Tag Archives: Faith

What is a well-designed faith?

faith-constructionFor this 2nd anniversary of my blog here, I wanted to take some time to explain what a “well-designed faith” is. It is, of course, this blog: this exhausting labor of love dedicated to helping fellow Christians and skeptics alike to see the beautiful, reasonable truth of Christianity. It’s where I do my best to answer objections to Christian beliefs, explain misunderstood doctrines, encourage clear thinking through the application of logic and sound philosophy, give an engineer’s perspective on God and the Christian faith, and hopefully give those who have rejected Christianity in the past reason to take a second look. It is an endeavor that, if it were followed and read by millions, but nobody came to accept the truth of God’s Word through it, would amount to nothing but a supreme waste of time. But on the other hand, if I get to Heaven, and the one person that had read my ramblings says, “Thank you. God used your words to point me back to Him,” all the hours spent here will be justified. But beyond the blog itself, a “well-designed faith” is also the focus of the blog. For I do believe that “well-designed” aptly describes the Christian faith.

Hebrews 11 is often called the “faith chapter” or the “faith hall of fame” of the Bible because it defines faith, and gives many examples of it lived out in Jewish history. Verses 9-10 tell us about Abraham, and say that “by faith he lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise; for he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” That last description of God as an architect and builder has always caught my eye. Shortly after that, Hebrews 12:2 tells us to fix our eyes on Jesus, “the author and perfecter of faith“.

When the Bible tells us that Abraham was faithfully seeking that city “whose architect and builder is God”, it’s telling us about the long-term plan that God has held for all eternity, the goal that He both selected before the creation of the universe, and works to actualize across human history. When it states that Jesus is the author and perfecter of faith, it is saying that He perfects – completes – the trust, (or faith) birthed in us by God.[2] In fact, this word “perfecter” is the Greek word τελειωτὴν (teleiōtēn), meaning a consummator, one bringing a process to its finish. Digging deeper, this is based on the Greek root “telos”, which denotes the end goal of something. This is the root of our modern word teleological, meaning “to show evidence of design or purpose.”[1] That’s why the argument for God from observed design in nature is called the “teleological argument“. How does this perfecting of faith work? Maybe similarly to how we see design work in the building industry I’m a part of.

My profession of engineering is often lumped in with 2 other related fields to form the industry grouping AEC: Architecture, Engineering, & Construction. And these generally go together well as we’re constantly working together to complete a finished project. The architect is designing the building to meet certain goals of the client, whether it be a hospital, school, business, or a residence. The hospital needs to contain a certain number of beds, lab equipment, operating and exam rooms, and offices to accomplish their goal of caring for the sick. The school needs to have a certain mix of classrooms, teaching labs, music rooms, and sports areas,  to accomplish their goal of providing a well-rounded education. A business may need flexible floor plans that can be changed as the business changes and grows. Some businesses even have essential specialty equipment that the building has to be constructed around. Even a home is going to have very different needs to accommodate one family versus another. Different home designs might focus on things like handicapped access to all the rooms, natural ventilation in the tropics, heating efficiency in the far north, “safe rooms” in America’s Tornado Alley, and so on. But in all of these examples, there is one thing in common – an end goal, a purpose. That goal drives the design. It’s counterproductive for an architect to design an amazing sports stadium for a music school that doesn’t even have a sports program!

As engineers, we work to ensure the architect’s vision of the client’s goals is actually achievable. We complete, or perfect, that initial design, by putting bones to the flesh, so to speak. We execute specific selections to make the architect’s idea buildable.  The laws of physics can be brutally unforgiving, and sometimes we have to be creative to ensure the architect’s “bold vision” holds up in real life. There’s a lot of coordination there as architects and engineers work together to make choices that accomplish the client’s purpose while conforming to real-life constraints. But finally, the plan is complete and the builders come in and turn the client’s dream, the architect’s vision, and our calculations into an actual, usable building.

It seems like there is a similar spiritual workflow as:

  • God the Father initiates a plan for us, drawing us to Him,
  • God the Son completes the plan and accomplishes tasks (like the atonement) needed to make it happen, and
  • God the Holy Spirit develops it in us through His work of sanctification in our lives.

Initiation, execution, and development working seamlessly together in the perfect unity of the triune Godhead to conform us to His image, that we might fulfill our purpose and glorify God – that is a most well-designed faith, if you ask me!

[1] https://www.wordnik.com/words/teleological, accessed 2016/09/08.
[2] John 6:44, NASB. As Barnes says in his commentary on this verse: “In the conversion of the sinner God enlightens the mind (John 6:45), he inclines the will (Psalm 110:3), and he influences the soul by motives, by just views of his law, by his love, his commands, and his threatenings; by a desire of happiness, and a consciousness of danger; by the Holy Spirit applying truth to the mind, and urging him to yield himself to the Saviour. So that, while God inclines him, and will have all the glory, man yields without compulsion; the obstacles are removed, and he becomes a willing servant of God.”


