What’s with the Snakes?

Recently, Pastor Jamie Coots of Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus’ Name Church in Middlesboro, Kentucky, died of a rattlesnake bite, while trusting in the Lord to heal him. He claimed that Mark 16:18 assured him believers could “pick up serpents” without harm. He’d recovered from earlier bites, but this time he didn’t, even as he refused aid from paramedics.

Jamie-CootsRubbing salt into the bereaved family’s wound, Fred Phelps, Jr. of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka called him a “false prophet,” and Westboro threatened to picket the funeral. By their account, Coots’ main offense was failure to major on their central message, the evils of homosexuality. Furthermore, according to Phelps, “There’s nothing in this day and age that has anything to do with handling snakes. That’s just silliness.”1

But how can it be silliness if it’s in the Bible? But is it? We read in Bruce Metzger’s Textual Commentary on the New Testament, “The last twelve verses of the commonly received text of Mark are absent from the two oldest Greek manuscripts.”2 This is not to fault the translators of the old King James Version, who worked with the best sources they had in 1611. But subsequent discoveries, including one at St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai, have cast doubt on Mark 16:9-20, the longer ending of that Gospel. Since the original handwriting has not survived, we must rely on collections of copies found on papyrus and sheepskin, some in scroll form, some bound in books. And current scholarship makes the snake passage in Mark doubtful.

Not at all doubtful are the opening verses of Romans 13, which tell believers to submit to the government. Here, then, is another problem: The Middlesboro church is located in Kentucky, where snake handling has been illegal for half a century as a matter of court opinion (Lawson v. Commonwealth, 1942) as well as statute.3  To be sure, preachers, such as Peter and John in Acts 4, must continue to proclaim the resurrection power of Christ even if forbidden. But there is no comparable mandate to keep handling snakes when the state tells you to stop.

It’s useful to note that there is, indeed, a New Testament story of deliverance from snakebite. It’s found in Acts 28:1-6, where Paul, having survived a shipwreck, is helping to build up a fire on shore. A viper comes out of the bundle of sticks he’s gathered and latches on to his hand. When he shakes it off into the fire, the natives are so astonished that they declare him a god.4 By extension, there is no good reason not to believe that such things are possible in our era for Christian missionaries and other believers. Miracles still happen when they suit God’s purposes.

Nevertheless, Fred Junior has a point if the question is one of “handling snakes” in worship services. Paul wasn’t engaged in some sort of test when the snake attacked him on Malta. The bite came as a surprise. Of course, it was no surprise to God, but Paul was not putting himself in peril to make a point or gain some sort of spiritual high.

In Coots’ case, we’re drawn to Jesus’ words in Matthew 4:5-7. There, Satan urged Him to jump off the Temple heights to demonstrate the truth of Scripture that angels could intercept Him before He hit the ground (Psalm 91:12). Jesus came right back with a quotation from Deuteronomy 6:16, one that warned against concocting tests for God. So even if the “long ending” of Mark is legitimate Scripture, Pastor Coots had no business putting himself in danger to manipulate God into performing a miracle of rescue. As lamentable as the pastor’s death truly was, his perilous behavior was presumptuous, sub-biblical, and a failure at stewardship of both health and witness.

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Endnotes

1  “The Big One 106.3 fm interview with Fred Phelps Jr. of Westboro Baptist,” February 18, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KaZpnpRIGZg (accessed March 6, 2014).

2  Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, second edition (Stuttgart: United Bible Societies, 1971, 1994), 102.

3  “Snake Handlers and the Law,” http://yeltsin.tripod.com/law/law.htm (accessed March 6, 2014).

4  While Paul killed his snake, Jamie Coots’ son said they planned to keep the one that killed his father for use in another service. Gina Meeks, “Snake That Killed Pastor Jamie Coots Will Be in Church Again Saturday, His Son Says,” Charisma,  February 19, 2014, http://www.charismanews.com/us/42852-snake-that-killed-pastor-jamie-coots-will-be-in-church-again-saturday-his-son-says (accessed March 6, 2014).



6 Ways to Start Learning Church History

StainGlassCHistoryIn response to a post about why to learn a bit of church history, BibleMesh was asked where a person can get started. So here are six ways to enrich your walk with God by learning church history.

1. As part of your personal Bible study, research what previous generations thought about particular passages and topics. One way to do that is by exploring the “theology” articles in BibleMesh’s Biblical Story course. Each has a “historical interpretation” section explaining how notable Christians from the past viewed the topic and directing you to further reading. Also, check out Kairos Journal. It’s a free online resource for pastors that documents the positions of Christians through history on abortion, economics, family life, education, the environment, the relationship between church and state, and a host of other cultural issues. The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series is another great resource, compiling commentary from the church fathers on various books of the Bible.

