Observations on life; particularly spiritual

Answer

When David said he was sinful at birth & from conception in Psalm 51:5, what did he mean?

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birth 2 400px“Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:5NIV).

This verse is part of David’s prayer of confession for his sins (adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah). The prayer demonstrates the parallelism and figurative language of Hebrew poetry. Some of the figures of speech are related to how he wanted his sin to be removed: “blot out”, “wash away” and “cleanse” (v. 1-2); “wash” with hyssop so he is “whiter than snow” (v.7); “hear joy and gladness” (the effect is substituted for the cause), and “let the bones (body) you have crushed rejoice” (v. 8).

In verse 5 he makes the parallel statements, “Surely I was sinful at birth” and “sinful from the time my mother conceived me”. This is an example of hyperbole, where the writer exaggerates to make a point. Hyperbole is used commonly in the Bible to grab our attention and cause us to stop and think about what is being said. In this case it’s a colorful way of saying, “I’ve been sinful all my life” or “I’ve always been a sinner”. As such it is figurative and not literal.

David begins to use hyperbole in this prayer when he says, “my sin is always before me” (v.3). Was it on his mind 24 hours a day? No it wasn’t, but it filled his mind. He continues to use hyperbole in the next verse, “against you (God), you only, have I sinned” (v.4). What about his sin against Bathsheba and Uriah? He leaves them out because these sins were less important that his sin against God. The pattern of hyperbole continues in the next verse, “Surely I was sinful at birth” and “sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (v.5). Had David sinned from the time of his conception? No he hadn’t, but he feels so guilty it’s as if he’s been sinning all his life.

David also has similar thoughts in Psalm 58 where he asked God to punish unjust rulers. He uses hyperbole to describe them:
“Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward, spreading lies” (Ps. 58:3).
This a clearly figurative language because babies don’t spread lies from birth (they can’t communicate using words). In this case it’s a colorful way of saying, “they’ve been sinful all their lives”. Had they gone astray from birth? Of course not. Had they spread lies from birth? Of course not. As such it is figurative and not literal.

There are other figures of speech in the next verse where the unjust leader’s speech is described as “venom”, which is probably a metaphor for slander (v.4). This metaphor is extended to them being like a deaf snake, which implies they are deaf to the voice of God.

It would be wrong to use this Hebrew poetry in Psalms 51 and 58 to develop a theology of when sin starts in a child’s life. That topic isn’t being addressed in these verses.

Does this mean that babies are innocent? No and yes! On one hand they already have a sinful nature which is a characteristic of humanity (Rom. 3:10, 23; Eph. 2:1-3), but on the other hand, they are not yet accountable for their sin (Dt, 1:39; Is. 7:14-14; Jon. 4:11). Sinful behavior comes naturally. No one has to teach a child to lie or be selfish. No one is sinless (1 Jn. 1:7).

So when interpreting a passage in the Bible, we need to be careful to note its genre (is it prose or poetry?) and the occurrence of figures of speech.

Written, February 2015

Also see: If an infant dies, do they go to heaven?


When God has plans “to prosper you” & “to give you a hope and a future” in Jeremiah 29:11, what does He mean? Does this promise apply to us today?

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God's plan for you 400px“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jer. 29:11NIV).

This verse is part of Jeremiah’s letter to the Jewish exiles in Babylon. They were prisoners of war (POWs) following a Babylonian siege of Jerusalem. The death and deportment of the Jews and the eventual devastation of Jerusalem was God’s judgement of the sins of Judah. The letter was probably written about 597BC.

The exiles were in a hopeless situation. But God had plans for them. What were these plans? They are described in the adjacent verses (v. 10, 14).
This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place” (Jer. 29:10).
“I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile” (Jer. 29:14).

God’s plan is that they spend 70 years as POWs in Babylon. After this they will be released and able to return to Jerusalem and their homeland. God gave them hope for their nation after all. But the benefits wouldn’t come for 70 years! In the meantime they were POWs.

This plan was fulfilled with the decree of Cyrus in 538 BC (Ezra 1:2-4; Jer. 29:11), which enabled a remnant of Jews to return to their homeland under Zerubbabel (538BC), Ezra (458BC) and Nehemiah (444BC). So this promise given in 597BC has already been fulfilled.

Application

This promise gave the POWs something to look forward to during their long exile. It also taught them that their situation wasn’t helpless or hopeless because God promised ultimate deliverance and restoration from their exile. Their way to optimism was to remember this plan for their future. But there was no shortcut; they had to go through suffering along the way.