The Engineer’s Faith

Leonhard_Euler - portrait by Jakob Emanuel Handmann, 1753.
Leonhard_Euler – portrait by Jakob Emanuel Handmann, 1753.

Engineering and faith might not be two words you normally associate, but faith is nevertheless an integral part of our profession. What tends to obscure this relationship for many today is the rather antagonistic definition of faith promoted by atheists as “belief in spite of the evidence.” Certainly, that is the last characteristic you’d want in the engineer designing your new home/office/hospital/school/etc. But as I’ve written extensively on this site (here especially), that is not the biblical definition of faith. Biblical faith is rather a warranted trust, or looking at the Greek root for the word, a divine persuasion. Let’s look at a scenario that exemplifies the correlation between biblical faith and “engineering faith”.

Suppose I told a client that an existing column in a building being renovated would need to be reinforced or replaced, at significant cost, or else it would fail under the new loads the owner wanted to add. Now suppose the owner didn’t like this and wanted to argue about whether this was really necessary (yes, this does happen). He could ask whether I’d ever actually seen a column that big fail. Or, supposing that part of the issue was tied to increased seismic loads on the existing structure caused by this new addition, he might ask if I’d ever experienced an earthquake, because he had, and it wasn’t that bad… In both cases, I’d have to answer “no”. So what is my basis for saying he needs to perhaps double the cost of his renovation? My trusted engineering books. Here’s why:

  • I trust the authors. While I’ve never personally seen a large column fail, I don’t have to have personally seen it to know it can truly happen. Various people over the years have performed tests, witnessed the results, and applied reason and logic to sift through the noise and ascertain the essence of different phenomena. Then they distilled all of that down into some of the elegantly simple theories we still use today. They have demonstrated themselves to be trustworthy with their meticulous attention to detail, their investigative diligence, and their relentless pursuit of the truth about how structures behave.
  • I trust their records. These early pioneers and those coming after them have written down very detailed accounts of these tests, their results, and their reasoning for how far their theories can be expected to be applicable to similar conditions. These have been preserved (or at least copies have been) for future generations of inquisitive engineers like myself. Names like Euler and Timoshenko still cast their shadows on much of our work long after they died.
  • I trust the transmittal of their works. Our engineering textbooks and reference books faithfully transmit these principles to my generation of engineers, even though we are far removed from the original authors, and may not have the resources to reproduce their findings. Their theories are also reproduced in a variety of books. If one publisher made an error in Euler’s column buckling formula, for instance, it could be readily verified by comparing it against other reference books on the same topic.

So then, even though I have never personally witnessed a W14x90 column fail in an earthquake, I can trust that my various books have reliably passed down to me the true results of research by trustworthy men indicating that would be the outcome in my example. The end result being that I can put some amount of faith – or trust – in what I’ve learned and apply it to the current project. Of course, men are still fallible, and their theories might be mistaken, but these basic principles are have stood the test of time sufficiently to persuade me to trust them.

Now, how does that relate to my Christian faith?

  • I can trust the biblical authors. God used a unique mix of people to write the Bible. Just looking at the New Testament, the first apostles were simple fishermen, who brought a simple, down-to-earth, eyewitness testimony to their records. Theirs was a record that said, “whether you believe me or not, I cannot tell otherwise, for this is what I saw, and heard, and felt – no more, no less.” Luke was a doctor who sought to record “a more orderly account” of the life of Christ. His account is an extremely detailed, first-rate history that has proven itself accurate over and over again. Paul was a Pharisee, a teacher of the Jewish religious law, himself taught by one of the leading teachers of his day. He explained the deep richness of the simple gospel message, connecting it to the whole backstory of the Old Testament. But in each case, these men have shown themselves to be trustworthy instruments of the infallible God.
  • I can trust their findings. Luke’s geography and description of various cultures of the time are born out by archeology. When Paul describes the fallen nature of mankind, he describes the world I observe; the results of his examination match reality. But moreover, he holds up a mirror to my own heart. I need look no further than my own life to recognize the soundness of his words.
  • I can trust the transmission of their records to me. They wrote early after the events they described, these writings were copied carefully, and on a massive scale far exceeding any other historical manuscripts, such that the integrity of their writings are adequately preserved by comparison of the variances between dispersed copies.

We all place our faith (or trust) in people and things that may prove all too fallible: the pilot of the plane you’re about to board, the engineer who designed the school you send your kids to, the political leader that promised you the moon, or objects as simple as the new tires on your car that you trust to not have a blowout.  But there’s really only One who warrants our complete trust. Have you studied His textbook, the Bible?

The Fact Stands

St Peter and St John at the Beautiful Gate - Gustave Dore (small)Today I want to continue looking at the strong evidential nature of the Christian faith exemplified in the Bible. In Luke’s history called the Acts of the Apostles, he records that Peter and John went into the Temple one afternoon, when a beggar was being carried in to beg for money. [Acts 3] Seeing the two apostles, he asked them for money. But then he got something he never expected — healing. Peter said to him, “I do not possess silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you: In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene—walk!”[3:6] Peter took his hand and pulled him up, “and immediately his feet and ankles were strengthened.” We are next told that the people saw the man walking, leaping, and praising God[3:8-9], and they took note that he was the lame beggar who used to beg for money there. They recognized the man and understood this was a big deal. So Luke records that the people came running up to Peter and John “full of amazement”.

