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22 July 2012

Good Deeds and Contradictions

When reading or studying the Bible there is danger in grabbing a verse here and a verse there to support a desired conclusion. There's also danger in getting one's primary (or only) dose of Scripture and teaching via topical sermons delivered by an eloquent speaker (or worse, a bad one). When we're challenged or confronted with an argument about contradiction in Scripture, we can be taken completely off-guard.

One of the worst responses in this kind of situation is simply to say, "I just take the Bible on faith," and dismiss the challenge as being made by an ignorant Christian-hater. The fact is, most of the time it's not the Bible we're taking on faith. Often it's the teaching of someone who pieced together some verses to bolster a themed speech. One of the most familiar examples of this is Jesus' statement, "For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst." Jesus was not talking about Church services. He was addressing confrontation of sin among believers.

This morning my Scripture reading included Matthew 5 and 6. In those chapters there are two quotes spoken by Jesus in a single sitting -- the Sermon on the Mount. They're interesting when considered together (emphases mine):

"No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father." (Matthew 5:15-16, NLT)
“Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven. When you give to someone in need, don’t do as the hypocrites do—blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity! I tell you the truth, they have received all the reward they will ever get. But when you give to someone in need, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you." (Matthew 6:1-4, NLT)
Following up on these passages, I read what I consider to be some rather poor commentaries trying to justify what seems to be a set of contradictory statements. One, for instance, took a few other verses and attempted to say that Jesus was not talking about works in 5:15-16 (you know, where He says "works"), but about His words. Voilà! No contradiction! I would be embarrassed to deliver that as a rebuttal to someone claiming the passages are contradictory.

There are several ways to explain the seeming contradiction, and some are fairly solid.

One way is to note that Jesus added the critical phrase "to be admired by others" in Matthew 6:1. This shows that our motivation is at least as important as the resulting deeds, if not more important.

Another explanation comes by looking at the Greek text and noting that in Matthew 5:16 Jesus said "good deeds" (καλὰ ἔργα) but in 6:1 He actually said "righteousness" (δικαιοσύνην). (The NLT unfortunately renders both as "good deeds," so this line of thinking is less obvious.) At this point we could draw a distinction between "good deeds" as something good to seen by others and "righteousness" as something we shouldn't try to show off in an arrogant and pious way.

But most wouldn't get as far as that last explanation, because Greek and Hebrew are thought of as the sole domain of scholars, teachers, and pastors, but not the ordinary layperson. However, given the absolutely amazing tools at our disposal in the modern world we can peer back into the original languages and study some specifics. A word of warning, though: it is very important to realize that, among other things, the average person is not a cultural expert on the ancient middle east, and therefore some points will simply not be clear without drawing on the knowledge and wisdom of others who have studied for years. However, we can find answers to many questions this way more often than not.

Considering that, going a little further into Matthew 5:15-16 and 6:1-4, I noted that the King James Version doesn't use "good deeds" or "righteousness" in 6:1. Rather, the KJV says "do not your alms before men," making this verse a statement about giving money. Now, that is decidedly different from -- and more specific than -- the other readings. It also happens to wrap up nicely with Jesus talking about giving to the poor in 6:4.

If you've read this far, I applaud you. I honestly might be bored by now if I were you. Are you interested in knowing the reason for the difference between the reading in the KJV and the NLT (and ESV, NASB, and most other translations)? If not, I shall move on to another topic next time.


Connie said...

Yes, please continue...

Summer said...

why would I stop reading? that was good stuff! more please...

(I am always studying contradictions because its a huge hang up to many non-believers or former believers.)

As much as I love the King James, I am not longer a King James only... I realized that verbiage changes, I've read some rather poor translations in many of the the translations. Interested in your point of view!

I'm an NASB reader mostly, but have leaned a lot on NLT lately.

Dean Lusk said...

Thank you both. Apologies for not posting the follow-up yet. Time seems to have been struggling against me. Hope to have it posted this evening but it may be tomorrow.

Summer, I do the same thing with apparent contradictions. I love to be able to engage people with whatever they want to talk about.

I tend to read the NLT most of the time, but for studying it's great to have so many available at places like and others.

Anyhow, more in the follow-up post. I won't pit one translation against another; the sources of the translations are what I wanted to touch on.

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