Do We Have the Right Books in Our New Testament?

October 27, 2012

Do we have the right books in our New Testament? That question is raised by The Da Vinci Code and other works that attempt to redefine Jesus. The issue is the canon. The word, canon, literally refers to a rod used in measuring and became a term used for which books belong in the Bible. The process of recognizing which books belong was called canonization.

Inspired writings (2 Timothy 3:16-17, 2 Peter 1:20-21) were authoritative the moment they were written. It is better to see the canon as a collection of authoritative books than as an authoritative collection of books. The authority adhered in the writings themselves.

The need to recognize which books were inspired arose from the threats of heresy and persecution and the practical issue surrounding the availability of the codex (or book format) which allowed many writings to be bound into one. Christians needed to know which books came from heretics, which books they were willing to die for, and which books should be bound together in a codex.

Three criteria were used by early Christians. Apostolicity asked whether a book came from an apostle or a close associate of an apostle. The writing would also have to be old enough to come from the apostolic period. Orthodoxy raised the question of whether the writing was consistent with the apostolic message and the Old Testament. Catholicity (which means universality) was a test of whether the churches everywhere received the writing.

The first person to write a canon list was Marcion, a second century heretic (c. A.D. 140). His included an edited version of Luke and edited versions of 10 of Paul’s letters. Marcion rejected all things Jewish and rejected the God of the Old Testament. Given the current interest in Gnostic gospels, it is interesting to ask why didn’t Marcion list those other gospels? The answer is they hadn’t been written yet or Marcion knew that no one would take them as authoritative. Despite the assertions of The Da Vinci Code, the other gospels were not serious contenders for the canon.

The Muratonian Canon is a list that dates from the latter part of the second century. Unfortunately, it is also fragmentary. It lists the four gospels, Acts, 13 letters of Paul, Jude, Revelation, 1 John, and either 2 John or 3 John or both. Clearly there was undisputed support for the bulk of our New Testament in the second century.

The only New Testament books that were ever disputed were Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, and Revelation. Slowly over time the early church answered its questions about these. A consensus of a 27 book New Testament arose by the fourth century. But more importantly, never were there more than four gospels or the 27 books of our New Testament considered undisputedly as a part of the canon.

God Gives the Increase

October 19, 2012

Jesus said to go into all the world and preach the gospel. Today’s world population is about 7 billion. In one hour, there are 14,954 births and 6,461 deaths. It’s a staggering task. When viewed like this, it can be paralyzing. What can one person do? What can one church do?

Yet I recall the words of Jesus, “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much…”(Luke 16:10a, ESV). And in the parable of the talents, the approved servants hear these words:

His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ Matthew 25:21, 23 ESV

It seems that the global picture will take care of itself when we learn to be faithful even in the little things.

Take the story of Fred Asare, the director of the Village of Hope. His older brother received the World Bible School lessons, and he encouraged Fred to take them too. The WBS teacher sent the lessons to the then nine-year-old Fred. Fred was very young, and he felt like he had received too much help from his brother in doing the lessons, so he asked to take the entire lesson series over again. The WBS teacher sent the lessons again. (I admire the patience.) The WBS teacher sent an invitation to Fred to hear some missionaries preach. Fred invited his school mates. They were baptized. After college, Fred was invited to be the director of the Village of Hope – a work that had previously failed. Fred accepted the challenge, and many have joined in that work. But I want you to notice the small acts of faithfulness – the small beginnings that lead to great things being done.

Thank goodness for farmers. They prepare the soil. They plant the seed. They care for their crops waiting patiently for the rain. Yet, they feed the world. I might despair at the task given the smallness of the seeds. Yet, the farmer knows that our beneficent Creator knows how to multiply seeds into abundant crops.

It is to this that Paul compares the task of sharing the gospel. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase” (1 Corinthians 3:6, NKJV). God knows how to multiply our efforts. He seeks people of faith, who can be faithful even in the little things. He desires people who can encourage, invite, share, and give. You never know where your faithfulness may lead. Your faithfulness may be part of a golden chain of events that moves mountains. Pray for open doors and the faith to go through them. For it is God who gives the increase.

