Evangelical Magazine https://www.evangelicalmagazine.com A bimonthly print magazine, published by the Evangelical Movement of Wales Mon, 09 Dec 2019 08:53:47 +0000 en-GB hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.3.2 Missionary Margaret Missing https://www.evangelicalmagazine.com/article/missionary-margaret-missing/ Mon, 20 Jan 2020 18:00:43 +0000 https://www.evangelicalmagazine.com/?post_type=em_article&p=2735 What does it mean to walk by faith? For me, this is exemplified in the lives of three female missionaries: Dr Helen Roseveare, Margaret Hayes MBE and Maud Kells OBE. They all had two things in common; they worked in the medical field, and they worked for the Lord in the Congo. (The Congo changed its name several times during their lifetimes, Belgian Congo, Zaire, Democratic Republic of the Congo. I am just going to refer to ‘Congo’ throughout this article.) The Congo is a landlocked country in Africa, west of Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda which has known revival in the 1950s and great suffering in the Simba Rebellion of the 1960s.

Both Helen Roseveare and Margaret Hayes were serving the Lord in the Congo at the time of independence in 1960. Unrest and instability led to five years of brutality in the country. In 1964, the Simba Rebellion brought severe danger and both Helen and Margaret, separately and along with their co-workers, were placed under arrest and terrorised. Helen was raped. Both faced this suffering with the thought that these were not their sufferings, but the Lord’s.

Earlier years

Margaret was a trained midwife, converted at the age of 18, and had been a ward sister for three years when God called her to the Congo. She was at a convention and it was a speaker from UFM (Unevangelised Fields Mission) that spoke to her heart. In her book A Reluctant Missionary Margaret explains her hesitations. She had a speech difficulty, surely that would be a barrier? But God spoke to her through her daily Bible reading (something that was to be a feature of Margaret’s later experiences in captivity). ‘Why are ye so fearful?’ (Mark 4:20) and ‘Who hath made man’s mouth?’ (Ex. 4:11).

Missionary service begins

After Bible College, and time in Paris to learn French and then in Belgium to study tropical medicine, Margaret began her work at Maganga, in primitive conditions. The dispensary was a mud and wattle building, with a roof of banana leaves that leaked. Creepy crawlies populated the building at night, and the furniture was made of packing cases. Here she encountered her first leprosy patients. In return for treatment and food, they worked on the compound, and hearing the gospel, many were saved.

Margaret worked hard, adjusting to the country and the culture, experiencing what she described as ‘medical adventures’. In July 1960, at the time of independence, all missionaries were told by their embassies to leave, and so Margaret found herself back in the United Kingdom. But it wasn’t long before Margaret accepted an invitation to return to Congo to begin a medical work in a village called Bopepe. An American missionary, Mary Baker, had been living there alone. The area was surrounded by jungle, there was no running water, just a wood stove and a generator that worked for three and a half hours a night.

The first dispensary was set up in Bopepe: mud walls, mud floors and a leaky roof but the waiting room was packed most days as clinics began with Bible reading, prayer and a short gospel message. Margaret saw God at work in amazing ways, healing bodies and souls through their ministry.

Captured by Simbas

Margaret’s time at Bopepe came to an abrupt end with the Simba Rebellion of 1964.

The Mission HQ had told missionaries to prepare to leave but Margaret’s daily reading through the devotional book Daily Light encouraged her: ‘Fear none of these things thou shalt suffer, be thou faithful unto death.’ She was put under arrest at Bopepe and again God spoke to her through her Daily Light reading on 4th November: ‘Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you.’ A long walk to Banalia ended in house arrest and Margaret’s fervent prayer, based on Psalm 56:3, ‘Lord, I am afraid, therefore I am trusting in thee to help us in this special hour of need.’ The verses in her Daily Light reading for 8th November form part of how the Lord spoke to her and comforted her. For example, she read Psalm 37:24, ‘though he may stumble, he will not fall, for the Lord upholds him with his hand’ and Jeremiah 1:8, ‘Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you, declares the Lord.’

Margaret and her fellow missionary, Mary Baker, kept up their normal pattern of daily Bible reading during their time in captivity. Margaret confided to Mary that she herself kept coming across many passages that contained promises of deliverance, though she was not especially looking for such texts. Mary told Margaret that her experience was different and led her to believe that she would die at Banalia. Margaret was the only person to escape the massacre at Banalia and Mary was the last to be killed.

In the jungle

When she was in the jungle with the women and children, with nothing but insects as her witness, Margaret rededicated her life to serve the Lord in the Congo, to live or to die there. Early in December, a report on British radio stated that all white people had been killed at Banalia. This dashed Margaret’s hopes of being rescued. She spent Christmas Eve in a room filled with Simba soldiers bearing rifles and spears.

A Simba soldier told her he had been delegated to cut her throat. ‘You are a Protestant missionary aren’t you? Well then, you won’t mind dying, as you believe you will go to heaven,’ was his comment. But a major came in and told her she wouldn’t be killed as she was needed for medical work. After running clinics for the Simbas, she fled but was captured again. On 26th June 1965, she was liberated. The Daily Sketch newspaper on June 28th carried the headline Massacre Town Nurse is Found Alive. She went home, hardly recognisable, as the suffering had taken its toll.

Return to the mission field

Margaret later returned to the Congo, but also served in Niger as a Sister Midwife in a remote hospital on the edge of the Sahara Desert. She was awarded the MBE in 1987 for ‘nursing and welfare services in Niger.’ She retired in 1997.

Lessons from a life

It has been my privilege to get to know Margaret a little, to read her books and even to include her story in my lectures about women missionaries. The lessons I have learnt from her example are many, but what always strikes me is her wholehearted and sacrificial dedication to the Lord and his work. It is worth reading her books to catch a glimpse of her deep spirituality and her moment-by-moment walk with God in times of suffering. She truly is an inspiration and an example.

She sums up her testimony of God’s faithfulness in all her years of service for him in the words of 1 Kings 8:56: ‘There hath not failed one word of his good promise.’

What a challenge!

Margaret’s miraculous escape from the massacre of all her colleagues, her capture and harrowing experiences at the hands of the rebels, and her eventual release when all at home thought she was Missing, Believed Killed, is told in her book of that title.

