On Mother’s Day we honor our mothers. It’s been said that the most powerful force in a child’s life is their mother’s influence. Let’s look at what the Bible says about this topic.
In Biblical times, infants and young children spent most of the time under their mother’s care (Gen. 32:11). Samuel remained with Hannah until he was weaned, when he would be at least three years of age (1 Sam. 1:22-24). Nursing mothers gently care for their children (1 Th. 2:7). The Bible says that after weaning, a child is content to be “with its mother” because it has learnt to trust its mother (Ps. 131:2NIV).
As Israelite children were commanded to respect and obey their parents, they were also influenced by their father (Ex. 20:2; Lev. 19:3; Dt. 21:18-21). As they usually lived in extended households, children in Biblical times were also influenced by their relatives. When they were old enough to be married, they would be influenced by their spouse. A spouse’s family would also be influential if a person moved to live with that family.
Solomon advised parents, “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it” (Prov. 22:6). The first word can also be translated as “train” and “teach”. It is probably associated with discipline, as the Hebrew word translated “children” is also mentioned in Proverbs 22: 15 and 23:13.
This is a proverb that is generally true, but not a promise or guarantee. It is the best course to a desired outcome. Children are more likely to be godly if they are trained in such a way. But other factors can come in like the influence of others.
Another proverb says, “The wise woman builds her house, but with her own hands the foolish one tears hers down” (Prov. 14:1). It contrasts two types of woman. The first is focused on her family, whereas the second tears down her family. The first is godly, while the second is ungodly.
When Paul gives instructions to Christian households he addresses wives, husbands, children and fathers, but not mothers (Eph. 5:22 – 6:4; Col. 3:18-21). The fathers are told “do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” and “do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged” (Eph. 6:4; Col. 3:21). Obviously the mothers didn’t require any command about bringing up their children. Maybe because they went through a 9-month pregnancy and breastfed their children, they developed a strong bond with their children.
However, Paul says that older women should urge younger ones to love their children (Tit. 2:3-4). He also says that one of the good deeds of a wife was bringing up children (1 Tim. 5:9-10).
Paul told a godly woman, “It has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in the truth” (2 Jn. 1:4). Note the word he used was “some”, not “all”. This shows godly faith in two generations. For example, Hannah was a godly mother whose child Samuel grew up to be godly (1 Sam. 1:24-28). Also, three proverbs that King Lemuel was taught by his mother are recorded in the Bible (Prov. 31:1-9). As a prayer meeting was held in her home, presumably both John Mark and his mother were godly (Acts 12:12).
Paul wrote to Timothy, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also” (2 Ti. 1:5). This shows godly faith in three generations. A godly grandmother was followed by a godly mother who was followed by a godly son. He also wrote, “from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures” (2 Tim. 3:15). This implies that these women probably taught the Scriptures to Timothy when he was an infant.
So godly mothers can have a positive influence on their children.
But sometimes a mother’s influence is not the best. One of the reasons for the spread of wickedness before the flood in Noah’s day seems to be the strong influence that mothers have on their children (Gen 6:1-5). The Israelites were commanded not to intermarry with the Canaanites because they will turn their children to follow idols (Dt. 7:3-4). King Ahaziah and King Joram were ungodly like their parents (1 Ki. 22:52, 2 Ki. 3:2). However, as in the previous category, a child can differ from their parents. For example, King Asa was godly unlike his grandmother (2 Chron. 15:16).
So, ungodly mothers can have a negative influence on their children.
Lessons for us
This shows that mothers can have a significant influence on their children.
If you are a mother, do you have a positive or a negative impact on your children? Do you discipline them fairly? Are you building them up or tearing them down? Are you “walking in the truth”? Do you have a sincere Christian faith?
If you are a father, do you support your wife?
Do you honor and respect your mother?
Written, May 2014
Selfies are common in social media like Facebook and Instagram. It’s easy because all smart phones have cameras. A selfie is a photo of yourself. It’s is all about me. I am in the centre of the photo. The word “selfie” was first used in an Australian internet forum in 2002. But what does the Bible say about selfies? We will see that normal Christian relationships are characterized by respect and care; not selfies.
Let’s look at a verse on a Christian’s relationships with others: “Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble” (1 Pt. 3:8NIV). The letter of 1 Peter was written to churches facing suffering and persecution. The verses beforehand address a Christian’s relationships with the government, their employer and their spouse (1 Peter 2:13 – 3:7). The main attitudes to be shown in these relationships are respect and submission. The verses afterward address a Christian’s response to suffering and persecution, which is to be characterized by doing good and pursuing peace.
Our verse lists five characteristics: like-mindedness, sympathy, family love, compassion, and humility. These may be grouped into two categories of “respect” and “care”.
If we are like-minded and humble towards each other, we will respect each other. Being like-minded is to have unity and to be harmonious. Paul said, “Live in harmony with one another” (Rom. 12:16). It is like a musical instrument playing along with others in a band or orchestra or a person singing in a choir.
How do we get along with other Christians, especially those at church? Are we harmonious together? Or are we just a disjointed group of individuals who don’t get along together?
Being humble is the opposite of being proud and having an inflated view of one’s importance. Peter also wrote, “clothe yourselves with humility” (1 Pt. 5:5). It’s as essential as clothing. So it’s not all about me. It’s all about you. It’s all about us. That’s what’s wrong with selfies and wanting people to “like” us on social media.
Are we happy for others to succeed and to take a more prominent role than us? Do we seek recognition for what we do?
If we have sympathy, family love and compassion towards each other, we care for each other. I think “empathy” would be a better translation than “sympathy”. The verb form is used in Hebrews to say that Jesus empathizes with our weaknesses because He was temped like us (Heb. 4:15NIV). It means to be in touch with another’s emotions and feelings. Paul wrote, “rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Rom. 12:15). Do we recognize what life is like for each other and share the ups and downs? Or do we ignore them?
As all true Christians are children of God, we are to love one another as those in the same family or team. And we know that families and teams can be great or terrible. It’s meant to be great because Paul associates this type of love with humility, generosity and hospitality (Rom. 12:10-13).
The third aspect of our care for each other given in this verse is compassion. Paul associates this with kindness and a forgiving attitude (Eph. 4:32) and John says it is helping a fellow-believer and is associated with sacrificial love (1 Jn. 3:16-18).
Are our relationships with each other like this? Or do we go through the motions without any real empathy, love and compassion? We live in a selfish world. Selfies are common. At times like these, the Israelites were told to “stop doing wrong” and “learn to do right” (Is. 1:16-17). This is a change of 180 degrees. For us this means to stop focusing on our self so much.
My smart phone has two cameras that aim 180 degrees apart. When one lens is aimed at me, the other is aimed away from me. If we want to take less selfies, we need to either use the other lens or aim away from us.
So let’s look around and get involved in each other’s lives because God wants us to care for each other like He does.
“Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be empathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble” (1 Pt. 3:8). These are the characteristics of normal Christian relationships. They reflect the attitude and example of Christ.
So let’s be respectful towards each other – full of respect. And careful towards each other – full of care. Let’s respect and care for one another because normal Christian relationships are characterised by respect and care; not selfies.
Written, April 2014
When you pay at a gas station or store, have you been asked “Would like to buy something else with that?” Then you see lots of attractive snacks, drinks & fast food. How would you respond? When you are browsing on the web and you see links to articles like: “The rape case that captivated America” and “Virgins auctioned and bedded in film”? What would you do? We live in a sea of temptation, which entices us to do something that is sinful.
Now you have probably resisted food, drink, and drug addictions, and adultery, all of which can devastate people’s lives. But what about the temptation to think we are doing OK in life? And the temptation to be liked and recognized? When you give in to these, what is it doing to your life?
Fortunately God has provided three ways to resist temptation in 1 Corinthians 10:13NIV:
“No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can endure it”.
Corinth was a wealthy pagan Greek city. Paul wrote this letter to their church to instruct them about problems that they faced. There were divisions in the church, they accepted sexual immorality, they were taking their disputes to pagan courts, they were abusing the Lord’s supper, and there was false teaching about the resurrection of the dead. There were questions about married life, about eating food that had been sacrificed to idols, about church meetings, and about the use of spiritual gifts.
Our verse comes from a passage on eating food that had been sacrificed to idols (1 Cor. 8:1-11:1). It was written to a church that was out of control. The Bible says they lacked self-control just like the Israelites on the trip from Egypt to Canaan when they were tempted to eat, drink, party, have sex, worship idols and grumble to God (1 Cor. 10:7-10). Is this familiar? Have we ever been tempted to: eat too much, drink too much, party too much, have sex, let someone or something take the place of God in our lives, or complain to God? So the verse is Christian teaching on how to resist such temptations.
It is preceded by a warning, “if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (v. 12). Don’t be over confident about temptation; instead be careful not to yield to it. Because we are all prone to giving in to temptation and sinning against God. We can all lack self-control.
The first way to resist temptation is, “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind”. Our temptations are no different from what others experience. They are not unique. Every temptation we face is “common to mankind”. Everyone is tempted. Whether they ate food offered to idols in Corinth or not. Temptation is normal. It’s common. It’s usual. So, don’t be surprised when you are tempted. It happens everyday. It happens all the time. The verse says “when you are tempted”, not “if you are tempted”. So, expect to be tempted. Be ready for it.
Because temptation is normal, it’s not new. Temptation is not a modern invention; it’s been around since the days of Adam and Eve. For this reason, we can learn from the temptations faced in Biblical times and from the ways they were resisted.
Today we have glossy brochures, catchy slogans and dynamic ads. Enticing shopping centres with aromas of the coffee shop, the food court and the confectionery shop with all that chocolate. Delicious cakes at the bakery. Colorful walls of TVs in stores. Lots of food and technology. Temptation is everywhere. It is not unusual or rare. But we are not forced to give in to these temptations. Instead we have a choice to either resist or give in each time we are tempted. That’s why with God’s help we can resist it.
But temptation is not only normal, it is also bearable.
The Bible says, “And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear”. He promises to limit the intensity of our temptations. It’s capped. It won’t be more than you can stand. You won’t be pushed past your limit. There is no such thing as an unbearable temptation.
Sports athletes do weights and exercises to strengthen their bodies. Their targets are beyond what they can do in the beginning. The same applies if you go to the gym or boot camp or fitness training. Later they discover they can reach their targets after all. God knows our strength greater than we do. He knows how much we can handle, and how much we can’t. So God allows temptations when the pressure is on, but it is controlled pressure. It will never be more than we can handle. That’s why with God’s help we can resist it.
But temptation is not only normal and bearable, it is also escapable.
The Bible says, “But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can endure it”. Here God promises a way for us to resist the temptation to sin. A way of escape is one of the ways we can bear or endure temptation.
When Potiphar’s wife wanted to have sex with Joseph, he refused, he avoided her and he ran out of the house. When Satan tempted Jesus, He responded by quoting from the Bible. God provided them with ways to escape; which were physical and spiritual.
This applies to us as well. The Bible says, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1). God is with us in our temptations. He will not leave us or forsake us. He will provide a way of escape. He’ll always be there to help you come through it. That’s why with God’s help we can resist it
So, let’s remember the promise: “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13).
Because temptation is normal and bearable and escapable, we can resist it. This includes the temptations to think we are doing OK in life and to be liked and recognized. Let’s use these promises to resist the temptations we face each day.
Written, Oct 2013
When the disciples asked why they couldn’t drive a demon out of a boy who had seizures, Jesus replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you” (Mt. 17:20NIV). The reason was also given as “This kind can come out only by prayer” (Mk. 9:29).
They lacked faith and prayer. Because of unbelief, they didn’t pray about it. The mountain is a figure of speech for the obstacles and difficulties being faced. They should have exercised their faith in God by praying about the problem. The prayer would be answered if it was in accordance with the conditions for prayer and the commands and promises given in the Bible. Miracles can happen when we pray under these circumstances.
On the Monday before his crucifixion, Jesus cursed a fig tree because it was unfruitful. He them taught his disciples how to deal with the problems of fruitlessness and obstacles and difficulties. Once again the mountain illustrates the obstacles and difficulties. This is described in two gospels:
Mark 11:22-24 “Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”
Mt 21:21-22 Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”
They were to exercise their faith in God by praying about the problem. God promised to answer if they believe and don’t doubt. This is a necessary but not sufficient condition for answered prayer. Such confidence needs to rely on a promise from God or an assurance that the request is according to God’s will. The ultimate source of such confidence is the words of Scripture or the witness of the Holy Spirit. So the prayer needs to be in accordance with the conditions given in the Bible.
We can approach God confidently in prayer because He promises to answer prayers that are “according to His will”. “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of Him” (1 Jn. 5:14-15). That’s how Jesus prayed at Gethsemane (Mt. 26:39, 42) and how He told His disciples to pray (Jn. 14:13-14). And of course, God’s will is given most clearly in the Bible.
Other conditions for answered prayer include: forgiving others (Mk. 11:25), confessing and repenting of sin (Ps. 66:18), obeying God’s commands (1 Jn. 3:22), right motives (Jas. 4:3), and persevering in prayer (Lk. 17:1-8). They also apply to other passages which may seem to imply that we can get whatever we ask for (Mt. 7:7-8; Lk. 11:9-10; Jn. 14:13-14; 15:7, 16; 16:23-24; 1 Jn. 3:22).
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. So, how are you praying?
Written, September 2013
When you pay at a store or gas (petrol) station, have you been asked if you would like to buy something else with that? Then you see loads of snacks, fast food and sugary drinks. It’s a food temptation called ambush marketing. We also have temptations in supermarkets, in shopping centres, in advertising, in marketing, in our entertainment, in technological hardware and software and even on our Facebook pages! We live in a sea of temptation.
Temptation entices us to do something that is sinful. Fortunately God has provided three ways to resist the temptations we face in life: “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13NIV). The Greek word translated “temptation” and “tempted” in this verse can mean either outer trials that test our faith or inner temptations to sin. Here we will apply it to the inner temptations to sin.
Corinth was a wealthy pagan Greek city. Paul wrote this letter to their church to instruct them about problems that they faced. There were divisions in the church, they accepted sexual immorality, they were taking their disputes to pagan courts, they were abusing the Lord’s supper, and there was false teaching about the resurrection of the dead. There were questions about married life, about eating food that had been sacrificed to idols, about church meetings, and about the use of spiritual gifts.
This verse comes from a passage on eating food that had been sacrificed to idols (1 Cor. 8:1-11:1). Paul begins by stating the principle that we shouldn’t stumble a believer with a weak conscience by causing them to act against their conscience with regard to a debatable matter (1 Cor. 8). So Paul would not exercise his right to eat food that had been offered to an idol if there was a Christian present who thought this was sinful. Then he illustrates this principle (1 Cor. 10). First, although as an apostle Paul had the right to be supported financially by the church, he didn’t claim this so that people couldn’t say that he was preaching for money. Second, he followed the customs of those he was preaching to, so they would be more likely to accept the gospel message. Third, like an athlete he exercised self-control and discipline when serving the Lord so as not to miss his reward. Fourth, the Israelites lacked self-control. In the exodus God rescued them from slavery, but they were punished for idolatry, sexual immorality and grumbling to God (1 Cor. 10:1-10).
So this verse was written to a church that was out of control. They lacked self-control. It is Christian teaching on self-control. They needed to learn how to recognise the temptations they faced and how to resist these temptations.
Then the Bible applies what happed to the Israelites to us today (v.11). They are examples for us. They are warnings for us. The Bible was written for our benefit (Rom. 15:4). It has many lessons for us. The warning of this passage is spelled out “if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (v. 12). To think we are “standing firm” against temptation means being confident or complacent about temptation. The warning is to be careful we don’t yield to temptation. We all face temptation on a daily basis. We are all prone to giving in to temptation and sinning against God. We can all lack self-control.
Then three ways are given to resist temptation.
Temptation is normal
The Bible says, “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind”. So, “The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience” (NLT). Sometimes we think why am I so weak? Why do I always yield to this sinful desire, and give in to that addiction? Why am I always being tempted?
But our temptations are not unique. Every temptation we face is “common to mankind”. We all face temptation. Everyone is tempted. Temptation is normal for humanity. It’s usual. It’s common. So, don’t be surprised when you are tempted. It happens all the time. Expect to be tempted. For example, Paul warns us to beware when helping someone who has been sinful, because we may also be tempted to sin (Gal. 6:1).
Because temptation is normal, it’s not new. It’s been around since the days of Adam and Eve. Temptation is not a modern invention. For this reason, we can learn from the temptations faced in Biblical times and the ways they were resisted.
The normal process of temptation
The normal process of temptation is described by James: “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (Jas. 1:13-15).
Temptation begins as an “evil desire” in our mind. Jesus said that “evil thoughts” lead to sin (Mt. 15:18-20; Mk. 7:20-23). Since the fall of humanity into sin we have a tendency towards evil desires. We are now self-centred. Given time, the temptation from an evil desire leads to sin and then to spiritual death and other consequences. Even if the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak (Mt. 26:41). The evil desire is influenced by Satan and our sinful nature. The process stops if we resist the temptation and there is victory over the temptation. So there is a choice to yield to or resist the temptation as shown in the diagram.
Satan is called the tempter (Mt. 4:3; 1 Th. 3:5). He tempts us in order to make us fail (1 Cor. 7:5). He entices us like a fisherman entices fish with bait or a lure. Satan is deceitful and seductive. He is our enemy (1 Ti. 5:14; 1 Pt. 5:8).
Temptation is not sinful. We know that Jesus was tempted by Satan, but didn’t sin (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pt. 2:22; 1 Jn. 3:5). But yielding to temptation is sinful.
So temptation is like when fish see a fisherman’s bait or lure. If they eat it they are hooked. Otherwise, they can swim on their way. Likewise, if we take the bait when tempted then we are hooked and dragged away into sinful behavior and its consequences. That’s the normal process of temptation. But if we don’t take the bait and resist the temptation, we can continue serving the Lord.
