The danger of unbelief
In 1912 the Titanic ignored a warning from other ships about icebergs and kept sailing through the night at near full speed. When they saw an iceberg it was too late to avoid the impact and the ship sank within three hours. This shows it is dangerous to ignore warnings.
In the book of Hebrews we see that God’s greatest warning to us is the danger of not believing the gospel message. This excludes people from heaven and leads to eternal punishment for one’s sins. In particular an apostate (a professing Christian who becomes a traitor) is doomed to punishment in hell.
Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians who were being persecuted for their faith (Heb. 12:4-13; 13:3). They were spiritually weak and being tempted to give up following Jesus and turn back to their Jewish customs.
Hebrews tells them what they needed to know and to do. The first 9.5 chapters show that Jesus is greater than all their Jewish heroes like the prophets, angels, Moses, and the priests and Christ’s sacrifice is greater than the Jewish sacrifices.
Halfway through chapter 10 there is a change from doctrine to practice. The next two chapters tell us what to do. It says that following Jesus is like running in a marathon race. As athletes keep running through adversity, we can keep following Jesus through adversity by: focusing on God and Jesus; encouraging one another; and removing the obstacles that hinder us.
Five warnings are also included in the first 12 chapters of Hebrews. We will look at each of these in turn. These warnings are written in strong language. They are imperatives and commands, not just models to follow. As Hebrews was probably written to a church in about AD 67-70, which is well after the early days of the church, we can generally apply the principles in it to us today without needing much consideration of the changes since then. While Noah and the Old Testament prophets warned their generations of God’s imminent judgment (2 Pt. 2:5), this warning applies to us today.
1. Warning against drifting away (Heb. 2:1-4)
“We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away” (Heb. 2:1NIV).
This command is a warning against drifting away from the message of the gospel. Don’t be like a boat drifting past its destination or moving away from its anchorage/mooring because it’s being pushed along by the current and it’s drifting towards danger.
They had heard the gospel message. The danger is not paying attention and letting the words flow by while our minds are occupied elsewhere. It’s a warning against ignoring God’s gift of salvation by remaining in unbelief.
“For since the message spoken through angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation?” (Heb. 2:2-3a)
This explains why drifting away is so dangerous. The message spoken through angels was the law given on Mount Sinai (Acts 7:38, 53; Gal. 3:19). The Israelites were commanded to keep these laws and there was punishment for disobedience (Deut. 17:2-6; Heb. 10:28).
The writer says that the gospel is greater than the law. He assumes that a greater message demands a greater punishment for those who rebel against it. If disregard for the law brought punishment, then disregard for the gospel will bring even greater punishment.
If we ignore the gospel message, we can’t escape God’s punishment (1 Th. 5:3; Heb. 12:25).
When the Titanic ignored a warning from other ships about icebergs it hit an iceberg and sank within three hours. Likewise, in 2012 when the Costa Concordia sailed too close to an island near Italy it hit rocks and capsized. In these cases, ignoring warnings and dangerous behaviour resulted in shipwreck. The Bible says ignoring the gospel (by unbelief) also leads to disaster.
“This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard Him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to His will” (Heb. 2:3b-4).
Here we see that the message of our great salvation has been confirmed by reliable witnesses. While the law was given by God through angels to Moses and then to the people, the gospel was spoken directly by the Lord Jesus. It was confirmed to the writer’s generation by the apostles who were eyewitnesses who heard the original message (Lk. 1:2; Acts 1:21-22; 1 Jn. 1:1-3; 2 Pt. 1:16).
The testimony of the apostles and their delegates was supported by miracles, such as the healing of the sick (Acts 3:7-12, 16; 5:12-16; 9:32-41; 14:3, 8-10; 19:11-12; 28:8-9). This is because at that time Jews wanted to see a miracle before they would believe that a message was from God (Jn. 4:48; 1 Cor. 1:21-22). The Holy Spirit also gave the apostles and their delegates miraculous abilities, such as the ability to speak in other languages (Acts 2:4-12).
These witnesses demonstrate that God’s great salvation is true, reliable, dependable and trustworthy.
2. Warning against unbelief (Heb. 3:7 – 4:3)
The book of Hebrews was written to professing Christians; they were not all true believers. The writer says, “See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God” (Heb. 3:12). So some were unbelievers; they had “sinful unbelieving” hearts. This passage is a warning to them (Heb. 3:7 – 4:3). On the other hand, perseverance in the Christian faith is evidence of a true believer (Heb. 3:6, 14; 6:11; Mt. 10:22; 24:13; Mk. 13:13). True faith endures and is shown by ongoing hope in God. God gives believers the strength to persevere (Phil. 1:6; Heb. 13:21). But the “faith” of those who remained unbelievers and didn’t “come to share in Christ” (Heb. 3:14) doesn’t endure.
This danger is illustrated by the Israelites. Although God miraculously helped them escape from slavery in Egypt and travel to Canaan; because they rebelled they died in the desert before reaching the Promised Land (Num. 14:21-35; Ps. 95:7-11; Heb. 3:7-11).
