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
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
Welfare for the poor
I have received this question about the Bible: It seems that slavery was condoned in the Bible and there were forced marriages with captive women, 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.
According to the dictionary, a slave is a person who is completely dominated by their owner and works without payment. The word “slavery” implies hardship, exploitation and lack of freedom. Slaves are different to servants or employees who are paid a wage and have the freedom to leave their employment. Let’s look at what the Old Testament has to say on this topic.
“Slavery” in the Bible
Slavery was prevalent in ancient times. People could become slaves due to poverty or warfare or being born to slaves (Ex. 21:4; Eccl. 2:7). The English word “slave” or related words occur in 65-310 verses in the Bible, depending on the translation (see below). Translations with lower frequency use the word “servant” where the others have “slave”. The Hebrew word is “ebed” (Strongs #5650), which describes one who serves another as a slave.
The Old Testament describes the history of the Israelites, who were God’s chosen people. Their first instance of slavery was when Joseph was sold to the Ishmaelites who in turn sold him to Potiphar in Egypt (Gen. 37:28, 36; 39:17, 19). This included being imprisoned for over two years (Ex. 41:1; Ps. 105:17). After he was freed, his father’s family moved to Egypt because of a famine.
Before this time, God told Abraham that his descendants would be enslaved in a foreign country, which was Egypt (Gen. 15:13-14; Acts 7:6-7). As they felt threatened by Jacob’s numerous descendants, the Egyptians subjected them to slavery (Ex. 1:6-14). Under their slave masters the Israelites constructed buildings and worked in the fields. They were beaten by the Egyptians (Ex. 2:11; 5:14). It was forced labour and a life of oppression, suffering and misery (Ex. 2:23; 3:7; 5:6, 10, 13, 14; 6:6). This continued during the 40 years when Moses was in Midian. After they cried to God for help, He promised to deliver them from the slavery (Ex. 2:23-25; 3:7-10; 6:6-8). The Israelites were finally delivered after the ten plagues and God miraculously lead the exodus towards Canaan (Ex. 13:20-22).
Afterwards they were to remember they were slaves in Egypt (Dt. 16:12; 24:22) and that God brought them out of slavery in Egypt (Ex. 20:2; Lev 26:13; Dt. 5:6, 15; 6:12, 21; 7:8; 8:11; 13:5, 10; 15:15; 16:12; Dt. 5:6, 15; 6:12, 21; 7:8; 8:14; 13:5, 10; 15:5; 24:18; Josh. 24:17; Jud. 6:8; Jer. 34:13; Mi. 6:4). At the Passover festival they celebrated their release from slavery (Ex. 13:3, 14).
The Israelites then travelled to Canaan where they eventually divided into two kingdoms, with Israel in the north and Judah in the south. At times they were enslaved by the Arameans (Syrians), the Phoenicians (Tyre & Sidon) and Philistia (2 Ki. 5:2; Joel 3:4-6, Amos 1:6). Over a 10-year period the Assyrians attacked Israel until they were conquered and deported to Assyria (2 Ki. 15:29; 17:3-6; 18:9-12; 1 Chron. 5:26). This was God’s punishment for their idolatry (2 Ki. 17:7-23). So the Israelites were slaves to the cruel Assyrians.
Then the Assyrians attacked Judah, but God delivered them (2 Ki. 18:13-19:37). Later Isaiah predicted that they would be conquered and deported to Babylon (2 Ki. 20:16-18). This was fulfilled when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and took prisoners back to Babylon where they were captive for at least 70 years (2 Ki. 24:12-1; 25:1-21; 2 Chr. 36:20). Next they were slaves to the Persians (Ez. 9:7-9; Neh. 9:36-37), followed by the Syrians and Egyptians in the inter-testament period. In fact from this time until 1948, Judea was always ruled by other nations.
What’s it like to be a slave? In Psalm 123 the captives in Babylon plead to God for deliverance. They had endured contempt and ridicule from the Babylonians.
So God used slavery to get the Israelites out of Egypt so they could settle in Canaan. He also used slavery as punishment for their idolatry in Canaan. In more recent times, He used the Nazi holocaust, which was worse than slavery, to give Judea back to them in 1948.
When a criminal is convicted of a serious crime, they are sentenced to gaol where they lose their freedom. Gaol or prison is a form of slavery, which I will call penal slavery.
The earliest mention of slavery in the Bible is when Noah cursed Canaan; “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers” (Gen. 9:24-27NIV). The descendants of Canaan were extremely wicked (Gen. 15:16; Dt. 9:4-5; 18:9-13). That’s why they were cursed to be slaves. Because of their wickedness, the Canaanites were to be driven from their lands or destroyed when the Israelites settled in Canaan (Ex. 23:23, 31). But some Canaanites remained in the land and these were used by Solomon to built the temple, the palace, and the city walls (1 Ki. 5:15; 9:15-22; 2 Chr. 2:17-18; 8:1-9; Eccl. 2:4-7). Also the Gibeonites (Canaanites who deceived the Israelites) were woodcutters and water carriers for the tabernacle (Josh. 9:23-25). So the prediction was fulfilled when the Canaanites were slaves to the Israelites. In this case the Canaanites were better off than otherwise – as they hadn’t escaped to another country they should have been killed during the Israelite invasion of Canaan.
The Canaanite slavery to the Israelites and the Israelite slavery to Babylonia were both examples of penal slavery. A thief who couldn’t make restitution for their crime was also to become a penal slave (Ex. 22:1-3).
How other nations treated slaves
Samson lived when the Israelites were ruled by the Philistines. He had great strength and killed many Philistines. When the Philistines finally captured Samson they gouged out his eyes and bound him with bronze shackles in prison where he worked grinding grain (Jud. 16:21). That was slave labor!
When the Ammonites besieged an Israelite city, they would only agree to a treaty if the right eye of the Israelites was gouged out (1 Sam. 11:2). Fortunately that didn’t happen! Also, when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians, they put out king Zedekiah’s eyes and bound him with bronze shackles and took him to Babylon (Jer. 39:7).
When the Amalekites attacked Israel, they abandoned an Egyptian slave when he became ill (1 Sam. 30:13). After he had been without food or water for three days, David gave him food and water.
Other nations were slave traders – they traded slaves for merchandise (Ez. 27:15). So these nations were cruel to their captives.
How Israelites were to treat slaves
So far we have seen that because slavery was prevalent in ancient times, it is recorded in the Bible. Just because something is mentioned in the Bible doesn’t mean that God approved it. But what does God say to His chosen people about slavery?
If we can’t meet the repayments on a car or house, they are repossessed. If we are made bankrupt, we are restricted from business ownership and overseas travel and required to repay our debts before we can be discharged. In a world without government welfare and charities, God put laws in place to protect poor Israelites (Lev. 25:35-38). They were to be helped with no-interest loans and sold food at cost. So a Jew could not profit from the poverty of a fellow Jew. But God also put some other provisions in place.
“If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and sell themselves to you, do not make them work as slaves. They are to be treated as hired workers or temporary residents among you; they are to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. Then they and their children are to be released, and they will go back to their own clans and to the property of their ancestors. Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves. Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God” (Lev. 25:39-43).
Here we see that a Jew could repay their debt though physical labor. But they were to be treated as household employees or indentured servants, not as slaves. In this way, adults or children could become slaves to pay debts (2 Ki. 4:1; Neh. 5:4-8).
“If any of your people—Hebrew men or women—sell themselves to you and serve you six years, in the seventh year you must let them go free. And when you release them, do not send them away empty-handed. Supply them liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to them as the Lord your God has blessed you. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you. That is why I give you this command today” (Dt. 15:12-15; Ex. 21:1-4; Jer. 34:14).
Debt slaves were to be released after working six years or in the Sabbath Year or in the Year of Jubilee if that came earlier (Dt. 15:1-11). This meant that they could not be enslaved for more than six years. They were not to be perpetual slaves. The reason they were to be released was because God said, “the Israelites belong to me as servants. They are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt” (Lev. 25:55). The slave was to be released with provisions to ensure they didn’t fall straight back into debt. The NIV Bible calls this slave a “servant”, presumably because they are treated more like an employee than a traditional slave. As employees like servants don’t sell themselves to their employer, this is a form of slavery which I will call debt slavery. It is like a debt repayment scheme. After the work was done, they were freed. After all, Solomon said that“the borrower is slave to the lender (Prov. 22:7).
“But if your servant says to you, ‘I do not want to leave you,’ because he loves you and your family and is well off with you, then take an awl and push it through his earlobe into the door, and he will become your servant for life. Do the same for your female servant” (Dt. 15:16-17).
In this instance, we have a debt slave who is about to be released. Instead, they chose to continue working for their master or owner because of the good conditions and lack of oppression. This is a form of household slavery which I will call voluntary slavery. As noted earlier, the NIV calls this type of slave a “servant”. The hole in their earlobe was the sign of a voluntary Jewish slave.
Prisoners of war are captive to the victors (Num. 31:7-9; Dt. 20:14; 21:10). This is a form of slavery which I will call captive slavery. For example, the Jews were captives of the Babylonians. As the Israelites were not meant to enslave Canaanites and they didn’t usually get involved in distant wars, this would not have been a significant source of slaves in Israel. But when God used Israel to punish wicked nations, the survivors were often captive slaves. The Canaanites mentioned previously were captive slaves. Also, captured Ammonites were Israel’s laborers (2 Sam. 12:31). Such captives could be taxed by their new ruler and used to provide labor and military forces (2 Sam. 8:2).
The Israelites slaves were to come from other nations, not from Israel (Lev. 25:44-46). When the kingdom of Israel defeated Judah they intended to take the men and women as slaves (2 Chron. 28:5-15). But after they were confronted, the Judeans were freed. However, the Jews did have Jewish slaves when Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem and one of the reasons for the Babylonian captivity was that the Israelite salves had not been released after serving for six years, as God had commanded (Jer. 34:8-22).
Captive slaves were often penal slaves. For example, Israelite idolatry led to Philistine and Ammonite oppression (Jud. 10:6-10; 13:1). This captivity was part of God’s judgement of wickedness.
Rights and privileges
In all the above cases, the owners of Jewish slaves were commanded, “Do not rule over them ruthlessly” (Lev. 25:43, 46, 53). What a contrast to the cruelty of other nations in Biblical times and in world history!
The Jews were to give a foreign slave refuge and protect fugitive slaves rather than returning them to an owner (Dt. 23:15-16). Slaves were to share many of the privileges of others in the household. They were to rest on the Sabbath day and could eat the Passover if circumcised and celebrate Jewish festivals (Ex. 12:44; 23:12; Dt. 5:14; 12:12; 16:10-11, 13-14). A priest’s slave could eat of the offerings, which was prohibited for an employee (Lev. 22:10-11).
Although foreign debt slaves could be bought and owned as a person’s property and passed on to subsequent generations (Lev. 25:44-46), they were to be loved and treated as fellow citizens (Lev. 19:34; Dt. 10:19).
