The Jesus of the Seminar: Away with the Manger?Pastor Lutzer | November 30, 2003
Selected highlights from this sermon
A group of scholars called The Jesus Seminar once speculated that the vast majority of Jesus’ sayings in the Gospels weren’t actually spoken by Him. They believed that He was just a man, so they couldn’t consider many passages to be valid.
But we can trust what the Bible says about Jesus, because the Scriptures give us Spirit-superintended, eyewitness accounts.
So who is the Jesus whom we worship? Can we trust the Christmas story? Can we believe in camels and in angels and in stars?
About ten years ago a group of scholars got together and called themselves The Jesus Seminar. These scholars – between 70 and 100 – decided that they were going to look at the Gospels in new light and determine which words were said by Jesus and which ones were not said by Jesus. They published their findings in a book entitled The Five Gospels because they included in it also the Gospel of Thomas, which is a Gnostic gospel that was found in 1945. I’d like to say more about it but we can’t for the sake of time.
And so what they decided to do was to publish this book, and they researched and discovered that 82% of everything attributed to Jesus in the New Testament was not said by Him. Jesus said only about 18%. It might come as a surprise, but according to them, Jesus did not say, “It is written: Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.” Jesus did not say, “Let your light so shine among men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” Jesus did not say, “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.” Jesus did not say, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No man comes unto the Father but by Me.”
Now the way the meetings took place was this. The scholars sat around and they decided to vote on 1,500 of the sayings of Jesus, and they used colored beads to indicate their vote. For example, if you believed that Jesus actually said it, you used a red marble or bead. Pink meant He might have said it. At least within it there is something embedded that could be from Jesus. Gray meant no, maybe but probably not. Black meant, “No, we’re sure Jesus didn’t say it.” So fully 82% of that which is in the New Testament was, shall I say it, blackballed? He didn’t say it.
Now, you say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, why are you talking about this. I mean, you know, why don’t you just tell us some other story, but why are you sharing the results of this scholarship?” Well, for one thing, because the media constantly carries it. The Tribune some time ago had a detailed article about the Jesus Seminar and its findings. And if you were living in a house and you discovered that its foundation was sand and that you would be washed away in the first rainfall, suddenly you would become very interested in the foundation. In the very same way, if it is true - what they have published, then, of course, our faith is based on myths and sayings and legends and all the rest. And our destiny depends on what we believe and whether or not the Bible is true.
So I need to share with you the basis upon which these decisions were made. Was it because they came across some brand new archeological find? No! Was it because they discovered these Gnostic Gospels? No, because the Gnostic gospels are dated to at least a hundred years after the time of Christ, and they contain some sayings of Jesus plus a whole lot of nonsense. And in no way do these Gnostic gospels impinge on what might or might not have happened or what Jesus might or might not have said. Where would they get this? It’s a good question. It all has to do with the assumptions, the presuppositions that you have when you study the New Testament. And I’ll give you two of them, which are explicitly stated in their book, which I happened to read this past week.
First of all, the whole point is that in their minds Jesus is a mere man – maybe a remarkable man, but a man nonetheless. Just a man! He had no self-consciousness as being the Messiah. Therefore he could not have made these statements that teach his divinity. The miracles could not have happened. Now, mind you, He did some miracles psychologically, but the miracles of the New Testament are impossible in a world in which there is no personal God who has intervened in humanity. In fact, to quote them, “The Gospels are now assumed to be narratives in which the memory of Jesus was embellished.” So they assume that.
Number two: The second presupposition is if a statement was attributed to Jesus in the New Testament that the Early Church believed, then Jesus could not have said it. It was said by the Early Church. So the whole idea is that the followers of Jesus, and maybe a generation down the line simply took an ordinary rabbi – very ordinary – and they attributed to him all of these sayings and all of these miraculous happenings, and then they created a Jesus according to their own liking. So with those presuppositions the Jesus that you and I know simply never did exist.
Now it’s very interesting that Donald Carson up at Trinity Seminary makes a very interesting point in a detailed article about the Jesus Seminar. He says, “What they have done is they have made Jesus (and I’m quoting now) into a moralizing twit.” I’m not sure what a twit is, but I thought if he said it, it must be good. “They made Jesus into a moralizing twit and then the Early Church was very creative in making these statements and so forth, but Jesus could not have said this.”