It says, “They were not able to enter, because of their unbelief” (Heb. 3:19).
Unbelief (hardening the heart) excluded them from Canaan. They had seen many miracles including the 10 plagues in Egypt, crossed the Red Sea, eaten manna and quail provided by God, drank water provided by God, defeated the Amalekites, saw God’s glory and received the law at Mt Sinai and heard God’s promises. But they rebelled, sinned and disobeyed (Heb. 3:16-19). Sin deceives (it is attractive) and leads to hardening of the heart and unbelief. Persistent sin is a sign of unbelief. Of that generation, only Joshua and Caleb believed and obeyed God and entered Canaan. So the warning is to beware of unbelief. Don’t be like the Israelites!
The main message is given three times “Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts (in unbelief)” (Heb. 3:7-8, 15, 4:7). It says, don’t do what they did! The remedy is to “encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ‘Today,’ so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (Heb. 3:13). To persevere in the faith we need to “encourage one another daily” in our families, churches and communities.
The message given by God’s voice was the “good news” that was proclaimed in the first century that included “the promise of entering His (God’s) rest” (Heb. 3:15; 4:1-2). The Israelites heard good news about the Promised Land, but it was of no value to them because instead of having faith and belief, they disobeyed and didn’t believe. Here’s the warning. God has also given us a message of good news in the gospel of salvation – forgiveness of our sin and eternal life in heaven through faith in Jesus Christ. But this is of no value to us if we ignore it and reject it. As unbelief excluded the Israelites from Canaan, it also excludes us from heaven (also called God’s “rest” and a “Sabbath-rest”, Heb. 4:1-11). It’s only entered through faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ (Heb. 4:3).
“Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest (by faith), so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience” (Heb. 4:11).
Unbelief is dangerous, because it leads to missing out on heaven.
3. Warning against falling away (Heb. 6:4-8)
“It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away (committed apostasy), to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting Him to public disgrace” (Heb. 6:4-6).
An apostate is someone who professed to be a Christian and attended a local church, but turns against the Lord and abandons the Christian faith and opposes Christianity. They are traitors like Judas Iscariot who betrayed the Lord after being one of His disciples for three years. Apostates are unbelievers without salvation, in contrast to believers who have salvation (Heb. 6:9).
An apostate isn’t someone who hears the gospel and does nothing about it. Such an unbeliever may have another opportunity to become a believer. Also they aren’t a backslider who stops following the Lord and falls back into a previous sinful way of life (1 Cor. 5:1-13; Gal. 1:6; 4:9-11; 2 Ti. 4:9-10). Backsliders are Christians who are unfaithful and unfruitful.
Apostates had “once been enlightened”, which means they heard the gospel message. Like Judas Iscariot they knew the way of salvation, but hadn’t accepted it. They had “tasted the heavenly gift” of Jesus Christ, but hadn’t accepted Him by faith as Savior. They had “shared in the Holy Spirit” even though they weren’t indwelt by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit convicts unbelievers of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment (Jn. 16:8). They had “tasted the goodness of the word of God”, which means that they responded to the gospel message, but didn’t repent. In this respect, they were like the seed that fell on rocky ground and had no root and died when trouble or persecution came (Mt. 13:20-21). They had also experienced “the powers of the coming age”, which means they had seen the miracles associated with the preaching of the gospel by the apostles and their delegates (Heb. 2:4). But although they had experienced some of the benefits and privileges of Christianity, after they had “fallen away” (committed apostasy), it’s impossible for them to repent. They deliberately turn against and renounce Christianity and ridicule Christ, “crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting Him to public disgrace”.
The warning is repeated in a parable, which is consistent with the parable of the sower.
“Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God.
But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned” (Heb. 6:7-8).
The first land is an illustration of believers, while the second land is an illustration of apostates. The first is fruitful, but in the second the seed sprouts but because it has no root, some of it dies and the thorns and thistles take over and choke out the rest. The lesson is that God blesses the fruitful believer and punishes the apostate.
Apostates are not only traitors, they are also like terrorists. Terrorists wreck havoc with bombs and guns to undermine their enemies. Apostates are spiritual terrorists who undermine Christianity. You can read all about them in the book of Jude.
Next there is another warning for these spiritual terrorists.
4. Warning against deliberately sinning after knowing the truth (Heb. 10:26-31)
This passage warns those who profess to be Christians and go to church about the terrible consequences of rejecting Christ (Heb. 10:26-31). It says that God is angry about sin.
God will judge and punish sinners. This punishment is worse than death – because it goes beyond death. Hebrews constantly warns about this danger. It is mentioned three times in this passage.
“If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God” (Heb. 10:26-27).
“How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot” (Heb. 10:29).
“‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ and again, ‘The Lord will judge His people.’ It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:30-31).
