Does Science Have Limits?

This post is the summary of a two-part Wascana Fellowship session from late last year, when I was too busy to post.


Part One: Limitations?

While doing research for the post about “understanding the times” I stumbled across a thought-provoking two-part essay by Roger Martin titled “The Limits of the Scientific Method in Economics and the World.” I think it is very worth reading. My summary and reflections will probably not do it the justice it deserves, but I will do my best.

He begins with a memory of a dinner presentation by a prominent economist in the wake of the stock market crash of 2009. Says Martin, “I was struck by how scientific he was, spewing myriad statistics, employing technical terms by the boatload, and praising his econometric model. It was ‘very sophisticated.” His “steady as she goes” forecast prior to the crash had been very wrong, as had those of every credible economist at the time.

Martin asked him after the dinner if he had changed his model after the crash. Amazingly, he had not even thought of it. For Martin, this illustrates “a fundamental blind spot in modern science.” According to Martin, “It has ventured far afield of its natural limits and is both creating problems and inhibiting progress.

The problem begins with Aristotle, who laid out the first formal conception of cause and effect. While science has made much progress since 400 B.C., his assumptions still underlie almost everything science does today. For the most part science works exceedingly well. When it comes to understanding natural laws and using them as a basis for technological advance, nothing works better than the scientific method. The ability to reproduce experimental results is a hallmark of the scientific method, as it should be.

The reliability of predictive models of any kind is based on the assumption that the field of study lends itself to a direct cause-and-effect relationship. Is that really the case with economics? Is it the case with any of the so-called “soft sciences” such as sociology or political science?

It turns out that even Aristotle was scientist enough to establish boundary conditions for his brand of scientific inquiry. Aristotle only applied his science to “things that cannot be other than they are.” This means physical objects with their physical properties. For those things that “can be other than they are” the scientific method is wholly inappropriate. This field of inquiry generally consists of “people – of relationships, of interactions, of exchanges.”

I would put it this way: people are unpredictable. People can be reliable or unreliable, power-hungry or altruistic, manipulative or caring, in powerful positions or dependent on others – the list goes on. All permutations are possible. People can also change, which complicates things even more.

For those things that can be other than they are Aristotle recommends using “rhetoric: dialogue between parties that builds understanding that actually shapes and alters this part of the world.” Rather than applying the scientific method for things that it is I’ll-equipped for, Martin would rather see us applying novel new approaches that reflect the reality of things that can be other than they are.

In the next instalment he searches for a method that will be better suited to understanding people, relationships, and exchanges.


Part Two: A Better Way

As an alternative to using the strictly Aristotelian scientific method for the study of economics and business, Roger Martin looks to the work of Charles Sanders Pierce, a contemporary of William James and James Dewey In the early 20th Century. Sanders is generally referred to as a “pragmatist philosopher” whose work was actually admired by the much-better-known William James.

If economists were being Peircian… They would have taken all of our disparate knowledge and mingled it together creatively to ask: what on earth could be going on here? Rather than forgetting entirely that their theories were demonstrated o be totally lacking, and then going on to analyze some more and predict more based on those theories, they would have created a new hypothesis to explain what just happened. This would be what Peirce evocatively call ‘a logical leap of the mind’ and ‘an inference to the best explanation.’

All science can do in people-related fields is work with already existing historical data. In a wonderful turn of phrase, Martin puts it this way, “If you torture the data enough, it will provide an answer, if only to make the pain go away.” If the existing rule is dis-confirmed (such as in 2009), you haven’t learned much regarding the future, except that the rule is not operative.

When something new and unexpected happens what is needed is an inductive leap to a new theory that can be tested going forward (rather than backward). This resembles science at first glance, but is different in that you probably cannot prove the theory analytically with the data you now have. Instead, inquiring minds would need to discuss how to test the idea going forward.

In other words, the intent is not to establish scientific principles that can be used to predict the future. Rather, the intent is to use tools of both deductive and inductive logic to improve understanding of human nature and relationships. Innovative theories may lead to innovative ways of dealing with future problems that have not even arisen yet.

Aristotle might have argued that Peirce’s ” logical leap is a product of rhetoric: the dialogue between inquiring minds that attempts to create a future that does not now exist, rather than mindlessly crunching the numbers that do exist.”

Martin’s point is not to denigrate actual science (which works very well), but rather to rein it in to within its natural limits. He would like us to use what Peirce calls “abductive logic” (a combination of deduction and induction via discussion and observation). Nor is he arguing that abductive logic is never used in real science. Or even that novel hypotheses are never used in either natural or social science. (You need only read about Einstein’s novel notion that acceleration and gravity are equivalent to see that a great deal of science is based on inspired imagination.)


Part Three: My Reflections

I enjoyed Roger Martin’s essay because it speaks to some misgivings I have had for years about the realms in which the modern version of science is applied. My own misgivings naturally apply more to the realm of religion than economics, as noted in some of my previous posts about the theory of evolution’s grip on science as well as science’s claims about the when and the how of the origins of the universe.

I am glad that he has noticed that certain fields of endeavour do not lend themselves to scientific number-crunching. It is refreshing to see that not everything is reducible to numbers.

I suspect that the problem goes deeper than just whether scientific numerology is appropriate for some fields and not for others. Even within its own proper fields, science has often fallen prey to the kind of dogmatism that is usually attributed to religion. For instance, the real conflict between Copernicus and the church was between an Aristotelian view of the universe (a pagan scientific one that had been adopted by the church) and the Copernican mathematical view. The church had adopted as dogma the science of the day. Let it not make that mistake again!

That is not my only misgiving. Something that Martin does not mention is that relationships, interactions and exchanges intersect with not only the sociological and psychological spheres, but also the spiritual/religious sphere of life. To be clear: I doubt there will ever be a clear scientific basis for morality as Christians know it. Rationalisation of self-serving behaviour is too basic to human trait to be amenable to controlling our own behaviour by means of a code derived entirely by logic and without imposition by a higher power.

Another area I have concerns with involves the study of religion. In a conversation I had a few years ago with a University of Regina professor of Religious Studies I discovered that my Master’s classes in Religious Education would not transfer well into their program, because Religious studies is actually about “the phenomenology of religion.”

