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11.15.15 Contradictions in the Bible Acts 1:1-11 Sermon Summary

by on November 16, 2015

The presence of contradictions in the Bible has damaged Christian faith in the past 250 years, but not for the reason people think.

Summary Points

  • Landmark battles in the history of Christian faith
  • The damaging response to contradictions in the Bible
  • A more faithful response
  • “Heaven,” the Kingdom, and finding Jesus today
  • A postscript on a present landmark battle Christianity faces

Christianity has always had a need to defend itself. In the first century Paul defended Christianity against its parent religion Judaism. In the following few centuries people like Justin Martyr and Tertullian defended Christianity against Greek philosophy and Roman culture. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries Christianity was defending itself against Islam (though we picked the fight), and in the sixteenth century Christianity was defending itself against itself through the Reformations—both Protestant and Roman Catholic.

But for the past 250 years Christianity has been defending itself against the movement of secular humanism arising out of the Enlightenment (see postscript below for another battle we’re engaged in). In philosophical terms, this movement is called “Modernism” and it is characterized by optimism in human progress through scientific investigation. We learned to question the givens—for example, religious answers and societal/political arrangements—and to solve our problems and improve our lives on our own.

The Enlightenment made everyone aware of contradictions in the Bible. Since then people have lost faith not because the Bible contains contradictions, but because the church has failed to teach them how to deal with them. Instead, the church has argued whether contradictions exist, and people have simply lost patience, and then they lost faith. This is how contradictions in the Bible have damaged the church.

Perhaps the word “contradictions” makes you uncomfortable. Perhaps you’ve read, as I did many years ago, contemporary Christian apologetics (“defenders of the faith”) which use a very technical definition of “contradiction” to work in arguments that harmonize the two Creation stories, the birth narratives of Jesus, or the accounts of his resurrection. If so, at least you might agree that, despite the fact that everyone else sees these as contradictory, there are tensions in the Bible—tensions not only within itself, but with other ways of explaining things, like from science, history, or other religions.

The point is, as long as we spend our efforts denying or arguing about the contradictions instead of teaching the faithful how to keep faith in spite of them, the faithful will continue to lose faith. In fact, the issue isn’t really a new one. In the fifth century Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, advised his priests that tensions in the Bible exist to ensure that our faith was directed to Christ and not to the scriptures. Instead of a piecemeal preoccupation with details—and remember, the “devil is in the details”—Augustine counseled them to ask, “What is the larger story here?” In Luke 24 Jesus showed how Moses and the prophets spoke of him. The entire book of Hebrews demonstrates this approach very effectively.

The reason this approach for dealing with contradictions works is because (by and large) the contradictions are in the details. When we focus on the details, and especially arguing about the details, we risk the larger story. We miss the forest for the trees.

Take the succession story from Elijah to Elisha as an example. Elijah tests his protégé three times to ensure his heart is sincere. Three times he tells Elisha to wait here while he goes on ahead, knowing that “going on” means he is leaving for good. Three times Elisha promises to walk with Elijah. Finally Elijah tells Elisha to pay attention, to not be distracted, and if he sees him leaving, Elisha will receive Elijah’s ministry.

Elisha passes this final test. Even when a chariot of fire drawn by horses of fire swoops Elijah away to heaven, Elisha is not distracted by this rather spectacular detail and he sees Elijah drop his mantle as he “goes on.” The narrative concludes by telling us that, “The spirit of Elijah now rests on Elisha.”

The same basic story is told about Jesus. Throughout his ministry he called his disciples to watch and not be distracted. And in the Ascension story of Acts the disciples are at risk of being distracted, so much so that the same two messengers that appeared at the Resurrection come and stand among the disciples. They ask essentially the same question here as they did then. Then it was, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here.” Now they ask the disciples, “Why are you looking up to heaven?”

Instead of looking for Jesus “in heaven,” the messengers suggest, the disciples should look where Jesus told them to go, “in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” This is verified in the fact that this is exactly what they do throughout the rest of the book. Acts tells us that over the past forty days Jesus “presented himself alive” to the disciples. He used “many convincing proofs” and spoke “about the Kingdom of God.” We have accounts of such proofs at the end of the Gospels. How many more did they need? How could anything he might have done been more convincing? What Acts is telling us is that the convincing proof of Jesus’ resurrection is in fact the revelation not of a body but of the Kingdom.

Jesus reveals the Kingdom—first in his life, then in his resurrection. He reveals the Kingdom when he forgives sin, welcomes outcasts to his fellowship, feeds the hungry, heals the broken, and restores sight to the blind. This is how, Acts suggests, Jesus presents himself alive to his disciples, then and now. These are the convincing proofs. This is the main story, the forest the disciples are to see. We’re not to be distracted by the details, the contradictions, the things that confuse us. We’re not to look “towards heaven” for Jesus. We’re to find Jesus in the Kingdom right here, right now.

Heaven is where Jesus is, but it is less a place than a perspective. Jesus, the messengers suggest, may be out of sight, but he is not absent. We are to “look through” (per-spect) his absence and discover his presence. Just as the spirit of Elijah rested on Elisha, so now the Spirit of Christ rests on the church. Christ is “in heaven,” but present in Spirit, manifest in proofs, and evident to the faithful.

So let us look for Jesus where he can actually be found—in the Kingdom, through convincing proofs, moving beyond the wow of his Ascension to the now of his ongoing ministry. This is how he returns to us. It is how we see him today. And how we are his witnesses to the end of the earth.

POSTSCRIPT: Christianity is still defending itself against the Modernism of the Enlightenment. Fortunately, “Postmodernism” has provided a way forward for many of us. But the other place we are defending ourselves is against civil religion. It’s a battle front more and more people are realizing, but is still one most of the church happily ignores. We live in a country and culture that freely uses the language of Christianity when convenient but acts in ways opposite to Christ’s teaching. We quote the Bible to justify the obscene accumulation and concentration of wealth, exploitation of the planet, and waging of war. Few things reveal this hypocrisy more clearly than the annual lamentation about the “war on Christmas.” The war on Christmas was lost long ago, not by using red unmarked coffee cups, but when consumerism replaced thankful and thoughtful generosity. The fact that we think the battle line falls between “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays” shows just how successfully consumerism has obscured Christmas.

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