What about us today as Christians? As the promise given to the Jewish exiles in Jeremiah 29:11 has already been fulfilled, it doesn’t apply to us today. But the principle behind the promise can apply to us today. The lesson that our situation is never helpless or hopeless applies to us as well. However, our ultimate deliverance and restoration is spiritual, not physical. When there’s despair, discouragement or bad news our hope is the good news of Jesus. Heaven is the ultimate hope for Christians, though we expect to go through suffering along the way.

God’s plan for believers is for them to be ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20). But does He have individual plans for us today? Paul says that Christians “are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:10). Good works should be the fruit of our salvation. They are the evidence of our new life (Jas. 2:14-26). What kind of good works should we do? Those which God has “prepared in advance for us to do”. That sounds like an individual plan to me. So God does have a plan of good works for each of our lives.

Finding God’s plan for us

To find out the good works God has planned for us to do individually, we should:
– confess and repent of sin in our lives (1 Jn. 1:9);
– put God first in our life;
– study the Bible and obey it;
– ask God in prayer (Jas. 1:5);
– seize opportunities of service as they arise; and
– listen to the advice of godly Christians.

We can begin by being faithful where we are (Mt. 25:21). As we do this, God usually reveals the next step. It’s one step at a time, not a jump to our final destiny.

So if you want a verse to support the fact that God has a plan for our lives, it would be better to use Paul’s example (Eph. 2:10) than Jeremiah’s (Jer. 29:11).
(End)


Why didn’t Jesus know the date of His second advent?

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white horse 400pxJesus said that “not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” knows the day or the hour of His second advent (Mt. 24:36; Mk. 13:32). This says that Jesus didn’t know something. Are there any other passages in the Gospels that say or imply that Jesus didn’t know something? I can only find one other. Luke says that “Jesus grew in wisdom” when He was young (Lk. 2:52), which refers to His mental development and implies that He learned as He grew. This means that He didn’t know everything when He was young.

What about when Jesus asked “who touched my clothes” (Mk. 5:30)? Didn’t He know who touched Him and was healed? In the following verses we see that the question was asked so the woman could publicly declare her faith in Christ, not because Jesus didn’t know the answer.

What about when Jesus prayed for the cup of suffering to be taken from Him, if that was possible (Matt. 26:39)? Does this indicate that He thought there could be another alternative to the crucifixion? Is this a lack of knowledge? There was no answer to this prayer because it was rhetorical. It shows us that there was no other way for sinners to be saved than for Christ to die as our substitute on the cross.

On the other hand, we know that Jesus knew what others were thinking (Mk. 2:8; Lk. 11:17). He knew the Samaritan woman had five husbands and knew everything she had done (Jn. 4:18-19, 29). He knew the future (Mt. 16:21) and He knew everything (Jn. 16:29-30; 21:17).

An explanation

The apparent inconsistency between Jesus not knowing something and knowing everything can be resolved by looking at the relationship between Christ’s divine nature and His human nature. Jesus was both fully divine and fully human. This means that He could demonstrate the attributes of either nature. For example, his mortal body was human, and not divine. While His omniscience and omnipotence was divine, and not human. As a human being, Jesus had limited knowledge of certain things, but He was still divine. As the divine God, Jesus knew everything, but He was still human. His human nature was always evident, but His divine nature was sometimes hidden (but was evident when He did miracles).

Let’s apply this to our question about Jesus not knowing the date of His second advent. Jesus said that “not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” knows the day or the hour when He comes to establish His kingdom on earth (Mt. 24:36; Mk. 13:32). Angels are finite beings created by God with limited knowledge, so it isn’t surprising that they don’t know the date. This is the case for all of God’s creation, including humanity. At the other extreme, God the Father knows everything, so it isn’t surprising that He knows the date. As God the Son, Jesus is both human and divine. Therefore one would expect that His human nature wouldn’t know the date, but His divine nature would know the date.

So, when the Bible says that Jesus didn’t know the date of His second advent it is referring to him as a finite human being, not as the divine Son of God.

Some also note that Jesus said, “a servant does not know his master’s business” (Jn. 15:15). So, in the sense that Jesus came as a Servant who was obedient to God the Father (Mt. 20:28; Heb. 10:5-7), we could say that Jesus didn’t know the date of His second advent.

Written, February 2015

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


Why does the Bible describe “death” as “sleep”?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs this metaphor is used in the Old Testament, that is where we will begin. It is related to three Hebrew words: shakab (Strongs #7109), which means “to lie down”; yashen (Strongs #3462), which means “sleep”; and shenah (Strongs #8142), which also means “sleep”.

