Tag Archives: Gregory Koukl

Tetelestai — It is Finished

Good Friday is coming later this week and I’ll be preaching on Jesus’ “Word of Victory” from the cross:  “It is finished” (John 19:30).  In this connection, I did some research into the meaning of the one Greek word behind the English, tetelestai.  For those interested in things grammatical, that’s the third person singular, perfect tense, of the verb teleo.  Now what stirred me up to research this was something I read a while back in Gregory Koukl’s book The Story of Reality (see my review here).  Koukl writes:

When a debt was owed in the first century, a “certificate” of the debt was made, much like the notice placed about Jesus’ head.  When the obligation was settled, it was officially resolved with a single Greek word placed upon the parchment’s face: tetelestai.  It meant completed, paid, finished, done.  Archaeologists have unearthed ancient receipts that have been “canceled out” in this way using the word tetelestai or its abbreviation. (page 127)

When I first read this, I thought, “I’ve never heard that before.  Hmm…interesting.”  I placed a mark in the book and made a note of it.  I knew I was going to preach on John 19:30 shortly, so I would come back to this and take another look at it.

Koukl has a footnote with this paragraph and it points to a website, Bible.org.  The particular page can be found here.  For our purposes, this is the relevant section:

The word tetelestai was also written on business documents or receipts in New Testament times to show indicating that a bill had been paid in full. The Greek-English lexicon by Moulton and Milligan says this:

“Receipts are often introduced by the phrase [sic] tetelestai, usually written in an abbreviated manner…” (p. 630). The connection between receipts and what Christ accomplished would have been quite clear to John’s Greek-speaking readership; it would be unmistakable that Jesus Christ had died to pay for their sins.

So now the plot thickens!  The anonymous author of this page points us to The Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament Illustrated from the Papyrii and Other Non-Literary Sources, by James Moulton and George Milligan.

The relevant page from Moulton and Milligan can be found online here.   There we find the words quoted by Bible.org, but also some words left out.  Crucially, Moulton and Milligan relate that these papyrii are mostly belonging to the second century A.D. (I’m thinking:  “What do you mean by “mostly”?”)  Moreover, Moulton and Milligan provide their source:  New Classical Fragments and Other Greek and Latin Papyrii, by B.P. Grenfell and A.S. Hunt.  Now we’re getting somewhere.

As the saying goes, “Ad fontes!” (to the sources).  The relevant pages from Grenfell and Hunt begin here.  The papyrii in question come from the second and third century A.D. — not exactly “New Testament times.”  Moreover, they come from receipts “for various taxes paid by persons transporting goods on baggage animals from Fayoum to Memphis and vice-versa across the desert road.”  For the geographically challenged (or curious), Fayoum and Memphis are located in Egypt.   I trust you can see the problem.

I can only say, “This myth is busted.”   These paypyrii have to do with the paying of taxes, not of debts.  You might argue that a tax is a kind of debt, but we generally distinguish between the two.  More importantly, these papyrii are from a time and place removed somewhat from the New Testament.  Koukl also said that there was a “single Greek word” on the parchment’s face.  When you look at the text of the papyrii in Grenfell and Hunt, there’s definitely more than a single Greek word to signify the payment of the tax.  It is highly unlikely that Jesus said “tetelestai” (or that John translated his Aramaic to this word) with the idea that there’s a direct reference to the cancellation of a debt.  Certainly when Jesus says, “It is finished,” he does mean that the work of our redemption on the cross has been fully accomplished.  However, any reference to the full payment of our debt is only indirect.

UPDATE:  After posting the link to this blog post on Facebook, I had some discussion with a colleague and did some further research.  There is a papyrus from somewhere between 180 and 168 BC which is a receipt for “payments of an unspecified nature.”  This papyrus uses tetelestaiSee here.  There is also a customs receipt from 49 AD — see here — and a number of others.  However, there are still questions regarding:  1)  How widespread this technical usage was, 2) whether the original Greek readers of John’s gospel were indeed familiar with this technical use of tetelestai, 3) Whether this word in this form was actually used for payments other than taxes, 4) The fact that tetelestai never occurs by itself as a word in isolation.  Furthermore, I surveyed a number of commentaries on John.  I found one that mentioned the “bill paid” interpretation (Richard Phillips in the Reformed Expository Commentary series).  The others (Carson, Hoskyns, Ridderbos, Hendriksen, Michaels, Morris) I surveyed make no mention of this.  Finally, there’s no mention of this in a number of standard references including Dictionary of New Testament Background, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, and Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.  Considering also the overwhelming reticence of commentators and scholars on this point, it is best to simply understand tetelestai in John 19:30 as meaning, “It is finished” or “It is accomplished/completed.”

 


Book Review: The Story of Reality

The Story of Reality: How the World Began, How It Ends, and Everything Important That Happens in Between, Gregory Koukl.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017.  Paperback, 198 pages, $15.99 USD.