What about allowing a slave to be beaten (Ex. 21:20-21, 26-27)? Slaves were given similar rights to free citizens; the punishment for mistreating a slave was the same as for a free person. There were laws giving punishment if a slave was injured or killed and if a man slept with another’s female slave (Lev. 19:20-22). There was a penalty of death for kidnapping an Israelite into slavery (Ex. 21:16; Dt. 24:7).
What about forced marriages? Marriage contracts allowed a family to find a better life for their daughter (Ex. 21:7-11). In a world when most marriages were arranged by the parents, a young girl could be sold as a maidservant so she could be a potential wife or concubine in a wealthy family. The payment could be viewed as a bride price that was paid to the parents of the bride. She was adopted until the marriage was completed. If she became a concubine or wife in a wealthy family she would be better off than in poverty. In this case the woman was to be treated in the same way as any wife or concubine; she was not a sex slave. Whether or not she became a concubine or wife, her rights and privileges were to be protected.
When the Israelites were travelling to Canaan the Moabite and Midianite women enticed the Israelite men into idolatry and immorality (Num. 25:1-18). This resulted in a plague that killed 23,000 Israelites in one day (1 Cor. 10:8). God told the Israelites to take vengeance on the Midianites. So an army of 12,000 men killed all the Midianite soldiers and captured women and children (Num. 31:1-47). But Moses said that because it was the women who had caused the Israelites to sin, they must be killed and only the virgin women kept as the spoil of battle (Num. 31:18, 25-47). These women probably became household slaves; there is no evidence that they were forced into marriage. After all, it is recorded that there were slave girls in David’s household (2 Sam. 6:20, 22).
An Israelite could marry a foreign female prisoner of war if she was not a Canaanite (Dt. 21:10-14). The marriage was of a probationary nature because he could let her go wherever she wished if he was not pleased with her. However, he could not sell her as a slave. This form of captive slavery seems like forced marriage, but it would probably be better for the woman than slavery in a foreign nation. What would you rather be: a wife or a slave? The woman who was released from the marriage also seems to be better off than a slave because she could “go wherever she wished”.
Liberation from slavery
Slaves long for deliverance and release from slavery and suffering into a life of freedom and joy. Debt slaves could be released and redeemed by the payment of a ransom price. If girl slaves didn’t become a concubine or wife, they could be redeemed (Ex. 21:8). The value of a slave was 30 pieces of silver, similar to the amount paid to Judas Iscariot (Ex. 21:32; Mt. 26:15)!
God redeemed (freed) the Israelites from slavery in Egypt (Ex. 6:6; Dt. 7:8). Jeremiah predicted that God would also redeem them from captivity in Babylon (Jer. 31:11). If Jews were slaves to a foreigner living in Israel, they could be released in the Year of Jubilee or earlier if they were redeemed by a relative (Lev. 25:47-55).
God’s attitude to slavery in the Old Testament is like His view of divorce. Jesus said, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning” (Mt. 19:8). Both slavery and divorce were not God’s plan, but He gave practical ways to deal with them.
The Old Testament regulated “slavery” in Israel by removing the oppression, cruelty, exploitation and racism that is usually associated with it. Instead they were to be treated as employees and given opportunities for liberation. “Debt slavery” was a form of welfare, an employment contract that was a repayment scheme which saved the poor from starving and was so good that it could lead to “voluntary slavery”, which was a form of lifetime employment. “Penal slavery” and “captive slavery” were sentences for wickedness. In all these cases there was a loss of freedom for the good of the person and society.
So “slavery” in Israel was different to that in other nations. This type of “slavery” was different to what is usually called slavery, which makes it difficult to translate the Hebrew word “ebed” (Strongs #5650). As we don’t have an English word for it, many Bibles use the word “servant” instead of “slave”.
Slavery was an important part of Jewish history. Joseph was a slave who reached an exalted position. Jesus took “the very nature of a servant (or the humble position of a slave)” when on earth, but has now been exalted to the highest place (Phil. 2:7-9). The Jewish Passover was a celebration of their liberation from slavery in Egypt. The Lord’s Supper is a celebration of our liberation from slavery to sin.
So debt slavery as described in the Old Testament is largely an example of God’s compassion for the poor and disadvantaged people in their community.
Written, February 2013
A measure of maturity
Have you ever googled a Biblical or spiritual topic? You’ll find an amazing the range of ideas and interpretations, because anyone can post their thoughts on the web. There is no quality control! So, how should we deal with teachings which don’t match Scripture? There are many of these posted on the internet for anyone to read. Today we see how Paul addressed such a situation in Thessalonica.
In our previous article we looked at the first chapter of Paul’s second letter to the believers at Thessalonica. Paul encouraged them to persevere in their trials, suffering and persecution by reminding them that their primary relationship was with the Father and the Son; who are the source of grace, peace and endurance. By holding out against the pressures and temptations of this life it was evident that God was at work in their lives in developing character and maturity. The Thessalonians were so occupied with suffering and persecution 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. There will be great power and glory when 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.
Not only were the believers in Thessalonica suffering physically, but they were being attacked by a false teaching. A rumour was spreading about the end of the age.
The False Teaching (2 Th. 2:1-2NIV)
Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to Him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us—whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter—asserting that the day of the Lord has already come.
Paul now addresses a misunderstanding that had arisen in Thessalonica. Because of the persecution they were enduring, some thought 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. False teachings such as this are unsettling and alarming—they introduce doubt and uncertainty about the truth and can destroy the unity within a church. Paul now addresses this false teaching. Firstly, he says that it didn’t come from him and secondly, he corrects it.
There was a rumour that the idea that they were in the day of the Lord came from Paul. Some said it was a prophecy—a direct revelation from God, others that Paul had taught it by word of mouth, and others that he had written it in a letter. Paul says that these were only allegations; they were not true. He also refers to the rapture: “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to Him”. The Greek word before this clause is translated “concerning” in most bibles, but a better translation is “because of” or “by”. It is clear from 1 Thess 4:13 – 5:11, that the rapture and the day of the Lord are different events; in fact they have been divided into separate chapters in this instance. The word “concerning” implies that 2 Thess 2 is about the rapture, but this is not the case. Instead, Paul is saying that because of the rapture they should not think they were in the day of the Lord. By the rapture they will be taken to heaven before the day of the Lord occurs on earth.
The sequence of future events is evident in the book of Revelation. At present the church is on earth. The next event is the rapture when all believers (dead and alive) will be resurrected to heaven. Then while the church is in heaven, there will be a period of tribulation on the earth, which will end with the appearing of the Lord in great power and glory. This will be followed by the 1,000 year reign of the Lord on the earth and then the eternal state of the new heaven and the new earth.
The false teaching said that they were in the tribulation period, which was not the case as the church was still present on earth.
The Antichrist (2 Th. 2:3-5)
Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God. Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things?
Paul then helps them not to be deceived again on this topic. He says that two things need to happen before the day of the Lord is present. First, there is a “rebellion”. This Greek word, which is also used in Acts 21:21, means “defection from the truth” or “apostasy”. This seems to indicate a major rejection of faith in God during the tribulation. During a time of great persecution many will turn away from the faith rather than suffer and die (Mt. 24:10-12). Instead of love there will be betrayal, hate, wickedness and false prophets.
Then the “man of lawlessness” will be revealed. He is the antichrist, because he sets himself up as God and no other form of worship will be allowed. He even has an idol of himself in the temple in Jerusalem (Rev. 13:14). This event, which marks the middle of the tribulation period, had been described earlier by Daniel and Christ (Dan. 9:27; Mt. 24:15). Furthermore, the antichrist is a “man doomed to destruction”, because he is destined to be tormented forever in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:10). The same description was also given to Judas Iscariot (Jn. 17:12). Paul had previously told them about these things, but they had forgotten them.
The Restrainer (2 Th. 2:6-8)
And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of His coming.
Paul says that the antichrist will not be revealed until that which is holding him back is taken away (v.6). He will certainly be revealed when he displays miraculous power through signs and wonders (v.9).
In v.7 it is evident that the antichrist and the power of evil are being held back by a person or a group of people. The Greek word for the restrainer means to “hold fast or down” and is used as a metaphor. Paul doesn’t say who the restrainer is; some have suggested it the principal of law and order as found in human government or the Holy Spirit or believers as indwelt by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit indwelling believers seems to fit best. Jesus said, “When He comes, He will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment” (Jn. 16:8). The Spirit is here because the world rejected Christ and He went back to heaven. The fact that He is here demonstrates the world’s guilt. Also, when he wrote about testing false teachers, John said “every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 Jn. 4:3-4). Those who do not acknowledge that Jesus was divine are following the spirit of antichrist. But believers can overcome such false teachers because the Holy Spirit helps them detect error.
Believers are like salt and light in this world: in this sense they hold back the “power of lawlessness” (Mt. 5:13-14). Salt preserves and light removes darkness. Their influence on the world through the indwelling Holy Spirit will be removed at the rapture and the restraint on lawlessness will be gone (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19). We see that the power of lawlessness was already at work in Paul’s time and we know that evil is present in our world today (v.7). But it will be fully revealed during the tribulation. This universal evil will be present on earth until the restrainer is removed—then it will be judged. For example, the great flood didn’t come until Noah’s family were safely in the boat and Sodom was not destroyed until Lot’s family were safely away from the city. So, God will not judge the evil in this world until He has taken His people to safety in heaven.
Although the Holy Spirit is omnipresent, He came to the earth on the day of Pentecost to indwell believers (Jn. 14:16-17). He will leave the earth in this sense when all believers are raptured to heaven. Of course in the tribulation He will still be in the world convicting people of sin in the same way as in Old Testament times.
So in v.8 we see that the antichrist will be revealed during the tribulation and his reign of terror is described in the next section. At the end of this period, the antichrist will be destroyed when the Lord appears in great power and glory (Is. 11:4).
How evil works (2 Th. 2:9-12)
The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with how Satan works. He will use all sorts of displays of power through signs and wonders that serve the lie, and all the ways that wickedness deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.
The antichrist will work like Satan works. He will be able to do miracles and people will be amazed at his signs and wonders. Many will be deceived and believe that that these miracles prove that he is divine (v.10). But this is a lie; Satan and demons can also perform miracles. In that day, God will send a powerful delusion so that those who deliberately rejected the truth will believe the lie that the antichrist is the Messiah (v.11); God on earth. As most people rejected the real Messiah, most people in the tribulation will accept the false Messiah. This shows how much Satan and sin have affected humanity.
Those deceived are described as: “perishing”, “they refused to love the truth”, they “have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness”. Because of their unbelief, they will be condemned by God—their names will not be written in the book of life (v.12; Rev. 20:15). However, we also know that many people will be saved in the tribulation (Rev. 7:9-14).
So how does this evil work?
- In the unseen spiritual world—that’s how Satan works.
- It can use counterfeit miracles.
- Deceptively—things that seem to be good finish up being destructive.