2. Read an overview of church history. Books like Mark Noll’s Turning Points and Timothy Paul Jones’ Christian History Made Easy present brief flyovers that introduce the most important characters and events. If you want a more in-depth survey, try Justo Gonzalez’s two-volume The Story of Christianity.

3. Read biographies of great Christians. There are scores of books about Jonathan Edwards, Augustine of Hippo, John Wesley, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon, and other famous characters in church history. A good place to begin is Justin Taylor’s list of the best biographies, compiled from a survey of theologians and church historians.

4. Ask your pastor about his favorite church history resources. Especially if he’s seminary-trained, he ought to have a few favorites to recommend.

5. Explore Christian History magazine online. Their website has a wealth of free information, including back issues catalogued according to what century of church history they reference. This will let you learn through bite-sized articles rather than having to tackle an entire book.

6. Learn about your denomination’s heroes. This can make church history seem especially personal and relevant. If you’re a Methodist, read about John Wesley, Charles Wesley, and Francis Asbury. Presbyterians can turn to J. Gresham Machen, John Knox, and Robert Lewis Dabney. For Baptists there’s Charles Spurgeon, James P. Boyce, and John Broadus. Every camp within Christianity has its heroes. Find yours.

“I don’t know where to begin” is no longer a valid excuse. Get started in your study of church history.

It’s Greek to Me

In the movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the bride’s father, Gus, loved to throw out the challenge, “Give me a word, any word, and I show you how the root of that word is Greek.” When offered a noun built on the Japanese words for “to wear” and “a thing,” he was undaunted, replying, “Kimono, kimono, kimono. Ha! Of course! Kimono is come from the Greek word himona. It mean winter. So, what do you wear in the wintertime to stay warm? A robe. You see: robe, kimono. There you go!”

GreekWell, one doesn’t have to go as far as Gus to be impressed by the great debt the English language owes to Greek. Consider these words, which employ Greek expressions found in the original text of the New Testament:

Odometer (hodos/road or way, as in John 14:6, “I am the way,” plus metreo/to measure, as in Mark 4:24, “It shall be measured to you”). This device records how far a vehicle has traveled.

Sarcophagus (sarx/flesh, as in 1 Peter 1:24, “All flesh is as grass,” plus phago/to eat, as in Matthew 26:26, “Take, eat; this is my body”). The limestone crypt breaks down dead bodies so that the bones might be gathered for storage in an ossuary.

Economics (oikos/house, as in Mark 11:17, “My house shall be called . . . a house of prayer,” plus nomos/law, as in Matthew 5:17, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law”). Those who would steward the financial fortunes of a nation trace their occupation to the servant who oversaw the financial affairs of the home.

Xylophone (xylon/wood, as in 1 Corinthians 3:12, “If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw,” plus phone/sound, as in 1 Corinthians 14:8, “If the trumpet give an uncertain sound”). The bars of this percussion instrument are often made of rosewood.

Hypodermic (hupo/under, as in Matthew 8:9, “a man under authority,” plus derma/skin, as in Hebrews 11:37, “They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated”). A hypodermic needle delivers its medicine under the skin.

Hyperbole (huper/above, as in Ephesians 1:22, “appointed him to be head over everything,” plus ballo/throw, as in Mark 12:42, “She threw in two mites”). When we use hyperbole, we cast an exaggerated account up over the literal fact of the matter.

Catastrophe (kata/down, as in Luke 4:9, “If thou be the Son of God, cast theyself down,” plus strepho/to turn, as in Matthew 5:39, “but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also”). Here is a disastrous downturn of affairs.

Seismograph (seismos/earthquake, as in Revelation 6:12, “and, lo, there was a great earthquake,” plus graphomai/to be written, as in Revelation 20:15, “And whosoever was not found written in the book of life”). This machine records the intensity and duration of the earth’s shaking.

Psychology (psuche/soul, as in Matthew 11:29, “You shall find rest unto your souls,” plus logos/word or reason or matter, as in John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word”).  This discipline purports to be the study or science of the soul.

So if you undertake the study of biblical Greek (as in the BibleMesh course), you may well come to a richer understanding of your own English language along the way. And while “kimono” won’t work, “sandal” (sandalion) surely will, as in Acts 12:8, “Bind on thy sandals.”