There are two types of apologetics books:  there are the ones that tell you about defending the faith and then there are the ones that show you how to defend the faith.  Greg Koukl’s new book falls into the latter category.  It’s a book written with two main types of readers in mind.  It’s for Christians who are struggling for answers to the big questions that come with the Christian faith.  It’s also written for unbelievers who are open to considering the claims of the Christian faith.  For both readers (and others), I think Koukl has something powerful to offer.

The Story of Reality is a basic overview of most of the key elements of a Christian worldview.  When I say it’s basic, I mean that it’s not written at a highly academic level.  A high school or college student should be able to manage it.  However, behind the basic level of communication, one familiar with the issues will recognize that Koukl is no slouch.  The deeper stuff is in his grasp, but he has distilled it into something readily understood.

The concept of “worldview” is increasingly being criticized in Christian circles as something created by modern philosophy.  Perhaps it’s for this reason that Koukl recasts the notion in terms of a story.  In this story, there are characters and there is a plot.  The main characters are God and man.  The plot involves creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.  But unlike other stories, the Christian story (laid out in the Bible) is objectively true — it is reality.  Koukl addresses other competing “stories” such as materialism, mysticism/pantheism, and Islam.  He critiques these stories and shows how they’re inadequate for explaining the state of things as we see them.  He then also provides ample argumentation to illustrate that it’s only the Christian story (or worldview) that can be true.  Christianity is true because of the impossibility of the contrary.

Readers familiar with Reformed presuppositional apologetics will recognize what Koukl is doing.  His method is generally in that school.  As I’ve noted before (in my review of his previous book Tactics), Koukl is a student of Francis Schaeffer, who in turn had been a student of Cornelius Van Til.  Van Til was one of the pioneers of Reformed presuppositional apologetics.  One of the key features of that school is a commitment to the place of Scripture in apologetics, not only as a foundation, but also as part of the actual method.  Similarly, throughout The Story of Reality, Koukl is constantly either quoting or, more often, paraphrasing the Bible.  This is highly commendable!

This is not to say that Koukl is always consistently in the Reformed school of apologetics.  There are a couple of places where I put some question marks.  In chapter 21, he discusses faith.  He correctly notes that faith, in itself, does not save.  Rather, faith is the instrument through which we are saved.  Then he writes this:

This is why reason and evidence matter in the story.  It is critical to get certain facts right.  Put simply — reason assesses, faith trusts.  That is the relationship of reason to faith.  Reason helps us know what is actually true, leading to accurate belief.  Faith is our step of trust to rely on what we have good reason to believe is so.  (page 137)

There is some truth in this.  You can say that faith needs and uses reason as a tool.  However, there are also important limits to this.  Above all, the unregenerate mind misuses and abuses reason because of sin.  Unregenerate reason is not going to assess facts correctly.  Deadened by sin, reason does not help you know what is actually true.  Moreover, even when regeneration comes into the picture, human reason is going to run stuck with certain pieces of the Christian worldview (or story).  Think of the Trinity.  Reason assesses that doctrine and says, “Sorry, it doesn’t make sense.”  Does faith then stop trusting?   Faith has reasons for believing in the Trinity, but those reasons come down to the faithfulness and reliability of the One who revealed it to us, not the logical self-evidence of it.

There were a few other questionable statements.  In this blog post, I interacted with his suggestion on page 51 that the Big Bang is compatible with Genesis.  In chapter 11, he opines that the Bible teaches that animals have souls.  The biblical evidence offered for this is debatable.

I also want to draw attention to an omission.  The subtitle tells us that the book will tell us “everything important that happens in between” the beginning and the end.  But in Koukl’s story, an important part is missing.  It’s the part where the lives of believers are transformed by the gospel.  It’s the part where the Holy Spirit works to change us and make us into new people who take every thought captive for Christ in every area of life.  I was hoping to read at least a paragraph, preferably a chapter, about that vital and wonderful part of the Story.  It’s incomplete without it.

Despite my criticisms, overall this is a well-written and well-argued book.  Koukl deftly anticipates questions and objections.  He uses helpful illustrations.  The chapters are of such a length as not to be intimidating.  If you know an unbeliever who is showing interest in the faith, I’d suggest buying two copies — one for yourself, and one for her or him.  Offer to read it together and discuss it.  You’d for sure find yourself enriched and, who knows, perhaps it would be God’s instrument to work faith in the heart of your friend too.

 


Christians are Intolerant?

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I’m working on a full review of this great book by Greg Koukl, Tactics.  Today I want to give another sample of his approach.  This is again in view of the current discussions regarding same-sex marriage here in Australia, but believers elsewhere can benefit from this too.  Koukl writes:

I have a friend who is a deeply committed Christian woman and whose boss is a lesbian.  That in itself isn’t the problem.  My friend has the maturity to know that you can’t expect non-Christians to live like Christians.  The difficulty is that her boss wanted to know what my friend thought about homosexuality.

