- Welcome to Emmanuel Reformed Church (ERC)! We are part of the Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS), a small, but confessionally faithful denomination of the Protestant tradition. Our theology is shaped by the historic creeds of the Christian church (Apostle’s, Nicene, and Athanasian) as well as the confessions and catechisms that were the fruit of the Protestant Reformation (Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession of Faith, and Canons of Dort). While our church and theology is rooted in and borne out of our history, we seek to make worship and fellowship relevant to the 21st century and beyond. The Bible (our ultimate authority in matters of faith and practice) tells the story of redemption, and it is a redemption that is as relevant now as it was back when the Bible was written. It is a story of creation, corruption, cross, and consummation. The biggest problem mankind faces is sin. The solution to that problem is salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. The final goal of creation is the consummation of all things in Christ in the new heavens and the new earth. If you feel as if there must be more to this life, but can’t quite put your finger on it, then join us for worship at ERC as we glorify God through the proclamation of the gospel—the only hope for a fallen world.
Textual Critical Issues on John 7:53-8:11
Back on Sunday, September 19, 2021, I preached a sermon on John 7:53-8:11, the story of the woman caught in adultery. It’s a famous and well-known story in the Gospels. In that sermon, I mentioned that there are some rather serious textual issues surrounding this story. It is commonly accepted by the majority in NT scholarship that this story not only doesn’t belong in John’s Gospel, but doesn’t belong in the Bible at all.
Now at Emmanuel Reformed Church we use the New King James Version (NKJV) of the Bible, and in most editions of the NKJV there will be a footnote at John 7:53, which reads “NU brackets 7:53 through 8:11 as not in the original text. They are present in over 900 mss. [manuscripts] of John.” Now you might be thinking, “what in the heck is NU?” For that, you need to go to the preface of the NKJV (you know the section most people don’t read). The preface gives you the reason behind the particular translation you own, it’s translation philosophy, and (most importantly) the Hebrew and Greek texts used to make the translation.
Under the section titled “The New Testament Text,” the NKJV translators tell you that the Greek text behind the NT of the NKJV is the same Greek text used by the original translators of the King James Version. That Greek text is variously called the Traditional Text, the Byzantine Text, or the Received Text (a.k.a., “Textus Receptus”). This Greek text is called the “traditional text” because it has been the text used throughout most of the history of the church. It is also called the “Byzantine text” because this text type (or family) finds its origin in the region of Antioch of Syria (part of the old Byzantine Empire, or the eastern half of the Roman Empire).
The NKJV translators also mention two other Greek texts in use in NT scholarship. The first is called the Critical Text, so called because it uses the principles of textual criticism developed in the 19th century to determine what should be in the text of the NT. First pioneered by two NT scholars, Westcott and Hort, this later morphed into the “standard” Greek text called the Nestle-Aland Greek NT (currently in its 28th edition) and the United Bible Society’s Greek NT (currently in its 5th edition). These two texts are identical (they only differ in textual footnotes). This is what the NKJV translators refer to as the NU text. The other Greek text is called the Majority Text, and the readings therein are based on what reading is supported by the majority of manuscripts. The NKJV refers to this text as M text. So if you’re reading the NKJV, you’ll occasionally see foot notes in the NT that will reference either the NU or M or both and any differences with the Received or Traditional Text.
So if you’re not asleep yet, you might be asking “why does all this matter?” It matters because pretty much every single English translation of the Bible uses the NU text for the NT except the KJV and NKJV. For example, if you’re using an English Standard Version (ESV), a popular newer translation, the passage John 7:53-8:11 is bracketed with double brackets [[…]]. There is a footnote that reads, “Some manuscripts do not include 7:53-8:11; others add the passage here or after 7:36 or after 21:25 or after Luke 21:38, with variations in the text.”
Now if you compare the footnote from the NKJV and the footnote from the ESV, it’s clear that neither one is particularly unbiased. The NKJV footnote emphasizes how this passage is found in over 900 manuscripts of John. The ESV footnote emphasizes how dubious the placement of this passage is in the manuscript history of John’s Gospel. Both footnotes are giving you true information, but they’re emphasizing the elements of the truth they want to emphasize.
So why does this all matter? Because we no longer have the original documents of the books of the NT, but what we do have are thousands of full and partial manuscripts (copies) of the original writings. But as with anything that has been copied, errors creep in. Consider the kids’ game “telephone,” in which you whisper something in someone’s ear, and they whisper it in another kid’s ear, and by the time you get five or six kids down the line, what is being said has altered significantly from what was originally said. Same thing happens when hand copying a written exemplar. A copyist can inadvertently introduce an error (a misspelling, an omission, etc.), and then that error gets passed on to the next copy perhaps with some new errors added in. Skeptics look at this and will argue what possible hope can we ever have in knowing what the Bible actually said? Without the originals and only armed with “error riddled” copies, we can never know what the Bible originally said. These same skeptics will conclude what good is divine inspiration if there is no divine preservation? That’s a valid argument.
