Observations on life; particularly spiritual

New Testament

Understanding the Bible

Understanding the Bible 1

Bonjour!

When we visited Europe recently, we were exposed to other languages and cultures. In order to communicate it helps to know some words in the local language. The Bible was written thousands of years ago when there were different languages and different customs and circumstances to today. Fortunately it has been translated into modern English, but how can we understand it? It’s more remote than Europe, coming from not only another place, but another time in history.

When Timothy was dealing with false teachers, Paul urged him to “correctly handle” the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15). So there is a correct way to understand and explain and apply the Bible. God wants us to understand His message in the Bible and to use it for godly living. Let’s look at how we can do that.

A divine message

The Bible is often called “God’s word” (Heb. 4:12; 1 Pt. 1:25) because it is a divine message from God written by chosen people in their language and time. Firstly, it was a message to their generation.

Secondly it was a message to later generations. Ezra lived about 1,000 years after Moses. When he read to the people what Moses had written, the Levites made it clear “giving the meaning so that the people understood” (Neh. 8:8). The reason for this was that after their exile in Babylon, the Jews spoke Aramaic whereas the Scriptures were written in Hebrew. So the Levites explained the text by translating the language from Hebrew into Aramaic.

It is also a message to us who live thousands of years afterwards – John wrote his gospel so that his readers “may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God” (Jn. 20:31NIV). That includes us today. Also, after Thomas saw Jesus, he believed that He had risen from the dead. Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (Jn. 20:29). Here He is referring to people like us who didn’t see Jesus after His resurrection, but who would believe in His resurrection based on the Scriptural account.

We want to understand the meaning that God intended. There is a promise for doing this – we read “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (Jn. 20:29). In this instance it is a blessing for those who understand from reading the Bible that Jesus rose from the dead.

The Bible was written in ancient times. To read it is like visiting those ancient times. We are like tourists travelling to a different place where there is a different language, culture, situation, time in history and maybe a different covenant in God’s dealing with humanity.

Understanding the Bible 2We also need to know that the Bible is a progressive revelation. Truth gets added as we move from the beginning to the end. So we should also read it as those who have the whole book and know God’s whole program of salvation.

The method

The steps involved in understanding a passage in the Bible are as follows:

  • What was the meaning when it was written? This is the original meaning.
  • What were the original principles behind this meaning?
  • What has changed since then?
  • What are the universal principles for us today? Here we update the principles.
  • What is the meaning for us today? How should we apply these universal principles? Here we update the applications or practices of the principles.

 

Understanding the Bible 1Understanding and obeying (or applying) the Bible helps us to live in a godly way – “All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

Let’s look at an example to see how this method works. In the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament, the Israelites were told, “If anyone becomes aware that they are guilty—if they unwittingly touch anything ceremonially unclean (whether the carcass of an unclean animal, wild or domestic, or of any unclean creature that moves along the ground) and they are unaware that they have become unclean, but then they come to realize their guilt; … they must confess in what way they have sinned. As a penalty for the sin they have committed, they must bring to the Lord a female lamb or goat from the flock as a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for them for their sin” (Lev. 5:2, 5-6).

The original meaning

When each passage was written it had only one meaning. That’s what we are looking for. What did the people need to know and do? What is the core meaning of the passage? To do this we need to study the text (including any figures of speech), the historical-cultural context, and the literary context. Also, if the passage is obscure, we can use a clearer one to explain it.

The text. When they realized they had touched something that was ceremonially unclean, they were to confess their sin and bring a female lamb or goat to be killed at the tabernacle by the priest and they will be forgiven (Lev. 5:13).

The Bible has lots of figures of speech like metaphors and similes, but there are none in this passage.

The historical-cultural context. This was when the Israelites were travelling through the wilderness from Egypt to Canaan. They lived in tents, amongst tribes and kept animals. It was after the times of Abraham, but before the times of the Israelite judges and kings.

The literary context.
What genre or type is it? In the Old Testament there is narrative (story), law, poetry, prophecy, and wisdom. The book of Leviticus gives laws that were given to Moses when they were camped at Mt Sinai. So it is law that is set in the narrative of the journey to Canaan.
Is it a command, a model to follow or just a report of events?

  • It is a command. It says “they must” confess and they “must bring” an offering (Lev. 4:5-6). It is mandatory (not optional) and prescriptive (not descriptive) because the Israelites were to keep the laws given to Moses.
  • It’s not just a model to follow like the practice of Christians meeting together on the first day of the week or of deacons serving in the church (1 Tim. 3:8-13).
  • It’s not a report of events and descriptive like David’s adultery (2 Sam. 11:1-17), Solomon’s wives and concubines (1 Ki. 11:1-3) and the fact that Judas hanged himself (Mt. 27:5).

The surrounding context. The verses and passages in each book of the Bible are set out in an order determined by God. Don’t try to understand a verse or passage in isolation. Look at the message in the whole book. Look at the message in the same chapter, in the previous chapter and in the following chapter. Read it like any other book; don’t just read here and there. Proverbs is the only book of the Bible where the verses aren’t always related to each other.
With regard to our passage in Leviticus – In Exodus God makes a covenant with Israel as His special people and lives with them in a royal tent, the tabernacle. In Leviticus He describes how they are to be holy by being separate from sin and living for God instead. “Holy” is a key word, occurring about 80 times in Leviticus. The verses are in a passage describing how they could become pure after unintentional sin (Lev. 4:1 – 5:13). First it deals with the leaders and then with individuals. Lev. 5:2 says they are defiled if they touch any unclean thing such as dead animals or unclean animals. This means they are unable to approach God and worship Him. In chapters 11-15 they are told what is ritually unclean – what stopped them participating in the rituals God gave them. Here we see that spiritual holiness is symbolized by physical perfection. In order to be purified and forgiven after they are defiled they must confess their sin and bring the priest a lamb or goat for a sacrifice (Lev. 5:5-6). The priest would sacrifice the animal on their behalf and they will be clean again and able to approach and worship God once again. The verses afterwards say the poor could offer pigeons or flour instead of a lamb or goat.

Now we know the original meaning of the passage, what are the principles behind it?

The original principles

A principle is a general truth applicable in a variety of situations. For example, “love your neighbor as yourself” is a biblical principle (Lev. 19:18). Here we look at what did it teach them about God and humanity? What does it teach about God’s program of salvation?

The principle is that God is holy and when He lives with His people they must keep separate from sin and unclean things. If they fail and become unclean, they must be purified by the sacrifice of an animal offered by a priest.

Now we know the ancient principle behind the passage. But what about us today living a few thousand years later? We need to update the principle.

What has changed since then?

Here we compare between then and now by considering the culture, situation, and time in history. Were God’s people living under a different covenant? Was their situation unique? We also take into account all the scriptures written after the passage because God’s revelation is progressive. Fortunately we see that God and people don’t change throughout history: He is always divine and people are always sinful.

Our time in history, situation, and culture are different to then. We live in a city, not in the wilderness. We are under a different covenant and no longer under the OT law. We haven’t been given these commands to follow. We are not Israelites travelling to Canaan with God living in a tent; we are Christians with God living in us as the Holy Spirit. We don’t approach God through the sacrifice of animals, but through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Also through Christ we have direct access to God and no longer need priests as mediators. The book of Hebrews describes how the old Jewish system was superseded by the unique priesthood of Christ.

We are not defiled by touching dead animals but by impure thoughts and sinful actions – Jesus said “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather it is what comes out of a person that defiles them … For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come – sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person” (Mk. 7:15, 21-23).

Now we know what’s changed since then, what are the principles behind the passage for us today?

The modern principles

What does it teach us about God and humanity? The principle for Christians today is to be holy because the holy God lives within us. This means staying away from sinful actions and impure thoughts. If we fail, then confess the sin and receive forgiveness through the death of Christ.

As God’s people we have accepted that Christ’s sacrificial death was for our sins, and so the penalty for these has already been paid. But sin breaks our fellowship with God. This can only be restored by confessing the sin to God – “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9).

If you haven’t accepted that Christ died for your sins, then you are spiritually dead and lack the power of God, the Holy Spirit, who enables us to engage with God. You miss out on our reason for existence. You are not part of God’s people and this passage doesn’t apply to you.

Now we know the modern principle, how can we put it into practice today?

The modern applications

How should we apply these universal principles? Each principle has many applications according to the different situations people can be in. What do we need to know and do? Let’s think of some real life situations for four areas mentioned previously in Mark 7:21-22: sexual immorality, greed, envy and slander.

Sexual immorality. What about internet pornography? Viewing this is a violation of God’s holiness and it hinders our ability to approach and worship God and to fellowship with God. Christians should stay away from pornography because it defiles us. But if we do fall into this sin we need to confess and repent of the sin and through the death of Christ, we will be forgiven and our fellowship with God will be restored.

Greed. The writer of Hebrews commanded, “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have” (Heb. 13:5). Are we content with what we have or do we always want more? Always wanting more is a violation of God’s holiness and it hinders our ability to approach and worship God and to fellowship with God. Christians should stay away from greed because it defiles us. But if we do fall into this sin we need to confess and repent and through the death of Christ, we will be forgiven and our fellowship with God will be restored.

Envy. What about when we jealously compare ourselves against others and wish that our life could be more like theirs? Envy is a violation of God’s holiness and it hinders our ability to approach and worship God and to fellowship with God. Christians should stay away from it because it defiles us. But if we do fall into this sin we need to confess and repent and through the death of Christ, we will be forgiven and our fellowship with God will be restored.

Slander. What about when we put someone else down or spoil their reputation? Slander and gossip is a violation of God’s holiness and it hinders our ability to approach and worship God and to fellowship with God. Christians should stay away from it because it defiles us. But if we do fall into this sin we need to confess and repent and through the death of Christ, we will be forgiven and our fellowship with God will be restored.

We have applied this passage to sexual immorality, greed, envy and slander. What are the sins in your life that defile you and hinder your prayer and worship and fellowship with God? Let’s apply this principle to them as well.

What are the Lessons for us?

The Bible was written for common people like us. It is not difficult to understand. It doesn’t have hidden or secret meanings.

Understanding the Bible 1The Bible is not an allegory like Pilgrim’s Progress where the more significant meaning is not the literal one but is hidden and you need to understand the symbols to decode the allegorical meaning. In the few passages where there is allegory, this is explained in the text. For example, Paul said that Hagar represented the old Jewish covenant made at Mount Sinai and Sarah the new covenant (Gal. 4:24-26). So don’t spiritualise everything in the Bible.
Instead, let’s use the principles behind the biblical text to understand the Bible. See in the diagram how they help us move from the ancient meaning to the modern applications.

So let’s understand God’s message in the Bible by finding the original meaning, and then the principles behind this, and updating them according to what has changed since then, and applying these modern principles in our daily lives. This is important because God wants us to understand His message and to use it for godly living.

Au revoir!

Reference: J S Duvall & J D Hays (2012) “Grasping God’s word”, Zondervan.

Written, June 2014


A change of mind

u turn

u turnWhat does it take to change your mind about something? Did you know that Jesus’ bothers changed their mind about Him? They did a u-turn from opposition to attraction.

Opposition

Jesus had at least four brothers (James, Joseph, Simon and Judas) and at least two sisters (Mt. 13:55-56; Mk. 6:3). They had the same mother, but not the same father. It was a Jewish family, Mary is a shortened form of Miriam, Jesus’ Hebrew name was Joshua, James’ Hebrew name was Jacob, and Judas’ Hebrew name was Judah.

Jesus was popular and many people followed Him, but His brothers thought he was insane and mentally ill (Mk. 3:21-22). This is consistent with others who thought He was demon possessed (Mk. 3:22; Jn. 10:20). After crowds came when he healed many people, His brothers travelled from Nazareth to Capernaum “to take charge of Him” (Mk. 3:21). They may have thought he brought shame and embarrassment to the family. John said that “even His own brothers did not believe in Him” (Jn. 7:5). They didn’t believe He was the promised Messiah. Instead they were deeply offended and refused to believe in Him when He preached (Mt. 13:57; Mk. 6:3-4). So He was rejected in His hometown of Nazareth and in His own home.

Even at His death Jesus entrusted the care of His mother, Mary, to His disciple John instead to His half brothers (Jn.19:26-27). It seems as though the brothers still didn’t believe in Him at this time.

Attraction

The next reference in Scripture to Christ’s brothers is after His resurrection when the believers who gathered together to pray included, “Mary the mother of Jesus, and … His brothers” (Acts 1:14). Here we see that the brothers had changed their mind about Jesus and had joined His disciples. What caused the change?

Look at what happened before this time: Christ had died, was buried, resurrected back to life and ascended to heaven. The Lord had appeared to the disciples twice after His resurrection (Jn. 20:19-23, 26-29). The “disciples” present at this time behind locked doors for fear of the Jewish leaders may have included the women and the Lord’s brothers. Also, a special appearance by Jesus to James would have impacted James (1 Cor. 15:7).

After this the Lord’s brothers were preachers like Paul and the apostles (1 Cor.  9:5). James became an elder in the church at Jerusalem and wrote the book of James (Gal. 1:19; Jas. 1:1) and Judas probably wrote the book of Jude (Jude 1).

So Jesus’ brothers changed their mind radically about Him when they understood who He was and what He had done. Have we?

Written, February 2014


Does the New Testament condone slavery?

Roman slave & master

Roman slave & masterElevated 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.

Reconciliation

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?

Conclusion

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.

Also see – Does the Bible condone slavery? Part 1 (OT)
Slavery and freedom

Written, April 2013


How to choose the best Bible

Best bible

Best bibleHave you read the best book in the world? The Christian Bible is the world’s best-selling and most translated book. There are many English versions of the Bible. How can we choose which one is best for us? We will look at six categories.

Most accurate

The most accurate Bible is written in the original languages, which were Hebrew and Aramaic for the Old Testament and Greek for the New Testament. This is the best way to appreciate what the Bible meant to its original readers.

Because few of us know these languages there are Interlinear Bibles that show both the words in the original language and the equivalent English words. These can be useful for the purposes of Bible study. When you look at an Interlinear Bible you will realise that it is impossible to do a word-for-word translation from the original languages into spoken English. For example here is a verse in such a Bible: “so For loved God the world, so as the Son of Him, the Only-begotten, He gave, that everyone believing into Him not may perish, but have life everlasting” (Jn. 3:16). The words are in a different order to the way we speak and sometimes single words need to be expressed as phrases and sometimes phrases need to be expressed as single words. Also additional words need to be added to make it readable. So there is no one-to-one correspondence between the words of different languages, and there is no such thing as a word-for-word literal translation of the Bible into spoken English. Furthermore, interlinear copies of the Old Testament are extremely difficult to read as Hebrew was written from right to left!

But, what if you can’t read ancient Hebrew and Greek or want a Bible that is readable? You could read the Bible that has the most comprehensive footnotes that relate to the original languages.

Most comprehensive

The New English Translation (NET) Bible (2005), which is mainly available in electronic form, has extensive footnotes comprised of Translation Notes, Text-critic Notes, Study Notes, and Map Notes. This enables a functional equivalent (readily readable and understandable) text with formal equivalent information about the source text in the footnotes. The translators’ notes show the decisions and choices behind the translation and makes the original languages more accessible.

But, what if you don’t want to read a Bible with extensive footnotes and that is not readily available in hardcopy form? You could read the Bible that has been read over the longest period of time.

Most historic

The King James Version (KJV) has a 400 year heritage. It is a product of a bygone era that added many sayings to the English language. Of course the type style and spelling has been modernised, otherwise it would be too difficult for most of us to read comfortably. The most recent edition seems to be 1987. If you appreciate the work of Shakespeare and classic literature then this is the Bible for you. For example, it uses pronouns such as “thou”, “thee”, “ye”, “thy”, and “thine” and verbs such as “speaketh”.

The source language for this translation, the “Received Text” (“Textus Receptus” in Latin) was based on some Byzantine (eastern portion of the Roman Empire) manuscripts (dated from 1000 AD). As the Received Text was first published in 1516, it lacks the input of many early Biblical manuscripts which have been discovered since this time. Also, it lacks the input of much of linguistic scholarship of the past few hundred years.

In order to make the KJV more readable for modern readers, its vocabulary and grammar was revised in the New King James Version (NKJV, 1982). So if you prefer a traditional Bible that is based on the KJV, then the NKJV is the Bible for you.

But, what if you want to read a Bible that is based on more recent scholarship than the Received Text? You could read a Bible that retains some traditional aspects of the English language.

Most traditional

Languages are always changing and English is no exception. Traditionally male terms were often used to refer to groups that included both men and women. This was particularly the case for patriarchal societies. But this pattern has been changing. For example, people now say “people” or “humanity” instead of “man” and “mankind”. All translations make these changes from the source text to some degree. Those that do it to a small extent, I will refer to as “traditional”, whereas those that do it to a large extent, I will refer to as “gender accurate”. Here is a comparison between different translations.

The following translations generally use male terms for groups of people: New American Standard Bible (NASB, 1995), English Standard Version (ESV, 2007) and Holman Christian Standard Bible (2009). So if you prefer a traditional Bible that is based on current scholarship, then these are the Bibles for you.

But, what if you want to read a Bible that is easier to understand and closer to spoken English? You could read a Bible that aims to read more like people speak today.

Most readable

Translators transfer the meaning of a text from the source language into the receptor language. When they do this they have choice in how much they use equivalent idioms in the receptor language. The more idioms they use, the more readable the translation.

The following translations generally use idioms in the receptor language: Contemporary English Version (CEV, 1995) and New Living Translation (NLT, 2007). So if you prefer a Bible that is closer to spoken English, then these are the Bibles for you.

But, what if you want to read a Bible that is readable but structured closer to the text structure in the source language? You could read a Bible which combines contemporary language with accuracy in translation.

Most contemporary

The New International Version (NIV, 2011) aims to be “gender accurate” by using the words spoken today to describe groups of people. Here is a link to my review of the NIV Bible. So if you prefer a Bible that is closer to spoken English, then this is the Bible for you.

But, what if you want to read the best Bible?

Best of all

Although no translation is perfect, the best Bible is the one you read! They all tell us what God wants us to know and to do.  They are God’s message to us all, and God continues to speak through them today. Let’s translate this message into our lives.

Written, January 2013


Criticisms of the NIV Bible

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NIV 2 400pxIn part 3 of this evaluation of the NIV 2011 Bible, we assess some criticisms of this translation by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and the Southern Baptist Convention in the USA.

The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW)

The CBMW issued “An Evaluation of Gender Language in the 2011 Edition of the NIV Bible” in mid-2011. They are concerned that “the 2011 NIV … unnecessarily removes male-oriented terminology that was present in the 1984 NIV — especially the use of generic masculine forms of expression”.

Their accusations against the NIV 2011 are summarised below, including the verses referenced.

It adopts feminist-leaning translations – 1 Tim. 2:12
“The 2011 NIV changes some key verses on women’s role in the church so that they favor an evangelical feminist position, especially in translating 1 Timothy 2:12 in a way that differs with all other commonly-used modern English translations and that gives women a wide open door to serve as pastors and elders in churches, contrary to the actual teaching of the New Testament.”
Rom 16:7; 1 Corinthians 14:33-34; Romans 16:1
It incorrectly changes “father” to “parent” or something else – Proverbs 15:5; 1 Samuel 18:2
It incorrectly changes “forefather” to “ancestor” – Joshua 19:47
It incorrectly changes “mighty men” to “mighty warriors – 2 Samuel 23:8
It incorrectly changes “son” to “child” – Proverbs 13:24; Psalm 8:4
It incorrectly changes “man” to a gender-neutral term – 1 Kings 9:5; Proverbs 27:17
It incorrectly changes “brother” to “brother or sister” or to other non-family words -
Luke 17:3; Deuteronomy 22:1
It incorrectly changes “mighty men” to “mighty warriors – 2 Samuel 23:8
It incorrectly changes “he” and “him” to “they” and “them” – John 14:23
It loses many more masculine singular pronouns than the “Translators’ Notes” suggest -
Proverbs 28:19; John 6:40; John 15:6; Proverbs 5:21; Romans 4:8; Matthew 10:24; Matthew 12:35; Matthew 18:15; Revelation 3:20
It incorrectly changes “women” to “weaklings” – Nahum 3:13
It waters down or omits details of meaning that modern culture finds offensive – They object to the removal of male examples to teach general truths, by removing words such as “father,” “son,” “brother,” “man,” and “he/him/his.”

