Today we start a new series of blogs on some of the difficulties we can encounter when reading the Bible. At face value, the Bible can seem to be full of contradictions. When people level this at us, we need to take them and it seriously, so let’s see how we can respond. We shall start with the first book of the New Testament. There’s lots to choose from, so let’s look at some of the more interesting ones.
The Book of Matthew
Problem: Ch 2: Verse 2 – The Bible seems to commend (and God blesses) the Magi for following the star, when elsewhere astrology is condemned.
Response: Astrology is a belief that looking at the position and movement of the starts can help us to foretell events. The star in the biblical account is there to announce Jesus’ birth, not to foretell it. The star given to the Magi was a proclamation, not a prediction, of what had already happened. Also, elsewhere in the Bible stars and planets are employed by God to reveal His desires. Psalm 19:1-6 affirms that the heavens declare God’s glory, while Romans 1 teaches that creation reveals God’s existence.
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Problem: Ch 4: Verses 14-16 – Does Matthew incorrectly quote Isaiah 9:1-2, or does he change it?
Response: It isn’t necessary to quote a passage verbatim in order to accurately communicate its meaning. Rather than distorting it, Matthew simply condenses the meaning of the passage. To paraphrase accurately is not to distort, otherwise no news report or historical account could ever be accurate, since summary is essential to history.
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Problem: Ch 5: Verse 14 – Jesus tells his disciples that they are the light of the world, whereas in John 9:5, he declared: ‘I am the light of the world’. So, who is the light of the world, Jesus or us? (And who’s paying the energy bill for all this?)
Response: Both! Jesus is the primary light of the world, and we are the secondary light. We are the reflectors of Jesus’ source light, in the same way that the moon is the reflector of the sun’s source light.
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Problem: Ch 5: Verse 42 – Jesus clearly says ‘Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.’ But, if we took this literally, how would we provide anything for our families. Also, Paul says that those who do not provide for their own families are worse than infidels (1 Timothy 5-8).
Response: Context is key. As we know from other things Jesus says (no good father would give a serpent to his child), this does not mean we should give people what will harm them. Furthermore, it does not mean give to those who flatly refuse to work. Paul is emphatic: ‘If anyone will not work, neither will he eat’ (2 Thessolonians 3:10). Finally, the whole context of Jesus’ words here are to reaffirm the spirit of the law, and to counter the legalistic misinterpretation of the OT that says take revenge on your enemy with ‘an eye for an eye’. By contrast, Jesus says not to retaliate against your enemy: love him, and give him help. Jesus no more expected His listeners to take this command without qualification than He intended them to literally cut off their hands and pluck out their eyes if they offended them!
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Problem: Ch 5: Verse 43 – Jesus said of the Old Testament, ‘You have heard it said, you shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ So why did the OT say that it was Ok to hate your enemies, and why would a God of love allow that?
Solution: It didn’t, and He didn’t. Jesus said ‘you have heard’, and not ‘it is written’ as he often did when quoting scripture. He is actually criticising the Jewish tradition that had grown up around the Old Testament – a tradition that was corrupted, based on the pharisaical misinterpretation of the text. God never commanded His people at any time to hate their enemies, while Jesus said that the greatest of all commands were to love God and to love our neighbour as ourselves (Matthew 22: 36-37).
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Let us know what passages you struggle with, and we’ll try and cover them in future blog posts. Until next time…