I do not believe that you can really “get” faith using scientific methodology. In my personal library I have three books about the history of Christianity in three different countries. Two of them are specifically about Evangelicalism. While it was helpful to see writers viewing Christians as posited contributors to democratic societies, it was glaringly obvious that none of the writers really understood the Christians they were portraying so positively.

They simply were not Christians themselves. They were studying a “phenomenon” from the outside. Other-worldly motivations or “spiritual gifts” such as “tongues” or “prophecy” will always seem like utter madness to the non-religious mind. It will seem especially so to the mind trained to recognize only mathematically or logically explicable phenomena.

The only “logical” explanation for faith is insanity.

That is why officially atheist nations tend to outlaw religion. Other nations will naturally prefer religions that can be controlled by the state.

The kind of faith that Jesus brought, taught and sought is not the kind that can be either controlled or explained. If you have ever wondered why Christianity is increasingly being blamed for all the ills – ancient and modern – in the world, just do the math.

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Understanding the Times

About one month ago I presented this message in Wascana Fellowship, but did not have the time to post it (as with so many lately). I will try to post a few others from previous months as I have time and I find the notes.

A pastor I knew once referred to a particularly wise group of people mentioned in the Bible as an example for those of us who wish to reach the world with the good news about Jesus Christ. These were people who knew it was time for the entire nation of Israel to appoint David as their king in place of the line of King Saul. [2 Samuel 23-32]

These are the numbers of the men armed for battle who came to David at Hebron to turn Saul’s kingdom over to him, as the LORD had said:… men of Issachar, who understood the times and knew what Israel should do–200 chiefs, with all their relatives under their command;

The pastor went on to encourage us to understand the society around us in order to figure out ways to coherently teach about salvation in Jesus Christ. In theory, once we understand the world around us, we will know what to do.

I’m not necessarily convinced that knowing the world or society around us will automatically lead to solving an unwillingness to hear about Jesus and salvation. Nor am I convinced that reaching out in “culturally relevant” ways, as practiced by the North American church, will bring people to a firm faith in Jesus.

The lack of success of the church led by the pastor above in keeping people attending, let alone persuading new people to become active long-term members, suggests either a lack of understanding of society or a flaw in the theory.

For example, as much as the Apostle Paul’s message to the Athenian council is looked upon as an example to follow, Paul’s disgusted flight from the city and lack of success (very few conversions) speak volumes about the strategy. His original strategy of seeking Jewish proselytes worked much better.

This is not to say that “understanding the times” is unhelpful or useless to Christians. There are patterns in the life of a nation, for instance, that may provide clues as to whether a massive revival of Christian churches is likely in Canada.

I doubt that the present moment is one of times. That could change, however. There are forces that are passing under the radar of most of us that are beginning to change our social structure. These changes may eventually lead to times ripe for a return to hope in Jesus Christ, though not in a way we might expect.

First, I’ll talk about the present. My sense is that the current mood of our society is a hedonism that is unwilling to take the time or make the effort to think through the consequences of our current consumptive obsessiveness. There is nothing new about this assessment. Many have made it before me. Churches are responding to this hedonism. Some responses even seem to be working…for now.

Making the church appealing to consumers, as many currently “successful” churches are doing, simply reinforces the problem. Stress and burnout will follow the leadership of these churches as they seek to stay at the crest of the cultural wave. The soil of our culture is full of rocks that stunt growth and thorns that will choke out all but the most devoted followers of Jesus.

There are far too many distractions in our society to allow for measured thought about the meaning of life and whether there is anything beyond. Our ever-so-scientific outlook on life drowns out notions of the mystery of life or of spiritual matters. These trends are also well-known – especially by parents who are dismayed at the forces arrayed against installing Christian values in their children.

Our society is quickly losing any awareness of a need for God.

Not surprisingly, God is aware of this aspect of human nature.Even as far back as when he was leading his people Israel into the Promised Land, he warned them,

When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. (Deut. 8:10-14)

He is not surprised when a nation that once considered itself “Christian” begins to turn its back on him in the wake of prosperity. The pattern goes all the way back to God’s chosen people, the Hebrews (of whom we only recognize the Jewish people today). It happened many times in Israel’s history, as chronicled in the books of Judges, Samuel, Kings and Chronicles in the Bible.

There are actually three more parts to the pattern of turning away from, then (possibly) returning to God.It is the next part of the pattern that is of interest at this point in our country, and perhaps even the rest of Western civilization.

The next part of the pattern is an increasing oppression of the population, beginning with the poor and disadvantaged.

This stage begins with an internal rot in the morals of the leaders of society, who begin to prey upon those less able to defend themselves. This establishes a downward spiral that, left unchecked, leads to the destruction of a society.

Later symptoms include a selling-out of local and national interests in the pursuit of personal wealth by a power elite. This often leads to increasing foreign ownership of national treasures and wealth-generating enterprises. It also leads to increasing economic and military vulnerability of the society in question.

One thing I have noticed in studying the Bible is that God often waits for a specific kind of response from a nation that has once honoured him. A prototype to that kind of response can be found in the story of Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush. God explains to Moses why he is moving to their assistance at this particular time. Then God says,

“I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God. The LORD said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey–the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.” (Exodus 3:6-10)

While this is not necessarily a case of a people moving away from worship of God, notice that God intervenes at a certain point when the oppression becomes so great that the oppressed cry out to God about their suffering. It seems that when a certain level of suffering from oppression is reached, God intervenes on behalf of the oppressed.

I hope to review some of the results of God’s intervention in Biblical history in a later post, but one need only read the book of Judges to get an idea of the ups and downs of Israel’s relationship with God and the kinds of intervention possible.

While our current culture’s massive hedonism does not lend itself to a felt need for God, there may be forces at work behind the scenes that will change our perception of self-sufficiency. There are trends in our society that lead me to believe that large scale oppression will become the norm in the near future.

