Thursday, February 12, 2015

Sermons to Check Out

For those of you who are into listening to sermons online, here are a couple of great resources!

(1) Capitol Hill Baptist Church led by Dr. Mark Dever
Mark Dever is an absolute master of sermon preparation and delivery, an exegetical animal prone to amazing feats of preaching. Known for preaching through entire books of the Bible in a single sermon, he has also outdone himself by preaching individual sermons on the whole Old Testament, on the whole New Testament, and on the whole Bible (twice!). There are also a number of other gifted and faithful preachers whose sermons are available to listen to here.

(2) The Meeting House led by Pastor Bruxy Cavey
This Toronto-based church describes themselves as "a church for people who aren't into church". The sermons, notes, and small-group questions are well thought out, and the style is fun and often humorous. I often use sermon clips from this church for youth group videos!

(3) Covenant Life Church led by Pastor Joshua Harris
This church has a pretty deep library of sermons, classes, and conference messages on a whole variety of topics and Biblical books. Definitely take a look.

(4) Door of Hope Church led by Josh White and Tim Mackie
The newest entry on our list opened its doors just 6 years ago in 2009. In that time, it has had incredible growth and has even begun to spin off and start other ministries such as The Bible Project on YouTube (also a good source of youth group videos). Their sermon library is incredibly deep and the topics covered are substantial. This also easily the most media-savvy church on the list, so you'll find their website is pretty intuitive and easy to get around on. Enjoy!

Happy listening,

-Sean

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Reduced Gospel of Jesus


This next post has been lifted from Donald Miller's book Searching For God Knows What. It's about how the Gospel is more elaborate and beautiful than the "reduced version" that we find in Christian tracts and pamphlets. It's largely because of writing like this that Donald Miller has become my favourite author, beating out more obvious picks like Mark Driscoll, John Piper, or Kevin DeYoung. I have edited Don's format just a little bit to fit the style of most of my Searching For A City posts.

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"THE GOSPEL OF JESUS" 
'My friend Greg and I have been talking quite a bit about what it means to follow Jesus. Greg would not consider himself as somebody who takes Jesus seriously, but he admits to having questions. I didn't have a formula for him to understand how a Christian conversion works, but I told him that many years ago, when I was a child, I had heard about Jesus and found the idea of Him compelling, then much later, while reading the Gospels, came to believe that I wanted to follow Him. This changed things in my life, I said, because it involved giving up everything and choosing to go into a relationship with Him.

Greg told me he had seen a pamphlet with four or five ideas on it, ideas such as man was a sinner, sin separated man from God, and Christ died to absolve the separation. He asked me if this was what I believed, and I told him, essentially, that it was. "Those would be the facts of the story," I said, "but that isn't the story." "Those are the ideas, but it isn't the narrative," Greg stated rhetorically. "Yes," I told him.

IT'S HARD TO BELIEVE IT CAN BE SUMMED UP THIS SIMPLY
Earlier that same year I had a conversation with my friend Omar, who is a student at a local college. For his humanities class, Omar was assigned to read the majority of the Bible. He asked to meet with me for coffee, and when we sat down he put a Bible on the table as well as a pamphlet containing the same five or six ideas Greg had mentioned. He opened the pamphlet, read the ideas, and asked if these concepts were important to the central message of Christianity. I told Omar that they were critical; that, basically, this was the gospel of Jesus, the backbone of the Christian faith. Omar then opened his Bible and asked, "If these ideas are so important, why aren't they in this book?" 

"But the Scripture references are right here," I said curiously, showing Omar that the verses were printed next to each idea. "I see that," he said. "But in the Bible they aren't concise like they are in this pamphlet. They are spread out all over the book." "But this pamphlet is a summation of the ideas," I clarified. "Right," Omar continued, "but it seems like, if these ideas are that critical, God would have taked the time to make bullet points out of them, Instead, He put some of them here and some of them there. And half the time, when Jesus is talking, He is speaking entirely in parables. It is hard to believe that whatever it is He is talking about can be summed up this simply." 