- In those who have no time for God or the Scriptures.
Thanksgiving (2 Th. 2:13-14)
But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.
After describing the antichrist and his followers, Paul now contrasts them with the Christians at Thessalonica. This change from bad news to good news is indicated by the word “but”. He thanks God for saving them (v.13). This salvation involves the past, the present and the future. In the past, God chose them to be believers in the early church. But the Bible doesn’t teach that God chose others to be destined for hell. Instead His desire is that all would be saved (1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9), but many reject this offer of salvation. In the present, the Holy Spirit convicts people of sin and the need to accept the gift of salvation. In the future, Christians will share in the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ, because they will be with Him and like Him forever (v.14). That’s a summary of God’s work throughout history and in our world today.
Both God and humanity play roles in this salvation. The three members of the trinity are mentioned in v.13; God chose them, the Lord loved them and the Spirit sanctified them. On the human side, the Thessalonians were called to be believers when God used Paul to preach the gospel to them (v.14). Also, the people needed to believe (v.13) and act on the truth of the gospel.
Paul now concludes his message saying despite the hard times they were going through, they should “stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you” (v.15). This is the key verse of this chapter. In those days doctrine was taught verbally by apostolic and prophetic messages and written in letters. But we now have the teachings of the apostle Paul and the other inspired authors written in the Bible, which should be the foundation and anchor of our faith. So, the defence and remedy against false teachings is to follow and obey the instructions and principles in God’s Word.
Paul urged them not to quit or give in to evil but to draw on the resources that God had given them to handle the pressures of life. Similarly, he told those in Ephesus to—“stand against the devil’s schemes”; “stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand”; and to “stand firm” (Eph. 6:10-18).
Paul’s Prayer (2 Th. 2:15-17)
May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.
Then he prayed that God would encourage and strengthen them inwardly in order to produce good deeds and good speech outwardly. Their greatest resource was God Himself. By mentioning both the Son and the Father, he is emphasizing their unity. Paul also mentions three things about God: He loved them, He gave them “eternal encouragement”, and He gave them “good hope”. Likewise, because of the gift of His Son for us, our sin has been forgiven and so believers have the eternal encouragement now and the hope of a future with the Lord. So our source of encouragement and hope should be God’s promises in the Bible. Also, note that the Christian life is not just words to know, but deeds to do. All the principles of God’s word need to be put into practice. Otherwise, we are hypocrites if we say the right words but never apply these to ourselves.
Other false teachings
There are many references to false teachings in the New Testament. These often related to mixing Jewish religion or Greek religions with Christianity. Paul faced Jewish legalism, the gospel of good works and those forcing Jewish customs on others. The Gnostics, who believed that matter was evil, had myths that required special knowledge and wisdom to interpret. For example, Hymenaeus and Philetus denied the bodily resurrection and thought there was only a spiritual resurrection (2 Tim. 2:17-18). Such philosophy (Col. 2:8) is seeking wisdom outside God’s revelation—it puts human reason above God.
Others: opposed the truth (2 Tim. 3:8); taught false doctrines, myths and endless genealogies (1 Tim. 1:3-7); worshipped angels, and promoted harsh rules and treatment of the body (Col. 2:16-23); prohibited marriage and certain foods (1 Tim. 4: 1-3); and promoted controversies and quarrels over words (1 Tim. 6:3-5). These false teachers were conceited (1 Tim. 6:4), selfish (Rom. 16:18), cunning, crafty and deceitful (Eph. 4:14). They were influenced by demons (1 Tim. 4:1). Their teachings brought strife and spread like gangrene and cancer and destroyed peoples faith like these diseases destroy bodily tissue (1 Tim. 6:4; 2 Tim. 2:17-18).
We need maturity in order to distinguish good from evil and to avoid being blown off course by false teachings (Eph. 4:13-14; Heb. 5:14). False teachers could be recognised by their false view of Jesus (1 Jn. 4:1-3), their false gospel (Gal. 1:6-9), and their bad fruit (Mt. 7:15-20). Don’t welcome false teachers or false teachings into your house or the local church (2 Jn. 7-11), instead keep away from them and have nothing to do with them (Rom. 16:17-18; 2 Tim. 2:21; 3:5-9). Finally, false teachers will be judged by God (2 Pet. 2:1-21).
Lessons for us
Paul taught the young believers at Thessalonica about future prophetic events. This gave them an eternal perspective and helped them endure suffering and persecution. Likewise, we should include prophecy when teaching young believers.
But the Thessalonians had forgotten what Paul had told them about the future. This shows the importance of being reminded of the truths of scripture. Just because we have heard or read them in the past, doesn’t mean that we will remember them in the future. We can be reminded by personal Bible study and by listening to teaching from the Bible.
Two of our greatest resources are God and the truths of scripture. Like the Thessalonians we should also “stand firm and hold fast” to the principles of God’s Word. Let’s live by the true teachings, so we won’t be deceived by the false ones. This will lead to maturity and being able to distinguish between what is true and what is false.
When we hear new teachings, don’t ignore them. Instead check with the Bible as we may have forgotten what we have learnt from it. If you are uncertain about a particular teaching consult with someone who is “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2).
What is “the lie” that Satan is spreading today? You can run your own life. You can do whatever you want to. It’s called humanism; the worship of humanity. It is opposite to the gospel, which says we should hand our life over to the Lord, who will encourage and strengthen us to live with Him.
Written, April 2007
See the next article in this series:
- Don’t be lazy
It’s futile to be the authority instead of God
As liberalism involves taking away from the Bible it, it is a mindset that comes from the sinful nature; not from the Bible or the divine nature.
Jesus Christ brought liberty and freedom into our world. In particular, His followers have been freed from being slaves to sin and from needing to obey the laws of the Old Testament (Jn. 8:32-36; 2 Cor. 3:17; Gal. 5:1).
Liberalism interprets the bible and Christianity in terms of current ideas and reasoning. This means viewing life through the glasses of humanism where “reason and science” replace “faith” and “licence” replaces “grace”. From this viewpoint, as there is no such thing as sin, there is no need for God’s grace, no need for a Savior and you have licence to live as you wish.
According to this philosophy, you are the authority instead of God. It began when Satan told Eve: “you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). This means that we decide what is right and wrong instead of depending on some authority like the Bible. When there is no authority, people do whatever they feel like, there is no restraint (Jud. 21:25).
The main philosophy behind modern thinking is humanism, which is a world view based on atheism. As there is no deity to follow and trust, humanists can only follow and trust fellow human beings. Humanism believes that human beings possess the power or potentiality of solving their own problems through reason and scientific method. This is an optimistic view that humanity has the ability to progress toward its highest ideals. For those who believe it to be true, it is in effect their religion.
The major assumption of humanism is that we live in naturalistic world; they see no evidence of the divine or the supernatural. Therefore they deny the God of the Bible and do not believe that the Bible is credible. Consequently, humanism rejects the notions of sin and guilt. They see no evidence of consciousness after death and so reject the possibility of immortal salvation and eternal damnation.
Humanism places trust in human intelligence rather than in divine guidance. This intelligence is exercised through reason and science. They have a strong belief in the theory of the evolution, which is used to explain the origin of life.
Humanism traces its history back to the Greek philosophers such as the Stoics and Epicurians who looked to humans rather than gods to solve problems. This powerful idea is one of the gods of our society.
When humanism is applied to the Bible and Christianity, it destroys the Christian faith. This is not surprising as Christianity is based on God’s revelation to mankind, whereas atheism denies that God exists.
Paul warned, “the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths” (2 Tim. 4:3-4TNIV). Liberalists are an example of such people because they replace the truths of Scripture with myths. In particular, liberalism attacks the fundamentals of the Christian faith, as shown below.
The Bible: Liberalists use modern social and natural sciences to interpret the bible. Therefore, they believe it was written by fallible human authors and that it contains many errors. They reject a “literal”, historical view of the bible and don’t believe that it is the word of God.
Jesus Christ: Liberalists believe that Jesus was a good example for us and a moral teacher, but He was not God. He didn’t die on the cross for our sins, but his death nevertheless had an uplifting “moral influence on us”. They reject miracles as fantasies of ignorant people in biblical times who did not understand the laws of nature. Therefore, they don’t accept the virgin birth or the resurrection.
Satan: Liberalists believe that Satan is a symbol of evil and does not exist as an entity.
The gospel: Liberalists believe that humanity is fundamentally good, with no sin problem. As there is no sin, there is no need for salvation. They also reject the existence of heaven and hell.
As they deny that Jesus was divine, those who teach liberalism are “false teachers” who bring “destructive heresies” and have “depraved conduct” (2 Pet. 2:1-2). In this case, as they were working within the church, they probably used the words of Scripture but gave them different meanings. Paul devoted a whole chapter to these false teachers (2 Pet. 2:1-22). We are warned to have nothing to do with them because such doctrinal error can spread like cancer (2 Tim. 2:17-18; 3:5).
If God does not exist, we are not accountable for our behavior. Liberalists tolerate sinful behaviour and replace the word “sin” with words such as “crime”, “evil” and “disease” because the word “sin” implies a standard set by God.
For example, sexual immorality in the form of incest was tolerated in Corinth and they were proud of their liberality (1 Cor 5:1-2). They may have thought that grace was a licence for disobedience. God forgives our sin; so we can keep on sinning! But they failed to recognise God’s clear commands against behaviour such as sexual immorality. According to Paul although they claimed to be believers, they indulged in impurity, sexual sin and debauchery (2 Cor. 12:21). The same Greek word, aselgeia, occurs in: “They are ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord” (Jude 4). Note that in this verse immorality is associated with denying the deity of Christ. Aselgeia characterises pagans and the sinful nature (Gal. 5:19; Eph. 4:19; 1 Pet. 4:3). It is like “the depraved conduct of the lawless” at Sodom (2 Pet. 2:7; Jude 7).
The false teachers of 2 Peter 2 were hedonists. They were shamelessly carousing in broad daylight, with “eyes full of adultery” and appealing “to the lustful desires of sinful human nature” (2 Pet. 2:13-18). They encourage sexual sin by teaching that God-given bodily appetites should not be restrained. Although they advocated freedom, they were enslaved by their sinful behavior, being addicted to sin (2 Pet. 2:19).
The liberalists described in Jude followed their own evil and ungodly desires to pervert the grace of God into a license for immorality (Jude 4, 16, 18). They followed their natural instincts and were not true believers (Jude 19). They did whatever they felt like doing and there was no restraint.
The false teachers of 2 Peter 2 despised authority (2 Pet. 2:10). They recognised no higher authority than themselves. Similarly, the liberalists described in Jude rejected authority and slandered celestial beings (Jude 8). They rebelled against authority and had strong opinions and scoffed at those who disagree with them (Jude 10, 18). They criticize things they don’t understand, such as the Bible.
The Bible teaches that where there is no authority people follow their desires: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit” (Judges 21:25). As the liberalist rejects the authority of God, they make their own rules for life.
