John Bradshaw - The Mouth of Truth
This is It Is Written. I'm John Bradshaw. Thanks for joining me. On January the 13th, 2012, at 9:45 p.m., just 2 1/2 hours into a cruise that would see her stop at ports in Italy, France, and Spain, the Costa Concordia, with 4,000 people on board, collided with rocks just off an Italian island. An enormous hole was torn in her hull. It was a disaster. Thirty-two people would die. The ship's captain was later jailed for 16 years on charges of multiple culpable homicide and shipwreck. But of course that means 3,970 people survived. They were all rescued. And they had stories to tell of their rescue. But one of the survivors was a man who probably wishes his story wasn't told.
Father Massimo Donghi was a parish priest in a small town near Milan in the north of Italy. He told his parishioners that he was going to attend a spiritual retreat, a time of prayer and meditation. But Father Donghi didn't go on a spiritual retreat. Instead, he took a cruise on the Costa Concordia, and he was one of the many people who was rescued from the sinking ship. When asked about it later, Father Donghi said, "The judgment of others is not important to me". But one might think that the judgment of God would be important to Father Donghi. After all, it was God who said, "Thou shalt not bear false witness". Or in other words, "Don't lie". There've been some very famous lies told over the years. "I didn't take performance-enhancing drugs".
Lance Armstrong, Marion Jones, who knows who else. "I am not a crook". "I did not have..." Well, you know. Pete Rose insisted for 20 or more years that he never bet on baseball, and then later admitted that he had. An actor claimed to have been on the 55th floor of the World Trade Center when a plane flew into it, but he wasn't. News reporters have made up news stories. People lie about their age or their ethnicity. Here in Rome, there's an interesting sculpture, a 2,800-pound marble mask with a prominent mouth. It's called La Bocca della Verità, "The Mouth of Truth". It's located at St. Mary's Church next to the Tiber River and just up the street from the Circus Maximus. The legend is that if you put your hand into La Bocca della Verità, and you've told a lie, your hand will be cut off.
So how important is truth? Well, to God, it's extremely important, important enough to be mentioned, or emphasized, in the Ten Commandments. The eighth commandment consists of only nine words, but those nine words outlaw lying. It's inconsistent with the character of God, and it causes all kinds of issues. Both Revelation chapter 21 and 22 say liars will not go to heaven. Now, you would think that one place truth would be especially valued would be the church. But that's not always the case. Now, being as we're here in Rome, we're going to take a look at certain claims that have been made right out in the open, where people have said, "These things are true," even though it would appear those claims don't hold water.
Now, to begin with, we're going to take a look at one of the most incredible miracles that never happened. Let's go there now. Rome isn't an especially large city, which is one of the things that makes it a great place to visit. If you wanted to, you could walk just about anywhere from pretty well anywhere. It's compact. The Forum, the heart of ancient Rome, which once teemed with temples and monuments, it's a stone's throw from the Mamertine Prison, where the Apostle Paul was kept when he was a prisoner in Rome. It's basically across the street from Trajan's Column, which is almost 2,000 years old, and tells the story of the exploits of the emperor Trajan. And it's close to the Circus Maximus, where 150,000 people would come to watch chariot races in ancient times, and it's a short walk to the Colosseum. A kilometer past the Colosseum, two-thirds of a mile, is an interesting building. Inside this little building is what's known as the Scala Sancta, the "Holy Staircase".
It's believed that this staircase is the actual staircase on which Jesus walked when He appeared before Pontius Pilate. It's made of marble, although the steps have been covered with wood, one would think, to protect them from constant use. Pilgrims come here from all over the world to ascend the steps on their knees. You'll see them praying as they go. The steps are so special that in 1817, Pope Pius VII declared that anyone who ascended the staircase would receive an indulgence of nine years for every step. There are 28 steps. Do the math, and what you figure out is that a pope declared that anyone who prays their way up these stairs will get 252 years off their punishment in purgatory. When he was a priest, Martin Luther climbed these stairs on his knees, praying the Lord's Prayer on every step because he'd been told that by doing so he would redeem a soul from purgatory. He got to the top filled with doubt and said, "Who knows whether this is true"?
So let's walk through this together. The staircase here is said to be the very staircase on which Jesus walked when He appeared before Pontius Pilate. If you were to make your way up the stairs, you would notice there are gaps in the wooden covering, allowing you to see through and see drops of Jesus' blood. The story goes that St. Helena, the mother of the emperor Constantine, visited Jerusalem about 300 years after the death of Jesus and located the staircase and had it brought to Rome, and now, here it is. Now, that assertion has been challenged over the years, to the extent that the sign inside the building is not really definitive as to the origins of the staircase. So the church is gently backing away from its claim that this is the actual staircase on which Jesus actually walked when He actually appeared before Pontius Pilate. And well it might, because it's what you might call... an actual misrepresentation of the facts.