I want you to know today that we have absolutely nothing to fear from the Jesus Seminar. As I read the introduction to their book and their philosophies it reminded me of this fact, that their book tells us much more about them than it does about Jesus. It tells us exactly how much they can believe, and what they can’t believe. It tells me that they are very much into political correctness because Jesus said only those things that would fit the modern day.. So you see I read it and I say, “Oh, this is a lot about these guys. It doesn’t help me at all about Jesus because you come to it with those presuppositions and you strip Him of His deity and of His miracles, and of His sayings. Of course, you can do that in an academic way, and you are left with a Jesus who is indeed a twit.
I’m reminded of the Archbishop of Canterbury many years ago when theological liberalism came into the Anglican Church. Now I need to say that when I’m talking about liberalism I mean theological liberalism. Every time I use that word, I get a letter or a phone call that says, “Why are you getting political at Moody Church?” This has nothing to do with Democrat or Republican. When we talk about religious liberals we’re talking about those who have a fierce anti-supernatural bias. But the Archbishop of Canterbury, Archbishop Temple, said, “Why anyone would bother crucifying the Christ of modern liberalism is a mystery to me.” I mean, why in the world would you crucify somebody who never said anything original, who could just give all of these little proverbs and these little aphorisms and he is this (If I may say it one more time) moralizing twit? Why nail him to a cross?
Now the question I want to ask today is, “Is our faith well placed? Are you going to go with the Jesus Seminar, those of you who are here today and you are somewhat skeptical, holding faith off as kind of from a distance, and those of you who are Christians, but you wonder when you read these theories?” I mean, do we have a good basis upon which we place our faith?
Well, there are many passages of Scripture I could turn to, but let’s together turn to 2 Peter today – 2 Peter 1, where Peter is giving some last words of instruction. He knows he’s going to die soon, as is very, very clear, and he wants to just make sure that everybody knows that our faith is well grounded. He says in 2 Peter 1:12: “Therefore I intend always to remind you of these qualities, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have.” By the way, he says, “I’m going to remind you of these things.” Occasionally people say, “You know, Pastor Lutzer, I heard a sermon that you preached five years ago and it was over the radio.” Well, yeah, we need to hear the same sermons again. Do you know what? I am encouraged by Philippians 2. The Apostle Paul says, “I want you to know that it’s very fine for me to write the same things that I have said to you that I told you about earlier.” He’s saying, “You know, we need to be reminded of the truth.”
And then he says (verse 13): “I think it right (to refresh your memory), as long as I am in this body.” He’s reminding us of the days of the patriarchs when they lived in tents. Our bodies are tents, tattered. We try to keep them up. We wash them, we comb them, but they are tents nonetheless. And you know that one of these days we’re all going to have to take our tent and fold it, and Peter knew that that was true of him too. An early Christian said that we have an immortal soul in a mortal body or tent.
And he says: “I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me.” In John 21, Jesus said, “Peter, when you get near the end of your life you aren’t going to be able to go where you want to go. People are going to take you and they’ll stretch forth your hands,” indicating what death he would die to glorify God. And tradition says that Peter did not want to be crucified like Jesus was, but asked that he be crucified upside down. He died as a martyr because he didn’t see himself worthy of dying as Jesus did.
So he says, “This is going to happen soon.” Verse 15: “And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things.” He may even be referring to the Gospel of Mark because Mark was the interpreter of Peter when Peter would preach, and so Mark reflects Peter’s teachings and outlook on the life of Jesus. And so he says, “I want to make sure that before I die that you are reminded of things that are very important.” So today, as always, of course, I’m preaching on something that is very, very important.
And what he does now is he gives three proofs as to why we should believe in the parousia, that is, the return of Jesus, because there were so many false teachers in his day. Every day has had them. Today we have more because of television and because of the printed page, but every age has had them, and these folks were denying the return of Christ. Notice in chapter 3, he says in verse 3 (same epistle), “Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised?” So Peter says that there are going to be false prophets.
Look at what is says in chapter 2, verse 1: “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.”
