Fake News and Cancel Culture in the New Testament

Luke 23

1Then the entire council took Jesus over to Pilate, the Roman governor. 2They began at once to state their case: “This man has been leading our people to ruin by telling them not to pay their taxes to the Roman government and by claiming he is the Messiah, a king.”

3So Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”

Jesus replied, “Yes, it is as you say.”

4Pilate turned to the leading priests and to the crowd and said, “I find nothing wrong with this man!”

5Then they became desperate. “But he is causing riots everywhere he goes, all over Judea, from Galilee to Jerusalem!”

. . . . .

13Then Pilate called together the leading priests and other religious leaders, along with the people, 14and he announced his verdict. “You brought this man to me, accusing him of leading a revolt. I have examined him thoroughly on this point in your presence and find him innocent. 15Herod came to the same conclusion and sent him back to us. Nothing this man has done calls for the death penalty. 16So I will have him flogged, but then I will release him.”

18Then a mighty roar rose from the crowd, and with one voice they shouted, “Kill him, and release Barabbas to us!” 19(Barabbas was in prison for murder and for taking part in an insurrection in Jerusalem against the government.) 20Pilate argued with them, because he wanted to release Jesus. 21But they shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” (Luke 23:1-5; 13-21, NLT)

Acts 24

1Five days later Ananias, the high priest, arrived with some of the Jewish leaders and the lawyer Tertullus, to press charges against Paul.  2When Paul was called in, Tertullus laid charges against Paul in the following address to the governor:

“Your Excellency, you have given peace to us Jews and have enacted reforms for us. 3And for all of this we are very grateful to you. 4But lest I bore you, kindly give me your attention for only a moment as I briefly outline our case against this man. 5For we have found him to be a troublemaker, a man who is constantly inciting the Jews throughout the world to riots and rebellions against the Roman government. He is a ringleader of the sect known as the Nazarenes. 6Moreover he was trying to defile the Temple when we arrested him. 7but Lysias, the commander of the garrison, came and took him violently away from us, commanding his accusers to come before you.8You can find out the truth of our accusations by examining him yourself.”  9Then the other Jews chimed in, declaring that everything Tertullus said was true. (Acts 24:1-9, NLT)


The Daily DAVEotional

One of the advantages of the Grant Horner Bible reading system is that you begin to see how biblical events relate to each other. This is because each day, the reader reads one chapter from 10 different sections of Scripture. Since each section has a unique number of chapters, the number of days it will take the reader to read through each section is different, creating a unique “playlist” of chapters to read each day.

A few days ago, in consecutive days, I read Luke 23 and then Acts 24. I was amazed to see two different scenarios that played out in almost identical fashion.

In the Luke chapter, Jesus is arrested and appears before the Jewish Council, who then take Him before the Roman authorities to plead their case and seek punishment.

The Council leaders create a false narrative in order to see Jesus prosecuted to the fullest. What was Jesus’s crime? Jesus was accused of telling people not to pay their taxes. However, we know this is false. It’s a New Testament version of “fake news.”

In Luke 20:20, the Jewish leaders had sent “secret agents”, who pretended to be honest men, but were really trying to entrap Jesus. They had asked Jesus specifically if it was right to pay taxes to the Roman government. Jesus sees through their deception and tells them to grab a Roman coin.

“Who’s image is on the coin”, Jesus asked.

They replied, “Caesar’s”.

Jesus responds by telling them, “give to Caesar what is belongs to him and everything that belongs to God should be given to God.”

Now here we are, four chapters later and the story is that Jesus tells people not to pay their taxes. In verse 5, the Council’s desperation unfolds as they claim, without evidence, that Jesus is causing riots everywhere he goes.

Later, Pilate declares Jesus innocent of the charge of revolt, mostly because there’s no evidence whatsoever to support the charge. But that no longer matters because by this time, a mob of people have joined in to promote the false accusations, insisting that Jesus be crucified. Pilate, in an act of cowardice and weak leadership, gives in to the mob and allows Jesus, a man he knows to be innocent, to be crucified.

In the Acts story, the names are changed but the scenario unfolds in almost exactly the same way.

Paul is the accused now instead of Jesus. What is Paul accused of? Inciting riots wherever he goes. 

Do you see a pattern here?

After Paul is accused of being a troublemaker and inciting riots, other people chimed in, agreeing that it was true (verse 9).