How Does One Nurture True Faith? – Herman Bavinck (1854-1921)

hbavinckHerman Bavinck taught theology at Kampen in Holland, and subsequently at the Free University of Amsterdam. He is highly regarded for his four-volume Reformed Dogmatics—recently translated into English and published in North America. One contemporary Princeton theologian eulogized Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics saying “[t]he book is so excellent that it seems almost impossible to be too generous in its praise.”1 Bavinck’s work is marked by a deep reverence for the scriptural faith of the church—yet integrates a candid recognition of the difficulties and mysteries encountered by those who confess the one true religion. Here he reflects on some of the problems in maintaining a scripturally grounded faith.

All believers have the experience that in the best moments of their life they are also most firm in their belief in Scripture. The believer’s confidence in Christ increases along with their confidence in Scripture and, conversely, ignorance of the Scriptures is automatically and proportionately ignorance of Christ…

It remains the duty of every person, therefore, first of all to put aside his or her hostility against the word of God and “to take every thought captive to obey Christ” [2 Cor. 10:5]. Scripture itself everywhere presses this demand. Only the pure of heart will see God. Rebirth will see the kingdom of God. Self-denial is the condition for being a disciple of Jesus. The wisdom of the world is folly to God. Over against all human beings, Scripture occupies a position so high that, instead of subjecting itself to their criticism, it judges them in all their thoughts and desires…

This has been the attitude of the church toward Scripture down the centuries. And the Christian dogmatician may take no other position. For a dogma is not based on the results of any historical-critical research but only on the witness of God, on the self-testimony of Holy Scripture. A Christian believes, not because everything in life reveals the love of God, but rather despite everything that raises doubt. All believers know from experience that this is true… There is not a single Christian who has not in his or her own way learned to know the antithesis between the “wisdom of the world” and “the foolishness of God.” It is one and the same battle, an ever-continuing battle, which has to be waged by all Christians, learned or unlearned, to “take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).

Here on earth no one ever rises above that battle. Throughout the whole domain of faith, there remain “crosses” (cruces) that have to be overcome. There is no faith without struggle. To believe is to struggle, to struggle against the appearance of things. As long as people still believe in anything, their belief is challenged from all directions. No modern believer is spared from this either… There are intellectual problems (cruces) in Scripture that cannot be ignored and that will probably never be resolved. But these difficulties, which Scripture itself presents against its own inspiration, are in large part not recent discoveries of our century. They have been known at all times. Nevertheless, Jesus and the apostles, Athanasius and Augustine, Thomas and Bonaventure, Luther and Calvin, and Christians of all churches have down the centuries confessed and recognized Scripture as the word of God. Those who want to delay belief in Scripture till all the objections have been cleared up and all the contradictions have been resolved will never arrive at faith. “For who hopes for what he sees?” [Rom. 8.24]. Jesus calls blessed those who have not seen and yet believe [John 20:29].2

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Endnotes

1 Geerhardus Vos, Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, ed. Richard B. Gaffin (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1980), 485.

2. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume One: Prolegomena, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 440-442.



How Is “the Fear of the Lord” the Beginning of Knowledge?

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.

Proverbs 1:7a (ESV)

NebulaThough the German philosopher Immanuel Kant was no Christian, he was right on the mark when he said that as “supreme being” God “is an ideal without a flaw, a concept which completes and crowns the whole of human knowledge.” Even a skeptic like Kant had to admit the truth: only an eternal and transcendent Creator God can explain the richness and diversity of human knowledge. Without God, the world ultimately cannot make sense.

The Bible makes a radical claim about the nature of ultimate reality. It asserts that apart from the acknowledgement of its Divine origin, the universe remains an unsolvable puzzle. As theologian Carl Henry has put it, “All merely human affirmations about God curl into a question mark.” Solomon—an impressive philosopher in his own right—boiled the issue down to the following proposition: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov. 1:7a). This reverent recognition of the Creator (note: “fear” in this passage does not equal fright) provides the necessary foundation for education (Eccles. 12:13; Ps. 2:11; Isa. 11:2-3).

Attentive readers will note that the “fear of the Lord” is not just the starting point for spiritual axioms. The proverb states that it is the beginning of all knowledge. The Hebrew word used for knowledge here covers the entire scope of human inquiry. Presupposing the God of the biblical type offers the only sensible way to begin uncovering the true and unified meaning of things. (Certainly, such scientific patriarchs as Kepler, Newton, Pasteur, and Mendel understood this.) Paul explained why: “For by him [i.e., Christ] all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible [e.g., planets, plants, animals, material things] and invisible [e.g., numbers, laws, aesthetic and economic principles].” Reinforcing the point, he concluded that “in [Christ] are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 1:16; 2:3).

