Do you ever come across a verse, passage, or parable and say to yourself:
What in the world does that mean?
I don’t understand what Jesus is saying in that passage.
Why would they respond that way?
Is that still true today?
You’re not alone.
Every week during the #LentChallenge, we’re asking New Testament scholar, Dr. Craig Blomberg to weigh in on your questions—even the trickiest, strangest, and most random. Check out his answers to 5 difficult Bible questions and leave yours as a comment below:
1. In John 21, Jesus instructs the disciples to throw the net on the other side of the boat. They catch 153 fish. What is the significance of 153 fish? (John 21:11)
It’s amazing the extent to which people have gone to try to find some hidden meaning in the number 153.
My answer isn’t as exciting but I think it’s more likely to be true. The significance of 153 is that they got such an impressive and unexpected fish catch that somebody counted the fish and found they had caught 153. And they remembered the number!
2. Luke 17:5-6 reminds us that we don’t need more faith—all faith has God’s power in it. So why are we still so powerless? I don’t see trees throwing themselves into lakes.
The tree into the lake is obviously a metaphor for great things, just like faith moving mountains in 1 Corinthians 13:2. Those activities, if they took place literally would simply upset things horribly!
But if the real heart of the question is: Why don’t we experience more instances of spiritual power?
Then I guess I’d have to ask who the “we” of the question refer to and what would constitute the “power” they are looking for. Is a person looking for something outward, exciting, energizing, tangible? Is a person looking for a miracle that science can’t explain?
Actually, even these things happen quite often. Read Craig Keener’s two-volume work on Miracles for a phenomenal catalog of modern-day miracles on every continent that have been meticulously documented. As for a powerful church service, I go to a church where I regularly experience amazing biblical preaching with insightful and incisive application and thoughtful Spirit-filled worship led by godly musicians. But just this week, outside of church, a good friend and ex-con got a job working for a spinoff ministry from Prison Fellowship against all odds, another friend wrote me about the sudden death of his wife and acknowledged his deep grief but also expressed his strong, abiding conviction in God’s goodness and in her being with Jesus. A third friend told me how a person they have been praying for and sharing with for a long time committed his life to Christ.
If these aren’t examples of spiritual power then I think we are looking for the wrong thing.
3. What is the deal with Jesus instructing his disciples to buy a sword in Luke 22:35-38? I can understand how Peter might have been confused by this when just a few verses later he draws his and is reprimanded for cutting off an ear.
I take it to be a way of saying prepare for hostility against you of a kind that you haven’t received thus far. A lot in that little passage depends on how you imagine Jesus’ tone of voice in verse 38. Is he claiming in a matter-of-fact tone that two swords will be enough to overcome all the arresting troops later that evening? That would require a miracle of the kind that it is not part of God’s will for Jesus to work on this night that is appointed to lead to his death.
It seems much more likely that he is speaking these words in exasperation, as if to say, “That’s enough—you guys just don’t get it, or won’t get it.” Could that have still left Peter confused? Of course. This is the same Peter who protested vehemently he wouldn’t deny Jesus and proceeded to do so three times in exact fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy. Mark 9:9 suggests that the disciples won’t truly understand things until after Jesus’ resurrection.
4. Why are there so many references to demon possession in the New Testament? Seems like an overwhelming amount of people were possessed back then… but not in current times.
Depending on which passages in the Gospels you count as parallels, there are about seven or eight stories of Jesus exorcising demon-possessed individuals. There is also one in Acts, and a couple of general references in the New Testament to an unspecified of demonized individuals being healed. I’m not sure this merits being called an “overwhelming” number, but that’s a judgment call I suppose.
Craig Keener’s book that I reference above in my answer to the second question has a lengthy appendix in which he documents hundreds of modern-day exorcisms. My church has seen three in its fourteen-year history and when I ask one of my larger classes at the seminary how many of the students have been involved directly or indirectly in an exorcism, several hands typically go up. In some parts of the world today demon possession seems more “overwhelming” than it may have been even in first-century Israel.
The question still remains why some locations seem to see it a lot more. Perhaps they relate to places that have not had the gospel for decades or even centuries and Satan’s “kingdom” still wreaks havoc. It doesn’t surprise me that the places that tend to see the most overt demonic activity today are places still under the control of pagan religions or parts of the once Christianized Western world that are becoming the most post-Christian and pagan today as well.
5. Why does Jesus instruct so many people to keep his miracles quiet? (Matthew 8:1-4; Mark 3:7-12; Luke 8:40-56)
He tries to silence them at times after miracles, but even more often after someone grasps that he is the Messiah, God’s Son. Commentators have come to refer to this motif in the Gospels, especially in Mark, as the Messianic Secret. Probably the primary reason is because people didn’t yet grasp that he was not to be the kind of Messiah most people were looking for—a military general or political king who would free Israel from the Romans. Only after his death and resurrection would this change (Mark 9:9).
Premature acclaim during Jesus’ earthly ministry would have led simply to his premature execution. Only Christ himself knew when his appointed time had come when he could boldly confess his identity even before the Sanhedrin (Mark 14:62-63) and lose his life for it in less than twenty-four hours. Prior to that he had to be more guarded.
This week I’m giving away THREE copies of Craig Blomberg‘s brand new book, Can We Still Believe the Bible? An Evangelical Engagement with Contemporary Questions.
Dr . Craig L. Blomberg (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is distinguished professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary, where he has taught for more than twenty-five years. He is the author or editor of numerous books, including A Handbook of New Testament Exegesis, Jesus and the Gospels, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, Preaching the Parables, Making Sense of the New Testament, and commentaries on Matthew, 1 Corinthians, and James.
Challenges to the reliability of Scripture are perennial and have frequently been addressed. However, some of these challenges are noticeably more common today, and the topic is currently of particular interest among evangelicals. In this book, biblical scholar Craig Blomberg offers answers to questions like:
Aren’t the Copies of the Bible Hopelessly Corrupt?
Can We Trust Any of Our Translations of the Bible?
Don’t All the Miracles Make the Bible Mythical?
To win ONE of THREE copies of Can We Still Believe the Bible?, enter a comment on the original post at MargaretFeinberg.com. Winners will be selected and announced on Friday.
Congratulations to the winners: Bridget, Ralph Cann, Eric Hause
What verse has you stumped? Have you ran into a passage that’s tricky to interpret? What’s a question about the Bible, theology, or Christianity that has been lingering in your head?