Sharing Jesus with a Jehovah’s Witness https://www.evangelicalmagazine.com/article/sharing-jesus-with-a-jehovahs-witness/ Thu, 16 Jan 2020 18:00:06 +0000 https://www.evangelicalmagazine.com/?post_type=em_article&p=2731 As we seek to share the gospel with Jehovah’s Witnesses, it is vitally important to understand that it is the organisation, not the Bible, that governs the life and practice of every Jehovah’s Witness. That is why, if you ever get into Bible ping-pong with them, it very rarely gets anywhere. Allegedly, you cannot understand what the Bible teaches because you are not in the ‘organisation’.

The ‘united organization’ is the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. This is the organisation that they think is under the ‘protection of the Supreme Organizer’ (Jehovah). It is to this organisation that every Jehovah’s Witness pledges allegiance. Therefore, in the mind of the Jehovah’s Witness, to leave the organisation is to leave God, and to leave God is to forfeit any chance of surviving God’s impending judgment.

So where do we begin?

Asking Jehovah’s Witnesses questions, discussing Bible verses with them and sharing your testimony are all good ways of engaging with them. The Holy Spirit can work through all these means to help a Jehovah’s Witness to wake up spiritually. However, I have found we usually need to use CPR: Care, Prayer and Resolve.


…but in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behaviour in Christ may be put to shame (1 Peter 3:15–16).

When they get you out of bed at a silly hour on a Saturday morning to answer their knock on your door, smile at them. Tell them it is good to see them and share with them how you love the Bible and invite them to meet you on neutral ground, such as at a coffee house, perhaps invite a mature Christian to join you.

They may suggest you go through one of their publications. It is okay to do that and to ask questions along the way. They like to be the teacher and you must appear to be the student. The first few meetings are all about making a friendship with them.

As you progress, you can then ask more difficult questions and even challenge them. They will be more likely to answer and engage with you once you have become friends by showing them love and care.

Sharing your testimony is powerful. Tell the Jehovah’s Witness how you came to have a relationship with God, how you know that your sins are forgiven because Jesus died for you and that your future is secure because Jesus rose back to life. You have what they are searching for, so do not keep it to yourself.


Prayer is the real key to their freedom. We are engaging in spiritual warfare when we enter into a discussion with a cult member: ‘For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places’ (Ephesians 6:12).

We must be aware that the people on our doorstep are not the issue, rather it is the enemy who has blinded them: ‘In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God’ (2 Corinthians 4:4). Rather like Saul before he was converted – and became Paul – cult members ‘have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge’ (Romans 10:2). They need to have the scales taken from their eyes, something which only the Spirit of God can do. So pray that God would open their eyes and their hearts. Ask the Holy Spirit to reveal to them who the Lord Jesus truly is. Once you know some of their names, set up a prayer group or ask your church to pray for them.


Friends, be encouraged that people are ‘waking up’ and leaving cults. After many encounters with Jehovah’s Witnesses, you may feel you have been banging your head against a brick wall and your efforts have been a waste of time. But don’t let the enemy plague you with such thoughts. We are to sow seeds and pray, leaving the results of our efforts in the hands of our merciful God. So, resolve to keep going, keep sharing, keep loving. Ask God to give you such a burden for the Jehovah’s Witnesses that you may be used to reach these lost people for Christ.

Lord, help us to bear fruit in this forgotten mission field.

What next?

Leaving a cult is incredibly costly. Those who leave the Jehovah’s Witnesses are told they are leaving God. They may well also be leaving behind family, friends, work and everything they have ever known. Many who decide to leave the Jehovah’s Witnesses can therefore quickly find themselves very lost and lonely in a confusing world – a world they had previously been separate from as they believed it was evil. They suddenly must think for themselves and can struggle with everyday living. While they have chosen to leave the cult, the cult doesn’t quickly leave them, such is the psychological hold that these groups have over their adherents. As a result, those who have left the Jehovah’s Witnesses will be anxious, wondering if they have made the correct decision in leaving. The church can also be a scary place to those who have been constantly told that churches are ‘pagan’ and ‘of the devil’.

They will need friendship as they will most likely have been shunned by their family and friends still in the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They will need practical support, as they may struggle to live outside of the organisation. They will need patience, as they will still believe some of the things they have been taught and be confused about Christian belief and practice. They will need love, as they have lost all that they once held dear

Without support from loving, compassionate Christian believers, the struggling Jehovah’s Witness may well head back to the organisation. Alternatively, they may drift into atheism, rejecting everything to do with religion.

May we with love and patience, point them to the one who can truly heal them and set them free.

This article has been taken from the book Sharing the gospel with a Jehovah’s Witness by Tony Brown and published by 10publishing. It is reprinted with permission.


If you want to purchase this book from www.10ofthose.com add voucher code EM50 to receive 50% discount.

Nothing out of his control – The sovereignty of God https://www.evangelicalmagazine.com/article/nothing-out-of-his-control-the-sovereignty-of-god/ Thu, 09 Jan 2020 08:00:03 +0000 https://www.evangelicalmagazine.com/?post_type=em_article&p=2727 I was sitting on the beach, surrounded by friends and looking out to sea. The water was as calm as a millpond, and the sun was setting, its orange light reflecting perfectly on the water below. The scene was stunning and serene. Yet, the sea is not always like this. At other times it is rough and something to be feared.

Life can be peaceful and joyful; our circumstances just how we would want them or at least as close as we think we can get. But life is not always like that. It has a habit of hitting us hard in a variety of ways.

You lose your job. The house that you’ve made a home is taken away. Your doctor speaks out loud the dreaded diagnosis you hoped you’d never hear. Your heart is wracked with grief at the death of a loved one. People turn on you because of your faith in Jesus. You watch on as others are torn apart by tragedy. These are just a small collection of the difficulties we can face as we live our days here.

Life is not always calm – it is often like a torrential sea bashing against us.

Where does bad stuff come from?

Why is there suffering in this world? The answers are many. We could point the finger at people, whether others or ourselves. So much pain today is a result of human greed, pride and selfishness or even human foolishness.

Similarly, we could talk about Satan. The Bible tells us that he is an enemy of God and is seeking to destroy the goodness of God’s creation. From the beginning, he has sought to bring harm and hurt.

Or we might simply say this is the way the world is. The Bible tells us we live in a world that is groaning and in a state of decay (Romans 8:22). The presence of natural disasters and illness should not surprise us.

Yet, when we look at the Bible, we also see another answer – one that can shock us and send our minds into a spin. Why do bad things happen? The Bible tells us that the ultimate answer is God.

Now, I need to be careful here to explain what I mean. The Bible is clear that God is not the author of evil (cf. James 1:13). It is never right to hold God responsible for sin or the presence of evil in this world. Yet, the Bible teaches clearly that God is a sovereign God. That means he is in control of all things that happen here and anywhere.

