The following is taken from the manuscript draft of the book I am writing. I'd love to hear loads of comments and feedback. It's long and not very good, but I'm trying to get some external views on some of what I've written, so...read and comment, please.
When men are most sure and arrogant they are commonly most mistaken, giving views to passion without that proper deliberation which alone can secure them from the grossest absurdities. -David Hume
History is filled with revolutionary moments. Time after time, the very foundations of society have been moved by monumental actions, documents, and people. Read through your history books, and you’ll see large sections of history that turn at just one or two pivotal points.
In 1215, for example, England’s King John was weak, and he needed money to continue his feud with France. Weak monarchs in the Middle Ages did not stay on their thrones for long, and so John was desperately searching for a way out of his predicament.
The English barons were more than willing to give John the support he needed, provided they got some of his power for themselves. Left with few alternatives, King John signed a series of documents that we today refer to as the “Magna Charta.”
The Magna Charta really isn’t that significant in and of itself, but history sees things differently. While there are many other documents that are far more influential than the few scraps of paper we call the Magna Charta, the Western world general considers the Magna Charta to be the document that prompted the turn to democracy within the Western world. For the first time we determined that the king was not above the law or perhaps not even a direct representative of God. For the first time we decided that the legislative body of a country could limit the powers of their monarch. For the first time, the people of a country actually forced their king to do something he was diametrically opposed to doing.
There was another turning point in history on October 31, 1517, when a radical monk named Martin Luther nailed a list of abuses of church power to the chapel door at Wittenberg. His list was long; there were ninety-five reasons the Roman Catholic Church was wrong on that paper. Luther wanted to discuss his contentions with Church officials. He had been studying the Bible, and it seemed as though many of the doctrines the Church leaders promoted were not entirely in line with the teachings of the Biblical authors.
Many of his contentions were valid. As it turns out, the Roman Catholic Church did appear to be abusing their power and perhaps even misleading people away from the true God. Luther’s little act of defiance whipped them into shape, providing the spark that ignited the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation.
Typically, we consider these little acts of revolution to be monumental changes for the better within our societies. King John’s signature gave hope to the revolutionaries who could not even envision the liberal democracies of the United States and United Kingdom that would follow in future centuries. Martin Luther’s Ninety Five Theses showed the rest of Europe that the Church wasn’t always right, and they could be challenged with Scripture.
More often than not, though, history has no such monumental event as its focus. In fact, most of the “monumental events” that triggered history aren’t even the primary catalysts of change. King John’s signature may have been cool for the nobility, but the Magna Charta copied Henry I’s Charter of Liberties almost word for word. Plus, it was largely ignored by the monarchs of England for years. Martin Luther’s contentions may have been valid, but without the work of John Knox, John Calvin, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and England’s King Henry VII, the Protestant Church probably would not have gained a lot of support. There are multiplicities of factors that change the world, and I think it’s safe to conclude that no one moment will ever redefine a millennium.
The fact of the matter is that change comes in small doses. Sometimes, monstrous moments are recorded, but those moments are pretty useless without all the other moments that add fuel to their fire. Most of the major revolutions in society come when a whole bunch of people stand up against some entrenched institution that’s wrong. And, more often than not, that entrenched institution doesn’t think it is wrong.
Let’s be honest. There was a time where the world’s greatest scientists genuinely thought the world was flat; anyone who said otherwise was speaking pure nonsense. Every scientific fact available seemed to scream that disputers were ignorant. Then, after multitudes of seamen asserted that there was no way the conventional wisdom could actually be true, the scientists reexamined their facts and, lo and behold, determined the world was round.
But that round world was definitely the center of the universe. Everything had to revolve around it. Science said so. The Bible said so. Scientists and clergymen affirmed it. Even the brightest professors in the world attested to the geocentric theory. As it turns out, Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Brahe, Newton, and a pile of other scientists came to the conclusion that the current model just didn’t work, and suddenly, after having these scientists discoveries ridiculed for a few centuries, the world was just one planet in the middle of a solar system in a small galaxy on the outskirts of a huge universe.
So maybe we get the big stuff – the stuff outside of our comprehension – wrong. But we got the small stuff – the stuff close to home – right, right?
Wrong. There was a time when the best and brightest thought the world was made out of four elements. Then we went through a period where a mysterious substance named phlogiston should be included with the other four elements because the four-element-theory didn’t quite explain things. As it turns out, more science would reveal that the atom was the absolute smallest building block of life, and there are all sorts of types of them.