How Oppression Begins

There are many ways to create ideal conditions for oppressing large populations (though not an exhaustive list):

  • Lure people into cities with promise of high-paying jobs
  • Make it impossible to go back to the rural way of life
  • Keep changing technology for constant costly upgrading
  • Make living conditions in cities increasingly unaffordable
  • Discourage self-sustaining small-scale agriculture and gardening (such as by selling only patented seed)
  • Allow the rich to control vital resources such as water for extortionate gain
  • Increase credit limits to unsustainable levels
  • Devalue currencies with inflation to prevent savings from meaningfully accumulating Enforce servitude as condition of paying off debt
  • Keep people dependent on government support through tax incentives or welfare
  • Control wages by keeping unemployment high, ensuring a mobile (rootless) workforce
  • Decrease job security, forcing workers to accept poor working conditions and wages
  • Increase generalized fear of enemy nations or terrorist organizations, allowing governments to increase reduce freedoms
  • Keep increasing taxes while reducing social safety net programs

Canada is not Israel, so I am not predicting that Canadians will be forced out of the country because we have forgotten God.

What I am saying is that forgetting God will allow Canadians to sink into increasingly short-sighted behaviours that will result in various forms of entrapment, leading to being dominated by the powerful. Canadians will eventually (if not sooner) find themselves abused by governments and corporations that are increasingly controlled by psychopaths intent on gaining power and influence.

With technologies currently available, it may take less time than you might think. The Apostle John, writing to seven churches in Asia Minor, gave a chilling view of the future from a vision he received while on a Roman prison island.

Revelation 13:11 Then I saw another beast, coming out of the earth. He had two horns like a lamb, but he spoke like a dragon. He exercised all the authority of the first beast on his behalf, and made the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose fatal wound had been healed.13 And he performed great and miraculous signs, even causing fire to come down from heaven to earth in full view of men.14 Because of the signs he was given power to do on behalf of the first beast, he deceived the inhabitants of the earth. He ordered them to set up an image in honor of the beast who was wounded by the sword and yet lived. 15 He was given power to give breath to the image of the first beast, so that it could speak and cause all who refused to worship the image to be killed. 16 He also forced everyone, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead, 17 so that no one could buy or sell unless he had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of his name. 18 This calls for wisdom.42 If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is man’s number. His number is 666.

This “beast,” a symbolic name for the ancient Roman Empire, was the main oppressor of both Jews and Christians in the time John wrote the letter to seven churches, now called the book of Revelation. While the “beast” referred to a specific religio-political entity of the time, later readers can see parallels in later despotic regimes that attempt to control the lives and minds of their subjects.

Pol Pot, Hitler, Stalin and the rest are all manifestations of the same lust for power that seeks to dominate everyone around for its own gain. Money, goods and prestige flow upward in the pyramid of power, while control and manipulation flow downward. The lowest levels of the pyramid gain the least and pay the most.

When an entire people strays from the one true God they open themselves up to falling into a trap of their own devising. The lust for ease and pleasure ends up in chains of pain and oppression.

My sense is this: once the full extent of oppression and powerlessness has been reached and becomes blatantly obvious to most, there will be a better receptivity to the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ. That is good news for those who long to reach the multitudes for Jesus Christ.

Here is the bad news: There will also be intensified efforts to eradicate the preaching of the gospel because of its tendency to undermine the fear and “worship” of the powers-that-be. The prophet Daniel wrote about this phenomenon well in advance:

Daniel 11:33 “Those who are wise will instruct many, though for a time they will fall by the sword or be burned or captured or plundered. 34 When they fall, they will receive a little help, and many who are not sincere will join them. 35 Some of the wise will stumble, so that they may be refined, purified and made spotless until the time of the end, for it will still come at the appointed time.  Daniel 11:33-35 | NIV

The Apostle John also wrote about it in his vision:

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. 10 They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” 11 Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been. Revelation 6:9-11 | NIV

This is not my version of a doomsday prophecy, complete with a prophetic timetable. This is merely a reflection on normal human nature and the road we human beings normally take when we reject Jesus Christ as Lord.

Rejecting the true God and his Son Jesus Christ leads to increasingly dangerous behaviours that lead to self-entrapment, which leads to vulnerability to powerful interests bent on controlling the populace for their own gain. Some few will wake up and seek God, and will be persecuted for it by the same powerful interests, just as many Christians around the world are already experiencing at the hands of governments and radical religious groups.

At some point God will hear the cry of fear and oppression and he will intervene.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is good news for the oppressed, but very bad news for the oppressor.

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How Did We Get the New Testament?

Disclaimer: None of the information presented in this post originates with me. The core of it belongs to a Fuller Theological Seminary student paper written by Corey Keating in 2000 entitled, “The Criteria Used for Developing the New Testament Canon in the First Four Centuries of the Christian Church.” His paper is a concise and very readable summary of the process of compilation of the New Testament that we now use. What isn’t from Keating’s paper is from my memory of a lecture that touched briefly on canonization by Dr. Andy Reimer at Canadian Bible College in about 1999.

The book of Acts records a how members in a synagogue in a city called Berea took the Apostle Paul’s message to heart, but not without fact-checking first from the Scriptures on hand at the synagogue. The result, of course, is that “many believed.” [Acts 17:10-12]

But what exactly are “scriptures?” And how can we know we have true and accurate “scriptures?” They were working from what we now call the “Old Testament.” If the Jewish people accepted the Old Testament as scripture, how can we be as sure about the New Testament?

There are two good reasons that it would be good to know how the collection of books and letters that we know of as the New Testament came into being. The first good reason is that we, as believers, need to be confident that the documents that record the life and teachings of Jesus and the original Apostles are a true and accurate testimony. In other words, are these really Jesus’ teachings? Did he really die for our sins? Did he really rise from the dead and become “Lord of heaven and earth?”

We could just assume that the Bible we have is the complete revelation of God and his salvation through Jesus Christ. Being confident of their truth because we understand the process of transmission strikes me as a better way.

The second good reason it would be good to know how it happened involves an idea that has gone viral in our society. It is an idea that has been around for centuries, but has really gained traction in our time. It is the idea that some books were deliberately excluded from the Bible by a nefarious group of men who wanted control over what people believe. The idea was around long before The DaVinci Code.

