Devotions

Question: Did God really send an Evil Spirit to Saul?

Evil Spirit 

How is it that God sent an evil spirit to Saul?

Sin.

How big of a deal is it to you?

In our world today we wink at sin. We excuse it. We say it’s not that bad. God clearly forbids certain things, and we in our arrogance think we’re more enlightened than the commands of Scripture. We laugh at sin. We mock God. And we do so at our own peril.

Scripture says, “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Do you believe that? Sin is abhorrent enough that it required the death of God’s own Son.

If you wear a cross around your neck, take it in your fingers. Spin it around and around. One side of this cross ought to represent to you the beautiful love of God; the other side ought to represent the utterly vile nature of sin.

God chose Saul to be king. Saul started well. Then pride began to eat at his heart. In his own imagination, he became bigger than life. A victorious king, he kept imagining all of his own victories, and taking the authority that belongs only to God into his own hands. Wanting – in 1 Samuel 13 – to launch out against a large Philistine army, he refused to wait for the prophet to make a sacrifice to God. Two chapters, rather than heeding the command of the Lord to finish the battle and destroy all the Amalekites, Saul again usurped divine authority. And there were three consequences …

  • First, God removed the kingdom of Israel from Israel’s first king. “Because you have rejected the word of the LORD,” said God through the prophet Samuel, “He has also rejected you from being king” (1 Sam 15:23). That was God’s second rebuke after Saul’s second rebellion. The first was this, 1 Samuel 13:14, “Because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you … now your kingdom shall not continue. The LORDhas sought out a man after his own heart.” (Note: The man after God’s own heart was David, chosen immediately after Saul sinned the first time.)
  • Second, God removed the Holy Spirit from Saul. In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit comes on believers and never leaves us. It is an enduring gift. In the Old Testament – before that Pentecost blessing – the Spirit would come upon certain people for certain purposes … and then would be removed when that season of specific Kingdom need ended. For example, when it was time for God’s people to build the Tabernacle, the Spirit came upon Bezalel, Oholiab, and a handful of other craftsmen for that season. And when the Tabernacle was completed, the Holy Spirit retreated. As God’s King, God sent Saul the Holy Spirit. When Saul rebelled, God “took” his Spirit from Saul. (Note: This explains an agonized petition in King David’s prayer after his own worst sin. In Psalm 51:11 begged for a different fate than Saul, saying, “take not your Holy Spirit from me.”)
  • Third, Saul was then tormented by an evil spirit. 1 Samuel 16:14 reads, “Now the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and a harmful spirit from the Lord tormented him.”

And the question is, “Why?!” Why did God send an evil spirit to torment Saul?!

First, God is sovereign over all creation. If Satan and his minions exist and do harm – and they do – then God clearly allows them to exist during this season in eternity. (Now, why God allows this is a deep question for another day. But if they exist and do harm, then a Sovereign God must allow it.) And we must acknowledge – along with the repeated testimony of Scripture – that we are in a spiritual battle. It is a war, and generally speaking, we must acknowledge that these evil forces have free will. While surely constrained by God in many important ways, these entities are nevertheless free (to some degree) to lie, harass, and occasionally destroy. And they do.

If we rightly view this stage of this word as a battle ground between God and evil, then most of our encounters with both God and evil forces are – whether we see it or not – God protecting us. (We need to stop and thank God for his continual – and mostly unseen – restraint over personified darkness in our lives.) Our second most common experience of darkness occurs when we go looking for trouble – whether purposefully or accidentally. We can dabble in the occult, flirt with pornography, cherish our little lies about God, and choose false idols and priorities. God is there to rescue, but generally, he awaits our cry for help.

Another common time in which believers can encounter evil occurs when God takes his hand of protection off of us – usually for the purpose of testing us (and sometimes it’s a testing by fire). God took his hand of protection off of Jesus, for example, when he was tempted in the wilderness and when the Son went to the cross. Generally, the removal of God’s protective hand occurs for a limited period of time and for a specific kingdom purpose – like shaping, testing, and growing us.