That’s all well and good, but upon further review, we determined that the atom has a whole slew of junk inside, all of which is essential to our existence. Our atomic model was proved wildly wrong, so we rewrote it to fit with new evidence. It’s a good thing, too. Our universe would be very different if quarks were constructed just a bit differently or if the world was just slightly more homogenous in matter.
It turns out that science is fallible, showing the fact that we humans get stuff
wrong a lot. We mock those theories that do not fit nicely with our own presuppositions. Granted, all the evidence may be stacked against some theory that conflicts with our assumptions, but we shouldn’t necessarily dismiss these ideas cold turkey because they might not necessarily be wrong. Evidence was against those who said the earth was round, the earth was not the center of the universe, and the earth was made out of smaller-than-atomic materials. History is littered with examples of brilliant, rational thinkers who were drawing completely incorrect conclusions from their evidence.
So maybe science did it, but politics did it, too. We’ve had democratic revolutions, feudalistic revolutions, Marxist revolutions, and a bunch of others that show that maybe conventional wisdom about what works best isn’t really best.
Over and over again, in every facet of life, we’ve proven ourselves wrong, had a
revolt, and moved in the correct direction.
Religion has had the same problems. Stripping away the mistakes Church leaders made during the Scientific Revolution with the flatness and centrality of the earth, there are still literally hundreds of examples of errors in doctrine promoted by the leaders of religion.
The Bible shows some religious leaders who got it wrong, too. The Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes thought that the point of their history was to point to the coming Messiah. They had the Law of Moses, and they knew they were supposed to follow it. Some leaders felt that a few additional rules here or there would help people keep that Law better, thereby making way for the Messiah.
But when that Messiah came, they missed it. Not only did they miss Him, they mocked Him, conspired against Him, experienced His rebuke, and eventually put Him to death. Clearly, they were wrong. They were too legalistic, too proud, too blasphemous, and too narrow-minded. They could not conceive of a world where their theology, their beliefs, and their convictions were incorrect. The Christ they encountered was too far outside of their box.
But really, should it have been that obvious that they were wrong?
While we’re being honest, let’s consider where these religious leaders got a lot of their ideas. We can rebuke them for their legalism, and that’s probably merited, but for the purposes of this chapter, we’re going to focus on their missing of the Messiah.
Jewish religious leaders alive at the time of Christ knew the Bible, or what portions of it they had, cover to cover. They had little boxes called phylacteries that contained Scripture, and these boxes would be strapped to their heads and arms and other various body parts to remind them that Scripture was important. They would spend years of their lives poring over the Word of God, studying it, devouring it, and being instructed in it. Lengthy passages would be memorized, and vast amounts of time would be spent not only reading but also understanding what God had to say to His people in His Word.
And, being Jewish, they had an advantage most of us lack; they spoke the language and had a better cultural connection to the text than we have. So, when trying to determine where, when, and how the Messiah would come, they would examine the Word of God with a deep understanding of the context and meaning.
Undoubtedly, they were aware of Messianic prophecy, then. Isaiah said He’d be born of a virgin, Micah said He’d be born in Bethlehem, and Genesis said He’d be a descendant of Abraham. Hosea said that He would come from Egypt at some point, and 2
Samuel says that Emmanuel would come from the House of David. Genesis also said that He’d be part of the tribe of Judah, and both Isaiah and Malachi spoke of a messenger who would come before the Messiah, preparing His way. Numbers said that a star would come to symbolize his birth, and the Psalms contained a plethora of prophecies about the coming King.
Obviously, they were inexcusable for missing Christ’s birth. How could they have been so dumb to reject the Messiah? Wasn’t His birth alone evidence enough? Didn’t that fulfill enough prophecy?
Not exactly. The prophecies surrounding Christ’s birth are pretty clear in retrospect, but let’s not forget that they seemed pretty clear prior to Christ’s birth, too. The difference is that the clarity we see in them now looks totally different than the clarity the religious leaders of Jesus’ day saw.
Consider, as an example, the conclusions drawn from Isaiah 9. Isaiah contains some of the richest prophecy about the birth of the Messiah, and Isaiah 9 is one of those passages that points out to the reader what the coming King would look like. Verses 6-7 say, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.”
We like these verses around Christmas when we’re putting on our cantatas (Who decided that a Christmas concert should be called a cantata, anyway? Somebody needs to take a class in music history.) and writing our Christmas cards, but they have deep theological and prophetic significance. To the Pharisees and other religious scholars, these verses talked about what the coming Messiah would be like.