In this warning, apostasy is called deliberate sinning after knowing the truth, being part of God’s people and sanctified and is associated with deserting the church (Heb. 10:25-26, 29-30). Because the apostate has rejected Christ, and there is no other sacrifice for sins, they will be punished for their sins. They are called “enemies of God” meaning that they actively oppose Christianity (Heb. 10:26-27).
Note that God’s judgment occurs when there is no sacrifice for sins (Heb. 10:26). There are two possibilities, either a fearful judgment or a sacrifice for sins. Christ’s sacrifice in the place of sinners like us is the only way to escape God’s anger and punishment. That’s the gospel. God’s loving sacrifice enables us to escape His judgment.
Once again a comparison is made with the law of Moses (Heb. 10:28-29). Under the law a person who was proven to be an idolater was put to death (Dt. 17:2-7). The apostate will be punished more severely than this because they have:
Trampled the Son of God underfoot.
After professing to be a follower of Jesus, they now deny any need for Christ as Savior and reject Him as their Leader.
Treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them.
They think the death of Christ which ratified the New Covenant is useless and unholy. Through their association with Christian people, they had been sanctified (set apart), just as an unbelieving husband is sanctified by his believing wife (1 Cor. 7:14). But that does not mean that they were saved because it is a different sanctification to that of believers (Heb. 10:14).
Insulted the Spirit of grace.
Although the Holy Spirit had convicted them of sin, and pointed them to Christ as Savior, they despised Him and the salvation He offered and “deliberately keep on sinning”.
The rejection of Jesus as Son of God is a serious sin (Heb. 10:30-31). The Bible says that God will judge such people:
“It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” for judgment.
The apostate (spiritual terrorist) will be fearful when they face God’s judgment (Heb. 10:27, 31).
Next they are warned once again.
5. Warning against turning away (Heb. 12:25-29)
After contrasting the old covenant (where God and humanity were separated because of sin) and the new covenant (where God and humanity are reconciled by Jesus Christ), the writer warns
“See to it that you do not refuse Him (God) who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused Him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from Him who warns us from heaven?” (Heb. 12:25). God warned the Israelites at Mount Sinai (Ex. 23:20-33). When they refused to obey Him during the exodus towards Canaan, they didn’t escape God’s punishment and so they perished. But Jesus is both from and in heaven and His revelation is greater than that at Mount Sinai. Consequently, if we fail to heed His invitation and warning by turning away from Him in unbelief, then we can’t escape a greater punishment than experienced by the Israelites in the wilderness. After all, “God is a consuming fire” of judgment to all sin and all who refuse to listen to Him (Heb. 10:27; 12:29).
What are the lessons for us today?
Unbelief and apostasy are dangerous. That’s why there are five warnings against them in the book of Hebrews.
Unbelief (ignoring God’s gift of salvation) is dangerous, because it leads to missing out on heaven. Remember what happened to the Israelites in the wilderness. They experienced great miracles, but still didn’t trust in God. Likewise, no matter what our spiritual experiences may be, including miracles, it doesn’t guarantee our salvation. Have we confessed and repented of our sin and trusted in Christ as our Savior and Leader? Are we warning unbelievers of the danger of unbelief? Are we encouraging one another to accept God’s gift of salvation and to continue meeting together (Heb. 10:24-25)?
Sin deceives and leads to unbelief. What sins are hindering us from accepting God’s invitation? Are we tempted to continue in our sinful ways?
Are we encouraging one another in the Christian faith (Heb. 3:13)? Reminding each other of the greatness of Jesus and what He has done and God’s promises in Scripture. Helping each other to not be deceived by the attractiveness of sin. Encouraging people’s faith and discouraging their unbelief. Are we doing this daily? In our families? In our church family? In our small groups?
Apostasy (committing treason against the Christian faith; betraying Christ; spiritual terrorism) is dangerous, because it is an eternal sin. Remember what happened to Judas Iscariot. It occurred in the first century and it happens today (1 Tim. 4:1).
If the sin of apostasy doesn’t apply to believers, to whom then does it apply? It could apply to someone who makes a profession of faith in Christ and seems to go on brightly for a while, but then something happens in their life. Perhaps they experience persecution or tragedy, or fall into immorality, or are convinced by the arguments of atheistic commentators or academics. With full knowledge of the truth, they deliberately turn away from it, completely renouncing Christianity. As the Bible says it is impossible to bring apostates to repentance, are we encouraging those at risk of apostasy?
God’s warnings to professing Christians were to not drift away, turn away, or fall away into ongoing unbelief, and not become a traitor by rejecting and criticizing Christ after knowing the truth.
We have seen from Hebrews that God’s greatest warning for us is the danger of not believing the gospel message because this excludes people from heaven and leads to eternal punishment for one’s sins. In particular an apostate (a professing Christian who becomes a traitor or spiritual terrorist) is doomed to punishment in hell.
The only way to escape God’s anger, judgment and punishment is to accept Christ’s sacrifice in the place of sinners like us. Let’s do this and turn around (repent) and persevere by trusting God day by day.