One of the clearest statements of this is found in Ephesians 1:11. We are told that God, ‘works all things according to the counsel of his will.’ That means that he orders all things and he is in charge of all things. We are wrong if we try to shrink this statement to only include things that we like. By definition ‘all’ must also include all of the bad things that happen.

The great winds that blow, bringing such devastation; they do God’s bidding (Psalm 148:7-8). The authorities in power – some that work good, others that work evil – are only there because God has put them there (Romans 13:1). Satan’s work, as he acts to destroy and ruin, is exercised within the restraints that God determines (Job 1:12). Even the greatest act of wickedness that there has ever been, the brutal murder of God’s perfect Son on the cross, was an act that had its origins in God’s perfect will (Acts 2:23).

Why do bad things happen? God is a sovereign God. Therefore, nothing can exist or happen outside of his permission and will.

How is this good news?

Let’s be honest. This is not always an easy answer to deal with. When bad things happen, we would love to leave God out of the picture. It is awkward to think that God would have had anything to do with the tragedy I now see or experience. It simply doesn’t fit with the view of God that is stirred in our minds when we read of him as a loving father.

Yet, the Bible doesn’t present God’s sovereignty as a problem to be fathomed out. Instead, it is given to us as a truth to love and to be comforted by in the hard times. How can that be?

Firstly, the fact that God is in control of all circumstances means that nothing happens without a reason. The illness you face or the disaster that has struck is not an accident. It is part of God’s sovereign plan. It is true that often we don’t know why things happen in the way they do, but it is comforting to know that there is a why.

Next, if God is in control then the reason must be good. God is a good God who is just and righteous, merciful and gracious. His will and purpose reflect his character (Romans 12:2). The Bible encourages us to see suffering and hardship in this light. Think of the cross of Jesus. Is there a more heart-wrenching sight than seeing Jesus being brutalised, ridiculed and enduring the excruciating agony of the cross? Yet, we know, God was working for good.

Finally, if God is in control of the bad things that happen then there is hope. The Bible speaks of a day when evil will be defeated, and the brokenness of this world will be replaced with a perfect New Heavens and New Earth where God’s people will live with him forever. If an act of evil were able to exist outside of God’s will, we couldn’t be certain of this future.

A truth to use

What does the Bible say to us as we suffer and experience the batterings of life? None of this is out of God’s control. Not even the smallest part of it has taken place without his permission and will.

Now, I know that this answer does not take the pain away. I do not offer it here in a glib way thinking that once you grasp this truth then life will be easy. Yet, the more we get it, the more we are able to taste hope and experience joy even in the heartache of life.

The book of Revelation was initially written to a church that was suffering and struggling in various ways. How does God comfort them? One of the key themes in the book is the sovereignty of God. From beginning to end, no matter how big the disaster, no matter how real the persecution, God is sitting on the throne of history. This truth brought hope then and still brings hope today.

Daily Reading App Reviews https://www.evangelicalmagazine.com/article/daily-reading-app-reviews/ Mon, 06 Jan 2020 18:00:55 +0000 https://www.evangelicalmagazine.com/?post_type=em_article&p=2719 SheReadsTruth App

I don’t think I’m alone in saying that there are times where I really struggle to sit down and spend time in God’s Word. I’ve tried my fair share of Bible study notes and reading plans but have been massively helped by the SheReadsTruth app.

Through the app, you can access a wide range of Bible reading plans which go through either a book of the Bible or a theme. For each day, there are a range of linked Bible passages with a short commentary by one of the SheReadsTruth team. You can also share your thoughts and responses to what has been said by posting comments. These are a real encouragement, to hear how God is working through his word in the lives of other women all around the world – although some of the cultural references and examples are directed to a more American audience.

On the app, you can also read several Bible translations where you can bookmark and make notes linked to different passages. It has been a great encouragement to me, and I hope you find it a help too.

Hannah Mitchell

YouVersion Bible App

I am one of 390 million people around the world who have installed this app. David Suchet has become the most familiar voice in my life ever since. The app is free to download and gives you access to over 2,000 versions of the Bible in over 1,300 languages. Many versions come with full audio support to listen on the go – hence my familiarity with David Suchet! You can download entire Bibles through the app so they can work offline and in train tunnels during the commute to work. It comes with all the bookmarking and highlighting features you could desire. The app links to your social media accounts so you can share favourite verses, you can also create Bible art with many stored pictures or you can use images from your own photo library.

There is a community that sits behind the app allowing you to connect to friends from church and talk about passages online. You can also find local events to attend. The app contains thousands of hours of video content and has a sister app just for children (my kids love it). There are thousands of devotional plans to choose from and read each day on many subjects from prayer to pride or joy to jealously, written by respected ministers such as Tim Keller, R. C. Sproul, and even figures from church history such as J. C. Ryle and many of the Puritans. But there is also a lot of questionable material (doctrinally) – so do your research on the author before you read or share the plan out.

The app encourages daily devotions displaying consecutive days of use and ‘perfect weeks’; you also win badges for completing plans, reading challenges, bookmarking and highlighting passages and connecting with other believers.

As a pastor, I find this app incredibly useful for my own devotions. But it also allows me to set up groups around focussed reading plans and discuss the content with church members throughout the day through the comments section. I can also see when and what my members are reading and what verses have particularly spoken to them. Sign your church up today, stay connected throughout the week and read more of the Bible!

John Funnell

Daily readings app

When you’re about to pursue a time of devotion to God, the last thing you want is a distraction. When you’re using an app for that, such distractions come from either having too many bells and whistles or from being not very user-friendly. Daily Readings does the job here, but then what would you expect from the same team who designed the Christian Hymns app.

The main content of the app is the tried and tested devotion from Charles Spurgeon, Morning and Evening. Being well over a hundred years old, you might think that means outdated language. But the team have carefully updated some of the language – enough to bring it up to date. Each day you have a key verse to meditate upon and some thoughts from Spurgeon as he reflects upon it.

Having spent a few minutes meditating on Spurgeon’s verse of the morning or evening, you might be ready for something more, and this is where the team that created the app have added some ideal extra features. For one, there is a suggested longer passage that you can read so that your diet of Scripture is not a minuscule solitary verse but a whole passage. Sometimes this is the context in which the verse sits, but other times it is a related passage from another part of the Bible. You don’t have to pull up another app to read this, but tap the reference and up comes the passage in the ESV.

