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Did Jesus use any of His divine power when He was on earth?

John 1-14I have been asked whether Jesus Christ used any of His divine power when He was on earth. Or did He not use this power at all during this time and always function as a human being who is indwelt with the Holy Spirit? Also, as a consequence of this were the disciples able to do whatever Christ did? And does this mean that today Christians can also do whatever Christ did?

The Bible teaches that Jesus was unique. “There is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all people” (1 Tim. 2:5-6NIV). He was both human and divine (Jn. 1:1, 14, 18; Rom. 9:5). Because He claimed to be equal with God, the religious leaders wanted to kill Him (Jn. 5:17-18). Biologically, He had a human mother but not a human father. He was sinless.

What do the gospels say?

Several examples of Jesus’ actions in the gospels show His divine power:
• He forgave sins so people were no longer guilty before God, and even those who opposed Him knew that only God can forgive sins in this way (Mt. 9:2-3, 6; Mk. 2:5-7, 10). He also gives eternal life (Jn. 10:28).
• Jesus knew what others were thinking (Mk. 2:8). He knew the Samaritan woman had 5 husbands and knew everything she had done (Jn. 4:18-19, 29). He knows everything (Mt. 16:21; Lk. 11:17; Jn. 16:29-30; 21:17).
• Jesus saw Nathanael before Philip told him about Jesus (Jn. 1:48-49). This is divine omniscience.
• He is omnipresent (Mt. 28:20).
• Jesus’ power over nature was clearly divine. People were amazed when the winds and the waves obeyed Him (Mt. 8:26-27). After He walked on water and calmed a storm, the disciples said “truly you are the Son of God” (Mt. 14:25-32). Also, they were amazed when Jesus calmed another storm (Mk. 4:39-41). This is divine omnipotence.
• He had the power to raise Himself from the dead (Jn. 2:19-22; 10:17-18).
• He does what God the Father does (Jn. 5:19).
The disciples had none of these divine powers.

Because Jesus was sent to earth by God the Father, His goal was to do God’s will (Jn. 4:34; 14:24). He lived to please Him (Jn. 6:57). So, He always obeyed the Father and never acted independently (Jn. 5:19, 30; 10:18). Jesus often prayed to the Father and received daily instructions from Him (Mk. 1:35; Lk. 5:16; 6:12; 11:1). Matthew 26:39-44 and John 17 are examples of Christ’s prayers. They had a close relationship; the Father loved the Son (Jn. 10:15; 14:10; 15:10).

The Holy Spirit is mainly mentioned at Christ’s baptism, His temptation and when He visited His hometown Nazareth. It says “the Holy Spirit descended on Him”, He was “full of the Holy Spirit”, he visited Galilee “in the power of the Holy Spirit” and He drove out demons by the Spirit of God (Mt. 12:28; Lk. 3:22; 4:1, 14, 18). There is no other mention in the gospels of Jesus being empowered by the Holy Spirit. The reason for this is that it seems He did most of His miracles by His own inherent divine power, and not by the power of the Holy Spirit. For example, when two blind men told Jesus “we want our sight”, the Bible says He had compassion on them and touched their eyes and immediately they received their sight (Mt. 20:33-34). The Holy Spirit isn’t mentioned here. Maybe the three members of the trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) all worked together in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Of course God the Son and the Holy Spirit are under the authority of God the Father (Jn. 5:19; 16:13). Jesus certainly didn’t always function as a human being who is indwelt with the Holy Spirit, because then He wouldn’t have been unique and He couldn’t reveal Himself or the Father (Jn. 14:9).

By the way, the purpose of Christ’s miracles was so people would repent (Mt. 11:20-24; Lk. 10:13) and many believed after they saw them (Jn. 2:23; 4:48). The miracles also revealed His divinity (Jn. 5:36; 9:9; 10:37-38) and glory (Jn. 2:11; 11:4, 40).

What does Philippians 2 say?

In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, because of disagreements amongst them he urges them to have unity (Phil. 2:1-11; 4:2-3). In particular, they should “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Phil. 2:3-4). He then gives an example of humility because humility can end arguments and disunity.
“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to His own advantage; rather, He made Himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Phil. 2:5-8).

This passage says that Jesus Christ was fully God; being “in very nature God” and having “equality with God” (Phil. 2:6). This is confirmed by, “God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Him” (Col. 1:19), “in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Col. 2:9) and “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being” (Heb. 1:3).

But Jesus Christ was willing to give up His high position in heaven. This is described as, He “made Himself nothing” (or “emptied Himself” ESV, HCSB, NET). This means Christ laid aside aspects of His equality with God or the form of God (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon). The Greek verb here is kenoo (Strongs #2758). Paul used this word figuratively elsewhere in his writings (Rom. 4:14; 1 Cor. 1:17; 9:15; 2 Cor. 9:3). It is also used figuratively here – Jesus didn’t literally empty Himself or make Himself nothing with respect to His divinity (Phil. 2:7). Other translations say that He:
• “stripped Himself (of all privileges and rightful dignity)” AMP
• “stripped himself of all privilege” (PHILLIPS)
• “gave up everything” CEV, ERV
• “gave up His place with God and made Himself nothing” EXB, NCV
• “gave this up” WE
• “of His own free will He gave up all He had” (GNT)
• “put aside everything that belonged to Him” NLV
• “made Himself of no reputation” GNV, NKJV
• “lowed (meeked) Himself” WYC

The meaning of kenoo is given by the rest of the words in verses 7-8, which describe the period between His miraculous conception and His death and burial. This passage says, when He came to earth, Jesus:
• Acted like a slave who obeys their master, not like the ruler of the universe (v.7). He came to serve both God and humanity in God’s plan of redemption (Mt. 20:28).
• Appeared physically as a human being, not as God (v.7-8). He looked like other men and was fully human, but was different to them in that He did not have a sinful nature. He gave up the glory He had with God the Father since before the world began (Jn. 17:5, 24).
• Allowed Himself to be crucified, although He was the eternal omnipotent God (v.8).

What a change! Jesus went from a place of power and glory (ruling in heaven) to a place of humiliation (dying on earth like a criminal). He went from a high position to a low one. Paul summarised it, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). Then after His death, God restored Jesus to the exalted place (Phil. 2:9). Some of the dazzling splendor of this place was shown at the transfiguration (Mt. 17:2; Mk. 9: 3).

Some examples in the gospels of Jesus’ omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence are given above. So, He didn’t completely stop using these divine attributes. But while He was on earth He used them less often. Instead, He chose to limit the use of these unlimited powers. This is also part of what He gave up when He came to earth to live as a human being.

Because Jesus retained His divine nature and didn’t give it up or stop using it completely, He was able to perform miracles by using His divine nature alone. This means that He didn’t need to do them in the power of the Holy Spirit. There is no Scripture suggesting He solely relied on the Spirit.

Because they were human and not divine, the disciples couldn’t duplicate the examples of His divine power given above. This means that they couldn’t do whatever Christ did. Likewise, because people today are not divine we can’t do whatever Christ did.

But what about verses that have been used to claim that Christians can have unlimited power?

What about other promises?

The phrase “all things are possible with God” (Mk. 10:27) was spoken in the context of salvation. It means that everything to do with the miracle of salvation is only possible through God’s power. Salvation comes from God’s grace and mercy alone, and human achievement has no role in it. It doesn’t mean that God can do anything; because He can’t sin and He can’t deny who He is (2 Tim. 2:13). Also it has nothing to do with miracles or prayer requests (except prayers of confession and repentance).

What about God’s promises to give believers whatever they ask and move mountains for them? The “mountain” is a figure of speech for the obstacles and difficulties being faced. “You can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move” (Mt. 17:20) means that their prayer will be answered and the obstacles removed if it was in accordance with the conditions for prayer and the commands and promises given in the Bible. It is not an unconditional promise. God’s promises to give believers whatever they ask and move mountains for them are not unconditional. They also rely on the Bible’s conditions for answered prayer being satisfied.

What are the “greater works”?

“Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father” (Jn. 14:12). The Greek word erga (Strongs #2041) translated “works” is mentioned in the two previous verses as well. It means an act, deed or thing done (Thayer’s Greek Lexion). In this context it means acts of Christ, to rouse people to believe in Him and to accomplish their salvation. It says that Jesus did the Father’s work and His followers will also do the Father’s work (Jn. 14:10-12). This message was spoken to the disciples and we know that their “works” are given in the book of Acts where we see more people coming to trust in God than in the gospels. So in the context of evangelism, their works were greater than Christ’s.

