Questions and Answers (6:1)

In the original lecture series done in 1984 at the Loma Linda University Church, Graham Maxwell spoke for about a half hour each Friday night following by written questions and answers from Lou Venden and also from the audience. The next several posts contain questions and answers from the fifth presentation, “The Record of the Evidence.”

Lou: It seems that you are asking us to do a lot of thinking and studying. There’s a bumper sticker around which says, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it for me.” That sounds refreshingly simple. Why wouldn’t that be the appropriate way to go?
Graham: The difficulty is that people pick the passages from the Bible that they want to label in that way, and they don’t read all the others. For example, “Take the tithe and buy strong drink with it, and rejoice before the Lord” (Deut 14:24-26). God said it. Do you believe it? Or take another passage, “Give wine to the poor, that they may forget their misery” (Prov 31:6-7). Does that settle it for you? “God has said it. I believe it.” You really can’t do that. On the surface, it sounds like an expression of humility and teachableness, which would be very commendable. But no one can really follow that if they read everything God says. Because when you read all of Scripture, you discover the hazard of plucking pieces out like that.

Lou: So you are pushing us at the point of meaning. We just cannot simply jump around here and there and think we understand what it means. If we are serious about God’s Word, there’s no easy way around the context.
Graham: The Bible says, “All Scripture is inspired of God.” So if that bumper sticker means I’m reading it all, then I’m comfortable with the idea.
Lou: Would you suggest a better bumper sticker, perhaps?
Graham: How about this: “Thank you for the evidence. Thank you for making it so clear. And thank you most of all for what it cost.” It would take a big bumper, wouldn’t it!

Lou: We have quite a backlog of questions. “Using the model of the larger view, how does one fit together the apparently violent God of the Old Testament, the friendly God of the New Testament, and the destructive God of Revelation at the end of this earth?” Put that all together.
Graham: Ah, that’s very well stated. That assumes, of course, that God is always severe and violent in the Old Testament. Yet some of the most gentle and moving statements are in the Old Testament. For example, in the parable of the vineyard, “What more can I do for you than I have done” (Isa 5:4)? “The Lord is my Shepherd” (Psalm 23). So the Old Testament is not entirely violent, nor is the New Testament entirely gentle. When Ananias and Sapphira cheated with their offering, they died right on the church floor (Acts 5:5, 10). So I actually find a consistency running through all the Bible, and the real question would be, why is there a varied picture running from Genesis to Revelation, culminating in the third angel’s message, which is so violent (Rev 14:9-11)?
I wouldn’t know how to handle it, except by taking it as a whole and finding the same God dealing with a great variety of people. When we are irreverent, there may be she-bears, thunder and lightning, or an earthquake. And yet I see the same gentle One behind it all, grieving when those people had to be treated that way. But what else could He do?
I don’t think a quick answer like this would ever satisfy someone who has raised the question so thoughtfully. The best response would be to sit down together and go through all the sixty-six books. It takes a little time, but there are no shortcuts to this. And it would be wise to keep that larger question in mind as one reads every book in the sixty-six.

Lou: This one ties in with that as well. “Satan held that God was not able to be just and merciful at the same time. Today He offers us mercy, but will He not kill us finally? Are we not to be consumed in His fire? If we are, how then do we call Him a God of love? Why did Jesus have to die? Was not God’s mercy sufficient?” That’s another one of those full message questions.
Graham: Yes. These are the really important questions, the kind that have to be answered for the universe to be secure. That’s why we see that theme running all through Scripture, culminating in the death of Jesus. And that’s why we have a whole chapter in this book on the most costly and convincing evidence. There was no other way to answer those questions than for God to come in human form and die as He did. So the great controversy view doesn’t make light of the death of Christ. It makes it infinitely more significant. Because there is no other way to answer those questions, and we will deal with those at length in Chapter Eight.

Reading Out of Context

There are plenty of challenging texts in the Bible, when they are read out of context. When Paul says, “It’s all right to marry if you must, but I wish you could be as I am,” does he mean that married people are second class saints? No, put that statement it in its context. Similarly, why did Paul say, “I won’t allow a woman to speak in church” (1 Cor 14:34-35; 1 Tim 2:12)? And why does the Old Testament say, “You cannot boil a kid in its mother’s milk” (Exod 23:19; 34:26; Deut 14:21)? And then you turn to Judges and read about Samson, filled with the Spirit, killing a thousand men with the jawbone of an ass (Judg 15:15-17). You read about that fat king and the dagger that was thrust into him (Judg 3:15-28). And the dreadful story of the Levite and his Concubine (Judg 19:1-30).