Most of these accusations have been responded to generally by the NIV translators and specifically by Decker (2011).

The translator’s response is summarised below.

  1. The NIV translators have never been motivated by a concern to avoid giving offense. We were simply following what wide-ranging, objective research tells us about the state of modern English.
  2. It is the scholarship that has influenced the translation decisions – not a modern agenda of any kind.
  3. The CBMW review betrays a simplistic understanding of word meaning.
  4. Why single out the NIV for criticism for translation decisions that, to some degree, are being widely adopted by modern translators? We, along with translators of other modern versions, are not trying to “avoid” certain words. Rather, positively, we are trying to find the right word in contemporary English to represent the meaning of ancient Hebrew and Greek words.

Dr Rod Decker is Professor of New Testament and Greek at Baptist Bible Seminary in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania USA. His response to the CBMW report is summarised below.

The CBMW is a very vocal single-issue group that has determined that one of the primary ways to champion their position is to advocate a single approach to translation: formal equivalence with explicit objection to “gender-neutral” translation. Their single issue is defending a complementarian view of men and women and opposing egalitarianism. I personally hold a complementarian position, so my objection is not to the position itself but to some of the ways in which CBMW has attempted to advance that cause.

The tone of their official review of the NIV 2011 is unhelpful, and the methodology employed is designed more for rhetorical effect than it is for a substantive engagement in the issues. The methodology essentially collates a large quantity of data presented in summary form. This gives the uninformed reader the impression of thousands and thousands of errors. In reality there are a few basic issues in regard to how gender-related language should be translated. These get too little attention in the review. One sometimes sees a parallel in the manner in which “KJV-only” advocates defend their preference against all comers.

More specifically, 1 Timothy 2:12 is not a feminist-driven translation choice. To say that “in one stroke the NIV 2011 removes the Bible’s main barrier to women pastors and elders” is ill-advised rhetoric. Decker also quotes Paul Wendland:

The CBMW overstates the case when it claims that the NIV 2011 translation of 1 Timothy 2:12 will give “an open door” to women pastors since “in one stroke it removes the Bible’s main barrier to women pastors and elders. As soon as a church adopts the 2011 NIV, the debate over women’s roles in that church will be over”. The NIV 2011 still says that the husband/man is the head of the wife/woman and that an elder/overseer in the church is to be “faithful to his wife.” How has a wide open door been given to women pastors when NIV 2011 says these things? Just as gender roles could be taught on the basis of the KJV, in spite of “usurp authority” in 1 Timothy 2:12, so it will be possible to teach gender roles on the basis of NIV 2011.

Also, I do not find the CBMW’s argument convincing when they say that ‘assume authority’ must be understood as ‘assume authority on one’s own initiative.’ If I would say in a conversation, “The president assumed office today,” would anyone think, “He means the president is assuming office on his own initiative”? I have a hard time believing it.

Moo has stated “that in order to have or exercise authority, it must first be assumed”. You could even argue that “assume” is stronger than “have” or “exercise”. You can have authority but never exercise it. You could exercise authority without having it (in any official, designated capacity). But you can’t have or exercise authority without first assuming it.

Decker also addresses the linguistic concerns of the CBMW, including:

  1. To state that Luke 17:3 incorrectly changes “brother” to “brother or sister” “is biased and ill-informed”.
  2. To suggest that eliminating a “male-oriented” term (i.e., generic “man”), as in Proverbs 27:17, is capitulating to the feminist agenda is foolishness.
  3. To ask why is the male meaning that is present in the source text of John 6:31 eliminated makes an unwarranted semantic assumption.

People like the CBMW are concerned about neutering masculine pronouns. John 6:44 is an example of a masculine singular pronoun (“him”) being replaced by a gender-neutral plural pronoun (“them”). In this instance they think that a corporate element is being added to a verse that originally had an individual focus. However, the “them” in this verse does not refer to a group of people, but to the “one” referenced in the start of the verse. The NIV 2011 verse is worded exactly how people speak today!

NIV 1984 NIV 2011 Reference
No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day John 6:44

However, there is a verse in the NIV 2011 that I think would be improved if it was translated like John 6:44. Revelation 3:20 is not worded how people speak today. Is there any reason why “them” can’t be used in this verse instead of “that person'”, because “them” is much more readable than “that person”.

NIV 1984 NIV 2011 My suggestion Reference
Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with them, and they with me. Revelation 3:20

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC)

Other opposition has come from the US SBC, which passed a resolution opposing the NIV 2011 at their annual convention in June 2011. The heart of the 2011 resolution claims, “this translation alters the meaning of hundreds of verses, most significantly by erasing gender-specific details which appear in the original language.” It also references a 1997 resolution on translation that condemns “gender inclusive translation”. It is understood that the CBMW report would have given the 2011 resolution momentum. The resolution has also been used to claim that the NIV 2011 undermines the verbal plenary inspiration of the Bible (God supernaturally guided the biblical authors to write the exact things that He wanted expressed).

The NIV translators and Decker (2011) have responded to this accusation.

The translator’s response is summarised below.

  1. We object strongly to the accusation that the NIV “alters the meaning of hundreds of verses, most significantly by erasing gender-specific details which appear in the original language.” Our concern is always, in every decision we make, to represent God’s unchanging Word accurately and naturally in modern English.
  2. We object strongly to the accusation that “the 2011 NIV has gone beyond acceptable translation standards.” In fact, our translation standards are exactly those followed by professional translators around the world. We employ these standards in combination with the best biblical and linguistic scholarship to render God’s eternal Word accurately into modern English. This mandate is what guides us in all our decisions — not any other agenda.

According to Decker (2011):

Unfortunately, neither “gender-neutral” …  nor “gender inclusive” in the 1997 resolution are defined. Definition is the heart of any such statement … It appears that the resolution assumes a very broad definition of the term and applies it to a translation that itself uses a very narrow definition. .. the only changes in the NIV 2011 that may be termed “gender inclusive” are those that the translators understood to be inclusive of both men and women in the original text. That is hardly objectionable. It is unfortunate that the SBC has not issued a more accurate statement …

The 1997 resolution of the SBC that is referenced in the 2011 resolution indicates that their concern is with regard to “gender inclusive language” in “Bible translations with the intent of translating the Scriptures into the current language of the people”. In their opinion this is a deviation from the historic principles of biblical translation. As translations such as the KJV were in the current language of their day, this seems to be a bias against translating the Bible into modern language. Instead they prefer to retain the language of a previous era and reject aspects of current language, which is similar to how the Amish view aspects of technology. This is acceptable provided their view is not forced on others with a differing opinion.

As the SBC doesn’t provide any biblical examples of its concern or any reasoning, it could be difficult to convince others of their viewpoint. Instead they only provide a brief statement. This may have been due to their reliance on the CBMW report.

It is instructive to compare a selection of verses in different translations. Here we see that translations like the ESV and HCSB, which are accepted by the CBMW, sometimes make similar choices to the NIV 2011. However, they are not as consistent as the NIV 2011.

Conclusions

As these criticisms of the NIV 2011 by the CBMW and the SBC have been answered adequately by the NIV translators and Decker (2011), the criticisms appear to be weak in view of current biblical scholarship. As most of their claims were linguistic, it is appropriate that they be answered by biblical linguists. Furthermore, according to Dr Daniel Wallace, a professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, the NIV 2011 is a well-thought out translation, with checks and balances through rigorous testing, overlapping committees to ensure consistency and accuracy; the scholarship is excellent both in text and translation decisions; and it has great readability. Dr Wallace is an expert in Greek grammar and New Testament textual criticism and a strong complementarian. It would be helpful if more biblical linguists confirmed this to help counter the negative comments by non-linguists on the internet.

As a result of this 3-part series it is clear that most of the changes between 1984 and 2011 are improvements to the accuracy and understandability of the NIV Bible.

On the whole, this assessment of the statement by the NIV translators, of the paper by an independent New Testament scholar, Decker (2011), and of criticisms by the CBMW and the SBC, indicates that the NIV 2011 is an improvement on the NIV 1984.

Written, January 2013

See the previous articles in this series:
Improvements in the NIV Bible between 1984 and 2011 – Part 1
Improvements in the NIV Bible between 1984 and 2011 – Part 2


Improvements in the NIV Bible between 1984 and 2011 – Part 2

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niv Bible 400pxIn part 2 of this evaluation of the NIV 2011 Bible, we assess a statement by an independent New Testament scholar. In order to avoid duplication, points already made in Part 1 of this series will not be repeated.

The scholar

Dr Rodney Decker is Professor of New Testament and Greek at Baptist Bible Seminary in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania. This is a conservative Bible college which serves a (theologically) conservative constituency. He teaches courses in New Testament (NT) Greek language and NT textual criticism.

Rodney Decker has a doctorate in NT Theology from Central Baptist Theological Seminary, Minnesota USA. His 1998 doctorate dissertation was titled, “Temporal Deixis of the Greek Verb in the Gospel of Mark in Light of Verbal Aspect”. He is the author of numerous journal articles on linguistic, exegetical (explanatory, expository), and theological topics and has written text books on Koine Greek, which is the original language of the New Testament. Rod holds a complementarian position where men and women have complementary roles that include male leadership in the home and in the church (as Paul’s instructions on men and women were intended for all times and cultures), whereas egalitarians believe that men do not have the sole rights as leaders in the home or church (as Paul’s instructions on men and women were intended only for his time and culture).

Further information on Rod’s activities is available on his website: NT Resources.

Assessment of evaluation done by Dr. Rodney Decker

An Evaluation of the 2011 Edition of the New International Version” (Themelios 36, 3, 415-456) was published in November 2011.

Decker explains the two general approaches to translation – “formal equivalence” (attempts to reproduce the word order, grammar and syntax of the donor language as closely as possible in the receptor language, with minimal changes for intelligibility) and “functional equivalence” (attempts to accurately communicate the same meaning in the receptor language, while it may relax the form of the source language). All translations include both formal and functional equivalents to a certain degree. The NIV balances both approaches, whereas the ESV and HCSB are more “formal” and the NLT more “functional” on the translation spectrum. Every translation, including the most formal, makes many substantial revisions to the form of the source language.

Decker explains that an update of the NIV Bible was necessary because “our language has changed”. With regard to changes in the NIV 2011 in English usage, advances in scholarship, and improved clarity,  he agrees that most of these changes are “very good ones that contribute to understanding the Word of God in English”.

Changes related to gender language

If a translation intends to communicate in contemporary English, then that translation is fully justified to make changes that reflect current usage. The change in English usage of gender language was determined by a study based on the Collins Bank of English—a 4.4 billion-word database of English usage worldwide based on both print and audio recordings. This is the first time that such an objective approach has been used in Bible translation. For example, of the current terms referring to both men and women, about 70% use “people” or “human” and about 15% use “man” or “mankind”.

The principle involved in the NIV 2011, as is the case with a number of other evangelical translations (e.g., ESV, HCSB, NET, NLT), is that wording in the source language that is not gender specific should not become gender specific in the receptor language. In this respect, the receptor language for a passage should match the donor language. If one is addressed to men and women then so should the other. Likewise, of one is addressed to men (or women), then so should the other.

Seven guidelines were used to revise gender language in the NIV 2011. Decker lists these and gives some examples using NT passages. In all cases he is in agreement with the approach adopted by the translators.

Decker did a sample comparison between the NIV 1984 and the NIV 2011 using the book of 2 Timothy. Some of the changes he found are given below.

NIV 1984 NIV 2011 Reference / Note
ignoble common 2 Tim. 2:20
English usage
weak-willed gullible 2 Tim. 3:6
Clarity
forefathers ancestors 2 Tim. 1:3
Gender language
reliable men reliable people 2 Tim. 2:2
Gender language
workman worker 2 Tim. 2:15
Gender language
a man those who 2 Tim. 2:21; 3:13
Gender language
the man of God the servant of God 2 Tim. 3:17
Gender language
the servant of God the brothers and sisters 2 Tim. 4:21
Gender language

He didn’t think that any of these seven gender changes are controversial. However, he did identify three potentially controversial passages.

Romans 16:1-2

NIV 1984 NIV 2011 Reference
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servanta of the church in Cenchrea. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me. I commend to you our sister, Phoebe, a deacona of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me. Romans 16:1-2
a Or deaconess a Or servant

Whether one objects to this translation, will probably depend on how deacons function in their church. The NIV 2011 has reversed the text and marginal translations that were found in the NIV 1984. In this case Decker prefers the NIV 1984. Of the changes in 12,000 verses between 1984 and 2011 (most of them are minor), this is the only one that Decker quotes where he prefers the 1984 version. Whether a technical term (“benefactor”) is used in this verse or a general descriptive (“great help”) is probably a minor matter.

Romans 16:7

NIV 1984 NIV 2011 Reference
Greet Andronicus and Junias, my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was. Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding amonga the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was. Romans 16:7
aOr are esteemed by

In Greek only a difference of accent distinguishes between Junias (male) and Junia (female) and accents were not part of the original text. There are arguments for either accent pattern. Contemporary NT scholarship appears to favor the feminine form, but it is not certain.

The issue is not with Junia being a woman, which seems likely, but the nature of the statement made about her. Decker provides evidence that it may have been better if NIV 2011 had reversed the text and marginal readings, though including the alternative reading is an improvement over the NIV 1984.

1 Timothy 2:12

NIV 1984 NIV 2011 Reference
I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. I do not permit a woman to teach or assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 1 Timothy 2:12

The Translators’ Notes explain the reasoning behind this change as follows. Much debate has surrounded the meaning of the rare Greek word authentein … The exercise of authority that Paul was forbidding was one that women inappropriately assumed, but whether that referred to all forms of authority over men in church or only certain forms in certain contexts is up to the individual interpreter to decide. “Assume authority” leaves the question open … until we discover more conclusive evidence.

Decker states that from a translation perspective, this position is defensible. Given the uncertainty in meaning, it is most appropriate for a translation not to decide the issue. Instead, one’s conclusions regarding this text must come not from one word but from the immediate context, Paul’s teaching elsewhere, and a biblical theology of the subject.

It is a translation that allows multiple interpretations (“assume” may be read in either a positive or negative sense), but that may be a wise choice in this case. Those who want to proof-text certain positions (whether that position is valid or not) may not be happy, but we must be honest with the text and acknowledge that this is an issue that must be resolved on a much broader basis. He also states that this is not a feminist-driven translation choice.

Changes related to “Messianic” texts

Decker looked at the most commonly cited example of changes related to “Messianic” texts, the use of Psalm 8 in Hebrews 2.

NIV 1984 NIV 2011 Reference
What is man that you are mindful of him, What is mankind that you are mindful of them, Psalm 8:4
the son of man that you care for him? human beings that you care for them?a
5You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings 5You have made thema a little lower than the angels Psalm 8:5
and crowned him with glory and honor. and crowned thema with glory and honor.
a 4 Or what is a human being that you are mindful of him, a son of man that you care for him?
a 5 Or him

This is a typological OT text that does not specifically prophesy Messiah directly but that the NT identifies as typological in relation to Jesus.

Decker thinks that the NIV 2011 more accurately reflects this text than the NIV 1984 and other similar translations. When Psalm 8 is interpreted on its own (without reading any NT use back into the OT text) the psalm refers only to human beings. This is the original meaning – what it meant to the original readers and hearers. The point of the psalm is that even though humans are puny beings in comparison with God, we are God’s special creations with privilege and responsibility to rule over the rest of creation (v. 5-8). Both “man” and “son of man” refer to the human race, not to any specific person. As such, using English plural pronouns (“them”) following them is appropriate. There is no hint here of anything Messianic. If we had only Psalm 8, we would never suspect that it had any relevance to Jesus.

NIV 1984 NIV 2011 Reference
But there is a place where someone has testified: But there is a place where someone has testified: Hebrews 2:6
“What is man that you are mindful of him, “What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
the son of man that you care for him? a son of man that you care for him?
7You made him a little lower than the angels; 7You made them a little lower than the angels; Hebrews 2:7
you crowned him with glory and honor you crowned them with glory and honor
8and put everything under his feet.” 8and put everything under their feet.”b Hebrews 2:8
In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him.9But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them.9But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. Hebrews 2:8b-9
b 7,8 Or 7You made him a little lower than the angels; you crowned him with glory and honor 8and put everything under his feet.”

Hebrews 2:6-8 quotes Psalm 8:4-6. Once again it’s all about human beings, although “at present we do not see everything subject to them” (v.8b). The dominion over the rest of creation given to humans has never been properly administered. This problem is solved in v.9 where Jesus is introduced as the One who became human to fulfil the typology of Ps 8 – He will demonstrate this dominion in His coming kingdom. The incarnation began demonstrating how someone who is fully human should and will exercise the dominion God intended.

This means there is nothing obscured in the NIV 2011 version of Psalm 8. A generic reference for humanity is thus valid for Psalm 8:4-8 and Hebrews 2:5-8. Only in Hebrews 2:9 does the reference become Christological and singular, and at that point the NIV 2011 is perfectly clear.

Other changes

The NIV 2011 more often explicitly represents the conjunctions compared with the NIV 1984, which often left them untranslated for reasons of English style (see Rom. 1:16). Also some passages that have been debated and for which there are multiple options have been left open (see Rom. 1:17). Decker thinks most of these of changes are improvements that contribute to understanding the Bible in English.

NIV 1984 NIV 2011 Reference
I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God Romans 1:16
For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed Romans 1:17

In Part 1 of this series, it was noted that the Greek word “sarx” was usually translated as “the flesh” in the NIV 2011 instead of “the sinful nature” as in the NIV 1984. Although this was because “sarx” can mean either part or all of the human body or the human being under the power of sin, I expressed some uneasiness about this change. Decker thinks that this change encourages some people to think of the physical body as sinful and is inclined to think the earlier choice was better in many cases, but “sarx” does not always have the same meaning. However, “sinful nature” remains in Romans 7:18, 25.

Evaluation criteria

Decker also evaluated the NIV 2011 in terms of its accuracy, clarity, naturalness, and appropriateness. He rates it high in terms of accuracy as the meaning is communicated accurately. By taking a mediating position between formal and functional equivalence (though tending closer to the formal end of the spectrum), the NIV 2011 has been able to produce a text that is clearer than many translations, especially those weighted more heavily with formal equivalence. It excels in communicating clearly in the language of the average English-speaking person. By using expressions that a receptor-language speaker would use, the NIV 2011 sounds much more natural than many other translations. Also, it is as well-suited for expository preaching as it is for public reading and use in Bible classes and children’s ministries.

Recommendations

In Decker’s opinion, the NIV 2011 is a usable translation in many situations. It continues the NIV tradition largely unchanged, though improved in many small ways. It is not perfect, but no translation is. Overall, however, it improves an otherwise fine translation. He thinks that many churches would find it helpful in ministry. It is of sufficient quality and accuracy to serve as the primary Bible in the local church, just as was the NIV 1984. So long as one realizes that the purpose of gender accurate language is to accurately reflect the language in the original texts of Scripture, it is hard to fathom objections.

One group of churches that uses the NIV 1984 is of the opinion that if a church began using the NIV 2011 in public reading tomorrow, most congregation members wouldn’t even notice the change.

Conclusions

In this part of an evaluation of the NIV 2011 Bible, the contributions of an independent New Testament scholar, Dr Rodney Decker, have been presented. As Professor of New Testament and Greek at a US Baptist Bible Seminary, Dr Decker has provided expert input on the linguistic aspects of this evaluation including grammar and syntax (the rules that govern the ways in which words combine to form phrases, clauses, and sentences). Dr Decker confirms that the NIV 2011 is an improvement on the NIV 1984.

Written January 2013

See the next article in this series:
Criticisms of the NIV Bible


Improvements in the NIV Bible between 1984 and 2011 – Part 1

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Niv study Bible 400pxIt’s important for people to be able to read and hear the Bible in their own language.

How the Bible came to us is described in the blog, Can we trust our Bibles. The steps in the process are:

  • God-breathed: The original text was “God-breathed” via the prophets and apostles
  • Preservation: Faithful copies of the original text have been preserved
  • Scholarship: Textural scholars have reconstructed the original text
  • Translation: The reconstructed text has been translated into various languages

The two most recent translations of the NIV Bible were done in 1984 and 2011. The process of translation involves transferring the message from a source language to a receptor language. In the case of the NIV2011 the source languages are Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament) and the receptor language is everyday English. New translations are needed from time to time because all languages are constantly changing.