Liberalists are tolerant of sin as they refuse to acknowledge sinful behaviour. The Bible also teaches that “sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4). Therefore, lawlessness is a characteristic of liberalism.
Responding to Liberalism
After describing the ungodliness of liberalists, Jude urged believers to persevere in the Christian faith: “But you, dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life” (Jude 20, 21). This involves obeying God’s commands (Jn. 14:15; 1 Jn. 5:3).
Teaching the fundamentals of the faith is the best insurance against doctrinal error. When others deserted the Christian faith, Timothy was told to keep the pattern of sound teaching and guard it(1 Tim. 1:19-20; 2 Tim. 1:13-15). He was also reminded, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). When dealing with false teachers he was urged to correctly handle the word of truth. Furthermore, “Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will” (2 Tim. 2:25-26).
Defend Biblical inspiration. Use the Bible, interpreted within history, as the foundation of logic, not just human wisdom outside the Bible. Whatever the bible says, God says. God used human authors so that using their historical situations, personalities and writing styles, they composed and recorded without error His revelation to mankind.
Recognise sinful behaviour
The Bible teaches that hedonism and lawlessness is sinful. It’s important to name sin as “sin”, rather than accepting it as a part of everyday life. Christian liberty is not license to do as we please (Gal. 5:13). Just because Christ forgives our sins, doesn’t mean that we should keep on sinning so He can keep on forgiving. Paul says “by no means” should we use Christ’s forgiveness and the fact that we are no longer under the Old Testament law to justify sinful behavior (Rom. 6:2, 15).
Don’t live like unbelievers
Liberalism is a natural belief for unbelievers. Paul insisted: “you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they havegiven themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed” (Eph 4:17-19). The thoughts and attitudes of believers should be influenced by their new divine nature instead of their old sinful nature (Eph. 4:20-24).
Believers were also told, “among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for the Lord’s people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place” (Eph. 5:3-4). They are to behave wisely by avoiding drunkenness and sexual immorality (1 Cor. 6:12-20; Eph. 5: 15-17).
Practice Self control
Hedonism and lawlessness are symptoms of lack of self control. Therefore, self control is one of the fruits of the Spirit that is vital in a liberalist world. The believers at Thessalonica were urged to be alert and self controlled; avoiding sexual immorality and controlling their own bodies in a way that was holy and honourable (1 Th. 4:3-8; 5:5-8).
Don’t stumble other believers
In the context of eating food that may have been offered to idols, Paul said, “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak” (1 Cor 8:9). This means don’t cause those with a weak conscience to violate their strict conscience by causing them to do what they think is disloyal to Christ and therefore sinful (Rom 14&15; 1 Cor 8; 10:23-33). Paul said that he would never do anything that caused another believer to sin (1 Cor. 8:13).
Liberalism is a method of interpreting the bible that comes from the sinful nature and takes away from the Bible. It places the ideas and reasoning of humanism between us and the Bible and puts licence (excessive freedom or liberty) above grace and reason and science above faith. Liberalism makes people the authority instead of God. It is selfish and leads to chaos because it lacks self control. Liberalism is dangerous because it involves sinful thinking and sinful behaviour.
The risk of liberalism comes from our culture. We are exposed to news media, movies, the internet and advertisements that preach humanism, hedonism and materialism. Christians need to be relevant to the culture but not accept its values.
Christians can avoid liberalism by recognizing the limits inherent in God’s word. God has given us the boundaries in which to live, but we need to remind each other of these. In this we need to follow Christ and seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit because it can involve some tough decisions.
Written, December 2007
Destroying a barrier to Christian unity
Legalism involves salvation by good works and not Christ alone and insisting on certain behaviour in order to please God. Both Christ and Paul identified legalism as a serious sin that can destroy a congregation. In this article we look at how to recognise and respond to legalism. Several signs may be associated with legalism. If many of these are recognisable in the behavior of a person or a congregation, then it is likely that the sin of legalism is present.
Overemphasis on Customs and Traditions
As believers endeavour to act godly, our behavior as individuals or congregations should involve expressing Scriptural principles in the circumstances we face. Legalists develop systems of rules and regulations based on human commands and teachings; they emphasise the human circumstances and neglect the Scriptural principles. They demand strict adherence to traditions and view these as being important, while neglecting major aspects of the Christian faith. This is adding to the Bible as traditional customs and practices are viewed as being equivalent to scriptural principles. Legalism places standards of conduct upon Christians that do not exist in Scripture.
For example, the apostle Peter and the missionary Barnabas were influenced by legalists to follow the Jewish custom of not eating with Gentiles (Gal. 2: 11-14). Also, some teach that baptism, confirmation, church membership or good deeds are necessary for salvation or that Christians need to keep certain Old Testament laws, such as the Sabbath, in order to please God. Furthermore, some think that Sunday is a “holy day” or a replacement of the Jewish Sabbath, but this has no Scriptural support. According to Paul, legalists are enslaved by their customs and traditions (Gal. 4:9; 5:1).
Many legalistic believers make the error of demanding unqualified adherence to their Biblical interpretations and traditions. For example, there are those who feel that to be spiritual one must avoid tobacco, alcoholic beverages, dancing and movies, etc. The truth is that avoiding these things is no guarantee of spirituality.
Overemphasis on external things
Legalism is an external religion. It emphases externals more than internals and people learn that appearance is more important than what they are on the inside and one’s life becomes a performance for those who may be watching. Legalists want to impress others, whereas we should be serving God (Gal. 6:12). The Pharisees thought they were honouring God by following the Old Testament law, but Jesus said they were hypocrites as the inner motives and desires of the mind were more important than external behavior (Mt. 15:1-20).
Criticize and Judge Others
The Pharisees looked down on others that didn’t satisfy their expectations. They added extra rules about the Sabbath to those in the Old Testament (Mt. 12:1-2; Lk. 13:14; Jn. 7:21-24). They even criticized Jesus Christ, the only one without any sin in their life! They made false accusations and were aggressive (Mt. 27:59-68; Mk. 3:22). This led to them judging Him to be a criminal and having Him executed because He claimed to be the Son of God (Mk. 8:31; Jn. 19:7).
Legalists criticize believers that are not like them. This criticism often concerns a disagreement about matters that are not mentioned in the Bible or that are mentioned very little in Scripture. It makes people feel guilty when they shouldn’t feel that way. This leads to the situation where emotions are to be controlled and personal opinions must always be carefully evaluated before being expressed for fear of being criticized or punished.
Although they may appear to be strong, according to Paul legalists are weak (Rom. 14:1; 15:1). They have a weak conscience with respect to debatable matters.
A legalist teaches or implies that their rules and regulations are “biblical” and others must adhere to them in order to be “godly”. They take a leadership role and expect others to comply with their viewpoint. Self imposed rules are fine, but putting them on others is legalism.
Legalism is about control; it destroys our freedom in Christ. It demands obedience and involves force: Paul said that Peter was forcing Gentiles to follow Jewish customs (Gal. 2:14). Legalists make life difficult by putting onerous oppressive requirements on others and forcing them to follow their customs slavishly. Conformity is demanded with the reason given that it is essential in order to please God. They use Christianity as a tool to control people, forgetting that Scripture teaches unity, not uniformity.
This leads to fear amongst those coming under the influence of legalism. For example, Peter “was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group” (Gal. 2:12). This pattern is like that experienced in domestic abuse where the perpetrator controls the victim and the latter is fearful. In this case the legalist is the perpetrator and those being influenced are victims.
Favoritism and Isolation
The Jews thought that God was only the God of the Jews (Rom 3:29) and they brought this attitude into the early church. Likewise, legalists often separate from others based on nationality or customs, instead of recognizing that the Bible teaches equality amongst believers in the kingdom of God (Gal. 3:28). Instead of accepting one another (Rom. 15:7) there is prejudice, bias and bigotry.
Legalism encourages isolationism. The Pharisees wouldn’t eat with tax collectors and those they considered to be sinners (Mk. 2:16). Legalists separate and withdraw from those who do not conform to their views. They don’t want their followers to know that other Christians love God as much as they do and generally respect the bible as much as they do. For example, Diotrephes refused to welcome other believers and excommunicated those who disagreed with him (3 Jn. 9-10).
Although having little interest in true evangelism, legalists work zealously to convert others to their point of view. They tend to split over non essential matters and only fellowship with those who agree on doctrinal details, rather than those who show their Christian faith in love for other believers.
Be aware of unwritten creeds and of thinking that we merit God’s favour because we are in a particular denomination or Christian group.
Although we are all susceptible to pride, legalists have an attitude of superiority over other Christians. The Pharisees wanted to be considered important and sought honor and recognition. They had a self-righteous attitude and looked down on others (Lk. 18:11-12). Diotrephes was probably a legalist as he loved to be first (3 Jn. 1:9). A legalist thinks they are accepted by God because they keep certain rules and regulations, whereas they think that those who don’t live like them can’t please God.
Although we are all susceptible to hypocrisy, legalists tend to impose strict standards on others but fail to practice these themselves. The Pharisees appeared to be righteous, but were full of wickedness. Jesus called them hypocrites because they prayed in order to be seen by others and they were always trying to trap Him (Mt. 6:5; Mk. 12:15).
A Lack Of Joy
Because of the critical attitude of legalists and the ensuring conflict that accompanies them, legalism is associated with a lack of joy. This is heightened when things don’t turn out as they expect. For example, the elder brother was angry and refused to attend the party when his father celebrated the return of the lost son (Lk. 15:28-30).
Sins such as legalism are faced in every generation. The risk of legalism comes from within the church: it is a major reason for differences and conflict between Christians. Legalism is a barrier to Christian unity.
We should recognize that we are all legalistic at times. For example, we may judge someone’s spirituality by the version of Bible they read, the clothes they wear, the way they wear their hair or anything that doesn’t fit within our boundaries of acceptability. Some proactive and reactive responses to legalism are given below.
Proactive Responses To Legalism
Because legalism was dangerous, Jesus warned the disciples to be on their guard against it and Paul warned believers to watch out for it (Mt. 16:6; Phil. 3:2). This means that we need to teach each other about the dangers of legalism and know how to recognize it.
As believers we should remind ourselves of scriptural truths that can protect us from legalism. Our salvation is by faith in Christ and not by any works on our behalf. God’s love and mercy to us is unconditional. Under the new covenant we have access to God through Christ because of His redeeming work. Because of this we are liberated from the law and legalism.
The old covenant was a legal document with many commandments and regulations, whereas the New Testament is comprised of incidents in the life of the early church. Teach that the laws of the old covenant have been replaced by God’s new covenant (2 Cor. 3:7-11). This means that laws such as the Sabbath were transitory and looked ahead to the coming of Christ and so do not apply to believers today who look back to Christ (Col. 2:17). Emphasise that a Christian should not be condemned “by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day” (Col. 2:16). Rules and regulations about these are legalism. Note that nine of the ten commandments are repeated in the New Testament to train believers, but there is no requirement to keep the Sabbath or any other day. Instead, believers are to follow the teachings and example of Christ (1 Cor. 9:21).