At this point, Peter took the opportunity to preach an impromptu sermon. Not one to mince words, Peter explained that it wasn’t by their own power that they had healed the beggar, but only by the power of Jesus, whom the people had “disowned” and “put to death”, but whom God had raised from the dead, “a fact to which we are witnesses,” he says.[3:12-15] Peter balances his brutal honesty with grace though, and adds that he understands they acted in ignorance,  as did their rulers, and that this had to happen to fulfill God’s prophecies. Nevertheless, they should repent and return, for ignorance is still no excuse. The people responded to this clear evidence in front of them, coupled with the apostles’ eyewitness testimony as to the source of the miracle.[Acts 4:4] Their leaders, on the other hand, didn’t take so kindly to Peter’s chastisement: the Sanhedrin, the ruling council, had the temple guards come arrest Peter and John, and bring them to be interrogated the next day. When asked by the Jewish religious leaders by what power they had performed this apparent miracle, Peter again pulls no punches, and plainly tells them that it was in the name of Jesus, the one they had crucified, but God had raised up again. Luke goes on to write that “seeing the man who had been healed standing with them, they had nothing to say in reply” to Peter’s rebuke. The fact of the matter was actually standing before them.

What was their decision then? They reasoned, “What shall we do with these men? For the fact that a noteworthy miracle has taken place through them is apparent to all who live in Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it.”[4:16] Indeed, the man healed was over 40 years old [4:22] and had been lame from birth [3:2]. He was a regular sight at the temple and would’ve been known to any of the Jews there. And now he was walking, leaping, and praising God.[3:8-9] They certainly couldn’t deny that! But they still chose to reject the source of the miracle, ordering Peter and John to speak no more of this troublesome Jesus. But facts are indeed stubborn things, and Peter and John replied that, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.” [4:19-20] Not some appeal to vague or subjective mysticism, this passage is filled with appeals to concrete observation, testimony, and good reasoning.

But there is another interesting part of this story. Our historian, Luke, records that as this tribunal observed the confidence of Peter and John, and discovered that they were uneducated and untrained men, they too were amazed, and “began to recognize them as having been with Jesus.”[4:13] Over this 3 month long series on evidential faith, we’ve looked at the biblical appeal to a well-founded faith based on evidence of observed miracles and eyewitness testimony and sound reasoning, but here we see another type of evidence – and a critical one at that: transformation. If you’re a Christian, does your life show the evidence of the Lord of all the universe living in you, renewing your mind, [Rom 12:2] sanctifying you[1 Cor 6:11], and transforming your life so that you may “like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior”[1 Pet 1:15]? The Pharisees’ recognition of the apostles’ closeness with Jesus is a sobering reminder for us that Christ calls us to be different from the world in a way that only He can accomplish. Long after those that were healed have died, and far from the scene of the miracles, where no direct witnesses were ever available to testify about them, our transformed lives should be an undeniable fact that stands up boldly to a skeptical world’s scrutiny.

Recommended reading: J.C. Ryle, “Holiness“.



“Now I Know”

"Jethro & Moses, as in Exodus 18" by James Tissot, 1902
“Jethro & Moses, as in Exodus 18” by James Tissot, 1902

The last couple of months, I’ve been going through the New Testament gospel of John highlighting examples of the evidential nature of faith that Jesus calls us to have. Rather than asking us to have “blind faith” as so many want to claim these days, He appealed to evidence and reason. Yet this is not limited to Jesus or even to the New Testament. Today, I want to take you back to the time of Moses, roughly 1446 BC. He was leading the Israelites from the slavery of Egypt to their current home in the Promised Land, when he had a visit from his father-in-law Jethro. While there visiting Moses, he sees that Moses is wearing himself out trying to micromanage everything, and proceeds to give him some very practical advice on leadership and delegation. He also gives some good advice on picking leaders that many would do well to heed in election years, but I digress.

However, prior to that is a narrative that I’ve read over before without noticing the significance of it. Exodus 18 starts by telling us that first “Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’s father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people, how the LORD had brought Israel out of Egypt.” After he found Moses and the people of Israel camped in the wilderness, we read this account of Jethro’s visit with Moses:

“Moses told his father-in-law all that the LORD had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardship that had befallen them on the journey, and how the LORD had delivered them. Jethro rejoiced over all the goodness which the LORD had done to Israel, in delivering them from the hand of the Egyptians. So Jethro said, ‘Blessed be the LORD who delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of Pharaoh, and who delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that the LORD is greater than all the gods; indeed, it was proven when they dealt proudly against the people.'”