This evaluation of the NIV 2011 Bible looks at:

  • Part 1 A statement by the committee that did the translation
  • Part 2 A statement by an independent Bible scholar
  • Part 3 A statement by a group that is critical of the NIV 2011

Assessment of statement by the committee that did the translation

A summary of the changes made in the 2011 update of the NIV Bible are available from the committee that did the translation.

The update reflects advances in biblical scholarship and changes in the usage of the English language between 1984 and 2011. Some examples of these are given below (italics added to highlight the changes). About 95% of the text is unchanged between 1984 and 2011.

Changes in English usage

NIV 1984 NIV 2011 Sample reference
alien foreigner Genesis 23:4
ankle chains anklet Isaiah 3:20
heart will be glad he will be glad Exodus 4:14
overweening pride great . . . arrogance Isaiah 16:6; Jeremiah 48:29

Advances in scholarship

NIV 1984 NIV 2011 Sample reference
inn guest room Luke 2:7
robbers rebels Mark 15:27
demons false gods Psalm 106:37
richly ornamented robe ornate robe Genesis 37:3
something to be grasped something to be used to his own advantage Philippians 2:6

Improved clarity

NIV 1984 NIV 2011 Sample reference
when Jacob saw Rachel daughter of Laban, his mother’s brother when Jacob saw Rachel daughter of his uncle Laban … Genesis 29:10
A simplification.
If only there were someone to arbitrate between us, to lay his hand upon us both If only there were someone to mediate between us, someone to bring us together Job 9:33
Explains the second clause.
I can do everything through him who gives me strength I can do all this through him who gives me strength Philippians 4:13
Stops misapplication outside the context of v.12 (to be content in all circumstances, whether in riches or in poverty).

Improved accuracy in gender language

About 25% of the changes related to gender. The Collins Bank of English was used to determine current usage of gender language. Some of the guidelines used were:

  • ‟Ancestors” usually replaced ‟forefathers”.
  • When it was clear that a passage addressed both men and women, ‟brothers and sisters” usually replaced “brothers” (Greek “adelphoi”). In this sense, the NIV 2011 is more gender accurate than the NIV 1984.
  • When the Greek word “anēr” (‟man” or ‟person”) refers to both men and women, this is made explicit.
    •  A variety of words were used to replace words that referred to both men and women. For example: ‟people”, ‟humans”, ‟human beings”, ‟humanity”, ‟human race”,  ‟mankind”, and ‟man” (which has been retained for some memorial phrases, such as ‟The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”, Mark 2:27). Here is an example of some of these changes.

Examples of texts that now have ‟mankind” where they didn’t before include:

  • ‟Let us make mankind in our image” (Genesis 1:26a);
  • ‟Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12); and
  • ‟For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5).

Some other examples are given below (italics added).

NIV 1984 NIV 2011 Reference / Note
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me. I commend to you our sister, Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me. Romans 16:1-2
According to current scholarship, “diakonos” means “deacon”, not just ‟servant” and “prostatis” means patron or benefactor not just someone who was a ‟great help” in some unspecified way.
For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head. It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels 1 Corinthians 11:10
‟a sign of” did not correspond to anything explicitly in the Greek.
I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. I do not permit a woman to teach or assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 1 Timothy 2:12
There is uncertainty in the meaning of the rare Greek word “authentein”. Other alternatives are “exercise authority” and “usurp authority”.From the context, I assume that “authentein” includes the authority of an elder in the local church (1 Timothy 3:1-7)
In the same way, their wives are to be women worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything. In the same way, the women are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything 1 Timothy 3:11
From the context, it is possible that these women were either deacons’ wives or women deacons.

Other improvements

Some other improvements include:

  • ‟Saints” often becomes ‟God’s people,” ‟the Lord’s people,” ‟the Lord’s holy people” and the like.
  • In the Gospels and Acts, when associated with the coming deliverer of the Jews, ‟Christ” has often been changed to ‟Messiah.”
  • In the New Testament, ‟spirit” has been capitalised whenever a reference to the Holy Spirit made good sense in a given context.
    • Most occurrences of ‟sinful nature” have become ‟flesh”. Especially in Paul’s letters, “sarx” can mean either part or all of the human body or the human being under the power of sin. In an effort to capture this latter sense of the word, the NIV 1984 often rendered sarx as ‟sinful nature.” But this expression can mislead readers into thinking the human person is made up of various compartments, one of which is sarx, whereas the biblical writers’ point is that humans can choose to yield themselves to a variety of influences or powers, one of which is the sin-producing sarx. The updated NIV uses ‟flesh” as the translation in many places where it is important for readers to decide for themselves from the context whether one or both of these uses of sarx is present.

Some well-known texts that have been updated are given below.

NIV 1984 NIV 2011 Reference / Note
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me Psalm 23:4
“shadow of death” is a metaphor
‛I hate divorce,’ says the Lord God of Israel, ‛and I hate a man’s covering himself with violence as well as with his garment,’ says the Lord Almighty. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith. The man who hates and divorces his wife,’ says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‛does violence to the one he should protect,’ says the Lord Almighty. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful. Malachi 2:16
The beginning of the verse is hard to translate.
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 2 Corinthians 5:17
It is likely that Paul is making a much more sweeping claim than just the salvation of the individual believer.
For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. 1 John 2:16
Returns to KJV rendering.

Conclusions

It is clear that most of the changes mentioned above are improvements to the accuracy and understandability of the NIV Bible.  As I am not qualified to comment on some aspects of the linguistic changes, these have been omitted above.

With regard to the word “mankind”, I prefer to use the word “humanity”. Other changes that may take a while to get used to are “the flesh” (from “the sinful nature”), “impure spirits” (from “evil spirits”) and “forbearance” (from “patience”). I need to investigate these further.

As the changes to 1 Corinthians 11:10 and 1 Timothy 3:11 move the verses closer to the Greek text, they are an improvement.

The change to Romans 16:1-2 was based on current scholarship, although I suspect that whether Phoebe was a deacon in the local church will be debated by some. On the other hand they would probably accept a woman as the coordinator of a children’s ministry at church, which could be deemed to be the role of a deacon (Acts 6:1-6; 1 Tim. 3:8-13).

The change to 1 Timothy 2:12 has some ambiguity, but this may be appropriate as there is uncertainty in the meaning of the rare Greek word “authentein”.

On the whole, this assessment of the statement by the committee that did the translation indicates that the NIV 2011 is an improvement on the NIV 1984.

Written January 2013

See the next article in this series:
Improvements in the NIV Bible between 1984 and 2011 – Part 2


How many witnesses does it take to bust a myth?

MythBusters

The Bible is Not a Myth

MythBusters is a TV show on the Discovery Channel that sorts out myths and facts in an entertaining way. Did you know that the Bible is written in a way to show that it is not a myth?

The Bible teaches that the truth of a matter should be established on the testimony of at least two or three eye-witnesses (Dt. 17:6; 19:15; Mt. 18:16; 2 Cor. 13:1; 1 Ti. 5:19; Heb. 10:28). This is also the case in law courts.

The resurrection

Paul emphasised that the resurrection was a proven fact and not a myth because afterwards Christ “appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep (died). Then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all He appeared to me also” (1 Cor. 15:6-8NIV). There were many more than two or three eye-witnesses! As most of these were still alive, they could be questioned by anyone who doubted Paul’s account.

The life of Christ

The most comprehensive record of the life of Christ is given in the books of the Bible written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These are obviously four accounts of the same events, which satisfy the requirement of at least two or three witnesses. Who were these authors?

Matthew and John were two of the twelve disciples who accompanied Christ during His public ministry (Mt. 4: 21-22; 9:9; 10:2-4; Mk. 1:19-20; 2:14; Lk. 5:10-11; 27-28). They were there and saw the events they recorded. They were part of the twelve apostles who were Christ’s witnesses (Acts 1:8). When Judas was replaced by Matthias, Peter said that an apostle was a man who had “been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us”, who was “a witness with us of His resurrection” (Acts 1:21-22).

As a tax collector, Mathew was skilled in writing and keeping records. John’s testimony is reliable: “This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true” (Jn. 21:24). John was one of the three apostles that were closest to Jesus, the others were Peter and James (Mt. 17:1; Mk. 14:33). Also, he may have been a cousin of Jesus (Mt. 27:56; Mk. 15:40).

Mark lived in Jerusalem during Christ’s public ministry and was a cousin of Barnabas (Col. 4:10). Mark may have been at the garden of Gethsemane when Jesus was arrested as he wrote; “A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind” (Mk. 14:51-52).

Tradition says that Mark was Peter’s interpreter and wrote down Peter’s account of the life of Jesus. This is supported by the fact that he was with Peter when 1 Peter was written (1 Pt. 5:13). Also, when Peter escaped from prison, he went to Mark’s mother’s house (Acts 12:12-17).

Luke was a historian. His record begins: “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Lk. 1:1-5). He interviewed eye-witnesses of the life of Christ, including Mary as he gives the best account of Christ’s early years.

Luke was a Gentile medical doctor who travelled with Paul and was one of his fellow workers (Col. 4:14; Phile. 24). He was well educated and had an outstanding command of the Greek language. He also wrote the book of Acts and witnessed many of the events recorded in Acts.

Confirmed and busted

As documented history always trumps science with regard to past events, we don’t need the MythBusters to test the truth of the Bible. Instead, because of multiple eye-witnesses the resurrection of Christ and the Biblical account of the life of Christ are confirmed to be proven facts and not myths. So the viewpoint that the Bible is myth is busted!

Postscript – The rest of the New Testament

The other New Testament writers were also eye-witnesses of the events they documented.

Peter was a disciple and apostle like Matthew and John. He was present during the public ministry of Christ and the life of the early church. He witnessed everything that Jesus did, including His death and resurrection (Acts 10:39-41; 1 Pt. 5:1). Silas may have helped Peter write his first letter (1 Pt. 5:12).

James and Jude were half-brothers of Jesus: they had the same mother, but different fathers (Mt. 13:55; Mk. 6:3). Although they didn’t follow Jesus at the time, they grew up with Him and were aware of His public ministry. The Lord appeared to James after the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:7). James and Jude became believers after the resurrection and were part of the life of the early church (Jn. 7:5; Acts 1:14; Gal. 1:19).

Paul was different to the other apostles as he became an apostle by special revelation. Instead of living with Christ during His three years of public ministry, Paul saw the Lord in a vision (1 Cor. 9:1; Gal. 1:16). He wrote that in this sense he was inferior to the others, like a premature birth compared to a normal one (1 Cor. 15:8). Nevertheless, he was to be a witness who told others about what he had seen (Acts 22:15; 26:16).

Paul was a Pharisee and the son of a Pharisee (Acts 23:6; 26:4-5). As he studied under Gamaliel at Jerusalem, he was well educated (Acts 22:3; Gal. 1:14). Paul established churches in Asia Minor and Europe and was part of the life of the early church.

Written, September 2012


Paul the tent-maker

Paul the tent-maker

A self-supporting missionary

Paul was a Jew who lived in the Roman Empire. His Hebrew name was Saul and his Greek name was Paul. He would have learnt his trade of tent-making as a youth as it was the Jewish custom to provide manual training for their sons (Acts 18:3). As the son of a Pharisee, at the age of 13-15 he was sent to Jerusalem to study the Jewish religion under Gamaliel, an eminent teacher of Jewish law (Acts 22:3; 26:4-5). Until his miraculous conversion, Paul was a fanatical Pharisee who persecuted Christians (Gal. 1:13-14). After all, according to Deuteronomy “anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse” (Dt. 21:23NIV). He would have thought: “How could the Messiah be one who died a criminal’s death and was cursed by God?”

Called and commended

Paul was called and commended to be a pioneer missionary to Gentiles in lands around the Mediterranean Sea (Acts 9:15; Gal 1:15; 2:9). Before his first missionary journey, the Holy Spirit told the church in Antioch, “‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:2-3). During his second missionary journey, Paul was told in a vision; “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (Acts 16:9).

His message was “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). Jesus came from Heaven to save us, died for our sins in our place, was raised from death and was seen by many after His resurrection. He now sits at the right hand of God who has given Him all power and authority, including the right to act as judge of all humanity. By trusting in Christ’s work we can be rescued from the coming judgment.

Let’s investigate what enabled Paul to undertake his life’s mission.

Second missionary journey

On his second missionary journey with Silas, Luke and Timothy, Paul was supported by the hospitality of believers. At Philippi, they stayed with Lydia and after a spectacular night in jail the jailer gave them a meal (Acts 16:15, 34). They stayed with Jason at Thessalonica (Acts 7:7), while at Corinth they stayed with Aquila and Priscilla for 1.5 years (Acts 18:2-3, 11). The Bible says, “because he was a tent-maker as they were, he stayed and worked with them”. So, he worked at his trade of tent-making to pay his living expenses. By the way, his main training was to be a Jewish rabbi and tent-making was a manual skill he would have learnt when he was younger.

While in Corinth Paul wrote two letters to the church in Thessalonica. As Christ’s apostles, they were entitled to financial support from the Thessalonians, but they worked day and night to provide for their own needs (1 Th. 2:6; 9). They didn’t want to be a burden to the believers who were poor and persecuted. As he didn’t want to be unduly dependant on others, Paul earned his own living while he was preaching there.

Paul explains this further when he addresses those who had stopped working for a living because they expected the Lord’s return: “you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat’” (2 Th. 3:7-10).

Paul worked night and day at his trade of tent-making, in order to pay people for the food that he was eating.

Third missionary journey

Paul and his companions continued to be supported by the hospitality of believers on his third missionary journey. At Caesarea, they stayed with Philip the evangelist, while they stayed with Mnason at Jerusalem (Acts 21:8-10, 15-16). At Corinth, they may have stayed with Stephanas as his household “devoted themselves to the service of the Lord’s people” (1 Cor. 16:15). He also told those in Rome to “practice hospitality” (Rom. 12:13).

On this trip, Paul spent three years at Ephesus (Acts 20:31). He may have stayed with Aquila and Priscilla who had moved there from Corinth (Acts 18:18-19; 1 Cor. 16:19). While he was there he wrote a letter to the church at Corinth and when he got to Macedonia, he wrote a second letter.

Paul said that the apostles supported themselves by working hard with their own hands and he urged the Corinthians to imitate him (1 Cor. 4:12, 16). Although he had the right as an apostle to financial support (1 Cor. 9:4-14), he didn’t use this right in Corinth (he says this three times v12, 15, 18). Instead he worked so as not to give his critics any ground for accusing him of preaching for money (1 Cor. 9:14-18). He offered the gospel free of charge so the message would not be hindered. This was an example of self-denial or self-sacrifice for the good of others. He noted that Barnabas also worked to support himself (1 Cor. 9:6). This suggests that Paul and Barnabas supported themselves on the first missionary journey as it was the only one they made together.

This message was repeated twice in his second letter:

  • When Paul was with the Corinthians he didn’t receive any financial assistance from them (2 Cor. 11:7-9). But he did receive support from other churches, including those in Macedonia. He boasted that he preached the gospel free of charge and was not a burden to anyone.
  • Also, He didn’t receive financial support because he didn’t want to be a burden on them and because he wanted them and not their possessions (2 Cor. 12:13-18). When Paul sent Titus to Corinth, Titus lived like Paul in working in an occupation so he would not have to be supported by the Corinthians.

Paul wasn’t like the false teachers who peddled the word of God for profit and tried to turn the ministry into a profitable profession (2 Cor.2:17; 11:20). In Micah’s time there were leaders who judged for a bribe, priests who taught for a price and prophets who told fortunes for money (Mi. 3:11).

Paul also wrote, “We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited” (2 Cor. 6:3). He knew that some people look for an excuse not to listen to the message of salvation. So he was scrupulous and lived beyond reproach. He was characterised by “hard work”, which would have included manual labour such as tent-making.

When farewelling the elders of the church at Ephesus, Paul said, “I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing. You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’” (Acts 20:33-35). So he also did tent-making in Ephesus. He didn’t seek material reward. Instead he worked hard making tents to provide for his needs and the needs of those who served with him. He believed that it is more blessed to give than to receive. This was a great example to the spiritually immature who were tempted to be lazy or greedy.

Prisoner in Rome

The church at Philippi sent Epaphroditus with gifts to take care of Paul when he was imprisoned in Rome (Phil. 2:25). Twice they had sent him financial support when he was a missionary in Thessalonica (Phil. 4:14-19). They supported gospel workers. Paul said their gift was like an offering and sacrifice that pleased God. It was like the Old Testament fellowship (or peace) offering that was an expression of thankfulness (Lev. 7:11-15). God is pleased when we use our material resources to do good and share with those in need (Heb. 13:16). It’s the sacrifice of our possessions.

Paul found that God meets our needs (Phil. 4:19) and he said “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Phil 4:11-12) .

Were there any tent-makers before Paul?

You might ask, what about earlier examples in the Bible? Well in the Old Testament times the Jewish priests and Levities were supported by the tithes and offerings and sacrifices of the other people. The High Priest was the spiritual head of the nation, while the priests and Levities served in the temple. They mediated between God and the people. They inherited these roles which were restricted to the tribe of Levi and the family of Aaron. The priests wore special clothes. As the priests and Levites had no other occupations, it seems that they were not tent-makers. But God put an end to the Jewish priests and Levities when the temple was destroyed in AD70. If there is no temple, there is no Jewish priesthood and this has been the case for the past 1,942 years.

However, Nehemiah was a tent-maker as he was self-supporting and unlike other governors of Judah, he didn’t place a burden on the Jews who returned from captivity (Neh. 5:14-18).

In the New Testament, the Old Testament system was replaced by one where each believer is a priest with direct access to God through Jesus Christ as the High Priest (Heb. 2:17; 5:1-6; 1 Pt. 2:5). Jesus is our mediator today. There is no special building like the temple and no special priests. However, there is provision for financial support as required for apostles (1 Cor. 9:4-14), elders (1 Ti. 5:17-18), teachers (Gal. 6:6) and missionaries (Phil. 4:4-19). But each of these can be tent-makers like Paul.

What about the time of Christ? We know that the original disciples left their occupations to follow Jesus:  To the fishermen he said, “‘Come, follow me and I will send you out to fish for people.’ At once they left their nets and followed Him” (Mt. 4:19-20). However, after the resurrection they went fishing again and Jesus helped them catch 153 fish (Jn. 21:1-13).

When Jesus sent His followers out on mission trips,He told them not to take money, but rely on hospitality for their support (Mt. 10:1-15; Lk. 10:1-7). Their needs were met on a day by day basis. But these instructions were changed at the Last Supper (Lk. 22:35-37). Now He tells them to take money and provisions and be prepared to protect themselves. This was probably because He was about to be crucified and ascend back to heaven and would no longer be with them physically. It is consistent with tent-making by working in order to get the money and so being able to support themselves.

Lessons for us

Paul was an example for us to follow.

Calling. Paul was called to specific missionary work. All believers are all called to share their faith where God has placed them. In this sense they are all called to be missionaries. What else has God called you to do? Like Paul, a true servant of Christ will continue to preach the good news of salvation whether they receive money for it or have to work to finance themselves. Financial reward should not be a motive for serving the Lord.

Paul’s service was supported in three ways: hospitality, giving and employment.

Hospitality. Paul and his companions often stayed in people’s homes. Such hospitality is important because the host’s names are given in Scripture. How do we use our homes? Do we use our resources to support the spread of the gospel? Are we hospitable or selfish? In the Bible, hospitality is associated with the expression of love and spiritual gifts (Rom. 12:13; 1 Pt. 4:9). Also, when we open our homes to one another we are inviting the Lord into our homes (Mt. 25:34-40). Having people over for a meal is a great way to get to know each other better and encourage each other.

Giving. From time to time different churches provided funds to support Paul’s missionary work. Do we live economically in order to be able to give more money to support the gospel? Do we support gospel workers? After all, all we have belongs to the Lord. Are we generous or stingy?

Employment. When necessary, Paul worked as a tentmaker. He didn’t give up his trade when he was evangelising. He practiced self-support. He evangelised fellow workers like Aquila and Priscilla. He was not isolated from the ordinary working world but identified with the common people who had to work for a living. Employment enables non-Christians to see Christians in action. It also provides access to a range of people and our diligence at work and our lifestyle can influence colleagues to follow Jesus Christ. It also opens up opportunities to reach seemingly inaccessible people in new ways with the gospel. Today tent-makers have access to countries where traditional missionaries are denied. Are we using our work to further the gospel? Are we encouraging people to be tent-makers who work to support themselves while they spread the gospel?