We should be careful to speak where the bible speaks and be silent where the bible is silent. In particular, don’t equate customs and traditions with biblical truth. Customs and traditions are necessary, but they can change. Remember most Christian activity is practicing a scriptural principle. How we do it depends on our customs and traditions. If we treat the methods and customs as though they are Scriptural principles we “go beyond what is written” in the Bible (1 Cor. 4:6).
Don’t force your personal views on others and don’t criticise others on “disputable matters”, which are things that are not excluded by the bible or inconsistent with it (Rom. 14&15; 1 Cor 8; 1 Cor 10:23-33.). God is the judge of these things, not us. He knows our motives. We are not to look down on other believers because they have a different opinion on these topics, but accept each other as Christ has (Rom. 15:7). The things that legalists are concerned about are unimportant (Gal 5:6). Don’t waste time on minor and debatable aspects of Christian life such as practices and methods of implementing scriptural principles, or majoring on one truth at the expense of others. This applies to those who teach that baptism, confirmation or church membership are necessary for salvation or that Christians need to keep certain Old testament laws, such as the Sabbath, or promote certain ways to praise and please God. Of course, while we need to be gracious to one another and tolerant of disagreement over disputable matters, we cannot accept heresy.
It’s also good to check our motives for doing things so as to detect instances of pride and hypocrisy. Don’t allow others to set your personal convictions and stop trying to please others; instead seek to please the Lord.
Reactive Responses To Legalism
Paul urged believers to avoid legalism, which means not being involved in the kind of behaviour listed above (Tit. 3:9-11). Don’t discuss with legalists matters that are not fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith as this can lead to quarrels (Rom. 14:1). Instead, accept one another as true believers and respect one another (Rom. 14:3).
Beware of supercritical people so as not to be influenced by their critical attitudes. Don’t get hooked trying to win them over because this can almost never be done. Don’t allow them to provoke you to anger or to influence your view of yourself. Avoid trying to gain their approval as you will feel controlled.
However, when legalism is affecting other believers, Paul said that it should be opposed (Gal. 2:11; Tit. 1:10, 11). This may involve gently showing someone that they are acting in an ungodly manner (Gal. 6:1-2). In more serious cases it may require confronting and warning the person that this behavior cannot be tolerated within the congregation. Unfortunately, legalists usually don’t realise that their behavior is sinful: Jesus said that the Pharisees were blind (Mt. 23: 16-26). If they do realize the sinful behavior, then there is a possibility of confession and repentance. But if there is no improvement in the situation, this could lead to excommunication from the congregation, which is like an operation to remove a cancerous growth.
Let’s continue to promote the gospel of God’s grace to humanity, not the false gospel of works (Gal. 1:6-9). Let’s also live as those who have been liberated from the law and legalism.
Written, December 2007
It’s futile to try and earn God’s favor
Life is like a journey. The Bible says that Christians are people who follow the road that leads to eternal life, which is much narrower than the broad road that leads to destruction (Mt. 7:13-14). As a road has boundaries for safe travel, Christians do not thrive outside God’s boundaries for living. Two ways of going off the road or out of bounds are to either add to or take away from what God has revealed to us in the Bible (Rev. 22:18-19). Legalism involves adding to the Bible and liberalism taking away from it. These are mindsets that come from the sinful nature; not from the Bible or the divine nature.
Law And Liberty
The law given to the Jews in Old Testament times, found in Exodus 20-31, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, is summarised in the ten commandments (Ex. 20:1-17). It showed people their sinfulness, since to break one command meant being guilty of breaking all of it (Rom. 3:20; 7:7; Jas. 2:10). As everyone has broken the law, they are under the curse of death (Ro. 6:23; Gal. 3:10). Jesus came to pay this penalty for humanity and in this way He fulfilled the requirements of the law (Mt. 5:17). As their penalty has been paid, Christians are no longer under the law; they have been released from the law (Rom. 6:14 7:6; Gal. 3:13, 24-25). As this is a free gift from God, His acceptance doesn’t depend on our character or conduct.
Believers are to live by faith, not the law (Gal. 3:11-12). This new way of the Spirit brings liberty and freedom and is motivated by love, not fear (Rom. 7:7; 2 Cor. 3:17). Our speech and conduct are to be judged by the “law that gives freedom” (Jas 2:12TNIV), which has taken the place of the ancient law. In regard to things not expressly commanded or forbidden, Christian liberty must be granted, allowing for the exercise of individual judgement and Christian conscience before God (1 Cor. 10:29-31). This must be limited by considerations of love and care not to stumble those with a sensitive conscience (1 Cor. 8:9).
Legalism is an attitude regarding our approach to God. It imposes law on the believer’s conscience so that it comes between them and God. It also includes an effort to merit God’s favor. Legalism is just as dangerous whether your convictions are biblically accurate or not.
Legalism exalts “law” above “grace” and replaces “faith” with “works”. The word does not occur in New Testament Greek, but “righteousness in the law” is translated as “righteousness based on the law” (Phil. 3:6). It began when Eve added “you must not touch it” to God’s instruction (Gen. 2:17; 3:3).
The Pharisees were religious leaders amongst the Jews. They wore distinguished clothes to be easily recognised. Their objective was to live in strict accordance with the Old Testament law and the tradition of interpretation they had established and to train other Jews to live this way.
They pledged to obey all the facets of the traditions to the minutest detail, were proud of their traditions and law and felt superior to other nations and people such as the Samaritans (Jn. 4:9). They were usually recognised as examples to follow and were honoured. But God had a much higher standard: “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:20). Their religious ceremonies, without inner faith, were not acceptable to God.
Jesus called the Pharisees hypocrites because they put traditions above the word of God (Mt. 15:3, 6-7). Their teachings were human rules that were not from God (Mt. 5:9). Instead Christ taught that purity came from the mind, not from external behaviour (Mt. 15:17-20).
The Pharisees actually relaxed the divine standards. For example, the Corban regulation enabled people to ignore the fifth commandment (Mk. 15:4-6). In one sense their extra laws made it easier to obey the Old Testament law; they took into account the weakness of human nature. The rich young man believed that he had kept all the commandments (Mt. 19:20). As the Pharisees believed they could keep the law, they defined them to enable this!
By following their traditions they were in danger of concluding that they pleased God. For example, Paul was extremely zealous for the traditions of his fathers and faultless in following the law (Gal 1:14; Phil. 3:5-6). This could give a false sense of spiritual security. The need to depend on God’s mercy was diminished: they “were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else” (Lk. 18:9).
The Pharisees were obsessed with following man-made rules and Jesus criticised them strongly for their religious practices (Mt. 23). Jesus said they were hypocrites who oppressed the people and were concerned about appearances and recognition but lacked sincerity and were greedy and self-indulgent. They were meticulous with minor matters but neglected the major matters of justice, mercy and faithfulness.
When they felt their position and customs were threatened, the Pharisees and the Jewish leaders persecuted Christ and the early church. They bitterly opposed Jesus and His teachings. Because the early church was largely comprised of Jews, legalism arose within their congregations. We will now look at some instances of legalism in the early church.
Before Peter visited Cornelius when the gospel went to the Gentiles, his attitudes had to be retrained. God caused him to see a vision of a large sheet that came down from heaven containing animals and birds, many of which were impure and unclean under the Jewish food regulations. When he was told to kill and eat them, Peter refused because he always followed these regulations. Then he was told “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (Acts 10:15). This happened three times to teach him that the Jewish laws no longer applied and that Gentiles were going to receive the Holy Spirit without needing to become Israelites.
When Peter broke the Jewish law of not associating with Gentiles he said “God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean” (Acts 10:28) and “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts those from every nation who fear Him and do what is right” (Acts 10:34-35). He knew that the Jewish law no longer applied and all nationalities were to be accepted in the church because God had accepted them (Rom. 15:7).
When Peter was criticized for socialising with Gentiles he described what happened and they were satisfied (Acts 11:1-18). However, some Jewish believers insisted male circumcision was essential for salvation (Acts 15:1, 5). This was a common example of legalism in the early church; being salvation by good works. Paul opposed such legalism and said, “we did not give in to them for a moment” (Gal. 2:5). After Paul and Barnabas spoke up against this and Peter and James agreed with them, the church decided that Gentiles did not need to be circumcised in order to be saved (Acts 15:1-31).
Paul taught that Christians should not be required to follow Jewish regulations, which had been fulfilled by Christ (Col. 2:16-17). To enforce such regulations on others involves deception (Col. 2:8). Christians shouldn’t submit to the rules of human tradition like “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” as “These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence” (Col. 2:8, 20-23). Strict religious rules and regulations do not have power over the sinful nature. Although they may appear good externally, such rules do not address sinful attitudes. In fact they lead to pride.
The Circumcision Group
Jews who insisted that male circumcision was essential for salvation and that the Old Testament law had to be followed to please God were referred to as “the circumcision group” (Gal. 2:12; Ti. 1:10). In Crete they were “rebellious people, full of meaningless talk and deception”. Paul said that they “must be silenced” because of their false teaching. Furthermore, the congregation should be rebuked sharply to “pay no attention to Jewish myths or to the merely human commands of those who reject the truth” (Ti. 1:11, 13). Paul opposed legalism because it was destroying the message of justification by faith. Salvation was by God’s grace alone, through the death of Christ and not involving any human works.
“Quarrels about the law” in Paul’s day such as disputes over clean and unclean foods, Sabbath regulations and observance of holy days, were “unprofitable and useless” (Rom. 14; Ti. 3:9). They diverted believers from a balanced life.
As the churches in Galatia were turning to the “different gospel” of legalism, Paul said that the false teachers of this message would be under God’s curse (Gal. 1:6-9). Even the apostle Peter and Barnabas were influenced by the circumcision group to stop socialising with Gentiles. Paul confronted Peter publicly for this hypocritical behavior: “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?” (Gal. 2:14). He emphasised that believers are justified by faith in Christ alone and not by observing the law.
They were observing special days and months and seasons and years (Gal. 4:10). Paul said that they were enslaved to Jewish regulations (Gal. 4:1-3). Such legalism was wrong because believers were now children of God and not slaves under the law, “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law” (Gal. 5:18).
Paul described the perils of legalism in Galatians 5:1-12. It is like going backwards to living in Old Testament times and under slavery that is intolerable to bear (Acts 15:10). Instead of Christ being the only means of salvation, it involved a system of salvation by good works. However, if a person attempts to please God by being circumcised, then they should keep the whole law. Those who were trying to be saved by keeping the law were rejecting that Christ was the only Savior. The believer receives righteousness through the Spirit, whereas the legalist hopes in vain to earn righteousness. Circumcision doesn’t make a believer any better and uncircumcision doesn’t make them any worse, it is irrelevant as far as God is concerned. Legalism is disobeying the truth of Scripture. The belief that circumcision and law-keeping should be added to faith in Christ does not come from God but from Satan. Legalism spreads through a congregation like yeast spreads through dough (Mt. 16:6). False legalistic teachers will be judged by God. The message of Christ’s finished work on the cross is offensive to legalists because it implies that people are incapable of doing anything to merit salvation. Paul wished that the legalists would be cut off from the congregations in Galatia.