The reason the disciples would be able to do greater evangelistic works than Jesus is “because I am going to the Father” (Jn. 14:12c). After Jesus ascended back to heaven, believers were able to pray to the Father in Jesus’ name, and Jesus Himself promised to answer these prayers (Jn. 14:13-14).

Because John 14:12 is not addressing miracles (apart from salvation), the claim that it means we can do “greater miracles” than Jesus is obviously false.

Conclusion

There are many examples in the Bible of Jesus using His divine power when He was on earth. It appears that the three members of the trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) all worked together in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. As there is no Scripture suggesting He solely relied on the Spirit, there is no evidence that Jesus always functioned as a human being who is indwelt with the Holy Spirit.

Because they were human and not divine, the disciples couldn’t duplicate these examples of Christ’s divine power. This means that they couldn’t do whatever He did. Likewise, because people today are not divine we can’t do whatever Christ did. In particular, although Christians are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, they can’t do whatever Christ did. To claim otherwise destroys the uniqueness and deity of Jesus Christ.

Written, November 2014

Also see: What does all things are possible with God mean?
What about Gods promises to give believers whatever they ask and move mountains for them?

What is the meaning of the Hebrew words “adamah” and “erets” in the book of Zephaniah?

zephaniah resizedIn my exegesis (critical explanation or interpretation) of the book of Zephaniah, I was amazed that most modern Bible translations have “earth” and not “land” for the Hebrew words adamah (Strongs #127) and erets (Strongs #776).

Zephaniah 1:2-3

This passage says (NIV):
“I will sweep away (“destroy” NET) everything
from the face of the earth,”
declares the Lord.
“I will sweep away both man and beast;
I will sweep away the birds in the sky
and the fish in the sea—
and the idols that cause the wicked to stumble.”
“When I destroy all mankind
on the face of the earth,”
declares the Lord.

The Hebrew word adamah (Strongs #127) used twice in Zephaniah (1:2-3) means “ground” or “land” and is translated “earth” in the NIV, ESV, HSCB and NET Bibles. According to the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon of Hebrew words, in these verses it means “ground” as earth’s visible surface. This is supported by “the face” (#6440) meaning the surface of the ground (Brown-Driver-Briggs). Because of possible confusion with the whole planet, I prefer “land” (which is used by the CJB, DRA, GNV, ISV, NABRE and NKJV Bibles – see BibleGateway.com) or “ground” (which is used by ASV, DARBY and YLT Bibles). The NASB states that the literal meaning is “ground”. This is consistent with original readers understanding that the judgment was on the land of Judah (the next verse describes an attack on Judah), not the whole earth.

According to the Macquarie dictionary, the word “earth” can mean: the planet, its inhabitants, the surface of the planet, the ground, or the softer part of the land. The appropriate meaning of the word “earth” in a particular text is determined by the context of the word. As there are no other words in this passage or the rest of the book that refer unambiguously to the whole planet or all its inhabitants, the first three possible meanings are ruled out. Therefore, the preferred meaning for adamah in Zephaniah (1:2-3) is the ground, the land or the surface of the earth within the country of Judah.

So a better translation of Zephaniah 1:2-3 is:
“I will sweep away everything
from the face of the land (of Judah),”
declares the Lord.
“I will sweep away both man and beast;
I will sweep away the birds in the sky
and the fish in the sea—
and the idols that cause the wicked to stumble.”
“When I destroy all mankind
on the face of the land (of Judah),”
declares the Lord.

Zephaniah 1:18

This passage says (NIV):
“In the fire of His jealousy
the whole earth will be consumed,
for He will make a sudden end
of all who live on the earth”

The Hebrew word erets (Strongs #776) used twice in Zephaniah (1:18) means “earth” or “land” and is translated “earth” in the NIV, ESV, HSCB and NET Bibles. According to the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon of Hebrew words, in the Old Testament it can mean: the whole earth, its inhabitants, a region, its inhabitants, or ground (surface of ground). As there are several alternatives, the one chosen should largely depend on the context of the word. Because of possible confusion with the whole planet, I prefer “land” (which is used by the ASV, CEB, CJB, DARBY, DRA, GNV, ISV, LEB, NKJV, WEB, YLT and mentioned as an alternative in the NET). This is consistent with original readers understanding that the judgment was on the land of Judah (the next verse addresses the nation of Judah), not the whole earth. The ERV states that both adamah and erets can also mean “land” or “country”. The NLT uses “land” for the first occurrence and “earth” for the second! In a footnote, it says “or land”.

So a better translation of Zephaniah 1:2-3 is:
“In the fire of His jealousy
the whole land (of Judah) will be consumed,
for He will make a sudden end
of all the people living in the land (of Judah)”

The word erets in Zephaniah

The Hebrew word erets (Strongs #776) is mentioned eight times in the book of Zephaniah1:18 (twice); 2:3, 5, 11; 3:8, 19, 20. The table below shows how it is translated in four modern versions of the Bible; how I would translate it; and the context.

From this table, it is evident that:
– I only agree with the versions on about 25% (2/8) of the occasions (where they use “land”).
– On the other 75% (ranging 63% to 88%) of occasions (shaded yellow), the versions use “earth” (which has global connotations) even though it is evident from the context that none of these verses refer to the whole planet or all its inhabitants.
– The translators are always using “earth” when the context involves more than one country. However, they are also using it for a single country (1:18)!
By the way, the NKJV uses “land” or “nation” on 50% (4/8) of these occasions.

The phrase kol erets in the prophets

The phrase “all the earth/land” kol erets (Strongs #3605 and #776) occurs in Zephaniah 3:8 and 3:19 and is used in the Bible by other prophets. A study was made into the translations of this phrase in the prophetic books by various versions of the Bible. The results are tabulated in a similar format to that described above. The verses are listed in approximate chronological order.

From this table, it is evident that:
– I think that the phrase refers to the whole earth or all its inhabitants in about 13% (6/48) of the verses. The context of these verses is the sphere of God’s reign and God’s sovereignty. The other versions of the Bible agreed with this interpretation.
– These versions of the Bible translated the phrase as “land(s)” “country” or “countries” in about 56% (27/48) of the verses (but the NET used “earth” in three of these verses). The context of these verses is a country/land or a group of countries/lands. So it was used for both individual countries and groups of countries. I agreed with this interpretation. By the way, the fraction for the NKJV was 50%.
– However, the major difference between these versions and how I would translate the phrase is that they use “earth” where I use “land” (shaded yellow) in: Isa. 10:14 (except the NIV); 25:8; Zeph. 1:18; 3:8, 19 (except the NIV); Jer. 50:23; 51:7, 25, 41, 49; Hab. 2:20; Lam. 2:15; Ezek. 35:14; Dan. 8:5 (except the NET); Zech. 1:11. This is about 31% (15/48) of the verses. It shows that the translators are not only using this practice in Zephaniah, but in at least seven other prophetic books as well. Why are they doing this? Is it when it refers to more than one country? This is mainly the case, except for the countries of Babylon (Jer.50:23; Hab. 2:20), Edom (Ezek. 35:14) and Judah (Zeph. 1:18). So they are not consistent.

It is interesting that these versions of the Bible all tend to translate the phrase in a similar fashion in a particular verse. They agree on 90% of occasions (it is 80% when the NKJV is included). However, I can’t explain why they sometimes choose “country”/”land” for an individual country and sometimes they choose “earth”. Also, I can’t explain why they sometimes choose “countries”/”lands” for a group of countries and sometimes they choose “earth”.

Conclusion

I have shown that although four modern versions of the Bible usually translate the Hebrew words adamah and erets (Strongs #127 and #776) in the book of Zephaniah as “earth”; the word “land” would be a better translation.

A study was made of the translations of the phrase “all the earth/land” kol erets (Strongs #3605 and #776) in the prophetic books by four modern versions of the Bible. This showed that the poor translation in Zephaniah was evident in about 31% of the occurrences of the phrase in the prophetic books. The context of many of these is groups of countries (but some are single countries). I was unable to determine why these versions of the Bible all tend to translate the phrase in a similar fashion in a particular verse. Are the translators assuming that in the days of the prophets a group of nations was viewed as comprising the whole earth? But this doesn’t explain all the translations! The methodology seems to be inconsistent. Are they using some other criterion? Could the consistency between different versions indicate collusion or plagiarism?