We’ve looked at several examples of people in the New Testament believing in Christ after seeing miracles with their own eyes. But you might ask if this really helps most of us who have never seen – and likely never will see – the sick miraculously healed and the dead raised to life again. But here in this Old Testament example, we have a different case. Jethro heard a report about the miraculous events that had happened in Egypt. Hardly surprising – even if people didn’t know all of the details, the leader of one of the main powers of the region (Egypt) had released a large portion of his slave population (the Jews) to leave his country, then chased after them, and then suffered a mysterious defeat such that his entire force perished and the slave population survived and continued their mass migration. Armies colliding and one getting destroyed might be par for the course, but the regional superpower setting out after a bunch of slaves should only only end one way. This was a noteworthy news event on the surface, and even more so once the full story was told.

So here we see that Jethro hears about what had happened, knows the main person involved in leading this mass exodus (Moses), seeks him out, hears the whole story from the eyewitness perspective of Moses, and becomes convinced by this testimony. This is the same procedure we use when we seek out the eyewitness testimony recorded for us in the various books of the letters and narratives compiled in the Bible. While we can’t directly cross-examine these long-dead witnesses like Jethro could have with Moses, we can still compare and contrast the different accounts with each other, with the archeological record, with external written records, and with basic principles of logic (for internal consistency and plausibility). When we do that honestly, the result will be the same as Jethro’s: “Now I know….”

He Is Risen!

The Incredulity of St Thomas - Matthias Stom - 1621My wife and I went to see the movie Risen this past weekend, about a (fictional) skeptical Roman Tribune investigating the claims of Jesus being risen from the dead. So this seems like an appropriate time to finish up our look at the evidential nature of the apostle John’s gospel with a look at some of Jesus’s post-resurrection appearances recorded there.

First off, we start John chapter 20 with Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’s followers, reporting to John and Peter that the tomb is open and Jesus’s body has been taken. Peter and John ran to investigate for themselves. John got there first and looked in the tomb and could see the linen wrappings lying there. Peter rushed in and saw the wrappings lying there, and the face-cloth lying separately, rolled up in a place by itself. I like John’s attention to details in things like this. John then records that he entered the tomb, “and he saw and believed.” But he goes on to say that they “did not yet understand the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead.” And so they went back to their homes, perhaps to try to make sense of what was happening, while Mary lingered at the garden tomb, weeping. And so it is that she becomes the first witness of Jesus after the resurrection. She came back to the disciples, telling them “I have seen the Lord,” and gave them a message from Him. That evening, Jesus suddenly appears before them, in the locked room they were gathered in, where He showed them both His hands and His side. This miraculous entrance and presentation of His mortal wounds left no question as to whether this was Jesus or not. Yet Thomas was not with them, so they joyfully proclaimed to him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he didn’t believe them.

Whether “Doubting Thomas” deserves all of the bad reputation he has or not, he nevertheless famously responded that unless he personally saw the nail imprints and put his finger in the nail holes and his hand into the spear wound, he would not believe. He had Mary, John, and Peter’s testimony of the empty tomb. Granted, that could simply mean grave-robbing, or relocation, as Mary had first assumed. But then he had Mary’s testimony of seeing and talking with Jesus. Perhaps she was hysterical in her grief. But then the rest of the disciples had now seen the evidence Thomas specifically wanted, and reported it to him, and it still wasn’t enough.

I sympathize with Thomas in his desire for personal verification, but we all have to understand that we can’t verify everything directly. In fact, most things in life are such that we can’t directly verify them and have to accept the testimony of others, whether they be historians, or scientists, or eyewitnesses and subject matter experts in court, or simply friends that have been places and seen things we haven’t. Therefore, when Jesus reappeared in the locked room a week later, when Thomas was there, He reprimanded him for his unbelief. But first, He offered Thomas the evidence he had asked for: “Reach here your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand, and put it into My side; and be not unbelieving, but believing.” John doesn’t record for us whether Thomas followed through on his earlier statement, but I suspect he didn’t feel the need to once he was face to face with Jesus. What John does record is Thomas’s quite sensible response to Jesus: “My Lord and my God!”

At this point John records a verse that often gets taken out of context to try to say that Jesus prefers a “blind faith” to an evidential faith. Let’s look at verse 29 now: “Jesus said to him, ‘Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.'” Is that what Jesus means here? I don’t think so. Note that Mary thought the body had been taken until she saw Jesus herself. Note that John says he believed when he saw the scene in the empty tomb. Note that Jesus was now showing Thomas what He had shown the other disciples the week before that caused them to tell Thomas that they had unequivocally seen the Lord. I don’t think He was talking about the other disciples believing without seeing.