Paul called legalists: dogs, evildoers and mutilators of the flesh (Phil. 3:2). Dogs were unclean animals and the term was used by Jews to describe Gentiles. Here Paul was using it for legalistic false teachers. It may also imply their aggression and destructive impact and the fact that legalism leads to criticism and quarrelling (Gal. 5:15).
Legalism is a mindset regarding our approach to God that comes from the sinful nature and adds to the Bible. It places rules and regulations between us and God and puts law above grace and works above faith and includes an effort to merit God’s favor. Legalism involves salvation by good works and not Christ alone. It is selfish and imposes rigid control on others. Legalism is dangerous because it involves sinful thinking and sinful behaviour.
The risk of legalism is greatest for believers with a weak or strict conscience who tend to impose it on others. Any congregation that has existed for some time tends to become legalistic as its customs and traditions get set and confused with scriptural truths. For example, there is usually resistance to changes of a method or practice as some confuse this with liberalism.
Christians can avoid legalism by recognizing the freedoms inherent in God’s word. Both Christ and Paul identified legalism as a serious sin that can destroy a congregation. This was true for the early church and is also true today. In the next article in this series we will look at how to recognise and respond to legalism.
Written, December 2007
There are a lot of religions for people to follow today. Eastern religions are spreading all over the world. Extreme cults (that lead to tragedies such as the mass suicides of the Branch Davidians in Texas and Heaven’s Gate in California) continue to appear. Other more established cults continue to spread their message by door-to-door canvassing. And then there are numerous spin-offs from established denominations, that over-emphasize one aspect of biblical truth at the expense of all others.
While false teachers seem to characterize these religions, the Bible says, “Beware of false prophets” (Mt. 7:15 NIV), because they can also appear in any church. They are also referred to as “false teachers” and “false apostles.” All of them will be called “false teachers” in this series.
False teachers are mentioned somehow in all except two of the 27 books in the New Testament. For example, Christ warned against the Pharisees and Sadducees in the Gospels. The Book of Acts tells us of false teachers who promoted idolatry, occult practices and Jewish traditions. In the Epistles, many verses warn of false teachers within the Church, including two whole books, Galatians and Jude. And much of Romans urges believers to turn away from Jewish legalism.
The most common word used to describe false teachers is that they are deceivers, who lead people astray. They distort the truth in order to draw followers after themselves (Acts 20:30), and make them zealous for their cause (Gal. 4:17). False teachers can leave a trail of destruction, like savage wolves among sheep (Acts 20:29). They can also bring teachings from demons (1 Tim. 4:1).
Paul reminded those in Ephesus daily for three years to “be on your guard” against false teachers (Acts 20:31). The Bible indicates that the best defense against false teachers is to become mature in the Christian faith.
A Sign Of Maturity
The immature are “tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming” (Eph. 4:14). They are blown off course like a sail boat in a storm. However, the mature are not deceived or blown off course because they “have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil” (Heb. 5:14).
The Three Tests
It is important to evaluate those that promote a new or different teaching. In fact, all teachers should be tested “to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 Jn. 4:1). In a more general sense, believers should “test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil” (1 Th. 5:21-22).
The church at Ephesus must have heeded Paul’s warning, as it was commended: “I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false” (Rev. 2:2).
There are three clear tests for recognizing false teachers: the Jesus Test, the Gospel Test and the Fruit Test.
The Jesus Test
The Jesus Test for distinguishing good from evil states that, “Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist … This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood” (1 Jn. 4:2,3,6).
Similarly, the Bible also asks, “Who is the liar? It is the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist – he denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also” (1 Jn. 2:22-23). Such people do not agree with what the Bible says about Jesus Christ (2 Jn. 7; Jude 4).
In Matthew 16:13-16, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say I am?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” This conversation occurred after Christ warned the disciples of the false teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
So, the question to be answered in the Jesus Test is this: Who is Jesus Christ? False teachers deny that Christ is the divine Son of God, believing him to be nothing more than a great teacher. Some of those who fail the Jesus Test are: Animist, Baha’i, Buddhist, Christian Scientist, Hare Krishna, Hindu, Jehovah’s Witness, Humanist, practicing Jew, Mormon, Muslim, New Ager, occult worshiper and Scientologist. All these groups worship physical things or follow false beliefs (Rom. 1:23,25; Col. 2:8; 1 Tim. 6:20). Christians believe that Christ is divine and human (Jn. 1:14; 10:30; Phil. 2:5-8), sinless (Heb. 4:15), eternal (Jn. 17:24), and the Creator (Col.1:16). Jesus is truly unique.
The Gospel Test
Besides believing in a different Jesus, the Bible also states that false teachers promote a different gospel: “For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted … such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ” (2 Cor. 11:4,13).
To the Galatians, Paul writes: “I am astonished that you are … turning to a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all” (Gal. 1:6-7). He then states that these 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.
So, the question to be answered in this test is: What is their gospel? The Bible says that the root cause of all our problems is that everyone has sinned and fallen short of God’s requirements – resulting in death (Rom. 3:23; 6:23). The only means of rescue is salvation by faith in Christ (Eph. 2:8,9). “Different gospels” do not present this truth. They either add to it or take 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).
A “different gospel” may also deceive by using words similar to the true gospel, but giving them different meanings. Three examples are the works gospel, the pleasure gospel and the greed gospel.
The works gospel adds extra requirements to the true gospel, such as the rules and regulations of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Mt. 16:5-12). Simply put, it says there are things you must do to get saved and stay saved.
Followers of the pleasure gospel “never stop sinning” and entice others by “appealing to the lustful desires of the sinful human nature,” while they are “slaves of depravity” (2 Pet. 2:13-22). They “change the grace of our God into a license for immorality” (Jude 4).
Those caught up in the greed gospel “think that godliness is a means to financial gain,” despite the warning that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” that causes people to “wander from the faith” and “pierce themselves with many griefs” (1 Tim. 6:5,10). Examples of the greed gospel would be the “health” and “wealth” gospels so prevalent today.
The Fruit Test
It is God’s will that we be fruitful. Jesus said “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing … I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last” (Jn. 15:5,16).
Jesus warned, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them” (Mt. 7:15,16,20). He also said, “Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briars. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks” (Lk. 6:44-45).
So, the question of this test is: What kind of fruit is evident? Is the divine nature or the sinful nature most evident? The former is characterized by the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. The sinful nature may involve idolatry, sexual immorality, selfish ambition, pride and dissension (Gal. 5:19-23).
A related question would be: Is there evidence of spiritual growth? For example, in another book that deals with false teachers, John writes, “It has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as the Father commanded us” (2 Jn. 4).
It can be seen that the three tests get at the core of Christianity. If we use them to distinguish good and evil, then there are two possibilities, a pass or a failure. The consequences of these are now considered in turn.
Those That Fail The Tests
False teachers within the Church are a serious issue because they lead to divisions rather than unity (Rom. 16:17; Ti. 3:10; Jude 19). The biblical response is to warn them twice and then “have nothing to do with them” (Ti. 3:10). For example, at Galatia Paul resisted false teachers by not giving in to them for a moment and standing firm against them (Gal. 2:5; 5:1). He also opposed Peter, a fellow-worker, to his face when Peter failed the gospel test (Gal. 2:11-13). The reason for this is that false teachings can spread as yeast works through a batch of dough (1 Cor. 5: 6-7; Gal. 5:9).
False teachers within the Church should be confronted (Ti. 1:13; Rev. 2:2), in order to silence them and stop their influence on other believers (1 Tim. 1:3; Ti. 1:11). If they do not cease, they should be expelled in order to avoid contaminating the local church (Rom. 16:17; Gal. 4:30; 1 Tim. 4:7; 2 Tim. 2:21). This also applies to those practicing sexual immorality (1 Cor. 5:1-13). It is the method to be followed when contending for the faith (Jude 3). Elders are responsible for this – they are to be on their guard and protect the church as a shepherd protects the sheep (Acts 20:28-31). They should not ignore false teachers, hoping they will go away.
We should not welcome or help false teachers from outside the church, as this causes us to share in their wicked work (2 Jn. 10-11). This is consistent with keeping ourselves from idols (1 Cor. 10:14; 1 Jn. 5:21). We should also “have nothing to do with them” (2 Tim. 3:5). In all situations involving false teachers we must remember this warning: “Do not be misled: Bad company corrupts good character” (1 Cor. 15:33).
Those That Pass The Tests
We need to make sure we correctly identify those that pass the Jesus Test, the Gospel Test and the Fruit Test. For example, John told Jesus, “we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” Jesus replied, “Do not stop him. No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us” (Mk. 9:38-40). The disciples were rebuked for using the wrong test. Likewise, we should be careful not to use the wrong test when assessing other believers. It would be wrong to treat other believers as false teachers, just because they are “not one of us.”
It is interesting to note that the Lord told Peter in Corinth, “I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:10). Likewise, God has people in every town and nation, and we should not be afraid to associate with people who pass the tests, otherwise we become like Peter in Galatians 2. If God accepts them, we should too (Acts 10:34-35; Rom. 15:7).
Finally, we should test ourselves: “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you – unless, of course, you fail the test?” (2 Cor. 13:5).
Do we live as though Jesus is God? Do we add to or take away from the gospel of salvation by faith in Christ? Do we drift into different gospels such as that of works, pleasure or greed? What sort of fruit is evident? Is there spiritual growth?
The Bible contains all the principles we need to live the Christian life. Yet it is possible to over-emphasize minor parts of the Bible and under-emphasize major parts. It is wrong to build a major theology from a Bible passage taken out of context. For example, there are numerous verses in the New Testament about loving one another – a major part of the Christian faith (Jn. 15:17) – while there are only a few about speaking in tongues. It would be wrong to act as though speaking in tongues was a more important issue than loving one another. As has often been said, we should never major in the minors!
Published, July – September 1998
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
If you don’t acknowledge the Creator God, you will foillow a false god or a false idea
When you travel by commercial airline in Australia, the terms with your ticket include the following: “For safety reasons, dangerous goods may not be packed in checked or carry-on luggage or taken on board with you.” In the USA they are called “hazardous materials” instead of “dangerous goods.”
Dangerous goods are grouped into nine classes including: explosives, compressed gases, flammable substances, oxidizing agents, toxic substances, radioactive substances and corrosives. Vehicles transporting dangerous goods display diamond shaped signs – red-colored for gasoline.
Dangerous goods can explode, burn and spill. Accidents with dangerous goods can cause major disasters – such as those involving rail, road or ocean tankers. Oil spills, such as the one off the coast of Spain last November, can contaminate seacoasts and oceans.