It is not the existence of other writings that is in question – they certainly exist – it is their faithfulness to Jesus’ message and teaching. In fact, the critics can point to some “gospels” that have received prominence by modern scholars, such as the “Gospel of Thomas,” which departs radically from the teaching of the rest of the New Testament. Some of these other writings have been around almost as long the Gospels.

So what happens when a trusted friend or family member tells you that he believes that a cabal has taken control of the faith by limiting what books got into the Bible? What can you say when that person would rather believe a book that was rejected by the first few generations of Christians as a reliable witness than the accepted canon of the Church?

Perhaps you can begin by reminding them that the men responsible for promoting those books probably have as much of an agenda as those who rejected them so many centuries ago. It may even be the same agenda as those who wrote the books in the first place. If you want to impute motives to the collectors of the New Testament, you might as well have a look at the motives of those who want to alter the canon. Fair is fair.

It turns out that attempts to change the witness of Jesus and the Apostles is the very reason the New Testament eventually took shape as a collection of sacred church writings.

Since the churches were founded upon the work of the original Apostles it makes sense that it would be their writings that would have accurately reported the work of Jesus and the early church, and the gospel they preached. What better written foundation to build the doctrine and practice of the church on?

There is no doubt that there were early writings by Apostles and their delegates to various churches. Each of the writers of the Gospels and Acts is mentioned in someone else’s Gospel, Acts, or the letters of the Apostle Paul. These were preserved by the churches that originally received them, and were usually copied by visiting members of other churches, eventually ensuring a wide distribution of the Gospels, Acts, and letters of Peter, John, James, Jude, Paul and the Letter to the Hebrews.

These books soon came to be the standard by which church doctrine would be measured. Strangely enough, the first recorded attempt to limit the acceptable books of the faith belongs to a heretic named Marcion in approximately 140 AD. He devised the idea that the God of the Old Testament was different than the God and Father of Jesus Christ.

Because of this, his canon excluded almost all of the Old Testament, as well as any Gospels with obvious Old Testament connections. This left only most of the Gospel of Luke and the Letters of Paul (with some editing out of references to the Old Testament). For him, these were the only acceptable and true witness to Jesus and his teaching.

The connection between Jesus and the Old Testament is so glaringly obvious that Marcion’s list was easily rejected by the majority of the church. It’s existence, however, prompted a thoughtful discussion about what constitutes sound, godly teaching to be used by Christians.

Irenaeus, an early opponent of Marcion, appealed to a group of writings that seem to have been well known as “apostolic” to address the heresy. He lists them, quotes from them and defends them as the standard for formulating doctrine and practice in the church.

One notes here that Irenaeus not only has defended the Old Testament, but has promoted the use of New Testament material in its defence. That raises writings now included in the New Testament to the level of Scripture in the eyes of the church. Similar lists compiled by his contemporaries Tertullian and Hippolytus and others further encouraged their use for doctrinal defence. These lists may be said to form the nucleus of what we now call the New Testament.

Naturally, there were more details to be worked out, but the core of the New Testament was pretty well established by the end of the second century.

Note that these lists were initially a reaction against Marcion’s exclusion of works that had already been largely accepted by the church.

Another example of a list is a document dated at roughly 170 AD that was found by a man named Muratori in the mid-eighteenth century, and is now referred to as the Muratorian Canon. The writer compiled a list of normative writings for the church, along with reasons for accepting or rejecting books that were available at the time. In one case he calls a book “too recent” and that it therefore could not have the stamp of either prophetic or apostolic authority. ”

Apostolic authority” seems to have been the main criterion for including a book in the accepted canon of the church in the second century. This does not absolutely require that an Apostle be the writer. They do need to be from the time of the Apostles and to accurately represent the teaching and activity of Jesus and the Apostles. For instance, the Gospels of Mark and Luke make no claim to having been written by Apostles. Mark and Luke, however, were long-time ministry partners of Peter and Paul, respectively, and had essentially unlimited access to their mentors’ memories of their encounters with Jesus and the other disciples for their writings.

Churches founded by the original Apostles also had traditional understandings of the gospel of Jesus that assisted them in determining whether a writing was a true representation of the “faith once delivered.” As Gnostic writers tried to supplant true doctrine with their own writings that claimed apostolic authorship, the leaders of these churches rejected them as “unorthodox.” They compared these slightly later writings with those already accepted as “orthodox” and rejected those that taught a different gospel.

Since the four accepted Gospels agree in teaching about Jesus, for instance, a “gospel” that shows Jesus teaching about “secret knowledge” (such as the “Gospel of Thomas”) would have been rejected outright at the time. To accept such a different take on Jesus’ teaching when so many reliable witnesses agree makes no logical sense. A self-contradicting canon would reduce Christianity to complete nonsense – something that even ancient theologians were intelligent enough to figure out. What that says about modern scholars who wish to include it or replace the accepted canon I shall leave to the reader.

What about the councils of the third and fourth centuries that are thought by many Protestants to have “corrupted” the church by “imposing” doctrines and a canonical New Testament? Since no records of the actual minutes of the meetings have been handed down, surely there must have been back-room deals made or political horse-trading for favours in return for acceptance of certain books, right?

Since the purpose of this post does not cover doctrine as such, we will concentrate on the canonization of the New Testament. For one thing, there was no longer any argument about whether the books approved by Irenaeus, Tertullian and Hippolytus were going to be part of the accepted Canon. By the time of Origen in the early 200’s they were already accepted as authoritative by the church as a whole. Essentially the councils rubber-stamped the scriptures that were already generally accepted by the church. The earlier churchmen and theologians who used these books and letters as authoritative had already proven the point to the satisfaction of the participants of the Councils.

In fact, this seems to signal a shift in how books were included in the Canon. The shift is from the idea of apostolic authority to that of their use by early theologians. “If they were good enough for Irenaeus and Tertullian, etc, they are good enough for me” might be a vernacular way of putting it.