So, the formula for using a fake narrative to get your enemy canceled seems to be:

    1. Find some powerful or influential people to accuse your enemy of something egregious, even if it’s not true.
    2. Get other people to repeat and vocalize the false narrative, creating a viral effect.
    3. Take the charge to someone who has the power to exact punishment.
    4. Use the power of the mob’s outrage to have your enemy canceled.

A few things I noticed in these two passages:

First, the people leading the charge against the accused are the same, the Jewish leaders. Though they may not be the exact same leaders in both cases, it’s interesting to note that this group of people, who should be the harbingers of truth and justice, ultimately wield their power for their own political purposes.

Secondly, while Jesus doesn’t answer His accusers, Paul speaks out and defends himself (we see this more clearly in the later verses of Acts 24, which were not included in this post for the sake of brevity).

Third, the outcome was slightly different in each case. In the case of Jesus, He is condemned to death mostly because of Pilate’s unwillingness to stand up to the people and do what he knows is right.

Paul’s situation dragged on, not because Felix was standing up to the mob, but because he was greedy and was hoping Paul would pay his way out of his predicament. He also wanted to gain favor with the Jews so he kept Paul’s case open for two years.

The last thing I notice, is that despite the injustice of it all, God uses both situations to fulfill His purposes.  Jesus’s injustice sends Him to the cross where He secures the salvation of the entire human race, while Paul, because of his situation, is able to take the gospel to Rome. Hundreds, if not thousands came to Christ even while Paul was in chains.

Reflection

When have you experienced an injustice that you didn’t understand? How did God use that situation to accomplish greater purposes in you and around you?

What do you think is the appropriate response if you’re being falsely accused? Should you keep quiet, much like Jesus did, or do you think it’s ok to defend yourself as Paul did?

What safety measures can you take to ensure that you don’t unwittingly become part of a mob that unjustly seeks to cancel others?

 

Photo by Joshua Miranda from Pexels

A Pivotal Council in the Early Church

While Paul and Barnabas were at Antioch of Syria, some men from Judea arrived and began to teach the Christians: “Unless you keep the ancient Jewish custom of circumcision taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.”  2Paul and Barnabas, disagreeing with them, argued forcefully and at length. Finally, Paul and Barnabas were sent to Jerusalem, accompanied by some local believers, to talk to the apostles and elders about this question.  3The church sent the delegates to Jerusalem, and they stopped along the way in Phoenicia and Samaria to visit the believers. They told them—much to everyone’s joy—that the Gentiles, too, were being converted.  4When they arrived in Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas were welcomed by the whole church, including the apostles and elders. They reported on what God had been doing through their ministry.  5But then some of the men who had been Pharisees before their conversion stood up and declared that all Gentile converts must be circumcised and be required to follow the law of Moses.  6So the apostles and church elders got together to decide this question.  7At the meeting, after a long discussion, Peter stood and addressed them as follows: “Brothers, you all know that God chose me from among you some time ago to preach to the Gentiles so that they could hear the Good News and believe.  8God, who knows people’s hearts, confirmed that he accepts Gentiles by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he gave him to us.  9He made no distinction between us and them, for he also cleansed their hearts through faith.  10Why are you now questioning God’s way by burdening the Gentile believers with a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors were able to bear?  11We believe that we are all saved the same way, by the special favor of the Lord Jesus.” (Acts 15:1-11, NLT)


Acts 15 is perhaps the most important chapter in the entire book of Acts because it highlights an important dispute that arose in the early church.

The issue wasn’t just about the rite of circumcision. At issue was what was necessary to be saved. The dispute seemed to be led by some Pharisees who had been converted (see verse 5). These men believed that salvation was for the Jews and therefore, they believed that the only way a Gentile could become saved was to convert to Judaism. This meant adopting Jewish customs, including observance of the law.

Circumcision was really an outward representation that a person had converted to Judaism. So when these men from Judea began teaching that Gentiles needed to be circumcised in order to be saved, what they were really asserting was that Gentiles needed to become culturally Jewish before they could accept the Jewish Messiah.

So the question became: can Jesus save non-Jews, or do Gentiles need to adopt Jewish culture and become Jews before they can be saved by the Messiah?

Paul and Barnabas argued that Gentiles didn’t need to adopt Jewish customs, including circumcision, but only needed to receive Jesus by faith in order to be saved.

Peter also advocated for this position as he recalled his experience with Cornelius, the Roman centurion in Acts 10. Peter noted that Cornelius and his family, all Gentiles, had received the Holy Spirit just as the Jews had, on the basis of faith alone.

All of the church leaders agreed. The issue was settled, and from that point on, it was clear that the Jewish Messiah was not just for Jews but for all the peoples of the world. And more importantly, it was clear that the only requirement to receive the Jewish Messiah was faith. It was not necessary to become culturally Jewish.