The normal tools of temptation
The normal tools of temptation are described in this warning, “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world” (1 Jn. 2:15-16).
This describes Satan’s tools, the aspects of the sinful world that he uses as bait to lure us into sin. They are evil desires arising from:
- The lust of the flesh. This is our sinful human nature. Our sinful appetites.
- The lust of the eyes. This is what we see. It can also symbolise our minds. What we think about.
- The pride of life. This is boasting about what we have and what we do. Selfish ambition. Seeking to create a sense of envy, rivalry, and jealousy in others.
For example, the Israelites were tempted to eat, drink, indulge in revelry, indulge in sexual immorality, worship idols and grumble to God (1 Cor. 10:7-10). These are still normal temptations today. Have we ever been tempted to: eat too much, drink too much, party too much, commit sexual sins, let someone or something take the place of God in our lives, or complain to God?
So, temptation is a common experience of all human beings. But temptation is not only normal, it is also bearable.
Temptation is bearable
The Bible says, “And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear”. So, “He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand” (NLT) and “He’ll never let you be pushed past your limit” (Message). God doesn’t promise that we won’t be tempted, but He does promise to limit its intensity. Life is tough. Temptation is common. But there is no such thing as an unbearable temptation.
God knows our strength greater than we do. He knows how much we can handle, and how much we cannot. One of the basic principles of sports and athletic training is to strengthen us to do things we don’t think we can do right now, to put more pressure on us than we think we can handle. And we discover we can handle it. This is what God does with us. He allows temptations when the pressure on, but it is controlled pressure. It will never be more than we can handle. Let’s look at some examples of this.
Bearable temptations in the Old Testament
The heroes of faith in Old Testament times are listed in Hebrews 11. They endured much shame and suffering rather that give up on God. They could have avoided this by renouncing God. That would have been a great temptation to them. Instead they resisted this temptation and continued to trust God’s promises.
Here’s what they went through (Heb. 11:33-39). They faced the dangers of lions, fire and swords. They were tortured, flogged, imprisoned, jeered, murdered, homeless, persecuted and mistreated. Because they remained faithful, we know that their temptations were bearable. Also, Job remained faithful after he lost his family, his wealth and his health. His temptations were bearable.
Bearable temptations in the New Testament
Paul is one of the heroes of faith in New Testament. Here’s what he went through.
2 Cor. 11:23-27: “I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews 39 lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.”
Paul would have been tempted to avoid all this by stopping serving the Lord. Because he remained faithful, we know that his temptations were bearable.
So, the temptations faced by God’s people are bearable. But temptation is not only normal and bearable, it is also escapable.
Temptation is escapable
The Bible says, “But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can endure it”. So, “He will also provide a way of escape” (HCSB). Not only does God promise to limit the intensity of our temptations, He promises a way to resist them. God enables us to resist the temptation to sin. He will provide a way out for us.
The Bible says, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1). When those heroes of faith faced their troubles, all human support was usually stripped away. They learnt that God alone strengthens us at these times. He gets us through life’s temptations. In this sense, He is the way out. The way of escape. The Message says, “He’ll always be there to help you come through it”.
Joshua was told that God “will never leave you nor forsake you” (Dt. 31:8). David faced trouble without fear because God was with him (Ps. 23:5). God was close beside him. Likewise, God is with us in our temptations. He will not leave us or forsake us. He will provide a way of escape.
So, how did Joseph and Jesus escape temptations?
How Joseph escaped temptations
Joseph was a slave of Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard in Egypt. Potiphar put him in charge of his household. Here’s how Joseph responded to temptation.
Gen. 39:6-12 “Now Joseph was well-built and handsome, and after a while his master’s wife took notice of Joseph and said, “Come to bed with me!” But he refused. “With me in charge,” he told her, “my master does not concern himself with anything in the house; everything he owns he has entrusted to my care … My master has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?” And though she spoke to Joseph day after day, he refused to go to bed with her or even be with her. One day he went into the house to attend to his duties, and none of the household servants was inside. She caught him by his cloak and said, “Come to bed with me!” But he left his cloak in her hand and ran out of the house.”
When Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him, Joseph “refused to be with her”. He avoided the temptation as much as possible. Unlike Sampson, he didn’t give in to the pressure that went on “day after day” (Jud. 14:17; 16:16-17). So let’s avoid situations where we are likely to be tempted.
When Joseph was confronted again he “ran out of the house”. He had an escape plan. We have fire escape plans, but do we have plans to escape temptations?
How Jesus escaped temptations
At the beginning of His ministry, Jesus was tempted by Satan (Mt. 4:1-11):
- To use His supernatural powers to satisfy his hunger by turning stones into bread.
- To jump from the highest point of the temple to test God’s promise of protection and attract public attention.
- To avoid the suffering of the cross and take an easy shortcut to world domination.
In each case Jesus responded to temptation by quoting from the Bible. He answered, “It is written …”. So Satan can tempt those controlled by the Holy Spirit, but they can resist him with the truths of Scripture. The Israelites knew, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Ps. 119:11). The truths of Scripture in our mind can protect us from yielding to temptation. Bible knowledge can help us to resist temptation.
Our mind is important. Let’s think about “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Phil. 4:8). Are the truths of Scripture planted in our mind?
Lessons for us
So let’s be warned by the history of the Israelites of the danger of yielding to temptation. Don’t be hooked and dragged away by Satan. Resisting temptation requires self-control, which is part of the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). So the Holy Spirit helps us to resist temptation.
Remember the promise: “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13).
Because temptation is normal, we can resist it.
Because temptation is bearable, we can resist it.
Because temptation is escapable, we can resist it.
Because temptation is normal and bearable and escapable, we can resist it.
God has given us these reasons to exercise self-control when we face temptations. Let’s remember and use these ways to resist the temptations we face.
Written September 2013
A few years ago we made a photo collage of all the members of our church. Everyone’s face was in it. For various reasons some of these people no longer come to our church. More would be missing if we had photos taken 10, 20, or 30 years ago. I wonder how many of these are still following Jesus today. Unfortunately some people who seem to start well in the Christian faith, don’t finish well. There is a danger of turning away from God. Today we are looking at two life lessons from king Saul. One is an example to follow and the other is an example to avoid.
Saul followed God
Until he met Samuel the prophet, Saul was an ordinary guy who worked for his father by doing jobs, like searching for lost donkeys. This changed when Samuel told Saul that he was chosen to be the first king of Israel (1 Sam. 9:27 – 10:1). Saul changed to follow God. The Bible says that he was changed into a different person because he received power from God; God was with him and changed his heart (1 Sam.10:6, 7, 9). He was now up with the prophets instead of down with the donkeys. The people were so amazed when he prophesied with the prophets, they exclaimed “Is Saul among the prophets” (1 Sam. 10:10).
After Saul was declared to be their king, the people celebrated and shouted, “Long live the king” (1 Sam. 10:17-24). Saul had many military victories. After they defeated the Ammonites, there was a great celebration and the people renewed their allegiance to God and confirmed Saul as their king (1 Sam. 11:14-15).
So Saul was called by God and he followed God’s leading. What a great example for those who have been called to trust in the salvation provided by Jesus Christ. The Bible says “each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them” (1 Cor. 7:17). We are not kings, but God has placed us in situations where we can serve Him daily.
God used Samuel to call Saul and He uses the Holy Spirit and the gospel message to call us to follow Him today (1 Th. 1:5; 2 Th. 2:14). During this period of his reign he served God faithfully. And faithfulness characterises those who follow the Lord as it is listed in the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22).
All is going well so far for Saul. But life is a marathon, not a sprint. We now turn to the next stage of Saul’s life.
Saul turned away from God
Samuel told Saul to wait for him at Gilgal and Samuel would come and offer sacrifices to God (1 Sam. 10:8; 13:7-15). When Saul became impatient, he disobeyed Samuel and God by offering the sacrifices himself and Samuel rebuked him. Only Levites were allowed to offer sacrifices and Saul was a Benjamite. It was the first of several sins that resulted in him being replaced by David as king of Israel.
Next Saul disobeyed God again by keeping the best animals and sparing the king when they defeated the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15:3, 9, 20). Then he proudly set up a monument in his own honor instead of acknowledging God (1 Sam. 15:12). The Bible says that he turned away from God (1 Sam. 15:10). He reverted. Instead of being up with the prophets, he was back down with the donkeys. Because he rejected God, God rejected him as king (1 Sam. 15:23).
After David defeated Goliath, Saul became extremely jealous of David and tried to kill him several times (1 Sam, 18:8-11, 28-29; 19:9-24). Then Saul chased him all around the land of Israel (1 Sam 18-26). During this time he had 85 priests killed, including the high Priest, because they helped David to escape (1 Sam. 22:6-23).
So Saul went from bad to worse. When he was afraid of the Philistines, he consulted the witch of Endor (1 Sam. 28:3-20). Finally when Saul was critically injured in battle he killed himself (1 Sam. 31:1-4). Saul didn’t finish well.
What does the Bible say about those who turn away from God?
The Galatians turned against the gospel by following Jewish legalism (Gal. 1:6; 4:9-11). They deserted God to follow a false gospel. False teaching and false teachers can deceive us. The Ephesians stopped loving the Lord and were told to repent and do the things they did at first (Rev. 2:4-5). The Corinthians tolerated sexual immorality (1 Cor. 5:1-13). They were not concerned and carried on as though it didn’t matter. The churches at Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis and Laodicea were urged to repent and turn around to follow God once again (Rev. 2:16, 21; 3:3, 19).
Paul wrote to Timothy, “Do your best to come to me quickly, for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica” (2 Ti. 4:9-10). It looks like Demas deserted Paul because he feared imprisonment and he loved this sinful world more.
The Bible says sin is the source of turning away from God. And the cure is confession of the sin and turning back towards God in repentance. David and Hezekiah and good examples of this.
Lessons for us
The two life lessons from king Saul correspond to the two stages of his reign. The first was faithful and fruitful, but the second was unfaithful and unfruitful. In the first he was godly and obedient, but in the second he was ungodly and wicked. In the first he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, but in the second he did what was evil in the eyes of the Lord. Although Saul’s reign started well, it didn’t finish well. Solomon followed the same pattern.
Let’s follow Saul’s good example. Let’s follow God faithfully like the first period of his reign. Let’s serve the Lord in the daily circumstances that He has given to us.
Also let’s choose to not follow his bad example. Don’t turn away from God like the second period of Saul’s reign. Keep living up here, not down there because turning away from God ruins our Christian testimony. If we have wandered from the Lord, it’s good to know there is a way back. We can always turn around to follow the Lord once again. We can be restored like the prodigal son.
When we sin we don’t have to turn away from God because He has provided a way to turn back to Him. Let’s be loyal to the Lord and finish well.
Written, September 2013
How many people continue to follow Jesus as their life progresses? Unfortunately some people who seem to start well in the Christian faith don’t finish well. What does the Bible say about those who turn away from God?
A backslider stops following the Lord and falls back into a previous sinful way of life. They desert the Christian faith and are unfaithful and unfruitful. It’s the opposite of repentance and conversion which is turning towards God. It’s also different to apostasy, which is when unbelievers become enemies of Christ after they were associated with the Christian faith (1 Tim. 2:19; 4:1-5; 2 Tim. 3:1-13; Heb. 6:4-8; 10:26-31; 2 Pt. 2:20-22).
Let’s look at how we can avoid backsliding and recover from backsliding in our Christian life.
King Saul had some natural advantages in life: he was handsome and a head taller than anyone else (1 Sam. 9:2). When Saul was looking for his father’s lost donkeys, he met Samuel the prophet. At this time Samuel privately anointed Saul as king of Israel (1 Sam. 10:1). After this he received power from God and prophesised – He gave God’s message to the people (1 Sam. 10:6, 9-11). Then Samuel summoned the nation and went through a selection process until Saul was publicly declared to be the first king of Israel (1 Sam. 10:17-24). The people celebrated and shouted, “Long live the king”.
When Saul heard that the Ammonites had besieged the city of Jabesh Gilead, he organised an army of 330,000 men and defeated them (1 Sam. 11:1-11). Then the Israelites celebrated again and renewed their allegiance to God and confirmed Saul as their king (1 Sam. 11:14-15). This was the pinnacle of Saul’s life.
Samuel told Saul to wait for him at Gilgal and Samuel would come and offer sacrifices to God (1 Sam. 10:8; 13:7-15). When Saul became impatient, he disobeyed Samuel and God by offering the sacrifices himself and Samuel rebuked him. Only Levites were allowed to offer sacrifices and Saul was a Benjamite. That was the beginning of his backsliding. It was the first of several sins that resulted in him being replaced by David as king of Israel.
Saul had many military victories, but when he foolishly told his troops not to eat food, the enemy Philistines escaped (1 Sam. 14:24, 26, 47-48). Then Saul disobeyed God again by keeping the best animals and sparing the king when they defeated the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15:3, 9, 20). Then he proudly set up a monument in his own honor instead of acknowledging God (1 Sam. 15:12). The Bible says that he turned away from God (1 Sam. 15:10). Because he rejected God, God rejected him as king (1 Sam. 15:23).
After David defeated Goliath, Saul became extremely jealous of David and tried to kill him several times (1 Sam, 18:8-11, 28-29; 19:9-24). Then Saul chased him all around the land of Israel (1 Sam 18-26). During this time he had 85 priests killed, including the high Priest, because they helped David to escape (1 Sam. 22:6-23).
When he was afraid of the Philistines, Saul consulted the witch of Endor (1 Sam. 28:3-20). Finally when Saul was critically injured in battle he killed himself (1 Sam. 31:1-4).
So we have seen the rise and fall of king Saul because he turned away from God.
The same happened to king Solomon who turned away from God to idolatry after he married foreign women (1 Ki. 11:1-13). It says “Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord” and “The Lord became angry with Solomon because his heart had turned away from the Lord”. Both kings started well, but didn’t finish well. And this is shown in the graph of their spiritual state against time.
Kings of Judah
Some of the kings of Judah also began well, but didn’t finish well.
Joash ruled for 40 years from the age of seven years. While his uncle the High Priest was alive, he followed God (2 Chron. 24:1-16). During this time he repaired the temple. But after Jehoiada died Joash forsook God and worshipped idols (2 Chron. 24:17-27). When they were rebuked by the new High Priest, Joash had him killed. Then they were defeated by their enemies and Joash was assassinated. So his reign had two periods, one of godliness, followed by one of wickedness. And this is shown in the graph of his spiritual state against time.
His son Amaziah who reigned for 29 years followed this pattern. In the good years “He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord” (2 Chron. 25:1-13). During this period he obeyed God by dismissing the troops he had hired from the kingdom of Israel and defeated his enemies. But then he “turned away from following the Lord” and worshipped idols, attacked Israel and was defeated, and was assassinated (2 Chron. 25:14-24). So his reign had two periods, one of godliness, followed by one of wickedness.
His son Uzziah who reigned for 52 years also followed this pattern. In the good years “He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord” (2 Chron. 26:1-15). But afterwards “his pride led to his downfall” and he disobeyed God by taking a priestly role and was punished with leprosy and was banished from the palace for the rest of his life (2 Chron. 26:16-21). So his reign also had two periods, one of godliness, followed by one of wickedness.
Asa who ruled earlier for 41 years also followed this pattern. In the good years “He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord” (1 Ki. 15:11-15). Later he relied on a foreign king instead of on God, he imprisoned the prophet who rebuked him and he oppressed the people (2 Chron. 16:2-12). So his reign also had two periods, one of godliness, followed by one of wickedness.
All these kings of Judah started well, but didn’t finish well as shown in the graph of their spiritual state against time. They turned away from following the Lord.
Backsliding also occurred in New Testament times. The Galatians turned against the gospel by following Jewish legalism (Gal. 1:6; 4:9-11). They deserted God to follow a false gospel. False teaching and false teachers can deceive us. The Corinthians tolerated sexual immorality (1 Cor. 5:1-13). They were not concerned and carried on as though it didn’t matter.
Paul wrote to Timothy, “Do your best to come to me quickly, for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica” (2 Ti. 4:9-10). It looks like Demas deserted Paul because he feared imprisonment and he loved this sinful world.
The cause of backsliding
Backsliding is when we stop following Christ. In this world, we’re all prone to failure. We all sin. Saul’s sin of disobedience was the beginning of his turning away from God. Sin is the source of backsliding. Sin is attractive, but it separates us from God.
Backsliding is a gradual process (a sliding back to a previous sinful condition). Remember Lot liked the fertile plain, then he settled near the city of Sodom, but he eventually moved into the city and became a city councillor. It was a gradual process.
The consequences of backsliding
Backsliding has a great impact on people’s lives and their family. Compare the lives of Lot and Abraham. God used Abraham and his descendants greatly, whereas Lot’s family were doomed. If we turn away from God we lose our personal relationship with the Lord (1 Jn. 1:6) and peace and joy and the assurance of God’s presence and His answer to our prayers (Ps. 66:18). It can also result in sickness and death (1 Cor. 11:30-32). There can be severe ongoing consequences even though a sin has been forgiven. For example, David’s grief with the death of Bathsheba’s baby son. And when we get to heaven we miss out on being rewarded by the Lord for our faithfulness (1 Cor. 3:15; 2 Jn 8).
Jesus said, “If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned” (Jn. 15:6). The sin of backsliding ruins a person’s Christian testimony and witness. Instead of remaining in touch with the Lord and demonstrating the fruit of the Spirit and bearing fruit, there is sinfulness and people ridicule them and their God.
These consequences are the dangers of backsliding.
The cure of backsliding
Like Saul, David failed when he sinned against Bathsheba and Uriah (2 Sam. 11). But he did something about it. Not all sin leads to backsliding and turning against God for an appreciable period of time. David confessed and repented (Ps. 32:1-5; 40:1-8; 51:1-19). He called out to God, acknowledged all the wrong things that he had done and turned around to follow God once again.
“Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord does not count against them and in whose spirit is no deceit. When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy on me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.’ And you forgave the guilt of my sin” (Ps. 32:1-5). David experienced God’s mercy of forgiveness (v.1-2). He suffered when he refused to acknowledge his sin (v.3-4). But there was relief when he confessed his sin (v.5).
Likewise king Hezekiah repented of the sin of pride (2 Ch. 32:25-26). This contrast between Saul who backslid and David and Hezekiah who repented is shown in shown in the graph of their spiritual state against time. David and Hezekiah were restored to fellowship once again. Saul was not.
David said, “I waited patiently for the Lord; He turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; He set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God” (Ps. 40:1-3). “I desire to do your will, my God; your law is within my heart” (Ps. 40:8). His path was corrected and his relationship with God was restored. What a contrast to Saul who turned far away from God.
We will now look at the steps in the process of restoration, which will be illustrated in a diagram.
Conviction. The first step is to admit our sins instead of excusing them. Peter was convicted after he denied the Lord three times. The Bible says he wept bitterly (Mt. 26:75).
Confession. The next step is to confess our sin (1 Jn. 1:9). David said “I have sinned against the Lord” (12 Sam. 12:13).
Repentance. The next step is to change direction and turn around to follow God one again. It involves completely changed attitudes and behaviour. It is more than confessions or remorse. The Bible says it’s having a new heart and a new spirit (Ezek. 18:30-32). The churches in Revelation were urged to repent (Rev. 2:5, 16; 3:3, 19).
Forgiveness. After we are convicted and confess and repent, God offers forgiveness. He has great mercy. David was told “The Lord has taken away your sin” (2 Sam. 12:13). There are three kinds of forgiveness mentioned in the Bible.
God’s judicial forgiveness. God is a judge of all those who have never trusted in Him. This forgiveness removes the barrier to heaven. It is when an unbeliever comes to faith in Christ. If we acknowledge our sinfulness and believe that Jesus paid the penalty for us, then we are viewed as God’s children. Have you experienced this kind of forgiveness? If not, why not start following the Lord by confessing your sins and trusting Christ as Savior?
God’s parental forgiveness. God is a father of all those who have trusted in Him. This forgiveness restores a believer’s fellowship with God after it has been severed by sin. The Bible says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9).
Christians need to do this regularly. For example, “Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves” (1 Cor. 11: 28-29). This says we need to examine ourselves before participating in the Lord’s supper. It means admitting our sins and confessing them so our relationships can be restored with each other and with God. When they came together in Corinth, they were being selfish by discriminating against the poor (1 Cor. 11:20-21, 30-32). Their judgment was sickness and premature death, which was the Lord’s discipline. If we examine ourselves and get right with God, we will not come under His discipline. That’s why the Christian life should be full of confession. So our relationship with the Lord can be restored. The Christian life is full of restarts. Each of these involves conviction of sin, confession of sin and repentance to put things right.
Forgiving one another. This restores fellowship between believers. God cannot forgive us when we are unwilling to forgive one another (Mk. 11:25; Lk. 6:37). We are to forgive others when they acknowledge their wrongs (Mt. 18:15-17; Lk. 17:1-10).
After a backslider has been sorry for their sins and repented, then as God has forgiven them they should be forgiven and restored to Christian fellowship (2 Cor. 2:5-11).
Restoration. Once we are forgiven, we are restored to following Christ once again. This should be a time for celebration, like when the prodigal son returned home (Lk. 15:22-24).
Lessons for us
We have seen how to get right with God and how to stay right with God. How to draw near to God. How to be close to the Lord. And they are the same!
What does the graph of our spiritual state against time look like? Have we started by following Jesus in the first place? If yes, have we turned away from Him? Have we responded by taking the steps to restoration?
James encourages us to pray for backsliders like Elijah prayed for the kingdom of Israel who worshipped idols (Jas. 5:16-20). Such people wander from the truth and commit many sins. If someone helps them to confess their sins and repent by turning around to follow the Lord once again, then their sins will be forgiven and they will be saved from dying prematurely under God’s judgment. “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective”. Paul also urged us to help restore a believer “caught in a sin” (Gal. 6:1-2).
Let’s be aware of our sinfulness. The Israelites were warned that when they became prosperous they would become proud and forget the Lord (Dt. 8:10-14). That is a big risk for most of us because we have food, houses, money and possessions. We are well off compared to most people in the world.
Saul’s backsliding began with an act of disobedience which led to a life of sinful behaviour. Sin is dangerous. It grows. Let’s respond to sin like David and practice conviction, confession and repentance. If we have wandered from the Lord, it’s good to know there is a way back. We can always turn around to follow the Lord once again. We can be restored like the prodigal son.
When we sin we don’t have to backslide because God has provided a way to turn back to Him.
Let’s be loyal to the Lord and finish well.
Written, Sep 2013
Last time we looked at “Facing trials”. This time it’s ‘“Facing temptations”. The difference between the two is that trials come from an external source, whereas temptations come from within us. Trials test our Christian faith and can produce Christ-likeness, whereas temptations can lead to sinful behaviour and loss of fellowship with God and other people.
We all face temptations from time to time. The Bible says that God doesn’t cause temptations. We shouldn’t blame God for them. Instead they come from the human mind.
The source and process of temptation is described by James: “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed” (Jas. 1:13-14NIV).
Temptation begins as an “evil desire” in our mind. Jesus said that “evil thoughts” lead to sin (Mt. 15:18-20). Since the fall of humanity into sin we have a tendency towards evil desires. We are now self-centred.
Satan is called the tempter (Mt. 4:3; 1 Th. 3:5). He tempts us in order to make us fail (1 Cor. 7:5). He entices us like a fisherman entices fish with bait or a lure. Satan is deceitful and seductive. He is our enemy (1 Ti. 5:14; 1 Pt. 5:8).
We are all tempted. That’s why the Bible warns, “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world” (1 Jn. 2:15-16). Satan uses what we see. We are selfish. We choose to please ourselves instead of pleasing God.
We can respond to temptation in two ways.
The first is to yield to temptation like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:1-13) and like when David committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband killed (2 Sam. 11:2-5).
If temptation is not resisted immediately, it leads to sinful behaviour. If we think about a sin long enough, we will carry out that sin. It’s inevitable just like sexual intercourse can lead to the birth of a child. The Bible says, “after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (Jas 1:15).
The other response is to resist temptation like Joseph with Potiphar’s wife (Gen 39:7-12) and Jesus with Satan (Mt. 4:1-11).
Jesus said, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation” (Mk. 14:38). We are weak and prone to sin. Do we pray for God to help us not to fall into sin by yielding to temptation? The Lord’s prayer says, “Don’t let us yield to temptation” (Lk. 11:4 NLT).
We are told to put on God’s armor so we can stand against Satan’s temptations (Eph. 6:10-18). And the Israelites knew, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Ps. 119:11). The truths of Scripture in our mind can protect us from yielding to temptation.
We have a choice. “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (Jas. 4:7). Do we submit to God or Satan? Do we resist Satan or God?
Look for God’s way out. “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can endure it” (1 Cor. 10:12-13).
Lessons for us
So, don’t blame God for temptation. Temptations come from Satan and our sinful nature.
Because the Lord is stronger than Satan, with His help we can resist Satan’s temptations.
Our mind is important. What do we think about? This has a strong influence on our speech and behaviour. Don’t dwell on evil thoughts. Instead, replace them with, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Phil. 4:8). Are the truths of Scripture planted in our mind?
Written, Sep 2013
Elevated status for Christian slaves
Some people use the mention of slavery in the Bible to criticise God and the Bible. Let’s look at what the New Testament (NT) says about slavery. The Greek word “doulos” (Strongs #1401) is usually translated as “slave” or “servant”. Slavery was prevalent in the Roman Empire, but it was not racist, as many races were involved. The slaves were usually prisoners of war or poor people. Slavery rescued captives from death and the poor from starvation at a time when there was no government welfare or charities. In the NT, slaves are told to obey their masters and a runaway slave is told to return to their master; so it appears to condone slavery.
You may think: what’s this topic got to do with us? Slavery is not prevalent today. We will see that the slavery described in the NT was like employment. As we look at what the NT says about slaves and their masters, we can apply these principles to us as an employee working for a client, team leader, supervisor or employer, or if we lead other workers.
Philemon and Onesimus
Philemon was a slave owner in Colossae which is now in Turkey (Philemon 8-21). As the church met in his home, he may have been an elder in the local church. One of his slaves, Onesimus had apparently stolen from him and run away. But Onesimus had met Paul in Rome and become a Christian and was now willing to return to his master and be reconciled. He was willing to resume his obligation to his master. Paul wrote this letter to ask Philemon to accept Onesimus back into his household, no longer as a slave but as a fellow Christian (v.16). What can we learn from this short letter?
First, Paul does not issue an order to Philemon, although he was confident of his obedience (v.21). Instead he presents reasons for forgiving and accepting his runaway slave and then makes an appeal on behalf of Onesimus. Onesimus had become a believer in Rome – like Philemon he was now Paul’s spiritual son and that changed everything. He had a change of character, from an escaped thief to a Christian who helped Paul. From being “useless” to being “useful” (v.11). This is a word-play because the name Onesimus means “useful”. Paul even suggests that the reason Onesimus ran away was so that he could be converted and then return as a fellow Christian. Then Paul makes his appeal, “welcome him as you would welcome me” (v.17). He wanted Philemon to forgive Onesimus and accept him back into his household so that they could be reconciled. Although Paul did not order Philemon to release Onesimus from slavery he seems to infer it by saying he knows Philemon “will do even more than I ask” (v.21). This was the legal way to liberation from slavery; whereas escaping was illegal.
Equal before God
According to the Bible, whether someone was a slave or a master it made no difference in their standing before God. Both were sinners bound for hell and both could be saved through faith in Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:22-23). All sinners are guilty before God and so are condemned to judgement. The Bible says that “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom. 10:13NIV). Everyone includes both slaves and masters and whatever category you can think of. So salvation is equally available to all. It’s not like one’s social standing on earth; no one has any special privileges in this respect.
What about after they become a Christian by trusting in Christ for paying the penalty for their sin? The Bible says, “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:26-29). A Christian slave has the same position before God and the same inheritance as a Christian master. Social standing makes no difference in terms of salvation and its blessings. In this way, social distinctions disappear in God’s spiritual family; they are irrelevant. Such differences are replaced by equality and unity. All Christians have equal standing before God (1 Cor. 12:13; Col. 3:11). Our unity in the family of believers transcends all other distinctions, including the social distinction, between slaves and masters. So slaves and masters and workers and team leaders have equal standing before God.
In Paul’s letter to Philemon he said that a Christian slave such as Onesimus was a “dear brother” who should be accepted as though he was the apostle Paul (Phile. 16-17)! What a change of status for a runaway slave! He now shared a common faith with his master. The principle here is “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you” (Rom. 15:7). Because God had accepted Onesimus into His spiritual kingdom and Onesimus was serving God, then Philemon should accept him as a fellow believer. So Christianity elevated slaves to be equal with others in the family of God. By the way, this verse comes after Paul deals with matters of secondary importance in Romans 14 and Paul taught that whether a person was a master or a slave was less important than whether they were a Christian or not.
So our relationships with other believers should cut across the social barriers in our society. If God has accepted someone into His kingdom, we should accept them as fellow believers regardless of their social status. As a church we should accept any believer that seeks to follow God, regardless of their place in society. So a local church can be comprised of people with not only a diversity of nationality and culture, but also a diversity of position in society.
Also Christian slaves and their masters will be rewarded equally by God. “Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free” (Eph. 6:7-8). So when they are rewarded at the Judgment Seat of Christ for the good things done for the Lord when they served others, there is no discrimination between slave and master, they are treated the same. There is no favoritism with God.
Christian slaves and workers
Let’s look at what the Bible says to slaves such as Onesimus and apply this to our working life. When a slave became a Christian they were to be content with their situation and not rebel and demand their freedom (1 Cor. 7:21-24). Instead they were to live the Christian life in their situation. But if they had an opportunity to be freed, they should take advantage of it.
“All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered. Those who have believing masters should not show them disrespect just because they are fellow believers. Instead, they should serve them even better because their masters are dear to them as fellow believers and are devoted to the welfare of their slaves” (1 Ti. 6:1-2). Slaves must respect their masters because otherwise they may dishonor Christ’s name and Christianity.
“Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive.” (Ti. 2:9-10). Christian slaves were to be loyal and trustworthy because their behavior could either help or hinder the gospel message.
“Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh” (1 Pt. 2:18). Christian slaves are told to respect and obey even hash masters. By enduring suffering, they were following Christ’s example. He suffered unjustly for the wrongs of others. As a worker are we willing to submit to a harsh client or boss? This is difficult in our day when we readily claim our rights, but forbearance is part of the fruit of the Spirit.
“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favour when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free” (Eph. 6:5-8). Slaves were to obey and serve their masters as it they were Christ. Do we give our client or boss good value? Do we work cheerfully and willingly? Do we work as though God is our boss? If we do, then we will be rewarded for this when we get to heaven. Once again how we work affects our testimony for Christ.
There are similar instructions in Colossians: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Col. 3:23-24). As Christians, all our work should be for the Lord. Even the most menial tasks are included in “whatever you do”. Do we serve and work as though we have two bosses: one on earth and one in heaven?
So slaves were to be content with their situation and respect their master submitting to their leadership and obeying them. What about us? Are we content with our work situation? Do we respect our team leader, submitting to their leadership and obeying them? Are we loyal and trustworthy?
Christian masters and team leaders
Let’s look at what the Bible says to slave owners such as Philemon and apply this to team leaders.
“Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven” (Col. 4:1). They were to pay a proper wage and not exploit their workers because God was watching. Christian masters and team leaders should treat their workers with justice and fairness. The worker deserves their wages and it is the team leader’s responsibility to ensure they receive what is due to them. The worker may also deserve recognition and acknowledgement for a job done well.
“And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that He who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with Him” (Eph 6:9). They are not to be a bully who uses abusive or threatening language because they have a Master in heaven to whom they are accountable. Just because you may have more status on earth doesn’t mean you get preference in heaven.
As masters had positional power over slaves, so team leaders have positional power over their team. In the previous passages we saw that such power should not be abused. To put it in perspective, team leaders must report to higher powers. If not on earth, then certainly in heaven. Christian masters and team leaders are reminded of their Master in heaven.
If you are a team leader, are you devoted to the welfare of your workers (1 Ti. 6:2)? Do you treat them fairly or do you exploit them? Are you a bully? How we lead and manage others affects our testimony for Christ.
In his letter to Philemon, Paul wrote, “If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me” (v.18). Paul was willing to pay for whatever Onesimus owed to Philemon. He said “I will pay it back” (v.19). It seems as though Onesimus had stolen things from Philemon before he escaped and went to Rome. Now he was ready to make restitution so they could be reconciled, but Paul was going to make the repayment. Even though Onesimus was guilty of theft and was obliged to make the repayment, Paul said no, I’ll do it. Paul substituted for Onesimus. Because Paul stepped in, Onesimus could be reconciled with Philemon.
In this case, Paul is like Jesus Christ and we are like Onesimus because Jesus substituted for us. We are all guilty of going our own way and rebelling against God, which is called sin. The Bible says that because we have sinned we are eternally separated from God. But Jesus took the initiative and paid the death penalty for us so we can be reconciled with God. Because Jesus stepped into our world, we can be reconciled with God. Have you taken up His offer like Onesimus did with Paul?
So does the NT condone slavery? No, it mentions slavery because slavery was prevalent when it was written. The Bible records practices in society at the time, such as slavery, which it does not necessarily approve. For example, slaves were mentioned in some of Christ’s parables because they were common at that time. However, the NT does say that kidnapping slaves is as sinful as murder because it is stealing (1 Ti. 1:9-10).
The NT regulates slavery so that the slave of a Christian master was treated as well as an employee. There was to be no abuse or exploitation but justice and fairness. When the teachings of the New Testament are followed, the evils of slavery are removed. That’s why some translations use the word “servant” instead of “slave”.
It’s all a matter of priority. According to the NT, the top priority is to live for Christ, which is more important than improving one’s social status. The main purpose of the Bible is to show the way of salvation, not to reform society. Jesus didn’t come to reform society. He came to reform people. When people repent they have a change in attitudes and behaviour. Changes that come from the inside are more effective than those that are imposed externally such as political and social reforms. Likewise the primary task for Christians today is not to change political and social structures, but to further the gospel by offering forgiveness of sin through Jesus Christ. Anyway, we won’t have a perfect society until Jesus comes again to rule in His millennial kingdom.
Lessons for us
How we work affects our testimony for Christ. In our work life is there: respect, submission, obedience, contentment, loyalty, honesty and wholeheartedness? Do we work as though God is our boss? If we lead others at work is there justice and fairness or are we a bully? Do we realise we are accountable to God? Let’s honor God at work.
Finally, do social distinctions hinder our relationships with other Christians or affect the unity of the church? Do we have favorites? Do we ignore others? Let’s honor God at church.
Written, April 2013
Perseverance or backsliding?
The Bible records many of the words spoken and written by people in ancient times. In this article we look at what we can learn from some of the words spoken by six godly men near the end of their lives. The men are: Joseph, Moses and Joshua from the Old Testament and Jesus, Stephen and Paul from the New Testament.
Joseph was the 11th son of Jacob. As Jacob’s name was changed to Israel, Joseph was one of the original children of Israel! Jacob’s descendants were God’s special people in the Old Testament times. Joseph was sold as a slave in Egypt and rose to second in command under Pharaoh king of Egypt. God used him to save his family and the Egyptians from a 7-year drought – in this sense he was their savior. During this time his father’s household also moved to Egypt.