So Peter is saying, “Look, they’re out there already,” and Peter probably didn’t realize that two thousand years later they’d be out there, and they’d be moralizing and making statements about the validity of the Christian faith.
Are you ready now for the three proofs? I hope so.
First, he says, “We saw the Son of God on the Mount of Transfiguration.” Verse 16: “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” The Greek word is epoptes. He says, “We actually saw His majesty,” and when he says, “cleverly devised stories,” the Greek means sophisticated myths.
He says, “We didn’t follow sophisticated myths, you know, these hand-me-down tales that people tell. Oh no, we were eyewitnesses of His majesty, for He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to Him from the majestic glory saying, ‘This is My Son whom I love. With Him I am well pleased.’”
“I was on the Mount of Transfiguration,” Peter says, “with James and John, and together we saw His glory.” You know, it says in the book of Matthew that when Jesus was there (what a lovely description), “There He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun and His clothes became as white as the light. Just then, there appeared before them Moses and Elijah. While he was still speaking a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is My Son whom I love. With Him I am well pleased. Listen to Him.’”
Why the transfiguration, by the way? You see, Jesus knew that He was going to go to the cross and die, and He also knew that when that happened some of the disciples would think that the promise of the coming Kingdom is going to die with Him. And so Jesus said, “In order that you might know that the Kingdom is going to come, I am going to take this glory, which is now veiled (You see, at Christmas we sing “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see.”) and I’m going to let it break out from Me until you see Me in all of My whiteness and beauty and glory, glistening like the sun, so that you will know that the parousia (the coming) will happen.” And Peter says, “We were eyewitnesses. We were there when we saw the glory, the transfiguration.”
Secondly he said, “Not only did we see the Son.” He said, “We also heard the Father. We heard the voice from the Mount, saying ‘This is my Son in whom I am well pleased.’”
“We ourselves heard this very voice (I’m in verse 18) borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.” He was saying, “Not only were we eyewitnesses, but we were also ear witnesses. We were there when this happened and we did not follow sophisticated myths when we told you this story.”
And Peter could say, “And I’m not the only one. There are James and John who also verified it.” And when it comes to the resurrection the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15 that there were about 500 people who saw Jesus raised from the dead. Listen! This was not done in a corner. This was not some little myth that some wild-eyed fisherman began and concocted. Oh no! There were eyewitnesses to His majesty and to His greatness and to His miracles.
There were three times in the New Testament when the Father spoke to the Son. One was at His baptism when the heavens opened and the Father said, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” The Father is well pleased with the Son. By the way, are you well pleased with the Son? Are you well pleased with Him? Amen. And then, just before the cross, Jesus said, “Now is my soul troubled and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour, yet for this cause came I unto this hour. Father, glorify Thy name.” And the Bible says that a voice came from heaven and said, “I have both glorified it and will glorify it again.” And then here on the Mount of Transfiguration the Father also spoke out of heaven, and John says, “We were there and we heard the voice.”
Could I pause here? Isn’t it time for me to say that it is unutterably arrogant for somebody to look at the New Testament (Two thousand years have passed since its events took place.) and to tell us what happened and what didn’t happen and what Jesus said, and to tell us that there was no transfiguration because there can’t be any miracles? Isn’t that hopeless arrogance that you can look to the New Testament with such an anti-supernatural bias, and that you can discount it all? I for one would rather go with the eyewitnesses. I personally am standing there today. Am I alone up here? Do I have some witnesses? (applause)
And furthermore Peter says there’s a third proof. He says, “We saw the Son.” He says, “We heard the Father,” and “We confirmed the work of the Spirit in the inspiration of Scripture.” You’ll notice it says in verse 19: “And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”
There are two ways to interpret verse 19. One way is to say that even though we saw Jesus and we were there on the Mount of Transfiguration, and we know that the parousia is going to come, even though we were there, the words of the prophets are even more certain.