Written, November 2014

Also See: God’s warning

God’s warning

The Islamic State is killing minorities in Iraq and Syria who won’t convert to Islam. It’s genocide. Women and children are taken as sexual slaves. People are fleeing to save their lives. How would you feel in the face of this onslaught if you were one of the Turkmen, Shabaks, Yazidis or Christians? Terrified? Shocked in unbelief?

This article looks at the book of Zephaniah where the Jews are warned of an impending terrible destruction. We will see that, because of the sins of humanity, judgment is coming, but deliverance is promised for the repentant.

Context

Zephaniah prophesised “during the reign of Josiah” (Zeph. 1:1NIV), who was king over Judah in 640 – 609 BC. At this time Judah was influenced by three foreign powers: Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia. There was tension between these super powers for world supremacy (like between USA, Russia and China today). Power shifted from Assyria and Egypt to Babylonia when Assyria was conquered in 612BC and Egypt conquered in 605BC. These large nations dominated the smaller ones. Judah was a vassal state of Assyria during much of the 7th century BC. So Judah was a weak nation that was surrounded by many enemies.

Zephaniah time line resizedJosiah’s father Amon and grandfather Manasseh were wicked kings who spread idolatry across Judah. They worshipped Baal, Asherah, and the stars and planets, with child sacrifice to Molech and ritual prostitution (2 Ki. 21:6-9; 2 Chr. 33:6-9). There was occultism and the righteous were martyred. Josiah turned back to God and repaired the temple, restoring temple worship in 622BC.

Zephaniah was part of a line of Old Testament prophets. He lived about 70 years after Isaiah and Micah and was a contemporary of Nahum and the young Jeremiah. He is recognised as the last pre-exilic prophet.

Before Zephaniah, Isaiah proclaimed God’s judgement and deliverance. He warned that Judah’s wickedness would be punished by the Babylonians. The judgment is called “the day of the Lord”. But they would be restored when the Messiah would reign. Micah also proclaimed God’s judgement and deliverance. He lists their sins, and predicts a ruler from Bethlehem and the restoration of a remnant. The main theme of these prophets was God’s judgment and God’s restoration of Judah. We will see that this is what Zephaniah prophesied as well. So he may have been already familiar with the content of his message from the earlier prophets.

During the time of Zephaniah, Nahum predicted the destruction of Nineveh, the largest city of the time. This would have been good news for Judah who had been threatened by Assyria since the fall of Samaria in 722 BC. It showed that God judges His enemies. At this time, Jeremiah (Ch. 1-38) denounced the sins of Judah. He predicted that because of these they would be defeated by the Babylonians and be exiled for 70 years. But he also predicted their restoration and life under the Messiah with a new covenant.

So, at the time when Zephaniah prophesised, the Judeans were threatened by foreign enemies. Idolatry and sinfulness were prevalent, they were no longer following the laws given to Moses. So Zephaniah warns them of the consequences of their behavior.

Literary structure

Apart from the first verse, the book of Zephaniah is poetry, not prose. It teems with figures of speech such as metaphors, similes, metonymy and synecdoche.

God is the central character. He is a God of action. At the beginning He is a merciless judge. But by the end he shows mercy and pardons people. Zephaniah is a humble spokesman: he speaks about God and not himself.

The story is that God wants Judah to serve Him. However, this is prevented by their sins.
Through “the day of the Lord”, Judah is restored to serve Him and they are joined by believing Gentiles.

Zephaniah’s themes

The two main themes of Zephaniah are predictions of God’s judgment and God’s deliverance, which show His justice and mercy. Zephaniah mainly concerns the coming judgment and punishment of Judah and other nations because of their sinfulness (1:2-3:8). This is followed by the promised restoration of a Jewish remnant (3:9-20). So an imminent threat is balanced by the hope of ultimate deliverance.

Zephaniah diagram resizedThose who “have sinned against the Lord” (1:17) will be judged and those who obey and trust the Lord will be restored (2:3; 3:12). The themes of judgment and restoration are linked by a call to repentance (2:1-3).

Looking at these linkages shown in the schematic diagram, four major themes can be identified: Humanity’s sinfulness, God’s warning, God’s judgment, and God’s deliverance. We will now look at each of these in turn.

Humanity’s sinfulness

Zephaniah shows that human sinfulness is a universal problem; it affected both Judah and the other nations.

The sins of Judah included: idolatry (1:3, 4), syncretism (where the true God is worshipped through or alongside other gods) (1:5; 2 Ki. 17:41), apostasy (1:6), following foreign (pagan) customs and culture, which compromised their identity as God’s special people (1:8-9), violence (1:9), apathy and pride (1:12; 3:11), love of money (1:18), oppression (3:10), rebellion (3:10), self-sufficiency, unruliness and ungodliness (3:2), greedy and corrupt leaders (3:3-4, 7), lying and deceit (1:9; 3:13), and thinking that God doesn’t punish sins or reward repentance (1:12). They didn’t “seek the Lord” or “inquire of Him” via prayer or the Scriptures (1:6).

The sins of other nations included: pride (2:10, 15), self-sufficiency (2:15), and insulting, mocking and threatening God’s people (2:8, 10).

This sinfulness was the source and reason for God’s judgment. God had given His people standards to live by in the Mosaic law. So they should have known better.

Now we come to God’s response to their sins.

God’s warning

The prophets warned God’s people about the consequences of their sinfulness. They were breaking the covenant with their God. Instead of living like God’s people, they were living like pagans. They were breaking most of the ten commandments. The punishment for disobeying the covenant is given in the Pentateuch (Lev. 26:14-45; Dt. 28:15-68). It included being defeated by their enemies, having their cities besieged, plundered and destroyed and their people captured and scattered to other nations.

Zephaniah calls for repentance (2:3). There is deliverance for the humble who trust God. But Jerusalem is unrepentant (3:6-7). They didn’t learn from the mistakes of the northern kingdom about 100 years earlier that lead to them being captured by the Assyrians and destroyed as a nation.

So God is merciful: He warns His people of the consequences of their behavior. And we know that king Josiah did repent.

There are two possible responses to a warning. The first is to ignore it. Now we come to the major theme of God’s judgment.

God’s judgment

Judgment is predicted for both Judah and other nations for their ongoing sinfulness.

First for the Jews. The “day of the Lord” is mentioned at least eleven times in the book of Zephaniah (1:7, 8, 9, 10, 14 (twice), 15, 18; 2: 2 (twice), 3). Each occurrence is associated with a message to Judah. According to the NET Bible the concept of “the day of the Lord” may have originated in the ancient Near Eastern idea of the sovereign’s day of conquest, where a king would boast that he had concluded an entire military campaign in a single day. In the Old Testament the phrase first appears in the book of Amos (Amos 5:18-20).

It is a time of great judgement. But when and where will it occur? The book begins with God declaring (1:2-3): “I will sweep away (“destroy” NET) everything from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord. “I will sweep away both man and beast; I will sweep away the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea—and the idols that cause the wicked to stumble.” “When I destroy all mankind on the face of the earth,” declares the Lord.

At the end of chapter 1, Zephaniah comments (1:18): “In the fire of His jealousy the whole earth will be consumed, for He will make a sudden end of all who live on the earth.”

So everything on the ground will be devastated. Where will it occur? It is clear from the next verse that both Judah and Jerusalem will be attacked (1:4). He calls it “the day of the Lord” (1:7, 14) and “the day of the Lord’s wrath” (1:18; 2:2). Jerusalem will be devastated (1:10-13) because of her sinfulness (3:1-5) and unrepentance (3:7).

But why does the NIV say the judgment is on “the face of the earth” (1:2, 3), “the whole earth” and “all who live on the earth” (1:18)? It seems to me that these phrases are translated poorly by most modern translations of the Bible. Click the link to see my reasons. A better translation is: “the land (of Judah)” (1:2, 3), “the whole land (of Judah)”, and “all who live on the land (of Judah) (1:18).

The judgment is directed to the unrepentant, those who don’t seek the Lord (1:6). Zephaniah gives three pictures of God’s judgement, “the day of the Lord”: a devastating flood (1:2-3), a great sacrifice (1:7-8), and a great battle (1:14-18).