Taking things even further, you’re provided with a hymn which is chosen to fit the theme of the devotion to spend some time in further worship. But you’re not just provided with the words of the hymn, you’re even given the tune so that you could sing along. Finally, there are a few prompts to reflect and pray to finish. These are a brilliant addition so that your devotion in the Word leads into prayer and lingers in your heart.

If it’s lacking anything, then it would be a notification to remind you to do the devotion. This would have been particularly helpful for me for the evening devotions, as I’m only in the habit of doing a devotion in the morning! But other than that, if Spurgeon’s Morning and Evening is the kind of devotion that will help you, then this app is ideal.

Jonny Raine


This is found on Instagram and directed at teenagers and young people. Each day there are three posts. One is a short Bible verse, one is the daily passage to read to ‘Explore the Bible Story in a Year’ and the third one is a devotional linked to the Bible verse of the day. This consists of an attractive photo/picture with a Bible reading and a 150-word devotional in the comments. These devotionals are directed at young people and are a good mix of illustration and solid teaching. For young people that use Instagram, it is an excellent resource. Search for ourdailybreadyouth.

Nichola Napper

The Bible in four words https://www.evangelicalmagazine.com/article/the-bible-in-four-words/ Thu, 02 Jan 2020 18:00:28 +0000 https://www.evangelicalmagazine.com/?post_type=em_article&p=2715 I’m old enough to remember GCE O-level exams before they were replaced by GCSEs many years ago. As part of our English Language classes, we had an exercise called précis. We had to reduce a long text to its minimum while still retaining the essence of its message. I don’t know if today’s schoolchildren have to complete a similar exercise, but it was a useful test of our language and comprehension skills.

What about the text of the Bible? If you hold a Bible in your hands, there are pages and pages of text. In fact, looking at the Bible can feel quite daunting. There are 66 books; 23,145 verses and 783,137 words in one well-known version… but, what’s it all about?! What is the Bible’s message?

If, in my English précis lesson, I had been set the task of reducing the Bible to a minimum while maintaining the essential essence of its message, I wonder what’s the lowest word count I could go to? Now, of course every word of the Bible is important because it is God’s word to us! The Bible itself is clear on this matter. It says, ‘All Scripture is breathed out by God and is profitable’ (2 Timothy 3:16).

Having said that, within the 783,137 words, there is an essential message that I need to grasp. But what is that message? How low can I get my ‘word count’ without compromising the message?

26 words

Martin Luther once said that John 3:16 contains the Bible ‘in a nutshell’.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

That’s 26 words: a reduction of 783,111! Not bad! And it does tell us ALL we need to know in order to receive eternal life and avoid perishing. I simply need to believe in him.

But, if that’s the only part of the Bible that I had, it would leave me with lots of questions and to answer them I’d need other parts of the Bible.

Questions like: Who is God? Why am I perishing? What does it mean to perish? What is eternal life? Who is his Son? What has this Son done for me? What does it mean to believe?

If I read further in the Bible, I’d discover that I was made by God and made to know him in a living, vibrant relationship and that this indeed is the essence of eternal life. I’d find that my sin means that I can’t know God and that I am perishing and will perish forever. Further, I’d discover that although I cannot alter my state, God in his astonishing love has sent his Son, Jesus, to take away my sin. Jesus, the Son of God, came and lived a sinless life for me. Then he died as if he were me: he perished in my place that I may have life. I’d find he rose again from the dead. Finally, for this to work, to give me eternal life, I need simply to believe in Jesus!

That’s 123 words, more than Luther, but still a big reduction of 783,014!

4 beautiful words

Now, let’s cut to the chase – how low can we really go?

I’ve been saved now for more than 43 years. By God’s goodness, Jesus gets more and more wonderful to me and the message of the Bible more and more beautifully simple. I’ve read the Bible many times and as a preacher delivered many thousands of sermons and gospel messages. In my daily life as a Christian, I’ve had the privilege of sharing the message of the Bible on a personal level with many people. If I were asked to summarise or to précis its stunning message, how low could I go? Well, I’d knock off a further 22 words from Martin Luther!

Here it is, my summary of such wonderful, heart-melting, tear-jerking, stunning, astonishing words:

‘Jesus died for ME!’

Four words. Four beautiful words to eternal life! Reader, can you say that from the depths of your being? Read the Bible until you can, because it’s in there, and it needs to be alive in you!

Bethlehem https://www.evangelicalmagazine.com/article/bethlehem/ Mon, 23 Dec 2019 18:00:06 +0000 https://www.evangelicalmagazine.com/?post_type=em_article&p=2664 Say the word ‘Bethlehem’ to almost any Christian, and they’ll immediately think happy thoughts of shepherds, a manger, and the birth of Jesus Christ. But Bethlehem wasn’t chosen by God as the location of Jesus’ birth merely on a whim – the town has a rich and tragic Old Testament history which makes it the perfect place for the Saviour to be born.

Can anything good come out of Bethlehem?

Bethlehem’s first appearance in the Bible comes as early as Genesis 35:16. There it is associated not with the birth of Jesus, but of Benjamin. Just as with Jesus’ birth, the event mixes joy and grief – in Benjamin’s case from the death of his mother, Rachel, in childbirth. As Rachel lay dying, she named her son, ‘Ben-oni’ (‘son of my sorrow’) but her husband, Jacob, soon changed his name to ‘Benjamin’ (‘son of the righthand’, Genesis 35:18).

In the book of Judges, Bethlehem takes centre stage in two disturbing stories. Both occur in that portion of Judges where there is no judge, and ‘no king in Israel’ and ‘everyone did what was right in his own eyes’ (Judges 17:6, 18:1, 19:1). The first story involves a Levite from Bethlehem (Judges 17:7), who rather than serving God in the tabernacle, offers himself as a private priest to the highest-paying bidder (Judges 18:4, 19-20). The unfolding story is both tragic and dispiriting, involving stolen idols and the destruction of a peaceful city (Laish) by those who claim to be worshipping God (Judges 17:1, 18:14-20, 27-28). The text makes a point of telling us that Laish fell because it had no-one to be a deliverer (Judges 18:28). The fallen city is rebuilt and named ‘Dan’, and becomes a centre for idolatrous worship (Judges 18:29-30). In later centuries Dan will continue this idolatry, becoming a centre of pagan worship under King Jeroboam (1 Kings 12:28-29), which led to Israel’s exile and captivity – a parallel that the writer of Judges seems to think is no accident (Judges 18:30).