The face value outline of the verses is pretty simple. First of all, the government would be upon His shoulder. Then, of course, there are great names for Him that follow – Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Explain to me how a baby born to poor adulterers huddled in a stable miles from home because of the whim of some crazy Roman emperor is a Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, or Prince of Peace. Not to mention, the government was not particularly upon his shoulder any more or less than any other baby born in Israel around this time.
Yet, Christ was born of Mary in the Bethlehem stable as our Messiah. Mary and Joseph were not married when Jesus was conceived, and so it would be easy for outsiders to assume that the child had been conceived out of wedlock. The pair was in Bethlehem because of the census put out by Caesar Augustus, so they were far from home, and because of the overcrowding, the lady having a baby was sleeping in a stable.
But let’s keep reading. Maybe the text will reveal more to us.
Next, the verses say that “of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end.” Let’s just say that Jesus was born at a less-than-peaceful time in the history of the Jewish people, and his life did nothing to make things better for the people peace-wise. Sure, He healed spiritual wounds, but political and social peace (which, by the way, is how peace is usually used) was in no way advanced by the birth of Christ. The first century AD saw revolts and uprisings of the Jews against the Romans, and many Jews were killed, exploited, or maimed at the hands of their Roman oppressors.
Plus, it doesn’t seem as though Mary and Joseph are prime candidates to be parents of the kid who would sit on the throne of David and rule over his kingdom. Joseph was a poor carpenter, and Mary was a young girl. Sure, she was nice enough, but if she was alive today and got pregnant while engaged to Joseph, I’m pretty sure no one would think the Holy Spirit was the father. Furthermore, if either Mary or Joseph said they had been visited by an angel and told they had been chosen to be the earthly parents of the Messiah, we’d think they were trying to cover for their impropriety. Impoverished, lying fornicators don’t fit my description of those who would be fit to raise the King of Kings on earth, the One full of justice and righteousness.
To be fair, we should engage in careful Biblical study. So, let’s do what today’s Bible scholars do. First, we’ll go ad fontes, to the source of Scripture, for sola Scriptura is important.
The first name for the newborn King mentioned in Isaiah 9:6 is in Hebrew. This word is a masculine noun that literally means “wonder” or “marvel”. It is used to refer to something that is hard to understand, yet extraordinary and admirable nonetheless.
Next comes the word , which is actually a verb meaning, “to advise or plan”. Normally, we translate this Counselor, which is a pretty solid translation, because the Messiah is One who would give counsel. Because of the fact that “Counselor” is actually a verb in Hebrew, most translators put “Wonderful Counselor” together in English, literally displaying the meaning of a marvelous One who counsels. Some, though, have objected to this translation, saying that since they are written separately in Hebrew, they ought to be translated separately in English as “Wonderful, Counselor”. Either way, the Messiah would one who wonderfully counsels.
The “mighty God” comes from two words that together imply a powerful king or hero. The word can sometimes mean “God”, as in, the one, true, powerful, Jehovah God. More often, though, these words are used to refer to one who is “god-like”, having the power and strength of a conquering, heroic king. It might be a stretch, but this word almost refers to a William Wallace-esque figure, one who comes with force and might.
The “everlasting Father” is probably the most literally translated phrase in the verse; it pretty much means “everlasting Father” without any qualification in the Septuagint. The next phrase, “Prince of peace”, is less straightforward, however. “Prince” is most definitely referring to a political leader, while “peace” refers to social rest more than inner resolution. The Hebrew here references a political peace – freedom from war, growing prosperity within a nation, and generally high welfare among citizens. The Hebrew words don’t leave much room for a non-political figure to fit the description.
Add that to the information in the verse about the throne of David. The throne of David, to a first century Jew, would clearly be referencing the actual political throne of David. So confident were translators of the political implications of the phrase that some have argued that it should literally be translated “the throne of the Caesars” instead of “the throne of David”. Last time I checked, that’s a pretty political prophecy.
Now, the baby born in Bethlehem is not one who any objective observer would say would was a conquering, strong political figure who would preside over a peaceful, prosperous welfare state. He doesn’t seem like the one kings would turn to for advice, nor is He one full of strength and might.
Maybe if we put those names in immediate context we can get a better picture of this Messiah, though.
Isaiah 8 spells doom and gloom, and Isaiah 9 doesn’t exactly look cheery from the outset. According to Isaiah, the people of Israel were caught in a pretty awful situation because of their rebellion against God. Trouble, dimness, and darkness were all around them because of their sin. The land of the Israelites – not the people therein, mind you, but the land – was experiencing affliction because of sin, and the people were walking in darkness.