While the disciples were able to see the truth of Jesus’ claims directly, there are two groups of people prevented from believing on the basis of direct sight: those separated by space and time from the events. Everyone to whom the disciples were sent to testify, all over the world, could not directly see these things. All of us that have lived both before and after that time can not directly see them either. Yet the letter to the Hebrews, in the famous “faith chapter”, tells of saints like Abraham, living prior to Jesus, who trusted in God’s promises, “having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance.” [Heb. 11:13] And in Jesus’s “high priestly prayer” recorded in John 17, He prays to God the Father both for His disciples and “for those also who believe in Me through their word.” [John 17:20]

We use our minds every day to reason through competing possible explanations for events that we weren’t able to witness directly based on what we do know about them. We still have an evidential basis for our conclusions, just not complete enough to draw a conclusion without some reasoning. Just as a jury can become rationally convinced of the details of a crime without having seen it firsthand because of applying reason to the partial evidence they have, God can and does convince us through our minds as well as our senses.  And here in John 20:29, I would suggest that Jesus is simply stating the value of using the minds He has created us with to recognize His truth even when we don’t have all the answers yet.

“That You May Believe”

Christ Taking Leave of the Apostles smallWorking our way through the apostle John’s testimony of the life of Christ the last few weeks, we’ve been seeing example after example of Jesus calling on people to believe in Him based on the evidence presented. He didn’t ask people to blindly accept this incredible story of God lovingly, mercifully reaching out to mankind in spite of our rejection of Him. Unlike the ravings of a lunatic claiming to be someone he’s clearly not, Jesus’ claims to be God were backed up with demonstrations of supernatural power.

Looking at the 13th through 15th chapters of John today, we read 3 more examples of Jesus appealing to evidence. John records Jesus telling His disciples that one of them would betray Him, and saying, “I am telling you before it comes to pass, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am He.” [John 13:19] In the next chapter, He tells them of His eventual ascension and return to God the Father. Again he says, “now I have told you before it comes to pass, that when it comes to pass, you may believe.” [14:29] In both instances, He is telling them what will happen, and calling their attention to it, so that when it does come to pass, they will understand the significance of it. Another aspect here is that the Old Testament law had 2 tests regarding prophecy. If a prophet made specific prophecies that did not occur, then he was to be considered a false prophet and be put to death. [Deuteronomy 18:20-22] And if a prophet performed some sign or wonder to accompany his words, but his teaching was such as to lead the Israelites away from God to chase after other gods, then they were to not follow his teaching, even with the evidence of supernatural power accompanying it. In fact, they were to put him to death as well. [Deut. 13:1-4] False prophets were not taken lightly. Yet Jesus is effectively telling them, “Don’t believe me if I don’t pass the test. But when I do, believe.”

In chapter 15, Jesus is telling His disciples that the world will hate and persecute them because of Him, for the world hated Him first. Then He tells them, “If I had not done among them the works which no one did, they would not have sin; but now they have both seen and hated Me and My Father as well.” [John 15:24] Clearly, He is appealing to the nature of His miracles as condemning evidence against those who saw His works and rejected Him. These were not some parlor tricks or the cunning work of some traveling charlatan. These were genuine miracles – alterations of our material reality that are impossible without God, the author of this reality. But perhaps you might question the originality of His miracles. Doesn’t the Old Testament describe people like Moses and Elijah and other prophets also performing great signs? Didn’t Elijah even raise the dead?[1 Kings 17:17-24] How could Jesus say that no one else had done the works He did? Here’s the difference. The prophets were performing those miracles as agents of God, in His name, and only by His power. Jesus performed His miracles directly, not as appeals to God to act on His behalf, for He is God.

John wrote down for us another insight into the evidential nature of biblical faith when he recorded Jesus telling them, “you will bear witness also, because you have been with Me from the beginning.” [John 15:27] Why did Jesus want the disciples to be His witnesses to the world? Was it their eloquence? Their charisma? Their political connections? Their respected positions in society? Their education? These might all be attractive and useful qualities for someone wanting to start a worldwide movement. What mattered to Jesus was the same thing that matters in court: that an eyewitness actually be at the scene that he testifies about. And this is why it was these men – these dirty, poor, “unlearned” men – that were to be His witnesses. They had been eyewitnesses from the beginning, and could truthfully report what had happened.

In the end, we believe Christ’s story, not because it is comforting (though Jesus is our comfort), but because it is true. This has always been the emphasis in Christianity, and with good reason. If it’s not true, then why believe it? If it’s not true, then, as the apostle Paul himself would say, “we are of all men most to be pitied.” [1 Cor. 15:19]

The Case of Lazarus

Raising of Lazarus - Bonnat 1857Let’s continue last month’s series looking at the evidential nature of faith presented in the Bible. What evidence did Jesus present to people to recognize the truth of His claims to be God? In the 11th and 12th chapters of John’s eyewitness testimony, we read of one Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, two sisters who had been following Jesus. The sisters sent word to Jesus that this close friend was sick [11:3], yet Jesus says that “this sickness is not unto death, … but that the Son of God may be glorified by it.” John then makes an interesting sequence of statements in the next few verses. He tells us specifically that Jesus loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in verse 5, but that when Jesus heard Lazarus was sick, “He stayed then 2 days longer in the place where He was.” [11:6] That doesn’t seem very loving at first glance. Indeed, when He finally does arrive, Lazarus has already been dead and in the tomb for 4 days. Others have been there consoling the sisters, but not Jesus. Martha and Mary, in separate conversations with Jesus on His arrival, both tell Him that “if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” [11:21, 32] There was probably some frustration on their part, having seen what Jesus had done for others, and wondering what could possibly have kept Him from arriving in time to heal their dear brother. Others, too, were asking why this man who had healed the blind couldn’t also have healed Lazarus. Valid question. John records the reason Jesus gave to His disciples on the journey there: “Lazarus is dead, and I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe; but let us go to him.” [11:15]