One of the worst illustrations of reading the Bible out of context is a book called The Bible Unmasked. A man who’s avowed purpose was to destroy confidence in the Bible and in God, collected every unpleasant story of immorality and cruelty in the Bible and laid them end to end with the preface, “Would you mothers let your children read this sort of thing?” When I mentioned this book in one of my classes, a student came back with the best answer to this I have ever heard, “If you took the medical book and cut out all the pictures of disease and all the symptoms of disease and printed them all by themselves, it would be a useless, repulsive publication. The only justification for printing those things is that they are always presented in the setting of the remedy.”

The Bible is very candid in its depiction and description of sin. But it always presents sin in the setting of the remedy. Otherwise the Bible would not be fit to read. But that’s why we must read it as a whole. For example, did you know that there are two books in the Bible that don’t even mention God once? Not once. But if you take those two books, Esther and Song of Solomon, and put them in the larger setting of the Bible as a whole, they say wonderful things about our God. You see, to be fair with the evidence we must read it as a whole. After going through the Bible more than a hundred times, this is a summary of my firmest convictions about its purpose.

The great purpose of the Bible is to reveal the truth about our heavenly Father that we may be won back to Him in love and trust. This truth, this everlasting good news, is to be found in every one of the sixty-six books. But to discover this truth we must learn more than just what happened to Samson and Delilah, to David and Bathsheba, to Gideon and his fleece. The all-important question is, what do these stories tell us about God?
If one does not ask this question, much of the content of Scripture may seem unrelated to the plan of salvation, even perplexing, sometimes even contradictory. But when one learns to view the Bible as a whole, there emerges a consistent picture of an all-wise and gracious God who seems willing to go to any length to keep in touch with His people, to stoop and reach them where they are, to speak a language they can understand. And the further one reads on book by book, the more one is moved with love and admiration for a God who would be willing to run such risk, to pay such a price, in order to keep open the lines of communication between Himself and His wayward children.
God will save all who trust Him. But He has not asked us to trust Him as a stranger. The Bible–all of it–is a record of God’s revelation and demonstration of infinite trustworthy-ness.

This statement of principle will continue to guide the rest of our twenty conversations (chapters) about God. We want to look at all of the biblical evidence in this way.

Jesus and the Old Testament

No wonder many people don’t know what to do with the Old Testament. No wonder one of Jesus’ own disciples didn’t. Philip said to Jesus, “Tell us about the Father and we will be satisfied” (John 14:8). Jesus replied, “Have I been with you so long Philip, and you don’t know me” (John 14:9)? What Philip seems to be saying is “We aren’t asking about You. We worship You as the Son of God. And to our great surprise we are not afraid of You. What we want to know about is the Father. We want to know about the One who drowned all but eight and said, ‘If you disobey Me, I will kill you.’ We want to know about the God who killed the firstborn in Egypt (Exod 11:4-7) and the 185,000 Assyrians (2 Kings 19:35). The God who killed Uzzah when he touched the ark (2 Sam 6:3-8) and turned Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt (Gen 19:26). The One who swallowed up Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (Num 16:1-35), and burned up Nadab and Abihu (Lev 10:1-3; Num 3:2-4), and sent the she-bears against the boys who mocked Elisha (2 Kings 2:23-24).” And so on down the list. “Jesus, could the Father possibly be like you?”

Jesus replied, as in John 14:9, NIV: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” Since the account in John 14-16 is quite condensed, Jesus could well have continued at this point, “And Philip, as for those difficult stories in the Old Testament, don’t take them to mean that the Father is less gracious and less approachable than you have found Me to be. It so happens that I am the One who led Israel in the wilderness (1 Cor 10:4). The command to stone Achan was Mine. Philip, why don’t you ask Me why? I’d love to tell you. I would almost put off the crucifixion if you disciples would only ask Me.” But according to the record, they never asked Him.

He went on to say something extraordinary to them. In John 16:26, He spoke words which most Christians have not yet incorporated into the good news. Jesus said, “I. . . will tell you plainly about my Father” (John 16:25, NIV). Goodspeed helpfully translates what follows:
“I do not promise to intercede with the Father for you, for the Father loves you himself” (John 16:26, Goodspeed). I consider these the most astonishing words in the Bible; we will spend much time on them later.

What a shame they didn’t ask Him what He meant by these words (John 14:9; 16:25-27). Instead, they wanted to argue about the positions they would hold in the kingdom. Since they didn’t ask, then it’s really left with us to ask. “Jesus, why did you order the stoning of Achan? How could you, the gentle Jesus, do that? And Jesus, why did you set up the whole priestly system of intercession and mediatorial work, when you said there is no need for anyone to intercede with the Father, for the Father Himself loves us?” I wish they would have asked Him these questions, because then the biblical record would hold the most incredible information from the Lord Himself. Well, we had better ask now. If we ask, what important answers may come as we ask of every story, teaching, and event in the Bible, “What does this tell us about God?”