However, I will argue that there is divine preservation in the fact that we have literally thousands of copies of the NT in Greek and many times more than that in early “versions” (translations into other languages such as Latin, Coptic, Syriac, etc.). Not to mention that all of the early church fathers (church leaders during the first 200-300 years of church history) quote all or part of the NT. It has been argued that even if we didn’t have a single NT manuscript, we could reconstruct the entire NT solely based on quotations of the early church fathers. No other text in antiquity has anywhere near the manuscript support as the NT. No one questions the works of Homer or Plato as being authentic, yet they are based on textual evidence that literally pales in comparison to that of the NT.
But, we need to know what the NT originally said in order to be able, as Christians, to believe the right things and act according to those beliefs. Having said that, there is a large degree of agreement between all of these multiplied thousands of NT manuscripts (over 90%). Where there is disagreement, you need to utilize principles of textual criticism in order to determine the most likely reading of the NT text.
Where does that leave us with the passage in question, John 7:53-8:11? I don’t know if anyone can make a definitive statement regarding this passage. I’ll give you my reasons why I think it belongs in our English Bibles right where it is:
- It is in the majority of Greek manuscripts of John’s Gospel
- While some of the earliest Greek manuscripts do not have this passage, that doesn’t mean the passage is not Biblical, it only says that whatever exemplar these manuscripts used to copy from didn’t have the passage (one of the principles of textual criticism is the older the manuscript, the more likely it’s closer to the original, however that’s an assumption made by men)
- This passage is included in the Traditional Text, which is the text that has been in use in the Church for most of its history (even though some of the manuscripts used to produce the Traditional/Received Text are of more recent vintage, it’s entirely possible they are recent copies of an older exemplar)
- There are growing (in my opinion) reasons to question the Critical Text, not the least of which is that it is based largely on two “older” manuscripts that were discovered in the 19th century, these two texts have a significant amount of disagreement from each other (anywhere from 10-15%), and the Critical Text was originally produced by men who had a low view of Scripture
I realize that this is a lot of information for your average Christian to process, and even at that I’ve barely scratched the surface on this issue. Much more can be said. I hope this at least answers some of the questions about this passage — a Biblical passage in which the grace and mercy of our Lord is clearly on display.
A Question on Goodness
A question was emailed some time ago that asks the following: In Heidelberg Catechism question #94 it says “trust in [God] alone, with all humility and patience, expect all good from Him only.” The part I am confused on is the phrase “expect all good.” Is the author of the Catechism saying I should always expect good, or is he saying that it is all good because it comes from God?
This is a great question because it explores the nature of “good.” What do we mean when we call something “good?” Typically when we call something “good,” we are saying that that thing is somehow qualitatively good. For example, if I get a raise from work, it’s a qualitative good because making more money is qualitatively better than making less money. When I buy a new car, it’s a qualitative good because a new car is qualitatively better than having an older car. When a young couple gets married, it’s a qualitative good because being married is qualitatively better than living alone. Now in saying all of that, I realize that we should make the qualification “all things being equal.”
But notice how I am defining “good” subjectively, based on how it affects me. Going back to one of the above examples, suppose that raise from work was due to a job promotion. Further suppose there were two people in competition for that one promotion. My getting the promotion is good for me, and not so good for the other person. Another example, suppose 100 people were on an airplane, and that airplane crashed with only ten survivors. Surviving the plane crash was good for the ten who survived, and not so good for the 90 who didn’t. So we tend to define “good” in terms of how outcomes affect me, or those close to me.
There are other, more philosophical, ways to define “good.” There is the hedonistic way of defining “good” as whatever increases pleasure and reduces pain is “good.” There is the utilitarian way of defining “good” as whatever causes the greatest good for the greatest number. But all of these ways of defining “good” cannot transcend the subjective nature of good. For example, if we look at the hedonistic definition of good, what increases my pleasure might increase your pain. That’s good for me, not so good for you. Looking at the utilitarian definition of good, whatever causes the greatest good for the greatest number will still leave a minority for whom it might not be so good.
That’s why we need a definition of good that is objective, one that does not waiver depending on my mood or the changing fancies of the majority. For Christianity, the standard and source of all goodness is found in God. In the Westminster Confession of Faith, in its chapter on the nature of God says, “God hath all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of Himself” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 2.2). Consider the following Biblical passages…
Exodus 34:6 (NKJV) And the LORD passed before [Moses] and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth.”
Psalms 119:68 (NKJV) You are good, and do good; Teach me Your statutes.
There has always been a debate in philosophical and theological circles that asked the following question: “Does God do something because it’s good, or is it good because God does it?” If you answer that God does something because it’s good, then you’re saying there is some standard of good that exists outside of God. If you answer that it’s good because God does it, then you open yourself up to the charge that God is capricious. However, God is the standard of what is good, and when God acts, He acts in accordance with His nature, which is good.