Final words. At the age of 110 years, “Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am about to die. But God will surely come to your aid and take you up out of this land to the land He promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’ And Joseph made the Israelites swear an oath and said, ‘God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up from this place’” (Gen. 50:24-25NIV). As he knew that God had promised the land of Canaan to the Israelites and trusted that God would take them from Egypt to Canaan, he made them promise to take his mummy (embalmed body) with them so it could be buried in Canaan.
Lesson for us. Joseph’s faith is an example for us to follow, “By faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions concerning the burial of his bones” (Heb. 11:22). “Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Heb. 1:1). So up to the end of his life Joseph trusted that God’s promises would be fulfilled. He didn’t backslide from when he trusted God in his youth.
Moses was an Israelite born in Egypt in the third generation after Joseph. God used him to rescue the Israelites from slavery in Egypt – in this sense He was their savior. In the exodus about 2 million Israelites miraculously crossed the Red Sea and travelled towards Canaan. He took Joseph’s mummy with him (Ex. 13:19).
Final words. Before his death at the age of 120 years Moses transferred leadership of the Israelites to Joshua and told him, “Be strong and courageous, for you must go with this people into the land that the LORD swore to their ancestors to give them, and you must divide it among them as their inheritance. The LORD Himself goes before you and will be with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged “(Dt. 31:7-8). He encouraged Joshua to continue leading the people by reminding him of God’s continual presence. Then he taught them a new song and gave a farewell message in which he assured them of God’s protection and support, “The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Dt. 33:27).
Lesson for us. Christians should appreciate God’s continual presence, protection and support via the indwelling Holy Spirit. We should be encouraged by this, whatever our role may be. This also helps us to be contented and avoid the love of money or possessions (Heb. 13:5). Also, are we training the next generation in God’s ways like Moses trained Joshua?
As one of the faithful spies, Joshua didn’t die in the desert like the rest of the Israelites who rebelled against God. After the death of Moses he led the Israelites into Canaan.
Final words. In a farewell message before he died at the age of 110 years Joshua said, “Now fear the LORD and serve Him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” (Josh. 24:14-15). He urged them to worship God instead of idols. At this time they buried Joseph’s mummy in Canaan in accordance with his request (Josh. 24:32). The Israelites followed the Lord throughout the lifetime of Joshua, but turned to idolatry soon afterwards (Josh. 24:31; Judges 2:7, 10-13).
Lesson for us. Godly people like Joshua can have a great influence on others. They are faithful to the end of life and don’t backslide like the others who died before reaching Canaan and so didn’t enjoy their inheritance on earth.
According to Luke’s genealogy, Jesus Christ was in the 52rd generation after Joseph (Lk. 3:23-37). Jesus was unique as He was not only a person like us, but He was also the Son of God who made the universe (Lk. 1:35)! Because He was divine, Jesus lived a perfect life and did no wrong. But He was executed and then came back to life and later returned to heaven. When Jesus died He took all the punishment that we deserve so that we can go to heaven if we trust in Him. In this sense He is a Savior for all humanity.
Final words. At the age of about 33 years, after the three hours of darkness when He was suffering crucifixion, Jesus said “It is finished” (Jn. 19:30). This meant that he had finished what He came to do, which was to suffer and die on our behalf. The way had been provided for sinners like us to be saved from eternal punishment and go to heaven instead. Before His ascension into heaven, Jesus told His followers, “…you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8b). They would tell others living across the known world about Jesus.
Lesson for us. First, we need to accept Christ’s gift of salvation, because we can’t do anything else to deserve heaven. Second, once we follow Jesus we need to share the good news about Him to others.
Stephen was one of the seven men chosen to serve in the first church at Jerusalem. He was “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit”. Because Stephen preached powerfully about Jesus, the Jews made false accusations about him. In a long speech he listed the failures of the Jewish people, which made the Jews so furious that they stoned him to death.
Final words. “While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he fell on his knees and cried out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’” (Acts 7:59-60). Jesus made similar statements before He died (Lk. 23:34, 46).
Lesson for us. The more we focus on Jesus and what he has done for us, the more we become like Him.
Paul was a young Jewish leader who persecuted Christians and was associated with the stoning of Stephen. But God changed his life in a spectacular way and he became a follower of Jesus who spread across the Roman Empire the good news of Jesus had done.
Final words. In his last letter Paul wrote, “… The time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for His appearing” (2 Tim. 4:6-8). He continued to trust God even though life had been difficult and the end of his service was near. He had obeyed the doctrines of the Christian faith and passed them on to others such as Timothy. Like the winner of a Greek athletic race was awarded a wreath (1 Cor. 9:25), his faithful service would be rewarded at the Judgment Seat of Christ.
Lesson for us. Godly people like Paul remain faithful to the end of life and don’t backslide like Demas who “loved this world” and deserted Paul (2 Tim. 4:10).
Until our final day, let’s imitate these godly men by having:
- The faith of Joseph that God keeps His promises
- The assurance of Moses that God is always with us as His Holy Spirit, who provides security and contentment.
- The godly influence of Joshua who didn’t backslide
- The message of reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ
- The Christ-like life of Stephen
- The perseverance of Paul who didn’t backslide
Because of the examples of these final words, “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” (Heb. 13:1-3). If we pay careful attention to these examples “we do not drift away” from an active faith in Christ (Heb. 2:1).
Written, December 2012
God’s Word is the Key
In Old Testament times the Jews were God’s special people. He promised them many things, but some of these were conditional on their obedience (Ex. 15:25-26; 23:25-26; Dt. 7:12-16). If they worshipped idols, they were told: “The LORD will scatter you among the peoples, and only a few of you will survive among the nations to which the LORD will drive you” (Deut. 4:27NIV). Because the Jews were unfaithful and followed idols instead of the true God, they were overrun by the Assyrians and Babylonians and Jerusalem was plundered and destroyed.
However, after 70 years of captivity in Babylon, some returned to their homeland. This journey of about 1500 km took them 4 months to travel (Ezra 7:8). They returned in three phases: Zerabbabel rebuilt the temple, 80 years later Ezra led a spiritual revival, and 13 years later Nehemiah rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem. Although there was opposition from the surrounding nations, they persisted and there was a spiritual revival when they turned back to worshipping the only true God. Let’s look at the key steps in their revival.
The main character is Ezra, who was a devoted student and a teacher of the Scriptures (Ezra 7:10). He was instrumental in a spiritual revival after Nehemiah rebuilt the city walls. One day all the Israelite men and women gathered together and Ezra “read it (the books of Moses) aloud from daybreak till noon” (Neh. 8:3). The people listened for 5-6 hours! That’s a long time! Thirteen Levites helped by “making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read” (Neh. 8:8). As Aramaic was the language at the time, they probably translated it from Hebrew into Aramaic. On the next day Ezra taught the leaders, priests and Levites from the Scripture (Neh. 8:13). When they discovered that they had not been celebrating the Festival of Shelters, they celebrated it with joy. On every day of this 7-day festival, Ezra read from the Scripture (Neh. 8:18).
Three days later the people gathered together to confess their sinful ways. They “read from the Book of the Law of the LORD their God for 3 hours, and spent another 3 hours in confession and in worshiping the LORD their God” (Ezra 9:3). They prayed one of the longest prayers in the Bible, which traces God’s faithfulness across history despite the Jews unfaithfulness (Neh. 9:6-37). After this they wrote a binding agreement that they would obey the Lord and follow the Scriptures (Neh. 9:38 – 10:39). So the sequence of events was: they read the Bible (Neh. 8), they confessed their sins (Neh. 9), and they obeyed the Lord (Neh. 10).
This pattern is similar to the Jewish revival under king Josiah. After he was informed of God’s message in Scripture, “he tore his robes” and wept in anger and sorrow acknowledging their disobedience, and then promised “to follow the LORD and keep His commands” and acted to remove all the idols in the land of Israel (2 Ki. 22:8 – 23:20; 2 Chr. 34:14-33).
Read the Bible
What can we learn from this? Revival begins with God’s word. Did you notice how often they read the Scripture? The Bible showed them how they had failed. The bible is our spiritual food: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16). It helps us learn God’s perspective on our world including what is right and what is wrong (“teaching”); where we are on the wrong track (“rebuking”); how to get back onto the right track (“correcting”); and how to live a godly life (“training in righteousness”).
Confess our sins
After they read the Bible, they felt guilt and shame. This led to confession of sin in prayer to the Lord; they were honest with God. After God speaks to us in Scripture, we need to respond in prayer. This is necessary to keep in touch with God: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9). Although the penalty of our sins has already been paid, they affect our relationships in the family of God. If we confess our sins to the Lord, He promises to forgive them and enable these relationships to be restored. If the sin is against another person, we should confess to them so that they in turn can forgive us (Lk. 17: 3-4; Jas. 5:16).
Follow the Lord
After they confessed their sin, there was repentance and obedience; they acted to get back on track. Signs of being in fellowship with the Lord and with believers in the family of God are that we “keep His commands”, obey “His word”, and “live as Jesus did” (1 Jn. 2:3-6). This means obeying Christ’s teachings, doing what pleases Him, and letting Him live His life through us. Paul said, “I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Christ left an example for us to follow, and said “learn from me” and “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mt. 11:29; 16:24; 1 Pt. 2:21).
Lessons for us
So let’s read and meditate on the Bible and apply it to our lives. This is the key to the three steps of spiritual revival: read the Bible, confess our sins, and follow the Lord.
Written, June 2011
Recently a woman asked this question. Because of an abusive husband, she was frightened of men and never went outside at night. All her hopes and dreams had vanished. She was alone and couldn’t see any possibility of her situation improving. Also, I learnt that an elderly man had completed suicide. He chose death rather than life. He had no reason to live any longer.
The wisest person who ever lived, Solomon, found that a life which is not related to God is meaningless (Eccl. 1:2; 1:14; 12:8). It is like “chasing after the wind.” True fulfillment and lasting satisfaction are illusive. The things we do apart from God are hollow and futile because they can be destroyed and come to nothing. Hopes and dreams for this life can be shattered and wiped away. This was the case for these people.
According to the Bible, there are two main purposes of life: to know God, and to serve Him. Paul, a pioneer of the Christian faith, wrote: “I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things … I want to know Christ” (Phil. 3:8,10 NIV). He also wrote: “ For to me, to live is Christ” (Phil. 1:21). He gave up Judaism and all his personal achievements when he trusted Christ as Savior. He wanted to know the Lord personally and live for Him. .
The Bible tells us that people are “without hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). They have no lasting hope, no hope beyond death. This is because they don’t know the only true God, who was revealed by Jesus Christ. But if we truly know God, we have a lasting hope that looks beyond death. Paul said, “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19). Because Christ was raised from the dead, we can look forward to the resurrection of our bodies, life forever with the Lord and God’s kingdom being established on earth.
People put their time and effort into the things that they think are important. Near the end of his life Paul said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7). He was a devoted servant of God who put all his energy into serving Him and doing His will. He had protected the Christian doctrine which had been committed to him, and he faithfully passed it on to others. God wants us to be faithful in His sight; not merely successful in people’s sight.
Paul was motivated by the fact that his service would be reviewed in heaven: “We make it our goal to please Him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:9-10). Fancy being able to please God when we are “away from” the body after death! This is when believers stand before the Lord as He reviews their service. The only thing we can take with us beyond death is our reward for faithfulness to Him.
Can all our hopes, dreams, visions and goals be taken away? If the answer is yes, they are flimsy and not robust. That’s why people give up, get depressed, and think there is no purpose to life. Instead let’s be like Paul and make our most important priority knowing the Lord Jesus Christ and serving Him while we can.
Published, April 2012
There are different attitudes to work. Some work long hours, while others work as little as possible. Is work a vital part of our lives or just a consequence of the fall into sin? Today we see how Paul addressed laziness at Thessalonica.
Previously, we have seen that in his second letter to the believers at Thessalonica, Paul encouraged them to persevere in their trials, suffering and persecution although they were so occupied with these that they forgot about their hope for the future. So Paul gave them an eternal perspective with a vision of the appearing when their suffering will be replaced by glory and the Lord and His followers are revealed for all to see. He also reminded them that in future things will be set right and the truth will be evident to all. God is going to punish the persecutors and those guilty of wicked deeds. There will be retribution. This would have helped them to cope. Then he addressed the false teaching that they were in the tribulation—the first part of the day of the Lord (1 Th. 5:1-11). If this was so, then the rapture must have already occurred and they had been left behind. Paul points out that this is false because the antichrist had not been revealed yet. In the tribulation, the antichrist will use miracles to deceive the people as God will send a powerful delusion so that those who deliberately rejected the truth will believe the antichrist’s lies. Instead, Paul told them to “stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you”.
The third problem in Thessalonica was that some had stopped working because they thought the Lord was returning soon. Instead of working they were being lazy and disruptive in the local church. Paul had told them in his first letter to return to work, but evidently his directions had not been obeyed.
Prayer Points (2 Th. 3:1-2NIV)
As for other matters, brothers and sisters, pray for us that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honored, just as it was with you. And pray that we may be delivered from wicked and evil people, for not everyone has faith.
Before he addressed the problem, Paul requested prayer; he wrote “pray for us” in the wicked city of Corinth. He had three prayer points:
First, pray “that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly”. The Greek word is “logos” (3056), sometimes translated as “word”, which in this context means the message from the Lord. Paul used the word “logos” twice in 1 Thessalonians: to describe the gospel (1 Th. 1:8) and to describe how the message about the rapture was a direct revelation from Christ—it was “according to the Lord’s word” (1 Th. 4:15). So Paul wanted the message of the gospel to be spread to unbelievers and the truths of the New Testament to be spread to believers. That’s what happened in Thessalonica (1 Th. 1:7).
Second, pray “that the message of the Lord may be honoured”. The Greek word is “doxazo” (1392), sometimes translated as “glorified”. What does this mean? At Pisidian Antioch, the Gentiles honoured the message by believing and obeying it (Acts 13:48-49). It was life-changing. So Paul wanted the message of the gospel to be believed and obeyed by unbelievers—that they would repent and turn to God. He also wanted the truths of the New Testament to be believed and obeyed by believers. Once again, that’s what happened in Thessalonica (1 Th. 1:7).
Third, “pray that we may be delivered from wicked and evil people, for not everyone has faith”. He wanted to be protected. Because Paul was preaching the gospel in Corinth, the unbelieving Jews opposed him and became abusive and later they accused him before the Roman governor (Acts 18:6, 12-15). These people were hindering the spread of the gospel. As Paul wanted to be able to continue preaching the gospel, they were to pray that this would not be hindered by wicked and evil unbelievers.
The secret of success (2 Th. 3:3-5)
But the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen you and protect you from the evil one. We have confidence in the Lord that you are doing and will continue to do the things we command. May the Lord direct your hearts into God’s love and Christ’s perseverance.
He then encouraged them with a promise that the Lord will strengthen them and protect them from Satan. God is faithful, He keeps His promises. This faith is contrasted with the lack of faith in the unbelievers noted in the previous verse. Elsewhere we know that God faithfully promises to not let believers be tempted beyond what they can bear (1 Cor. 10:13) and when they confess their sins, He will faithfully forgive their sins and restore their fellowship with Himself (1 Jn. 1:9).
Paul now balances God’s provision for the Thessalonians with their responsibility to keep doing the things that Paul had commanded. It’s not good enough to relax and think that because God will look after us, then we can be lazy and ignore His commands. Christians need to be active, not passive. It’s doing the things God has commanded and continuing to do these things.
Remember, the Thessalonians were being persecuted. Under these circumstances, Paul urges them to have God’s love and Christ’s perseverance. This is the opposite of being bitter and giving up. Here the “heart” means the unseen part of us such as our mind, will, and emotions.
The Lord endured as an example for us: “… let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus … He endured the cross … consider Him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Heb 12:1-3). Likewise, they were to “never tire of doing what is good” (v.13). Those who had been obeying Paul’s instructions were encouraged to keep it up. Even though there were those who were lazy, this shouldn’t stop the others doing what is good. This included not giving up on the lazy ones but carrying out Paul’s instructions.
Work for a living (2 Th. 3:6-15)
In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers and sisters, to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” We hear that some among you are idle and disruptive. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the food they eat. And as for you, brothers and sisters, never tire of doing what is good. Take special note of anyone who does not obey our instruction in this letter. Do not associate with them, in order that they may feel ashamed. Yet do not regard them as an enemy, but warn them as you would a fellow believer.
Ever since the days of Adam, people must work for a living. Adam had to work and take care of the garden of Eden (Gen. 2:15). After the fall into sin this work became arduous (Gen .3:17-19).
Paul now addresses the third major problem in the church at Thessalonica. It seems as though some of the Thessalonians thought the Lord was returning soon, so they stopped working and relied on others to support them. So they were idle instead of working and this lead to them interfering with other people’s affairs. What is a Paul’s solution to this problem? First, he says these people are out of line with what he had taught them (v.6). Here’s what they were advised to do.
Follow Paul’s example (v.7-9).
Paul, Silas and Timothy had worked hard while they preached in Thessalonica so they would not be a burden to others (1 Th. 2:9). Paul was a tent maker by trade. Although he could have relied on the support of others for food, accommodation and money, he worked night and day to pay his expenses and not be dependent on them. When he was not preaching, teaching and shepherding the new believers, he was probably making and repairing tents. Paul was self supporting; he didn’t seek funds from those to whom he was preaching the gospel. The reason he worked was so he wouldn’t be a burden to those who were poor and persecuted and he didn’t want to hinder the gospel message in any way.
Now he urges those who had stopped working to follow his example (v.7). Although he had the right to financial help, Paul “did not use this right” of support in Corinth so that the gospel would not be hindered (1 Cor. 9:12, 14). Instead, he offered the gospel “free of charge” (1 Cor. 9:18). He then gives another reason for supporting himself: Paul wanted to be a model for them to imitate; an example to be followed.