Healing Lazarus so he didn’t die at that time would’ve been a good result by human standards. But Jesus had in mind a far better result – raising Lazarus from the dead. He waited until there was no question about it. In fact, when he orders the stone to be removed from the entrance of the cave where Lazarus had been buried, Martha, ever the down-to-earth sister, points out that “there will be a stench, for he has been dead four days.” [11:39] Yet, when Jesus called Lazarus, he came out of the tomb, still bound in burial cloths. [11:45] Now, we need to stop and remember that this wasn’t an age of coroners and hospitals and funeral homes, and a whole chain of people that took care of the nitty-gritty reality of death for you. The family and friends gathered with Mary and Martha had likely helped prepare the body for burial, move the dead body to the tomb, and close up the tomb with this large stone. If you personally place a dead body in a tomb, or you watch it being placed in the tomb while there grieving with the family graveside, and then someone comes and  somehow makes that same, very dead man live again, you can’t deny that something incredible has just happened, and that He who brought your friend back to life is worth your undivided attention! John tells us that’s exactly what happened. “Many therefore of the Jews, who had come to Mary and beheld what He had done, believed in Him.” [11:46] Those present saw the evidence, recognized the validity of the evidence, and hence, the validity of Jesus’ claim to be God, and accepted that claim to be true.

John chapter 12 then tells how Jesus came back to Bethany, where Lazarus was, and John mentions that “Lazarus was one of those reclining at the table with Jesus.” Interestingly, he records that “the great multitude therefore of the Jews learned that He was there; and they came, not for Jesus’ sake only, but that they might see Lazarus whom He raised from the dead. But the chief priests took counsel that they might put Lazarus to death also; because on account of him many of the Jews were going away, and were believing in Jesus.” [12:9-11] Here again, we see the clear role of evidence. A living man that people saw die is tough to explain away. People had heard about Jesus healing people of different sicknesses, but this was a whole other level of miracle. And so they came to see for themselves this dead man now living. And now, people who hadn’t seen the actual event, but had talked to the once dead man, and the family members who had buried him, and the witnesses who had seen him raised up again – now these people were believing in Jesus as well. Hence, the chief priests’ idea to dispose of the evidence (i.e. Lazarus)  before this Jesus thing got out of hand. Yet trying to squash this or hush it up was like trying to unring a bell. As President John Adams said, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”[1] The resurrection of Lazarus was an especially stubborn fact that unfortunately proved to be a stumbling block for the chief priests who despised Jesus. Don’t let it be a stumbling block for you.

[1] John Adams, “Argument in Defense of the Soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials,” December 1770, from The Works of John Adams, Vol 1, (Boston, Little, Brown & Co., 1856).

“Now I See”

Christ healing the blind man - Eustache le SuerThe last month, I’ve been looking at the evidential nature of faith shown in the Bible. Contrary to popular claims of Christianity being a “blind faith” Jesus routinely backed up his claims with proof. Let’s look at one person’s journey to belief as recorded in the Bible.

The apostle John describes a time that Jesus and his disciples passed a man begging who had been born blind. The Jews thought this must be punishment because of something his parents had done, or some sin he had somehow committed in the womb. So they asked Jesus which explanation for the man being born blind was correct. Jesus responded that it was neither, but rather “that the works of God might be displayed in him.” [John 9:3] He then healed the man, and John records that the neighbors who had previously seen this man begging debated whether this was the same beggar who had been blind, or someone who simply looked like him. John notes that the man had to keep insisting that it really was him. This always strikes me as a somewhat comical situation, though probably frustrating for the man. The people very reasonably asked him how he can see now, and he told them the man called Jesus healed him. They brought him to the Pharisees, the religious scholars of the time, and some of them decided that because Jesus had healed the man on the Sabbath (the day of rest under the law), He must not be from God. And yet some of them appealed to the evidence at hand, saying, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” [9:16] When they asked the formerly blind man who he thought Jesus was, he said “a prophet.” They didn’t like this answer, so they called the man’s parents to testify whether this was really their son who had been born blind, and how he was able to see now. [9:19] His parents confirmed that the formerly blind man was indeed their son, and that he was born blind, but they didn’t know how he could see now. Out of fear of opposing the chief priests, they deferred to their son, saying “He is of age, ask him.” So the priests interrogated him again, saying, “Give glory to God, we know that this man [Jesus] is a sinner.” While it may have been a bit of a leading question, the beggar took it in stride and replied, “Whether He is a sinner, I do not know; one thing I do know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see.” [9:25]