Saul, however, fell into a separate category … and it’s so striking because it’s such an extraordinary exception. 99.9999999999999999% of the time, God who is sovereign over all absolutely doesn’t want or need to command these dark creatures to do his bidding. But he can. He’s sovereign. Life tests us all the time – with or without the interceding of evil. Likewise evil desires to lie, discourage, frighten, and overwhelm us all the time – with or without the constraining hand of God. But in the special case of Saul, we have to trust that God had an eternal purpose in this action. God was creating the earthly line for the Messiah. Surely every human in that line would inevitably sin, but God turned a rebellious Saul into an eternal warning. It was a warning (particularly) to the next king (David), but it was also a warning to all future generations as well. Saul’s torment is the fate we all deserve. God could send evil upon us all … and he would be just in doing so. It’s only by grace that we’re not all haunted.

To be honest, I didn’t like this question. To be frank, I kind of blocked out this part of Israel’s story. I like to think of God as profoundly gracious – and he is. And I like to think of sin as “not that bad” … because I’m guilty. I don’t think you or I have to worry about God sending an evil spirit upon us! But we do need to be constantly on the alert so we don’t wander down dark spiritual alleys. We need to keep putting on the full armor of God, as Paul taught us, and we need to keep praying “deliver us from evil,” as Jesus taught us.

And we need to take this story as a warning – not because we’re going to suffer Saul’s fate, but because we really need to comprehend the true cost of sin. Indeed, pull your cross back out. Flip it over and over – the vileness of sin on one side, the love of God on the other. Only when we fully comprehend both can we make sense of this world.

In Christ’s Love,

a guy who’s

suddenly exhausted

from writing this

 

Question: Why did God said an Evil Spirit to Saul?

Evil Spirit.jpg

How is it that God sent an evil spirit to Saul?

Sin.

How big of a deal is it to you?

In our world today we wink at sin. We excuse it. We say it’s not that bad. God clearly forbids certain things, and we in our arrogance think we’re more enlightened than the commands of Scripture. We laugh at sin. We mock God. And we do so at our own peril.

Scripture says, “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Do you believe that? Sin is abhorrent enough that it required the death of God’s own Son.

If you wear a cross around your neck, take it in your fingers. Spin it around and around. One side of this cross ought to represent to you the beautiful love of God; the other side ought to represent the utterly vile nature of sin.

God chose Saul to be king. Saul started well. Then pride began to eat at his heart. In his own imagination, he became bigger than life. A victorious king, he kept imagining all of his own victories, and taking the authority that belongs only to God into his own hands. Wanting – in 1 Samuel 13 – to launch out against a large Philistine army, he refused to wait for the prophet to make a sacrifice to God. Two chapters, rather than heeding the command of the Lord to finish the battle and destroy all the Amalekites, Saul again usurped divine authority. And there were three consequences …

  • First, God removed the kingdom of Israel from Israel’s first king. “Because you have rejected the word of the LORD,” said God through the prophet Samuel, “He has also rejected you from being king” (1 Sam 15:23). That was God’s second rebuke after Saul’s second rebellion. The first was this, 1 Samuel 13:14, “Because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you … now your kingdom shall not continue. The LORDhas sought out a man after his own heart.” (Note: The man after God’s own heart was David, chosen immediately after Saul sinned the first time.)
  • Second, God removed the Holy Spirit from Saul. In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit comes on believers and never leaves us. It is an enduring gift. In the Old Testament – before that Pentecost blessing – the Spirit would come upon certain people for certain purposes … and then would be removed when that season of specific Kingdom need ended. For example, when it was time for God’s people to build the Tabernacle, the Spirit came upon Bezalel, Oholiab, and a handful of other craftsmen for that season. And when the Tabernacle was completed, the Holy Spirit retreated. As God’s King, God sent Saul the Holy Spirit. When Saul rebelled, God “took” his Spirit from Saul. (Note: This explains an agonized petition in King David’s prayer after his own worst sin. In Psalm 51:11 begged for a different fate than Saul, saying, “take not your Holy Spirit from me.”)
  • Third, Saul was then tormented by an evil spirit. 1 Samuel 16:14 reads, “Now the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and a harmful spirit from the Lord tormented him.”