Fortunately, some Pharisees asked Jesus a difficult question which gives us some idea as to what He might have said on those other occasions. When they asked Jesus about divorce, they said, “Jesus, you know the texts that say we may divorce our wives. Moses gave us permission. What is your view on the subject?” Matt 19:7. And Jesus explained why He had given Moses directions as to how the people could (if they wished) divorce their wives in Matthew 19:7, 8:

The Pharisees asked him, “Why, then, did Moses give the law for a man to hand his wife a divorce notice and send her away?” Jesus answered, “Moses gave you permission to divorce your wives because you are so hard to teach. But it was not like that at the time of creation (GNB).”

You see in Moses’s day when you tired of your wife, you simply sent her home. You didn’t even have to give her camel’s fare to get there. All you had to say was “Out! I have a new one moving in this afternoon.” Through Moses God said, “If you’re going to do it, do it in a more humane manner.” But God’s real feeling is expressed in Malachi, “I hate divorce” (Mal 2:16, RSV). Most people do.

Jesus’ reaction to the Pharisees is the key to so many other places in the Bible where God seems to recommend something strange or wrong. God is not contradicting Himself in those places, He’s meeting people where they are. The Matthew 19 passage illustrates a fundamental principle of interpretation, which we will use throughout the rest of our conversations, the principle of context. It was the context, the setting, that determined the meaning of a passage when it was originally written. To the extent that we can recreate and recover that original context, we are in a position to recover the original meaning.

Why Spend Time on the Old Testament?

We go back to the beginning of our Bibles, to Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. And the question inevitably arises, “Why so much? And why so many details? And why so many varied pictures of God?” Then we remember Hebrews 1:1-3:

In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times, and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son. . . . the Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being (NIV).

But that raises another question. If we have the Son, why should we spend so much time in the Old Testament? Why not read the gospels? How clear the picture is there! “Blessed are the poor” (Matt 5:3). “Pray for your enemies” (Matt 5:44). How gracious that whole message is. Then you see the way Jesus treated sinners. How forgiving! Is there anything arbitrary, exacting, or severe in the record of the gospels? Look at how Jesus treated Judas. He washed the feet of His betrayer the night before He died (John 13). Look at how Jesus seemed to cover people’s sins as much as He possibly could. He didn’t even expose the men who brought that woman taken in adultery (John 8:1-11). And when Jairus’ daughter was raised and the crowd rushed out of the room to celebrate, who was it that called after them and said, “This little girl is hungry. Get her something to eat” (Mark 5:43; Luke 8:55). The Bible even says that the Son of God cried at the funeral of one of His friends (John 11:35).

None of this sounds like the Devil’s picture of God. In the gospels, Jesus is clearly not the kind of person Satan has made God out to be. Then why don’t we just settle for the magnificent record in the Gospels? However, as one reads on through the gospels, one cannot help noticing Jesus’ own use of the Old Testament, in John 5:39, 40, for example: “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life” (John 5:39, NIV). That’s almost a form of bibliolatry, worshiping the Bible as if there were some magical power in the book. “No,” Jesus said, “These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39-40, NIV). He speaks of the Old Testament scriptures as bearing witness to the truth about Him. Why would we want to waste them? And note also in Luke 24:27 how He used the Old Testament: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (NIV).

To really follow Christ’s example, then, is to use the Old Testament. Where do you think He found His picture of God? How did he know God so well? He grew up with the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament. We would be very wasteful not to use them, too. So back again we go to the Old Testament, remembering that 2 Timothy 3:16 tells us that “all scripture inspired of God is profitable.”

Scripture starts with the lovely picture in Eden, but as soon as they are created God says to our first parents, “In the day you eat thereof, you will die” (Gen 2:17). And right there is the problem. Did God mean, “If you disobey Me, I’ll kill you?” That does sound arbitrary and severe. Moreover, the original pair were cast out of the garden on their first offense (Gen 3). What if all children were thrown out of their homes the first time they disobeyed? We would have a lot of homeless children in the world. Are we more forgiving than God?

We read about the Flood, when God drowned not just sinful men, but women and children, babies, and all of their pets (Gen 6:13, 17; 7:4, and especially 7:21-23). Then we go on to Sodom and Gomorrah, that awful burning of human beings (Gen 19:24-25). And then the story of Lot’s wife (Gen 19:26). How many of you women, leaving the home where you had reared your children, wouldn’t want to take at least one little peek over your shoulder? Yet look what happened to Lot’s wife. And look at all the fighting in the Old Testament. And then you find God saying, “When you fight, don’t just kill the soldiers. Go into the villages afterwards. Break into the homes. Kill the women. Kill the children. Kill the babies. Kill the pets. Leave alive nothing that breathes” (1 Sam 15:3). That same day King Saul decided not to kill everybody (1 Sam 15:8-9). And God was not pleased (1 Sam 15:18-19, 23-24).