I encourage everyone to read the full passage, as the rest of the beggar’s exchange with the priests is actually pretty comical, but I want to focus here on the importance placed on evidence and reasoning throughout this story and many other biblical accounts. This whole proceeding is being conducted like a trial, with a panel of judges, witnesses being called, and testimony given and examined (if a bit hostilely). People on both sides of the issue are looking to determine the facts of what actually happened before they decide who to believe. And the beggar admits what he doesn’t know while being confident in what he does know. Moreover, as the interrogation of the beggar proceeds, he tells the priests, “Since the beginning of time it has never been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, He could do nothing.” [9:32-33] Although the priests didn’t take being lectured by a beggar very well (they threw him out of the synagogue), he rightly recognized the significance of the miracle Jesus performed on him. Afterwards, John tells us that Jesus heard they had thrown him out. He sought him out, and asked him if he believed in the Son of Man (the title Jesus most commonly used of Himself, referring back to the vision of the prophet Daniel). [Daniel 7:13-14] The beggar asked who this was, that he might believe in Him. When Jesus told him that “you have both seen Him, and He is the one talking with you,” the beggar’s response is both honest and reasonable. He said, “Lord, I believe,” and worshiped Jesus. [John 9:38] When John tells us that the beggar worshiped Jesus, that’s not spoken lightly. Even the lowliest Jewish beggar would grasp the serious consequences of worshiping anyone other than God. Yet, he did just that, because Jesus’ answer explained the evidence.  Jesus had done for him what no human could do, and when Jesus explained that He was no ordinary human, but none other than God Incarnate, the pieces fell into place, and the man believed. Like the beggar, we are all born spiritually blind. And like him, only Jesus can open our eyes. The question is, how will you respond to Him?

The Telescope of Faith

Messier 96 galaxy viewed by Hubble Space Telescope, courtesy Nasa.gov.
Messier 96 galaxy viewed by Hubble Space Telescope, courtesy Nasa.gov.

The last couple of weeks have been about the evidential nature of faith and how it is the result of “divine persuasion”[1], of seeing the evidence God has provided us, and recognizing that the source of that evidence can be trusted. When I first started rock climbing in college, I quickly learned that how far I got off the grounded depended on how much I trusted my climbing equipment. I had to put my faith in my climbing shoes, rope, harness, and anchors. But once I saw they were trustworthy, it was “game on!” But faith is applicable in far more of life than just rock climbing. And in the current book I’m reading, J.C. Ryle looks at the life of Moses as an example of faith lived out.

In his classic 19th century book “Holiness“, Ryle makes this brief but insightful point about Moses’s faith in God: “Faith was a telescope to Moses.” In the context, Ryle was referring to how Moses’s trust in God helped him to see past all of the trials and pain to the Promised Land of Israel. But I think this analogy goes so much farther. Hebrews 11:1 gives the most direct definition of faith in the Bible when it says “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”[2] Ryle develops the first part of that definition with his idea of a telescope in that Moses’s faith gave him assurance of the hoped for result, but today I just want to highlight how the telescope of faith applies to the second half of that definition as well.

Living in Nevada for 10 years in an area away from the lights of towns was a nightly reminder of Psalm 19 when it says that “the heavens declare the glory of God.”[3] The stars and the Milky Way were so much more visible there compared to where I live now. But as beautiful as those starry nights in Nevada were, I was seeing only a fraction of a fraction  of the majesty of the cosmos that we see now through our large optical telescopes, our simply gigantic radio telescopes, or our space-based telescopes like Hubble that are unhindered by the atmosphere. Groups of pinpoints of light have now been revealed to be these awe-inspiring systems of billions of stars of all different sizes surrounded by enormous, beautiful gas clouds. In some cases, we see more structure and beauty looking at these systems in the portion of the spectrum we can’t see than we do in the normal range of visible light. Mapping the universe in ultraviolet, infra-red, microwave, and X-ray radiation has revealed things we never would’ve been able to prove existed by our normal unaided sight alone.

Yet… it wasn’t any of these telescopes that made those things reality. The various telescopes simply showed us the reality we couldn’t see. Just as we see the stars above and dimly recognize the grandness of the universe, the evidence we see points us to God and we place our faith in Him. But then a strange thing happens. As we trust Him, He opens up the shutter on the faith telescope, and we begin to see the full spectrum of life, so to speak. We thought we were seeing all the evidence for God, and it was sufficient to answer His call to follow Him, and yet it was only His calling card! Now, we find His signature everywhere we look, written in the nanoprinting of every cell; written in hidden mosaics of life now suddenly obvious to our faith-trained eyes; written so large across the horizon of the universe in galaxy-wide letters that we laugh that we missed them before.

Maybe you’ve heard, or maybe you’ve said, that faith is “blind”, that it is belief in spite of the evidence. And yet all of us place our faith in different things each day, whether it’s rock climbing equipment, or the aircraft (and its pilot) taking us on our next business trip, or the brakes on our car. And all of these can be untrustworthy instances of misplaced faith. Let me encourage you, friend, to put your trust – your faith – in the only One who won’t let you down. Don’t live your life with blinders on, only seeing a narrow spectrum of reality, when the Author of reality has so much more to show you.