And the question is, “Why?!” Why did God send an evil spirit to torment Saul?!

First, God is sovereign over all creation. If Satan and his minions exist and do harm – and they do – then God clearly allows them to exist during this season in eternity. (Now, why God allows this is a deep question for another day. But if they exist and do harm, then a Sovereign God must allow it.) And we must acknowledge – along with the repeated testimony of Scripture – that we are in a spiritual battle. It is a war, and generally speaking, we must acknowledge that these evil forces have free will. While surely constrained by God in many important ways, these entities are nevertheless free (to some degree) to lie, harass, and occasionally destroy. And they do.

If we rightly view this stage of this word as a battle ground between God and evil, then most of our encounters with both God and evil forces are – whether we see it or not – God protecting us. (We need to stop and thank God for his continual – and mostly unseen – restraint over personified darkness in our lives.) Our second most common experience of darkness occurs when we go looking for trouble – whether purposefully or accidentally. We can dabble in the occult, flirt with pornography, cherish our little lies about God, and choose false idols and priorities. God is there to rescue, but generally, he awaits our cry for help.

Another common time in which believers can encounter evil occurs when God takes his hand of protection off of us – usually for the purpose of testing us (and sometimes it’s a testing by fire). God took his hand of protection off of Jesus, for example, when he was tempted in the wilderness and when the Son went to the cross. Generally, the removal of God’s protective hand occurs for a limited period of time and for a specific kingdom purpose – like shaping, testing, and growing us.

Saul, however, fell into a separate category … and it’s so striking because it’s such an extraordinary exception. 99.9999999999999999% of the time, God who is sovereign over all absolutely doesn’t want or need to command these dark creatures to do his bidding. But he can. He’s sovereign. Life tests us all the time – with or without the interceding of evil. Likewise evil desires to lie, discourage, frighten, and overwhelm us all the time – with or without the constraining hand of God. But in the special case of Saul, we have to trust that God had an eternal purpose in this action. God was creating the earthly line for the Messiah. Surely every human in that line would inevitably sin, but God turned a rebellious Saul into an eternal warning. It was a warning (particularly) to the next king (David), but it was also a warning to all future generations as well. Saul’s torment is the fate we all deserve. God could send evil upon us all … and he would be just in doing so. It’s only by grace that we’re not all haunted.

To be honest, I didn’t like this question. To be frank, I kind of blocked out this part of Israel’s story. I like to think of God as profoundly gracious – and he is. And I like to think of sin as “not that bad” … because I’m guilty. I don’t think you or I have to worry about God sending an evil spirit upon us! But we do need to be constantly on the alert so we don’t wander down dark spiritual alleys. We need to keep putting on the full armor of God, as Paul taught us, and we need to keep praying “deliver us from evil,” as Jesus taught us.

And we need to take this story as a warning – not because we’re going to suffer Saul’s fate, but because we really need to comprehend the true cost of sin. Indeed, pull your cross back out. Flip it over and over – the vileness of sin on one side, the love of God on the other. Only when we fully comprehend both can we make sense of this world.

In Christ’s Love,

a guy who’s

suddenly

exhausted

 

Question: Father, why do you have only one Son?

Only Son

Father, why do you have only one Son? Why not many sons and daughters?

  • I know people with only one child who is a son.
  • And I know people with only one child who is a daughter.
  • Similarly, I know people with many daughters and no sons.
  • And I know people with many sons and no daughters. (My dad, for example, came from a family of all boys. I came from a family of all boys. And I had only all boys.)
  • Likewise, I know people with no children.
  • And I know people with many children – both boys and Both. And many.
  • But what about God?

We all know how humans create sons and daughters. But to answer this question we need to ask: How did God the Father create His Son? (And why God doesn’t have many sons and daughters?)

Mormons believe that God has many sons and daughters. The God of this planet had many. (In fact, Jesus and Lucifer, in their theology, are brothers.) But Our-Father-who-art-in-Heaven doesn’t have children like that.