The second story in Judges involving Bethlehem is an even worse account. This time the Bethlehemite is the unfaithful concubine of another Levite (Judges 19:1-2). While returning from the her family home in Bethlehem, the couple take shelter in the Benjamite city of Gibeah (Judges 19:16-18). In a repeat of the story of Sodom (Genesis 19), they’re rudely awakened by a mob demanding the homeowner bring out the Levite so that they can have sex with him (Judges 19:22). In Sodom, angels rescued the people in a similar situation, but not here. When the old man refuses, the Levite sends his concubine to them, who is then raped and killed (Judges 19:25-26). The story ends with the Levite carving up his concubine’s body and sending a part to each of the twelve Israelite tribes. The result is civil war between the Benjamites and the rest of Israel (Judges 20:13-14), with the tribe of Benjamin almost wiped out.

Bethlehem redeemed?

Around the same time as these stories in Judges, another Bethlehemite family journeys to pagan Moab to escape from a famine (Ruth 1:1-2). There’s an irony here which would not have been lost on the original Hebrew readers – Bethlehem means ‘house of bread’. Yet leaving was the wrong decision – they would have been better to have trusted God and stayed where they were (Ruth 1:6). Both father and sons die in Moab (Ruth 1:3-5), leaving his widow, Naomi, and one of his daughters-in-law, Ruth, to return to Bethlehem many years later.

We know the rest of the story. Ruth the Moabitess meets Boaz the Bethlehemite (Ruth 2:3-4), and through his covenantal love, Ruth (and indeed Naomi) are redeemed. For the first time in the tragic stories involving Bethlehem, a redeemer has stepped in to rescue (Ruth 4:7-11, 14-15).

The result of this covenantal redemption is a new Bethlehemite family: from Boaz to Obed to Jesse, and then to the most famous Old Testament Bethlehemite of all – David (Ruth 4:17, 1 Samuel 17:12).

Bethlehem is mentioned four times in David’s story. It is at his father’s house in Bethlehem that David was anointed king by Samuel at a sacrifice to the Lord (1 Samuel 16:1-2). It was after travelling from Bethlehem to the battlefield that David first encountered Goliath (1 Samuel 17:13-18). Later, David pretends to visit Bethlehem to offer a sacrifice (1 Samuel 20:5-8, 28-30). Through this ruse, God protects his anointed from those who would have him killed.

David last Bethlehem story sees him on the run, hiding in the cave of Adullam while the Philistine enemy have built a garrison in Bethlehem (2 Samuel 23:13-17, 1 Chronicles 11:16-19). David, desperate at Israel’s and his own weakness and the probable consequences of the Philistine invasion at harvest time, longs to be able to drink water from Bethlehem’s well. Without his knowledge, three of his mighty men take a 25-mile round-trip, break through the Philistine lines, and bring him the water he longed for. David, though, refused to drink it, instead pouring it out as an offering to the Lord – such was the risk the men took, David viewed the water as ‘the blood of the men’ (2 Samuel 23:17).

Some 250 years after David’s reign the prophet Micah foretold that out of little Bethlehem a great ruler would come (Micah 5:2-5) – and like David this coming Bethlehemite ruler will be both a king and a shepherd (Micah 5:4). But unlike David, his reign will be one of peace not violence, and it will reach to the ends of the earth (Micah 5:5).

Bethlehem fulfilled

That prophecy in Micah is readily applied to Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:6). And Jesus’ family ties to Bethlehem (Luke 2:4, John 7:42) mark him as a son of David, a necessarily qualification for the Messiah.

But we often fail to see how Bethlehem’s pre-Davidic story also prepares us for the coming Christ. Both Rachel and Jacob’s names for their son point us to Jesus. He was both a son of sorrow (Isaiah 53:3), and a son of his father’s right hand (Matthew 26:64).

The story of the Levite-for-hire from Bethlehem shows us our need for a priest that selflessly serves God’s people, not the highest bidder. The consequences of his priestly failure, traced through the history of the city of Dan results in destruction and captivity, while the demolition of Laish, the city without a rescuer, leaves us longing for one who would have rescued those facing destruction.

The story of the Bethlehemite concubine displays similar themes. What has Israel come to that the sin of Sodom is being repeated in its midst? And why – unlike in Sodom – was there no-one to rescue the unfaithful concubine from equally sinful men of Gibeah? Is the writer of Judges correct, that what Israel truly needs is a king to bring righteousness?

It is here that the story of Bethlehem turns a corner as the book of Ruth brings hope. Finally, there is a redeemer from Bethlehem – one who is not only able to redeem the Bethlehemite Naomi, but her Moabite daughter-in-law, Ruth. In the abundant harvest with which the book ends (not just the grain, but the fruitfulness of the womb, too), the book looks forward to the coming Davidic King.

David’s own Bethlehemite story points to the anointing of a king, the conquest of an undefeatable enemy, the protection of the anointed from those who would murder him, and a blood sacrifice poured out before the Lord.

So no wonder that Micah prophesied that it was out of little Bethlehem that God’s ruler would come. In Bethlehem Jesus can be seen as David’s son in David’s city. But more than that, these Old Testament stories show us that in Bethlehem Jesus is also seen as a better priest, a true redeemer and a righteous king.

The shepherds who came in from the cold https://www.evangelicalmagazine.com/article/the-shepherds-who-came-in-from-the-cold/ Thu, 19 Dec 2019 18:00:04 +0000 https://www.evangelicalmagazine.com/?post_type=em_article&p=2645 It was a starry night: stars may be beautiful, but man it was cold that unforgettable night! The earth might have been sleeping, but us shepherds were wide awake. It was more than our lives were worth to sleep with so many sheep to care for. We were chilled to the bone. Only those deranged or us shepherds were out on an open hillside on a night like this.

Dark lonely nights

It was cold, dark and lonely sitting on a Bethlehem hillside. The vast impenetrable darkness of the sky, which only the brightest stars penetrated, was like our relationship to God. We saw his greatness but knew him not at all. Our lives were cold, dark and lonely too. We were ostracised, shunned and ignored. Just because we were shepherds we were looked down upon and our words never trusted. Did the God of our fathers, who made the vast expanse of the sky, care for us in our loneliness as we drifted in the darkness of a cold world?

Oh, what a night!

We had heard a few distant wolves, but apart from that it had been a quiet evening until… Oh what an unforgettable night it suddenly became! The wonder of it is forever etched in my memory. What a marvel to be a first-hand witness to an event of such significance that it would reverberate down the centuries and across the nations!

