Manaen and the Butterfly Effect

Manaen and the Butterfly Effect

-- John Guzzetta

There is a phenomenon in science called “sensitive dependence on initial conditions in a dynamical system,” more commonly known as “the butterfly effect.” In 1951, meteorologist Edward Lorenz was using a computer to run a model of weather predictions. The first time he entered a value of 0.506127 for one of the mathematical variables in the model (the most digits the primitive computer would hold). The next time, Lorenz took a shortcut and only carried out the variable to the thousandths place, 0.506.

We’re talking about a truly tiny change—like having $1,000 in your pocket and discovering that you’ve lost a single dime. It’s a negligible, meaningless amount, and you wouldn’t give it a moment’s thought. Thus, Lorenz was stunned to discover that when he ran the model the second time, the computer came up with a completely different weather prediction!

Realizing that the miniscule change in just one variable could have gigantic results in outcomes, Lorenz published his findings in a paper for the New York Academy of Sciences, and stated, “one flap of a seagull’s wings could change the course of weather forever.” In later papers and speeches, he changed the seagull to a nicer-sounding butterfly, and a new phrase was coined that has found its way into popular culture.

The “butterfly effect” can be seen in situations where two objects begin close together but end up very far apart. If you’ve ever watched the Plinko carnival game, you know that discs can be placed in the same top slot, but will bounce differently off pegs on the way down, and may land on opposite sides of the board. On a recent hiking trip to Glacier National Park, I stood on the Continental Divide, a ridge that separates two watersheds. It was amazing to think that if I spit east it would end up in the Atlantic Ocean, but if I just turned my head slightly and spit west it would end up in the Pacific Ocean. A change in a few inches in starting position results in a change in hundreds of miles in end position.

By now, you must be asking where I’m going with this. In Acts 13:1, we are introduced to the teachers and prophets at the church in Antioch. The list includes Paul and Barnabas, but among them is “Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch.”

The Herod to whom Luke refers is Herod Antipas, one of the most corrupt, sinful individuals mentioned in Scripture. His father was Herod the Great, the so-called king of Judea who slaughtered the infants in Bethlehem in an effort to destroy Jesus. Herod Antipas was tetrarch of Galilee and Perea until 39AD. He is the Herod who stole his brother’s wife and beheaded John the Baptist (Mark 6:14-29). He is the Herod who mocked Jesus and sent Him back to Pilate (Luke 23:8-12). His nephew, Herod Agrippa, is the one who killed James in Acts 12:1-2. Obviously, the Herods were not nice people.

While the Greek term syntrophos, “brought up with,” could mean a number of things, most translations prefer the natural meaning, “childhood companion, or foster brother,” from the verb trepho╠é, “to raise” (see Luke 4:16) and the prefix syn, “with or together.” Some scholars believe that the two had been nursed together and raised together by the same woman (McGarvey, Commentary on Acts, Vol. 2, p. 2).

Whatever the precise details of their childhood, it is clear that Herod Antipas and Manaen grew up together. They started out in similar circumstances and in the same household. Their masters taught them the same lessons, gave them same privileges, and pointed them toward the same goals. They witnessed the same sights and heard the same sounds. They may have eaten at the same tables and reclined on the same cushions. It is therefore utterly amazing that one went on to become a hedonistic pagan and murderous tyrant, and the other went on to become a follower of Jesus Christ and a teacher of the gospel!

And this divergence points not to random puffs of wind or a lucky bounce, but to the way these two men chose to respond to the gospel. Is it possible for a person steeped in a sinful environment, fed on the philosophies of evolution and materialism, bred in the ways of the world, to chart a different course from his friends? Yes! Is it possible for a person to choose a different way from the culture? Yes! The amazing power of the gospel is that it can resonate in the hearts of a few sensitive individuals, and cause them to pull away from the pack. How did two people, Manaen and Herod Antipas, start so similarly, and finish so differently? Because they received differently the truth of the gospel.

The Bible says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:1-2). Two men may sit in the same pew—one can strive for eternal life, the other can turn a deaf ear. Two sisters can grow up in the same God-forsaken household—one can put God first and go to Heaven, the other reject God entirely and go to Hell. A thousand people can attend the same high school, and a handful can emerge with a love for Jesus Christ. What starts together doesn’t have to stay together, thanks to the transformative power of the gospel. You can change and enjoy a different destiny!