May 24, 2012

Questions of Faith

Tony GarlandBy Dr. Tony Garland

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Q. I'd like to thank you guys once again for the resources you provide online, good stuff.

Well I had a couple of questions and perhaps a comment. How is it that the more I study biblical topics the more questions I end up having instead of answers. A lot of times I feel anxiety because it feels like everything I grew up believing wasn't 100% correct. I tried going to a couple of Christian brothers but unfortunately they cannot begin to approach some of my questions. Yes I do pray for wisdom and understanding, but I have to tell you it feels more like I get ignored which leads me to my first question.

  1. Throughout the Old Testament we see a Mighty God interacting with man. We see Him talking to them, visions, prophecy, angelic visitations, miracles etc. But today we really don't get any of that. Why does it feel like He hides himself today? Why won't he answer us directly?
  2. The Jews had certain requirements for a Messiah. Why did the Apostles believe Jesus met those requirements when none of the teachers of the day did? This seems to be why the Jews still reject Jesus today.
  3. I feel a little too analytical at times. Is it OK to ask questions from God? I was raised in churches where you never questioned anything just in case you slandered the Holy Spirit but I can't help it.

I think a lot of questions have arisen from talks with a friend who studied theology and basically discredited the validity of the canon (but I have been listening online to you guys lately on the canon) and fed me things like, "How do we know we're not all just in the mind of God and really don't have control over anything?" I also started listening to debates with some good apologists like William Lane Craig but some of the counter arguments seem strong as well.

A. I'll attempt to address each of your questions in turn:

Man in prayer

Why Does It Feel Like God Hides Himself Today?

It is important to realize that God is not required to interact with people the same at all places and times. God has a progressive program of revelation and redemption within which history is working itself out. What that means is that each generation is born within a period of time within which God may choose to operate with different emphasis. In relation to what we see in the Old Testament (and Bible in general), I would make several observations. Neither the Old or New Testaments record a steady stream of visions, prophecy, miracles, etc. There are periods in both testaments where "nothing much" of a supernatural nature is taking place. This is the norm for history. We tend to forget how many years both the OT and NT span and so we see quite a few supernatural workings recorded in their pages as if they were almost constant. They were not. Take Moses' 40 years in the desert as but one example. There is also the intertestamental period, spanning several hundred years, during which no prophet arose in Israel—a period which resulted in no canonical revelation. And when one examines the NT, one sees a "flurry" of supernatural activities in the gospels and in Acts, but little mention of the same in much of the epistles—clear down to John's Revelation in about 95 AD which closed the canon. What are we to make of this?

I believe it has to do with God's will and purpose. His purpose and means by which He speaks to different peoples in different periods of history adapts to what He wants to accomplish and takes into account prior revelation. In our case, we happen to live in the "church age" and after the close of the canon. For a number of reasons, some of which we are not privy to, God has chosen to interact with our age in a different way. That way is primarily through the completed canon of Scripture (see, for example, Luke 16:27-31). It also appears that God has chosen to demonstrate the faith of the elect as a testimony to skeptics by keeping a people by His Holy Spirit who remain faithful without the need of signs and supernatural direct interaction (John 20:29; Luke 18:8). Thus, we find that the style of God's interaction with believers manifests differently in different times depending upon what He is doing and what He has already revealed. In the OT, when establishing Abraham's line, calling Israel out of Egypt and working with the Chosen Nation, we see much in the way of supernatural communication. This is similar to the time of the presentation of Jesus to Israel (the gospels) and the establishment of the Church (Acts). These times are special historically and we must not expect the time we are born into to be the same—requiring God to manifest Himself to us personally in the same way. He may choose to do so, but He also may not.

A resource which you may find helpful on this topic is The Silence of God by Sir Robert Anderson.

Why Did Jewish Teachers Reject Jesus as Messiah, Yet the Apostles Saw Him as Fulfilling Jewish Expectations for Messiah?

You mentioned, "none of the teachers of the day" accepted Jesus as the expected Messiah. This doesn't seem accurate to me. Among the "teachers" of Jesus' day who appear to have accepted Him as Messiah, we could include Nicodemus (John 3:10; 19:39), Saul of Tarsus who we know as the Apostle Paul (Acts 22:3), and probably even Joseph of Arimathea—a wealthy member of the Sanhedrin who would have probably been quite knowledgeable concerning the Scriptures (Mark 15:43).