The dark night sky suddenly split open with an explosion of light that was beyond anything this world could produce. An angel appeared shining with an all-consuming transcendent brightness that was lighter than light. We were frozen. Dead in our places. Gripped by a sense of dread and guilt, intuitively convinced of our mortality and worthlessness, crushed by a weight of glorious appearance. We expected to sink without trace under its weight when we heard him say, ‘Do not be afraid!’

The voice of another world enveloped us with warmth, security and acceptance. Our fears evaporated and he commanded our total attention, not out of dread but as if it was the only natural, sane and good thing to do. We were hardly expecting to hear what he said next though! ‘Good news! In Bethlehem today. A Saviour!… Born for all people.’

‘Good news… All people?’ Did that include us shepherds too? What! Who had ever given us anything! This must be a dream. But, no, this Saviour was in the ‘city of David’. Bethlehem! Had we misheard him? Was that a mistake? Surely he meant to say in Jerusalem? No! It was in little Bethlehem that this baby was to be found, and he called him ‘Christ the Lord’ who was ‘wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a feeding trough!’ Shepherds have a rough lot in life but I had never heard of one of our offspring being born and placed in an animal feeding trough! This was utterly unheard of, making no sense. Whose idea was this? A special child, exalted beyond measure, yet lying in the place where animals feed.

Glory to God

Then the night sky exploded and a vast company of angels sang the praise of the God of heaven. It was louder, brighter and greater than anything we’d ever heard. They sang, ‘Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill to men.’

The sky reverberated with the glorious sound of angel voices and the night sky itself echoed their praise of God. The sweetest sound! Words full of healing richness as pure truth penetrated heart, soul and mind, as their song washed over us. Then, they were gone. The sky was again dark and empty.

A dream?

We stood like those stuck in a dream, waiting to be woken up. I do not know who broke our stupor and said, ‘Let’s go and see this for ourselves.’ But it was the only sane thing to do – as if this was the thing we had been waiting our whole life to hear. Consumed with an irresistible desire to go and find this child we left our flocks. Can you believe that? What a journey! We hurried with excitement, anticipation and expectation; full of questions and wondering what would we would find. Who had ever invited shepherds to the birth of a King?

The King’s residence

What we found was not an artist’s romantic depiction. The smell of animals prevailed in the gloomy darkness. The baby was so ordinary, so human. He even cried. There was no beauty in his looks (Isaiah 53:2). His parents were ordinary folks: just a carpenter from Nazareth and his young wife. Yet, we knew we were in the presence of one greater than greatness. This Christ-child’s innocence transcended the scene and we were irresistibly drawn to him yet at the same time felt so unworthy to be near him. So different from us and yet he was one with us. Above us and yet with us. That was why he was called ‘Emmanuel’.

What did it all mean?

As we reflected on what we had seen it was like a veil being lifted from our eyes (2 Corinthians 3:15-16). This was the fulfilment of God’s divine plan, written in the Hebrew Bible. We had seen the fulfilment of the prophet’s promise made so long ago (Micah 5:2) of a great leader, an ancient one, coming from Bethlehem! Under this same sky, our father Jacob had buried his wife Rachel; Ruth the Moabite chose to come and live as she followed her God; and King David grew up here (Genesis 35:19; Ruth 1:22). God’s Christ had been born. And we shepherds had been brought in from the cold to see him.

The Shepherd of Israel

We understood why the history of our people is indelibly intertwined with shepherds. After all our God is the ‘Shepherd of Israel’ (Psalm 80:1), who gathers in his sheep. We shepherds followed in the footsteps of our fathers, the patriarchs and King David, who all tended flocks! And did not God call David, a shepherd, to ‘shepherd his people’ (Psalm 78:70-72)? Now one greater than David was here! The Good Shepherd, the Great Shepherd, the ‘Shepherd King’ had been born.

Who will believe our report?

We could not keep quiet about what we had seen and began to tell anyone who would listen. However, many refused to ‘believe our report’ (Isaiah 53:1). We knew what we saw; we knew what we heard and we knew whom we found when we entered the stable: the Saviour, Christ the Lord. The shepherds’ Saviour, who would become the sacrificial Lamb of God to pay the price of our sin (Isaiah 53).

What about you?

Jesus was born on a cold night to bring us in from the cold. He is the light of the world who shines in this world’s dark night. He was born in a borrowed stable as the King of Kings! He came to end our helpless existence to give us abundant life. He was rich beyond splendour but chose to become poor; born in insignificance, ostracised by many in life. But it was through his poverty that many can become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9). There is a revelation that is more profound and wonderful than the sight of the angels filling the night sky. It is when someone realises the magnitude of what God has done in his grace in bringing you in from the cold. Have you been brought in from the cold?

The hymn that made the welkin ring https://www.evangelicalmagazine.com/article/the-hymn-that-made-the-welkin-ring/ Thu, 12 Dec 2019 18:00:44 +0000 https://www.evangelicalmagazine.com/?post_type=em_article&p=2658 If he had been asked to guess which of his approximately 6,500 hymns would become the most famous and popular around the world, it is highly unlikely that Charles Wesley would have got the answer right. As we shall see, it required a stroke of genius over a century later for ‘Hark! the herald angels sing’ to become universally regarded as an essential part of Christmas worship.

It was written, as were so many of Wesley’s most enduring hymns, within a few months of his conversion in 1738. Charles’ brother John had trusted Christ just three days after him, and their journals record that their first Christmas spent together in full assurance of saving faith was a truly joyful time.

Tinkering with the words

The subsequent history of this slow burner of a hymn is rather complex, and also a reminder that few of the great hymns of the past have remained unchanged over the years. As a result, complaints about tinkering, for whatever reason, with much-loved words are nothing new. Just forty years after the writing of our hymn, John Wesley had to protest in the preface of his new Methodist hymnbook about the way in which others had turned his brother’s hymns into ‘nonsense’ and ‘doggerel’. They must be printed ‘just as they are’, he insisted, ‘because they are beyond the possibility of improvement!’

But the most famous, and successful, tinkering had already taken place – by the hand of no less a figure than George Whitefield. When compiling ‘A Collection of Hymns for Social Worship’ in 1753, not only did he omit two of Wesley’s original ten four-line stanzas, but he dared to completely alter the hymn’s first two lines.

Wesley had opened with the words,

Hark, how all the welkin rings

Glory to the King of Kings.

