19 February 2008

Too "smart" to believe?

by Dan Phillips

Once upon a real-world time, there was an old priest named Zechariah. He was burning incense in the Temple, when something happened for which his life provided no precedent: "there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense" (Luke 1:11). Doctor Luke understatedly observes that "Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him" (v. 12). No doubt.

As angels have had to do pretty much from the start, "the angel said to him, 'Do not be afraid, Zechariah,'" then adds...
...for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb. 16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared."
(Luke 1:13-17)
To Zechariah, the news would be challenging, but wonderful. Every couple wanted children, and he and his wife had been denied this blessing. Now they were to have a son — and such a son!

But he answered, "How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years" (v. 18) The angel, who (unlike us) was there, recognized unbelief in Zechariah's response, and replied
"I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time" (vv. 19-20)
Indeed, that word of unbelief was Zechariah's last word for some time. He could tell others, but only in such a way as included the revelation of God's judgment on him for his unbelief. This would humble Zechariah, would give him opportunity to bear fruits in keeping with repentance (to lift a phrase from his son's future preaching), would reinforce the message — and it would impress on the hearer the importance of believing the message.

The aged priest sang a sweeter song when next he spoke aloud (1:63-79).

In that same chapter, we have the story of a young lass named Mary. The same angel brings similar tidings of a miraculous conception. However, in this case, the circumstances could hardly be more different.

Gabriel's first hearer was long-married, had yearned for a child, and bore some reproach for his childless estate. Mary was, however, the opposite in every respect: she was as-yet unmarried, and could not have a child (since she was a virgin).

Moreover, in Mary's case, pregnancy would be absolutely disastrous. It would bring shame on her, her family, her fiancé. There would be horrendous consequences.

In our modern moral swamp, even professing Christians are often casual about such circumstances. We have every reason to believe that Mary would see it differently. Her response to Elizabeth (1:46-55) is drenched with Biblical allusions, and (to get ahead of myself) her response to Gabriel reveals an earnestly Godward heart.

So how does Mary respond? Formally, her initial words sound like Zechariah's ("How will this be, since I am a virgin?" - v. 34). Yet Gabriel detects none of Zechariah's unbelief; indeed, later Elizabeth will tacitly contrast Mary's response with her husband's ("blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord," v. 45). Mary has never read this story, and isn't sure how this could happen. So Gabriel tells Mary what she needs to know about the miracle that she is to receive.

How does Mary respond? With stunningly submissive simplicity: "Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word" (v. 38).

Remarkable. With that response, Mary leaves herself open to all the social catastrophes and slander and miseries her new status virtually assures. But she now knows that it is God's will. She has God's word. So, in faith, she embraces that word — along with everything that accompanies it.

In the next chapter, we will meet some shepherds with similar hearts. Though by many accounts socially viewed with suspicion, when they get the word from God, they instantly respond in faith, and go running to find the newborn Savior (2:8-20).

And here's the point of today's Bible story:

Simple young girl Mary took the angel at his word, though it involved almost certain disaster. She believed God's word.

Rustic, uneducated shepherds did the same.


Sophisticated, educated, professional religionist Zechariah — he was too "smart" simply to believe the word of God sent through His messenger.

Do you see present-day applications?

Dan Phillips's signature


DJP said...

Comments closed until about 4pm PST.

DJP said...

Or earlier!

Stefan Ewing said...

Too much knowledge can definitely be a stumbling block to faith. It sure was for me for a good 18 (!) years, from when Jesus Christ first started calling me (or so I discern in hindsight) to when I finally surrendered unconditionally to Him, struggling all the while with some mixture of doubt, agnosticism, atheism, naturalism, pluralism, etc., etc., etc. in varying proportions.

It's pretty hard to believe in a God you know is calling you, when you've been raised to believe that He doesn't exist—and even harder to affirm that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, Lord and Saviour, when you grew up thinking that he was just an enlightened guy whom Christians have somehow "got wrong" for the last 2000 years. (Reading the likes of Campbell and Freedman in my 20s didn't help on this count.) Harder still when you fundamentally doubt that any of the miracles described in the Bible actually happened—that the world was not created in six days; that Moses did not part the Red Sea; that Jesus was not born of a virgin, nor resurrected on the third day.