The "certain requirements for a Messiah" which you mention the Jews as having arise from only one reliable source: Old Testament predictions concerning the nature, timing, and ministry of the promised Anointed One. So the question comes down to why many of the teachers of Jesus' day rejected him while others saw Him as fulfillment of the promised Messiah? And that all comes down to issues of faith and the interpretation of Old Testament passages. It is important to note that nobody comes to faith in Jesus as Messiah due to cold logic alone. There is the matter of spiritual birth: God has chosen faith (not knowledge, not cleverness, not reason) as the dividing line between those who are in His kingdom and those who are not (John 1:12-13). This becomes clear when you examine the life of Saul of Tarsus. He was steeped in the Old Testament Scriptures, a zealous Pharisee and "Hebrew of the Hebrews" (Php. 3:5) yet he did not accept Jesus as Messiah and intensely persecuted the early church (1 Cor. 15:9). He read the same Old Testament Christians read, but could not see Jesus therein. How then, did he so radically change his view? Was it by careful reasoning in the Scriptures alone? No, He had a conversion experience on the road to Damascus after which he was then able to properly understand the OT Scriptures which spoke of Jesus. Thereafter, He "reasoned from the Scriptures" that Jesus was the Christ (Acts 17:2-3; 18:5,28). Prior to his conversion, he was unable/unwilling to see Jesus in the Old Testament.

This is because Satan has blinded the eyes of the unbeliever (2 Cor. 4:4 cf. John 9:39) such that a veil lies on an unbelieving Jew's heart when reading the OT (2 Cor. 3:14). This is the veil which was lifted for Paul on the road to Damascus. Adding to this need of spiritual rebirth to understand the OT there is the apparent design of the Scriptures such that they simultaneously extend a rescue rope to the believer while giving the rejector enough rope to hang himself (Mat. 13:10-16). In other words, the Scriptures are written in such a way that they simultaneously uphold the faithful while providing the necessary "wiggle room in interpretation" for the God-rejecting skeptic to remain confirmed in his hardness. The result is that some teachers of the Jewish Scriptures continue to reject Jesus as the Messiah predicted by the OT whereas other Jews (e.g., the Apostles—simple unlettered men) saw Him plainly as the fulfillment.

To see this in action, procure a copy of the Jewish Study Bible published by the Jewish Publication Society and read the orthodox Jewish explanation in the notes for some of the more obvious Messianic passages (e.g., Psalm 22; Isaiah 7:14; 49:1-10; 53:1-12). It is sobering to see how blind these Jewish scholars are to Messiah in their own Scriptures. They simply are unable (no, unwilling) to find the Messiah where He is plainly set forth.

The notes on Isaiah 49:1-6 state,

The identity of the servant has generated much debate. Most rabbinic commentators and some modern scholars argue that Deutero-Isaiah speaks here in the first person and that these [verses] describe the prophet's own mission. Others argue that the whole nation Israel is the servant, and some suggest that an ideal Israel or a faithful subset of the nations is the servant. [1]

This despite the passage indicating that one of the things the servant will do is "raise up the tribes of Jacob"—how Israel will raise up Jacob is not explained, but would seem to involve circular logic.

The notes concerning the servant of Isaiah 53 include:

...the identity of the servant is vigorously debated. Many argue that the servant symbolizes the entire Jewish people...the nation's salvific role for the world at large. Others maintain that the passage describes a pious minority within the Jewish people...Other scholars argue that the servant in this passage is a specific individual...Targum and various midrashim identify the servant as the Messiah, but this suggestion is unlikely, since nowhere else does Deutero-Isaiah refer to the Messiah, and the absence of a belief in an individual Messiah is one of the hallmarks of Deutero-Isaiah's outlook (in contrast to that of First Isaiah). [2]

This would be laughable if it wasn't tragic: the main evidence given that Messiah is not likely to be found in Isaiah 53 is that Deutero-Isaiah [3] never refers to Messiah anywhere else—so long as you read Him out of Isaiah 49 and other passages as they have conveniently done! Of course one would be hard-pressed to describe how the suffering of the nation of Israel serves to save the world at large, especially in light of Psalm 49:6-8. [4]

The reason the majority of Jews still reject Jesus today is not because He fails to fulfill the Old Testament passages, but because they have been blinded in confirmation of their hardness of heart (Rom. 11:7-10). This blindness is in part and temporary (Rom. 11:25-29). A day is coming when there will be a great spiritual revival among the Jews and the situation we see from the time of Jesus to today will be greatly changed (Eze. 37).