Most of us would say that doesn’t sound like the New Testament. How could Jesus get the kind of picture He had of His Father from these stories? And there are more of them, like the stoning of Achan (Joshua 7). The worst part of that story is not so much whether Achan and his family deserved to be stoned, but that God asked His own people to do the stoning (Josh 7:12-13, 24-25). And then there’s “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Exod 21:24; Lev 24:20; Deut 19:21; Matt 5:38), and “the gluttonous child is to be stoned” (Deut 21:20-21), and “the illegitimate child is to be banished from the camp for ten generations” (Deut 23:2).

What About the More Difficult Questions?

There are many other questions that arise. The ones we have just brought up have been easy to handle. If you have access to a modern version, none of them will be a problem. But a more serious question arises. Why do there seem to be so few theological statements in the Bible? You can go pages and pages without a statement about God. Why doesn’t the Bible read, “God is love. God never changes. God can be trusted.” If it did, many of us would be willing to believe it. But those are just claims, and the Bible itself warns against accepting mere claims. We need evidence. We need demonstration. Which leads to the next question that often arises.

Why is there so much historical detail in the Bible? So much of it seems of such little importance. But if God’s way of revealing Himself is demonstration, it is involving Himself in human affairs and saying, “Watch the way I handle situations. That’s the way to find out what I’m like.” If we did not have the historical details, we would not be in a position to recreate those original settings and understand why God would thunder one time and speak so softly another time.

Think of Sinai, for example. God comes down to speak to His people on that mountain, and He thunders. There is lightning, and there’s an earthquake. The people are terrified. God says to Moses, “Build a fence around the mountain. Don’t let those people come too close. If anyone comes near the fence he is to be stoned. If anyone breaks through the fence, I’ll burst forth upon him and consume him.” And the people stood there so terrified that they said to Moses, “Don’t let God speak to us, lest we die.” Now we sing, “Nearer, Still Nearer” and “Speak to Me LORD”, but we are not at the foot of Mount Sinai. Was that some other God? Or was that the Son of God, speaking to the people in that manner on Mount Sinai?

Well, we have to recreate the historical setting. How were they behaving at the foot of the mountain? They were grumbling, and complaining, and irreverent. And the only way God could get their attention, and hold it long enough to share some truth about Himself, was to run the risk of terrifying them. Even so forty days later, when the thunders had died away, they were dancing drunk and irreverent around the golden calf. Evidently God had to raise His voice that loud because of the circumstances prevailing at the time.

An illustration of God’s preferred way of persuading us—not with denials, not with claims, but with evidence—is provided by the story of John the Baptist. John risked his life to present his cousin Jesus to the people. And how gracious he had been: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). Now John was in prison. Jesus taught that you really ought to visit people in prison; but Jesus never came to see His cousin. And eventually John sent emissaries to Christ. “Are you really the one or not? Should we be looking for another?” That is a sad inquiry. Jesus could have responded to him, “I am indeed the One and I expect you to believe it!” But John might have thought he was the devil masquerading as Christ. Instead, He invited John’s two disciples to spend the day with Him. When the day was over the two men went back to the prison to see John.
“Did He answer my question?”
“But what did you see? What did you hear?”
And in the text it’s recorded:

Jesus gave them this reply. “Go and tell John what you hear and what you see; that blind men are recovering their sight, cripples are walking, lepers being healed, the deaf hearing, the dead being raised to life and the good news is being given to those in need. And happy is the man who never loses his faith in me.” (Matt 11:4-6, Phillips)

And when the men arrived back at the prison and told this to John; John may have remembered passages like Isaiah 35:6 and Isaiah 61:1. And he knew, “He is the One.” Jesus did not answer with a claim, He offered evidence. This is God’s way of revealing Himself, and it is the only dependable way.

Finding the Correct Meaning

In this chapter, there is another question that deserves to be considered. Even if we have the right books, the right words, and we have those words adequately translated, what about the meaning? The Bible was written in other languages, for other peoples in other cultures. So how can we, living in this part of the world, this far down through the centuries, feel confident that we have really found the correct meaning? The only way, I believe, is to pick up the Bible, read it through, and see what we can learn about God. I am so grateful for the more than one hundred times I’ve gone through all sixty-six books in company with others. Each time we do it there are certain questions that arise. Some of them are simple ones that are quite readily resolved. I thought we might look at some of those first.

The best loved English version in all history has been the King James Version. But reading through the Bible, what does one do with a passage like Habakkuk 2:7: “Thou shalt be for booties unto them.” (KJV) What does that mean? Can you see booties hanging from the rear view mirror in a car? Is that what that is? Or what about Job 41:18, “By his neesings a light doth shine” (KJV). Have you seen any neesings lately? Now the old Engish word booties meant loot, or plunder. Neesings meant sneezings. Exodus 28:11 speaks of “Ouches of gold” (KJV). That would seem like something the dentist should be concerned about. And yet it actually meant settings in jewelry. Luke 17:9 says, “I trow not” (KJV). Have you trowed lately? That actually means “I think not.”