Written, March 2015
In January 2015, National Geographic magazine quoted Byron Reese:
Since technology grows exponentially, not in a linear way, we will see dramatic improvements in our way of life in just a few years … This means that soon we will be able to solve all our problems that are fundamentally technical. These problems include disease, poverty, energy and scarcity. If you can live a few years more, there is a real chance you will never die, since immortality may be just a technical problem we solve. All these advances will usher in a new golden age freed from the scourges that have plagued humanity throughout our history.
Byron Reese is the author of the book titled “Infinite progress: How the internet and technology will end ignorance, disease, poverty, hunger and war” (2013). This optimistic view of the future assumes that many of our problems “are fundamentally technical”.
But the Bible says that many of our problems are fundamentally due to our selfish and rebellious attitude and behavior. We are all sinners by choice and by practice (Rom. 3:9, 23). Because of this underlying problem, war and terrorism persist despite our improved technology. This inner sinfulness is the scourge that has plagued humanity throughout our history.
The Bible gives the solution to this universal problem: “We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are. For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God freely and graciously declares that we are righteous. He did this through Christ Jesus when He freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed His life, shedding His blood” (Rom. 3:22-25NLT).
Ignorance, disease, poverty, hunger and war are symptoms of humanity’s sinfulness. Our best hope for a new golden age is to follow God’s solution by believing that Jesus Christ paid the penalty for our sins.
Reese says that because of technical advances “there is a real chance you will never die”.
On the other hand, the Bible says that believers in Jesus Christ will receive transformed bodies that will never die. And those who are alive when He returns will never die.
“What I am saying, dear brothers and sisters, is that our physical bodies cannot inherit the Kingdom of God. These dying bodies cannot inherit what will last forever.
But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies.
Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor. 15:50-57).
This certainty (“it will happen”) contrasts with the doubtfulness of the technical advances (“there is a real chance”). There’s no doubt about this promise in Scripture.
A new golden age
Reese says, “All these (technical) advances will usher in a new golden age freed from the scourges that have plagued humanity throughout our history”.
However, the Bible says that believers in Jesus Christ can look forward to His eternal kingdom where “there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever” (Rev. 21:4). This will be a golden age because sin and its effects will be absent (Rev. 22:3). The Bible teaches that a spiritual transformation is necessary before there can be a lasting physical transformation. So technical advances alone will not bring a new golden age.
We have a choice on how to address our problems. We can either follow technology as advocated by gurus such as Byron Reese, or follow Jesus Christ as advocated by the God who created the universe.
Whose promises for a new golden age do you believe? Let’s follow Jesus and look forward to the completion of His spiritual transformation to bring in a new golden age.
Written, January 2015
Recently I heard someone say that all our problems would be solved if we followed the Golden Rule: “Treat others as you would like them to treat you”. It was their key to harmonious and peaceful relationships. Whereas the Bible says that the good news about Jesus Christ is the key to solving our problems and restoring our relationships.
The Pope’s recent exhortation to the Roman Catholic church “On the proclamation of the gospel in today’s world” encouraged them to spread the message of the gospel; the good news about Jesus Christ. But the exhortation makes some claims about Mary the mother of Jesus Christ that are inconsistent with the Bible. Is the different teaching with regard to Mary significant? Is it syncretism (the combination of different or opposing forms of belief or practice)? Is the Pope teaching a different gospel to the Bible’s gospel (Gal. 1:6-9)?
The Bible’s “good news”
The word “gospel” is the translation of a Greek word that means “good news” (Strongs #2098) and the word “evangelist” is the translation of a Greek word that means “a preacher of good news” (Strongs #2099). Paul summarised the Biblical gospel, “Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved … For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:1-4NIV). He said that Christ’s death and resurrection is the key to solving our problems.
The Bible says that the root cause of all our problems is that everyone has sinned – resulting in separation from God and eternal punishment (Rom. 3:23; 6:23). The only means of rescue is salvation by faith in Christ (Eph. 2:8, 9). In the beginning of time, God created a perfect world where there was no sin. But this world changed and there was disease, suffering, decay and death after Adam and Eve sinned. Now we all inherit this sinfulness. Because sin separates us from God, we are excluded from heaven. But God planned to rescue us from our sinful ways by sending His Son, Jesus Christ, to earth to fix the relationship between us and God. Jesus took the punishment for sin that we deserve by dying for us so that those who accept the rescue plan can live with Him eternally in heaven. Jesus also summarised the Biblical gospel, “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16). The “good news” is also summarized in the Postscript.
The characters involved today in the good news of salvation for humanity are:
- God the Father planned it.
- Jesus Christ obeyed the plan.
- Missionaries and preachers communicate the message from the Bible (Rom. 10:14-17).
- The Holy Spirit empowers the messengers, convinces people of their sinfulness and need of salvation, and empowers them to repent and turn to Christ in faith (Jn. 16:8; 1 Cor. 2:4-5; Ti. 3:5).