Is It OK [for Believers] to Ask Questions of God?

In a word: YES. Especially in the case of a person who was raised in the Church, but has not necessarily made faith their own—having believed things but not really having tested their belief and known more extensively why they are to be believed. Besides all that, God is omniscient so He isn't impressed by unasked questions which we genuinely have in our heart. On the other hand, someone who considers themselves to be a Christian of many years should get beyond basic questions of philosophy and world view (for example, "How do we know we're not all just in the mind of God and really don't have control over anything?") if there is to be any hope of growing in sanctification and Christian maturity (1 Cor. 3:1). Such questions have the appearance of sophistication when doled out by the dozen by secular university professors on unprepared students, but ultimately are mainly distractors which serve the same role as Genesis 3:1. Somewhere along the line, the true Christian reaches a point of confidence in God's Word whereby he accepts "God has said" and doesn't waste time replaying things which the Scriptures very clearly define in unambiguous terms. Sure, there will always be some ambiguity in areas, but basic aspects of faith, salvation, history, and purpose are clearly set forth in the Word. Continuing to question these would be possible signs that a person is not truly born again. As any parent, God is patient with our questions so long as they are genuine and respectful. But if we get to a point where we are siding more with skeptics than with the guidelines for the faithful set forth in Scripture, then there is nothing that says God has to continue to put up with our toying with His precious truths—and we are likely to find ourselves under discipline (if believers) or leaving the faith (having never truly known Him, Mat 7:23).

Concerning your friend who studied theology who is leading you to question the canon and your faith—this doesn't surprise me. Many young men and women have been shipwrecked by studying theology in academic institutions. Having earned a doctorate in Theology, I am not against education: ignorance never glorified God. But I am also keenly aware that "theological inquiry," often at a seminary, can be a well-worn path to apostasy. Remember that Satan is the god of this age—and that includes education and many campuses of theological training. In fact, some of the most dangerous influences in theology today come from professors at such institutions. Should this surprise us? No: it is just what we saw in Jesus' day concerning many of the Pharisees and Sadducees. This is also one reason why the majority of the men chosen by Jesus were from simple professions (with the notable exception of Paul). The simple fact is that erudition and academic pride cannot be trusted with the "faith which was once for all delivered to the saints." This is one reason that I am personally thankful that I didn't attend seminary earlier in my life before I had sufficient exposure to higher education in other fields (electrical and software engineering) to become familiar with some of the biases. The plain fact is that it might have been dangerous. Of course I was an unbeliever until age 34 so this opportunity didn't present itself. At the risk of repeating myself: God has chosen faith as the dividing factor between the lost and the saved. Not education, not sophistication, not mental prowess, not information, not communication skills, not personal charisma, not debate skills. He simply will not allow us to sidestep the exercise of faith. This is not to say that our faith is irrational, but simply that the Bible teaches that our mental (indeed all our) faculties are under the sway of sin and unable to function in regard to accommodating spiritual truth without the aid of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2:14). This is the basis for the presupposition in "presuppositional apologetics." We have a choice. We can start in one of two places: 1) we are equipped with a free-ranging and functional mind of inquiry which can reliably determine truth from evidence alone—which we use to evaluate reality and come to truth; 2) having been born again, we accept the Scriptures which teach our inability to reason to the truth on our own due to the ravages of sin so we must begin with Scripture and evaluate reality through that lens. A person can spend a lot of valuable time starting at #1 and never reaching reliable conclusions instead of starting at #2 and truly making progress growing in Christian maturity and effectiveness.

In closing: are you attending a Christian fellowship regularly? I would think these questions could be engaged by most of the pastors I'm aware of. I would advise taking them up in person with your pastor or elders as that is one of the reasons God puts us in a local fellowship.


[1] Adele Berlin, Marc Zvi Brettler, The Jewish Study Bible (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004), Isa. 49:1-6.

[2] Ibid., Isa. 53.

[3] The author of the notes has adopted the notion that Isaiah was written by two different authors known as First and Deutero Isaiah. Jesus contradicts this idea (John 12:28 cf. John 12:39-40).

[4] An alternate interpretation seems more reasonable: Can you think of a Jewish individual known to history who experienced what is described in this passage? A Jewish individual who died in association with the salvation of the world but who lived again? Pretty tough questions to answer for some I guess. Hint: He is related to the B.C./A.D. notation lately superseded by the use of B.C.E. and C.E.