, and the three hours between 6 AM and Mark’s 9 AM would be taken up with the beating, whipping and preparations for the crucifixion. While this is not unreasonable in itself, there is absolutely no evidence in John’s Gospel to suggest he, as a Jew, was thinking in terms of Roman time.

Possibility #2
Others suggest that verse 25 was not in Mark’s original Gospel but was added later when the document was being copied for circulation throughout the early Christian church. Occurrences of this type of error in copying are known as a “gloss.” This happens when a scribe or copyist makes a side note on the margin of the document being copied, and a later copyist mistakes the side note as part of the original text. This is certainly possible, especially considering the fact that Mark is the earliest of the Gospels, and Matthew and Luke seem to draw on Mark’s time-line for the passion and crucifixion events, yet neither mention the “third hour” of Mark 15:25.

Possibility #3
This solution also looks to copyist error as the likely culprit. In this case, the Greek letter gamma was originally in its lower case form and doubled (gamma gamma), which indicates the number “6.” An early copyist mistakenly replaced the lower case with an upper case gamma, which indicates the number “3.” This would be a very easy mistake to make when copying by hand, and examples of this kind of error can be found in ancient manuscripts.

The last two solutions point to an “error of transmission”—an error that was not part of Mark’s original manuscript. This is human error in copying, not a mistake in the Word of God as Mark first wrote it down under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Bible translators today have available to them a vast number of ancient manuscripts, where one can be compared against others with relative ease. This process is of immense help in recognizing copy errors that do occasionally arise. While errors in copying do take place from time to time, such “errors of transmission” never affect doctrine. God’s Word is trustworthy and true!

For more on the origins and authority of the Bible, please check out Bible Gems #172, 165, 149, 110, 105, 83, 64, 60, 59, 53, 31, 6. 

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Hell—Literal Or Figurative?

Biblegems #177
Question: Is hell literal or figurative? If it is literal, is it really eternal?

Our word “hell” comes from the New Testament Greek ge÷enna (pronounced “gehenna”). Jesus taught about hell as a very real place:
         Matt. 10:28 Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

To be “destroyed” in hell does not mean the person ceases to exist. “Destroyed” in the New Testament Greek means “ruined” or “lost.” God created human beings for eternal existence both physically and spiritually. “Death” is the temporary separation of the body from the soul caused by sin:
         Rom. 5:12  sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men

But eventually every human being will be physically and spiritually raised from death:
         John 5:28-29  Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.        

Hell is the final destination of those who die without having been rescued (saved) by Jesus Christ (Lk. 19:10). Jesus described this fearful place of physical as well as spiritual torment:
Matt. 5:30It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
         Mark 9:43It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out.

Unfortunately, translators have sometimes supplied the word “hell” in our English Bibles inappropriately. When Peter writes about certain angels already in “hell” (2Pet. 2:4), he’s actually referring to a place called “Tartarus” (tartarw¿saß) where these angels are imprisoned until the Final Judgment.

The same is true of Jesus’ story of Lazarus and the rich man, where “hell” should be translated “hades” (Gk. aˆ‚dhØ), referring to the realm of the dead who are awaiting the Final Judgment (Lk. 16:23).

Hell was designed for Satan and the angels who rebelled with Him against God (Matt. 25:41). Nevertheless, through Adam and Eve humanity fell into that same rebellion. Sin has contaminated the human race ever since, locking all of us into both the contamination of sin and sinful behavior:
         Ps. 51:5 Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.

God—because He is just, holy and all-powerful—cannot abide sinfulness and rebellion in His creation forever. Evil will be purged one day at the Final Judgment, and all sin and unrepentant sinners rendered powerless in hell. As sinful human beings then, our condition is hopeless, except for the way out provided by God alone:

         John 11:25-26  Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”