Written June 2012


Can we trust our Bibles?

How the Bible came to us

How the Bible came to us

I recently read about five alleged myths and shortcomings of the Bible: the creation story, the morality of the Jews destroying the Canaanites, Noah’s flood, the virgin birth and inconsistencies between different parts of the Bible. So can we trust our Bibles or are they the unreliable product of a more primitive era? To answer this question we will look at how the Bible came to us.

The word Bible comes from biblion, the Greek word for book and the word Scripture comes from scriptura, the Latin word for something written. The Bible is a collection of 66 books from more than 40 authors. It has two main parts, the Old Testament (OT), written before Christ and the New Testament (NT), written after Christ. They were both written in the everyday language of their time. The OT was written in Hebrew, except for portions in Aramaic after the Jewish exile in Babylon, while the New Testament was written in Greek.

Original text

Paul said that the OT was “the very words of God” (Rom. 3:2). This also applies to the NT as Peter equates Paul’s letters with Scripture (2 Pet. 3:16). So how did the words of God get to be written on earth? Well, the apostle John reported, “On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, which said: ‘Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: …’” (Rev. 1:10-11NIV). In this case John was given a vision and he was to write down what he saw. In Jeremiah’s case, he dictated God-given words to his secretary Baruch (Jer. 36:1-4).

In Hebrews we learn, “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son” (Heb. 1:1-2). This means that in the OT God communicated to people via the prophets and in the NT He communicated via Jesus and the apostles, who recorded the life of Jesus and the early church.

Paul wrote, “All Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16). Peter wrote, “We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable … Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things (own mind). For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:19-21). Clearly the Bible message came from God via the prophets and apostles. The Holy Spirit influenced them like a wind moves a sailing boat: see Acts 27:15 where the same word is used. So the Holy Spirit helped the authors write the words. But it wasn’t just dictated mechanically, because each author used their own style.

So God created the books of the Bible via human authors. It’s God’s words (in the original text). That’s why it is also referred to as God’s Word. Each word of the entire Bible was “God-breathed” as originally written. This means it was recorded accurately without error. So it’s trustworthy and reliable in all the matters it addresses.

Paul communicated “things God has revealed to us by His Spirit” (1 Cor. 2:10), “not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit” (1 Cor. 2:13). So the words used by the apostles were especially chosen by the Holy Spirit. Paul and the other writers “had the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16). This passage is about new truths revealed in the NT, not about heaven.

What about the Apocrypha which is comprised of 13 Jewish writings from the period between the OT and the NT (350 BC to 50 AD) that are included in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles? The word Apocrypha comes from a Greek word meaning hidden. However:

  • They were never accepted by the Jews as part of their God-given Scriptures
  • None are quoted or referred to in the NT or accepted by Jesus and the apostles as God-given Scripture
  • None were written by the OT prophets
  • They were only recognised by Roman Catholics as part of their Scriptures in the 1540s (1,500 years after they were written)

So the Apocrypha are Jewish religious books written between the times of the OT and the NT, but they are not God-breathed Scripture.

By 400 BC the OT was complete and written on scrolls and by 100 AD the NT was complete and written on scrolls. However, because scrolls don’t last for thousands of years, we don’t have any of the original Biblical texts today. Does this mean our Bibles are unreliable? No! Many copies have been made and early manuscripts have been preserved.

Early manuscripts

Photocopiers have been used since 1959 and the printing press since the 1450s. Gutenberg printed the first Bible in 1456. Copies of the books of the Bible were handwritten before the printing press. A handwritten copy is called a manuscript, which comes from the Latin words manu (hand) and scriptum (written). An amazing number of Bible manuscripts have been preserved for us to examine today. These comprise ancient fragments, scrolls and books.

The characteristics of these documents changed over the centuries between when they were first composed and the advent of the printing press. The media they were written on changed from stones (like the Ten Commandments), to clay tablets (Moses), to papyrus (paper made from a reed plant that grew along the Nile River – that’s where our word paper comes from), to parchment (also called vellum; made from animal skins), and to paper. Paper as we know it was invented in China, but wasn’t used in Europe until the 1200s. Books replaced scrolls in about the second century AD. In about the eleventh century AD, the Greek text changed from modified capitals to lower case. In about the fifth century AD, the quill replaced the reed as the “pen” used by copyists. Scholars examine these characteristics when dating manuscripts.

Old Testament manuscripts

The OT was written between 1500 BC and 400 BC. The Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) were the most important archaeological discovery in the last century. They were found in clay jays in caves near the north-western shore of the Dead Sea. Scholars believe that the DSS were hidden about 70 AD when Roman legions invaded Israel.

Before this time, the oldest Hebrew manuscript of the whole OT was Codex Leningradensis (1008 AD). Codex means book. In the DSS there was a copy of Isaiah dated 150 BC, which was about 550 years after the original text was written. The Hebrew text of this copy was virtually the same as the copy made over 1,000 years later. So the Jewish scribes did a good job! They were diligent and developed many practices to protect copies of their scriptures from error. For example, the Masoretes numbered the letters, words, and paragraphs of each book and the middle paragraph, middle word and middle letter had to correspond to those of the original document. Earlier Jewish scribes were just as meticulous in their transcription. After all, they were instructed not to add to or take away from the word of God (Dt. 4:2; Prov. 30:6).

Most of the DSS predate the time of Christ (they were written 150 BC to 70 AD). Parts of all the books of the Old Testament were found except Esther. They closely follow the Masoretic Text, the Hebrew text of the Jewish Bible (the tanakh), copied by a group of Jews about the 10th century AD, but there are a few exceptions. For example, Psalm 145 is an alphabetical psalm. Each verse begins with the next letter in the alphabet, but “N” verse is missing in the Masoretic Text and King James Bible.

Between the third century BC and 130 BC, the OT was translated into Greek and this version of the OT is known as the Septuagint. Fragments of Septuagint manuscripts date from the first and second centuries BC. Relatively complete manuscripts of the Septuagint include the Codex Vaticanus from the 4th century AD and the Codex Alexandrinus of the 5th century. These are the oldest surviving nearly complete manuscripts of the Old Testament in any language; the oldest existing complete Hebrew texts date some 600 years later, from the 10th century.

New Testament manuscripts

The NT was written between 50 AD and 100 AD. The oldest NT manuscript is a papyrus fragment of the Gospel of John, which is dated about 125 AD about 30 years after the book was first written! The earliest manuscripts of each book in the NT are usually papyrus fragments which are dated from 125 AD (for John) to 350 AD for 1&2 Timothy and 3 John, with a median date of 200 AD.

Codex Sinaiticus, a manuscript of the Bible written about 350 AD, contains the earliest complete copy of the New Testament. It was discovered at a monastery on Mount Sinai in the 1850s. The hand-written text is in Greek. On the other hand, the earliest manuscripts of the works of the Jewish historian Josephus in their original language are dated 900-1000 AD, at least 800 years after they were written.

As there are earlier, better and more manuscripts of Scripture, the manuscript evidence of the Bible is superior to that for any other ancient book. However, none of these Biblical manuscripts is perfectly accurate, they all contain copy errors. Does this mean our Bibles are unreliable? No! Scholars have reconstructed the original text.

Reconstructed text

The study of biblical manuscripts is important because handwritten copies of books usually contain errors. Textural scholars reconstruct the original text from the manuscripts available. Generally earlier versions are closer to the original as they have fewer copy errors.

Scholars have grouped the NT manuscripts into families: Alexandrian (200s-400s AD), Caesarean (200s AD onwards), Western (300s-500s AD) and Byzantine (500s onwards). There have been three major attempts to reconstruct the original New Testament text from ancient Greek manuscripts:

The Received Text (“Textus Receptus” in Latin) was based on some Byzantine (eastern portion of the Roman Empire) manuscripts (dated from 1000 AD). It was first published in 1516. This text lacks the input of many early Biblical manuscripts which have been discovered since this time.

The Eclectic Text (selected from the best of a variety of sources) was based on an analysis of all the manuscripts, with a preference for the earliest ones (mainly Alexandrian, Caesarean and Western manuscripts). It was first published in the 1880s. This text tends to be shorter than the others.

The Majority Text was based on the majority of existing Greek manuscripts and first published in the 1982. As fewer ancient texts have survived and the Byzantine church was quite wealthy and produced many manuscripts, the Majority Text is largely based on the Byzantine family of manuscripts (dated the 9th to the 13th centuries AD) and has some similarities to the Received Text. However, no major Bible translations are based on the Majority Text.

The differences between the reconstructed New Testament texts mentioned above are mainly technical and not doctrinal. They don’t affect any Christian doctrine because the Bible is a robust document. It has a great deal of redundancy and repetition with multiple accounts of important events. For example, there two accounts of Israel’s history (Samuel & Kings; Chronicles), three genealogies from Adam to Abraham (Genesis 5&11; 1 Chronicles; Luke 3) and four accounts of the life of Jesus (the gospels). All major doctrines are taught in several places in the Bible. They don’t rely on a single verse.

So scholars have reconstructed the original Biblical texts. However, as these reconstructed original texts are in Hebrew and Greek, which most of us can’t read, does that mean that our Bibles, which are not in Hebrew and Greek are unreliable? No! These languages have been translated accurately.

Accurate translation

Translators transfer the message from a source language to a receptor language. These Biblical texts have been translated into most of the languages in the world. In fact, the Bible has been translated and retranslated more than any other book in history. New translations are needed from time to time because all languages are constantly changing.

Some ancient translations are:

•   The Septuagint – a Greek translation of the OT dated about 200 BC, which was quoted by Christ and the apostles. This shows that God approves of translations. Jesus viewed this translation of the Old Testament as reliable and trustworthy (Mt. 5:17-18; Jn. 10:35).

•   The Vulgate – a Latin translation of the Bible dated about 400 AD, which was used for over 1,000 years including the Middle Ages.

If you look at an Interlinear Bible you will realise that a word-for-word translation is impossible. This is because each language has a different vocabulary (we may need more than one word to describe a word in another language or vice-versa) and a different grammar (or sentence structure). Also, languages are flexible and there is often more than one way to correctly translate a text. The same information can be communicated in different ways.

What’s the difference between different translations of the Bible?

Source text

Two types of reconstructed source have mainly been used:

  • Received Text – This was used by the 1611 KJV and has been maintained by subsequent editions of the KJV and for the NKJV.
  • Eclectic Text – This is used by most other translations of the Bible where some verses are omitted because it is believed that they were added by copyists.

Readability

Some translations try to follow the pattern of the source language (but are not as readable), others follow the pattern of the receptor language (but are not as close literally). For example:

  • Most literal includes: NASB (11), KJV (12), NKJV (9) and ESV (9)
  • Most readable includes: CEV (4), NLT (6)
  • Intermediate: NIV (8), HCSB (8)

The number is the grade level required to read the text. Note: interlinear Bibles are most literal, but they are not readable at all, and The Message is a paraphrase not a translation. Different translations have different purposes, which are indicated in the front of the Bible. They usually have a particular readership in mind. Most of the translations are trustworthy. Rarely does a doctrinal matter hinge on the translation of the text.

Lessons for us

We can be thankful for the Bible’s preservation over thousands of years.

Our Bibles are very close to the original because early manuscripts have been preserved, scholars have reconstructed the original text and languages have been translated accurately. So we can trust our Bibles.

Paul told Timothy, “from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:15-17). Each of our Bibles contains all we need to know about salvation, spiritual growth and Christian living, by making us “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” and thoroughly equipping us for every good work.

Which is the best Bible? The one you read! Read it regularly and memorise key verses.

Written, March 2012


What makes the Bible so great?

The Bible is a collection of books which were written over a period of over 1,500 years with unique origin and content.

Unique origin

We will look at three statements about the source of the Bible. “All Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16NIV). When written in ~67AD by Paul, this statement mainly applied to the Old Testament as not all the New Testament books had been written. But when Paul quoted from the book of Luke, he called it Scripture (1 Tim. 5:18) and Peter referred to Paul’s letters as Scripture (2 Pet. 3:16). So today we can apply the statement to the whole Bible. This means that God is the source of every verse in the Bible.

“Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things (mind). For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:20-21). The men who were given the message were called prophets. This passage emphasises that the words of Scripture were given by God via the Holy Spirit; and they didn’t originate from the prophet’s mind.

“This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words” (1 Cor. 2:13).  Once again, the Bible contains God’s wisdom, not human wisdom (1 Cor. 2:6-15). It’s “the thoughts of God” and the amazing things that “God has prepared for those who love Him”, which can only be understood with the help of the Holy Spirit.

As the Bible is the only book with God as the author, it is unique. The Bible is God’s message to us. The supreme God who created the universe and continues to sustain it has communicated with us. This also means that:

  • The Bible has authority – coming from the ruler of the visible and invisible universe.
  • The Bible is infallible. It is “completely reliable” as the source of truth, being absolutely true (2 Pet.1:19). The original text was without error and only minor copyist errors have occurred over the passage of time. When interpreted correctly, it never deceives us, never contradicts itself and can be trusted.
  • The Bible is profitable. God has told us what we need to know. It’s like our instruction manual for life.

Unique content

The Bible tells us the history of the universe from beginning to end. It begins with the creation of the universe and contains a history of mankind from Adam and Eve to the end of history. It describes the global flood that has shaped the earth and gives a detailed history of the Jewish nation, which is confirmed by archaeology. There is also a history of God’s dealing with mankind, a history of human failures, an accurate record of human behaviour and information about heaven and hell.

The Bible answers difficult questions, such as the following. Why do we exist? Why does anything exist? What can we hope for in the future? What is our destiny? Where has humanity come from? Why are we male and female? Where does marriage come from? Why is there suffering?

The Bible deals with our greatest problem (being God’s enemy instead of His friend) and our greatest need (to be reconciled with God) and how that was addressed by Jesus. God’s plan of salvation through Jesus is the theme of Scripture. We learn the way of salvation through the Bible (2 Tim. 3:15). It also provides assurance of salvation.

The Bible tells us what to know about the unseen world, including: God, angels, Satan, and demons. It describes the interaction between the unseen and seen parts of our world. It reveals what is God like; what has God done; God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. It also reveals that humans are comprised of spirit, soul and body.

As the Bible is the only reliable source of this information, it is unique (Eccl. 3:11).

Powerful

The Bible uses the following powerful images to describe itself:

  • A sharp sword that penetrates and judges our thoughts and attitudes (Heb. 4:12-13). It is the sword of the Spirit (Eph. 6:17).
  • A light that shines in darkness (Ps. 119:105; 2 Pet. 1:19). It illuminates the way ahead and guides us.
  • A mirror that shows our true condition (Jas. 1:22-25).
  • Food (milk and solid food) that sustains us (1 Cor. 3:1-2; Heb. 5:12-14).
  • Water that purifies us as we obey Scripture (Eph. 5:25).
  • More precious than gold (Ps. 19:10).
  • Sweeter than honey (Ps. 19:10).

So, the Bible is not just another book, it’s God’s unique powerful message to us. Let’s read it, study it, memorise it and obey it.

Written, September 2011

Also see: Read the Bible in one year


New Testament Shepherds

Revision

God uses images of sheep and shepherds in the Bible; sheep are often used to illustrate people and shepherds to illustrate leaders, such as God and kings. The imagery of a shepherd and his flock provided a picture of the way God cared for His people, and also serves as a model for human leaders. In this article we look at shepherds in the New Testament.

I recently visited my brother on his sheep farm. During lambing season he visits each flock on a daily basis. So we drove around the fields and sighted each sheep. As new lambs are small and can be hidden in the grass, you need to drive near each ewe. Life isn’t easy for a sheep and there were a few carcasses of sheep that had died and flocks of ravens were in the trees to feed on any that were dead or dying. We saw a sheep upside down in the adjacent field and looked to see if it was dead. But a leg moved, so we drove over. He rolled her over and sat her up for a while. She was large and may have been expecting twins. He eventually got her to stand up, but she wouldn’t walk. He thought she may have lambing sickness, so we lifted her up onto the back of the small truck and drove her to sheep yards where he gave her two injections and a dose of medicine with the mouth drench. We left her with some water and wheat. That’s an example of the work of a modern shepherd.

The apostles

When Jesus was about to be crucified, three times the apostle Peter publicly denied knowing Him. Then after Christ rose from the dead Peter repented and was restored to fellowship with the Lord. This is illustrated by the following incident when Peter was restored publicly. On three occasions the Lord asked Peter, “Do you love me”? When Peter said that he loved the Lord, he was told to: “Feed my lambs”; “Shepherd my sheep”; and“Feed my sheep” (Jn. 21:15-17NIV). God’s sheep are His people, those who follow Him (Lk. 12:32). So Peter was to demonstrate his love for Christ by caring for the people of God like a shepherd cares for his sheep. “Feeding” implies teaching, while “shepherding” implies pastoral care, and the “lambs” are those who are young in the Christian faith.

Soon afterwards, the Holy Spirit indwelt the believers on the day of Pentecost and Peter spoke to the people. We see that Peter and the other apostles were leaders of the early church. The history of the early church is given in the book of Acts. When Cornelius received the Holy Spirit, Peter baptised Gentiles into the church. Paul was the special apostle to the gentiles and he preached to many people and planted many churches.

So the apostles were shepherds in the early church; they were leaders who cared for the welfare of fellow believers. Peter fed the sheep of God’s people when he spoke as recorded in the book of Acts and when he wrote his letters of 1&2 Peter. We now look at the passages that specifically mention shepherds in the early church.

Elders in Turkey

In the letter of 1 Peter, Peter wrote to believers scattered across what is now the country of Turkey. It was written about 30 years after the day of Pentecost (1 Pt. 1:1). After dealing with their suffering under the Emperor Nero, he wrote: “To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away” (1 Pt. 5:1-4).

He used the image of shepherds and sheep. The elders in the local church are the shepherds and the congregation are the sheep. Although they were apostles, Peter and John both identified themselves as church elders (1 Pt. 5:1; 2 Jn. 1; 3 Jn. 1). The Greek word translated “elder” is “presbuteros”, which describes a position of responsibility.  Firstly, the elders are to shepherd God’s flock. This means caring for the believers in the local church. It is God’s flock and the elders work for Him; they shepherd under the Chief Shepherd. Secondly, they were to be willing and eager to serve and not reluctant. Thirdly, they were to be good examples; not selfish or bossy and not a dictator like Diotrophes (3 Jn. 9-10). So the elders were shepherds in the early churches in Turkey; they were leaders who cared for the welfare of follow believers.

Elders at Ephesus

Paul spread the gospel to countries like Turkey, Greece and Italy. On his third missionary journey his boat was going to Miletus, which was about 55 km from Ephesus. “From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church” (Acts 20:17). They had a close relationship with Paul because he had spent over two years with them in daily discussions (Acts 19:10). When they arrived, Paul gave them his farewell message. He knew that prison and hardship was ahead for him. “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears” (Acts 20:28-31).

In this passage, the elders are also described as “overseers” (v.28). The Greek word is “episkopos” or “bishop” (English), which means to look or watch over. So in the early church the terms “elders”, “overseers” and “bishops” were equivalent descriptions of the leaders in the local church (Tit. 1:5,7). Here we see that the elders were chosen by the Holy Spirit and recognised by the congregation (1 Th. 5:12-13). In this case they travelled as a group to a town 55 km (35 miles) away to see Paul.

The elders were to: keep watch over each other (v.28); keep watch over the congregation; and protect the congregation from external attack (wolves) and internal attack (false teachers drawing people after themselves). So the elders were shepherds in the church at Ephesus; they cared for and protected follow believers.

A special gift

When Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus he mentioned some special gifts that Christ had given to the local church: “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors (shepherds) and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Eph. 4:11-12). These gifts were people, not abilities. The people given to the church were: apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers. The apostles and prophets established the early church and wrote the New Testament (Eph. 2:20). The apostles had been taught by the Lord and seen His resurrection body and had the power to do miracles (Acts 1:21-22; 2 Cor. 12:12). The prophets spoke the word of God before the New Testament was available. The evangelists preached the good news of salvation through the Lord’s death and resurrection. The word translated “pastors” is the Greek word for “shepherds”. “Pastor” is the Latin word for shepherd. The teachers interpret the scriptures and apply it to the congregation. This is the food provided by the shepherds.

The “shepherds and teachers” (Eph. 4:11) are the elders. We have already seen how the elders are to shepherd the congregation. An elder must be “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2). This passage shows that a major objective of the work of the elders is “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:12-14). So elders should ensure that the congregation is trained towards spiritual growth and maturity.