As it described total destruction of living things and idols, yet there are survivors (a humble remnant), the description of the judgment seems to include hyperbole (1:2-3, 18b, 2:3; 3:11-13). Some resolve this dilemma by assuming that the verses on deliverance (3:9-20) were written after the time of Zephaniah. But this isn’t necessary because the combination of the themes of judgement, deliverance of a remnant and a new life of blessing for the faithful is an old as Noah’s flood. So the day of the Lord includes both punishment and purification. Zephaniah wasn’t just a prophet of doom, but of doom and hope. After all God is characterised by both justice (when he punishes sinners) and mercy (when he restores the repentant).

When will the judgment occur? “The great day of the Lord is near—near and coming quickly” (1:7, 14). It’s imminent. It describes the desolation after an army invades Judah and Jerusalem (1:4-18a). Nothing will be able to save the Judeans (1:18a). It will be “a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness” (1:15). A time of wailing (1:11). This prediction was probably given at least 30 years before it was fulfilled when Babylonia invaded Jerusalem. That’s when the judgment was to occur. In the meantime, the purpose of the distress was so Judah would repent.

Secondly, judgment is also predicted as total destruction for nations around Judah. Philistia in the west (2:4-6), Moab and Ammon in the east (2:8-11), Egypt in the south (2:12) and Assyria in the north (2:13-15). As there is judgment in all directions, no one can escape. God also promised to judge all the wicked Gentiles (3:8). This is when other nations experience “the day of the Lord”. It was announced by Zephaniah to call Judah to repentance (3:6-7).

About 50 years later Ezekiel also prophesied the destruction of Ammon, Moab and Philistia (Ch. 25) (Assyria had already been invaded by the Babylonians). Ammon and Moab would be invaded by Babylonia. God would take vengeance on Philistia. Also, Egypt and its allies would be invaded by Babylonia (Ch 29-32). After this it was invaded by the Persians. So all these judgements occurred within 100 years of Zephaniah’s predictions.

God’s judgment in “the day of the Lord” shows that justice comes to all.

The other response to a warning is to take notice and change your behaviour so as to avoid the consequences. Now we come to the other major theme of God’s deliverance.

God’s deliverance

Deliverance is predicted for both Judah and other nations.

First for the Jews. Believers would be protected during “the day of the Lord” (2:3). Then God promises to restore a Jewish remnant (2:7; 3:10-13, 18-20). Deliverance and salvation follow judgment. The scattered Jews will return to the land of Judah. They will seek the Lord, trust in Him, obey Him and be humble (2:3; 3:12). They will resume the temple offerings. Their enemies will be punished and there will be peace and honesty in their land. Shame and wickedness will cease (3:11-13). The Jews will be praised and honored around the world – praise and honor has replaced their shame. They will occupy Philistia, Moab and Ammon (2:7, 9c). This leads to joyful celebration in Jerusalem under God’s leadership (3:14-17). Singing has replaced their wailing (3:14), because the punishment has been taken away, the enemies turned back and God is with them (v.15). There is joy and singing in heaven as well (3:17). God “will rejoice over you with singing”.

When will the deliverance occur (Zeph 3:10-20)? A Jewish remnant returned to Judah after 70 years of exile in Babylon. Although Gentiles called “on the name of the Lord” when they became Christians (Zeph 3:9; Rom. 10:13), I don’t think that the deliverance described has been completed yet. Did Judah have peace (3:13)? After Jerusalem was rebuilt, Judea was ruled by the Greeks, Egyptians, Syrians and Romans. In 70 AD, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and in 134 AD the Romans attacked again and the Jews were killed, enslaved and dispersed to surrounding countries including Europe and North Africa. Since this time, Judea has been ruled by the Byzantine Empire, the Islamic Empire, the Crusaders, the Mamluk Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the British Empire. The Jews were persecuted and driven out of many regions culminating in the holocaust. Have the Jews been praised and honored in other lands (3:19-20)? It says “never again will you fear any harm” (3:15), yet Jerusalem, was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70.

Secondly, redemption is also predicted for believing Gentiles. When God destroys Judah’s enemies (2:11): “Distant nations will bow down to Him, all of them in their own lands”. When they realise the awesomeness of God, they will repent and worship Him. They will also seek His help in prayer and serve Him (3:9). This has been fulfilled to some degree in the Christian church.

Conclusion

We have seen that Zephaniah told the Jews of the 7th century BC that because of humanity’s sinfulness, God will judge the Jews and the Gentiles in the “day of the Lord”. And God did judge them. But God is merciful. He warns them of their situation and their need to repent.
After this a Jewish remnant will be restored and they will worship Him as King of Israel.

So Zephaniah’s main themes are: Mankind’s sinfulness, God’s warning to repent, God’s judgment (the day of the Lord) for the unrepentant, and God’s deliverance for the repentant (the remnant). This is an example of “the kindness and sternness of God” (Rom. 11:22). These are two aspects of God’s character. The kindness is for those who repent, while the sternness is for the unrepentant.

The Jews should have known about these themes because they come from the Pentateuch. It contains rewards for obedience and punishment for disobedience. It also says if they confess their sins with humility, then God would remember their covenant (Lev. 26:40-45). So their repentance is the goal of their punishment. God wanted them to turn back to following Him once again.

Zephaniah also implies that God is the God of all nations. In those days each nation had their own gods. People were polytheistic. Here we see that Judah’s God is sovereign and supreme over other nations. He will destroy all the other gods (2:11). Therefore, He was sovereign and supreme over their gods. So the fact of one true God as expressed in the first two commandments is another theme of Zephaniah.

Furthermore, it implies that God intervenes in history (1:12). They thought He wouldn’t intervene, but God says He will search Jerusalem (2:11). So the fact that Judah’s God intervenes in human affairs and history is another theme of Zephaniah.

In order to apply Zephaniah’s prophecy to our modern world, we need to take of account of what God has revealed since then. Today we know that the New Testament teaches that because of humanity’s sinfulness, we all deserve God’s punishment. But God is merciful. In the Bible He warns us of our situation and our need to repent. Jesus took the punishment for us when He was crucified. Those who repent are redeemed to worship Him as their Lord.

When Paul addresses the sins of the self-righteous moralist, he writes “because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when His righteous judgment will be revealed” (Rom. 2:5). So God warns people today of a coming judgment. Also, Peter warns that God’s final judgment of the universe is coming as “the day of the Lord” (2 Pt. 3:7-10). In the meantime, we are to be faithful followers of Christ (2 Pt. 3:11-14).

Even though it was written over 2,600 years ago, Zephaniah’s book is relevant to our times. We can apply the four main themes to ourselves. What are our sins? What are our gods? Are we apathetic? Are we materialistic? Are we selfish? How loyal are we to God? They had a choice. So do we. Will we confess and repent of our sins in order to maintain our relationship with the Lord? There is deliverance and salvation for the humble who trust in the death of Jesus Christ for their sins. Do we have the hope of heaven? The hope of a better time to come.

Because of the sins of humanity, judgment is coming; but deliverance and salvation is promised for the repentant.

Written, November 2014

Also see: What is the meaning of adamah and erets in Zephaniah?

What about keeping the Sabbath day?

torn curtain 1Someone has commented on keeping the Sabbath day. The comment is given below in italics and my reply in normal type. Here is a link to the post commented on: “I went to a church service that was held on Saturday instead of Sunday and was told that was when we should worship God. What does the Bible say about this topic?

The temple and the Mosaic covenant

The tabernacle/temple together with the offerings and priesthood were an essential part of God’s Mosaic covenant with the Israelites (see Exodus – Deuteronomy). At that time God lived on earth in a building and people could only approach Him via an offering made by a priest. God left the first temple because of their gross sinfulness (Ezek. 8-10). This temple was subsequently destroyed by the Babylonians when the Israelites were driven from their homeland. But a new one was built after the Jewish exile in Babylon (Ezra 3-6). And after this fell into disrepair, a new one was built by King Herod.