All, of course, means all. “All” is an audacious word for the apostle to use and Solomon to imply. The claim, however, does not mean that pagans never get anything right. After all, Solomon admired the king of Tyre’s expertise with architecture and construction (2 Chron. 2:3). Paul appreciated the writings of the Greek philosopher-poets (Acts 17:28). Non-believers will continue to make singular advances in their individual modes of expertise whether that be in mathematics, medicine, or other disciplines. But until they come to terms with the transcendent Ruler, they will never understand the “uni” in the word “universe.”

Only the biblical account of the creation of every aspect of existence, fall into sin and disorder, and redemption through the gospel of Jesus Christ provides a satisfactory “big picture.” Critics of Christianity say that God’s people are anti-intellectual. Quite to the contrary, the church is the only earthly institution poised to pose the toughest question of all: how does one explain the beautiful but baffling complexity of the world without reference to God—the “ideal without a flaw”? The answer to that question must be as bold as the Bible’s claim about knowledge itself.

 

Jesus and the Fig Tree

In his essay, “Why I Am Not A Christian,” atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell criticizes Jesus for having a “moral problem.” He cites a passage from Mark 11 where Jesus was hungry and went to check out a leafy fig tree, only to find it was devoid of fruit “because it was not the season for figs.” In response, Christ said, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And sure enough, the next day, the tree had withered. Russell finds this pathetic if not contemptible, saying,

figtreeThis is a very curious story, because it was not the right time of year for figs, and you really could not blame the tree. I cannot myself feel that either in the matter of wisdom or in the matter of virtue Christ stands quite as high as some other people known to history. I think I should put Buddha and Socrates above Him in those respects.

Though it takes a lot of brass to count oneself morally superior to Jesus, Russell at least takes the story at face value. Not so some preachers and theologians who deny it out of embarrassment. Yale’s late preaching professor Halford Luccock said he didn’t blame Luke for leaving it out of his Gospel account; Duke’s late divinity school dean Harvie Branscomb denied its plausibility, saying, “Jesus scarcely went about blasting fruit trees simply because they did not have fruit ready for Him at the moment”; the late Scottish minister/professor William Barclay observed, “To us there seem insuperable difficulties in taking it literally.”

Fortunately, we have centuries of scholarship which assumes the truth of the Bible, and which finds Jesus not at all short of “wisdom” and “virtue” in this tree encounter. First, for the “wisdom”: a number of commentators have affirmed the rationality of seeking something edible from this leafy tree “out of season.” For instance, 19th-century British preacher Charles Spurgeon said that “according to the natural order of production the fig-fruit precedes the foliage”; his contemporary Alexander Maclaren said that “experts tell us that in the fig-tree the leaves accompany, and do not preceded the fruit”; 20th-century Bible scholar William Lane (New International Commentary) drew from earlier scientific texts on Palestinian flora to write that “early green figs, which actually appear before the leaves” can be found in springtime. Sometimes they fall off; at any rate, they’re not so tasty. But, as Alan Cole of the Tyndale commentary suggested, “It is fair to say that presumably,” Jesus, in his hunger, “was looking for the small early ripe figs, that ripen with the leaves.” So yes, a man with “wisdom” might well expect to find something there.

As for Jesus’ “virtue,” note that the text doesn’t say Jesus was petulant. Nor does it suggest that he’d destroyed someone’s property; this was just a roadside tree, not an orchard fixture. And though this event stands out as Jesus’ only act of miraculous destruction in the Gospels, the “victim” was, after all, only a tree. If, in contrast, Jesus had asked a blind man to read something, and then he turned on him when he couldn’t, that would be troubling. But that’s not what happened.

Rather, the Lord found a teachable moment in the traffic patterns of life. In this case, most agree that He performed an action parable, critiquing fruitless religious leaders with a leafy display of ceremony and piety. And when the disciples wondered at His power to speak destruction, He talked to them of faith. For comparison, imagine that had he been gathering firewood and was surprised by scurrying insects who’d been hidden under a fallen log. He might have said something about those who hated the light and then killed the “innocent” bugs with a withering declaration, thus picturing the destruction to come.

In the end, there are two broad ways to approach the fig-tree encounter, both beginning with the question, “Why did He do that?” British Lord and Nobel Laureate Bertrand Russell and his acolytes ask it rhetorically, accusingly, and dismissively. Believers ask it genuinely, reverently, and expectantly, secure in the knowledge that there is a good and honorable answer. Furthermore, they take to heart the Lord’s teaching that a show of churchiness and grand religious talk mean nothing if no Kingdom fruit can be found in their lives.