So how did God the Father create His Son? The answer is: He didn’t! God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – is eternal. Wholly uncreated! There are three – and only three – eternally. The Father didn’t “have” a Son. God is simply, eternally, three. (It’s like asking why the three states of matter are solid, liquid, gas. It just is.)

Maybe a part of this question is why a Son … and not “the Daughter”? God is neither male nor female. He transcends those characteristics. Nevertheless, He chose to reveal himself in this way. Maybe, as some might contend, it was because His first revelations came during the midst of a more Patriarchal culture. Maybe.

But I’m more inclined to simply say, “If God uses the language of ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ and ‘He’ and ‘His,’ then who am I to argue?” Instead, I’ll plumb the depths of the image God gave us. It’s amazing love – but not romantic. It’s authority and caregiving (Father) vs. submission and obedience (Son). It explains the magnitude of sacrifice within the crucifixion – see John 3:16, a Father giving, losing, grieving His Son.

In Christ’s Love,

a guy who has three sons

and can’t imagine the love

in sharing your one

 

Question: Father, Why Did You Create Such Abundance?!

Abundance

Father, why did you create so much? The universe seems to be enormous in size, age, and quantity! Billions and billions of stars, billions of years old, spread over an enormous volume!

Abundance!

Do you know that there are about as many stars in heaven as there are grains of sand on the earth? Wow! Abundance!

Did you know there are nearly 100 billion neurons in the human brain and that they fire at a rate of about 120 kilometers per second? Wow! Abundance!

Our questioner today asks … Why?!?!?!?

I mean, if a major part of the point of creation was to invite a handful of lowly humans “to glorify God and enjoy him forever” (Westminster Confession), why didn’t God just create simply – one planet, one star (sun), fewer species, less abundance?

Well, I can’t answer that question definitively, but maybe I can give a hint of an explanation. I have two primary answers. (Maybe you can think of more!)

As our example, let’s use the abundance of stars in the universe – 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, give or take a few. Why so many? I think it’s because – one – God likes to create! It’s who He is. He can’t help himself! As a creative human, there’s joy in creating, and I think God creates out of sheer joy.

Second, I think it’s to help us. The human condition tends to want to make ourselves bigger and more important than we really are, which also means our tendency is to make God smaller and less important than He really is. I think part of the purpose of the abundance is to make us look up. To encourage us to say, “Wow!” Scripture joyfully hints at this, saying, “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1).

Have you ever said, “Wow,” while looking at the night sky?! The naked eye can see just 3,000 of the quintillions – and usually far, far less with all our light pollution and humidity in the South. But it’s worse than that. I don’t see many stars because I generally spend more of evenings indoors. I figuratively, if not literally, spend more time looking down than up. I miss generally God’s glory. I close my eyes to his “ordinary” revelations. If “ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made” (Rom 1:20), then I am daily guilty of failing to be awed and to worship. I close myself off – usually unintentionally – from the wonder. It’s not my intent, but it’s my reality. I think God created so much abundance – at least in part – so that busy people would occasionally stop to say, “Wow!” and to worship.

In Christ’s Love,

a guy who stopped

while writing this

to say, “Wow!”

and to worship

 

 

Apocrypha: Why did Protestants take 11 books out of the Catholic Bible?

Apocrypha

Based on our discussion last week on which books are included or not included in the Canon of Scripture, someone asked …

What about the Apocrypha? Why were those books added or removed so many centuries later?

A story …

When I started seminary, I bought a Bible. The New Revised Standard Version was the Lutheran favorite, so I found one I liked. Not knowing any better, I bought a gift Bible – read cheap Bible … read started falling apart after four years!

Now after four years of seminary, I knew that inexpensive Bible by heart. Even while I was learning passages by chapter and verse, I knew where it was on which page in that particular Bible! “Oh, it’s in Philippians on the bottom left hand corner of that page!”

I loved that. I didn’t want to lose that. But what do you do when that Bible is falling apart? You buy seven more Bibles just like it. (That way seven can fall apart before you lose that gift!) And then I found more durable leather-bound ones – typeset in the exact same way. So I bought the leather ones too.