These are not errors in the King James. It is just that with the passage of time, about a thousand words in that Bible have changed their meaning, in fact sometimes the meaning is completely reversed. But there are easy remedies for the student of Scripture. Whole books have been written on the archaic words in the King James Version. Another option is to look these words up in a Bible dictionary or a commentary. There is even the revision called the New King James. The meanings given in the paragraph above were taken from that modernized version of the King James. Another option is to compare the KJV with any other modern version and the meaning of most of these unfamiliar words would become clear.

A slightly more significant change in the meaning of a word is in Romans 1:13, KJV: “Often times I purposed to come unto you, but was let hitherto.” Well, if Paul was let, why didn’t he go? “Let” in those days did not mean to permit; it meant to prevent or hinder. This is still the word often used in the game of tennis. If you’ve served and your ball has hit the net and dropped into the appropriate square on the other side, it is not a “net ball,” it is supposed to be a “let ball.” At Wimbledon it is always a “let ball,” which means a ball that was hindered or prevented from proceeding on to the server’s goal. In Romans 1:13, Paul intended to visit Rome, but he was hindered from doing so.

An even more significant illustration of meaning change is in 1 Thessalonians 4:15, KJV: “We which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep.” Paul surely wasn’t saying that when the Lord comes and the dead rise, we who are alive won’t want the dead to go up first, we’ll prevent them from doing so. If that were true, we wouldn’t be very safe to save, doing that to those former saints now rising! But it has no such meaning. The old English word “prevent” actually means “to precede, to go before.” Now the passage makes sense. “Prevent” in those days did not mean prevent, it meant to precede.

The early Christians were grieving that some of their loved ones had died before the Lord returned. They had been under the impression that they would live to see Him come. What would you tell a dying Christian who said in disappointment “I had hoped I would live to see the Lord come?” There’s a beautiful message in 1 Thessalonians 4. Paul says, “Look, the dead are at no disadvantage. We who are alive and remain shall not precede those who have fallen asleep.” Who will rise first? The dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up with them to meet the Lord in the air. This is a great paragraph to read at funerals. But it has to be translated right. Not that it is an error. It’s just that the key word has changed meaning through the years. The passage is a great message of comfort when it is properly translated into modern speech.

Another puzzling passage, which sometimes gives rise to strange theology, is in John 20:17, KJV. Mary sees Jesus on resurrection Sunday and falls at His feet to worship Him. And Jesus says, “Touch me not.” Now why couldn’t she touch Him? Jesus explains: “I have not yet ascended to my Father.” Does that mean that if Mary had touched Jesus, He would not have been able to go up to heaven, and the whole plan of salvation would have come to nothing? Was her restraint that morning as important as the crucifixion? That is impossible. That would really violate common sense. So one needs to look more carefully. In the original language, there are two ways of saying “don’t do” something. One is, “don’t begin to do it.” The other is “don’t go on doing it.” In this text Jesus was saying, “Don’t go on holding me. Don’t cling to me.” The modern versions all have this correctly. Then it is a perfectly gracious message. There is nothing arbitrary about it at all.

Another important one is John 2:4. Perhaps you remember the wedding at Cana, when they ran out of wine and Mary said to Jesus, “They need some wine.” Did He turn to his mother and say, “Woman, what have I to do with thee” (KJV)? Let’s say you have a son who is not responding too politely when his mother asks for help doing the dishes. So you think, “Well, at worship we’ll read about how polite Jesus always was to His mother. Why don’t we read the Gospel of John for worship?” If you do that, John 1 will be all right. But then you will come to John 2 and Cana. You are reading, hoping that your son will listen and see how polite Jesus always was. And then Jesus says to His mother, “Woman, what have I to do with thee?” And your son says, “That is what I will do next time Mother asks me to dry the dishes. I’ll say, `Woman, what have I to do with thee?'” Then you’ll wish you had started reading some other gospel!

You know that can’t be the case. God is love and love is never rude. You know that Jesus wasn’t rude. Once again we need to get back into the language, the culture, and the idiom of the day. “Woman” can mean wife or mother or whatever the circumstances called for. What Jesus said was the equivalent of “mother,” not just “woman.” “Mother, how is it you bring that problem to Me? I have never performed a miracle before. My hour has not yet come.” I once heard a Jewish scholar say, “One thing is for sure, Jesus spoke politely to His mother in the idiom of the day.” In the Phillips translation, it says, “Mother, why do you bring that problem to Me?”