When someone asks for your personal views about a controversial issue, preface your remarks with a question that sets the stage — in your favor — for your response.  Say, “You know, this is actually a very personal question you’re asking.  I don’t mind answering, but before I do, I want to know if it’s safe to offer my views.  So let me ask you a question:  Do you consider yourself a tolerant person or an intolerant person on issues like this?  Is it safe to give my opinion, or are you going to judge me for my point of view?  Do you respect diverse points of view, or do you condemn others for convictions that differ from your own?”  Now when you give your point of view, it’s going to be very difficult for anyone to call you intolerant or judgmental without looking guilty, too.

This line of questioning trades on an important bit of knowledge:  there is no neutral ground when it comes to the tolerance question.  Everybody has a point of view she thinks is right, and everybody passes judgment at some point or another.  The Christian gets pigeon-holed as the judgmental one, but everyone else is judging too, even people who consider themselves relativists.  (Tactics, 77-78).

Koukl’s approach exposes the truth:  calling Christians who have biblical convictions about homosexuality judgmental or intolerant (aside from the question of how they might express those convictions) is actually a form of personal attack — also known as ad hominem.  The approach described above helps to defuse that fallacy and make room for a Christian to humbly, yet boldly, speak the truth.


You Twist the Bible!

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Each year I teach young people in my pre-confession class how to defend their faith.  I’ve long been convinced that they need to know not only what they believe, but why.  They should be able to give good reasons for their faith — in line with 1 Peter 3:15.  So I teach a unit on apologetics.  Ever since starting, I’ve used Richard Pratt’s Every Thought Captive (ETC) as the textbook.  There are a lot of things I like about ETC, but especially the last few chapters are weak in some respects.  I’ve been on the lookout for something to replace it.

I’m just about finished Tactics by Gregory Koukl and I think I’ve finally found something better than ETC.  I was a bit skeptical at first about whether it would be compatible with a Reformed approach to apologetics, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised.  It’s more focused on the practical side of engaging unbelievers and their arguments, and so far I’ve found little to quibble with.

Here in Australia, things are heating up for a plebiscite later this year regarding same-sex marriage and there are those wishing to silence the voice of Bible-believing Christians.  Koukl has something to offer believers as they face hostility from “progressives.”  Australian Christians may face the kind of scenario described here and Koukl shows a good way to respond.   This extended quote comes from chapter 6:

Once in a dorm lounge at Ohio State University, a student asked me about the Bible and homosexuality.  When I cited some texts, he quickly dismissed them.  “People twist the Bible all the time to make it say whatever they want,” he sniffed.

I don’t recall my specific response to him that evening.  I do remember, though, that I was not satisfied with my answer.  On the drive back to my hotel, I gave the conversation a little more thought.  I realized it made little sense to argue with his comment as it stood.  It was uncontroversial.  People do twist Bible verses all the time.  It is one of my own chief complaints.  Something else was going on though, and I couldn’t put my finger on it at first.

Suddenly it dawned on me.  The student’s point wasn’t really that some people twist the Bible.  His point was that I was twisting the Bible.  Yet he hadn’t demonstrated this.  He had not shown where I’d gotten off track.  Rather, he didn’t like point, so he dismissed it with a some-people-twist-the-Bible dodge.

I quickly wrote out a short dialogue using questions intended to surface that problem.  I also tried to anticipate his responses and how I would use them to advance my point.

Here is what I came up with:

“People twist the Bible all the time to make it say whatever they want.”

“Well, you’re right about that.  It bugs me, too.  But your comment confuses me a little.  What does it have to do with the point I just made about homosexuality?”

“Well, you’re doing the same thing.”

“Oh, so you think I’m twisting the Bible right now.”

“That’s right.”

“Okay, now I understand what you’re getting at, but I’m still confused.”

“Why?”

“Because it seems to me you can’t know that I’m twisting the Bible just by pointing out that other people have twisted it, can you?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that in this conversation you’re going to have to do more than simply point out that other people twist the Bible.  What do you think that might be?”

“I don’t know.  What?”

“You need to show that I’m actually twisting the verses?  Have you ever studied the passages I referred to?”

“No.”

“Then how do you know I’m twisting them?”  (Tactics, 94-95)

Koukl’s approach here is helpful in exposing ignorance.  A lot of people have been told that “fundamentalist Christians” twist the Bible to support their views on homosexuality, and because a professor, teacher, media figure, or some other authority said it, it is automatically accepted as true.  Many people have never studied the matter for themselves and we should call them on coming to the table with that basic failure.

However, it may happen that you will meet someone who claims to have studied the passages in question.  In this post from 2014, I describe my experience as a university student in the 90s.  These days, more than ever, you do need to be prepared to face people who claim to be Christians, but have no qualms about homosexuality and the entire LBTQ enterprise.  You will meet liberal revisionists who believe that they can be Christians and affirm sexual perversity.  They’re often familiar with the passages and they think they know how to square a circle.  To prepare for answering them, read (and then bookmark) this helpful essay by Dr. Greg Bahnsen.   Bahnsen will give you what you need to answer back, “Who’s really twisting Scripture here?”