In one of the oldest books of the Bible, death is described as to “lie down in the dust” (Job 7:21; 20:11; 21:26NIV). In death an Israelite’s body is said to be resting with their ancestors Ge. 47:30; Dt. 31:16; 2 Sam 7:12; 1 Ki. 2:10). Here we see that in ancient history, death is associated with lying down to rest.

In Psalms, death is described as the “sleep of death” (Ps. 13:3; 90:5) and the death of the Assyrian army is called their “final sleep” (Ps. 76:5). In God’s predicted judgment of Babylon, they will “sleep forever and not awake” (Jer. 51:39, 57). Here we see that the Israelites associated death with sleep. This metaphor is also evident in Greek mythology.

In the following verse the word “sleep” has been added by the translators by inference as it isn’t in the text, “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:2). Clearly in this context “sleep” means “death” and “sleep in the dust of the earth” means the body after death (corpse). So, in the context of death, the word “sleep” refers to the corpse. Therefore, “awake” means resurrection of the body. Here we see a clear indication that death isn’t the end of the body.

New Testament

Both Jesus and Paul use “sleep” as a metaphor for death in the Bible. They would have been familiar with this metaphor from their knowledge of the Old Testament.

The Greek word koimao (Strongs #2837) means “to sleep, to fall asleep, or to die”. Similarly the Greek word katheudo (Strongs #2518) means “sleep or sleeping”. Both words are also used metaphorically for death, with the meaning in a particular passage being determined by the context in which it is used.

The clearest explanation of the metaphor is given in the following Scripture passages.
‘After He had said this, He went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.” His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” Jesus had been speaking of his death, but His disciples thought He meant natural sleep. So then He told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead …’ (Jn. 11:11-14NIV).
“Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (1 Th. 4:13).

The metaphor is used to refer to the deaths of:
– The girl who died and was raised back to life (Mt 9:24, Mk 5:39, Lk. 8:52)
– Lazarus (Jn. 11:11-14)
– Some godly people who died in Old Testament times (Mt. 27:52)
– Stephen (Acts 7:60)
– David (Acts 13:36)
– A husband (1 Cor. 7:39)
– Some of those who abuse the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:30)
– Christians (1 Cor. 15:6, 18; 1 Th. 4:13-15)
– People who died in Old Testament times (1 Cor. 15:20)
– Jewish ancestors (2 Pt. 3:4)

Also, 1 Corinthians 15:51 and 1 Thessalonians 5:10 say that not all Christians will die (or sleep) because the bodies of Christians that are alive at the rapture will be transformed without going through death.

“Death”, “departure” and “sleep”

How is death like sleep? Sleep is the time period between falling asleep and awaking when the body rests. It is a temporary condition, not a permanent one. How is death a temporary condition, not a permanent or eternal one? The Bible teaches that although our bodies decay after death, they will be resurrected on a future day. In fact everyone will be raised from death to one of two destinies (Acts 24:15). Jesus said “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear His voice and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned” (Jn. 5:28-29). Here goodness is evidence of salvation and evil is evidence of unbelief.

At death there is a separation of the body and soul and the believer’s soul goes to be with Christ (2 Cor. 5:8). As the soul is very much alive, when the word “sleep” is used in connection with death in the New Testament, it refers to the body, not the soul. The body is “sleeping” until its resurrection.

It is said that the early Christians called their burial grounds koimeterion (or “sleeping places”, a word derived from Strongs #2837 and used by the Greeks to describe a rest-house for strangers). This is the derivation of the English word “cemetery” (meaning “the sleeping place”).

The state of the soul after death is illustrated by the story of the rich man, Lazarus and Abraham (Lk. 16:22-31). After he died, the rich man had an extended conversation with Abraham, who died about 2,000 years earlier. Likewise, Moses and Elijah spoke with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration (Mt. 17:3; Mk. 9:4; Lk. 9:30-31). Moses died about 1,400 years earlier and Elijah was raptured about 850 years earlier. This is consistent with the soul of a believer living with the Lord after death. The Bible metaphor for the soul at death is “departure” as the soul departs from the body to be with Christ, which is better than the struggles of life on earth (2 Cor. 5:8; Phil. 1:23).

Awakening

As people awake after sleeping, so in a coming day our bodies will be resurrected. The first resurrection takes place in various stages, including the rapture (1 Cor. 15:20; Mt. 27:52-53; 1 Th. 4:16; Rev. 20:4). It includes Jesus Christ and all those who have trusted in God. These are rewarded at the Judgment Seat of Christ (2 Cor. 5:10). They are raised to eternal life and immortality with the Lord.

The second resurrection is when those who have rejected God’s witness to them are judged at the Great White Throne (Jn. 5:29; Rev. 20:4-5, 12-13). The penalty is to be thrown into the lake of fire where they are tormented forever. They are raised to condemnation and banishment from the presence of the Lord.