Why was the inner curtain of Herod’s temple torn in two when Jesus died (Mt. 27:51; Mk. 15:38; Lk. 23:45)? This would have shocked the Jews – their most holy place was no longer hidden by the curtain. They would have repaired or replaced the curtain as soon as possible. The writer of Hebrews says that the curtain was a symbol of Christ’s body (Heb. 10:19-20). Because of Christ’s death and because of His High Priestly role, we can “enter the most Holy Place”. We can approach God without the need of a human priest. Soon after this on the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit came to live in God’s people. So God left the temple and His presence on earth was taken by the Holy Spirit. This temple was subsequently destroyed in AD 70 when the Romans invaded Jerusalem. The torn curtain, the coming of the Holy Spirit and the fact that the temple has not been rebuilt for a period of over 1,900 years indicates a significant change in God’s relationship with mankind.

Consequently, I have divided the comments according to whether they related to Scriptures dealing with events before or after the day of Pentecost.

Summary

The commentator advocates keeping the Sabbath today as it was kept when Jesus was on earth about 2,000 years ago.

But the Sabbath day is a sign of the Mosaic covenant given to the Israelites about 3,450 years ago (Ex. 31:13-17). They were to keep it until it was fulfilled when Jesus died. Jesus was a Jew who kept the Mosaic law (which included animal sacrifices, male circumcision and keeping the Sabbath) and taught Jews who were living under the Mosaic law. This period under the law of Moses covers Exodus to John (inclusive) in the Bible.

After the day of Pentecost, there was a new way to approach God. This doesn’t involve Jewish laws like male circumcision (or animal sacrifices and keeping the Sabbath) because Paul wrote against this in Galatians. However, 9 of the ten commandments are repeated in this section of the Bible. But the 4th commandment to keep the Sabbath is not repeated. This significant fact is ignored by those that want to impose Sabbath keeping today.

Unfortunately the commentator doesn’t seem to recognise that the Greek word for “law” (nomos) has several meanings, including God’s teaching for the church in the New Testament. Instead he seems to assume it always means the Torah or God’s teaching in the Pentateuch. Also, he fails to use the context when interpreting a passage from a Bible. This context should be deduced from the surrounding Scriptures and not imposed by the reader by selecting verses elsewhere in Scripture (i.e. “cherry picking”).

Overall, the comment seems to be an example of eisegesis (an interpretation that is imposed on the biblical text by the reader – it comes from the reader’s preconceived ideas) rather than exegesis (an interpretation that is obtained/derived from the biblical text).

Appendix – Click for more

Keep on running

Runner 1Today is the Australian National Rugby League (Football) grand final. Some of the games in the finals have been exciting with teams winning by just one point. The aim of the game is to take the ball to the try line. The player with the ball keeps running towards the try line. This isn’t easy, because of obstacles in the form of being tackled by the opposition players. The players try their hardest until the end, because some teams that were behind during the game can turn the score around and finish up the winner. Although they may be tempted to give up when they are weary, they persevere to the end of the game.

What if the player with the ball stopped and refused to run even though they weren’t injured? What if they turned around and ran in the opposite direction?! This would be easier for the player because there would be no opposition, but a huge disappointment to the team, the coach and the supporters. They would think he had a mental breakdown or was a traitor.

In this article we are looking at Hebrews chapters 10-12, where the writer says that following Jesus is like running in a marathon where perseverance is required (which was familiar for his original readers). We will see that, because of the benefits of Jesus’ death and His promised coming again, we can keep following Him even when we feel like giving up.

Context

Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians who were being persecuted for their faith (Heb. 12:4-13; 13:3). Because of their hardship and suffering, they were tired and weak (Heb. 12:3, 12-13). This also impacted their spiritual lives. They were being tempted to give up following Jesus and turn back to their Jewish customs. They were spiritually weak.

As Hebrews was probably written to a church in about AD 67-70, which is well after the early days of the church, we can generally apply the principles in it to us today without needing much consideration of the changes since then.

Hebrews tells them what they needed to know and to do. In the first 10 chapters we saw that Jesus is greater than all the Jewish heroes like the prophets, angels, Moses and Joshua, and the priests. He is also greater than all our heroes, whoever they may be, including scientists, those promoting spiritual experiences, the leaders of nations and religions. Hebrews 1-10 finishes with showing how Jesus’ sacrifice is greater than the Jewish sacrifices and any good works we might think help us get to heaven.

Halfway through chapter 10 there is a change from doctrine to practice. Hebrews 10:19 onwards tells us what to do in view of the fact that Jesus is greater than all our heroes and that His sacrifice is greater than any of ours.

This passage begins with the word “therefore” and says they should persevere in the Christian faith (10:19, 34, 36, 38). Then in chapter 11 many examples are given of those who lived by faith in OT times. This is followed in chapter 12 by the word “therefore” once again and the key passage:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before Him He endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (12:1-3NIV)

Running with perseverance

Have you started the race? Have you ever decided to follow Jesus? There are several warnings about this in the book of Hebrews that we will cover in the next article of this series. Today, we are looking at those who have started but are being tempted to give up.

The main message here is to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us”. This metaphor says that our life as a Christian is like a running race. We are to be like an athlete who perseveres and doesn’t quit. The writer uses similar Greek words in:
• “you endured in a great conflict full of suffering” (10:32).
• “you need to persevere” to be rewarded at the end of the race (10:36).
• Jesus “endured the cross” (12:2)
• Jesus endured opposition from sinners (12:3).
• “Endure hardship” (12:7).
So endurance and perseverance is a major theme of these chapters.

The opposite of persevering in a race is to “grow weary and lose heart” and stop running (12:3). Paul said “my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24). His goal was to encourage others to follow Jesus.

Eric 3As we are to run with perseverance and endurance, it is not an easy jog. We must be ready to continue, persist, and keep going.

Eric Moussambani (the eel) from Equatorial Guinea struggled to swim 100m at the Sydney Olympics. The other two swimmers in his heat were disqualified so he swam it alone. He was very slow, but he finished the race. He persisted even though he wasn’t a good swimmer.

Do we give up following Jesus? Do we give up reading the Bible, praying, going to church? Or have we decided there will be “no turning back”, like it says in the song “Christ is enough”:
I have decided to follow Jesus; No turning back, no turning back

Hebrews gives three ways to keep following Jesus.

How to keep on running

By focusing on God & Jesus

Those who were to run with perseverance were to focus on Jesus – “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (12:2a). We don’t run in our own strength because Jesus creates and completes our faith. God works in us what is pleasing in His sight through Jesus (13:21). “For it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill His good purpose” (Phil. 2:13).

Jesus was sustained by the joy of the triumph at the end: “For the joy set before Him He endured the cross, scorning its shame” (12:2b). A runner is sustained by the reward at the end of the race. Our reward is to see God and be free from sin.

The pattern continues, “Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (12:3). Life was difficult for the Lord. As He said, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (Jn. 15:20), so we will also face hardships. But when we realise that our hardships are small compared to His and He will help us endure, our attitude should be to never give up.

Chapter 10 says “since we have” a great sacrifice in Jesus and “since we have” a great High Priest on Jesus, “let us draw near to God” (10:19-22). There is a similar thought in “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (4:16).We can walk right up to God and get near to Him with confidence because Jesus has cleared the way. That’s how we can obtain all the help we need.

After all, Jesus came to earth to make a way for us to come to God – “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Pt. 3:18). That’s the good news in the Bible.

We know that God is always with us (Ps. 23:4; 13:5-6), but how can we “draw near” to Him? When we meditate on God’s word the Bible and pray to Him, we realize He is with us and cares for us. Hebrews says we come to Him with sincerity and assurance because we are clean and pure through salvation and holiness (10:19-22). We are urged to be holy because practical holiness is evidence of our positional holiness (12:14).

Then it says, “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess” (10:23). We trust in God’s promises given in the Bible. For example, Jesus promised to return to take us to be with Him eternally in heaven.

Next we see how this hope is to be expressed in our daily lives.

By encouraging one another

“Let us spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (10:24). We are urged to think about what we can do to stimulate others to love and good deeds. In what we say and do, we should encourage each other to put others above ourselves. This kind of love is expressed by good deeds and not giving up meeting together. It seems that some were deserting and abandoning Christianity and reverting to Judaism. Instead they were to encourage one another when they met together. This is mutual encouragement like in a small group. So the verse is saying to us, “not giving up meeting in small groups, as some are in the habit of doing” (10:25). What is your habit with regard to small groups? Do you attend regularly, intermittently or not at all?

Also, we are to live in peace with each other (12:14). We can’t encourage each other when there is conflict, strife and turmoil.