Command them to get back to work (v.11-12).
Previously, Paul told them how to increase in their love for one another (1 Th. 4:11-12). First they were to “mind your own business”. Instead, some Thessalonians, probably because of idleness, were taking undue interest on other people’s lives. They were commanded not to be a busybody who interferes in the lives of others in an unnecessary and unhelpful way, because idleness and meddling in the lives of others is not loving. Second, they were to “work with your hands” in order to provide for themselves and their family (1 Tim. 5:8). In the context of caring for widows, “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8).
Two reasons were given in 1 Th. 4:11-12 for working to support themselves: “To win the respect of outsiders”—they were being watched by people who judged Christianity and God’s Word by their behavior; and to “not be dependent on anybody”—not to be a burden to others.
He had also instructed them how to deal with those who disobeyed this command, “warn those who are idle and disruptive” (1 Th. 5:14). Those who had stopped working were disorderly, disobedient and rebellious busybodies who caused disruption in the local church. This behaviour was unacceptable. They were to be warned to get back to work so as to be able to support themselves and their families. We will see they could also be warned by saying that: “we will stop helping you” and “we will no longer socialise with you”.
Now Paul gives further instructions about these people who were minding everybody’s business but their own (v.11-12). When they could no longer find any meaning in their work, they started messing in other people’s business, criticizing, grumbling, gossiping, and trying to control others. Paul commanded and urged them to get back to work to support themselves and their families. How they behaved would have affected their witness for the Lord. How could they urge people to get their spiritual lives in order, if they couldn’t get their physical lives in order?
Don’t help them (v.10)
Now we will look at how Paul advised then to deal with those who refused to obey his instructions. Paul said don’t help them by feeding and supporting them; instead let them experience the consequences of their behavior. This is addressed to those who are “unwilling to work”, not those who cannot work. If an able-bodied Christian refused to work, neither should they eat. This rule was to stop them becoming busybodies that disrupt the local church. Does this conflict with the fact that Christians should be kind and loving? No, it is a tough love that draws a boundary against encouraging laziness. That’s why this article is titled, “Don’t be lazy”.
Keep away from them (v.6, 14-15).
This was followed by further instructions on how to deal with those who refused to obey his instructions. Finally Paul commands them in Christ’s name not to socialise with believers who refused to work and who were disrupting the local church. The Greek words used mean to “withdraw” from or “avoid” and to not keep company with them. It was to be a more distant relationship instead of a close one. This let them know that this behavior was not acceptable. The purpose of this discipline was to awaken their conscience to make them feel ashamed of their behaviour and give them a reason to change it. They can still have some of the benefits of the family, but their part is restricted until they repent and are restored to the close relationship.
Paul warns them not to take it too far, so they feel like an enemy. Don’t make them feel like an unbeliever, as they don’t deserve to be expelled from the church. In the case of expulsion, people are to be treated as an unbeliever; as though they are not in the family (Mt. 18:17). Note that the instruction was addressed to the behaviour of fellow believers, not to the behavior of unbelievers.
Our resources (2 Thess. 3:16-18)
Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way. The Lord be with all of you. I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand, which is the distinguishing mark in all my letters. This is how I write. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Now may the Lord of peace Himself give you peace at all times and in every way. The Lord be with all of you. I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand, which is the distinguishing mark in all my letters. This is how I write. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.
Paul finishes reminding them of the Lord’s peace, presence and grace. They could have “peace at all times and in every way”, including when they faced the problems created by those who refused to work for a living. They needed this peaceful attitude as they addressed these problems. The Lord of peace was with all of them, including those who were idle and disruptive.
Perhaps because of poor eyesight, Paul dictated his letters to a secretary (Rom. 16:22), but near the end of some he added some words in his own handwriting. This practice was his distinguishing mark. Then as usual he ended the letter with a benediction of grace for the Thessalonians. This is God’s unmerited favor though the saving work of Christ.
Lessons for us
Do we follow Paul’s example and pray that the gospel and the truths of the Bible would spread rapidly and obeyed? Is that our mission as well? Do we pray that preachers and teachers would be protected? Surely this is what all missionaries and those serving the Lord would request.
Do we realise that our success in living for God relies on God’s promises of strength and protection and our obedience to the commands and principles for believers in the church? Do we feel secure? We have God’s love and His protection. Are we consistent? We can learn for Christ’s persistence.
Paul worked hard night and day to support himself while he preaching the gospel. He was an example to be followed. Are we? What sort of a witness is our work? Do we support our families? Work is important because it gives a sense of worth and meaning in our lives. But there were believers at Thessalonica who refused to work and were disruptive busybodies in the local church. Are we idle?
Today we don’t face the problem that people are so ardently looking forward to the Lord’s return that they abandon their daily duties. Instead we are so busy with our business and money-making that we forget that the Lord could return at any moment. Nevertheless, the same principles apply in cases of disobedience. What would Paul say to us? Would it be that we work too much instead of not enough? Are we so busy with our things that there is little time for God’s things? Are we lazy, busy or too busy supporting our families?
Do we do the things God has commanded, like “Love one another”; “as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Gal. 6:10); or are disobedient, or are we hypocrites?
Paul wasn’t lazy. Are we lazy or busy for God? Let’s be like Paul by being busy for God and busy supporting our families.
Written, April 2007
Revealing the Invisible God
The early church was characterised by a strong love for one another. In this article we look at what the Bible says about this love.
A Divine Love
The New Testament uses a unique word for divine love; the Greek noun “agape”. This word and its derivatives are mentioned about 172 times in the letters written to the church between Acts and Revelation. It is used in three main ways: God or Christ loving people; Christians loving God or Christ; and Christians loving one another. Of these three types of divine love, which do you think is referred to most often in these passages?
From the usage of the word “agape” and its derivatives in these passages summarised below, we see that it is most frequently used to describe Christians loving one another.
|Context of “agape” (Acts to Revelation)||Frequency (%)|
|Christians loving one another||51|
|God or Christ loving people||22|
|Christians loving God or Christ||15|
|Husbands loving wives||3|
|God is love||2|
These relationships may be represented by a schematic diagram. God is the ultimate source of this love. “God is love”; it’s part of His nature (2 Cor. 13:11; 1 Jn. 4:7). We know this because He sent His Son to die for us. God loves people, which is indicated in the diagram as a vertical relationship (1 Jn. 4:11). Christians receive this love from the Holy Spirit; it’s a fruit of the Spirit and part of the divine nature (Rom. 15:30; Gal. 5:22). Christians love God, which is indicated in the diagram as another vertical relationship (1 Pet. 1:8; 1 Jn. 5:1). Furthermore, Christians are told to love one another, which is indicated in the diagram as a horizontal relationship (1 Jn. 3:23; 4:21; 2 Jn 5). This love, which has been implanted in each believer, should flow out to all other believers; those in your congregation and those in other congregations (1 Jn. 5:1).
This diagram illustrates how God’s love is shown today: “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and His love is made complete in us” (1 Jn. 4:12NIV). The invisible God, who was revealed to the world in the gospels through Jesus Christ, is now revealed to the world through believers. His love is only complete in achieving its goal if we love one another; otherwise, God’s love is invisible. That is amazing!
The other usage of “agape” in these passages is when husbands are told to love their wives, which is love between two particular people (Eph. 5:25, 28, 33).
There are two important commands in the New Testament; “And this is His command: to believe in the name of His Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as He commanded us” (1 Jn. 3:23). The first is to believe what the Bible says about the Lord and to follow Him. The second is to love one another.
The second command is repeated, “And He has given us this command: Those who love God must also love one another” (1 Jn. 4:21). So this is a love between any two believers. The reason is given as, “since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 Jn. 4:11). In fact, Christians owe this love to each another (Rom. 13:8).
Elsewhere this command is expressed as a specific example of “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14; Jas. 2;8). Believers should have a desire to do the will of God and loving one another is one of His commands (1 Jn. 5:2-3; 2 Jn. 5-6).
Other commands in Scripture about loving one another are: to love your fellow believers (1 Pet. 2:17); to “do everything in love” (1 Cor. 16:14); to serve one another humbly in love instead of biting and ravaging each other (Gal. 5:13); to bear one another in love (Eph. 4:2); above all, to love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins (1 Pt. 4:8); and to walk in the way of love by following Christ’s example (Eph. 5:1-2).
Not only is this love for one another divine and one of the Lord’s commands, it is also a sign.
A Sign Of A Believer
The apostle John wrote the letter of 1 John to Christians of his time saying, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 Jn. 5:13). He wanted them to be assured and certain of their inheritance of eternal life. To do this he gave them some tests to distinguish believers from non-believers, which were based on people’s characteristic behaviour. These tests were: obedience to God’s word, love for one another, beliefs about Christ, and righteous living. So love for one another distinguishes a believer.
Loving one another is evidence of our Christian faith (1 Jn. 3:14). John also wrote, “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 Jn. 4:7-8). Furthermore, if we say we love God yet hate a brother or sister, we are liars. For if we do not love a fellow believer, whom we have seen, we cannot love God, whom we have not seen (1 Jn. 4:20).
Christians tap into God’s love and their faith gives them the ability to love one another. According to the Bible, those who do not love their Christian brothers and sisters are not God’s children (1 Jn. 3:10).
The best examples of loving one another are given in the Bible.
Recognizing Love For One Another
Loving one another is an example of the command to “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Rom. 13:9). This means, loving others as we love ourselves. It is not selfish. It’s what can we do for that person, not what can we get from them. Remember the Good Samaritan who helped a stranger. It includes helping others, kind deeds and generous support of the needy (2 Cor. 8:8, 24; Heb. 6:10; 1 Jn. 3:18). Remember the Lord who sacrificed Himself for us (Eph. 5:2). It’s an unconditional love; He loved us before we loved Him. It’s a giving love; He gave Himself for us.
This love is described as being “for one another”. We are to love because each believer is “another”. It’s an acceptance, an interest and a concern for another believer, just because they are another person. All other things about them are irrelevant, such as whether we like them or not and whether they may reciprocate our love. Such supernatural love of one another is a conscious decision of the will and not a feeling or emotion. Otherwise, we couldn’t love those that are difficult to love. Loving one another is an attitude towards them that is a motive for all Christian behaviour (Gal. 5:13).
A well-known description of this love is: “Love is patient, love is kind … rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Cor. 13:4-7). It is associated with being gentle to others (1 Cor. 4:21). It is the most important Christian virtue (1 Cor. 13:13; Col. 3:12-14; 2 Pet. 1:5-7).
This love builds up others by thinking what is best for them and supports others by praying for them (Rom. 15:30-31; 1 Cor. 8:1). It involves making allowance for each other’s faults (Eph. 4:2) and overlooking minor faults and failures in other believers (1 Pet. 4:8). As the Lord showed His love in giving (Jn. 3:16; Eph. 5:25), we can show our love by giving our time, our abilities, our money, and our lives to others.
But, unfortunately, we can grieve the Holy Spirit by not loving one another.
Absence Of Love For One Another
The Bible gives signs of what life is like when we don’t love one another. Instead of loving we harm, we covert what someone else has, we steal from them, and this pattern of behavior can lead to murder (Rom. 13:8-10). Thinking of others in a way that leads to pride (1 Cor. 8:1); hating other believers (1 Jn. 3:11-15; 4:20-21), quarrelling with them (Gal. 5:13-15); and placing burdens on them (2 Cor. 11:11; 12:14-16) is also characteristic of a lack of love.
The well-known description says that when this love is absent, instead there is jealousy, boasting, pride, dishonouring of others, self-seeking, anger, keeping records of wrongs and delighting in evil (1 Cor. 13:4-7). This is self-indulgence.
When this love is absent, we need to get right with the Lord by confessing our sins (1 Jn. 1:9) and get right with others we have hurt by apologising and confessing before God’s love can flow through us again and out to others.
Lessons For Us
Loving one another is a command and duty; it is not an option. Its frequent occurrence in Scripture shows that it is of prime importance. In a world that is always looking for love, Christians are the only channel for divine (agape) love. Such love is a distinguishing characteristic of Christians.
Paul told those at Colossae to put on love above all the other aspects of Christian character (Col. 3:14). Let’s put on love every day by: living so God’s love can flow through us to one another; deliberately loving one another; giving ourselves for others; filtering all our conversations with such love (Eph. 4:15); being kind, thoughtful, considerate, patient and tolerant of each other’s views; and being known as people who love one another.
Paul told the Corinthians to excel in this kind of love (2 Cor. 8:7) and prayed that this love would increase amongst Thessalonians and it did (1 Th. 3:12; 2 Th. 1:3). Let’s make this our goal as well.
John wrote about a love that is active: “let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth” (1 Jn. 3:18). It asks, what can I do to help? This includes doing things that others can’t do and encouraging them to do things they can do and to make decisions that only they can make. We can only encourage someone in this way if we know what life is like for them by spending time together and listening to others; and not talking too much ourselves (Jas. 1:19). Hospitality is good for this.
Finally, in Hebrews we are urged to consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as we see the Day approaching (Heb. 10:24-25). Let’s spur one another on towards increasing love for one another.
Written, October 2008
Serving God and people
Before He ascended the Lord told the apostles, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8TNIV). The church which began in Jerusalem was largely Jewish, but God used Paul to bring the Christian faith to the world around the Mediterranean Sea—it spread across the Roman Empire. He also used Paul to record most of the teachings of the Christian faith. What can we learn from Paul’s life?
Paul’s Christian Life
Paul was a strict Jew; a Pharisee who persecuted the Christian church. He was trained in Jerusalem to understand the Old Testament very well. But there was a dramatic change in his life—he turned around 180 degrees and was persecuted for preaching the good news about Jesus Christ. This happened after he had a spectacular encounter with God.
After this time we see that his life was characterized by travel and suffering. After he was saved, we read that “The Lord said to Ananias, ‘Go! This man (Paul) is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name’” (Acts 9:15-16).
He probably spent about 15 years of his life on his main missionary journeys to modern Turkey, to modern Greece, to Rome as a prisoner and possibly to Spain. Most of his letters were written to churches he established on these journeys.
When his life was threatened, he escaped from the cities of: Damascus, Jerusalem, Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Thessalonica, Berea and Ephesus. But Paul didn’t give up when he faced such opposition; instead he moved to preach in another city. Paul endured much suffering and hardship (2 Cor. 11:23-28) and he was stoned and left for dead at Lystra (Acts 14:19-21). After being miraculously restored he left for Derbe on the next day where he preached and “won a large number of disciples”. Then he returned to Lystra, where he had been stoned, to strengthen and encourage the believers. Clearly, Paul thought that preaching and teaching was more important than his personal safety.
Paul was in prison for at least five years of his life and five of his letters in the Bible were written from prison. When he faced imprisonment he said “I consider my life worth nothing to me; 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). Paul accepted such punishment, but continued to preach the gospel: “He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!” (Acts 28:31).
Unique to Paul
Some aspects of Paul’s life were unique. He was an apostle and a prophet, being one of the founders of the church, which was “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Eph. 2:20).
As the apostle to the Gentiles, Paul preached the gospel at key cities across the Roman Empire (Acts 9:15; Rom. 11:13; Gal .2:8; 1 Tim. 2:7). In particular, Paul was a pioneer preacher and teacher who brought new truths to the early church. The Greek word apostolos meant “sent out” or “ambassador”. In the Bible, an apostle was also one who witnessed the resurrection (Acts 1:22; 4:33). In Paul’s case, he had seen the Lord in a vision that blinded him (1 Cor. 9:1-2). The apostles also performed many miracles (Acts 5:12; 19:11-12; 28:3-6; 2 Cor. 12:12; Heb. 2:3-4). These supernatural powers were mainly used to demonstrate to unbelieving Jews the truth of the gospel (1 Cor. 1:22), for example, Paul didn’t heal himself or Trophimus (2 Cor. 12: 7-9; 2 Tim. 4:20). With the completion of the New Testament in written form, the need for such signs largely passed away.
As a prophet, Paul was given the Christian doctrine before it was put into writing—the gospel he preached he received by revelation from the Lord (Gal. 1:12). Direct revelation is not required today as our doctrine should come from the Bible, particularly the books that were written to the early church.
The remainder of this article considers passages of the Bible which say that Paul was an example for us to imitate. They convey this by using at least one of the following Greek words: mimeomai, a mimic or imitator; tupos, a die or stamp or model; and hupotuposis, a pattern.
An Example of God’s Saving Power
A few years before the end of his life, Paul wrote to Timothy and included his testimony. When writing about his conversion to Christianity he said: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life” (1 Tim. 1:15-16). Here we see that Paul was an example that God can save the worst of sinners. No matter how bad or frequent one’s sins have been, God has the power to forgive them and reconcile the person to Himself, provided there is repentance. Of course, we are all sinners who need God’s saving power.
His Example to the Thessalonians
On his second missionary journey Paul travelled through what is now Greece visiting Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, Athens and Corinth. As a result of his preaching, some accepted the gospel and these new believers made up the first churches in these places. While he was in Corinth Paul heard news from Thessalonica and wrote them two letters to encourage and instruct them in the Christian faith.
When Paul commended them for their faith, love and hope, he wrote: “You became imitators of us and of the Lord” (1 Th. 1:6). This was preceded by the statement: “You know how we lived among you for your sake” (1 Th. 1:5). So they followed Paul’s example, which was evident from how he lived at Thessalonica.
First, he was bold with the gospel: he said “with the help of our God we dared to tell you His gospel in the face of strong opposition” (1 Th. 2:2). Second, he lived with integrity: he was “holy, righteous and blameless” (1 Th. 2:10). This included being honest: “We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts” (1 Th. 2:4). Third, he cared for them: loving them like a mother and instructing them like a father (1 Th. 2:7, 11). Fourth, he was self-supporting, active and not lazy. He worked hard so as not to be a burden on others (1 Th. 2:9). When he warned them about laziness, Paul wrote, “you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example” (2 Th. 3:7-9). Paul earned his own living while he was preaching the gospel. He wrote, “We did this … in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate”. In particular, he worked night and day in order to pay for his food. He also worked to provide for the needs of his colleagues (Acts 20:34).