So the metaphor of sleep for death should be a warning to be ready for the resurrection when we will face Jesus as either a lifesaver or a judge. What will it be?

Written, January 2015


What does the Bible say about cremation?

funeral pyre 3 from the Iliad 400px

funeral pyre 3 from the Iliad 400pxWith the rising cost of funeral expenses today, many people are choosing cremation instead of burial. Let’s look at what the Bible says about this topic.

According to the Bible, the Israelites in the Old Testament and the early Christians in the New Testament practiced burial, not cremation. Jesus attacked many Jewish traditions, but not burial of the dead. In fact, an Israelite was dishonored if they didn’t receive a proper burial (1 Ki. 13:21-22; 21:23-24; Jer. 16:4, 6; 22:19). One of the sins of Moab is said to be “he burned to ashes the bones of Edom’s king” (Amos 2:1). In this instance it seems as though cremation denied the king a proper burial.

Is this Biblical practice of burial a command, a model to follow or just a report of events?

Is burial a command?

It doesn’t seem to be a command, because any commands seem to relate to specific circumstances. For example, Joseph issued a command regarding the burial of his body (Heb. 11:22) and the bodies of hanged criminals were to be buried on the same day (Dt. 21:23). Also, there are no curses or judgments in the Bible on someone who was cremated. The examples that are usually quoted for curses are instances when people are burned when they are alive, not after their death (Gen. 19:24; Lev. 10:1-2; Num. 16:35; 2 Pt. 2:6). There are two exceptions, Achan was stoned and then cremated for plundering Jericho (Josh. 7:25-26) and King Josiah executed pagan priests and cremated their bodies (2 Ki. 23:19-20).

Although there is no general command for burial, cremation is said to be a sin in Old Testament times (Amos 2:1). This is the only clear reference to cremation in the Bible and no reason or explanation is given in this brief statement.

The bodies of King Saul and his sons were “burned” by the Israelites (1 Sam. 31:11-13). However, there is no mention of cremation in the parallel account of this event and its retelling to David (2 Sam. 2:4-5; 1 Ch. 10:12). As a result of this, some think this is burning incense, not a cremation (2 Ch. 16:14; 21:19).

Today traditional Jews are prohibited under their law from practicing cremation because they believe that cremation rules out the possibility of resurrection. But it’s not more difficult for God to resurrect a body that has been cremated. All believers will one day receive a new body (1 Cor. 15:42-49; 1 Th. 4:13-18), regardless of what remains of their old body. All human bodies eventually decay and become like ashes or dust. Cremation mainly speeds up this process (Gen. 3:19).

Whether cremation was a sin in New Testament times is debatable because cremation isn’t mentioned in the New Testament.

Because burial was common, Paul used it as a metaphor for baptism and the fact that a Christian has “buried” their old sinful self and is no longer a slave to sin (Rom. 6:4-7; Col. 2:12).

Is burial a model or a report?

If burial isn’t commanded in the Bible, then it is either a model to follow or a report of events that are not necessarily right or wrong. I find it hard to decide between these alternatives.

Some say that because Christ was buried after He died, He is an example to follow (1 Cor. 15:4). But this seems like “cherry picking” to me. Christ was also crucified; is that an example to follow? Only in the sense of being a metaphor for self-denial (Lk. 9:23). Also, if it is a model to follow, what is the principle behind the practice? Is burial essential for resurrection? Surely not!

Biblical burial practices included funeral fires or burning incense (2 Ch. 16:14; 21:19; Jer. 34:5), anointing the corpse with perfumes and spices (2 Ch. 16:14; Mk. 16:1; Lk. 23:56–24:1; Jn. 19:39-40), burial in caves (Genesis 49:29-32; Jn. 11:38), and family tombs (2 Ch. 16:14). “Spices were likely used in each of the three phases of burial: corpse preparation (Mt. 26:12), funeral procession and interment” (Brink and Green Eds., “Commemorating the dead – Texts and artifacts in context”, 2008).

If you think that burial is a Biblical model to follow, then I don’t think you need to adopt the Jewish practices of funeral fires, burning incense, and anointing the corpse with perfumes and spices. For example the body doesn’t need to be anointed with about 34 kg (75 pounds) of perfumes and spices as was the case for Jesus (Jn. 19:39)!

Some believe that the symbolism of destroying a body (cremation) that God created and that God will resurrect is the wrong message to send at a funeral.