By removing obstacles

Bethany 4Chapter 12 says “Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles” (12:1). This means throwing off not just sin that entangles us, but “everything that hinders”. How do we spend our time? How do certain people influence us? Ask: does it help me run the race; does it help me follow Jesus; do they help me run the race? Many things can hinder us following Jesus. We can throw them off by establishing boundaries and practicing discipline. Doing this encourages the “lame” who struggle in the Christian faith (12:13). We can be a living example for them.

Bethany Hamilton lost her arm in a shark attack and then leant to ride a surfboard again and competed in surfing competitions. She persevered in her hardship and God used her to encourage others in the Christian faith.

Do we use some of these ways to keep following Jesus when we are tempted to give up? Do we study and meditate on the Scriptures? How often do we pray? Do we trust God’s promises? Are we inspired by how Jesus faced opposition? Do we think about how to stimulate others to love and good deeds? Are we encouraging each other when we meet together? Are we in a small group? Do we know what hinders us following Jesus? Can we do something about it?

Hebrews also gives five reasons to keep following Jesus.

Why keep on running?

Because Jesus is the greatest example

The first 10 chapters showed that Jesus is greater than all our heroes. He is the only way to a relationship with God and has paid the price for access to heaven. He is the greatest example for us to follow (12:2-3). He empowers us (Phil. 4:13).

Because of other Biblical examples

Hebrews 11 gives many other examples of people who lived by faith in Old Testament times: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Samuel, David and the judges and prophets. They believed God’s promises and acted on them because “without faith it’s impossible to please God” (11: 6). “All these people were living by faith when they died” (11:13, 20-22). They finished the race. Their example is showing we can do it too. They persevered in hardship, persecution and suffering and looked forward to the Messiah and His kingdom. They had a passion for God, believing that He is better than what life can give us and what death can take from us.

The New Testament also has many examples of people who lived by faith like Stephen, Peter, John, Paul, and Timothy and those who taught the word of God in churches (13:7). Near the end of his life Paul said “I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7). He persevered to the end and didn’t give up.

Because of our past experience

They were told, “Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property” (10:32-34a).

Here they are reminded that they had endured persecution and suffering in the past. It’s an example of how they encouraged one another – by visiting their brothers and sisters who were in prison for their Christian faith. Because they had endured in the past, they could endure now. They needed to keep on living by faith. Previous experience can help us.

Because of God’s promises

How could they do this? It says they “joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions” (10:34b). Their spiritual blessings were more valuable than their physical possessions. They were encouraged to persevere because they will receive God’s promised reward (10:35-37). They were like Enoch who pleased God and not like those who displeased Him (10:37; 11:5-6).

Another promise to look forward to is the coming resurrection. This reason is given before the “therefore” at the beginning of chapter 12. None of the Old Testament heroes of the faith “received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect” (11:39-40). God plans to resurrect us together; the believers of the Old Testament and the New Testament periods. We will have new bodies in a glorious new age where sin and its effects are banished. That’s what we can look forward to!

Because adversity develops our character

Like Jesus, they were suffering persecution. It was “opposition from sinners” that threatened to make them “weary and lose heart” (12:3). It was painful, although none had lost their lives yet (12:4, 11). But they were discouraged.

They are told that the suffering is God’s discipline. “Do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when He rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one He loves, and He punishes everyone He accepts as His son. Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as His children … God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in His holiness … it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (12: 5-7, 10, 11).

So God moulds our character in times of adversity. It’s because He loves us like a parent loves a child. It helps us, because it’s for our good, our holiness, our peace and our righteousness. It purifies us, refines us, and strengthens our faith (2 Cor. 1:8-9). He promises to bring good from all our hardship and pain. He is teaching us and correcting us and transforming us like a parent trains a child. It trains us like an athlete trains for a race. As a result we become more godly and Christ-like. But we need to persevere and not give up.

bradbury4Then it says, “Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. ‘Make level paths for your feet,’ so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed” (12:12-13). The explanation of suffering being God’s discipline is to help us keep on running the race. So we don’t give up or detour to an easier path. How we run affects weaker believers (“the lame”). Stronger faith smooths the path for them and helps them recover. To give up roughens their path so they trip and fall and become weaker and more disabled.

In 2002, Steven Bradbury won Australia’s first winter Olympic gold medal. In the 1,000m speed skating final he was the slowest skater. But he persisted and won after the other four skaters crashed. Bradbury’s strategy was to cruise behind his opponents and hope that some of them crashed, as he realised he was slower and could not match their pace.

Do we use some of these reasons to motivate us to keep following Jesus when we are tempted to give up? Are we inspired by the heroes in the Bible who followed God until they died? Are we inspired by Jesus who is the greatest of them all? Can we look back to previous times when we persevered in difficult circumstances? What is our attitude to hardship and suffering? Are we aware that God uses these to mould our character?

Conclusion

We have seen that following Jesus is like running in a marathon or in a rugby league game. Athletes and football players keep running through adversity.

We can keep following Jesus through adversity by: focusing on God and Jesus, encouraging one another, and removing the obstacles that hinder us. The reasons we can keep following Jesus through adversity include: the examples of the heroes of the Bible, particularly Jesus; our past experience; God’s promises; and the fact that adversity develops our character.

So because of the benefits of Jesus’ death and His promised coming again, we can keep following Him even when we are tempted to give up.

Written, October 2014

Also see:
Jesus is greater than – Heb. 1-10

Prepare your messages

For preachers and teachers

gps 1 resizedWhen we were travelling to Cornwall in southern England, we got in a hire car at Heathrow airport and followed a map to a roundabout. But we didn’t know which was the right exit! The signs weren’t obvious and it was raining, so we couldn’t tell which direction was south by the position of the sun in the sky. So we went around the roundabout a couple of times and then took an exit and pulled over as soon as possible. Then we got out a GPS and followed it to Cornwall. It helps to know where you are going! You key in the beginning and the end and the GPS works out the route between the two.

Giving a message is like a journey. You are taking people on a journey from the start to the end. Your job is to get them there safely. You don’t want to get lost along the way! And you don’t want them to leave before getting to the destination! As a GPS helps our journey, preparation helps our message.

Near the end of his life, Paul’s gave this command to Timothy. “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of His appearing and His kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths” (2 Tim. 4:1-4NIV).

So a preacher or teacher is to “be prepared” (v.2). We need to allocate time to prepare our messages. We also need to explain Scripture – we do it with “careful instruction” because it needs to be understood clearly (v.2). Furthermore, we need to apply it to the listeners (“correct, rebuke and encourage”). They need to know what to do.

So let’s go on a journey looking at three main components of a message:

  • Explanation – What is God telling us?
  • Illustration – How can we remember it?
  • Application – What is our response?

Explain

Because they involve God, preaching and teaching messages are not just ordinary human speeches. Whether it is based on a passage from the Bible or on a topic, we want to know what God says and what it means. That’s what gives authority to our message. That’s why the listener needs to understand and apply the message.

In order to include God’s viewpoint, in our message we need to explain something from the Bible. Otherwise it’s just a subjective human opinion. The Bible is God’s message to us. So selecting the main Bible passage or the Bible verses used is very important. It should follow much prayer and Bible study.

We have two main tools to explain a Bible passage. These are the written text and the context. Read the text many times to understand it yourself. Summarize it. Does it divide into a few sections or aspects that can be the sections of the message? I use subheadings to divide a message into sections. In each section I include explanation, illustration and application. It’s like a sandwich.

What is the main point? (In this case it was to always be ready to “preach the word” or “proclaim the message”). What did it mean to the original readers? In view of subsequent Scripture and our place in history, what does it mean to us now? I mention the main point in the introduction and the conclusion of the message. That’s what I want people to remember. So it is repeated. Don’t clutter the message with lots of other detail or too many Scripture references.

Are there figures of speech in the text? Explain these.

The context helps us understand the text. Here’s the context of 2 Tim. 4:2

  • Paul is in a dungeon in Rome when Emperor Nero is persecuting Christians.
  • Paul had trained Timothy. He was his mentor. They went on many missionary trips together.
  • Timothy was in Ephesus where evil and sexual immorality were prevalent. Christians were in the minority and Christian faith was denounced and ridiculed.
  • What happens before and after the passage? In our example, after describing the evil of the last days, and because God was watching and the coming reward (v.1), Timothy was to “preach the word”. This is followed by the reason for preaching – because people are rejecting the truth for myths (v.3-4).

