Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Man Overboard

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On May 26, 2013 at 4:30 AM the Jascon 4, one of three tugboats towing an oil freighter off the coast of Nigeria, started to sink. Harrison Okene, the tugboat's 29-year-old cook, immediately knew something was wrong. As the vessel descended 100 feet to the floor of the Atlantic Ocean pitched upside down, Okene was tossed to-and-fro in his small quarters. He groped his way in the pitch darkness through the icy waters, finally finding a cabin with a four-foot air pocket. He made a make-shift platform and stacked two mattresses together in his attempt to escape the rising water.

Dressed only in his boxer shorts, Okene sat on the mattresses and waited for help. But the thought of being rescued seemed remote. So Okene, a follower of Jesus, started to pray the Psalms: “Oh, God, by your name, save me,” and “The Lord sustains my life.” Okene told reporters, “I started calling on the name of God . . . reminiscing on the verses I read before I slept. I read the Bible from Psalms 54 to 92. My wife had sent me the verses to read that night when she called me before I went to bed.”

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                                                        Harrison Okene discovered 

Two-and-a-half days later, Okene was certain the rest of the eleven-man crew had drowned and that he would also drown. Then he heard the sound of rescuers and started banging on the steel walls of his cabin with a hammer. The Dutch divers who found him couldn't believe their eyes. As they reached out for a hand of a man they assumed was dead, the hand grabbed theirs.

To this day, Okene believes his rescue after 72 hours underwater was the result of divine deliverance. He told a Nigerian newspaper, “The rest of my life is not enough to thank God for this wonder. It is incredible.”[1]

I read that story not long after studying the book of Jonah and I saw immediate parallels. As many of you know, Jonah is the story of a prodigal prophet. In chapter one he runs from God, but in chapter two he runs into God, “And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” (1:17).

The belly of a fish is not a great place to live, but it is a great place to learn. Sloshing around in the gastric juices, saltwater and seaweed, Jonah received Divine discipline in the darkness.

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For 72 hours, Jonah was allowed to reap what he had sowed. The fish was not only God’s prison and God’s passage for his prophet, but it was also his prayer closet.  In chapter two, Jonah learned how to pray while in a whale of a mess. “Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying, “I called out to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried and you heard my voice” (2:1-2).  

As you examine the rest of his prayer, you’ll quickly notice that Jonah quotes copiously from the Psalms. He was saturated in the Scriptures and alludes to ten Psalms in his distress. Which speaks to us of the value of hiding God’s Word in our hearts.

Two castaways—Jonah and Harrison Okene, survived their darkest moments by leaning on God’s Word. What about you? Do you have any of God’s Word stored up in your heart for such a desperate time? Chances are when and if a moment like that arises you won’t have time to access a Bible. Calamity seldom gives a heads up before it strikes. The best time to prepare for hard times is now and the best way is store up God’s Word so we will have something sturdy to hold on to when everything is topsy-turvy. -DM  

[1] Liz Klimas, “Watch the Incredible Moment Divers Inspecting Capsized Ship Find a Man Alive After Nearly 3 Days,” The Blaze, 2 December 2013 <http://www.theblaze.com/news/2013/12/02/watch-the-incredible-moment-divers-inspecting-capsized-ship-find-man-alive-after-nearly-3-days/> 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Wycliffe: The Morningstar of the Reformation

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2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Of course, when we talk about the Reformation we usually think of Martin Luther and John Calvin, and rightly so. However, if we are going to fully understand the roots of the Reformation then we must go back to other notable Christians who laid the groundwork for Luther and others. One of those unsung heroes is John Wycliffe.

The Bible stayed in the hands of the Catholic clergy until an Englishmen by the name of John Wycliffe came along in the middle of the fourteenth century (1330-1384). He has often been called “The Morning Star of the Reformation,” because he was one of the first proponents for the translation of the Bible into the common tongue.