Chapter 6: “Evaluating the Evidence”

This blog begins chapter six of the book in process Conversations About God. It originated as a series of lectures by Graham Maxwell in 1984. After each lecture Maxwell took written questions from the audience mediated through the pastor of the Loma Linda University Church at the time, Lou Venden. This marvelous series has never been put into book form, so I am attempting to do so and sharing the results in progress here with permission from the Maxwell family. The words that follow are Maxwell’s oral presentation, edited by me.

These conversations about God take another look at our Heavenly Father in the larger setting of the great, universe-wide controversy over His character and government. The topic for this chapter is “Evaluating the Evidence,” that is, weighing and understanding the evidence that is the basis for our decisions about God in this great controversy.

We know that all God asks of us is trust. If we would only trust in Him enough, He could readily heal the damage sin has done. That is all He asked before the war began. That’s all He asks now, even of us who have been so damaged and caught up in this war. All He will ever ask of us in the future is trust. To say it one more time: where there is mutual trust and trustworthiness, without reservations, there is perfect security, perfect freedom, perfect peace. And this is what God desires the most.

But God has been accused of being unworthy of our trust. Specifically, He has been accused of being arbitrary, exacting, vengeful, unforgiving, and severe. And if He is that kind of person, He is not safe to trust. Sadly, many of His followers also conceive of Him in this way and seek to win people to this kind of a God.

In the previous chapters of this book we’ve considered God’s unwillingness to issue mere claims or denials. Anybody could do that. But when a person has been falsely accused of being untrustworthy, it does no good to deny it or to simply claim to be trustworthy. So God has answered the charges against Him with the evidence of demonstration. Only by the demonstration of trustworthiness over a sufficiently long period of time, and under a great variety of circumstances, especially difficult ones, can trust be re-established and confirmed. The Bible is a record of just such a demonstration.

The best approach, then, is to pick up our Bibles and read the evidence, all of it. But when we pick up our Bibles, there are questions that naturally arise. We considered three of them in the previous chapter. How do we know we have the right books? How do we know we have the words accurately preserved through all the centuries? And how do we know they have been accurately translated from the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek? We have shown that there is more than enough evidence for answering those questions. We can confidently say that for all practical purposes we have the books of the Bible as originally written.

Questions and Answers (5:4)

Lou: You mentioned the apocryphal books of the Old Testament, and others related to the New Testament. I’m under the impression that in the New Testament there are some quotations from the Old Testament Apocrypha. What about that?

Graham: Well, there are some interesting similarities. Whether they’re quotations or not is debatable. In Jude it mentions that Michael the Archangel was going down to resurrect Moses, and he and Satan argued about it (Jude 9). That story is told in some detail in The Assumption of Moses, which is a pseudepigraphical book from the time between the testaments. Of course, if the story were true, then the two accounts could be based on a common source. A second similarity would be the reference, also in Jude, where it says, “Enoch, the seventh from Adam, predicted the Lord would come with ten thousand of His saints” (based on Jude 14). That is in the pseudepigraphical book of Enoch. Of course, if Enoch said that stunning thing before the Flood, the “Lord is coming with ten thousand of His saints,” that would have been told over many a back fence. And eventually those memorable words found their place in both the apocryphal books and also in the book of Jude.

Lou: So you are saying that if something is in the Apocrypha, that does not make it automatically wrong.

Graham: Right! There is a long list of things in the Apocrypha which are quite evidently true. John was cast into a cauldron of boiling oil and survived, Peter was crucified upside down, and Isaiah was sawed in half in a hollow log. The latter is from The Martyrdom of Isaiah. Newspapers have some truth in them too, from time to time.

Lou: I was interested that you have read all the ancient books related to the Bible and you see a distinction between the sixty-six books in the biblical canon and all of these pseudepigraphical and apocryphal books.

Graham: An interesting example is the apocryphal story of Jesus playing with one of His friends. The boy either threw a stone, as one manuscript says, or he bumped Jesus, according to another, and Jesus in anger turned to curse His playmate and the playmate died. And the parents of the dead boy came to Joseph and Mary and said, “Please, remove yourselves from this community. We do not want this violent child living among us.” They were talking about Jesus! I could tell you dozens more stories like that from the New Testament Apocrypha.

Lou: Here’s another question, shifting gears a bit. “You spoke about sanctification. What is this? If we sincerely accept Jesus as our Savior, how can we ever be lost? Once we are saved, aren’t we always saved?”

Graham: The question is based on a rather legal understanding of what went wrong. But if what went wrong is that God’s creatures began to distrust, became rebellious and left God, as it were, we not only need to be set right, but we want to be kept right. We want to be kept in that relationship of love and trust and admiration and willingness to listen. But I could be set right and kept right for a while, and still be free to leave. And that’s how I understand what Paul said, when he wrote, “I discipline myself very closely, lest having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:27). The very essence of the truth about God is that He values nothing higher than our freedom. It tells me that a million years down the line, I’ll still be free to go.