The other abilities that are useful for eldership are leadership skills (Rom. 12:8) and administrative skills (1 Cor. 12:28). Also, elders must be able to manage their household well (1 Tim. 3:4,5).

Plural leadership

Note that it was plural leadership, not singular leadership – “elders”, not “elder” and “overseers”, not “overseer” (Acts 14:23; 20:17; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 5:17; Tit. 1:5). It was a leadership group, not a single leader. The singular sense is only used when describing the qualifications of an elder (1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:6-7) or an accusation against an elder (1 Tim. 5:19) or themselves as individuals(1 Pt. 5:1; 2 Jn. 1; 3 Jn. 1).

Was James the senior elder at Jerusalem? He spoke at a meeting of the apostles and elders and made a judgment which was accepted by the others in the church (Acts 15:13-30). Also, when he visited Jerusalem, Paul “went to see James and all the elders were present” (Acts 21:18). It is clear from the context that James was an elder at Jerusalem, but there is no other evidence that he was senior to the other elders. He may have been a spokesman for the elders. These verses are not sufficient to indicate a hierarchy within the eldership.

Collective leadership provides collective abilities, experience and wisdom. It guards against domination by individuals, which has caused divisions within churches (1 Cor. 1:11-13; 3:1-9; 3 Jn. 9-10). This means shared responsibility and accountability amongst the elders. Elders need to work together as peers. This structure encourages humility and servanthood and discourages pride, ego and dictatorial power.

In some respects the elders of a local church are to function like a Board of Directors of a membership based organisation. All decisions are to be made collectively and all elders share equal responsibility for those decisions. Likewise, elders need to be able to work as part of a group, be genuinely interested in the congregation and act with honesty and integrity.

Wolves

Paul told the elders at Ephesus “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock” (Acts 20:29). As predators such as wolves kill sheep, the shepherd needs to protect the sheep against the predators. We know that David killed a lion and a bear while he was protecting his flock. In John 10 the sheep were put in the sheep pen for the night for their protection.

Jesus said, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves(Mt. 7:15). Peter wrote “There were false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you” (2 Pt. 2:1). Elders are to protect the congregation against false teachers.

Sometimes the attacks can be deceptive. Satan is described as the one “who leads the whole world astray (Rev. 12:9) and John wrote “Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray (or deceive you)” (1 Jn. 3:7). Elders also “keep watch over you as men who must give an account” (Heb. 13:17). The elders are responsible for the spiritual welfare of the church and will give an account of this work to God.

Sheep

We know that the elders are to be shepherds of the congregation who are God’s flock. What are the responsibilities of the congregation?

Realize that the elders have been established by God: “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (Acts 20:28). Respect them: “Respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work” (1 Th. 5:12-13). Honor and support them where appropriate (1 Tim. 5:17-18). Imitate their faith (Heb. 13:7) and obey them (Heb. 13:17). As elders will be attacked, the congregation should protect them from false accusations by rejecting allegations that are not supported by two or three witnesses (1 Tim. 5:19). So Christians should recognise and obey those who have the qualifications and who do the work of elders.

Lessons for us

A church needs active elders. If my brother didn’t go around the sheep every day, more sheep would die from sickness, disease, harsh weather or predators. The congregation should be under the care of active elders as sheep should be under the care of a shepherd (1 Pt. 5:2). Otherwise, it would be “like sheep without a shepherd(Mt. 9:36; Mk. 6:34). When there are no active elders to give guidance and direction, people wander from the path they should be taking in life and there is tragedy. This happened to Israel in the Old Testament and the same principle applies in the church today.

What have we learnt for elders?

Good leadership begins with God as our shepherd. All elders should follow the example of the Good and Chief Shepherd, as they shepherd God’s flock: teach the young in the Christian faith; care for, protect and teach the congregation; be a team worker, part of a collective leadership; be accountable to each other; be willing and eager to serve; train the congregation for works of service; be good examples; be responsible for the spiritual welfare of the congregation and ready to give an account of this work to God.

What is our responsibility to elders?

Our attitude towards elders should be similar to our attitude the Lord who is the Good Shepherd and the Chief Shepherd: remember, honor and respect them; hold them in the highest regard in love; obey them; submit to their authority; and imitate their faith.

Written, November 2005

Also see:
- Old Testament shepherds
- The Good Shepherd

The Good Shepherd is always near


What does the New Testament say about Christians getting tattoos?

Dealing with debatable matters

In the previous article we saw that God communicates to us progressively through the Bible. So Old Testament (OT) verses need to be understood in view of the additional knowledge we have in the New Testament (NT). In doing this we can look for examples, warnings, encouragement and hope in the OT which are consistent with the messages given to churches in the NT. In the case of Leviticus 19:28, which prohibited the Jews having tattoos, the tests for a tattoo today could be: Is it consistent or inconsistent with being devoted to God? Is it linked to idolatry? Does it display the fruit of the Spirit or an act of the sinful nature? What is the motivation behind the tattoo?

Now we will look at how the teachings of the NT apply to this topic, which provides further insight into how we can apply the teaching of Scripture to our daily lives. The previous article stated that tattooing was not mentioned specifically in the NT. However, some people think the following verses could refer to tattoos. During the time of tribulation after true Christians are taken to heaven, the false prophet will force “all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom. Let those who have insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666” (Rev. 13:16-18TNIV). Also, when Christ returns to earth to put down His enemies and to set up His kingdom, “On His robe and on His thigh He has this name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.” (Rev. 19:16).

As the word translated “mark” (Strongs #5480) is a scratch or etching; something engraved or stamped it looks like it could be a literal mark on the skin. However, this is only an inference. The word translated “written” (Strong’s #1125) usually refers to something written in a book, scroll, or on a board. However, it may be symbolic not literal, like the sword out of His mouth (v.15). Obviously, there can be various views on the “mark” and the “writing”.

Debatable Matters

In a situation that is not sinful, whether to get a tattoo can be considered to be a debatable matter where Christians may have different opinions and convictions. These are secondary matters that are not essential to the Christian faith. The bible distinguishes between essentials and non-essentials in the Christian faith. The essentials or fundamentals or primary matters are things which all believers should agree on. They are the tests the Bible quotes for recognising false teachers and false ideas about things such as the person and work of Christ; the good news of salvation “by grace … through faith .. not by works” (Eph. 2:8-9); and the inspiration and authority of the Bible as God’s revelation to us.

Apart from such foundational truths, there are many other things in the bible that are not as clear and not as easily understood. These are non-essentials or secondary matters. Romans 14:1 – 15:7; 1 Corinthians 8 and 1 Corinthians 10:23-33 are key passages on this topic. In Romans 14:1 they are called “disputable matters” (Rom. 14:1TNIV) or “doubtful things” (NKJV), but as the Greek word used (Strongs #1261) means “discussion” or “debate”, I prefer to call them “debatable matters”. We can debate them, but shouldn’t dispute them. In these instances as the Bible allows for differences of opinion, we must also allow for differing opinions. Romans 14 addresses whether to eat food that has been offered to idols or whether one day was more sacred than another, which were issues in the first century AD around the Mediterranean. As Paul wrote, “The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17), what counts in God’s kingdom is not what we eat or drink, but lives characterised by practical righteousness, peace and joy.

The first example in this chapter concerns eating meat, “One person’s faith allows them to eat everything, but another person, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables.” (Rom. 14:2). When the book of Romans was written, many Gentile believers (those with no Jewish ancestry) had previously participated in pagan worship which included animal sacrifices to pagan gods. The animals that were sacrificed were usually sold as meat on the open market. So for those who had been saved out of this lifestyle the question became whether they should eat the meat sacrificed to these idols. By eating this meat, were they participating in the idolatry of pagans? This was a hard question for many. And desiring not to participate in idolatrous practices, many of these Gentile Christians became vegetarians. Only in that way could they assure themselves that they were not eating meat sacrificed to idols.

Paul says that the weak believer, with a strict conscience, ate only vegetables whereas the strong believer’s faith allowed them to eat this meat because they understood that the idols to which the meat had been offered were not gods at all – only pieces of wood, stone or metal. Therefore, as they ate the meat with that understanding, they were not participating in idolatry.

The second example has to do with observing special days as holy days, “Some consider one day more sacred than another; others consider every day alike” (Rom. 14:5). Those who had been saved out of a Jewish tradition of Sabbath days and festivals were apt to make a great deal out of those observances. However, others not coming from that background felt that every day was the Lord’s day, and that none were more special than others. This created problems in the early church. How were believers to live together who did not agree in every detail? How are we, today, to deal with other believers whose opinions differ from ours?

When I was young smoking, drinking alcohol, playing cards, movies and dancing were viewed as being sinful and taboo. In some circumstances this is true, but in others they may be debatable maters. The Bible gives principles that can help us determine God’s will in debatable matters. It is clear that these principles are important because of the numerous references to them in the New Testament.

God’s Honor

First, we are to honor God with our bodies (1 Cor. 6:19-20). When Paul said to “flee from sexual immorality”, he gave the following reason: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). This means considering questions such as: Will it honor or dishonor God? Will His reputation be enhanced or harmed? Will God be exalted or disgraced? Will others think less of God, His church or of His word? Is the motive to draw attention to ourselves (1 Tim. 2:9)?

A related principle is that whatever we do should be done for the glory of God. When Paul discussed whether to eat meat that had been offered to idols he concluded,  “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).

The Welfare of Others

Next we are to consider the welfare of others by putting the following three principles into practice.

Acting in love (Rom. 14:15)

With regard to debatable matters, Paul wrote, “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others” (1 Cor 10:23-24). In this area, although there is freedom of action, acting in love means that we consider the impact on others, particularly those whose conscience is weak or strict (1 Cor. 8:7). As a result of this we may need to modify our behaviour and not enjoy all the liberties that we could otherwise.

Acting in love means forbearing those with a stricter conscience, not insisting on doing what we want without considering the views of those around us, in order to build them up; “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. We should all please our neighbors for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please Himself …” (Rom. 15:1-3a).

Acceptance

The practice of acceptance features in the passage in Romans, which begins with “accept those whose faith is weak” (Rom. 14:1. Those whose convictions allow them more freedom are to accept those with stricter consciences on debatable matters. Despite our differences of opinion with regard to debatable matters, believers should accept one another just as Christ has accepted us; “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Rom. 15:7).

Our fellowship with one another shouldn’t depend on one’s viewpoint on such matters. As Christ died for all believers and they have been accepted as His children, we should accept them as well (Rom. 14:15). The call to the Christian is to accept every other believer without having to pass judgment on every opinion they hold. In other words, we are to allow for differing opinions, because differing opinions do not necessarily mean a differing faith.

Harmony

With regard to debatable matters Paul wrote, “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification” (Rom. 14:19). This means promoting peace and spiritual growth and determining whether the matter would help or hinder the harmony of believers.

Furthermore, the welfare of others involves avoiding the following three situations in debatable matters.

Don’t quarrel

Paul also wrote, “Accept those whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable (or debatable) matters” (Rom. 14:1). One way of accepting other believers is to not engage in disputes about their strict views and not force our convictions on them (Rom 14:22). We can share our opinion, but it is important to give others space to grow and to allow for the possibility that we may be wrong.

Don’t judge

Those with as strong conscience shouldn’t despise those with a strict conscience; “The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not” (Rom. 14:3a). On the other hand, those with a strict conscience are not to judge others as being sinners; “the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted that person” (Rom. 14:3b).

As far as our service goes as the Lord’s servants we are all accountable to Him, not to each other (Rom. 14:4, 10-13). This means respecting each other’s opinion as we can have differing views on what pleases the Lord (1 Th. 4:1). We are to allow for differing conclusions of honest believers seeking the mind of Christ, without criticism, without contempt, and without judgment (Rom. 14:10). Don’t judge one another critically to put others down (Rom. 14:13). React with love not criticism. Remember, God has accepted them. He is the judge in these matters, not us.

Note that these verses are dealing with debatable matters. We can certainly make judgements about matters that involve the fundamentals of the faith and sinful behaviour.

Don’t hinder spiritual growth

There are many references to not stumbling a weaker believer (Rom. 14:13, 15, 20-21; 1 Cor. 8:9-13; 1 Cor. 10:32-33). This means refraining from doing something that is not forbidden in Scripture if it hinders the spiritual progress of those with a strict conscience, by causing them to act against their conscience. Otherwise, both parties sin.

Don’t let debatable matters destroy the work of God. Paul even extends this principle to unbelievers because he wanted them to accept Christ as their Savior; “Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God—even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved” (1 Cor 10:32-33). It’s loving and unselfish to think of others above ourselves (Rom. 14:15; 15:1-2).

Order in the Church

When he was addressing disorder in the meetings of the church in Corinth, Paul wrote; “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people” and “everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way” (1 Cor. 14:33; 40). In this situation, Paul imposed some boundaries to ensure there was order instead of disorder.

Some debatable matters can affect the unity or functioning of the local church. Because the local church is to operate in an orderly way, in the case of debatable matters that directly affect the unity or functioning of the local church, there should be boundaries on what is taught and practised. In these situations, what is taught and practised within the church needs to be consistent and it will not always match everyone’s opinion because after all, we can have various opinions on these topics.

Tattoos

As tattoos are permanent, consider whether we and our family will still want or regret a tattoo in many years time. Also, because images affect our thoughts, any tattoo or image that we focus on should be true, honourable, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy and not obscene (Eph. 5:4; Phil. 4:8). For example, it could symbolise a Biblical truth which benefits our relationship with Christ.

Finally, our body is like an instrument or tool that can be used for good or sinful purposes (Rom. 6:13). The important question is whether we are giving our bodies to God, not whether we have a tattoo or not (Rom. 12:1).

Lessons For Us

When considering tattoos and other debatable matters such as food, drink, clothes, standards of living and entertainments, we can ask the following questions: Will it honour or dishonour God? Are we acting in love?

Are we accepting one another regardless of their views on matters of secondary importance? Will it help or hinder the harmony of believers? Are we judging believers on matters of secondary importance? Will it hinder the spiritual progress of a weaker believer? Will it promote order or disorder in the local church?

Let’s apply these NT principles to the debateable maters in our daily lives.

Written, August 2009

See the other articles in this series:
- What does the Old Testament say about Christians getting tattoos?
- What does the Bible say about Christians getting tattoos?


Does John 14:21 mean that God loves us more if we love Him?

“Whoever has My commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves Me. He who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I too will love him and show Myself to him” (Jn. 14:21 NIV).

John gives us the longest account of what Jesus told the disciples in the upper room on the night before He was crucified (Jn. 1317). A few verses before John 14:21 the Lord promised to send the Holy Spirit to indwell the disciples on the day of Pentecost. The key word “love” (“agapao” in Greek) appears 31 times in John 13-17. This self-sacrificing, unselfish love has a divine origin.

Two types of people are mentioned in John 14:15-24 – those who loved the Lord and those who did not. The first were believers, who were indwelt forever by the Holy Spirit, and who obeyed His commands. The others were unbelievers, who did not have the Holy Spirit and did not obey the Lord’s commands.

John 14:21 addresses believers, not unbelievers, in two sentences. The first sentence says that obeying the Lord’s command is evidence that one is a believer. For example, the disciples were told to “love one another” and this would show others that they were followers of Christ (Jn. 13:34-35). The second sentence says that the believer is loved by God the Father and God the Son, and they will make Themselves known to him in a special way: “We will come to him and make Our home with him” (Jn. 14:23-26). Of course unbelievers are also loved by God, but it’s a one-sided relationship as the love is not reciprocal: “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8; Jn. 3:16).

John 14:21-26 shows that because believers have a relationship with the Lord and are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, the Son reveals Himself to them in a way that is not possible for unbelievers. So, increased love for God doesn’t mean that He will love us more, but that we will know Him better.

Published April 2010


God’s great and precious promises

About 4,000 years ago Abraham received some special promises when God spoke to him. The bible contains many other promises as well and in this article we look at some key promises given for Christians today. As Abraham had to listen in order to hear God’s promises to him, we should read the Bible to know God’s promises for us.

A survey of the New Testament

The Greek word for promise is “epangalia”. This article is based on a survey of every occurrence of this word and its close derivatives in the New Testament that relate to God’s promises—this was 60 verses, which are all referenced below. I am assuming that these verses indicate God’s key promises for Christians living between the day of Pentecost and the rapture. We will look at the context of these verses to help discover—what message did they convey to those of the early church and what is their message for us?

The topics that relate to the word “promise” in these verses are listed in the table below. It is interesting that half of the verses relate to promises given to Abraham and his descendants—the majority of these being in the books of Romans, Galatians and Hebrews. This is not surprising as a majority of the early Christians were Jewish and the Old Testament was the only Scripture that the early church possessed. Therefore, God often used illustrations from the Old Testament. Also, these books deal with topics of those times, such as the fact that justification by faith and not works is taught in the Old Testament, and with the trap of legalistic Judaism.

Key promises mentioned in the New Testament

Promise Verses %
Given to Abraham and his descendants 32 53
Eternal life 12 20
Holy Spirit 7 12
Second coming or end times 6 10
Children of God 1 2
All God’s promises 2 3
Total 60 100

Old Testament promises mentioned in the New Testament

The greatest occurrence of the word “epangalia” in the New Testament relates to the promises given to Abraham and his descendants (Acts 7:5,17; Rom. 4:20-21; 9:4, 8, 9; Gal. 3:16; Eph. 2:12; Heb. 6:13; 7:6; 11:9,13,17,33). The three main messages in these passages are summarised below:

Firstly, God keeps His promises—Isaac was born “as the result of a promise” (Gal. 4:23NIV). “And so after waiting patiently, Abraham received what was promised” (Heb. 6:15). This happened because of Abraham’s faith and God’s power (Heb 11:11).

This was an important message for the early church, particularly in times of persecution. They knew that their sins had been forgiven and they had a home in heaven. This gave them hope and security. It is also important for us during difficult and disappointing times—if we can’t trust in God, who can we trust? No-one. In a post-modern world, characterised by change and instability, it can be difficult to trust in God. When our faith is weak we act as though God is a part of creation; but of course God is not like us—He is reliable and always keeps His promises.

Secondly, Jesus was the promised Messiah (Acts 13:23,32; 26:6; Heb. 11:39). Paul wrote, “For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs” (Rom 15:8). The remainder of this sentence says Christ came so that the Gentiles would also praise God. When sinners put their faith in Christ, they share in the promises given to Abraham (Gal. 3:29; 4:28).

As already mentioned a majority of the early Christians were Jewish. When they realised that Jesus was the Messiah, they converted from Judaism to Christianity and this truth about Jesus would have featured in evangelism to the Jews. For example, on the day of Pentecost Peter proclaimed, “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” and Stephen told the Jewish Council, the Sanhedrin, “you betrayed and murdered the Messiah”.

The message for us is that all God’s promises are fulfilled through Jesus (2 Cor. 1:20). Paul writes that we are blessed with every spiritual blessing because we belong to Christ. The promises in the Old Testament look ahead to Christ and those for the future rely on His great sacrifice for the sin of the world.

Finally, God’s promise of salvation (and eternal life) is a gift to be received by faith, not something to be earnt. In Romans 4 Paul shows how the gospel is in harmony with the Old Testament—God accepted Abraham because Abraham had faith in Him (Rom 4:13-14)—“The promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring–not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all” (Rom 4:16). The Old Testament law was only a temporary measure until the coming of Christ (Gal. 3:17-19, 21-22). So, eternal life is guaranteed to those who have faith in God like Abraham did (Heb. 11:11).

The Pharisees were the religious leaders of the Jews in the times of the early church. They endeavored to live in strict accordance with the Old Testament law as interpreted and amplified by the scribes and their tradition and they believed in salvation by works. Consequently, the message of salvation by faith and not works was a vital distinction between Christianity and Judaism.

This truth is also important for us as it is fundamental to the Christian faith. Salvation is a gift that God promises to those who receive it by faith. There is no way we can earn our salvation. As a result of this salvation all believers are assured of participating in and receiving the remaining promises.

Eternal life

The second most prevalent topic associated with the word “epangalia” in the New Testament is that of eternal life. When we accept Christ as Savior, we receive eternal life which is valuable now and when we get to heaven. Eternal life enables us to live for Christ today and to look forward to life after death (1 Jn. 2:25; 1 Tim. 4:8). Eternal life is one of the “better promises” in the new covenant that came though Christ (Heb. 8:6). It is shared by all believers—there is no distinction based on race or any other difference between believers (Eph. 3:6).