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Wycliffe became a popular preacher in London, and he was quick to point out the unbiblical traditions of the Catholic Church and their abuse of power. As Wycliffe deepened his study of Scripture, he wrote more about his conflicts with official church teaching. He wrote against the doctrine of transubstantiation, “The bread while becoming by virtue of Christ's words the body of Christ does not cease to be bread.” He challenged indulgences, “It is plain to me that our bishops in granting indulgences do commonly blaspheme the wisdom of God.” He repudiated the confessional, “Private confession was not ordered by Christ and was not used by the apostles.” He reiterated the biblical teaching on faith: “Trust wholly in Christ; rely altogether on his sufferings; beware of seeking to be justified in any other way than by his righteousness.” He was also one of the first to criticize the Pope—calling him “the Antichrist.” He said that the bishops were like “dumb hounds that failed to bark in time of need.”

In response, Pope Gregory XI issued five bulls (church edicts) against Wycliffe, in which Wycliffe was accused on eighteen counts and was called “the master of errors.” Eventually, Wycliffe was put under house arrest. However, Wycliffe didn’t waste his imprisonment. Believing that every Christian should have access to Scripture (only Latin translations were available at the time), he began translating the Bible into English, with the help of his good friend John Purvey.

In those days before the printing press it would take a scribe working full time for nine months to copy one Bible so it was very expensive for a common peasant to get a Wycliffe Bible. It has been said that farmers in those days would trade a wagon-load of hay for just the privilege of renting the Bible for one day of reading. Families would scrimp and save for months just for the privilege of buying a few pages of Scripture.

Of course, the Catholic Church bitterly opposed Wycliffe’s Bible. Their official statement read, “By this translation, the Scriptures have become vulgar, and they are more available to lay, and even to women who can read, than they were to learned scholars, who have a high intelligence. So the pearl of the gospel is scattered and trodden underfoot by swine.” Wycliffe replied, “Englishmen learn Christ’s law best in English. Moses heard God’s law in his own tongue; so did Christ's apostles.”

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Sadly, Wycliffe died before the translation was complete, however his friend Purvey is considered responsible for the version of the “Wycliffe” Bible we have today. Though Wycliffe's followers (who came to be called “Lollards”) were driven underground, they remained a persistent irritant to English Catholic authorities until the English Reformation made their views the norm.

John Wycliffe left quite an impression on the Church: 43 years after his death, officials dug up his body, burned his remains, and threw the ashes into the River Swift. Still, they couldn’t get rid of him. Wycliffe's teachings, though suppressed, continued to spread. As a later chronicler observed, “Thus the brook hath conveyed his ashes into Avon; Avon into Severn; Severn into the narrow seas; and they into the main ocean. And thus the ashes of Wycliffe are the emblem of his doctrine which now is dispersed the world over.”[1] 

[1] Mark Galli and Ted Olsen, eds. 131 Christians Everyone Should Know (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2000), 211-213.  

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Resurrection or Resuscitation?

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In 2002 Aaron Ralston was on a hiking trip alone in Utah’s Blue John Canyon when a boulder fell and pinned his right forearm. Ralston shoved the rock with his shoulder and tried to chisel it away with his knife; he even attempted to hoist the boulder with his climbing rope and pulley. The boulder didn’t budge. After five days, without food and water and having drifted back and forth between depression, despair and unconsciousness, he made a decision—the thought of which makes us cringe. He resolved to sever his right hand.

Ralston said, “It occurred to me that if I could break my bones up at the wrist, where they were trapped, I could be freed. I was able to first snap the radius and then within another few minutes snap the ulna.” Next with a cheap multiuse tool, the kind that comes with fifteen-dollar flashlight, he began sawing into his own skin. The blade was so dull, he recalled, “It wouldn’t even cut my arm hairs,” but he persisted in the amputation. Ralston told reporters that the crude surgery, “took about an hour.”

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After Ralston finally freed himself, he then faced an even greater challenge—finding help. With a bleeding stump of an arm he only had a short amount of time to get medical attention. He crawled through a 150-foot ravine, repelled down a 60-foot cliff and then hiked another six miles. Finally, he ran into some Dutch tourists who were able to call for a helicopter medic. Downplaying his rescue Ralston explained the escape as a “matter of pragmatics.”[1] Ralston’s visceral and amazing “back-from-the-dead” survivor story was made into an Oscar-nominated movie, 127 Hours.