Lou: An eleven year old wrote in, “Why are there so many views of who God is?” Could you cover all that in about thirty seconds?

Graham: There are so many views of God. You couldn’t list them in thirty seconds. I think they arise from many different sources. One is from reading the Bible selectively, here a little and there a little, rather than taking it as a whole. Another reason is that we might bring our view of God into our reading of the text. And there is also the influence of the adversary behind the scenes. But I think among people who really want to know God, the greatest source of diversity is that we each have our favorite texts about God. I have my text. You have your text. If we take the Bible as a whole, however, there is a greater possibility that we might come into the kind of unity that Paul talks about in Ephesians (Eph 4:13, KJV), a “unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.” And that’s our goal in this book.
That’s brings me to the topic of the next chapter, “If we have a reliable record of the evidence, can we be confident that we correctly understand the meaning?” That topic is looking more and more important as we carry on these conversations about God.

Questions and Answers (5:3)

Lou: When I go to a religious bookstore and ask for a Bible, I notice Bibles that are advertised as helping me with a lot of explanatory notes. What about that kind of thing? Can that be useful?

Graham: Some are helpful and some are not. The notes certainly aren’t inspired. The headings aren’t either. That’s true even when the heading in the Song of Solomon says, “Christ’s Love for the Church.” That’s an old tradition, but it’s not inspired. For another example, there’s an extraordinary note in one printing of the Matthew’s Bible (around 1549) to Peter’s comment that wives should obey their husbands in all things (1 Pet 3:1). In the margin of this Bible, which has lots of helpful notes, it says, “Yet it is the duty of the husband to beat the fear of the Lord into his wife, that she may learn to obey.” Comments like this leave me in favor of having the text pure and unadulterated, so I can make up my own mind. There are also many Bibles with helpful margins, so long as you realize they do not come with the same inspiration, and you read them carefully.

Lou: Does your church, the Seventh-day Adventist church, have an official version?

Graham: I think some have rather wished so. But it speaks well of our worldwide outlook that we don’t limit ourselves to an official version. We wish to share the picture of God with every person under Heaven, in all the languages of earth. So how can we have one official translation? There’s only one thing that could be official, and that’s the original: The Hebrew, the Aramaic, and the Greek, from which all translations ultimately come. But we’re prepared to go to the world using any version, any translation. And that’s why I like to relax when I’m in someone else’s home and say, “Which Bible do you have there? Let’s use yours.”

Lou: That leads to another question. If I heard you rightly, we do not have any of the original words that the prophet Isaiah wrote, for example. We have copies of an earlier copy. And in these manuscripts there are a number of variations. In other words, a particular manuscript may add a word, leave one out, or use a completely different word. Are there any Christian beliefs, such as the picture of God, that are affected by these variations?

Graham: It’s very interesting to look through all of them and see how relatively few issues there are and then look at some of the most colorful ones. Since you mentioned it, let me pick an illustration that affects the number one Christian belief, the picture of God. John 5:3, 4, in the King James Bible, describes a large crowd of sick people gathered at the pool of Bethesda. It had five porches, and every once in a while the water would move. Now what caused the water to move?
The way the story is told here, God would look out over the parapets of Heaven, see the crowd there, call over His angels and say, “It’s worth going down again. Go down and stir up the water. And remember, first one in is healed.” And this went on for years and years and years. Can you imagine an angel saying to God, “God, we’ve been watching a man there struggling for thirty-three years to get in, and we angels are so sorry for him; could we bend the rule this once and heal him? Because there’s no way he’s going to get in.” And God says, “You know I never change. First one in is healed.”
I never did like that story. And I was so relieved to start learning Greek in 1938 and discover that the idea that an angel stirred the water is a legend that crept in later on. The older manuscripts simply say, “the water moved,” without any explanation. Superstitious readers probably assumed that an angel did it. More likely, it was drainage from the temple area, a spring, or an intermittent underground stream. In any case, that legend eventually crept into the text.
Look in the early manuscripts and you have a magnificent story there. The real truth was that on a Saturday afternoon God walked by. And the paralyzed man looked up and saw the kindest face he had ever seen. And the kind face said, “Would you like to be well?” And he said, “I surely would.” And that kind face did not berate the man for squandering his health in youthful self-indulgence. He simply said, “Then pick up your little mat and go home, and you will be well.” That’s the real picture of God.

Lou: So the angel story actually appears in a manuscript?

Graham: Quite a few, but later on.

Lou: Does that mean our more recent versions, which have taken manuscript study quite seriously, would be more reliable?