But … there was something different about my new leather-bound Bibles. In my new Bibles there were 11 books that weren’t in my original Bible –1 Esdras, 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, the Letter of Jeremiah, Prayer of Manasseh, 1 Maccabees, and 2 Maccabees.

Wait! Do you know what these additional books are? They’re the Apocrypha, known also as the Deuterocanonical books. That’s their official name. Most of us Protestants know this expansion of book as “the Catholic Bible.” The question is: Why does “the Catholic Bible” include these extra books, and what is this Apocrypha?

Literally, “the canon” refers to the list of books officially included in the Bible; thus, “deuterocanonical” means “the second canon,” or the-canon-in-addition-to-the-Protestant-canon-of-thirty-nine-Old-Testament-books. “Apocrypha” literally means “hidden,” implying “the hidden books of the Bible” (though that’s really a misleading term).

What Protestants call the Old Testament are thirty-nine books that starts with Genesis (which is dated as far back as 1500 BC) and ends with Malachi (written about 450 BC). If we date the first New Testament book to about 50 BC, then there was a nearly 500 year silence between Old and New Testament writings. The Deuterocanonical books are Jewish texts from this 500-year interim.

Let me use 1 and 2 Maccabees as an example. About 200 years before Jesus’ crucifixion, a group of pious Jewish rebels wrested control of Judea back from the Seleucid Empire. They re-dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem. Among their actions, they lit a menorah – Hanukah commemorates this. 1 and 2 Maccabees tell this Jewish historical story.

Historically, Judaism treated these writings as historical and with great respect. But they were not treated as part of the Hebrew Bible. The Early Church treated these books with respect too but, like the Hebrews, did not include them as part of the official Biblical canon (which we call the New Testament).

Within the Roman Catholic Church acceptance of these deuterocanonical books ebbed and waned over the centuries. But in the mid-1500s, at the Council of Trent, the Roman Church officially added the Apocrypha to their Canon. During the Protestant Reformation, Luther and other Reformers went back to the Canon that was accepted throughout the first fifteen hundred years of the Church.

Fans of the Apocrypha celebrate the important information of, what to many, is a lesser known period of Jewish history. (Their history is our history!) Critics of the Apocrypha cite inconsistencies from the rest of Old Testament theology. Critics also remind people that the only Scriptural foundation for many historic Catholic practices (like praying for the dead, worshiping angels, petitioning saints in heaven, and even indulgences to atone for sins) are from the Apocrypha and not the traditional Canon.

Me? I prefer to stick with the 39 Old Testament books. No Apocrypha. But let’s not cast stones or create division over good historical works. After all, the Bible with the Apocrypha was what Luther and the first Lutherans – loyal Catholics at the start – would have all read!

In Christ’s Love,

a guy who’s never read

the full Apocrypha

 

Question: Who Did Adam’s Sons Marry to Populate the Earth?

Genealogy

Who did Adam’s sons marry to populate the earth?

That’s the gist of a longer question from one of our readers. Here’s the full question …

If there was only Adam and Eve at first, then were cast out of the garden and then they had Cain and Abel. That would mean there were only 4 people on earth. Once Cain killed Abel and was marked where did he go? How did we go from only 3 people on earth to about 7 billion people on the earth? Who did Cain marry? Where did she come from?

First, scripture tells us that Adam and Eve had three sons. First, they had Cain and Abel – see Genesis 4. But when Cain killed Abel, Cain was unfit to carry on the line. Rather it went through a next son, Seth. Genesis 5 records this: This is the list … When God created humankind, he made them in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and … Adam became the father of … Seth [and] Seth … became the father of Enosh [and] Enosh … became the father of Kenan [and]…”

First, that’s the line – at least through the men – in Adam’s family. According to Genesis 5, Noah – the last listed – is the tenth generation of this line. (Then after the flood, we have to start over again with Noah and his son and their wives. But that’s a story for another day.)

Scripture doesn’t name Seth or Cain’s wives.