So let’s now look at Heidelberg Catechism Q94. The context of this question is the Catechism’s discussion on the Ten Commandments, in particular the first commandment. The first commandment is “You shall have no other gods before Me.” The question asks “What does God require in the first commandment?” In the answer, it warns against the evils of idolatry, sorcery, and other illegitimate means of seeking help and guidance. Instead of trusting in these false gods, we should rely on the only true and living God. It is from this only true and living God that we should “with all humility and patience expect all good from Him only.” The Catechism uses as a “proof text” for this answer the following verse from the Book of James…
James 1:17 (NKJV) Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.
Now the verse is clear, God only sends down “good and perfect” gifts. Yet this is also the same book that opens with these words, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials” (James 1:2). So when God sends us “good and perfect” gifts, we need to resist the temptation to think good is being defined on our terms. God is not interested with out short term “good” or with our immediate pleasure. He is interested in molding and shaping us to reflect the image of His only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ…
Romans 8:28-29 (NKJV) 28 And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. 29 For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren.
So to answer your question, YES. We should always expect good from God, but “good” as defined by God, not us. Also it’s all good because it comes from God, but “good” as defined by God, not us. Because Romans 8:30 (not quoted above) ultimately ends with our glorification, and what can be better than that?
The Measure of a Life
I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting over the past eleven days. You see, on Thursday, September 23, 2021, my father, Thomas C. (“Tom”) Gobelman, passed away. While my wife and I have received an outpouring of condolences and sympathy, I share this not to garner more sympathy, but to reflect on life, death, and the meaning of it all. Our society does everything it can to avoid the issue of death because, like taxes, death is unavoidable, it comes to all people at some point in their lives. When death does come and claim a family member or a loved one, those who are left behind are, in a way, forced to reflect on our own mortality. My dad passed away eleven days ago, and his death has greatly affected me because of the close relationship he and I had, and that’s not unusual (the closer the death, the greater the effect). His passing prompted me to reflect on the measure of a life.
Again by the world’s standards, life is measured by one’s accomplishments. Dad wasn’t a famous person by any stretch of the imagination. Dad wasn’t wealthy, there was no huge “Scrooge McDuck” pile of money he left behind. Dad didn’t start a company like Google or Apple. He didn’t write the great American novel or paint the great American painting, or compose the great American song. Dad did none of these things. In fact, until I even mentioned his name, many of you wouldn’t even know who he was. Dad was born in 1932, lived during the Great Depression, joined the US Navy during the Korean War, got married in 1961, had a son and a step-daughter, a handful of grandchildren, and a handful of great-grandchildren, worked a rather mundane white-collar job in Chicago, faithfully went to church, and died in 2021 at the age of 89. In the grand scheme of things, a rather unimportant kind of life.
In the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, an aged King Solomon reflects on his own life and his pursuits of wealth, fame, pleasure, and wisdom. He sought meaning in life in all those pursuits, and in the end he found all of those pursuits empty. In Solomon’s words they are, “vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” All of the things we can achieve in this life, while important to a certain degree are rather meaningless on the day we die. There are no trailer hitches on a hearse and whoever dies with the most toys still dies. That’s just a fact of life “under the sun.”
But it’s not all “doom and gloom.” Because King Solomon closes Ecclesiastes with these words, “Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.” In other words, all of the pursuits, all of the achievements one can gain during this life are nothing without a right relationship with our Creator. That’s the point King Solomon is trying to get across. The measure of a life isn’t what one can accomplish “under the sun,” but whether or not one fears the Lord and keeps His commandments.
Back to my dad, one of the things I mentioned about him was that he faithfully went to church. My dad gave his life to Jesus Christ when he was 16 years old, thanks largely to the Christian influence of his mother, my grandmother. My dad was one of the finest examples of Christian living I have ever personally seen or known. My dad wasn’t a pastor or a theologian or a scholar. He was simply a man who loved Jesus, loved his family, loved his church, and loved people. For the last 20 years of his life, he was a member of Ravenswood Baptist Church on the north side of the city of Chicago. For 20 years, his was most likely the first face you saw walking into the church. If you were a visitor, without fail you would get a hand written welcome note from him later in the week. If you needed prayer, he was there without fail. He loved teaching adult Sunday school, children’s church, and singing in the choir. He served as a deacon in his church, and it was one of the greatest honors he had was to serve the church in that capacity.
You see, the measure of a life isn’t the things and honors one accumulates, but the vacuum that is left when that life is gone. I can’t tell you how many people came up to me at dad’s church over the past few days and told how much he meant to them. These are real people, across all demographics, who were touched by a gentle, humble, god-fearing 89 year old man who always had a smile on his face and always had a kind word to say.
The measure of a life is not by the standards of the world, but by God’s standards. Dad didn’t just talk the talk, he walked the walk. Dad had a “life verse,” a verse in the Bible that in many ways defined his life, and it was 2 Timothy 1:12, which says, “For I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day.” Dad’s faith wasn’t in a creed or a doctrine, but in a person — Jesus Christ (“I know whom I have believed”). Dad entrusted everything he had, everything he was, in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He did so because he was persuaded that Christ was able to guard that deposit “against that day,” the day Jesus will return to right all wrongs and make all things new. And now dad is at home with his Lord, he has heard the words all Christians want to hear, “Well done, thou good a faithful servant.” That is the true measure of a life.