Have you ever viewed a video that explains something? I have seen ones that explain more about word processing. It’s not enough to see the buttons and icons on a screen; we need to know how to use them. “Explain Everything” is an app that helps teachers record lessons and demonstrations. It’s used to make these videos. Explaining a Bible passage is like one of these instructional videos.

We explain so our listeners can understand the message. How well are we explaining? It’s good to aim your message at teenagers. Can they understand it? Can they get the message? If not, then I suggest that many of our listeners will miss it as well. Use simple language so people can understand. And don’t be too technical.

Like the route of a journey on a GPS, a message needs a beginning and an ending. So after determining the main point and the subheadings, I write the Introduction and the Conclusion. These give the framework to the message and stop us going off the topic.

Now that the people understand our message, we need to help them remember it.

Illustrate

We use illustrations to catch attention and help people remember our message. A picture (or image) is worth a thousand words. That’s why images are powerful in Facebook, Instagram, and advertising. Facebook uploads six billion photos per month and YouTube uploads 72 hours of video every minute.

The Bible teems with illustrations. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are visualizations of great spiritual truths. I use an illustration to catch attention at the beginning of a message and try to illustrate each section of the message.

The main point in our example was to always be ready to “preach the word” or “proclaim the message”. Imagine in ancient times when a town crier brought a message from the king. He gathers a group of people and says, “Here ye, hear ye, by royal order of his highness, the king, this town has been granted 100 soldiers to protect you from the rebel bands who plunder the king’s subjects”. Everyone cheers. And he continues, “Furthermore the cost for this protection shall be born not by taxation but by the king from his royal treasury!” More cheers! “Moreover, the king would have you know that he loves you, his loyal subjects, and will use all his royal counsel and power to defend you and supply your wants”. More cheers. “And lastly he sends his royal blessing. Blessed be the people who trust the king!” (Adapted from John Piper). That crier was always ready to proclaim the king’s message!

We illustrate our messages so people stay alert and remember them. How well are we illustrating? Are we using visual images from the Bible, or current events, history, personal experience, nature, science, or the arts? Drama or video is another form of illustration.

Now that the people understand and remember the message, we need to help them respond to it.

Apply

Even though it was written thousands of years ago, we can always learn something about how to live for God today from the Bible. These applications can be divided into three categories.

First, what is necessary? What applies to us all? In our example, all believers should be ready to explain their Christian faith to someone else.

Second, what is possible? What applies to some people sometimes? In our example, if you are giving messages at church, you need to put enough time into preparing these.

Third, what is impossible? How the passage cannot be applied? In our example, it doesn’t mean that everyone at church should be preaching and teaching to the rest of us.

apps 1 resizedComputers have hardware (which are the physical components) and software (which are the instructions programmed into the memory). An application is a kind of computer software that helps us perform activities. For example, a word processer helps us produce documents and a spreadsheet helps us manipulate data. Applications on smartphones and tablets are called apps. A message without application is like a computer without these programs or a smartphone without apps. It’s not much use.

We apply our messages so people know what to do and can respond. How well are we applying? Are we applying to unbelievers? Are we applying to Christians whether they are backsliding or fruitful? Are we applying to youth, middle aged and the elderly? Are we applying to singles, marrieds, and families? Are we applying to the lonely, the disappointed, and those struggling? What should these people stop doing, start doing or continue doing?

Conclusion

We have looked briefly at the use of explanation, illustration and application in the preparation of a message. Let’s use these to proclaim God’s truth effectively. As a GPS helps our journey, preparation helps our message.

Written, August 2014

See other articles in this series:
- How I prepare a message
- Target your messages
- Illustrate your messages

Jesus is greater than …

sergio romero  - Jul 2014Did you watch the recent soccer World Cup? One of the close games was the semi-final between the Netherlands and Argentina which went to a penalty shoot-out. There was a great cheer when Sergio Romero stopped the first Dutch shot. Even more when he did it again. He was a hero for the Argentinians.

We all have heroes. We all admire someone and have desires that can influence our behavior. Today we are looking at the highlights of the first 10 chapters of the book of Hebrews where we see that, because Jesus is greater than all our heroes and all our desires, He’s the one to follow and live for.

Context

We don’t know who wrote the book of Hebrews, but we do know that it was written to Jews. That’s why it’s called Hebrews. These Jewish Christians were being persecuted for their faith (Heb. 12:4-13). Other Jews usually persecute those who convert to Christianity. In this instance, Jewish Christians were being tempted to go back to their Jewish customs and maybe force Gentiles to follow them as well (Gal. 2:14). The book answers the question, while the Jews have their heroes and customs, what do Christians have?

Who were the heroes of a devout first century Jew? Their earliest ancestors Abraham, Isaac, Jacob (who was also named Israel) and Joseph (Acts 7:2-16; Heb. 11:8-22). Their leaders such as Moses (Acts 7:20-41; Heb. 11:24-28 and Joshua were also heroes. Their kings such as David and Solomon. Their priests, particularly the High Priest. And their prophets who conveyed messages from God.

They also revered the Mosaic Law given at Mt Sinai which governed their life and the temple in Jerusalem because that was where God lived on earth (Acts 7:44-47).

Hebrews shows that Jesus is better than all their heroes. It’s a bit like a song by Rod Boucher that went:

God is better than football
God is better than beer
God is better than cricket
God’s there all the year!

Greater than the prophets

prophetsThe writer of Hebrews jumps straight into his topic: “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son” (Heb. 1:1-2).

The Old Testament was written by the prophets and the New by the apostles and their associates. The revelation of God’s truth is added progressively as we move from Genesis through to Revelation. What Jesus taught is summarized in the gospels. His teachings supersede those of the Old Testament prophets. While the prophets predicted the Messiah (Acts 10:43), Jesus was the Messiah. So of course He is greater than the prophets.

Seven more reasons are given for Christ being superior to the prophets, including Jesus made the universe and sustains it. He is the divine God. Through His death, our sins can be forgiven. And after His resurrection and ascension, He now sits on a place of honor and privilege at God’s right hand. None of these apply to the prophets.

Who are equivalent to prophets today? I think that scientists could be because they speak with authority. So an updated principle is that “Jesus is greater than the scientists”.

A British geneticist has published a book titled, “The Serpent’s Promise: The Bible Retold as Science”. He claims the Bible is out of date and that science is a better way to understand the universe than through its doctrine. So he gives the scientific version of parts of the Bible.

What do we do when experts and scientists ridicule the Bible? What about when they make statements that conflict with the Bible? Do we always believe them? Or are we skeptical?

Not only is Jesus greater than the prophets and scientists, He is also greater than the angels.

Greater than the angels

ark of covenantStraight after this, Hebrews says that Jesus is superior to the angels (Heb. 1:4). The Mosaic Law was given by angels (Acts 7:53; Gal. 3:19; Heb. 2:2). In the Old Testament, angels brought messages from God (Zech. 1:14-17) and protected God’s people (Dan. 6:22). Angels also told Mary and Joseph about Christ’s birth (Mt. 1:20-25; Lk. 2:26-38). That’s why the Jews revered angels.

The Jews thought that Jesus was only a man and therefore He was inferior to the angels (Ps. 8:5; Heb. 2:7). But Hebrews says that Jesus is superior to angels in two ways: as Son of God (Heb. 1:4-14) and as Son of Man (Heb. 2:5-18).

As Son of God, Jesus has a close relationship with God the Father. That’s what this metaphor means. But God never addressed an angel as His Son. The angels praised God at His birth (Lk. 2:13-14) and will worship Christ when He returns to rule over the earth (Heb. 1:6). Another contrast is that Jesus rules while angels serve. Jesus is in a position of honor and power at God’s right hand, while angels serve God’s people (Heb. 11:13-14).

Hebrews stresses “It is not to angels He has subject the world to come” (Heb. 2:5). According to Psalm 8, mankind was to have dominion over the earth, not the angels (Ps. 8:6-8). But this dominion was lost when Adam sinned. Hebrews reminds us “Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them” (Heb. 2:8). This is illustrated by the fact that some people are still killed by animals. But there is hope because he writes, “But we do see Jesus … now crowned with glory and honor”. As Son of Man, in a coming day, Jesus will rule over the earth and restore mankind’s dominion over the rest of God’s creation on earth.