Now this was a strong beginning. In the 18th century, most people would have understood the idiom. They might not have been able to tell you what the ‘welkin’ was, but they knew that ‘to make the welkin ring’ meant to make a great noise, usually in celebration.

Quite why Whitefield felt he needed to change the lines is therefore rather a mystery. Perhaps he objected to the ancient and discredited cosmology in which the welkin was the solid surface of the vault of heaven which might ring like a bowl if the noise on earth were only loud enough. Anyway, for whatever reason, Whitefield changed the opening words to the ones we all know and love:

Hark! The herald angels sing

Glory to the new-born King.

This quite possibly saved the hymn from premature obscurity.

But the arch-tinkerer of hymns in the 18th century was a man called Martin Madan. He was converted under the preaching of John Wesley and became a very popular preacher until he unfortunately published a book advocating the practice of polygamy. Anyway, his extensive alterations very often proved successful and many of the hymns of the time that we still sing today bear his mark. When Madan published our hymn in his ‘Psalms and Hymns’ in 1760, Wesley’s rather weak original lines

Universal nature say

‘Christ the Lord is born today.’

happily became

With the angelic host proclaim

Christ is born in Bethlehem.

The hymn takes shape

The next notable year in the history of ‘Hark! The herald angels sing’ is 1782. When, in that year, Cambridge University reprinted what is generally known as ‘Tate and Brady’, the Church of England’s officially approved metrical version of the Psalms, there were some blank end pages which an enterprising printer thought he could usefully fill. He selected five hymns for the purpose, of which our hymn was one. What is most remarkable, however, is that it was printed for the first time in what thereafter became its standard form. In other words, this anonymous publisher turned the first six stanzas into three eight-line verses and added Whitefield’s opening two lines as a refrain to each verse – exactly as it appears in many hymnbooks to this day.

One other readily adopted amendment is worthy of note. Sometime in the early 19th century, someone changed

Pleased as man with men to appear

Jesus! Our Immanuel here!


Pleased as man with man to dwell

Jesus, our Emmanuel.

This raises the sensitive, modern question of gender inclusivity, as do a couple of other lines in the hymn. One simple and unobtrusive solution has been proposed by ‘Hymns for Today’s Church’ – and later taken up by ‘Praise!’:

Pleased as man with us to dwell

Jesus, our Emmanuel.

A stroke of genius

But at this point we need to consider the stroke of genius that transformed the fortunes of Wesley’s hymn. The great composer, Felix Mendelssohn, had been brought to a living faith in Christ initially through his study of the scriptural text of J. S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion. He was also captivated by the hymns of Martin Luther, always carrying an edition of them with him.

In 1847, very shortly before Mendelssohn’s untimely death at the age of 38, he was in London directing the UK premiere of his oratorio Elijah. Singing in the chorus of that performance was a teenager named William Hayman Cummings. Now Cummings was destined to have a long and very distinguished musical career of his own, but his early appreciation of the oratorios of Mendelssohn soon led to a remarkable and unlikely outcome.

As the young organist at Waltham Abbey, Cummings decided in 1855 that ‘Hark! The herald angels sing’ demanded a far better and livelier tune than any of those to which it had so far been set. He soon chose and arranged the tune from the second chorus of Mendelssohn’s Festgesang, written in 1840 to mark the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg’s invention of movable type printing.

Cummings subsequently printed his arrangement, which became instantly popular when adopted in the 1861 edition of the highly influential ‘Hymns Ancient and Modern’. Wesley’s hymn now received the widespread recognition and appreciation it had long deserved but never achieved. William Cummings’ stroke of genius brought text and tune together in a perfect marriage that would never be broken.

The irony is not simply that Wesley obviously never heard Mendelssohn’s tune and Mendelssohn probably never read Wesley’s words, but that both had left instructions that should have prevented the marriage of the two. Wesley had requested and received slow and solemn music for his hymn, and Mendelssohn had suggested to his English publishers that his tune could do with some new words, as long as they were not sacred!

Our greatest Christmas hymn

No modern hymnbook, to my knowledge, includes all original ten stanzas, but it is well worth checking them out online. ‘Christian Hymns’ manages the first eight in four eight-line verses, while ‘Praise!’ also offers eight, but adopts Whitefield’s selection of stanzas 1-7 completed with the very strong stanza 9.

Above all, however, ‘Hark! The herald angels sing’ displays all the glorious, Christ-exalting strengths of the very best of Wesley’s hymn-writing – crammed as it is with a heady mix of biblical references and uncompromising doctrine, all mingled together with vivid spiritual experience and exhortation.

Long may the welkin ring to the sound of this our greatest Christmas hymn!

Christmas Jumpers https://www.evangelicalmagazine.com/article/christmas-jumpers/ Thu, 05 Dec 2019 18:00:00 +0000 https://www.evangelicalmagazine.com/?post_type=em_article&p=2632 What would Christmas be without Christmas trees, Christmas dinner, Christmas carols, Christmas cards or, more recently, the Christmas jumper?

Christmas gives us the opportunity to wear clothes we would never normally be seen dead in. What other time of the year would we wear to work an elf’s outfit or a jumper which lights up or plays jingle bells? Clothing is a great way to tell your story. If you want to know who you are, look at your clothing. I’ve seen Christmas jumpers which make me think, others which make me smile and others which are just crude. They each tell us something about the person who is wearing them.

Some are just fun

I love the children’s jumper with the words ‘Santa, I can explain …’ or ‘I’m only a morning person on Dec 25th

Christmas is a time of joy. It’s great to be with the family, even if at times it can be fraught. But surely there is more to the Christmas story than just good fun. At the first Christmas the angels announced to shepherds that they were bringing good tidings of great joy and peace for all.

Others are about food

A friend of mine wore a jumper that said ‘Brussel Sprout Fan’ at a Christmas party. But for many Christmas is just a time of indulgence, or drunkenness and debauchery. On a cold winter Saturday I saw a man wearing a T shirt saying ‘’Tis the season to be smashed.’ Really?

Is this what Christmas is about? Is life just one extended party? Doesn’t the Christmas message offer an answer to the times when life is tough, when we have done wrong, when we face suffering or bereavement?  The angel told Joseph that Mary was to have a child conceived in her by God, the Holy Spirit, and that the baby’s name was to be ‘Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins.’

Some declare a faith

Christians will always want to wear their faith on their sleeve, though not necessarily on a jumper! But this Christmas time, let us remember that we are celebrating the birth of a baby who is the only way for people to come to know God as their Father. The jumpers of Christmas carry many messages but the most important one, the reason for the season, is that God has come into our world to rescue us from ourselves and our sin. Every person, of every religion and background, will meet God. Either he will be their judge who will find them guilty of all the wrong of their lives, or he will welcome them as their Saviour who has forgiven them.