The Messiah was going to change all that. The Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace was going to take away the affliction from the land, rebuild the cities, and shine light into the darkness of the people’s hearts. Isaiah’s doom and gloom is countered by the message of radically transforming grace. A Redeemer was on His way, ready to buy back His people and His nation. Moreover, the yoke of the burden on the people was supposed to be broken by the Savior, and the battles of the best warriors would be fruitless against the coming King.
The Christmas story and ensuing life of Christ don’t contain the tales of a man who led a glorious political revolution that liberated the Israelites. The Romans held hegemony over the Israelites at the time, so they would be the natural targets of Christ’s conquering, but Christ did not rock the political foundations of His day. Historians doubt that Caesar ever heard Christ’s name, and historical documents barely record a blip of Christ’s life extraneous to Biblical record. The military strength of Israel was not increased by Jesus, nor was the yoke of Roman bondage reduced by Christ’s presence.
Turning to the greater context, we can combine this prophecy with other Messianic prophecies, yet still it doesn’t necessarily bear out the baby in Bethlehem.
Malachi 3:1 talks about someone who would prepare the way for the Lord, and Isaiah 40:3-5 refers to a precursor to Christ who would be the voice of one crying in the wilderness, telling us to make straight the way of the Lord. Unfortunately, the guy that God had in mind to prepare the way for His Son didn’t fit the expectations of the religious leaders. John the Baptist was downright weird. He lived in the desert, outside the city. Generally speaking, one who is trying to deliver an important message would go to where the people are, but John the Baptist let the people come to him. Matthew 3 indicates that he was dressed in clothes made of camel hair, and he had a belt made of leather. He ate locusts and wild honey, and he called the religious leaders of his day “vipers”. (I seem to remember some other leader doing that as well.)
Plus, John the Baptist lived at pretty much the same time as Christ. Recall that John the Baptist baptized Jesus, and remember that Mary visited Elizabeth to inform her of her own pregnancy while Elizabeth was pregnant with John the Baptist. In a time where birth records were less-than-meticulously kept and less-than-readily available, it’s unlikely that the religious leaders knew who was born first. For all they knew, John the Baptist could have been younger than Jesus, and the prophecy indicates that the messenger from the wilderness would come well before Christ to prepare his way.
John the Baptist really is not the guy most of us would think the King of Kings would pick as His publicist when He came to earth. Not since the days of Ezekiel had the Lord used such an odd prophet to deliver such a crucial message. By the way, the religious leaders rejected Ezekiel too, mostly because he was weird.
Then, of course, there are the more blatantly Messianic prophecies. Micah 5 talks of One who will go forth to be the ruler in Israel, ruling His people with the very strength of God and being declared great to the ends of the earth. Psalm 110 tells of a strong scepter coming out of Zion. The coming King would rule with might, judging the nations, conquering Israel’s enemies, toppling kings, and presiding as priest over the people. Psalm 2 speaks of the coming Messiah and shows how He will receive the nations of the earth as an inheritance, shattering kingdoms with a rod of iron, and displaying His glory as God’s King.
Deuteronomy 18:15-19 refers to Christ as a prophet like Moses. He was going to speak the word of the Lord to His people, and they would listen to Him. Our Sunday School days show us that, despite Moses’ meekness, he was a powerful political force, leading the nation of Israel out of the potent nation of Egypt and through many other perilous times.
Proverbs 30:4 presents a riddle whose answer indicates the character of the coming King:
“Who has ascended to heaven and come down?
Who has gathered the wind in his fists?
Who has wrapped up the waters in a garment?
Who has established all the ends of the earth?
What is his name, and what is his son's name?” (ESV)
Obviously, this list could go on and on. There are more than three hundred prophecies in the Septuagint related to Christ’s coming, and, if examined without the benefit of the New Testament and post-Christ history, a lot of them indicate Christ would bring an obvious political revolution for the nation of Israel.
I, for one, can understand how the Pharisees missed it. They thought they had scoured the Scriptures and had come out with rock solid doctrine about their Redeemer. Upon scouring the Scriptures with them, I could arrive at many of the same conclusions. The Bible that they possessed seemed to indicate a political figure was coming to rescue them.
Sometimes I think that our firmly entrenched views about the Word of God might be errant. They are most certainly based on Scripture, but the religious leaders of Christ’s day were basing a lot of their beliefs off Scripture as well. Notice that Christ did not excuse them for getting it wrong, either. He didn’t say that it was OK that they missed His presence because they were acting on what they thought Scripture said. To the contrary, He described them as self-righteous and arrogant. In Matthew 22-23, Jesus pretty well beats up the Pharisees for thinking they had gotten Scripture right when they had clearly missed some major points the Teacher had wanted them to grasp. In Luke 13, Christ laments for Jerusalem, saying that they had rejected Him and killed His prophets. While there is no doubt that the nation of Israel had actually physically killed Christ’s prophets, they had also metaphorically rejected those prophets by incorrectly understanding and applying their message.