THE TROUBLE WITH THESE REDUCED IDEAS
Omar's point is well taken, And while the ideas presented in these pamphlets are certainly true, it struck me how simply we had begun to explain the ideas, not only how simply, but how non-relationally, how propositionally. I don't mean any of this to fault the pamphlets at all. Tracts such as the ones Omar and Greg encountered have been powerful tools in helping people understand the beauty of the message of Christ. Millions, perhaps, have come to know Jesus through these efficient presentations of the gospel. But I did begin to wonder if there were better ways of explaining it than these pamphlets. After all, the pamphlets have been around for only the last fifty years or so (along with our formulaic presentation of the gospel), and the church has shrunk, not grown, in Western countries in which these tools have been used. But the greater trouble with these reduced ideas is that modern evangelical culture is so accustomed to this summation that it is difficult for us to see the gospel as anything other than a list of true statements with which a person must agree. 

OUR REDUCTION HAS CAUSED US TO MISS SOMETHING
It makes me wonder if, because of this reduced version of the claims of Christ, we believe the gospel is easy to understand, a simple mental exercise, not the least bit mysterious. And if you think about it, a person has a more difficult time explaining romantic love, for instance, or beauty, or the Trinity, than the gospel of Jesus. John would open his gospel by presenting the idea that God is the Word and Jesus is the Word and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Not exactly bullet points for easy consumption. Perhaps our reduction of these ideas has caused us to miss something.'

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Great stuff from The Donald.
-Sean

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Josephus and the Evidence for Jesus


This post is taken from portions of Bart Ehrman's book Did Jesus Exist?, written to debunk popular internet conspiracy theories which suggest Jesus never lived. The layout of Ehrman's arguments has been changed to fit SFAC blog format, but all of the words (besides headings) are original to the well-known atheist Bible scholar Bart Ehrman.
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WHO WAS JOSEPHUS AND WHY IS HE IMPORTANT?
"Flavius Josephus is one of the truly important figures from ancient Judaism. His abundant historical writings are our primary source of information about the life and history of Palestine in the first century. He himself was personally involved with some of the most important events that he narrates, especially in his eight-volume work, The Jewish Wars. Josephus was born to an aristocratic family in Palestine some six or seven years after the traditional date of Jesus' death... In his various writings Josephus mentions a large number of Jews, especially as they were important for the social, political, and historical situation in Palestine. As it turns out, he deals briefly also with John the Baptist. And on two occasions, at least in the writings as they have come down to us today, he mentions Jesus of Nazareth."

JOSEPHUS TALKS ABOUT JESUS' BROTHER JAMES
"It is somewhat simpler to deal with these two references [to Jesus of Nazareth] in reverse order. The second of them is very brief and occurs in Book 20 of the Antiquities. Here Josephus is referring to an incident that happened in 62 [AD], before the Jewish uprising, when the local civic and religious leader in Jerusalem, the high priest Ananus, misused his power. The Roman governor had been withdrawn, and in his absence, we are told, Ananus unlawfully put to death a man named James, whom Josephus identifies as 'the brother of Jesus, who is called the messiah' (Antiquities 20.9.1). Here, unlike the pagan references we examined earlier, Jesus is actually called by name. And we learn two things about him: he had a brother named James, and some people thought that he was the messiah. Both points are abundantly attested as well, of course, in our Christian sources, but it is interesting to see that Josephus is aware of them."

THE SO-CALLED 'FORGED' PASSAGE ABOUT JESUS (PART #1)
"[The second passage] is known to scholars as the Testimonium Flavianum, that is, the testimony given by Flavius Josephus to the life of Jesus. It is the longest reference to Jesus that we have considered so far, and it is by far the most important. In the best manuscripts of Josephus it reads as follows:

At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one should call him a man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. He was the messiah. And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. For he appeared to them on the third day, living again, just as the divine prophets had spoken of these and countless other wonderous things about him. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out. (Antiquities 18.3.3)

The problems with this passage should be obvious to anyone with even a casual knowledge of Josephus. We know a good deal about him, both from the autobiography that he produced and from other self-references in his writings. He was thoroughly and ineluctably Jewish and certainly never converted to be a follower of Jesus. But this passage contains comments that only a Christian would make: that Jesus was more than a man, that he was the messiah, and that he arose from the dead in fulfillment of the scriptures. In the judgement of most scholars, there is simply no way Josephus the Jew would or could have written such things. So how did these comments get into his writings?"