There are important implications for us today as we seek to share Jesus with a dying world. The principle here is that we are to present Jesus to people and not our culture. Sometimes, it’s easy to conflate the two. People need Jesus. They don’t need my culturalized version of Jesus.

Reflection

In what ways has your culture influenced your view and understanding of Jesus? 

How can you ensure that when you share Jesus with others you are not taking a Pharisaical approach – injecting cultural requirements into the gospel message?

 

 

Saul’s Conversion and Confirmation Bias

17So Ananias went and found Saul. He laid his hands on him and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road, has sent me so that you may get your sight back and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18Instantly something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he got up and was baptized. 19Afterward he ate some food and was strengthened. Saul stayed with the believers in Damascus for a few days. 20And immediately he began preaching about Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is indeed the Son of God!” 21All who heard him were amazed. “Isn’t this the same man who persecuted Jesus’ followers with such devastation in Jerusalem?” they asked. “And we understand that he came here to arrest them and take them in chains to the leading priests.” 22Saul’s preaching became more and more powerful, and the Jews in Damascus couldn’t refute his proofs that Jesus was indeed the Messiah.  (Acts 9:17-22)

Acts chapter 9 documents a pivotal turning point in the early church detailing the conversion of Saul, the great persecutor of the early church who then became its biggest advocate.

Immediately after his conversion, Paul began preaching the good news that Jesus “is indeed the Son of God.” In verse 22, it says that “the Jews in Damascus couldn’t refute his proofs that Jesus was indeed the Messiah.”

How was Paul able to so quickly go from being a staunch opponent of the faith to its greatest defender, baffling non-believers with his convincing arguments?

The truth is that Paul was already well versed in the Old Testament Scriptures and he knew all of the prophecies regarding the coming Messiah. And yet, he was blind to the information he already had at his disposal. His preconceptions and personal preferences regarding Jesus kept him from seeing the truth that was already evident.

While on the road to Damascus, Saul has an encounter with the risen Jesus and all of his biases and preconceived notions about who Jesus was are wiped away. Ironically, Paul’s encounter with Jesus results in physical blindness at the same time his eyes are finally opened spiritually. Later, Paul receives his sight back as Ananias laid his hands on him and “something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes.”

We all have personal biases and preconceived ideas that keep us from seeing truth that may be evident to others. We call these blind spots. Additionally, many of us may feed our own biases by filtering out facts and evidence that might contradict our opinions and beliefs and considering only information that may support our preferred narrative. This is what’s known as confirmation bias.

Fortunately for Paul, he had a divine encounter with the truth that was so powerful it opened him up to his blindness and set him on a new trajectory. Because he had already been trained and schooled in the Old Testament Scriptures, he was able to quickly pivot his approach and immediately become the foremost apologist in the young New Testament church.

Reflection

In what areas might you be susceptible to blind spots?

What can you do to avoid confirmation bias?

How can you invite Jesus to expose you to truth that you might not be prone to see because it conflicts with your personal biases?

Are You an Idol Worshiper?

For my daily devotional reading, I’ve been following the Grant Horner Bible reading plan. I’m in my third year of following this plan, which invites the reader to read one chapter a day from each of 10 different segments of the Bible (Gospels, Old Testament Pentateuch, New Testament Letters #1, New Testament Letters #2, Wisdom Literature, Psalms, Proverbs, Old Testament History, Old Testament Prophets and finally, the book of Acts) for a total of 10 chapters each day.

One of the unique elements to this plan is that you begin to see how the scriptures are related to each other as you see certain themes and topics show up in completely different segments of your Bible reading. This was again the case for me a few days ago when I read the following similar verses from completely different chapters and segments of the Bible:

The idols of the nations are silver and gold, made by the hands of men. 16They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but they cannot see; 17they have ears, but cannot hear, nor is there breath in their mouths. 18Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them. (Psalms 135:15-18)

They told Aaron, ‘Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who led us out of Egypt—we don’t know what has happened to him!’** 41That was the time they made an idol in the form of a calf. They brought sacrifices to it and held a celebration in honor of what their hands had made.  (Acts 7:40-41)

Idols have always been an issue with people. We see the theme of idols repeatedly throughout Scripture. In the Psalms passage (and many other locations in Scripture) the author writes about the sheer irony of a person fashioning a figurine out of metal or wood or some other material – giving it eyes and ears and a mouth, even though it cannot see, hear or speak, and then bowing to that figurine as if it had some power to grant to us whatever we might request. It’s utter foolishness. To do this, the Psalmist says, will make you just as senseless as the idols you’ve created.