As Paul wrote concerning “a faith and knowledge resting on the hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time”, people who followed God in Old Testament times will be included in those who share eternal life  (Tit. 1:2).

Heaven, the place of eternal rest is still available to all who believe in Christ (2 Tim 1:1; Heb 4:1; 6:17). It is an “eternal inheritance” for all those who have been freed from the penalty of their sins by Christ’s death (Heb 6:12; 9:15; Jas. 2:5). All believers have eternal life and are looking forward to new bodies, the marriage supper of the Lamb and living with the Lord.

Heaven also includes rewards given at the judgement seat of Christ for service done for the Lord. For example, those who persevere under trials are promised “the crown of life”, which may be a deeper appreciation of eternal life in heaven (Jas. 1:12).

As God promises eternal life as a gift to sinners who receive it by faith it is guaranteed to all believers (Rom 4:16). We can be confident of this based on God’s Word, because we can’t earn salvation by good works.

Some in the early church thought Jews were privileged and so they looked down on Gentiles. But the fact that they both had eternal life and were indwelt by the Holy Spirit illustrated that there should be no barrier between them—Christianity is multinational! The same applies today—we should accept all true Christians as Christ would—regardless of differences in race, in status, or in gender.

The Holy Spirit

The word “epangalia” in the New Testament is also often associated with the topic of the Holy Spirit. Before His ascension, Christ promised His disciples that the Holy Spirit would come as had been promised in the Old Testament (Is. 44:3; Ezek. 36:27; Lk. 24:49; Acts 1:4). The Holy Spirit is God and He gives believers a divine power. This happened initially on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:33). This promise was for all believers, whether they were Jews (“you and your children”) or Gentiles (“all who are far off”) (Acts 2:39).

The Holy Spirit indwells a believer when they trust in the good news of God’s offer of salvation—“And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession” (Eph 1:13). This pattern—hearing the message, believing it, and then receiving the Holy Spirit—was evident when Peter spoke at Cornelius’ house. The gift of the Holy Spirit is part of the blessings that were promised to Abraham (Gal. 3:14).

These verses also teach that the Holy Spirit is a sign that we belong to God and that He will protect us and will keep His promises.

This promise is equally important to the early church and to us. The New Testament is full of the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers and they are instructed to “be filled with the Spirit”. He is God with us on a continual basis—God speaks to us today through the Holy Spirit. He is a great helper and teacher and will remind us of relevant Scripture.

Second coming or end times

The second coming of Christ and other future events are also often associated with the word “epangalia” in the New Testament. The book of Hebrews was written for those struggling with leaving Judaism for Christianity, who were encouraged to preserver until they received the reward that God had promised (Heb. 10:36). This reward is explained in the next verse as being when Christ returns to take Christians to be with Himself at the rapture. It is important that our present circumstances do not cause us to forget about the wonderful future that God has promised us—“Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for He who promised is faithful” (Heb 10:23). God is reliable and will keep His promises.

Scoffers say, “Where is this ‘coming’ He promised?”—they do not believe that God is coming to judge the world (2 Pt. 3:4). So, why has there been a long delay in the coming of God’s judgement? The reason is that He is patient, “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pt. 3:9). He is giving people every opportunity to be saved. He waited 120 years before He sent the flood and has waited thousands of years before destroying the world with fire.

God has promised many awesome demonstrations of His power after He takes the believers to be with Himself during the rapture (Heb. 12:26). But, believers are to look forward to “a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness” (2 Pt. 3:13). This is the eternal state after God has triumphed over Satan and evil.

This expectation can help believers through life’s struggles—whether they live in the first century or today. It gives them an eternal perspective.

Children of God

The promises of 2 Corthinians 7:1, mentioned in the previous verses, include that believers are “sons and daughters” of God the Father and that God welcomes those who stand against evil. There are two relationships here: between a child and a parent and between siblings. As a result of this promise, we receive blessings from God and from one another.

A parent has special care for their child who they nurture and encourage from infancy to adolescence and then to adulthood—that’s how God cares for us. Meanwhile a child is to obey their parents—and Christians are to obey and imitate God.

Although siblings can be rivals, they share a common family and the same parents. As a consequence of this relationship, most of us help and care for others in our family. Likewise believers, who follow the same Savior and share the same destiny, should care for one another.

The illustration of being children of God applies to the early church and to today. All believers need to appreciate they serve a loving Father. However the situation regarding relationships between believers has changed in the past 1,900 years. The early church was small and all believers fellowshipped with one another, except when dictators such as Diotrephes had their way. Today there are different Christian denominations and we need to remember we are children in a global family comprising believers from all Christian denominations, not just the one we happen to support. The Bible emphasises that God has no favorites, nor should we.

All God’s promises

The remaining instances of the word “epangalia” in the New Testament are two verses that relate to all of God’s promises. We mentioned earlier that all of God’s promises have been fulfilled in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20).

God has given us everything we need to live for Him including “His very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires” (2 Pt. 1:4). It is estimated that there are at least 30,000 promises in the Bible. They are “very great” because they help us do such things as:

  • “participate in the divine nature”—as we appreciate what God has promised, we become more like Him, and
  • “escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires”—God’s promises can help us resist temptation—when temptations come we should claim the promises.

Application to us

These promises can have a strong influence on our lives when we remember:

  • We follow a God who keeps His promises—look back at history. Our God is reliable and trustworthy.
  • All of God’s promises are fulfilled in Christ – Christ has “better promises” than any others in the world because they are given by the God who made the universe and continues to sustain it.
  • Salvation is a gift to be received by faith, not something to be earnt—this is a fundamental of the Christian faith.
  • The Holy Spirit is God with us on a continual basis—we should be more aware of His presence as all our power to live for Christ comes from the Holy Spirit.
  • We are children of God—we have a global family and should welcome fellowship with other believers. The early church was not restricted to a small community—it witnessed in Jerusalem, then Judea the southern section of Palestine, then Samaria in central Palestine and then to the ends of the earth. Like evangelism, our fellowship should spread out across the land. Paul had to be reminded by the Lord when he was in Corinth; “I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city”. We need to be aware of other believers in our community who are also a part of the body of Christ and not avoid them or isolate ourselves from them.
  • We should be looking forward to Christ’s return to fulfil His promises concerning the future. This includes eternal life in heaven and seeing Jesus exalted to the highest place and seeing every knee bow before Him and hearing every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and singing together with all creation, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!”
    • God doesn’t reveal His promises to us unless we read them in the Bible—so we need to: read them, understand them, meditate on them, and store them in our memories. If you have trouble sleeping at night, then be like David who wrote, “I lie awake at night thinking of your promises” (Ps. 119:148). Then we can say, “I have hidden your word in my heart” (Ps. 119:11). As a consequence you will realise that they are great promises and they will become precious to you, and The Holy Spirit will recall them when you need refreshment and encouragement—“Your promise revives me; it comforts me in all my troubles” (Ps. 119:50).

Written, March 2003


An outline of future events

Revelation is the major prophetic book in the New Testament.  It is the best reference that Christians have on future events because:

  • the Bible is a progressive revelation of God’s dealings with humanity;
  • John wrote down what was revealed to him by God (Revelation 1:19); and
  • It is the Bible’s final prophecy – the words are not to be changed in any way (by addition or subtraction) (Revelation 22:18-19).

Timeline

The timing of future events is evident from the sequence of topics in the book of Revelation (see below).

At present the church is on earth (Revelation 2-3) and the next event is the “rapture” when all believers (dead and alive) will be resurrected to heaven.  The rapture is not mentioned specifically in Revelation; but in Revelation 4, the church is in heaven.  While the church is in heaven (Revelation 4-5), there will be a period of tribulation on earth (Revelation 6-18), which will end with the “appearing” of the Lord Jesus Christ in great power and glory (Revelation 19:11-21).  This will be followed by the 1,000 year reign of the Lord on the earth (the millennium) (Revelation 20:1-10), and then the eternal state of the new heaven and the new earth (Revelation 21-22).

The key to understanding the second coming of the Lord is that the second coming is associated with a series of events, not one event and these occur over a period of time, not all at once. From the order of events in Matthew 24:15-31 and 1 Thessalonians 4:13 – 5:11, it is clear the “rapture” is before the tribulation and the “appearing” is at the end of the tribulation. Jesus said the great distress (tribulation) occurs immediately before His second advent (Mat.24:21-31). Also, the judgements in Rev. 6 – 18 are associated with the great tribulation (Rev. 7:14), and they conclude with Christ appearing as “King of kings and Lord of lords (Rev. 19:16).

“The Tribulation” will be a time of suffering for those on the earth.  The church is not mentioned during this period because it is in heaven (Revelation 6-18). Instead there are 144,000 Jewish witnesses (Rev. 7 and 14), a Jewish temple (Rev. 11:1-13), and Jewish persecution (Rev 12). Also, the advice “Whoever has ears, let them hear” is addressed to Christian churches in Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22 whereas in Revelation 13:9, it is addressed to believers, but there is no mention of the church.

As the following events haven’t happened yet, they are still in the future, as they were for John in 95 AD when he called them “what will take place later” (Rev. 1:19):

  • At the Rapture, all true Christians will be taken from the earth.
  • There will be a Jewish temple in Jerusalem during the tribulation (Rev. 11:1-13), whereas this has not been the case since it was destroyed in AD70.
  • At the Appearing, Jesus Christ will return to the earth and defeat all His enemies (Rev. 19:11-21).
  • During the millennium, Satan will be bound so he can’t deceive people (Rev. 20:1-3).

Learning from the past

Prophecy about the future will be fulfilled literally, just as has prophecy of the past. For example, when the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah predicted that the Jewish captivity would be 70 years (Jeremiah 25:11-12), it turned out that this prediction was literal, not symbolic.

Since the prophecies about Christ’s first coming were fulfilled literally, then the prophecies relating to His second Coming will also be fulfilled literally.  Although symbols and figures of speech are used in giving both of these prophecies, this does not affect their historical and prophetic fulfillment.

Written, March 2010


A Look At First Thessalonians. Part 6: Living As A Christian

In this Series on 1 Thessalonians we have seen that Paul visited and preached in Thessalonica and a church was established. Because he couldn’t visit them for some time, he wrote a letter of encouragement. From 4:1 to 5:11 Paul reminded them how to please God – avoid sexual immorality and excel in holiness and brotherly love. Instead of grieving for those who had died, they were to look forward to being reunited with them and to be awake and sober as they looked forward to the Lord’s return. Paul ended his letter with practical guidelines on Christian living. He addressed godly attitudes and behavior in relationships with the elders, other believers and God.

Living With Church Leaders
“Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other.” 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 NIV

These verses address leadership in the local church. The Bible teaches that each church is to be led by a group of qualified elders who share this responsibility. Several characteristics of elders are mentioned here. They are to “work hard” at caring for people. They are to be “over” the congregation, meaning that they are to maintain or rule. In other letters Paul said that they “direct the affairs of the church” and “lead” (1 Tim. 5:17; Rom. 12:8). Both Paul and Peter likened their care to spiritual parents caring for a family (1 Tim. 3:4,5,12; 1 Pet. 5:2-3). Elders are also to “admonish” or gently reprove the congregation. Paul used the same word when he told them to warn anyone who didn’t obey his instructions (2 Th. 3:15). Elders are to remind the church of God’s truths and the dangers of living a self-centered life.

In this passage, the congregation was given two responsibilities with respect to the elders. It was to “respect” them. This Greek word is translated as “acknowledge” (TNIV), “know” (KJV), “recognize” (NKJV), “appreciate” (NASB) and “honor” (NLT). The congregation needs to know the elders if they are going to trust and follow them. They are also to “hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work.” This means to value them because of their important work, not because of their personality, spiritual gifts, wealth or anything else.

In this context Paul encouraged Thessalonians to “live in peace with each other.” Harmony should be characteristic of all Christian relationships, as peace is a fruit of the Spirit and we follow the God of peace (1 Th. 5:23; Gal. 5:22). There is a need to value all the elders, as favoring one divides the congregation. Also, elders should serve the whole congregation, not just part of it. Paul wrote elsewhere that we should “make every effort to do what leads to peace” and “as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 14:19; 12:18).

Living With Believers
“And we urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else.” 1 Thessalonians 5:14-15

Here Paul shows us how we are to live with three types of people. We are to “warn those who are idle.” Apparently, some Thessalonians had stopped working in order to prepare for the second coming of the Lord (2 Th. 3:10-11). They lived off others, were disorderly and became busybodies disrupting the local church. Paul’s solution was that they get back to work to support themselves and their families. He warned that “anyone who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” Paul said don’t help them by feeding them; instead let them experience the consequences of their behavior (2 Th. 3:10-13). This admonition is followed by two examples of caring.

“Encourage the disheartened.” Those who are disappointed with life are to be encouraged by individuals coming alongside and empathizing with them. Circumstances can cause people to think they don’t belong and have nothing to contribute. But we all have God-given gifts. We need to help such people find their place in the church and encourage them in their work.

“Help the weak” refers to those who may not be sure of their salvation because of their past, or who may doubt God’s power. Paul also taught that we shouldn’t stumble those who are weak in the faith (Rom. 14:1-15; 1 Cor. 8:13). They need our encouragement, friendship and help.

Paul then mentioned three attitudes required when warning, encouraging and helping others: First, “Be patient with everyone.” This means trying again and again even though there may be no response from those you are warning, encouraging and helping. Second, “Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong.” Christians are called to forgive, not retaliate (Mt. 18:21-22; Rom. 12:17). When someone hurts us, we should not get angry and retaliate, but rather seek reconciliation (Mt. 18:15-17). Be patient and continue to show Christian kindness and love. Third, “Always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.” The goal of warning, encouraging and helping others should be to achieve what is best for them in the Lord.

Living Before God In All Circumstances
“Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

It is God’s will that believers be characterized by joy, prayer and thanksgiving. Paul began with “Be joyful always” to encourage us not to let things get us down. In Philippians 4:4 he added that our rejoicing should be “in the Lord.” This joy is to be shown in all circumstances including suffering and persecution (Jas. 1:2-4; 1 Pet. 4:13). The Thessalonians were persecuted (1 Th. 1:6; 2:14; 3:3-4). Paul sang while in prison (Acts 16:22-25). How can this be? Their joy was an internal attitude that was not overtaken by external circumstances; it is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22), with Christ as its source and subject. He controls our circumstances and through Him we have victory. We develop joy by focusing on God’s promises and spending time with joyful believers. Joy is contagious.

Then Paul urged them to “pray continually” – at regular times and as needed. When trials come we need to pray our way through them. For example, when Peter was in prison, the believers prayed and he was released (Acts 12:1-19). We should “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests … and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people” (Eph. 6:18).

Paul also told believers to “give thanks in all circumstances.” Believers should be “overflowing with thankfulness” (Col. 2:7) even in the trials and difficulties which mature us. We don’t have to give thanks for everything that happens to us; it says “in” our circumstances, not “for” them. But we shouldn’t complain or grumble. Thanking God is not a feeling, it’s a choice. Daniel prayed three times a day, “giving thanks to his God” even though his life was in danger (Dan. 6:10-12). We can develop an attitude of praising God in all circumstances.

Living Before God As He Guides
“Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.” 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22

“Do not put out the Spirit’s fire” is a metaphor for hindering or extinguishing the operation of the Holy Spirit in an individual or the church. This may be caused by sin, disunity or suppression of the Spirit’s gifts. Instead, we are to keep the Spirit’s fire burning by following Paul’s instructions to be joyful, prayerful and thankful, and by following the Spirit when He prompts us to do what is right or stop doing what is wrong.

“Do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything.” The early Church did not have a completed Bible so the gift of prophecy was God’s way of getting His message to His people. Now that the canon of Scripture is set, this takes place as His Word is taught and preached. Instead of despising prophecies, the Thessalonians were to evaluate them. Paul also said that those listening to prophets should discern or “weigh carefully” what they say (1 Cor. 14:29). They were to test them against the apostles’ teachings. Then they could accept what was good and reject what was bad. In Acts, Luke told the Jews in Thessalonica to learn from the Bereans who “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11).

Paul’s Prayer
“May God Himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The One who calls you is faithful and He will do it.” 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24

The Thessalonians couldn’t live like this in their own strength, so Paul prayed for them as only God could make their efforts successful. There are different aspects to sanctification (holiness), and here he addressed progressive sanctification. Paul prayed that their sanctification would extend to their whole being – spirit, soul and body. The spirit is our link to God, the soul is our mind, emotions and will, and the body is the physical part housing the spirit and soul.

It is God who makes us holy, and Paul was confident that He would complete what He began (Phil. 1:6). He is faithful to keep His promises. The end of this progression is the coming of our Lord, at the judgment seat of Christ, when each Christian’s life will be reviewed as he/she stands before Him.

In Conclusion
“Brothers, pray for us. Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss. I charge you before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.” 1 Thessalonians 5:25-28

After he prayed for them, Paul asked the Thessalonians to pray for him. The kiss was a normal greeting of that day, similar to a handshake in western countries. It expressed friendship with fellow believers. Paul wanted “to have this letter read to all” brothers and sisters, a statement not found in any of his other letters (5:27); he thought it was that important. We should read it with this in mind.

Three keys to living together as Christians alluded to here are prayer, fellowship and Bible reading. Paul ended this letter with a benediction of grace for the Thessalonians – God’s unmerited favor through the saving work of Christ.

Lessons For Us
Let’s develop godly attitudes and behaviors in our relationships with church elders, with other believers and with God. Get to know the elders of your church, and value them because of their work. Obey them and encourage them in their work. The same principle applies to ministry leaders within the church. Believers should serve one another through encouragement, practical help, patience, peaceable living, and by treating everyone as equals in Christ. Our attitude toward God should be one of joy, prayer and thanksgiving in all circumstances. We should not stifle the work of the Holy Spirit in an individual or in the church. The standard by which we should test all preaching and teaching is the Word.

May we use the resources God has provided to live for Him until the Rapture when Christ returns to take us to be with Him forever.

Published, June 2009

See the next article in this series:
- Encouragement during trials and suffering (2 Thessalonians 1)

See the first article in this series:
- Model believers (1 Thessalonians 1)


A Look At First Thessalonians. Part 5: The Rapture And The Day Of The Lord

In this Series we have seen that Paul visited Thessalonica and in response to his preaching a church was established. Because he was unable to visit them for some time, he wrote a letter to encourage these new believers. In chapter 4 Paul told them how to live to please God. They were to avoid sexual immorality and excel in holiness and brotherly love. In this part we will look at the Second Coming, a major theme mentioned in each chapter (1 Th. 1:9-10; 2:19; 3:13; 4:17; 5:23). The Thessalonians knew of the Second Coming as part of the gospel message. In fact, some were so sure it would be soon that they gave up their jobs to prepare for it (1 Th. 5:14; 2 Th. 3:6-12). Further teaching was needed on this topic.

Death Is Like Sleep
“We do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in Him” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 NIV).

The Thessalonians who were expecting the Lord to return any day (1 Th. 1:10) must have been worried about those who had already died. Would they see their loved ones before the final resurrection at the end of time (Jn. 11:24)? Also Paul had probably taught them that Christ was coming back to reign and that Christians would reign with Him (Rev. 20:6). Would those who had already died miss this? Paul wrote this passage to allay their fears.

He used “asleep” three times to describe the state of the believer after death (13,14,15). When someone is “asleep” or resting, we can have contact with them again after they wake. This metaphor teaches us that death is not the end; as waking follows sleep, resurrection follows death. Paul said they were “asleep in Jesus” (4:14), meaning they were in His care. The soul and spirit don’t sleep in death, as they are “at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8).

When a believer dies, there is sorrow but not despair, because there is the hope of heaven and reunion (4:13). The basis of our hope is the resurrection of the Lord (4:14). Paul wrote elsewhere: “Since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:21-22). Because Christ rose, so will all believers who have died. We are assured of this because God will bring them with Jesus (4:14). When will this be? When Jesus returns in power and glory. The dead won’t miss the glory of the coming kingdom.