Mary has no role at all—she is not mentioned in the Bible after the church commenced on the day of Pentecost.
A different “good news”
Paul was astonished when the Galatians turned “to a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all” (Gal. 1:6-7). He states that false teachers were “trying to pervert the gospel of Christ” and should be “eternally condemned” (Gal. 1:7-9). These strong words are repeated to emphasize their importance.
A “different gospel” differs from the Bible’s good news. It either adds to it or takes away from it, and Revelation warns against this tampering with aspects of the Gospel (ch. 22:18-19; 1:5; 4:11; 21:1-22:6). For example, the Pharisees and Sadducees added extra rules and regulations to the true gospel (Mt. 16:5-12). This gospel says there are things you must do to get saved and stay saved. Paul rebuked Peter in Galatia because he was “not acting in line with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14).
The Pope’s “good news”
Although the Pope’s exhortation addresses “the proclamation of the gospel”, it is difficult to determine his understanding of the gospel from this document. He says “Christians have a duty to proclaim the gospel” (p. 14), but doesn’t explain the gospel very well. For example, “Before all else, the gospel invites us to respond to the God of love who saves us, to see God in others and to go forth from ourselves to seek the good of others “ (p. 34). How are we to respond? He mentions preachers “bringing Jesus” to others (p. 85). What do they preach? There is little mention of sin, confession and repentance in the exhortation (Lk. 15:7; p. 14-15).
The best statements on the gospel in the exhortation are:
- “Those who accept his (Jesus’) offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness” (p.3).
- “The Gospel, radiant with the glory of Christ’s cross, constantly invites us to rejoice” (p.6).
- “The heart of its message will always be the same: the God who revealed his immense love in the crucified and risen Christ” (p.10).
- The missionary mandate of Jesus is quoted, “go and make disciples” (Mt 28:19-20; p. 19).
- “In this basic core, what shines forth is the beauty of the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead” (p. 31-32).
- “Let us go forth to offer everyone the life of Jesus Christ” (p.41).
- “Evangelization as the joyful, patient and progressive preaching of the saving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ must be your absolute priority” (p. 89)
- “Witness to the saving love of the Lord” (p. 98).
- “Bring the love of Jesus to others” (p. 103).
- “But always keeping in mind the fundamental message: the personal love of God who became man, who gave himself up for us, who is living and who offers us his salvation and his friendship” (p. 103).
- In a sermon “the Lord, more than his minister, will be the centre of attention” (2 Cor. 4:5; p. 110).
However, “Journeying together to shrines” is given as an example of evangelization (p. 101) and the exhortation concludes with a section on “Mary, the Mother of evangelization” (p. 211-217). This is a great concern because as Mary is no longer alive on earth, she has nothing to do with evangelization today. Instead her body has decayed to dust and her soul and spirit are with the Lord in heaven. She is not “Jesus’ gift to his people” (p. 211) and not the “Star of the new evangelization” (p.214) and not the one to pray to for help “to proclaim the good news of Jesus” (p.216).
Although the Pope rejects syncretism (the combination of different or opposing forms of belief or practice) with the followers of non-Christian religions (p. 187), he accepts scyncretism between the Bible and extra-Biblical teachings on Mary.
Does it matter?
Paul said that the gospel advanced when he was imprisoned in Philippi: “Because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear. It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice” (Phil. 1:14-18).
Those that preached Christ out of envy, rivalry and selfish ambition had the right message but the wrong motives. But Paul rejoiced because the gospel message they preached was true. When the Pope preaches about Christ, the message is true, but when He introduces Mary as an essential part of evangelization and Christianity, the message is jeopardized. Paul rejoiced when the message was true, but he rebuked when it was false (Gal. 2:14). So we can rejoice when the Pope and the Roman Catholics preach about Christ, but we should rebuke them when they are “not acting in line with the truth of the gospel” with regard to Mary (Gal. 2:14).
So the gospel message in the Pope’s exhortation contains a combination of truth and error. In this sense it is different to the Bible’s gospel (Gal. 1:6-9). The main error is the inclusion of Mary as an essential part of Christianity. Although God can use the truth, people can be deceived by this error. This false teaching about Mary is a significant addition to the Bible’s message (Rev. 22:18-19). It is syncretism (the fusion of different or opposing forms of belief or practice).
When we proclaim the good news about Jesus Christ, let’s remember it’s all about Jesus, and not Mary.
Postscript – Summary of the “good news”
God loves you and wants you to have a full and satisfying life:
- “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16).
- “I (Jesus) have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (Jn. 10:10).
We are separated from God because we all disobey God, and so we can’t know and experience His love or have a full and satisfying life:
- “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).
- “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).
The only way to be free from the sin that separates us from God is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ died on a cross to take the punishment for our sin. Jesus’ death and resurrection made it possible to remove our separation from God:
- “God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
- “Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6).
