One of the best-known works of art from the Renaissance period is the panorama of Biblical scenes painted by Michelangelo, between 1508 and 1512 AD, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. The most familiar scene is his depiction of the creation of Adam, in which God’s firm index finger reaches out to give the spark of life to the limp hand of the first man. It would be good to open another window on your computer right now and find an image of the entire ceiling so you can better appreciate its grandeur.
Strategically placed around the highlights of holy history, from the creation to Christ, are twelve figures who, according to Michelangelo, prophesied his coming. They are seven Old Testament prophets (Jonah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Zechariah, Isaiah and Daniel) and five Greek sibyls.* Sibyls were ancient Greek oracles, all female, who arose in various portions of the Greek-dominated world roughly during the same period as the Old Testament prophets. They were revered for their ability to foresee future events and were sought after for advice. During the Renaissance, Christian thinkers were rediscovering the non-Christian classics and finding that the truth and wisdom of the Greeks, in particular, paralleled and reinforced what they learned from the Bible and theology. In the educated world of Michelangelo, scholars believed they had discovered in the recorded words of these five sibyls prophecies of Messiah’s coming, so he portrayed them alongside the Old Testament prophets pointing to God’s salvation through Christ.
Some Christians in 2015, five hundred years after the chapel ceiling was painted, believe all we need to know is in the Bible. They are suspicious of all other fields of learning, from science, literature and psychology to information technology. They don’t seem to understand that every bit of knowledge is a reflection of God. The tiniest sub-atomic particle, the vastness of the universe, the newest far-out theory of human behavior, the most bazaar dream a person has ever had — all are sibyls pointing to God’s truth.
Maybe we need to have another Renaissance so we can rediscover this.
— Pastor George Van Alstine
* I was inspired to write this while reading a book written by a new friend who seems like an old friend. Phil Skotte’s parents were part of the ABC family in the 1960s. Phil went to college and seminary, then worked as a teacher, ship’s carpenter and commercial fisherman before settling into a career with the U.S. State Department. He has served in U.S. consulates in Manilla, Moscow, Budapest and The Vatican and now is in Washington as the Director of American Citizen Services and Crisis Management. He has recently published a book entitled Why Jesus Won’t Go Away, an engaging account of his personal faith in Jesus, which has been shaped by his interaction with many cultures and religions. It was his description of his visit to the Sistine Chapel while he was serving at the Vatican that inspired this article. By the way, on page 48 of his book, Phil writes: “My first church, Altadena Baptist, taught that humans needed a ‘personal relationship with Jesus Christ.’ They liked to say that ours was not a religion but a relationship. That may be an over-simplification of the facts, but it is not far from the truth.” Thanks, Phil.