In my profession, I deal with dangerous goods, and sometimes when typing reports I accidentally leave out an “o” and type them as “dangerous gods.” When that happens, I’m reminded that we live in a world of dangerous gods. Let’s look at some of them.
Secularism and the pursuit of leisure, pleasure and wealth characterize much of the western world. Secularism is a rejection of all religious faith. It assumes that scientific, rational faith is superior to religious faith. But we all make assumptions, and live by them. How reliable are the ideas from science and rational minds that we have faith in?
The Bible says atheists are fools: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Ps. 14:1; 53:1 NIV). This doesn’t mean that such people are not intelligent; many atheists and agnostics are very clever people. They are foolish by choice; in their thoughts “there is no room for God” (Ps. 10:4). Because they feel no need for God, they live as if He never existed. Agnostics say they don’t know whether there is a God, but they generally behave as if God doesn’t exist. The motivation for both seems to be that they don’t want to be accountable to a supreme being.
If you don’t acknowledge the Creator God, you will follow a false god or a false idea: “When you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods” (Rom. 1:23-25; Gal. 4:8-9). This is the most dangerous god of all because it is Satan’s deception to lead people to the lake of fire (Mt. 25:41). This disaster goes on and on. There are no fire fighters, no emergency response crew and no chance of rescue there!
The Bible’s answer to atheists and agnostics is, “What may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – His eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Rom. 1:19-20). He has revealed Himself in creation and in our conscience (Rom. 2:1-16).
Money And Possessions
There is another dangerous god. After his return from a visit to Europe an early Chinese philosopher declared, “The European god is not so large as the Chinese. It is so small that one can take it in the hand. It is round, made of silver and gold, bears inscriptions, and is called money.” My uncle used to say, “Money is round to go around, but it is also flat to stack.”
In the western world people often aspire to a standard of living well beyond their means. What were once luxuries are now essential parts of daily life. Credit card debt and personal bankruptcies have soared and people work longer hours to finance their purchases.
Jesus said, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a person’s life does not consist in the abundance of his or her possessions” (Lk. 12:15). Self-worth is not measured by possessions. But what you think you own may end up owning you! Money isn’t evil, but it is seductive: “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (1 Tim. 6:10). A strong desire for wealth leads to sinful behavior. If we keep chasing better jobs, investments and possessions, we will lose the desire to live for the true God. Wealth doesn’t bring lasting satisfaction and is easily lost (1 Tim. 6:17).
The Bible’s answer to those seeking money and possessions is this: “Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that” (1 Tim. 6:6-8). “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have” (Heb. 13:5). God doesn’t value us according to our money and possessions, so we shouldn’t use these to compare ourselves with others. Instead, God wants us to be “generous and willing to share” our money for His work (1 Tim. 6:18-19). We need wisdom as we earn, save, give and spend money.
Selfish ambition is another dangerous god. One of the reasons why the Jews didn’t accept Jesus was because they placed high importance on receiving approval, recognition and honor from others (Jn. 5:44). They wanted praise from others, not praise from God.
It’s good to have goals and a purpose in life. However, they should be godly, not selfish. Jesus was asked to give James and John a prominent position in His kingdom, a place of authority and recognition (Mt. 20:21). Like Pharisees, they desired a place of honor (Mt. 23:6). Also, the disciples argued among themselves as to who would be greatest among them (Lk. 9:46).
This can also happen in the local church. Paul said, “I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will have nothing to do with us” (3 Jn. 9). Diotrephes loved being the leader. He took charge and dominated others. This is pride and arrogance supposedly carried out in God’s name!
The Bible’s answer to those seeking a position of importance is, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” (Mt. 20:26-28). Jesus Christ did not come to earth to be served but to serve.
Legalism And Religion
The next two dangerous gods are opposites, either adding to or taking away from what God has revealed in the Bible (Rev. 22:18-19). Legalism involves adding to the Bible, and liberalism involves taking away from it. Both are mindsets from the sinful nature, not from the divine nature. They are associated with distorted views of “grace” and “truth.”
Legalism is an attitude regarding our approach to God. It imposes law on the believer’s conscience so that it comes between them and God. It also includes an effort to merit God’s favor. Legalism exalts “law” above “grace” and replaces “faith” with “works.”
The Pharisees were obsessed with following man-made rules; Jesus strongly criticized their religious practices (Mt. 23). Strict religious rules don’t have power over the sinful nature (Col. 2:20-23).
The risk of legalism comes from within the Church. The Bible is largely comprised of principles which can be expressed in many ways. Any group that has existed for some time tends to become legalistic as its customs and traditions get confused with scriptural truths. For example, there is usually resistance to change, as some confuse change with liberalism.
So, we should be careful not to equate customs and traditions with biblical truth. Otherwise we will be locked into the practices of times past, and become irrelevant and old-fashioned to today’s generation. Instead, we should unselfishly consider today’s generation and be culturally relevant. We also need to avoid pride, and “accept one another, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Rom. 15:7). “For in Christ neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal. 5:6).
Liberalism And Pleasure
Liberalism interprets the Bible and Christianity in terms of current ideas and reasoning. This means using the glasses of secular humanism where “reason and science” replace “faith” and “license” replaces “grace.” From this viewpoint, there is no such thing as right or wrong or sin. There is no need for God’s grace or a Savior, and we have license to live as we wish. We are the authority, instead of God.
The Gnostics were liberals who influenced Christians to think they were free from moral law because of grace. Liberalism involves doctrinal error, hedonism and immorality (2 Tim. 4:3; Jude 4-10), where people “follow their own evil desires” (Jude 16).
The risk of liberalism and pleasure comes from the culture we live in. Christians are exposed to the media, movies, and advertisements. We must be aware that these preach humanism, hedonism and materialism. For example, TV and movies encourage sexual immorality. The Church needs to be relevant to the culture but not accept its values. This is a challenge.
We need to recognize sin. Paul wrote, “What shall we say then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Rom 6:1-2). “You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love” (Gal. 5:13).
The Bible says that these dangerous gods are idols (1 Chr. 16:26; Ps. 96:5; Gal. 4:8-9). They hinder and entangle Christians causing them to backslide and lose their joy (Gal. 4:15; Heb. 12:1). That is why believers are urged to get rid of them (Gal. 4:30; 1 Cor. 10:14; 1 Jn. 5:21). We should be reminded of this when we see “dangerous goods” or “hazardous materials” signs.
Jesus said the religious leaders were able to predict the weather by interpreting the sky’s appearance, but could not interpret the signs of the times (Mt. 16:1-3). Likewise, sometimes we fail to recognize the dangerous gods in our midst.
Dangerous goods need to be contained so they can be used safely and not explode, burn or pollute the environment. When large quantities are involved, it is good practice to provide more than one level of protection. Major industries typically have three levels of protection for dangerous goods: the container, an impervious wall, and drainage to a spill tank.
With dangerous goods the policy is always “Safety First.” But if there is an emergency, people refer to the “Material Safety Data Sheet” to find out how to bring it under control. The MSDS is written by the manufacturer of the hazardous material. Similarly, the Bible was written for our protection, providing three levels of protection against dangerous gods.
1. Leaders. Paul warned against the dangerous gods of his time, including: pagan idols (1 Cor. 10:14), Jewish legalism (Gal.), liberalism and sexual immorality, false teachings, and all sorts of sinful behavior, including greed (Eph. 4:17-5:6). The elders at the church of Ephesus cared for the flock, and part of that care was to warn about dangerous gods (Acts 20:28; 1 Th. 5:12). Similarly, our leaders, preachers and teachers should remind us of the dangerous gods today and help us stand against them. We should listen to and obey our leaders (Heb. 13:17).
2. Peers. “If someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently” (Gal. 6:1). Here we see Christians helping to get a friend back onto the right path. In these situations we should “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21). We need to have Christian friends so we can help each other stand against dangerous gods. This means knowing each other well, telling the truth and respecting the advice and help offered (Gal. 4:16).
3. Individuals. We don’t have household gods as Laban did, or do we? (Gen. 31:19, 33-35). God said, “I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt” (Ex. 12:12). Likewise, we need to judge them in our lives.
“We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away” (Heb. 2:1). Christians should remember the truths learned from the Bible, so they are not deceived into following dangerous gods. These gods can be tempting (Heb. 2:18). Jesus used Scripture to deal with temptation (Mt. 4). But how can we combat temptation, if we don’t know the Scripture?
Evaluating a common belief
In part one we applied three tests to determine that evolution is inconsistent with the Bible. In part two we will look more closely at the error of evolution and the truth of creation.
Did God Use Evolution?
It is clear that the theory of evolution, as taught in schools and universities and applied across the world, has no need for a Creator or God. But what about the possibility that God used evolution to create life after all? Can an evolutionary model be accommodated with the Bible? When we apply the three tests, this possibility may appear to pass the Jesus test. But the second question in the gospel test presents a challenge: Does it acknowledge our sinfulness?
The Bible teaches that sin entered the world through Adam and Eve, and that it brought death to mankind (Rom. 5:12; 6:23). Adam was told “to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:19). This was the origin of decay and death in our world. It affected all of God’s creation, so that it was “subjected to frustration,” is “in bondage to decay,” and is “groaning as in the pains of childbirth” (Rom. 8:20-22). This is suggested in God’s words to Adam, “Cursed is the ground because of you,” and “It will produce thorns and thistles for you” (Gen. 3:17-18). The implication is that before this time in history there was no decay or death. This is consistent with the statement that the creation was “very good” (Gen. 1:31).
In contrast, the evolutionary explanation of life assumes death has existed from the beginning of life, long before mankind was present. In fact, the theory of evolution relies on the death of many generations and claims that this is supported by fossils.
I can see no way of fitting the origin of sin and death as described in the Bible into the evolutionary explanation for life or vice versa, without disregarding essential parts of either. The Bible teaches that death is a consequence of mankind’s sin, whereas according to evolution death is merely a characteristic of the natural world.
The Bible and the theory of evolution also differ concerning the last point in the gospel test, the restoration of all things. Scripture states that Christ “must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as He promised long ago through His holy prophets” (Acts 3:21). Although this may refer to the restoration of the nation of Israel (Acts 1:6), it is also consistent with the liberation from decay that all creation anticipates; a return to a time of no more sin or death, like it was before Adam and Eve sinned (Isa. 25:8; Rom. 8:21; 1 Cor. 15:26; Rev. 21:4). Christ called this the “renewal of all things” (Mt. 19:28). It has also been described as “paradise,” a word that is linked via the tree of life to the garden of Eden and to heaven (Gen. 2:9; Rev. 2:7; 22:2).
On the other hand, according to the theory of evolution there was no paradise at the beginning of time. This is inconsistent with a “restoration” or “renewal” to paradise at the end of time. So one can believe in either “evolution” or “paradise” but not both, because they are contradictory.