We must personally invite Jesus to come into our lives and take charge:
- “To all who did receive Him (Jesus), to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God” (Jn. 1:12).
- “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).
Here’s how to respond to the “good news”:
- Admit that you are a sinner.
- Believe that Jesus Christ loves you so much He died for you so you can be close to God.
- Change your mind about sin—be willing to break your sinful habits and build good habits by obeying God’s word, the Bible. The Bible calls this “repentance”. It’s a 180 degree turn towards God.
- Ask God to live in you through His Spirit, to forgive you for the sinful things you have done and take charge of your life.
Written, January 2014
The Pope’s exhortation “On the proclamation of the gospel in today’s world” issued in November 2013 to Roman Catholics makes some claims about Mary the mother of Jesus Christ that seem to be inconsistent with the Bible. Let’s look at some of them.
Don’t exalt, revere or worship Mary
Prayers to Mary?
The exhortation concludes with a long prayer to Mary that asks her to “pray for the church” and “pray for us” (p.216-217). Also a “prayer for help from Mary” is said to be “the manifestation of a theological life nourished by the working of the Holy Spirit” (p. 102). Furthermore, the Pope asks her “to help us proclaim the message of salvation to all and to enable new disciples to become evangelizers in turn” (p.214).
Most prayer in the Bible is addressed to God the Father. There are instances of prayers in the New Testament addressed to the Lord Jesus Christ, which is consistent with the fact that Jesus Christ is the only mediator between God and mankind (Acts 7:59; 1 Tim. 2:5). As Mary is neither divine nor a mediator between God and mankind, the Bible never suggests that people should pray to Mary and it gives no explanation of how Mary could answer such prayers.
Between Christ’s ascension and the day of Pentecost the apostles “all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers” (Acts 1:14NIV). Notice that they prayed with Mary, not to her. She was waiting with them to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. She wasn’t different to the other believers. This is the last mention of Mary in the Bible.
Mary like Jesus and God?
The Pope says, “As mother of all, she is a sign of hope for people’s suffering …” (p.213) and “Many Christian parents ask that their children be baptized in a Marian shrine, as a sign of their faith in her motherhood which brings forth new children for God” (p.213). Also, “Mary offers them maternal comfort and love, and whispers in their ear: ‘Let your heart not be troubled… Am I not here, who am your Mother?’”.
In this instance Mary is given divine attributes like Jesus Christ and God the Father. In the Bible, Jesus is the one who said “Do not let your hearts be troubled” and is a sign of hope (Jn. 14:1; 1 Tim. 1:1NIV). God is the one who “brings forth new children for God”.
But Mary was not divine. When she praised God for what He has done for her, Mary said “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Lk. 1:46-47). Because God was her Savior, she was not sinless. Mary didn’t have the power to do miracles, but she knew that Jesus could. When the wine was used up at the wedding at Cana, Mary told the servants “Do whatever He tells you” (Jn. 2:5).
Mary like the Holy Spirit?
In the Pope’s prayer to Mary he asked her to “Obtain for us now a new ardour … Give us a holy courage … help us to bear radiant witness …” for evangelism (p.216). He also says, “With the Holy Spirit, Mary is always present in the midst of the people” and her prayer “made possible the missionary outburst which took place at Pentecost” (p.211) and “She is the missionary who draws near to us and accompanies us throughout life, opening our hearts to faith by her maternal love … she constantly surrounds us with God’s love” (p.213).
In this instance Mary is given divine attributes like the Holy Spirit. In the Bible, the Holy Spirit lives in each believer and gives power for evangelism (Acts 1:8; Rom. 8:9).
Shrines to Mary?
The Pope endorses shines to Mary (p.213).
When the Magi sought “the one who has been born king of the Jews”, “On coming to the house, they saw the child with His mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped Him. Then they opened their treasures and presented Him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh” (Mt. 2:1-2, 10). Here the Magi worshipped Jesus, not Mary.
After John was given great revelations by an angel, twice he fell down to worship him (Rev. 19:10; 22:8-9). Twice he was told, “Don’t do that! I am a fellow servant with you … Worship God!”. He was told to worship God, not the angel. If John had worshipped Mary, he would have been told to worship God, not Mary. The worship of any created being (angelic or human) is a form of idolatry. Christians are not to worship any other god except the one true God (1 Cor. 8:4-6) and not to worship idols (1 Cor. 10:7, 14; 1 Jn. 5:21). This was stated as the first and second commandments in the Old Testament (Ex. 20:3-6).
Mary is not mentioned any of the letters in the Bible that were written to the early church. Instead we read that the apostles and prophets laid the doctrinal foundation of the church in what they taught about Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 3:10-11; Eph. 2:20). Those with the most important spiritual gifts in the early church were the apostles, prophets and teachers (1 Cor. 12:28). They wrote these letters, not Mary. The letters describe their ministry, not Mary’s.
Next we look at some of the titles given to Mary in the Pope’s exhortation.
