In a range of different contexts, I often get involved in answering questions that people have about the Bible. If I am preaching somewhere, especially in an evening service, I will quite often offer an open ‘question and answer’ session, and I have in the past taken part in Premier Radio’s Monday morning phone-in, in which people can call in and ask any question they have about the Bible. It is both interesting and demanding, because you don’t know what questions will be asked—and have no time to look anything up before giving an answer! The listening audience of Premier is slightly different from the kind of audience I am usually working with, in that it will include a larger element of more conservative and Pentecostal listeners—but the questions asked offer some important insights into how people read their Bibles and the questions that arise.
These are the questions that were asked on one occasion:
1 In Luke 17.37, what does Jesus mean by saying ‘Where a dead body is, there the vultures will gather’?
2. In the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18, Elijah tells the people to pour four jars of water on the offering three times. But it was a time of drought, so where did the water come from?
3. Will there be revival, as predicted by Joel 2.38 ‘in the last days’ before Jesus comes?
4. In Mark 6.11, the Authorised Version includes Jesus’ saying about Sodom and Gomorrah, whereas the NIV and other modern versions omit it. Is this because of a concern for political correctness?
5. In Isa 6.1 Isaiah says that he ‘saw the Lord, high and lifted up’—yet John 1.18 says that ‘no-one has seen God.’ How do we reconcile the contradictions here?
6. Why did God make skins for Adam and Eve if they had ‘bodies of light’?
7. When someone becomes a Christian, do they then need deliverance from demons or have they all already left?
You might want to pause and consider how you would have answered these questions!
If I had been given some notice, and time to prepare, I might have answered differently. But these are the answers I gave on the spot:
1 I would need to look at commentaries and consider all the options [I had in mind that the saying comes in a slightly different place in Matt 24]. But we need to look at the immediately preceding verses. Jesus draws a parallel between the ‘days of the Son of Man’ and the ‘days of Noah’. In the days of Noah, people didn’t know what was happening, and carried on with their ordinary lives, when suddenly judgement came (in the form of the flood) and took them all away. In the same way, Jesus says, at the time of his return, people will be absorbed with their daily life and won’t know what happens when suddenly they will be taken away in judgement. What Jesus is saying is the opposite of what is taught in the doctrine of ‘the rapture’ which originated with the teaching of J N Darby around 1832—and it is why I want to be ‘left behind’. I think Jesus’ saying about the vultures highlights that fact that people will endlessly speculate about these things—probably to no avail.
(Since offering this answer, I have had the chance to look at commentaries and consider all the options—and I have come to the conclusion that no-one knows exactly what Jesus meant by this, which in itself has important implications!)
2. I thought you might be asking about the number of times water is poured—four jars, three times each, which makes twelve. And of course the altar is built of twelve stones, one for each of the tribes of Israel, so this might suggest that the whole nation, every tribe, has had the fire of faith extinguished and needs rekindling. (Biblical authors are more interested in numbers and in symbolism than we often realise.) There is a river along the base of Mount Carmel, but as you say, there was a drought, so it might well not have been flowing. If you visit Israel, one of the things you will notice is that, in just about every ancient site, you will see a sign for a cistern. One of the most spectacular is at Herod’s mountain fortress at Masada, by the Dead Sea, where there is a sophisticated system for gathering water into a series of cisterns. So there would very likely have been a cistern near to the site of the sacrifice, and water would have been fetched from there.
3. I hope there will be revival, and we should pray for it! But in the Bible, revival is talked of as a renewing or refreshing or a bringing of new life, and can happen at any time. The verses in Joel you refer to do talk about ‘the last days’—but they are ‘the last days’ that Peter refers to in his speech at Pentecost. In explaining to the crowd what is happening as the Spirit is poured out, he reaches for Joel and says ‘This is that about which the prophet Joel wrote: in those last days…’ In other words, we have been in the ‘last days’ ever since Pentecost—so we should always be looking for God to pour his Spirit out, and give us visions and dreams.
4. In its time, the Authorised (King James) Version was a good translation—but there were two important differences from our modern context. First, they had many fewer manuscripts to look at when decided on a translation. Because of the growth of archaeology, we now have many more ancient manuscripts to compare. As copies of the NT documents were made, inevitably some (minor) changes crept in—sometimes a scribe would think there was a mistake in a manuscript he was copying, and he would try and ‘correct’ it. Second, because this has become more and more important, the discipline of decided what was the most likely original writing (called ‘textual criticism’) has become more developed. In this case, in Mark 6.11, the parallel saying [in Matt 10.15 and Luke 10.12] does include the reference to Sodom and Gomorrah. But in Mark 6.11, some manuscripts include it and others don’t. Which is more likely to be the original that Mark wrote? We could imagine someone with the shorter text remembering the parallels in Matthew and Luke, and thinking that the shorter was an error, and ‘correcting’ it. But it’s hard to imagine the longer version being ‘corrected’ by being shortened. So the shorter version is much more likely to be the original, and that is the manuscript tradition that the NIV follows.