Isn’t it interesting that Moses and Elijah also showed up on the Mount of Transfiguration, Moses representing the Law and Elijah representing the prophets. And some people interpret this to mean that we have even a surer word in the prophets, although probably it’s best to interpret it the way the NIV has translated it: “And we have the word of the prophets made more certain.” What he seems to be saying is that “our experience on the Mount takes the words of the prophets and it adds to their certainty and to their credibility because it all fits.” They explained and believed in the coming of the glorious Kingdom. “Unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulders. His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. And of His Kingdom and Government there shall be no end.” You see, they predicted the coming parousia, the coming glory of Jesus. They predicted it, and our experience on the Mount confirmed their sure word.
That’s probably exactly what Peter is saying here. “We have made,” he says, “the words of the prophets even more certain.” And you do well to pay attention to it. Listen, those of you who neglect your Bible reading; listen, those of you who think because you know enough about the Bible you don’t need to be fed by it everyday. The Word of God is a light shining in a dark place.
Do I need to tell you that we live in a world that is mighty dark and murky and dank, a world of hopelessness, a world of broken promises and grief and disappointments? We live in a very, very dark world with incredible suffering. And then the only light that we have are the lights of the prophets, and the lights of the Bible, which is as a light shining in a dark place, until the Morning Star arises, until Jesus comes when we won’t need the Bible anymore. And His power and His glory will be revealed even in our hearts finally when history is wrapped up. But we do have a light that shines in the darkness, and that light is God’s Word.
And then he says in verse 20: “Prophecy above all.” You must understand that no prophecy of the Scriptures came about by the prophets’ own interpretation. It doesn’t mean that we can’t read the Bible on our own. What it means is that these prophecies did not come about and originate with the prophet himself. This is explained in verse 21: “For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along (borne along) by the Holy Spirit.” Phero is the Greek word. It’s like a log that is being carried along by a river. They were borne along by the Holy Spirit when they wrote the Scriptures.
How different today! We have all of these false prophets on television. “Oh, you know, the Lord just showed me something.” “Oh, guess what Jesus said to me the other day.” And then out of their mouths come things that may be decent, may be good, but oftentimes just plain foolish and silly.
I told you the story before but I’ll tell it again about the man who wrote to me and said, “I can’t believe you believe this,” and then he quoted me, and said that I had said it on the radio. And I knew I hadn’t said it, and I checked it, and indeed I hadn’t said it. But here’s the point. He had taken something that I said and then added [this together] to it, and put two things together and misquoted me. But if I, as a fallible human being, do not like it when people put words into my mouth, think of how serious it is to put words into the mouth of Almighty God. (applause) And it’s being done all the time.
Listen, when the prophets spoke, they were moved. They were guided. They could use their own styles in writing, but God was there to superintend and to guide them so that what we would have is a sure word that shines like sunlight in a very dark world. They were moved by the Holy Spirit were these prophets.
Now, what do we make of all of this? There are two very important implications. Peter says, “We saw the Son; we heard the Father; we confirmed the work of the Spirit in the inspiration of Scripture.” The whole Trinity was involved here in confirming what we actually saw and what we came to believe.
A couple of comments! First, the accounts of the New Testament should be accepted as they stand. We have credible evidence, and there are so many other ways that I couldn’t possibly explain to you today, but could in a classroom where we get more technical, as to why we have every good reason to believe that the Bible that we hold in our hands is a reliable book that guides us to God.
Now I have to tell you about religiously liberal people. They really don’t know what in the world to do with Easter, which we call here Resurrection Sunday. They have no clue as to what to do with Easter or Christmas. These festivals and times of year bug them. Why? It’s because for one full year they can talk about little moralizing ideas, and I’ve read some of them and they are almost humorous. But they can talk about, you know, all the goodness of human nature, and all these other sweet things. Ugh! But when Easter comes, “Do you have to preach on the resurrection?” And what do you say about it if you don’t believe it? You have to come up with something.”
It was in Los Angeles a few years ago where the pastor always put his sermon topic on the marquee: The marquee was, “Easter is a time for flowers.” Wow! I feel blessed already, folks! (laughter) What do you do with these stories?
Last Christmas a well-known minister here in Chicago said, and I’m paraphrasing (I tried to find the quote but couldn’t, but this is a rather accurate paraphrase), “Now when it comes to camels and stars and angels, do we believe these records?” the question was asked. “Well, that’s not the important thing as to whether or not they happened. What really matters is the spirit of Christmas,” which is about like saying in Alice in Wonderland, “You know, it really doesn’t matter whether or not the Cheshire cat existed. What really matters is its smile. That’s the important thing – the smile of the Cheshire cat.”