Don’t give Mary a special title
The Pope often gives Mary the title Mother (215):
- “Mother of the church” (p.211). The Pope states that on the cross “Jesus left us his mother to be our mother” and “Christ led us to Mary” (p. 212). The reason given is that “The Lord did not want to leave the Church without this icon of womanhood”.
- “Mother of the living gospel” (p.214).
- “Mother of evangelisation” (p.284).
- “mother of all” (p.213).
None of these titles occur in the Bible. Also Mary is never called “the mother of God” in the Bible, because God has existed eternally.
When Christ was being crucified He said to Mary, “Woman, here is your son,” and to John “Here is your mother” and from that time on, John took her into his home (Jn. 19:26-27). Notice that Jesus didn’t call her “Mother”, but he instructed John to care for Mary as if she was his own mother. Jesus also called Mary “woman” at the wedding at Cana (Jn. 2:4).
When a woman in the crowd called out to Jesus, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you”, He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it” (Lk. 11:27-28). So a believer who hears the word of God and obeys it more blessed than the mother of Jesus. This means that Mary was more blessed as a believer than as the mother of Jesus.
Although the son mentioned in Revelation 12 is Jesus Christ, the mother symbolises Israel, not Mary. She is associated with the sun, the moon and 12 stars like in Joseph’s dream (Gen. 37:11, Rev. 12:1). The stars represent the tribes of Israel. Revelation 12 refers to the end times and is similar to Daniel 12. At that time the angel Michael protects the Jews (Dan. 12:1; Rev. 12:7-9). The woman’s offspring represent those who come to faith in the end times (Rev. 12:17).
The Pope also gives Mary the tile, “The Virgin Mary” (p. 212, 216, 217).
The Bible mentions Mary’s virginity to teach that a man wasn’t involved in Christ’s conception (Mt. 1:20; Lk. 1:31-35). As Jesus had brothers (James, Joseph, Simon and Judas) and sisters (Mt. 12:46-47; 13:55-56; Mk. 3:31-32; 6:3; Lk. 8:20-21; Jn. 2:12; 7:3, 5, 10; Acts 1:14; 1 Cor. 9:5; Gal. 1:19), Mary didn’t remain a virgin after Christ’s birth. This is consistent with Joseph being told “do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife” (Mt. 1:20).
The Pope also gives Mary other titles:
- “Our Lady of help” (p.215).
- “Bride of the eternal wedding feast” (p.217). But at the wedding of the Lamb mentioned in the Bible, the bride is the members of the church, not Mary (Rev. 19:7).
- “Star of the new evangelisation” (p.217).
None of these titles is mentioned in the Bible.
Jesus taught that there is no place amongst believers for distinctive titles which elevate a person above the others; “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah” (Mt. 23:8-10). Instead our speech should reflect the equality between believers and distinctive titles should be reserved for the Godhead. If we shouldn’t elevate a person as our spiritual father, then we shouldn’t elevate another person as our spiritual mother.
The Pope’s claims about Mary that we have looked at above are inconsistent with the Bible. Presumably they come from extra-biblical traditional sources within the Roman Catholic church. Do they add to or take away from the Bible’s message (Rev. 22:18-19)? Is the different teaching with regard to Mary significant? Is it syncretism (the combination of different or opposing forms of belief or practice)? Is the Pope teaching a different gospel to the Bible’s gospel (Gal. 1:6-9)? That will be the topic of my next post.
Mary was a woman who was given a special role to be the mother who raised Jesus to adulthood. After the day of Pentecost she was a faithful member of the church in Jerusalem. Let’s imitate Mary’s faithfulness.
In the meantime, let’s exalt, revere and worship God the Father and Jesus, not Mary; and pray to God, not Mary.
Written December 2013
Also see – What is the Christian “good news”?
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. 1:19; 4:1-5; 2 Tim. 3:1-13; Heb. 6:4-8; 10:26-31; 2 Pt. 2:20-22; 1 Jn. 5:16-17).
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
I have received this question about the Bible: It seems that rape was condoned in the Bible, which seems inconsistent with a God who is against abortion and offers forgiveness to sinners … I ask these hard questions for myself as well as unbelievers who use this to justify their hatred of God and the Bible.
Instances in the Bible
Rape is mentioned several times in the Bible. Dinah the daughter of Jacob was raped by Shechem the Hivite (Gen. 34:1-31NIV). Her brothers were shocked and furious at this “outrageous thing … that should not be done” (v.7). When Shechem’s father went to Jacob to arrange their marriage, he was told that the bride price would be that their men become circumcised like the Israelites. After they agreed and were in pain due to the circumcision, two of Dinah’s brothers attacked the city of Shechem and killed all the men because Dinah had been treated “like a prostitute”. However, the word “God” is not mentioned in this chapter of the Bible.