Modern man is so sure that he has all the answers to explain this universe in ways that preclude the existence of God—but what a bleak, dismal picture emerges! A universe without justice, with no hope for anyone beyond the moment when he closes his eyes for the last time in this mortal life that is "nasty, brutish, and short," to quote Hobbes.

May God have mercy on us for our unbelief.

Strong Tower said...

Yah! Cut the woman and men who love soft cuddly things a break, go ahead! Beat up on the professional. The only good lawyer is a...

I wonder if this isn't much different than Gideon's story. The sign that Zechariah received was not just for his benefit, either, but the people conjectured that he had seen an angel. And we recall the disciples hearts were hardened in unbelief, yet they were not likewise taken to task by such extremes (well maybe Peter). The manifestation of God's signs to us may reflect upon our unbelief, or credulity. We remember that Mary's heart would also be pierced because she did not even believe he own son, after all that see had already seen (guess the angel did make so great an impression). Remember she went to prepare the body for final burial. She did not believe his word of the resurrection, what was the judgement for her unbelief? For if disbelieving the word of an angel brought muteness, what then should have been her punishment for dissing Him? I think it is by grace, and not according to the measure of man, that no matter the condition of our heart, God is faithful to provide witness to his word for the building up of the saints. Remembering James, Zechariah was not a man of double mind, but his prayer was answered as the prayer of a humble believer.

What ever the case, and how ever one may look at this, I think the shock of an announcement that exceeds the limits of our natural knowledge always evokes unbelief or at least incredulity. And, I would agree, that the greater our erudition, the thicker the vail, and the more revolting our reaction to ideas that do not fit the economy of our cosmology.

Of course that is the problem, it is not our cosmos and we think that by gaining knowledge of it we control it and define its boundaries by our feeble vision and reach. A child like belief is that adults by virtue of their size and knowledge are omnicient. Funny how when we become the adult, we assign omnicience to ourselves because we think we know everything and there is no one bigger than us.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

And here's the point of today's Bible story:

Simple young girl Mary took the angel at his word, though it involved almost certain disaster. She believed God's word.

Rustic, uneducated shepherds did the same.


Sophisticated, educated, professional religionist Zachariah — he was too "smart" simply to believe the word of God sent through His messenger.

Do you see present-day applications?

I see present-day applications! Zachariah was still a believer and so was Mary, and both were blessed with a baby to come.

So is your present-day application question directed more towards pseudo-intellectual atheists and non-Christians who are outside the Church, or more towards those who are within the Church?

Stefan Ewing said...

Hmmm...yes, there's also a message of temporary chastisement of believers, in the example of Zechariah, now that you mention it, TUAD.

DJP said...

I wasn't meaning to be in any way coy. I'd hope that regular readers would know that I don't think there is such a thing as knowing and understanding too much truth.

But there is such a thing as "knowing" a lot, though what you "know" isn't really true; and, more to the point of this post —

There is such a thing as "knowing" more truth than you believe.

See, clearly, Mary actually knew quite a lot. As I mentioned, that response of hers is drenched with Scripture. Further, you just don't respond to the kind of word she got with the kind of attitude she showed without a soundly discipled, Godward heart.

But what she knew, she believed; and what Zechariah knew — which, if quantified, probably was a lot more than Mary — he didn't believe.

It's akin to the point I made in a three-part series on (surprise!) Proverbs, of which this is the first part.

The solution, then, is never to know less truth.

The solution is always to know more truth — and to believe the truth we know.

Anonymous said...

DJP: The solution is always to know more truth — and to believe the truth we know.

Aye, there's the rub. Accumulating much truth, but without being fully certain and convinced of that truth in a real sense, is a noxious trend I have seen. I not only have to understand and receive it as God's truth, I also have to own it and live it as my truth.

Mike Riccardi said...

I think those are such key follow-up points, Dan, because there are many who would absolve themselves of the responsibility to be diligent in their study of their Savior, and cloak their laziness in the false humility that spouts, "Oh, I don't know how it works. I just take it by faith."

And then faith that's based on nothing gets sold as the highest of virtues in the den of robb-- ahh... I mean... church. And anyone who claims to actually be sure of something gets branded as a loveless, all-about-knowledge, puffed-up Pharisee.