WAS THIS A FORGERY OR JUST A TOUCH-UP? (PART #2)
"Among his own people [the Jews], Josephus was not a beloved author read through the ages. In fact, his writings were transmitted in the Middle Ages not by Jews but by Christians. This shows how we can explain the extraordinary Christian claims about Jesus in this passage. When Christian scribes copied the text, they added a few words here and there to make sure that the reader would get the point. This is that Jesus, the super-human messiah raised from the dead as the scriptures predicted. The big question is whether a Christian scribe (or scribes) simply added a few choice Christian additions to the passage or whether the entire thing was produced by a Christian and inserted in an appropriate place in Josephus Antiquities.

The majority of scholars of early Judaism, and experts on Josephus, think that it was the former - that one or more Christian scribes 'touched up' the passage a bit. If one takes out the obviously Christian comments, the passage may have been rather innocuous, reading something like this:

At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man. He was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. When Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out.

If this is the original form of the passage, then Josephus had some solid historical information about Jesus's life: Jesus was known for his wisdom and teaching; he was thought to have done remarkable deeds; he had numerous followers; he was condemned to be crucified by Pontius Pilate because of Jewish accusations brought against him; and he continued to have followers among the Christians after his death."

COUNTERING THE ARGUMENTS OF DOUBTERS (PART #3)
"Some have argued, however, that the entire passage was made up by a Christian author and inserted into the writings of Josephus. If that is the case, then possibly the later references to James as 'the brother of Jesus, who is called the messiah' was also interpolated, in order to reinforce the point of the earlier insertion... G.A. Wells has maintained that if one removes the entire Testimonium from its larger context, the preceding paragraph and the one that follows flow together quite nicely. This one seems, then, intrusive. As Earl Doherty rightly notes, however, it was not at all uncommon for ancient writers (who never used footnotes) to digress from their main points, and in fact other digressions can be found in the surrounding context of the passage. So this argument really does not amount to much.

More striking for Earl Doherty is the fact that no Christian authors appear to be aware of this passage intil the church father Eusebius, writing in the early fourth century [the 300's AD]. In the second and third centuries there were many Christian writers (Justin, Tertullian, Origen, and so on) who were intent on defending both Christianity and Jesus himself against charges leveled against him by their opponents. And yet they never, in defense of Jesus, mention this passage of Josephus. Is that really plausible?... This too does not strike me as a strong argument. The pared-down version of Josephus -the one without Christian additions- contains very little that could have been used by the early Christian writers to defend Jesus and his followers from attacks by pagan intellectuals. It is a very neutral statement. The fact that Jesus is said to have been wise or to have done great deeds would not go far in the repertoire of the Christian apologists... if one reads the passage without the rose-tinted lenses of the Christian tradition, its view of Jesus can be seen as basically negative. The fact that he was opposed by the leaders of the Jewish people would no doubt have shown that he was not an upright Jew. And the fact that he was condemned to crucifixion, the most horrific execution imaginable to a Roman audience, speaks for itself."

"What I did not stress earlier but need to point out now is that there is absolutely nothing to suggest that the pagan Tacitus or the Jewish Josephus acquired their information about Jesus by reading the Gospels. They heard information about him. That means the information the gave predated their writings. Indirectly, then, Tacitus and (possibly) Josephus provide independent attestation to Jesus's existence from outside the Gospels although, as I stated earlier, in doing so they do not give us information that is unavailable in our other sources."

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This might have been thick reading (and I chose to cut a lot of Ehrman's material out!), but this is also great information to have on some of the proof for Jesus. I hope it's been helpful! For anyone interested in reading Josephus for themselves, click for the online version of his Antiquities of the Jews.