His Example to the Corinthians
Three years after Paul visited Corinth he received a letter from them informing him of their problems and asking him questions. When Paul wrote back to them, after dealing with the problems of divisions in the local church, he said “I urge you to imitate me” (1 Cor. 4:16). What example is mentioned near this statement?
The previous paragraph says: “For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored! To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment” (1 Cor. 4:9-13). Here we see that Paul was passionate for Christ (he was willing to be a fool for Christ) and he suffered for Christ (being: hungry, thirsty, in rags, brutally treated, homeless, cursed, persecuted and slandered).
In the following verse we see that Paul practiced what he preached: “He (Timothy) will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church” (1 Cor. 4:17). The Philippians were told this as well, “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice” (Phil. 4:9). So, they were to also follow what he taught.
After Paul dealt with the problem of eating meat that had been offered to idols he wrote, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). The example mentioned before this statement comprised two important principles for our Christian lives.
First, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). Although Paul endured hardships and suffering when he preached the gospel, he persevered because he wanted to honor and obey God. He was God-centred in all he did, even when deciding what to eat and drink.
Second, “Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God—even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved” (1 Cor. 10:32-33). Paul was not selfish. He was people-centred, respecting the welfare of everyone, both believers and unbelievers. He did nothing that would hinder an unbeliever receiving salvation or that would stumble the faith of a believer.
His Example to the Philippians
About 10 years after being in prison in Philippi, he wrote to them from another prison in Rome. He urged them to “Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do” (Phil. 3:17). Once again, his example is evident from the context of this verse.
In the previous verses we see what Paul gave up when he became a Christian: the family religion of Judaism, his attainments and prestige as a Pharisee (Phil. 3:4-15). He now called these things garbage. From his new perspective they were worthless. Because he gave up what everyone else thought was important, he would have been disowned by his family and friends and he was persecuted by fellow Jews. Furthermore, he didn’t want to feel good by keeping a list of rules as he knew that he was accepted by God because of his faith in Christ. He wanted to live as Christ did and this involved suffering. His willingness to suffer for Christ is seen as being a mature view of the Christian faith.
Paul’s goal in life is described as: “But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13-14). He wanted to leave behind all his attainments which were listed earlier and make progress in his Christian life. His values had changed and he looked forward to heaven.
Then Paul says who not to follow: “For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things” (Phil. 3:18-19). He criticised those who act as though they were going to live on earth forever and never consider their eternal destiny. Their god is their appetite and they boast about things that they should be ashamed of.
His Example to Follow
So, Paul was an example, a model and a pattern for us all to follow. He was saved to show what God can do in a human being. From these passages, we see there are two strands in Paul’s example for us: firstly love for God and secondly love for people. This is like the greatest commandments, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind … Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt. 22:37-38).
Paul had a passion for God; he was God-centred, not self-centred; he gave up all his attainments and privileges to live the Christian life; he was willing to suffer for Christ; he was bold with the gospel, and he suffered for preaching to unbelievers; and he did everything for the glory of God.
Paul also had a passion for people: he was self-supporting and not lazy; he lived with integrity; he cared for others; and he respected their consciences.
Lessons For Us
God uses our life experiences. For example, Paul’s travels and imprisonment led him to write many letters to early churches, some of which we can read today in the New Testament. Likewise, we need to let God use our life experiences for His purposes.
Paul was saved to be a pattern to all future believers. Like Timothy and Titus, all believers are Paul’s spiritual children. Are we following his example? Are we following Christ’s example? What are our priorities? Do we have a passion for God? Do we have a passion for people? Do we persevere with these priorities despite the difficulties we may face in life?
Paul told the Philippians, “keep your eyes on those who live as we do” (Phil. 3:17). So, God saved us to be a pattern to other believers. Are we an example like Paul? What example are we setting for the next generation?
Let’s beware of the self-centeredness of our times and be willing to suffer for Christ and honor Him in all we do and look at people with compassion though God’s eyes and be bold with the gospel, but treat them with respect.
Written, June 2008
Dealing with debatable matters
In the previous article we saw that God communicates to us progressively through the Bible. So Old Testament (OT) verses need to be understood in view of the additional knowledge we have in the New Testament (NT). In doing this we can look for examples, warnings, encouragement and hope in the OT which are consistent with the messages given to churches in the NT. In the case of Leviticus 19:28, which prohibited the Jews having tattoos, the tests for a tattoo today could be: Is it consistent or inconsistent with being devoted to God? Is it linked to idolatry? Does it display the fruit of the Spirit or an act of the sinful nature? What is the motivation behind the tattoo?
Now we will look at how the teachings of the NT apply to this topic, which provides further insight into how we can apply the teaching of Scripture to our daily lives. The previous article stated that tattooing was not mentioned specifically in the NT. However, some people think the following verses could refer to tattoos. During the time of tribulation after true Christians are taken to heaven, the false prophet will force “all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom. Let those who have insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666” (Rev. 13:16-18TNIV). Also, when Christ returns to earth to put down His enemies and to set up His kingdom, “On His robe and on His thigh He has this name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.” (Rev. 19:16).
As the word translated “mark” (Strongs #5480) is a scratch or etching; something engraved or stamped it looks like it could be a literal mark on the skin. However, this is only an inference. The word translated “written” (Strong’s #1125) usually refers to something written in a book, scroll, or on a board. However, it may be symbolic not literal, like the sword out of His mouth (v.15). Obviously, there can be various views on the “mark” and the “writing”.
In a situation that is not sinful, whether to get a tattoo can be considered to be a debatable matter where Christians may have different opinions and convictions. These are secondary matters that are not essential to the Christian faith. The bible distinguishes between essentials and non-essentials in the Christian faith. The essentials or fundamentals or primary matters are things which all believers should agree on. They are the tests the Bible quotes for recognising false teachers and false ideas about things such as the person and work of Christ; the good news of salvation “by grace … through faith .. not by works” (Eph. 2:8-9); and the inspiration and authority of the Bible as God’s revelation to us.
Apart from such foundational truths, there are many other things in the bible that are not as clear and not as easily understood. These are non-essentials or secondary matters. Romans 14:1 – 15:7; 1 Corinthians 8 and 1 Corinthians 10:23-33 are key passages on this topic. In Romans 14:1 they are called “disputable matters” (Rom. 14:1TNIV) or “doubtful things” (NKJV), but as the Greek word used (Strongs #1261) means “discussion” or “debate”, I prefer to call them “debatable matters”. We can debate them, but shouldn’t dispute them. In these instances as the Bible allows for differences of opinion, we must also allow for differing opinions. Romans 14 addresses whether to eat food that has been offered to idols or whether one day was more sacred than another, which were issues in the first century AD around the Mediterranean. As Paul wrote, “The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17), what counts in God’s kingdom is not what we eat or drink, but lives characterised by practical righteousness, peace and joy.
The first example in this chapter concerns eating meat, “One person’s faith allows them to eat everything, but another person, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables.” (Rom. 14:2). When the book of Romans was written, many Gentile believers (those with no Jewish ancestry) had previously participated in pagan worship which included animal sacrifices to pagan gods. The animals that were sacrificed were usually sold as meat on the open market. So for those who had been saved out of this lifestyle the question became whether they should eat the meat sacrificed to these idols. By eating this meat, were they participating in the idolatry of pagans? This was a hard question for many. And desiring not to participate in idolatrous practices, many of these Gentile Christians became vegetarians. Only in that way could they assure themselves that they were not eating meat sacrificed to idols.
Paul says that the weak believer, with a strict conscience, ate only vegetables whereas the strong believer’s faith allowed them to eat this meat because they understood that the idols to which the meat had been offered were not gods at all – only pieces of wood, stone or metal. Therefore, as they ate the meat with that understanding, they were not participating in idolatry.
The second example has to do with observing special days as holy days, “Some consider one day more sacred than another; others consider every day alike” (Rom. 14:5). Those who had been saved out of a Jewish tradition of Sabbath days and festivals were apt to make a great deal out of those observances. However, others not coming from that background felt that every day was the Lord’s day, and that none were more special than others. This created problems in the early church. How were believers to live together who did not agree in every detail? How are we, today, to deal with other believers whose opinions differ from ours?
When I was young smoking, drinking alcohol, playing cards, movies and dancing were viewed as being sinful and taboo. In some circumstances this is true, but in others they may be debatable maters. The Bible gives principles that can help us determine God’s will in debatable matters. It is clear that these principles are important because of the numerous references to them in the New Testament.
First, we are to honor God with our bodies (1 Cor. 6:19-20). When Paul said to “flee from sexual immorality”, he gave the following reason: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). This means considering questions such as: Will it honor or dishonor God? Will His reputation be enhanced or harmed? Will God be exalted or disgraced? Will others think less of God, His church or of His word? Is the motive to draw attention to ourselves (1 Tim. 2:9)?
A related principle is that whatever we do should be done for the glory of God. When Paul discussed whether to eat meat that had been offered to idols he concluded, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).
The Welfare of Others
Next we are to consider the welfare of others by putting the following three principles into practice.
Acting in love (Rom. 14:15)
With regard to debatable matters, Paul wrote, “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others” (1 Cor 10:23-24). In this area, although there is freedom of action, acting in love means that we consider the impact on others, particularly those whose conscience is weak or strict (1 Cor. 8:7). As a result of this we may need to modify our behaviour and not enjoy all the liberties that we could otherwise.
Acting in love means forbearing those with a stricter conscience, not insisting on doing what we want without considering the views of those around us, in order to build them up; “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. We should all please our neighbors for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please Himself …” (Rom. 15:1-3a).
The practice of acceptance features in the passage in Romans, which begins with “accept those whose faith is weak” (Rom. 14:1. Those whose convictions allow them more freedom are to accept those with stricter consciences on debatable matters. Despite our differences of opinion with regard to debatable matters, believers should accept one another just as Christ has accepted us; “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Rom. 15:7).
Our fellowship with one another shouldn’t depend on one’s viewpoint on such matters. As Christ died for all believers and they have been accepted as His children, we should accept them as well (Rom. 14:15). The call to the Christian is to accept every other believer without having to pass judgment on every opinion they hold. In other words, we are to allow for differing opinions, because differing opinions do not necessarily mean a differing faith.
With regard to debatable matters Paul wrote, “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification” (Rom. 14:19). This means promoting peace and spiritual growth and determining whether the matter would help or hinder the harmony of believers.
Furthermore, the welfare of others involves avoiding the following three situations in debatable matters.
Paul also wrote, “Accept those whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable (or debatable) matters” (Rom. 14:1). One way of accepting other believers is to not engage in disputes about their strict views and not force our convictions on them (Rom 14:22). We can share our opinion, but it is important to give others space to grow and to allow for the possibility that we may be wrong.
Those with as strong conscience shouldn’t despise those with a strict conscience; “The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not” (Rom. 14:3a). On the other hand, those with a strict conscience are not to judge others as being sinners; “the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted that person” (Rom. 14:3b).
As far as our service goes as the Lord’s servants we are all accountable to Him, not to each other (Rom. 14:4, 10-13). This means respecting each other’s opinion as we can have differing views on what pleases the Lord (1 Th. 4:1). We are to allow for differing conclusions of honest believers seeking the mind of Christ, without criticism, without contempt, and without judgment (Rom. 14:10). Don’t judge one another critically to put others down (Rom. 14:13). React with love not criticism. Remember, God has accepted them. He is the judge in these matters, not us.
Note that these verses are dealing with debatable matters. We can certainly make judgements about matters that involve the fundamentals of the faith and sinful behaviour.
Don’t hinder spiritual growth
There are many references to not stumbling a weaker believer (Rom. 14:13, 15, 20-21; 1 Cor. 8:9-13; 1 Cor. 10:32-33). This means refraining from doing something that is not forbidden in Scripture if it hinders the spiritual progress of those with a strict conscience, by causing them to act against their conscience. Otherwise, both parties sin.
Don’t let debatable matters destroy the work of God. Paul even extends this principle to unbelievers because he wanted them to accept Christ as their Savior; “Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God—even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved” (1 Cor 10:32-33). It’s loving and unselfish to think of others above ourselves (Rom. 14:15; 15:1-2).
Order in the Church
When he was addressing disorder in the meetings of the church in Corinth, Paul wrote; “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people” and “everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way” (1 Cor. 14:33; 40). In this situation, Paul imposed some boundaries to ensure there was order instead of disorder.
Some debatable matters can affect the unity or functioning of the local church. Because the local church is to operate in an orderly way, in the case of debatable matters that directly affect the unity or functioning of the local church, there should be boundaries on what is taught and practised. In these situations, what is taught and practised within the church needs to be consistent and it will not always match everyone’s opinion because after all, we can have various opinions on these topics.
As tattoos are permanent, consider whether we and our family will still want or regret a tattoo in many years time. Also, because images affect our thoughts, any tattoo or image that we focus on should be true, honourable, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy and not obscene (Eph. 5:4; Phil. 4:8). For example, it could symbolise a Biblical truth which benefits our relationship with Christ.
Finally, our body is like an instrument or tool that can be used for good or sinful purposes (Rom. 6:13). The important question is whether we are giving our bodies to God, not whether we have a tattoo or not (Rom. 12:1).
Lessons For Us
When considering tattoos and other debatable matters such as food, drink, clothes, standards of living and entertainments, we can ask the following questions: Will it honour or dishonour God? Are we acting in love?
Are we accepting one another regardless of their views on matters of secondary importance? Will it help or hinder the harmony of believers? 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?
Let’s apply these NT principles to the debateable maters in our daily lives.
Written, August 2009
See the other articles in this series:
- What does the Old Testament say about Christians getting tattoos?
- What does the Bible say about Christians getting tattoos?
A tattoo is a permanent marking made by inserting ink into the layers of skin to change the pigment for decorative or other reasons. Tattooing is a tradition among indigenous peoples around the world. The symbolism and impact of tattoos varies in different places and cultures. We are looking at this topic because it gives us an example of how we can apply the teaching of Scripture to our daily lives.
God has communicated to us in words that are recorded in the Bible. The Bible is a progressive revelation of God’s dealings with humanity, which is divided into two main parts: the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament (OT) records events up to the birth of Jesus Christ (B.C.) and was written in the Hebrew language to the Jewish nation. It begins with the creation of the universe and the first people Adam and his wife Eve and the fact that they disobeyed God. Because this rebellious pattern has been inherited by us all, we are all under God’s judgement. According to the OT, God chose the Jewish nation to be His special people, but they were unfaithful.
The New Testament (NT) records events after the birth of Jesus Christ (A.D.) and was written in the Greek language to Christians. It describes Jesus as the Son of God who came to pay the punishment for our rebellion by giving up His life. All those who recognise that He died for them and accept His offer of a future eternal life in a world without sadness, sickness, decay or death become His followers who are called Christians. The NT contains principles for living as a Christian.
The Jewish Bible is the OT, while the Christian Bible is the OT plus the NT. So, although the OT was not written to Christians it is the first part of their Bible, which provides the context for the NT.
In order to understand the meaning of any words we need to understand the text or words themselves and the context or how they are used.
The only specific mention of tattoos in the Bible is a command given to the Jews about 3,450 years ago; “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves” (Lev. 19:28NIV). The text is clear; it says don’t get tattoos. If that’s the complete answer to our question, we can stop now and finish early!
If you think that is the answer, then you would also need to obey the following commands which occur in the same chapter:
- “Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material”, which would require removing many items from your wardrobe (Lev. 19:19).
- “Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard”, which would require the cultivation of bushy sideburns and beards (Lev. 19:27).
- “Observe my Sabbaths”, which would require keeping the Sabbath day as in OT times (Lev. 19:30).
So, in order to understand the context of this verse we will look at when it was written and why it was written.
When was it written?
The book of Leviticus is a series of commands that ends with; “These are the commands the LORD gave Moses on Mount Sinai for the Israelites” (Lev. 27:34). It contains instructions given to the Jews as they travelled from Egypt to Canaan. As they were to be God’s people in that age, He gave them the ten commandments and many other instructions on how to live. The book of Leviticus was an instruction manual for the Jewish priests, who were from the tribe of Levi and so were called “Levites” (Ex. 32:25-29; Num. 8:5-22). That’s why it’s called Leviticus.
As Christians are God’s people today, and as God doesn’t change, the instructions in Leviticus may apply in some way to Christians today. However, as this was over 1,400 years before Christ lived on earth and founded the Christian faith, we would also expect that these instructions may apply in a different way to Christians today compared to how they applied to the Jews, or they may not apply at all.
Why was it written?
In order to understand the reason and circumstances for a verse, we can look at the verses nearby. Two main reasons are given for the instructions in Leviticus 19. The first reason was the requirement to be holy and the second reason was to not follow the wicked customs of the Egyptians and the Canaanites (Lev. 18:1-5, 24-30; 20:22-24, 26). They were commanded to “Keep my requirements and do not follow any of the detestable customs that were practiced before you came and do not defile yourselves with them” and to “Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy” (Lev. 18:30; 19:2).
The Hebrew word translated “holy” (Strongs #6918) is an adjective that describes something or someone as being “pure” or “devoted”. God is holy because He alone is pure and sinless. The Jews were to be holy in the sense that they were to be devoted to God. They were to show this by obeying His commands given in the OT (Ex. 19:5-6).
They were to be a nation that didn’t worship idols or offer child sacrifices or practice sexual immorality like the other nations (Lev. 18; 19:4; 20:1-5). Holiness is the key theme in Leviticus and it was to characterise the Jewish nation.