Then Hebrews describes how the effects of the fall into sin are reversed. Jesus became a human being and offered His perfect life as a sacrifice for our sin. It notes that Jesus became a man, not an angel and Jesus saved people, not angels (Heb. 2:16-17). So even as a man, Jesus was greater than the angels. He did what they couldn’t do.

Who are equivalent to angels today? I think that those into dreams and visions, meditation and the new age could be because they involve spiritual experiences and the mystical. So an updated principle is that “Jesus is greater than those promoting spiritual experiences”.

How do we respond when someone claims that John the Baptist was the reincarnation of Elijah? Or if they blame demons for all their ailments and misfortunes? What if they always seek to know God’s will through dreams and visions?

Not only is Jesus greater than the angels and those promoting spiritual experiences, He is also greater than Moses and Joshua.

Greater than Moses and Joshua

mosesMoses was one of Israel’s greatest national heroes. He led them out of slavery in Egypt and received their law at Mt Sinai.

Next we are told. “Fix your thoughts on Jesus” (Heb. 3:1). He is our Apostle and High Priest. These are figures of speech. An apostle is sent – Jesus was sent to earth by God the Father. Whereas a high priest entered God’s presence to make atonement for the people of God (Heb. 2:17). So Jesus represents God to us and also represents us before God. He is a mediator or go-between.

Then there is another figure of speech – “God’s house” means God’s people – it is explained later as “we are His house” (Heb. 3:6). Moses was a faithful servant in all God’s house, which means that he served the Israelites (Heb. 3:5). But Jesus Christ was the builder of the house and He was God (Heb. 3:3-4. He was also faithful as the Son over God’s house (Heb. 3:6). Being a Son means that He is equal with God. So Jesus is greater than Moses.

Joshua took over from Moses and led the Israelites into Canaan, which was to be a land of rest for them. But most of them died before they reached Canaan and those that entered didn’t find that rest (Heb. 3:1-19). Instead there was conflict in Canaan, and sin, sickness, sorrow, suffering and death. While Joshua was unable to provide rest, it is available through Jesus Christ – “we who believed enter that rest” (Heb. 4:3). So Jesus is greater than Joshua.

Who are equivalent to Moses and Joshua today? I think that Presidents, Prime Ministers, kings and queens could be because they lead nations. So an updated principle is that “Jesus is greater than the leaders of nations”.

What if someone believes that a certain politician is superhuman and can solve all our problems? If they praise them and put them on a pedestal?

Not only is Jesus greater than Moses and Joshua and the leaders of nations, He is also greater than the Jewish high priests.

Greater than the Jewish high priests

high priest 2Next Jesus is called “a great high priest” (Heb. 4:14). We have already said that He represents us to God like a high priest did for the Jews. His priesthood was greater than the Jewish one because it was like that of Melchizedek in the Old Testament (Gen. 14:18-20; Heb. 7:1-3). Melchizedek was king of Salem (now called Jerusalem) in the time of Abraham. His priesthood was similar to Jesus’ priesthood because it didn’t depend on his genealogy (he was not a descendant of Aaron like in the Jewish priesthood) and his priesthood continues forever (it didn’t end when he died like in the Jewish priesthood).

Three reasons are given to show that the priesthood of Melchizedek and Jesus is greater than that of Aaron:

  • The first involves tithes and blessings (Heb. 7:4-10). Abraham paid Melchizedek a tithe of 10%. The one who collects a tithe has a greater position than the one who pays it. Melchizedek blessed Abraham. The one who blesses has a greater position than the one who is blessed.
  • Second, there has been a change in the priesthood (Heb. 7:11-19). The eternal priesthood of Jesus has replaced the temporary priesthood of Aaron. But the Jewish priesthood was established by the Mosaic Law. This means that the law has also changed. Because of Jesus, both the Jewish priesthood and their law have been replaced. When Jesus died this was signified by the tearing apart from top to bottom of the curtain to the Most Holy Place in the temple. (Mt. 27:51; Mk. 15:38; Lk. 23:45).
  • Third, the priesthood of Melchizedek and Jesus is perpetual and permanent (Heb. 7:23-28). Jesus lives forever, whereas the Jewish high priests were replaced when they died. Also Jesus is “holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens”. He didn’t need to offer sacrifices for His own sins because he was sinless. Also, “He offered Himself”, not an animal.

So the Jewish priesthood was superseded by a divine eternal priesthood.

Who are equivalent to the high priests today? I think that archbishops and popes could be because they are religious leaders. So an updated principle is that “Jesus is greater than the religious leaders”.

What if someone believes that a certain religious leader is always right and can solve all our problems? If they put them on a pedestal?

Not only is Jesus greater than the Jewish high priests and the religious leaders, He also offered a greater sacrifice.

His sacrifice is greater than the Jewish sacrifices

We now come to the writer’s main point – “Now the main point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven” (Heb. 8:1). Here’s his answer to the Jews who say ‘We have the temple, the priests, the offerings, and the ceremonies; but you Christians have nothing like this’. His response is ‘We have such a high priest’ who sits at the right hand of God in heaven! Our high priest is in heaven close to God! He is greater than all your Jewish high priests. We have Jesus Christ. What you have is “a copy and shadow of what is in heaven” (Heb. 8:5). You have the model, we have the full-scale. You have a photo or illustration or copy or shadow or silhouette, we have the real thing (Heb. 8:3; 9:23).

Christ’s ministry as a high priest was superior to that of a Jewish high priest because He worked under a superior covenant (Heb. 8:6). The new covenant, which superseded the old Mosaic covenant has “better promises” because they are unconditional, not conditional on obedience like the old covenant (Heb. 7:22; 8:6b-13). “God found fault with the people” because they were unable to obey the Law of Moses. So it was replaced with the new covenant which depended on God alone. He said:

  • “I will put my laws in their minds”
  • “I will be their God, and they will be my people”
  • “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more”

This makes the old covenant and its priests and animal sacrifices obsolete (Heb. 8:13).

Since the writer is going to contrast the offerings of Christ and Judaism, he selects the most important offering – the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur; Lev. 16) (Heb. 9:7). This is the most important day in the Jewish calendar. On this day the high priest sacrificed an animal to pay for his sins and the sins of the people. He entered the Most Holy place of the temple and sprinkled blood on the mercy seat of the ark. But Jesus put away sins, not merely covered them. And He gave believers a clear conscience, not an annual reminder of sins (Heb. 9:14, 26, 28; 10:3). This shows that Christ’s ministry is greater than that of the Jewish high priest on the Day of Atonement.

But Jesus was not only the high priest, He was also the sacrifice. He was a “better sacrifice” (Heb. 9:23) because He offered Himself as a sacrifice, instead of animals (Heb. 9:25-26). One sacrifice was sufficient – it was “once for all” (Heb. 7:27; 10:10), not again and again (Heb. 9:25). It gave “eternal redemption” (Heb. 9:12). Fortunately the Old Testament system of sacrifices has now been superseded by Christ’s sacrifice (Heb. 10:8-10).

The New Covenant is an unconditional agreement of grace which God will make with the Israelites when the Lord Jesus sets up His kingdom on earth (Jer. 31:33-34). Today Christians enjoy some of the blessings of the New Covenant but its complete fulfilment waits until Israel is restored and redeemed nationally.

What is equivalent to Jewish sacrifices today? I think that good works could be because that is how people generally think they will get to heaven. So an updated principle is that “Jesus’ sacrifice is greater that our good works”.

We get requests to support charities and the needy. Some do volunteer community service. How do we rate such good works against spreading the good news about Christ’s sacrifice?

Lessons for us

Are we tempted like the Jewish Christians to go back to our old heroes? To those who occupied us before we changed to follow the Lord. Those which are popular and followed by the majority.

We have seen that Jesus is greater than all the Jewish heroes like the prophets, angels, Moses and Joshua, and the priests. He is also greater than all our heroes whoever they may be including scientists, those promoting spiritual experiences, and the leaders of nations and religions. Likewise Jesus’ sacrifice is greater than the Jewish sacrifices and our good works.

What about our desires for money and what it can buy? Our desires for recognition, success and popularity? And our desires for recreation, entertainment, leisure and pleasure? Are we placing these temptations above living for Jesus? How do we use our time? How do we spend our money?

Because Jesus is greater than all our heroes and all our desires, He’s the greatest of all. So let’s follow and live for Him.

Written, July 2014

Also see:
Keep on running – Heb. Ch 10-12

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