Sometimes I think that we have a lot more in common with the Pharisees than we would like to admit. We come to the Scriptures to study them and understand them, but by stifling out views running against the status quo, we arrive at conclusions that fall short of truth. We become the people Christ was talking about in the second half of John 5. In that passage, Christ was speaking to a crowd that knew the Scriptures well. In fact, they knew the Scripture so well that when they were indicted for missing Christ, the Word of God was their accuser. Christ says:
“…the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen, and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent. You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. I do not receive glory from people. But I know that you do not have the love of God within you. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me…”
I think often, we can be a lot like the people to whom Christ is speaking in this passage. We search the Scriptures, thinking we will find light in them, but we miss the main points that God is trying to make in them because we’re broadcasting in our own voices. The world and the Scriptures are bearing witness to the love of Christ, but we refuse to embrace His life as He offers it. We are just like the religious leaders of Christ’s day who examined the writings of Moses and failed to find Jesus; we examine our Bibles and fail to become Christians.
Sometimes I think we could use a major, earth-shattering event again. Sometimes I think a culture shock is necessary to move the Church from its stagnation. While it’s popular to talk about another Reformation happening in today’s culture, but I don’t think that’s the right way to go about it. You can’t plan a Reformation. The guys who forced King John to sign the Magna Charta weren’t planning to spread democracy across the world; they were trying to save their own manors and fiefs. Martin Luther wasn’t trying to bring down the Roman Catholic establishment; he was trying to clean up their doctrine.
Other times, I think we’ve got it right. I’m fairly confident in my doctrine, and I think that the conclusions that I have reached about Scripture are pretty well grounded in Scripture. Yet, when I look at human history, there are literally billions of people who disagree with my conclusions. What if I didn’t get it right?
Arthur Clarke famously mused, “A faith that cannot survive collision with the truth is not worth many regrets.” We would be wise to listen to his wisdom and start to ask questions about those things we know by faith are certainly true. If our faith is so weak that it cannot endure a simple line of questioning and rigorous examination through the lens of Scripture, maybe it’s worth walking away from.
Maybe the way to reform the Church is to be constantly reexamining our beliefs and constantly asking questions, even about the stuff we are certain we have right. Maybe we should approach the Bible differently than it has been approached. Maybe we should try to understand how our more liberal brothers could be Universalists. Maybe we should reconsider why we think God is immutable. Maybe we should examine which ordinances we think are part of the modern church. Maybe we should rethink the church. Maybe our models for church worship aren’t correct. Maybe our models for ministry are wrong. Maybe our beliefs about eschatology are rife with errors. Maybe the Holy Spirit is more or less active than we like to think. Maybe theistic evolutionists have it right. Maybe dispensationalists and covenant theologians are both wrong. Maybe Calvinists, Pelagianists, and Arminianists are all wrong. Maybe everything we think we know about Scripture is tainted by culture, history, and preconceived notions.
Maybe we’ve missed the point.
Maybe we’re arrogant.
I think we’re most definitely arrogant when we think we’ve gotten it right beyond a shadow of a doubt. We’re called to hold fast the confession of faith without wavering and stand in out doctrine to be sure we do not become shipwrecked in falsehood, but even with a preponderance of Scriptural evidence on our side, I think we have to leave open the idea that we might still be wrong about something somewhere. The Pharisees thought they had Scripture on their side regarding the coming Messiah, but they were clearly wrong. Pre-Enlightenment scientists thought they had reality on their side, but they were clearly wrong, too. Maybe we should entertain different ideas than we’re accustomed to entertaining – ideas that are old and ideas that are new.
Maybe the way to ignite a new reformation is for all of us to live lives that seek God first in all things. Maybe the way to seek God first is to continually study God’s Word, recognizing that our formulas and doctrinal statements and preconceived beliefs might be wrong. Maybe the way to properly understand and discern the meaning of Scripture is to approach it with an open mind. Maybe we should let Scripture teach us instead of trying to teach Scripture to others.
Maybe it’s time to prove ourselves wrong, have a revolt, and move in the correct direction.
And maybe, just maybe, somebody will look back in five hundred years and see one of our actions as the spark that changed the world.
Note: This exerpt is from a manuscript draft © 2008 Daniel Hanson. Please do not cite, reproduce, reprint, or redistribute without expressed permission of the author.
All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.