He Knows Our Needs

October 12, 2012

Our daughter, Becky, was sick with a cold. She was only five years old at the time. Her coughs had made for a couple of difficult nights, so it wasn’t surprising when she came to her Mom and asked, “Can I have my medicine?”

She was promptly given a good dose of cough syrup. She played for several hours, but came back with the same request, “Can I have my medicine?” Out came the cough syrup, and the dose was repeated.

Later in the day, with the kind of thoughtful reflection that only children can make, she said to her Mom, “Mom, I really wanted those animal-shaped pills.” Becky had spent the day trying to get an animal-shaped vitamin, but was receiving cough syrup instead.

Jesus used the experiences between children and parents to illustrate our requests to God in prayer.

Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:9-11, NIV).

Parents try to give what is good, how much more does God give good gifts. But as Becky learned, sometimes human parents have difficulty understanding our requests. We need not have that fear with God. We have some great assurances that God knows our true needs.

When Jesus taught on prayer, arguing against the empty babbling of the pagans, he assures us “for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him” (Matthew 6:8). That is not to argue against praying frequently and fervently, on the contrary! It is to give us confidence that God truly understands.

Paul’s teaching on the Spirit should also give us the same confidence:

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will. (Romans 8:26-27, NIV)

The “helps” is suggestive. This Greek word means “to help by joining in an activity or effort.” The same word occurs in Luke 5:7 where Simon’s fishing partners come “help” with the miraculous catch of fish in the other boat. For example, picture someone helping you carry furniture. The Spirit doesn’t pray for me. That would be like the helper carrying the furniture by himself. He intercedes with me. I may not always know what to pray for, or how to express myself. Some of the things I may ask for might even harm me, if given. But my Heavenly Father knows my true needs. May we pray without ceasing.

What Is Baptism?

October 5, 2012

The words, baptize and baptism, are transliterated not translated. That means translators have simply given English letters for Greek letters. Translation would give us an English meaning. Transliteration leaves it in Greek, so the reader is left to find the meaning of the word.

A visit to an English dictionary will give the following: “to immerse (an individual) in water, or pour or sprinkle water over (the individual), as a symbol of admission into Christianity or a specific Christian church” (Webster’s New World Dictionary). But today’s English dictionary only reflects current word usage. Words can change meaning over time. The real question is what did the word mean in the first century A.D. Even an English dictionary may be helpful with this, because many dictionaries give an etymology or word history. In this case the etymology says, “< Gr (i.e., from Greek) baptizein, to immerse, baptize, substituted for earlier baptein, to dip”. This at least suggests the original meaning of the word is “immerse”.

When we turn to Greek dictionaries, Liddel and Scott define baptism (baptismos) as “dipping in water, immersion”.1 The standard dictionary for the Greek New Testament is by Bauer, Danker, Arndt, and Gingrich. It states, “In G[ree]k. lit[erature]. gener[ally]. to put or go under water.”2 G.R. Beasley-Murray in The New International Dictionary of the New Testament Theology writes, “Despite assertions to the contrary, it seems that baptizo, both in Jewish and Christian contexts, normally meant ‘immerse’, and that even when it became a technical term for baptism, the thought of immersion remains.”3

We can also examine the text of the New Testament to discover the meaning of the word. Take Mark 1:9, “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan” (ESV). Reread the verse substituting immerse, sprinkle, and pour. Which one makes sense? Baptized describes the action performed on the person not on the water.

In John 3:23, we are told that John the Baptist chose the location for baptizing because water was plentiful. In Acts 8:36-39, Philip and the eunuch both go down into the water and come up out of the water. This is obviously needless unless baptism is immersion. Paul links baptism with burial in Romans 6:3-4 and Colossians 2:12. “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death…” (Romans 6:4, ESV). The analogy only makes sense if baptism is immersion.

The evidence from dictionaries and our examination of the text points to baptize/baptism meaning immerse/immersion. Can you be spiritually safe if you haven’t done what Jesus, Peter, and Paul said to do?

1Liddell and Scott, A Greek English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940), pp. 305-306.

2A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd Edition. (University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 164.

3G.R. Beasley-Murray, “Bapto” The New International Dictionary of the New Testament Theology (Zondervan, 1975), I:144.