We can look to the examples of Jerome the scholar and translator and Augustine the great theologian, who were both very influential in settling the canon. Apparently, while Jerome was not sure that the Letter to the Hebrews should be accepted, the fact that it was well accepted by the Eastern Church led him to include it in his Latin Vulgate translation. In a similar vein Augustine and much of the Eastern Church reluctantly accepted the Apocalypse (Revelation) due to its acceptance in the West. The turning point was the fact that these books were freely used by prior generations of orthodox theologians.

Notice that by this time there is no need to refer to apostolic authority because that question had already been settled by previous generations of thoughtful theologians. With a few minor exceptions, the list was already settled. Those that needed more discussion, such as 2 Peter, Hebrews and Revelation, were settled by noting that previous generations of theologians were freely quoting them in their own writings.

The history of attempts to alter the witness of the New Testament writings by including spurious works or discrediting accepted works should teach us not to be surprised by similar attempts in our time. The more things change, the more they stay the same when it comes to trying to discredit historic Christianity.

We do not have to accept a self-contradictory new canon of scripture, no matter how scholarly the argument for inclusion seems. Nor do we have to accept the trashing of centuries of witness to the testimony of the Apostles and their faithful companions in the first century.

We can be confident that the New Testament that we now have is a true and accurate presentation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It was meticulously preserved as various writings by the churches established by the Apostles. They were faithfully collected into a “canon” by wise and discerning people who cared about faithfully transmitting the same gospel traditions to later generations.

Let us honour their commitment by being faithful to the real Lord Jesus that these people so faithfully bore witness to.

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The Waning Authority of Christ in the Churches

After a long dry spell it is time to start posting again. This week I read an article in our weekly service that provided a great deal of insight. It was written by A.W. Tozer, a long-time pastor and writer in the Christian and Missionary Alliance church denomination. Published three days after his death of a heart attack, it is a reflection on what he perceived as the state of the church as of May, 1963.

My experiences classes about worship in Bible college and seminary, as well as experiences in different Christian churches echo his comments in most ways. I have already written about some of my own misgivings in previous posts (e.g. “Back to Basics” and “Mysticism, Evangelical Style“).

Linked here is the text that I read at that service, “The Waning Authority of Christ in the Churches.”

I have seen church “visions” that strongly resemble action plans I saw held up as examples of “growing churches” in worship and leadership classes in college and seminary. I even went so far as to tell one pastor that his “vision” was just a plan – and a plan that was doomed to diminish rather than grow his church. Unfortunately, he carried on anyway, and the church now has only a shadow of its former membership.

At least my seminary class on modern Evangelicalism discussed the issue of whether using practical (psychological) means to effect conversion and revival is warranted (without answering either way).

After reading Tozer’s article I recalled a passage from Colossians 1:15-18 about Jesus’ supremacy. Jesus is the God who made everything, including us! Not only has he given us everything that we are (our abilities, our life, our very being!), he also saved us from certain death by forgiving our sins, according to Colossians 2:9-15. In other words, Jesus Christ literally owns us, both by creation and by redemption.

And we owe him.


A.W. Tozer’s article reminds me to be very careful not to ascribe to Jesus Christ anything that is my own vision. He also reminds me to “seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness.” Jesus promises that all the rest will be added to us. I suspect that this includes Jesus’ own direction in the affairs of our fellowship, as well as any other fellowship that puts Jesus’ Lordship into practice.

As I was wondering ever-so-eloquently about whether I really was letting Jesus control how I live my life I was stopped short by Wayne, who reminded me that even the jobs that we go to day-by-day may reflect Jesus’ lordship in our lives better than we think.  (Yes, I do have a full-time day job.) So okay, maybe I am not a total failure at following Jesus as my Lord. But there is definitely room for improvement.

In the evening following the service my wife and I joined another member who had not been able to attend and filled her in on the service. Our conversation then moved to other matters, and eventually into a discussion of how the New Testament came to be collected as a “canonical” book containing gospels, early church history and letters.

That was such a fruitful discussion that the next post will be about the formation of the New Testament canon as we know it today.

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City of Refuge

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live in a country that had no standing army, no police, and no full-time judiciary? Wanda and I recently visited one of the few countries in the Western Hemisphere that has no standing army, Costa Rica. We thought it would be an interesting place to visit because it was rated as one of the world’s most happy places with the smallest negative environmental footprints.

We noticed that they were able to spend the money they saved on the military on education and health care. Their education system seems to encourage multilingualism, entrepreneurism and ecological balance. Everyone we met seemed to be proud of their country’s democratic institutions and its fiercely independent history.

The Bible’s story centers around a nation which had an opportunity to shape its future without needing an army or even a police force. When the nation was first established upon leaving Egypt and entering the land of Canaan, Israel’s judiciary was comprised of priests who learned law from God’s own teaching, ably assisted by the wisest elders of each clan.

Crime scenes were studied by local leaders, witnesses were interviewed. Guilt was established and punishment fit the crime. Property crimes and injury were handled by restitution. Murder was dealt with by capital punishment at the hands of the nearest male family member, referred to as the “avenger of blood,” or by the community if such a relative was unavailable.

Nobody stayed in jail at community expense. No taxes were raised for police enforcement or military protection. God had promised to protect the nation from foreign enemies so long as they honoured and obeyed him. Of course, history has taught us that they failed to live up to this ideal, but that is a story for another time.

Today I would like to talk about a unique provision of that law. What do you do in this system if you have accidentally killed someone? You know that a hot-headed family member will be looking for you with vengeance on his mind. What do you do until you can convince the authorities (and the avenger) that you are innocent of murder? On the other hand, does the avenger get justice for the accidental killing of his relative?