When God reveals something to His people clearly, the only thing to do is believe. We are not to hide behind our laziness and proclaim, "Such things are too wonderful for me! But I believe them anyway!"

God isn't pleased with blind, naive sheep. He's pleased when His sheep follow Him closely because they hear Him clearly and know His voice, and because it's He that is speaking (actually saying something that can be known), they believe like children.

Hupostasis and elegchos are two powerful words (cf. Heb 11:1).

Anonymous said...

Hey DJP,

What would your reaction be towards a person who said an angel appeared and spoke to them today?

Stefan Ewing said...

Dan, yes, thanks for your clarification. Knowledge is not the problem. The wrong kind of "knowledge" is the problem—knowledge that puffs us up, rather than humbles us before God.

By the way, part of my prideful rejection of the Gospel for so many years was my naive and arrogant assumption that becoming a Christian would mean turning off my critical faculties, and blindly accepting the teaching of "the Church."

The Lord has been extremely gracious to me in the last few years, in introducing me to many deep-thinking, mature believers who have shown me that it is possible to be widely read, intellectually rigorous, and a conservative, evangelical Christian who stands upon the Word of God, even in the 21st century.

DJP said...

Cut to the chase, Craig: you're pregnant?

Strong Tower said...

I wonder if right knowledge can also make us blind. That is, we believe in miracles, but when we actually experience them our reaction is often to say, nah, couldn't be...

,and a conservative harharhar

Strong Tower said...

Sorry, I am rethinking...

When we first hear the message of Christ, we can know it, and it is true, but we know more than we believe. True faith is knowing truly; the information hasn't changed but our relationship to it has.

Stefan Ewing said...

Well, if I just wrote "evangelical Christian," what does that mean any more? Before the neo-evangelical movement deteriorated into the present morass of empty faith we see around us, it meant something. But today, it's a meaningless label.

Anonymous said...


Maybe we would remind the person that God's revelation is complete and ask him what more an angel could tell us.

Strong Tower said...

robert w- boo!

stefan- what I find amazing is that the peeps really think that to be conservative is to be IQ 70+- and they actually think that because sumb ub usuns gots no book lernin, weuns stooopuds. Little do they know, and I'll got tell them if you will, that a three fold cord is not easily broken, and its knowledge, understanding and wisdom all taped together by the fear of the Lord.

Look at that picture of Dan, he was smart enough to know what with books; build a wall out of em, what does that say, eh?

NoLongerBlind said...

Not intending to hijack the thread or anything, but I'm going to venture out on a limb here.....

Regarding the supposed appearance
of an angel, if the "angel" appeared and provided some sort of supernatural assistance in a time of emergency, couldn't that be seen as a "manifestation" of Hebrews 1:14?
But, if said "being of light" spoke in an extra-biblically, "revelatory" manner, the obvious assumption would be that, if not a "hallucination", it was part of the demon masquerade.......

Anonymous said...

The solution is always to know more truth — and to believe the truth we know.

There sure are a lot of things that I know that I don't believe. Great point!

Stefan Ewing said...

Yes, Strong Tower, that's definitely where the zeitgeist is at these days. We're Bible-thumpin' Christians, ergo, we're knuckle draggers stuck in the 16th century, believing in "fairy tales."

(I am ashamed to admit that I once thought something similar. Now I break bread with and learn from believers who've walked with God longer than I've been alive.)

And never mind that Paul, Augustine, Calvin, Baxter, Owen, Spurgeon, Machen, Schaeffer, and Packer (to name a few) have been among the sharpest and most brilliant minds of their generations—and yet each one of them kneeling humbly before the throne of God.

Anonymous said...

bawhhhaaa haaa nice 1 DJP,

No I'm not pregnant. However Scripture does tell us to be hospitable to strangers for they might be angels.

I'm just wondering if you would believe today if someone said they had an angelic encounter...

ezekiel said...

Good timely (over due) post DJP!

2 Tim 3:5 having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. 6 For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, 7 always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. 8 Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith. 9 But they will not get very far, for their folly will be plain to all, as was that of those two men.

Its not the knowledge or the learning that counts folks, its the abiding in the WORD and the WORD abiding in us. John 15, 1 John 2, 1 John 4.

John 6:48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. 52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, How can this man give us his flesh to eat? 53 So Jesus said to them, Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.

