Fortune tellers predict your future; sports writers and political pundits pick winners. Sometimes these modern day prophets hit it, sometimes they miss completely. Old Testament prophets faced the same problems: men like Isaiah and Jeremiah and Micah were constantly predicting the future for the Kings of Judea.
About 720 years before the birth of Christ, King Ahaz of Judea was being attacked by two enemies and his prophet, Isaiah, made a prediction. Isaiah was as confident as a Bulldog fan before the Georgia Tech football game. He pulled Ahaz aside and pointed at one of the King’s young wives, and said something like this: “See that woman? She will conceive and bear a son and before the boy is 12 years old, these two enemies of yours will be destroyed.” (Is.7:14) Isaiah was dead right; his prediction came true.
But a strange thing happened that Isaiah could never have predicted. Hundreds of years later, his story was translated from the original Hebrew into Greek and when the Greek translator came to the word “woman” (ha almah) in Hebrew, he wrote “virgin” (Parthenos). The Hebrews had a word for virgin (bethulah); in fact, Isaiah uses it a few chapters later (Is.62:5), so it’s a mystery why this Greek word was chosen.
But it gets even stranger. About 200 years after this mis-translation, Matthew uses this same Greek error to say that Isaiah was predicting the virgin birth of Jesus. Now we know that Isaiah was not talking about that; he was talking to Ahaz about his two enemies. His prediction centered on the next few years—not 720 years later. And Matthew was no dummy; he could read and write in Greek and Hebrew when most people around him were illiterate. And he knew his Bible (he called it the Tanakh) backwards and forwards. Matthew knew exactly what Isaiah meant. So what was Matthew doing?
Well, one thing’s for sure: Matthew was not reading his Bible literally. The literal interpretation of Isaiah 7:14 is so clear that any child can understand it. Literally, the prediction is that a young woman (not a virgin) will conceive and bear a son, and that this boy will not be more than 12 years old when the two enemies of the King are defeated. And this prediction was literally fulfilled.
So what was Matthew doing? Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were writing “good news.” That’s what “gospel” means. I know many of my readers want the Evangelists to write history, and sometimes they did, but not always. Not here, for sure. Matthew is certainly not stating that Isaiah’s prediction 720 years ago was “historically” a prediction about the Virgin Birth; he knew it wasn’t. So what’s he saying?
The Old Testament is full of prophesies about the coming of the Messiah. In fact, just two chapters later, (9:5) Isaiah predicts the Messiah will be called: “Wonderful, Counselor, and Mighty God.” The New Testament writers were completely confident that Jesus was that Messiah and they felt comfortable in pulling out passages anywhere that sounded like him. In Matthew’s short thirty verse account of the birth of Jesus, he quotes five “proofs” from the Old Testament, and only two of them have anything to do with the Messiah, but it doesn’t matter. They all sound like him, and that’s just part of the good news.
Reading the Bible is not like reading the Story of Civilization by Will Durant. It’s a whole different style and a whole different culture, and a completely different mode of writing. It doesn’t mean it’s not true. Truth comes wrapped in various packages; this is just one of them.
However—as my friend Don McGouirk at 13WMAZ used to say: “That’s my opinion; what’s yours?”
We know the three topics we can’t talk about in public: Sex, Politics, and Religion. One of my favorite (and humorous) lawyers, Bob Steed, wrote a book called: Money, Power and Sex, A Self-Help Guide for All Ages. In his introduction, he stated that his book has nothing to do with Sex, but he knew the title would help him sell his book.
Sex sells. So do Politics and Religion. Why? Well, because all three topics are so controversial. Everybody has an opinion, and that opinion—watch out!—is absolutely correct. But other topics are not that incendiary; I can listen intently to an IT expert explain how to use my new iPhone and never contradict him. I can change my mind on Country Music after visiting Nashville; I can do a complete 360 in my views on surfboarding, high-diving, wrestling, and snorkeling—once I try these things. But it’s difficult to change my mind on Sex, Politics or Religion.
Take Sex: how do you feel about interracial marriage? How about premarital sex? And then there’s adultery and abortion and gay marriage. We could talk for hours about sexual positions and sex toys and porn. Just think of all the opinions we could have on each one of these topics, and all the arguments we could have. And each one of us would be absolutely “right”—there would be no compromise, no shifting of opinion; no changing of minds. Afterwards, all of us would walk away more convinced than we were before.
And Politics! Do you watch Fox News or MSNBC? Are you a Tea Party Republican or a Nancy Pelosi Democrat? Whom do you blame for our failed economy: Bush or Obama? How do you evaluate last November’s election: was it a mandate for Republicans or a fluke because of poor turnout? Do we need “more government protection” or “less government interference?” Whose fault is it that our Congress has been such a miserable disgrace: the Republican House or the Democrat Senate? Should we make friends with Cuba, or not? Let’s analyze Benghazi or the IRS or Obama Care or Immigration or Taxation or the Border, and watch the fireworks.
And then there’s Religion. Get a Southern Baptist to discuss the age of the universe with a Moderate Baptist, or a Liberal Catholic to discuss Gay marriage with a Conservative Catholic. Sparks fly and tempers flare and seldom is there any real “Christian charity.” Another great discussion would be: How many Black churches in Macon welcome White people, and vice versa? Why is 11:00 on Sunday morning the most segregated hour of the week? Isn’t Religion supposed to bring us together? Or does it just bring us to fight?
We are all polarized around our own opinions and convictions. Have you ever wondered why that is? Why do these three topics bring out the worst in us, and reduce some of us to cursing and shouting and others to tears and still others to shame and embarrassment? Is it because we are arrogant and therefore blind to the facts, or is it because we are so highly principled and disciplined in our thinking? How can we tell? How can we measure our objectivity?
For example, when I believed in Papal Infallibility—in the face of factual evidence to the contrary—I believed I was not only "right," but intellectually and spiritually superior to all those infidels who argued against me, and believe me, we argued a lot. Was I illogically arrogant or nobly principled?
How about you? Are you objectively open in discussing all three topics?