God had an unusual way of dealing with that possibility, as he instructs Moses:

9 Then the Lord said to Moses: 10 “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you cross the Jordan into Canaan, 11 select some towns to be your cities of refuge, to which a person who has killed someone accidentally may flee. 12 They will be places of refuge from the avenger, so that anyone accused of murder may not die before they stand trial before the assembly. Numbers 35:9-12 | NIV

Even the murderer has the right to a fair trial, and the guilty party is put to death. But what happens if the verdict is accidental death? We read later starting in verse 22:

22 “ ‘But if without enmity someone suddenly pushes another or throws something at them unintentionally 23 or, without seeing them, drops on them a stone heavy enough to kill them, and they die, then since that other person was not an enemy and no harm was intended, 24 the assembly must judge between the accused and the avenger of blood according to these regulations. 25 The assembly must protect the one accused of murder from the avenger of blood and send the accused back to the city of refuge to which they fled. The accused must stay there until the death of the high priest, who was anointed with the holy oil.26 “ ‘But if the accused ever goes outside the limits of the city of refuge to which they fled 27 and the avenger of blood finds them outside the city, the avenger of blood may kill the accused without being guilty of murder. 28 The accused must stay in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest; only after the death of the high priest may they return to their own property. Numbers 35:22-28 | NIV

It ended up being almost 40 years later that they actually entered the Promised land, so Moses reminds them about all of the laws given at Mt. Sinai, including this instruction about the cities of refuge:

4 This is the rule concerning anyone who kills a person and flees there for safety—anyone who kills a neighbor unintentionally, without malice aforethought. 5 For instance, a man may go into the forest with his neighbor to cut wood, and as he swings his ax to fell a tree, the head may fly off and hit his neighbor and kill him. That man may flee to one of these cities and save his life. 6 Otherwise, the avenger of blood might pursue him in a rage, overtake him if the distance is too great, and kill him even though he is not deserving of death, since he did it to his neighbor without malice aforethought. 7 This is why I command you to set aside for yourselves three cities. Deuteronomy 19:4-7 | NIV

These cities were set aside literally to protect the innocent from death at the hands of vengeful relatives. On the other hand, it was not necessarily a picnic to stay in the city until the death of the high priest. Remember that this was an agrarian society. Imagine if a farmer even today had to conduct all of his or her business from within Regina, without ever setting foot on the farm for 20 years. That’s just a random number, but Israel’s priests tended to have long lives, often more than 100 years if the numbers for Aaron and his ancestors are correct in the books of Chronicles. You could conceivably never see your farm again if the high priest is young.

That was probably a good incentive to do a good occupational health and safety evaluation of your job site. All in all, however, staying in that city sure beat the alternative.

The idea of refuge is important in the law God gave to Israel. Believe it or not, Israelites were required to provide refuge to a surprising element of society. Witness this from the book of Deuteronomy:

15 If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand them over to their master. 16 Let them live among you wherever they like and in whatever town they choose. Do not oppress them. Deuteronomy 23:15-16 | NIV

Imagine that! Even slaves who had run away from their masters had the right to live in one of their towns without fear of being returned to an abusive master.

On a larger scale, Israel was intended to be a nation of refuge for the oppressed and powerless. This was one way they were to reflect God’s image: as a refuge. The Psalms often describe God in terms of being a refuge, such as in Psalm 9:

9 The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. 10 Those who know your name trust in you, for you, Lord, have never forsaken those who seek you. Psalms 9:9-10 | NIV

22 The Lord will rescue his servants; no one who takes refuge in him will be condemned. Psalms 34:22 | NIV

The city of refuge is a reflection of God’s character as a protector of the innocent and oppressed. Notice what else these Psalms say: the oppressed and innocent must first seek his refuge. A city of refuge does me no good if I don’t make the journey and seek refuge with the city elders. As the proverb says:

12 The prudent see danger and take refuge, but the simple keep going and pay the penalty. Proverbs 27:12 | NIV

The key to eternal safety is to actively take refuge in the only One who can grant it: Jesus Christ the Son of God. On the night he was betrayed he told his disciples about a place he was preparing form them:

1 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. 2 My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. 4 You know the way to the place where I am going.” John 14:1-4 | NIV

Eventually the disciples figured out what that reference to them knowing the way to that place meant: Jesus himself was the way. Taking refuge in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour is the only way to remain safe forever, no matter what the circumstances may be in your life.

Is life hard? For many, the answer is, “yes.” Was it easy for other believers before us? Let’s read what the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews says about what their expectations and experiences of this life were:

35 Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. 36 Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, 40 since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect. Hebrews 11:35-40 | NIV

What on earth could have possessed these people to endure all of those things and yet remain faithful to God? And what does that have to do with us living now?

13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. Hebrews 11:13-16 | NIV

When we seek shelter in Jesus Christ, we seek the very God who invented refuge. He is refuge personified. He founded the country and city we long for and will bring it with him when he returns. Speaking of seeking shelter in Jesus, the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews says,

22 But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, 23 to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. Hebrews 12:22-24 | NIV

The Apostle John, writing to a group of churches in Asia Minor, says,

12 The one who is victorious (who overcomes) I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will they leave it. I will write on them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on them my new name. Revelation 3:12 | NIV

When Jesus declares us innocent (by shedding his blood to cover our sins) we remain safe in the refuge of his eternal city. Since he remains alive forever, we are safe with him forever. There is no going back to old the world or the old ways for us. We must stay within the walls of his city, figuratively speaking. The Apostle John saw a vision that has inspired every later generation of Christians concerning Christ’s city.

2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” Revelation 21:1-4 | NIV

He goes on later in the vision to say,

22 I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23 The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendour into it. 25 On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. 26 The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. 27 Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. Revelation 21:22-27 | NIV

John is not the first to have seen visions of the New Jerusalem, Christ’s city of our refuge. Here is a message Isaiah the prophet was inspired to write:

1 In that day this song will be sung in the land of Judah: We have a strong city; God makes salvation its walls and ramparts.2 Open the gates that the righteous nation may enter, the nation that keeps faith. 3 You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you. 4 Trust in the Lord forever,for the Lord, the Lord himself, is the Rock eternal. Isaiah 26:1-4 | NIV

No matter what, trust in the Lord Jesus forever. His city is our City of Refuge.

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Atonement: Vindication of the Martyrs

The first recorded sermon by Jesus occurs in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. In that sermon he makes a remarkable statement about his mission and person. He begins by reading a few words from Isaiah 61 from the scroll handed to him.

1 The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, 2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Isaiah 61:1-2a | NIV)

Luke reports what happened next.