When an Israelite traveller stopped overnight at Gibeah in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin, “the wicked men of the city surrounded the house” and demanded to have homosexual sex with the visitor (Jud. 19:1-30). Instead they were given the Israelite’s concubine and “they raped her and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go” and she was found dead outside the door of the house. When the Israelites heard about this “lewd and outrageous act” and “awful thing”, they demanded that the perpetuators be handed over to be put to death (Jud. 20:1-48). After this was refused, most of the Benjamite warriors were killed in a war. The Bible’s description of this period is that “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit” (Jud. 19:1; 21:23). It demonstrates the moral depravity that resulted when God’s people turned away from following Him.
King David’s son Amnon lusted after his beautiful half-sister Tamar – they had different mothers (2 Sam. 13:1-39). When he grabbed her and said, “Come to bed with me, my sister”, she said “No, my brother! Don’t force me! Such a thing should not be done in Israel! Don’t do this wicked thing. What about me? Where could I get rid of my disgrace? And what about you? You would be like one of the wicked fools in Israel. Please speak to the king; he will not keep me from being married to you” (v.11-13) “But he refused to listen to her, and since he was stronger than she, he raped her” (v.14). “When king David heard all this, he was furious” (v.21). Two years later, Tamar’s brother Absalom took revenge by arranging for Amnon to be killed “because he had disgraced his sister Tamar” (v.22).
The passage of how the Benjamites obtained wives from Jabesh Gilead and Shiloh has been alleged to involve rape, but Judges 21:10-25 concerns marriage, not rape. As noted above, this was time of moral depravity. Likewise, the marriage of captive women from outside Canaan was marriage, not rape (Dt. 21:10-14). The taking of female prisoners of war has also been alleged to be rape, but in this instance they probably became slaves and there is no indication of rape or sex slavery, although they may have subsequently married an Israelite (Num. 31:18).
The Bible also records instances of the rape of female prisoners of war by ungodly men such as: when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem in 586 BC (Lam. 5:11), when the Medes conquered Babylon in 539 BC (Isa. 13:16-17) and in a coming day when the nations attack Jerusalem before Christ returns to earth (Zech. 14:2).
Sexual immorality, including rape, was one of the sins of the Jews in Jerusalem (Ezek. 22:11). Because of these, they were conquered by the Babylonians and dispersed among the nations.
In all these cases, the Bible reports rape as an example of ungodly behavior.
What about Abram and Hagar?
Was Hagar was raped by Abram (Gen. 16:1-4)? When Abram’s husband, Sari, was unable to have children she thought “perhaps I can build a family through” Hagar, who was her slave. After Abram agreed, Sari gave Hagar to him “to be his wife”. This seems to be a euphemism for sexual intercourse because afterwards Hagar is still referred to as Sari’s slave and not Abram’s wife. Then Abram slept with Hagar and she became pregnant. As this was Sari’s idea and there is no indication that Hagar opposed it, there is no evidence of rape. Instead it seems to be an accepted practice in society at that time. This interpretation is supported by four instances in the life of Jacob (Gen. 30:1-13). On two occasions when Rachel was unable to have children she asked him to sleep with her servant Bilhah. This resulted in the births of Dan and Naphtali. Similarly, on two occasions when Leah was unable to have children she also asked him to sleep with her servant Zilpah. This resulted in the births of Gad and Asher. Later Bilhah is called Jacob’s concubine (Gen. 35:22). As secondary wives, concubines were associated with polygamy. While these cases seem to have been culturally acceptable at the time, they are contrary to God’s plan for marriage, which is monogamy (Gen. 2:24; Mt. 19:4-9).
According to the law that God gave to the Israelites, the crime of rape of a “young woman who was pledged to be married” was to be punished by death (Dt. 22:25-27). This penalty is the same as someone (male or female) guilty of adultery (Dt. 22:20-22). So rape was considered to be a serious crime.
However, if the young woman was not pledged to be married, the man was to marry her if her father agreed (Ex. 22:16-17; Dt. 22:28-29). In this case the penalty was to support her for the rest of her life. In those days a woman depended on her father or husband for her welfare. If the woman was no longer a virgin and was not pledged to be married, she would have been deemed undesirable for marriage and so would be subject to poverty after the death of her father. So this law moderated the penalty in order to provide for the welfare of the woman and her children. Taken in isolation, this could be used to assert that the Bible condoned rape. However, the rapist risked the revenge of the victim’s family as was the case with Shechem and Dinah (Gen. 34:1-31). Also, the rest of the Bible clearly condemns rape.
Sexual immorality, such as rape, is a serious sin (1 Cor. 6:9-19) and a characteristic of the sinful nature (Gal. 5:19-21). It is a sign of those who are under God’s judgement (v.9-11) and Christians are told to flee from it (v.18).
The Bible reports sinful behavior such as rape. Like history books and the news media, the Bible doesn’t necessarily approve all it reports. Also, much of the Bible is descriptive and not prescriptive. Clearly, the bible condemns rape as a serious sin. To claim otherwise is to misinterpret the text and context of these Scriptures.
Written, May 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