A Period Of Time
The “coming” of the Lord “down from heaven” (4:15-16) is derived from the word parousia. It means both “arrival” or “coming” and “presence with.” It is the opposite of absence. In the Bible, parousia is associated with: the Rapture, when Christ returns for all true believers (1 Th. 4:15); the Judgment Seat of Christ, when rewards are given to believers for service (1 Th. 2:19; 5:23); and the appearing, when Christ returns to earth in great power and glory (1 Th. 3:13; 2 Th. 2:8). The Second Coming (or “presence”) of the Lord will be a series of events that occurs over a period of time, not all at once.

This sequence of future events can be inferred from The Revelation: the Church on earth (Rev. 2-3); the Rapture, that is Christ’s return to take all believers (dead and alive) home to be with Him; the Church in heaven (Rev. 4-5); the Tribulation on earth (Rev. 6-18); the appearing, that is Christ’s return to earth in great power (Rev. 19); the Millennium, a 1,000 year kingdom (Rev. 20); and the new heaven and new earth, a new eternal universe (Rev. 21-22).

When we think of the Lord’s coming, we should think of a period of time, not an isolated event. For example, Christ’s first coming to earth (“presence”) was over a period of 33 years; that’s how long He was physically present on earth. In fact, one of His names is “Immanuel – which means ‘God with us’” (Mt. 1:23).

The Rapture
“According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever” (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17).

The Rapture (4:15) was a new revelation, referred to as a mystery or truth previously unknown (1 Cor. 15:51). Two categories of Christians are mentioned – those living and the dead. The bodies of the dead will not be left behind at the Rapture. The sequence of events is in four steps. First is the Lord’s return, when Jesus will come down from heaven with a loud command, the voice of the archangel and the trumpet call of God. The command is probably addressed to the dead (Jn. 5:28-29; 11:43). Second is the resurrection of the dead, when the “dead in Christ” will rise first, with God recreating from the remains of dust the bodies of all who have died. Third is the transformation of the living believers who will be “caught up” (rapturo in Latin) together with the dead. Fourth is the reunion, when we will meet the Lord in the air to be with Him forever. Jesus summarized the Rapture this way: “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with Me that you also may be where I am” (Jn. 14:3).

The truth of resurrection was not the mystery, since it appeared in the Old Testament; the change of the living believers at the Lord’s return was the mystery. Paul described this sudden change: “We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed – in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality” (1 Cor. 15:51-53).

Paul also wrote that “our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables Him to bring everything under His control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like His glorious body” (Phil. 3:20-21). When He returns, our bodies will be transformed to be like His resurrection body – suited to heaven, not subject to sickness, decay or death, and free from sin and its effects. This is called the “redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23). The Bible doesn’t say whether it will be a secret or a public event. Because it takes place in a flash, some say it won’t be seen by unbelievers. Others say it will be heard. Paul’s answer to their concerns was this: When the Lord returns, your loved ones who have died will not miss His appearing or the Millennium.

The Day Of The Lord
“About times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape” (1 Thessalonians 5:1-4).

The “day of the Lord” is not a 24- hour period. In the New Testament, it refers to God’s future time of judgment of the world (Acts 2:20; 1 Th. 5:2; 2 Pet. 3:10). It will be characterized by gloom, darkness and destruction. The sun moon and stars will be darkened (Mt. 24:29; Rev. 6:12). There will be judgments on God’s enemies as described by the seals, trumpets and bowls in the Revelation. The “day of the Lord” is used to describe events in the Tribulation, the appearing and the final destruction of the heavens and earth with fire.

The “day of the Lord” will be a time of judgment of unbelievers; note the words “them” and “they” (5:3). Paul gives three characteristics of that time: it will be unexpected, destructive and inevitable.

First, Jesus said it will be unexpected: “Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also will it be in the days of the Son of Man. People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all. It was the same in the days of Lot. People were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building. But the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all. It will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed” (Lk. 17:26-30). Life will go on as usual until God removes His people, and then His judgment will come on the earth.

Second, He also said it will be destructive, and described it as follows: “For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now – and never to be equaled again” (Mt. 24:21). The great distress only ends when the Lord comes in great power and glory (Mt. 24:29-31).

Third, it will be inevitable, like the labor preceding birth. Once it starts a woman can’t change her mind, and birth follows soon after. Paul said the world cannot escape God’s terrible judgments.

Salvation Instead Of Suffering
“But you … are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness” (1 Thessalonians 5:4-5).

Paul said that there is a way of escape. The words “you,” “we” and “us” (5:4,5,9,10) tell us that Christians will not go through these judgments. Paul contrasted two groups: Unbelievers are in darkness and night, while believers are in light and day. In Scripture, “light” represents what is good and true, while “darkness” represents what is evil and false (Acts 26:18; 2 Cor. 6:14; 1 Jn. 1:5-7). He said that only those in darkness will experience these judgments. “For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with Him” (1 Th. 5:9-10).

Verses 9-10 tell us that instead of suffering judgment, believers will receive salvation; they will be with Christ where there is no sin. Other verses also show that Christians will not experience the suffering described in the “day of the Lord” or the Tribulation (Rom. 5:9; 1 Th. 1:10; 2 Pet. 2:9; Rev. 3:10). Instead, we will be raptured, that is taken away as Noah was taken away from destruction of the flood and Lot from the destruction of Sodom.

Living In View Of The Second Coming
“Let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet” (1 Thessalonians 5:6-8).

Paul urged believers to live consistently as children of the day and of the light, alert and self-controlled. We should be expecting Christ’s return at any moment, living for Him and not being lazy, careless, distracted, self-indulgent, or living in sinful behavior. We should also be sober, seeking to further the kingdom of God instead of our own entertainment, being self-controlled and not losing control of our behavior.

He then said believers should exercise faith, love and hope like armor that protects us from losing control. Faith involves depending on God. Our love for the Lord and for each other can help us live for God today. And Christ’s return is our hope. The prospect of heaven helps us live for God today.

Paul’s passages on the Rapture and the day of the Lord have similar conclusions: “Encourage one another with these words” (1 Th. 4:18). “Encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing” (1 Th. 5:11).

Lessons For Us
The second coming of the Lord is a series of events over a period of time. The Rapture will be a great reunion of believers both dead and alive. Like the first century Christians, we should expect it to occur at any moment. Are we encouraging each other as we eagerly wait for it?

Published, May 2009

See the next article in this series:
- Living as a Christian


A Look At First Thessalonians. Part 4: Living To Please God

In this Series we have seen that Paul visited Thessalonica and established a church there. These new believers were a good example for all in Greece. Paul was also a good example: he loved them, and was a bold, honest, hard worker who followed up by encouraging and supporting them. He had instructed them how to live to please God; now he tells them to avoid sexual immorality and to love one another. Many today say that it doesn’t matter what you do as long as you don’t hurt anyone. But this philosophy is wrong because it is not consistent with Scripture.

A Way Of Living
“We instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus” (1 Th. 4:1-2 NIV).

Living in order to please God is the theme of 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12. The word translated “live” (4:1) means “walk” in Greek; it is a metaphor for our progress in life. Paul addressed their behavior when he was with them. Their top priority should be to please God. Two things hinder this: “Without faith it is impossible to please God” (Heb. 11:6), and “Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God” (Rom. 8:8).

Elsewhere Paul gave two reasons why Christians should live to please God. First, because of what the Lord has done for us: “He died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for Him who died for them and was raised again” (2 Cor. 5:15); “You are not your own; you were bought at a price” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). Believers are under new ownership and should live to please their divine Master, not to satisfy their sinful desires.

Second, because all believers will give an account of what they have done when they get to heaven: “We make it our goal to please Him … For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that everyone may receive what is due them for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:9-10). Here all our works for the Lord will be revealed. While our salvation is by faith, our reward is based on our good works for the Lord. Elsewhere he wrote that we please God by our good works (Col. 1:10).

Although the Thessalonians were pleasing God, Paul urged them to do so more and more (4:1). The Christian life is one of continual progress. Each day there are new challenges and opportunities to please God.

The Greek word translated “instructions” (4:2) means a “command” or “order.” It was used by the Sanhedrin when they commanded the apostles not to preach the gospel (Acts 5:28). These are important instructions for those who claim to follow the Lord. They show us the way to live for Him.

Self-Control And Respect
“It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him” (1 Th. 4:3-6).

God’s will was that the Christians in Thessalonica be sanctified. Sanctification means being set apart for God. There are three phases to sanctification – positional, progressive and perfect. Believers are positionally sanctified when they are saved (1 Cor. 1:2; 6:11); they become progressively more godly in character through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit (Heb. 2:11; 1 Pet. 1:15-16); when they get to heaven they will be sanctified perfectly like the Lord (1 Th. 5:23; 1 Jn. 3:2). In this passage Paul addressed progressive sanctification in daily living – a process over time, not a single event.

Paul then gave two examples of sanctification – avoiding sexual immorality and pursuing brotherly love (4:4-10). And he gave them three steps to avoid sexual immorality: control sexual desires (4:4); respect the rights of others (4:6); and listen to God and love one another (4:7-10).

Control Sexual Desires
This passage addresses the sin of sexual immorality in the Christian community. Because sexual immorality was a problem in Corinth, Paul wrote to them: “Since there is so much sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband.” The marriage relationship is the right place for sexual activity. Any other sexual relationship is sinful (1 Cor. 7:2, 11).

Paul also wrote: “Flee from sexual immorality … he who sins sexually sins against his own body. Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (1 Cor. 6:18-20). We are indwelt with the Spirit and our bodies belong to the Lord.

We live in a world where many don’t know God’s biblical guidelines. Sexual immorality is promoted in movies, television and magazines. But a Christian has a different standard: “Among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity … because these are improper for God’s holy people” (Eph. 5:3). This includes our desires and thoughts (Mt. 5:27-28).

Because our natural functions need to be controlled, the Thessalonians were urged to control their sexual desires (4:4) instead of indulging in “passionate lust like the heathen” who don’t trust God. The phrase, “who do not know God” (4:5) refers to those who refuse to recognize Him (Rom. 1:28; 2 Th. 1:8; 2:10,12). Such people considered few activities as immoral. This should be one of the areas where a believer should differ, or be set apart from an unbeliever.

In Romans 1, Paul described what happens when people reject the Creator: “Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:22-25). All kinds of sexual immorality are the outcome of such unbelief – idolatry is mentioned before and after “sexual impurity.” In fact, sexual immorality is an act of the sinful nature and Christians should not be controlled by such desires (Gal. 5:19; Col. 3:5). Those who practice such sins are not Christians (1 Cor. 6:9-10).

Respect Rights Of Others
Our behavior affects others, so there is a need for boundaries if we are to continue to be friends. Paul wrote, “No one should wrong or take advantage of a brother” (1 Th. 4:6a). Sexual sin harms others besides those who engage in it. Outside of marriage, there is no such thing as safe sex. In adultery, the spouse is wronged. Premarital sex wrongs one’s future spouse. Believers should respect others and not harm them by the consequences of sexual sin. “The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you” (1 Th. 4:6b).

The Bible says, “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral” (Heb. 13:4). Any sexual relationship outside marriage is sin, which God will judge. This sin will affect one’s character, family life and relationship with God. Sex outside marriage ruins people’s lives. For example, adultery ruins marriages and the devastation of AIDS in Africa is largely caused by the transmission of the HIV virus via sex outside marriage. Those who commit such sins can be restored by turning from sin and accepting God’s forgiveness (1 Cor. 6:11; 2 Cor. 11:2).

Listen To God And Love One Another
“For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you His Holy Spirit. Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. And in fact, you do love all the brothers throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers, to do so more and more” {1 Th. 4:7-10).

We need boundaries if we are to maintain a good relationship with the Lord. Paul reinforced that this instruction was given by God and confirmed by the Holy Spirit. These are not Paul’s words, but God’s. He wants us to control ourselves and not fall into sin. The Holy Spirit lives within us to help us please God. Believers should follow His instruction about sexual sin.

Paul now changes the topic to love, and mentions two types of love. The first is the affection shared by brothers and sisters in a family – a heart love (phileo). The other is a deliberate decision to act in the interests of another – a love of the mind (agape). The relationships between believers should be driven by both loves. Our care and concern for each other is a Christian obligation, but it should be expressed with affection. It holds us together and attracts others to Christ. Both types of love are also mentioned in Romans 12:9-10.

Jesus commanded us to express “agape” love to each other: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (Jn. 13:34-35). Christians are to love as Christ loved us. His unconditional, sacrificial love was shown by His death on the cross. Such love seeks what’s best for others, does not draw attention to itself, persists despite the cost and seeks to serve rather than be served.

Although the believers in Thessalonica loved one another and all believers in Macedonia, Paul urged them to do so “more and more.” The same phrase was applied to “living to please God” (4:1), where we saw that the Christian life should be one of continual improvement. Here this principle is applied to agape love. Paul had already mentioned this earlier: “May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you” (1 Th. 3:12). Each day there are new challenges and opportunities to love one another. But how can we “love one another” daily?

Love In Action
“Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody” (1 Th. 4:11-12).

Paul gave these believers three examples of loving one another. First, “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life.” Some who misunderstood the promise of Christ’s return were restless and panic-stricken. Others retaliated against persecution. He told them not to seek the limelight, live a life of selfish ambition or clamor for recognition, but to lead a peaceful life.

Second, he said, “mind your own business.” Some idle Thessalonians were taking undue interest in other people’s lives (2 Th. 3:11). He told them not to be busybodies who interfere in the lives of others in unnecessary, unhelpful ways. Idleness and meddling in the lives of others is incompatible with love.

Third, he said “work with your hands” to provide for your families (1 Tim. 5:8). Paul, Silas and Timothy had worked hard while they preached in Thessalonica so they wouldn’t be a burden to others (1 Th. 2:9). Because of their belief in the imminent return of Christ, some in Thessalonica stopped working and relied on others for support. But Christians have dual citizenship – in earth and heaven (Rom. 13:1-7; Phil. 3:20) – and should not neglect their practical responsibilities. Two reasons were given by Paul for working: “to win the respect of outsiders” who were watching and judging Christianity and God’s Word by their behavior; to “not be dependent on anybody.” In Ephesians Paul gives a third reason: to “have something to share with those in need” (Eph. 4:28). Living quiet lives, minding our own business and earning a living are all acts of love.

Lessons For Us
Because our mission is to please God, we should avoid sexual immorality as it destroys the beauty of a sanctified and holy life. Sexual purity is the key to holiness. The three steps to achieve it are: controlling sexual desires, respecting the rights of others, and loving one another.

Don’t follow your feelings; instead engage your mind and don’t give in to society’s sexual pressures.

Published, April 2009

See the next article in this series:
- The Rapture and the Day of the Lord


A Look At First Thessalonians. Part 3: Paul’s Joy

In this series we have seen that Paul preached in Thessalonica and a church was established. These people turned from idols to serve the living and true God and to wait for His Son from heaven. They were also a good example for all believers in Greece. Paul loved new believers like a mother caring for her baby, and coached them like a father training his children. He was a hard worker. He knew the opposition the Thessalonians faced because he had faced it as well.

In Part 3 we look at Paul’s joy, which is mentioned three times (1 Th. 2:19,20; 3:9). We will see his priorities in life and his attitude towards new believers.

Paul’s Concern
“But, brothers, when we were torn away from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. For we wanted to come to you – certainly I, Paul, did, again and again – but Satan stopped us. For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when He comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy.” (1 Th. 2:17-20 NIV)

Paul explained his failure to return to Thessalonica (2:17-18). Perhaps his critics accused him of being afraid to go back because of the opposition he faced, but Paul said that his separation from them was like being “torn away.” He felt like an orphan – their close relationship was like family.

His concern for the Thessalonians is clearly evident. Although he was forced to leave the city, he still thought about them regularly. In fact, he had an “intense longing” to know how they were doing, and did all he could to visit them again. He tried at least twice, but his plans were blocked by Satan (2:18). But God always overrules Satan’s opposition, and in this case He used Paul’s delay so this letter would be written and believers in all eras could benefit from Paul’s example.

Satan wants to hinder the spread of the gospel and the spiritual growth of believers. When we face hindrances in God’s work, Satan is often behind them. Paul wrote: “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against … the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12). Satan and his demons are the real enemy, not the people or circumstances that they use. Satanic opposition is permitted by God. Remember how Satan got God’s permission before he afflicted Job. It is God’s way of getting our attention. Nothing happens by chance to Christians.

Paul believed that his most important work was helping new believers grow in the Christian faith (2:19-20). As his spiritual children, they were his hope of reward and great rejoicing in heaven. He also said that the believers in Philippi were his “joy and crown” (Phil. 4:1).

The believers at Thessalonica were also Paul’s “glory and joy” on earth (2:20). His investment of time with them resulted in believers who would praise God forever. Such investments are the best we can make because the reward extends into eternity. What a great incentive for this type of work!

Delegation
“So when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens. We sent Timothy, who is our brother and God’s fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. You know quite well that we were destined for them. In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know. For this reason, when I could stand it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith. I was afraid that in some way the tempter had tempted you and our efforts might have been useless” (1 Th. 3:1-5).

Paul had heard no news and wanted to find out how they were doing (3:1-2). He sent Timothy, a spiritual brother and co-worker in God’s service (1 Cor. 3:9), to accomplish three tasks: strengthen and encourage them in their faith (3:2); ensure they were not being unsettled by persecution (3:3); and check their progress in the Christian life (3:5). Paul was afraid that they may have been seduced by Satan to escape persecution by giving up their faith. The choice was loyalty to Christ or personal comfort. If they chose personal comfort, the church would wither and die and Paul’s work would have been in vain.

Hardship And Opposition
Paul had already reminded them to expect persecution (3:4). When he revisited Pisidia he said, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). The journey for believers before they share in Christ’s glory involves suffering (2 Tim. 3:12; Jn. 16:33). The Lord warned His disciples that to follow Him meant facing opposition: “If they persecuted Me, they will persecute you also” (Jn. 15:20). We know that Christ and the apostles were persecuted (1 Pet. 2:21). Timothy would have told them to expect opposition and to persist through it. He would have also reminded them of the presence of the Holy Spirit, and the fact that God was training them through their hardship.

God uses opposition, persecution, suffering and trials to discipline and train us (Heb. 12:7-11). They can test and prove our faith and weed out those who profess but don’t have true faith (Mk. 4:17; 1 Pet. 1:6-7). As we experience God’s comfort, we can encourage others who are going through difficult times (2 Cor. 1:4). Difficulties also develop character (Rom. 5:3; Jas. 1:3) and make us more zealous in spreading the gospel (Acts 8:3-4).

Timothy’s Report
“But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love. He has told us that you always have pleasant memories of us and that you long to see us, just as we also long to see you. Therefore, brothers, in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith. For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord. How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you?” (1Th. 3:6-9).

Timothy’s good report from Thessalonica filled Paul with joy. His labor was not in vain. Their faith and love were clearly evident. They had pleasant memories of Paul’s visit and longed to see him again. His response was to write this letter.

They were living according to his teaching and showing this by loving one another (3:6). They had the right attitude towards God, towards others and towards Paul. To the Galatians Paul wrote: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal. 5:6). And to the Ephesians he wrote: “Since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints I have not stopped giving thanks” (Eph. 1:15-16).

Although he was suffering “distress and persecution,” Paul was greatly encouraged because of their faith (3:7). He was relieved to know they were doing well (3:8). In fact, words couldn’t express His thankfulness to God (3:9). His attitude was like John who wrote, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 Jn. 4).

Paul’s Prayer
“Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith. Now may our God and Father Himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you. May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. May He strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all His holy ones” (1 Th. 3:10-13).

When it’s hard to know what to pray for Paul wrote: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And He who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with God’s will” (Rom. 8:26-27).

When the Thessalonians were persecuted, Paul prayed most earnestly, frequently and specifically. “Most earnestly” is a compound Greek word meaning “most exceedingly.” He knew what they were going through and prayed night and day. It’s not surprising that they were “standing firm in the Lord” (3:8). He also wrote, “Rejoice always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Th. 5:16-17).

Paul mentioned four things specifically in his prayer. First, he wanted to see them again. Second, he wanted to teach them further truths from God. Third, he wanted God to “clear the way” for him to come to them. God answered this prayer when he returned to Thessalonica (Acts 20:1-3). Fourth, he prayed that their love for others might increase.

In Chapter 1, Paul noted their “labor prompted by love” (1 Th. 1:3); they had made a great start. Their love was to include both believers and unbelievers – and even their enemies. This was the kind of love that Paul modeled. It is a love that is to be practiced continually.