The Meaning for the Jews
What did “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves” mean when Moses was alive (Lev. 19:28)? A similar verse says, “You are the children of the LORD your God. Do not cut yourselves or shave the front of your heads for the dead, for you are a people holy to the LORD your God. Out of all the peoples on the face of the earth, the LORD has chosen you to be His treasured possession” (Dt. 14:1-2). Self-inflicted wounds were symbolic of self-sacrifice as an extreme method of arousing a pagan god to action. For example, the 450 prophets of Baal in Elijah’s day slashed themselves with swords and spears until their blood flowed (1 Ki. 18:28).
So the tattoos were associated with people cutting their bodies and with pagan gods. As the “tattoo marks” described in Leviticus 19:28 were related to false religious practices, they were prohibited because God did not want the Jews to be identified with idolatry. The principle associated with this command is that God’s people were not to be involved with idolatry and false religious practices, which was backsliding and deserting their Jewish faith.
Examples, Warnings, Encouragement and Hope
How should we interpret the OT today? According to Scripture, Christians are not required to obey Old Testament laws. Because Christ has fulfilled the law by paying the death penalty for everyone’s sin (Mt. 5:17; Rom. 10:4), the Old Testament laws have been set aside and are obsolete (Eph. 2:15; Heb. 7:18; 8:13) and believers are not under the laws received by Moses, but under God’s grace (Rom. 6:14; Gal. 3:23-25).
The following verses throw more light on the purpose of the OT. When Paul wrote about the need for self-discipline and self-control in the Christian life to be rewarded for faithful service, he thought of the examples and warnings from the history of the Jewish people (1 Cor. 10:1-13). “Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did” and “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us” (1 Cor. 10:6, 11). Also, “Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope” (Rom 15:4TNIV).
So, when OT laws are interpreted in terms of their context and the doctrines of the New Testament, useful principles and examples may be derived from these laws (1 Cor. 10:6-11; 2 Tim. 3:15-1). They can also be a source of encouragement and hope (Rom. 15:4; Heb. 11). In this sense, the OT has a message for Christians. A test of the examples, warnings, encouragement and hope we find in the OT is that they must be consistent with the teachings of the NT. It’s like looking through polarised sunglasses, where only light in a particular plane is transmitted. Of course, the OT also contains references to the coming Messiah, which we can see by hindsight (Col. 2:17).
What examples and warnings can we learn for our everyday life from the Jewish prohibition on tattoos?
The Meaning for Christians
As it is not mentioned in the New Testament, the practice of tattooing is not specifically prohibited for Christians today. However, a comment on Revelation 13:16-18 and 19:16 is given in the next article in this series.
We are Christians living in 2009, not Jews travelling from Egypt to Canaan many years ago. Also, believers are under the new covenant, not the old one.
The two main reasons for the instruction in Leviticus were: the requirements to be holy, and not to follow the wicked customs of other nations. The first reason is repeated in the NT: “As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as He who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’” (1 Pt. 1:14-16); which quotes from Leviticus 19:2. Christians are also to be devoted to God and to show this by obeying His commands in the NT.
The second reason is also repeated in the NT. The Bible teaches that true believers display the fruit of the Spirit instead of the acts of the sinful nature and do not sin continually and habitually (Gal. 5:19-23; 1 Jn. 3:4-10).
So the overall reasons for the instruction still apply today. They are universal timeless principles. However, today a tattoo is usually a means of self expression and a personal decoration that is not associated with idolatry.
The meaning of Leviticus 19:28 for Christians is that God’s people are not to be involved with idolatry and false religious practices, which would be backsliding and deserting their faith. In this case, the faith is the Christian faith, not the Jewish faith. This is consistent with the New Testament teaching that believers are to have nothing to do with idolatry (1 Cor. 10:7, 14; 1 Jn. 5:21) and not desert their faith, which is apostasy (Heb. 3:12).
Lessons For Us
What to know
There is a difference between the OT and the NT. Because the verses in the OT were written primarily to Jews and not to Christians, they may have no direct application to us today. As God communicates to us progressively through the Bible, OT verses need to be understood in view of the additional knowledge we have in the NT (Lk. 24:25-27).
What to do
When reading the OT, look for examples, warnings, encouragement and hope that are consistent with the messages given to churches in the NT. In the case of Leviticus 19:28, the questions that could be considered before a Christian gets a tattoo are: Is it consistent or inconsistent with being devoted to God? Is it linked to idolatry? Does it display the fruit of the Spirit or an act of the sinful nature? What is the motivation behind the tattoo?
These are factors we should consider when applying the OT to our daily lives.
Written, August 2009
See the other articles in this series:
- What does the New Testament say about Christians getting tattoos?
- What does the Bible say about Christians getting tattoos?
When the Israelites complained about the lack of food in the wilderness, God sent manna to eat and said that “Each one is to gather as much as they need” (Ex. 16:16 TNIV). The Manna looked like a white seed and tasted like honey wafers (Ex. 16:31). The daily quota was one omer per person, which was about 1.4 kilograms or three pounds. They were told not to keep any of it until the following morning, because by then it would be full of maggots and have an unpleasant odor (Ex. 16:19-20). So, except for the special provision for the Sabbath day, they were not to hoard the manna.
We live in a world where there is much inequality; some have plenty while others live in poverty. In the times of the early Church when there was poverty in Jerusalem, the churches in Greece sent money. When Paul encouraged the church at Corinth to give generously, he said: “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, as it is written: ‘The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little’” (2 Cor. 8:13-15).
Paul linked the principle of Israelites who collected more manna than they needed themselves shared it with those who didn’t have enough, and everyone finished up with enough. The reason that some Christians have more resources in life than others is so that these may be shared with those lacking and all may have their physical, spiritual and emotional needs satisfied.
In order to encourage the Corinthians to give generously, Paul reminded them of the following five truths:
1. Jesus was generous (2 Cor. 8:9; 9:15). The Lord gave up His position of power and honor so that believers could share in His inheritance: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). He’s the one we should imitate (1 Cor. 11:1).
2. Willingness to give is more important than what’s given (2 Cor. 8:12). They had been waiting until they could give more, but Paul said to give now in accordance with what they could afford. Giving should be spontaneous, not pressured or under compulsion, not reluctantly or grudgingly (2 Cor. 8:3-4; 9:5, 7).
3. Give according to your means (2 Cor. 8:11). Giving will not be a burden because God will supply all that you need and ensure that you can give again in the future (2 Cor. 9:8,10). The churches in Macedonia were generous even though they were poor and persecuted (2 Cor. 8:2).
4. Giving will result in spiritual reaping (2 Cor. 9:6-11). Like farmers, if we plant sparingly we will harvest little; if we plant generously, we will harvest generously. And do not forget: God loves a cheerful giver.
5. Giving leads to thanking God (2 Cor. 9:11-12). Giving generously is evidence of our sincere love, and it leads us to thanking God the Father as the source of this love (2 Cor. 9:15). People will praise God for such generosity and they will pray for you (2 Cor. 9:13-14).
What can we share? Not only our money and our things, but also our time and our spiritual gifts. Let’s imitate God the Father and Jesus Christ, and be generous givers to those less fortunate; this is part of the divine nature. Selfishness, on the other hand, is part of the sinful nature (Gal. 5:19-13; 2 Pet. 1:4).
Published October 2010
Like marriage and food, the ability to communicate in song was created by God and “everything God created is good” (1 Tim. 4:3-4 NIV). Everyone can sing, so let’s make sure we make good use of this ability.
Some people can sing solo or harmony, musicians can accompany singing, and some have the ability to write lyrics and to create melodies. Such creativity may be seen as being part of being made “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:27). This form of expression and communication is one of the characteristics of humanity and the Bible shows that in many respects singing distinguishes God’s people.
Let’s consider some biblical principles concerning the purposes and characteristics of spiritual songs, as well as some thoughts on practical aspects of singing for Christians and churches.
To praise the Lord
The need to praise the Lord in song for His goodness is evident throughout the history of mankind – past, present and future. It is one of the main themes of the Bible.
Past: After their miraculous escape from Egypt, the Israelites praised God in song (Ex. 15:1-18). The Old Testament has many examples of the Israelites’ songs of praise, with Psalms, the largest book in the Bible, being their hymnbook. Also, David, one of the major figures of the Old Testament, was a prolific songwriter and a skilled musician.
Present: In the New Testament era and today, joy is to be expressed as songs of praise (Jas. 5:13) and our praise is to “our Lord and Father” (Jas. 3:9). This is the fulfillment of Old Testament promises of non-Jewish people praising the Lord (Rom. 15:8-12). After describing the importance of Christ, the writer of Hebrews urges, “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise – the fruit of lips that confess his name” (Heb. 13:15).
Future: Songs of praise will be offered to Christ and the Father in a time to come (Rev. 5:1-14). This will culminate in “every creature in heaven and on earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing:
‘To Him who sits on the throne
and to the Lamb be praise and
honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever’” (Rev. 5:13).
To strengthen believers
It is clear from the few references to singing in the New Testament that it is an essential component of the Christian faith. The following verses show that singing is associated with teaching from the Bible and prayer:
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16).
“When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the Church” (1 Cor. 14:26).
“I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind: I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind” (1 Cor. 14:15).
“About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God” (Acts 16:25).
So, a major purpose of singing is for strengthening the Church. Singing is a means of communication between believers and to the Lord: “Speak to one another … Sing and make music … to the Lord” (Eph. 5:19). Collective singing should promote encouragement of one another, which is the purpose of meeting together (Heb. 10:25).
Singing can be a strong symbol of unity as everyone can participate.
With thanks, from the heart
Songs can be powerful ways of expressing feelings and emotions. They should be used to express thanks and gratitude to God (Eph. 5:20; Col. 3:16). Also, singing is the outcome of happiness and joy. James 5:13 says, “Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise.” As with all we do, we should sing with enthusiasm (Eph. 6:7).
Singing is also a consequence of being filled with the Spirit. Christians are instructed to “sing and make music in your heart to the Lord” (Eph. 5:19). So songs and music are associated with the “heart” which is used in Scripture for the emotional part of our lives.
Paul and Silas are an example of Christians whose songs reflected the joy and hope within, rather than the external circumstances. After being falsely accused by the crowd, severely flogged, thrown into prison and their feet put in stocks, they prayed and sang praises to God in the middle of the night (Acts 16:20-25). They also illustrate how we can sing at any time of the day and in any situation.
Our singing should be readily understandable by those present (1 Cor. 14:15). Like speech, singing should be intelligent in the sense of being meaningful, not intellectual and not in a foreign language (1 Cor. 14:9).
Spiritual songs differ from psalms in that they are composed by Christians rather than being direct quotations from the Bible. The Scriptures, which were completed some 1,900 years ago, should not be added to or changed in any way (Rev. 22:18-19). They contain divine principles to guide us. In order to understand these principles, the Bible has been translated into various languages. So, the language can change, but not the principles.
Songs, on the other hand, are expressions of Christian faith that reflect the language, tunes, circumstances and culture of their origin. When language changes and as new experiences and new circumstances arise, the Holy Spirit causes new songs to be written. For example, the faithful will sing a “new song” in heaven (Rev. 5:9). These changes with time usually come about as believers, filled with the Spirit, create new songs (Eph. 5:18-19). In fact, the term “new song” occurs nine times in the Bible.
New songs should flow from significant events in the lives of Christians. For example, Moses (Ex. 15:1-19), Deborah and Barak (Jud. 15), David (2 Sam. 22:2-51), Mary (Lk. 1:46-55) and Zechariah (Lk. 1:67-79) were inspired to create spiritual songs. The latter two are poems, which were probably also sung.
The diversity of spiritual songs is indicated in the Book of Psalms where some songs are collective and some are individual. They also vary in content from praise, thanksgiving and instruction to personal experience, history and laments.
With musical accompaniment?
It is interesting that little is said regarding musical accompaniment to singing in the New Testament. This is similar to other topics, such as church buildings and other Christian practices. Why the difference, when compared to the greater detail in the Old Testament? I believe it is because the New Testament concentrates on the essentials of the faith, which are to be expressed in various cultures throughout the world over a period of at least 2,000 years. It applies to every community, language and nation (Rev. 5:9), whereas the Old Testament mainly addressed one nation. Many practical details are not mentioned in the New Testament as these can vary according to circumstances and cultures.
The first mention of musicians in the Bible is associated with a generation that also pioneered livestock farming and metal toolmaking (Gen. 4:20-22). One implication of this is that music meets an important human need, as does agriculture and industry.
Three verbs are used in the Greek text of the New Testament to denote singing, namely, ado, psallo and humneo1. Psallo originally meant to play a stringed instrument. This word seems to refer to the melody or tune of a song in Ephesians 5:19; “sing (ado) and make music (psallo) in your heart to the Lord.” This supports the fact that the melody or tune is an integral part of a song.
Similarly, three nouns are used in the New Testament to describe what is sung: psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Psalms (or psalmos in Greek), used in 1 Corinthians 14:26, Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, were songs sung to musical accompaniment of voice, harp or other instrument2.
Of course, accompaniment is not essential to singing – and would have been difficult in times of persecution – but neither is it prohibited. Paul and Silas would have sung without it in prison, and this may be why psallo is not used in Acts 16:25, but is in Romans 15:9, 1 Corinthians 14:15, Ephesians 5:19 and James 5:13.
Any musical accompaniment is to assist singing, with the singing being the primary purpose and the accompaniment secondary. So, while singing is essential to the Christian faith, musical accompaniment is optional.
We need to be careful to avoid putting limitations in areas when they are not clearly given in the Scriptures. Musical accompaniment to singing is such a case3. Whether it is used or not, and the type of instruments used depend on circumstances, traditions and culture. Christians should have the wisdom to know what is appropriate.
The Lord desires expressions of thanks and praise sung from the heart with understanding that strengthens the faith of believers. However we sing, whether with or without accompaniment, our singing should meet these goals.
Now let’s consider some practical aspects of the role of singing in our lives. Failure to sing with understanding and failure to include new songs can hinder our singing and thereby affect our praise to the Lord and the strength of our church.
It should be noted that God accepts all languages and cultures, with none being more acceptable to Him today than others. Consider, for example, a situation where missionaries are living in another culture. The songs from their homeland would be foreign to the local people. Obviously, Christianity should not be considered a foreign faith, and indigenous people should be encouraged to read the Scriptures in their local language and sing Christian songs in that language, with culturally relevant tunes and perhaps accompaniment. In Zaire, when the local language was used instead of French, it was reported that “this seemed to give more liberty in taking part and much joy singing in their own language”.
Of course, living languages also change over the course of time. For example, English has changed significantly over the past 100 years. Under these circumstances, new songs are required from time to time, in order for there to be a balance between traditional songs and more contemporary songs. Churches should have a process for incorporating contemporary songs. Otherwise, they are in danger of wrongly elevating traditional songs to the status of the Scriptures. This was the problem of the Pharisees who treated their traditions as though they were divine principles.
Are we ready to accept new songs and allow others in our church to have the opportunity of singing songs that are significant to them, including songs in everyday language and with contemporary tunes?
Do we have a vision of the role of songs of praise in our church? Are we willing to evaluate our attitudes and practices and endeavor to improve in this area of our Christian lives?
As with other talents, singing, musical ability, song writing and composing should be used for the “common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). Have these been neglected in your gathering? Hopefully this article will encourage you.
Let’s sing to praise the Lord; to express thanks, gratitude, happiness and joy; to strengthen the Church; and to encourage one another. Let’s sing with understanding and let’s encourage a balance between new and traditional songs.
1. W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, 1970.
2. See Vine; R. Young, Analytical Concordance of the Bible, 1939; J. H. Strong, Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, Baker, 1992.
3. Church buildings would be another.
Published, March 1997
About 4,000 years ago a man made some choices that had catastrophic effects on his family. His name was Lot and the important events of his life are recorded for you to read in Genesis 13, 14 and 19.
Lot was a nomadic herdsman who lived in the Middle East and moved around the country with his uncle Abraham. They were both successful, each having many animals and employees. This led to conflict between the employees of the two men because they were competing for the use of the same pasture land.
Abraham was wise. He knew there was plenty of land for both families, so he suggested that they separate and move to different parts of the country. Out of kindness, he gave Lot the first choice of where to move and graze his herds.
So Lot had to make a decision. He chose the plain of Jordan because there was plenty of water and pasture land for his animals. He thought this would be the best for his business. He also chose to live near the city of Sodom, which had a reputation of being evil. Maybe he was thinking of pleasure and his social status. In the meantime, Abraham continued to live in the mountains and to worship God.
The Bible records the consequences of Lot’s choice in Genesis 14. In those days there were wars between the leaders of the different cities. In one of the battles, Lot and his family and all their possessions were captured by the enemy and taken away. Fortunately, when Abraham heard about this he came down from the hills and rescued Lot and his household from the enemy.
Some say this was an early warning for Lot to move from the evil city of Sodom. Eventually, a stronger warning was given because as a result of the great evil in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, God had decided to destroy them.
In Genesis 19, we are told that God sent two angels as messengers to help Lot and his family escape the coming disaster, although they were not eager to leave. Then there was a volcanic eruption and the cities in the valley were destroyed. Sadly, Lot’s wife disobeyed the warning of the angels not to look back and died in the catastrophe.
As a result, Lot was left without a wife, or any possessions. He moved to the hill country and lived in a cave with his two daughters. He had lost nearly everything as a result of his choices.
What a contrast between Abraham and Lot! Even though Lot is described as righteous (2 Pet. 2:7-8), he apparently left God out of the picture when deciding where he and his family would live. Instead, he seemed to be driven by his love of business, pleasure and social status. The result was much trouble for him and his family, and little usefulness for God. Also, his descendants became the enemies of God’s people (Ps. 83:1-8). On the other hand, Abraham, also referred to as righteous, made wise choices, became known as the friend of God and was called the father of many nations (Jas. 2:21-23; Gen. 17:4-5).