The heart of today’s question is: Who did Adam’s sons marry to populate the earth? Genesis 5:4 says, “Adam after he became the father of Seth … had other sons and daughters.” I know. It’s icky. But the only choice, according to Scripture, was a sister. The next generation is was surely cousins. Then more distant cousins. Then as the world populated, God thankfully commanded that incest was no longer allowed!!!

The next question is how do we get to seven billion people? Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that we have a young earth, maybe 6000 years back to Adam and Eve. How could two people lead to seven billion in such a relatively short period of time? Well, right now human population doubles every forty years. Let’s call that a generation. 6000 years back to Adam and Eve divided by 40 years per generation = 150 generation. Well, if 2 becomes 4 … becomes eight … becomes 16 … then doubling that 150 times means we’d have way, way, way more than 7 billion. In fact, if the population doubled every 150 years, then we’d have 40 “generations.” That too would produce more than enough.

I love that people like details! (How could this be?!) For me – a total non-scientist – my thinking on this comes down to trust. I trust God to make what needs to happen happen. And I trust Scripture to tell me what I need to know. And that’s enough of a “Wow!” for me. But tune in next time. We have another “Wow” and wonder. Another friend writes, “[My question] has to do with “abundance“! Why did YOU create so much? The universe seems to be enormous in size, age, and quantity! Billions and billions of stars, billions of years old, spread over an enormous volume! [Why the abundance?]”

In Christ’s Love,

a guy who is one

of Adam’s children

 

 

 

 

 

Question: Why these books in the Bible? Why not others?

Books.jpg

One last question from a child …

How do you handle the antilegomena in your interpretation of scripture?

Wait! Just kidding! That question obviously wasn’t from a child. That was from someone smarter than me!

When I was in seminary, I resolved to not learn big words. (Too hard to explain later.) So, I must confess, that I had to look up “antilegomena.” How many of you actually know what it means?! It’s actually an important topic.

Let me begin it with a story …

About the time I arrived at Spirit of Joy, Dan Brown’s The DiVinci Code was published. Wrapped around a thrilling adventure story, there was a very clever anti-Christian, anti-historical theme. Brilliantly conceived, the author started the book with a line that said something like, “There are three untrue things in this book to help the author tell an exciting tale.” And he listed three things. “The rest,” he said, “is absolutely true.” It was a brilliant conceit! The fiction writer created trust and invited reader into a series of half-truths and lies that he presented as absolutely true.

To uncover the mystery that was at the heart of the novel, the reader – along with the main characters – systematically discovered that the genealogy of Jesus was a hoax … and … that the Church (especially the old Catholic Church) carefully constructed (and still perpetuates) this cover-up. And the Church (the author contended) corruptly promoted this lie by emphasizing only certain books of the Bible and hiding the witness of other (more true) books.

America loved the novel. It was exciting. But because of the way the story was constructed, hundreds of thousands began to doubt the genuineness of Scripture. It was a very, very big deal!

In response, some of Christianity’s greatest authors tackled the historical and theological inaccuracies of The DiVinci Code, revealing instead the authority of Scriptures. Sparked by a simple novel’s conceit, thousands of churches preached sermon series to address the reliability of Scripture. There were whole Sunday School curriculums and documentaries made to refute author Dan Brown’s contentions. It was a big, big deal in culture and in the Church.

And sadly, it was for many people, the final nail in the coffin for their trust in God, faith, and Church.

So, what is the “antilegomena”? I found this quote: “Antilegomena, a direct transliteration of the Greek ἀντιλεγόμενα, refers to written texts whose authenticity or value is disputed. Eusebius in his Church History used the term for those Christian scriptures that were ‘disputed’, literally ‘spoken against’, in Early Christianity before the closure of the New Testament canon.”

The contention of The DiVinci Code (and of many skeptics) is that at a certain point in history – roughly 300 years after the death of Jesus – the power brokers in an increasingly corrupt (Catholic) Church picked and chose which “Scriptures” would be counted as authoritative. They picked books that solidified their power; they excluded books that told a more true story. That’s not what happened, but if you believe in conspiracy theories (and want to distrust the Church), that’s a compelling narrative.