Graham: They tend to be based on the early manuscripts, which we didn’t know about at the time the King James was translated. But there isn’t a long list of these strange variations. I picked out a more colorful one. There are very few. And we could get along without every one of them. One that might seem helpful is the Trinity text in 1 John 5:7, 8 (KJV) that has no support at all in the manuscripts. But I never did think it was the best way to support the Trinity anyway. You can do that from the Gospel of John and elsewhere much better. So we don’t lose anything by going back and comparing all these hundreds and thousands of manuscripts. By looking at the evidence as a whole, there is less danger of distortion.

Questions and Answers (5:2)

Lou: Maybe we all need to learn Hebrew and Greek? Is that the best answer to the translation problem; to read it in the original for ourselves?

Graham: I like to say to medical, dental and nursing students that I hope they won’t spend as much time studying Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek as I have. We live in an age of specialization. When I have a pain somewhere, I don’t want their expertise in the biblical languages. I want their help for my specific problem. So let them study their specialty and let me study mine. I’ll go to them when I need their help, and they’re welcome to phone me when they need my help on the biblical languages. But thanks to the existence of these wonderful translations, it isn’t necessary for most people to study the languages. But there ought to be somebody in the community whom you could phone when a technical problem arises.

Lou: You are saying, then, that the multiplicity of versions is a real strength.

Graham: That’s where the safety is. I wouldn’t want just one translation. Sometimes I have almost my whole collection of 150 out on the floor.

Lou: I have heard the question raised: Isn’t it true that the translator’s theological positions are often reflected in their translations? For example, aren’t the Ten Commandments translated differently in the Roman Catholic Bible? Aren’t they numbered differently? Don’t they read differently?

Graham: On the contrary, Catholic translations are very precise. Some of the best translations are of Roman Catholic origin, although they don’t always use the most understandable English. Nevertheless, over time, Catholic translations have become clearer and clearer. They are frankly some of the very best. The Jerusalem Bible is very readable. So is The New American Bible.
To show you how candid and dependable the Catholic versions are, let me refer to the Kleist and Lilly translation. In Romans 6, where there is a reference to being buried in baptism, there is a footnote by these two Jesuit scholars at the bottom. “Paul is obviously alluding here to the early Christian custom of baptism by immersion. The descent into the water is suggestive of descent into the grave. The ascent from the water is suggestive of resurrection to newness of life.” I can’t think of a better note than that.
Coming back to your original question, the Ten Commandments read exactly the same in Catholic Bibles. They do count them differently, as you know. The Sabbath commandment is number three. So if you were to ask a Catholic regarding the Church’s position on the fourth commandment, you’d be surprised by the response. But they are not the only ones. Luther and some others have counted the Sabbath as number three and split the tenth commandment into two; nine and ten. But that doesn’t affect the message of the biblical text.

Lou: Graham, you referred earlier to paraphrases and to The Living Bible. There has been considerable controversy over them. Is a paraphrase a real Bible? Are they trustworthy?

Graham: Well, in the first place, there is no way to translate without paraphrasing. So there is some paraphrasing in every single translation, unless the translator goes word for word literal, as in a Greek/English transliteration, for example. But such translations tend to be quite lame with the words out of proper English order. Have you ever tried to translate French into English word for word? It doesn’t make much sense. So all translations are somewhat paraphrased. That means a re-phrasing of the original text.
Are paraphrases trustworthy? It depends on how far you go. The author of The Living Bible, for example (Kenneth Taylor), departed a long way from the original text. In fact, sometimes he expanded a sentence into a whole paragraph! There’s no way you could reproduce the original languages from The Living Bible. You almost could with Goodspeed. That’s what is so amazing. His is a readable American idiom but without multiplying words. On the other hand, with Taylor’s paraphrases (The Living Bible), when he’s right, he’s clearly and brilliantly right. And when he’s wrong, in my opinion, he’s very clearly wrong. The best thing about it is—he’s clear.

Lou: But sometimes clearly wrong.

Graham: Well, let me show you a time he gets it right, and I’ll skip the wrong one. Psalm 120:1, KJV: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help.” That’s beautiful. It’s like being in Loma Linda, and looking across the valley to the snow-covered mountains. Very inspiring. But in the Bible, the Psalmist was referring to the fertility cults at the top of the hill. According to Hosea, the leaders of Israel went up into those mountains to sacrifice with the cult prostitutes. They were going up to those groves and engaging in immorality. And so the 120th Psalm actually says in the Hebrew, “Shall I lift up mine eyes unto the hills? Never. My help comes from the Lord” (Psalm 120:1-2). So Dr. Taylor paraphrases, “Shall I look to the mountain gods for help? Never. I will look to the God who created the mountains.” I say he is brilliantly right on this text, though it is a rather free paraphrase. I wouldn’t be afraid to use The Living Bible, but in the interests of precision, I would want to have some of these others alongside.