Listen to me. If we can’t believe angels and stars and wise men, if we can’t believe that, then there’s really no compelling reason to believe the cross, and to believe the resurrection. And we are, of all men and women, most miserable. It all hangs together. You can’t pick and choose. If Jesus wasn’t laid in a manger like the New Testament says, how do we know that He was nailed to a cross? So that’s the first point. The accounts of the New Testament have to stand and be accepted as they stand because they are credible eyewitness accounts.
There’s a second point, and that is we disbelieve to our own destruction. Now, all of you have Bibles, of course. Thank God that everybody who comes to Moody Church brings a Bible. (chuckles) Let me change that and make it a little bit more accurate. Everyone who comes to Moody Church should bring a Bible. Alright?
But look at what Peter says in 2 Peter 3. He’s talking about the Day of the Lord, and it is almost chilling, where everything is going to be destroyed, and the elements are going to melt with fervent heat. Wow! Verses 13-16 of chapter 3: “But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him (Verse 16 refers to the writings of Paul which at this early date were already accepted as Scripture, by the way) as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand (Anyone who has lectured on the book of Romans will agree. There are some things that Paul wrote that are difficult to understand.), which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.”
People take what Paul wrote and they distort it. They take verses out of context. They tell you that there are so many different interpretations, that nobody knows what is going on. They try to confuse the issues, and they do that, but Peter says they do it to their own destruction because if you do not believe what Jesus had to say, and if you do not believe the Gospel, you are not saved, and won’t be unless you believe. So they distort it.
I like the King James here. It says “twist it to their own destruction.” If you want to know what God thinks about false teachers, read the book of Jude, or just the second chapter of Peter, which we don’t have time to read. Just take that home and say, “You know, I often wondered what God thinks of the Jesus Seminar. Well here it is.”
There is a story about a religiously liberal minister who would go into great detail explaining to his congregation what was myth and fable in the New Testament. He would go along and say, “Now we know that Jesus couldn’t have said this. This miracle couldn’t have happened, etc. etc.” trying to still nonetheless, as these folks do, God bless them, draw out some really important lessons, even though it didn’t happen.
And a few years after his arrival in the church there was a man in his congregation, dying with a terminal disease. So the minister went over and visited him and said, “I’m sure you want me to read some Scripture and pray.” And the dying man said, “Yes, here’s my New Testament.” And the minister took it and noticed that were verses cut out here and there, and noticed that there were even some chapters missing. And he said, “Don’t you have a better Bible than this?” And the dying man said, “Before you came I believed every word of the New Testament. Whenever you would say, ‘Now you can’t trust this; this is fable,’ I would go home and cut out all those passages that you said weren’t true.” And he said, “You know, if I had stayed in your church a little while longer, I might have ended up with just two covers.”
What a tragedy to die and to not have a sure Word that shines as a light in a dark place. What a tragedy to die with two empty covers because you do not believe that Jesus is the only qualified Son of God, who was on the Mount of Transfiguration, who was crucified for our sins, who was resurrected to the glory of God, and who is coming some day in glory and in great power. What a tragedy to have to die with absolutely nothing certain to hang on to, to go out into the night of eternity.
Some of you are visiting. You’re saying, “You know, I always wondered what in the world Moody Church believes.”
I want you to know we believe this stuff. Okay? (applause) It’s because upon it and Jesus our eternity rests. But it’s a good foundation. We have a sure word.
Father, we ask in the name of Jesus that in a very confused world that You will help us, that You will come to us, Lord, in strength and power, and help us to understand. And for all the skeptics who are listening, we pray today, God that You will overcome their blindness and the natural propensity that we have to deny what we have to face. We pray, Father, that You’ll help them to overcome that, and to receive Christ as their Savior. Cause them to believe, we pray.
And so before I close this prayer, if you’ve never trusted Christ as Savior, say, “Yes, I believe that He died for sinners, and I receive Him right now.” Tell Him that right now where you are sitting.
Invigorate us, Lord, by Your holy Word. May we always know that Your Word is holy! In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.