Our expression of love in this life leads to blamelessness in the next. If we love one another and all humanity, we will stand “blameless and holy” when Christ returns to reign on earth. The Greek word used to describe believers in the New Testament means “holy one” or “saint.” Positionally, believers are holy (set apart for God), and practically should be becoming more holy in character by the power of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 1:2; 1 Pet. 1:15-16).

Lessons For Us
This is a lesson in the importance of follow-up work. It is not enough to lead sinners to the Savior; they must also be discipled towards maturity. Remember that Paul revisited many of the cities where he had preached and established a church. He sought to build up the believers in their faith, especially teaching them the truth of the Church and its importance in God’s program. The aim of such missionaries is to establish self-sustaining churches.

The Lord’s command to His disciples was, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:19-20). Making disciples was Paul’s passion.

Are we like Paul? Do we encourage younger believers? Do we long to know how they are doing? Do we rejoice in their progress? Do we pray for them? Do we train them like Timothy, and then release them to do God’s work?

Are we like the Thessalonians? Do we stand firm in the Lord? Is our faith strong in the midst of suffering and temptation? Do we trust God despite the difficulties of life? Is our love evident and increasing? Are we living godly lives?

This was Paul’s desire for the Thessalonians, and for us.

Published, March 2009

See the next article in this series:
- Living to please God


A Look At First Thessalonians. Part 2: Paul’s Example

In Part 1 we saw that Paul visited Thessalonica for a short time, and in response to his preaching a church was established. People had turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God and to wait for His Son from heaven. They became a good example for all the believers in Greece.

A Reminder
Previously, Paul reminded the Thessalonians of his conduct while he was with them: “You know how we lived among you for your sake” (1 Th. 1:5). His life matched his message; he lived consistently and was not a hypocrite. Let’s learn more about the example set by Paul, Silas and Timothy.

Paul reminded them how he brought the gospel to them by asking them to check their memory with three phrases: “You know” (2:1,5,11); “You remember” (2:9) and “You are witnesses” (2:10). Paul did this to defend himself against criticisms raised by his opponents after he left Thessalonica. They had accused him of such things as heresy, impure motives, craftiness, flattery and greed – not the kind of person one should imitate. They attacked the messenger in a way that also discredited the message. By defending his character, Paul also defended the gospel. God used this incident to provide a written description of the example that the Thessalonians imitated, and we should imitate as well.

Paul’s Boldness
“You know, brothers, that our visit to you was not a failure. We had previously suffered and been insulted in Philippi, as you know, but with the help of our God we dared to tell you His gospel in spite of strong opposition” (1 Th. 2:1-2 NIV).

Their visit to Thessalonica had been effective, as there had been a radical change in the lives of those who turned to God from pagan idolatry and formed a Christian congregation.

Before Paul came to Thessalonica, he and Silas were in Philippi where they healed a demon-possessed slave girl. When the girl’s owners realized that they could no longer use her to make money by fortune telling, they had Paul and Silas arrested, stripped of their clothes, flogged severely and thrown into prison (Acts 16:37). Paul and Silas suffered in Philippi, but didn’t quit. Instead, they went to Thessalonica where God gave them courage to preach the gospel in the face of opposition. The Jewish leaders caused a riot and Paul and Silas left the city. In spite of this opposition, Paul was eager to preach these truths: that all had sinned and were separated from God; that Jesus was the only way to heaven; and that salvation was a free gift from God accepted by faith alone (Rom. 3:23; 6:23).

Paul practiced what he believed: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” (Rom. 1:16). Paul wasn’t courageous by nature (1 Cor. 2:3; 2 Cor. 7:5). Where did he get help to face opposition? It was “with the help of our God we dared to tell you His gospel in spite of strong opposition” (2:2).

Paul’s Honesty
“For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. On the contrary, we speak as men approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please men but God, who tests our hearts. You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed – God is our witness. We were not looking for support from men, not from you or anyone else. As apostles of Christ we could have been a burden to you” (1 Th. 2:3-6).

Why did Paul persist in preaching the gospel to the Thessalonians despite its unpopularity? Paul says it was not for any of the three reasons given by the opposition. First, Paul was not a false teacher. He didn’t promote his private conviction, but instead preached God’s truth. Second, he didn’t encourage people to indulge in immoral behavior and do whatever they liked. Third, he did not deceive nor delude his hearers with fine words. The Greek word used here describes a lure for catching fish; it was used for any sort of cunning for profit. Paul faced the same accusation of craftiness in Corinth (2 Cor. 12:16).

Then he told why they continued to preach even though it led to trouble: God had entrusted them with the gospel; It was God’s message, not theirs; They were not trying to please people but God; They knew that God’s opinion counted more than that of others. The person who seeks to please God makes decisions based upon the principles found in His Word.

Paul then countered two more reasons given by the opposition – flattery and greed. They never used flattery to influence others or to please people (2:4). They didn’t preach for money, even though they were entitled to support (1 Cor. 9:3-14; 2 Cor. 11:7-11). Personal profit was never Paul’s aim (Acts 20:33). He said that God was his witness as only God can know our motives. And Paul didn’t promise prosperity.

Paul’s Gentle Love
“We were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well” (1 Th. 2:7-8).

After dealing with the accusations against him, Paul gave more information about their behavior in Thessalonica. Paul’s team behaved like a nursing mother caring for her children. They were gentle, protective and loving. As a mother puts the interests of her baby ahead of her own interests, they put the interests of the Thessalonians ahead of their own. As a mother expends energy day and night for her baby, so they spent time and energy shepherding the Thessalonians. They cared about them individually. What a contrast to the false accusations!

Paul’s Hard Work
“Surely you remember, brothers, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you” (1 Th. 2:9).

Paul was a hard worker, a tentmaker by trade. He could have relied on the support of others, but he worked to pay his own expenses and not be dependent on them. When he was not preaching, teaching and shepherding new believers, he was making and repairing tents.

In his second letter to Thessalonica he wrote: “We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day … so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this … in order to make ourselves a model for you to imitate” (2 Th. 3:7-9). He worked so he wouldn’t be a burden to the poor and persecuted, and he didn’t want to hinder the gospel message in any way.

Paul’s Integrity
“You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed” (1 Th. 2:10).

Paul described their conduct in three ways. First, they were “holy” – set apart to God from sin. They had a good relationship with God. Second, they were “righteous” in character and conduct. To the Corinthians he wrote that if drinking wine or eating meat offended anyone, he wouldn’t touch either (1 Cor. 8:13). Also, he told Titus, “In everything set them an example by doing what is good” (Ti. 2:7). Third, they were “blameless” towards God and people. This doesn’t mean they were sinless, but that they had confessed and knew that “God … tests the hearts” (2:4).

Paul set a high standard of integrity. This is the standard of living that we should aim for; not one of wealth, but one of integrity. It is the pattern of life of those who desire to please God.

Paul’s Coaching
“For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into His kingdom and glory” (1 Th. 2:11-12).

Paul not only cared like a mother, but he also coached like a father. In that culture the wife did most of the nurturing and the husband was responsible for the training. Paul’s goal was that they “live lives worthy of God.” This training was one-on-one discipleship: “We dealt with each of you.” A father coaching and training his children would include three elements: “encouraging, comforting and urging.” True discipleship takes time and patience. In order to grow to spiritual maturity, a new Christian needs all of these elements of discipleship. For the trainer to know what a trainee needs, he needs to get to know him personally.

Paul’s Example
What can we learn from Paul? First, he was an apostle. While we don’t have apostles today, as they were the founders of the Christian Church (Eph. 2:20), we do have elders to provide leadership in the local church. Second, Paul was a preacher, particularly to the Gentiles. The mission to spread the gospel is a responsibility for all believers, especially those with the gift of evangelism. Third, Paul was a teacher who wrote a significant portion of the New Testament. Elders, preachers and teachers can learn from Paul who said he was a servant to the Church (Col. 1:24-26). He worked hard to bring people to the Christian faith and to help them grow in it.

Is our lifestyle drawing people to Christ? Let’s follow Paul’s example and live lives worthy of God. His key message was the gospel. His motive was to please God. His manner of living was one of courage, gentleness, hard work and holiness. He showed love to new believers. He was bold, honest, full of integrity, and a toiler. His speech and behavior brought glory to God. The Thessalonians became model believers by imitating Paul’s example. Whether we are elders, preachers, teachers or servants, we can all imitate Paul.

Published, February 2009

See the next article in this series:
- Paul’s joy


A Look At First Thessalonians. Part 1: Model Believers

Paul was a missionary who established churches around the Mediterranean Sea. His second missionary journey took him to Greece, then known as Macedonia and Achaia. Thessalonica, the capital of Macedonia, with a population of over 200,000, was a busy seaport. Christianity came to Thessalonica when Paul preached the gospel and some Jews and Greeks became believers (Acts 17:1-10). When the jealous Jewish leaders rioted in the city, Paul and Silas escaped at night to Berea. Paul later fled to Athens. He sent Timothy to check on the Thessalonian believers (1 Th. 2:17-3:3) while he went to Corinth. Timothy brought news of how they were standing firm despite opposition.

Paul wrote to the Thessalonian church in 50-51 AD to address the issues they faced. Jews claimed that Paul was not a real apostle; pagans persecuted them because they worshiped one God instead of many; sexual immorality was common in Greece; there were misunderstandings about the second coming of Christ; tensions arose between the congregation and the elders; and some stifled the Holy Spirit’s work, treating prophetic teachings with contempt.

Paul encouraged them “to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more” (1 Th. 4:1 NIV). This letter can be divided into six sections: model believers; Paul’s example; Paul’s joy; living to please God; the coming of the Lord; and living as a Christian. In part one we look at model believers.

Introduction
“Paul, Silas and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace and peace to you” (1 Th. 1:1).

The letter begins by telling us who it was from. Whenever he could, Paul worked with others, and here he mentioned them by name. He also referred to the believers as “the church” in Thessalonica. In the Bible, “church” refers to a group of believers, not a building. Because the Greek word for “church” meant any gathering of people, the believers were referred to as being “in God … and … Christ” to distinguish them from pagans, as the rioters in Ephesus were also referred to as an “assembly” or “church” (Acts 19:32). Years later, the word “church” came to mean a gathering of Christians, instead of a gathering of any kind.

Saying they were “in” God the Father and Christ indicates two relationships. First, the Greek word for “Father” means “a nourisher, protector, upholder.” God’s relationship to a believer is that of father to child. Second, the Greek word translated “Lord” was a title for one with power and supreme authority, such as Caesar, the absolute monarch. It could be translated as “ruler,” “master,” “God” or “owner.” It was also a title of honor and respect, with which servants greeted their master. Christ’s relationship to us is that of master to servant. Christians are those who confess “Jesus as Lord” (Rom. 10:9,13). By placing “God” and “Christ” together, Paul says Christ is part of the godhead.

Paul’s Prayer
“We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers. We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Th. 1:2-3).

Paul regularly prayed for these believers. They were his children in the faith. He thanked God for the changes in their lives – their spiritual birth and growth, shown by their “work produced by faith,” their “labor prompted by love,” and their “endurance inspired by hope.” His thanksgiving preceded instruction.

Their “work produced by faith” was their conversion; they “turned to God from idols” (1:9). Faith is exercised when a sinner accepts the Savior and then lives in that faith. Faith is the act of trusting God (Jn. 6:28-29). This work includes the life of faith which follows conversion. Their “labor prompted by love” was their service for God motivated by love for Christ; they served “the living and true God” (1:9). Their “endurance inspired by hope” was their anticipation of Christ’s return. They waited “for His Son from heaven” (1:10; 4:13-18). Although persecuted for their faith, they didn’t give up.

Here we see that the motivation for Christian activity is faith, love and hope. The faith that God gives us results in love for God and the hope of Christ’s return, which in turn produces action such as labor and endurance.

Faith In Action
“For we know, brothers loved by God, that He has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction” (1 Th. 1:4-5).

This letter was written to both men and women. The Greek word for “brothers” means “brothers and sisters” or “the community.” Here, Paul commended all the Christians in Thessalonica and called them model believers. And he reminded them of two things. First, they were loved. God loves all of us, even before faith is evident in our lives (Jn. 3:16; Rom. 5:8). He loves us so much that His Son died for us. Second, they were chosen by God (Jn. 6:44). After they became Christians it was evident from their behavior that they had been chosen by God (Eph. 1:4). The Bible teaches that people have the choice to accept or reject the gift of salvation. They accepted.

The dramatic change in their lives occurred after Paul preached to them the gospel of God and Christ (2:2,8; 3:2). It came “with” four things. First, “with words” he preached about the Old Testament promises of God, who Jesus was and what He had done. Second, “with power” there was conviction of sin, repentance and conversion. The gospel has power to change lives. Third, “with the Holy Spirit” identified the source of that power. Fourth, “with deep conviction” they knew that Paul spoke for God and they gave their lives to Him. They accepted that Paul spoke God’s Word, “which is at work in you who believe” (1 Th. 2:13). His Word changes people as they obey it (2 Tim. 3:16; Heb. 4:12). They heard the message and acted upon it and it changed their lives.

Love In Action
“You know how we lived among you … You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. And so you became a model to all the believers … The Lord’s message rang out from you … your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Th. 1:5-9).

The Thessalonians imitated Paul and Christ, and were a good example to other believers (1:6-7), even though they were persecuted. Their love was shown in three ways. First, they stopped complaining and started rejoicing. They saw that God was in control and their eternal destiny was secure. Their suffering was short compared to their eternal salvation in Christ. Second, they shared the gospel with their neighbors and friends: “The Lord’s message rang out from you.” The gospel was worth telling because it gave joy and hope. Third, they trusted God to care for them daily; their “faith in God” was well known. Trust in God is needed to spread the gospel effectively. They did this so well that Paul didn’t need to repeat the gospel message.

The Thessalonians had made a great start in their Christian life. First, they repented of selfish living and turned to God from many forms of idols, from carved images to strong desires to possess things (Col. 3:5). Second, they served God out of love, which is a sacrificial concern for others (Jn. 13:34-35). Theirs was “labor prompted by love” (1:3).

Hope In Action
“They tell how you turned to God from idols … to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead – Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath” (1 Th. 1:10).

They were also waiting for Christ’s return (Jn. 14:3; 1 Th. 4:13-18; 1 Cor. 15:51-58). God promised to take believers to be with Him. This can happen at death: “away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). It can also happen at the rapture. Jesus said, “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (Jn. 14:3). The Christian should live expecting the Lord to come at any moment.

Our hope is knowing that what God has begun through Christ’s work on earth, He will complete at His return. The trials of this life are temporary and bring endurance in spite of difficult circumstances. God is in control, and knows what He’s doing.

What does Paul mean when he refers to Jesus’ rescuing us from “the coming wrath”? The same thought is in 1 Th. 5:9, in the context of the “day of the Lord.” This is a coming time when God’s wrath will be poured out on the world (Mt. 24:21) immediately before His return in power and judgment (Mt. 24:27-31). When Christ returns at the rapture to take believers to heaven, He will rescue them from the tribulation that will occur between the rapture and His appearing (Mt. 24:4-28; 1 Th. 5:1-11; 2 Pet. 2:9; Rev. 3:10).

Changed Lives
The Thessalonians imitated Paul and Christ and were good examples for other believers in Greece. They are also good examples for us. But are we a good example for others? Are we a help or a hindrance to those we come in contact with? The gospel produced a radical change in these believers: a new faith – they followed God instead of idols; a new love – they served God; a new hope – they anticipated the second coming of Jesus Christ; a new joy – they knew God was in control; and a new mission – spreading the gospel. God wants us to be like them.

Published, January 2009

See the next article in this series:
- Paul’s example


There’s More Good News!

All true Christians have accepted the good news of God’s great salvation (Rom. 10:15; Heb. 2:3). Romans 8 contains even more good news for believers.

We are not condemned to be punished: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1 NIV). The phrase “in Christ Jesus” shows that God now sees us united with Him – we belong to Him. The phrase “no condemnation” shows that we are sinners who have been forgiven, not sinners who are condemned to be punished.

We are empowered by the Holy Spirit, who has freed us from the power of sin: “Through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2). Of course, our victory over sin will not be complete until we are in the presence of the Lord (Rev. 21:4).

We have eternal life and peace: “The mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace” (Rom. 8:6). There is a future to look forward to and assurance that everything is under God’s control.

We are led by the Holy Spirit: Believers are described as, “those who are led by the Spirit of God” (v.14). The Spirit can lead us through various means such as the Bible, prayer, praise and other believers.

The Holy Spirit helps us and prays for us: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness … the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will” (Rom. 8:26-27). When we are feeling weak, fearful or inadequate, let’s remember that the Holy Spirit pleads to God for us.

We have fellowship with God as children in His family: “We are God’s children” (Rom. 8:16). We also have an inheritance: “If we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17). God is generous; He has given us Jesus and a wonderful future.

We will receive new bodies when Christ returns: “We wait eagerly for … the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23). These bodies will never wear out.

God works for our good: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28). We are secure because God is in control. Whatever the situation, God will bring good out of it.

We will be transformed to be like Christ: “Those God foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of His Son” (Rom. 8:29). Whatever God allows in our lives is designed to make us more like Christ. This process will be complete when Christ returns and we will be transformed to be like Him – free from sin and with resurrected bodies.

We are justified and will be glorified: “Those He justified, He also glorified” (Rom. 8:30). We are free from the guilt of sin, the penalty of sin, and even the power of sin in our lives and will share His glory.

God is for us and no one can accuse, condemn, or defeat us: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31-34). We are on the winning side because God is on our side.

Nothing can separate us from God’s love (Rom. 8:35-39). Death can’t and life can’t. The angels can’t and the demons can’t. Our fears, worries, and even the powers of hell can’t keep God’s love away. Whether we are high above the sky or in the deepest ocean, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. The conclusion is that we are “more than conquerors through Him who loved us” (Rom. 8:37). Through Christ we have overwhelming victory.

What encouraging promises: We are not condemned, but will be transformed to be like Christ; God works for our good; He empowers us by the Holy Spirit; and nothing can separate us from His love.

Start enjoying all this good news today.

Published, April 2006


Are You Ready For God’s New Year Messages?

“Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later. The mystery of the seven stars … and of the seven golden lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.” Revelation 1:19-20

Chapters two and three of Revelation, the last book of the Bible, contain a set of letters written in geographical sequence to churches in seven cities which were located in what is now western Turkey.

The first letter is to the church in Ephesus, the most important city in the province. The other six letters are ordered according to the location of each city, progressing in a counter-clockwise direction.

Each letter contains messages from Jesus Christ, the one who said, “I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever!” (Rev. 1:18 NIV). Let’s look at some of the common features at the beginning and the end of these messages.

God Knows All About Us
Near the beginning of each letter, the Lord says either, “I know your deeds” (Rev. 2:2,19; 3:1,8,15); or “I know your afflictions and your poverty” (Rev. 2:9); or “I know where you live” (Rev. 2:13).

Our God is omniscient: “He knows everything” (1 Jn. 3:20). He knew their surroundings. He knew their problems. He knew everything these churches had done. So, God knew all the circumstances of life for each of them.

This is not surprising, as Jesus is described as being “among” the churches (Rev. 1:13). He also knows all our circumstances as individuals: “He knew all men. He did not need man’s testimony about man, for He knew what was in a man” (Jn. 2:24-25).

As God knew all about life in the churches of the first century, He also knows all about life in all the churches of today. We need to realize this. Whatever our corporate or individual situation may be, it is known by the Head of the Church (Col. 1:18-19). This should be reassuring in a world where trouble is inevitable (Jn. 16:33).

Listen To His Messages
After the main message has been delivered by the Lord to each church, He then challenges them: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev. 2:7,11,17,29; 3:6,13,22).

In the letter to each church, this command – to listen to the Spirit’s voice and hear what He has to say – is closely associated with a promise to the overcomer. An overcomer – according to John, the writer of Revelation – is one “who believes that Jesus is the Son of God” (1 Jn. 5:4-5).

God responds to each of these church situations through the Holy Spirit, who indwells each believer (Rom. 8:11). Likewise today, He responds to our collective and individual situations through the Holy Spirit. God sends us messages like He did to each of the seven churches.

These messages may come to us in various ways. But the Bible is God’s clearest message to us, with statements that are appropriate for our various circumstances. You may also receive messages through prayer, from another believer or through peace of mind regarding a certain course of action.

It would be a good New Year’s resolution to always be ready to listen to God’s messages – and to act on them.

Published: January 2004


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