But if you don’t think that burial is a Biblical model to follow, then you can ask the following questions about cremation: Will it bring the most glory to God? Are we acting in love? Will it reflect the dignity of the human body? Will the future bodily resurrection be paramount? Are we accepting one another regardless of their views on this topic? What do other family members think? Will it help or hinder the harmony of believers and of families? Are we judging believers on matters of secondary importance? Will it hinder the spiritual progress of a weaker believer? Will it promote order or disorder in the local church? Will it help or hinder the gospel witness of the church?

We also need to consider local associations. For example, cremation is mandated by the Hindu religion because of their belief in reincarnation. They think that the fire helps the spirit detach from the body on its way to a new body. Because of this link, Christians who converted from Hinduism may be hindered by cremation. Also in Hindu areas, some may assume that cremation signals approval of idolatrous practices. So it would be better to favor burial above cremation in areas with a large Hindu population.

By the way, cremated remains can still be buried, interred in someone else’s grave or placed in a cremation plot.

Summary

Although burial was used instead of cremation in Biblical times, the Bible seems to be written to allow some people to think it is a model to follow today and others to think it is just a report of what happened and so cremation is also acceptable today. If you are considering cremation, then it would be good to consider the matters raised above.

Finally, the Bible focuses on our life when our bodies are alive. It is less concerned about what happens to our corpses.

Written, January 2015


What is paradise?

God's throne in heavenThe Greek word paradeisos (Strongs #3857) only occurs in the following three passages of the New Testament. It is an ancient Persian word meaning “enclosure, garden, or park”.

When Jesus was being crucified one of the criminals alongside Him said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” Then Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk. 23:42-43).

When Paul described a vision he had 14 years ago, he said “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows—was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell” (2 Cor. 12:2-4).

Jesus concludes His message to the church at Ephesus with, “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Rev. 2:7).

Explanation

As Paul says he was “caught up to the third heaven” and “caught up to paradise”, “paradise” is synonymous with “the third heaven”. This is the heaven which is God’s abode (see link). The other ways of using the Greek word for “heaven” in Scripture are the earth’s atmosphere and the universe of stars and galaxies. So Paul had a personal audience with the Lord.

The repentant thief was promised that when he died from crucifixion, his soul and spirit would go to God’s dwelling place. However, according to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, some Jews thought that in this context “paradise” was the part of Hades which was the abode of the souls of the pious until the resurrection (Lk. 16:23).

The passage in Revelation says that true believers will enjoy eternal life in heaven, just like Adam and Eve enjoyed being in the Garden of Eden before they sinned. Note that it is called “the paradise of God” because God is there.

So the word “paradise” is used in the Bible to describe where God lives. This place is commonly called “heaven”.

Written, January 2015

Also see: The good thief went to “Paradise (Lk. 23:43). Lazarus went to “Abraham’s bosom” (Lk. 16:22NKJV). Are they two different places? Are they intermediate heavens or the real thing? And where do Christians go who die today?


Does the Bible make contradictory statements about remarriage?

Herod Antipas coin - year 30In the book of Mark, king Herod is condemned for marrying his brother’s wife, but it says later that Moses approved marriage to a brother’s wife (Mk. 6:18; 12:19). Aren’t these statements contradictory?

King Herod Antipas (who reigned 4 BC to AD 39) was married to Phasaelis the daughter of Aretas IV, king of the Nabateans. He was king over the states of Galilee and Perea (the east bank of the Jordan river) in Palestine, which were under the control of the Roman Empire. His half-brother Herod Philip was married to Herodias and they had a daughter Salome.

Herod Antipas divorced Phasaelis to marry his sister-in-law Herodias. So Herodias left her first husband Philip to live with her second husband Herod Antipas. Then John the Baptist told King Herod “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife” (Mt. 14:4; Mk. 6:18). He was referring to the Law of Moses in the Old Testament, which forbade marriage to a brother’s wife (Lev. 18:16; 20:21).

When the Sadducees asked Jesus a hypothetical question they said “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother” (Mt. 22:24; Mk. 12:19; Lk. 20:28). They were quoting the levirate (brother-in-law) marriage, which was given to protect the widow and ensure continuance of the family line (Dt. 25:5-10). If an Israelite died without a son, there was the danger that his name would die out and his property pass out of the family and his widow would have no means of support. In this case, an unmarried brother of the dead man was to marry the widow.

These two cases of remarriage differ because in the case of Herodias, her first husband (Philip) was still alive, whereas levirate marriage was applied after the first husband had died and there was no male heir. As God intended marriage to last a life-time, a person is free to re-marry after their spouse has died (Rom. 7:1-3; 1 Cor. 7:39).

So because they refer to different situations, these statements about remarriage in the book of Mark aren’t contradictory.

Written, January 2015


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