I mention Ralston’s experience because I think it closely parallels one of the theories often used today by skeptics to explain away the resurrection of Christ. Those seeking to write-off the resurrection in naturalistic terms argue that Jesus, much like Aaron Ralston, survived an extremely traumatic experience that brought Him to the very edge of death. Trapped by a boulder, Ralston fought for his life for 127 hours, and likewise Jesus did the same thing for 3 days and nights sealed in a stone tomb, or so the critic reasons.      

I am talking about the “Swoon Theory” which states that Jesus did not actually die on the cross, but He merely swooned from the shock and trauma of the beating and crucifixion. After six hours on a cross, the lifeless Jesus was presumed dead and buried by His followers. But, soon after Christ was resuscitated in the cool tomb and released Himself from the burial cloths and rolled away the stone. Afterward, Jesus explained to the disciples that He had risen from the dead and they believed him.

It doesn’t take long for a reasonable person to realize that the swoon theory has some major flaws.

First, we know that Jesus actually died because the Romans confirmed it when a soldier thrust a spear in the side of Christ and a mixture of blood and water issued forth. John 19:33-34 records:
33 But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34 But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water.”  

Not only did those in the first century know that Jesus was dead; modern medical doctors believe it as well. Writing in the March 21, 1986 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association, the doctors, including a pathologist from the Mayo Clinic, concluded:
            “Clearly the weight of historical and medical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead before the wound to his side was inflicted and supports the traditional view that the spear, thrust between his right rib, probably perforated not only the right lung, but also the pericardium and thereby endured his death. Accordingly, interpretations that Jesus did not die on the cross appear to be at odds with modern medical knowledge.”[2]  

Another major flaw in the swoon theory is that Jesus was embalmed with seventy-five pounds of bandages and spices. John 19:39-40 reads: 39 Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. 40 So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews.”  It is highly unlikely that Nicodemus and company would have embalmed a living Jesus. If Jesus were alive, don’t you think they would notice Him breathing?

Finally, there is the issue of the post-resurrection appearances. How would a crucifixion victim find his way out of cold, dark tomb? Norman Geisler writes about the absurdity of this notion:
            “Even if Jesus did survive the cold, damp dark tomb, how could he unwrap himself, move a two-ton rock, get by the elite Roman guards, and then convince the scared, scattered and skeptical cowards that he had triumphed over death? Even if he could get out of the tomb, Jesus would have been a battered, bleeding pulp of a man, whom the disciples would pity, not worship. They’d say, “You may be alive, but you’re not certainly risen. Let’s get you to a doctor!”[3]

I have always enjoyed the story that classic Bible teacher J. Vernon McGee told concerning the absurdity of the swoon theory. During the days when Dr. McGee was still broadcasting his Thru the Bible program a woman wrote him, “Our preacher said that on Easter Jesus just swooned on the cross, and the disciples nursed him back to health. What do you think?”

McGee replied, “Dear Sister, beat your preacher with a leather whip for thirty-nine heavy strokes. Nail him to a cross. Hang him in the sun for six hours. Run a spear through his heart. Embalm him. Put him in an airless tomb for three days. Then see what happens.”   

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Over a period of forty days, Jesus appeared on twelve occasions to 515 eyewitnesses (1 Cor. 15:3-8). One of those appearances involved Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-9). Saul, who became the apostle Paul, was a first-century terrorist and he claimed that his conversion to Christianity was the result of experiencing a glorious appearance of the risen Jesus:

As I was on my way and drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone around me. And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ And I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.’ Now those who were with me saw the light but did not understand the voice of the one who was speaking to me. 10 And I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ And the Lord said to me, ‘Rise, and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all that is appointed for you to do.’ 11 And since I could not see because of the brightness of that light, I was led by the hand by those who were with me, and came into Damascus. (Acts 22:6-11)

The swoon theory cannot account for Paul’s dramatic conversion and reversal of worldviews. A swooned Jesus, even if healed, would not appear gloriously. Taking all this into account it’s clear that the swoon theory is “dead” with no hopes of resurrection, but Jesus is alive! -DM

[1] Max Lucado, Come Thirsty (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 39-40.
[2] William D. Edwards, Wesley J. Gabel, and Floyd E. Hosmer, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” Journal of the American Medical Association 225, no.11 (March 21, 1986):1463.
[3] Norman Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 305.