20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked. (Luke 4:20-22 | NIV)

We only get the first line of Jesus’ sermon, but it is a telling line. Jesus is there to proclaim freedom, release and “the year of the Lord’s favor.” What most of us Christians do not know is how deeply rooted in Israel’s law this particular proclamation is. It goes back to a duty God gives to his ancient priesthood early in its establishment.

8 “ ‘Count off seven sabbath years—seven times seven years—so that the seven sabbath years amount to a period of forty-nine years. 9 Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land. 10 Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. 11 The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. 12 For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields.13 “ ‘In this Year of Jubilee everyone is to return to their own property. (Leviticus 25:8-13 | NIV)

In this instruction to the Levitical Priesthood, God instructs them to blow trumpets on the Day of Atonement every 50th year to announce a year of jubilee. In this year all land that was sold goes back to the family it originally belonged to. All debts are erased. (The whole economy is essentially re-booted.) Even the cropland gets to rest for the year, since this was a part of the system of seventh-year “land sabbaths.”

Unfortunately, there is no record that Israel actually managed to observe this important law. A further clue to Israel’s disobedience to this law can be found in this description of their exile to Babylon.

20 He carried into exile to Babylon the remnant, who escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and his successors until the kingdom of Persia came to power. 21 The land enjoyed its sabbath rests; all the time of its desolation it rested, until the seventy years were completed in fulfillment of the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah. (2 Chronicles 36:20-21 | NIV)

The seventy years seems to be calculated from the missed land sabbaths of Israel. If they missed the regular land sabbaths, it is certainly likely that they also missed the jubilee sabbaths as well.

This is the imagery that Isaiah draws upon for his prophecy in Chapter 61. It is also the imagery that Jesus draws upon as he reads that passage and announces that he has fulfilled the proclaiming of Jubilee. After almost 1100 years, Jubilee is finally proclaimed! Jesus has set in motion the return of the families to their inheritance.

But there is a problem. Israel is in bondage to Rome. More importantly, Israel is also in bondage to sin and disobedience. Those two things need to be dealt with in order to bring families back to their inheritance.

Since sin and disobedience are what result in exile and bondage to other nations, it seems logical to deal with the sin first. Jesus does this by his death and resurrection. He sends his disciples to spread the word and gather people into Jesus’ family, preparing for eventual resettlement in the land of promise.

The good news for those of us who are not physical descendants of Israel is that we are allowed to be “grafted in” to the “rootstock” of Israel (Rom. 11:13-18). We (Jew and Gentile) are now being gathered into Jesus’ family and await resettlement at the appointed time.

So, what about Rome? Or any other occupying Gentile power throughout history. When does this “appointed time” happen? John provides a theological answer in the form of a vision.

9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. 10 They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” 11 Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been. (Revelation 6:9-11 | NIV)

In this vein, it is interesting that Jesus read only a portion of the assigned sabbath reading from Isaiah 61. Here is how the rest reads.

…and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, 3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor. (Isaiah 61:3 | NIV)

Isaiah’s description of that ultimate Jubilee – the “year of the Lord’s favor” – seems to include God’s vengeance on those who murder and abuse his chosen people, whether Israelite or Gentile believers. It includes restoration and vindication – lifting them up or honouring them in the sight of the rest of the world.

It would seem that Jesus read only the part that applied to his first coming. Surely he will fulfill the rest–at his return. The symbolism of the Day of Atonement appears in a scene before God’s altar in Revelation 8. (Remember that the souls under the altar have asked when God would avenge them.)

1 When he opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.2 And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them.3 Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all God’s people, on the golden altar in front of the throne. 4 The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand. 5 Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake. (Revelation 8:1-5 | NIV)

Aaron must do something similar on the Day of Atonement as a ritual. He is to take a censer full of burning coals from the altar before the Lord and two handfuls of finely ground fragrant incense and take them behind the curtain.

13 He is to put the incense on the fire before the Lord, and the smoke of the incense will conceal the atonement cover above the tablets of the covenant law, so that he will not die. 14 He is to take some of the bull’s blood and with his finger sprinkle it on the front of the atonement cover; then he shall sprinkle some of it with his finger seven times before the atonement cover.15 “He shall then slaughter the goat for the sin offering for the people and take its blood behind the curtain and do with it as he did with the bull’s blood: He shall sprinkle it on the atonement cover and in front of it. 16 In this way he will make atonement for the Most Holy Place because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been. (Leviticus 16:12-16a | NIV)

In the previous post I argued that the goats of the sacrifice of the Day of Atonement were not what is normally assumed: representative of Jesus and the Devil, with the “Devil goat” being banished for 1000 years in the “bottomless pit.” of Revelation 20.

I believe that the goat “for the Lord” represents the innumerable multitude of saints who endured torture and death rather than renounce their faith in Jesus. Like Jesus, the conquered by submitting to their Lord to the death. It is a powerful testimony to a powerful faith in the life-giving power of Jesus Christ, the “firstborn from the dead.”

These are people who put their lives on the line “for the Lord.” As such their offering is a sweet savour to God, who reminds himself of it just before finally beginning their vindication by overthrowing “Babylon the Great” (a code-name for Rome and its many imitators who try to dominate the world.

Jesus will return when a designated number of faithful martyrs have sacrificed their lives for his glory. He will return to avenge them and glorify them, completing the picture of the Jubilee prefigured by Moses and prophesied by Isaiah.

1  After this I heard what sounded like the roar of a great multitude in heaven shouting: “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God,   2  for true and just are his judgments. He has condemned the great prostitute who corrupted the earth by her adulteries. He has avenged on her the blood of his servants.” (Rev. 19:1-2 | NIV)

The end result:

1  Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.   2  I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.   3  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.   4  He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”   5  He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”   6  He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life.   7  He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son.   8  But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars–their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”  (Rev. 21:1-8 | NIV)

This is part of the Jubilee Proclamation of the Day of Atonement: Sin dealt with completely, retribution for the oppressed, and a settled inheritance forever. All of these things are fulfilled by our Lord, Jesus Christ, who fulfils all of the Scriptures.