So to believe that God used evolution is inconsistent with either the Bible or the evolutionary model. It usually results in compromising the Christian faith and leads to a “different gospel,” where the words of “sin” and “Savior” have a different meaning from the Bible (Gal. 1:6-9). The Bible warns that those who add to or take away from the true gospel will be eternally condemned (Gal. 1:8-9).
Some debate as to whether Genesis 1 and 2 are literal or symbolic. This is answered best by comparing them with what the rest of the Bible says about the topics raised in these chapters. Scripture should be used to interpret Scripture whenever possible.
Adam is included in Joseph’s genealogy (Lk. 3:38) and is referred to as a real man like Moses, Enoch and Christ (Rom. 5:14; 1 Cor. 15:22,45; 1 Tim. 2:13,14; Jude 14), while Eve is also mentioned as a real woman in the New Testament (2 Cor. 11:3; 1 Tim. 2:13). The description of the creation of Eve in 1 Corinthians 11:8-12 and 1 Timothy 2:13 is consistent with Genesis 2:21-23. The Bible teaches that sin and death came through one man, Adam; just as salvation came through one man, Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:12,15-19; 1 Cor. 15:21-22). The origin of marriage described in Genesis 2:24 is quoted in Mark 10:7-8 and Ephesians 5:31. Peter’s description of creation in 2 Peter 3:5 is consistent with Genesis 1:6-9. These examples show that the New Testament writers treated the events and people in Genesis 1 and 2 as being true history and not poetic or metaphoric.
A Modern Idol
As shown above, the naturalistic view of origins is in conflict with the Bible and it undermines Christianity. As such it is a “deceptive philosophy” that is “falsely called knowledge” (Col. 2:8; 1 Tim. 6:20-21). Unfortunately it has deceived many and has caused many minds to be led astray (2 Cor. 11:3). It is a modern myth and false worldview that is based on false assumptions.
The consequence of rejecting the truth of the gospel is to believe a lie, such as evolution, and worship part of God’s creation (Rom. 1:18-25). An idol is a false god or a false idea that lacks substance (Gal. 4:8-9). Although we may not worship images as was done in Athens, idolatry is prevalent today and the idea of evolution is a major idol of our times (Acts 17:22-23). Idolatry and the widely-held theory of evolution are both substitutes for the concept of the Creator God. Christians are warned to “Keep yourselves from idols” and “flee from idolatry” because they enslave us (1 Cor. 10:14; Gal. 4:8-9; 1 Jn. 5:21).
Furthermore, the leading evolutionists are particularly opposed to Christianity. In fact, evolution functions as a rallying point against Christianity. In view of the above, if we could be addressed by two New Testament figures, Paul and Christ, I could imagine Paul saying, “People of 2001, I see you are devoted to the theory of evolution,” and Christ warning, “Be on your guard against the cancer of evolution” (Acts 17:22; Mt. 16:6).
The Evolution Of Words
The English word “evolve” is derived from a Latin word that means to unroll or to unfold. In this sense it means to grow or mature, which involves no change in genetic information. However, the wide acceptance of the evolutionary explanation of the origin of life has led to the use of the word “evolution” to replace words such as “change” and “development.” For example, “the evolution of the airplane.” This is an example of a change in the meaning of a word over time.
Another word that has changed its meaning is “science” which comes from the Latin word for “knowledge.” The meaning of “science” has changed over time, from dealing with things that are observable and testable, to mean “naturalism” – a mechanistic view of the world. As a consequence, some science is only loosely based on what is observable and testable, and claims are often made in the name of “science” that go far beyond the available evidence. This has led to aspects of modern science becoming increasingly tenuous and speculative by including conjecture and dubious hypotheses.
Although we live in a “cause and effect” universe, ultimate causes, such as origins, are outside the realm of reliable science. Science can only reliably deal with the present world, and some aspects of the past and the future. It can’t reliably deal with the distant past, such as origins, or the long-term future, such as ultimate destinies, as it cannot directly observe these. All scientists should be wary of their assumptions, as these can largely determine their findings. They should also be wary of extrapolations outside the range of their observations. The further the extrapolation the less reliable the prediction, because changes made in the assumptions outside the range of observations will change the prediction. This applies in particular to boundary conditions, such as those involving initial conditions or origins. Therefore, scientists can only speculate, imagine and guess about the origin of life.
The complexity of life on earth points to an intelligent designer and creator. The Bible says that Christ is the author of life; He made all things and continues to sustain everything (Jn. 1:3; Acts 3:15, Col. 1:16-17; Heb. 1:2-3). Evolution begins with matter, but where did this come from? The only reasonable answer possible for those following this viewpoint is to say that matter has always existed and is eternal. On the other hand, the Bible begins with God who is eternal and has the power to create matter out of nothing and to create the complex design that is evident in life and the universe. After all, “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible” (Heb. 11:3).
The Bible implies that there are clear genetic distinctions between the groups of creatures on earth. God created them “according to their kinds” and “All flesh is not the same: Men have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another” (Gen. 1:21,24-25; 1 Cor. 15:39). It emphasizes that humanity is unique in the sense of being made “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:27). There is no suggestion of all life having a common ancestry.
It is not surprising that not all will accept the biblical account of origins, as Christians are warned that some will “distort the truth” (Acts 20:30), and others suppress and reject the truth in order to promote lies and myths (Rom. 1:18,25; 2:8; 2 Tim. 4:4). We should be alert as “even Satan can disguise himself as an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14). Don’t be deceived or accept explanations, ideas or philosophies without checking them against the Scriptures. Seek the truth by asking questions such as those in the three tests outlined in part one of this article. Be a critical thinker, have a discerning mind.
See Part 1 of this article:
- The idol of evolution: Part 1
Evaluating a common belief
Many different opinions and ideas are held by people in the world. We are bombarded by merchandisers and marketers who will sell anything to make a dollar. The Bible does not say “believe everything,” but instead urges us to: “Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil” (1 Th. 5:21-22 NIV). We need to be able to separate the good from the bad, the true and valuable from the false and worthless (Jer. 15:19). Our culture has lost these distinctions. Unfortunately, we can’t rely on information and guidance from family, friends, schools, universities, newspapers, magazines, books, movies, radio, television, or the Internet.
If we do, we will end up confused like the Roman governor Pontius Pilate who asked Jesus “What is truth?” (Jn. 18:37-38). We will be influenced by all the messages around us, not knowing the truth, or believing the lies that are marketed as being the truth. For example, let’s look at the theory of evolution, a firmly held belief of many. According to the Bible, is it true, or false, or doesn’t it matter?
True Or False
Children are easily deceived; they are gullible. So are those young in the Christian faith. But the mature are not deceived as they “have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil” and we should all have this objective (Heb. 5:14).
The Bible is the source of absolute truth that has stood the test of time much longer than any other document or philosophy. Of course, as is the case of any literature, it requires interpretation as to what is historical and what is metaphorical or symbolic. Besides obvious literary techniques, the most reliable method is to use the whole message of the Bible to interpret any particular passage. Otherwise, an interpretation may not be consistent with the rest of the Bible.
The Bible contains three clear tests for determining whether a belief, teaching or philosophy is true or false. To be true it must pass each of the three tests that get to the core of Christianity. I call them the Jesus test, the gospel test and the fruit test. They may be summarized as:
- The Jesus test – What does it say about Jesus Christ? Is it consistent with Christ’s unique birth, sinless life, sacrificial death, resurrection, and second coming? (1 Jn. 4:1-3)
- The gospel test – What is the core belief or hope? Does it acknowledge our sinfulness? Is it consistent with the creation of the universe, the fall into sin, salvation by faith in Christ alone, and the restoration of all things? (Gal. 1:6-9)
- The fruit test – What attitudes and behaviors does it encourage? Is the divine nature or the sinful nature most evident? (Mt. 7:15-20)
Evolution has been proposed as a scientific explanation of the origin of the universe and the origin of life on earth. It involves the idea that life develops continually over time from the simple to the more complex as a result of natural processes. The story of evolution has been summarized this way: “The universe exploded into existence about 15 billion years ago and is still expanding outward. About 4.5 billion years ago, the debris from an exploding star condensed into our solar system. Sometime during the next few hundred million years, single-celled microbes bearing an ingenious molecule called DNA emerged on the earth. These microbes diversified, by means of natural selection and Mendelian genetics, into an extraordinary array of more complex creatures including homo-sapiens.” As these events are claimed to have occurred long ago and are not subject to direct observation or experimental tests, evolution is a philosophical belief based on naturalism which assumes that everything that exists can be explained by physical and chemical processes alone. Evolution is the process that is used to support naturalism. Of course, evolution is also viewed as being a process of continual change within the biological world. So, evolution and naturalism are assumed to be true by those who exclude the possibility of a supernatural God.
Now let’s apply the three tests to the concept of the evolution of life on earth.
- The Jesus test – As evolution assumes that nature is all there is, it is associated with atheism. In fact, according to its adherents, evolution removes the need for God. For example, the American Association of Biology Teachers says this: “The diversity of life on earth is the outcome of evolution: an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable and natural process of temporal descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments.” This view of origins has no need for a Creator or the divine, and so is consistent with a belief that Jesus Christ was only a human being and not divine. Secular evolution clearly fails the Jesus test.
- The gospel test – As evolution assumes there is no God, it is associated with a rejection of absolute standards of right and wrong, and a rejection of the existence of sin in the sense of falling short of God’s standard. If sin does not exist, then neither does punishment for sin, and there is no need of a savior to rescue people from that punishment. The core belief of evolution is that nature has made itself, which means that the Genesis account of origins is not literal truth. In fact, secular evolution fails the gospel test because it rejects all the basic biblical truths, such as divine creation, the existence and source of evil, the need for salvation, and the ultimate destiny of human beings.
- The fruit test – Because it relies on physical processes alone and denies the possibility of the divine or the unseen spiritual world, evolution supports naturalism and materialism. Also, it views humanity as being self-sufficient and capable of solving all their own difficulties, which is the essence of humanism. Furthermore, evolution can be viewed as a version of pantheism where nature replaces God.The acceptance of the idea of evolution can lead to the following pattern of behavior:Less value on human life – For example, practices such as abortion and euthanasia are more acceptable. Another example from the past is racism; the Australian Aboriginals were considered to be biologically inferior to Europeans. This was justified by biological determinism promoted by evolutionary anthropology.Less value on family life – Marriage is less important and divorce is more acceptable. This is supported by relating human behavior to that of animals.Less value on morals – Truth is now relative and changeable, not absolute. Society replaces Scripture as the guide as to what is right and what is wrong.A “might is right” attitude – This attitude supports the strong, but not the weak. It is the opposite of compassion which involves saving “weak genes.” This comes from the idea of the “survival of the fittest” in a competitive world, which leads to a competitive approach to all aspects of life.As these are opposite to the values of the Bible, it is clear from the above that biological evolution fails all three biblical tests for determining what is true. Therefore, it is false and inconsistent with the overall message of the Bible. It is an idol – the creation story and the religion of many today.
See the next article in this series:
- The idol of evolution: Part 2