God’s People, part 244: Discrepancies

Read Acts 9:19-31

“Nor did I go up to Jerusalem to consult with those who were apostles before I was. Instead, I went away into Arabia, and later I returned to the city of Damascus.”  (Galatians 1:17, NLT)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

applesOrangesPart 244: Discrepancies. One of the things that atheists and anti-theists (there is a difference between the two) like to point out is that the Bible is “full of contradictions”. For instance, in the Synoptic Gospels, the writers tell us that Jesus’ was in and around Galilee for the majority of his ministry. It wasn’t until the end of his ministry that he went to Jerusalem and, as a result of going there and cleansing of the Temple, he was betrayed, arrested, and crucified; however, the Gospel of John has Jesus in Jerusalem at the beginning of his ministry. What’s more, According to John he “cleansed the Temple” at the very beginning of his ministry and went back and forth to Jerusalem frequently.

The question for many is how can those two things be simultaneously true? If they are not simultaneously true, then doesn’t that mean that one must be true while the other account is false? Furthermore, if that is the case, doesn’t that mean the Bible is unreliable at best? I am sure one can easily see how these questions cascade down a slippery slope from there.

Another great example of a supposed “contradiction” is in Acts regarding Saul of Tarsus. In our suggested reading today, Luke recounts what happened to Saul (aka Paul the Apostle) following his transformative experience with Christ on the road to Damascus. According to Luke, Paul was healed of his blindness, was baptized and began preaching and teaching about Jesus. This, of course, rubbed the city officials the wrong way and Paul narrowly escaped from Damascus by being lowered down the city walls in a basket.

From there, according to Luke, Paul went to see the Jerusalem to meet the believers there, many of whom would not meet with him for obvious reasons. Luke tells us that Barnabas then brought him to meet the Apostles as a way of proving Paul’s conversion to be real. In other words, he got their blessing to preach in and around Jerusalem. Their seal of approval obviously had weight with the other believers.

There’s just a slight problem, so it seems, with Luke’s account. What is that problem, you might be asking? The problem is that Paul seems to completely contradict this account in his own letter to the Galatians. In that letter he wrote:

“But even before I was born, God chose me and called me by his marvelous grace. Then it pleased him to reveal his Son to me so that I would proclaim the Good News about Jesus to the Gentiles. When this happened, I did not rush out to consult with any human being. Nor did I go up to Jerusalem to consult with those who were apostles before I was. Instead, I went away into Arabia, and later I returned to the city of Damascus. Then three years later I went to Jerusalem to get to know Peter, and I stayed with him for fifteen days. The only other apostle I met at that time was James, the Lord’s brother. I declare before God that what I am writing to you is not a lie.”  (Galatians 1:15-20, NLT)

So, which was it? Did Paul go straight from Damascus to meet the Apostles, or did he go first to Arabia for three years before visiting with the Apostles? Obviously, we should put more weight into Paul’s account of it, since he recounting his own story; however, does that mean we should completely write off Luke as an unreliable witness? Does Luke’s account completely contradict Paul’s?

The answer to this may be surprising to fact-loving Westerners, but the answer is no. While there may be discrepancies between Luke’s and Paul’s accounts, they do not contradict each other. These essential facts remain true in both accounts, Saul became a Jesus follower and preacher. Paul did make his way to Jerusalem and met hesitant believers due to his former penchant for persecuting the church. Paul did, in fact, end up meeting with Peter, John and James and they did seemingly recognize his authority as a Christian preacher and apostle to the Gentiles.

The discrepancies are more to do with timing than they are to do with the essential facts. What’s more, Luke did not say Paul went “immediately” to see the apostles. He simply transitioned from the escape from Damascus to Paul’s visit to Jerusalem. It could be that Luke was aware of Arabia, but chose to leave that out due to relevance in what he was writing. Why waste any space recounting three years of reflection and training time in Arabia, when one can cut to the chase?

So, one can easily see that the discrepancies are really not as big as some might like. In this account of Paul, actually, they are rather insignificant. This should challenge us. Will we miss forest for the trees when it comes to reading the Bible? Will we get hung up on the small, insignificant details, only to miss the larger picture? Or will we approach Scripture with an open mind and heart? The former will cause us to abandon the Bible, while the latter is the way we ought to go for it will lead us closer to Biblical truth!  The path of wisdom leads us to not miss the forest for the trees.

There are more perspectives to an account than just one.

Lord, help me to be open to truth amid discrepancies, for while facts are absolutely dependent upon truth, truth is not merely dependent on facts. Amen.

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