5. You are quite right to observe an apparent contradiction here—and it is actually quite widespread! Moses was said to have talked with God face to face, and he and the elders of Israel sat with God and ‘ate and drank’. And Jesus (in the Beatitudes) promises that the pure in heart will ‘see’ God. But what do we mean by ‘see’? (This is a very pertinent question in relation to the Book of Revelation.) Even in ordinary language, we use ‘see’ in all sorts of different ways—’I see what you mean’; ‘I suddenly saw the answer’; ‘I can see the sea’. Much of the time, the Bible is using metaphorical and visionary language. In Isaiah 6 (as in Revelation) it is hard to take this literally—how could God be ‘high and lifted up’ and have his ‘train fill the temple’ unless the temple’s roof was taken off? The important thing is that, in the year that King Uzziah (who’s name means ‘God is my strength’) died, that is, at a time of change and uncertainty, God is still the one who is on his throne, and for Isaiah the truth of that was found in his temple presence. Scripture is clear that God is beyond human comprehensive—we see only in part—and that is why God is never actually described in Revelation, but simply referred to as ‘the one seated on the throne.’
6. I don’t understand the reference to ‘bodies of light’—everything in the two creation accounts (in Genesis 1 and 2) portray the first humans as just like us, formed from the ‘dust of the earth’ (to which we return in death, ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’) into which the breath of life from God has been breathed. God’s provision of clothing from them was a sign of his provision and grace despite the fact that they had done what he had prohibited.
7. When we come to faith, in many ways everything has changed. Paul talks of ‘the new creation’ (2 Cor 5.17) and it is striking that, in all his letters, he addresses his audience as ‘saints’, the holy people of God. In Romans 6, Paul says that in baptism we are joined with Jesus’ death—our old lives die—as we enter the water, and that we enter the new resurrection life as we come up from the water. That, in principle, is our inheritance that we start to live by. And yet we still inhabit ‘sinful human nature’. So the Christian life is lived between these two realities. When we come to faith, in principle we say ‘Jesus is Lord’ so no other force or power has control over us. But in practice we still need to make that a reality—so deliverance ministry is still needed for some people.
Do add fuller reflections in your comments below!
But these questions offer some interesting insights into how people read their Bibles.
First, there are still plenty of people in our churches who pay careful attention to what Scripture says—for which I am very grateful! Recently I was talking to someone who has joined us in the last year from another large church, and when I asked how she is finding is, her first comment was ‘I am enjoying the biblical preaching’. Our congregations are full of people who take the Bible seriously, and want to be fed. I was particularly struck by the question about water in 1 Kings 18—which demonstrates a fully imaginative entering into the details of the story. If we don’t do our homework, and take time to expound and explain what Scripture says and how it applies to their lives, we are selling them short.
The second observation follows from the first. If people are reading their Bibles, then they will become aware of the challenges and questions that arise. The most interesting question from this point of view was the one about ‘seeing God’. Here, the listener has noticed an apparent contradiction across two quite different parts of the Bible, and wants to know whether they can be resolved. In my experience is simply isn’t the case (as sceptics often claim) that Christian readers of the Bible are credulous and unquestioning. But it is true that they need some help in resolved questions and tension.
Thirdly, alongside that, some faithful readers of the Bible might well have an ‘eccentric’ view—in the literal sense of the word, reading ‘off centre’. I was fascinated that the first question was about a rather obscure saying of Jesus in passing, when the really big questions centre on the immediately preceding verses. And I think the questions about Joel 2.38 and deliverance from demons are important questions but ones that are answered by looking at the ‘big picture’, the more central issues of Christian theology.
Fourthly, this list of questions came from the fourth time I had taken part in this phone-in; there is never a shortage of questions, and so far the same question has not come up twice. So people who read the Bible do have questions, the questions matter to them, and perhaps this shows that their local churches don’t always provide the space for the questions to be asked. And I think it is fair to say that the questions are quite demanding. Does the theological training of our leaders equip them to answer such things? And do we provide the opportunity for the answers to be explored?
Do make a comment, observation or question below—especially if you have not done so before! (Previously published in a slightly revised form in 2018.)