So why make a claim like that, that Jesus walked on this very staircase? Well, it really does make the church look quite privileged to have such inside information, to have access to such wonderful treasures. But think about the story that's being told here, that somehow St. Helena managed to find the actual staircase Jesus walked on when He appeared before Pilate, even though the Bible says nothing at all about Jesus standing on any staircase when He appeared before Pilate, even though St. Helena purportedly found the stairs 250 years after the event, even though Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD. So you can get 250 years off your time in purgatory for praying on each of the 28 steps that make up Pilate's staircase.
It sure managed to give the church an enormous amount of prestige back in a time when people simply believed the church, no matter what the church said, no matter how unlikely what the church said was true, even if the church said, "We have the very staircase Jesus Himself walked on". But it said more. Upstairs in a chapel, there's a painting that is said to have been started by St. Luke and finished by an angel. It also said that when St. Helena went to Jerusalem, she managed to find the crosses on which the two thieves died next to Jesus. She also found the inscription that said, "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews," and the nails they used to nail Jesus to the cross and the robe Jesus wore just before His crucifixion. Quite the archaeologist. And perhaps the grandest of them all: St. Helena is said to have found something truly amazing. And we'll see it in just a moment.
Thanks for joining me today on It Is Written. In Rome, Italy, it seems as though everywhere you turn, there are museums and historical artifacts and ruins. And for many years, one of the stops on the itinerary of many of the faithful who come here to Rome has been the Scala Sancta, said to be the staircase on which Jesus walked when He appeared before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. Of course, there's absolutely no proof that Jesus was ever anywhere near these stairs, or that the drops of blood on the stairs are Jesus' blood, or for that matter, anybody else's blood. And along with a lack of evidence, claims that Jesus was ever on these stairs actually defy sound reasoning. But the word is St. Helena, the mother of Constantine the emperor, brought the stairs back from Jerusalem.
Now, these days you'll read things that say something like, "It is believed that..." or "Tradition states that..." or "However they got here," thus and so... Which is just another way of saying that hundreds of years ago, we told people whatever we wanted to tell them, and they just believed it because that's how things were hundreds of years ago, but today... not quite so easy to get a story like that past people. Now, if you thought it was incredible that St. Helena brought to Rome the very staircase on which Jesus stood, well, in the words of the great philosopher, "You ain't seen nothing yet". Because we're about to see something that makes Pilate's staircase look pedestrian. She's said to have found the nails that held Jesus to the cross, the inscription that was attached to the cross, the crosses on which the thieves were crucified. And the claim is made that St. Helena found the cross on which Jesus died, the actual cross.
Now, how you do that 300 or so years after the crucifixion of Jesus, 260 years after the destruction of Jerusalem, nobody knows. But the story goes like this: In order to discover which cross was the actual cross of Jesus, parts of three crosses were brought to the presence of a very sick woman. When the first cross, or part thereof, was brought to her, she remained sick and was not helped. In fact, one account says that when they brought that cross to her, she screamed fearfully, the inference being that was part of the cross on which one of the thieves was crucified. Same thing happened with the piece of the second cross. But when they brought the wood of the third cross to her, she was miraculously healed, got up from her sick-bed right away, full of life and happiness.
This is the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, half a mile from the Scala Sancta, the Holy Staircase. Like many churches in this city, it's really quite beautiful. And in here are housed a number of so-called relics, such as the inscription Pilate had placed on Jesus' cross, one of the nails that was used in the crucifixion of Jesus, two of the thorns from the crown of thorns placed on the head of Jesus. And the big one: a fragment of the cross on which Jesus was crucified. Now, I realize that this can mean a lot to people. Seeing these items can be a, a life-altering, a faith-restoring experience. But don't you have to ask, faith in what?
Now, the reason we believe the Bible is that there's so much in the Bible that checks out; it adds up; it makes sense. So that when we read that people walked around the city of Jericho and then shouted, and those great big walls came tumbling down, we believe that. When we read that Jesus opened the eyes of the blind, we say, "Why, sure," because there's so much else in the Word of God that's obviously trustworthy and clearly verifiable. So therefore we say, "We can believe the miracles. We can believe those things that seem a little extraordinary". But this? I met a lady while I was visiting this church, San Pietro in Vincoli, "St. Peter in Chains". We bumped into each other, we chatted about this and that, and then she said, "If I met someone who was ever doubting their faith, I would tell them to come here. That would fix them".
Well, sure. Impressive churches, incredibly grand, magnificent structures. Should you visit them, look up. The paintings on the ceilings are almost always breathtaking. They certainly are in St. Peter in Chains. But what impressed the lady I spoke to was that inside this church are the actual chains that bound Peter when he was in Rome. And then if you'll allow yourself to believe, even for a moment, that these really are the chains that bound St. Peter, then you'll be convinced. If you'll allow yourself to believe that the church actually managed to get the very staircase on which Jesus walked into their possession, again, no mention of a staircase in the Bible, then, sure, you'll be a believer.