[1] “Faith” comes from the Greek word πίστις (“pistis”), derived from the root word πείθω (“peitho”) meaning to be persuaded.
[2] Hebrews 11:1, NASB.
[3] Psalm 19:1, NASB.

“See For Yourself”

Jesus & the Samaritan Woman – Gustav Dore

Last week, we looked at several passages in the gospel of John that deal with the evidential nature of biblical faith. Let’s look at a couple more instances today, along with a potential objection. The 4th chapter of John’s gospel tells the stories of Jesus meeting first a Samaritan woman at their local water well,[1] and then a Jewish nobleman on His return to Galilee.[2] Although the Samaritans were normally despised by the Jews, and it was frowned upon to talk to a woman (Samaritan or otherwise) in public in that culture (see v. 27), Jesus had a lengthy conversation with the Samaritan woman, and we see several interesting statements made. The woman left her water pot at the well and went back into the city and told the people there, “Come, see a man who told me all the things that I have done; this is not the Christ (i.e. the Messiah), is it?” She invited them to come see for themselves whether this man might be the promised Savior. Rather than simply dismissing her, they went out of the city to where Jesus was to investigate for themselves. Later in the passage, John says that “from that city many of the Samaritans believed in Him because of the word of the woman who testified, ‘He told me all the things that I have done.'” They then asked Jesus to stay with them 2 more days, and John notes that “many more believed because of His word; and they were saying to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this One is indeed the Savior of the world.'” This was not like a cursory glance or half-hearted listening. The Samaritans invested enough of their time in listening to Jesus for many of them to weigh His words and become convinced that Jesus was who He said He was.

After this encounter, Jesus left Samaria, and, coming to the region of Galilee, he went to Cana, where He had performed His first public miracle. Here, He met the desperate father of a deathly sick child. The man had traveled roughly 25 miles from Capernaum to ask Jesus to come to his home and cure his boy. Jesus seems to reprimand the people here for wanting evidence when He says, “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you simply will not believe.” And yet, John records Jesus later telling the Jews in Jerusalem, “If I do not the works of My Father, believe Me not.”[3]

How do we reconcile these 2 different responses regarding belief based on evidence provided? It’s important to note at the beginning of this account (v. 46), that this was in Cana, where He had already demonstrated His power. It seems that His scolding here is due to their desire for continual demonstrations – for proof beyond proof. As John Gill says in his commentary on this passage, “they required signs and miracles to be wrought, in confirmation of Christ’s being the Messiah, and which indeed was but right; and Christ did perform them for that purpose: but their sin of unbelief lay in this, that they wanted still more and more signs; they could not be contented with what they had seen, but required more….”[4] Like a jury in court, at some point we have to recognize that we’ve seen and heard enough evidence to reach a reasonable decision even if we didn’t get every question answered exhaustively. Despite that rebuke, though, the man pleaded again for Jesus to come and heal his son. Jesus, not needing to travel to heal the son, told the father, “Go; your son lives.” It used to be said that “a man’s word is his bond”, and the father took Jesus at His word, trusting that the deed was done, though he might not understand how. Then he acted on that trust and left for his day-long journey home. When he was partway home, his servants met him to say the son had recovered. John then tells us that the father asked them for the time of the recovery, and they told him the fever left the boy “at the 7th hour”. John continues, “So the father knew that it was at that hour in which Jesus said to him, ‘Your son lives’; and he himself believed and his whole household.”  As Matthew Henry commented on this verse, “The diligent comparison of the works of Christ with His word will be of great use to us for the confirming of our faith…. He had before believed the word of Christ; but now he believed in Christ.”[5]

In John 4, we see two different cases of people deciding to believe in the deity of Jesus. The Samaritans were convinced by His words, while the Jewish nobleman was convinced by His miraculous actions, but neither accepted Jesus’s claims blindly. The Samaritans came  to hear and decide for themselves based on what Jesus said and what they knew of the promised Christ, while the nobleman verified the boy’s recovery wasn’t natural by comparing the time of recovery with the time of Jesus’s pronouncement. As Paul later wrote to the church at Thessalonica, “examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good.”[6] But you must examine what you’re presented with before you can hold on to the good and discard the bad. Don’t bypass that critical step and throw out the evidence Jesus confronts you with before examining it and “seeing for yourself” the truth of it.

[1] John 4:39,41-42, in particular, NASB.
[2] John 4:45-53, NASB.
[3] John 10:37, NASB.
[4] John Gill D.D., Exposition of the Old and New Testaments – OSNOVA Kindle Edition, 2012 (1763 original), Location 276230 (John 4:48).
[5] Matthew Henry’s Commentary in One Volume, (Zondervan, 1961) pp. 1528-9.
[6] 1 Thessalonians 5:21, NASB.