In the Acts passage, Stephen, who is about to be stoned, is giving a short history of the nation of Israel when he recounts this incident that occurred while Moses was on Mt. Sinai communing with God and receiving the 10 commandments. The people weren’t sure what happened to Moses or why it was taking him so long to come down from the mountain so they asked Aaron to fashion a gold calf which they subsequently began to worship as their God.

It’s easy to read passages like these and wonder how the Israelites could be so dumb to think that something they have just created with their own hands is somehow a god that will do your bidding! How can something you have created have the power to give you whatever you want and do whatever you ask?

People today are still in the habit of creating idols. We may not fashion figurines that we place on the mantel and worship, as we see in the Scriptures, but we create an idol any time our image of God suits our preferences instead of reality.

Think about it this way – in the Bible, we see people fashioning idols to represent gods the way they see them, whether they are in the form of an animal (calf) or people (eyes, ears, mouth). Even if we don’t create a physical representation of God via some figurine, we are still creating an idol any time we create a mental image of God that doesn’t comply with how God is revealed to us in the Bible.

In today’s world, it’s easier than ever to appeal to a “god” that bends to my political views and my cultural preferences.

Because God is infinite, there is always going to be a sense in which our views of Him are not completely accurate. So how can we avoid worshiping an idol? The key is our heart. God doesn’t expect that we would know everything about Him perfectly but He does exhort us to seek him with our whole heart and to worship Him as He’s been revealed.

This is another reason why it’s so important to read and understand God’s Word, for it’s the primary source for truthful information about who God is and what He’s like.

Reflection:

What are some ways you may be tempted to bend your understanding of God and His nature to fit your own views or preferences?

What is the source of information you have about God?

What steps can you take to increase your understanding of who God is so you are worshiping Him in spirit and truth?

 

To learn more about the Grant Horner daily Bible reading plan, you can google it, or go to this blog post, which I found to have a very thorough description.

The Consequences of Deceit

1There was also a man named Ananias who, with his wife, Sapphira, sold some property. 2He brought part of the money to the apostles, but he claimed it was the full amount. His wife had agreed to this deception. 3 Then Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart? You lied to the Holy Spirit, and you kept some of the money for yourself.  4 The property was yours to sell or not sell, as you wished. And after selling it, the money was yours to give away. How could you do a thing like this? You weren’t lying to us but to God.”  5As soon as Ananias heard these words, he fell to the floor and died. Everyone who heard about it was terrified. 6Then some young men wrapped him in a sheet and took him out and buried him. (Acts 5:1-6, NLT)

I don’t know about you but I’ve read this story dozens, if not hundreds of times over the years and I always thought the punishment seemed kind of extreme. I mean, I know God doesn’t like lying, but to see these two fall dead for their deceit always seemed a bit extreme (Verses 7-10 tell of a similar fate for Sapphira).

My standard explanation has always been the idea that God is really holy and any sin is deserving of death. We really can’t be surprised when peole get what they actually deserve. Theologically, that’s true, but we don’t tend to see the consequences of lying play out this way normally. Perhaps there is more at play here.

So what’s going on?

A few thoughts:

    • The sin was not in selling the property or even keeping part of the proceeds. Peter says that the land was theirs to sell or not sell as they saw fit. The sin was deceiving others regarding how much they gave (see Acts 5:2).
    • They (Ananias and Sapphira) wanted to give the impression that they gave everything when they really didn’t. This is religious charlatanism. It is projecting an outer image that doesn’t match what is really true.
    • If you read through the gospels, you’ll see that Jesus spoke of this often with the Pharisees. He often pointed out their hypocrisy and the true nature of their heart condition. So it’s not surprising that this kind of attitude and religious impressionism is dealt with swiftly in the early church.

Honestly, it’s much easier to object to the outcome of the story as being unjust instead of reflecting on my own heart and thinking about the myriad of ways in which I do the same thing. The truth is, we all want to be liked and it’s very easy to stretch the truth or bend the facts of my situation in order to make myself look better to others. This is what John Ortberg calls “impression management.”

In what ways are you tempted to make yourself look better to others than you are?

What are the areas in your life where you struggle to present your real self?

What is keeping you from sharing your real struggles and honest thoughts with those closest to you?

I’m thankful that this story is not normative of how the Lord responds to those who engage in the sin of deceit, for I know if that were the case, I would’ve been hauled out in a wrapped up sheet long ago!