And that's the point of these relics. A church that wants people to believe it is the true church makes all kinds of claims about so-called historical artifacts. And if you want to believe that that's the true church, then what option do you have when it comes to these relics but to trust? But what is it that's supposed to grow our faith? The Word of God. Miracles? Sure. Answered prayer? Absolutely. But the authority is the Bible, the book that speaks of Jesus, that tells you that there is a God of love and gives you reason after reason to believe. A church doesn't need miracles or relics to convince people that it's a valid church.
Now, think about how all of this worked together. If you can convince the people that these things are legitimate, then you can better convince them to open up their wallets. Keep in mind the church of Rome was the ruling church in the world for hundreds and hundreds of years. It monetized salvation. There was a time that indulgences were sold. It's one of the reasons the Reformation began. It was a horribly abusive practice.
Now, keep in mind, purgatory doesn't exist. But if you'll believe that there's a place that, if you're not good enough to go to heaven, not bad enough to go to hell, that you'll go to be purged of your sins, and that the church decides, or can tell you, who went there and who did not... that's an abomination. Even today, pray your way up Pilate's staircase, a fraud, and you'll get a reduction in the time that you spend in purgatory, another fraud. So for a variety of reasons, the church here in Rome is portraying things one way when there's a very, very high probability that things are actually another way. Now, what could be more impressive than somebody coming back from heaven with a message for the faithful? It's made believers out of a lot of people. In just a moment, we'll go to a place where it is said messages have been brought from heaven.
Thanks for joining me today on It Is Written. The Mouth of Truth is a marble sculpture in Rome that has become famous over the years because of the legend that says if a person has told a lie and puts their hand into the Mouth of Truth, their hand would be cut off. The sculpture became famous after it featured in an Audrey Hepburn movie in the 1950s, and since then it's been on the tourist circuit. Just a legend, a story. But it underlines an important, even a biblical idea. Truth matters. Truth is important. Important enough to God that He dedicated one of the Ten Commandments to the subject. And so you'd want to believe that the prominent voices of faith are telling the truth. Except that's not what always happens. Healing crusades where nobody at all is healed. Kid says he took a trip to heaven, writes a book about it.
And then it turns out that none of what he says happened actually happened. It seems to me that part of the problem is that Christian believers can be a little bit gullible. That is, we are conditioned already to believe the supernatural. We already believed that a man walked on water. We already believe that water came out of a rock. So when somebody tells you something that might just push the boundaries a little bit, you're predisposed to believing it, especially if you want it to be true, especially if you're told to believe.
In the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina, just 10 miles from the border with Croatia is the small town of Medjugorje. In 1981, six children in this town claimed that Mary the mother of Jesus appeared to them. They were mainly 15 and 16 years of age. One was a little younger. Four girls, two boys. They said that one of them received nine special secrets from Mary that she would be asked to reveal to the world at the appropriate time. The Catholic Church has not confirmed whether or not the apparitions are of supernatural origin. Yet thousands of people come here every day. One of those children, obviously much older now, says that Mary still appears to her on a daily basis. And so here we have the problem... Mary is dead.
Now, there are some people who don't believe that; they believe instead that she was taken bodily to heaven without seeing death. But where does that idea come from? It comes from tradition and not the Word of God. You see, when you let tradition usurp the authority of the Bible, there's no end to what you can teach and what you can believe. Well, tradition says it, and the Bible doesn't say it didn't happen, and so... And so you've got confusion. That's the inevitable result of allowing the Bible to be second to tradition. The Bible makes clear that the dead do not come back and visit the living. This is Job chapter 7, verses 9 and 10: "As the cloud disappears and vanishes away, so he who goes down to the grave does not come up. He shall never return to his house, nor shall his place know him anymore".
A person who dies doesn't come back to the earth this side of the resurrection. Of course, one day there'll be a resurrection, when, as Paul said, "The dead in Christ shall rise...: then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord". That's 1 Thessalonians 4:16 and 17. Now, believe what the Bible says about this, and you no longer have prayer to saints or Marian apparitions. It's a game-changer. But that's what the Bible is. The Bible is a game-changer. And it's reliable, and it's trustworthy. And it's interesting that that staircase is said to have been Pilate's staircase. When Jesus appeared before Pilate, they had this exchange.
This is John 18:37 and 38: "Pilate therefore said to Him, 'Are You a king then?' Jesus answered, 'You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.' Pilate said to Him, 'What is truth?'" It seems he didn't wait for an answer. "And when he had said this, he went out again to the Jews, and said to them, 'I find no fault in Him at all.'"
Truth matters. It's important. It's inseparable from Jesus, who is the way, the truth, and the life. Now, traditions are great, if they're in harmony with the Bible. The supernatural is wonderful, as long as it's biblical in its orientation. But if it isn't, well, it's likely an error, maybe a mistruth. Maybe even a lie. The famous story is told of George Washington when, as a boy, confessed to his father that he had cut down the cherry tree with his little hatchet. And he said to his dad, "I cannot tell a lie". The really interesting thing about that story is that it's likely not even true. But I'll tell you what is true. The Word of God? That's true. That's believable. God? He is real. And you can trust Him. And you can trust the Bible, every time.