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The Day of Atonement and The Curious Incident of the Lamb of God

[Note: When I originally posted this in 2013 I seem to have made a mistake in the settings so as to make it inaccessible. Since this is the season, I am posting it again.]

The Israelite holy day we call the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) presents a fascinating imagery of community purification of sin. It may seem like a weird and bloody ritual from a barbaric time, therefore completely irrelevant to our modern age.

In some ways that is true, but for early Christians it had a great deal of symbolic meaning related to the life and mission of our Lord Jesus Christ. In fact, the writer of the Letter to the  Hebrews uses many aspects of that ritual to point to how great a High Priest Jesus is due to his life, sacrifice and resurrection. He compares Jesus’ life and mission to various rituals of that ceremony and shows how Jesus fulfils them completely.

There is one allusion to “the blood of bulls and goats” that he makes that seems to indicate that Jesus has come to fulfil those types. And so it is. Jesus’ blood redeems both the priesthood and the people of Israel (and anyone else who “joins” them through acceptance of their Messiah as their Lord).

This has led many people to see a curious offering of two goats in Leviticus 16 in a certain way. Lots are drawn for the goats. One lot is “for the Lord,” while the other is “for azazel.” Uncertainty about the meaning of azazel has led many to assume that the reference is a name. This leads to the conclusion that one goat represents Christ, while the other represents the devil (or a goat-headed demon named Azazel).

The common understanding is that the “Jesus” goat is sacrificed on behalf of the people, while the “devil” goat is sent away into the wilderness with the sins of the people hanging on its head. This is a view I held for over 30 years myself.

Many people who keep the festival also have the view that the sending away of the “devil” goat  represents the pre-millennial binding of Satan into the great abyss. In this way Satan is kept away from the great millennium of peace under Jesus Christ until he is set free to tempt the world again. I also held this view for as many years as the above.

Several elements of the Scriptures have helped me see this story differently. First of all, I note what John the Baptist calls Jesus in John 1:29, 36. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He is referred to as the Lamb in Rev. 5:6, Rev. 15:3 and Rev. 22:1-3.

In one of the famous Sherlock Holmes stories the private detective’s first clue to solving the mystery involves “the curious incident of the barking dog.” Watson, dumbfounded, responds that there was no barking dog. “Precisely!” replies the detective. “The dog did not bark.”

In a similar vein, I refer to the curious incident of the slain lamb in Lev. 16.

“What lamb?”


Nowhere in Scripture is Jesus Christ called “the Goat of God who takes away the sin of the world

Once I realized that, I had to explore the meaning of the two goats further.

There was a second clue: lots were cast over the goats. What were lots used for? Two uses are noted in the Scriptures.

One use of the lot involves the determination of guilt or innocence in cases too difficult for the judges of Israel. The priest uses two items called Urim and Thummim to determine the will of the Lord in those cases (Deuteronomy 17:8-10). We presume that these are a kind of lot because they are stored in a pouch in the Priest’s breastplate (Exodus 28:30). In the one incident that mentions methodology in the determination of guilt the priest uses Urim and Thummim as lots to determine that Jonathan broke a command of King Saul (1 Samuel 14:41-42).

The second major use of lots was to determine the inheritance of land in Israel (Joshua 14:1-3). God chooses which tribe gets what land, and what families inherit which tracts within the tribe by lot.

The third clue involves what the lots are “for.”

The first lot is “for Yahweh.” We tend to think that this means it represents Yahweh, but it seems to be “for” Yahweh. In other words, Yahweh chooses this goat to belong to him.

The second goat is “for” azazel. This is the only time this particular Hebrew word appears in the Bible, and scholars cannot agree about what it means. Some believe azazel is a proper noun. However, it makes no sense for the goat to be sacrificed or offered to some pagan deity named Azazel – because the Israelites were forbidden to sacrifice to other gods.

The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia entry about azazel presents a persuasive case for understanding the term to refer to “removal” or “sending away.” This agrees with the Brown Driver Briggs Theological Dictionary, which refers to an Arabic verb azala, meaning to banish or remove. The latter indicates that “entire removal” is the meaning of Azazel.

The online translation on that best matches that meaning is Leviticus 16:8 in Young’s Literal Translation: “And Aaron hath given lots over the two goats, one lot for Jehovah, and one lot for a goat of departure.”

For me, the best way to understand what is happening with the goats is to see one goat as selected to belong to the Lord, and the other selected for banishment. This works especially well if you see what happens to the goat. It is sent to the wilderness, never to return.

In fact, the ceremony of the two goats bears a remarkable similarity to a reference in Hebrews 11:4 about Cain and Abel. This references the story in Genesis 4:1-6. In that story Abel makes an acceptable offering while Cain’s is not accepted. Upon killing Abel, Cain is banished from the presence of the Lord to a wilderness that cannot support him. Remember also that the book of Hebrews contains many references to the ceremony in Leviticus 16. The writer of Hebrews notes that even though Abel is dead, his inheritance is assured in the Lord Jesus. One for Jesus. One for removal.

Let us get back to what lots are used for. They are used to determine God’s will in judgment and in inheritance.

Matthew 25:31-46 provides an interesting story involving both judgment and inheritance. The sheep and the goats are separated based on works. The sheep inherit the Kingdom prepared for them, while the goats are banished to eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. The Parable of Wheat & Tares in Matt. 13:24-30 and Matt. 13:36-43 and the Parable of Net in Matt. 13:47-52 also tell of a great dividing of people into two camps. One marked for inclusion and the other for exclusion.

If there is a prophetic fulfilment of the Day of Atonement in the book of Revelation it is most likely to be found in Rev. 20:7-15. After the Great White Throne Judgment all sin is finally dealt with by forgiveness of the repentant who have accepted Jesus Christ as Lord (including doing “works worthy of repentance”) or banishment to the lake of fire for eternal destruction. Here we have again a judgment directly by God, in the person of Jesus Christ, that involves both guilt and inheritance. There is no return for the banished, whether angelic or human.

Only after this final judgment does the era of a new heavens and a new earth open up for those whose names are written in the Book of Life. Only then will there be no more tears and no more death. But that is a story for another Feast.

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