Just what is His flesh?

John 1:14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Watching this lately, we see folks arguing about the accuracy, the intent, the meaning and anything else that can be argued about the WORD. Calvinism, Arminianism, atheism, and just outright unbelief (the Heb 3:19 kind). Maybe time to start eating and drinking and stop spending so much text and time figuring out how to cook Him or what seasoning to use. Maybe just go at Him like a MRE. Pop the top and dive in.

Theophilus said...

There is real pressure, in our materialistic, naturalistic age to dismiss Revelation.

It appeals to the carnal nature to have "all the pieces fit" to our understanding.

But Jesus did not label unbelief as mere weakness, or character defect to improve. (Like, say, poor organizational skills.)

Unbelief is EVIL (an Evil heart of unbelief). As such, it needs repentance, like any other sin.

With the PoMo admiration of agnosticism, this is an evil that is not merely tolerated, but one that is celebrated as virtue.

philness said...

Now if Gabriel had shared the rest of the story to both Zachariah and Mary of each of their offsprings death, might that had changed their belief and actions?

Probably goes to show that we are only given enough information at the time as we can handle.

I think of the end times. How surprised the sophisticated, educated, professional religionist might be.

Insight for the moment- not ALL insight.

~Mark said...

Thinking on this makes me wonder how Sara's laughter at the pronouncement of her impending pregnancy didn't earn her a similar smackdown. (Smackup?)

DJP said...

From Genesis 18:13-15, she did get a sharp word from God.

If I had to say, I'd say greater privilege = greater responsibility. Sarah didn't have the story of Sarah to read, she didn't have the centuries of revelation of God's faithfulness that Zechariah had.

By that principle: how much more accountable must God hold us, than He did Zechariah?

Stefan Ewing said...


Truth Unites... and Divides said...

By that principle: how much more accountable must God hold us, than He did Zechariah?

I'm dead meat! Lord, please have mercy on me, a sinner!

DJP said...

Craig Bennett, I plan to devote a post to answering your questions, tomorrow (Thursday).

Anonymous said...

Thanks DPJ,

I look forward to it. We must be one day ahead of you guys, its all ready 4:09pm Thursday.

Stefan Ewing said...

The Man from the Future....

ezekiel said...

The WORD is a lot more than a history book to be cut up, used, abused and not believed. John 14:6

A bit o Spurgeon.....

"He hath said." --Hebrews 13:5 If we can only grasp these words by faith, we have an all-conquering weapon in our hand. What doubt will not be slain by this two-edged sword? What fear is there which shall not fall smitten with a deadly wound before this arrow from the bow of God's covenant? Will not the distresses of life and the pangs of death; will not the corruptions within, and the snares without; will not the trials from above, and the temptations from beneath, all seem but light afflictions, when we can hide ourselves beneath the bulwark of "He hath said"? Yes; whether for delight in our quietude, or for strength in our conflict, "He hath said" must be our daily resort. And this may teach us the extreme value of _searching_ the Scriptures. There may be a promise in the Word which would exactly fit your case, but you may not know of it, and therefore you miss its comfort. You are like prisoners in a dungeon, and there may be one key in the bunch which would unlock the door, and you might be free; but if you will not look for it, you may remain a prisoner still, though liberty is so near at hand. There may be a potent medicine in the great pharmacopoeia of Scripture, and you may yet continue sick unless you will examine and search the Scriptures to discover what "He hath said." Should you not, besides reading the Bible, store your memories richly with the promises of God? You can recollect the sayings of great men; you treasure up the verses of renowned poets; ought you not to be profound in your knowledge of the words of God, so that you may be able to quote them readily when you would solve a difficulty, or overthrow a doubt? Since "He hath said" is the source of all wisdom, and the fountain of all comfort, let it dwell in you richly, as "A well of water, springing up unto everlasting life." So shall you grow healthy, strong, and happy in the divine life.

~Mark said...

"From Genesis 18:13-15, she did get a sharp word from God.

If I had to say, I'd say greater privilege = greater responsibility. Sarah didn't have the story of Sarah to read, she didn't have the centuries of revelation of God's faithfulness that Zechariah had.

By that principle: how much more accountable must God hold us, than He did Zechariah?"

~A scary and very good point. Yikes!