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, God came into our world, clothing himself in flesh and blood. He was fully divine and fully human – the Word had become flesh. Throughout his life he did what only God could do: he fed the hungry, healed the sick, raised the dead back to life, calmed the storm at sea. He lived as only God could live: he never sinned in anything he thought or spoke or did. But he went to the terrible death of being crucified, where as the God-man he took on himself the sin of the guilty world. The baby laid in a crib was to lie on a cross bearing in his own body the sin of the world, so that all who trust him could be forgiven. Three days later he did what only God can do, and rose from the dead, and offering to all who will turn from their own way to God’s way new, eternal life.

The Bible pictures this new life as a garment. ‘I will greatly rejoice in the Lord. My soul shall be joyful in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation. He has covered me with the robe of righteousness’ (Isaiah 61:10). Jesus likened the offer of forgiveness and a relationship with himself to giving them ‘white garments that you may be clothed’ (Rev. 3:16).  And that ‘clothing’ is not just for Christmas, but for life … and eternity. Our own efforts will never be sufficient to earn a place in heaven. But no one who has turned from their own ways and trusted Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour will go to hell. Heaven is not a reward for doing good, but a gift which Jesus came to purchase and offer to us.

Or as one Christmas jumper says, ‘You can’t have Christmas without Christ.’


This article is reprinted from the booklet Christmas Jumpers published by 10Publishing and reproduced with permission

What’s in a name? https://www.evangelicalmagazine.com/article/whats-in-a-name/ Mon, 02 Dec 2019 18:00:54 +0000 https://www.evangelicalmagazine.com/?post_type=em_article&p=2637 Trying to decide what name to choose for a child can be tricky. To help them come up with ideas, expectant parents might turn to the list of most popular baby names. Since 1904, some names have held their popularity in the UK. James, for example, has always been in the top twenty. But other names have dropped out of popularity altogether, such as Hilda, which hasn’t appeared in the top 100 since the 1930s. Other names, like Lily, have made a comeback after dropping out of usage.

When we come to think about the reliability of the Bible, the popularity of baby names might not seem at all relevant. It would never have occurred to me how useful they could be until I read Peter Williams’ book, ‘Can we trust the Gospels?’ The evidence laid out in this book really adds an extra layer of confidence in seeing the Bible as reliable.

I never really questioned the Bible’s reliability until, as a teenager, I was asked to do a talk for our Christian Union on the topic. In my research, I was amazed by how much evidence there was based on the vast number of manuscripts and the archaeological finds. It helped me have confidence in the Bible before I faced any doubts.

In the twenty years since then, plenty of other books (and chapters within apologetic books) have been published to increase our confidence in the Bible. Among them now is Williams’ book, even though he only focusses on the four Gospel accounts. While his chapters take on the topic from different angles, the chapter I was most struck by was the one where he asks, ‘Did the Gospel authors know their stuff?’ In this chapter he reveals how important names are in affirming the reliability of these four Bible books.

The importance of a name

Imagine you were writing a fictional novel set at the end of the 19th century in France. One of the first things you might do is come up with names for your characters. If you wanted to make the story seem as realistic as possible, you’d want to choose authentic names that are in keeping with that period of history and that locality. Being far removed in place and time we might find that difficult.

If the writers of the Gospel accounts were making up the story of Jesus and wanted to make it appear to be authentic, they would need character names that were of the time and place. They wouldn’t be able to ask Google and find out, nor could they even go to their local library for statistical records of names. Yet, as Williams explains, ‘One of the clearest indications of the familiarity of the Gospel writers with the context they are writing about comes in the form of their knowledge of personal names’ (page 64).

Williams utilises some research by scholar Richard Bauckham, who has also produced some brilliant work emphasising the eyewitness nature of the Gospel accounts. Bauckham’s research compiles a list of the most popular Jewish names in historical records. He does this for Jews living in Palestine as well as for Jews living in other parts of the world and while some names cross over, for the most part the Jewish names in Palestine are distinct from the Jewish names in Egypt, Rome or Libya.

The authenticity of a name

Williams highlights the fact that the most popular names in Palestine at the time also accord with the most popular names in the Bible. Simon was by far the most popular male name, followed by Joseph, Lazarus, Judah and John. With the exception of Lazarus, all those names occur for multiple individuals in the New Testament. In fact, the percentage of the nine most popular names within the general population accords very closely with the percentage of New Testament characters that have the nine most popular names. If the Gospel accounts are recording real history, then this is just what you would expect to find.

In our church some of our members share the same name: John, Sian, Brian (or Bryan) and David, to name a few. We sometimes come up with ways of distinguishing one from another! Our surnames are a very easy way to do that, or we sometimes refer to Brian with an ‘I’ or Bryan with a ‘Y’. Likewise, in New Testament times, they had ways of distinguishing one Mary from another, and one Simon from another. So we end up with Simon Peter, Simon the Zealot, Simon the Leper, Simon of Cyrene. For Mary we have Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary the mother of James and John. What the Gospel writers have done is to distinguish the most popular names. However, for the less common names, such as Philip and Bartholomew, they simply record their names, since they do not need distinguishing. What Williams is showing in this is that the Gospel writers were aware, perhaps even without realising it, which names are so popular that they need distinguishing and which names are less common among the general populace.

If the Gospel writers were living at a later time period and if they were from a different geographical location, all this would be impossible to pull off plausibly, especially as the Jewish nature of Palestine was significantly changed by the war resulting in Jerusalem’s destruction in 70AD. What’s more, with four separate Gospel accounts with enough differences to make each one at least partially unique in its source, all four share the same balance of name frequency. In short, they couldn’t have just made it up from a different time period and different place from that in which the Gospels are set.

Williams sums up the chapter thus,

By far the simplest explanation is that the Gospel authors were able to give an authentic pattern of names because they were reliably reporting what people were actually called. Given that names are also hard to remember, the authentic pattern of names in the Gospels suggests that their testimony is of high quality. After all, if they had correctly remembered the less memorable details – the names of individuals – then they should have no difficulty in remembering the more memorable outline of events (page 77).

Many people today take it as given that the Gospel accounts are simply fabrications with perhaps some echoes of truth. But when even the most insignificant details recorded bear all the hallmarks of authenticity, then we should have all the more confidence in the significance of their message.