The way the formation of the New Testament happened is actually very different than this cloak and dagger story. Starting just a decade or two after Jesus’ death, eye witnesses to Jesus’ life were writing to other eye witnesses to Jesus’ life. Peter, for example, was writing to primarily Jews in Jerusalem, many of whom, like him, had lived through Jesus’ ministry and the events of the crucifixion.

  • Some of these writers were telling stories of Jesus’ life. These “books” were called Gospels.
  • Other Apostles were writing to other eyewitnesses and to a lot of new believers to teach them about who Jesus was, the theological implications of his coming, and how to live as believers in response to our faith in Him. Generally, these were called Epistles. Peter, John, James, Paul and others wrote these Epistles.

But here’s the point: They were all written in the first century during the age of the eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life and during the formation of the church.

When these Gospels and Letters were written, they’d be given to churches. The best of these writings would then be copied and shared with other churches. (Passing along these Gospels and Letters was an expensive and time consuming process, so truly only the best were passed along.)

And then time passed … By the middle of the second century, a new generation of pastors and teachers were now quoting the writings of these original Apostles. They were quoting them as authoritative. They were quoting them as Scriptural.

And then more time passed … The Church for two centuries had been counting as authoritative the books that we now call the books of the New Testament. But as time went by, more and more heresies kept developing. And often these heresies were accompanied by new “books” and stories and tales about Jesus. Written now many decades after Jesus and his eyewitnesses –and in service to their alternative theological beliefs – a handful of these books found small, temporary audiences (and archeologically, some have been preserved to today).

Let me give you an example: One stream of non-Biblical books comes from a school of thought called Gnosticism. It came to prominence not too many decades after the church was founded. Gnosis is from the Greek word that means knowledge, and the Gnostics championed personal “knowledge” (your own unique insight) over orthodoxy and tradition. An example of a “Gnostic Gospel” that ran counter to what Church had been using for decades as authoritative was The Gospel of Judas. In this “gospel” it is claimed that Judas wasn’t a traitor (Jesus actually asked Judas to turn him in in order to bring about the final key events). In the process, then, it was said that Jesus revealed to Judas alone key truths that the other disciples didn’t know. (New “Gospel.” Totally different truths.)

By the Fourth Century when Church Councils met to codify the New Testament canon, there were many such alternative Gospels and false Epistles. Contrary to the claims by The DiVinci Code and many skeptics, the “Church Fathers” at these Councils weren’t picking winners and losers. They were simply affirming what the Church had been using from the original Apostles for already now three hundred years. And it’s easy to find all of these New Testament books quoted repeatedly in the writings of three centuries of early church theologians and saints.

Now, it’s easy to talk about why the current twenty-seven books of the New Testament made it in, and much later “secret knowledge,” like the Gospel of Judas, didn’t. That’s obvious and easy to differentiate.

But in addition to the twenty-seven canonical books, there were many more letters and pieces of early Christian literature that were commonly used by churches for centuries. These writings were not heretical. These writings – like the Acts of Paul, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Epistle of Barnabas – were widely valued by the church. The only discussion at these Councils was whether they did or didn’t deserve the same canonical status as the books we now call Scripture.

Let me give you an example, the Didache is perhaps the most important of this class of theologically important writings. The Didache is in a sense one of the Church’s first catechisms. It reveals authoritatively first century Christian practices, and it taught early Christians about baptism, communion, Church structure, and Christian ethics. Written primarily to a Jewish Christian audience, it prescribed how the Jewish Church must adapt from old Jewish roots to welcome Gentile believers. The Didache didn’t make it into our canonical Scriptures, but it is nevertheless one of the most important documents in church history. It is a testament to value of the antilegomena, even if it falls short of what we call Scripture.

So … to answer the question: How do I use these valuable, orthodox, non-scriptural texts – the antilegomena? Honestly, I use them very, very little. I figure it like this: I’ve only got one lifetime; I think I’ll spend it mining the depths of the books that made it in. The rest of Christian history and literature can surely inform me, but I’m spending most of my time with Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, Paul, and James!

In Christ’s Love,

a guy who likes big truths

(even if he avoids big words!)