This reminds me of the choices we all make during life, and the law of cause and effect. Many of the situations in our life are caused by our decisions. We should recognize that all of our choices have consequences.
We make decisions every day of our lives. These can be visualized as a series of forks or crossroads in the journey of life. For instance, as individuals we need to decide the following: Who will be our friends? What employment will we seek? Whom will we marry? How will we spend our recreation time? What kind of attitudes are we developing? How often will we read the Bible and pray? How often and where will we fellowship with other believers?
Parents need to make decisions such as the following: Where will we live? How many children will we have? What kind of education will our children receive? How much of the information available to us – from such sources as cable television and the global internet – will we allow ourselves and our family to take in, realizing that there is a huge amount of false information out there that can lead us astray?
All of the choices we make have consequences for us, for our family, for our friends and for our community. They result in behavior patterns and habits that lead to various events, situations and outcomes. If we realized ahead of time the consequences of our choices, we would surely be more careful to look to and trust God when making them. If Lot knew beforehand the consequences of his choices, don’t you think he would have re-thought those choices? Each choice we make either moves us towards God or away from Him and His will for us.
The Bible gives two graphic illustrations that are relevant to the subject of choices and consequences. These are a farmer who plants seeds (Gal. 6:7-9), and the builder who constructs a building (1 Cor. 3:10-15).
The first teaches us that we harvest whatever we plant. If we follow selfish desires, we will harvest destruction, but if we follow the Spirit, we will harvest eternal life. The farmer plants the seeds, which then grow. When they are full- grown the crop is harvested.
The crop may be vegetables, cereal grain, or fruit. But what actually grows depends on the seeds sown. If you sow corn seeds you will get corn, not cucumbers. If we sow weeds, we should expect only weeds as our crop.
Imagine you are planting a seed each time you make a choice, and that together these are growing into a crop. The principle is that we harvest what we plant. The question is: What kind of harvest can we expect from the choices we have made?
In the second illustration, our life’s activities are likened to the construction of a building. We are warned to make wise choices and be careful how we build, because whatever we build will be tested by fire on the day of judgment. Those whose buildings survive will be rewarded.
In a period of 70 years, the average length of life according to Psalm 90:10, there are 25,567 days. A lifetime can be visualized as a building, such as a house, that is constructed by putting one brick in place each day. The challenge is whether your “building” (or those of your family members) will survive or be destroyed when tested?
Don’t be like Lot who thought, “What is good for my business is good for me and my family as well.” He harvested destruction, and all that he had built collapsed. His family life and business were devastated, although he survived “as one escaping through the flames” (1 Cor. 3:15 NIV).
Seek His Help
What we selfishly think is best may turn out for the worst and result in lots of trouble. How can we avoid such catastrophe? By being less like Lot and more like Abraham who, when faced with a choice, asked for God’s help. He was productive for God. Of course, God knows everything and can guide us through the Bible, through answered prayer, through the counsel of Christian friends and through our consciences. The question is: Are we seeking His help and listening to His advice?
In many ways, we end up harvesting what we plant and living with what we build. Remember, your choices have important consequences. They affect your life both now and later.
Published, November 1997
Our attitude towards illness and healing
We all experience ill health from time to time! What should be our attitude about it? Does God promise good health? Will He always answer prayers for healing?
Healing In The Early Church
The gift of healing was evident in the early Church (1 Cor. 12:9,28,30), and when crowds gathered around Peter, Stephen, Philip, Paul and Barnabas, the sick were healed. Even when they were touched by Peter’s shadow and Paul’s handkerchief or apron, they were healed (Acts 5:15-16; 19:11-12). Dorcas and Eutychus were brought back from the dead (Acts 9:36-42; 20:9-10). Everybody knew about these healings and were astonished (Acts 4:16; 8:13).
In this context Luke wrote: “The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people” (Acts 5:12 NIV). And Paul asserted that such “signs, wonders and miracles” characterized the apostles (2 Cor. 12:12). They helped to confirm that the gospel message was divine (Acts 14:3; Heb. 2:3-4), and that the apostles were empowered by the Holy Spirit. In particular, the Jews were more likely to believe something associated with a miracle (Jn. 4:48; 1 Cor. 1:22). How else could the apostles prove that Christ had sent them? These miracles confirmed the gospel message.
When God’s People Get Sick
I’ve heard people say that Christians should never suffer illness because Jesus has already suffered for us. They are wrongly using Isaiah 53:5 and 1 Peter 2:24, because these verses tell us that the Lord suffered for our sins, not our sicknesses. Let’s look again at the New Testament epistles to see what they say about healing today.
Paul wrote this to those in Galatia: “As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you. Even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn” (Gal. 4:13-14). Paul, the man that God used to write much of the New Testament, suffered illness. This shows that godliness did not keep him from getting sick, nor will it keep us from getting sick.
After he saw a vision of heaven, Paul wrote: “To keep me from becoming conceited … there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness’” (2 Cor. 12:7-9). The Lord didn’t heal Paul of his “thorn,” which may have been an eye disease (Gal. 4:15; 6:11). God does not always heal us either.
Paul left Trophimus, a coworker, sick in Miletus (2 Tim. 4:20). And he wrote this about another coworker, Epaphroditus: “He was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow” (Phil. 2:27). Here we see that healing is a mercy, not a promise that we should expect or demand.
In the case of Paul and Epaphroditus, while their spiritual condition was good, their physical condition was not so good. This shows that healing does not depend on the strength of our faith or the lack of it. Paul prayed three times about his “thorn,” and then accepted it. God doesn’t remove all our pain, and He doesn’t fix everything. In fact the Bible promises suffering for believers (Jn. 16:33). We should pray like Christ: “Father, if You are willing, take this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done” (Lk. 22:42).
Paul told Timothy to “stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses” (1 Tim. 5:23). Timothy was often ill, maybe because of a weak stomach, so Paul’s advice was to use a little wine. He wasn’t told just to pray about it, but to do something. And wine was a commonly prescribed medical treatment to help heal stomach ailments.
Paul wrote to Gaius: “I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well” (3 Jn. 2). It seems as though Gaius was not well physically. Paul prayed that his physical health would match his spiritual health.
We can see the following four things from these examples: sickness is not necessarily a result of one’s sin; we can’t gauge a person’s spiritual state from his physical state; if a person isn’t healed, it’s not due to a lack of faith; and no promise of physical healing is given to the Church. Although we should pray for healing, there is no guarantee that healing will come. After all, if the Lord doesn’t return to rapture us, we will all eventually die.
Confession Of Sin
James wrote this about sickness and sin: “Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray for him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (Jas. 5:14-16).
This passage connects physical sickness, prayer, sin, forgiveness and healing. Was this person sick as a direct result of some sin? The elders were called to pray over him anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. As oil was traditionally used to dedicate people and things to God’s service (Ex. 30:30; 40:9), it may symbolize dedicating the sick person to the Lord’s care. People today can pray for recovery as God promises healing under these circumstances.
In Corinth, the sin of selfishness – “not recognizing the body of the Lord” at their love feasts – brought sickness and sometimes death (1 Cor. 11:30). This example links our physical and our spiritual health. For our health, we need to confess sins – such as selfishness, worry, anger, jealousy, pride and gluttony – and develop selfcontrol in these areas of our life. Selfcontrol is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) and a significant aid to good health.
How God Uses Illness
The Bible gives five examples of how we can actually benefit from illness.
1. It reveals God’s power. After Paul prayed to have his “thorn” removed, the Lord said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.” And Paul wrote, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me” (2 Cor. 12:9). God gives strength to suffer because His power is more evident when we’re weak.
2. It helps us rely more on God. Paul claimed that his troubles “happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead” (2 Cor. 1:9). Here we see that the allpowerful God will give us the strength to endure through suffering.
3. It gives us a reason to give thanks. According to Paul, “He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and He will deliver us again. On Him we have set our hope that He will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many” (2 Cor.1:10-11). The Corinthians prayed for Paul when he was in trouble, and their prayers were answered.
4. It gives us experiences that can help others. Paul said that God “comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Cor. 1:4). People are encouraged when we empathize with their situation. They see that someone understands. How we suffer illnesses can be an example for others.
5. It develops our spiritual character. Paul wrote that “we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Rom. 5:3-4). Enduring sickness can develop perseverance (2 Cor. 1:6), just as exercise develops physical strength. God uses suffering to mold character and help us realize that He’s working in us.
Paul wanted to participate in Christ’s sufferings (Phil. 3:10-11). He wanted to live like Christ did. It takes divine strength to suffer for Christ. God uses illness to draw us closer to Him, to teach us lessons we would learn in no other way and to provide us with new opportunities to help others.
We have no choice about when we will experience the pain of illness and injury, but we have a choice in how we respond. To give up, complain or wallow in selfpity in tough times, stumbles weak believers who are watching us (Heb. 12:12-13). Instead, we should encourage those that are weary (Isa. 50:4) by accepting pain and sickness as being God’s will for us, and live a life of perseverance, patience and endurance (2 Th. 1:4; Heb. 12:7-11; Jas. 1:2-4,12; 5:7-11). The Bible teaches that God uses difficult times for our growth.
Lessons For Us
Although there were many miraculous healings in the early Church, today healing is a mercy, not a promise. Remember, Paul was not healed of his thorn in the flesh. When God does not heal, it’s not because of our lack of faith. Instead, He wants us to persevere in sickness and pain so that His power may be revealed, that we may rely more on Him, that there will be prayer and thanksgiving, that we can use our experience to help others, and that we can develop our Christian character.
God is more concerned about our spiritual health than our physical health (1 Tim. 4:8). This doesn’t mean that we should neglect our physical health, but as our bodies wear out, they should wear out while serving Him. Let’s get our priorities right. God wants us to be spiritually healthy, and looking forward to that time when sickness and suffering are no more.
Published May 2010
See the other article in this series:
– Does God heal all our sicknesses? Part 1
Our attitude towards illness and healing
I recently read an article in a Christian magazine that said, “God heals all our sicknesses,” and it referenced Exodus 15:26 and 1 Peter 2:24. Because people have different ideas about the topic of healing, let’s look at what else the Bible says about it.
There are differences between God’s promises in the Old Testament and those in the New Testament. Abraham was promised a great reputation and the land of Canaan for his many descendants (Gen. 12:1-3; 17:8). Obedient Jews were promised a long life, prosperity, and victory over their enemies (Dt. 6:1-2; Ps. 128:1-2; Isa. 38:1-8). Most of the promises given to the Jews in the Old Testament were for physical or material blessings.
On the other hand, in the New Testament, God’s promises to believers in the early Church were eternal life, the Holy Spirit, peace, and the return of Christ (Eph. 1:13; Phil. 4:7; Heb. 10:36-37; 1 Jn. 2:25). All are spiritual blessings, not physical ones (Eph. 1:3). We should be careful not to apply to New Testament Christians promises of physical blessings given to the Old Testament Jews.
HEALING IN OLD TESTAMENT TIMES
The Bible teaches that all genuine healing comes from God (Ps. 103:2-3; 107:17-20; Hos. 11:1-3). The Hebrew word rapa means “to heal” or “to restore to normal.” But because bodily processes diminish due to aging, there is no such thing as perfect health, especially as we get older.
In the Old Testament God gave conditional promises to the Jews that He would protect them from disease and heal them. The condition was that they had to keep God’s commands, do what was right in His eyes and not follow pagan gods. He also promised that there would be no miscarriages, no couples unable to have children, no animals unable to bear young, and their enemies would be inflicted with the diseases that they were protected from (Ex. 15:25-26; 23:25-26; Dt. 7:14-15). We find no such promises in the New Testament.
Exodus 15:26 – which says, “I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, who heals you” – was quoted out of context in the magazine article I read. This verse applies specifically to the children of Israel traveling from Egypt to Canaan, but not to us today. Otherwise, we could still claim God’s promise to collect manna for daily food!
There are many instances of miraculous healing in the Old Testament. For example, when King Hezekiah was sick and about to die, he prayed and God allowed him to live for an additional 15 years (2 Ki. 20:5-6).
JESUS, THE HEALER
When He was on earth, the Lord healed all who were brought to Him (Mt. 8:16-17). Jesus said that this had been prophesied by Isaiah (Isa. 53:4). These miracles displayed His divine power (Mt. 11:2-5; Jn. 20:30-31). The Lord still heals all kinds of illnesses, and therefore we should acknowledge God in every case of healing. In the future when He returns to rule over the earth during the Millennium, the Bible tells us that the Lord will heal all diseases (Isa. 33:24; Jer. 30:17). But that is for a future time, not today.
With reference to the Lord, Peter quoted from Isaiah in his first letter: “By His wounds you have been healed” (Isa. 53:5; 1 Pet. 2:24). This type of healing – described in the next verse as, “For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Pet. 2:25) – is spiritual, between sinful people and God. Also, it is in the past tense, not the present tense. This verse means that Christ suffered on the cross and died as our substitute so that our sins could be forgiven and we could have a restored relationship with God. It has nothing to do with physical healing; it would be wrong to tell a seriously ill Christian that by Christ’s wounds he has been physically healed. First Peter 2:24 was also quoted out of context in the magazine article mentioned earlier. This verse is about spiritual, not physical healing.
Our bodies have been amazingly designed to heal themselves of most injuries and illnesses. Living cells are being replaced continuously. If we cut a finger the wound heals itself. Broken bones grow back together. Doctors know that many complaints are better by morning. Our immune system can automatically fix mild colds and throat infections. One prominent physician wrote, “Most coughs are self-curative usually within 1-3 weeks with or without treatment.” David wrote, “I praise You because I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:14).
THE BIG PICTURE
In Genesis 1-2 God created a perfect world where there was no sickness, pain or death. It was utopia, but it didn’t last long. When sin came into the world (Gen. 3), our world changed completely. Not only are we spiritually separated from God because of sin, we now live in a decaying world of disease, suffering, injustice and death.
Fortunately that’s not the end of the story. God had a rescue plan for mankind that involved sending His Son, Jesus Christ, to earth to restore our relationship with God. The outcome of this plan will not be finalized until the end of time. Christians are already redeemed or healed spiritually, but not yet physically. Today we live in a world whose suffering Paul described this way: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the One who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:18-23).
Paul’s “present sufferings” are contrasted to “the glory that will be revealed in us.” Like Paul, we suffer from sicknesses and these will not be totally healed until our bodies are resurrected, which is the final phase of our salvation – our deliverance from suffering. We look forward to God’s promised deliverance from sin and its effects.
Paul persevered in suffering because he had the hope of the resurrection: “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Cor. 4:16-18).
Although the process of physical decay was going on continuously in Paul’s life, his suffering was not the most important thing in his life. Instead he focused on the unseen things like the resurrection body, the splendor of heaven and the triumph of the Lord at the Second Coming. The pattern for Christ was suffering at His first coming, and glory, honor and praise at His second coming. Likewise, the pattern for believers is present suffering and future glory.
LESSONS FOR US
Let’s always be careful when interpreting the Bible, especially in matters of health. It is not a collection of verses to be selected by topic and understood in isolation. Instead, start with what the Bible says and then consider the context by asking who the passage was written to, and what the surrounding verses say. When we do this we find that most of the promises given to the Jews in the Old Testament were physical or material blessings, while those given to Christians in the New Testament were spiritual blessings.
Although believers have been redeemed spiritually, they will experience sickness until death or the redemption of their bodies at the Rapture (1 Cor. 15:35-58). God’s emphasis now in the New Testament is on saving people by healing them spiritually, not physically. And isn’t this what is most important?
Let’s be like Paul and acknowledge that believers will suffer due to illnesses and injuries, and let’s accept these as being insignificant when compared to being liberated from sin and its effects.
Published April 2010
See the other article in this series:
- Does God heal all our sicknesses? Part 2
How should we respond to Jude’s advice?
Build yourselves up in your most holy faith
The church. Are believers growing and maturing in the Christian faith? Is the younger generation being trained to maturity, so they can train the next generation (2 Tim. 2:2)? Are there processes to ensure this happens, whether in large or small groups? Do you know who your teachers are? Are they teaching? Are we teaching important principles and not majoring in minor ones? Are we teaching on current issues? Do we speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15)?
Yourself. Are you ready to learn from the Bible and from others? Do you know your spiritual gifts? Are you a teacher? Should you be teaching others? Do you study the Bible? Do you have a teacher to help with questions you may have? Are you willing to respect the opinion of others on debateable matters where Christians may disagree?
Pray in the Holy Spirit
The church. Do we encourage people to get to know each other well enough to share their needs and to pray for the important issues of life? Does this include spiritual needs? Are there small groups where this can happen? Do you have people who can discern God’s will or do you function mainly according to custom and tradition?
Yourself. Do you pray for the needs of others and for God’s purposes? Do you have some friends that you can share and pray together with?
Keep yourselves in God’s love
The church. Is the Lord’s love evident in your meetings such as the Lord’s Supper and times of fellowship? Are these joyful occasions and ones where people are encouraged and will want to attend? Do you include new songs? What about fellowship with believers in other churches in your area? Remember, they are also part of the body of Christ.
Yourself. Do you attend and contribute to meetings where God’s love is expressed? Do you examine and judge yourself to stay in fellowship with God? Do you express hospitality to others?
Wait for the Lord’s return
The church. Do we give believers hope for the future by reminding them of the Lord’s return? Do we give people a reason to have an optimistic view of their future?
Yourself. Does this help you to live a pure life? Do you expect that the Lord could return at any moment of time?
Reach out to help others
The church. Do we encourage outreach by evangelists and missionaries? Do we identify and help those with this gift? Do we invite evangelists and missionaries to visit; share with them and help them practically?
Yourself. I hope you don’t isolate yourself from non-believers. Do you make friends with them so they can be introduced to the gospel? Do you pray for and support the work of evangelists and missionaries?
Written, April 2002